Nicola, Vladimír, Barbora, Eduard, Rafał, Andrey and I set out to climb the Galenstock (3586m) on Saturday. Andrey, Rafał and I started from Adliswil by car at 5:15 in the morning. The others had already arrived at the Furkapass the night before and bivouacked in the mountains. The original plan had us starting at 7 o'clock sharp. Instead we managed to get moving around 8:30. We had a bit of shuttling to do. With two cars we had the opportunity to traverse the mountain from the South to the North, requiring one car at either end. With both cars in place Rafał discovered that he had left his hiking boots in the wrong one and had to go once more ;-) A welcome delay for the others which used it to have breakfast and get their gear in order.
Access to the Rhone glacier is blocked by a tourist shop demanding a 7CHF entrance fee to visit an ice grotto. We avoided this and got free admittance by helping the owner carry crates of groceries up the stairs.
The first glimpse of the glacier is a bit depressing. Anita and I had just watched Chasing Ice the day before and now I was witnessing evidence for the disappearance of the glaciers first hand. A sign high above the glacier pointed out where the high mark used be as recently as 1996. A plank offered level access to the ice grotto. Now you had to walk down lots of switch backs to get to the surface. In a depressingly desperate attempt at saving their tourist attraction the locals covered the glacier in huge white tarps. These slow the melting somewhat, so you end up with a Mad-Max style shanty town of flapping white fabric 10 meters higher than the surrounding ice. The glacier's surface is covered in black soot, dust particles from the air that collect on the ice. If they bunch up they create dark balls of slush that store more warmth than the white reflecting ice and melt deep holes into it. Pools and small trickles of water everywhere result. Death by a thousand paper cuts.
The glacier is completely free of snow on the lower parts and not very steep. Thus we do not rope up and navigate the maze of crevasses in crampons. We depart from the glacier, heading up for the Galenridge between the Sidelenhorn (3217m) and the Galenstock (3586m). There is no marked trail, but the terrain is easily negotiable by scrambling up over blocks and balancing up granite slabs. We see the odd climber in the distance, but the area feels mostly deserted. The weather is overcast, but dry and stable. Perfect.
We reach the first couple of snow fields and Rafał separates from the group. He motors up the steep Galen glacier while the rest of us continue for the ridge. At some point he disappears out of sight and instead a huge boulders crashes down the ice. Scary. We only learn that he's OK after meeting up with him several hours later on the summit - which he reached a full 1.5 hours before us.
The summit offers beautiful 360 degree vistas. Some of the best I've experienced yet. It's already 2 o'clock in the afternoon and we have a long way to go yet. I set up the first rappel on the North ridge. It is down-climbable, but very steep terrain, making it safer to rope up. Rope management is difficult, there are quite a few lose rocks and cracks snagging the rope. A group of 7 people is always slower than a small group and some of us don't have a lot of experience with this type of terrain. We waste a lot of time with this first 50m decent. Seeing that the ridge ahead will require several more rappels and tricky scrambling only to get us to an unknown glacier we prudently decide to bail and turn around.
The summit ridge is steep and icy. You cannot walk too high because of overhanging dangerous cornices. On the traverse first Nicola, then Barbora, slip and fall. Luckily both of them react quickly and correctly and self arrest immediately. A quick adrenaline injection but no real damage done. On the way up I dropped the lens cap for my camera on one of the snow slopes. We watched it slide and tumble down and disappear out of view. I climbed down after it, but it was a lost cause. Better not pick up momentum on these slopes!
Further down, on snow now softened from the sun, I charge ahead and break this rule. Offering a safe run-out I run down the slope with a giant's steps or start skiing down in my boots. This works surprisingly well and is quite similar to real skiing. You assume the same position with flexible, bent knees and use the edges of your boots to steer and break. A steeper section offers the chance of comparing various techniques. Some of us ski toes pointing downwards, others side-ways, some on their bums, some carefully walk and yet others just tumble and slide. I let you guess who's who ;-)
I earn myself the nickname of "Slab-Commander" for my preference for balancing down steep slabs of granite instead of fighting the loose gravel surrounding them. I later get the somewhat less flattering name "Glow-Face". A nickname that cannot possibly have anything to do with the fact that I severely sun burned my face. That's what you get for assuming you've already had enough exposure to the sun during the summer so you won't need sun screen on a glacier. Doh!
Despite not achieving our original objective of a full traverse we did reach the summit and made it back down safe and sound. A beautiful day on an exciting route and mountain.
14km, 1390m up and down