Tschingelhorn – a Bernese Oberland initiation

Acclimatizing well is at the core of a successful mountaineering trip to the Alps. So starting low and working our way up the altitudes was a sensible approach to our plans in Switzerland. It’s easy to do when you’re somewhere like Chamonix where you can reach high altitudes with relative ease on the cable cars, but the Bernese Oberland proved to be a different beast entirely.

We chose the Tschingelhorn due to it being a low alpine summit at 3562m and having a straightforward summit route, graded PD (French for a little difficult) so we knew it was achievable. Having to walk in also meant that we would be able to acclimatize as we went.

What we hadn’t banked on was a mammoth walk to reach the Mutthorn hut at the base of the Mutthorn ridge, almost in the middle of the glacier. It didn’t look that far on the map, but when you add in the ascent to get there, and the hot sunshine, it was a hard slog.

The walk in to the Mutthorn hut

Starting at the end of the Lauterbrunnen valley in the tiny village of Stechelberg, we parked up and followed the signs to Obersteinberg, a 6km walk gaining around 800m height.

Whilst an endless slog uphill on narrow woodland tracks, the path provides a fantastic opportunity to see the changes in the landscape and walk through a pristine UNESCO Word Heritage landscape. Much of the Jungfrau region achieves this designation but as we found out later in our trip, this also brings bus loads of tourists so the solitude we found on our walk into the Mutthorn hut can’t be easily found elsewhere.

It took about 3 hours walking through the woodland forest trails and up to the pastures to reach Obersteinberg, where a hut provided a refreshment stop and a chance to check the map before heading across the glacier beyond.

From here we followed signs to Oberhoresee, a little glacial lake and a popular destination for hikers exploring the valley. We stopped briefly in the baking sun and contemplated cooling off there on our descent.

From there the path becomes less distinct as it turns from a walkers path marked by red and white striped marks, to an alpinist track marked by blue and white marks. It winds through the moraine, scree and eventually out on to the glacier itself.

From looking at our map it became clear that while it was still very early in the season and lots of fresh snow was still around, the glacier itself had receded considerably from what was marked on the map.

This also meant that a direct approach wasn’t possible due to the crevasses and seracs now present. So we had to loop around to be able to ascend up the glacier towards the hut. The snow conditions weren’t great either as the glacier was covered in a foot of snow which had melted to create a surface like the moon.

The Mutthorn hut

The Mutthorn hut perches on the end of the Mutthorn, a shaly rock ridge which rises out of the glacier. To reach the hut required circling around the crevasse to access the door.

Despite its isolated location, or perhaps because of it, the Mutthorn guardians provide a very warm welcome – a hot drink and chocolate to all of their guests. Run by the Swiss Alpine Club, members get a good discount, as do reciprocal clubs.

The evening meal was basic – soup followed by cheese, potatoes and salad and then fruit salad – but considering our location I was surprised to get anything fresh.

Ascending the Tschingelhorn

We left the hut at 4am to ensure we had enough time before the sun rose and started to melt the snow. Crossing the moon like glacier was much easier when it was frozen from a night under clear skies.

The ascent is fairly straight forward, we had to circle around the Tshingelhorn ridge to the South side and ascent the gully to the col and follow the ridge to the summit. At about 45 degrees the 300m gully was long and steep but in a solid condition and well trodden so was easy-going (although at 3000m altitude it was hard work!)

The view from the summit was fantastic, looking over to the Breithorn and further beyond to the Aletschhorn.

Had we properly considered how challenging it would be to get to the Mutthorn hut we would have budgeted for staying more nights and doing other peaks in the area, but as we hadn’t we descended back to the hut and after a quick lunch continued back down to the valley – a very long 17 hour day mountaineering.

Free online mapping can be found at https://s.geo.admin.ch/7bd468f691

Book Review // The Girl Outdoors by Sian Anna Lewis

Its always exciting to receive books to review but this is the first one I’ve had which is written specifically to inspire women to get outside and take up their own adventures.

“There’s still a perception of adventure as an extreme pursuit, a living-off-urine, round-the-world-on-a-unicycle tough club only open to the hardiest grizzled explorer. That’s not what this book, or the outdoors, is about.”

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Gear Review // Paramo Aspira Pro smock

I’m currently gear testing for Holme Valley Mountain Rescue, who are currently fundraising for waterproof jackets for team members.

This is a significant cost to the team, in the region of £5-6000, so we need to know what we’re buying is built to last and able to withstand the worst of the British weather.

I’m reviewing the jackets we get to test, raising the profile of Mountain Rescue teams and the need for practical kit built to really withstand the weather.

Second for the test is Paramo’s Aspira Pro Smock, a heavy weight Pro version of the popular smock.

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The Ring of Steall

Its taken me a while to write up my Easter trip, so much so that trad climbing season is well underway. Anyway…. here you go.

There’s some routes in Scotland that are epic and have a reputation for endurance, requiring nerves of steel or providing amazing views. The Ring of Steall doesn’t disappoint on any of these.

The Ring of Steall is a classic Scottish route, covering 4 munro summits and narrow rocky aretes, made even more special in full winter conditions. The route is around 10 miles long with over 1800m of ascent, making this a tough walk in any conditions.

We tackled this route over Easter when winter was still dominating the mountain summits in Scotland, but snow and ice can lie on Scottish mountains well into the Spring so make sure you check the conditions before you set out and be suitably prepared.

Sgurr a Mhaim

Heading from Glen Nevis lower falls carpark, the walk up the first munro, Sgurr a Mhaim is a long tedious trudge of endless ascent. We didn’t reach the snow line until around 800m but once there the cloud lifted and we were treated to an amazing view of the Devils Ridge.

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I was a bit apprehensive as we crossed the Devil’s Ridge. Its incredibly narrow in places with a few spots of tricky scrambling which can test your head for heights, especially scrambling in crampons. This is grade I terrain in winter so don’t under estimate it; even in summer it would be a tricky scramble.

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Despite a few narrow places the Devil’s ridge wasn’t the intimidating crossing I had anticipated and we reached the other side in no time.

Am Bodach and Stob Coire a Chairn

From the end of the Devil’s Ridge we circled round towards Am Bodach, crossing over the summit of Sgurr am Lhubair. I knew what to expect on Am Bodach, having climbed the summit from the other side in December. However, much later in the season the deep powder snow had been through a winter of freeze and thaw cycles and the descent down to the north col was 200m of concrete-hard neve ice. For the first time on the route I was genuinely a bit scared. I’d slipped on old neve about 8 years ago, the fall resulted in twisting my knee, so I took front pointing the descent slowly and counting under my breathe to calm myself.

Thankfully once we’d descended the snow softened and we even dug out a bucket seat in the deep snow as we crossed to Stob Coire a Chairn, to have lunch in the sunshine. This munro summit is easy to cross without consideration after Am Bodach, but does provide a good view back along the route.

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From the third munro we descended more hard neve, though not terrifying, to our final munro.

An Gearanach

The scramble up on to An Gearanach summit isn’t difficult, but towards the end of the day it did require effort to pick through the snow and rocks to the top.

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Once across the summit the descent also required careful route finding to pick our way down through the rocks and crags. It took several false starts before we found a route down to the col from where we could head East to descend to the river. Don’t head West to the Steall waterfall, whilst this looks like an easier descent initially, you cannot descend directly from Steall Falls.

In winter conditions we had to front point down the steep snow banking to reach the river. From there we continued to descend the path to Glen Nevis and the boggy crossing to reach Steall hut and the steel rope bridge.

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We were lucky to be able to flag a lift back down to our car otherwise it would have been a long dull trudge along the road to finish. Here’s the route for a gpx file click the map to find it via OSMaps :

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Gear Review // ME Kongur MRT jacket

Holme Valley Mountain Rescue, like other teams across the country, have to fundraise for their own kit and this includes team members clothing. HVMRT are currently testing out jackets with a view to kitting out team members, as we don’t currently have branded waterproof jackets.

This is a significant cost to the team, in the region of £5-6000, so we need to know what we’re buying is built to last and able to withstand the worst of the British weather.

I’ll be reviewing the jackets we get to test, raising the profile of Mountain Rescue teams and the need for kit built to withstand the weather.

First up is the Mountain Equipment Kongur MRT jacket – their highest specification Gore-Tex jacket.

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Trying to stay motivated at the end of winter

I’ve just walked off the hill from another disappointing weekend of 70mph winds and a lack of activity it’s made me think – I’ve had difficult winter. I started with the intent to bag lots of winter days towards my winter ML log book and it started well, with a trip with to Glencoe with a friend also working towards her winter ML. (She passed this week). Almost right away it went downhill.

I felt demoralised as I wasn’t as confident as her and lacked belief in myself. I compared myself to her, seeing that I couldn’t keep up with her and she was much quicker at making navigational decisions.

Since then I’ve had 4 other trips to Scotland which have only established this feeling of not being good enough.

I’ve been left to do my own thing by my climbing friends in the Cairngorms and not having the opportunity and confidence to join them, and then two big days in Braemar which I was definitely on it with the navigation but lacked confidence in leading.

And then I went to the Ben, and didn’t manage to finish the CMD Arête circular, only making it to Carn Mor Dearg summit due to really strong winds.

I feel like I’ve had lots of failures and not just that one. There was failing to try Dorsal Arête out of fear and failing to try the Devil’s Ridge on a windy day.

So at the end of winter with one trip north left I’m thinking of not bothering and giving up and letting the spring seep in.

I can navigate really well. I know this. But I worry about being in whiteouts. I have all the skills but on steep terrain I still freak out, especially climbing rocky ridges in the ice.

I’ve suffered from spending the winter with climbers who are technically more skilled than me and have generally left me behind for doing their own adventures. You think this would work in my favour as I’d get to solo some peaks, but I’ve always had someone in tow who either wasn’t as skilled and lacked enthusiasm for effort or occasionally a climber who wished they were climbing and were demoralised they were walking instead.

In honesty, I’ve had some good days too. Snowshoeing in Glen Feshie was the highlight of the winter, gorgeous weather and conditions and I felt success being on my own in the clag in the summit.

I did enjoy the navigational challenges around Braemar too, gaining confidence in my abilities to navigate in poor visibility.

But on the whole winter doesn’t feel like a success to me. There’s been more disappointment.

How do you learn to winter climb?

I joined a mountaineering club to get out more in winter and while that’s happened, after three winters with them I’ve not yet climbed any winter routes.

Winter is so short and the conditions in Scotland so unreliable that climbers in winter lack the patient to teach others in the same way that you find at the summer crag.

How do you learnt to climb in winter without paying for an instructor?

I had a great club trip to Rjukan in 2017 which was aimed at giving people the chance to learn as well as progress. That’s the only time I’ve ever had that opportunity to try and learn.

I’m not against paying for instruction but with winter climbing how does that really build skills to get outside again without a support system?

Or is it my learning style?

Maybe I struggle to learn from the people around me because I lack the confidence to just have a go.

I met a guy this winter at the CIC hut who was in his first winter season climbing and had already lead a IV pitch. His attitude was to just get on something and try, to learn quick and have a go.

Maybe my cautious attitude is what holds me back. Maybe my fears and my reluctance to push myself and find myself scared somewhere exposed, is what stops me just getting on and seconding behind an experience leader.

I had hoped to climb a few routes this winter with friends and the only opportunity I had on Dorsal Arête I bottled it. Since then there’s not been any opportunities, so I’ve failed in that objective for the season.

I’d also hoped to have more log book days completed, but I’ve done 12 this winter.

It feels like poor progress.

What now?

I’m heading into spring being grateful for the chance to whinge on the rocks with the more friendly and helpful trad climbing community.

I’m trying to be less critically reflective of myself and be more open to opportunities.

I’ll try this summer to not let fear prevent me getting on routes so that perhaps next winter I’ll get to try something.

I might still squeeze in one last trip this winter to Scotland but as for the future of my winter ML?

I think I need to be honest that I don’t know if it’s really for me. I don’t know if I’m really a leader in the winter environment, maybe I bit off more than I can chew with that particular challenge.

Cogne: Cascades de Lilliaz

We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.

The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.

We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.

There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.

The ice was actually quite good although it did have gaping holes in some places where you could see straight through to the waterfall below.

We went continued up the river gorge to climb pitch 4.

Pitch 4 felt much easier and while there was a mid way belay point we did it in one pitch.

We had such great fun we headed back down to do the left side of pitch 3.

The following day we couldn’t bear to pay for ski hire so we headed back to climb the first two pitches. Having arrived a bit late we discovered the truth about the Cascade de Lilliaz, it is a very popular ice crag. Especially for groups and for instructors to take clients. As such it took us a while to be able to climb up the middle of the waterfall.

I found this line incredibly tricky as the centre of the waterfall was cauliflower ice formations and very snowy and soft on the top. I didn’t feel stable at all so there was some severe whinging from me.

From here we walked around the gorge to pitch 2 which was much more fun.

Cogne: Valnontey ice climbing

Standing on mushy snow with my axes hooked around a thin lip of ice, I got that horribly familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach when I really don’t like where I am stood. And I had to traverse off the mushy snow to get on to the ice.

Valmiana

Having had a fantastic time climbing on Il Sentiero dei Troll a couple of days earlier, we headed back to the Valnontey valley to climb the waterfall next to it, Valmiana another WI3. My initial reaction was that the first pitch looked massive and steep, but I tried not to let that put me off.

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As it was the first pitch was steep and felt quite hard for a WI3, but it was stepped out from previously climbers so didn’t feel that tricky.

The second pitch was a nice snow plod with an ice pitch in the middle, by which time we were already in the sunshine. The third pitch was also straight forward too.
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It was the fourth pitch, when we were already about 120m up the waterfall that I met my match, the mushy snow and horrible traverse.

Just as the hard, not stepped out ice ended the mushy snow began, with a traverse aiming for the gap in the rocks.

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I didn’t really enjoy trying to kick out warm wet snow to get across to solid ice, so when I emerged out of the top of the pitch I wasn’t very happy. Thankfully the final pitch was a long steep snow pitch, (in the shade so not mushy!) and a solid bit of ice, which was hard on the calves at least felt more secure.

Flash Estivo

After 3 days climbing we had got into the rhythm of climbing but I was also starting to ache all over. Despite the huge walk in to Flash Estivo, right at the end of the Valnontey valley we opted to try the WI3 route.

So on the first over cast day of the week we headed for an hour and a half walk down the valley to the bottom of Flash Estivo. The first issue was that it was starting to snow and we were heading up a 500m 45 degree snow slope to get to the bottom of the route. This wasn’t exactly the quickest route to get to.

As we walked down the valley you could see the aftermath of earlier avalanches.

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As we started the route the snow set in for the day.

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As we set off up the second pitch it became apparent that the ice was either solid or totally unstable so after much effort in trying to find a good route up it we eventually bailed off.

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Whilst we were all a bit disappointed it was the right decision given how long it was taking to get up the route and the weather conditions.

Turning back on a route is never a bad decision. Others might have battled on, but given the remoteness of our route and the deteriorating weather it was the right decision. By the time we had abseiled back down and walked out it was dark and snowing heavily.

Ice Climbing in Cogne – Multipitches galore!

Having had an amazing time in Rjukan ice climbing last year I was very excited about our trip to Cogne this year, but very aware that it wasn’t going to be easy peasy climbing.

Rjukan is the ice equivalent of climbing at Stanage, something for every ability, lots of single pitch ice making it nice and short and 5 minutes from the car. Yes there’s multipitch routes and hard stuff to scare the pants off you, but there’s options for not doing these routes and still having a great time.

Cogne is the opposite in everyway.

In the heart of the Alps, Cogne has two main areas for climbing, the Valeille valley and the Valnontey valley – with climbs being on both sides of the valley from the sides of the mountains. The routes form in mountain gullies or from the edge of crags with terrifying chandeliers to huge walls of solid ice.  All of the routes are committing multi-pitch ice which require abseiling to get off.  This isn’t a place to come for your first ice climbing or multipitch climbing trip.

Route finding

There isn’t a great selection of guidebooks in English for this area either. The new Alpine Ice guide by Mario Sertori is the only one and while it does cover routes in Cogne its isn’t a complete guide and only provide highlights of the popular routes. There’s plenty of French and Italian guidebooks, if you can translate them!

The best sources of information in English are:

  •  free comprehensive route maps online – Iceclimbing Cogne has route maps of Lillaz and Valnontey valleys
  • Bar Licone – the climbers bar in town but also THE place for climbers to share route information online. Many of the routes have handy topos created by climbers, so worth a look to check distance between belays and where the difficult sections are on routes.

Despite the challenges of finding information on the routes, ice climbing in Cogne is a dream for those with experience. There’s nothing better than the delightful warmth in the midday sunshine, which is something that you definitely don’t get climbing in Norway!

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Il Sentiero dei Troll, Valnontey

We had opted for our first route to be a WI3 in the Valnontey valley called Il Sentiero dei Troll.

Il Sentiero dei Troll provided a good initiation to ice in Cogne and set the tone for the week. If you want to get out and climb ice you need to be out of bed early (out of the door before 8am) and be prepared to climb all day.

We did the route in 4 pitches of 60 metres with two of these being at bolted belays. The joy of Europe is that many of the routes are at least partially bolted, when you can find them under all the ice! That said make sure you know how to do Abalakov threads as you will still need to do these for some belays.

It was freezing when we left the car park at Valnontey for the walk in and on getting out of the car we quickly put on extra layers. Close to the end of the valley it wasn’t too far to walk in but did give us change to check out some of the other routes. With the warm temperature the week before we noticed some of the routes at the end of the valley weren’t quite formed.

While Cogne is committing ice climbing, it is still pretty accessible with most of the routes being fairly well sign posted at the bottom of the valley (though a guide book is needed to know which is which) and the walk in was on a clear track adjacent to cross country skiing runs.

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Ascending the steep snow slope to the bottom of the ice was the first task, reminding me that the best place to put on crampons and a helmet is long before you actually need them.
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The route was a mix of steep ice pitches and graded snow slopes and by pitch 2 we were climbing in the sunshine and had taken off quite a few layers of clothing.

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The climbing was fantastic and when we reached the top of pitch 4 we decided we’d enjoyed the best of the route and so abseiled back down.

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At which point I stopped to take this photo of Jared next to the ice on pitch 3, did I really climb that?!

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Disappointed by Fenilliaz

I have to start by saying Fenilliaz isn’t a rubbish route. Had I been in Scotland I’d have been super happy spending the day in a snow covered gully. Having flow to Cogne though to get my axes into some ice I was a bit disappointed by the lack of ice on this route.

Fenilliaz in the Valeille Valley starts by ascending another long snow slope (a recurring theme in Cogne). We started the actual climb from a good belay spot under a huge boulder.

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From here the route takes a long steep snow slope to a short ice pitch, before another snow slope.

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Unfortunately that was where the fun ended and the route seemed to pitter out. Disappointed, and with not enough time left for another route we opted for a short day and a chance to check out the popular Cascade de Lillaz.