Hiking to the Top of Germany - Zugspitze and Alpspitze
Updated: Sep 13
Some weeks ago, I found myself with two former colleagues, and good friends of mine, at a Parking lot in Garmisch-Patenkirchen. From there we would set out for four days of hiking close by, and to the top, of Germany’s highest mountain: The Zugspitze.
Due to the Corvid-19 situation, I had to deviate a little bit from my usual way to ascend the Zugspitze. In normal times, I made the ascent in one day, staying overnight at the “Münchner Haus” right next to the peak, and descent on the second day. But due to Corona the “Münchner Haus” was still closed.
So instead we choose to ascent in two stages, sleeping in the “Höllentalangerhütte”, which is located in the so-called Höllental (Hells Valley) right below the “Höllental Via Ferrata”, which is, in my opinion, the most interesting, and beautiful ways to ascent to the top of Germany. But then we had another thing to deal with: For one of our group, it would be the first hiking tour with alpine difficulties. So, we had decided to have a little test run on the Alpspitze the day prior.
This would ensure us that the ascent of the Zugspitze was actually a realistic tour for all members of our group, and it also served as our training ground for the much more challenging route the following day. But for our first day, we only had one goal: To get to the Höllentalangerhütte. Between my two friends arriving from northern Germany, us all meeting in Munich and driving to Garmisch it was about 6 pm when we set out from the aforementioned parking lot.
We also had taken a little bit longer to prepare our gear, as it was raining quite a bit, well actually pouring, then. Now despite the rain, we were in high spirits, as we started our hike towards the Höllentalklamm, by following a short and twisty path up the mountain. Now usually there is quite a well-maintained forest road, leading almost to the entrance of the gorge, however, just a few weeks prior a colossal flash flood coming through the canyon had destroyed most of this road. So, we took the less than the direct route on narrow hiking trails. We got some beautiful views out of it, at least when the weather permitted but for the most part, it was cloudy and rainy with short interruptions.
Anyways, we had soon reached the Höllentaleingangshütte, where we had to don our rain gear extra tight. Due to the narrow nature of the gorge, there are lots and lots of little rivulets running down its side. But in under the rainy conditions, these usually tiny streams mutated to big waterfalls. And more than once we had to walk through one of these waterfalls, crashing down directly on the path. Now all throughout the Höllentalklamm, there are narrow galleries driven into the bedrock. These are built where the gorge becomes to narrow for other ways or intended as a shelter against bigger waterfalls dropping into the canyon. But as a means of refuge, they did not work out for us. Usually, there was a small waterfall directly at the entrance and exit to those galleries. So we were literally drenched when we reached the ramp towards the Höllentalanger. The Höllentalangerhütte is located on this relatively flat part of the Höllental, just before it begins its dramatic and almost vertical rise towards the Zugspitze.
Getting to the hut had barely taken us three hours, and we settled into our bedstead in high spirits, after enjoying some tasty meals, a nice cold beer and some good talks with other hikers.
The next day we actually took the chance to sleep in. While other hikers started as early as three am from our refuge, towards the Zugspitze, we waited for the crowds to disperse, had a good breakfast and began our ascent over the Rinderscharte around nine. The weather was good, although the sky was still overcast. And the way was in good condition, being easy on the grade, with stairs built into the steeper sections. We walked higher and higher until we had reached the Rinderscharte from here on out it just was a short descent towards the queue. Since this particular day happened to be a Sunday, and the first dry one after a few days of rain at that, it got quite busy on this day. And the route we had chosen, the Alpspitz Ferrata is maybe one of the most popular and highly frequented alpine hikes in the region. Despite being aware of this fact, we had chosen the route as our training ground, as it is similar in regards to the difficulties and challenges of the much longer Höllentalsteig.
And this meant queuing up behind plenty of hikers and ascending the mountain one step at a time. And what steps there are. Over about 500 meters of elevation, there have ben steel ropes stretched up the flank of the mountain. Those serve as your fix points while ascending up the stony and steep mountainside. Where sections are too difficult, or to steep, there are either ladders fixed in place or at least steel rebar driven into the mountain that can be used as steps. Now, these structures ease the challenge of climbing the rocky face quite a bit, especially for inexperienced climbers. Especially since the extra safety provided by the steel ropes can entirely reduce the psychological challenge of the whole ordeal.
But do not make any mistakes. These “Via Ferratas” that can be found in plenty of places in Europe are no playgrounds either. Even with the proper equipment, a fall would likely result in severe injuries. Due to this, extra care and caution need to be exercised on these routes. I personally recommend treating the whole affair as if there was not steel rope and ascending with the same care, you would give if you were to free-climb the entire route.
However, we made good speed within our position on the queue. Like on many good days, there was literally a queue running down the entire mountainside, from top to bottom. And despite having her first experience of alpine difficulties Meike made great speed up the hillside as well. This is probably a good as any a place to mention that we did not take an entirely unprepared person up the mountain. Like the two other members of our group, Meike has a background in industrial climbing and worked in a high ropes course before. So I was actually quite sure of her ability to reach both of our planned peaks. She was not quite as sure of the fact. But the ascent up the Alpspitz should and would serve as a testing ground for her. And give her some confidence in her abilities to boot.
Now the slow ascent up through the queue had the advantage that we could, quite often, take a break and admire the stunning views. We happened to be in the clouds already, but occasionally the white mist dispersed and gave way to surreal paintings of wispy clouds, creeping along and up the gruff mountainside. With its towering pillars of stone, and distant peaks appearing and disappearing in a crude dance of sorts. It was quite eerie, to be honest. And it got even better because after we had reached the top, the tight white mantle around us suddenly dispersed and gave way to a great view. Now the region around here is also known as the “Wetterstein” (literally: Weather Stone”) mountain range, and for a good reason. The Zugspitz and Alpsitz ar the first genuinely high mountains, if you come from a northern direction. And due to this, basically, all the weather coming from the north gets caught and changed by these two mountains. In fact, the weather on these two mountains is more unpredictable and harsher than on many much higher peaks more into the centre of the alps.
Anyways, after reaching the top, it was time to go down again. Previously we had planned on a descent via the Mateisenkar, which is one of the last sections of the famed Jubiläumsgrat. Still, we had to adjust our plan a little bit, as we had discovered Meike’s worst enemy: Narrow ridges with steep drops on each side. After a short attempt at the upper section, we aborted and instead went for the much easier descent down the Alpspitz Ostflanke. Now, despite being the more relaxed route, it posed its own challenge. With a larger gravel field to be traversed at the top, some short ridges to be walked over, and some short sections of Via Ferrata the be climbed down.
We, again, made good speed and soon reached the Ostefeldenkopf, close to the Rinderscharte. From here on out we decided against descending the same route, but instead go over the Kanppenhäuser, which added quite some additional kilometres to our trip. But it was a great addition solely for the views we got all over the Höllental. When we reached the Höllentalangerhütte for the second time, we were exhausted, but in high spirits and looking forward to the challenge of the coming day. After a good meal, prepared by the friendly staff of the hut, we went to sleep again.
Our ascent up to the Zugspitze started early in the morning. We took a short breakfast and of we went under absolutely clear skies. The Höllentalsteig can be described in five primary sections, that each have their own merits and challenges. The first section, from the refuge up until the actual start of the Via Ferrata, is basically an easy hike. And just as easily and quickly, we completed this section. Now, in the shadow of an almost vertical, it is time to don the harnesses, prepare the climbing gear and start out with the first climbing of the day. Now immediately you will notice that the Höllentalsteig is way steeper than the Alpspitz Ferrata, and in quite some places poses higher challenges. But it is still enjoyable and fun. After a short ascent, we had reached the first notable point of the second section: A place called Brett (Literally: board). Here you have to cross a vertical wall side to side, with only some steel rebar as steps, and a 200-meter drop right below your feet. The Brett is one of the most spectacular, but actually the least difficult of all notable points throughout the Höllentalsteig.
Here you only have to face the psychological challenge, as the rebar is placed in the mountainside close enough to comfortably walk across, were it not for the huge drop right below your feet. If the Brett poses a significant obstacle, you should seriously consider turning around. Close after the Brett is the second notable section, a straightforward climbing part, completely without steel safety ropes, that I would consider as the point of no return. After crossing the “Freeclimbing Section,” descending down the Höllentalsteig should only be an option reserved for emergencies. But the difficulties will be actually much greater in the upper sections of the Höllentalsteig.
Anyways, after a phase of some doubt, Meike made it over the Brett, and up the Freeclimbing Section. And from here on out we entered the third stage of the Höllentalsteig. This third stage, is just a hike, over steep paths and over vast gravel fields up to the Höllentalfernener the, to the best of my knowledge, smallest glacier of the alps. I do not like this third stage. It would feel drawn out and arduous on any mountain hike, but nestled between an awesome Via Ferrata, and a glacier crossing it just feels like needless busywork. But I suspect, that quite a few people are actually happy about the short breather.
Now, after reaching the first snowfields, I took the time to give some safety tips to both Fabian and Meike, as they were about to cross the glacier for the first time. Now despite this, I had decided against bringing any crampons, or ice axes. This decision I made based on my contacts to locals and their report of the current conditions on the glacier. Should you attempt this tour, I can not recommend crampons enough. The glacier is really steep, and especially during the upper part of the crossing you a right over a piece with plenty of deep crevasses, so slipping here would be bad. Anyways the glacier crossing leads to what many consider the most challenging part of the tour: Where the glacier reaches the walls of the mountain, there forms a deep and wide crevasse. Early in the year, it can be bridged by snow, but the more the months progress, the deeper and broader this crevasse becomes. And on the wall, you have to enter into the most challenging climbing section, with nothing but a steel rope to aid. Any other fixtures would be impractical, due to the changing nature of the glacier and the crevasse, and therefore, especially late in the year crossing the so-called Randkluft can turn into a serious challenge.
From here on out, it basically is only one long Via Ferrata up the mountain, with a few great views. On especially awesome moment came, when we crossed the Irmenscharte which is the first point where you can see over the mountain ridge surrounding the Höllental, and behold the Eibsee at the other side of the ridgeline. I also recommend you take your victory picture here, despite actually still being 100 meters below the actual peak.
Because to be quite frank the situation at the peak is horrible. It is absolutely overcrowded, and even though getting to the actual cross exposes you to alpine dangers tourists are going there from the gondola platforms, they should have absolutely no business in being there, based on their attire alone. I am quite honestly surprised that no deadly incident has happened here, and if one should, it is basically a massive lawsuit waiting to happen. And while I have nothing against the people wishing to experience the mountains within the limits of their abilities I have to say: The entire peak feels like a giant tourist trap and is a significant downer at the end of an awesome hike.
But for us, the peak was actually just a short break in between. Because we took the Eibesee Cable Car down the mountain and hiked back to the Höllentalangerhütte. Due to Corvid, we had to bring a lot of extra stuff to the hut, like bed linen and bigger sleeping bags. And since we had no interest in attempting this hike with some significant additional weight, we decided to simply return to the hut in the evening. The walk back to the shelter was a little bit on the longer side, and we were quite hurting when we finally reached it. But we were proud of our accomplishments and rewarded us with some great food, and some shots of schnaps. The only thing left for us was to hike down the next day.