Bärentrek 2015

Between Torsten’s sailing blog and Sören’s mountaineering blog, my life feels blog-less and dull. You see, I am in desperate need of a hobby that also allows me to ramble about maps, distance covered, knots, and a life of adventure. Lacking such exciting pastimes myself, the best I can manage are glamorous appearances as guest blogger, which is why I enthusiastically accepted Sören’s request to write an entry about our summer vacation hiking the Bärentrek in the Berner Oberland.

Through many years of experience, I have learned the hard way that it is safest to travel with my brother in packs. The reason is quite simple: for any given type of vacation, every additional group member who is not a Sören is going to decrease the average level of physical suffering and risk. What this means in practice is that Anke only wanted to go if Anita joined us, and Anita only agreed to repeat her 2011 experience because it wasn’t just Sören and her this time around. It also meant that we were careful to manage expectations in advance: we constantly joked about all the extra equipment Sören was going to carry for us (e.g. a telescope for watching the stars) and about how we would watch him labor up the mountain from the comfort of cable cars, taking the easy way up.

Abbildung 1: Turnvater Jahn and his trio of jellyfish

With expectations thus aligned, we ultimately had a great time hiking for nine days, covering the distance from Meiringen to Adelboden with some great vistas along the way. In good spirit, Sören led the way as self-proclaimed Turnvater Jahn, who wanted to shape the jellyfish-like bodies of his fellow co-travelers. “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, we were told, which ultimately only served to organize the collective resistance of us jellyfish (we were all too happy to endorse this group identity). Meanwhile, we spineless ocean dwellers had some small hope that the trip would allow Turnvater Jahn to quit his summit addiction cold turkey: he was constantly allowed to see, but not touch! Granted, there were some small lapses along the way, including the Schilthorn, the Bunderspitz, and the Ammertenspitz. I am sorry to report, alas, that the trip has only added fuel to the flame – which probably comes as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog.

Abbildung 2: Jellying around on the Ammertenspitz

Along the way, we had some fantastic accommodations. The Hotel Rosenlaui was the destination for our first day and a truly memorable one at that. The decadent colonial style of its interior is a wonderful contrast to the surrounding scenery, and one can only marvel at the lavishness of times long past. It certainly did not hurt that we had booked a “traditional night”, which included an opulent dinner and a Swiss male choir performing traditional folk songs. Another great night was at the Bunderalp, where we slept on top of a cowshed, had Swiss raclette for dinner, and listened to the wonderful sound of Alphörner saying good night to each other. I have a hard time imagining something more Swiss than that! But fear not, we also preserved some cherished German traditions while on our trip, primarily by spending quite a few evenings with Doppelkopf. In fact, Anita could not get nearly enough of it, so please challenge her to a game or two, if you have the chance! ;-)

This being my first longer hiking trip in the Alps, I was struck by the overall level of convenience. Opportunities for showering were far more common than expected, the food was great, and the weight of our backpacks immeasurably lighter than having to carry the full camping loadout. This was definitely a welcome, jellyfish-approved change to the more isolated and rugged Canadian wilderness experience that I am used to (and also love). At the same time, it’s absolutely crazy to see how the Swiss have succeeded in using every inch of land they’re given. No matter how steep, no matter how small, they have engineered cog railways, cable cars, and supply trails to make the alpine accessible like no one else (things like the Jungfrau railway take this to the extreme). And while the alpine pastures certainly are scenic, it makes me shudder to think of all the labor and toil that was put into them over the centuries. Overall, this trip has certainly expanded my ideas about Switzerland, which so far had circled around xenophobia, shady finance, and a suspicious level of prosperity (keep in mind that I live in “poor, but sexy” Berlin – arriving in Zürich always feels like a different world entirely).

As always when escaping to the great outdoors, the vacation had the effect of compressing one’s belongings to a small backpack and one’s activities to a selected few: walking, eating, and sleeping. Life can really be that simple! Especially since starting a nine-to-five office job, I cannot think of a better way to regenerate. What’s also great about leaving civilization behind is that it reminds you of all the good things about civilization! At some point, you really want that couch; to listen to that track whose lyrics you have half-forgotten; to wake up and not be anxious at the look of dark clouds gathering. That being said, I am already looking forward to the next opportunity for the jellyfish to explore new habitats! ;-)


Abbildung 3: Altitude training at Hohtürli


Niederbauen Chulm (1923m), Oberbauenstock (2117m)

Volker, Chris and Fabian were staying with us for a few days. We joined up with Tim, Friederike and Ludwig on Saturday for a nice picknick at lake Bannalp. Beautiful weather meant lots of people with their kids. The lake features a kids trail with playground style stops. Ludwig and Fabian were happy sitting at the creek, tasting rocks. Ludwig turned out to be a true connoisseur, deliberately and meticulously dipping every single pebble into the creek before eating it. Fabian was less discriminating, stuffing rocks into his mouth as they came.

We had a nice place in the shade below some trees before the cows showed up. One of them was really aggressive and attacking people. It ate through our neighbor's picknick supplies and rammed a stroller (empty!) down the slope. I had a short stand off with it, pushing it back. In the end all humans fled behind the fenced-in playground and waited out the siege. We packed up and continued our walk around the lake. I have encountered hundreds of cows on my hikes, many of which inquisitive and curious, none aggressive. Must have had a bad day.

Note how the humans are fenced in for once.
Fabian was clearly inspired.

On Sunday Volker and I set out for a long hike while the ladies went to the wildlife park in Langnau. We kept a good pace and climbed the Niederbauen Chulm (1923m) with sweeping 360 degree vistas across Lake Lucerne. The summit was quite crowded because of the comfortably easy trail and cable car getting you most of the way there (we started in the valley of course!). As soon as we continued on to our next summit though we left the Sunday crowds behind us. The trail, now marked white-blue-white, got markedly more exposed and steeper. Getting onto the ridge required some scrambling and from there to the summit of the Oberbauenstock (2117m) was barely a trail at all.

Paragliders shouting of joy.

We continued along the long ridge to the West with the intention of climbing the Schwalmis (2246m) too. Clouds were moving in and the wind got markedly cooler. Checking the weather forecast it now predicted a thunderstorm for late afternoon. We didn't want to get caught in lightning high up on the ridge, so we decided to bail. Two summits is nothing to be ashamed of for a day's work after all. Also, this left time for a board game night with the ladies ;-)

The beginning of the long ridge.
Cheaters floating in the cable car with the two Mythen in the background.



Nesthorn (3822m)

It started out innocently enough with a quick chat at work:

Sören: Hey Ralf, any plans for the weekend?
Ralf: Not yet. We should change that.

Ralf, being Ralf, of course already had an idea off the top of his head: the Nesthorn (3822m). He had seen the mountain on one of his previous trips. If you don't get inspired by a beautiful shape like that I don't know how to help you. The guide book describes it as remote, hard to get to and rarely visited. No kidding. It should turn into my proudest mountaineering accomplishment yet.

How kids draw mountains. Photo by Hikr.org.

We recruited Ivan to complete the crew and I booked our night in the Baltschiederklause at 2783m. We left Zürich main station at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in the village of Ausserberg at 9:15. From there we had to cover 16km and ascend about 1800m. In brutal heat. Switzerland issued a severe weather warning because of extreme temperatures.

The wheel drives a hammer which in turn makes a banging sound that carries very far and notifies the maintainer of the water throughput.

The trail follows a Suone for quite some time. I had never heard of these before: artificial channels dug into the cliffs 700 years ago to divert water from the glaciers to the dry slopes of the villages. Some serious feat of engineering. Seriously, just look at these pictures! To look at sheer cliffs like that and envision water channels requires some bold imagination. The maintenance trails along these things are very narrow and crazy exposed. Any fall would be fatal.

For my botanist friends Anna & Bernd - green trail.

We have to climb a steep west facing grassy slope at 1800m. The heat is suffocating and I'm having a really hard time. I can deal much better with cold and don't perform very well in temperatures like this. An extended rest in the shade of a giant boulder revitalized me somewhat. Ivan took the opportunity to jump into the rushing gray waters of the Baltschiederbach - that certainly helped regulate the body temperature!

Ivan called it a Russian shower.
This looked very inviting to me. Cool!
Climbers on a huge slab.

Soon we turn North into the moraines below the mighty Bietschhorn. A cool breeze is blowing down the glaciers and I feel rejuvenated. The final approach to the hut feels easier to me than any of the less steep hiking at lower altitude before. We have some food at the hut and retreat for an afternoon nap before dinner. We discuss our tour plans with Jolanda, the friendly steward of the hut, and agree to a breakfast at 2:30 in the morning.

Ivan in front of the Bietschhorn (3934m).

We manage to leave on time just after 3 in the morning. We are the only rope team heading in our direction. The first objective is getting across a massive stone wall at the Baltschiederlicka (3219m). Despite being clearly visible from the hut we couldn't make out any weakness that'd allow passage when surveying it from the distance the day before. Coming ever closer in the dim light of the moon it now looks even more threatening and forbidding. Doubts begin to creep in.

The Baltschiederlicka. Intimidating. We crossed just left of the snowy couloir.
Climbing the Baltschiederlicka in the moonlight.
Coming down the other side. We traversed the snow field to the left and then rappeled from the rocks.

I take the lead and we ascend steep ice fields before arriving at a couloir that has some fixed ropes. It feels good to have some reassurance to be on the right track again. We hadn't seen any trail markers or any signs of humans for a while and just felt our own way through loose scree, boulders and snow fields. Rappelling down the other side of the wall gets us down onto the Gredetsch glacier.

The sun is coming up and the atmosphere is great. The end of the glacier is marked by another wall of rock. Climbing the Gredetschjoch (3508m) gets us onto the ridge proper. Shortly after Ivan decides to bail and wait for Ralf and my return. He was freaked out by climbing in crampons and the ridge seems a little too wild to him.

Ralf on the ridge.
Me working up the snow.
Some scrambling may be required...

I'm still on the "sharp end" of the rope, leading the way through some exposed rock scrambling on the ridge. I feel perfectly safe and comfortable on rock. However, soon the ridge turns to snow, and that's an entirely different matter. The sun has come up and it was so warm that the snow pack wasn't properly frozen even at night. I have to dig my way through knee deep soft snow that feels immaterial and treacherous, giving no support should you fall. It's also exhausting.

Summit book.
I did that. A little proud of my line ;-)

We reach the secondary summit, thinking the worst must surely be over now. Nope, the ridge seems even more exposed now and adds overhanging cornices to the fun. You definitely want to avoid walking on those for danger of them breaking off and taking you down with them. More difficult than it seems. You can't see what you are standing on from above and we are still breaking trail, no other tracks to follow. Some of the cornices are overhanging to the North, others to the South, so you'll have to guess the correct spot to traverse.


The final snow field to the summit is technically easy, but after breaking trail for nearly 7 hours straight I have to stop and take a breath every couple of steps. We reach the summit cross at 10:10 in perfect weather with beautiful vistas all around. Ralf gives me his highest praise by taking to calling me "The Animal" and admitting he'd likely have given up on the summit had it not been for me pushing on. I for one am very grateful for having such a reliable and strong rope partner in him. You don't really want to tie yourself to someone you don't trust...

Rappelling back to the glacier.
Headed for the endless valley.

We put our names into the summit book. The first entry since April. We don't linger around for long, but start descending back to Ivan. In the meantime four other people have arrived on the summit, following in our footsteps. Ivan was sitting in the sun, reading. He had told a friend at home to call the rescue service Rega if he didn't give the all clear before 4 in the afternoon. Not considering that his cell phone was dead, neither Ralf nor I knew of this or that reception might be spotty. We got a garbled voice message and an SMS through using my phone ;-)

This cow looked too cool chewing on that single straw. She was also really curious and tried to sniff my phone while I took the picture.

By now the snow has turned into wet slush. Every step on the steep top section of the Gredetsch glacier sets off small wet snow avalanches. What would have been hell to climb is actually quite comfortable to slide down on. Almost precisely as we reach the base of the glacier a thunderstorm hits. Luckily it's meek and after a bit of hail and rain it's over after half an hour. The most annoying side effect is that a trail-less steep meadow has turned into a wet slippery slope.

Can you tell why these tunnels eventually got on my nerves?

Instead of backtracking our steps we are descending towards the village of Mund through the Gredetsch valley. We call it the Endless Valley. It's framed by steep cliffs and monotonously straight. We rarely speak, everyone is lost to his own thoughts. As we get lower the heat becomes bad again. Thinking we could avoid it we choose to follow another Suone. This one is even more exposed than the first, partially built on overhanging cliffs. It also features lots of tunnels. Fun at first, but very annoying very soon, as they are often barely tall enough to crouch through. I hit my head painfully multiple times.

Waiting for the bus in Mund a car unexpectedly stops and offers us a ride down to the train station. Much appreciated! On the train a tour guide leading an SAC (Swiss Alpine Club) trip clears the cabin, quite rudely informing another passenger that the seats have been reserved. This applies to ours as well, but apparently we are smelly and dirty enough and carry the right gear to blend right in. Not only are we not hassled, but we have a very nice conversation with another guide from the SAC Bern ;-) A few beers later and we are home. Exhausted but happy about an outstanding trip.

In numbers:

  • ~38km
  • +-2800m
  • 15 active hours on Sunday, 7 of breaking trail to the summit
  • 9200 kcal burned on Sunday (2500 kcal is the average for an adult man)