It wasn’t until the warnings from the third group of hikers passed by us (headed back down to the valley), did we actually realize we were going to be in danger. The snow was coming down harder the further we pushed up the Zugspitze, and temps were slowly dropping. We had to make a decision, to turn back and hike down the 5 miles of questionable, exposed terrain that was most likely covered in snow by now, or push forward 1 more mile uphill into unknown conditions towards the summit…
To back up a bit and explain how the four of us ended up in the German/Austrian alps, we need to begin at Oktoberfest; yes, Oktoberfest. Of course, experiencing the most incredible festival was the sole purpose of our trip, but my real goal was for us to summit the tallest peak in Germany, the Zugspitze. Since this wasn’t a hiking/backpacking kind of trip, we had to get our fill of the mountains when we could. Which meant planning to climb the Zugspitze, from the town of Grainau in southern Germany, on a day decide 30 days before arriving. You don’t need to be a mountaineer to realize how dumb it is to pick a date, regardless of weather, for an activity that is 90% weather dependent. The remaining 10% being physical ability. But, this is what happens when you want to see the world on two weeks of vacation, right?
October 2, 2016
We arrived by train to Grainau via Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and the skies were already indicating we were going to be in for a rough hike. It was pouring rain ever since we left Munich, but luckily our cabin we rented was a short walk from the station. The remainder of the day was spent figuring out how to get up to the summit, and more importantly back down. See, there was little information online regarding the logistics of getting to the trailheads, food, bus routes, etc. Mostly story I read was for a different route, a multi-day trip, summer days, and starting from a different city. Needless to say, most of the info was deemed useless.
With the help of our AirBnB host to figure out the logistics, we finally set on a plan. We would get an alpine start (before sunrise) to catch the very first bus, 6:15AM, to the trailhead at the lake. Then make our way up the Austrian Snow Cirque route that started at Eibsee Lake, traversed the side of the mountain into Austria, and from there we’d reach the summit. Getting down was figuring to be quite difficult to plan for. Obviously the logical plan would be to do all the previous steps in reverse order, right? Well no. We planned to take a cable car down. I know, I know, this technically wouldn’t have counted but, all trail times estimated the hike to take 8 hours to reach the summit. This meant a total of 16 hours from start to finish. Though we had headlamps, it would’ve meant descending in the dark since the fall season only provides 12hrs of light on a given day. So the cable car was our best bet for safety and time.
October 3, 2016
All the phone alarms began to buzz, one by one the cabin came to life as we slowly got ready in the dark of the early morning. Priority #1, the weather. Reports call for cloudy day with a 50% possibility of precipitation for about two hours…. in the valley. Our lunch (aka leftovers from dinner) were thrown into our packs, water bottles were filled, one last check of the bus schedule, and we were out the door. From our window, we could see the intimidating outline of the ridgeline against a perfectly clear night’s sky. We had to flag down the first bus that nearly passed by us in on the dark street, and we rode it to the stop at the end of the line, Eibsee Lake. From there we began up the abandoned, grassy ski slopes as the sun rose above the horizon, lighting up the valley below for a brief moment before retreating behind the dark grey clouds that rolled in. “Decent conditions for hike,” I remember thinking to myself. It was cool and not raining, perfect weather some would say, but that was soon about to change.
As we began to traverse the side of the mountain, across an exposed rock field, a light snow began to fall. This was the first of many “Oh, Shit!” moments we had on the day. The snow came at about the hour predicted in the forecast. At this point, the summit was still socked in by the clouds above which made it difficult to judge what higher conditions were like. We huddled up and made the decision to continue on because the warm ground melted the falling snow immediately, and the limestone rocks themselves would not become slippery like the marble type back home. Further up we climbed the trail, making use of the cables built into the walls along the route. At this point, the trail became more and more exposed. That is, on one side of the trail was the rock face of the mountain above, and on the other was few hundred to a thousand foot drop. Navigating, the now snow-covered dirt path, was becoming more and more questionable.
The first group of Austrian hikers that we saw that day were coming down the trail from above, dawned with full packs, hiking poles, and more importantly, no crampons (metal spikes for boots). After a quick conversation in broken English, the 3 hikers had stayed the night before on the summit in a hut and that the upper conditions were quite manageable for the four of us who also did not have crampons. Boom! Spirits were lifted knowing that we now might be able to complete our goal and reach the summit. So we continued on, through the winding climbs and sketchy traverses across icy patches and snow piles.
Even though it was snowing, harder now, the temperatures were around 30oF; which was quite manageable for the four of us to prepare for when also bringing normal clothes for the rest of the trip. What we weren’t prepared for was the warnings the next group of hikers gave us. A couple passed by us not too much later, expressing with urgency, that we should follow their lead and turn around. They did not bring crampons either and were forced to turn around when they reached some difficult ice patches on the trail. At first, we brushed them off because of the confidence the first group of hikers instilled in us. So we pushed on.
Finally, we came to our senses after a third group passed by us and provided the exact same warning as the previous group. In their best English, they exclaimed, “ No crampons, no climb.” They recommended we make our way up another 10minutes to the Wiener-Neustadter-Hutte. We obliged, hiked up to the point where the hut was in view, and absolutely struggled the last 10 meters before the door. So much ice had us sliding down for every push forward. (The Oh, Shit count is somewhere at 5 now). Nevertheless, we made it into the large hut for a much needed lunch.
The lunch was quiet, a decision had to be made, but no one wanted to make it. We had to choose between hiking back down the 5 miles which we could only assume were covered in an inch or two of snow by now, or to continue on the last mile to the summit. This was gut-wrenching. I was felt responsible for the lives of my friends and my girlfriend, since this was my dumb idea. Peering out the window, the clouds still covered the higher elevations of the mountain, but there was very little color on the ground other than white. Weighing our options, we made the decision to turn around and face the evil that we were, at least, familiar with. Rather than try to navigate something new, though much shorter, in possibly worse conditions.
My greatest fear was soon realized, going down the icy slopes were as treacherous as I imagined. Right away we were slipping down and onto our bottoms, trying to not slide down and off the edge. Lucky for us, conditions began to become more and more favorable with each stretch of the descent. The valley below was receiving rain, not snow. Which mean temps would’ve been high enough to keep the lower portion of the mountain clear of snow! As the trail turned town, near the Austrian/German Boarder, we were greeted with a sprawling vista of the Bravarian Valley below, which was not covered in snow. Finally, all the stress and worry I carried with me down the mountain was lifted, knowing we were going to make it off this piece of rock.
We celebrated by watching the skies clear up from a formation that resembled pride rock. To the west, we could see the Austrian town of Ehrwald and to the east, Grainau & Garmisch-Partenkirchen. For a brief moment, as the sun showered over us, I had the dumb idea that we might be able to quickly climb back up with the better conditions. Obviously, we scratched the idea immediately, finished up taking pictures of us and the goats that were now around us, and made our way back down to the lake for a beer well deserved. Of course, from our seat by the lake, we watched as the skies completely cleared up. Giving way to a crystal clear, blue sky, and an unobstructed view of the Golden Cross on the jagged summit of the Zugspitze.
Maybe next time we’ll make it up there and stand upon that Alpine summit.