Hut to Hut in the Bernese Oberlandby jonnie3430 Apr/2013
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In this article site User Jonnie3430 describes a classic mountaineering trip to the alpine region of the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.
Fickle weather, we were told, was characteristic of the Bernese Oberland, a range in the Alps that has several famous peaks; Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, all within walk of each other. The promise of a good forecast had us taking the train from Geneva to Fiesch to have a look, though it seemed that we would be denied even that, as you couldn't see out of the valley for the clouds and rain. A wet day of watching the Olympics with steins of Swiss beer changed all, as Andy Murray beat Roger Federer to win Olympic gold, proving our worth as fellow Scots to the Swiss weather deities, who relented and gave us a chance.
The plan was to do a loop of the Bernese Oberland, taking in as many 4000m peaks as we could (we only had Martin Morans excellent 4000m peaks guide, pity as the Eiger is less than that and was in easy reach...) staying in huts as we went and trying not to break the bank by drinking too much in the afternoon. After speaking to a friendly guide in one of the sports shops in town (go the opposite way round, and don't even think about using the Fiescher Glacier, no matter what the guidebook says,) we were ready to go, meals would come from the huts, we just needed hill food. Pumpernickel was suggested "it lasted for ages last time," until we remembered that it was because it is inedible; cardboard is lighter, more nutritious and tastier. I went for chewy sweets, 1.5 kgs of them, Carol chose musli bars.
The reason we went for Fiesch is that the other approaches are either really long, or involve the railway that goes through the Eiger from Grindlewald and costs an arm and a leg. From Fiesch, a cable car under grey skies drops you at a path leading to a tunnel, go through it and boom; you are in the mountains, the sky is blue and the air is clear. A downhill walk leads to the Aletsch Glacier where a leisurely walk gets us to the Konkordia hut for bier und strudel. Or at least that was the intent. The glacier hadn't forgiven us for the Federer defeat and was malignant in the extreme. The guidebook suggested heading to the left hand medial moraine to find an easy path, but forgot to mention what a medial moraine actually was. Some geography revision later and we still hadn't a clue, so headed out towards the middle, using the common Alpine tactic of "following someone else." The glacier was pure evil. Crevasses stretched perpendicularly across our route for nearly 3 km. By the end we must have tripled the map distance in repeated zig zags around the end of one crevasse, only to find another in front that meant going back on yourself to get around that. In Olympic spirit, we began competitive crevasse jumping; as we were tied together it meant that if one person cleared it, the other had no choice but to go for it too. Far later than we expected we left the glacier for the hut, our jubilation somewhat tempered by the knowledge that it was our route out too.
An excellent Swiss hut dinner and beer fixed us up and the next morning saw us sneak out of the hut first and head for the Jungfrau. Everything was good; the glacier was fast as it was more covered, bags were dumped at the bottom of the peak, first light found us at the first difficulties and soon after sunrise we were enjoying the view from the top. The route had a rocky scramble low down, a steep snow section to get to a ridge and another icy steep section above a large drop. About Scottish II, we moved together for all of it and down climbed without having to use the insitu abseil stakes on the icy steep section. A powdery short cut led us back to the bags and tired legs headed up the last of the glacier towards the station and the Monchsjoch hut. Applause from some Americans as we climbed through the barrier to get to the pisted path to the hut was met with weary queries asking where the ice cream was; it meant going back 50m so was discounted as a bad plan and we would have to put our faith in the hut. The faith was well rewarded as the hut warden, who had a reputation for being miserable had been replaced by one of the most cheerful women in Switzerland, who recommended beer with cheese and bacon rosti as a common replacement for ice cream; heaven!
The next morning saw us have a deliberately late start on the SW ridge of the Monch, a rocky route, that has a section at about V Diff in big boots, before crampons go on for some steep traverses before the knife edge ridge of the Monch is reached.
© jonnie3430, Apr 2013
Descending the SE ridge made the route a great traverse of the mountain and earned more beer and rosti in the hut. In the evening we were entertained by a couple of British guides who may have spent too much time with their clients. After polite conversation with the clients, which may have been the first times that the guides didn't have to be talking to them, the guides realised that we were keen climbers and spent the next few hours suggesting routes and telling stories about places to enjoy in the alps, all recorded on the back page of a magazine I was carrying. Another 2 months in the alps may just be long enough to do all the routes suggested (one of the guides had descended the Fiescher glacier. He recommended it to us as the only time he has had to practice all his alpine skills in one day. We assumed that we didn't have as many alpine skills, so were happy to avoid the practice.)
A friend from the campsite lost his partner to blisters that he gained on the walk in, so we became 3 for the route next day up the Grosse Fischerhorn and Hinter Fischerhorn. A long walk across the head of a glacier with the Eiger off to the left led to the Fischergrat, a knife edge ridge we climbed onto then followed to the summit at about airy Scottish II. After dumping bags we headed up the Hinter Fischerhorn as well, before dropping off towards the Finsteraarhorn hut. We had one moment of concern on the way down as we crossed a serac fall line which had already obscured the early mornings tracks. Fast walking turned to jogging which turned to running as we cursed the teetering blocks above us and the wisdom in taking off crampons; the scoured ice we were running on was a bit slippy. A few quick glissades and we were on the flat glacier heading hutwards.
The success of the four peaks we had climbed so far got to our heads and we decided to leave the rope in the hut and solo the Finsteraarhorn, which at PD should have been fine. Another deliberately late start saw the three of us following the clear tracks and head torches of the parties in front up the glacier, overtaking them as light showed the route to the bealach, where we dumped what gear we had not left at the hut. The summit ridge proved "interesting," (as Ivan says "this interesting, it means deadly,") at PD, not helped by the foolish attitude of a guide choosing to force his way past during our descent at a particularly narrow section. Still, he was given suggestions on how his performance could be improved the next time he was in similar circumstances, though, as we pointed out at the time, we were surprised that he did not know already. We were getting used to the view by this point; there are 82 peaks over 4000m in the Alps and from the Bernese Oberland we could see most of them. Over to the south west was the Mont Blanc massif, with Grand Combin to the left, then Gran Paradiso poking out from behind the Matterhorn, before Dom, the Monte Rosa group and Weissmeis, with Piz Bernina looking lonely to the East. The descent was taken at speed; after the sun comes up the snow softens and becomes more dangerous as cover over crevasses become less strong. Crampons came off at the bealach and the glissade competition began, seeing who could slide furthest down the softening snow with only a holy bergschrund and the bullet hard ice at the toe of the glacier causing concern. Beer was our reward for helping our friend from the campsite (London Mountaineering Club,) get some routes done despite losing his partner, he was heading down the next day, we were doing the same but had one more peak left.
An early, lonely start saw us crossing two glaciers before first light showed a potential short cut up a third. Risking it, we were glad of the rope as we crossed a couple of thin snow bridges before joining the mornings tracks from the Konkordia Hut. An early bag dump saw us on the the long ridge to the summit of the Grosse Grunhorn, an entertaining scramble no harder than Diff, that brought us to the summit of our 6th 4000m peak in 6 days. Fast glissading through worsening weather brought us back to the bags, the rather special crevassed glacier we had to walk down and the cable car we wanted to catch weighing on our minds.
Huts were about 60 Euro a night with discount card, lunch is extra. The campsite in Fiesch is 20 Euro a night (!) and not the most friendly place in the world. The lift to the start of the walk in was 20 Euro for the return, walking down takes about 2 hours, up is double.
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