Monday, July 05, 2010

Hochtour to the Ränfenhorn

This weekend we did the first hochtour of the year: up to the Ränfenhorn.

Since the forecast called for rain in the late afternoon on Saturday, we got an early (6:01) start on the trip to train from Basel to Meiringen. From there we took an Alpentaxi up the Ürbachtal to our starting point at the big parking lot.

The trip up to the Gaulihütte started as a nice hike up through trees, following the stream down the valley. As the day got warmer and we moved out of the trees it became a hot, sweaty affair where Andrea and Greg were the slowest members of the group; neither of us are good in the heat and the extra weight in the packs definitely didn't help. After passing the dam and Mattenalpsee we had a nice lunch break beside a stream (ah... shoes off! feet in the water! cold water on the face!) before continuing the last bit to the hut. After cooling beverages on the terrace and a piece of Haslitorte, we went through possible plans for the next day (good weather, ok weather, bad weather, etc.) and then retired for a quick nap to be ready for the early start on Sunday. Sure enough, it rained like hell in the late afternoon... Before dinner a bit more discussion about the next day, then a good meal and bed.

Sunday started early... the first group was up and out of the dorm at 3. We had the luxury of sleeping until 3:45. After breakfast at 4:00 our group gathered outside the hut and set off, under clouds, at 4:45. At the moment it's light enough that early that we didn't need headlamps (yay!). Off and up we went towards the glacier along a well marked blue-white path. After about 300m of climb we stopped at the edge of the glacier for a break and to put on gear for the glacier and rope up into three groups of three. By this point the sky had cleared and the only clouds left were on the mountain tops. Boy did the packs feel light after the crampons, gaiters and climbing harness were out! Greg, who had been carrying a rope, almost floated away. :-)

From there we went steadily up along the glacier underneath the Hangendgletscherhorn until hitting the steeper bit at the foot of the Ränfenhorn. By now it's starting to rain a bit; ick! Up the last 400m of the steep flank, zig zagging across with good footing until we hit the plateau at the peak. There we head to the bit of rock to the west and exchange the ritual congratulations. The views are, unfortunately, not so great. The rain has mostly stopped, but the clouds are too low to really see much of the high mountain landscape. Since there's not that much room up top, we head down a bit to a patch of rock for a break and something to eat. By now the rain has completely stopped. Yay! no more rain!
After the break we head steeply down the glacier to a flat(ish) bit of the Rosenlaui glacier and along until we reach the Dossen, where we head up onto the rock itself. This is initially a bit of an adventure since neither of us has really spent any time on rock with crampons. After a bit of adjusting this goes pretty well, except for how irritating the sounds are. But that irritation evaporates pretty quickly when we come to a blind corner (Andrea and I were in the back of the line with Claudia, one of the tour leaders) and everybody suddenly stops. There's some discussion up front, but it's still not quite clear what's going on. Claudia moves up around the corner and, after a bit, relays back that we've reached a tricky spot and the people in front are using the prepared anchors in the wall to move forward while secured. This takes a looooong time.

Meanwhile, Greg is considering what his on-again, off-again fear of heights is going to do when he has to move through a (as yet unseen) difficult spot wearing crampons on rock with a 100m drop to one side. He has a fun time with this and tries to distract himself by trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to remember how to tie a halbmastwurf in case he needs to secure the rope for Andrea. As usual, the anticipation is much worse than the reality: after making it around the corner it's clear that the passage isn't particularly bad. The technical aspects are also pretty simple with some coaching from Claudia, and we make it through without incident.
From there it was onwards around the Dossen, through the Dossensattel, and then down the steep firn slope to another band of rock. There's a bit of way finding here when we reach a 10-15m sheer drop, but the other tour leader (Matthias) finds a fixed point to secure a rope and belays us down in groups of two (we were running late and this was theoretically faster) to the glacier and across the bergschrund. Interesting discussion about how good it is for a relationship to tie two people together and the have them rappel down a rock together while wearing crampons... but we made it without too much stress. ;-)

Finally down the last steep bit of firn to the Dossenhütte where we have a quick break (and another piece of Haslitorte... this one was even better than the one at the Gaulihütte) before setting off on the blue-white path down the ridge. This is a really, really nice path; a fantastic bit of scrambling (with a 200m drop to one side and ~1000m drop to the other... Greg didn't look too much that way), some spots with cables to grip, and a couple of ladders towards the bottom. that finally leads to the valley floor. The path would be completely impossible (for us at least) to descend when wet, so it's good that the sun had come out.
Since we were running late due to the various rope adventures, there was concern about making the last bus back from Rosenlaui, so we unfortunately had to hurry the route across the valley floor and down through the Rosenlauischlucht. Andrea and I are not very good at hurrying, so we, along with the long-suffering Claudia, were the last ones down... 5 minutes before the bus arrived. whew!

All in all a great trip, with a lot of new stuff learned. Too bad about having to hurry the last stretch, the rushed descent is one of the definite down sides of the whole hochtour experience; no pun intended.

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