2015-08-29

Balmhorn (3698m)

After seeing the magnificent Altels Northwest face tower over the Kander valley during our Bärentrek hike this year I was inspired to climb this mountain. The normal route sounds a bit boring, and I don't like retreating my steps on the way down anyways, so the idea was to climb the neighboring Balmhorn first and then traverse to the Altels via the connecting ridge. Planning late as usual, the hut was already fully booked when I called them on Friday. Thus Ralf and I decided to bivvy instead. We started early afternoon on Saturday, had a nice dinner in Kandersteg and then parted ways for a short while: Ralf took the cable car to Sunnbüel while I hiked up. Just before dusk we settled down in a nice spot above the Sagiwald at around 2000m.

Altels (3629m) as seen from the Bärentrek.

It was an unusually warm and bright night. My experience with sleeping under an open sky at these altitudes is that you often wake up in a frozen sleeping bag. Consequently I tugged myself in well, only to shed some layers during the night because it was too warm. A full moon was casting long shadows.

The roaring Kander. Hot weather feeds it with lots of glacier run off.
My room for the night.

Our alarm woke us at four in the morning. We hiked up the moraine for a while before stopping for breakfast (cake!). The ascent takes us over the Schwarzgletscher "Black Glacier". A very fitting name. You can hardly see the ice because the entire glacier is covered in a layer of black gravel. Quite annoying and strenuous to ascend - for every step up you slide back another half.

Early morning on the moraine.
Cake for breakfast - yay!
The things you find on a glacier...

Once we gained the Zackengrat "Jagged Ridge" the terrain changed to an easy hiking trail. The ridge is a few hundred meters long. Just before it merges into another glacier, which marks the final step towards the summit, we stumbled across a parked mountain bike. We later met the owner on the summit. He carried the bike all the way up just to ride the ridge. Crazy people.

Would you bike here?
...someone did.

The summit offers sweeping vistas all around. We spent twenty minutes relaxing in the sun. For some reason I had a really hard time, struggling much more than usual with the altitude and the ascent and appreciated some rest. About half past ten we started down in the direction of the Altels.

The ridge towards the Altels summit. A rope team with bigger balls than us on the exposed section.
The iconic Eiger North Face, Mönch and Jungfrau.

We made good progress on well packed, hard snow, ideal for walking. But then we reached the first crux of the route. A crazy exposed, crazy steep ice ridge that is barely a foot wide. It leads to a tower of crumbling rock followed by a third obstacle - a steep step of solid ice. We stood around faintheartedly, unsure how to continue. We had seen another rope team pass this section an hour ago, so it is eminently doable. We were still scared. Ralf said it first, and I'm glad he did: turn-around time. Our hearts just weren't in it. We meekly discussed alternatives for protecting the route: "riding" it, i.e. sliding across, one leg to either side; or each of us traversing on one side, the rope connecting us over the ridge; or down climbing and traversing where the ice meets the rock, allowing us to place ice screws. None of which really made sense and would in any case only solve the issue of the ridge, leaving the crumbling tower and ice step...

Decision time. Somehow looks harmless on my monitor in the comfort of my swivel chair...
Retreat back up towards the sun.

So we retreated our steps back to the top of the black glacier. This one was annoying on the way up, now it's downright dangerous. The sun has warmed the ice enough to cause regular spontaneous rock fall. The layer of lose rock on the blank ice made our crampons barely usable. We stumble-slide down. Every step a gamble of how far the gravel will slide and take you down with it. We each got to practice our ice-axe self arrest skills multiple times. For a few of the diciest sections we used our ice screws to rappel/belay with the rope. By the time we made it back to our bivvy spot I'm completely knackered.

Back on the moraine after stumbling down the black glacier glistening in the sun behind me.

This time I did not offer any resistance to the idea of taking the cable car to avoid the hike down. Indeed I'm glad it's there. It's a bit sad really. It was a beautiful trip in spectacular surroundings, perfect weather and snow conditions. We did reach the higher of the two summits we were aiming for. And yet it leaves the sour taste of defeat. The simple fact that we had set out with more ambitious goals than we eventually accomplished spoils the achievement. We definitely made the right decision to retreat. Which leaves the lingering question: What needs to change so that a ridge like that becomes less intimidating? The conditions can hardly be better, which means I need to become... what? More experienced? More daring? Is this as far as I can safely go?

Dinner under the towering Altels. Next time...