Category Archives: Type II fun

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.

Mont Blanc loop (Grand Mulets to Aiguille du Midi)

Mont Blanc and Maudit from Tacul


The standard route up Mont Blanc, the Gouter Ridge, starts somewhere west of Chamonix, reached by some combination of trams and cog-rails. That did not appeal to me for a couple of reasons (logistics and being out-and-back), so I looked instead for a direct route from Chamonix that would enable a possible loop. I remembered that Killian Jornet had done Mont Blanc in a ridiculous time starting at the town church, and it seems like the route he used was the Grands Mulets, which climbs to the tram station at the Plan de l’Aiguille, then up the Bossons Glacier to join the standard route at the Col du Gouter. Not being Killian Jornet, I started from the dirtbag lot, went much more slowly, and tacked on some extra minor summits.

Sunrise and Aiguille du Midi

I left the car around 3:30, and wasted only a little time finding the trail to the Plan de l’Aiguille, which starts just behind the dump station in the RV lot near the base of the tram. The trail starts out steep, then flattens out a bit as it switchbacks up past the refuge to the midway tram station and restaurant. Above, there is a marked trail continuing toward the Pèlerins Glacier. However, the glacier has retreated a lot since the trail was installed, and it now deposits one at the edge of a super-sketchy lateral moraine. I wasted some time trying to downclimb it near where the yellow dots end, then found a more stable section a couple hundred yards uphill. In retrospect, I think there is a social trail, possibly leaving below the tram station, that traverses below the glacier’s toe to rejoin the old Grands Mulets route.

Instead, I sketched up some snow and talus on the other side of the glacier, then side-hilled a bit before descending to the old trail, now much fainter. Along the way, I found numerous old pieces of skis, and a nice left and right glove that unfortunately did not match, all collected by avalanches past. I followed the trail to a large, abandoned tram station, then continued on a fainter path, intermittently marked in blue. I passed two holes blasted in the rock, with signs indicating that they were shelter zones from rockfall off the Aiguille du Midi. It seemed unlikely that, after seeing approaching rocks, one would have time to jump into one.

The trail ends at the Bossons Glacier, whose tongue used to extend almost to Chamonix, and is still impressive from town, descending to around 1600 meters. The glacier is large and heavily-crevassed, and I was apprehensive about taking it on solo with lightweight gear. I put on my spikes, took out my axe, and started up the left side. At the Plan du Glacier, I traversed southwest, aiming for the Grands Mulets. The terrain got more complicated, but as it was mostly bare ice, there was little chance of falling in a hole.

Tricky glacier below Montets

Below the Montets, where the glacier is split by a rock ridge at la Jonction, things got interesting. There is a gash in the glacier, partly filled with debris and large ice cubes. I found a bamboo ski gate on one side, and bits of boot-pack headed toward the gap. There turned out to be a circuitous path down and around some ice cubes, then up the other side to more continuous glacier, where there remained enough surface snow to both hide crevasses and preserve a boot-pack.

Questionable crevasse bridge

The pack stayed well away from the Montets hut, which supposedly has a guardian, but does not seem to see much use. The boot-pack was useful in threading through the maze of large crevasses. However, it seemed to do a few sketchy things, and someone following it had put a leg through, so I had to pay attention as I made the 1200-meter climb to join the standard route at the Col du Gouter. There are some large seracs on this side of the Dome du Gouter, and plenty of evidence of large chunks of ice falling off, but I did not see any activity, despite spending a good chunk of the morning there on a sunny day.

Crowds coming from Dome du Gouter

Though I had seen what might have been crampon marks from earlier that day, I saw no other people on the route until joining with the standard Gouter Ridge. There I passed the probable creators of those marks, and joined the hordes headed to and from the summit. It was noticeably colder on the ridge: while I had been sweating in an overshirt and thin gloves before, I soon put on my windbreaker and mitts. My shoes iced up, and my feet were a bit cold, but not cold enough to worry or stop to put on my plastic bags.

Final summit trail

The last 600 vertical meters were a well-churned trail, or well-established steps on the steeper parts. I passed a small crowd at the Refuge Vallot, now an astronomical observatory and emergency refuge, then continued following the boot-pack to the summit. Most of the crowd was what I expected: people with big boots and lots of gear, moving slowly and roped together in groups of 2 to 4-5. However, I saw a lone man 100 yards ahead of me, moving quickly with trekking poles. I tried to catch him, but I was not at my fastest after 3600 meters of climbing, so he stayed out of reach until the summit. He turned out to be one of a pair of Germans (I think), climbing the standard route in proper minimalist gear, light hikers and micro-spikes in his case. Spread the Truth and the Light(weight), brothers!

Climbers and Chamonix

It was sunny and only slightly breezy on the summit, so I took the time to eat half a sandwich, check out the views of lesser peaks and the Courmayeur valley, and watch parties arrive, take selfies, and depart. Having been told that I could buy a downward ticket at the top of the tram, I decided to continue on my loop, continuing over Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, ending up at the touristy Aiguille du Midi. One thing I enjoy about Richard Goedke’s guidebook is his personal asides, and he feels a particular disgust toward the Aiguille infrastructure. He notes that fighter planes have twice clipped the gondola cables (yikes!), and states strongly that all the buildings desecrating the peak should be removed. There does not seem to have been any progress toward this goal in the quarter-century since his first edition.

Col de la Brenva

The traverse looked simple from Mont Blanc, but there were several complications on the downclimbs, hidden from above. After following more easy steps down to the Petits Mulets, I found a steep, somewhat icy descent to the Col de la Brenva, where I was forced to downclimb facing in, semi-front-pointing with my running shoe crampons. This was one place where having Real Boots would have made my life easier, but my lightweight setup was sufficient. After a traverse, I easily French-stepped directly up the snow face to Mont Maudit’s small rock summit, admiring the massive serac at the col behind me.

I at the last of my food while admiring the view, then tried to figure out how I should get back to the boot-pack. It would have been easiest to return the way I had come, but Goedke describes following the ridge to the Col du Mont Maudit. This proved annoying and sketchy, a mixture of rock and steep, hard snow. This was the other section where I would have been better off with boots and real crampons, but I made it work by staying next to the rock, where the snow was a bit softer, and I could grasp various handholds with my non-axe hand.

Col du Mont Maudit

Reaching the Col, I was surprised to find a steep and icy descent. I watched a couple of French climbers start down, for some reason roped together with lots of rope out and no intermediate pro in the classic European suicide pact. I gave them some space, then carefully made my way down the variable-quality steps, pretending to find a use for a hand-line with widely-spaced overhand bights. I caught up to them fiddling with gear on the lower edge of a crevasse, and complimented them on their lightweight choice of footwear (Salomon X-Alps, a bit pricey for me at $250/pair). One replied that I seemed to be traveling a bit lighter…

Mont Blanc du Tacul summit

Below the initial headwall, it was mostly easy stairs through the crevasses to the Col Maudit, where I passed a few people lounging in the sun. I continued on the trail to a point due west of Mont Blanc du Tacul, then followed the less-traveled boot-pack a short distance to its summit. There was an impressive piece of ice hanging off the north side, and a bit of third class scrambling on the west leading to the summit, where I passed a roped group of three on their way down. I had a good clear view of Mont Blanc and Mont Maudit from the summit, the latter looking much more serious than it did from above.

Ladder above Col du Midi

Back on the trail, I found the descent to the Col du Midi both longer and trickier than I had expected. Rather than simply plunge-stepping down a snow slope, I followed a meandering path around some crevasses, and finally descended a ladder bridging one that seemed to cross the whole slope, completely blocking access from the Aiguille. There was a steady stream of climbers on the final path, mostly returning to the Aiguille after their ascents. I was hungry and wrecked, pathetically slow on the final 300-meter climb to the tram station. Fortunately everyone else was tired, too, so I still got to pass some people. I finally reached the ice-tunnel into the station, climbed over an apparently locked gate with an “alpinists only” sign (what, me?!), and sat down among milling tourists to wring out my socks.

It turns out that they do not sell tickets at the upper station, but they will give you a number to board, and apparently sell them at Plan de l’Aiguille. I grabbed a bit of overpriced refreshment in the cafeteria, then made my way through the milling crowd toward the line for the tram. I got into conversation with a friendly family from Belgium, who spoke excellent English, and seemed interested in what I was doing. Being from a country that is mostly at sea level, they were not mountaineers, though the son seemed like he might be interested. The descent from 3800 to 2300 meters was easy and scenic. At the midway station, everyone queued up to switch from the upper to the lower tram. However, to the side I noticed some completely unguarded steps leading outside. I suppose I could have asked whether I would have to pay at the bottom if I rode the tram, but I seized the opportunity, leaving the station and jogging the last 1200 meters down to town. I doubt they have many customers willing to both “hike” up to the Aiguille, and jog the last leg.

Aiguille Verte (Moine Ridge, AD, 13h35)

Talèfre Glacier and Aiguille Verte


The Aiguille Verte is a misnomer: it is neither particularly needle-like nor green. Rather, it is a prominent golden wedge at the intersection of three needled ridges, which descend to the west, south, and east to the Drus, the Moine, and the Droites. The peak was first climbed by Whymper and his Swiss guides in 1865, via a couloir leading just east of the summit. The Moine Ridge was climbed shortly thereafter, by local French guides. Global warming makes couloir routes increasingly questionable in summer, most are funnels for rockfall later in the day, and they often require front-pointing, hence boots. For all these reasons, I chose to tackle the Verte via the Moine ridge, rated AD with rock to III (5.4). I brought my light-and-fast setup of one alpine tool, trail runners, and crampons. I did not end up using the crampons, though I could have in several places where I had to engage in gymnastics and step-cutting to deal with hard snow and ice. The ridge felt close to the limit of what I would want to attempt with this setup. It also took longer than I expected, thanks in part to slow travel up the Mer de Glace, the lower part of which is more of a “Mer des Pierres” these days.

Montenvers ladders

I actually got something like a real Alpine start this time, heading out from the dirtbag parking in Chamonix at 3:30, following the signs up the trail paralleling the cog-rail to Montenvers. I was startled just above the parking lot by a young malamute-ish dog joining me. It was wearing a collar, so it seemed to belong to someone, but it did not seem particularly loyal, staying with me and keeping a lookout in the dark all the way to Montenvers, 1h30 or so into the day. It was still dark as I wandered past the rail station, hotel, and bar, nearly stumbling over a climber bivying on the patio.

Yeah

Just beyond the last of the tourist outpost, I passed a sign showing the level of the Mer de Glace glacier in 1820. Since then, its level has dropped something like a couple hundred yards, exposing steep, polished slabs on either side. In a very European response to this problem, someone (guides?) has installed wild, Doctor Seuss-worthy series of bolted ladders, platforms, steps, and hand-rails to descend to the glacier. The ones at Montenvers are fairly tame, with two parallel lines to accommodate up- and down-traffic. The ones up to the Couvercle are a bit wilder, with some sections completely vertical, and the rungs sometimes close enough to the rock to make them tricky to stand on.

Glacier du Tacul at dawn

It was just growing light when I reached the moraine, and I saw a few headlamps on the Aiguilles, including two half-way up the Drus. The glacier moves enough to prevent a path forming, but I followed intermittent cairns southward, sticking to the moraines to avoid the slick, bare glacial ice, which was too slick this early in the morning. It had been t-shirt weather up to Montenvers, but it was cold enough down on the ice cube to need an overshirt and gloves. I lost the trail somewhere below the Leschaux Glacier, and made my slow way up the loose moraine to the left. I saw two climbers making their way down the long ladders from the Charpoua hut, base camp for the Drus.

Ladder sketch-fest

I eventually picked up the trail again, and followed the red-painted cairns until I could see the big white square painted on the cliffs above the ladders and what-not leading to the Couvercle. Though it is all bolted into the rock, this random collection of hardware felt as sketchy as anything I encountered on the ridge. Maybe I will get used to this sort of Euro-hardware. Above, a good trail leads to two huts, a big new one, and a smaller old one sheltering under a giant boulder. Below the huts, a trail marked with yellow wands descends to the Talèfre Glacier. While there turns out to be a better path above the hut, I did not know it at the time, so I followed the wands down onto the flat lower glacier.

New and old huts

My guidebook mentioned crevasse problems on the glacier, but it was mostly straightforward. I bypassed the icefall on slabs and moraine to the left, then stayed left on softening snow until I joined the boot-pack from the hut, which climbs along the base of the Moine ridge to the Whymper Couloir, on the other side of the Verte. The entire ridge from the Moine to the Verte looks long and complicated. The so-called Moine Ridge route actually skips most of it, gaining the ridge on slabs and broken ground just past its last major gendarme, the Cardinal.

Moat and lower face

There was a bit of sketchiness crossing from the glacier to the face, but I fortunately had a boot-pack to guide me around a crevasse, along a snow ridge next to the moat, then across a big step to a steep snow-chute from which one could final step onto the rock. Not wanting to deal with crampons, I cut a step to help myself get into the chute, then carefully followed the hard boot-holes.

Pinnacles on lower Moine Ridge

After so much ascent to reach the base, it seems like the ridge should be short, but the numbers don’t lie: it’s 800 meters from the moat crossing to the summit, slightly longer than the northwest ridge of Mount Sir Donald, and much more complicated. The first part is a wandering climb back toward the ridge, which can probably be kept to class 4, but ended up being class 5 in a few places. Above, the route stays below the ridge on some chossier rock, paralleling a couloir separating the main ridge from a subsidiary one, finally reaching the main ridge near where the two join.

Ridge to summit

The route had been mostly snow-free to this point, but beyond, some snow became unavoidable. The boot-pack split, with one group taking a lower and snowier line, and another staying closer to the crest. Both seemed to be keeping their crampons on for both snow and rock. I do not like doing rock in crampons when it can be avoided, or wasting time taking them on and off. I am more comfortable working around or sketching through snow, an approach that worked in this case.

Mont Blanc from summit

The route-finding becomes somewhat simpler higher up, but is still not straightforward. The ridge is fairly narrow, but jagged enough that one cannot follow the crest, but must detour left or right to find the easiest path. This route-finding, and a mixture of fifth-class rock, slush, and hard snow, demanded constant attention, and was mentally taxing. I was disappointed by my slow progress, gauged off the neighboring Grande Rocheuse. There were some memorable passages, including a foot-traverse with no hands and an à cheval and/or hand traverse. The established boot-pack was often helpful on the snowy sections, but I had to improvise in places where its creators had used their crampons to climb rock-hard névé or ice.

Grandes Jorasses and Dent du Géant from summit

I finally emerged on the summit around 11:30, greeted by a moderate breeze and clear views in all directions. All morning, I had been admiring the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, probably the most impressive face the region. That and the neighboring Dent du Géant still drew most of my attention, but there were sharp spires and serrated ridges in most directions, plus the white dome of Mont Blanc to the southwest. There had been a helicopter making a wandering patrol all morning, seemingly checking in on my progress a couple of times. As I sat on the summit, I saw it nearly touch down on the Aiguille Sans Nom (toward the Drus), though I couldn’t tell if it plucked someone off.

Heading down

Mindful that the descent might be slower than the climb, I ate my sandwich quickly, then put on my gloves and began retracing my steps. I was tempted to go with crampons on the way down, but decided against them, since the snow had softened enough to make them not particularly useful most of the time. The descent was intense, but went mostly better and faster than expected. I did get off-route once, wasting some time looking for a downclimb on what may have been a rappel route, but was rewarded by finding someone’s Petzl Sum’Tec, a nice alpine tool and the successor to my own well-used Aztarex. Score!

Once past the subsidiary ridge, things went more quickly on the ledges and slabs leading down to the moat. I even bashed my knee on a cairn, reminding me that I was on-route. The vicious thing might have been helpful, but I refused to repair it, lest it claim another victim. On my way up, I had seen a group of three making their way to the base of a nasty-looking garbage-chute leading to the Evéque, a pillar on the Moine Ridge. Now I saw them in the same place on their way down, and thought I might catch them on the glacier. Safely getting back off the rock took a bit of time, though, so they were out of sight by the time I was back on easy snow.

WTF steps

The surface slush was about ankle-deep, but I could still move quickly in the boot pack, and found excellent boot-skiing where it was shallower. I followed the hut boot-pack this time, catching the trio as they de-geared at a flat spot just before the hut. It seems they had gotten a late start, and turned around at the base of their route. They knew the area, and were a bit surprised that I had done the Moine Ridge solo in trail runners, but were neither incredulous or disapproving. I appreciate the general attitude here of “do as thou wilt in the hills.”

Mer de Glace and Montenvers

I normally would have jogged the trail down, but my knee was still stiff from that nasty cairn, so I settled for hiking quickly. I stopped to switch into shorts and refill my water at a stream — we’ll know how clean it was in 4-5 days — then continued to the ladders. They should have been harder going down, but they felt about the same, so perhaps I am getting used to them. I saw several other parties on the Mer de Glace, from groups going to and from the hard routes on the Jorasses, to a guide or parent leading a kid across the moraine roped like a dog, to some hikers out for the day with trekking poles. I still couldn’t quite run on the trail down from Montenvers, but I at least managed a shuffling jog, passing plenty of day-hikers on my return to the car. At 13h35 and only 3h or so of mindless trail, it was a tough but not over-long day.

Cleveland (35mi, 14h)

Cleveland at last


Early in my project to dayhike the lower 48’s most remote peaks, I dismissed the northern Rockies in favor of the northern Cascades. While I still believe that the Cascades contain the hardest dayhikes, the Rockies can certainly bring the pain, as I found on this harder-than-expected trip. Mount Cleveland is the highpoint of Glacier National Park, and the last ultra-prominence I will climb in the conceivable future (Ibapah is a desert garbage-mound, and Mitchell and Washington are back east). While it is normally approached via Waterton Lake and Stoney Indian Pass, that route involves Canadian border guards and a ferry. I have endured my Canadian border crossing for the year, and the ferry would mean camping, so I chose the alternate approach from the Chief Mountain trailhead near the port of entry.

Dawn on Belly River

I did not know what to expect of a trailhead next to a border crossing, and did not wanted to mess with la migra in an area where their Whim is Law, so I camped on a side-road outside the park, then drove up early. The trailhead is apparently the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, however, so I found an ample parking lot with a half-dozen cars. I finished “breakfast,” then started up the trail around 5:45. I expected a day of about 30 miles and 12-13 hours, longer than Jackson without being ridiculous. Little did I know…

Mokowanis valley

The first 10-ish miles are a routine trail commute past the Belly River ranger cabin, then up the Mokowanis to Glenns Lake. The standard route starts from Stoney Indian Lake, well southwest of the peak, then crosses some narrow, east-facing ledges. Since I was coming from the east, and the ledges would definitely hold snow this early in the season, I had to do something else. Digging around online, I found a trip report of a failed attempt from Whitecrow Lake, and a vague account of a route up Whitecrow Ridge, then across the Whitecrow Glacier and up some steep snow. The latter makes little sense on the map, and even less when looking at the terrain, and the former was less than definitive, but I assumed that I could make something work. The plan was to ascend Whitecrow Ridge, then traverse to Cleveland and find a path up its south side.

Thrash up Whitecrow

Nearing Glenns Lake, I checked out my options for getting onto Whitecrow Ridge, with its mixture of steep forest and small cliff bands. Rather than starting at the toe, I decided to head up somewhere just below Point 7047′, where the trail was relatively close to the slope. This proved only mildly unpleasant, with a bit of woods-thrashing, then a bash through some fresh waist-high plants along the edge of a slide path. I occasionally had to tangle directly with the slide alder or forest, but the Cascades have hardened me to such things. Above, I had little trouble threading through the cliff bands with only a bit of class 3-4.

Tricky knob

Emerging just east of 7047′, I was confronted with a real possibility of defeat, as the small knob was steep and sketchy-looking on both sides. The south side was less steep overall, but it turns out that the ledges are more usable to the north. While there is no obvious goat-path, I found droppings here and there, and a series of ledges that got me around the knob with only one truly narrow spot. Above, I stayed on or left of the ridge, following goat trails and the path of least resistance, to eventually reach Whitecrow, a minor bump on the ridge.

Cleveland’s south face

From this vantage, it became clear that a headwall blocked the direct path up Cleveland’s southeast ridge, so it would be necessary to traverse its south face to meet the Stoney Indian route. There are a couple of cliff bands on this face, but it looked like I could find connecting ledges while avoiding most of the lingering snow. There are a number of towers and gaps between Whitecrow and the face, which consumed time backtracking and downclimbing to the south, but there was no truly difficult terrain, and I soon found myself on a dirt-ledge headed across the face.

Whitecrow ridge and Stoney Indian Peaks

While the underlying rock is solid, the ledges are all covered in scree and dirt, some of which had turned to slick mud from the melting snow above. I made my way across and up the face, crossing through a steep grey band partway across, aiming for the saddle with the Stoney Indian Peaks. This made for a lot of annoying side-hilling, and a few minor stream crossings, but nothing super-exposed or sketchy.

Goat escaping

As I got closer to the saddle, I thought I would be smart and angle upward to meet the ridge on its Cleveland side. Bad move: the black rock band above my traverse ledge proved both steeper and wetter than I had expected, requiring some sketchy wet fourth class and backtracking. I eventually made it work, though, and found a faint trail and a couple cairns on Cleveland’s much easier west side. I traversed around a step in the ridge, then started climbing back toward the crest. Along the way, I spotted a shy mountain goat — the only one I saw on this trip — who kicked a few rocks in my direction as he escaped. I followed the goat for a bit, then wound my own way up to the ridge.

Looking down summit plateau

The lower end of the summit knob is a jumble of horrible basalt talus with a short third class step. Above, the broad summit plan stretches for over half a mile, gradually rising another 400 feet to the summit on its far northern end. Cleveland is notorious for grizzly bears feeding on its summit later in the season, but I was there before the bears, and saw only a couple piles of old manure. From the highpoint, the peak drops steeply 4000 feet northwest to Cleveland Creek, then another 2000 feet to Waterton Lake. To the south, Mount Merritt rises 5000 feet on the other side of the Mokowanis.

Chief Mountain

After 15 minutes, I reluctantly set out on the long slog home. I wanted to avoid the long traverse around Whitecrow Ridge, and contemplated some version of descending via Whitecrow Lake. The bushwhack below the lake was supposedly bad, but there seemed to be consistent snow in the woods above 6000 feet, and the plain above the lake was covered in nice, solid avalanche debris. I returned to the saddle, hoping to see an obvious path down to the southeast. Failing to see an obvious line, and worried about cliffing out, I decided to retrace my traverse partway to Whitecrow, where there was obviously navigable terrain down toward the lake.

Random cool Canadian peaks

As it turns out, it looks like a diagonal line from the saddle toward the ridge southwest of the lake would have worked. Unfortunately, I managed to punch myself in the face with some epicly stupid route-finding. First, I thought I would try to traverse the south side of Whitecrow above the forest to reach a slide path. The side-hilling proved awful, so I eventually gave up and scree-skied into the woods. The snow was helpful in places, but not as continuous or consolidated as I had hoped, so then began the bushwhack. I ended up bashing my way down a steep, wooded hillside left of creek, tripping on hidden branches, stabbing my hand on broken twigs, climbing over rotting logs, and generally hating life. I was having flashbacks to my descent fro the Pickets via Eiley-Wiley Ridge, though at least this time was not by headlamp. As a final insult, I reached the valley bottom only to find that the trail was closer to the lake than the map suggested, across a nightmare tangle of deadfall. I think retracing my steps would have been slightly faster, but all roads to Whitecrow involve suffering.

Chief and ranger cabin

I transitioned to shorts, then started the trudge home. I expected to have the place to myself, but soon met an experienced Glacier backpacker out for the day from his camp at Cosley Lake. We talked for awhile, and he reported seeing a grizzly swimming past the camp area that morning. Joy. Fortunately I met no bears, just a couple of kids out on a camping trip. I would have told them about the swimming grizzly, but they didn’t seem talkative. My wet feet were sore, so I actually enjoyed taking my shoes off to wade through the 50-yard stretch below Cosley where the trail had become a stream.

Almost Nat Geo

Nearing the ranger cabin, I looked up to see a fox staring intensely at something in a meadow 100 yards away. I zoomed all the way in and focused on it, but I remain a bad photographer: right as I released the shutter, the fox pounced on its prey, and I got the back half of a Nat Geo action shot. I took a couple more photos as the creature sized me up, then took off again jogging for home. A couple miles past the ranger cabin, I met a girl out for a solo backpack who had just startled a mountain lion on the trail. I though that perhaps I should walk for awhile to avoid setting off the cat’s prey drive, but that resolve lasted for all of 100 yards: I wanted this to end. I was even impatient enough to jog parts of the 700-foot climb up from the Belly River to the trailhead. I reached the car just over 14 hours out, and rinsed off and ate as CBP made a pass through the lot, keeping the Homeland safe from… something. I have many peaks still to bag in Glacier, and a new respect for its savagery, but that’s enough for this trip.

Columbia (10h52)

Columbia summit pyramid


Mount Columbia is the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and the highest of 11 11,000-foot peaks that ring the Columbia Icefield. Unlike Mount Robson, whose 10,000-foot south face is visible from the highway, Columbia is a shy mountain, seen only from parts of the Icefield and its surrounding peaks. Therefore most people never see it. The standard route climbs the Athabasca Glacier to the southeast side of the Icefield, then makes a mostly-flat traverse to Columbia at its far west side. Depending upon the exact route chosen, it is about 25-26 miles round-trip.

Snow Dome

I had been hanging around the Glacier Discovery Center enough that people were starting to recognize me — never a good thing — but the weather and my cough finally both cooperated, so I could finally tag my peak and leave. The result was painful, as I am not used to long ski tours, but ranks among my favorite days in the mountains. In addition to some incredible and unique scenery, this outing and my other two trips up to the Icefield helped dispel my irrational fear of the Athabasca Glacier approach and the Icefield itself. It’s serious terrain, but as is often the case, it can be managed with caution and mountain sense instead of gear and partners.

First view of Columbia

I had a quiet night in the Sunwapta Lake parking area until a few minutes before my 4:15 alarm, when two trucks pulled in to either side of me. They proved to contain two parties headed across the Icefield, a pair headed for the Twins, and a group of four headed for I-don’t-know-where. I consumed my cup of sadness and started just after the first group, shortly before 5:00, catching them as they put on their skis at the toe of the glacier. Figuring that I wouldn’t be carrying my skis much, I took my new daypack, which has enough room for gear plus stash pockets for food.

Castleguard and points south

I slightly gapped the pair headed for the Twins on the way up the familiar Athabasca Glacier, topping out in around two hours. They had been making good time, but disappeared somewhere in the middle, perhaps taking the long detour left instead of going under Snow Dome’s seracs. I, of course, took my chances on the direct route, and saw no ice fall in the hour or so that I could see the seracs. Judging by the debris, I might get hit if something big came loose, but it would bounce and roll first, cutting its momentum and giving me a chance to dodge. Plus, the detour looks way sketchier, as it parallels a number of crevasse fields.

Bryce from the Trench

The light clouds were breaking up, and I finally got direct sun a bit after 8:00, stopping to put on my hat and sunscreen. With no fog obscuring my view, navigation was simple: head more or less straight on from the top of the glacier, then turn slightly right as you see Castleguard. When Columbia starts emerging, aim at or a bit left of its summit to hit the highpoint of the trench. This part can be a grind, skinning across slightly-undulating, nearly-flat terrain with only distant landmarks. Getting around Snow Dome takes forever. However, the views of Bryce, Castleguard, and the Icefield lit by the sun breaking through patchy clouds kept my mind occupied, and the snow was in near-perfect condition.

Slog, slog, slog

I actually overshot the highpoint of the Trench a bit, and had to backtrack slightly before switching to ski mode to dive in. I tried to gather some momentum, but ground to a stop before making any progress up the other side. From there, it was an interminable skin up the nearly-flat ice peninsula leading to Columbia’s base. The scale of the place makes itself felt on this stretch: the summit pyramid looks small, but is actually almost 2000 feet high, while the almost-flat approach above the Trench is nearly three miles long.

Columbia Glacier

Columbia’s east face had been baking all morning, so despite the cooler night, it was starting to become posthole country. Fortunately, it looked like a couple groups had summited in the last few days, and their boot-packs were still relatively firm. Unfortunately, they seem to have been very tall, because the steps were placed awkwardly far apart. Based on a trip report I had read, I had anticipated stashing my skis and booting both up and down. However, I saw ski tracks on the face, and it is both broad and not too steep (about 45 degrees), so I decided that it should be skied. To my delight, I found that my new daypack can carry skis cross-wise using some external straps, though I doubt that is their intended purpose. Lacking a serious waist-belt, the pack is not super-comfortable while carrying heavy skis, but… good enough.

The Twins

Unfortunately, I basically imploded on the 1500-foot boot-pack to the top. This being May, I had packed fewer calories than the math suggested, so perhaps rationing contributed. More likely, I was just worn out after doing more skiing than I have done in years, perhaps decades. I made my pathetic way up the face, cheered by the view of the Twins to my right, and the prospect of skiing down this thing.

Summit cornice

Following the herd’s tracks left of a 30-foot summit cornice, I sketched across a bit of shallow snow over ice, then popped through the short part of the cornice to emerge on the summit plateau. I could not have asked for better conditions: it was calm, clear in all directions, and probably right around freezing. I spread my windbreaker on the snow, rooted around my unused crampons to dig out my down parka, and sat down to admire the views. Far to the east, I could make out the head of the Athabasca Glacier in the distance, between Andromeda and Snow Dome. Next door to the north rose the South Twin, presenting its fearsome 6000-foot south face. Directly to the east, the Columbia Glacier falls in double ice-falls from the Trench to the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Unknown mountains stretched to the horizon in all directions: the Rockies to the north, south, and east, and the Selkirks barely poking above the cloud deck to the west.

About to dive in

After a sandwich and a brief summit nap, I switched to ski mode, then pitched over the edge onto the east face. My quads were tired from the climb, and the snow was heavy, so I had to stop every dozen turns to recover. Still, going down made up for the horrid slog on the way up. The snow was starting to soften, and the flatness of the plateau back to the Trench made itself felt. Though it was not worth switching to skins, I was forced to do some exhausting skating to get through one stretch. Things improved once the plateau started dropping to the Trench, and after a screw-up where I drifted too far left and ended up on the edge of a huge crevasse, I righted myself, and managed to hit 43 MPH in a tuck down the final slope.

Parting view

Now it was time for the slog. I ate my last granola bar, then began skinning up the other side. I followed an old track for awhile, then switched to navigating by landmark, aiming for the left-hand skyline of an unnamed peak southwest of the Athabasca Glacier. This long traverse is a trade-off between elevation gain on the direct line nearer Snow Dome, and distance on a slightly longer and lower route farther south. The snow was starting to soften, and I was out of water; the day was becoming distinctly less fun.

At last, I reached a point where I could switch to ski mode for the rest of the way home. After a fast, easy descent to the head of the glacier, I took the current line skier’s left of its head, which is now a crevassed disaster, then linked turns down the headwall. The snow was getting sticky, so I couldn’t match the previous outing’s speed, but I still made good time all the way to the lower, flat part of the glacier. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and the snow had been baked to a wretched, sticky state; even following the morning’s skin track, I had to constantly double-pole to keep moving. The final stretch was even slower, as I stumbled across the moraine with my skis over my shoulder, crossed the rope barrier right next to the “you will fall in a crevasse and die” sign, then clomped through the tourist hordes to reach my car.

Despite the slow finish, I was surprised to make it to the car faster than I had expected — just under 11 hours. As I have established before, I am usually 10-20% off what an elite athlete can do, even at things I should be good at like uphill running. I was therefore very satisfied to be less than 20% off the 9h18 FKT for Columbia, set by members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team. Ill-timed illness has kept me from doing as much skiing as I had hoped while in the Great White North, but what I have done has been high quality. Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter wherever I end up in the States next winter.

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


While nowhere near as serious as the Sunwapta ford for Kitchener, which comes directly off a glacier and contains chunks of floating slush, the Vallecito ford is still seriously unpleasant. While it is only 10-15 seconds long and no more than knee-deep this time of year, it must be done early in the morning on a dayhike, when temperatures are still below freezing and the sun has not reached the bottom of the deep valley. Unfortunately, the Vallecito trail is the best access to many deep Weminuche peaks, via Johnson or Sunlight Creek, so I force myself to do it once a year. This year I tried to make it as comfortable as possible, starting late at 6:15 and carrying some old running shoes for the crossing.

Lake 13,100 and Windom

I had planned an elegant lollipop route, heading up Johnson Creek, over McCauley and Grizzly, then across the head of Grizzly Creek to Greylock and 13,121′, exiting via Sunlight Creek. This would also give me a chance to take a side-trip to the highest lake I know of in North America, nestled at 13,100′ below Windom. Unfortunately, the north-facing descent into Grizzly Creek was covered in sugary snow, making it somewhere between unpleasant and treacherous, so I had to improvise.

Hunter camp

With my late start, I had less than an hour of morning headlamp, though the day had not started to warm up when I reached the crossing about 1h45 in. There was a thin hand line this time, and plenty of sticks for balance. I put on all my layers, took off my shoes, socks, and pants, put on my wading shoes, grabbed a stick, and walked across as quickly as I could. My cold hands functioned just long enough to get dressed again on the other side, where I left my wading shoes and jogged up the trail trying to warm up again. I met a couple hunters looking for elk, then passed their luxurious camp, with several mules, a large canvas tent, and what looked like a heated tepee.

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

I finally met the sun around 9:00, shortly after crossing the Johnson Creek bridge, and was soon comfortable in a t-shirt on the long, switchbacked climb toward Columbine Pass. I expected to find some backpackers, but I had the place to myself other than a bit of trash left by some previous slob. I remembered the trail’s impressive scenery, with the rugged north side of Organ and Amherst across the valley, but I had forgotten the maddening, pointless switchbacks in the middle part of the valley.

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

I left the trail in open woods around 11,200′, climbing a mix of grass and talus on the east side of the Hazel Lake drainage, following my descent route from last year. I left the valley before the lake, following a mix of steep turf and class 2-3 rock that deposited me almost directly below McCauley’s summit knobs. The highest, southern one was decorated with a large iron spike.

3rd class traverse

After descending the summit knob, I stayed on or just left of the ridge crest on easy class 2 ground to the saddle with Grizzly. From the saddle, I wove left and right around a few steep bumps, then found an exposed class 3 traverse on the left leading past the final bump, joining Grizzly’s standard route southwest of the summit. From there, I climbed to the ridge connecting Grizzly and Jupiter, then boulder-hopped up its north side to the summit. I examined the snow-covered 1500-foot descent to Grizzly Creek as I ate a Clif bar, and decided I did not want to subject myself to that misery. However, returning directly felt like a waste, so I looked around for other things to climb.

East from Aztec

Hope Mountain is only a minor bump on the other side of Hazel Lake, but as an “amphitheater peak,” it has good views of the surrounding higher mountains. I dropped to the lake, got some water, then made my way up the talus to its summit, where I found a wet “geocache” in a PVC tube. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to tag a peak or two south of Columbine Pass. I took the high trail traversing to the pass, looked for tents in Chicago Basin, then easily side-hilled south before climbing the ridge to point 13,190′, which is not a real peak. I still had some time, so I continued talus-hopping over to Aztec Mountain. This was the last unclimbed peak I cared about in the Chicago Basin area, so climbing it eliminated a future trip across the Animas from Purgatory. Yay!

Route map

I traversed back south of 13,190′, then dropped down the center of the Johnson Creek drainage, eventually rejoining the trail near where I had left it in the morning. The switchbacks sorely tested my patience on the jog down to the Vallecito, where I met the hunters, still looking elk that I believe are still up in the high country. The return ford was much less miserable, as the air temperature was well above freezing. Hike-jogging the long Vallecito trail, I passed one backpacker on his way out, and reached the trailhead a few minutes before headlamp time. Though I did not tag the summits I had planned, I should be able to clean out the remaining peaks around Sunlight Creek in a single trip next year.