Mountain climbing is dangerous. It requires suffering through pain, cold and exhaustion. It serves no purpose. Why do it then?

Many people more qualified than me have tried to answer this question. This is my rambling attempt at a more personal answer. Why do I go to the mountains?

I love being outdoors. I love the connection to nature, the rawness and wildness of it. I love throwing myself into the wind and shouting of joy. The mountains and the sea are two of the few places left in our civilized and tamed world that are still mostly wild. Mountains are raw energy. Inconceivable amounts of energy created them. You need to be strong to climb them. Everything there is charged with energy. Everything there has the potential to kill you if the energy is discharged too quickly.

Mountains allow me to grow and learn things about myself. It is tremendously satisfying to experience getting stronger. You start with small strolls. They get longer and longer until you can comfortably hike the entire day without thinking much of it. There is a natural progression ramping up the challenge and climbing harder and harder routes. Learning the exact boundaries of ones physical limits and extending them gradually.

I know things about myself that few people know about themselves. I know, don't imagine, how I react to extreme stress and fear of death. I know that I won't panic and that I'm still able to control myself and act rationally and constructively. Knowing where my limits are gives me a lot of power and self assurance in everyday situations. The coping mechanisms and mental strength you train while climbing are applicable elsewhere.

Mountains offer a well defined, unambiguous goal. Either you reach the summit or you don't. This is in refreshing contrast to the ambiguities of our modern world. Everyday life rarely offers such easy black and white goals, everything is muddy. At the same time the pay-off is proportional to your investment. The more effort you expend to reach a goal the more gratifying the reward. Give it all your strength, invest all your smarts. The ultimate stake is your life. You can't put more on the line than that.

Taking risks is freedom. I choose to do it. The default choice in our modern world is to always minimize risk. But if you accept that, then there is no choice. You are not free. You don't decide. It gets exciting once you make a conscious decision: how much risk am I willing to accept for the experience? I crave the independence of it. Nobody tells me what to do, I am the master of my own decisions and carry the weight of the responsibility.

I love the feeling of being self-sufficient, autonomous. I carry everything I need in my pack. If I want, I can stop right here and bivvy for the night. This was an eye opening experience on my bicycle trip of half a year. You don't need much, you can be self reliant and make a comfortable home almost anywhere. That is a powerful realization.

Climbing requires full concentration. A day of scrambling on a ridge is not only physically exhausting but also mentally draining. Staying one hundred percent focused in the here and now requires discipline. You cannot afford a single lapse. As a consequence you train an iron will. It has meditative qualities. You don't think of anything else. Nothing clears my mind of work like climbing a steep wall.

I like the exclusiveness of it. I like being part of an elite club. The group of people that don't need to read an article like this, because they know. Because they are driven by the same passion. Who don't shake their heads at the "crazy risks", because they are already scheming their own next epic.

I'm a fiercely competitive person if I set my mind to it. I enjoy being stronger and faster than the average guy, the next guy. I enjoy the tension this creates. Mountaineering is an intensely shared experience. You need a rope partner. You literally trust your partner with your life and rely on her for your safety. So climbing is also fundamentally cooperative. You reach the summit together or not at all. An epic struggle shared with a partner creates a strong bond.

Whenever I'm in wild places I imagine what it must have been like to be the first human to stand there. To lay eyes on this landscape. To explore and discover. Being in the mountains where few people can go allows me to live this fantasy at least a little bit. White spots on our maps have become very rare, so I go looking for them in the vertical world. True adventures have almost become extinct.

At the same time I like ticking off places on my own, personal map. It is tremendously satisfying to see a map of the entire country and have it covered in a spiderweb of GPS tracks of my own hikes. Experience that you can explore so much solely under your own power. I can walk across an entire country in a few days - imagine that!

Mountaineering has beautiful toys. I like playing with the highly specialized, high quality gear. Maybe childish, but then again, most hobbies have equipment fetishists. Becoming proficient in, and eventually mastering, its use is a reward all by itself. Like a carpenter with her tools.

Climbing, and even hiking, is intellectually satisfying. You marvel at a particularly beautiful line, elegant route or an efficient move. Something as seemingly trivial as a foot placement on a downhill run can be quite stimulating. Split second decisions. Either you need to waste a lot of energy or you smoothly float over the rocks.

You are playing in magnificent surroundings. I'm an atheist, but if I ever thought there was something more to our existence it has been in the majestic arena of nature. I've had some very emotional moments in the mountains. Taking it all in has caused me to well up and my voice to break. I have shouted of joy against the wind when there was no one to hear. I have run pirouettes down a glacier to celebrate existence. Life is great!

Mountaineering then is fun because it satisfies deeply human urges as few other endeavors can.

Probably my favorite mountaineering photo: Vince Anderson, photographed by Steve House, after climbing the 4100 meter Rupal Face to the summit of the 8126 meter Nanga Parbat, a superhuman effort.


Montalin (2266m)

I had a small good weather window on Saturday. My plan was to hike the entire Schanfigg ridge in Grisons near Chur. This would have made it an extreme endurance tour of about 3000 meters elevation gain. At this time of year it's hard to judge the weather situation correctly so I kept checking local webcams, trying to figure out how much snow there was in the mountains. Turns out I underestimated that drastically ;-)


I started at sunrise in the tiny village of Maladers at 1000m altitude. It only took a few hundred meters and I was already walking on snow. I discovered lots of ibex tracks in the snow near the Fürhörnli at 1888m. It seemed to be one of their resting places, at least it looked like they had made camp there. Ten minutes later I met two hunters in white camouflage suits. We had a brief chat and they were indeed going after an ibex. I didn't see it, but I heard a shot echo out through the mountains a little while later, so apparently I didn't scare away all of their prey.

The faint diagonal line across the face is the trail. It's every bit as intimidating as it looks. And then some.
Google Earth summer rendering of my GPS track through the face.

After I left the hunters behind me I was breaking trail in virgin snow. Up to knee deep and fresh, not properly settled yet. I crossed lots of small snow slides and avalanche debris. The Montalin South bluff loomed menacingly in front of me. The trail cutting across it is a white-blue-white, difficult, one. Up to 45 degrees steep with an exposure of a few hundred meters it was covered in a brittle layer of slippery snow. Dicey.

Treacherous terrain.
Looking a bit stressed out after scrambling up the slope behind me.

Despite taking full advantage of my GPS I often lost the faint trail beneath the snow. This left me scrambling up the face directly, cutting through switch backs. Progress was slow and tedious. I had to cut individual steps and carefully balance my weight between my feet and the hiking poles. Any misstep here would have dire consequences. As would trusting the wrong lump of snow. In summer or on solid snow using crampons this would be a complete non-issue. As it was it was nerve wracking. Downclimbing in such conditions is even more difficult and dangerous, so I figured my best escape was over the summit. No turning back now.

Summit panorama.

It was a relief when I finally topped out. Inspecting my intended route ahead I quickly abandoned the idea of continuing along the ridge and decided to go down instead. In these conditions the ridge would have been suicidal. Not to mention exhausting. An icy wind was blowing on the summit and leaden clouds were looming above. It looked like it might start snowing any minute. I signed the summit book and started on my descent towards the East. Much easier terrain. In fact, a gentle slope and knee deep fresh powder made it a joy to just run down the mountain in a straight line. Looks like a perfect area for ski touring. A lone hiker passed me on the way up. A local on his eightieth ascent of the mountain. Rock on dude!

The ridge line ahead. Project for another time.
Frozen lake.
Fresh avalanche path. Not much weight yet, but easily enough to swipe you off the mountain.

Once I regained a good dirt track I met another hunter and his young dog in training. This guy carried a shotgun and was going for hares. However, he was quite old and mostly seemed interested in a good hike outdoors with his dog rather than actually shooting anything. Just when I arrived back at my car the surrounding mountain tops disappeared in clouds and it started raining. Good timing!

  • ~+-1300m
  • ~15km


Fuggstock (2371m), Gulderstock (2511m), Wissmilen (2483m)

Last week's excursion taught me to stay a bit lower to avoid the season's treacherous snow conditions at high altitudes. To make up for missing altitude I figured I'd just choose a very long route. The idea was born to hike from the village of Matt to Flums, climbing all the summits in between and staying high on the Gulder and Gips ridges. People typically do this as a two day trip, taking advantage of the cable cars in the beginning and the end. I figured we could squeeze this into a single day without cheating by using cable cars.

Hausstock North Face. People ski this!

Christian and Andrey signed up for the trip. We took the first train out of Zürich and arrived in Matt around 8 in the morning. We were off to a bad start, heading entirely into the wrong direction. It took us half an hour to discover our mistake and backtrack. Thus it was already half past eight when we finally started up the right mountain. Very late for the ambitious itinerary I had in mind.

Final few meters towards the summit.
Fuggstock summit!

We were headed for the Fuggstock. Up to about 1850 meters altitude the trail follows good dirt tracks through meadows and forests. Then we went straight up the flank of the mountain through pathless terrain. Christian got trouble with his knees and was of half a mind of turning around. We could convince him to stick around for the first summit (didn't take much convincing ;-)). We sat on the summit in the sun and enjoyed beautiful vistas just around noon.

The way ahead. Gulderstock, endless ridge, Magerrain, Wissmilen, Spitzmeilen.
T5+ descent if you want to cross directly over to the Gulderstock. We backtracked instead. This looked a bit too dicey.
Stumbling not advisable.

We said good-bye to Christian, who headed back down towards Matt, while we continued from the Fuggfurggle up the Gulderstock. The actual summit of the Gulderstock is a few meters lower than a neighboring tower. So we tried to climb up the tower too. Unfortunately it is split in the middle and "the" tower is really two towers. I picked the wrong one and ended up two meters below the highest point of the mountain. No way to cross the chasm safely from where I was. Damn.

The split tower and Gulderstock summit.
Andrey climbing up the tower.
Clouds boiling up around the Glärnisch.

From the summit a bit of scrambling through a scree field brought us back onto the ridge. It was beautiful. Clouds were boiling up dramatically from the valleys. A floating sea of clouds below us while we enjoyed blue skies. The landscape completely wild and deserted, no soul around.

The chain of Churfirsten in the distance.
Andrey chilling on the Wissmilen summit.

We reached the aptly named Teufgrätli (devil's ridge). I assume it deserves this name for its bright red rock and because you'll have an appointment with the devil if you dare walk on it. We came to a steep drop with downwards sloping, crumbling shingles of rock covered in a layer of wet sludge. With an exposure of a hundred meters or so to either side. You could not have made it any more treacherous if you'd tried. Andrey actually slipped and caught his fall on the ledge just in time. I scrambled through it while Andrey retreated to meet back up with me on the slopes below the ridge. There had been snow as recently as a few days ago. While it was all melted away now it still left the grass wet and brushed downwards. Very strenuous to walk on. We regained the ridge as soon as possible.

The trail down the Wissmilen.

The ridge got dramatically easier afterwards and we made quick progress up the Wissmilen, the last peak for the day. From the summit we were finally on regular hiking trails again and progress from there was quick and easy. A good thing too, as we'd soon be hiking in the dark. Walking down all the way to Flums was an arduous effort of twenty kilometers. Distance wise, the Wissmilen summit only marked the half way point of the trip.

At the end of a very long day we reached the train station at nine o'clock in the evening. Tired but happy.

  • ~40km
  • +2340m
  • -2740m


Bristen (3073m)

Remember this guy from last week?

It now features a red line to the summit ;-)

This was a solo trip and I was red-lining it all the way. It was the longest, most sustained, most exposed and most dangerous ridge I've ever been on. The first mountain where I had serious doubts on the summit whether I could actually get back down again. It was challenging physically, but even more so mentally. I was breaking trail on an unknown route in bad slippery snow, alone. In a white-out, with fresh snow coming down. With insane exposure to either side. I had to really concentrate and step up my mental game not to freak out.

Etzli Valley
Lake Bristen. The trail heads straight down from where I'm standing.

Against my better judgement I went to the climbing gym on Friday night. After barely four and a half hours of sleep the alarm jerked me awake. I drove to the village of Bristen at the foot of Mt Bristen. Started up the mountain in the pitch black of morning. Realized after a while that I forgot my cell phone in the car. Essential safety gear and also my only camera on this trip, as I planned to go light and fast and had left the bulky DSLR at home. After hiking back down to retrieve my phone I started the tour proper at 6:30 in the morning.

One of the few trail markers: a giant white arrow pointing out where to access the ridge.
The upside of a lying weather forecast: double rainbows!
The lower section of the North Face. Already steep...

It started with an easy warm up into the wild Etzli Valley. Soon I crossed the Etzli Creek to head up the steep East flank of the mountain on a white-blue-white trail. Crossing the ridge I reached Lake Bristen with its tiny bivvy hut. From there it was scrambling through an easy scree field up to the North East ridge which would lead me to the summit.

Climb here.
Lonely footprints.

The ridge featured a well worn trail at first. However, this would soon disappear below the snow. I could see where it headed into the flanks of the mountain at times. However the exposure of the sheer 800m drop of the North Face was so great that I didn't dare wading through the wet slushy snow with no idea what I was walking on and whether the entire batch would avalanche down with me. So I scrambled and climbed the rocky gendarmes head on. Some of the moves were slightly overhanging which later made the way down so much more exciting - down climbing with your feet dangling in the air, trying to find purchase.

Retracing my steps from the way up.
Just came down here.
My hands after hours in soaking wet gloves.

I didn't take pictures of the more challenging parts, I was too busy staying alive. The snow got better closer to the summit because it was frozen. However it was also piercingly cold. A fierce wind was blowing and I could barely feel my fingers in my soaking wet gloves. I stayed just long enough to sign the summit book - the first entry in almost a month. I headed back the same way I came. I originally entertained the idea of descending via the slightly more difficult North West ridge, but as it was, I was really glad to have my footsteps from the ascent to follow.

Looking back. The ridge on the left was my route.
Erstfeld Valley with the lower section of Lake Lucerne.

It was becoming hard to stay focused. Concentrating one hundred percent for hours and hours at a time is draining. I was scrambling and climbing so much that my arms started to turn to rubber. About halfway down the ridge I discovered a pair of fresh tracks in the snow. Apparently two people from the bivvy hut had followed me part way but gave up and turned around. In the end, I'd have not only the ridge but the entire mountain to myself this day.

Nice hut. Accessible to everyone.

When I finally made it back down to safe ground and a regular hiking trail I allowed myself the first proper rest of the day. I chose a white-red-white easy trail for the descent and half jogged down the entire distance back to the car. The complete round trip had taken me 10:30 hours, compared to the 13 hours given in the guide book.

  • ~2500m up and down
  • ~20km
  • 10:30h round trip time