2020-09-07

Brienzer Rothorn (2351m), Schongütsch (2319m)

Helmut, Susanne, Paul and Nils stayed with us for a few days on their way back to Germany from vacation in Austria. Helmut likes suffering from long endurance hikes and bike rides. What he does not like is heights and exposure to heights. Susanne on the other hand enjoys ridges and some scrambling. So Helmut volunteered to take care of the kids for a day and allow Susanne and me to go hiking. Unfortunately it was raining from morning to evening on the Sunday we had planned for this. So we took the kids to the climbing gym on Sunday and I took a day of vacation to squeeze the hike in on Monday.

The cable car running from Sörenberg (!) to the Brienzer Rotstock.
On the approach.

I chose (a part of) the Hardergrat as our destination. It is a beautiful area with just the right amount of excitement on a nice ridge. I've done the entire thing twice before (once, twice) and it was a fantastic experience. The plan was to approach from the other side of the mountain this time to include some novelty for me.

Summit selfie.
Comparing the promised vistas of the famous Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau mountain range with reality.

The weather forecast had predicted that it would be dry, but cloudy, with occasional glimpses of sun. Not ideal, but not bad either. In the end we spent the entire day in the clouds with only dozens of meters of visibility. Somewhat disappointing, considering that we should have had beautiful vistas of three lakes. It led to a somewhat surreal and funny moment where we wanted to take a short break and were looking for a dry space to sit. I checked my GPS and proclaimed that we ought to be right at a (closed) restaurant. We couldn't see the building, but my voice, spoken at normal volumes, echoed back to us from the wall of the very restaurant we were looking for. Invisible in the fog, not 20 meters in front of us. We had a similar experience once we gained the ridge. I told Susanne how there were tons of ibexes the last time I was here. And sure enough, we could barely make out some ghostly silhouettes in the fog. Same for the train: you can reach the restaurant at the top of the mountain via an old authentic steam engine powered cogwheel train. We could smell it, hear it right next to us, but not see it, despite being right above the station platform.

Ibex.
Schongütsch summit with "Das Kreuz" as it is marked on the map.

We took an extended launch break in the restaurant at the top of the mountain. Luckily this was open. The only other patrons was a construction crew, working to get the local slopes and cable cars ready for the winter season. We had soup and a relaxed conversation, passing time while checking the weather radar for signs of improvement. No luck. So we decided to try and walk along the ridge for a while and see how it goes.

On the ridge.
On the ridge. Compare to the previous times: one, two. ;-/

Everything was still wet and muddy from the day of rain before. This was OK on level terrain but as soon as it got steeper the mud turned the trail into a slippery slope. At one point I even slipped and fell. No damage done, but a very clear sign that continuing along the long and exposed ridge in these conditions would not be advisable. So we took the next opportunity to hike down and close the loop back to the car. A bit disappointing that Susanne didn't get to enjoy the otherwise spectacular views. But it was still a nice hike in a very moody, subdued atmosphere. Only muffled sounds and the sensation of being the only humans around also have some appeal. And we'll get to do this again some time, because this outing surely didn't count, right Helmut?!

Sheep.
Some legends are stranger than others.

2020-09-04

Kingspitze North East Face, via "Steuri", 650m, 5c+/6a

Kingspitze North East face, or: Christian's alpine climbing baptism by fire. After climbing the Vorderspitz, and getting fantastic views into the Kingspitz North East face, it was already clear to us that we had to climb it. So it was, that barely a week after our first visit to the Engelhörner, Luigi and I returned. This time we were accompanied by Christian. Christian is a strong climber and regular gym and crag climbing partner. Until that point he didn't have any alpine multi-pitch experience though. While the route is bolted, it still requires additional protection by placing your own gear. So we decided Luigi and I would lead the entire thing with Christian following. It would be quite a stiff introduction to alpine climbing ;-)

Early morning moon.
On the approach to the Engelhorn hut.
Luigi in front of our objective, comparing the topo to reality to find the start of the route.

The Kingspitz is quite a bit longer than the Vorderspitz route we did last time, so this time around we decided to spend the night in a tent at the parking lot below the Rychenbach alp. A funny difference in perception between me, a parent, and Christian, not (yet) a parent: while he was worried about a short and rough night (sleeping on a mat, getting up at 5 am) I was looking at the same setup as finally getting a good night's sleep. And this is indeed how it turned out for me. Already at 1500 meters altitude the temperatures at night were a lot cooler and more bearable than at home in hot Zürich. And while the night was somewhat short, it was blissfully uninterrupted.

Me about to start on the first real pitch of the climb. At this point we had already scrambled for ~150 meters.
Christian and Luigi coming up the ramp. Following a nice crack.
A short tricky sequence with hardly any structure.

The climb starts with about 100-150 meters of scrambling and easy climbing. Some parties do this unprotected, but we decided to play it safe and rope up. I think both decisions are justifiable and mostly depend on your experience, level of comfort and whether there are other parties in the route (rockfall). I led this part in approach shoes and we got it over with fairly quickly. The primary difficulties consist of route finding and rope drag on the long traverses.

Sun coming up. We only got to enjoy it for a short while in this North East face.
One of the harder pitches: a steep ramp with only small crimps and cracks for progress.

We had a great time once the actual climbing started. The pitches were challenging enough to be interesting, but never so hard as to be intimidating or at our limit. We maintained a rapid pace with Luigi and me switching leads after every one or two pitches. Christian was enjoying himself and easily kept up. Luigi and I as a regular ropeteam have established a lot of weird lingo, insider references, bullshitting, and, most of all, a tradition of swearing and insulting one another non-stop. Christian was quick to pick up on this tradition as well and before long we were all gleefully hurling insults at one another. Good times!

Another one of the harder pitches. Starting on somewhat brittle crumbling rock...
...and traversing into...
...a steep pumpy section.

We were the only party on the mountain that day and made good progress, easily progressing faster than the guidebook suggested. That is, until we reached easier terrain a few pitches below the summit. It was my turn to lead and I had already switched back from tight climbing shoes to more comfortable approach shoes. I didn't study the topo carefully enough and on the easy pitches there are hardly any bolts to indicate where you ought to go. So I just kept going one way until I ran out of rope. Of course I missed the crucial "exit" and had to undo most of the pitch to climb the proper route. Luigi kept cursing about how I'm "piton blind" and "don't see bolts". Most of the time this is actually funny. I'll place a cam half a meter away from the piton because I've failed to notice it. This time it wasted us some time. C'est la vie.

Luigi making it through the steep sequence.
One of the easy pitches. Great views and exposure!
Christian fooling around.

We gained the summit at around half past three. The guidebook explicitly warns not to underestimate the descent and to budget a lot of time for it. So we didn't linger around for too long but started scrambling down the West ridge towards the first rappel. After we were convinced to be on the right track, the descent actually didn't seem all that bad at first. It did require some exposed downclimbing and about half a dozen rappels, but we were making good progress and generally feeling good about it. We had some minor SNAFUs with the rope getting stuck after a rappel, requiring a quick rescue mission. Or evading some rockfall accidentally kicked down by one of us. But it all seemed within normal parameters for this type of terrain.

The pitch leading up to the route book. Still many pitches to go to the summit.
Fun off-width crack climbing.
Christian trying to scale my embattlement.

This all changed when we crossed over the saddle back into the Ochsental valley. The descent route forks, with one route continuing down into the Rosenlaui valley while the option we took goes back towards the Engelhorn hut and thus presents the more direct route for us. What was a proper, if small, trail before, turns into steep scree fields ending in vertical drops. Terrible crumbling rock, no protection and great exposure. The type of terrain where mistakes will kill you. The words of the guidebook weren't enough of a warning to prepare us for this - it had used very similar text to describe the Vorderspitz descent and that turned out not to be so bad. I should have known though, much stronger and more experienced climbers (having climbed all the big North faces of the alps) have opted to never repeat this descent.

Luigi about to start another tricky pitch. This one was defined by a short sequence of pinches on a steep wall.
A few meters into that pitch.
Christian about to "step up".

We eventually reached a steel cable bolted to the rock that serves as a rappel anchor and allowed us to rappel all the way back down to the scree fields of the valley. What a relief! During the scramble Christian kept remarking how this was the most dangerous thing he ever did. While this may not be entirely true for me, it was definitely right up there with the worst descents we did in the Dolomites. Anyway. We all made it back down to safety and Christian has definitely earned his alpine climbing badge! Well done!

Christian and me coming up.
Final few meters before gaining the ridge. Luigi is already in the sun.
Easy terrain on the ridge to the summit.
Waiting my turn.
Christian and me coming up to Luigi on the summit.
The final belay stance. Not too bad ;-)
Summit selfie.
Scrambling down the west ridge.
A few rappels.
Downclimbing.
Nice views on the descent.
Christian scrambling down towards us. Horrible terrain. Loose rock and absolutely unforgiving. He has to climb down, cross the wet streak on the left and then walk towards where I'm standing.
Luigi scouting the descent.
Scrambling down exposed ridges.
Back down in the valley.
Enjoying celebratory beers at the hut while the sun goes down.

2020-08-15

Vorderspitz (2619m) via "Näbel und Chempä", 400m, 6a+

Mark suggested a route on the Engelhörner: the "Näbel und Chempä" up the Vorderspitz. He had been to the area before with the intent of climbing that very same route. However, Piotr and him screwed up and hiked up entirely the wrong valley. They lost too much time before they realized their mistake and so had to turn around without climbing anything. They did bring back nice pictures of the objective though. Luigi and I didn't need any more convincing than that to join for a "revenge" trip to the Engelhörner.

On the approach to the Engelhorn hut.
Mighty Kingspitz.
Vorderspitz.

We drove up the adventurous private gravel road to the Rychenbach alp early in the morning and hiked to the Engelhorn hut. The hut guards the entrance to the Ochsental - a small valley enclosed by the massive looming limestone towers of the Engelhörner. Impressive to behold and tons of good climbing opportunities. This time Mark and Piotr could guide us towards the mountain without problem. It involved scrambling up a steep and wet couloir. Not easy and exposed enough to make falling ill-advised.

The approach was not without its difficulties. Narrow, wet and exposed couloir.
We stayed in the couloir for too long - should have gone out on the rock sooner. Next time.
A race on the first pitch.

We searched back and forth at the base of the wall but for the longest time couldn't find the start of the climb. We finally spotted a lone bolt and could start climbing. At this point it was already 11 o'clock - quite late for an alpine objective of this magnitude. Luigi and Piotr raced up leading the first easy 5a pitch simultaneously. The second pitch was marginally harder at 5b. However, it was also wet running with water. Nobody was keen on leading slippery wet rock with large gaps between bolts. It looked like the climb might be over right there. Eventually I took heart and led that pitch for the entire party.

Me leading the wet second pitch.
Everyone following.
Dry rock! Steep rock! Yay!

After this somewhat bumpy start we finally gained the main wall. And what a wall it is! Steep and extremely sustained with most pitches between 5c+ and 6a+. Relentless. Even the supposedly easy 5c+ pitches are often vertical or slightly overhanging. You do get nice big jugs to pull on, but it's a good workout nonetheless. Pumpy! Luckily this part was now exposed to the sun and dry.

Luigi coming up.
Luigi on the sharp end.
Piotr posing for the camera.

We made good progress with alternating leads. At some point Piotr struggled a bit with dizziness and nausea. Mark led the remaining pitches for their party. Luigi got to lead the final 6a+ pitch to the summit. The topo hinted that something about it might be special: a very uncharacteristically large number of bolts protect a relatively short pitch. And indeed it turned out that this part featured the hardest individual moves of the entire route. Delicate moves on small cracks. Super fun. In general we found the route to be bolted somewhat strangely. The pitches are long and often start out with a reasonable bolt density only to then suddenly become super runout towards the end. We kept joking that the people bolting it ran out of gear for the pitch again. Very inconsistent in that regard.

This is fun!
This route is relentlessly steep.
A short traverse.

During the entire climb we had great views into the Kingspitz Northwall and a climbing party heading up there. Even while we were still climbing our route we were already decided to make that one of our next objectives. It just looked too beautiful. We didn't waste too much time on our summit. The guidebook warns of a long and alpine descent, so we made haste to avoid coming down in the dark. Turned out to be not too bad. We made it back to the hut for quick celebratory beers by 8pm. Another great day out and one of the most sustained and hardest (by average difficulty) alpine climbs I've done so far. Success ;-)

Mark.
Sitting around at the top.
Top.
Look at all this limestone! More work to be done here.
Mark about to join us at the summit. Hardest pitch? Definitely the hardest single move.
View across the Kingspitz to the Rosenlaui glacier. Who wouldn't want to stand up there?!
Piotr.
Mission accomplished.
Unprotected steep scrambling on the descent.
More alpine terrain on the descent.
Mark coming down. Looks worse than it was.
Waiting for the others to catch up.
Back into the morning's coulois. This time rappeling down.
Evening mood.