Tough decisions on the Jungfrau

Crossing the 1 foot wide ridge of snow I was very aware of the snow melting under my feet and becoming unstable. I held my breath and walked confidently, eyes ahead.

We’d already lost half an hour on the ascent waiting for a team ahead of us to climb the snow to the ridge line, their guide leading the way and belaying them up. When we crossed the ridge we had to wait again for the guide to cross the couloir, digging a foot deep through the snow to place ice screws, securing the traverse to the metal stake and beyond to the rocks.

Waiting on a route is never ideal, especially when the snow under our feet was fresh and only had one night of freezing. And the sun was already high in the sky, melting it.

Tempting fate

Our decision to have a go at the Jungfrau was borne out of our original goal to climb it and the Monch on our trip to Switzerland, and out of frustration at having our plans change due to wet weather for a few days. For 4 days it rained heavily on and off, a few of those times we had been caught out trail running or crag climbing, determined to make the most of the breaks between showers.

The weather had promised to be glorious on Saturday, the day before we went home, so after a long discussion about the likelihood of the snow higher up having had chance to consolidate, we gambled on a trip up high to try the Jungfrau. We also winced at the cost of the Jungfraujoch train, at £180 or so each this wasn’t a cheap gamble.

So Friday afternoon we headed up on the train, through the low cloud and drizzle. There’s no doubting that the Jungfraujoch is an amazing feat of engineering, but in the mist we were unable to really appreciate this, with no view to be had at the Eismeer station half way up the inside of the Eiger.

Despite the awful weather the summit station was busy with tourists, also unable to appreciate the landscape their were in from the panorama windows of the cafe.

We kitted up at the doorway and headed out along the snowy track to the Monchjoch hut, it what can best be described as typical Scottish conditions. Damp and foggy.

Waking up to clear skies

Waking at 3am to discover that it had been clear skies overnight and the ground had frozen was a great relief but we were aware that this wasn’t likely to last and the unconsolidated snow while frozen now would soon melt in the morning sun.

We were the second team out of the hut as we headed back along the track to the Jungfraujoch where we roped up and headed across the glacier as quick as we could to the bottom of the Rottersattel ridge.

The views down the glacier even at 4.30am were beautiful.

Before stepping on to the rock ridge we had to cross a crevasse bridge, I wondered how stable it would be as we descended later.

The rock ridge began with what we now realised was typical Swiss broken rock before we reached the bigger stable rocks. Climbing the ridge we moved quickly together, traversing round the east side and heading left before climbing up to the top.

Once up the rock we had a lovely snow plod across the broad ridge to the bottom of the ascent. The sun was already shining and we’d caught up the guided group ahead of us.

We had a snack and a drink waiting for the group to ascend and traverse the snow ridge, mindful that we were losing valuable time and the snow was melting. We were grateful to the guide for breaking trail, but his choice to belay his group one by one up the snow was taking time.  I was particularly nervous when we traversed the narrow arete and onto the snow bank which looked down on the steep western side. The metal stakes were appreciated on the traverse.

From here we had a rocky ridge to ascend to the summit, but with the sun beating down and the snow turning to slush beneath our feet, within 100m of the summit at 9am we decided to turn around. The route we had come up had required considerable front pointing to ascend.

With quick discussion and much disappointment, we decided to turn around in order to descend safely – to reach the summit might have taken an hour to get up and back to where we were and it was a chance we didn’t want to take.

Retreating from a route is always disappointing. The team ahead summited and thanks to their guide who knew an alternative way to descend they did so quickly. However, without this knowledge we saw the giant serrac as an impenetrable obstacle to descend, and so we had to retreat the way we came, down the mushy snow, carefully.

As we reached the bottom of the rocky Rottersattel ridge we realised that the crevasse bridge was now too soft to walk on and to walk above it on the slope too risky to try – the snow too soft to hold an arrest if one of us slipped. So we had to head down the other side of the ridge and descend much further on shale to reach the glacier.

The trek back to the Jungfraujoch station was incredible slow and tiring in the midday sunshine.

Scrambling on the Wetterhorn

Towering over Grindelwald town the Wetterhorn is captivating, its ridges and high glacier catch the eye. Its also less likely to be shroud in cloud than the Eiger so looks seriously impressive.

The route up the Wetterhorn from Grindelwald takes in the Wilsgratli ridge up to the Wettersattel and then snow or rock to the summit. It’s not immediately obvious from the town as it is a narrow ridge in the centre of the Crinnen glacier.

Knowing the ridge was AD- there was a long discussion about its complexity, and whether I was going to be able to haul myself up it without too much whinging.

In hindsight, we should have also had a discussion about coming back down.

The walk in to the Gleckstein Hut

The route starts at a large car park near the Wetterhorn hotel and follows a track through the woodland which then heads steeply northeast to pick up a path which contours around the side of the mountain.

The walk in to the Gleckstein hut was also only 3 and half hours which was quite attractive after the slog we had to get to the Mutthorn hut a few days earlier.

It was lovely, a pleasant meander around the mountain heading slowly uphill and around towards the Oberer Grindelwald glacier to reach the hut.

The Gleckstein hut is popular with guides for teaching alpine skills and for hikers walking into see the glaciers, and you can see why. When we arrived we sat looking out across the valley watching the sunset.

We left the hut at 4am, the first out, but this left us route finding to find the Willsgrati ridge to reach the Wettersattel. While there is an obvious path which runs up to the Chrinnen glacier, there are also a number of paths which branch off from it.

Once on the glacier we roped up and headed uphill to find the snow gully which provides access to the route, described in the guide book as ‘climb up unpleasantly for 200m’ before crossing a couloir before getting to the Willsgratli ridge.

Once off the glacier it became clear that the rock on the Wetterhorn is not at all stable, even when frozen. We crossed the couloir to head onto the ridge where we stuck to the ridge top to ascent.

Once on the ridge it was mostly scrambling to reach the Wettersattel col. Roped up we weren’t quick, but then I knew I would find this tricky, given the exposure and loose rock. Despite some whinging from me, we kept to guidebook time to reach the col and onto the snow.

The snow was the quickest way to reach the summit so we headed up to a glorious view.

We were also lucky to get a selfie with the Eiger!!

Descending is always the hardest

The sun was already hot and melting the snow as we descended from the Wetterhorn. We decided to use the stakes on the rock, which in hindsight was slow albeit safer than the snow.

We were the last of the three groups that has ascended that morning to get back on to the ridge and descend. As the ridge is well known for rock fall this meant that we weren’t going to have anything fall on us, but we had to be safe to prevent dropping rock on others.

Despite the AD- grade not being the hardest alpine route I’ve done, the descent back to the hut was definitely the scariest I’ve completed. Teetering on the rock and trying to place gear to protect ourselves I can admit I was scared for the full 6 hours or so it took us to get back down from the summit to the hut.

This was made much worse when a couple who were being guided were airlifted from the ridge in front of us. The helicopter came close to the ridge and picked up someone before heading down to the Gleckstein hut. Later we passed a blood splattered rock.

Back at the hut I asked how they were and was pleased to find out the female had slipped and suffered only a leg injury, but this hadn’t stopped us from imagining the worst as we had descended – being aware that they had been climbing without helmets.

The lower part of the ridge is tricky to find the exit route, once you’ve passed the three stakes look for a way off to the right. If you’re lucky you might find the stakes across the couloir to get back to the more solid rock and eventually the glacier.

We were slow, possibly dehydrated and hungry when we finally got off the glacier and down to the hut where we had lunch and fluid before descending back to the Wetterhorn hotel. It was a long 18 hour day!

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, and 2000m of ascent from the start at Stechelberg. 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

Tour du Mont Blanc – 2012 – Champex to Courmayeur

The next three days of the Tour du Mont Blanc would take us from the pristine Alpine villages of Switzerland, over the Grand Col de Ferret the highest point of the TMB route, and into Italy – from the home of fantastic cheese and chocolate to the home of fantastic gelato and … chocolate.

Day 4 – Champex to La Fouly – 5 hours 50

Total distance 14.6km ascent 555m descent 440m

Today’s walk would take us through some gorgeous quiet villages as we headed for the end of the valley and our last campsite in Switzerland. It was a cooler day and having a relatively flat route it was also more relaxed.

The start of the walk from Champex takes you through the Santier de Champignons – route of the mushrooms; evident by the trees carved on the woodland trails.

137 D4 mushroom trail 136 D4 mushroom trail

When we reached the road at Issert (and stopped for a hot chocolate) it had begun raining, making the walk through the villages to Praz de Fort less interesting. If your following the cicerone guide on the clockwise route this would be your first days walk, which is described as “a charming pastoral valley whose timber chalets and haybarns recall a long-lost era…” I’m afraid for us it was waterproofs on, head down.

140 D4 old building 141 D4 issert 143 D4 praz de fort 148 D4 Praz de Fort

Once we reached Praz de Fort we followed the route along the river to our campsite at La Fouly. Initially a nice track it become a slow gradual ascent, and as a track it wasn’t a particularly lovely route to follow, it became a slog. So it was a surprise to find a huge campsite at La Fouly.

151 D4 route to La Fouly 154 D4 camp at La Fouly155 D4 view of Aiguille de La neuve

Day 5 – La Fouly to Planpincieux 8 hours 10

Total distance 21km ascent 930m descent 940m

Like gluttons for punishment we started the day by veering off the main TMB route to take the steeper variant route, which would allow us to climber quicker up the pass and also have a more scenic view through the spring alpine meadows. Nevertheless it was a grateful surprise to find the refuge at La Peule.

159 D5 path near Ferret 160 D5 path near Ferret 205 D5 flower 175 D5 La Peule

After drinks at La Peule we continued on upwards to the Grand Col de Ferret, where the top of the pass was still covered in snow, making the walking slower. The view down into the Val Ferret and Italy was worth the effort though.

180 D5 the view ahead 187 D5 the path to Grand Col Ferret 197 D5 view down to Val de Ferret 202 D5 view from grand col de ferret

At 2537m the Grand Col de Ferret marks the high point on the TMB. After admiring the massive view of the valley below, it occurred to us that our campsite at Planpincieux was down there somewhere and we still had a long way to go. The route down the valley was long and steep initially so it was good to know a hot chocolate stop at Refugio Elena was half way down, although we could see the refuge long before we got there. The hot chocolate was like mud and worth it.

From the refugio it was another two hour walk down the track where, passing the refuge Val Ferret we left the TMB main route and followed a path down to the road to the campsite at Planpincieux which, on tarmac, was hard on the feet.

209 D5 looking back up the Val Ferret 213 D5 view from Val Ferret

Day 6 – Planpincieux to Courmayeur 5 hours 20

Total distance 13km, ascent 625m descent 865m

Having complained the day before about walking down the road and the fact the summer bus service started that morning, we decided it would be stupid to do the road section again, just to reach the TMB path. So we caught the bus up the valley to the route.

From La Vechy we ascended up a path to pick up the TMB at the Refugio Bonatti – where I can confirm the best hot chocolate in the world is served. Like thick mud. Mmmm

253 D7 route up 258 D7 view of Val Ferret  261 D7 Refuge Bonatti

From the refugio Bonatti we headed onwards towards the refugio Bertone; as there was still a lot of snow melting on the high ridge, the rivers we crossed en route were still in spate and required good balance and acceptance that feet were going to get wet.

264 D7 river 269 view

From Refugio Bertone we headed downhill in to Courmayeur town centre. This section was very busy with families headed upwards. Thankfully we had quite a wait for the bus back up to our camp at Planpincieux so we had time for gelato and a trip up the cable car to admire Mont Blanc up close.

274 D7 descent 252  D6 Cormayeur 229 D6 Mont blanc  236 d6 view of mountain

Tour du Mont Blanc 2012 – Chamonix to Champex

At 105 miles the Tour du Mont Blanc is not the longest long distance route I’ve completed, but it was the first one overseas and the first completed in one go and not broken up over weekends like the Pennine Way.

Suggested by two friends who had completed the trail years ago, the thought of crossing through 3 countries, tackling Alpine passes and walking through sun, snow and probably rain, the TMB sounded just like my kind of trek.

Choosing to walk clockwise meant that we would be passing other walkers rather than catching them up, which for most of the route would enable us to have relative peace. Or as much as you can ever get in the Alps.

With my bags packed, the Cicerone TMB guide studied and a whole lot of enthusiasm and naivety; I headed out to the Alps giddy with excitement.

Having spent the first night at the campsite at Les Bossons, just outside Chamonix we had a fantastic view of Mont Blanc which we were to spend the next 10 days walking around.19 Mont blanc from Les Marmottes campsite

Day 1 – Plan Praz to Frasserands 6 hours 30

Distance 13.6km and 400m ascent and 2030m descent

Starting at Plan Praz felt a little like cheating as we had caught the cable car up to the first station. But our last day would be covering the tremendous hike from the floor of the valley to Le Brevent mountain top, so what idiot would do half of the height twice? Not us.

It also gave us a relaxing start to the trek, which in the 32 degree heat was appreciated. The path is really easy to navigate and a good track all of the way. We stopped briefly at Le Flegere refuge for a drink and to soak up the view and check out the ibex who wasn’t at all bothered we were there.

23 D1 Plan Praz 29 D1 view to Chalet de la Flegere  46 D1 Mer de Glace 44 D1 Ibex

As it was still early in the season we took the Balcon sud route as there was still a significant amount of snow on Les Blancs. This is one of the special joys about the TMB is that whatever season you undertake this in, there are a lot of variant paths than mean you can still do the route.

48 D1 route across Grand Balcon 58 D1 routeFrom the Col de Montetes we had a knee crushing descent of endless switchbacks to reach the road at Tres le Champ, where we then plodded down a path by the road into Fresserands and our campsite for the night, where we could see tomorrows ascent to the Col de Balme.

76 D1 Frasserands village

Day 2 – Frasserands to Le Puety 6 hrs 45

Distance 10.7km approx with 1115m ascent and 1070m descent

Being able to look back over the our first day’s walk made the ascent out of Frasserands bearable; its certainly a steep ascent through the woodland. Initially the path felt like an assault course through the fallen trees and though we made good time it was hard going. Steep never-ending zigzags would become a theme of the trek. These pictures are looking back along the route.

80 D2 view back across to Day 1 descent 88 D2 looking back along route

There was an annoying section of downhill before we ascended the paths of the ski area around the Col de Balme to reach the top of the pass, saying goodbye to France and hello to Switzerland.

The descent down included crossing some steep banks of snow – can you see the little people at the top of this one looking back up the route?

94 D2 looking back along route down across snow

Reaching the Treint valley was exactly like reaching the Sound of Music country, with endless fields of wildflowers and the sounds of cow bells, which would be less than romantic late at night but for now was just what I wanted.97 D2 La Peuty 100 D2 Glacier de Trient

Our campsite was the rough ground at La Peuty where the was a toilet block and cold running water and an area to sit and cook. So it was a pretty good spot – quiet except for the damn cows and their bells.

103 D2 rough camp at La Peuty

Day 3 – La Peuty to Champex 7 hours

Total distance 13.9km and 910m ascent and 680m descent

Despite the day starting with a climb the path to the Col de Forclaz was steep busy relatively easy, following an old track through the woodland. The cafe at the road was open so we stopped for a strong coffee.

The ascent from here up to the refuge at the Col de Bovine seemed to go on and on, but breaking out of the woodland eventually to see the Bovine refuge was amazing and worth the effort. Even if it was clear why it got its name!

112 D3 view from Bovine route 113 D3 view from Bovine route 115 D3 cows at Bovine

After another coffee at the refuge Bovine we continued on heading downhill to Plan de L’Au, a steep and winding path which eventually flattened and headed through woodland.

We eventually arrived in Champex where we walked around the Lake to the campsite.  122 D3 route through champex 126 D4 Lac de Champex