Spring has arrived. Temperatures are rising, the days are getting longer and the mountains are getting in shape for the summer season. I'm eager to go to the Alps again. I start tossing around a few ideas with my buddy Jan, and we settle on the south of Switzerland.
We hope to climb one or maybe even two of the steep ice faces in the Mischabel Group
. More to the point, we have been studying the Lenzspitze NNE-face
and Hohberghorn North Face
. But these mountains are well over 4000 m and these faces are big, so first we need to get used to the thin air or we'll be too slow.
Zooming in on the top of the Brunegghorn north face from the Topalihütte
It so happens that, a couple of years earlier, I saw another beautiful ice face just around the corner from our objectives: the Brunegghorn North Face
. That sight made a deep impression, but I didn't think I would ever climb it; finding the right partner for something like that isn't easy, and I didn't know Jan yet. However, I had not forgotten. And it had two key selling points to make it an ideal acclimatization goal: it was a bit lower, and the steep part of the face was relatively short.
Easy does it, planned or not
It's nice to live in Amsterdam, but coming from sea level in a flat country means that every mountaineering trip starts with an acclimatization period. Supposedly one should take it easy on those days, but I'm not good at that. Once I'm in the mountains, I want to do something! This time we get a bit of help though: The weather isn't very stable, and so we get more rest than we have planned for in preparation for the big day.
Jan and I travel to the Turtmann Valley, in the south of Switzerland. After a long drive, we arrive much later than planned. The sun is long gone, which makes it near impossible to find a decent place well away from the road deep in the valley to put up a tent. I end up camping on a flat grassy area quite close to the road instead. Jan elects to sleep in his car.
A car being mauled at the designated but dangerous parking area
In the morning we pack up and drive a few kilometers back down the valley. At Gruben, we turn up a small side road, which soon leads to a parking area. It's flat and grassy, which, in addition to the car that's already there, has attracted a small herd of big cows. To us they are friendly enough, but Jan expresses his doubts about their intentions towards parked cars. They seem to think that the one that's already there is meant to sharpen their horns on. It's already got a few scratches, and we watch a cow moving in for the kill.
Since it is Jan's car that we came in, he isn't happy to just leave it there and hope for the best. I'm not arguing. Instead, we drive a few minutes to nearby Meiden. At the local hotel, we report the problem with the designated parking area. They seem surprised, as if Swiss cows are not supposed to do that, but we feel we've done our duty by calling it in.
Alpenrose in the Grüobtälli
Jan crossing an old snowfield
With this unplanned delay out of the way, we finally start doing what we came for, which is to hike up to the Augstbordpass (2893m). There is a clear and well marked trail up the Grüobtälli.
Altogether it's an 1100 m ascent, and for our first day Jan is content with that. After a break for a bite to eat and to enjoy the views, he is ready to go back down, but I'm not. I want to continue up to the nearby Schwarzhorn (3201m), which, according to my guidebook, involves some easy scrambling.
However, I discover that I've made an error in selecting my footwear for the day. I had not expected much snow, and have fairly light approach shoes. Fine for hiking, and, as I would find out later, with soles that provide excellent friction on rock, but their pattern gives little traction in snow. Besides, without a high shaft, my feet will probably get wet if I try. I give it a go anyway, but, realizing my mistake, I turn around after five minutes or so to catch up with Jan.
Later that afternoon we drive to the end of the public road. Once more Jan wants to sleep in the car, and I go looking for a camp site. Having daylight makes all the difference. Just a minute away is a nice, flat, grassy area, next to the river, and completely out of sight from the road. Perfect!
Looking up the Turtmänna river from the end of the public road, with the perfect camp site on the grassy spot by the stream.
As we wake up, things outside don't look good. It's rainy, and it stays that way the whole day, interrupted by only short bright spells. We stay put and have an unplanned rest day. Fortunately I packed a book for just such an occasion.
I haven't finished my book yet, but the weather is much improved. We haven't made big plans for the day, so I let the sun dry out my tent before breaking camp.
Deeper into the valley lies the Turtmannhütte
(2519m), which is our goal. Tomorrow we want to sleep higher, both for acclimatization purposes and to be closer to the Brunegghorn, so that we have a shorter summit day. However, there are no huts higher up near Brunegghorn, so we'll have to camp and that means bigger packs. I pack food for a total of four days, but only two dinners and breakfasts. Apart from that, I plan to eat in the hut. Jan actually prefers camping over using huts, and will put up his tent somewhere in the vicinity of the Turtmannhütte tonight. Fortunately for him, he doesn't eat quite as much as I do, but with four days of supplies, his pack still looks bigger than mine.
Hikers on their way to the Turtmannhütte, visible on a shoulder high up on the left. Bishorn (4153m) dominates the view.
Jan on the rocks
After breakfast we go rock climbing. There are many sectors in the vicinity of the hut, with a ton of bolted sports routes. We chose sector "Marmor", which isn't far from the route to Brunegghorn. That way we don't have to go back to the hut when we're done, but can continue straight to our intended high camp.
"Marmor" is supposed to be half an hour from the Turtmannhütte, but with our big packs we need a bit longer to get there. It's been more than half a year since my last rock climbing experience, and I find that I'm rusty. Still, we get a nice bit of climbing done.
Shortly after 2 o'clock a few drops start falling. Clearly the weather hasn't settled yet. To have enough time to find a good site for our high camp and pitch our tent we would have to leave pretty soon anyway, so we call it a day. Fortunately, before long it gets dry again.
Schöllihorn from our camp site
Around half past four, at around 2950 m, we reach the edge of the Brunegg Glacier. Our plan, mostly based on studying the map, was to camp somewhere around there. However, we can't find a good spot. Either it isn't flat, or there is too much (wet) snow, and, most importantly, there is a strong wind blowing. We need a more sheltered spot.
Eventually we decide to retrace our steps and descend a bit, to where we had crossed a small stream that originated from a snowfield high on the flanks of the Schöllihorn. According to the map, it's the Bruneggbach. From the way up, we know it is sheltered enough, and there is the added bonus of running water. It will just be a matter of finding a dry, flat spot. As we descend, I fortuitously spot a promising site on the other side of the stream, just a little bit up the bank.
Cooking at high camp
We make our way there and upon close inspection it turns out to be perfect! It's obvious that people have camped here before, for not only is it completely flat and sandy, an area big enough for a couple of tents has been cleared of all boulders. In fact, it was exactly that lack of boulders that had made it stand out from a distance, or I would not have seen it in the first place. The only drawback is that it is only about 2875 m high, and a little bit further from the Brunegghorn than we would have preferred. But camping any closer would mean camping on the glacier itself, and with the relatively high temperatures that's not an attractive option.
Our alarm goes of. It's a quarter to four. One look outside teaches us that visibility is poor. No use in getting up.
The alarm goes of again. It's five o'clock. By now it's raining, even if only softly. We resign to having another rest day. To save weight, I had not brought my book this time, so we just do nothing, continuing my laziest acclimatization period ever. Much later that morning it clears. The sun comes out, it gets warm even, and it's actually a fine day to be in the mountains now. But it's far too late for our plan and we just take it easy.
Üssers Barrhorn, a few years earlier
In the distance, we see lots of climbers high on the popular normal route on Bishorn
. I presume they started from the Tracuithütte not much later than around dawn. Much closer, some hikers on the trail between the Turtmannhütte and the Schöllijoch pass not far from us. Undoubtedly most of them will continue to the summit of Üssers Barrhorn
from there, and then return the same way. On their way up, I doubt if they will see us, but on their way down they must be blind not to spot our bright, red tent.
A couple of years ago I've already been up there, and I don't feel the need to do the same again. To stretch my legs, I settle for a short stroll instead. Along the trail I encounter a few groups of hikers. As I ask them about the weather forecast for tomorrow, the first group don't know, but the second, a couple of Swiss girls, are most friendly and one of them whips out her smartphone to look it up. Alas, there is no reception up there.
At the end of the day, we turn in early again. I'm not too optimistic about our chances...
Zooming in on Bishorn from our camp as conditions are improving. Look at all the climbers up there!
On second thought we have set the alarm earlier, and so we wake up at 3 this time. Jan is the first to look outside and he declares that he sees stars! All my doubts whether our plan would even get a chance melt away like snow in the sun, and immediately I'm in an excellent mood. It's on!
Now, getting up early isn't my strong suit. Everything goes slowly. Besides, I need a big breakfast so that I don't run out of steam during the climb, but forcing it down while I'm not really hungry takes time. And we also still need to collect and purify water for the long day ahead. A small error in preparation. We leave camp at a quarter to five.
Right out of the gates, Jan is faster than me. I'm not even trying to keep up, no, I purposely pace myself for I don't want to get tired on the approach, and certainly don't want to get my back all sweaty. Still, soon enough we reach the edge of the glacier, where we had already been the day before yesterday but found it far too windy to camp. From here on we're on new ground.
Alpenglow on Bishorn
First light on Brunegghorn
We walk up the gentle slopes of the Brunegg Glacier. Time passes by as we slowly get higher. Dawn arrives, and the mountains around us are lit up, first only their very tops, but gradually whole faces. The seracs on the nearby Bishorn northeast face look dangerous. In contrast, the smooth Brunegghorn north face looks tranquil and welcoming. It doesn't look as steep as I remember it, but then again, we're not looking straight at it and I know that angles can be deceiving.
I study the upper part of the glacier, between Brunegghorn and Bishorn, for if all goes well, we'll be coming down that way. Higher up, I make out some crevasses. And I see that, just below the ridge connecting the two mountains, the glacier is a little steeper than where I am right now. Nothing serious though.
Jan starts crossing the Abberg Glacier
Once we arrive at the Bruneggjoch, the saddle northwest of the mountain, we finally see the face in its full glory. Illuminated by the morning sun, it looks brilliant! But to find out if it's actually in shape or not, we have only one option: we have to go there. And so we start crossing the Abberg Glacier, aiming for the highest point of the bergshrund, in the center of the face.
Jan takes point. At first it's not steep at all, but gradually that changes. The top layer of snow is a bit soft. His boots regularly disappear, but mostly he doesn't sink much further. It's tiresome, but nothing unusual, and eventually we reach the shrund.
A closer view of the bergshrund
Jan sitting on the edge of the bergshrund
We can see that it's easy to get across and on the face above. However, it's going to be steeper, and there is a layer of snow on top. By itself that wouldn't be a problem - if only it had been hard, and the temperature lower. Instead the snow is too soft to feel confident about, and it's not cold at all. Since we've come all the way, we decide to try it anyway. Jan leads the first pitch. I'm waiting, feeling a bit apprehensive that the snow won't give enough purchase.
Sideways view from almost half way up the face
He doesn't return right away, which is a good sign. In fact, he climbs for a long time. I move a bit into the shrund to have some shelter from all the snow he's sending down on me. When it's my turn, I start out quickly. The snow isn't as soft as I thought, and my crampons find good support. Then I get a surprise: an ice screw! Don't get me wrong, it was a welcome surprise. I had been thinking that we were climbing a snow face. Only now did I realize that the snow layer was fairly thin, just about 10 centimeters or so. And below it was beautiful ice!
Looking up at Jan at the top of the 3rd pitch, right below the rock band
Still, progress was slow. The snow was too soft to be of much help. Sometimes it held, sometimes we had to kick our crampons deeper, into the ice below. Tiresome work. And getting rid of the snow layer and then some of the ice before we got to the solid stuff to put in our screws took time as well. Despite these unexpected challenges we climbed on and on, getting higher and higher.
Now, while we both realize that we are much slower than planned, our reactions are quite different. I know that even at our rate we have plenty of time, and the weather isn't threatening, so I'm happy to be in the mountains and enjoying the climb. Perhaps Jan is happy in his own way, but in the mean time he is regularly swearing about the poor condition of the face - especially when I'm leading, and dousing him with snow.
By the time we reach the 4th pitch, the steepest so far, the face isn't all ice anymore. Some rocks are sticking out. There is no need to climb them though, we can still can still say on ice all the time. The snow on top is thinner by now, but its consistency is like loose powder.
I'm leading. After wiping away the snow, I find that the ice below isn't clear: it's speckled with small rocks. There is no way I can get an ice screw in! In the process of searching for better ice I'm clearing away lots of snow. Jan is shouting something. As I had started the pitch, at first I had moved right, to avoid some rocks just above Jan's belay, but I thought I had traversed back and was well left of him by now.
When I later asked Jan about the 4th pitch, he said that he saw me climbing right above him. Were I thought I was gradually moving to the left while I was climbing, from his point of view it looked like I was going almost straight up!
Apparently I'm not though, because all that snow I'm clearing is coming down on him! He clearly isn't pleased, but I don't see that I have a choice. I need to find strong and clean ice for a screw, and so I have to wipe away the snow, again and again. The only thing I can do is to shout and warn him when it's not just snow but bits of ice that I send down as well.
As I'm gaining height, I'm getting decidedly close to the summit. However, I realize I won't be able to get any screws into the uppermost part of the face, with all the rocks just below the summit. Besides, the rocks that occasionally and spontaneously came down the center of the face mostly originated from up there. For that reason we had kept just left of the center of the face, out of the fall line. But right below the top that wouldn't be possible anymore. And so I keep traversing a bit to the left while I'm climbing, until I'm close to the northeast ridge.
I can see the summit cross from the top of the 4th pitch. The perspective is playing tricks: coming from the left, the NE ridge seems to go down to the summit!
Some five to ten meters below the snow clad crest - later in the season it's supposed to be bare - a rock juts out of the face that's just big enough for my feet. I find I can actually stand fairly comfortable on it. I wipe clean the face right in front of me, and am real happy to find what looks like decent ice. Jan shouts that there is still some 10 m of rope left, but I'm not sure if I can build a good belay on the snowy ridge above me. I take my longest ice screw, and its 20 cm go in all the way! I place a backup screw a little higher and build a belay, take in the rope and yell down to Jan that he can start climbing.
Now it's his turn to experience the sugary snow. He finds out for himself why I had taken so long. He even slips away a couple of times, but though I have him, just in case, he catches himself even before the rope is real taut. Eventually he reaches my belay. Earlier, I had already shouted at him that I could see the summit cross, some 20 m away. Now he could see it for himself.
Are you ready to continue over the ridge to the summit?"
Jan gets on the ridge
But, unsurprisingly, he first needs to catch his breath for a few minutes. Though he cannot find a comfortable stance, somehow he still manages to rest a bit. Then, as if summoning something from deep down in his reserves, he starts to climb again, and continues the few meters up to the crest. We have a quick exchange, as if we're too tired to think of longer sentences.
"Is it corniced?"
"Is the snow overhanging?"
"Oh, not really."
That sounds reassuring. However, he isn't comfortable with my suggestion to sit down on the crest itself, preferring instead to stay on the side where we are coming from. He finds solid footing under the snow, and recovers a while.
View down the airy NE ridge and, 2700 m lower, the sunlit village of Sankt Niklaus
Jan's photo, looking down from the NE ridge on me and my belay
The exposed, narrow ridge isn't steep, it just goes up and down a bit. Jan climbs first on the right, then the left, then the right again. Since I'm stuck to the right side myself, safely attached to my screws, I feel better when he was on the left. Although I know that the other side is a huge sheer rock face, I figure that when we're on opposite sides a slip most likely will not be much of a problem. However, he cannot place any protection on the snowy ridge for the snow is too soft and just a few rocks are sticking out, and he's getting further and further away from me. If he slips on my side, well, he will fall quite a distance before the ropes will catch him - but the full force of that fall would be testing my belay, dampened only by the stretching of the ropes. Now, I trust my belay with my life (I'm actually hanging from it from time to time to relax my weary feet), but that doesn't mean I want to test it to the limit.
But despite its airiness, the ridge doesn't pose serious difficulties. Slowly but carefully Jan progresses, and eventually he reaches the summit. I follow while he belays me from the big cross.
Checking my altimeter shows that, after getting on the crest, we only ascended another 12 meters. We have climbed almost the whole face straight to the summit before bailing out to the NE ridge.
Though I'm tired, I suggest that we descend a bit to find a less windy place, but Jan answers that he badly needs to eat something first. While I had started the day on a huge foundation of milk and cereal, and had eaten a few chocolate bars along the way, he had had only a small breakfast and only now he tells me he had nothing since. No wonder he had been running on empty!
Once we had eaten something - it was 2 o'clock by now, so I guess that made it a late lunch - we started down the easy SW ridge, the normal route. The snow was soft, and I kept sinking away. Very tiresome. Several times I had to stop to catch my breath before we got down to the saddle at the base of the ridge.
As we had seen much earlier in the day, there were some crevasses between our position and the lower, almost flat expanse of the glacier. For a while we followed a trail - after all, we were now on the normal route - but when it didn't descend very rapidly, we picked our own way down, much steeper. Sure enough, lower down we joined the trail again. It had apparently zig zagged down, where we went straight.
By now we figured we were well below the crevasse zone we had seen much earlier in the day. Higher up I had already asked Jan if we should glissade, but he declined because his wet gear wasn't all that good and he didn't want to get soaked. Frankly, I wasn't sure about my pants either, but figured that the time we could save would be worth the risk of getting wet.
Bishorn panorama from the flat expanse of the Brunegg Glacier
Now, being fairly safe - relatively speaking, for it's still a glacier - we decided to unrope. Now Jan could go ahead at his own pace, and I could glissade when I wanted to. On the off chance that there was a gaping hole well down below me, I let go of my pack first, and saw it slide down gently. All went well, so I sat down and effortlessly followed my pack. Unfortunately the soft snow acted as a strong breaking agent, otherwise I could have gone down much further. As it was, I didn't think I had descended even one hundred meters. I didn't even catch up with Jan yet, who was moving quickly. He had already reached the fairly flat expanse of the glacier.
Only by the time we got to 3200 m or so, more than an hour after starting our descent, walking became easy. There wasn't much soft snow on top of the glacier anymore. I guess the recent precipitation must have come down mostly as rain at that level. Finally we could just walk. I even got the impression I was slowly catching up with Jan, but that may have been wishful thinking. Right before reaching our tent, I saw Jan at the stream. Couldn't quite make out what he was doing, but being thirsty myself, I could guess. However, I wasn't quite that
thirsty to drink straight from the stream, so I went to the tent first, to get my water filter.
A last look back from the edge of the Brunegg Glacier (and zooming in a whole lot)
Back to the Hut
By now I'm thinking ahead. We have no food left, and our plan is to descend. The nearest meal is to be had at the Turtmannhütte, and I know that dinner will be served there at six. It's around 4:30.
Though tired, I want to pack up quickly. Jan, as we have discussed the day before, prefers to go down to his car, where we have ample supplies. And so I pack my own belongings and our two ropes, and leave Jan at the tent to break camp at his leisure. He doesn't have a deadline - his car will be waiting patiently no matter how late he will get there, and it won't get dark until around ten.
Even packing quickly takes time. By the time I'm done, it's well past five. In some 45 minutes I make a speedy descent. Just remember to take off my helmet as I burst into the hut at 6:05. Sure enough, the soup is already served - after all, this is Switzerland, so you can bank on punctuality.
From the rapid descent I'm all sweaty again, and I haven't seen a shower for almost a week. Though I'm pretty hungry, earlier experiences have taught me that some dinner guests in alpine huts are less appreciative when it comes to smelly climbers, so, in deference to those tender souls, and after first making sure that there was room for one more dinner guest, I said "Ok, I'll be back in 10"
and headed off to the washing room. Sticking my head under the cold tap never felt better, and soon I was back to take my place at one of the tables.
After the soup (and a second helping) came a salad, then spaghetti bolognese - probably the most served meal in alpine huts. Our table seated seven. We made short work of the spaghetti, and someone came by to ask if we would like some more. Of course we did! We quickly dispatched the second portion too. I still had room for more though, so I politely inquired about a third. She must have fed loads of hungry climbers before, but that still earned me a look of surprise from the hut lady. She took it well though, and another big portion promptly materialized. In my defense, I wasn't the only hungry one at our table. Two adolescent boys matched my voracious appetite, and the others did their part as well. But the surprised face of the hut lady will remain a funny memory of at the end of an already memorable day.
However, the end? Not quite. Those that know me, know that I rarely drink alcohol. Only on very special occasions. And so, after desert, I treated myself to hot chocolate with rum and whipped cream. And on that, I slept like a baby. Or was that perhaps because I was tired...?
An old picture of me, spicing up the hot chocolate
Afterwards, as we were talking about our climb, I asked Jan how he felt during the climb, in particular on the steep face above the shrund. He answered he didn't feel anything; he was too focused on climbing and belaying. That answer really surprised me. On a climb, especially a difficult one, I'm focused too, but at the same time I feel very much alive, and most of the time I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. Hard to imagine feeling nothing. But even though he was cursing frequently, both when I was showering him with snow, some ice and even the odd rock (I didn't realize the latter) and when he was struggling with the lack of traction from the loose snow high on the face, he maintained that he was just climbing emotionless. I never would have guessed!
Evaluating our speed
We were slow, and we knew it. Since the face wasn't very high and the weather good (just a few harmless clouds), it wasn't a problem. But for future climbs, our lack of speed could be a problem, so we talked about it.
I thought that the main cause for our slow progress was the poor condition of the route. It takes more time and energy if you keep sliding back down all the time because of the soft snow on top. However, Jan firmly believed that the main reason for our slowness was the fact that we pitched out the whole route. Now, I wouldn't have wanted to solo that face, but perhaps we could have simul climbed it, which would have been faster. To climb something like the Lenzspitze NNE face, which is more than twice as high, we would definitely have to think about that.
But we climbed nothing that serious anymore on this trip; the Brunneghorn north face would turn out to be the highlight. Over the next week and a half, the weather never really settled. We went to the Saastal where we did some rock climbing, all on short routes so we could quickly stop when it started to rain again. When things finally got better, we had just one day left. We made the most of it by climbing Alpendurst
, a fine rock route on Jägihorn. And as a bonus, we got a clear view of the Lenzspitze from across the valley.
Zooming in on Lenzspitze (4294m) and Nadelhorn (4327m) from Jägihorn. That Lenzspitze NNE face, on the left, is 500 m high.