I met Neil, a fellow Zugspitze enthusiast, via an English-speaking web forum. He was kind enough to write a great post about his love for Germany’s highest mountain, and a recent hike up one via ferrata section. Complete with fantastic Zugspitze photos! On to his story…
When I was 12 years old, I went, with my family, to the Tyrol for the first time. We’d always been on holiday a lot, but this was only my second trip abroad and my first trip to see “proper” mountains. Sure, Wales and Scotland have mountains, but it’s not quite the same! I found the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak at 2,962m, on the border with Austria, particularly awesome, and enjoyed the cable car trip to the summit immensely. The holiday to Ehrwald (Austria) made a huge impression on me and has remained one of my favourite destinations.
Fast forward 22 years and this (admittedly slightly weedy) 12-year-old is now 6 foot 2 and a keen hiker. This year, we repeated the holiday – parents, me (and my wife), as a 60th birthday present for my Mum. As our holiday commenced, my sister was drinking fermented mares’ milk in Mongolia on her honeymoon having not washed for 6 days, I was drinking European lagers in the mountains and swimming in crystal clear warm mountain lakes. Sometimes, the world has a wonderful unfairness about it!
If you’ve never been to the Tyrol, imagine for a moment a paradise of good rustic food, refreshing lagers and unusual Austrian wines, snow-capped mountains, beautiful sunshine, meadows of wild flowers, friendly people, mountain lakes, glacial fountains in town centres from which the water is clean enough to drink, pretty houses with flowers bursting from their window boxes. Oh, and Obstler: the local schnapps which is like drinking burning sandpaper, and which is used to toast almost everything.
When my wife and I go on holiday, we usually spend at least a couple of days apart. It’s not that we’ve been married so long that we can’t bear to be together, it’s just that we have different ideas of fun. I like walking, she doesn’t. Ten years ago, our “solo days” would involve my wife painting or relaxing and me going for a country walk. Over the years, “walk” has gradually yet steadily evolved into “fairly dangerous hike/climb”. So this year, against the advice of the man in the hiking shop, I decided to tackle the front of the Zugspitze, via the Wiener-Neustädte-hütte route. There are a number of routes up this mountain, ranging from relatively mild (but long) beautifully scenic routes round the back of the mountain, to this in-your-face, straight up, and slightly shorter trek. And it was fun!
Setting off just after 8am from the village centre, I began the lovely varied walk by making my way through the village, through the meadow, and into one of the larch woods which are so common in the area. Car-wide tracks lull you into a slightly false sense of security, and it took only 40 minutes to reach my breakfast stop, the Gamsalmhütte. Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked their opening times, and Tuesday is their closed day. Hungry walk for me then!
I’d like to interrupt my hike story for a second to tell you a little more about hüttes. Basically, these mountain huts, located anywhere from the busy top of a cable car, to the middle of nowhere on a desolate ridge behind a huge mountain. They provide mattresses on which weary travellers can spend the night, as well as a varying range of food and drink items, ranging from a large and diverse menu at the busier huts, to a more limited range of home-made produce at some of the more remote ones. Beer is a staple, although I wonder how they manage to deliver to some of the higher ones!
Back to the Zugspitze, and I proceeded from the Gamsalmhütte up what would be, in winter, a busy ski slope. It was steep yet enjoyable, and looking back there were fabulous views across the valley. From here, already fairly high, the vegetation began to thin out and the hike continued across, at various times, grassland, scree slopes, rocks, unsafe-looking wooden platforms, and snow. The route passed under the cable car, from which the lazy people waved to me, and past some derelict buildings until eventually, after what felt like about 3 days to my stomach, but was nearer 2 hours, I reached the Wiener-Neustädte-hütte, probably the most remote hut in the region.
Deliveries to the hut are obviously difficult, and the chap inside informed me that I could choose between sausage and bread or soup, nothing else. I had a kasknödelsuppe – a clear soup of beef stock with a cheese dumpling in the middle, which was delicious (although to be fair, fermented mare’s milk would probably have tasted good by this point!). The hut itself was built in the late 1800s and was a beautiful cross between refuge, café and museum. For people staying overnight, there was no television, but an “entertainment corner” consisting of board games, a few books, and a guitar. The interior was of dark mellow wood with little natural light, and a number of antique hiking and objects hanging from the walls. There was also a guest book to sign, the first entry having been made in the 1960s. There are various hikes from this hut, but the most popular is obviously upwards. As I left, I looked at the photograph in the porch showing the route up from the hut – basically a wiggly red line up from the rock face!
The last bit is by far the most fun. This is the start of the via ferrata: metal rungs in the rock with a cable to attach safety ropes (which I didn’t have – oops!). The first part after the hut is across scree to the bottom of the rock, and at this point the via ferrata begins, firstly up the side of the mountain, and then for a while through a cave. The views behind and down are truly breathtaking and as the path, marked by red paint (blood?), winds its way up, the ascent is quite rapid.
About half way between the scree and the summit, the via ferrata comes to an end, and what remains is of equal steepness but without the mechanical aids. At times the path is indistinct and you just have to follow the person in front, at other times it’s quite clear. Eventually you reach the ridge, where you join with the Gatterl and Reintal routes for the final ascent, which is a little easier.
The last few yards to the tourist platform are, disappointingly, via a metal staircase, after which you have to get through the crowds of day-trippers (who’d ascended via the cable car) and queue for the final few yards to the summit. When I was there, those queuing for the summit were a mixture of elderly tourists and children wearing plimsolls, and over-cautious 30-somethings with full climbing gear, who looked a little out of place! From the summit, you can see the various routs up in each direction, after which it’s a queue back down to the platform and a celebratory schnapps and germknödel (sweet dumpling) in the café! Remember to take lots of cash with you, as they don’t take cards for the cable car down and it’s a long walk back!
Thanks again, Neil! If readers enjoyed this article, please check out Neil’s Hiking Site for more.