History of the Schneefernerhaus

From Germany's highest hotel to a modern research station

Hotel Schneefernerhaus

A short look at a long history

The tale of Mt. Zugspitze and of the Schneefernerhaus is a tale of adventure, of scientific curiosity, of technical feat, of the pros and cons of modern mass tourism and also of the dangers of the high alpine slopes. But it started out as a scientific expedition.

Almost 200 years ago

The Münchner Haus with the tower of the meteorological observatory in the background.
The Münchner Haus with the tower of the meteorological observatory in the background.

On August 27th 1820 Joseph Naus, lieutenant in King Maximilians army, together with his aide Maier and the local guide Johann Georg Deuschl claimed the first ascent of the Zugspitze, a mountain that had been dubbed unclimbable up to then. His assignment was to compile a map of the Austrian-German border region in the Wetterstein mountains. So, in a way, already the first ascent foreshadowed the Zugspitze's role as a centre of science and research...

Already in the fall of 1897 an alpine hut, the Münchner Haus opened it's doors on the summit of the Zugspitze. At that time a highly controversial building. Some alpinists claimed, that "if you cannot reach the summit without a hostel, you should stay at home." Only three years later on July 19th 1900 the meteorological observatory started it's work and delivers valuable data ever since. The first observer, Josef Enzensperger, still had to stay all winter alone at the small tower, since it was impossible to reach the summit to replace him during the winter month.


TThe Schneefernerhaus in the 1930s.
The Schneefernerhaus in the 1930s.

From the turn of the century on the Zugspitze attracted more and more alpinists. Soon the idea was born to open the mountain for everyone by building a cable car. While the controversy raged on the German side whether to build a rack railway or a cable car - or whether to leave the mountain untouched all together, the neighboring Austrians build their own cable car from the town of Ehrwald to the western ridge. This first cable car opened in 1926 but failed to reach the summit by about 200 vertical meters. Meanwhile the Germans blasted a 4.453 m long tunnel through the mountain to reach the southern side of the Zugspitze by means of a rack railway. At the top station of this railway, about 300 vertical meters below the summit on the sunny southern face of the mountain a hotel was build: The Schneefernerhaus. It opened on January 20th 1931 together with a short cable car that took the guests all the way to the summit.

Before World War II the Schneefernerhaus was  a luxury hotel, but when it reopened in 1952 skiing became a  pastime for everyone. Below the hotel on the Zugspitzplatt new lifts were installed and in 1962 a new cable car from the valley to the summit cut the time to reach the slopes to less than half an hour.

But on May 15th 1965 desaster hit the house. A huge avalance broke loose from the steep slopes above the hotel in the warm spring sun and swept over the sun terrace. 10 tourists were killed and more than 80 injured. As a consequence avalanche barriers were installed above the house and the damaged western wing of the hotel was taken down. In some sense this marked the beginning of the decline of the hotel. In 1988 the rack railway got a new station right in the middle of the skiing area, called Sonn Alpin. When a new cable car was build in 1992 that connects the Sonn Alpin directly with the summit, the hotel and restaurant Schneefernerhaus was closed down due to a lack of guests.

From hotel to research station

The closure of the hotel opened up the opportunity to establish a center for altitude, climate and environment research in Bavaria. At that time the Rio Earth Summit addressed for the first time the issue of climate change and 172 nations agreed on the Climate Change Convention. As a result in 1993 the former hotel Schneefernerhaus was modified to become a modern research station. The official opening was celebrated on May 12th 1999 after about 8 mio Euro had been spent.


Picture credits

Münchner Haus: © Sonnweber;
historic leaflets: © Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin, Hist. Archiv