“If I’m at the highest point in Germany, can I see Italy?”
Over the years, I’ve seen at various times the claim made about seeing Italy from the tallest mountain in Germany.
I’m startled by the winter morning sun, streaming through the window into my hotel room in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I rise slowly from the bed, barely able to keep my eyes open. I shuffle across the room, and pull the small linen drapes aside. It’s blue everywhere, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. My eyes are now wide open, heart pumping with excitement, because I know skies are gonna be clear up top. Later I learn forecast conditions for the Zugspitze summit are excellent: mostly sunny, visibility out to 160 kilometres (100 miles) with a high temperature of -8C/+18F. Cold, but very doable. It’s also why I have with me 70-300 glass for the long zooms.
Below I show photographs with sightlines and their corresponding average azimuths*: east-southeast (107 degrees), southeast (138 degrees), south (175 degrees), southwest (210 degrees), west-southwest (250 degrees). I label specific mountain peaks of interest in addition to the flag of the country where the mountain is located. In a few cases, mountains lie along the border between two nations in which case I provide two country flags. For the labeled peaks, I’ve also provided further information about mountain heights and sightline distances in the map below.
Spoiler alert: not only am I able to spot mountains in Italy, but also other peaks in Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.
Lines of sight
At the Zugspitze summit, I bounce between viewing platforms on the German and Austrian sides. The summit proper is located in Germany at an elevation of 2962 metres or 9718 feet.
I provide in the following map sightlines corresponding to the images below. Click on the arrow-window icon at the upper-left corner of the map for the legend and additional labels.
- North-northeast (35°)
- East-southeast (107°)
- Southeast (138°)
- South (175°)
- Southwest (210°)
- West-southwest (250°)
Corrections & additions: Jun 2020, with guidance from PeakFinder.
This view looks down the Loisach river valley towards Garmisch-Partenkirchen and to the foothills and lowlands beyond.
Visible in this view is Austria’s highest peak, Grossglockner (elevation 3798 metres or 12460 feet) at a distance of about 135 km (84 mi).
Italy’s Antelao (“King of the Dolomites”) is visible, at a distance of 145 km (90 mi).
Visible at a distance of 73 km (45 mi) along the Austria-Italy border is Hochwilde/Cima Altissima at an elevation of 3482 metres or 11424 feet.
Numerous Italian peaks are visible, including Cima Viola (elevation 3374 metres or 11070 feet) at a distance of 130 km (81 mi).
With careful examination of sight-lines out to about 110 kilometres, I identified Falknis, Plasteikopf, and Augstenberg, all in Liechtenstein. At the right is Germany’s Trettachspitze; on the “other” (hidden) side is Fellhorn, just south of Oberstdorf.
‘Yes’, to Italy
Can I see Italy from Zugspitze on a clear day? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ not only for Italy, but as I’ve shown above, it’s also a ‘yes’ for other peaks within Germany, Austria (including Grossglockner), Switzerland, and as far as Liechtenstein.
A slightly longer exposition
I’m in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area in southern Bavaria for a few days in late-February, and I’m hoping there’ll be at least one decent clear day. It’s a risky gamble in winter, with snowfall on the day I arrive. But the forecast for the next day is in my favour, and I head to the summit on the cogwheel railway with the first service the following morning.
On a clear day at Zugspitze, I know I should be able to spot various peaks of the Alps in neighbouring countries. Inspection of maps tells me those mountains must be present by label and by name, but can I spot some of those peaks for myself, even if I view them through a long-lens?
After a slow scenic climb, I brace for the -10C temperatures up top. The best views west and south are from the Tirolian or Austrian side, based on a previous visit. Over the next couple of hours, I alternate between short- and long-zoom lenses, as I switch between stepping inside briefly to swap lenses and warm my hands and remaining outside to freeze under clear skies and unlimited visibility.
I won’t know immediately if I have chosen sightlines wisely and if photographs “contain” the “correct” mountains. While the short zoom will get me large (angular) wedges and panoramas, I don’t have time to make many “thin wedges” with the long zoom. Educated guesses and intuition lead the way, because that’s all I’ve got. It doesn’t take long until I’ve become a walking icicle, and I mentally wave the white flag in surrender. With a cup of steaming coffee in the warm confines of the summit cafeteria, I have a quick scan of the images on the camera, and I’m satisfied with my haul of images.
When I sit down with the pictures months later, it takes me a few days to figure out where and what I’ve photographed, to line up various lines of sight (with the help of information displays on the summit), and to find out which mountains I’ve spotted with a combination of geography, map-reading, geometry, and even some physics.
I make mistakes along the way, but the answer to my question is better than expected. With judicious south-facing sightlines and patient photography in cold but gorgeous conditions, I find various peaks in the Alps across five nations: Germany, Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.
‘No’, to France
I’m not surprised I’m unable to locate or see peaks in France, as the “closest” part of France at its southeast corner is a distance of over 250 kilometres. That’s well beyond 194 km, which is the estimated maximum horizon distance visible from the Zugspitze summit at a height of 2962 metres.
* Azimuths are measured with north at 0 degrees, east at 90, south at 180, and west at 270 degrees.
I made use of Google Earth, Google Maps, Alpenwelt Karwendel, AMAP Austria (from BEV Bundesamt für Eich- und Vermessungswesen), and Open Topo Map. All determinations are best effort and remain subject to further confirmation. I made all photos above on 25 February 2017; alle Fotoaufnahmen sind mit Wasserzeichen versehen worden. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie on fotoeins.com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-aNU.