Fiescherhorn is one of the Bernese Oberland 4000m peaks in the heart of Switzerland. From the ski town of Grindlewald, the Fiescherhorn is an imposing wall of ice and snow, the highest and most distant visible just to the left of the Eiger. But from the South the peak is much less formitable, presenting only about 100mH of easy ridge scrambling after a long snow/glaciar approach.
My two partners wanted to do it the hard way and hike up from Fiesch, another ski town far in the South. It takes a day and a half of skiing up the Aletchgletcher - Switzerland's largest - to reach the point you can get to in 15 minutes using the expensive Jungfraujoch railway, departing from Grindlewald/Interlaken. I had one last day on my SwissRail half price card, making the journey a lot less damaging on the wallet, so I decided to meet up with them the next day for the summit hike.
Day 1: Chamonix to Monchjoch Hut
We drove early morning from Chamonix to the town of Brig, in Swiss Valais. After a quick "bon voyage" I settled into a lesuirly cafe breakfast waiting for my train connection while my friends motored on up to Fiesch. The weather was pretty good, with just some scattered high clouds. A light jacket was fine and everything here in the low valleys bright green. It was a five hour journey with a couple changes in trains. At Interlaken an incredible amount of Asian tourists packed into the little cogwheel train towards Jungfraujoch. A Korean tour guide caused the neighboring carriage of Europeans to snicker as he laid down a constant stream of loud announcements of every single thing we passed.
On the last leg from Kliene Schedig I changed into ski mountaineering gear for my 15 minute solo journey to the Monchjoch hut, where I would spend the night. At the first "window" the train stopped for five minutes so everybody could rush out and snap pictures. Quite impressive! You look straight down from high on the Eiger West Face. I shuttered a little, having a flashback of a terrible accident witnessed on the Matterhorn.
At the second "window" I rushed out eagerly with all the other tourists to snap pictures only to see total whiteout. I was surprised and not too happy about this... Seems those "scattered high clouds" translated into white out up high.
We arrived, finally, at Jungfraujoch to an impressive set of giant floor to cieling windows featuring an unparalelled view of... absolutely fuck all nothing. White, white, everywhere. As I gathered the ski gear, I was amused greatly to watch the around 150 Asian tourists mill about for two minutes and then turn right back around for the train down. $250 to see NOTHING! Why would you bother? Befuddled and amused, I slung the skis over my shoulder and made for the tunnel exit.
No wind but no viz either... I clicked into bindings and headed off into the fog. Thankfully the hut, I guess in an effort to attract hikers for lunch, has equipped the short route with giant wooden stakes every twenty meters or so. Otherwise it would have been hair-raising just to find the place and avoid the crevasses.
Pretty quickly I arrived at the hut, checked in, and began wasting the hours uneventually until nightfall.
Day 2: Monchjoch hut to Summit and Back
All evening I'd listened to dire predictions of continued white out so my hopes to make any summits on this trip were pretty slim. But at around 4 AM I stumbled out of bed for a slash and what's there above me but every star in the solar system and beyond. I took a sleepy moment to make out the Jungfrau and the Aletchhorn in the distance - my first clear view ever at this spot.
The Aletchhorn is the highest one on the right.
Two hours later, happy spirits all around in the hut. Breakfast, many pictures taken, excited talk of the peaks of the day. The skies clear and sunny and not a breath of wind anywhere! Quite cold, and a layer of fresh powder snow. Could there be any better conditions for a spring ski mountaineering trip?
Panning the other direction, down the Aletchglacier to the mighty Aletchhorn.
Part of me enjoys American style camping while the other part enjoys hot tea and the comforts of Alpine huts. The Monchjoch hut holds 150 but had 10 of this morning. It was a long time since I found such perfect conditions for the start of a climb, and I prolonged breakfast many minutes longer just to bask in the glow of the moment.
But time to get started. Out the door we go...
...and down the glaciar. At first I thought it would be too flat to enjoy. Then I saw these ski mountaineers making quite a lot of turns down it and thought hey a little pow for the morning. Then I realized the average ski mountaineer skis like total crap as I cruised down without making a single turn.
The only drawback of having fresh snow is when it gets flat. The only thing worse than skinning up a nearly flat glaciar is skinning down
a nearly flat glaciar. But hey how can you complain on a day like this?
Here I met up with my friends, considerably more tired than I was having covered more than 10km of distance yesterday and this morning. But they were as happy as I was and eager to get to the summit.
Nuno and Vincent are both guide aspirants with the ENSA guiding school in Chamonix so even though I'd gotten a day of rest versus their day of serious work, it was sometimes a struggle to keep up.
And up and up it was, traveling through some pretty impressive glacial scenery. The fresh snow made it all the more pristine...
The view began to open up towards the top. The Aletchhorn in the foreground with the Zermatt-Saas chain in the background. You can just barely see the Matterhorn starting to poke through.
The uphill skiing was technical easy until quite near the top, although difficult for those breaking the trail. This was a guided group of six and an unguided group of three. European style is to hang back and let the others do the work for you but I have ethical problems with this approach. So dispite my friends wishes I plowed ahead and eventually found myself swapping leads with a Swiss guide.
Pretty close to the top, it quickly became very steep and we reached an awkward bergshrund. I plowed a trail through and broke a steep track that I think the guided clients weren't capable of following. They muppeted about trying anyway, eventually giving up and going on foot through the waist deep powder snow. Quickly too, our group was on foot and the route turned into a steep icy couloir, then a messy loose rocky - but easy - face climb. After 100m of this, we crested the ridge arriving at a flat glacial cirque.
The guided group predictably gave the summit climb a miss and headed down the other side, towards the Finsteraarhorn hut. The other group followed as well, leaving it up to the three of us to figure out how to get to the summit. It was suprisingly tricky route-finding. At one point Nuno was about to give up, as we could not find a good way to get onto the ridge. But at the last moment we found the way and once onto the right point of the ridge, another 50m of very easy scrambling got us to the top.
The view down to Grindlewald was quite impressive... well actually it was pretty damn impressive in all directions. We still had to get out of here, though, so we didn't linger too long.
Some uneventual downclimbing got us back to the skis and now time for the fast and fun way out. We descended 500m vertical in around 15 minutes, with most of that time spent videoing and snapping photos. I was an avid hiker for a long time, but after discovering ski mountaineering I just can't imagine climbing a peak like this without skis. On this day for example, it would have been absolutely impossible to climb the mountain any other way - the deep snow made even snowshoes impossible. But on skis, even breaking trail isn't that difficult. And on the way down instead of postholing in deep snow and spending hours trudging down, it turns into the highlight of the trip.
Now at the base, we put the skins on again for the long flat climb back up to the Monchjoch hut. This was probably the most difficult part of the trip. All three of us were exhausted by the long day and the route up the hut just seemed to go on and on forever. We took many long breaks, all of us totally destroyed. We started swapping leads, pushing ourselves on by saying "OK this time we'll walk 100 steps before resting. 1, 2, 3..."
Finally we arrived back at the warm and cosy mountain hut at around 5 PM. We were the only people in the hut that night and had a fun time swapping mountain stories with the hut guardian, a local Grindlewald girl up here at the hut for her third year.
Day 3: Retreat!
The plan was to tick off the Monch and maybe the Jungfrau as well during the next day, or two, depending on how the weather went.
Well that weather can really wreck your plans. During the previous afternoon and evening the white out returned and the winds went from light to strong to hut-shaking strong and then got even stronger. It was nearly impossible to sleep that night as even the heavy roof beams of the hut were creaking and shaking! The hut guardian didn't seem concerned so we just tried to assage our subconcious into sleep even though Hurricane Katrina was raging outside.
In the morning, the situation had, if anything, gotten even worse. We ate a worried breakfast on a shaking table, deciding what to do. We had planned in the worst case just to ski down the Aletchglaciar down the way Nuno and Vincent had come up, back to their waiting car at Fiesch. Five hours, most of it easy downhill skiing. But although the Aletchglaciar is very mellow, there are still some nasty zones of crevasses. In sunny skies, we would not hesitate to go, but white out on a glaciar can be incredibly dangerous. The cold and high winds also scared me quite a bit - I did not want to be lost in the middle of the glaciar slowly freezing to death...
Finally we made the call - we'd take the train back down. My half price card now expired, this would mean $150 down the drain! But we had no choice, geared up, headed out.
The 15 minute downhill ski to Jungfraujoch confirmed our decision to use the train. At times we could not even see the next wooden marker in the thick fog, even though we knew it was less than twenty meters away!
At the station, we waited for the first train of the morning down, and rode it in fairly low spirits, paying the full train fare back to Brig. Six hours later we arrived at the car, a couple hours more, back in Chamonix in T-shirts. Not happy about the train detour but hey, a great summit with great friends, great weather, great snow... what more can a ski/climbing bum want out of life?
Thanks to Nuno and Vincent for making this trip happen. See you for the next one!