Alps 2006 - Robert McMurray
Following on from last summer’s successful trip, myself and John headed back to the Alps this July for another tussle with Europe’s finest mountains and routes. After trips last year to climb the Aletschhorn 4193m and Finsteeraarhorn 4274m we were keen to return to the Bernese Oberland and in particular to visit the northern Grindelwald side.
After arriving in Switzerland on the Friday night, Saturday’s excellent weather forecast (continuing good until Thursday at least) had us packing up in Fiesch for a trip up the Aletsch Glacier and to the Konkordia Hut in the heart of the Oberland.
In the end we spent four nights at Konkordia, managing an ascent the following day of the Gross Grunhorn 4044m via the Gruenegghorn (PD) and after a bit of a rest day (for some), completing a traverse of the Hinter Fiescherhorn 4025m and Gross Fiescherhorn 4049m. These peaks are rarely climbed from Konkordia and make for quite a long day out. On account of the lean conditions we decided against the planned descent from the Fieschersattel to the Ewigscheefald Glacier and instead descended the North-West Ridge of the Gross Grunhorn (AD). This is the normal route from the Monchsjoch/ Bergli Huts and has a scary 150m+ unprotected ‘bosse’ of snow to overcome. This unfortunately being above the 1000m drop of the Fiescherwand. Thankfully, the snow was still solid enough for the downclimb to be done in relative safety, but its safe to say we were both quite relieved to reach the base of it. All that was left was a long walk back to Konkordia via the Ewigscheefald in the searing afternoon sun.
After all the big glacier stuff, we decided on something a bit different and headed over the Furka Pass bound for the Salbit Hut and hopefully an ascent of the South Ridge (D) of the Salbitschijen 2982m. This ‘granite paradise’ was a place I had been keen to visit for some time, and we weren’t to be disappointed by the excellent hut and the quality of the climbing. The ‘Sud-Grat’ turned out to be a fantastic rock climb. Quite long with sustained VS climbing the whole way. The crux pitch was a mad 5A pillar with a point of aid or free at 5C. We did give it a go, but a quick pull on the quickdraw turned out to be far too appealing… The slender 15m ‘summit needle’ was quite exiting too, especially with loud claps of thunder going off in the background…!! Definitely a place to re-visit.
A week was now gone, and it was deemed time to uproot from our base at Fiesch and proceed over the Grimsel Pass to Grindelwald. The second weeks weather turned out more unsettled than the first, with a couple of bad days and thunderstorms most afternoons. We had been caught by the first storm on the way down from the Salbit Hut and received a proper soaking. John, as usual, was racing down the wet path but after slipping, taking a tumble and narrowly avoiding oblivion in the steep slopes and bushes below, did slow down somewhat towards the bottom.
Despite the more unsettled weather, we made the most of it. Last year I has eyed up the Schreckhorn 4078m from the summit of the Finsteeraarhorn and had been keen to give it a go this year. There is however something a little scary about the Schreckhorn or ‘Peak of Terror’ to give the mountain its proper German translation. The peak is one of the hardest ‘four-thousanders’ and apparently the hardest mountain to climb in Switzerland by its easiest route. To be honest, looking across from the Fiescherhorn I thought it may best wait for another year.
It’s a long approach to the Schreckhorn Hut, with a 1500m ascent from the valley and a similar height gain on the summit climb. The South-West Ridge (D-) looks extremely formidable but is reckoned to be an excellent rock climb and one of the best ordinary routes on any four-thousander. In the end, we were very lucky with conditions, with completely dry rock and made a quick but tiring ascent. It was bizarre to sit on the summit and actually believe you were there, but this is often the way on these big peaks. You dream and imagine, get scared, terrified even and then your there and its done. Always remembering of course the small matter of getting yourself back down.
There are fixed abseil points the whole way down, but we never felt the need to use them. Sustained rock-climbing at around v.diff being okay in big boots. The descent was proceeding quickly, but was hard work in the afternoon sun. Then we heard a shout below us and some time later saw the helicopter. A guide and client had been struck with rocks whilst making the passage from the lower spur, over the bergschrund and onto the Upper Schreckfirn Glacier. They were plucked to safety, soon we were to see why.
I was sure he was dead. Rocks were teaming down the South Face and I saw one heading straight for a young climber on the bergschrund. John and I watched in silence as the rock careered downwards, somehow landing between the legs of the climber. Lucky boy. When it was our shot to make the crossing, we had to endure three volleys of stonefall and with nowhere to hide, just ducked as the boulders crashed around us. I was scared. This wasn’t fun. Relief indeed to reach the safety of the glacier below.
It was 8 o’clock when the campsite was finally reached. A thunderstorm had broken out whilst leaving the hut and we had worried about being able to cross gully’s with streams on the way down. The whole approach to the hut appears to be eroding into the Grindlewald Glacier and is probably quite a serious place to be in such conditions. In fact, the infamous ‘Eiger rockfall’ was also passed enroute. Next day, even John consented to a rest day and wander round Interlaken and Lake Brienz.
The following day saw us back up to Grimsel for some climbing on the Handegg Slabs. This place is incredible, with quality granite everywhere you look. Unfortunately, the thunderstorm which occurred three pitches into our shorts and t-shirt ascent of a particularly fine slab, did dampen spirits somewhat. The fact that the single 50m rope turned out not quite long enough to do the abseils didn’t help much either. Fortunately, a few devious diagonal abseils allowed us pick up neighbouring anchors and return to base and Grindlewald, tail firmly between the legs.
You can’t go to Grindlewald without wanting to climb the Eiger and to be honest I’d rather have given this a go prior to the Schreckhorn. However, having done the route, confidence was high and after rapidly deciding to leave the North Face until winter… decided upon a traverse of the mountain, with a go at the Mitteleggi Ridge (D) and descent of the ‘notorious’ West Flank (AD).
The weather gave us a window for Sunday (the last day of the trip) and therefore a train was boarded in Grindlewald set for the Jungfraujoch railway line and the Eismeer Station at the back of the Eiger. I truly expected John to walk up the railway line and tunnel and was therefore quite surprised to see him shell out the £35 for the ticket.
From the Eismeer a descent is made down a tunnel and out onto the Challifirn Glacier under the Eiger South Face. Unfortunately the weather was not great with low cloud and drizzle. Fortunately though, this meant the approach to the Mitteleggi Hut – normally seriously threatened by rock and serac fall – seemed quite safe and surprisingly benign. Some tricky rock climbing upon leaving the glacier, lead to a wander across ledges and the eventual ‘safety’ of the outrageously positioned hut complete with view straight down the north side to the campsite. The approach to the hut is AD in its own right.
The morning dawned fine and clear and we undertook the ascent of the ridge. Its fair to say that the ridge is fantastic, with good climbing and incredible situations. The only thing which spoils it a little is the proliferation of fixed ropes. Whilst some are welcome and necessary, others are not and conceal the good climbing underneath. The final pull up the ropes on the last and biggest tower, high above the Lauper Route on the North-East Face was however, pretty outrageous.
The anticipated snow arête leading to the summit didn’t exist this year and unexpectedly we were standing on the summit of the Eiger 4 ½ hours after leaving the hut. The only real difficulties we had encountered had been a little verglass on the rocks. Words can’t always sum up such experiences, but suffice to say it was pretty special. I had visited Grindlewald aged 13 on a school trip and unsurprisingly a lot was made of the Eiger. Never did I imagine then I would one day stand on its summit.
John’s prior experience of the West Flank put us in good stead and we found the ‘notorious’ route not too bad in descent. The first 100 metres were pretty horrid with loose steep rock covered in verglass, but after that we found the correct route and were down the 1900 metres in around 4 hours. The whole way down however, the guidebook sentence “the west flank is like a tiled roof covered in debris” didn’t really leave my head. Incredibly, we had the added experience of witnessing 3 three folks basejump the North Face from the top of the Rote Fluh. Now that is mad.
Kliene Shiedegg meant beer and the conclusion to a very successful trip. Not much more than 24 hours later we were back in the UK and a couple of hours after that, I was sitting at this very desk, at work.