Scaling The Highest Peak in Germany – The Zugspitze.
Germans love Germany, the closer to home the better. Over the past few years from our abode in Germany we have frequented the Alps of lore in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Somewhat to the disgust of our German friends, we had until this weekend mostly overlooked, and in their opinion shunned, the German Alps.
Crowning the German Alps, the 2,962 meter (9,718 foot) Zugspitze is the highest point in Germany. The Zugspitze defines the German-Austrian border, and lies just south of the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a 40 minute car ride from Munich. First climbed in 1820, there are now multiple cable cars to the summit, one from Austria, two from Germany. A cog train tunnels through the massif to the ski area on the Zugspitzplatt home to Germany’s largest glacier the Schneeferner, and more than half-a-million people visit the summit annually.
For those eschewing the lifts, there are a variety of hiking routes to the top of the Zugspitze. The most famous route is the Höllental Klettersteig. This via ferrata route’s fame makes it a German mountaineer’s rite of passage, be sure to time your bottom to top time as it is what most German speakers will ask upon completion. I was armed and ready…
The Höllental Klettersteig is an 11 kilometer long route that carries you up over 7000 feet. It begins from a car park just outside the town of Hammersbach where the trailhead is located. The trail begins climbing up the valley through an old growth forest, the magic wood, to reach the entrance of the Höllentalklamm.
The Höllentalklamm is both a marvel of nature and of man. The deep narrow gorge, cut by the glacial melt is guarded by an entrance hut assessing a nominal fee based on time of day, 3 euros during normal operating hours, but if early or late enough, access is free. The fee is worth the passage, as past the gate a series of bridges, tunnels, and catwalks blasted into the impressive walls create an awe inspiring kilometer long passage to the valley above. Waterfalls poor down on you, the river rushes beneath you, around every bend and through each tunnel you are greeted by an enchanting magical new place.
You exit the gorge, and a short rise brings you to the Höllentalhutte, currently being revamped and a worthwhile day hike in its own right. From the picturesque mountain chapel you are greeted with a view of the path ahead. An impressive wall closing off the valley before you, the first via ferrata; then the glacier capped upper valley; and finally the summit ridge and second via ferrata.
But first, you cross the broad flat valley before you via a trail on its right side. Numerous wayward cairns attempt to lead you down and astray into the wash. The trail starts to climb steeply as you come to the wall closing off the lower valley. It is difficult to see how or where the route will pass this formidable obstacle. As you climb towards its base the path splits, one choice – right over and down to the Eibsee, the other – left and onwards to the Zugspitze.
The first via ferrata starts shortly after the path splits. It starts up a corner, hidden until directly in front of you. The corner brings you to a system of ledges which wind up to the base of a waterfall. A steel ladder tackles the middle of this waterfall, shooting straight up for what must be near a hundred feet. Deposited on top, a final airy traverse across steel pegs drilled into the limestone slab grant access to the markedly changed upper valley.
The upper valley is a completely removed world from the valley below. The alpine grass you scramble out onto quickly gives way to glacial scree and it becomes a struggle to carry upwards over the loose trail. The cliffs hemming in the valley are close and impressive. Your eyes narrow as you take in the view, everything is so bright, white limestone, white snow, white glacier, white peaks.
The trail traverses the scree slopes past the nose of the glacier, stepping onto it at a flat area near the ridge where the glacier is mostly covered in scree. From here, the “highway” follows a large arching “u” passing the small crevassed sections and bringing you back to the ridge and the start of the second via ferrata. The gap between the glacier and the securing cables on the other side has proven to be the crux and point of defeat for many. The warm summer sun rapidly melts the glacier away from the rock creating a chasm into the abyss that can become meters wide. Today, early season, it was hardly noticeable, a small step across gained the start of the second and last via ferrata.
The second via ferrata lacks the memorable features of the first, the waterfall stairs, the dramatic pegs across the slab, but it makes up for this in shear length. It hardly ever seems to go straight up, instead zigzagging between ledges and catwalks, slowly working up the ridge. The views down and across the valley are incredible. Higher, snow buries even the elevated cable. An ice axe becomes necessary for protection from a slip which would carry you several hundred meters to the glacier now far below. Finally, you traverse below the summit and scramble up the summit ridge to the golden cross perched on the top. You are on top of the Zugspitze.
The view is incredible, almost enhanced by juxtaposition to the crowds a stone’s throw away on the summit platforms. A few of the adventurous ones will cross off the platform and trek the 100 feet to the summit cross, but you have taken a different path. Early season, it is possible to descend via the way you came. Prime season, the reverse is likely to create a headache and prove an un-reversible cluster. Fortunately for your knees, if not your wallet, a 29,50 EUR (40 USD) ticket will return you to Hammersbach via either the Gletcher lift to Zugspitze cog through the mountain, or the faster route taking the Eibsee lift which rejoins the cog lower down. Assuming you start early and make reasonable time, you might as well stop for a bit and enjoy a beer at Germany’s highest beer garden. Smiling on the journey now past.
Quick Reference Guide
Location: Hammersbach – Höllentalstraße, 82491 Grainau
- Trekking Poles
- Ice Axe
- Crampons (Variable glacier and snow cover, about 25 degree slope)
- Via Ferrata Set
- Climbing Harness
- Glacier Rope
- Via Ferrata Gloves (lots of metal cables)
- Cold Weather Gear (Down jacket, shell, soft shell pants – Zugspitze is known for rapid weather changes – Over the route it went from 86F to 41F on my sunny clear day)
- Water (3L is sufficient, 2L if the hut is open and you can restock)
- Snacks (1/2 Day)
- Cash (50 EUR)