A cable car from Lake Eibsee gets you to the top of Germany’s highest mountain in comfort. For true mountain enthusiasts, however, it’s all about the climb. The two-day, 21-kilometre route through the Reintal valley is a relatively easy way to make the ascent. Our reporter gave it a go.
Text: Christian Haas
Zugspitze via Reintalweg
Every child in Bavaria knows that at 2,962 metres, the Zugspitze is the highest mountain in Germany. Two hundred years ago, however, even the adult population was unsure about this. So King Maximilian I commissioned his “Royal Bavarian Topographical Bureau” to measure the whole Werdenfelser region, along with the Zugspitze.
After extensive exploration of the Schneeferner, which was still a respectable glacier in those days, 26-year-old Josef Naus set off along the Reintal route on 26 August 1820. He was accompanied by mountain guide Johann Tauschl and his survey assistant and bearer Maier.
After a night in the “Angerhütte”, a shepherd’s lodging, the three reached the summit the following day. This first climb was successful, and the Zugspitze was confirmed as Bavaria’s number one peak.
Reintal route: 21 kilometres, three huts
In the summer of 2020, exactly 200 years later, this pioneering expedition was marked by exhibitions, forums and a film made by mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits. The commemorations revealed how dangerous this kind of undertaking was without paths, maps or good equipment.
Climbing the Zugspitze is a far simpler affair nowadays. If the weather plays fair, even “regular” mountaineers can set out on the 21 km Reintal route - assuming they are in good shape with some Alpine walking experience. No technical difficulties are encountered before the final ascent, (which is also accessible by cable car).
And there are three huts along the way, where walkers can stay overnight. Given that it is a ten hour climb, that’s not a bad idea. Tip: book ahead! It is not advisable to embark on a tour of Germany’s highest peak before the middle/end of June. By then the last remains of snow, apart from the glacier, should have melted away. Note: Even in summer, the Zugspitz region can be subject to sudden cold spells with snow in the upper reaches.
Start in the Partnachklamm Gorge
Warm clothing is as important for this mountain climb as good walking boots and sticks. No climbing equipment is required; just a camera (or enough phone memory). After all, this walk passes through truly dramatic scenery.
That becomes apparent shortly after leaving the recently modernised Olympia Ski Stadium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In the 700 m long Partnachklamm Gorge, the path boldly snakes its way through rocks, passing within touching distance of rapids, swirling pools and waterfalls.
The forest path that begins at the end of the gorge feels almost dull by comparison. But the walk soon gets more exciting. Surrounded by high cliffs, the ever-changing backdrop of the broad valley floor of the Partnach provides plenty of variety. Ignoring the detour off to the left to the Königshaus at Schachen, so beloved by the Fairy Tale King, it takes another two and half hours before the path reaches the “Bockhütte”. Time for a snack!
Day 1: Through the Reintal valley to Germany’s highest peak
The deeper you penetrate into the Reintal valley, the higher the rocky crags of the Wetterstein Mountains rise up to the south. At 2,744 m, the Hochwanner only comes into view a little later. The second-highest mountain in the country has the highest north face in the Eastern Alps.
At this point the path is only rising at a moderate gradient. A waterfall, a little way off the path, heralds the entrance into the Upper Reintal, followed before long by the fluttering of Tibetan prayer flags outside the “Reintalangerhütte”, at 1,369 m. Utterly idyllic, this hut is located on the site of that original shepherd’s lodging.
Hikers have a much more pleasant overnight experience in the DAV-run hut than Naus, Tauschl and Maier in their day: Bavarian cuisine, international guests and enthusiastic staff who sometimes bang out a tune on the Cajon drum all come together to create a great atmosphere.
Day 2 of the Zugspitze climb: Building up a sweat
After the gentle warm-up of the green pastures of the Reintal, this much steeper section of the climb brings us out in a sweat. Fortunately, refreshments are available at the “Knorrhütte”, with wonderful views of the Wetterstein Mountains on the right. This hut, built in 1855, is already at 2,052 m.
From here, the path ascends steeply over scree slopes and then the slightly undulating plateau of the rocky glacier known as the Zugspitzplatt. Upon reaching the “Sonnalpin” restaurant, anyone wishing to avoid the final, most challenging part of the ascent can simply climb into the glacier cable car. The rest turn off for the final push.
There’s the summit! The last few hard metres
A laborious section across a scree field has to be carefully navigated before the going gets firmer underfoot. The next 300 metres of elevation gain include some reinforced bends. Then this natural mountain experience comes to an abrupt end. Crowds of people are teeming around the “Münchner Haus” restaurant. Visitors from all around the world, pouring out of the cable cars, are walking around and taking selfies. We’ve made it to the top! Not quite.
A rope trail makes up the last few metres to the golden cross with its striking sphere. And a first-class view of over 400 mountain peaks. Just as it feels really good to have got to the top on foot, it is also a welcome relief to save time - and our knees - by going back down to Lake Eibsee in one of the spacious, fully-glazed cabins of the cable car, erected here in 2017. It carries us over what is, at 3.2 kilometres, the world’s longest free-hanging cable segment - spectacular. And a world record!
Another option is to take the “small” cable car back to the “Sonnalpin” then travel by rack railway to Garmisch station. This feat of engineering also celebrated a special anniversary in 2020: 90 years in operation.
Höllental (Hell Valley): the name says it all
For generations, the Zugspitze has been a hugely popular destination. Alpinists can choose between four other routes. The challenging 9 km ascent through the Höllentalklamm Gorge. From Hammersbach through the Höllental valley, the path is still very relaxed.
As it crosses the raging mass of water, however, it takes on a much more intrepid character. The second section, which starts behind the “Höllentalangerhütte”, newly opened in 2015, is then a real challenge. The exposed crossing on steel pins across the sheer expanse of the extremely high “Brett” is a real test of nerves - but it gets worse.
The next obstacle is the often sheer remains of the Höllentalferner glacier. This spectacular headwall gap, at its most dramatic in the autumn, can frequently only be climbed with a rope and crampons - preferably in the company of a mountain guide.
Jubiläumsgrat: not without a guide!
The Jubiläumsgrat, or Jubilee way, a ridge path over five kilometres long leading from the summit of the Alpspitze to the summit of the Zugspitze, is one of the most spectacular routes in the Eastern Alps and only suitable for experienced mountain enthusiasts.
The only opportunity for a rest is the wilderness hut located behind the Äußeren Höllentalspitze, which was donated to the German Alpine Association to commemorate its 90-year anniversary by mountain boot manufacturer Hanwag.
The most difficult passage on the Jubiläumsgrat is a smooth gully, ranked as a Grade III-. Similarly challenging is the rarely used Eisenzeit climbing route on the north face of the Zugspitze (max. difficulty Grade III, short section IV-).
The Stopselzieher route that starts from Lake Eibsee and leads past the apparently unassailable rocky flanks of the west face of the Zugspitze is much easier, although still harder than the Reintal route.