The lilac was in full bloom when a group of boys from the Strand school in Brixton and Kenneth Keast, their 27-year-old master, left Freiburg for the opening hike of their 10-day Easter trekking tour in the southern Black Forest. It was the morning of 17 April 1936, as they set off for the village of Todtnauberg, over 15 miles away, across the summit of the Schauinsland mountain. By the time they emerged from a wood about three hours later, snow was falling steadily but they were full of spring-time optimism. The boys broke ranks to throw snowballs.
Keast noted that some of his boys – who wore shorts, mackintoshes, and even sandals, rather than appropriate gear for hiking through snowy mountains – were beginning to find the going tough. With the snowfall worsening, he put a stop to their skylarking and urged them to concentrate on the path ahead.
When they had set out from their youth hostel that morning, Keast had been warned that the snow would make his planned route hazardous. Even without snow, the locals considered it a challenge. The weather map for 17 April that hung in the hostel gave clear indication that conditions were going to turn. The previous day, the tourist office had warned Keast about the approaching storm, to which his response was: “The English are used to sudden changes in the weather.” The 13-year-old Ken Osborne, who had already written his first postcard home, wrote in his small black notebook: “Had breakfast. Left Freiburg about nine o’clock. It was snowing and we lost our way.”
With snow now falling heavily, and having lost the path and circled back on themselves, they were soon behind schedule. Keast stopped at an inn to ask for directions. The landlady advised him that the paths and signposts would be buried in snow, at which the schoolmaster shrugged and said they would “brush it off.”
By now they were forced to kick their way through the snow. On an open hillside, they met two woodcutters heading home because they could not continue their work. They advised Keast to take a path to the left of the valley. At around 3.15pm, they passed the local postman, Otto Steiert, who urgently warned Keast against continuing the ascent. Steiert offered to help the party return to Freiburg, or to bring them to the shelter of the miners’ hostel, where they would have found beds and food. Keast declined.
He had not yet started to panic, but the slippery, slow-going conditions prompted the teacher to stop and question each boy as to how he felt. Some complained of cold. But Keast decided that to go back would be more perilous than continuing towards the nearby village of Hofsgrund, where he hoped to find shelter in a hotel or peasant’s house. Unfortunately, the map Keast had received from the School Travel Service in London, which had organised the trip, had a scale of 1:100,000, meaning major routes were shown, but not the gradients or the small pathways. This meant he failed to realise that between them and the village rose the steepest and most dramatic ridge of the Schauinsland. As a result the boys, now weary, cold and wet, took a gruelling route up the Kappler Wand, a 600-metre, 70% gradient face.
The first boy to collapse was Jack Alexander Eaton, the school’s 14-year-old boxing champion. He was given an orange and a piece of cake and told to “buck up.”
When they left the protection of the rock and came out on to the ridge, the bedraggled group was exposed to the force of the wind. Had they moved eastwards into the wind, they would have arrived at the safety of the summit station within less than a mile. Instead they were pushed westwards and they quickly became disoriented. By now Eaton and two of the youngest boys had to be carried. Three more boys were in great difficulty.
Hofsgrund was a typical Black Forest village of just 300 inhabitants, consisting of one inn, a church and a scattering of farmhouses with steeply pitched slate roofs, where animals and humans shared living quarters over the long winters. On that bleak April evening, the 7pm chimes of Hofsgrund’s church bells were carried on the wind. Keast sent two of the older boys to follow the direction of the bells down the hill, leaving most of the others on the slopes trying desperately to revive those who had collapsed.
It took about an hour for the two boys to reach a farmstead on the outskirts of Hofsgrund. Like most villagers, Eugen Schweizer had spent the day at home, and was bracing himself to go out to meet the weekly bread delivery when two boys, bareheaded and dressed in short trousers, knocked on the door, and spluttered in broken German: “Zwei Mann, krank am Berg” (Two men sick on the mountain).