In October of 2001, my company at the time asked me if I wanted to go to Switzerland to baby-sit a new airplane in its final completion stage. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, I was a little leery about crossing the Atlantic by plane, so I wanted a little more information about the job and some kind of incentive before I was going to agree. I discussed the trip and its goals with my company’s CEO, Dick Swingen (I swear to God that’s his real name!). Dick did a little rock-climbing in his youth and he knew that I spent most of my spare time and money monkeying up the side of this crag or that so at the end of our discussion he told me to remember to pack my climbing shoes. Well, that wiped any doubts from my mind! I thought about it for maybe another second and a half, because I didn’t want to look too eager, and volunteered then and there.
I packed my shoes, harness, and chalk bag in my carry-on luggage. The flight from Little Rock to Zurich took about nine hours and then I took a one-hour train ride to Basel. Because of the time difference I arrived at my hotel at 8:30AM. After a shower and a change of clothes, I was off to find a climbing gym or bouldering area. The tram/train station in Basel is maybe three hundred yards from the hotel where I stayed. I was standing there waiting on a tram to take me to a climbing shop that the hotel’s concierge told me about. I look up and a guy with a climbing rope slung over his shoulder stepped off another tram. Let me just say that climbers are a breed apart; no matter where you go or what language you speak, a fellow climber will always hook you up. The climber’s name was Bruno and not only did he give me directions to a great gym just across the border in Germany, he also invited me to climb with him that day and the next. Bruno’s English wasn’t all that great and a turnip speaks more German than I do, but he spoke a little French, so we communicated for those two days in the crazy German/French/English pidgin language.
Later that week I checked out the gym Bruno told me about. It was named the Im Pulsiv and was located in Weil am Rhine, Germany. There, I met some British climbers who had this friend, Ian Whatmough, who was looking for someone to round out a group that was heading off to climb a big route or two in the Swiss Alps the next weekend. I got his number and gave him a call. After talking with him about climbing in general and telling him about routes and areas I had climbed in the US, he invited me along on the trip. He sent me an e-mail with the route maps and the trip schedule. Well, being the great friend that I am, I immediately forwarded the e-mail to my climbing buddies in Arkansas. I just wanted them to share my delight. I wasn’t trying to rub their nose in the fact that I was in Switzerland, or that I would be spending my weekend in the Alps, or that I would be climbing some truly classic routes while they spent their weekend fighting the ticks, snakes, and the heat in Arkansas. No, that wasn’t my intention at all. The e-mails I got back were full of derogatory expletives and one buddy sent a scanned copy of his middle finger. I didn’t have all of my gear in Switzerland and Ian said that I would probably need my rope, some small cams, and wired nuts. My buddy, Adam Brown, ran by my house and packed up my rope, cams, nuts, and the rest of it that day. Since we worked at the same place, he took care of the shipping arrangements. My gear made it to me via Fed-Ex in two days and I was ready to go!
Ian and his friend Stewart met me at my hotel at about 6:00 AM on Saturday. Stewart lived and worked in Cambridge, England, and had flown in just for the trip. Ian worked for a pharmaceutical company and was the quintessential Englishman. Very British! Tall, lanky, a bit of a potbelly sticking out, a pronounced nose, and a very “cheerio pip-pip” manner about him. We drove for about an hour and met up with the fourth member of our group, Elaine Samuels. Elaine was from Florida but had been in Europe so long that she had lost any regional accent that she might have once had. After arranging all of the gear and packs, we headed off. The night before I had been out too late at a local Irish pub drinking hard cider and playing darts with some Welshmen and a couple of American ex-patriots. I wasn’t feeling too grand in the back seat as Ian drove like a madman on the winding alpine roads. My stomach and head were very happy when we stopped in the village of Meiringen to grab some grub for that afternoon and for lunch the next day. On our way out we passed this huge bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes in the middle of town. It seems that Reichenbach Falls is on the edge of the village. It was there that Sir Author Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes dying in a fall while struggling with his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, who also perished.
We were going to stay at an Alpine hut that night and use it as a jumping off point for our big climb the next day. The Engelhornhutte is accessible only on foot via a trail from a small parking area. Ian told me that it was an easy walk and that it would take about an hour. We parked the car at the assigned area and started loading up for the trail. I noticed that everyone else had tiny little packs with a rope lashed to the top, but I didn’t really think anything about it as I pulled my sixty-five liter pack out, loaded with water, food, a rope, and all of my gear. I should have known something was up. We started up the trail, which began as a nice wide easy path and shortly degraded into a goat trail that was little more that steps carved into the rock and earth. I started sweating. Then, I started huffing and puffing as my thighs felt every bit of the sixty pounds I had strapped to my back. Ian was three hundred yards ahead of me, Stewart was fifty feet in front of him, and Elaine was relegated to baby-sitting my winded colonial ass. She would look back every now and then, cut her eyes at me and just shake her head in disgust. After about 45 minutes, I had to stop and peel off some clothes, get some water, and take off my pack for a second. It was at this point that Elaine said with, no small amount of sarcasm, “I hope you climb better than you walk.”
I stumbled and staggered to the hut and we signed in at about 11:30, an hour and forty-five minutes after we started walking. Now, I’m in relatively good shape, so my pride was wounded by my performance on the hike in until I noticed a little plaque on the front of the hut. It stated that the altitude was at 1901 meters (6236 feet). That’s higher than Denver! No wonder I had been sucking air the whole way. I live at near sea level in Arkansas and Basel is only at 300 meters (984 feet) above sea level. After a quick snack and a short rest, Ian decided that we would do a couple of multi-pitch routes in the Klettergarten, a three-sided valley just in front of the hut. I felt better about myself when I read the sign. I thought, “Maybe I’m not just a big pussy.” When I got paired with Elaine to climb that afternoon, I really felt better and caught my second wind. She was going to pay for her snide little comment and looks of disgust on the trail! We did three routes, all sport climbing in the 5.9-5.11a range (YDS). I led every pitch of all three routes and made sure that each one punished her just a touch more. She apologized for her earlier rude behavior at the top of the second route after a thirty foot run out between bolts and tiny sharp handholds...
We were in a part of the Alps that’s composed of limestone and marl and borders on the central Alps where the rock is primarily granite and gneiss. The limestone near the Engelhornhutte is cement-gray and has been worn by the freeze thaw cycles over the years. There are places where the rock is almost glass-smooth and then there are areas where the rock is sharp and jagged from ice expansion. This is not the fingertip friendly sandstone that you find in Arkansas or even the edgy, crystal filled granite found on the Colorado Front Range. Every handhold had a unique and separate painful gift. This expansion and subsequent splintering of the rock has created scree fields that, in places, extend a thousand feet from the base of the climbs. There are thousands of little daggers just waiting for you to slip on goat poop and fall from the trail so they can impale you. It was in the same area that we were going to climb in and in that Alfred Wills staged his ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854, which began the "Golden Age" of climbing in Switzerland. A period that lasted for 30 years as climbers and mountaineers, especially the British, roamed the range, bagging summit after summit and establishing climbing route after climbing route. The place had a real sense of history with enough danger thrown into the mix to make it irresistible.
Elaine and I returned to the hut just before sunset. After squaring our gear away, we waited in the hut’s main room for Ian and Stewart. The Engelhorn hut, or “hutte” in German, is a two-story structure that consists of a kitchen, dining room, storeroom, and keeper’s quarters on the first floor. For about $40.00, you’re fed supper, given a bunk and linen, fed breakfast, and can store your excess gear while your climbing. The second floor has two rooms that are both filled with double bunks. I was told that the hut could sleep 32 guests plus three keepers comfortably.
All of the cooking is done on a large modern wood stove and the lights are powered by solar cells that charge during the day. There is no shower and the bathroom is a double out house about a hundred feet from the hut down a narrow steep trail. After making the trip a couple of times with my head lamp, I decided that if I woke up in the middle of the night I would just have to hold it. If my light went out at any point in the journey, I would be in a world of hurt. They also sell Engelhornhutte Wine to earn money for the hut’s upkeep. Everything for the hut, from firewood to toilet paper, has to be carried up the same trail that we walked up on. There is a spring, so water is the only essential that isn’t carried to the hut on someone’s back.
Ian and Stewart came in a little after dark, looking spent. We sat down to a meal of hearty potato soup, French bread, and spaghetti with meat sauce. I’m not sure if the food was wonderful or I was just so tired that anything warm would have tasted good. The hut wine, on the other hand was a different story. It was in a pretty little bottle with this great manly Germanic label. The contents, however, seemed to have been a cross between grape juice, moonshine and cough syrup to give it that touch of smoothness. Man, it was foul! We sat at the table after the meal and discussed the route that we wanted to attempt the next day. Ian thought that the Westkante route on the Rosenlauistock would be our best bet. Since none of us had ever been in the area, we agreed. Men in leather harnesses, using hemp ropes, and wearing hard soled boots had made the route’s first accent in 1902. We had high-speed gear, sticky shoes and there were already bolts for us to clip into. They had to hammer in pitons to protect themselves as they ascended the route. No problem.
After a great night of exhaustion-induced coma/sleep, we had a “light” Swiss breakfast of ham, sausage, bread, eggs, and some kind of pork and jelly combination. We all left the hut, thoroughly bloated, at about 8:00 and it took us an hour and a half to find our route. This was our first inclination that the guidebook was a little flaky. The trail to our route was well defined and one of only two illustrated in the guide in the general area of our route. In reality, our path was a narrow overgrown line through the scree field and was one of perhaps twenty trails that headed in the same general direction. Once we figured out where we were, we scrambled up about a 5.5 pitch of rock to get to base of the climb.
We put on our harnesses, flaked out the ropes, and started sorting the gear. My climbing gear rack, which is small and incomplete, was the most impressive of the bunch. Ian’s “big rack” of assorted gear that he mentioned on the phone turned out to be three small cams, four nuts, one tricam, and about 8 quickdraws. Elaine and Stewart had another 14 draws between them. I had a sinking feeling, but Ian assured us that we probably wouldn’t need a lot of gear since the route was so well bolted. I led the first pitch with Elaine following me to remove any gear or quickdraws that I placed. The manky pitons and rusty bolts on the route were spaced about twenty feet apart, so I placed gear or slung rocks in at least two places between every one of the bolts. After Elaine got to the belay station, Ian led up next with Stewart following him. It continued like this until Elaine got to the second belay ledge. She said that Ian wanted us to wait for him because he was having some difficulty protecting the route as he led it. When he got to the ledge, he asked if Elaine could leave the gear in place and Stewart would clean it. That way he could clip into gear already in place while on lead. This slowed us down to a crawl. I would lead a pitch and have to wait until everyone made it to the belay ledge to collect the gear and start ascending the next pitch.
About two hours into the climb I had to pee. I knew that I could hold it until I completed the pitch and I made it to the next belay without too much discomfort. There, I had to set up a hanging belay on the side of the mountain. I really, really had to go by the time Elaine hooked her harness into the anchor. I just couldn’t pee with some strange female that close to me, so, I held it some more. When Ian made it to the anchor my eyeballs were floating. I said that I was sorry, but I had to go. There is not a whole lot of room for modesty when you‘re in that close of quarters. They both turned their heads politely to let me conduct my business. I had stage fright. No matter how bad I had to, I just couldn’t go. I tried singing to take my mind off of things, that didn’t work. They sang along and that didn’t work. It wasn’t until we started discussing running water that my brain shut off and let things run their course. This entire episode happened with all three of us suspended in the air and Stewart one hundred feet below us wondering what in the hell we were doing.
There are three routes that run fairly close together on Rosenlauistock. Like earlier on the trail in, the actual routes on the actual rock were very different from the guidebook description. There were pitons and bolts along the way that weren’t listed in the guide, there were bolts illustrated that weren’t on the route and there were fewer belay stations than there were supposed to be. Our already slow progress was slowed even more because I took the most obvious route, which was also the hardest of the three. Ian and Stewart were having a hard time of it. For the first time in my life I heard someone yell “Bloody Fucking Wanker!” at a rock and not mean it as a slight to the British or as a joke.
At three o’clock, we were two pitches from the top of the route, about two hours behind our schedule. When everyone made it to the belay ledge, Ian decided that he couldn’t finish the route. He said that he was spent and there was no way he could complete the next two pitches and top out. No amount of convincing, talking, yelling or threatening would get him to change his mind. He was dead-set on rappelling off the route. That meant that we all had to bail off because there were only two ropes between the four of us and it took two ropes tied in the middle to reach each successive belay ledge. We finally gave in. I pulled out my camera and took a picture of the top of the route because I knew that it was as close as I would ever get to it. I also snapped a couple pictures of the Rosenlaui Glacier in which you can see the Wetterhorn in the distance.
The repel down was no cakewalk. The ropes got stuck twice. The first time it finally freed its self after three of us tugged on it. The second time I had to ascend the rope using prussic knots as ascenders and add a length of webbing and a locking carabineer to get the Figure-Eight knot in the rope past the sharp edge holding it. It would have only taken an hour to get back to the hut if we had topped out. Instead, it took us two hours to repel down and another 45 minutes to walk to the hut. After collecting our gear, we started the descent from the hut to Ian’s car. By then it was 6:00 PM and dark. We picked our way down the path with our headlamps. I didn’t get back to my hotel room until 11:30 that night. I didn’t even wash off the grime from the weekend. I took off my boots and managed to take off one sock before I passed out.
With all of the flaws of the trip aside, I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience. I climbed twelve pitches of a fourteen-pitch route. There were some magnificent views of the mountains, glacier, and valleys below. I got to experience climbing in one of the sports holiest countries and in an area that is significant in the annals of climbing history. Just how many people can say that they spent a weekend climbing in the Swiss Alps? And I learned that thinking about running water really helps out absolutely anywhere when one needs to pee.