22 August 2009

Grindelwald and the Jungfrau Region, August 2009

Map: Landeskarte der Schweiz - Jungfrau Region 1:25000 (Ref. 2520) 

Day 1 

Left Morzine early to get back to Geneva in order to meet long time friend Richard for another week in the Alps, this time in the Jungfrau region, based out of the Chalethotel Steinbock in Grindelwald.
As usual the Swiss train network took us efficiently through Bern, Interlaken Ost and then up to Grindelwald, magnificently set amidst the towering cliffs of the Schwartze Lütschen valley. On route, just after Lausanne, we were able to see two of last week’s summits, the Mont de Grange and les Cornette de Bise, across the waters of Lac Leman, a great vista under perfectly clear skies.
Grindelwald is a tourist honeypot, so was crammed with the usual crew strutting around the town with all the walking gear on, presumably to walk from one shop to another…just like Ambleside in the English Lake District! 

Views from Grindelwald

A major mountain bike event was being staged over the weekend, so there was a fair sprinkling of the Lycra brigade too…better watch out for these maniacs on the trail tomorrow. 
A lazy day, a few beers, a late stroll to catch the last of the evening light on the Wetterhorn, Mattenberg and the north face of the Eiger directly over the town…all looked like volcanoes with the darkening cloud slowly oozing around their summits. Very atmospheric.

Day 2 

A clear day dawned and we were off early to catch the train back down the valley to Wilderswil to connect to the little diesel train that takes you steeply from 584m up to Schynige Platte at 1967m. A very slow train, but there are great views down to the two lakes straddling Interlaken, one crystal blue in colour and the other a green hue due to the glacial sediment emptying into it.
At Schynige Platte the hordes all set off for the circular walks and the main path signposted First (our ultimate destination for this walk).
However, if you want to do this route then ignore all these signs and look for the one saying Oberberghorn (Panoramaweg): the path leads up in the ‘wrong’ direction, across the terrace of the main restaurant and then curves steeply back up the hill to provide instant solitude and a narrow contouring path giving fabulous views as it takes you towards the little top of Oberberghorn at 2069m. The summit of this little top is accessed by a path off left from the main trail and takes about 10 minutes, the last sections on steep wooden ladders up through the summit rocks. Fine views to the lakes and the whole range of the Jungfrau region to the southeast. 

Looking back to Oberberghorn
Rejoining the main path, it stays on a superbly narrow ridge at around 1950m before the main tracks from Schynige Platte come up to join it as it traverses around the base of the Loucherhorn. The path gets a little busier from now on, but not enough to spoil the isolation of the next phase of the walk as it crosses the small col of the Gürotürli at 2029m, taking us into a vast rock landscape bounded by the south west escarpment of Ussri-Sägissa and the remote valley which hides the attractive tarn of Sägistalsee. The path traverses the slopes of Indri-Sägissa and breaches the ridge at Gotthard 2276m, before rising again to the hut Berghaus Männdlenen, well situated on a narrow col, before the steepening path takes you on to the shoulder of the Winteregg ridge, with our objective, the Faulhorn 2680m getting ever closer. The shoulder offers fabulous views in all directions, once again with the Jungfrau range in it’s full afternoon glory. 

A steep zig zag path takes you up to the summit of the Faulhorn, complete with hotel and restaurant, and it’s here that you meet the hordes who’ve climbed up from the First cablecar in Grindelwald. We descended quickly to get the lift down to Grindelwald, a major pathway with lots of people grinding up and down it. For your information, the ascent of the Faulhorn from First, despite the great location of the Bachsee lake at 2265m, is a chore. Much better to do it our way!
A good first day, about 17.3km, with 1265m of ascent and 1063m of descent. 

Descent to Bachsee
Day 3 

Eiger day! Another early start, descending through Grindelwald to the base of the valley at Grund 943m. A beautiful day, clear blues skies, but thankfully a chilly start as we now had a considerable ascent ahead of us.
Following the Wanderweg signs to Alpiglen, we made our way steadily up through chalets and farms to reach the hut at Alpiglen (1616m) two hours later. Good going! A quick lemonade, then upwards from the hut to join the famous Eiger Trail which traverses under the north wall of the Eiger. A great path, steep to start, then rising progressively to reach the Eigergletscher station of the Jungfraujoch railway at 2320m. We took 2.5 hours from Alpiglen, including a stop, so good walking in evidence, as the signpost times had indicated 2 hours 50 mins, without stops. 

Eiger Trail
The path, in the morning, is shaded from the sun by the mass of the Eiger, so it was a comfortable ascent on a generally good path, with a little care needed crossing some of the streams and on the more narrow sections.
There were plenty of people on the path, with a lot coming down in the other direction as the morning wore on, but the close up views of the immense north wall of the Eiger were awe inspiring.
We had lunch above the Eigergletscher station, with close up views of the glaciers tumbling down from the Eiger and the Mönch, witnessing a small avalanche on the former as we enjoyed our grub. The Mönch looked massive and it was a somewhat worrisome moment, given that we plan to climb it with a guide later in the week.

The Mönch from Eigergletscher station
Thirty minutes easy walking takes you to the honey pot of the Kleine Scheidegg station, where trains come up from Grindelwald and Wengen, laden with people who go on to the Jungfraujoch railway, an amazing route that tunnels across the face of the Eiger and emerges through tunnels at the height of 3464m, between the Mönch and the Jungfrau. We had a quick beer here in hot sunshine, before taking the easy descent path back to Alpiglen, to catch the train back to Grindelwald.

The north face of the Eiger on the descent to Alpiglen
Another well-earned beer in hot sunshine!
In all, a very good circular walk, but very hot in the afternoon. In all, about 17km, with 2002m of ascent and 1433m of descent. Sore feet towards the end of the day!

Day 4 

Another big day beckons, so an early start with trains from Grindelwald down to Zweilütschinen, then train to Lauterbrunnen, a cable car to Grütschalp 1489m, then a train to Mürren at 1645m. A quick breakfast in Mürren, then on the hill at 0900.
The trek today is the ascent of the Schilthorn 2960m, best known for its part in a James Bond movie. Ordinary, sane, people get two cable cars to the summit. We, with very few others, decided to clamber up the thing.
The first part of the climb is very steep out of Mürren, and in an hour we had climbed 475m vertically over a very short distance…hard work in hot sun, but proof that we were getting in condition for our big climb at the end of the week.
Climbing steadily we entered the remote valley of Engital and had a quick lemonade stop at the Schilthornhütte, before taking the lower track up the col just below the intermediate cable car station of Birg. Here the path steepens under the cable car, taking the hordes up to the summit station, revolving restaurant, etc., but for us it felt like a classic mountain ascent. A path contours above the attractive corrie lake of Grauseetoli (2514m), then pushes steeply up the summit ridge. 

Approaching the final ridge to Schilthorn summit
This was less easy than had been predicted with some steep, loose sections and some pleasant scrambling up grippy rock strata, before a series of rock steps led to a very narrow rocky ridge, easily crossed but protected on both sides by politically correct orange webbing fence. Ummm…
A short final, steep and unstable slope brought us to the steps of the ‘Panoramic Platform’, complete with fit grannies, the inevitable Japanese photographers, and assorted fat Americans (sorry, USA friends and colleagues ;-)).
We had taken a total of three hours 25 minutes in ascent, with 15 minutes of stops, so were well within the guidebook time of 4 hours 20 minutes. So, a well-earned beer with würst and rosti was consumed with vigour, albeit in the vomit-inducing revolving restaurant at the top.
Summit views, by the way, were stupendous. The big three Jungfrau peaks dominated the view to the east, but peaks like the Breithorn came into their own, as well as the immediate peaks to the west and north, plus the pass of Sefinenfurgge that Richard and I had crossed on a demanding Exodus trek across the Bernese Oberland back in 2002. In the distance we could see the peaks of the Haut Chablais, last week’s fun spot, and further afield the Mont Blanc Massif. 

View from the Schilthorn summit, and our steep descent route
Now, at this point, any sensible individual would have wimped out and descended by cable car, for a few early beers and well-deserved shower. But such is male pride that we descended the summit ridge again, this time taking what appeared to be an easier traverse from the summit, but which turned out to be a dangerously exposed nightmare. Not recommended…follow the ‘yellow brick road’ across the ridge and the main path. Yours truly had to resort to climbing down on his backside, fuelled by numerous expletives and ribbing from Richard just behind me (thanks, Richard, I always like to be reminded how I hate steep, unstable and potentially life-threatening descents…). A shitty little path. 

Not the recommended path...
Anyway, back on the main route, we rapidly lost height and then dropped southeast-wards by the lake to descend into Schilttall. This was an epic descent, on a very steep zig zag path which lost us a hundred metres about every 15 minutes. Bloody steep and demanding on feet and knees, but safely negotiated before the easier grassy pastures to the farm and chalet restaurant at Im Schilt. Of course, Richard and I were mortified to find that they only served large glasses of beer. Observed on other tables…great looking Rosti….might have to return one day.
Descent to Mürren from here was straightforward, reached in about an hour on increasingly tired legs in very hot sunshine. The views on the way down into Mürren are truly wonderful…the west side of the Jungfrau, diving into the Lauterbrunnen valley, one of the steepest sided valleys you’ll encounter anywhere in the Alps. 

Dropping down into the Lauterbrunnen valley
Trains, cable cars, etc back to Grindelwald….a long but satisfying day! 14.9km walked with 1636m of ascent and descent, to a maximum altitude of 2970m.
The evening was then enlivened by a call from our mountain guide Yvan, to advise that bad weather was forecast for Friday, so we would have to scale the Mönch during the day on Thursday, so no early alpine start for us, but hot sunshine, avalanche risk and a steep technical ascent in daylight beckons…far better to do this stuff in the early morning darkness so that you don’t see the exposure…ho hum. An exciting and unnerving prospect!

Day 5

A slow start to today, given the big one, the ascent of the Mönch, tomorrow. A gear check, and a minor panic whether my normal boots will be rigid enough for the climb (solved by a phone call to our Swiss guide), then off to the nearby Pfingstegg cable car to take us to the start of the difficult path to the Schreckhornhütte at 2529m. Our ride took us to 1391m and we quickly gained height on the narrow path under the towering rock walls of the Mattenberg to our left and the chasm of the Gletscherschlucht to our immediate right…a huge gorge created by rivers flooding out of the multiple glaciers above us, almost certainly exploiting a fault in the huge limestone walls towering around us.
Stunning views back over Grindelwald too. 

The Gletscherschlucht path
The track, at this stage, is relatively straightforward, although not for those with vertigo…however, you quickly get inured to the exposure and progress to the new Stieregg hut at about 1750m is rapid (note: on older maps the hut is shown about 100m lower).
After a quick refreshment stop, we pressed on up the path, passing the warning signs that we were now on a true Alpine path (demarcated with blue and white stripes on the rocks along the way, rather that the usual red and white way-markers. The path narrows, steepens and the exposure increases significantly after this point, but, all in all, it is a good path, contouring the very steep slopes high above the Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher. Views forward were magnificent, and following a steepening of the path through the wooded cliffs of the Banisegg ridge, we were soon rewarded with a massive view of glaciers tumbling from the summits of the Gross and Klein Fiescherhorn directly ahead of us, and the huge glaciers plummeting from the Eiger and Mönch high to our right. The view to the Mönch way above did little to calm our nerves…very high, with steep rocks before the exposed summit ridge…sweaty palms time!
Spent some time at our viewpoint at 1830m, savouring the view before descending back to the Stieregg hut for some lunch. 

The path beyond the Stieregg hut
Glaciers dropping from the Mönch
The path back down to the Pfingstegg cable car seemed to take an eternity in the hot afternoon sun, but great views all the way back and entertained by a helicopter doing tourist trips through the chasm below us. A total distance of just 6.2km today, but some hard work with some 500m of ascent and descent on challenging paths…not quite the lazy day intended!
An early finish to the day, to rest and pack for the big day tomorrow.

Day 6

Mönch, SW Ridge
Another bright start to the day and an early start down to Grindelwald station to meet up with our mountain guide Yvan Bender, who I’d last climbed with back in 2005 whilst on a Jagged Globe mountaineering course. Yvan can be contacted via his web site
We took to train up to Kleine Scheidegg to connect with the Jungfraujoch railway, which works its way up via tunnels through the Eiger before emerging on the col between the Jungfrau and the Mönch at 3454m.
Here our climb started in earnest, with a short walk to join the start of the SW Ridge route. 

Approach to the start of the SW Ridge of the Mönch
An easy walk across the slushy snow of the glacier was brought to an abrupt end as we headed steeply over the bergschrund on to steep ice where Yvan cut steps in order that we could make progress without donning crampons too early in the day. The reason for this became quickly apparent as the ridge loomed steeply above…first some straightforward scrambling directly up the ridge (where the best rock is…the unstable ice shattered rock litters the periphery), but then the reality of the route became obvious. Steep rock climbs, some with small overhanging sections, were the order of the day, so the yell ‘tight rope’ was uttered on numerous occasions, as well as multiple expletives from me. 

Early rock pitches on the Mönch
At one point, the realisation dawned that there was going to be no choice about doing this climb…to reverse what we had just done would have been unthinkable! Three hours passed in a flash, and parts of the ridge were very enjoyable…the exposure was tremendous on both sides all of the way up the ridge. Every step required maximum concentration and the adrenalin pumped constantly. I constantly reminded myself of the classic statement by Whymper, the first man to climb the Matterhorn, ‘do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end’. 

Yvan leading one of the more challenging pitches
Views back to the Jungfraujoch from the SW Ridge of the Mönch

Views on the upper section of the SW Ridge of the Mönch
A hundred or so metres from the top we emerged at the base of a steep ice slope, corniced on the right hand side, but the slope to the left falling away at a steep gradient for hundreds of metres. A slip here would have been awful. For Richard and I this was the first time in crampons for a few years, so the first few steps were very tricky, but we eventually found our rhythm, our foot placements were solid and we slowly ascended to the summit, by now feeling the heat from the reflected sun on the snow slope. Richard was now feeling the effects of altitude as we were now above 4000m, and had a splitting headache and, by the time we summitted, had started to experience tunnel vision. 

Another climbing team descending our route
The final snow approach to the summit of the Mönch
Don't slip now!
Nearly at the summit!

The top of the Mönch stands at 4107m, so we were looking down to the summit of the Eiger. Awesome views all around, including the 22km long Aletsch Glacier to our south. Helicopter and light plane tourist traffic was seen far below. Truly magnificent. 

Summit views

The Eiger from the Mönch
The start of the descent route along the SE Ridge
Colin and Richard on the summit of the Mönch, 4107m

Stumpy at the top :-)
We had taken 4.5 hours to get to the top against a guidebook time of 4 hours, so not bad, especially when Yvan told us later that this was a route graded ‘AD’ (alpine mountaineering grading ‘difficult’)…I had only done short climbs at this level before, whereas Richard had never done anything so difficult before. 
The reality of the descent ahead of us then loomed large after a short break on the summit. We were to descend by the SE Ridge (the ‘normal route’ up from the Mönchsjochhütte, the most popular climb and when observed earlier in the day, there had been quite a few people on it). The beginning of the descent is an almost horizontal ‘walk’ along the crest of a snow cornice, about two boot width’s wide with drops of over 500m on either side. It has to be seen to be believed. Moreover, in all the photos that you can view on the web, it doesn’t look very long. Not true…it’s about 250m long…and the exposure and narrowness never let up. Never before have I concentrated on foot placement so much in my life, especially as you need to be very careful to not catch the crampon spikes on a trouser leg or the straps on the other foot in such a narrow channel. Things went very quiet for a while. You know the seriousness of the situation when the guide ignores the request for a photo stop (yes, I did ask) with a short response ‘I took one already’ (he did). I will never forget the exposure on that path, ever. 

Setting off along the SE Ridge 
SE Ridge of the Mönch
Middle section of the ridge
The challenge continued. The next step of the descent is to climb down a rocky section, not particularly difficult in itself, although Richard abseiled a short section, but made more tricky as were climbing down steep rock in crampons (more snow sections ahead). As before the guide asked us to stick to the crest of the ridge to avoid the loose, unstable eroded rock to either side, and this needed good balance. 

Lower section of the SE Ridge 
Richard on the descent of the SE Ridge 
Progress, by now, had slowed somewhat, as tired, anxious bodies fought to retain balance and sure footing. Gasp.
Another narrow, and steeper snow arête followed, then another rock section and easier snow slope, before crampons were removed and the last half an hour or so was spent scrambling down the final section of the ridge to emerge just right of the Mönchsjochhütte at 3627m. We reached the base of the mountain at 1700, after a two and a half hour descent. 

Almost down!
Cracked it!
Elation, relief, excitement, and litres of nor-adrenalin. We had been really lucky to have shared the mountain with only two other climbers that day, our later start meaning that we had missed all the early starters from the Mönchsjochhütte and the traverse starting on the more difficult SW Ridge also enabling us to avoid the numbers. This was key…it would have been a horrendous proposition having to step off the summit arête to allow climbers coming from the other direction to pass by.
Without being too over-dramatic, the traverse of the Mönch was one of the most demanding days of my life…the physical exposure and the relentless mental concentration required throughout.
An easy descent back across the glacier to the station, where we just managed to catch the last train back down.
A dinner and a few beers, but exhaustion meant an early night.

Day 7
A lazy day, as the weather broke overnight, as predicted, with a major thunderstorm in the early hours. A great excuse for a big lunch and a few more beers, ready for the return home the following day. We had our treat at the restaurant at the top of the long Männlichen cable car at an altitude of 2222m. 

The Mönch viewed from Männlichen
Great views all around, with huge clouds billowing over the mountain tops today and adding real character to the scene. We enjoyed a few (well, actually, a lot of) moments of real satisfaction when the Mönch revealed itself in the clouds high above us. 
A good week’s work!

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