Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hiking around Evolene: up towards the Mont de l'Etoile

The day starts much clearer than Saturday: plenty of blue sky, the Dent Blanche in plain view, very nice. The only clouds are on the side of the valley we're planning on heading towards, but we're optimistic that those will clear up.

We catch a bus up the valley at around 8:30 and end up in Arolla shortly past 9. Following the signs to the Aiguilles Rouge we head up and out of town. The path leads up a bit and then parallels the valley wall, nicely through the woods. After not too long of this it becomes pretty clear that we're not really taking the route we originally planned on -- straight up to the Cab. Aiguilles Rouge -- but it's clear that this will take us where we want to go, so onwards we continue. We're not the only one who's made this mistake; we run into a woman intently studying the map who's done the same thing. Ah well. Eventually we get to the attractive, but quite empty, Lac Bleu and then, finally, start to steeply climb. This is another nice trees -> grass -> rocks climb: we start in woods, but by the time we get up around the hut we're in an alpine rock desert. Greg's not feeling 100% fit, so we do a longish food and tea break at the hut before heading off.

The decision to skip the peak is pretty easy: the clouds are at least 100m lower than the peak... not much sense heading up there. Still, we follow the blue-white marked path towards the peak until hitting a unofficial, yellow-white marked, path leading to the north east. This is a great example of a very well marked trail with no visible path. Given the size and frequency of the markings (LARGE PRINT VERSION), it's easy to follow the intended route up to a pass at around 3000m. From here it's an excellent, steep, direttissima descent of ~700m first on rocks/gravel and then on grass before reaching the standard red-white hiking path at around 2300m. This we follow down, down, down, past the Alpage de l'Etoile, past Tsale de la Cretta and Mayens de la Niva, until we hit Evolene and a well-deserved cool beverage.

The clouds kept us off the planned peak, but it was still a great hike.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hiking around Evolene: up to the Pic D'Artsinol

To take advantage of the the three-day weekend we decided to head down to the Val d'Herens, do some hiking, and hit a couple of the peaks that can be walked to. We also need to try out the new tent before our big trip in September, so we stay at the campground in Evolene.

It's a long trip, so we take an early train from Basel and after a couple of changes end up in Sion where we get on the standing-room only bus towards Arolla. We get off at Evolene, walk through town to the campground, and set up the tent (easy!). We're ready to start hiking at shortly past 10.

The path towards Vernec takes us out of town and then up the valley wall. It's a really nice walk up through the trees with the occasional cloud-limited view back out over the valley. Just past Vernec we pass the tree line and get the first good views up the valley (also somewhat cloud-limited, but the general idea is clear). The path leads us below Vouasson, continuing on upwards. We have a quick lunch break above the ski lift "station" just past P.2197 and enjoy the views of the ridge of the Mt. de L'Etoile (tomorrow's goal), what's left of the Vouasson glacier, and end of the ridge of the Aiguilles Rouges. The clouds are too low to see much else. In fact, the clouds are low enough that the Pic D'Artsinol, our goal for today, is obscured. This isn't so nice, but we decide to keep heading up in the hope that conditions will change.

We continue up, through the Pas d'Arpilles, past a big herd of sheep (complete with shepherd and dog), sometimes seeing the peak, sometimes not. By the time we hit around 2650m, the peak is actually in sun and it seems to be tending towards clear, so we opt to head up the last bit. Steeply up we go, then along the ridge to the peak itself. During this last phase we start encountering other people (it's been completely empty so far); they must have either come up from the other side or taken the higher path on our side, because we hadn't seen anyone on the trail until this point.

We're the only ones on the peak and are not standing in clouds ourselves, but we don't really have much of a view since there are clouds all around. Ah well... this is probably a great viewpoint when the conditions are good. A lot of the time we can hardly even see the dam under the Lac des Dix and the glaciers above it on the other side. No need for a long photo session, so after a short break we head back downwards. We take the higher path down, past la Nouva, and then down to Chemeuille where we opt to do our knees a favor and take the chair lift down the last 700m. If the option is there, we might as well use it, right? :-)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Durrenbach to Grafenort via the Nünalphorn and Widderfeldstock

Last week's planned hochtour was cancelled due to the weather, so when this week's planned tour was shifted by a day due to weather and we couldn't go, there was some frustration in the household. The forecast for Saturday was good in the morning with clouds and possibly rain coming in as the afternoon passed, so we definitely had a window. The planning was a nice exercise:
"I'd like to do something strenuous"
"ok, what about the Arnigrat?"
"done that before, and since the weather hasn't been great it may be a bit dangerous"
"what about the Arvigrat?"
"yeah, we've talked about that before. we can definitely try that"
[some time spent looking on]
"here's one that starts in St. Niklausen that sounds interesting."
[looking at the map]
"a bit further South there's some interesting looking stuff... I wonder if we can get up the Nünalphorn or the Wild Geissberg"
[some more time spent looking on and the map]
"how about we start at Melchtal Durrenbach, head up to the Juchlipass, do the Nünalphorn, then continue along the ridge. There are several places to head down along the way so we can just go as far as our legs and the weather allow?"
So that's what we did...

We got an early start: the 6:03 train from Basel to Luzern. The bus drops us at Melchtal Durrenboden at around 8:15. After a bit of searching around we find the trail sign and head off. This is an Andrea special: the climbing starts pretty much immediately. The path up is nicely varied: woods, fields, steep bits, etc. We take advantage of our increasing fitness level (though Andrea's biking to work definitely gives her an unfair advantage), the cool morning weather, and the shade and make some good time. Conditions are pretty good, though there are some extremely muddy bits, particularly around the alps at Stäfeli and Nünalp (guarded by a dog and a pig :-), so our freshly cleaned boots are filthy again by the time we reach the Juchlipass. Here we turn left and head up the grass slope towards the Nünalphorn.
To this point we have been completely alone on the path, so Greg starts imagining a solitary lunch break on the peak. As we round the shoulder before the last bit of ascent, we spot a group of 6 in front of us. 2 minutes later, a group of four starts down from the top. So much for solitude. ;-) Up top we greet the other 6 and then have a quick lunch break while enjoying the fantastic panoramic view. Really nice.

From here we head briefly back the way we came, down to around 2200m, and then follow the path around the Worbi, do a bit of scrambling down some rocks, cross a steep grass flank, and then head steeply down another chute to the bottom of the bowl.
From here the path leads us to the Gruebi, where we take advantage of the chance to refill water bottles before continuing our way up to the Bocki Rotisand pass. Further along the ridge a bit, then through some cows and around to the alp in the bowl under the Widderfeld Stock. The path here gets somewhat unclear thanks to the cows, but it's clear where we're going, so we just head up the grass slope to the rim of the bowl and then walk around the top to the bench and cross at the Widderfeld Stock. The weather is still holding, though clouds are rising up out of the valleys and the top of the Geissberg massif is no longer visible. Who knows how it's going to develop? Another quick food break, alone this time :-), and then onwards. The path takes us further along the ridge, into some rocks, and then down the other side. This side is completely different: instead of grass it's all rocks and gravel. Down, down we go to the meadow at Hohmad (green! flowers!), then through another rock chute, this time with slippery rocks (slooow going), before the path hits the ridge again and takes us down to the Storegg. Another short break on the other side of the pass and then the discussion about what to do next.

By this point it's past 3pm. It's about two hours down to the nearest public transportation on either side. The weather is still good and not showing any signs of changing, so that doesn't enter into the decision. The next saddle (Lachengrätli) doesn't have paths down from it indicated on the map; it doesn't look unmanageably steep, but it's difficult to be sure. After some back and forth, we decide to head down to Grafenort from here. So down we go. We don't do full-blown "way down from the hochtour" pace, but make good time while still being able to enjoy the views and the really nice path. Past Eggendössli with its amusing gondola, past a couple alps with goats and sheep (scared sheep, curious goats), ever downwards. At some point along the way we realize we can probably make the 5:15 train from Grafenort if we make an effort. So we speed up some and do the last bit in high gear. We get to the train station with a few minutes to spare, drenched in sweat, with tired legs, but smiling and happy after a nice day in the mountains.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Up the Bluemlisalphorn

This week's tour gets off to a very civilized start: we take the train from Basel to Kandersteg at 9:30. From Kandersteg we follow the path up to Oeschinensee, with the Blüemlisalphorn towering over us. We did this before on snowshoes, but of course everything looks very different in the summertime. As one would expect on a beautiful summer day, there are plenty of people out and about. Oeschinensee itself has boats on it, and people all around the shore (and it's not covered in snow and ice!)... very idyllic. From Oeschinensee, the hut (our destination for the day) is clearly visible... it looks *so* close, but there are still 130om to climb.

Around Oeschinensee and onwards and upwards, past Underbärgli (where we have a lunch break in the shade), up past Oberb
ärgli, and then out of the world of green as we move onto the moraine of what was, long ago, the Blüemlisalp glacier. Ever upwards we go until we reach the Hohtürli and, shortly thereafter, the hut itself. The hut is super full (again, no big surprise), but they're very friendly and well organized, and the food is good, so we have a pleasant evening before turning in early.

Sunday starts considerably less civilized: we get up at 3:30 and are underway at 4:20. We're one of the later starting groups, so there's already a good number of chains of headlamps on the glacier in front of us. The path takes us down to the glacier where we put on the crampons, rope in, and then set off in three groups heading upwards around the left side of the Ufem Stock. After about 30 minutes of climbing, Andrea has to stop due to a bad headache (neither of us has had problems with altitude before, but this is a sure sign). After some negotiation about whether or not Greg will continue, Michael (our tour leader) takes Andrea back to the hut. The rest of us re-organize into two groups and head slowly up some more and then watch the sun come up on the Blüemlisalphorn, Wyssi Frau, and Morgenhorn while waiting for Michael to return. There are plenty of people heading up to the Morgenhorn and a couple of groups doing the Blüemlisalphorn north face (insane!).

When Michael gets back, we head around the Ufem Stock and then down a bit and across to the foot of the wall leading to the saddle between the Blüemlisalphorn and the Blüemlisalp Rothore. Up, up, up to the saddle (yay! <500m left to climb!) and then along the ridge towards the peak. After a bit of climbing on firn, we reach rocks and the first of the steel poles driven into the rocks that will take us safely up the next couple hundred meters. Since we are on rocks and will be for a while, the crampons come off (whew! crampons on rocks are no fun) and then we start climbing/scrambling from pole to pole with one person securing the others. It's not the fastest way forward (lots of sitting around and waiting), but it's definitely safe. :-) On this stretch we start getting passed by people heading downwards (yeah, we're late). At the end of the rocks we put the crampons back on and then head up the (at times narrow) firn ridge the last couple hundred vertical meters to the peak, passing more people heading down along the way. We're alone on the peak, which is lucky because there's not much space up there. Since we're late and it would be somewhat cramped, we only do a short break before heading down the way we came. The pole-to-pole movement here is even slower, but we eventually make it down to the saddle and do the descent on very soft snow (step, step, slide!) from there. We head back to the hut around the left side of the Ufem Stock, do a bit of bare-ice glacier, and have some fun jumping crevasses before getting to the hut at around 3:00.

After a shortish break to eat and drink something and reorganize the packs, we head back to the Hohtürli and the path down into the Kiental, which is even nicer under blue skies than it was last week under clouds. Of course, we're doing the quick-descent-after-the-hochtour thing, so there's not that much time to appreciate the landscape. 1400m of descent later we arrive at Griesalp, rejoin Andrea (yay!), and have time for a quick cold beverage before grabbing the last bus of the day back to Reichenbach and the train home.