Zugspitze – climbing Germany’s highest mountain

First of all, let me make this very clear – if you are not an experienced hiker/ backpacker that is comfortable walking on narrow paths/ scree/ snow with sheer dropoffs you HAVE NO BUSINESS ATTEMPTING THIS HIKE. (Seriously….just take the cable car 😉 )

I just want to put this out there, because while it might seem doable and fun, there are fatal accidents every year and let me say this again, this hike IS NO JOKE.

Alright, with fair warning to not take this on if you don’t feel fully capable, here’s my summit story:

Sunday, 30 June 2019: Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Knorrhütte

It’s 5:30am when I leave my small basement room at the hostel to start walking towards Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, which peaks at 2962m (~9700ft). The beginning of this 21km journey takes you through the beautiful gorge of the Partnach river.

It used to be possible to enter the gorge at any time of the day, but now they have installed metal gates at both entrances, supposedly for insurance reasons. So I had to wait until 6am for the gates to open, before I could really start my journey.
Luckily, I got to the gates just as they are being opened, but before the cashier was there, so I was able to forego the 5€ entrance fee…

Roaring waters in Partnach Gorge

The first couple of miles are a gentle uphill on forest service roads and paths, always within hearing distance of the Partnach river. There are a couple of spots where you can fill up on water, and depending on the time of day, the Bockhütte and Reintalangerhütte are open and serving drinks and food.

I had covered the first 15km by 9:30am and decided to have some Ramen for second breakfast, resting up a bit. Because the actual climb of the day was still to come, covering almost 2000ft of ascend in only 2km (less than 1.5mi).

After about 45min I started walking on progressively worse paths, rocky slopes, scree and boulders upwards towards the Knorrhütte, my goal for the day. Walking was tedious, at times route-finding was pretty annoying, but worst of all, it got really hot. The way up is pretty much just a chute of rocks with almost no shade, and only one seasonal water source (that was almost dry when I got there).

It took me a good three hours to cover the distance and elevation, trying to rest in the sparse patches of shade under bushes and rocky outcroppings whenever I could. At times, it was definitely not fun, especially since I detest walking on rolling scree and talus, having to step carefully if you don’t want to roll an ankle.

I made it to the hut before 2pm and seriously contemplated going further up the mountain that day, after resting a bit. It’s a good thing I didn’t, because I had no idea what was waiting for me the next morning….

I relaxed and enjoyed the view, chatting with a few other hikers while enjoying a plate of homemade dumplings and a few beverages. Since this hut is so isolated without any road or cable car access, prices are of course quite a bit steeper than elsewhere. A meal with two beers will set you back about 25€ and if you stay overnight you can choose the half pension (3 course dinner and breakfast) for 44€. I opted to just have one plate of food and two beverages, choosing instead to make dinner on the stove I brought, and drinking tap water. The water comes from a mountain spring and is filtered as well, so perfectly safe to drink – and free 🙂 .

If you’ve never been to a hut in the alps, let me give you some information. There are different types of accommodations available (depending on the hut), but generally there are dorm rooms and ‘Matratzenlager’, which is basically a row of mattresses side by side, where you are randomly assigned a sleep spot next to complete strangers. In my case it was a room with 13 mattresses on 3 tiers. I would had no direct neighbors, but had to climb a ladder up to the third tierfor my bunk – with no safety board to prevent falling out the side. It was stuffy, crowded, noisy and just plain uncomfortable. So after lying there, taking a nap from about 6pm to 10pm, I opted to grab my stuff and set up my sleeping pad and quilt outside on the terrace. What a relief….fresh air, stars above my head and a nice breeze to lull me to sleep.

Monday, 1 July 2019: Knorrhütte – Zugspitze

I woke briefly just past midnight, gazed up at the stars and wished myself a happy birthday….then went back to sleep until my alarm woke me at 5 am. The sky was just starting to turn light when I packed up and headed towards the mountain top, steadily ascending for the last stretch of trail, which only covers about 4km (~2.5 mi), but has an elevation gain of 900m (~2700ft). On top of the elevation I had to cover, I also had to tackle a very steep scree field and lots of snow. Up until two weeks ago, the last switchbacks up to the top had been completely covered by snow, making the trek to the top almost impossible without some serious equipment and mountaineering skills.

I started trudging uphill, the path again consisting mainly of loose rock and after about 20 minutes I hit the first snowfields, which quickly turned into a full snow cover. I put on my microspikes (a total lifesaver on this trip, glad I carried them) and walked along, orienting myself with the help of marker posts and GPS. It was slow going, but still relatively easy. Until I got to Sonnalpin, the last “flat” terrain before the final ascent.

From Sonnalpin you have two options: Take the cable car to the top of the Zugspitze, or walk another 1,5km and 500Hm (1 mi with 1500ft ascent) on treacherous switchbacks. Of course, I chose the latter option, and cursed myself for doing so about 10 minutes into the last climb. The first hurdle is a vertical scree slope that you have to scale somehow, to get to the first set of switchbacks. Thankfully, there was still a bit of snow, making walkin a bit easier, but still really exhausting. Covering that small slope took me an hour, with some scary moments, hanging onto the snow with my hands and an my knees in the process.

I finally reached the switchbacks, which are carved out of the side of the mountain, equipped mostly with cables that you can hold on to and climbed steadily higher. This part is fairly straightforward, if you’re sure of your step and not afraid of heights, because there are sheer drop-offs where people can (and have) fallen to their deaths. The real kicker came when I reached a switchback where the trai and even the security cable disappeared under a layer of snow.

So there I was, too far into the climb to safely turn back, in front of a 6ft wall of snow with a deadly drop-off, faced with the issue of how to proceed. There really is no good suggestion to give in circumstances like that. I simply trusted my gut and proceeded onward, punching each step into the wall of snow forcefully and only moving my other foot when I felt absolutely safe in my step. Each step was accompanied by an internal voice cheering ‘You can do this!’ and that got me up the wall and back onto -relatively- safe trail. I’m not lying when I say that that short passage was the scariest outdoorsy thing I have ever done.

A few more switchbacks, a short ridgewalk and some stairs later, I had made it to the top. After 4 grueling hours, some sketchy parts and a lot of adrenaline (and fun, type 2) I stood on top of German’y tallest peak, on my birthday. 🙂

The most shocking thing was the masses of tourists at the top though. This isn’t a lonely summit experience….since there are three different access point by cable car, there are about a million people up there from about 8 am to 6pm. It’s jarring, especially when you’ve just faced the face of the mountain alone, struggled uphill and overcome your fear of heights. But that’s the way it is…..and in my case, I did appreciate the cable car for the opportunity of an easy ride back down the mountain. And my parents were even able to meet me on the mountain-top, how often does that happen? ^^

So my little adventure came to a close with a small summit celebration, a ride down into the valley by cable car and just as we got there, a thunderstorm of epic proporrtions broke loose….glad I didn’t have to hike down in that. Great food was had, and another peak checked off my list. Until the next mountain challenge arises….

Keeping you posted…

2 Replies to “Zugspitze – climbing Germany’s highest mountain”

Leave a Reply