Once upon a time – or to be exact - in 2007 I wrote a trip report, called Tranquility and Solitude about an ascent in the Julian Alps which for undisclosed reasons turned into a race up and down the mountain. The location was Cima di Terrarossa in the Italian part of the Julian Alps, the contenders where teams from several countries: Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Germany. Even though the racing atmosphere was horrible the setting was not and I still retain good memories af the area.
But anyway, in August I was reminded of that ascent. The setting was different: Rätikon instead of Julian Alps with the full bulk of the Eastern Alps in between. Also, the race didn’t seem to be as international as the previous one had been with only three nationalities contending. But before revealing too much, let the story unwind …
Rätikon - Why and How We Come to Be Here
It’s August, the week before my 50th birthday. I have succeeded in convincing Judith to spend a week in the Alps. She had planned for a week in Stockholm with her Dad but since I had accumulated quite a number of weekend working hours she changed her mind. Instead of having me go to the Alps alone and envying me for the rest of the year, she dumped her Dad and agreed to come with me. There were three options, Lechtal, Sellrain and Brandnertal and I found quite a number of short term offerings for each. In the end I decided due to the weather forecast and Brandnertal it turned out to be.
So now we are in Bürserberg at the mouth of the valley. The view from the apartment couldn’t be better with four mountain ranges in display: Rätikon, Bregenzerwaldgebirge, Lechquellengebirge and the Ferwall Group. This looks like a nice place to stay. And is. We spent our first day on the meadows above Bürserberg, climbing Mondspitze, Schillerkopf and Loischkopf in near perfect weather. Then one day lost to rain and yesterday we drove over to Großes Walsertal and climbed the highest mountain of the Walserkamm Ridge, Tälispitz. Which, I’m sure, will become the first mountain from Bregenzerwaldgebirge on SP. The weather was imperfect with clouds rolling around the mountains but tonight’s forecast calls for perfect weather and far reaching views tomorrow.
There’s no question where we’ll go. It’ll be Schesaplana, Rätikon’s highest mountain. You can take a cable-car for the first 500m but then have to climb another 800m to the top. And it’s supposed to be difficult. I had watched a lengthy youtube video at home and the route looked difficult. On the other hand I’m confused about the Schesaplana Routes anyway and cannot see where the guys in the video actually went. But, hell! One of my colleagues climbed Schesaplana in snow conditions. It can’t be that bad!
A Comfy StartAs we’ll take the cable-car, which won’t start before 8:30 we have plenty of time for our breakfast. Quite unusual, as we find ourselves on the road to our destination at 7:00 or 7:30 in normal conditions. It gives us time to study map and guidebook but you can only learn so much from books. Time come, we set out, wave a hasty good-bye to our landlords and drive up-valley to the cable-car. There’s a huge parking lot, a sign of things to come. Right now it is empty and we park right in front of the entrance. People arrive from here and there and soon we crowd into the small building, waiting for the officials to open the counter.
A screen tells us that Lünersee does not have much water left. Construction is ongoing and the power company is maintaining their turbines. Also, you can have lunch at Douglasshütte with a perfect view across the lake – without the water. Now the counter is opened and there is a first rush to obtain tickets. More waiting but now they open the doors to the cable-car. We are swept inside by another rush of people. Again we have to wait, the cable-car is filled to the last square inch (42 people as we will learn later) and up we go. Which in itself is quite interesting as the cable-car heads for the huge step, upon which Douglasshütte is placed, seemingly on a direct collision course. But it barely makes the top and soon we are swept out by the third rush of the day. Judith vanishes into the restrooms, everybody else vanishes for Saulajoch, a breakfast in Douglasshütte or onto the trail around the lake, direction Schesaplana. 90% actually go that way.
As I’m waiting for Judith to reappear I have enough time to have a look at the surrounding area. Weather is perfect, not one cloud inside. The lake looks a bit like a quarry pit with the level drained as low as it is. Still the water looks greenish enough to be worth a photo or two. As Judith joins me most of our fellow travelers are already rushing along what remains of the lake shore. We get ourselves ready and start to follow. There’s a young couple with her (?) dad right in front of us and we are gaining on them. Behind, some guys, who came up from the valley without the help of the cable-car, pick up speed and the race appears to be on!
Building up some Steam
The road twists around the bays of the lake after three of which the Schesaplana Trail turns off. There is a bit of combustion as several contenders take off clothes to prepare for the first stage of the ascent. We pass the couple / dad trio (Team CDT) right before the intersection and “Excuse me!” wind through the heap of packs and people. Judith walks in front and slows down as we start to ascend the first slopes. Team CDT gains on us but the tendency to discuss things while standing pushes them back again. The guys from the valley (Team GFV) turn the corner onto the path beneath us and don’t even slow down starting the ascent. The clothes shedders and packers (Team CSP) are done and follow in Team GFV’s tracks. Up front is another couple with her (again?) parents. The quartett (Team CPQ) is as slow as we are but they also like to discuss. Also mom seems to be afraid of the rocky passages they have to pass. We have good chances to pass them soon.
But now disaster looms! Judith decides to pull off her sweater. Team CPQ vanishes on the horizon as Team CDT passes us. Back on track we see that Teams GFV and CSP have gained and it’s only a matter of two or three switchbacks until they’ll catch up with us. But up ahead on the horizon dad of Team CPQ has to take a timeout. Obviously he’s having trouble breathing and the whole team has to wait. Slowly we get close and pass, even before the next teams catch up with us.
Team GFV consists of 6 men, three of them young dudes who take any shortcut they can find. Resigning we step aside a bit and let them pass. As the last one does so the first guy of Team CSP passes us as well. The team consists of three couples who are a good match for Team GFV. We pick ourselves up from the trenches and start following in their tracks. Team CDT are undergoing a pit stop, doing the clothes routine. And we are back in the third position!
Not for long, however. Another quick couple (Team QC) draws near as we are finishing the first stage. They are about to pass us only steps before we reach Totalpphütte but then her mobile buzzes. “Thank you, thank you! You know where I am? I’ll celebrate my birthday on Schesaplana!” Good for her, good for us since we reach the hut still in third position.
Up towards the Summit Ridge!
Everybody, including Judith, disappears inside the hut making a race for the restrooms. Being made of tougher material I stay outside and marvel at the views. Totalphütte is located beneath the south-west ridge of Schesaplana with Felskopf, Zirmenkopf and Seekopf towering above a small lake. To the south Kirchlispitzen, Drusenfluh and Sulzfluh make their first noteworthy appearance.
So does Judith (not her first though) and suddenly we are in the front of the race. Everybody else seems to need some breakfast inside the hut. Or wait – the three young dudes of GFV (Team YGFV) start right behind us, separating from their older friends (Team OGFV). Team YGFV quickly gains on us, passing on the left and right. But since they have to pose for each other every oother step they don’t gain much on us. Before we lose Totalphütte from our sights Team OGFV also sets out behind us.
We pass an intersection where we meet an old couple coming down from above. They have not been to the summit as they were afraid of the difficulties they might encounter. But they come from the Swiss side of the range wondering by which path they will return there. And anyway, it is still early in the morning. Some 100m above the intersection there is a second one. Both trails lead to Schesaplana, and we opt for the right hand direct one. Südwandsteig would come up to the mountain from the far side. And time is of the essence!
We have to climb a short vertical section now. There are steps (kind of) and a few protecting cables. The section turns out easier than it looks from below and we are quickly above it. Team YGFV is still fooling around above us but Team OGFV has caught up and passed us now. We passed two women (Team TW) right before the climbing section. And yes Team CDT is also back, now preparing to touch the cables.
The going gets steeper and as we look up there’s a traffic jam above us. People seem to be coming down the mountain already and there is a protected section through the narrow layering of the Schesaplana Rock. The cables are too far down, however, that anybody who touches them has to crawl. We decide to forgo the cables and take a layer underneath, passing the traffic jam and getting ourselves in front of fooling Team YGFV.
Lots of people appear on the ridge above us – where do they all come from? Many of them descend in our direction and as the path is narrow we’re traffic jamming ourselves now. Being polite people we wait for everybody coming down, then hike on up and reach the ridge…
… where we meet a busload of people. Also, we understand now where they come from – they took the Swiss Normal Route which joins forces with ours right in this saddle. The summit is close but every reasonable spot on it seems to be taken. Certainly the area around summit cross is crowded as everybody is posing for their hero shots. Team OGFV already enters the summit area while Team YGFV passes a large group of Swiss Pensioners (Team LGSP) among all the other people who walk up and down the ridge. We follow them and reach our destination right inside Team LGSP. To the west of the summit there is still some room and we hike over there unpacking our lunch.
Tranquility on a Crowded Summit
It has just turned 11 a.m. but still we decide to have our lunch. The race is over and we settle down into watching mode. Though there’s much noise around us we kind of drift into another state of being. We are all eyes and no ears!
There is not a single cloud in the sky. Far away and far beneath us some small cloudlets hover above Lake Constance but that’s all. Thanks to the rain two days ago the air is crystal clear. And around us so many Alpine Groups call out to us to be seen, observed, photographed.
Schesaplana is the highest summit of its group, so there is no higher mountain to obstruct views. To the west we have the Rhine River Valley, across which the groups of the Western Alps are rising. We look towards Säntis, Tödi, even as far as Doufourspitze, In the south we have the Rhaetian Alps: the glaciers of Silvretta, the Albula, Plessur and Platta Groups, Ferwall a bit more to the east, above them Bernina, Ortler and the Ötztal Alps. And in the north-east we see the northern limestone Alps: Bregenzerwaldgebige, Lechtal Alps, Lechquellengebirge, Allgäu Alps. And in between the local Rätikon summits: Zimba, Drusenfluh, Sulzfluh. We watch what seems like forever …
Racing down the MountainAfter a while we wake up from our reverie. A married couple has taken seat nearby. He is lecturing, she is complaining and the constant nagging cannot be ignored. We look around but see none of the teams who raced us to the top this morning. Team LGSP is getting ready to leave but they are the only ones. Everybody else has come and gone or never made an appearance on the summit after all. It is still before noon and we take a look at the map as to what we should do for the rest of the day. What about Gamsluggen? Gawalljoch? Schweizer Tor? These three saddles look reachable and on the map it doesn’t look like we would have to descend too far. Judith votes for the first pass, Gamsluggen, then return to Totalphütte and back to the cable-car. And when she votes I agree …
Traffic to and from the summit is intense but as far as we can see most people use the Swiss normal route. We’ll descend the Austrian one and hope to have less crowded conditions there. Back in the saddle on the south ridge we realize that the hope was vain. Two ant lines move up and down the route with a traffic jam in the layered crux. One of the ant lines is Team LGSP, who have just overcome the critical section.
When we arrive there the two layers that are usually in use are taken so that we take a third layer above and quickly descend, passing several small teams on the way. Team LGSP in front of us reaches the short climbing section as we quickly follow in their tracks. Behind a single oldish dude closes the gap towards us and right after the climbing section passes. But behold! In the intersection with Südwandsteig Team OGFV joins us. No idea where their young colleagues were but they tell us that Südwandsteig was far less crowded than what they can see where we are. Together (sort of) we hike the few hundred metres to the next crossing where we leave the normal route towards Gamsluggen.
Gamsluggen, German: Gamslücke, English: Chamoix Gap. After a few steps in the right direction we hear rockfall above and sure enough a herd of the quickfooted animals stampede in the general direction of the gap. In front of us Team LGSP has also decided on this route and is slowly crossing the terrain. Which looked easy enough on the map - a plateau with almost no elevation differences. But up close we see that we have come to a karst “plain”. Plain when seen from above but once inside you realize that you have to climb across ridges and descend into dolines. Tote Alp - Dead Pasture - that's what it is called. We follow team LGSP only slowly gaining on them.
Another team of chamoix storms by, Team LGSP stops to take a look and we take our advantage and pass. However, we soon reach a dead end, it is far from clear which path to take and the red and white marks appear to have vanished. Moreover, two couples are on completely different paths but both obviously headed for the same spot: Gamsluggen. Finally I see a mark and we descend far beneath the Gamsluggen level only to head up again later. Team LGSP is more clever, ignoring the marks and going for the gap more directly. In the end I reach it first but before Judith arrives half of Team LGSP has crowded around me.
Solitude on Swiss Pastures
While we argue about the next step – Judith wants to return to Totalphüte, I want to go ahead towards the Swiss side and head for Gawalljoch – Team LGSP passes us and slowly heads down the gap to the Swiss side. It is very steep, there are a lot of protecting cables and given their age they only very slowly proceed. By the time I have “convinced” Judith the whole team has passed and we have to queue in line to get down from the gap. It takes forever and even though the cables are not really necessary Team LGSP makes heavy use of them. Every now and then we can pass one or two people but the going remains very slow until we reach the bottom of the steep section. Here Team LGSP prepares for a break, we pass and see them no more. Good Bye and a safe trip back!
Judith is still grumbling as we haven’t reached the lowest spot of this stage yet. On the other hand we are on wonderfully green pastures, Alp Vals by name, and enjoy the views of the grass covered summits around. Also we head for Kirchlispitzen, Drusenfluh and Sulzfluh, whose limestone rock starts to glisten in the afternoon sun. White rock, green pastures and deeply blue sky – what more do you want. Ah yes: solitude. Which is what we finally found in this place. Too good to be true!
We meet a few couples coming from the other side, most noteworthy two dudes (Team Nordic)from the northernmost north of Germany by their accent. They are on a trek and are looking for the next hut (which is Totalphütte) and the shortest but easiest path towards it. We can’t offer them anything easy but we describe the way we came. One of them is looking worried while the other doesn’t seem to listen and cheerfully exclaims: “Now this is easy!” They will have some trouble getting their big packs up to the Gamsluggen Gap.
We start our ascent to Gawalljoch and even though I would love to go on to Schweizer Tor, Judith won’hear of it. “We need to catch the last cable-car”, which runs at 5 p.m. so there’s not much time to waste. Our limestone mountains look more and more perfect and while we are hiking the last steps to the saddle we decide to take a short break there. A three-headed family already has found the best place but we take the second best, munching our apples.
Far below a herd of cows pulls off a stunt: they are slowly trudging along in a line but suddenly the first one starts to sprint at full speed for a few hundred metres, slightly kicking at the end. The next cow reaches the same spot and starts her sprint, then the next and next until all have reached the far side.
The Race to the Cable-Car
We pick up our stuff and start hiking down to Lünersee. At first we are alone but out of nowhere a young family (Team YF) appears and follows us. One of their boys keeps running ahead the other lags behind complaining to his mother. And we right in the middle of it all. We reach Lünersee Alpe, lose Team YF but gain a lot of new competitors. It doesn’t help that Judith is looking for restrooms again and we afterwards miss each other. We are hopelessly behind the crowd once we meet again.
What follows is the toughest part of the day – a long flat hike around the big lake. Everybody speeding at full throttle since cable-car closing time is getting closer. The lake road is already quite crowded before we reach the intersection with the Schesaplana Route from Totalphütte but afterwards we are marching in groups. We’re not marching in step but still it looks like infantry moving to the front.
Finally we reach the cable-car and realize that there is a long queue even outside the building. We get in line at 4:15 and are confident to reach the last cab at 5:00 p.m. But there are so many people, the queue is so long that we are not even near the counter at that time. There is only one cab which has to return all the way back to Douglasshütte so that it can take only 42 persons within 5 minutes. By the time we are in the cab it is 5:45 and we have spent 90 minutes in line!
There is a last race down valley with the cars and I must admit that I’m least patient when I’m behind the wheel. Some slow cars let us pass but we take a stop in Brand to get some necessary groceries (I forget which). We return to Bürserberg and now tackle the hardest part of the day: climb the stairs to our apartment … Completely out of breath we reach the platform, open the doors and fall upon the sofa.
All in all – a day well spent!
And tomorrow we’ll climb Saulakopf!
And maybe Schafgafall as well!