Brent and I conquered the world yesterday in the form of the Zugspitze mountain in southern Germany.
Our plans for a multi-day thru-hike in the Bavarian Alps were dashed when we realized that neither the weather nor the calendar was on our side. To redeem ourselves, we decided to tackle the country´s highest peak, piercing the clouds a stone´s throw from 10,000 feet high.
The trusty Lonely Planet recommended 6 to 7 hours to descend from the top, and warned that an ascent would require an overnight pitstop at one of the range´s many alpine huts. The owner of our guesthouse estimated 14 hours for the shorter route, and warned that we had to arrive at the top by 4:30 PM or risk being stranded for the night in near-freezing conditions without camping equipment.
We opted for the longer route, taking us on a 15-16-mile adventure into the skies. To play it safe, we arose at 3:00 in the morning, ate a banana apiece, and were out the door at 3:25 sharp. On our way down the stairs, we passed by the Chief (as his employees affectionately called him), who apologized for not having breakfast prepared and bid us good luck. He seemed both dubious of our chances for success and worried that we were biting off more than we could chew.
We ran down the road, past the ski jump facilities from the 1936 winter olympics, above the rushing waters of the Partnach Gorge, and through the thick pines forests, accompanied only by salamanders and toads and a pair of red eyes peering at us across the tree line. We had hiked the early bit of this trail the previous day and knew that it would be an easy, rolling climb for the first ten miles.
We made it to the second hut just after sunrise, having run the better part of the past three hours, and paused to take in our surroundings. As daylight was breaking, we´d crossed from the woods into the mountains, and the views were, quite simply, breath-taking. In those early morning hours, we found ourselves surrounded by jagged peaks, sheer rock faces, and layer upon layer of mist and cloud.
And then the real fun began.
From that hut to the next, we had a 2,000-foot climb, up technical terrain, with only red blazes and alpine sheep to guide us. We reached the top and paused to catch our breath, and I walked inside to fill our water bottles. When I came out, Brent was talking to a fellow hiker, a young guy from Tel Aviv who was spending a week in the alps, brushing up on his German and exploring the trails. He said that the next section would take us no more than a couple hours, and then we were in for a burly 1000-foot climb to the peak.
We shared a chocolate bar and set out again, this time for a more tempered climb to the foot of an old hotel-turned-worksite, as the country readies for the 2011 skiing world championships. We made it there in just over an hour, and looked around. There, straight up to our right, was the top of Mount Zugspitze, still hidden under cloud cover. There was what looked like a craggy cliff between us and our goal. We were 6 hours into our projected 14-hour climb.
And so, off we went.
Scrambling our way up scree slopes. Clawing our way up rock faces. Grasping for turn-of-the-century metal cables to guide us to our destination.
It was windy. It was cold. It was treacherous, to be sure. And it was wonderful. With every switchback, there was a new view of the mountains. Around every turn there was a glimpse of an old hut, a shimmering lake, the ghost of a glacial field.
“I think that´s it,” Brent said finally as we rounded the last turn. I squinted, and there was it. Hard to make out in the clouds, but glorious nonetheless. An alpine hut worthy of the country´s highest peak, a brash and gaudy superstructure, stocked full with hot chocolate and soup, stickers and postcards, t-shirts and beer steins.
7 hours and 20 minutes after we started, we had made it. We had done the Chief proud. Now we just had to figure out how to get down…
Check out Brent´s account for our adventure, too!