Category Archives: Europe

Doing the Alps the Dr. Dirtbag way

Just a homeless guy with an axe…


By the numbers, my two months in Europe and seven weeks in the Alps were more successful than I expected: 52 summits, 43 of those in the Alps, including 26 of the 49 4000-meter peaks. This was in no small part thanks to the abnormally hot and dry weather which, while terrible for the glaciers, allowed me to only fight the weather or take a forced break on a few days. But I can also credit some of the choices I made in my approach.

The most important choice by far was to rent a car. As good as public transit may be, it would be next to impossible to do back-to-back peaks from different trailheads while riding trains and buses between them. This was painfully expensive — a bit over $1300 for the rental, plus gas that ranged from 1.20€/l in Spain to 1.60€/l in France. These two things together probably cost more than the whole rest of the trip, including food, airfare, tolls, and Zermatt-area parking. However, this big chunk of cash did a lot of things. First, while public transit may be great in Europe, it is not cheap: a Eurail pass alone would have cost me around $800, and then there are buses. Second, the car was a free place to store gear I was not using, such as town clothes, laundry, and heavy/light mountain gear. Most importantly, the car was also my lodging: it turns out that a Citroën C3 is almost one Dirtbag long diagonally if you slide the driver’s seat forward, and with a fat air mattress, was both comfortable and discreet. Staying in huts or hostels would have cost at least as much as the rental, and camping seems frowned upon, though often tolerated.

Second, I did all but two outings (the Grandes Jorasses and Tasch-Dom traverse) with my Alpine fast-and-light setup: trail runners, wool socks, hiking pants, t-shirt, hoodie, shell, poncho, ice axe, and running-shoe crampons. Wearing trail runners made it possible to do summits requiring 2000 to 3000+ meters of gain in a day without destroying my knees and feet in boots. I jogged some descents, but mostly just walked quickly, since I was not trying to set any speed records. Expecting the Alps to be cold, I brought most of my winter gear, including mountain boots, softshell pants, down parka, goggles, and long underwear. I brought the parka for the Tasch-Dom, where I expected bad weather, but did not end up needing it. The only reason I used mountain boots on two occasions was for short sections of steep glacier travel for which I needed to front-point. In the future, I may be able to upgrade my fast-and-light setup to cover this sort of terrain.

Third, I did absolutely no roped glacier travel, which requires gear and partners, and dooms most Alpine climbers to heavy packs and a plodding pace. I did this with a mixture of conservative route choice and a small amount of calculated risk. Many of the large stretches of glacier travel, particularly in the late summer in the Bernese Alps, are mostly dry. A dry glacier is just about the opposite of threatening, since you can see all the holes. A mostly-dry glacier is similar, since you can just stick to the bare parts. Slightly riskier are snow-covered glaciers on popular routes. Starting from the trailhead, I was always behind the hordes starting from the hut, who put in a clear boot-pack while carrying more gear. An established boot-pack is not as safe as bare ice, but still quite low-risk if you are paying attention. Finally, on Mont Blanc, somewhat on the Finsteraarhorn, and weirdly on Monte Cevedale, I cautiously made my own way. I generally tried to do the route-finding early in the day, before snow bridges deteriorated too much, and took a cautious line at the expense of some wandering. Other than putting a leg into a small crack on a side-trip to see the artillery near Monte Cevedale, I had no glacial mishaps.

As expected, this trip was expensive, though nowhere near the insane costs of the seemingly-common guided ascents. A two-day guided climb of the Matterhorn alone costs at least 1200€; add in transportation, lodging, and a couple of restaurant meals, and such a climb could end up costing half the price of my whole trip. Food-wise, my usual trail staple of PB&H sandwiches does not work in Europe, where large jars of peanut butter are impossible to find. The best substitute I found was store-brand Nutella on wheat sandwich bread, all of which is available for around 1000 cal/$ everywhere. I supplemented this with baguette and cheese sandwiches, which are also fairly cheap, and better than anything you can buy in most of the United States. I almost entirely avoided eating in restaurants, since while groceries cost around American prices (less in Spain and Italy), restaurants are generally more, especially in Switzerland.

Perdiguero

While I was enjoying the relaxed, Sierra-like wandering around Aneto, I had some driving to do in the afternoon and evening, so after looking around the map a bit, I chose to hike Perdiguero, a fairly prominent peak with some form of “trail” leading to the summit. The trail starts at a roadside parking area just uphill of the Baños turnoff, climbing steadily out of the woods into some meadows with an old hut. I saw a shepherd and his flock, much smaller than the terrifying horde of sheep I had seen being driven down the road upon my arrival.

Perdiguero’s eastern false summit is visible from most of the trail, which climbs along a pleasant cascade before passing through a narrow slot and descending slightly to Ibonet de Literola, a small, sheltered lake. Once again demonstrating that “no camping” doesn’t mean no camping, I passed through a group packing up their tent at mid-morning right on the trail. There seem to be multiple routes up from the Ibonet, and I chose one to the left, following cairns up a steep path to the saddle with Pico Perdigueret, a small, sharp fin south of the main peak.

From the saddle, I traversed up and around on slabs, grass, and talus, then climbed some steeper but fairly stable talus to the summit ridge. The ridge goes on for over a third of a mile, slightly gaining elevation over several talus bumps. I reached the summit, on the French-Spanish border, just as three Frenchmen began descending to the north, toward the Lac du Portillon and an unknown trailhead. The crowds were coming from Spain, but I still had 10 minutes or so to enjoy the views and watch them as I ate. To the west, a small glacier clings to the slopes above Lac du Portillon, while the border continues north of Ibon Blanco de Literola over Pico Crabioles and Pico de Maupas.

I more or less followed the same path on the return, through I found it easier to stay on the ridge longer before dropping down the talus to its north. Done with my half-day outing, I went back to town for some WiFi, then realized that I still had seven hours of driving to reach Fuenta De. Ugh. The rest of the afternoon and evening was a sun-ward slog, ending with a blinding 120 kph drive away from Bilbao into the setting sun, and a slow, dark drive back into the mountains. Unfortunately the next two causal days ended up summitless hikes, but at least the scenery was nice. That is all for Dr. Dirtbag’s European adventure. There will be more climbing before winter, and probably some retrospective writing about the trip, as time allows.

Posets

Posets, the Pyrenees’ second-highest peak, is just across the Rio Esera from Aneto. It has always been a bit tough to reach, and now that the old route up the Rio Eriste is subject to an unfortunate gate-and-bus system, the best approach seems to be via the Rio Estos. (Yes, all of these E-names are confusing.) Summitpost describes a hike most of the way up the Estos, then across the La Paul and Posets Glaciers, finishing on the peak’s north ridge. I did something similar, but instead took the trail up to the col near Tuca des Corbets, then a cross-country route to Ibon Alto and the Posets Glacier. On the return, I followed the standard route partway, then cut down via Ibon de Posets o Negro and back to the col. The marked trails are not very good in the high country, so this cross-country route is not much more difficult.

I started up the Rio Estos road by headlamp, passing a small, ugly dam and reservoir. I eventually left the road on a trail to the Ibon Grande de Batisielles, a large lake around 2250m. The trail starts out broad and well-defined, then fades to a line of painted marks and bits of wear above the lake. Though there is “no camping” in the Posets-Maladeta Park, there were a couple of guys milling around a tent at one lake, who had even brought a folding chair. This seems to be a general thing in Europe: while you are technically not supposed to camp in most places, either in your car or in a tent, people seem to do it anyways without getting in trouble.

From the Tuca des Corbets col, the “trail” drops below the Ibon de Eriste to join the standard route above the hut. Instead, I made a descending traverse to Ibon Alto, then side-hilled up toward Posets’ east face. This being a non-standard route, I saw a small herd of chamois and no people. The small patches of snow were rock-hard, but easily avoided.

Nearing the face, I could see the crowds on the standard route on the left skyline, and thought I might be able to join them via the ridge left of the small glacier. Things started out encouragingly, with a cairn and bivy site, but the last bit of the ridge turned narrow and steep. I might have been able to figure it out, but was not in the mood, so I retreated to the glacier and looked for the purported ramp from it to the north ridge. I eventually spotted it, climbing left-to-right at the boundary between the gray choss of the lower ridge and the red rock making up Posets’ summit. I (barely) managed to kick steps up the snow-covered glacier secured by my ice axe, then climbed a bit of slabby rock to reach the ramp.

The red upper rock looked chossy from a distance, but was surprisingly solid under the surface scree. There seem to be a number of paths to the ridge, and I took some random fourth class line that went more straight up than right. Reaching the ridge, I saw that there is an easier trail from the next valley to the west, accounting for the handful of people I had seen on the north ridge from below. A bit of scrambling and some exposed walking led easily to the summit cross. There was a steady half-dozen people, with those leaving being replaced by a steady stream coming up the standard route. I ate my sandwich off to the side, taking in views extending west as far as Monte Perdido and Pic Vignemale.

I followed the standard trail down as far as the saddle near Tuca Alta, then dropped down mixed slopes to Ibon de Posets, where I got some probably-safe water well away from human traffic. From there, it was easy cross-country travel to the head of Ibon de Eriste, and a painful 250m climb back to the col, where I met a couple of loud groups possibly bound for the refuge. It was a weekend, so I met a few dozen more people, mostly day-hikers, on the trail back to the car. I went down to Benasque to use the pleasant internet spot under a large tree in the town square, then found a suitable spot to camp, probably illegally.

Aneto, Maldito, Maladeta

Maldito and Maladeta from Aneto


Aneto, the highpoint of the Pyrenees, resides in Maladeta-Posets National Park, on the border south of the western end of France. By itself, it would have been a moderate, non-technical day. However, by deciding on the spur of the moment to add in neighboring Maldito and Maladeta, I made it significantly more demanding, with some low-fifth-class shenanigans and a lot of cross-country travel. Fortunately, this part of the Pyrenees is a lot like the Sierra, with generally easy off-trail terrain above tree line.

I had taken the fast, expensive way east across France, driving 130 kph on the toll roads. On the way back, I realized that my phone can be told to avoid tolls. While this increases driving time by 20-30%, it saves not only tolls, but also quite a bit of gas, as the local roads are a bit shorter, and at 130 kph my rental is geared to be doing over 3500 RPM. It was a long, slow, but often scenic drive through the small towns of French wine country, eventually turning south somewhere near Carcassone, a small walled city surrounded by lots of sprawl. I entered Spain through some pass topped by a 5km tunnel, impatiently biding my time behind semis going 20 kph or less most of the way up, then rallied my car as best I could up the mountain road through Benasque to the Aneto trailhead, where I quickly packed my bag and tried to go to sleep.

Weather station?

While the outdated Summitpost page said that one could drive to the refuge between 8:00 PM and 8:00 AM, this is no longer true, so I started hiking up the road around 6:45, which is now the end of headlamp time this far west in the time zone. Above the lower refuge, a good and well-marked trail leads to the upper one, beyond which the route is a chaos of crossing trails and cairns, with occasional paint dots. I followed the most promising ones, eventually reaching some sort of weather station.

Easy glacier

I continued thoughtlessly up the ridge for a couple hundred yards, then re-read the route description and realized I should have descended its left side at a break just below the hardware — oops! Mistake corrected, I followed more bits of trail to the glacier, where I put on crampons and followed the well-established boot-pack on a long, gradually-ascending traverse of the glacier.

Summit chaos

Above the glacier, I passed two piles of gear, then reached the Puente de Mahoma, a narrow third class ridge leading to the summit. There was a spectacular traffic jam in progress, with two groups of 5-6 moving short-roped in opposite directions, their guides sometimes telling clients where to put their feet or hands. I hung out and watched for 10 minutes or so, then scampered across, finding the rock trickier than it looked because it was so polished.

Ibon de Cregueña

I looked around at the views, most spectacularly of the valleys and lakes to the south and west, the Ibon de Llosas and Ibon de Cregueña. (What is “ibon?” Another non-Spanish language spoken in northern Spain?) Then I found a nice seat a short distance from the crowds and sat down for lunch. There were too many people doing too much talking for the summit to be pleasant, so I did my best to tune them out.

Complicated climbing to Maldito

Returning the way I had come did not appeal, so I plotted a path on my map traversing to Maldito and then Maladeta, from which some sort of trail led back to the car. I dropped down to the glacier, then traversed to the saddle east of Pico del Medio, ending on a nice crescent snow arete. I was only about 200m from Pico Maldito, but things got complicated, with some intricate traversing on and left of the ridge. Fortunately, the rock remained solid, so the climb was slow but enjoyable.

“Trail” off Maladeta

I had assumed that I could easily descend to the saddle northwest of Maldito, but this turns out not to be true. After descending the ridge to some rappel stations, I eventually found a complicated route leading down the right (north) side, then back toward the ridge just above the saddle. There is apparently no easy way to reach Maldito’s summit. Maladeta looked like it might be more of the same, and I briefly considered dropping down the glacier to rejoin my route from the way up, but the prospect of seeing some new terrain drove me to continue. Maladeta turned out to be a bit complicated, and I was not moving too quickly, but it was much easier than Maldito.

The “trails” on the Peakbagger app’s “global topos” can be all sorts of things, from old jeep roads to cross-country routes, and the “trail” off Maladeta turned out to be one of the latter. I followed the line and some cairns down a talus-field, then on a zig-zag path down some cliffs to another snowfield or glacier. I hoped to boot-ski it, but the snow in this part of the Pyrenees is remarkably hard this time of year, so I had to carefully crampon down to where it was nearly flat. I believe I saw a boat on the large Ibon de Cregueña, but can’t imagine how someone got it there.

Ibon de Alba

I got some water at a high lake, then continued on a descending traverse across Sierra-like slabs, grass, and stable talus. I was aiming for the Breche de Alba, a col from which I could descend past the three Ibon de Alba Lakes, then traverse back along the Rio Esera to my car. This worked as planned, though in my tired state every climb was a slog. I found a few cairns on the other side of the col, then a gradually-improving trail starting at the lowest, largest lake. This would be a nice place to camp, if camping weren’t forbidden in the park. On the steep lower trail, I passed a couple of hand-chains and three wiry Spanish trail runners hiking up. There were a surprising number of people on the traverse trail back to the Aneto parking lot; I tried not to curse the trail’s useless climbs while they were within earshot.

I got back to the car somewhat later than I had planned, but still under 12 hours, picked up a few supplies in Benasque, then drove down to the next town, where I thought I could access Posets. Once again, this bit of Summitpost beta proved out-of-date, and there is now a stupid bus system on the road up toward the refuge. This was apparently also news to a group of Spaniards, who pulled in behind me as I sat in my car near the gate, trying to find another route. With 10-20 minutes of work with the map and internet, I managed to find a longer route from a slightly lower trailhead uphill of Benasque. One more slow trip through the weekend crowds later, I pulled into a large lot, made some food, and got some sleep.

Eiger

Eiger from Grindelwald


Despite falling just short of 4000m, the Eiger fully deserves its place along with Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn among the Alps’ most famous peaks. It looms 3000m in around 4000m from Grindelwald, the last 2000m comprising its fearsome, complicated north face. While the face is and forever shall be out of my league, I had hoped to honor the mountain with an aesthetic and challenging traverse. Unfortunately, it turns out that I am only good enough to go up and down the walk-off route on its west face. This requires about 3000m of elevation gain, but only a bit of via ferrata and a single pitch of fifth class climbing with a hand-line. The whole thing took a bit over 10 hours round-trip, including 5.5 hours hiking up, a half-hour lounging on the summit, and some time watching crazy base jumpers on the way down. After watching them plummet off the “mushroom,” and hearing the startling pop of their chutes deploying, I cannot understand how one can be both a climber and a base jumper.

Heckmair diagram

I had assumed that Grindelwald would be another Zermatt, but it is much more spread out and laid back. I took off from the trailhead lot by headlamp at 4:30, making a long trail traverse across the Eiger’s north face toward Kleine Scheidegg, home of the famous cog-rail and pricey hotel. As I hiked, I watched headlamps starting up from the Mitteleggi hut, and briefly glimpsed one halfway up the nordwand. Dodging cow-pies, I eventually reached the trail’s highpoint, and branched off on a short klettersteig (via ferrata) that climbs a gully near the west end of the Eiger’s north face.

Looking up west face

Where the klettersteig turns west to climb the Rotstock, I turned right, following a switchbacking trail up scree collected at the base of the broad west face. Higher up, I followed cairns through a mixture of talus and rock bulges. The face is described online as an outward-sloping slate roof with loose shingles, and it can sometimes be that way, but for the most part I found the choss manageable, much better than the east ridge or some things I have climbed in the Canadian Rockies. The underlying rock is solid, so the only tricky part is managing transitions between bare rock and deep scree.

Plenty of fixed ropes

The route is mostly class 2-3, with a single pitch of low fifth class climbing equipped with multiple fixed lines. I ignored them on the way up, and used them on the way down. Above the fixed lines, I continued following cairns to “the mushroom,” an impressive detached pillar used by base jumpers to pitch off the north face. Above, the route sees less traffic, since most people climb the Mitteleggi ridge and descend the south ridge to the Monchsjoch Hut. This expensive way to “climb” the Eiger starts and ends at the Eismeer station of the Eiger train, above 3000m on the peak’s southwest side, with an overnight at the Mitteleggi Hut around 3100m on the ridge. I looked into taking the train to the Jungfraujoch and tagging the Jungfrau and Monch in a day, but the ticket was over $200 round-trip.

Nearing summit

Despite not having much traffic, the route had enough cairns, a few painted rocks, and metal belay posts higher up, so it was easy to follow. Though it wanders right to get through a cliff band, it stays mostly near the ridge, with impressive views across the north face. I looked for climbers, but did not see any, despite having some idea where the Heckmair route goes. The route description I found says the climb ends on a snow ridge, which may have been true 10-15 years ago, but I ended up carrying crampons and ice axe for nothing. Frost on the rock and scree near the summit complicated things a bit, but with careful foot placement, I reached the summit just before 10:00, seeing the sun for the first time, and meeting a dozen people just arriving from the Mitteleggi Hut.

Ewigschneefeld

It had been t-shirt weather on the climb, and I was comfortable on the summit in just my hoodie. I ate a sandwich, talked to the other climbers a bit, and admired the heart of the Bernese Alps to the south. There were the familiar Finsteraarhorn and Aletschhorn, but also new views of the Ewigschneefeld, one of the large firns that feeds the Grosser Aletsch Glacier.

Goodbye, Alps

Fortunately everyone was descending to the south, so I did not have to worry about rockfall as I retraced my steps down the face. I had a bit of trouble following the route where it goes around the cliff band, but did not waste much time. Approaching the mushroom, I saw a half-dozen base jumpers preparing themselves on top, and a cameraman standing below. They were every bit as bro-ish as expected, fist-bumping and documenting their extreme lifestyle with helmet-mounted cameras. I watched a few of them launch, then happily descended on foot. There were a surprising number of people on the klettersteig, and hordes of hikers on the trail, threading their way through the cows. I probably should have run the trail, but I was in no hurry on my last climb in the Alps. I reached the car in the mid-afternoon sun, then drove out of Switzerland through driving evening rain.

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.

Gardena Pass

Sella group


[This is way out of order, but something to do on a day with free time and decent internet. — ed.]

Gardena Pass is next to Sella Pass in what seems like the most famous section of the Dolomites among Real Climbers. Despite not being one of those, I still managed to find some things to do in the area, some more fun than others. Still, I think the place is best left to the Real Climbers.

Piz Boè

Piz Boè

I had originally wanted to do the well-known Brigata Tridentina via ferrata. I couldn’t figure out where to rent ferrata gear in town, but figured I could just scramble it. Unfortunately, there was a big, obvious sign at the bottom saying you were not allowed on the ferrata without gear, and it is popular enough that I would no doubt run into many other people. Instead, I hiked up the walk-off, which itself has a few cable sections, but no sign. From the top of the steep trail, I continued to the Pisciadu Hut, a large and popular establishment next to a rather pathetic little lake.

Ah, wilderness…

With plenty of time left in the day, I panned around the map on my phone, finding that Piz Boè was the highest thing in the area, and that there were trails leading there. I took off hiking in that direction, climbing onto a broad, rolling plateau surrounded by cliffs. Boè itself looked less than impressive, a broad cone-shaped thing with a hut on top, but I had nothing better to do with the afternoon. I set off across the plateau toward the summit, crossing one short ferrata section on my way to a large refuge at Boè’s base, which was a noisy, active construction scene.

From there, I continued on the summit path, joining the line of people who had taken a tram up to the plateau from the other side. I listened to people speaking various languages outside the ugly summit hut for awhile, then retraced my steps. Back at the car, I did some research to come up with something a bit more fun for the next day.

Cima Pisciadu (Northeast Buttress, 5.5)

Pisciadu hut

After some confusing about where to start, I got a late start up the trail to the Brigata Tridentina ferrata, which meant that there were people lined up at the base when I got there. Since I was not supposed to touch the ferrata without gear, I scrambled up some rock to its right, then thrashed through some scrub pines to rejoin it on a trail section above the first cable. Gotta play by the rules…

Slung sanduhr

Where the ferrata turns uphill for its main section, I continued following a traversing trail to the mouth of a sort of canyon, then left it at a cairn to follow boot-prints toward the base of the buttress. Based on the Mountain Project description, I thought I would have no trouble finding the start of the route (“a well-worn start” behind an “enormous block”), or the route itself (“slung sandurhs“, or rock handles). I turned out to be wrong. After going way too far up-canyon, I gave up and headed back down next to the cliff, eventually finding a small cairn next to the wall.

A bit of exposure

I started up and, finding a sandurh, was reassured enough to continue. The description continued to be unhelpful, so I just made my way up what felt like the best path, occasionally finding a sling here or there, but not enough for me to see the next from the previous one. Many of the slings were old, suggesting that the route is not all that popular. Unlike on the ferratas and other popular routes, the limestone was not worn smooth, so the climbing was fun, steep but moderate, on sticky rock and sharp holds. The crux was probably a steep section where I stemmed up an orange dihedral/chimney. Above, the terrain flattened out somewhat, and the rest was class 3-4 cruising up grass and limestone steps.

I found a faint climbers’ trail at the top, leading to the good old Pisciadu Hut. As I hiked, I watched the line of people crossing the bridge at the top of the ferrata. I once again had some time, so I skipped the hut and followed a trail to the top of the Cima Pisciadu, a minor summit across the plateau from Piz Boè. While it did not have a hut on top, it did have a cross and some communication equipment, somewhat spoiling the ambiance. I checked out the nearby peaks for awhile, including the nearby inaccessible-looking Dent de Mezdi, then returned once again to the hut and down the ferrata walk-off, passing some backpackers terrified of the steep scree-trail.

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?

Alagna area

Having driven all the way over to Alagna, I figured I might as well spend some time in the area, checking out some of its lesser peaks. Alagna and its neighboring villages are inhabited by the Walser people, who live in the high valleys of the area and (I believe) speak their own dialect of German. One unique and immediately noticeable bit of “Walserity” is the style of their houses, which have the slate roofs of the ones I saw on the Swiss side, but also outward-sloping wooden trellises supporting their eaves. I probably should have taken the time to visit the local Walser museum, but my time in the Alps grows short.

Cima Tagliaferro

I slept in after the Monte Rosa expedition, then did some writing and tooled around town for the rest of the morning, buying a few groceries and scoring free WiFi at the tourist information center. I was planning to take the day off completely, but started getting antsy around noon, so I decided to take an afternoon hike up Cima Tagliaferro (“iron-cutter,” I believe), a handsome and easy peak on the east side of the valley. It probably has an excellent view of Monte Rosa on a clear day, but those seem to be rare.

The trail up from above Alagna is nicely shaded, but it was still punishingly hot and humid as I climbed out of the valley past a number of traditional slate-roofed huts. The trail emerges from the trees a short hike below a popular-looking restaurant which is unfortunately in the middle of a cow pasture. Above, it deteriorates on its way to a pass, climbing through a mixture of greenery that I was once again reminded includes nettles.

From the first pass, an exposed trail climbs along the west side of the ridge, with a couple of fixed ropes, to the higher Passo del Gatto (Cat’s Pass), where it joins a supposedly less-exposed trail from Rima, a village in the next valley to the east. Above, it is a straightforward hike to the summit. I had passed several hikers on their way down, and met three climbers on the summit, who had just finished the north ridge, a moderate route I should probably have tried to scramble. I admired the mostly-cloudy views for awhile, then hiked back to the car, much more nettle-aware than on the way up.

Corno Bianco

Corno Bianco is the highest peak on the west side of the Valsesia. There is a sort-of trail up its south side, while its north ridge is (according to Summit Post) rated AD+ III+, the same as the Liongrat on the Matterhorn. It is actually nowhere near that hard, but was still a delightful ridge scramble with a few fifth class moves.

I hiked down through town at dawn, then wandered around a bit until I found trail number 3, which leads to both the south-side route and to the Passo Uomo Storto (Crippled Man Pass), the start of the north ridge. The ridge climbs a bit less than 500m in over a kilometer, so it is mostly not steep, and fortunately the less-steep parts are fast, rather than requiring intricate traversing. The rock is generally good, with stable talus on the flatter sections, and positive holds on the steeper steps. On the first part of ridge, the best route stays on or just right of the crest.

I was cruising along, surprised not to find any real difficulties, periodically checking my progress on my map since the clouds streaming off the east face obscured my view of the ridge ahead. I eventually reached a northern false summit, where the rock quality deteriorated, and from which I saw what looked like some tricky towers in the mist ahead. Surprisingly, they turned out to be no more than fourth class via blocky terrain on the left. I sat around on the summit for awhile, catching occasional glimpses of nearby terrain through the mist, then began finding my way down the trail.

Checking my map, I realized that “the trail” was actually leading to the next valley west, so I traversed east, partly trying to remember the route description from Summit Post, and partly taking the most natural line toward the trail at Laghi Tailly. I eventually picked out the markers for “trail” 3a, and followed these down toward the lakes. The route is blocked by a steep step at the end of a hanging valley. Here there was a 40-foot fixed cable hanging over a steeper part of the step, which would be difficult to descend hand-over-hand, and would not stop a fall using via ferrata gear. It seemed easier to downclimb the third class rock to its right.

Below, I descended some wretchedly slick grass to the lakes, where I picked up a gradually-appearing trail. This trail eventually became an old road, then rejoined my trail from the way up just above town. I stopped to wash my face and get a drink at one of the public fountains — a nice feature of many Alpine areas, especially prevalent in Italy — then hiked back up the road to the car. Alagna had been nice, but it was time to get back to business.