Category Archives: Type II fun

Badwater to Telescope

Route from summit


Telescope Peak is the highpoint of the Panamint Range, rising over 11,000 feet from Death Valley to the east, and slightly less from the Panamint Valley to the west. Most people hike it from the northwest, via a well-maintained trail starting above the charcoal kilns. However, there is a harder way to climb it, starting from Badwater to the east, that is popular among Californian peak-bagging masochists. Since I am all of that except Californian, I have had it on my to-do list for awhile, but have never quite summoned the motivation at the right time. Now was my opportunity.

There are several ways to do it, the most popular being to start and end at Shorty’s Well on the west side of the valley, as Brett Maune did for his mind-blowing 8-hour run. However this is not technically the lowest spot in the United States, and Shannon, displaying admirable purism, insisted upon starting at Badwater, 30 feet lower and six miles east of Shorty’s Wells across a salt flat. I had originally wanted to return to the start, but was fortunately persuaded to set up a car shuttle to the normal trailhead. With the shuttle, it was about 30 miles and 12,000 feet of gain, much of it over rough terrain, and a long day; without, it would have been a nightmare.

Dawn on salt flat

I had planned a 4:00 wake-up and 4:30 departure. However, there was a surprising amount of nighttime traffic at the “day use only” parking lot, so I got little sleep. Topping it off, a noisily enthusiastic group pulled in at 3:00 AM, and spent the next 15 minutes loudly sorting gear, enthusing about burritos, and probably fist-bumping. What were the odds that we would share the route with another group, and that they would be so annoying? There was no chance of getting back to sleep, but we still managed to take forever getting our act together, starting at the originally-planned 4:30.

Rough surface

The night-time crossing of the salt flat was probably the day’s crux. We were fortunate that it was mostly dry, as it can become nightmare mud, which the salt crust prevents from drying. The dry parts of the flat were some sort of salty and surprisingly hard mud/rock with pockets and sharp points, which sounded like flatware when it broke. It suddenly changed in color and texture for no obvious reason, and always required careful foot placement.

Nasty mud

With no moon, there was no horizon by which to orient myself. I had read about people wandering in circles in the desert, and it turns out that I am especially bad in this respect. After hiking a bit in what I thought was a straight line, occasionally bumping into Shannon, I looked at my phone and realized that I naturally turn left at a radius of about 0.1 miles. I had no idea I was so defective. Fortunately we had started relatively late, giving us a horizon to orient ourselves for the second half of the crossing. As we approached the west side of the flat, we encountered a mild version of the dreaded mud, sticky and perhaps an inch deep under a breakable crust.

What kind of activities?

Once past the salt flat, it was a short and mildly brushy hike to the well-graded West Side Road, which leads to the much rougher Hanaupah Canyon road. This road climbs the endless alluvial fan to the canyon’s mouth, then drops into the wash to make its way up the south fork toward a year-round spring. Badwater to Telescope hikers normally count on this spring to refill at the base of the main climb. However, a sign at the start of the road stated that unspecified “illegal activities” had made the water “NOT SAFE FOR DRINKING.” Fortunately I am paranoid about desert water sources, so we had both brought enough to skip the spring.

Endless alluvial road

Hanaupah Canyon was surprisingly busy. In addition to the large group somewhere ahead, we were passed an older couple in a rented jeep, moving at a slow jog, and saw a half-dozen people at the mouth of the canyon’s north fork, possibly canyoneering. The canyon climbs very slowly, gaining only 3500′ in 8 rough miles to the spring, so we had plenty of time to speculate about illegal activities and why people would drive up this obscure canyon in the rapidly-warming morning. The road disappears below where the map suggests, and we found the jeep there, and the senior couple a short distance upstream. We found occasional cairns or bits of use trail, but the route seemed far less traveled than I had hoped.

Mine near spring (SR photo)

Nearing the spring, a small running stream with nasty brush to either side forced us along one side or the other of the canyon. I knew the route climbed the right side, but for some reason followed a faint trail on the left. This eventually led to a decent-sized mine, which provided a welcome diversion after the long desert slog. Perhaps the jeep couple were mining enthusiasts?

Cool grow, bro (SR photo)

I spotted an old gate across the way, and I think the normal route climbs the ridge just beyond this point, but the brush looked particularly nasty, so we continued upstream on the left, hoping to round the brush above the spring. This little detour did not cost much time or effort, and solved the mystery of the “illegal activity.” Some hardy (in the Dave Barry sense of “stupid”) entrepreneurs had set up a large marijuana field less than a mile from the end of the road, with a hundred or so plants drip-irrigated from the spring. The National Parks Service had snipped the hose from the spring, but left the whole system in place for the next person to come by with a roll of electrical tape and some seeds. In addition to the irrigation system, there was a small camp with a bag of fertilizer and some empty cup-o-noodles packages.

Now it was time to climb: 6200′ in 4.5 miles to the trail, then another 1200′ in 1.5 along the trail to the summit. We started up along an old mine road above the grow, then took off cross-country where it ended at a partially-collapsed tunnel. Shannon was a bit skeptical of my route, and I had to admit that it was not a GPS track someone had recorded, but just a line I had made up based on a rough written description. Fortunately almost nothing can grow in Death Valley, so after a bit of steep side-hilling, we found easy travel up a faint rib to the ridge north of the canyon, even passing a couple of useless cairns.

Useless trail sign

There is a trail in places along the ridge, but it seems to serve sheep more than humans, and fades in and out as the possible path narrows and widens. The best route stays near the crest, weaving around trees, crossing minor bumps, and climbing steadily and steeply. We had been expecting to catch the 3:00 party group all day, and finally met one descending as we approached the steep, forested headwall below the north ridge. He was planning to descend to the springs and camp, then hike back across the salt flats to a car at Badwater the next morning. I thought “okay, have fun with that,” but Shannon generously offered him a ride from the standard trailhead, convincing him to head back uphill.

The young man made good time for awhile in his overnight pack, staying with us and talking long enough to make things clearer. He was one of a group of six, trying to set a record of three days on a 150-mile cross-country route from Badwater to Whitney called “lowest to highest” (explaining the crude metal “L2H” sign we had found earlier). Not liking his chances of completing the 35-mile dry stretch from Hanaupah Springs to the next water source, he had abandoned the attempt. While desert fast-packing is absolutely not my thing, I appreciated the spirit, understood why they were so fast and loud, and was somewhat ashamed of my earlier irritation.

He eventually dropped back, planning to skip the summit and meet us at the trailhead. The last 3000′ are a brutal grind up the east face to the ridge, weaving through trees and brush on mostly loose ground. We got lucky and chose a good path, passing another member of the L2H team who spotted us from a worse line and, mistaking us for two of his group, shouted to go on without him. This was starting to look like a desert version of the Scott Antarctic expedition, with members dropping along the way as ambition met harsh reality.

Me pointing at the wrong place (SR photo)

After hours of calf-burning climbing and backsliding, the well-manicured trail was a pleasant relief, though I soon tired of the horizontal switchbacks. As expected, there were several groups of hikers out on this perfect holiday weekend, amusingly (to me) including some fans (not mine). It had been t-shirt weather almost the whole way up, but was suddenly chilly and windy on the summit. There was a group with a friendly dog on the summit, who were a mixture of impressed and baffled when we explained how we had arrived there. Snacks and silly photos later, it was time to head down: while there would be no evening headlamp, there was still an exhausted 2-hour drive back around to Badwater.

We met our young companion just as he was reaching the trail, worried that we might have already passed and left him. He turned out to be a Berkeley student just about to turn 21, making me feel even older than I normally do. I appreciated his enthusiasm, though, and enjoyed our conversation on the way to the car. Two hours’ drive later, we were once again cooking dinner at Badwater in the dark. Not wanting a repeat of the previous night’s disturbances and sleeplessness, we blearily drove to the closest more secluded trailhead to camp.

The Hermit (failed), McGee, Peter (12h15)

McGee and Peter from Hermit


Mine was the only car in the lot at North Lake, and the pack station and campground were both long closed. I woke to my alarm at 4:00 AM, and started the lonely walk up the road through the campground at 4:30. The route to Lamarck Col is much easier to follow now than when I first used it, with signs of recent trailwork, and I am much more familiar with the route, so I had no trouble making my way up to the upper sand-slope by headlamp. I can’t say that I enjoy this approach, but it is far from my least favorite on the east side.

Darwin and Mendel

I reached the col about 2 hours from the car, a good time for me considering that I had walked the road to the trailhead, and admired the sunrise on Gould, Mendel, and Darwin for a minute before dropping down the mess of trails through the sand and boulders to Darwin Bench. It was cold and windy on the bench, and the windblown surf on one of the lakes had frozen on the sandy shore overnight. I wanted to get out of there, so I made pretty good time, reaching the JMT in 3 hours.

Hermit from Darwin Bench

It was warmer down in Evolution Valley, where I took off my overshirt and switched to daytime mode. I hiked up the empty JMT to Evolution Lake, then hopped across its outlet on some rocks and began a traverse around the head of Evolution Valley toward the Hermit’s east face. The traverse started out with some slightly tricky slabs, then became an easy mix of slab and forest, with a couple of cairns possibly marking some sort of route. The terrain remained easy to the flat spot below the Hermit’s two summits around 11,400′. Above, I followed a diagonal gully to join the main garbage chute which drops from the saddle between the two summits. The climbing was mildly unpleasant, but there were enough solid rocks that I could mostly avoid thrashing up the loose stuff.

Lieback/offwidth side

From the saddle, I had a good view of McGee Creek and Peter Peak, which I planned to visit later in the day. I made my way up some class 2-3 terrain on the sunny side of the ridge, and soon reached the Hermit’s famous summit block, one of the hardest on the SPS list. There are two ways to do it: a 20-30-foot offwidth/lieback on the east side, and a harder 10-foot face on the south. I had wanted to bring the short piece of rope I used on Thunderbolt to aid this block, but I couldn’t find it in my car the night before. Instead, I brought my rock shoes and hoped for a miracle of skill and confidence.

Steep face side

As Chernomyrdin said, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out as it always does.” I started with the short south side, where previous climbers had built a pile of rocks to ease the start. I found a small left foot and a good left hand, and got a solid right foot, and was basically one move from topping out. However, I couldn’t find anything I liked above that: I needed something for my right hand, and the options seemed to be either grabbing one of the crumbly nubs, or palming the rounded right edge. After one half-hearted lunge where I popped off and stuck the landing, I decided that I had had enough. I liebacked up the east crack for a few moves, and it felt great, but I wasn’t confident that my strength would last to the top, and it would not be easy to shove myself into the offwidth and rest partway up. I clearly need to climb more.

McGee’s northeast ridge

After wasting too much time getting shut down, I put my rock shoes back in my pack and returned to the saddle. I descended the loose chute on its west side for a bit, then traversed south to the lake at its base. Along the way, I somehow managed to dislodge a small rock which cut my finger on its way downhill. I got water and rinsed my finger at the lake, then climbed over the minor ridge to McGee Lakes, where the Park Service was killing non-native fish with a gill net.

McGee headwall

I started up the easy slabs of McGee’s northeast ridge, familiar from one of my one-handed backpacking trips. I was feeling a bit slow, but managed a respectable pace considering the mileage I have put on my body in the past two weeks. Where the northeast and southeast ridges meet, the rock changes to the loose volcanic crap found on neighboring Goddard. A bit light-headed from the effort, I slipped and somehow cut my wrist on a boulder, continuing the day’s blood-letting. With a bit of third class climbing, I reached McGee’s east summit, and was once again faced with the headwall that had turned back one-handed me a few years ago.

Crux dihedral

The descent to the notch was miserable, careful climbing on rotten rock or loose talus on the south side. From there, more third class led up some white rock to the base of the black face. The route was obvious, a right-facing dihedral with a crack in the back. I approached with some trepidation, as Bob had rated it 5.6, which is close to the limit of what I can solo. However, his trip report had also said that it felt secure, and I agreed. There were ample holds and opportunities to stem and jam, so while the climb was steep, it was not strenuous, so I had a good time making my way back to the sun at the top of the pillar. I would rate it maybe 5.4.

Davis Lakes and Goddard

Above, more class 3-4 climbing led to the long-sought-after summit. There were surprisingly few visitors in the register, most of them familiar. To the east and south, I had spectacular views of the Evolution ridge, Palisades, Davis Lakes, and Goddard. To the west, I saw a surprising amount of smoke, either from the Alder, Mountaineer, and Moses Fires, or just because the Central Valley is a terrible place.

Interesting lake west of ridge

The easiest way off McGee is to drop to the saddle between its main and west summits, then take a loose chute south to Davis Lakes. However, this would leave me a long way from North Lake. Instead, I followed Bob’s route, traversing to Peter Peak and dropping to McGee Creek. I made another loose descent, then climbed some third class to the west summit, from which I could examine the rest of the traverse. It looked like an easy boulder-hop, but turned out to be loose and miserable, with plenty of large “surprise surfboard” blocks. The climb to Peter was easier than the descent.

This also sucked

I had entertained the thought of continuing to Emerald Peak, an SPS peak at the northwest end of the ridge, but it looked like there was a tricky section just past Peter, then much more of the same wretchedness going over the two subpeaks along the way. Following Bob’s route, I dropped down the east side of the summit, then followed a loose gully to the moraine at the base of the ridge. Along the way, I managed to slip on a surfboard and bash my knee in exactly the same place I had on the way back from Picket Guard. Joy. When Bob had visited, there had been a snow tongue leading through the moraine to the easier ground below McGee Lakes. Unfortunately, no snow was left for me this late in the year, so I cautiously picked my way through loose boulders instead.

Sunset on Humphreys, Emerson, and Piute Crags

I felt pretty good jogging down McGee Creek, easily picking up the faint trail on the west side of the creek. I felt slow on the climb up the JMT and the use trail to Darwin Bench, but somehow found the energy to jog the flats on the Bench and past the Darwin Canyon lakes. I ground out the 1000-foot climb to Lamarck Col, pausing in a sheltered spot on the sunny side to put on my overshirt, hat, gloves, and angry music, then charged over the col. After a careful descent of the snowfield, I ran most of the descent, tired but wanting to reach the car before headlamp time. I jogged right through the trailhead, finally slowing to a walk at the pack station turnoff. It was still warm and light enough to comfortably rinse off my feet before driving down to the valley to interact with the humans and sleep.

Picket Guard (13h20)

Picket Guard and Kern Point


Picket Guard is an obscure peak northeast of the Kaweahs, and one of the most remote SPS peaks. Like its neighbor Kern Point, it is blocked from the east by the deep Kern valley, and from the west by the high Kaweahs and Great Western Divide (and lots of miles). It has previously been dayhiked in a number of ways: Bob did it from Mineral King to the west, Matthew from Whitney Portal via Trail Crest, and Matt via Shepherd Pass. I chose a slightly shorter approach with more cross-country, going from Whitney Portal over Russell-Carillon Col and down Wallace Creek. This involves about 35 miles and 15,000′ of gain, which, with a fair amount of running, took me 13h20.

Dawn Whitney with high ISO

The days are punishingly short now, but the weather continues to be pleasant in the high country. I woke to my 4:00 alarm at Whitney Portal, then joined the 4:30 headlamp parade. Even on a weekday at this time of year, there are regular waves of people getting pre-dawn starts to hike the Whitney trail… I mostly avoided them by taking the old trail, then continuing up the North Fork trail. I passed one pair a short ways up, probably headed for the Mountaineers Route since they were not carrying ropes, moving fast enough that they had no reason to start by headlamp.

Great Western Divide

I had forgotten how much of a slog it is to Russell-Carillon Col, and it is somewhat worse in the dark, when you cannot pick the best trail. I grimly slid and plodded up various use trails, finally stowing my headlamp at the broad plain below the two peaks. Dropping over the Col, I was surprised to find almost no snow on the north side, and no ice on Tulainyo Lake. I have visited Wallace Creek several times, and always enjoy the easy cross-country travel and excellent views of nearby peaks like Carl Heller, and the more distant Great Western Divide.

The Kaweahs

I picked up the old trail near Wallace Lake, which is faint in places and boggy early in the season. It was completely dry now, and I followed cairns and intermittent trail on the long hike/jog down to the JMT. Using this route, I reached it in only about 10 miles, versus something closer to 20 if I had taken the Whitney trail over Trail Crest.

Picket Guard (r) from Wallace Creek

Back on trail, I jogged the descent along Wallace Creek, then put on some Ministry and bombed down the perfectly runnable trail into the Kern, sprinting past two surprised backpackers on my way to Junction Meadow. It was already warm down here around 8000′, and I dreaded the hot climb back out on my return. I easily crossed the “mighty” Kern, grabbing some water along the way, then continued up the new-to-me Colby Pass trail. The lower part passes through some nasty manzanita and buckthorn, which had only partly been cleared, making me glad I had long pants. Since Colby Pass connects two places almost no one visits, the lower Kern and Cloud Canyon, it does not see much traffic. However, it is still maintained, as shown by the brush-clearing and some cut aspens higher up.

Slabs up to plateau

I had stupidly forgotten to download the relevant maps to my phone, so I was guided by an orange line on a gray background, representing the route I had sketched in CalTopo the day before. I left the trail about where that line turned left, easily crossed the trickle of the Kings-Kern, and after a few class 3 moves, made my way up pleasant class 3 slabs toward the toe of Picket Guard’s east ridge. Someone on SummitPost had mentioned traces of an old trail in this area, but I saw nothing, and felt no need of it.

Picket Guard’s east ridge

I eventually emerged on the seldom-visited plain east of the Kaweahs near the easternmost Picket Lake. From there, I regained the broad east ridge, then made a long, steady climb through open forest, then a mix of slabs, boulders, and a bit of sand. After a bit of class 3 poking around, I found the apparent highpoint and register canister, just over 7 hours after I had started. The register was a fine Smatko relic from the 1960s, with most of the recent entries being from the usual suspects. I spent some time admiring Triple Divide Peak and the Kaweahs, but also the plain to the south. As far as I know, this is the most remote part of the whole Sierra, far from roads and trails, and not on the way to any destination. If I wanted to live in an illegal cabin in the range, this is where I would build it.

Whitney, etc. from Picket Guard

Looking across the deep Kern at Wallace Creek and the distant backside of Whitney reminded me of how much work I had left. I hopped back down the ridge, jogged the runnable parts of the Colby Pass trail, then grabbed more water at the Kern and began the long, gradual climb to Russell-Carillon Col. I felt surprisingly energetic on the lower climb, jogging some of the gentler sections and fast-walking the rest. My sprightliness continued past the JMT, and I jogged many flatter sections of the old trail up Wallace Creek.

Sunset on Tulainyo Lake

I finally started slowing down on the headwall above Wallace Lake, climbing the boulders above the partly-frozen stream, then hiking to the saddle near Tulainyo Lake. I was really dragging on the final steep climb to the col, but made it in time to get a nice view of the large and unusual lake in the late afternoon light. It was all easy cruising from there, across the sandy plateau, then down the use trails to Upper Boy Scout Lake (much easier in daylight), and along the North Fork trail. I somehow managed to screw it up, first falling when a rock rolled on me in the treacherous section just below Lower Boy Scout Lake, then doing some thrashing when I tried to take one of the “shortcuts” I (mis-)remembered lower down. Still, I was back at the car before dark, where I quickly rinsed off in the creek, then headed into town to forage.

Pyramid (12h40)

Pyramid from above Window Lake


I am getting close enough to finishing the SPS list (213/248) that I am tempted to tag the remaining remote and/or lame peaks. Pyramid is one of the former, located in an inaccessible part of the range west of Perkins and Colosseum. Bob had done it from the west, starting at Kanawyers and coming up Woods Creek from the bottom. However, I hate driving around to the west side, and perversely wanted to use Sawmill Pass, the last big east-side pass I had not summited. Sawmill has the lowest trailhead, at 4500′, and climbs 6800′ in 9 miles to the crest. The bottom 2000′ are sand, and miserably hot in the summer. However, it is pleasantly cool this time of year, and those 2000′ of sand are a joy to descend.

Dawn on Sawmill Point

I got started around 5:00, opting for almost 2 hours of morning headlamp on a short fall day. It was chilly enough to be wearing an overshirt, hat and gloves even going fairly hard up the sandy climb. The trail climbs a ridge north of the lower slot canyon, then makes a rolling traverse around some rock outcroppings to reach the stream. I finally turned off my headlamp somewhere in the wooded switchbacks, and admired the sunrise on Sawmill Point as I climbed the Hogsback, which may be an old medial moraine between two branches of Sawmill Canyon. I passed Sawmill Lake, where we had left the trail to climb Indian Point during the Sierra Challenge, then was surprised at the distance to the pass. I finally reached it after four hours of work, half-way to my destination and still unable to see it.

New sign for me

The “unmaintained” Sawmill Pass trail had seen recent maintenance on the east side, where some large trees had been sawed through recently. However, it is in much worse shape on the west side, occasionally reduced to a mere line of cairns as it crosses the grassy bogs past Woods Lake. 1000′ down from the pass, I reached the JMT behind Mount Cedric Wright, and began jogging down the broad valley of upper Woods Creek around Crater’s south side.

Dry Window Creek

Just past the White Fork, I headed uphill toward the barely-flowing Window Creek. I had long wanted to visit this remote drainage, where experienced ranger Randy Morgenson had drowned, possibly when a snow bridge collapsed. When I finally found Window Creek, I could understand why: the creek flows through a narrow gorge in most places. While I could easily walk up the gorge next to the small late-season trickle of water, the gorge would hold snow well into the season, and walking up that snow would be the quickest way through the valley.

Palisades from Pyramid

One normally finds some signs of human traffic in trail-less sections of the Sierra, whether an old fire ring, a faint use trail, or a flat spot for a tent. However, I saw none of these as I made my way up-valley; like Dumbbell Basin, the place was wonderfully free of human signs. Nearing Window Lake, I finally got a glimpse of Pyramid, and of the ridge connecting it to Window. I hoped to do both, but it looked potentially involved, with cliffs along its base blocking easy escape. I continued up the streambed, then left it east of the saddle south of Pyramid to hike up some easy slabs. A bit of a scramble got me to the upper talus-face, where I made an ascending traverse to the summit.

Ridge to Window

There was no register canister, just a lid, but amazingly the booklet wrapped in plastic bags had survived a couple of years. I added my name, re-wrapped it in bags, and tried to protect it with the lid as best I could. The ridge to Window looked tricky, and some people I know had written in the register that it was 5.6. I suppose I could have tried, but it had taken me 7h40 to reach Pyramid, and I decided I would rather try to make it home by dark than play around on serious, remote terrain.

Sawmill Lake

I retraced my route, eating my second-to-last sandwich before the grind back up the JMT, and my last partway to Sawmill Pass. 6800 feet and nine miles of descent is no joke, but Sawmill was mostly as pleasant as I remembered. The top part is a bit rocky, but much better than neighboring Taboose. The switchbacks between Sawmill Lake and Meadow dragged on a bit, but from the meadow on was almost all a blast. The part along the creek is soft leaves and pine duff, with a good grade and not too many switchbacks. After some suckage traversing out of the creekbed, the final sand descent is pure awesome, soft sand and a perfect grade to really open up. (Wear long pants, though — without them, the buckthorn will make you pay!) A final hike through a couple of ravines in the desert got me back to the car with enough time to wash up without my headlamp. This mission had been more fun and taken less time than I anticipated; it was a good day.

White Mountain (west ridge)

Down-ridge from near summit


[Skipping over some uninteresting stuff to catch up. — ed.]

White Mountain Peak is the highpoint of the Inyo-White Range, which forms the eastern side of the Owens Valley. I have climbed it the usual way twice before, making a long drive east from Big Pine to Cedar Flat, then north on a decent dirt road through the Bristlecone forest to where it is gated, finally hiking the remainder of the road from near 12,000′. However, White rises 10,000′ from the valleys to either side, and its west ridge, starting from 5,000 feet, is a much more sporting way to summit the peak, and a classic of Owens Valley type II fun.

It had been on my to-do list for a few years, but somehow conditions and motivation had never aligned until now. Astute readers may have noticed the coaching tab above, about which more later. I had suggested this route to Shannon, an athlete interested in long-distance adventures, as a way to put in time and intensity with less damage than a long weekend trail run. When a change in plans put me in the area around that time, I offered to join her. The company would help my motivation on a desert bushwhack, and I thought I might be able to help with route finding (sort of the opposite, as it turned out…).

We met at the junction of Highway 6 and White Mountain Ranch Road the evening before, then followed the SummitPost directions up a rough road (4S135 on the Forest Service topo) toward Jeffrey Mine Canyon, eventually stopping at a washout near 5200′. Later, we found that it is possible to drive a Subaru to the canyon mouth at around 6000′, probably by following the Hill Ranch road, then turning on 3S162. Another approach, avoiding the Jeffrey Mine entirely, would be to take road 4S75 to the forest boundary around 5300′, then take the steep road to a “Comm Facility” before heading cross-country. The Whites and Inyos are a wild place, more like Nevada than California, and probably only locals truly know their way around.

I woke at 4:30 in the unpleasantly cold dark, downed my cup of sadness, and fretted about the temperature. The forecast suggested 40s in the valley, a high around freezing on top, and not much wind. It seemed around 40 now, but it had been windy at night, so at the last minute I (fortunately) shoved my down parka into my pack. The plan was to hike the “trail” to the Jeffrey Mine cabins by headlamp, summit by early afternoon, and return to the cars before headlamp time. Despite my best efforts, we managed to stay fairly close to this schedule.

Ladder and arrow

While there is technically a trail to the cabins, it is easy to miss where it leaves the ravine at night, so of course I did. Instead, we continued up the bottom of the canyon, which started as nice hard-packed sand, then gradually became more annoying as it steepened. We hopped the boulders and bashed through the willows, efficiently gaining elevation but increasingly concerned that we would be boxed in as the chossy canyon walls steepened. It eventually happened, of course, and we found our headlamps illuminating a couple of wedged chockstones undercut by erosion. Left looked wrong, so I tried right, eventually finding some fourth class choss-stemming that got around the problem. Above, a dirt-traverse deposited us back in the canyon bottom.

Black Eagle Camp

Surprisingly, the rest of the ravine more or less worked; even more so, we found an arrow and ladder, suggesting that we were “on route” for some version of “route.” Where the canyon opened up, we found a faded but obvious trail coming from who knows where and, despite the shenanigans, we reached Black Eagle Camp around the end of headlamp time. Despite being only reachable on foot (or perhaps because of that), the cabins looked surprisingly nice, though there was no time to peek inside.

Upper mine building

There was a sign indicating a trail to “upper mine, 2 miles,” and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to take that, since it would put off the desert cross-country travel. This turned out to be only half a mistake. On the good side, we got to see the upper mine, which had honeycombed and partly consumed a colorful rock pillar across from the once heated and electrified dormitory. It is hard to imagine how the miners transported the building materials — much less the telephone poles — from the valley by mule.

So much sidehilling…

On the bad side, this route turns out to be the “not recommended, brushy northern ridge” alternative mentioned on SummitPost. Things were looking good on the climb past the mine and up the broad lower ridge, with bits of trail and the occasional cairn. However, it got ugly where the ridge flattened out, with chossy bumps on the crest, and brushy scree and sand on the south-facing side. Rather than going over the bumps, I for some reason chose to side-hill below them, which was a slog and, in retrospect, a bad idea. Oh, well.

Where the two west ridges meet, we finally found a sort of eroded gully with more stable talus, which eventually led to the ridge crest and views north and south along the range (also cell service, absent in the town of Chalfant). There were bits of trail on this part of the crest, though it was hard to tell if humans had helped make them, or just bighorn sheep.

Upper ridge from near junction

Though the summit looks close, there is a lot of ridge between 12,000′ and 14,000′, with a couple of bumps to cross and a fair amount of slow travel on semi-stable talus and bad rock. The SummitPost description mentioned traversing around one of the bumps on the north side, and continuing the day’s theme of poor route-finding on my part, I chose the wrong bump. What followed was some sketchy, cold traversing on snow-covered third class choss. I’m fairly used to it, and my relatively new and aggressively-lugged shoes handled it well; Shannon had a sketchier time of things in approach shoes with worn-down dot-rubber. The “correct” bump to traverse around is probably the last one, just 100′ or so below the summit, but it is not necessary — there’s a fairly obvious class 3-4 downclimb on the east side. The best approach to the whole ridge seems to be to stay near the crest, where it is most solid, and simply accept the up-and-down.

Palisades across the way

The air temperature was probably 35-40, so it was comfortable while moving in the sun and out of the wind, it was eyeball-freezingly cold in the steady wind near the summit. We took shelter in the lee of the summit hut, digging through the chest full of paper, booklets, and writing implements to find something that looked most like a register. I was glad I had thrown in the parka at the last minute, as I would otherwise not have been able to hang around before retreating as quickly as possible.

The less said about the way down, the better. I managed to choose a different bad route to the upper mine. We were both stoked to finally see trail again above the mine, and still had enough energy to jog a bit of the descent. The trail to the cabins was much easier to find during the day, though still obscure in places. It turns out that it crosses the stream-bed just above the arrow and ladder on top, and leaves it at the bottom to follow the old power line road. Though it is cairned, this bottom junction is very easy to miss at night. Surprisingly, despite my best efforts to make life difficult, we made it back to the cars with no headlamp time, albeit barely. It was another surprisingly cold night in the valley, so it took me awhile to make my hands work well enough to make some tea and find food. Neither of us felt like driving anywhere, so we soon retreated out of the wind to our respective cars.

Aletschhorn (13h)

Looking around for something to do on a day with an unsettled forecast, the Aletschhorn seemed like a good prospect. Though it is a fairly long, hard day from Blatten, with a bit over 3000m of climbing thanks to some up-and-down along the way, it is not technically challenging or committing, and involves relatively little glacier-work. On a clear day, the summit offers a bird’s-eye view of the konkordiaplatz, where the Grosser Aletschfirn, Jungfraufirn, and Ewigschneefeld join to form the Grosser Aletsch Glacier, the largest in the Alps. Though it is much diminished, it is still very much alive, and remains around 800m deep at the junction.

I scouted out the route out of town, then settled in to sleep in Blatten’s car park (sigh…). (Side note: Most Swiss car parks print tickets reading “hertzlich wilkommen,” or “hearty welcome.” Blatten’s instead read “hexlich wilkommen.” It turns out that there are legends of witchcraft in Belalp, and even an annual witch-themed ski race.) I got started up the trail to Belalp around 4:00, and hiked by headlamp past the Hotel Belalp and down a steep descent to the trail traversing below the Oberaletsch Glacier. I finally put away the headlamp a bit after 6:00 — the days are getting noticeably shorter.

This approach has more annoyingly unnecessary climbing in addition to the return climb back to Belalp. The Oberaletsch Hut is about 100m above the glacier, which is bad but to be expected. However, after crossing a bridge at the glacier’s toe, the trail to the hut takes a rolling line along the glacier’s east side that often rises well above the level of the hut. The first part of the trail passes through several gates separating fields for cows and sheep, many of which were sleeping on the trail when I passed in the morning. I was almost tempted to hike up the glacier from the bridge, but saw no cairns or bits of path, so that would have been a wretched moraine-slog.

I startled a couple washing up outside the hut around 8:00, then took the ladders and steps down to the glacier. Of all the big Bernese glaciers I have seen, the Oberaletsch is in by far the worst shape, with large watercourses cutting the ice near its tongue, and a rocky surface for most of its length. As I approached the Aletschhorn, I saw why: the valley glacier is all but cut off from the cirque of steep glaciers that once fed it, with only one thin connection still extending down from the Schinhorn to its west. Though the corpse will take awhile to melt, I suspect the valley section will be dead soon.

The first trick in climbing the Aletschhorn’s standard route is getting back up off the glacier. The route description on my phone mentioned some reflective markings, but I did not see any, so I plotted out my own right-to-left traverse up the lateral moraine, trying to follow the more stable spots with plants on them, and crossing loose streambeds where possible. I eventually found a line of cairns and a faint trail, which is much easier to find and follow on the descent. With one inexplicable detour to the right, corrected by some fourth class climbing, I got back on the crest of the southwest ridge, where I found some useless cairns on a nice, stable talus-hop. Large cumulus clouds were building over the Rhone Valley, so I tried to climb as quickly as possible in my increasingly worn-down state.

The ridge is split partway up by a crevassed glacier, which could have been tricky, but was fortunately mostly dry. After an initial steep bit getting up off the rock, I made my circuitous way up to the left, then back right of the upper ridge, and finally left to get back on the rock, finding an old boot-pack near the end. I was once again surprised to meet no one else on either the route or the summit, and to find in the register that no one else had summited earlier in the day. This would be unheard-of on a moderate 4000m peak across the valley to the south.

Back on the rock, I hiked up some choss, then followed a line of belay posts up fun and fairly solid class 3 rock to the summit. The clouds were still building, but I was pleased to see that I had made it in time to get a clear view of the konkordiaplatz and the “head-ices” of the Grosser Aletsch Glacier to the northeast. I took some time to enjoy the views and the rest of my giant cheese sandwich, then got out of there with some haste. The clouds didn’t look too serious, but the summit cross had a nice melted spot.

I followed the trail on the way down, which takes a more direct line down the lateral moraine. The crux of the route was at the very bottom, where it descends steep, rock-hard dirt with loosely embedded rocks, terrain I find far more threatening than steep rock. It started drizzling a bit as I hiked down the glacier, and picked up a bit as I climbed the cold, wet ladders toward the hut. I tried putting on my poncho, found that it blew around too much to let me climb, and ended up just putting up with the rain and climbing as fast as I could.

The rain stopped just after the hut, and the clouds kept temperatures comfortable for the rest of the hike. I passed about a dozen people headed for the hut, then a herd of curious goats on the traverse toward Belalp. Not being familiar with farm animals, I gave them a wide berth instead of shooing them out of my way. I did not feel like climbing back up to Belalp, so I took another trail that supposedly also led to Blatten, hopefully with less climbing. It turned out to be just as bad, descending toward a reservoir before switchbacking up steeply to meet the trail I had taken in the morning. Oh, well.

Lauteraarhorn (12h40)

Lauteraarhorn from Unteraar Glacier


The Lauteraarhorn is one of the lesser 4000m peaks, barely exceeding the magic threshold and having just over 100m prominence above the lowpoint of the ridge connecting it to the nearby Schreckhorn. However, being an “amphitheater peak” surrounded by greater summits, it has one of my favorite summit views in the Alps so far, with the Schreckhorn and Finsteraarhorn looming nearby, the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger rising farther to the west, and the Unteraargletscher flowing back east. Like the Finsteraarhorn, it can be reached from near the Grimsel Pass, saving me some driving. The approach crosses the dam, then follows a trail through a tunnel and around the Grimselsee before ascending the Unteraar, Finsteraar, and Strahleg Glaciers. Most people spend a night at a small bivouac hut above the Strahleg Glacier, but that, of course, is not how I roll.

(Richard Goedeke, in his guidebook, amusingly remarks that “[u]p to 1976, an ascent still meant a voluntary bivouac had to be planned, but it should be remembered that in the days of the pioneers, this was the norm everywhere.” Elsewhere, he writes of the Marguerita Hut on the Signalkuppe that “this is a place in which one can take in the magic of a breathtaking evening at very high altitude and morning moods at leisure, without all the rigmarole and paraphernalia of bivouacing.” I wholeheartedly join him in his disdain for the barbaric practice of camping. I can only imagine his horror upon learning that it is popular in the United States to go on multi-day “voluntary bivouac” trips without climbing any peaks.)

I had spent most of the previous day sitting in the car, listening to the steady drizzle as I caught up on reading and writing. It was still raining as I tried to go to sleep, and I woke at 3:30 to a fog so dense that I could barely make the drive down to the Grimsel Hospiz. Fortunately this is a Swiss mountain road, so it is wide and has lane markers, unlike the Italian ones to which I have become accustomed. I had scouted out the start during a break in the rain the day before, so I knew which stairs to take down to the dam when I finally started out around 4:20. The tunnel was much easier by headlamp, and I knew to avoid the big puddle near the start.

Spot the hut

I cranked out the rolling hike around the lake by headlamp, then stupidly continued following the trail to the Lauteraar Hut. Why “stupidly,” you ask? Because, like many of the huts in the Bernese Alps, this one was built back when the glaciers were much larger, so it now sits hundreds of feet above the ice, or in this case, the morainal debris covering the ice. The rain and fog had soaked all of the vegetation, but the broad trail spared me a Cascades-style leg-washing as I switchbacked away from where I wanted to be and toward the hut. I took in a good sunrise view of the Lauteraarhorn, then wandered around in confusion for a bit before finding the path down to the ladders. This path was not wide enough to spare me a soaking, ensuring that I would pulverize my feet on the hike out. The ladders were all solid and orderly, not some Italian nightmare, but there were a lot of them, and they were all cold and wet.

Back down Finsteraar Glacier

Detour complete, I began hiking up the Unteraar Glacier, following a lattice of cairns, metal poles, and occasional bits of path. As soon as I reached the sun, I stopped to wring out my socks, hoping to spare my feet. The glacier is mostly rocks up to where the Finsteraar Glacier splits off, with a currently-dry stream-bed splitting it down the middle. The best path seems to stay on the right-hand side most of the way, then descends to the stream-bed, following it a bit before finally getting to the bare ice of the Finsteraar Glacier. The ice was all dirty or crunchy enough that I did not need crampons; indeed, unlike the Finsteraarhorn experience, most of my gear stayed in my pack this time.

Marker stick

Partway up the Finsteraar Glacier, I picked up a line of markers, blue and white wooden poles on tripods with rocks hanging beneath them. These led up the ice for awhile, then up the lateral moraine of the Strahleg Glacier and on to the hut, an unpleasant-looking little box high up on the cliff to the right. I had no use for that, so I traversed back onto the ice and continued up-glacier, looking for the prominent couloir leading to the southeast ridge.

Typical face climbing

Goedeke recommends getting up and down the couloir early, due to dangerous snow and cornices. Alternatively, one can just wait 20 years, and find that the couloir is mostly bare rock. It took me a few minutes to recognize the feature, but I soon found a left-trending ramp leading into it, and some boot-prints. Ex-couloirs are normally unpleasant, but this one was not bad at first. The upward-tilted rock layers had been planed off, creating sticky textured slabs that were easy walking. At the level of a small hanging glacier, I should have gone to the ridge at the far left. Instead, I stayed too far right, and ran into more typical ex-couloir conditions, with loose rock and a bit of fresh snow from the day before. I struggled up this, linking outcrops of more solid rock and trying to make my way left, and eventually got back on-route just below a col around 3900m.

Fun summit ridge

The rock quality immediately improved as the route turned to climb along rather than across its layers. It was fun climbing, a bit slabby but with plenty of positive edges, staying right along the sometimes-exposed ridge crest. Though there were patches of fresh snow, the rock was mostly dry, so I just shook my head when I saw fresh crampon tracks. Putting crampons on at the first sign of snow seems to be common practice here, possibly a holdover from decades past, when the peaks were colder and snowier.

Unteraar Glacier from Lauteraarhorn

One part of the ridge gave me some trouble, a pinnacle with an overhanging back side that I sketchily bypassed on the snowy and icy right-hand side on the way up. On the descent, I found some hidden footholds allowing me to stay on the crest. It was calm and sunny, just warm enough to climb in a t-shirt without gloves. I reached the summit 7h20 from the car, and spent about 20 minutes taking in the view and perusing the register, where I noted several parties traversing to or from the Schreckhorn. That ridge looked even more fearsome with a smattering of fresh snow, as did the Schreckhorn’s southwest face, falling 1500m to the Unteres Eismeer. To the south, the Finsteraarhorn’s huge north face rose from behind a lesser ridge. Back east, I could see the Finsteraar and Unteraar Glaciers’ junction, and the upper end of the Grimselsee.

Big moulin

I found the correct path down the face, with occasional cairns, bits of trail, and many crampon marks, so the descent was more pleasant than the climb. I took out my ice axe for all of two minutes to boot-ski a small snowfield, then got some water at the melt-stream below it. Thanks to fresh snow and clear skies, the glacier was flowing with many small streams, which flowed along the surface and merged until they disappeared into moulins.

Schreckhorn ridge

I met a group of three on the Finsteraar Glacier, headed up to sleep at the hut before climbing the next day. Their English was only a bit better than my German, so it was hard to communicate. They probably asked where I was coming from; I pointed and said “Lauteraarhorn” (“louder-ARE-horn”), and received blank stares in response. Eventually one of them said something like “looter-AIR-horn,” and I cringed in embarrassment, as German vowels remain a mystery to me. I managed to communicate that I had come from the Grimsel Hospiz that morning, which surprised them a bit, but what really had them shaking their heads was the fact that I was in running shoes, with no mountain boots. If they would only try it themselves, they would see how much better their lives could be. My feet were trashed enough as-is, and I can only imagine how much worse they would have felt hiking out in the full-shank Nepals the group’s leader was wearing.

The view of the hut perched far above the glacier, connected by the line of ladders, was jaw-dropping. Rather than make that detour again, I continued down the glacier. There were cairns here and there, but they did not indicate a trail, so I just made my way down miserable moraine to the glacier’s toe, then passed a poor stranded iceberg before rejoining the trail. My feet were feeling wrecked at this point, but I tried to make some speed for once, jogging some of the flat and downhill sections of the trail around the reservoir. The cascade feeding the lake was raging in the late afternoon, making for good photos for the day-hikers. I passed a woman leading an unhappy-looking greyhound up the metal grated stairs from the dam, reaching the car about 12h40 after starting. The forecast was perfect for the next day, and I should have done something, but my feet were feeling too thrashed, and my shoes were worn smooth and developing holes. Unfortunately, a maintenance day was required.

Finsteraarhorn (14h30)

Finsteraarhorn


The Finsteraarhorn is the highest peak in the Bernese Alps, which contain many of the range’s largest glaciers, including the Grosser Aletschgletcher, as well as the famous Eiger (one of a handful of Alpine peaks falling between 13,000 feet and 4000 meters). Unlike the Eiger and its neighbors, which can be easily reached by those willing to pay for the cable car from Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch, the Finsteraarhorn is a long glacier hike from any access point. I chose to come in from the high trailhead at Grimsel Pass, circling around the south side of the peak to reach the hut and standard route. This took about 14h30, about nine hours of which was spent on various glaciers. From the Oberaarsee, the route climbs the Oberaar Glacier to a glacier pass with a hut, then descends the Studer Glacier to its junction with the long Fiescher Glacier, finally climbing that to reach the hut.

Dawn on Oberaarjoch

I started out up the road to the Oberaar Reservoir at 4:30, jogging some flatter spots to hopefully cover as many miles as I could on decent snow. Reaching the dam, I realized that I could have paid 5 Francs to park at a large overnight lot nearby. I put away my headlamp on the way across the dam, then followed a clear trail along the reservoir toward the toe of the Oberaar Glacier. Something about glaciers’ shape often makes them appear shorter than they are, and this one was no exception: though it looks small, it rises nearly 3000 feet to the col, and takes just as long as one would expect to climb. Also, flowing eastward, its tongue is highly asymmetric, with the shaded southern side extending much lower than the northern one, mostly covered in talus.

Oberaarsee

I made my way up the rocky northern side for awhile then put on crampons to make my way up the bare ice, winding around and jumping over the exposed crevasses. There was still snow covering the glacier’s upper reaches, but fortunately there was a boot-pack drawing a safe line over and around the more hidden slots. I saw two people at the base of the path leading up to the small hut, but they did not seem talkative, so I continued over the other side, following another bootpack down the Studer Glacier. On the way down, I got a good view of the southeast, i.e. wrong, side of the Finsteraarhorn, and a sobering reminder of how far I had to go.

Wrong way down

This bootpack seemed to be contouring farther south than I would like, so I left it near where the glacier became bare to take a more direct line to the junction with the Fiescher Glacier. This turned out to be a mistake: the lower Studer Glacier branches around a rock island, and the right (north) branch is steeper and more broken, while the left is an easy walk. There were some hijinks required, including going in and out of the moat on the left, but I eventually got back on track.

Hiking up Fiesch

I saw a few boot-prints crossing the large rib of debris to the Fiescher Glacier, and was then back on bare ice for awhile, dodging the many crevasses and looking for an easy line up toward the hut. It is difficult to mark routes on glaciers, and boot-packs do not form on bare ice, so each person has to find his own way. In any case, I saw no other people after the Oberaarjoch Hut, a surprising change from the rest of my time in the Alps, and it felt particularly lonely on the big, quiet glaciers.

The hut

After endless glacier shenanigans, I spied the hut far up on the right bank. I had been planning to do another peak, and had forgotten to take photos of the guidebook, so I mistakenly thought that the route went up a glacier tongue from the Fiescher Glacier to the Hugisattel. Unlike on my map, this tongue does not connect to the main ice, and the route in fact climbs the rubble above the hut to reach it higher up. The weather was gray, but not truly threatening, and I had come a long ways, so I decided to try to figure something out for myself.

Helpful serac

I continued up-glacier, then turned up a side branch toward the saddle between the Agassizhorn and Finsteraarhorn, hoping to find boot-prints. I unfortunately did not, and as I got higher, the glacier became snow-covered and crevassed. I proceeded carefully, climbing the right side under some seracs, which had filled in or bridged a lot of the holes, but did not currently seem to be active. I eventually crossed a ‘schrund around 3750m, then hacked my way up a bit of bare ice to the awful rock of the ridge. I found a sling around a block, but this was clearly a seldom-visited spot.

Agassizhorn

The clouds had lowered by now, so I made my way up the ridge in mist, climbing class 3-4 garbage, staying close to the crest where it was a bit more solid. I was not looking forward to reversing this, and hoped that I would find a boot-pack on the correct route at the Hugisattel. I crossed one small snow-saddle, then, after passing a decent-sized toilet paper deposit (that’s a thing in the Alps, even in Switzerland), saw recent crampon tracks where I hoped to find them.

Summit view

The rock to the summit was actually decent, with plenty of crampon scratches and bits of trail here and there. I climbed as fast as my fatigue allowed, since the weather seemed to be worsening. Reaching the summit just as it started to graupel, I stuck around just long enough to put on my windbreaker and take a photo of the cross, then raced back down in full GTFO mode. I needed to get to that crampon track before it was buried.

Sketchy bridge

Back at the saddle, I swapped out my soaked fleece gloves for mitts, put on my crampons, and started jogging down the boot-pack while annoying ice pellets stung my eyes. It dodged a number of crevasses, crossed a narrow and sketchy ice-bridge, then disappeared on some bare ice as it seemed to traverse to the rock on the left. I followed where I thought it might lead, and soon found a pile of historic garbage (rusted cans and broken glass), and a decent trail leading down the scree. I continued on the trail for awhile, eventually losing it at a flat spot. I believe the route goes left onto another glacier, but I carefully made my way down some horrid talus, then slid down a scree-chute to more talus and snow below.

Returning to Fiesch Glacier

I passed just below the hut, and almost stopped in to check it out, but it looked like there might be no one home, and doing so would require going uphill. Instead, I stopped for a snack on the edge of the glacier, then began the long walk home. It had stopped precipitating, and the weather seemed to be either stable or slightly improving. Going up the Studer Glacier, I even caught glimpses of some summits to the west. I slogged past the hut, where two people watched me silently from the balcony, then continued down the Oberaar Glacier toward home.

I felt a few raindrops as I neared the reservoir, where I saw a young couple out with a baby, and a party of three other dayhikers. The rain picked up about halfway around the reservoir, so I put on my poncho, immediately tearing an ice-axe hole. This was the first time I had used both on a single outing, and I clearly should have thought more carefully about how they would interact. The rain continued as I crossed the dam, passed the Oberaar Berghaus, and started down the road to the pass. I hoped to get a ride with someone headed down, but the one car that passed did not slow down. Fortunately the rain had mostly stopped, so I could put away the poncho and jog back to the car. I had grown a bit complacent, and the Bernese Alps smacked me for it. I have a few more similar outings planned, which I will take more seriously.

Lots of these

PS — I saw dozens of shells embedded in the glacier, slightly smaller than my hand, which seem like they might have been fired at or by an airplane. Does anyone know what they are, or why they are all over a Swiss glacier? Does the Swiss Air Force practice by strafing the Bernese Alps?

Monte Rosa (Piramide Vincent, Parrotspitze, Signalkuppe, Zumsteinspitze, Dufourspitze, 14h10)

Dufourspitze from Zumsteinspitze


The Monte Rosa massif includes many of the Alps’ highest peaks, including the second-highest, the Dufourspitze. I had written off climbing Monte Rosa, since it is buried behind the huts and cable cars of Zermatt. However, some of its subpeaks are normally approached from the Italian village of Alagna (1200m). These climbs are normally done with a fairly egregious cable car (3200m) and hut (3600m). However, they can also be done car-to-car, and I realized that I could not just reach the Dufourspitze, but also sweep up some of the lesser satellite peaks along the way. It would require 3500-4000m of elevation gain, similar to what I did for Mont Blanc, making it a tough but not ridiculous day.

Tram tower

It was absolutely bucketing rain as I drove west and north to Alagna, nearly overwhelming my wipers at full speed, but the next day’s forecast looked good, so I set my alarm for 3:00 AM and tried to get some sleep. I started hiking around 3:20 and, after a false start up the path to someone’s house, found the path to the Rusa district of Alagna and on up the ski area (trail number 205 or 5). I passed the usual ski area detritus on the way up — huts, snow-making machines, lift stations — but all were quiet in the dark. The sun rose near the upper lift stations, around 3000m, hitting the peaks intermittently through some scattered clouds above the valley.

Piramide Vincent

Above the lift stations, I followed a marked path with some hand-lines along a ridge to some ruined-looking building with a diesel motor inexplicably running inside. The faint path then continued across a mixture of talus and snow to join the boot-pack from the tram station. The glacier above was slushy in places, but mostly hard enough for crampons. I crunched my way across, passing two groups of four who I thought were descending early to the tram. Later, I realized that they were climbing Piramide Vincent by its southeast glacier, something I probably should have done.

Piramide Vincent ridge

Instead, I continued up the steps and hand-lines to the ridge on the glacier’s other side, from which I could see the two high huts. The Citta di Mantova hut is the usual solid stone structure, but the Gnifetti hut is a sprawling thing that looks more like a high-altitude shanty town, a sprawling structure with bits of wood and tin roof mixed in with the stone. I skipped both, following Piramide Vincent’s rocky southern ridge and the glacier to its left toward the summit. Given the previous day’s precipitation, this turned out to be a poor choice, since the talus was spotted with a mix of fresh snow, ice, and rime. It was awkward climbing, but I made it work, and beat the glacier-climbers to the summit. I was cold, and only stopped for a few seconds before descending the track on its northwest side.

Lyskamm from Piramide Vincent

Here I began to meet the hordes coming up from the hut. There had been maybe half a foot of fresh snow on the glacier the night before, but thankfully the trail crews had been out installing fresh boot-packs, so I had only to follow the right lines. I jogged down to the saddle, then traversed around and through some lesser summits, including one with a small hut and huge Christ statue on top. Past these, I followed a path up the Parrotspitze’s narrow north snow arete. The fresh snow and cool overnight temperatures made for perfect travel conditions, with no need for crampons until near the end of the traverse.

Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze, Signalkuppe

I continued on the path over the summit, passing more people in the next saddle before joining the main road to the Margherita hut on the Signalkuppe’s summit. At 4556m, this full-sized hut is the highest building in Europe, and seems to actually be used by people “climbing” the nearby peaks. I sat out of the wind to have part of a sandwich, decided that I did not need to go to the top floor of the hut to reach the summit, then returned to the saddle to the north, passing a dozen packs people had left there to summit the nearby Zumsteinspitze. There was some sort of bottleneck on the rocks just below the summit, but it had worked itself out by the time I reached it, carefully climbing a steep track for which I would use crampons on the way down.

Someone offered to take this…

There was a small crowd on the summit, with its fine views of the nearby Dufourspitze to one side, and Lyskamm’s impressive north face to the other. Clouds were rising off the Italian side of the peaks, obscuring the valleys to that side, but it was sunny on the Swiss side, and I could see the whole of the long Monte Rosa and Grenz Glaciers. Since there was no sign of the weather deteriorating, while everyone else returned toward the hut, I started off down the ridge toward the high point, following a much fainter track.

Ridge off Zumsteinspitze

About 50 yards down, I realized that it was stupid to descend this compacted snow arete without crampons, and awkwardly stopped to put them on. This snow descent was probably the day’s crux. The prevailing wind seems to be from the west (Swiss) side, creating hard-packed snow on that side, and corresponding cornices on the other. I passed a guide and two clients shortly below the summit, who were either scouting the route or retreating; beyond, I had only hints of an old boot-pack to follow. Most of it was a careful snow descent, playing a game of “cornice chicken” to stay on the softer, lower-angle snow near the crest. However, one short rock step gave me particular trouble. After some experiment, I eventually dealt with it via a bit of dry-tooling, sliding the pinky-rest into position on my ice axe, then wedging the pick in a slot to create a handhold in the right place.

Lyskamm from Dufourspitze

The south-facing climb up from the saddle was the only real rock scrambling I did the whole day. There was still some fresh snow hanging around, but it had melted off enough for climbing without crampons, and the underlying rock was fun and solid. I strayed right of the ridge on the way up, but would have had better climbing staying on the crest. Reaching what I thought was the summit, I was disappointed to learn that I was on the Dunantspitze, named for the founder of the Red Cross. It would take another ten minutes of careful traversing to reach the actual highpoint, a bit over an hour from the Zumsteinspitze, and nine from the car.

Nordend

I was surprised by the absence of a summit cross and presence of a register, though it was just a wad of wet paper. I took in the views, briefly contemplated traversing on to the Nordend, then sat down to eat the last of my food. Just as I was starting back, a helicopter came from the direction of the Margherita hut, along the ridge over the Zumsteinspitze, and flew slowly quite close to the summit. I made an obvious “I’m okay” wave, with one hand up and the other down, and received a response, so it seems like they were checking in on me.

Gnifetti shanties

It took about an hour to return to low-angle snow on the other side of the Zumsteinspitze, where I put away my crampons and turned off my brain for the day. The highway of a boot-pack back to the Gnifetti hut was finally starting to deteriorate, with occasional calf-deep postholes into the old underlying snow, but it was mostly easy going. There are several crevasses on the final descent to the hut, but the pack followed a safe path, and I did not see any ominous leg-sized holes like I did on Monte Cevedale. The lower glacier above the tram station was in wretched condition, with some of the bare ice turning to an unavoidable morass of ankle-deep slush. I wrung out my socks as best I could on the other side, then tenderized my feet on the 6000-foot hike down the ski area to the car. I was impressed by Lyskamm, a more impressive-looking peak than Monte Rosa, but would probably take the tram if I went back to do it. This is a once-a-year approach.

Täsch-Dom traverse

Taschhorn and Dom from below Nadelhorn


The Täsch-Dom traverse is a classic moderate Alpine route. The normal version starts with a hike up to the high Mischabeljoch hut the day before, then climbs the Täschhorn’s south ridge, continues to the Dom, then descends the standard northwest glacier route. For various reasons, I did something slightly different: I started from the car-park in Randa, climbed to the Kin Hut, then ascended the Kin Glacier and northwest face of the Täschhorn to join the normal route. This was a fairly brutal day, with around 3300m gain and terrain requiring big boots. However, it is a good route for day-hiking, since the key snow climb is west-facing, and if you are forced to bail at or before the Täschhorn, you will have just climbed a route that would be hard to find on the descent.

Dawn across the way

I emerged from the car park at 3:30 and headed up through the village of Randa, following the signs and the map on my phone through a few roads and a maze of trails leading to various places in the hills. My guidebook described a route leading from the Dom Hut to the Täschhorn’s northwest face, but it sounded complicated and dubious (“descend slabs to the glacier” is never good to see), so I headed for the Kin Hut, below the toe of the Kin Glacier. The light was on when I got there just before dawn, but I saw no climbers or guardian at the little-used hut on the way to nowhere.

Kin Glacier toward face

I continued on a rapidly-fading trail toward the foot of the glacier, eventually turning left up the moraine to get around some slabs and onto the snow and ice. I saw a single down-boot-pack on the snow, but no tracks from the past couple of days. After mounting the glacier on the left, I crossed to the right on a flat plain of bare ice to avoid the worst of an icefall. It was less broken on the right, but still a bit steep, requiring a mantel and almost causing me to take out my other tool.

Above, I crossed back left on another mostly-bare plain, picking up the bootpack again as it dodged a few crevasses on its way up the lefthand side to another plain. Here the tracks faded as they crossed a snowier part of the glacier with some partly-hidden crevasses. I continued with some trepidation, probing at some spots that looked suspicious, but did not have any issues. I was not sure whether to continue up-glacier, or dismount onto a rock rib on its south side, but the boot-pack reappeared in an ascending traverse to the bottom end of the rib, so I did that.

Face with parties descending

I climbed up some mildly annoying rock on the rib, while plotting a route on the face ahead. It looked like the general idea would be to start left, then work right under some seracs before following below the right-hand ridge to the summit. The clouds descended as I climbed the rib, limiting my view of the face, and holding out the prospect of a tricky blind climb. Fortunately, I had seen what I thought were a couple of parties on the face earlier, who proved to be descending after climbing the standard south ridge. They seemed to have found the descent route without any backtracking, so they were either lucky or guides. They seemed a bit skeptical of my plan to traverse the Dom, but did not try to discourage me.

I followed the boot-pack as it went right below the serac, then wandered through some other obstacles higher up. At one point it climbed an icy bulge, and I could see where they had dug holes for sitting body-belays. I probably could have done it with one tool, but I had brought the other, so I took it out and got in a few good sticks on this pitch.

Across face toward Dom

Higher up, the clouds got thicker and the snow deteriorated, with a breakable crust and sugar covering the underlying ice. This was slow and not always confidence-inspiring, and it seemed to take forever to climb the last few hundred feet to the summit. I saw magnificent expanses of light gray in all directions, fresh crampon marks from the groups I had met, and a summit cross with a disturbing Jesus. I suppose I would look like that if I were being crucified, but I am not used to mountain crosses being inhabited, and the version of Jesus I have seen in churches usually looks more sorrowful than agonized.

Painful à cheval

I was tempted to bail, but it wasn’t cold or precipitating, and I could see well enough to avoid cornices and do local route-finding, so I had no real reason not to continue. I oriented myself using the compass on my phone, then started down the kilometer-long ridge to the Dom. The descent to the Domjoch was intricate in places, with slightly less than 500 meters taking me almost an hour. It could have taken much longer, but fortunately there were some sections where I could either traverse on snow to the left, or hand-traverse with my crampons in the snow and hands on the rock. There was fresh snow on both sides of the ridge, mainly on the left, so it made sense to tackle the whole thing in gloves and crampons, occasionally pulling out my ice axe. The crux was an uncomfortable à cheval down a steep knife-edge where I didn’t trust the snow bypass. It began clearing partway down, and I caught glimpses of the Kin Glacier to the west, the rocky east face descending toward Saas Fee, and even, for a few seconds, the summit of the Täschhorn behind me.

View back up narrow ridge

At the Domjoch, I stuffed a bit of snow in my water bladder, then took off my crampons, figuring that I would gain more time than I would lose climbing the south-facing ridge in just boots. This was the right move: while I lost some time routing around or carefully dealing with the patches of fresh snow, I could move much more quickly along flat or talus-y sections of the ridge. The route generally stayed on or right of the ridge. If I strayed too far right, I ran into fifth class climbing on chossy rock, but staying right on the crest would force me to deal with too many small gendarmes. The final obstacle was an ascending ridge through some uber-choss to a notch just southeast of the summit. From there, a steep climb on some slightly less-bad rock and a quick ridge scramble got me to the summit, with its own tortured Jesus and a welcome boot-pack.

Dom cross

I finished my food, then got about 50 feet without crampons before deciding that was a bad idea. Mistake corrected, I continued down the well-beaten track, dodging a few crevasses before heading far right to get around what turned out to be a huge serac. It was partly clearing by now, and hot on the glacier, so the snow was unpleasantly soft on the long walk. Fortunately the big serac was quiet, since it seemed capable of reaching the bootpack.

Bad place to play

The pack crosses a ridge south at the Festijoch, then descends the choss on the other side to the Festi Glacier, which it follows to its toe above the hut. I finally ran into other people here, one pair slowly downclimbing the choss, and a large group playing around with ropes right in the rockfall zone. I climbed around the pair, then skated past the group, which had organized itself into two rope teams of 4-5 for the long snow-walk.

The Dom Hut is much larger and better-used than the Kin Hut, and I saw a few people hanging around outside, and a dozen pairs of boots drying out back. It was still a long walk to the car, all of it on terrain that makes me hate boots. Thinking about it, I realized that to descend comfortably and quickly, I use my ankles a lot, either toe-striking to absorb impact, or angling my foot to land on rocks in particular ways. I cannot do this at all in boots, so I just feel like I am about to damage my knees all the time. I will definitely carry some kind of trail runners next time, even if I start out in boots.

Crossing bridge

The people I met on the way down were mostly uncommunicative, though two members of a Swiss group I met just below the hut gave me dirty looks for no apparent reason. A fair number of tourists go up to the Dom Hut, and many more go up to lower huts, follow the Europaweg trail, or climb up to see the suspension bridge. I had seen signs for it on the way up, and took a slight detour on the way down to cross it. It was a trip, with wrist-thick cables suspending the deck, and hand-rails and fencing on either side to contain the humans. Heavy though it was, it swayed unpredictably under the influence of the people crossing it. I briefly experimented with skipping across, and realized that if I skipped or jumped at the right rate, I could really scare some people.

That was the end of fun for the day. The rest was a slog back to the car park, reaching the car around 12h15 after starting. It had taken me 6h50 to summit the Täschhorn, and 1h50-2h for the traverse. I would normally take the next day off after such an outing, but time is money in this part of Switzerland, so I was determined to climb what I intended to climb as quickly as possible.