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And the YouTube video, which includes some pretty nice knife-edge work on the Moench and also zipline footage from Gorner Gorge. This is the one where I think the video is really much better than the photos:
I needed to do quite a bit of laundry after returning from Mont Blanc and the French Alps, and my wife helped out. Some of the stuff was pretty filthy, after being worn for 5-6 days straight, so she washed it in our tiny euro-washer twice, both times on “Ultra wash”. Sadly, we had both neglected to notice that my passport was still in the hidden “security pocket”.
So after two double-cycle washings and drying, my passport was trashed. The cover was falling apart, the pages were disintegrating, the stamps were smeared, and the ID page was coming unlaminated. Since this happened on a Friday and I was supposed to leave on Sunday for Switzerland, there was nothing I could do to fix the problem. The Embassy and Consulate pages were useless, and even calling back to the States didn’t get me far. The part I liked best was the notice that “walk-in emergency services are not available, please schedule an appointment”. Not joking. Brilliant. So I scheduled an appointment for Tuesday, 21 Aug (the first available “emergency appointment”), cancelled my SwissAir flight, booked a new flight, changed my train and hotel reservations. It was an expensive mistake, and I hoped to get a 1-day passport at the US Consulate in Edinburgh.
22 Aug – After getting a limited-duration emergency passport, I was on my way back to the Alps, this time to Grindelwald to attempt the Bernese Oberland Trio of the Moench, Jungfrau, and Eiger. The flight was unremarkable, although the train system threw me for a few loops. It was very crowded, and, of course, all in German. I finally made it to Grindelwald and checked in to the hotel with a great view of the Eiger Nordwand looming over the valley.
The Eiger from Grindelwald
That evening during dinner the skies opened up, lightning flashed, and I began to be doubtful about my chances on the Eiger. The forecast was grim.
Not a good forecast
23 Aug – Mark had driven up from Chamonix early that morning, and we met up around 0730 to discuss options. The morning was fairly calm, but it was supposed to rain, snow and get windy for the next few days starting in the afternoon. We spoke with the Mitteleggi Hut warden, and she said she was closing the hut and taking a helicopter down to the valley since there was forecast to be over 15cm of snow. That would make a long, exposed 5.7 ridge climb very dangerous indeed!
But since the morning was calm, we headed up to Kleine Scheidegg and from there caught the rail up to the Jungfraujoch, the highest rail station in Europe. The line passes through the Eiger, with gallery windows looking out onto the North Face. We looked out, and I was quite happy to be in the place where so many epic moments of mountaineering history were made.
We came out into the blinding brightness overlooking the Konkordiaplatz glacier, which looked truly Himalayan.
Aletsch Glacier, largest in the Alps
Like an enormous streaked road between jagged peaks. We walked along the easy snowpath to the base of the Moench, then roped up and began the climb.
It started on snow, then quickly turned to rock, and the wind really picked up. At points it was blowing so hard that it was difficult to move, let alone climb Class 3 and Class 4 rock in big boots. The wind was so troublesome that I began to doubt that we‘d make it to the summit, since there are many more difficult sections above, not to mention the summit ridge which is spectacularly narrow and exposed.
Heading up the summit ridge
We found a protected notch and sat down to put on crampons. Ironically, this was below the most difficult rock section of the climb, which Mark led, then belayed from an iron post at the top. I took it easy and tried to make sure that each step in particular was solid. The steepest bit was probably only about 10 feet, but wrapped around an overhanging bulge with a 100’ fall. A few more careful crampon placements on the rock and I had made it up. There were also a few short gaps, which Mark confidently giant-stepped across, but I was a little more cautious and used my hands to assist me across.
We then came to a steep snow slope with hard neve laying over water ice. We stepped forcefully, jamming the spikes into the ice with each step. We made it up just fine, and then looked across the summit ridge. The wind had died down considerably, and I was relieved. In different times of the year the route goes directly across the top, as thin and exposed at the ridge from the Aiguille du Midi. But today the route went a little to the side, and it was steep enough that I could use the top of the ridge as a handhold. To either side was a 60+ degree slope that fell for hundreds of feet.
Looking back down
We made it to the small summit, which we shared with another pair of climbers. One of my British colleagues had given me a Kendall’s Mint Cake, a British mountaineering staple made in the Lake District. I opened it up and took a bite, and I think it was the sweetest, mintiest concoction that exists. I can see why British climbers use it since it won’t melt, or freeze, is concentrated sugar, and eliminates the need for a toothbrush!
We took some pictures and looked over to the Jungfrau and the Eiger. I was a little sad to not be trying the Eiger today since the weather was still decent, but there were thick dark clouds moving in. We started down, and the steep slope had softened somewhat since we came up it. I couldn’t find a good balance between plunge stepping and flat-footing, and slipped a few times, but luckily never really fell.
The downclimbing on the rocks was interesting wearing crampons, and I was glad when we had finally dropped low enough to take them off. About the time we got off the steep rocks it started to hail and rain a little bit, and seemed to get worse as the day went on. Once we reached the bottom of the mountain and had the ~1 mile walk back to the Jungfraujoch it began to get pretty wet and windy, and fog had come in and obscured much of the valley and surrounding summits. I was happy that we had decided to forego the Eiger today. I wouldn’t want to be on a climb like that in rain and snow.
Jungfrau from summit, weather looks good
We stopped into the Jungfraujoch and had a quick (and expensive) lunch surrounded by a throng of Asian tourists wearing big down jackets and enormous sunglasses. We then went through the exhibits, and it was surreal. A huge cavern with tunnels constructed entirely of ice, followed by some modernist sculpture, moving walkways, light shows, and all photos of the history of the station. It was unbelieveable to think that there was this enormous tourist attraction at nearly 12,000’ dug into the mountain.
We descended, and made a plan for the next day, which was supposed to include heavy snow and wind. We thought that perhaps Zermatt would have better weather, so we went to bed and planned to get up early and drive over and check it out.
24 Aug – Up at 0430 to drive over to Zermatt. The drive included driving onto a train-ferry, which then sped us through a tunnel for about 20 minutes. This was great because it was dark and there was no driving to be done, so it was a chance for a quick nap. When we came out of the tunnel the weather didn’t look much better, but hoped it would hold. We headed to Visp and Saas-Grund, with the goal being to climb the Jagihorn, a 10,518’ peak with a variety of routes.
Our chosen one was to be the Alpendurst route, a 14-pitch climb of sustained 5.6 climbing with a few spots which go at 5.7.
It is pretty remarkable to find a climb like that which is so consistent for that long.
14 pitches of consistency
We took the chairlift up to the Kreutzboden over a ski resort, and began the easy walk to the base near the Weissmiess Hut. Then we roped up and began to climb. It was a little chilly, but still fairly comfortable.
Low on the route
Behind me were the Lagginhorn, Fletschhorn, and Weissmiess which were beautiful when the clouds would part over them.
I thought a heard a jet flying by low overhead, but Mark said it was actually parts of the icefall across the valley on the Tyfelsgrat collapsing. Sometimes while belaying I could see small rivers of snow and ice come down. It looked like it was all about to fall, but I’ve seen that a lot, and it seems like I always miss it.
Background icefall is about to let loose
Suddenly, there was an enormous roar, and it looked like the entire face of ice was collapsing and flowing down. I whipped out my camera, as did Mark, and we filmed it. It was amazing to watch. It looks like a waterfall pouring down the cliff. We watched until it subsided, and then continued up. Here is the link to the video:
Check out the Vimeoeo link above for footage, it's impressive
By the end of the route, 14 pitches later, my arms were starting to get a little tired, but the climb went easily, and I was very glad to be wearing rock shoes instead of big boots and crampons.
We made it to the summit about the same time as another group came up, having completed the via ferrata to the top. Via ferratas are everywhere in the Alps, and unlike in the USA, you don’t need to pay to go. Just buy (or rent) a via ferrata setup, and off you go.
The walk down was easy and uneventful, although my knee was still bothering me quite a bit on descents. It had become quite sore during the 9,000’ descent of Mont Blanc a week ago, and was still giving me trouble. I was happy that the walk down wasn’t too long. We made it to the top of the chairlift and had lunch. It was cool to see all the families who had come to hike up in the mountains. Some of them rented scooters to ride back down. The scooters looked like fun, or perhaps a deathtrap. Imagine a regular scooter but with giant ATV tires, and you get the idea.
We headed over to Tesch, which I joked to Mark must be German for “The parking lot for Zermatt.” Since there are no cars allowed in Zermatt, the only real way in is to park in Tesch and ride the train up. We arrived in Zermatt and although I knew that the Matterhorn was nearby, there were too many clouds and I couldn’t see it.
No cars, but plenty of electric golf carts
25 Aug – With another bad-weather forecast, we decided against some of the more ambitious high routes, and decided to do the Gorner Gorge Via Ferrata. In the past, when glaciers covered the valley, meltwater would get forced down under the glacier, and carved a very deep, very narrow canyon. The Swiss guides have fixed a sweet via ferrata through the canyon, and updated it to include rappels, ziplines, balance-beams far over the river, and a Tarzan-swing. This was my first time on a via ferrata, and it was a blast. The canyon rock was smooth and wet, which made it quite slippery, and I was glad to have iron holds and be clipped into a cable.
I was a little sad to not get a chance to do another big mountain, but it was still a fun day, and I think that my knee was grateful to not get punished any further. It would be about a month or so before it finally stopped hurting when I’d walk down stairs!
Walk back to Zermatt
We had a late lunch at a butcher who also grills sausages outside his door, then Mark headed back to Chamonix and I wandered around Zermatt. It’s a very cool town, although it is very trendy and quite expensive. If you want to buy a ridiculously priced, multi-thousand dollar Swiss watch or sunglasses, this is the place for you. Although it is also quite picturesque.
Later that afternoon there was a mountain race which started and ended right by my hotel. I headed out and watched the festivities, and it was especially fun to see the kids’ races. That evening the skies opened up to a deluge, and I didn’t want to go far, so I just walked downstairs and went into the first restaurant I saw. I decided to try some authentic Valais fare, especially since I’d seen so many advertisements for raclette. I had no idea what to expect. Turns out it’s a plate of melted cheese, pearl onions, gherkin pickles, and ham bits thrown on top. It was much better than it sounds.
In raclette we trust
But it didn’t fill me up, so I ordered a Rosti, having no idea what to expect. It came out and was basically a large tray of hash brown potatoes, topped with melted cheese and ham. Delicious! I also fell in love with Rivella, a type of soda which is similar to cream soda, but contains 35% milk serum, whatever that is.
26 Aug – My train to Zurich wasn’t until the afternoon, and with clearing weather I spent the morning walking up the Matterhorn view trail. The weather was nice down low, but was quite windy on the mountain.
The Matterhorn is an incredible mountain, just a big jagged spire thrusting out of the ground. I wished we would have had good weather a day or two earlier, but that’s the way it goes.
I took the train down to Tesch and then on through a series of cities. I was packed into a crowded 2nd class car, and couldn’t hear the intercom very well. Plus, it was in German. I had a few close calls sprinting through train stations dragging my luggage, but with the assistance of a few kids who spoke English found my way to the Zurich Flughafen. I checked into the hotel, took a shower, and went to bed since I would have to be up at 4am for my flight back to England.
Visiting Switzerland has been a goal of mine for many years, and I’m very glad I got to see it. Of course, I wish the weather would have cooperated, but after having 7 straight days of sunshine in the French Alps I guess I was due for a change. I’d like to come back and climb the Eiger, but I think that having some slightly longer weather windows for a mountain like that, with its notoriously bad weather, will be important. Still, I had a great time climbing the Moench, the Jagihorn, and a fun via ferrata. I’ll be back!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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