Monday, June 27, 2011

Up the Tschingelhorn

Hochtour season is open! :-)

Rather than getting up before 5 to make the train, we spent the night in Reichenbach and met the rest of the group from Basel at 7:30 under blue skies (yay!) for the bus up to Griesalp. The last bit of this is remarkably steep and narrow... not sure who thought to put a road up that cliff. After organizing ourselves and doing the round of introductions, we set off under increasing clouds (boooo) on the path to the Gspaltenhornhuette. It's a nice path through a very pretty valley (definitely worth going back to the Kiental at some point) that starts off really green with lots of flowers up until about the alp at Buergli and then turns alpine after crossing over into the Gamchi bowl. Here we have a good view of the glacier up to the Gamchiluecke, the pass we'll be heading through. By now the clouds are definitely in, which makes for a nice temperature for walking, but definitely affects the quality of the views... booooo. As we get higher we start seeing a good number of people on the path that connects the Gspaltenhorhuette to the Sefinnenfuerge, but when we divert below the hut to head off to the glacier we're alone again.

Once down at the glacier, we rope in (yay! light packs!) and head up towards the pass. After the inevitable adjustment period for walking while roped in (what? I have to walk the same speed as the others and maintain a constant distance???) it's great to be on a glacier again and the walking is good. At the end of the valley we spend a bit of time getting across the bergschrund (not so nice to be standing around... it's a bit cool to be standing around with the sweat evaporating) and then head steeply up the firn to the pass itself. The firn is steeper than most of what we've done before, but the snow conditions are good and it's no problem to kick in steps and progress. At the pass we would have a great view of the Mutthorn, the Tschingelhorn, etc., but the clouds are too low (probably about 3000m... we're not in the clouds yet, but they aren't far overhead). The path down the other side of the pass is steep and a bit scrambly, but the footing is good so the going is easy, even with the crampons on. The last 30-35m of descent are quite steep and the rock seems slippery, so we choose to abseil this. That leads to more waiting, but at least we get some abseil practice. :-)
Once down on the glacier, we head around the Mutthorn towards the hut. This is great open glacier walking: long views and white as far as the eye could see; fantastic stuff. The hut is small, comfortable, and very friendly (as we arrive they meet us with a cup of tea and a chocolate!), the food and the company are good, and the clouds start to clear up at around sunset... good tidings for the next day. Unsurprisingly, sleep comes easily after the long day of walking.

On Sunday we get up at 4:00 and are underway around 5:00. It's surprisingly warm (~6C) and the sky is cloudless... perfect conditions! The two other groups heading up to the Tschingelhorn (one group of 9 and one pair) are in front of us as we head out across the glacier; they provide a nice reference point as to scale. :-). We head around to the right and come up to the Petersgrat at the end of the ridge coming down from the Tschingelhorn. The last bit up to the ridge is really fun as the sunny tops of the mountains on the other side (Bietschhorn, etc.) start to peak out above the top... it's hard not to run to see the whole view.
After a short distance along the ridge we head down a bit and around the mountain to the base of the couloir between the Kleines Tschingelhorn and the Tschingelhorn. Here we catch up to the group of 9 who started in front of us and can see the other pair working their way up the couloir. We take a break to let the others get a good head start and then head up ourselves. The couloir is very steep, a bit over 200m high, and full of snow that's in pretty good shape. The going isn't easy and requires constant attention to technique (stamp in a good step, maintain the right distance to the person in front, pay attention to the tension on the rope to the person behind, etc.), but it is certainly fun, particularly after the people above us are out of the couloir and stop kicking snow down onto us. The snow takes us all the way to the saddle between the two peaks (great views down to the hut, the Mutthorn, and across to the Bluemlisalp group) where we try to get out of the wind and take a short break. The path now leads us along the ridge, at times scrambling over and through rocks, at times on snow, frequently with nice drops to one or the other side, always with great views. We pass the other groups on their way down, and then shortly thereafter we are at the top! We have the peak to ourselves and take a longish break enjoying the sun and the panoramic views of the high mountains in Wallis.

The way down provides another extended opportunity to practice technique. In the time we were up top the conditions in the south-facing couloir have changed quite a lot: the snow is now much softer, so we do a lot of either sinking in or sliding. The one real slip on our rope doesn't lead to any drama since the rest of us catch it pretty much immediately (the various ice courses pay off!). As we're about 2/3 of the way down, the occasional rock starts falling from the cliffs above (caused by the sun); this is a bit uncomfortable and definitely encourages us to move a bit more quickly.
At the bottom of the couloir we take a break to remove some layers (it was *hot* descending in the sun), and drink a bit, before heading out across the glacier and downwards towards the Uistertal. For the first bit we have a nice view along the Petersgrat and the unfortunate fact that it is a popular helicopter and glacier plan landing spot (boooo). At the rocks at the end of the glacier we do a longer break to have lunch, enjoy the sun, and pack away all the equipment (back to heavy packs again) before heading down into the really nice valley. Initially we're following stone men, gliding down snow patches, scrambling over blocks, etc. before the path takes us steeply down into the valley. Eventually we end up on a marked path that leads to the Blauseeli, but we continue ever downwards, taking more frequent breaks than the two of us normally do, enjoying the views ahead to the Bietschhorn and backwards to the glacier, down down down to the road which takes us to the Hotel Fafleralp. Here we rest our feet, have a cool drink and something to eat, and then catch the bus back to Goppenstein and the train home.

It was a really nice tour. This was certainly more technical than the Hochtouren we've done so far; really good practice for whatever comes next! :-)

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