In 1976 I was a student abroad in Salzburg, Austria. One day a classmate and I decided to take the bus from Salzburg to Berchtesgaden, Germany to see Kehlsteinhaus, "Eagle's Nest". Jim B., the person that I went with, was the same guy who once stood with me at the wall of the Festung in Salzburg. As We overlooked the scenic vision high above the town, he stated that he would never come to Europe again. I don't remember the context of the statement, only my reaction, and what I said to him in response.
"How can you at your age, (20) know for sure you will never come back to Europe again? "
I was dismayed. In my mind I was already plotting and planning to come back, without the responsibilities of school. My mind allowed me to imagine I might even live there someday, or do some major traveling there.
" How do you know that or did you just already decide it?"
He was not a romantic interest of mine, although he could have been, he was cute, but I was finding out that he really was not my type anyway. (Oh, and he had a girlfriend of sorts, back home.) Anyone who decided in the first few weeks of our fall semester that he was never going to come back was not my type of adventurer. It was just how he said it, so hopeless, so final. I questioned him and he said his life would be planned out or something and there would not be money for this....at least that is what I remembered.
Even if I never, ever came back to Europe in my whole life, at 20, I would not just declare that I would not. I could not think in that kind of limitation. I am the person, who hopefully will never realize "my last time" to travel or take a trip anywhere. It will be something known only after the fact. Do you see how I think? Always a kind of half full thing going on here.
For some strange reason I decided to take a trip with Jim to Eagle's Nest. We took the bus from Salzburg, Austria and it was about an hour. For some reason the way the buses were running and when we arrived, it was probably early afternoon. Because we either missed the first one or something, the whole day started out wrong. It is possible that this was the last day for the Kehlstein to be open for the season or something like that too. I don't recall.
General Walker's Skytop, was a lodge and ski area named for General Walton Harris "Johnnie" Walker, who was an important strong leader in WWII, decorated in WWI and died in a jeep accident in the Korean War. The nickname "Johnnie" was attributed to the scotch of the same name.
The General Walker had a history, it was a small inn, taken over by Hitler's men and expanded to a lush hotel after he came to power, it was called the Platterhof after a Judith Platter, who was a character in Dietrich Eckart's novel very popular at the time, Zwei Menschen (Two People) and the author was someone Hitler admired. Hitler dedicated the second volume of Mein Kampf to him. Eckart had already died in 1923.
At the time of my visit it was one of the Armed Forces Recreation Centers (AFRC) in Bavaria. So, it was probably no surprise to anyone except me, that a friendly G.I. picked up Jim and I at the bus station and very nicely drove us up as far as a private vehicle could go up the mountain. Some thirty years after the war's end, things in Europe were still being rebuilt and the experience still a bit fresh. For some of my classmates, it was all news to them. I was a little more familiar and had an interest in WWII history at the time. Kids I went to school with were unfamiliar with the Holocaust and that was the tip of the iceberg. Looking back on it now, I knew about Eagle's Nest, but not about the importance of the surrounding area.
As we made our way to what I will call the "landing" of Eagle's Nest, we realized that somehow the last bus up to the tunnel you had to take up to the tunnel walk and into the brass elevator had already left. In the time after the war, for safety sake their are no private cars allowed up to the top of the mountain. The reason is that rocks and debris can fall unexpectedly, and weather is also a factor.
The cost for the bus from Salzburg is about 4.5 Euros now, I am sure it was inexpensive then too. However, being a student, I had my round trip bus ticket and just a few bits of money, but I did carry my American Express card, you are not supposed to leave home without it.....
As we started hiking, Jim who did track, was clearly in much better shape for the haul than I was. He had insisted we climb up the switchback road, that even if we could not take the elevator up to the actual building he was going up there. Probably had something to do with the idea that he was "never" coming back to Europe again and wanted to see it all. NOW.
Well, it was the end of October, cold and rainey, and the walking of this switchback road had 5 tunnels, and was about 4 miles. A normal 2.5 hour hike at least. The elevation was something to consider too. The difference in the height 700 m or about 2297 ft. I was a thin, tall girl, with some pretty good energy, but it had been two years since my high school days and I did very little athletic activity. I could not make it. When I admitted that to myself, as I was peeling off my natural wool sweater made in Ecuador, because I was perspiring, then putting it back on because I was cold, not to mention I was not wearing any hiking boots and the road was hard, I told Jim to go ahead.
To my surprise, he took off running and actually left me there. Yup. He mumbled something about seeing me later and took off, I know we were not going to be taking the bus back to Salzburg because the G.I. who had dropped us had said he would meet us at around 6:00 pm and take us back to Salzburg, he was going anyway. We were going to meet near where he dropped us at the General Walker.
The path/road was paved, and I felt pretty confident after my rest and stubborn, also intimidated at being left there, so shortly after he rounded a curve, I took off after him. I climbed for an hour and 45 minutes. I just could not go any further. I could see the Eagle's Nest right above me, but I knew I was pushing myself too hard.
The sun had gone down. I was so high up. I was already at an elevation of 1600 ft, at least I thought I was based on what I remembered as the last marker. I was well past that marker. Well, suffice to say, I could see the snow on the mountains next to the one I was on. The tunnels were pitch dark, they were about 2 blocks long it seemed and curved. You could not see daylight and I was approaching the second one, when I made the executive decision to turn back. It started to rain.
Luckily, my dad had given me an orange fishing raincoat (plastic) and I carried it in my backpack. I pulled it out andI had a couple of cookies which I always carried. I don't remember exactly what shoes I was wearing, but I think they might have been loafers, or a small wedge that was the fashion. I think they were tie on. So rain, slippery, downhill pavement, darkness, yeah, I sprinted down. I didn't even stop. When I reached the foot of the trail, or the bottom of the paved road, there was a gate and it was locked, the guards were gone and the Gasthaus was closed. I climbed around the gate and saw a car parked nearby.
It was an older German couple. I told them I had just came down the mountain and was separated from my friend who had begun the hike with me. ( all in German) I told them I was supposed to meet this G.I. at the General Walker base with my friend to drive us back to Salzburg. They didn't know the place, but I knew the general direction and if it hadn't been raining and so dark I could have found it myself. Anyway they drove me to it and waited to make sure I was okay and I told them thank you, very sincerely auf deutsch.
I got into the building, which was a hotel, and the time was 5:30 pm. We were supposed to meet up with the G.I. at 6:00 pm. So I started talking to these two other G.I.'s who were on a four day pass. One was a platoon leader, a Second Lt. the other was a doctor. I told them what happened and they were really nice and bought me a beer. Which was great as I only had Austrian schillings and my American Express card which never left my side.
One page of my 35 year old letter to my parents explaining my adventure.
Anyway, well after 6:00 pm Jim and the other guy show up, and by this time these guys and I were old buddies and they had taken me out to dinner. They were taking their men on a tour of Salzburg the next day so they invited me to stay and go back to Salzburg with them. This sounded like a good plan, especially since there was no way to get back unless Jim and that other guy did show up, as the buses were done for the day.
So when Jim did show his face, he looked all sweated up, rain soaked and worried. The G.I. with him was kind of laughing. Apparently Jim got to the top, only to find the last tunnel closed and he just got a view from the bus turn around area. He did not find me on the trail waiting for him, obviously because the agreement was to meet at the General Walker. Then he had to climb over the locked gate too....so then he noticed the pitch darkness of the lot and empty restaurant souvenir place and might have for one small minute realized finally that he left me to rot somewhere. Ha. I think the G.I. he was with understood very well. He kind of smirked.
Here I am sitting with two higher ranking guys at a white table cloth dinner, looking pretty dried off and calm at this point and he presents. I was really polite. I told him I had been invited to stay and go back on a tour of Salzburg tomorrow. I would spend the night in Berchtesgaden. I told him that he could leave, and have a safe trip. The guys I was with dispatched the other guy with Jim and it was done. Jim, I think, feeling some remorse at leaving me on the mountain, nearly fainted.
After dinner, the guys took me ice skating and we had a blast. I used to live beyond a huge field that belonged to our church as a kid. We had our own hockey rink and I skated on that quite a bit so this was really fun for me.
So it all seemed fine, until we went to get a room for me. It seems that because I was non military, I could not stay there. I went over to the local pension nearby and they did not take Austrian money and no American Express. It was too late to find a place to change money, remember this was the old days. Now I was a little worried, but not really. I had a lot of confidence in the military for a number of reasons. They won the war, my dad was in the Air Corp during that War and my mom was a WAVE. I knew a little somethin about somethin. So the guys decided I would be sneaked into the General Walker up to the room they were sharing. Mission accomplished. The bathrooms were not in the rooms it was a kind of full bath set up, like a college dorm on each floor in the hall. So I very sneakingly without shoes went down the hall to the empty bathroom. Then back to their room. We camped out there. It was hilarious. These guys who were probably in their 30's or so, married and having the adventure of their lives, with a college girl in their room! Yup. I recognized the imagination of the pair, but you know I was pretty savvy. They were gentleman, and I was a lady. So we were triplets and we all snored!
The next morning we got on an Army bus and headed for Salzburg with the platoon. Well, you have never seen so many shocked guys in your life. I was the prize trinket. They had all these ideas in their heads and no one said a word, expect they teased the sh-t out of the officers and kept taking pictures of the three of us. I think the one guy was from the Bronx and he wanted to buy his wife a Schonbek chandelier before he went home, he and his friend who had helped me were family men.
So I got to go on a real tour of Salzburg with a guide! I learned more on that tour than in all the time I had been living there. I found out so much I didn't even know about. I gave those guys about 200 schillings that I had in my wallet, which I think then was about $12.00 and then they had some Austrian money to use. We even stopped on the tour at a Kondeteri and ate cake and drank tea. It was a great adventure.
So then I was "safe in Salzburg" once again. My roommate Cathy and I made a big dinner and this guy who was a student friend of hers at the Mozarteum where she went to school, who was also an American, got a car to use. So the three of us went back to Berchtesgaden Sunday night because they had an American movie on the base! Clint Eastwood in the Eiger Sanction! It was terrific! No matter where I'll ever be in the world, there's always "home" on an army base. It felt like we just drove into Chicago for a movie.
I went on to tell my parents that "I was so happy this week". " I can't believe it is the same person. But, I was on the bottom and there was no way to go but up (unless I drilled a hole and fell through). But I didn't".
I had saved their letters to me, but I think those were some of the things that never made it home. Some of what I shipped home in envelopes got compromised and stolen. My stamp collections that I had purchased never made it home and some other things like letters, etc. Most of my pictures were not developed with good process or the film was in some way compromised. I have very little in the way of good pictures.
I did get back to Eagle's Nest in 2001 with my husband and children. We rode the bus up and it was a hair-raising ride. We actually walked through the final tunnel after the bus dropped us off at the turn around with hundreds of other tourists. We rode Hitler's brass elevator to the top of the mountain. It was actually an OTIS elevator, an American company, and still has all it's grandeur. It turns out the view was spectacular and it is mostly a huge restaurant up there now.
The General Walker had been returned to the German government when recreational facilities were closed in this area for AFRC. It was demolished the year before we came back as a family. At the time of my stay there, I had no idea the significance of the hotel in the history of the area nor the expanse of all the Nazi owned inns, building, etc. The area is rich in WWII history of the party echelon. In the years before it was turned back over to the Germans, it had been furnished with local artifacts and items probably from some of the Nazi properties. G.I.'s used to frequently loot some of these things, and sometimes they were caught and others not, and some overlooked it as not their building to manage. When it was turned over to the Germans, it was really abandoned by them and it was further stripped of all its furnishings and marble and grand appointments until it was reduced to a shell of itself by the locals and anyone who knew it was abandoned. Then it was bulldozed for a parking lot. That building had a history to it and was even used late in the War as a hospital.
Kehlstein, or Eagle's Nest was only visited about 13 times by Hitler. The location of it provides a view of five nations. It was a gift from the Nazi party to Hitler for his 5oth birthday. As I mentioned before it is a primarily now a restaurant. There is an apartment in it also.
It took me 25 years before I got to the top of that mountain. It was worth every second of the adventure and of the wait to have the memories and to return with my family. Poor Jim, I do wonder if he ever got back.....
I seem to remember that Monday back in our very small school, he kind of apologized to me. I don't think either of us were any worse for the wear and I do wish him well.
Eagle's Nest 2001
Stairs to views
Steve, our son, our photographer 2001
View of Obersalzburg Area
Interior of Eagle's Nest Main Room
Famous Fireplace of Main Room, stone is now defaced with WWII markings and gouging.
Copyright 2011 Words & Pictures SheilaTGTG55