How I Spent My Summer Vacation
I have been a bit slow in writing about my last trip. Sorry about that but I was a bit disappointed with the way the photos turned out and probably lost interest as a result. When I headed to Europe this time, I didn't have much of an idea where I would end up. I had told Russell that my goal was merely to climb something "interesting". By interesting I meant something that had a lot of exposure and where I would need a good guide. I was looking to get my money's worth and can assure you that full value was received.
I arrived in the Geneva airport and was met by a buddy of Russell's who runs a van delivery service to and from Chamonix. When I hopped into the van, the driver told me that the forecast was excellent for the first time in more than a month. I was psyched. Leaving only one week to climb, it was not clear if we would have good weather. It looked like the weather was going to co-operate.
Russell had kindly offered his spare bedroom to me and told me where he had hidden the key (in a red box outside his place). I arrived at his place, located the box and was a bit unhappy when I found the box to be empty. Figuring this was an example of Kiwi humour, I tried the door and was happy to find it open. There were a few bottles scattered around his living room and when Russ shuffled downstairs, he explained that a few "friends" had been over last night. One of the "friends" was still upstairs.
Russ had to bring a few clients up the Blanc that day so I decided to go for an acclimatisation hike in the Aiguilles Rouges (Red Needles) which are on the opposite side of the valley from the major peaks (Mont Blanc, Le Dru, Aiguille Verte). Russ gave me a map and a few directions. After lunch I packed my sack and headed out. The trail started less than fifty feet from Russ' front door, my kind of location.
I hiked up to Lac Blanc, a small glacial lake about 1600 meters above Russ' place. It is a beautiful setting but I was surprised to find a Bar, Restaurant and Hostel. The Alps are a lot different from Canada, Asia or New Zealand! I bought some drinks at the restaurant and ate some of my large stash of food. I had brought a lot to eat and Russ gave me some stick about it. My attitude is that it is better to have too much than run short. Russ is more from the lean and mean camp. He guides Mont Blanc (normally a strenuous 10-14 hour day) with three Mars bars in his pocket!
After my drinks I walked up another 300 meters and spotted an ibex (photo left). These are quite big animals and he showed absolutely no fear as I approached. The lack of fear had me thinking... "if he's not scared then perhaps I should be..." So I kept my distance and walked on. Later Russ would tell me that the ibex see people all the time so don't bother with us.
After a bit of reconnaissance, I found a nice place to lay out my bivouac gear (basically a sleeping bag inside a gortex bag). The way up was mainly snow but the runout was good (i.e. if you slip it is just an unexpected toboggan ride) and I didn't have any problems. From my bivi site I had a great view both up and down the valley. I had wanted to stay awake and watch the sunset but I was just too whipped from the flight over.
I slept fine except for the unpleasant experience of waking up at 4AM freezing cold. Sealing the top of the sleeping bag and conserving heat made it endurable for me. When I got back to Chamonix, Russ joked that he thought the bag might be a bit light but he knew I could handle it. Bivi shot to the left.
In the morning I awoke to see a large lenticular cloud blowing off Mont Blanc. I thought of Russ and his clients getting slammed in the wind. As it turned out, Russ said that the wind was strong about 500 meters below the summit but was okay while they were actually on top. After a light breakfast, I started a day of exciting scrambling over a few ridges and down some gullies. Physically, it was the toughest day of the whole trip. The weather was perfect.
After a fantastic dinner in town (and a few bevvies) we made the decision to drive to Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland. We took Russell's Land Rover. A highlight of the trip was a car tunnel through the middle of Alps. You drive on to a train which travels for thirty minutes in total darkness. The train starts in the French part of Switzerland and then deposits you on in the German part. The open spaces, smooth roads and traditional architecture are a big change from Asia. I found Switzerland very beautiful. Russ mentioned that the Swiss Government pays people to maintain their traditional ways (dress, agriculture, buildings). It is all designed for the tourists and it really works!
We bought our last minute supplies in the local grocery, ate lunch and walked over to the train station. The Jungfraubahn (Jungfrau Railway) is the most interesting I have seen. Instead of standard wheels it has a huge cog that winds up a third rail of teeth. The railway has been cut straight through the Eiger and does an upward sloping U-turn in the middle of the mountain. There are three stations on the way up and the train stops at two of them. Both of these stops look on to the north face of the Eiger (famous for climbers killing themselves and Clint Eastwood's movie The Eiger Sanction).
The rock on the north face is not particularly steep but the route is one of the most dangerous in the world. What makes it tough are the following: (a) violent afternoon electrical storms which soak you and the rock; (b) a lack of sunlight due to its northern exposure; (c) frosty rocks every morning due to the showers the day before; (d) lots of rockfall; and (e) serious exposure requiring nerves of steel.
The train ride is very pleasant and takes about an hour. At the top is the Jungfraujoch, which is the highest train station in Europe. The railway was constructed more than 100 years ago. It is hard to believe someone thinking that up. During the early part of this century there had been an idea to build an elevator to the top of the Eiger but WWI intervened and the concept was permanently shelved. The Jungfraujoch is a big tourist attraction and there were people walking around in shorts and running shoes. If it wasn't for the harsh surroundings and my knowledge of the hills I might have felt out of place with my full kit.
From the top of the train it is a 45-minute walk to the Monch Hut. Not surprisingly, the Monch Hut is located at the foot of the Monch. The Monch is a straightforward climb which Russ and I were able to knock off in two hours (round trip) before dinner. The food in the Swiss huts is excellent. We had four course meals in every hut. The huts aren't cheap but living in Hong Kong I have become used to steep prices.I had the foresight to carry a decent bottle of wine up to the hut. The wine was enjoyable but I had to rush a bit to keep my guide from pounding the entire contents!
We awoke at 4:00 a.m. and were the third party away from the hut. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera so there aren't too many pictures of the Jungfrau climb. This is a shame because the Jungfrau is a beautiful mountain. It is a very fitting which means "Young Woman". Just for info, the Monch (Monk) sits between the Jungfrau and the Eiger. It's a neat story. The "X" on the right of the picture (above) is the point were we started climbing up the summit pyramid. Note: Not my photo and we climbed from the other side!
In order to get to the Jungfrau, we needed to hike across (and then up) a large glacier. By the time we left the glacier, we were well in front of the other parties. Something about climbing really makes me competitive and I always like to be first (if possible, see later). There was a lot of snow in the Alps this season so the climb up to the summit was almost completely on snow. This made it very fast for Russ and me. The only thing that concerned me was that the wind was screaming when we were two thirds of the way up. Fortunately, it was due to a wind scoop caused by the shape of the mountain. Once we were on the summit pyramid the wind backed off and we had a great time.
The descent was straightforward and Russ even complemented my rope handling skills (rare from hardened Kiwi guides). We got back to the Jungfraujoch at 11:00 p.m. and it was time for me to hike back to the hut and retrieve my camera. Leaving my sack at the station, it took me one hour (round trip).
But the day was not over. After a bit of lunch we took the train down to Eismeer Station. From Eismeer we hiked down to the Glacier Gallery. A staircase/tunnel has been cut down to the south face of the Eiger. I called the exit from the staircase a "gnome hatch" because it is so small that I had to crawl out on my belly. Once outside the hatch we were immediately blasted by the midday heat and the glare from the glacier. This part of the face is quite active (waterfalls, rockfalls and wet snow avalanches) so we quickly put our crampons on and started moving.
Once across the glacier we had to traverse up a rock face. I had seen it the day before and commented to Russ that it looked pretty steep. Russ answered back it is surprisingly easy.... so long as you stay on route. Well, we lost the route and things became more and more interesting. Eventually it was a bit silly so we decided to pitch it out and go directly up to the ridge. Once we gained the ridge it was a very exposed walk to the Mittellegi Hut.
The Mittellegi Hut sits on one of the few flat parts of the Mittellegi Ridge. This is the East Ridge of the Eiger and the route is considered an alpine classic (with good reason). The hut is amazing. If you walk three steps forward from its entrance, then your next stop will be the glacier 1000 meters below. Needless to say, I always took very small and slow steps around the hut.
We were able to lay out our gear but, before it had a chance to dry, it started to rain. I was feeling pretty tired so I retreated to my bunk and started to fix a pre-dinner snack. Very tasty. Russ was kind enough to bring our technical gear in from outside. He told me that his hair was standing on end when he was outside (a warning sign of imminent lightning). He said it was a "pretty neat" sensation and recommended that I give it a whirl. I told him that I was very happy in the hut, on a wooden bunk, with my head a safe distance from the lightning rod on the roof.
Given that we were in the middle of nowhere, dinner was fantastic. Ham with lentils, fresh salad, veggies, potatoes, noodles and cake. All cooked from two burners in a kitchen with the square footage of my desk. Pretty impressive.
It was another early start in the morning and we set off in fourth place (out of ten parties). It wasn't long (about 20 feet out of the hut) before Russ and I realised that my experience on thin ridges with frosty rocks was limited. Indeed I was moving pretty slow. The reasons for slow moving were all mental and I had the toughest time with the flat sections. My experience and strength made the technical climbing fairly easy. However, I was lacking the necessary "mileage" to feel at home 2000 meters above Grindelwald. Being an excellent guide, Russ spurred me on and kept me focused on the job at hand. Later we would congratulate ourselves for the safest ascent that day. We may have been slow but our technique was rock solid. The picture at the bottom is one of the flat parts of the ridge. The town at the bottom of the face is Grindelwald.
The Grindelwald guides have fixed roped on the most technical bits of the climb and this makes the tough bits much more reasonable. There were still a few spots were my forearms were really burning (even with the fixed ropes). The climbing was fantastic. Once we reached the summit cone, we were able to look down the North Face. In my opinion, you would have to be totally nuts to want to climb it. It certainly represents an achievement but it's not for me.
We were a bit behind schedule, so we only stopped for ten seconds at the summit. We both agreed that the snow was getting a bit soft (increasing the risk factor). Once nice thing about all the snow was that it made the descent down the West Flank (red line on "Trilogy" picture) quite quick. The last time Russ (left) did the descent it had taken him eight hours. We were fortunate and got away with four. Russ did a great job on the way down and by the bottom we had two other teams following us. By the way, we were the ninth team to the summit. We let the faster teams pass us. No point in being a road hog.
Once back in Grindelwald, we had a well earned shower and celebrated in traditional fashion. The next day we drove to Zermatt on the Swiss-Italian border. Fantastic town. The local authorities have banned all cars so the only way in is by bike, foot or train. We took the train. Once in town, we checked into a hotel and were pleasantly surprised to see that our room faced directly on the Matterhorn. This picture was taken from the room. Good thing I took the shot because the mountain disappeared behind the clouds for the rest of our stay.
We said "hi" to Russ' buddies, had a huge dinner and checked out a few of the local hostelries. Fine establishments. We were a little late getting up the next day and decided to climb an easy peak to blow out a few of the cobwebs. That done we headed back down and returned to Chamonix.
We had lost our break in the weather but had managed to complete the Trilogy of the Bernese Oberland. A fantastic week where I learned the areas of my climbing which need work.
All the best,
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