The Jubiläumsgrat Ridge Traverse
It was with excitement that we crowded into the large cable car waiting to take us to the summit of the Zugspitze. Glazing all around, including the floor, gave vertiginous views of the stately ascent. The cabin appeared to hang almost motionless in the air as it pulled up the last few hundred metres of vertical rock face. The cable spans 3200 metres at this point and is the longest unsupported span in the world. We disembarked and took the lift, pressing the button marked the ‘Top of Germany’.
The Zugspitze mountain stands at 2962 metres (approx 10,000 ft). The ridge traverses between the Zugspitze and Alpspitze (2628 m) and is over 6km in length. In theory we are travelling down hill towards the Alpspitze. We used the train and cable car to get us there as early as possible and planned to take the last cable car back down from the Alpspitze later that day. The day before we prepared the kit we would need, the level of nutrition and amount of water to take. We had a good weather window for the next few days. We knew this would be tougher than anything else we had done in Germany or Austria, but we did not realise quite how tough it was going to be.
We crossed the viewing platform at the cable car station and made our way across the rickety looking scaffold and ladders to the actual Zugspitze summit and the start of the ridge. We were accompanied along the narrow path by a couple of others, but they soon turned back. We moved methodically along the ridge, using ropes in places and concentrating on the scrambling. The rock was surprisingly sharp under our fingers but we were exhilarated and took photographs, enjoying the heat and climbing in the sunshine. The views all around were spectacular.
Hours passed that collapsed into minutes. At about two in the afternoon we had been on the go for four hours and I felt hungry and thirsty. We stopped and looked around us, taking stock of how far we had come. It was at about this time that several people climbed past us, moving fast and unroped along the ridge. I felt my spirits plummet at the sight of people passing us with such ease. I looked to the far distant, looping horizon of rock ridges ahead of us and realised that we had been climbing hard, up and down continuously, but our progress on the ridge was painfully slow.
We stopped very briefly for an energy bar, a bite of sandwich and glug of water, and attempted to speed up. I felt low at this point and thought about the limited daylight hours we now had. John thought we might make the escape route and the Knorr Hütte in the valley below to the right, or even the tiny Hollentalgrat Hütte (bivouac shelter) on the ridge itself which those who had passed us said they were heading for. We were only about a quarter of the way along the ridge, with another four hours of daylight to go. I shed a few tears of despair.
According to the guidebook, the route would gradually have more klettersteig to assist us with the climbing, but we didn’t find this to the the case. Klettersteig is a system of rungs and cables fixed to the rock to protect the climber on steep parts of the route. Plenty of klettersteig usually means we can travel much faster, not having to use our own rope for protection.
As the shadows deepened, our only company were the Chuffs, birds making strange, almost electronic, whirring calls and oddly, tiny hover flies. We moved faster, but not fast enough. Once or twice we could see a tiny manmade shape way ahead of us. It would appear and disappear as we climbed endlessly up and down the pinnacles. This was the Hollentalgrat Hütte, still way ahead of us and never seeming reachable. We longed for the end of this adventure. The sharp rock bit into our sore fingers, the rare sections of cable caught worn finger pads. Our feet ached, we had not eaten and we had consumed about half our water. It started to get cool and the sun, which had been too hot before, slid down and down, casting us more often into shadow as it passed behind another high mountain ridge to our right.
Eventually the possibility of making an escape down to the Knorr Hütte in the valley below became our hope. We had head torches and the path off might be easy. John remembered reading there was protection with cables on the route off. He found the place where the path should be but there was no path to be seen. It was almost dark, when we found pieces of broken cable and staples discarded and half buried in the shards of sandy rock at our feet.
We retraced our steps abandoning the foolish idea of descending off this precarious ridge in the dark, and prepared to bivvy. Finding a spot a few feet wide at the base of a pinnacle with the ridge sliding away on either side of us, we attached ourselves to the bottom rung of a section of klettersteig. We tried to be comfortable against the jagged rocks. We emptied the contents of the rucksacks into small dry bags and lashed these to the iron rung too. We then half sat and half lay on the rucksacks and rope, against the rocks. We both squeezed into the one man Rab emergency plastic bivvy bag that John, thankfully, had with him. We didn't have many clothes with us but we put the few layers we had on. I wore my helmet, put the hood up under the helmet. I also had a woolly hat that had been thrown into the rucksack at the last minute. We tried to settle and watch the night sky.
The Milky Way formed a filmy layer across the sky. We saw a shooting star and Mars was bright and twinkling. Its movement in the sky marked the passing hours. We did not rush to try and sleep, tired though we were, because this was going to be a long night. I think we finally dozed at around midnight waking frequently to seek relief from the rocks jabbing one spot or another and attempting to turn in unison one way or the other to relieve the pressure on our bones.
A cold penetrating breeze picked up and every so often rustled through the bivvy bag. We pulled the bag as high around our shoulders as possible, but at some point in the night it ripped down one side. Despite this the bivvy bag really was a blessing and we would have been much colder without it.
Every time I woke the sky drew my gaze. The great moonless space above me was wonderful and overwhelming at the same time. The dark sky served to emphasise the loneliness of our position. In one direction, there was the huge looming black mountains of the Wetterstein range and on the other side the merry, welcoming lights of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, people and life, far, far below. What a contrast. As the night cooled, phases of shivering would overtake me, subsiding after a minute or two.
The darkness started to end - the thin halo of light over the horizon began to lift into the sky. The rock face in front of me (we were lodged in a dip between two wide pinnacles) gradually regained its colour and then became orange with the sunrise. Immense swirling forms appeared in the face of the rock of the neighbouring range, and then disappeared almost as quickly, as the sun rose.
We split a protein bar between us and drank a little water. We had one more bottle of water to go for the rest of the day. We believed we would now be off the mountain by lunchtime but this turned out to be naively optimistic. The sun getting higher, warmed us as we set off again.
The ridge contains four other summits. These are the Innere, the Mittlere, the Aussere Höllentalspitzen together with the final summit, the Vollkarspitze. We had two more of these summits to go when we reached the Höllentalgrat Hütte. This was an architect-designed red box bolted onto the ridge, sleeping 12 people. One of the climbers we met joked they had left 2 spare beds and 2 bottles of beer for us the night before. Those staying in the tiny refuge had seen the lights from our head torches glowing in the night sky and hoped we were ok.
We moved as quickly as possible but even so on this second day we would miss the final cable car down from what would have been the final peak on the route, the Alpspitze. The ridge finishes between the Alpspitze and the Hochblassen at the Grieskarscharte col. As the day went on we spent less time roped up and more time scrambling as fast as we could. It felt like a battle against fatigue and the relentless exposure, all the time curbing the fear and concentrating on not falling off. I developed comforting mantras to repeat over and over in my head, and out loud. These were variations on ‘this is fine, this is just like walking on a pavement in Leeds’.
We ran out of water some hours before and this became the main obsession of my mind. I longed for the walk off which I knew was hard going but was amongst trees and possibly water. The sun blazing on the white rock seemed to suck every last drop of moisture form our bodies, we were sun burnt too. Being too late for the Alpspitze cable car down we realised that the Höllentalanger Hütte, still far below us, but potentially on our route, was the only place we were going to find water. To head for the Alpspitze and that route off (possibly quicker) would result in another night on the mountain, probably without water. We made the decision to aim for the Höllentalanger Hütte. Once again the sun began to edge its way down the rock faces.
After hours of scrambling down the scree and the final klettersteig that led us through the buttresses and boulders, we reached the line of scrubby bushes. The sun was gone now and we still had a couple of hours of to walk, but the feeling of moisture in our nostrils as we stumbled along the craggy winding path, through stubby trees and roots, was wonderful. We breathed deeply the damp scents, but alas no release came from the obsession with water.
Still with a couple of miles to go I remembered we had an apple left, and we ate this with joy, sucking the moisture from the flesh and eating the core too. John went ahead and I picked my way slowly though the trees enjoying the cool air and the time to myself just moving through the wooded slopes within the halo of my head torch.
We had met another man on the mountain. He was exhausted too and surprised at the difficulty of the ridge. We chatted to him but left him walking very slowly back down the descent path, either to the refuge or his car, which was still many miles of rugged track away. I thought I could see the tiny fragment of light from his head torch high above us on the hill. We were worried for him.
At about 9 at night we reached the refuge hut and came in to a busy, comfortable dining room full of people, light, laughter and food. We drank glasses of water and beer and were served huge plates of food which we struggled to eat. Our clothes were ripped, our finger tips worn sore and hair matted. Every part of us ached, but we were so relieved to be off the mountain, to find water and to be able to sleep. I had that funny feeling of not quite being connected to reality and a wish to blurt out the details of our trip to almost anyone who looked vaguely interested. I think I may have been put off ridge walks for life, but at least I have the achievement of the Jubiläumsgrat ridge to be proud of.
Back at the camper van later the next day, we reread the guide books but could not find the words that we missed that would have indicated the amount of sustained climbing required and the fast speed to achieve any of the times quoted. There was a large amount of back climbing (down climbing the peak you have just climbed up) and the rock sharp, and the ridge always exposed. There was a lot of glare from the sun on the limestone. Protection with cables was inconsistent, sometimes needed and at other times completely lacking on dangerous sections. We wasted time wayfinding. The red splotches of paint acted as guides on rocks, and would disappear from view or be worn away.
We were very lucky with the weather, whilst the sun was a curse at times, we had a relatively warm night and no sign of rain or mist. The night after we got back, the weather broke and from the comfort of the camper van we listened to the thunder, lightning and heavy storm thrashing the mountains. Another day later and we would have been in that.
Inevitably we have discussed at length our experience on the ridge and what we would or should have done differently. We found the guide books inadequate, the descriptions of the route vague, or out of date. English web sites barely mention the route and forums contain some inaccurate hearsay from people who have not actually done it.
We had a good weather window of a few days (we spent 35 hours on the mountain) and we had appropriate clothes, long trousers and a thin thermal layer and waterproof with us. We also had the single Rab emergency bivvy bag. An item so small that it’s easy to keep in the rucksack for when unplanned emergencies do occur. We had enough food, but it was interesting how the need to eat declined, when the need for water became urgent. Having spent 4 weeks climbing and hiking in Germany and Austria prior to this, we were strong enough, although my dislike of exposure caused me to be slow when walking on the knife-edge ridge itself.
The route is prone to heavy thunderstorms through the summer and you need as many daylight hours as possible if you are going to use ropes. We travelled roped together and used belay points when they were available and this meant that we were safe (but slow). Using the refuge hut on the ridge is a good idea and this is what most people were doing. We were too slow even for that. Way finding wasted time for us too. The red blobs painted on the rock were non-existent in some places.
My advice to anyone considering this route is to make sure that you understand where the refuge huts around the mountain are, and where the possible escape routes are. The ridge should only be attempted by those who are sure footed and fast moving when faced with airy exposure. Confidence at exposed scrambling at grade 3+ (UK grading) is essential, and take more water than you think you will need, just in case.
Photos of John's kit.