Into the clouds
A story about climbing in the Wetterstein Mountains of Germany and the importance of self-challenge.
Words: Laura Pendlebury
Photography: Mirko Nicholson
Arriving in the small town of Grainau in the late afternoon sunshine, we were afforded our first glimpse of the Zugspitze. At 2,962 metres above sea level, it is the highest peak of the Wetterstein Mountains, as well as the highest mountain in Germany. Craning our necks and squinting into the sun, we gleaned a brief view of the towering summit before clouds concealed its peak. The cloud cover thickened and spread across the surrounding mountains within minutes of our arrival, before floating eerily down to cover the town. This majestic, rugged summit towered over the small surrounding towns with an overbearing, somewhat mystical presence. Although there are several routes to the summit, the Zugspitze required an experience and understanding of hiking we simply did not have. Never having used crampons or ropes, and having no experience of glacier crossing or via ferrata we decided against a summit attempt almost immediately. However, we had become quietly fascinated with this mountain and were keen to move closer and experience it for ourselves, no longer satisfied with viewing it solely from a distance.
The following morning, we set off early, aiming for the Hollentalangerhutte via the infamous Hollental gorge, or ‘Hell Valley’. Starting in the small village of Hammersbach we followed the mountain stream up through a short forest trail. The weather, although grey and slightly damp, was perfect and soon we were passing through small wisps of floating clouds. Upon entering the gorge the gently bubbling stream we had been following suddenly transformed into a thundering torrent. Transfixed by the sheer power of the water below us, we slowly began to make our way along the slippery valley path. We continued down a series of small, dimly lit tunnels, parts of which were covered in sheets of icy, alpine water cascading down from the deafening waterfall directly above us. We were slowly becoming wetter and colder as we travelled deeper into the gorge. Eventually, we left the tunnels behind and began to climb steadily up the path adjacent to the waterfall, the origins of which were completely hidden by the thick cloud cover ahead of us. Arriving at the Hollentalangerhutte, a popular overnight stopping point for climbers planning an early summit, we were left with mixed feelings. Our experience of the mountain so far had been one of awe and wonder, and yet we were left disappointed by being unable to climb any higher, to properly challenge ourselves and experience more of the raw beauty of the Zugspitze.
The Hollental gorge had been an incredible experience, but not technically difficult or physically demanding. We were transfixed by this mountain and were not ready to leave it quite yet. Studying a set of wooden markers outside the Hollentalangerhutte, we discovered there was a different route we could take; a route which would provide us with the satisfaction of a more challenging climb without the need to descend the mountain before we were ready. We set off, undeterred by the gathering cloud and darkening skies now threatening to engulf us. We walked carefully along the narrow, rocky path, at times purposefully removing our gaze from the sheer drop that lay to one side of us. The path wound around the mountain, taking us up the side of a peak directly next to it. Climbing higher, our pace slowed as our steps became more careful, more purposeful, the view below now completely obscured by a thick blanket of cloud, the temperature dropping as the cloud cover increased, and we were now unable to see the peak to which we were trying to climb. Occasional echoes of distant voices could be heard from within the mist ahead, but apart from this we were alone. Silence in the face of such raw, unspoilt beauty was something neither of us had genuinely experienced before, and we climbed quietly, unwilling to break the magic by voicing our thoughts. There were points along the now steeply inclining paths where I silently regretted our decision to take the hike further, scrambling over rocks whilst clutching at ropes hammered into the mountain with a faint feeling of fear I had never experienced before. Climbing on, we eventually reached the peak of our climb, collapsing onto the damp circle of grass at the top with a certain amount of relief mixed in with our feeling of accomplishment. Peering down the edge of the mountain, we realised that the choice to climb further, to go beyond a place where we felt comfortable, had resulted in one of the best experiences of our lives. Reaching 1818 metres might be a small feat to many seasoned climbers and experienced hikers, but, at that precise moment in time, we felt truly alone on the top of the world.