The Zugspitze is the roof of Germany and a mythologized peak. A new cable car now takes even more tourists to the top. How do people affect the mountain? And how does the mountain affect us?
Toni Zwinger is reminded of the past every time he looks over his shoulder. Smiling down from old photos on the wood-paneled walls behind him are the men who made Zugspitze mountain legendary. They are the men whose blood, sweat and courage conquered Germany’s tallest peak, the men who left their lives on this massive chunk of rock so that those who came after could experience it. Toni’s great-great-grandfather, Anselm Barth, was one of them – the man they called “the Zugspitz father.” One night, apparently, when he had been running the Münchner Haus hostel on Zugspitze mountain for only six years, an angel appeared, wanting to take him to a place even more beautiful. “Hence was his body found, broken, battered, with mortal wound, seven hundred meters below, on the very spot where the angel beckoned,” goes the poem written in his memory in 1931. Now, 86 years on, Zwinger is sitting not far from Germany’s highest peak, in the canteen of the Münchner Haus that somehow belongs to him, yet not entirely. Little has changed since Anselm’s death. The photos, pennants and metal plaques are still the same; only the oil-burning stove has been replaced. Everything about Zwinger’s face is dark – his beard, eyebrows, eyes and neatly parted hair. In summertime, he lives in a cabin on the mountain and only goes down to the valley on Thursdays, his free day. Speaking thick Bavarian, he tells us he’s the only person to have spent his entire life on the Zugspitze. During the school week, of course, he was forced to stay with his grandparents in the valley. “But I was always up here on the weekend!”
That “up here” is a place Zwinger guards like a treasure and has long since shared with many others. The Zugspitze has become a huge visitor magnet, these days drawing up to 5000 tourists a day, that’s over half a million a year. More and more now come from Arab and Asian countries, eager to see with their own eyes what is touted to them at home as “Top of Germany.” And of course, they all have a personal quest, at the very least for the ideal selfie, but also for happiness, memories, a souvenir, perhaps even transcendence. They all want to take something home with them when they leave. But what remains on the mountain?
The Zugspitze preserves other peaks from the tourist hordes – maybe that is its purpose
Mountain climbers come in search of boundless freedom close to heaven. There is more such freedom to be had on the Zugspitze, 2962.06 meters above sea level, than anywhere else in Germany. In fine weather, you can see all the way to Italy in the south, and to the north, far beyond Munich, roughly 400 other Alpine peaks. By early afternoon, though, that freedom is greatly restricted by a recorded announcement that the valley-bound cable car is overloaded and you are requested to wait patiently – often even up to two hours. Then crowds gather, stepping on each others’ toes and sweating despite the cold, while the next tourist group walks across their selfies. “The Zugspitze is the most popular tourist mountain anywhere in the Alps,” says Thomas Bucher of the German Alpine Club (DAV) with no trace of regret. He is fine with this summit of summits no longer being a natural mountaintop but rather concreted over with an agglomeration of buildings. Only the golden summit cross still stands alone. “Everything is focused on the Zugspitze, which means that other mountains are spared,” says Bucher. This sounds terribly pragmatic. Where’s the romance? How do people affect the Zugspitze? And how does it affect us?
“There’s nothing more magical than standing up here all alone at sunrise,” says Zwinger. It’s a sight he could never tire of. And he will be keeping the Zugspitz father’s legacy alive by becoming the next innkeeper of the Münchner Haus. Three years ago, he was supposed to have already taken over from his father, who had taken over from his brother, who in turn had taken over from Anselm Junior, the son of the Anselm who died on the mountain. But his father wasn’t ready to let go of the reins. Zwinger points to the terrace and the hundreds of people milling around on it. “As long as we have enough sausages and beer, we don’t mind how many more people come,” he says.
And more people will come. From the Münchner Haus, it’s just a short distance to where the latest marvel has taken shape: the chunky, multistory summit station of the new Zugspitze cable car, which has a restaurant and a panorama terrace from which the summit cross seems close enough to touch. When the new cable car goes into operation on December 21, wait times will finally be slashed – at least that’s the plan. With a free span of 3213 meters, the world’s longest, this cable car is a suspended superlative that will allow ten percent more visitors to reach the summit every day.
In 1963, the Eibsee cable car opened at the valley station beside Lake Eib in the village of Grainau. “Just five years later, it clearly lacked the necessary capacity,” says Bernhard Thoma, who is in charge of the new cable car. Born and raised in Grainau, he grew up with the cable car and the mountain, and has been a cable car operator for the past 25 years. As a traditionalist charged with bringing the mountain into the modern era, is he worried? At least a little? When do many visitors become too many visitors? Thoma, his black functional clothing offset only by his red mustache, looks up at the world’s tallest, 27-meter-high cable-car pylon and says: “It makes me proud that the whole world comes to visit us. The entire region earns its living off the Zugspitze; it’s our future.”
Without the mountain, there would be no work for the people in the valley, he says. With it, they are able not only to provide hospitality for mountaineers and amateur climbers, but for all the medical tourists who come to Garmisch- Partenkirchen for check-ups and treatment. Thoma would prefer the development of this built-up mountain to continue. “We have so many other fantastic peaks around here that hardly a tourist has heard of – and it can stay that way, I’d say.” So Thoma and the Alpine Club agree.
The new Zugspitze cable car follows the same route as the old Eibsee cable car and was built over a period of three years while the old cogwheel train clattered alongside it to the top. Martin Hurm enjoys the ride, most of it inside a tunnel, which means his cell phone has no signal and remains silent. Hurm is the project manager for the new cable car, and he has spent a lot of time on its construction since 2011. “Now I’m getting a 50-million-euro gift for Christmas,” he says. “Except that I first had to build it. No one warned me about that.” Weather, altitude and logistics were the biggest challenges. A crane, lifted to the summit by helicopter, automatically became the highest crane in the country. Paradoxically, Hurm can recite the capacities of the new cable car, but at the end of the conversation, he says, “We don’t want to bring endless hordes up here or build skyscrapers. We want to offer our guests a modern experience.”
But of course, the hordes are already here. And their experience begins when the cogwheel train lumbers out of the tunnel and they reflexively whip out their smartphones and point them in every direction. The Zugspitze experience goes like this: Standing at the bottom, looking up, all you see is rock; brutal, rugged and gray, possibly with a hint of white at the top. There’s no call from this mountain! Not at the bottom. And if there is, it’s this: “Go away, people, leave me in peace, you have no business being here!” But once you’re at the top, looking down, you realize that you don’t climb a mountain to reach the top – not this mountain, anyway, or at least not only to reach the top. You climb it so that you can look down on your own life, which suddenly lies small and uncomplicated at your feet. Zugspitze signifies clarity. It conveys clarity. It can do that. Still. Despite the teeming crowd. And so this mountain does call, but from the top. Freedom, it calls. But make sure you wear the right shoes.
Franco Lopez, a Mexican in shorts stands at the summit with his Polish girlfriend, Barbara Yankowiak, whose flimsy sneakers are soaking wet. “We didn’t know it snowed up here,” she says. “We’re here because we heard how beautiful it was,” he adds. Mexico has taller mountains, of course, but no cable cars to take you up. Many tourists say similar things. They are impressed by the mountain, but almost more so by the way the Germans have conquered it. A man from Japan takes a selfie with a snowman. Middle Eastern women, their heads covered, laugh as they slip and slide on the white powder. Madness becomes normality at 47 degrees north, 10 degrees east, on the roof of Germany.
Rudi Müller has been living on and climbing the Zugspitze for three years. Because teaching work was impossible to find after he graduated, he co-founded a climbing school. Müller says the Zugspitze has long since lost its magic, at least when you’re at the top amid the crowds, in other words, amid the madness. “It’s like being on Stachus square in the center of Munich.” Müller prefers to climb the flanks. He’s a summiteer who avoids the summit because the contrast is too much of a shock; after hours of solitude and reflection on the ascent, you are swallowed by the masses at the top. “It can really be frustrating,” says Müller. But he is well aware that he cannot allow himself to be too critical. The mountain that gives him such grief is also his bread and butter. His tours of Hell Valley, the Jubiläumsgrat and Partnachklamm peaks are popular. “Mountain climbing is booming,” he says, which is why more and more people are obviously wanting to climb Germany’s highest point.
But when will the development peak and when will the peak’s development end? And when will the mountain finally call for help? So many questions. You feel like taking Anselm off the wood-paneled wall of the Münchner Haus, giving him a good shake, meeting his unwavering gaze and asking him what he makes of all of this. “Raised up to Heaven’s lofty halls, Anselm’s heart rejoiced, and preoccupied with the glorious sight, he quite forgot to return that night” – Anselm’s poem continues. The venerable Zugspitz father has attained the boundless freedom of Heaven. Good for him.
Zwinger figures that he will soon have more freedom as the master of the Münchner Haus since his father’s health is not what it was. Does he plan to make changes? “We may add something new to the menu,” he says. But then he grows a little agitated. A while back, the Alpine Club people, whose tenant he will be as innkeeper, outlined to him their future plans: to tear down the Münchner Haus and put up a more modern cabin in 15 years’ time. “If that happens,” says Zwinger, Anselm’s heir, “I’ll leave the mountain.” In doing so, he would take with him the magic and the myth created by his forefathers.
The mountain beckons …
Any trip into the Alps requires careful preparation, suitable equipment and a great place to stop for a bite to eat
Turn in for a bite to eat at the Elmauer Alm-Hütte lodge for true Alpine specialties both rustic and sophisticated.
Coffee or tea will stay hot for hours in this sleek, stainless steel thermos with a bamboo top.
Read it before you go: The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond.
Too cool for your own good? This color-block beanie from Thom Browne will keep you warm and toasty in the mountains.
A casual look for a headlong descent: a stylish merino sweater from Perfect Moment to keep you nice and cozy.
Great grip: The Grünten Winter boot by c takes it name from an Allgäu peak. Its soles are made by Michelin.
The Zugspitze and all the hiking areas within easy reach of Munich Airport (MUC), Lufthansa’s mountain hub. Board the Lufthansa Shuttle or Lufthansa Express to get there in just two hours.