During early spring 1990 I made up my mind. I was going to climb a mountain four thousand meters high. After some research only a few alternatives were left for the inexperienced: The Allalinhorn, 4027 m, the Breithorn 4164 m, or the Mönch 4099 m. I decided to go for the Mönch since it seemed to be more challenging and also provided a close look at the Eiger.
I started jogging to improve my physical condition. After a week I experienced bad pain in my knee muscles. “How can you feel pain in muscles you don’t have?” someone asked ironically. Anyway, as the summer approached I had built muscles in both my knees and felt stronger than ever before.
My partner Bengt had some experience from walking in the Swedish “Fjällen” but was also a novice coming to climbing high mountains. We needed training and a guide to take us to the summit of the Mönch. The guide’s name was Johann and his main occupation was as a farmer. He was a short old man about fifty. Johann told us he had two sons, one was twenty-eight and the other was two years old.
On the glacier Johann taught us old techniques of how to get out of crevasses even though we failed the exam by a small margin. He impressively showed us how to make a good anchor in the ice. I noted that there was something peculiar with Johann’s socks since they did not look like socks. When I asked about them he said that he never wore socks, instead he used long bandages since they were more useful if someone had an accident. In all we had an enjoyable day without accidents on the glacier which this video clip vouches for:
We spent the next day climbing up and rappelling down in a climbing area near Grindelwald. Somehow the fifty year old Johann climbed as if he were twenty. “Time for lunch” he declared and went off the vertical cliff nose down only stopping himself by the friction of the rope against his stomach. I looked at Bengt and Bengt looked at me. We clearly understood the difference between an amateur and a professional.
It was time to climb the Mönch. After two days of nice weather a ceiling of grey clouds at 3000 meters was hiding our goal. The amateurs experienced an exciting train ride up to Jungfraujoch at 3454 meters including a stop at the Eigerwand station with views through large windows down the Eiger North face. Johann stayed on the train and slept all the way. The Jungfraujoch was in clouds and I worried about the climb. “Can it be done in this kind of weather”, I asked Johann. “I have never turned around getting this far”, he answered and added, “one week I was on the summit nine times so I should know.”
We were to climb the Mönch along the South-East ridge which is the least difficult route to the summit. To get to the start of the climb, 600 meters below the summit, we had to walk on the glacier for an hour. Had it not been for the heavy head wind, the wet snow falling and the considerable elevation it had most certainly been a nice walk.
The first part consisted of rock sections which we worked our way up while the wet snow blew in horizontally. My good old wool mittens became soaking wet and were of no use. Getting higher up we arrived at the start of a snow ridge. Something felt heavy. It turned out to be my soaking wet jeans. Then I learned the hard way that jeans and mountain climbing do not go together. Just as I thought that we must be very close to the summit Johann said encouragingly “We are almost half way”. We moved on happily unaware of the precipices hidden in clouds. In the end we stood on the summit and one amateur said to another having his glasses completely iced up, “It’s not the view that counts, it’s the fact that we are here.”
The Mönch is the one in the middle. Seen from the north the Eiger stands to the left and the Jungfrau to the right. The first ascent of the Eiger was made in 1858 by Swiss guides Christian Almer and Peter Bohren and Irishman Charles Barrington and in 1811 the Swiss Meyer brothers from Aarau together with and two chamois hunters were the first to stand on the summit of the Jungfrau. But who was the first to ascend the Mönch?
Was it a Russian princess named Helene Koltsov-Maqsalsky, better known by her penname Dora d'Istria? She claimed to have made the first ascent in 1855. Her “La Suisse allemande et l’ascension du Mönch” from 1856 gives the account. She started together with four guides and four porters form Grindelwald in the morning of June 11. Their intention was to climb the Jungfrau. The party spent the first night at Eigerhöle and reached a plateau on the Mönch the next morning. Despite thick clouds they saw the Jungfrau to the left. Due to the weather conditions they changed plans and decided to climb the Mönch instead of the Jungfrau. The two guides Peter Jaun and Peter Bohren went ahead to place a flag on the summit. The others followed on good snow free from ice and rocks. They all stood on the summit three o’clock in the afternoon. The same evening the group was back in Gridelwald and without stopping the princess continued down to Interlaken. She even paid a round figure of 1000 Swiss Franc to her guides for issuing a certificate of the ascent.
One who expressed strong doubts of the princess’s ascent of the Mönch was the Swiss Alpine climber and historian Gottlieb Studer. In his “Uber Eis und Schnee” from 1896 he questions the vague route descriptions for both ascent and descent. The time given for the descent must be false. Studler thinks that they in the bad weather mistook the Jungfrau for the Turgberg and that they possibly had reached the Klein-Mönch, 3687 m, between the Unter-Mönchjoch and the Mönch itself.
The true first ascent of the Mönch is dated 1857. Dr. Siegmund Porges from Vienna and with the Grindelwald guides Christian Almer and Ulrich and Christian Kaufmann climbed the mountain on August 15 that year. Their route was likely directly up the East Ridge. Today’s normal route along the South-East Ridge was first climbed in 1863 by Reginald Macdonald with Christian Almer and Melchior Anderegg. In 1875 Rev F.T. Wethered with Almer and Christian Roth were the first to climb the South-West Ridge.
It was decided that my company would have the yearly kick-off in 1993 during a weekend in Rome. To go from Göteborg to Rome meant passing the Alps and that could not be done without climbing a mountain. I persuaded my colleague Lasse to fly with me in advance and stay four days in Grindelwald. Lasse was no mountain climber but he was in good shape having run a Marathon earlier in the season so I thought it would work out. My plan was to climb the Jungfrau but Lasse did not know that. In fact, he had never even heard of the Jungfrau.
This was in pre-Internet days so I called the Bergsteiger Centrum in Grindelwald and presented my plan. Since Lasse had no climbing experience we agreed on similar training as Bengt and I had done three years ago. Thus, one day on the Oberer Grindelwald Gletscher and one day rock climbing at the place called Gletscherschlucht. The third day was for climbing the Mönch and if everything worked out well we could have a go at the Jungfrau the last day. The day before we were to fly to Zurich we went out shopping for a few items needed to transform Lasse into a mountaineer.
Sunday morning September 4 we met our guide. His name was Ueli Bühler and he did not look like the experienced mountain guide we had expected. He was a tall young man about twenty-five and he was not a farmer. Instead, we later learned that he was one of the best rock climbers and best all-round mountaineers in Switzerland. But that we did not know at that time.
The September morning was chilly as we spent an hour on an Alpine meadow practising how to do figures of eight and the like. All the time we were facing the Eiger Mittelegi ridge against a clear blue sky. “Some day”, I said to myself. Again we had an exciting day on the dramatic glacier flowing down between the Wetterhorn and the Schreckhorn.
On the rock climbing day we learnt not to stay too close to the rock and to use the legs rather than the arms. We enjoyed taking the steps in the world of climbing. At least we looked as if we did according to this clip.
“That’s what we are here for” said a disappointed American at the dinner table in the Mönchjoch hut. He was talking about the Eiger but its famous North Face had been in bad condition all season. The good thing about the Mönch was that it was always in good condition. I spent the night in the 3450 meter high hut enduring a bad headache.
Early next morning we were back on the South-East route again. Soon enough we came to a land mark in form of a rain gauge. Ueli told us about last year when he had guided a married German couple. They were on their honeymoon and wanted to do something extraordinary like climbing the Mönch. When they came to the rain gauge the woman was frightened and refused to continue. The husband solved the problem by securing the wife to the rain gauge with a rope so that he and Ueli could climb to the summit. The story may be true - or it may not be true.
This time the weather was excellent. Now it was impossible to avoid seeing the precipices on both sides of the narrow ridge leading up to the summit. “It’s not the fact that we are here it’s the view that counts” one happy amateur said to another standing on the very summit of the Mönch. The video:
Waking up the next morning in the Mönchjoch hut was no fun. “This weather is not for climbing the Jungfrau” said Ueli. Down again at the Kleine Scheidegg I asked Ueli to take my movie camera and film and at the same time describe the normal route on the Eiger North face. His filming and narration of the Heckmair route was enhanced by the fact that he had led the climb several times. Here is how it came out:
The Mönch seems to have grown lately which is a surprise in these days of glacier melting. In 1935 the altitude was determined to be 4099 meter. This value was printed on maps and used in the literature. New measurement using aerial photogrammetry in 1993 gave the new value 4107 meter which is the height officially used today. Still a new value of 4110 meter was found in 1999 but has not been officially accepted.
The full story is given in the German text: Vom Wachsen und Schrumpfen der Berge – Die Geschichte der Höhenkote des Mönchs. (From the growth and shrinkage of the Mountains - History of the height of the Mönch).
It was August 1995 and the target was the Eiger by the Mittellegi ridge. The plan was to first climb the Mönch by the South-West ridge as a warm up. Ueli had been worried about too much snow on the Mittellegi ridge the last time we had had contact. “We will see”, he said.
The long walk up to Kleine Scheidegg from Grindelwald is quite entertaining if you turn your head to the left and watch the Eiger North Face. Having a beer at the train stop Alpigen and watching the face sitting down is as good an alternative. The long walk up to the Guggi hut on the Mönch from Kleine Scheidegg is a quite demanding 730 meter height gain. Meeting only a family of mountain goats on the way I spent an hour in solitude sitting outside the hut with my legs dangling high over the Guggi glacier. The hut log revealed that two Englishmen had spent the previous night in hut and left early for Mönch by the Nollen route. I continued upwards from the hut for half an hour before I turned back down again.
I tried to sleep in one of the fifty bunk beds on the second floor of the Railway station restaurant at Kleine Scheidegg. Being almost the only one staying there and being tired I still had a hard time to sleep. The reason might have been the couple in the other end of the room making love.
While waiting for the early train up to Jungfraujoch next morning I heard someone calling “Hannes”. It was Ueli of course. One year had passed since we had climbed the Wetterhorn and it was nice to see him again. “It’s not possible, too much snow and ice” he said. That meant no Eiger for me this year. I was tired and slept all the way and did not even bother to get off the train at the Eigerwand station to look out the windows.
The approach march to the start of the South-West ridge of the Mönch is no great undertaking. It is a fifteen minutes uphill walk. However, the climb itself has a demanding start and the rocks become steep rather quickly. In fact, the climbing at the most difficult sections is awkward in mountain boots. With some good advice from Ueli I overcame the crux and began to experience mountain climbing when it was at its best, sunshine, warm dry rocks and no wind.
After climbing up a small snow field we stepped up on some rocks. Ueli pointed with his ice axe at a metal plate. I looked briefly and noted something that looked like two names and a date. I could not read the names so I just nodded. You do not say anything in situations like that. You just understand. A year later someone told me that the commemorative plaque high on the Mönch memorialized Ueli's two elder brothers who had fallen to their deaths when climbing the Nollen route in the winter. What do you say?
We were completely alone, no other people could be seen on the mountain this day. After a break admiring the views we climbed the snow ridge to the summit where we fed peanuts to some ravens. A closer look over toward the Eiger revealed a snowy Mittellegi ridge. This was indeed a special climb. The route is very alpine and a lot more interesting than the normal route by the South-East ridge which we descended. The video:
Waking up the next morning in the Mönchjoch hut was no fun. “This weather is not for climbing the Jungfrau” said Ueli. But we did anyway.
Thanks to Ueli Bühler for excellent guiding, for taking pictures and for carrying and filming with my camera.
Thanks to desainme and isostatic for comments on the original text.