August 27, 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the first ascent of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. Its summit – unique in the world – is accessible by three cable cars. Yet, not far from the highest point, mountaineers can also experience solitude on difficult routes. Hardly anywhere else in the Alps are intensively used areas and wild high mountains so close to each other.
In August 1820, Lieutenant Joseph Naus and two companions made what is regarded as the first ascent of the ‘Zugspitz’. On August 27, 1820 at 11:45 a.m., the climbers had reached the western summit. A red sack cloth, attached to a hiking stick, blew on the summit as proof of the successful first ascent.
A tour to the Zugspitze is still a challenging hike. However, the conditions created by today’s progress and paved paths are far from comparable to what the alpine adventurer Naus experienced. On behalf of the Topographic Bureau in Munich, he was to collect data for a map of the Werdenfelser Land.
It will probably never be fully clear whether the lieutenant was actually the first to be at the top. There are maps from the first half of the 18th century, which make an earlier first ascent possible. At the time, the ascent of such a gigantic, unknown mountain peak as the Zugspitze was a life-threatening undertaking.
The climbers used the route through the Reintal, which is considered the easiest ascent, but still measures 2200m of altitude and 20kms in distance. Naus himself writes in his diary of “some dangers and extraordinary efforts”. Clothing, equipment and alpine mountain knowledge had not yet evolved nor technique acquired by mountaineers at that time.
“The biggest difference is the shoes,” says Georg Hohenester, editor-in-chief of the DAV (German Alpine Club) member magazine Panorama. “They used to be nailed, stiff and heavy. There was no noticeable contact with the ground. I am very happy that we are now able to tell the eventful and rich history of the mountain in a beautiful multimedia story.”
Every year, more than half a million visitors are drawn to the Zugspitze – by cable and cog railway and under their own steam. The DAV has summarised how to climb the Zugspitze safely.