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)

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