Ascent of Zugspitze on 2015-11-14

Climber: Eric Morrill

Date:Saturday, November 14, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Elevation:9718 ft / 2962 m

Ascent Trip Report

We started our trip from Ehrwald, Austria, where we stayed at Haus Edith, and were at the parking lot at the base of Ehrwalder Almbahn, the lowest funicular in the valley, at 7:15 in the morning, about 20 minutes after dawn. Fun factoid: the etymology of Ehrwald may point to its being derived from the medieval German place name “Erowald,” meaning the beginning of the forest. Morning temperatures were around 6 degrees. There had been one major snow storm so far in the year, but it had been about 3 weeks before our trip, and temperatures on the peak of Zugspitze had regularly been above freezing, so we were expecting little snow or ice, but brought crampons and a vintage ice axe (more for style) along nonetheless. We had been informed that camping was illegal except in emergencies in Austria, and that it was ambiguously illegal but tolerated in Germany (at least on the uphill side of the trail that contours across the Zugspitzplatt (the main cirque, lying on the German side) from Knorrhütte (a hut for over-nighting which closes for the winter in mid-October), a path which more or less divides a Naturschutzgebiet or natural preserve in the lower valley from a Landwertschaftsgebiet or restricted use area at higher elevations). We brought a 3-person tent, bags rated to -23 C and warm night gear, and planned to camp right outside the Knorrhütte. Had we been stopped, we would have claimed it wasn’t planned but rather an emergency – which, indeed, it ended up being, as the latter part of my trip report makes clear.

But first, back to the hike. It might have been possible to drive further up, but we weren’t totally certain and didn’t want to get a ticket, so we parked in the spacious and empty lot, and walked up an easy but not particularly charming valley. The first hour and a half or so was on this road, which runs through a ski resort that we were told is open beginning in December.

Eventually we cut uphill to the north on a footpath, following route “B” up Zugspitze, as described in a Deutsche Alpin Verein map which we found online. A clear trail advanced steadily upwards through low alpine pines. Here, and later, on the Zugspitzplatt, we saw about 30 mountain goats, who kept to a minimum of 30 meters from us but weren’t particularly alarmed.

After what might have been another 40 minutes, we got to the border with Germany. This is a rickety, 1930s-looking rusty fence, and on the German side begins the Zugspitsplatt. We completed our contour around to the other end of the Platt and the Knorrhütte, where we thought we’d sleep, arriving around 11:30, which is to say after 4:15 of relaxed hiking with several photo breaks. Here, we dropped our extra gear, figuring none of the few folks on the mountain would steal it, and ate a lunch until about 12:15.

Continuing our ascent, we hiked up the (perhaps overly well) marked trail, through sparse snow, then somewhat thicker snow and a few small ice sheets. None of this merited crampons. After an hour we arrived at the top of the Platt, where the Gletscherbahn (or “glacier train”) was running to the summit. We passed on this funicular and climbed up the ridge. At this point, we’d been passed by about 4 people with much less gear, and we had passed 2 others, all of whom had hiked in along the Reintal route from the trailhead at Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany.

A final slog up somewhat loose rock (for 35 minutes) brought us to the ridge, and then another 30 minutes later we were at the artificial summit, which is a monstrosity of a building constructed in the 1990s and which has almost completely obliterated the peak, replacing it with a cafe, a place to drink beer, and a small exhibition space. Much of this had no windows, and I honestly wondered why on earth they chose to put this on the top of the mountain, rather than, for example, several hundred meters lower, where the view would have been quite similar.

Once on the artificial summit, we ducked under a sign saying “Gipfel geschlossen,” meaning “Summit closed,” in order to actually climb the proper summit, about 4 meters higher than the artificial viewing platform. Pictures. Then, because it was there, and because it was quite cold, I opted to get a hot chocolate, which I was pleased to discover came at a reasonable price and was quite good. There were literally dozens of people on the peak, perhaps hundreds, almost all of whom had come up with the Zugspitzbahn or “Seilbahn,” funicular accessible from near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. This is a route that many use to descend in a loop after coming up the Reintal route. The Austrian funicular, which we might have used, was closed that weekend for repairs, but I prefer to camp on the mountain anyway, so had convinced my companions (who might have raced down if left to their own devices) to soak in the beauty of nature in an overnight.

Now for the fun part of the story. Since it was late –perhaps 3:30¬– and the dark begins to encroach around 4:50 in mid-November, we took the Gletscherbahn down to the ski area which we had passed coming up, avoiding the descent along the ridgeline and loose rock face. This saved us an hour or more, and we were merrily half way down the Platt back to camp, when we came across two hikers going up the mountain... with no gear. It was 4:30 –the time at which the last funicular left, we had been informed– and their first question to us was, “Do you know when the last train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen from the summit leaves?” Yes, indeed, they were totally unprepared and ill-informed, and temperatures, already around -2 C, were falling as night set in.

We encouraged them to turn around. I told them they should sleep with us in a cramped 3-person tent with 3 sleeping bags between us. We had lights which we had brought in case we wanted to hike out at night, and they said that they would prefer to hike out, so I gave them my light but told them to come back if they felt unsafe. Twenty minutes later, in the pitch darkness, they returned to our camp, freezing and looking a bit scared. We ate a collective dinner (although my hiking partners hadn’t checked the stove before the trip, and discovered it was broken), and got in the tent to stay warm around 5:30. Outside temperatures were at -7 C, and between the five of us, we were wearing, or sleeping on or under, all the clothing that the three of us had brought. The night was surprisingly pleasant, since 5 bodies generate a lot of heat, and, although there wasn’t much space, I think I slept about 3 or 4 hours nonetheless. During the night, it snowed, but this was magically gone by morning. At 7, we were up, packed, breakfasted, and ready to hike back to the car.

The return trip, lasting a little over 4 hours, followed the trail in, and was uneventful.
This was the first hike on which I had the pleasure of probably saving lives as a result of being properly prepared for the cold. Still, it’s a bit embarrassing that the stove didn’t work, and I would have loved to taste the freeze-dried Knödel that we brought along. On future trips, I will make sure my hiking companions test all communal gear before departure.
Summary Total Data
    Quality:3 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)

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