Towering mountains, stone giants, guarded the town as I entered through a cement road that followed along a peaceful river. The mountains set the scene for this festive outdoors town. When the sky is grey and dark the mountains stand strong against the winds and rain. When it’s sunny, they encourage people to come into their presence and explore their glaciers, crevasses, faces and foot hills. The tallest mountain in Germany stands on the boarder mighty, yet absolutely astonishing as well.
I was lucky enough on my second trip up to Garmisch to climb the overwhelming king known as the Zugspitze. It started in early August of 2017. A friend of mine, Ryan, had never climbed a mountain before and had this dream to one day climb a mountain. I proposed the idea that I would lead the climb if he wanted to not just climb a mountain, but climb the tallest most majestic mountain in Germany. With no hesitation he said, “Yes!”
We were excited. We had talked with two other friends who had also agreed to go, but the weather report showed thunderstorms with high winds and rain. They ended up deciding to go to Berlin for Comic-con, but Ryan was not backing out. He was all in and ready to adventure out into what he had called the unknown. So we double checked our gear, packed our bags, loaded up into his car and drove the four hour trip to the awe inspiring Garmisch Partenkirchen.
Once in Garmisch we ended up going to a small shop and renting gear for Ryan. The gear consisted of a via Ferrata , helmet, ice axe and pair of crampons. We then made our way to the parking lot where we had planned on camping and scouted out the trail. It was an eventful time and as we entered the mouth of the Höllental trail we were welcomed with a nice little creek and a beautiful farm surrounded by mountains. They towered over like great kings with a blanket of green pines. The sky had clouds but the sun peaked through making its presence a warming gift.
Once we had finished our little scout out, we headed back to the car and went to bed as we knew our endeavors for the next day would begin early, 3 A.M., but we were excited and called it a day around 4 P.M. As we slept through the night wind and rain pounded the car with great force waking us up constantly and making us want to reconsider climbing this beast. 3 A.M. snuck up like a robber in the night and Ryan, wide awake, woke me up asking if I was ready to climb. I peaked out of my sleeping bag opened the door and was punched in the face with a blast of wind and needle like rain. I slammed the door and said, “No way man! Not in this weather, wake me up in an hour and we will see.”
Ryan didn’t reply, but later expressed he had frustrations about my response. He said he knew I was the experienced one though and also knew not to argue with me. He was frustrated, almost angry that our trip might become nonexistent because of the weather, but I explained to him that’s a part of the adventure sometimes it’s just not possible.
Around 4 A.M. he woke me up again asking if I was ready. Again I opened the door there was a slight breeze with light rain. I looked at him and smiled, it was time to climb this beautiful peak. We grabbed our bags, repaid for parking, verified our gear and at 4:30 A.M. we were on our way with headlamps beaming in the dark. Ryan was excited and you could tell by the pep in his step and the giant smile on his face.
Once we started on the trail we were faced with somewhat steep switch backs. Ryan was so excited he raced up these winding zig zags like a mountain goat running up a cliff from its prey. I on the other hand, took my time knowing it was only the beginning and terrain later on would become even more difficult and draining. The switch backs ended at an old hut which turned into a road which lead to the entrance of what seemed to be a cave. Now, it was fairly dark and all we could see was a gate leading into the cave and an old little hut. We waited, unsure if we could enter until three lights popped out from behind us. We observed what they were going to do, and watched them just simply push it open and go through.
I looked at Ryan and shook my head, then we followed the leader pushing the gate and entering the unknown. We had found ourselves in a lit up and very wet gorge. Now you might think I’m just referring to the ground, no I mean waterfalls from the roof of the rocky path, waterfalls from the sides, streams flowing down the path and splashes with mist drenching us and chilling us to the bone. One thing we had not anticipated in our little adventure, but the views and sights were spectacular. It was a miserable beauty, but a beauty nonetheless.
When we exited the gorge the weather had cleared up, it was just before day break as rays from the sun were able to be seen from behind the mountains. The wind had faded, the rain was no more, it was simply a gorgeous view of mountains surrounding a valley in which we were standing in. We were about to start going up hill from the gorge again when we noticed scattered little Lizards across the trail. At the time we had no idea what these lizards were but come to find out later, they were alpine salamanders. Ryan and I played hop scotch up the sandy and rocky trail avoiding these lizards who just sat there and stared, not worried about any dangers.
Eventually the path evened out, the salamanders vanished and the forest and mountains around us rang of bells. Confused we would look around for anything that was ringing. The bells sounded like that of a cows bell. No matter how hard we scanned the walls, we saw absolutely nothing, and continued walking along the path which lead us to the Höllentangerhutte, a cabin in the alps which was where most climbers stayed the night so they wouldn’t have to make the climb in a single day as Ryan and I were doing. We saw as the climbers were waking up and drinking coffee on the hutte’s deck, we decided not to stop in and continued on our way up to the first ferrata.
Now, let me give a quick explanation of what a ferrata is. A Via Ferrata is a route which consists of a bolted cable railing along a path, usually used on very steep and exposed faces. A Via Ferrata set up consists of a loop where you connect to your harness, two shock absorbing lanyards with a carabiner attached to each shock absorbing lanyard. The purpose of this is you will have one Carabiner attached to the wall at all times, but if you can, it is highly recommended to have both attached. As you come to where the steel rope is bolted, you unhook one and hook it to the the other side and move the other one over.
Once we arrived at the ferrata there was a mom and her son gearing up to go first. You might be thinking of an older kid, but no, this kid was six years old. We talked to them and exchanged stories of past climbs, Ryan, who had never climbed of any sort, looked dazed and in awe of the stories we were sharing. This six year old boy had climbed up the Zugspitze his first time at the age of four and was an avid rock climber. We let them go first once we had finished talking, even though they had offered to let us go. We mainly let them go because we didn’t know the trail, although we had a map, we wanted to be on the safe side.
We followed the trail from the Ferrata route and scrambled up rocks until we got to the next Ferrata route. This route was one of my favorite parts of the climb. It consisted of rusty old rods that stuck out of a cliff that was well over a hundred feet above any flat surface. Ryan was sketched out so I told him I would go first and he followed. Once he started across he was in disbelief, but at the same time was in awe and excitement.
We had finally crossed the rods and were now headed up to the glacier where we then spent two hours climbing vertical cliffs via a Ferrata route. As we put our Via Ferrata set ups back into our bags the bells we had heard earlier in the day started up again. We looked around and finally caught sight of what it was. It was goats that roamed the mountains with bells around their necks. These goats were fearless as they stood and ran up the side of cliffs using their suction cupped hooves to get around. We watched them play for about five minutes before we started on our way again towards the glacier.
The trail that lead to the glacier was made of shale, very loose rock that broke off and slid down the steep slope to our left. We hadn’t taken any major breaks and our first major break would be on the glacier, 10-15 minutes. It probably Seems pretty short, but I did not want to approach this glacier with Lactic Acid build up in my thighs. We raced across the shale and onto the glacier which had rocks sticking up through the ice. This place seemed to be a pretty decent place to switch into our crampons, also known as ice cleats, and quickly scarf down some spam and mixed nuts. At the 8 minute mark I told Ryan it was time to change into our crampons if he wished to wear them, he acknowledged and continue eating. I was a little annoyed as the 14 minutes approached he was still sitting and eating and no crampons on, or any place in sight.
“Ryan… you ready?” I asked. He looked up at me confused. He saw I hadn’t had my crampons on and was holding my ice axe ready to ascend. He jumped up quickly scrambling to put his crampons on and unhook his ice axe from his Backpack. After another 5 minutes he said he was ready as he took a step stepping out of his crampons.
“Uh… do I have to wear these?” He asked as he started packing them back into his bag. I shrugged and just told him it was up to him, but I made sure he knew not to let go of the fixed rope that lay in the snow.
As we continued up the glacier I chopped small steps with the back of my ice axe and then would swing the pick into the glacier and pull myself upward. I looked back at Ryan and he was following my steps but kept losing traction because he used his axe like a cane. By this point a guided team of german climbers had gathered behind us and another team was approaching. I really didn’t want to be the cause of a back up so I yelled down to Ryan, “use the pick end and pull yourself.” Ryan did as instructed and gained momentum and speed away from the group behind him.
Once we met up at the top of the rope we headed to the final approach of the climb, the last two hour Feratta. We got to a stopping point on the glacier and hung our ice axes back onto our backpacks. We then slid back into our harnesses and grabbed our Via Ferrata set up and began to climb the face.
As we climbed up the face of the colossal mountain, the team behind us was on our tail and we were climbing at a decent paste. Ryan was exhausted by this point and neither of us knew exactly how long we had until the summit. Ryan followed as fast as he could, but I realized I was leaving him behind. I would clear a section of about 20 to 30 meters and then wait for him to catch up. Finally it got to the point where Ryan needed a break and we let the climbing team behind us pass. After a quick five minute break we were back to climbing up to the summit.
After about an hour and half we took a second break since we started to climb up the ferrata on the face. We sat there and ate a small snack being able to see the top of the Zugspitze. We were so close to summit but yet so far. We decided to make the push to the summit with some scrambling of rocks and some steep vertical climbing. We were feet away and had been climbing well over six hours, our goal was nine hours max, but we didn’t even pay attention to the time until we reached the summit. When we began to enter the summit joy over rode both of us. A cross stood high looking over all the mountains in the German Alps. We celebrated with the team that had passed us and the mother and her son were up celebrating too. We all laughed, shook hands and hugged before we headed to the restaurants and beer gardens on the peak that stood next to us. It was an adventure where we had to take a chance in the weather and it was so worth it. A memory like many other climbs, I will not forget the awe-inspiring king of the German Alps, The Zugspitze.