When I learned that I would attend a conference in the small town of Marktoberdorf, a hundred kilometres to the southwest of Munich, I realized that the German and Austrian Alps would be so close that I would probably be able to fit in some hiking, or even climbing. I quickly settled on the area around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, as it had many advantages: easily accessible from Munich, home to 2962m Zugspitze, the highest point of Germany, and it offered plenty of options, from easy hiking in the valleys up to multi-pitch outings. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have a climbing partner, which forbade any form of belayed climbing, but I was still pretty sure I would find fun things to do in the mountains.
After some more research and with mvs’s help, I finally found several options for the three days I would spend in Garmisch. At least to some extent, all were via ferrata.
In the interest of our non-European readers, allow me a brief interruption to explain what this Italian-sounding thing actually is: starting around WW2 in the Dolomites, and then expanding mostly to France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the hardest and most exposed parts of some mountain routes have been permanently protected. Forget the odd bolts that arouse so many passions overseas, we are here speaking of 60cm long pitons every 3 metres, continuous steel cables and ladders. One can then clip a cow’s tail into the cable and be protected in case of a fall. Which, incidentally, has the interesting property that you can get very high fall factors (4 or more), since the arrest will only occur when hitting the next piton connecting the cable to the rock, possibly after several metres, but with only 50cm or so of “rope” out. So one can blow up carabiners or slings if falling at the wrong place…
But back to Germany. My options were, in order of difficulty, the Mittenwald ferrata, a half day ferrata, mostly downhill, the Höllenthal, a long day of climbing 2200m up to the summit of Zugspitze, including some ferrata and crossing the only year-long German glacier, and finally the Jubiläumsgrat, the famous ridge connecting the summits of Zugspitze and Alpspitze. Only 8km, but very exposed, with lots of up and down, and only a few sections actually protected by ferrata fixtures, with downclimbs of up to (French) 3-. A long day out, it is a serious and commited climb, with only one possible escape halfway on the ridge, and one emergency shelter. It also has the reputation of having tricky routefinding and of fogging up very easily. Indeed, all the information I could find on the internet agreed on one point: it should only be attempted in perfect weather…
The original plan was to climb Höllenthal, spend the night on top, in the Münchnerhaus, and start at sunrise the next day on Jubiläumsgrat, in order to have ample time to catch the last cablecar down from Alpspitze. And then do Mittenwald on the last day if I wasn’t too tired. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t quite agree. Though the forecast kept changing, it was clear on one point: from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning would be rainy, with possible thunderstorms. Having arrived in Garmisch on Saturday, I consulted the last weather report, which roughly said that Sunday would be a nice day, with thunderstorm in the late afternoon, but after that, all bets were off. People I asked, and the pattern from the Saturday seemed to indicate that I should be fine until at least 15 or 16h. Time enough to be finished with the ridge and on the way down from Alpspitze if I started from the first cablecar at 8h and was fast.
It was a gamble on the weather (and on my climbing skills), but I also knew that this would be the only chance I would get, and by now I was so psyched that I at least wanted to give the famous ridge a try. I also had the emergency shelter as an overnight option if the weather turned quickly. I deferred the final decision to the next morning, but when I got up at 5h45, the sky was beautifully clear and all hesitation was gone. I hurriedly finished packing and caught the (grossly overpriced) 6h30 bus to Eibsee, the departure point of the cablecar to Zugspitze. Arriving there at 6h45, I had more than an hour to kill, but in a stroke of luck, an early employee noticed me, asked me if I was going to Jubiläumsgrat (always a good idea to leave the helmet hanging on the outside of the pack to be identified as a climber) and then told me I could get on the special 7h30 cablecar, usually reserved for people working at the summit station. This half hour made a huge difference in the end, and it is quite possible that I would have stayed overnight in the shelter if I had started later, then getting stuck all of the next day by heavy rains…
On the ridge
At barely 7h40, I was on the summit (now, that was a bit easier than the Höllenthal…) and got out of the ugly station as fast as I could. I reached the summit cross and, without even pausing for a picture, I started on the path. The day was beautiful, no clouds anywhere, just enough wind to keep me cool, and I was very glad to see at least two other parties already engaged on the ridge.
The first thing that I noticed was how bloody damn exposed the route was. Constantly going up and down and from side to side, with sobering (and undoubtedly fatal) falls just a step away, the ridge alternated between climbing moves and upright walking on a very narrow path, with no chance of grabbing anything to help stabilize. There is but one way of progressing: trust your balance, make sure you are fully in control, and just go for it. It reminded me a lot of running it out in trad climbing, and my mind quickly settled in that mode for the rest of the day, scared to death but not allowing my movements to be affected by it (other than the occasional cursing that anyone who has ever belayed me knows very well).
The second thing I noticed was how bad the rock was, very loose limestone that was looking for any excuse to turn into scree. Many of the handholds were beautiful jugs, but more than one stayed in my hand at the worst moment, and I quickly learned to pull test every single one of them before trusting them with my weight. The upside of having such a rapidly evolving mountain was that there had been very little erosion and friction under the feet was very good, even when the rock was wet. Things changed as I was nearing Alpspitze, though, and by the very end, slabs were becoming awfully slippery.
The climbing crux was also one of the first real difficulties, barely half an hour after the start. A 10m downclimb followed by a small traverse, graded 3-, it gave me a real scare as it was a real slab, one portion of which without a single handhold. I retreated on my first try, as I wasn’t certain about my balance, but I went through on my second attempt. The altitude lost is immediately regained in a 2- upclimb, which seemed so easy in comparison, prompting me to loudly complain about how I hate goddamn downclimbing. This was to be the general pattern of the day, though I was certainly grateful that nothing felt as dangerous as that first passage.
I had by then passed the two other parties on the ridge. Of two and three people, they were both very similar, with a leader progressing with ease and the others being very slow and clearly unsecure. When I reached the summit of Innere Höllenthalspitze, at about one third of the way, I saw that they had joined forces (maybe to use the rope that one of the guys had brought) but weren’t even halfway to where I was. I can only hope that they retreated early enough, as they wouldn’t even had had the time to reach the emergency shelter before the storm hit. I didn’t see any more of them after that, but since I heard nothing about rescue operations in the next days, I assume that they managed to get out safely.
I had initially been quite fast, but soon got tired, both physically and mentally, and as the day went by, it took me longer and longer to clear technical passages when they were exposed. Despite that, I was an hour early on the topo schedule when I reached the shelter, just before noon. I had initially planned to have lunch and to take a good break there, but the weather was starting to seriously deteriorate, with the sun now completely out of view, clouds thickening by the minute and the wind picking up. I only stopped for five minutes, long enough to swallow a sandwich and drink some water, and then was gone again. Äußere Höllenthalspitze, the last of the three intermediate peaks, was quickly covered, so I only had one major difficulty left, the Volkarspitze, which involves a vertical via ferrata with little feet and nasty consequences in case of a fall. The whole thing is graded D, one of the most serious for ferratas, currently only going up to E.
The storm hits
But the weather had decided to turn. The ridge was now entirely in the clouds and visibility was down to a dozen meters. It quickly started raining as well. At first only a few drops here and there, and with a considerable amount of wishful thinking, I could convince myself that it wouldn’t get any worse, but I was proven wrong alomst immediately. As I was getting close to the Volkarspitze, which I still hoped to climb in relative dryness, a terrible sound was heard not far to the south. I barely had time to think “It’d better not be thunder” that I heard a second and a third, closer, which left no doubt. Even though it was only around 13:00, the thunderstorm was here. And that definitely wasn’t good.
I hurried again, trying to get to easier ground, past the bloody Volkarspitze. Rain was now falling hard and the rock was getting very wet, though keeping a surprising amount of friction. Due to the poor visibility, I lost my way once, then twice, having to do some sketchy traversing to reach the route again. I passed several ferrata sections and couldn’t help but notice how slippery a wet cable was. I pushed it as much as I could, but just as I was finally reaching the bottom of the Spitze, I realized it would have been foolish and very dangerous to keep going. Thunder was very close by now, rain was pouring down and I was about to go on one of the most difficult sections of the whole ridge.
There was a small overhang at the bottom of the rock face, and I initially thought it might offer me some protection from the rain. As it turned out, the wind was so strong that it didn’t make any difference. I went a bit outside of the ridge, looking for better shelter, but stayed connected to the steel cable by a couple of slings, as the terrain was very steep. I finally clipped my two bags to my line, put on all the layers of clothing I had and started to wait for the storm to calm down.
This wasn’t a fun moment. I recapped my situation in my head and really didn’t like it: I was alone, at altitude, with several hours of hard and exposed climbing to get out, the rock (not to speak of myself) was getting wet, my cellphone didn’t work outside of Denmark, and rescue in those conditions would have been completely impossible anyway. To top it off, lightning was striking scarily close by now and I could see the flashes of light even in the whiteout. And I was connected to a steel cable that went all the way to the highest point of the surroundings. I vaguely hoped that a dyneema sling and a perlon cord between me and the ferrata would make a difference, but didn’t really believe it.
After maybe twenty minutes, the rain eased up a bit, and I had the impression that the clouds were getting slightly brighter. And then, suddenly, as if someone had pressed a button, the clouds opened, the rain stopped completely and I was in full midday sun. Rarely in my life have I seen a more wonderful thing. I waited a few minutes then started up again, determined to gain as much ground as possible before the weather gods decided to send another storm my way. Helped by the strong winds, the rock was drying astonishingly fast, and the famous D section of ferrata, though scary indeed, was done in just a few minutes with renewed energy. It was still quite clear that trying it in the full storm would have been a very, very bad idea.
The route was now simple enough: a long downhill section, then a climb back up Alpspitze, and I was done. As I started gaining some ground, the sun went in hiding again and I was back in the clouds, with awful visibility. The route was also getting less and less obvious. Initially, there had been very regular red paint markings and cairns indicating the way, but they grew increasingly rare and soon were just a way to confirm that I had made the right guesses as to where I was supposed to go. What saved me more than once were the crampon scars on the rock, leftovers by generations of winter climbers who had slipped on those slabs. From the bottom of my heart, let me give a big thanks to everyone who attempted this climb in winter!
However, even that wasn’t sometimes enough, and when I reached a low angle slab system off the ridge, I had absolutely no idea where to go. One cairn at the top and very obvious signs that the ridge was not to be followed were my only indications. I initially followed a wide crack downhill, then reclimbed some of it as I still was seeing no cairn nor red paint, and the fog was hiding anything that I assume would have made the route more obvious in normal conditions. I traversed from side to side several times, looking for any hint, cursed almost as many times, but finally realized that there was no way around it: I had to commit, choose one route, follow it and pray. Staying as close as I could to my only reference point, the ridge, I followed the obvious line down. After a while, I could see that a parallel line to my right looked wider and more like a real path. I traversed to it and was relieved to see a cairn after a while. I wasn’t yet out of the maze, but I had understood its rules and, emboldened, I kept going in a somewhat straight line, occasionally traversing a bit, until I reached a second, then a third cairn. I would have relaxed if it hadn’t started to rain again.
The terrain was now going up, and I was rejoiced to soon see a plaque indicating, in German, that the way I was coming from was the Jubiläumsgrat and that it was no joke. Better yet, a red arrow was pointing in front of me, with a single capital A, that I knew stood for Alpspitze. It was now 15:00 and I could almost smell the beer and sausages I would have down in the valley. I however understimated how long it would take me to reach the top of Alpspitze, and every piece of rock, lost in the clouds, looked like the final summit. The rain was now falling hard and I could hear the thunder coming back my way. The rock was also getting more and more blank, hence more slippery, especially when wet, and I had to take extra care. I knew I couldn’t keep going very long in this downpour but I was still hoping to see the summit cross and get started on the much easier and better protected Alpspitze ferrata.
Finally, I had to stop. Not even an overhang or a ferrata cable this time, just a wide ledge. My pants, not waterproof at all, had been soaked for a long time now, and even though I now had both soft and hardshell on my upper body, the shirt I had been wearing earlier was also completely wet. I could feel myself getting colder and colder, and if anything, the rain was now increasing, falling with a rage I have rarely seen. And after a while came the best part: rain transformed into hail. I was suddenly very glad to be wearing my helmet! I withstood this treatment for about twenty minutes before I realized that I was getting hypothermic and that I had to get moving no matter what. As the hail turned back into rain and started slowing down a bit, I got up and started climbing again. The terrain, so wet, was feeling really dangerous by now, but I knew I didn’t have much choice.
I believed I had been very close to the summit when I stopped, but it was actually almost half an hour away. By the time I finally reached it, I was starting to believe that the whole thing was just a cosmic joke and that the ridge would go on forever. I didn’t quite fall to my knees and thanked the heavens when I reached the top, but I was incredibly relieved, knowing that there only was easy ground left between me and a warm shower. A quick look to my watch, however, sobered me. It was 16:20, and the last cablecar departed at 17:30. To reach it, I had to downclimb the Alpspitze ferrata, which, depending on who you listen to, takes between 1 and 1.5h. When the ground is dry, that is.
Compared to the Jubiläumsgrat, the Alpspitze ferrata is incredibly easy. Everything is protected and there is an almost continuous cable from the bottom to the top. And one barely needs to walk on the rock at all, as there are ladders and pins everywhere. The downside being that it takes forever to clip and unclip the safety line every other meter. If I dutifully did at the beginning, as I wasn’t finding wet steel to be any more stable than wet limestone, I found myself “forgetting” to do it more and more often, trusting my hands instead. But even as fast as I could go, it still took me a solid hour and a half to reach the bottom.
I was barely a hundred meters away from the cablecar station and its promise of shelter when the storm, which had calmed quite a bit for the past hour, suddenly went full blast. In an instant, I was in the middle of hurricane winds that almost knocked me over and it started hailing with fury, hurting every part of exposed skin I had. My feet, that I had managed to keep dry that far, were instantly soaked, as were my pants which had somehow managed to dry a bit. I ran the last few meters to the cablecar, only to find myself locked out. It was 17:45, and I had missed the last service by a mere 15 minutes. While I took shelter in the entrance of the building, I slowly came to terms with what it meant. I was now just above 2000m of altitude, and the valley was at 700m. I was looking at between two and three more hours of walking, which happened to be the exact amount of daylight I had left.
I waited a few minutes for the storm to quiet itself – now an all too familiar task, and started downhill. At least the paths were wide, clear to follow and tripping would result in a few bruises, not in a deadly fall. The first portion was rather nice altitude terrain, with the first bits of grass I had seen in the whole day, but after a while the path went into the forest, still very wet, and the absence of any reference point made the hike look endless, once again. I was by then completely exhausted, and both my legs and my feet were crazily hurting. I also discovered that I had my trad climbing “sewing machine” shaking legs even when just standing still…
I had to make more and more breaks, but the fading daylight kept pushing me. I had brought my headlamp but wasn’t keen on using it, especially if it meant more possibilities of getting lost. Finally, at around 20:45, as night fell, I stepped on asphalt and saw the first humans since I passed the two climbing parties in the early morning. But I was only in Hammersbach, and my tent was in Untergrainau, a further half hour away. I walked there slowly, dragging my feet, feeling like an old man. I was looking for a restaurant on the way, a place where I could sit down and eat something warm, but couldn’t find any until I reached the one next to the camping. By then, I was fearing that all kitchens would be closed (they would be in Denmark), and when I was told that it wasn’t the case, I almost felt like kissing the waitress. I collapsed on the chair, feeling vaguely ashamed for injecting so much water in it, and, realizing that I had eaten almost nothing during the day but powerbars, ordered a hearty dinner. Only then did I realize just how cold I had been all along, as I started shivering uncontrollably, despite having my jacket on and being in a toasty restaurant. Food helped a bit, but it was only after a very long and very hot shower that I started feeling better.
When my beer arrived, I toasted to the Jubiläumsgrat. It had decided to let me go this time, but made quite clear that things could have turned out differently. I had been scared, cold, wet and tired, but I was as happy as one can be. This is, after all, the reason I climb. To live an adventure.
I have to give it to them: the water gods have a lot of humor. When I got back from the restaurant to my tent, looking for nothing more than a good shower and a long night of sleep, I realized that I had made a small mistake when leaving this morning. My towel had been left to dry outside. It was my fate this day to be wet, I guess