2017-07-18

Grosser Mythen (1898m)

Christian and Susanne were visiting for a few days with their 10 and 7 year old kids. Susanne was still recovering from a broken toe and could only wear loose sandals. As a consequence we couldn't go on any big mountains. I still wanted to drag them up a quick one. Thus we resorted to the old fallback of Grosser Mythen. We used the cable car for the lower half of the mountain and hiked up the rest. It was scorching hot and from the summit we could see thunderstorms over lake Lucerne. While there were a few kids on the mountain that day I think Leonie must have been the youngest ;-) She was super sweet about it and hardly complained at all. Nearly suffocated in daddy's and her own sweat and still just gazed at her surroundings with huge eyes or simply retreated into the baby sling and slept. She gave us a big smile and hug under the summit cross. Great trooper!

Sue survived with her toe, but it was a painful descent. The kids ate it up though. It was their first proper mountain and they were mighty proud of themselves. Especially when they made it back down half an hour sooner than their parents. I think we can book this as a success!

2017-07-15

Sewenstock (2818m) via Amarone (6a+, ~400m)

My original plan was to climb a North facing wall. The weather forecast was mixed with a chance of rain and cold temperatures so Arne and I changed plans and headed for Amarone instead. A South facing route leading up to the summit of the Sewenstock (2818m) at the Sustenpass. Unfortunately for us it was the start of the holiday season and the road leading up to the Gotthard had 13 kilometers and several hours of traffic jam. Now we didn't actually want to go through the tunnel, but we still needed to go close enough that the traffic affected us. We avoided it on winding minor roads, but it still cost us some time.

Dramatic clouds.
Straight up the prominent peak in the center is where we're going.
Hard to miss.

We parked the car at 1600 meters altitude where the thermometer read 11°C. Chilly already and we were still more than a kilometer below our high point. The approach follows a nice trail that serves as the primary access to the Sewen-hut. We proceeded right past that and eventually scrambled through loose scree towards our destination. The Sewenstock visually dominates the end of the steep valley. I exclaimed "Damn, what a beauty!" to which Arne replied "Let's hope she's not too wet." Think of it what you will ;-) It took us just two hours to reach the well marked base of the route.

Did I mention the pitches were long? Arne getting ready to follow the first one.
Arne on the sharp end.
Sören on the sharp end.

Right off the bat the route starts with a long 6a+ pitch. The bomber solid gneiss is an absolute joy to climb on. I led the first pitch and was already thrilled with the route. Despite my freezing cold hands the difficulty felt on the easier side, more like a gym 6a+ than an outdoors one. Fine with me.

This is fun!
Arne negotiating a small roof.
Comfy belay.

It continued just like it started: steep; superb quality rock; homogenous difficulties, hard enough to be challenging but never truly difficult; very interesting and varied technical climbing offering everything from perfect splitter cracks over slabs and dihedrals to juggy overhangs. The pitches are bolted such that a pair of 50m ropes is just barely long enough which makes rope management at the anchors very easy. Hats off and thanks to Heinz Müller and Röbi Ruckstuhl for leaving a masterpiece of a route. It ranks among the top three I've ever climbed and deserves its inclusion as an instant classic in the selection guidebook "Dreams of Switzerland". The Sewen Hut also distributes a free topo.

We topped out at half past three after 5 hours of climbing. We alternated leads all the way and both cleanly red-pointed all of our pitches. Since it was windy and quite cold we didn't spend too much time on the summit. The rappel route, with few exceptions, follows the climb. You downclimb the summit ridge but after that a full 9 rappel maneuvers are necessary to get back down to the base. This is indicative of how long and steep the pitches are.

If you squint you can see a yellow-ish scar in the flank of the peak on the left. That's where the chamois started and headed first through the couloir, into the diagonal grass band and then onto the green "pasture" in the lower middle of the image. Crazy!
Arne in one of the coolest sequences of the entire route - a perfect razor sharp finger crack.

I heard rockfall on the opposing ridge and turned to look just in time to see a bunch of chamois run out of a cave in an impossibly steep wall and proceed to gallop straight down the face. Frickin' impossible. Why is that species even still alive?! The entire family of adult animals and young headed head first down the wall and proceeded to graze calmly on the grass band below. And we were clumsily setting up another rappel. Wow.

Final belay of the day - no more climbing past this point, only a bit of scrambling on the summit ridge.
The last few meters on the ridge.
Summit selfie!

At one point Arne disappeared out of sight over a lip of rock below me. I waited for the ropes to become slack so I could follow rappelling down after him. And waited. And waited some more. And shouted into the wind without a response. And waited some more. After almost 30 minutes I became quite cold and quite worried. Usually when the first one down misses the next anchor and starts looking around you'll notice the ropes moving and alternating between taut and slack. This time the ropes were taut all the time and my imagination had Arne dangling unconscious in space below me. I started playing through the options in my mind. How long should I wait before I had to become active? I texted him.

Rappelling...
...and more rappelling.

After what seemed like an eternity to me the ropes finally moved and I faintly heard Arne's voice over the wind. He had missed the next anchor and had to jug back up the ropes. Setting up prusiks and ascending thin climbing ropes is what took him so long. So while I froze to a block he worked up a sweat pulling himself up ;-) Anyway, all good and we proceeded to the base of the climb without further trouble. We made it back to the car shortly after 7 pm. Tired, but tremendously satisfied by a beautiful day in the mountains!

Surfing down the snow fields is much faster and more enjoyable than hiking through the scree.

2017-07-08

Mythen Trilogy

Our original plan was to go climbing in the high alpine. The weather forecast predicted thunderstorms in the early afternoon though and we didn't fancy getting stuck on some ridge above a glacier. So Pawel suggested the Mythen trilogy instead. It's a hike linking three peaks in our backyard. There's an option to bail between every two summits and the entire distance is just 15 kilometers and 1500 meters of elevation gain, so we figured we could squeeze it in before the weather hit.

Our route.
Klein Mythen and Haggenspitz.
Gross Mythen.

I've climbed the Gross Mythen several times in the past. It's one of my goto tourist mountains to take guests. Not challenging, with a hut offering refreshments on top and yet it looks imposingly steep and offers spectacular views. That's true for the normal route. What Pawel suggested is graded T6 though, the most difficult grade on the Swiss hiking scale. It is described thusly:

"Difficult alpine hiking: Pathless, not marked, very exposed and difficult terrain. Climbing passages up to UIAA degree II. Tricky, steep rocky terrain, glacier with a higher danger of sliding. Excellent orientation abilities, mature alpine experiences and mastering of handling with alpine gear."

The first "no fall" zone.
The Rigi ridge between Lake Lucerne and Lake Lauerz.
Pawel coming up.

We started at around 8:30 in the morning at the parking lot of the Brunni cable car. Climbing the steep ridge of the Haggenspitz (1762m) was fun. Exposed and unforgiving terrain. Good quality rock made scrambling up a joy and we quickly gained the summit. From there it's a nice traverse over to the Klein Mythen (1810m) before we had to descend almost all the way in order to reach the base of the Grosser Mythen (1898m).

The infamous Müller chimney. Looks like fun climbing but without protection and over a huge drop we deemed it too risky and opted for a safer detour.
The alternative route.

The "trail" up the Grosser Mythen is really not a trail at all but a scavenger hunt for small red dots painted on the occasional rock or tree trunk. It starts up a steep field of loose scree. Annoying, as for every step up you slide half a step back down. This was around noon and the sun was scorching hot. Later sections of the trail required scrambling on tufts of grass over huge exposure of hundreds of meters. I much prefer rock to that!

Contemplating the route ahead.

Shortly before the summit we joined the normal route with lots of tourists. People gave us curious looks as we climbed over the fence onto the normal trail, appearing seemingly out of nowhere ;-) We didn't waste much time on the summit as we were still worried about getting trapped in a thunderstorm. This is really not the kind of terrain you want to negotiate in pouring rain.

Pawel scrambling up the final few meters before we re-joined the ridge of the normal route.

We descended on the west side of the mountain. Super steep scrambling on brittle downward sloping red rock with lots of loose gravel. This freaked me out a bit. I think the risk reward ratio for this part of the trail was not worth it. Doubly so because the trail doesn't really lead anywhere anyways - you go around the mountain in a spiral before you have to climb back up to the normal route on the other side and descend on the regular footpath. Whatever - it's done ;-)

Summit in sight.
Down here? Seriously?!
Fuck it. Here we go.
The final steep shute back onto the normal route.

The thunderstorm only caught up with us once we were back in Zürich.

2017-06-18

Beijing

My team at work has gained a few new members who are located in Beijing. We arranged for an all hands meeting for one week in June. So we all flew to China from New York, Mountain View and Zürich. At nearly 22 million people Beijing is by far the biggest city I've ever been to. It was also my first time to Asia. I'm still digesting, but a few observations jumped out at me:

Zack leading us down some dark back alleys to sell our kidneys.
All my ducks in a row. Photo by Matthias.

The air is incredibly bad. I don't deal well with heat and when we landed it was in the mid 30° degrees celsius. Add the smog to that and my eyes burned and I got nauseous and dizzy as soon as I went outside. Locals shrugged it off and suggested I come back in winter when it's really bad. Objectively the air quality index was at medium warning level, suggesting limiting strenuous outdoor activities but otherwise no restrictions. Lucky for me it rained halfway through the week, improving both the temperatures and air significantly.

The Forbidden City. Photo by Matthias.
Photo by Matthias.

Traffic is crazy. Our airport taxi spent the entire ride to the hotel on the emergency lane, honking and cutting through off-ramps and on-ramps. People would stop in the middle of the highway to drop off passengers. Scooters would go every which way - including straight into oncoming traffic. Whenever we had to cross a street as pedestrians we'd ignore the traffic lights (as most everybody else was doing) and simply wait for a critical mass of people to accumulate and then follow the throng into the intersection.

Photo by Matthias.

That said, Beijing has awesome bicycle lanes on nearly every road. They are the width of a full lane and separated from the cars by a knee high fence. They are also extremely well utilized with bikes and e-scooters zipping past. Every sidewalk is lined with thousands of rental bikes which you can get by simply scanning a QR code with your phone. There seemed to be hardly any personal bikes. We learned that these bike sharing companies have only been around for a few years and that they put ten thousands (!) of new bikes into circulation every week (!). The scale and speed at which things are happening here boggles the mind.

Smog? I don't know what you are talking about. Maybe that's why the locals wear masks?

Despite visiting all the super touristy places (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace) we saw few western tourists. I had a Chinese tourist ask me to take a selfie with him and two women chat me up for a beer because they wanted to brush up their English. Apparently even in the worldly capital my cowboy hat and white boy face was still enough of a novelty to be interesting. We even had the occasional kid staring or a random security guard walk up to us on the subway and take a picture (although, who knows, that might have been something else ;-)).

Never ending rows of rental bikes.

The entrance to the Forbidden city has 30 parallel kiosks for buying tickets and still you are queuing for half an hour and more. It's weird to stand taller than almost anybody and look across a sea of black shocks of hair. That seems to be the only hair color available. Size had consequences in other places too - some toilets seemed to be Kindergarden size and the sink in my hotel room barely reached my groin. On the older subway trains I'd bump my head in the door and had to duck under handrails on the ceiling.

The subway system is super efficient and fast. There's a train every few minutes. Every single person, from the kids to the elderly has a modern smartphone and apparently connectivity on the trains is perfect as everyone is dabbling all the time. Notable on the trains was the absence of something: from major cities like Berlin, San Francisco or Zürich I'm used to interesting train rides. There's always something going on - a street musician, a beggar, a drunk person sleeping in the corner, a student trying to get an Ikea couch home, a stag party or a bunch of nudists casually walking by. Not so here.

From an arrogant Westerner's point of view I was expecting the Chinese internet would be severely crippled and barely usable. This was true - almost none of my apps and only a handful of my frequented websites worked (crucially, Google doesn't work!). However, the Chinese equivalent of the services I was missing seemed to be quite sufficient indeed. And in fact, in many ways seemed to be superior. As I understand credit cards have already been surpassed by mobile payments for example. It seems it might be just as likely that WeChat will eat WhatsApp and Facebook than the other way around. Exciting.

The food was great. Google offices are famously known for their cafeterias, but we also explored the local cuisine from street food carts all the way up to high end restaurants with several waiters per table and everything in between. I sampled "Hutong explodes the lamb", "Pine nuts detonation santian", "Wok-seared lab chops" that were really fish, hot pots, authentic Peking duck, frogs and other exciting dishes. In the end I gained a kilo during my stay there.

Only in China: an entire city block of skyscrapers under construction. Growing by a few stories every day.
The iconic CCTV headquarters.

A big thank you to the Beijing crew for being great hosts and introducing us to this great city and culture!