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...


Gross Furkahorn (3169m) via Evalin Route (6a+, TD, 11 pitches, 350m)

The trip that nearly wasn't. It seemed that everyone was travelling this weekend and it looked like despite a perfect weather forecast I'd not be able to go on a "big" trip. But then Vinay, Andrew and me chatted at work on Friday and tried to put something together on the last minute. By that time all huts I called were already booked out, so we decided to go for a one day alpine climbing trip up the Gross Furkahorn. I left the climbing gym a little earlier than usual on Friday and threw together a pack just before midnight. We left Zürich by car at 5:30 the next morning.

Our route is basically a straight line from here to the summit.
Vinay in front of the Galenstock.

We parked at Furkapass and hiked up to the base of the mountain. None of us had ever been to the area, so we had to first find the start of the route. I eyeballed the mountain and topo and scrambled up the steep scree slope to where I expected the route to be. Since I couldn't find it I traversed left and right, searching, only to discover that it was precisely where I first expected it to be - I had just been too blind to spot the bolts.

Getting ready.
First pitch.
The traverse in the crux third pitch.

The popular East South East ridge route up the mountain was crowded. So many parties that people were queuing in line, waiting to rope up. Our route is graded much harder and we have it to ourselves (later a second rope team of two would show up and overtake us).

We are off to a bumpy start, with Vinay dropping his climbing shoes, requiring a scramble and search behind a patch of snow to retrieve. A few pitches later he drops his rappel device too, so he uses downtime at the anchors with his phone to research rappelling technique using just carabiners. Good thing he figures this out, as Andrew notices he forgot his rappel device at the base of the climb in the backpack we left behind...

The summit pinnacle.
A "guess what Vinay is doing there?" picture.

We are using two half ropes with me tied in as the leader and the others following behind on a single strand each. We share two backpacks between the three of us, so the leader can climb unencumbered. The first few pitches are also the crux pitches. Steep granite slabs requiring delicate foot work. Very fun climbing on good quality rock in spectacular scenery - we are surrounded by glaciers and towering faces. The climbing is just challenging enough to be exciting but not so hard that I feel uncomfortable leading the many sections with run outs of 5 meters or more. The crux sections are always well protected by bolts and many places allow placing additional trad gear.

Scrambling around on the ridge.
Summit smile.
Summit smile.
Summit smile.

Our route joins the ridge and we ascend the spectacular summit needle. A slanted shard of granite with barely enough room at the top for all three of us to dangle from the anchor and take in the views. Definitely my "pointiest" summit yet. Great effort by everyone involved! Especially Andrew got thrown into the deep end. He's an accomplished sports climber, but hasn't done any alpine stuff before (he hadn't even seen a glacier in real life, let alone walked on one!).

Vinay getting ready to rappel from the summit.
The second rappel further down the mountain.
Scrambling down in scree in climbing shoes - blech!

Clouds are moving in and we have to hurry to make it back to the car before nightfall. The descent requires two rappels and a lot of scrambling in steep and exposed terrain. Some of it on patches of snow. No fun at all in climbing shoes. We expected to be able to rappel on the East side of the mountain where we came up. Instead we come down the other side and have to circle back. We make it back to the parking lot precisely when it became too dark to see. Perfect timing ;-)

Gross Furkahorn, Via Evalin

  • L1 5c, 35m
  • L2 6a, 35m
  • L3 6a+, 35m
  • L4 5c+, 40m
  • L5 4c, 50m
  • L6 5b, 25m
  • L7 5b, 25m
  • L8 2c, ridge
  • L9 3c, ridge
  • L10 4c
  • L11 4b

Photo courtesy of summitpost.org


Climbing Gallerie Weesen

A quick after-work climbing session with Andrew and Vinay. Originally Sam wanted to join as well, but had to attend a meeting instead. With little time, and three people eager to climb, I thought I'd set up a rope for self belay. We fixed it to the anchor and I started climbing, belayed by my ascender on the rope. I attached my backpack to the end of the rope as a counter weight. I did not consider that the wall was overhanging and my backpack dangling a few meters away from it, pulling me out and away from the rock. There I was, hanging in mid air, no way to get back on the rock. So I ascended the rope using a prusik and the self belay device. Good exercise for bigwall/alpine maneuvers, but not quite what I had in mind. I blame absent Sam!

Andrew and Vinay have climbed together a lot before. They have this rule between them that whenever you want a rest you won't get it unless you shout with conviction: "I'm a big pussy and I need you to take!". Good rule! Right down my alley. We each only got two routes done, but that still amounted to more than 50 meters of climbing, so not bad. Now we just need to screw our "Lead Heads" back on - too much gym climbing makes you weak psychologically ;-)

  • Zigerchrapfe 6a+
  • Der Riss 6a+


Climbing Lungern

Our plans for a mountaineering trip this weekend got shot down by the weather. Zero visibility, snowfall and high winds are not really ideal for the high country. So we went climbing to the crag in Lungern instead. The wall is overhanging with a huge natural roof above it, so it stays dry even in rain. It was quite crowded, with a lot of regulars from the Minimum bouldering gym hanging out and working on their projects. Vladimir, Eduard, Tereza and me stuck to the easier side of the wall. The relevant climbing guide is called "Extrem Ost" - so even the easy stuff is quite challenging.

The "easy" section of the wall. So tall that my rope was just barely long enough.
Tereza and Vladimir.

I successfully lead Schleicher 5c and Absolut Beginners 6a+. Tereza, the strongest climber in our group by a huge margin, treated this as her rest day but still put in a top rope in Kuhhandel 7a for us mere mortals. I put up a decent fight on that and can see myself climbing this route cleanly after more training. However, it went downhill from there. I've tried Schleimer 6b. Again on top rope. It was a pathetic struggle. Despite hanging on the rope a lot and Edo basically pulling me up through some of the sections, I just couldn't get a grip on the route. The last few meters were especially depressing. Small finger pockets are impossible with my crippled hand. No matter how I try to use it, the broken middle finger is involved in any combination of fingers I could squeeze into the tight holes. No chance. Also no chance for this to ever get better, which dampened my mood more than a little bit ;-/

Anyway. Still a fun outing with a strong group.

Edo hanging around while Vladimir is coming up.
I have definitely looked happier at the top of a climb...