2012-05-06

Rheinwaldhorn (3402m) pre-season attempt

What do you do when the weather service issues a "severe weather" warning, the national avalanche bulletin marks the area for "significant risk of avalanches" and the shelters are still closed for the winter? Why, you go for a mountain hike of course! Sad really, here I am, sitting in the office all week while we have perfect sunny weather outside, waiting for the weekend with an abysmal weather forecast. The opportunity costs of selling lifetime.

Anyways, I aim for the Rheinwaldhorn, at 3402m the highest mountain in Tessin. This implies a long train ride through the whole of Switzerland but I'm hoping that the south side of the alps will have less snow than the north. Getting to my starting point, the little village of Dangio, causes some confusion. The bus is late by several minutes and by the time we should be at my stop we are at a village called Dongio (not Dangio!). Luckily I don't get off and reach the start as intended.

The bus being late is very unusual and must be due to this being the Italian side of Switzerland. The Swiss take pride in being very punctual indeed. A colleague of mine got on a train at the Italian/Swiss border, heading home for Zürich. The train wasn't leaving for a long time and he asked the conductor about it. The conductor explained that there are actually two trains servicing the exact same route, leaving only minutes apart. The first will be on time while the second waits around for the Italian connecting trains which are notoriously late. My colleague accidentally boarded the "wait for Italy" train.

It was raining in Zürich when I left, it is raining in Dangio when I arrive. The valley is quite beautiful from the little I can see when the clouds give me an opening. The trail is very nice, with a nice constant grade, perfect for finding your rhythm. Some fallen trees across it indicate that it hasn't yet been maintained and opened for the year. The rain doesn't stop until it turns to snow instead.

I arrive at the Adula CAS hut at 2012m, having started at 800m. It is not yet open for business, but all huts maintained by the Swiss Alpine Club allow for winter access and thus the door is open. It's tidy, damp and cozy at 5°C. I brought my stove and cook dinner consisting of pasta, pesto and chocolate as desert. Since I'm the only one here since early March (according to the log book) and will be alone tonight, I take the liberty of moving into the only single bed room, normally reserved for mountain guides, and go to sleep.

Although I originally planned for an early departure for the summit I changed plans and get up and out only at sunrise around 5:30. Reason being that it is so foggy and I don't know the route I want at least some light to try and orient myself. There has been close to a foot of fresh snow during the night and it is still snowing. I don my snowshoes and set out.

Climbing a steep slope turns into quite a struggle. The snow is wet, heavy and deep. My ice ax goes in for its full length and then some. My snow shoes sink in up to my knees. I fight for every meter, sometimes clawing my way up on all fours. After a very exhausting two hours which should have been one I reach the Capanna Adula UTOE at 2393m. The hut is only accessible by its winter entrance, climbing through windows two meters above ground. All doors are blocked by snow.

I assess my situation: Visibility is still shit; I'm on an unknown route with all signposts dismantled for the winter; headed for the Canton's largest glacier with its crevasses covered by fresh snow; against my hopes getting higher didn't give me a frozen surface but still a snow plow situation; weather forecast is abysmal; it's already late in the day and I still have to get back. In addition to that I can hear the mountains all around me rumbling and growling. While I originally tried to convince myself that it's just the echo of airplane jet engines I could since witness several large avalanches crashing down the faces when I could get a glimpse through the clouds. Long story short: turn around time.

Heading back I need my snowshoes almost down to 1500m. 500m more than the day before, my old tracks are almost entirely gone by now. The rest of the way down it is raining heavily. While this sounds bad it is not a lie when I say I am actually enjoying it. Waterproof boots and gators, I create my own little micro climate under my rain poncho and listen to the drumming of the rain drops on my hat. A steady rhythm and walking pace and it's almost meditative, sending my mind on a voyage.

Some shepherds, tending to their goats, offer to drive me down the rest of the way. I happily decline and continue my way. Unfortunately I have to wait for an hour for the next bus, but then I'm on my way and in my soaking hot bath tub ;-)