“Is this safe?” I asked myself from the top of the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain. By having to ask, I knew the answer – for me, anyway – was probably no. It was early February, and snow had been hitting the Zugspitze for several days. Other than a 2002 drive through a light New Mexican winter wonderland, I had not touched the chilly substance since a weekend trip to Big Bear during Reagan’s first term. Yet for some reason, I was nearly 3,000 meters above sea level with only one way to get down.
Other than the two previous weeks traversing Germany, Italy, and Austria (and a day trip to Maastricht, in the Netherlands), I had never been to Europe and had no idea just how high 3,000 meters was (Americans don’t know such things). Add to that my fear of heights and a tiny buzz thanks to the altitude and strong Helles beer, and I had every reason to whine like a child asking to be removed from Santa’s lap. Fortunately, my travel companions Chip and Taylor were well versed in the art of snow. The former was raised in the mountain community of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and was on the snowboarding team in high school, while the latter, a Long Beach, California native, had resided in Germany’s snowy Garmisch-Partenkirchen region for four years. For them, the little known but much beloved tradition of Hut to Hut during Fasching (German for “Carnival”), was merely another item to add to their snowboarding resumes. All I could think of was, “Ryan, don’t die.” Many people picture Brazilian women in headdresses when they hear the word “Carnival,” but in the snow-capped mountains of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, locals celebrate the impending doom of Lent by climbing to the top of the Zugspitze for a nighttime event called Hut to Hut, an outrageously intense experience that combines drinking, costumes, and skiing. The party is so localized to Bavarians that most Koln residents – who live a six-hour drive away – have never heard of it. The event isn’t in any travel guide, cable television programs haven’t exploited it, and even a Google search elicits minimal results, but Hut to Hut is very real and very fun.
Although not officially sanctioned by the city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen or the resort itself, the powers that be turn their heads when they see hundreds of willing twenty-somethings parading toward the gondola in Halloween-esque costumes on Fat Tuesday. This lackadaisical bureaucratic approach is quintessentially European and could never be found in lawsuit-happy America. Instead of doing it our litigious way, Germans shrug their collective shoulders and take the attitude that a person is responsible for his or her own actions. If a partygoer falls off a cliff or suffers an injury, then hey, that person shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen was two separate cities (Garmisch and Partenkirchen) until Hitler forced a unification before the 1936 Winter Olympics. The municipalities serve as one, but have retained distinctive personalities. Partenkirchen is where you’ll find a more traditional Germany with stone-lined intersections and old world architecture, while Garmisch is as modern as a German mountain town gets. The Edelweiss Lodge and Resort plays at least a minor role in this.
Opened in 2004, the 330-room (with 44 junior suites, 12 lofts and American Disability Act rooms) hotel caters to active-duty military members and their families, retirees, reservists, guardsmen and more. To help accommodate such a large amount of Americans in a foreign country, Edelweiss employs United States citizens in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany. The average age of lodge employees is 24, which means this quaint Bavarian city is literally crawling with Americans at all times – including Hut to Hut.
The gondola ride was an unsettling experience. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was white death. Locals wearing angelic wings and funny hats compared notes with Taylor and Chip, who had a curly blonde wig to pass between them, and hideous snowsuits we purchased at a thrift store on the American base a few days prior. Apparently, my beanie – the sort bank robbers wear – wasn’t much of a conversation starter, which was fine by me. My heart beat increased and all I could think of was how I had finally agreed to something I should have opted out of.
As if inexperience on a mountain wasn’t enough, I didn’t even have proper equipment. My snow-experienced comrades brought snowboards with them, but being a ski virgin, I was given a red plastic sled the size of my ass cheeks. The apparatus belonged to Taylor, who had the smarts to attach a leash to the cheapie toy that would soon sit between my legs. Without it, I was certain to lose the sled within a matter of minutes. I feigned positivity to not look like a pussy in front of my confident friends, but once we stepped off the gondola and looked at what was before us, even their positive attitudes changed regarding the prospect of my success.
“You got some balls, because I don’t know if I’d do this on a sled,” Chip said. Taylor tried to explain that he had survived the ride using my mode of transportation, but the damage had been done. Normally, there’s nothing like a couple of beers to calm my nerves. This, unfortunately, was not a normal situation. For the first time in my 28 years, beers just made matters worse. I had a few, but stopped once I realized that instead of a buzz, I needed practice. Adjacent to the mountain-top bar was a bank approximately 10 feet tall, so I placed the sled down and got into position. I let up my heels and the sled torpedoed out from under my cheeks. That was all the practice I needed before realizing that the only way to do Hut to Hut was to shut up and just do Hut to Hut. A handful of sled veterans must have seen the trepidation on my face, because they came over to where I was nervously pacing and offered tips on how to maneuver my piece of plastic. One of them, a guy whose name I wish I could remember, walked me to a dark part of the mountain and said, “Look down. If you go over this cliff, you’ll either die from impact or freeze to death.” The sun was setting when my friends decided it was time to stop drinking and time to start descending. They wished me well, took off on their boards, and were out of sight within a minute. Knowing no one else, I made friends with my fellow sledders and hoped for the best.
With my heels dug deep and one palm in the snow, my goggles turned white as I zig-zagged down the mountain. After a 20-second ride that consisted of the words “Don’t Die” racing through my mind, I came to a stop and realized I was still alive. I walked a few steps to another downhill, and did it again, this time with a little less oomph in my heels and my palm. Once more, I was not dead. The final downhill of this run was a few steps away, and with a heart now pounding from excitement and not the fear of death, I raised my feet and free hand in the air and went for it. More snow flew, and this time it was my lifeblood, not the thing that would eventually kill me. Similar to the first time behind the wheel of my dad’s 1978 blue GMC truck, I understood that a little more gas was going to cause a lot more fun. “Cool, huh?” the guy who warned me about falling off the cliff asked. “Yeah!” I shouted, before high-fiving him. I walked inside the hut to find Taylor, Chip and a beer awaiting my arrival. “That was the best thing I’ve ever done!” I said to both of them. (In hindsight, losing my virginity to a girl who 14 years later is still way out of my league might be the best thing I’ve ever done, but tackling the first run of Hut to Hut is definitely second.) “Good,” Taylor replied, “because there’s three more of ‘em.”
German oompah music played in the background at the hut while nearly everyone but me (I’m vegan) ate bratwurst. By the time we finished a few beers, the sun had vanished for the evening, which meant turning on the light that sat in the middle of my forehead. The darkness caused a bit of anxiety that would not have been there had the sun still shined, but similar to a junkie, I needed more. Nearly horizontal on my sled, I flipped on the light and was able to see approximately 30 feet in front of me. The first downhill was short – 10 seconds tops – and helped me get comfortable with the idea of sledding underneath the moonshine. Now that I was an old pro, I decided to go for style points, so I twisted down straight runs, rode icy banks and tore through snowy mounds. All without my heels or palms in the ground. Once again, Chip and Taylor were waiting for me at the bottom of the second run. “How was it?” Chip asked. But he didn’t need me to respond. He knew it was awesome. German techno and more beer greeted me at the second hut, which is where the party really got started. Just as many people danced outside as they did inside and makeshift bars were set up for people to get drinks nearly every 20 feet. This was also the point where the booze seemed to kick in for most everyone as the volume increased, a few clothes came off, costumes began dismantling themselves and anywhere that was at least five feet from the hut became ample ground for peeing.
Remember that scene in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when Napoleon goes to Waterloo and is afraid to ride the slides, only to start moving children out of the way when he discovers how amazing it is? Well, before the third run, that was me. I got right next to skiers and snowboarders and owned that mountain like it’s last name was “Ritchie.” I got so wild in my free-form sledding, that I rode an icy bank, lost control, and slid across the run, coming dangerously close to a cliff that would have meant not the end of my night, but the end of my life. I’ll never know exactly how close I came to falling off, but I do know that the me of two hours previously would have headed back up the mountain. The present me, on the other hand, laughed it off and continued going down. Instead of meeting inside the hut, my snowboarding friends were waiting at the bottom of the run. “Dude, we saw you from the top of the mountain!” Chip said. “You were killing it!” And I knew he was right. I was, in fact, killing it.
The third hut was similar to the type of resort lodge my parents would hang at if my parents were skiers. Fireplaces, exposed wooden beams, employees in sweaters – that sort of thing. Still, there was beer and music, but most everyone stayed inside and all clothes remained on. I would soon learn that this relaxed atmosphere was everyone’s way of preparing for the final run.
The last gasp was literally straight down the mountain. No stops. No turns. No ledges. Just a freefall in snow. I sped so rapidly that I lost my sled almost immediately, which meant once again digging in my palms and heels in hopes of gaining control over my body. Without trying, I became a human luge and moved so fast I zipped past skiers. But within a minute, my ass began to freeze and holes had been burned into my gloves, which exposed my palms to the frigid snow. Whenever I had the chance, I would position my body to hit any clump of snow to decrease my speed. It helped, but also caused an explosion of white goodness to go up my nose and cover my goggles. Then, like the Germans do, we went to the lodge and got drunk.