Zugspitze

The Zugspitze and the Jubiläumsgrat ridge. September 27, 2017

A solo alpine adventure in the German Alps

Last September, a group of us decided that we were going to celebrate Justin’s bachelor at Oktoberfest in Munich. Knowing that I was going to Munich in late September, I decided that I would spend some time in the Alps prior to the celebrations. The four days I spent in the Alps hiking, scrambling, and climbing were some of the best days of 2017 so far.

Prior to my trip, I extensively researched what to climb, how to climb it, and where. Ever since I heard about via ferratas, I always wanted to climb one. I eventually settled on attempting to climb the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak. My intended route was to first climbing the Alpspitze, then traversing the Jubilee ridge (Jubiläumsgrat) to the summit of Zugspitze. It was an ambitious goal: It required climbing 600 meters in elevation by the Alpspitze via ferrata, then traversing a very exposed, class III 6 kilometer long ridge to the Zugspitze summit. Nonetheless, I worked very hard on my physical preparation for the challenge, and I felt ready by the time I boarded the plane to Europe.

After spending two days with friends in Berlin and Zurich, I arrived in Innsbruck not feeling great but excited to finally be in the mountains. That night I visited The Kletterzentrum Innsbruck, one of the best climbing gyms in the world.

The outdoor wall at Kletterzentrum Innsbruck

Even though the climbing session at the gym was productive, I still was not feeling great. I went to bed early hoping that I would feel better the next day.

I woke up feeling very under the weather. I knew that in order to feel better for the rest of the week, I needed to take it easy and rest. I decided to take the Nordkette Cable Car up to Hafelekarspitze (2,334 meters), one of Innsbruck’s highest peaks. I walked around, checked out the sights, and had a delicious Tyrolean lunch. My body needed this leisure day.

Hafelekarspitze summit with Innsbruck in the background. September 26, 2017

After lunch, I took the cable car down then boarded the train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, my home for the next two days. As I was arriving, I caught a glimpse of the massif I was planning to climb. It was a lot bigger than I thought, and it was already snowy. Not the most ideal conditions.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen with the Zugspitze Massif in the background

After a deliciously large Bavarian dinner, I headed to bed feeling a lot better. It could have been the adrenaline running through my veins that brought me back to a good enough condition to try and climb some mountains.

Alpspitze

I woke up at 6:30 am and headed to the AlpspiX cable car, which would take me to 2,050 meters and the start of the via ferrata. The day was overcast, but dry. The temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius by the time I got to the viewing platform of the cable car.

Sunrise from the AlpspiX viewing platform. September 27, 2017

From the platform I also got a glimpse of the massive limestone mountain I was about to tackle. 600 meters of sheer rock, snow, and ice were waiting to be climbed. I was very intimidated by it.

The Alpspitze has a beautiful pyramidal shape.

At around 8:30 am, I left the platform and headed towards the start of the via ferrata. On the walk there by myself, I was not convinced I was going to do it; mainly because I was not mentally prepared to tackle snow.

I sat pondering for a while whether going up was a good idea. Eventually a young German couple arrived and started looking up the route. We discussed objective risks (snow conditions on the second half of the route, the probability of rain or snow, the chances of rockfall, and the descent) and eventually decided to head up together at a reasonably fast pace.

The first half flew by. The mechanics of the via ferrata were easy and the route was not that steep. Upon reaching the first ridge the snow appeared. It was hard-packed, baked snow. It was terrible to step on. To add to the difficulty, the route got steeper. It was quite sketchy.

Half way up the Alpspitze via ferrata

At this point, I understood the safest way was up a wet, slippery route. This is when the adrenaline kicks in, and your brain gets into survival mode. Suddenly, everything becomes lucid. My eyesight and hearing instantly improved. My reflexes were sharper than ever. My movements were smooth and calculated. Everything clicked despite the enormous objective danger. We moved smoothly up the route, brushing off the incredible exposure of the line up the mountain. Three and a half hours after starting the route, we reached the summit (2,628 meters). I was elated that the sky cleared up as we arrived and we got gorgeous views of the Alps to the south and the Bavarian valleys to the north.

The Alpspitze summit to the right with the Zugspitze on the left

I stared at the Jubiläumsgrat and immediately decided that I would be skipping this objective. Doing it alone, carrying no snow or rappelling gear, with a possibility of an open bivvy in very cold conditions made the objective way too dangerous.

After signing the log book and taking some photographs, we decided to head down the Nordwandsteig route. It took us a while to find the start of the route, and once we started the hike down, clouds coming up from the valley engulfed us. We slowed our descent down the scree slope considerably.

Descending down the east slope of the Alpspitze in near whiteout conditions

After 20 minutes, the clouds cleared. We continued our way down the scree slope and after an hour, we reached a small ridge. We crossed most of it, descended down another slope, then reached a kettle hole on the northeast side of the mountain. After two and a half hours, we reached the start of the via ferrata.

Zugspitze

I gave my farewell to my climbing partners, had some water and trail mix, then sat on a chair overlooking the valley pondering my next move. I had given up on my objective of crossing the ridge after looking at it from the Alpspitze summit, but that didn’t mean I was giving up on the Zugspitze. I was feeling great, better than I had felt physically in a long time. My ankle was giving me no troubles. I was excited to continue on an outdoor journey. It was then that I decided to hike up the Zugspitze through the Reintal route over two days.

The goal of the first half of the route was to reach the Reintalanger Hut before nightfall. The trail rises roughly 600 meters in elevation over 19 kilometers. I took the cable car to town around 3:00 pm and started my walk around town towards the trail.

Goat farm outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the path

After an hour of walking, I reached the Partnachklamm, a deep gorge that is also one of the main tourist attractions of the area. A path was carved beside the gorge so that tourists can safely cross it. The mighty, turquoise-colored Partnach river cuts through the rock with mighty force creating this loud, misty canyon.

After crossing the gorge, I left the tourist crowds and entered a Temperate Deciduous Forest as I hiked upstream. As I got closer to the valley the trail narrowed and the last houses disappeared. After an hour and a half of hiking uphill, I entered the Reintal Valley. I was surprised at how untouched this valley was, as I had an understanding that the Alps had very few places that were truly pristine. As I entered the valley, I was marveled by the beauty of it. In front of me I had peaks shining from the afternoon sun. On both sides of the valley, massive 1,000 meter plus limestone walls rose almost vertically. The Partnach river snaked through the valley, creating rapids and waterfalls along the way. The forest looked incredible with all the fall colors. I honestly fell like I was walking towards Rivendell.

The Reintal Valley

As I marveled at the beauty set upon my eyes, I came to the realization that I was truly alone. My head was clear, and it allowed me to evoke thoughts that are hard to come up with in the busyness of regular life. As I walked on this pristine path for almost three hours, plenty of my life’s deepest questions were pondered.

Inevitably, nightfall came before I reached the hut. Luckily, I only had to walk 10 minutes in the pitch dark using my headlamp to ensure I didn’t stray off the path. I reached the hut shortly after 8:00 pm. As I was paying for a bed for the night, I overheard coming from the kitchen someone singing a Gustavo Cerati song. I asked the cook where he was from and he informed me that the kitchen staff was Argentinian. We chatted for a bit and once he heard about my day, he rightfully said: Uff amigo, debes estar hambriento y reventado. Man, you must be hungry and exhausted. He proceeded to serve me the biggest bowl of goulash stew I have ever seen, as well as a large glass of Weissbier. I was sound asleep less than an hour after finishing that heavenly meal.

I woke up early and by 6:00 am I was on my way to the summit. I wanted to ensure I reached the top by noon so I could make it to Munich before dark. What lay ahead was brutal: 1,660 meters in elevation gain in less than 7 kilometers.

The initial part of the route I did it in the dark, crossing the Partnach river a few times trying to find the route. I reached the steep scree slope just as the first sun rays penetrated the mountains behind me. The goulash of the night before was the perfect fuel I needed to keep a very solid tempo as I scrambled up these slopes. I was surprised that in less than two hours, I reached the Knorr Hut, my last stop before the summit.

At the Knorr Hut I had a small breakfast and continued my way up the slopes. The first part was very cold (it was about — 3 degrees Celsius) and I had to put on my winter gear to continue. Eventually, the sun crested over the mountains and the temperature rose. I was also finally able to see the alpine environment around me. It was pure bliss.

The Upper Reintal Valley

After two hours of hiking up a snow / scree slope, I reached the ski and research stations and got my first glimpse of the summit. I was please to know that I would be standing on the top of Germany in less than an hour. The final section of the route was also the hardest: A class III scramble aided by cables all the way up to the cable car platform near the summit.

The final scramble on the way to the west ridge of the Zugspitze

Normally, the cable route is exposed but easy. However, just like the day before, the snow added a new element of risk. Foot placements had to be precise as I moved up the line. Being solo, I was moving a lot faster and in no time, I reached the ridge.

The west ridge of the Zugspitze, which is also the border of Austria (right) and Germany (left)

I traversed the ridge very carefully and finally reached safety as I stepped onto the platform. Tourists that went up in the cable car clapped as I went up the final parts of the mountain towards the summit. Four and a half hours after leaving the hut, I had reached the summit (2,962 meters).

All smiles on the summit. The valley on the right is the Höllental Valley

After taking some photos, I took the cable car to town then the train to Munich to meet my friends.

Recently, many people have asked me why I climb. What’s the point? It is hard and very dangerous they say. I climb because it is a mental and physical challenge that takes you through what is in my opinion the best parts of planet earth: the mountains. The feeling of euphoria and elation I felt sitting on the summit of Germany’s highest peak is something that I simply can’t replicate doing any other activity. Since I started climbing, I have been more active, more focused, and calmer. I look forward to my next adventure in the mountains.

Panoramic view from the summit of Zugspitze. September 28, 2017
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