Sunday, August 28, 2016

Climbing the Piz Kesch

With another nice-weather forecast for the weekend, we opted for a simpler mountaineering exercise: climbing the Piz Kesch. This is described in multiple places, but we primarily used Plaisir Alpin for the planning.

After a long, but easy, train-train trip to Zuoz we have a snack in town (mmm, apple strudel) and then followed the signs up and out of town. It's pretty warm already, the packs aren't especially light, there's no shade, and there's very little breeze, so it's slow going at first. After getting up a bit higher and having a lunch break in a bit of shade we round the corner and start heading up with a nice breeze. Much better!
up along the Val d'Es-Cha
We get to the hut after not too long, check in and claim our mattresses, have a cool beverage and rest for a bit while enjoying the views - great views of the Piz Bernina and Piz Palu - and observing the madness (this hut is an easy dayhike and the views are fantastic, so it's quite busy), we head out for a bit of walking. We originally think we may cross the valley and head up to the Piz Belvair, but instead we turn left and head to the end of the valley. At the little lake at p2727 we take a short foot-cooling break and enjoy the walls towering above us. Rather than head back the way we came, we opt to do a bit of route finding in order to work our way up to the blue-white marked path that leads from the hut to the Porta d'Es-cha. We'll be following this path the next morning, so this is kind of like scouting. With a bit of paying attention and careful route choice, we make it to the path pretty easily. From there we just follow the absurdly well marked path back to the hut. A bit more lounging around and another cool beverage, a good meal, some trip planning, some enjoying the last of the day's light (unfortunately no dramatic sunset this time), some negotiation about breakfast time, and then we head off to bed.
little lake at p2727
On Sunday we're the second group to leave the hut, 20-30 minutes behind a group with a guide. We leave at around 6am, so it's not really dark anymore; we can follow the trail without headlamps. We've done most of this already (the other way) on our scouting tour, so it's not tough. We do get some really excellent sunrise colors though - the Keschnadel, which is impressive to start with, ends up fantastically colored. We catch up to the other group at p2937, where they have just finished putting on the climbing harnesses and having a break. We follow suit in order to let them get back ahead of us again and then we head up through the Porta d'Es-cha. The approach is steep, but it isn't super difficult scrambling to start with and the presence of a chain makes it easy. The descent to the glacier down the other side in loose scree requires a bit more care, particularly to avoid kicking rocks down onto the other group, who are putting on their crampons and getting roped in. After putting on the glacier gear we also follow the very obvious path across the glacier. There aren't nearly as many people underway as we had feared: there's the group of five from our hut, another group of two far in front of us, and a group of three a bit in front of the five. As we're leaving another group of two comes through the Porta behind us.
sunrise colors on the Keschnadel
The glacier traverse is easy: it's not particularly steep and enough people do this that there's essentially a trail. No thought is required about where to leave the glacier and transition to the rock: just follow the trail. We have a short break to let the group of five get well in front of us (to minimize the number of rocks falling on our head), leave the crampons and picks at the bottom, and start up. This is all scrambling, and not particularly difficult scrambling, so we have the rope in the pack. The trickiest bit is finding a decent route through all the loose mess in the bottom half of the ascent. The rock gets better up towards the top and by the time we get to the "Himmelsleiter" it's downright decent quality. We make the top without trouble and enjoy a break and the nice views. The route down is even more straightforward: we're close enough behind the group of five that we don't even need to concentrate on path finding. It's nice to leave that to an actual guide. :-)

Once at the bottom we put back on glacier stuff and then head back across the glacier towards the Porta d'Es-cha. Just before getting there we turn off to the left and then follow the glacier down, down towards the Keschhuette. Again, we get to follow the group of five, so not too much brain engagement is required... very relaxing. At the end of the glacier we pack the stuff away and then set out for the last bit to the hut. The hut is huge (sleeps ~150), but there aren't that many people around on an early Sunday afternoon. We're way ahead of schedule (based on the book we had allotted 8 hours for hut - peak - hut, it only took us 6), so we have a long lunch break enjoying the views and the sun. A couple of hours before the bus is scheduled to leave we start a leisurely descent (including a nap!) through the beautiful valley to Alp Chants. We've got time for a last cool beverage (in the shade this time; it's hot in the valley) before getting on the small "bus" and starting the very long trip back home.
looking back to the glacier, the ridge and peak of Piz Kesch
Though the mountaineering aspect of it wasn't the greatest, this was a nice relaxed tour in a beautiful area. Too bad it's all so far away from Basel!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sunday, August 14, 2016

(Not) Climbing the Tete de Milon

Given another nice-weather weekend, our plan was to head down to Wallis on Saturday, stay in the Cabane d'Arpitetta, then on Sunday climb up to the Tete de Milon via the Crete de Milon, and finally descend back to Zinal via the Cabane de Tracuit. That's not quite what ended up happening.

We decided to head down to Zinal on Friday night in order to avoid the chaotic Saturday morning travel and allow ourselves to sleep in a bit on Saturday. This went nicely, we had dinner in the train from Basel to Visp, ended up on the last bus up to Zinal, and had a good night's sleep and nice breakfast before setting off.

The Pas de Chasseur sounds like a lot of fun, but given the heavy packs (normal mountaineering gear + some friends + dinner and breakfast since the hut doesn't do the normal food selection) we opt for the standard route instead. The hike up is really nice: the just keeps opening up as we climb. From our lunch spot we can see the Grand Cornier, Dent Blanche, the Zinal Rothorn, and the Weisshorn. Great stuff. Once at the hut we settle in and rest a bit before setting out on a reconnaissance tour to the Col de Milon. This leads us along the blue-white trail up and along a nice moraine. The going is easy  (and should be easy in the dark) and along the way we get nice views of the ridge that we'll be climbing the next day. The path down the other side of the pass looks entertaining: it's steeper but it has chains and cables.
Looking up the Crete de Milon from the moraine.
Back at the hut we hang out and enjoy the views a bit longer before doing dinner: soup from the hut and then our own dinner: tortellini served with grated parmesan, lemon rind, diced salami, killed onions, and frisee. With that we had a "salad" that consisted of a couple carrots. After dinner there was more enjoying of views (the colors of the sunset on the glacier on the back of the Zinalrothorn were just spectacular). As usual, we make a fairly early night of it.

View from the hut towards the Zinal Rothorn (right) and Schalihorn (left)

The plan for Sunday is to get up around 4:15 and be on our way by 5:00. This doesn't end up working out because greg's idea of setting the alarm on his phone to "silent" doesn't work (frustrating since greg was awake at 4:10 and decided to wait for the alarm to go); greg wakes up at 5:00 and we're underway by 5:40. Oh well, we don't think we have a super-long day planned: according to our book it's about an hour to the col (which we've verified) and then 4-5 hours to do the ridge (the SAC guide has the ridge listed as 2.5 hours, but that can't be right). Up we go.

It's not super-dark anymore so we don't have to use the headlamps anymore, but we do have enough darkness to see at least one group on the Schaligrat of the Weisshorn and another group (from our hut) climbing the Weisshorn's West side (there were three groups at the hut that were doing routes there). At the Col de Milon we put on the climbing gear and rope in. The initial stretch is mostly scrambling on the North side of the ridge and we do that on a short rope. The route finding isn't trivial, and things are at times unpleasantly loose, but we make progress. We also go around the first gendarme, which requires a bit higher level climbing (5a) than we feel up to doing in the boots (though there are supposedly some bolts in that route) and then a bit of abseiling. On the other side of the gendarme we start climbing along the ridge.
On the way up the ridge

An aside here, because it's relevant in what comes: greg managed to forget his watch in the hectic of the Friday evening departure. This means that we don't have a GPS track for after the fact, but more importantly it meant that while underway we didn't have easy access to either the time or our altitude (we normally keep our phones packed away while climbing so that they neither get in the way nor get slammed into rocks).
"Comfy" lunch spot on the ridge

The ridge isn't overly technical (according to the books it's all 4a and below) but there are no bolts, so we are using slings and the occasional friend along the way as protection. The lack of bolts also means that the person leading (Andrea through most of the day) doesn't have obvious indicators of what the correct route is, so there's a lot of route finding. Combining these factors with the fact that we were going from stand to stand instead of simultaneously climbing (it was way too exposed and a bit too difficult for us to do that), we ended up being very, very slow compared to what was obviously expected. Between the usual climbing-concentration and the lack of the watch to provide constant easy feedback on time this fact didn't completely register until Andrea forced an evaluation of the situation and we looked at the time.
The view from the ridge was *spectacular*

Our plan was to be done with the ridge and up on the peak before 13:00 (this was originally noon, but it got pushed an hour because of the oversleeping). We got there by "conservatively" planning 7 hours to finish the 4-5 hour ridge. Given that there's a stretch across a glacier on the other side, being earlier would clearly be better. It's now 15:00. We are, if you can believe the GPS-based altimeter on the iPhone (who knows), at between 3590 and 3600m. The peak is "only" 3680 and once we get to the last tower, which we go around instead of climbing, the route is supposedly easy. But, we just don't know how far that really is. Because the ridge is pretty steep up here, you can't see past the next tower, even when you're on top of one. So we don't know how much is really left. Next factor, weather: the forecast called for the usual summer development: a clear morning followed by cumulus clouds and possible rain/storms in the evening. There are definitely clouds building around the high peaks, including the Weisshorn (though the Tete de Milon is still free) so this could become factor. There are also some lower clouds starting to form. Not a plus. Last factor, us: Andrea, who did most of the leading so far, is really tired. For a couple of pitches she was ok following, but that's not working any more. Because we're on a ridge without abseil exits, there's really no plan B, you either finish or you call Rega for a helicopter rescue. That's not an easy thing to do psychologically, so needless to say, the conversation didn't progress quite that calmly and rationally, but we did think through those points before Andrea called for the helicopter. While waiting for the helicopter to show up we packed away our gear (except the climbing belts) and talked through how we ended up in the situation.
Packing up while awaiting the helicopter

The helicopter was interesting. First they showed up to verify where we were, then they flew off after we waved. This was kind of weird since we didn't know what was going on (boy, I hope we didn't wave them off), but they were just flying down to the Cab. d'Arpitetta to drop off the medic (since we didn't need him). They eventually came back and lowered down the rescue guy who looked around, asked if we were ok, checked Andrea's gear, and hooked her to the winch. They pulled her up and then flew off back down to the Cabane, where she talked to the medic and gave our details for the report. Greg and the rescue guy waited for the heli to return, he hooked greg to the winch, and the heli pulled him up and flew down to the Cabane to drop him off. They then flew back to the ridge to pick up the rescue guy. We, after a brief chat with the medic, opt to walk back down to Zinal in order to have a bit of psychological distance between the helicopter ride and the bus home, so we say thanks and head down to the hut.

After rearranging the packs and grabbing some more water at the hut, we start a fairly quick trip back down to Zinal in order to catch the last bus out of the valley. That's not a particularly fun walk down, but we do manage to catch the bus.

Some of the lessons learned:
  1. Don't forget the watch
  2. We are really not ready for long alpine climbing tours in that difficulty level. We're much too reliant on going stand-to-stand, which makes us much too slow.
  3. Do a better job of setting (and enforcing) "last possible times" while climbing (we do this on normal hochtouren, but somehow didn't do it well this time).

The track, drawn by hand:

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Climbing the Balfrin: day two

The plan, which we're not sure we're going to be able to do, is to climb the Gross Bigerhorn, follow the ridge along to both Balfrin peaks, continue along the ridge to Riedpass, head up the Ulrichshorn, descend through the Windjoch to the Mischabelhütte and then descend to Hanneg and the gondola down to Saas Fe. The questions are whether or not we're fit enough to get up to the Ulrichshorn and whether or not we can do the whole thing fast enough to get the last gondola down from Hanneg. We can always go with plan B: a glacier descent to the Bordierhütte and then the long hike back to Gasenried.

After breakfast at 4, we are underway with headlamps at 4:40. The path, with reflectors up until the fork up to p3146, is easy to follow, particularly after yesterday's reconnaissance. The headlamps from the group heading up to do the Nadelgrat traverse are visible on the other side of the valley. Theyv'e been going for about 2 hours and are almost to the ridge. The sky is clear and the temperature is cool, but comfortable... great weather for a hochtour! We make it to the saddle in good time and turn to follow the ridge towards the Gross Bigerhorn, new territory! There are plenty of stonemen and the route is pretty easy to follow as we head up, up, up to the peak. We aren't early enough to make sunrise on the peak, but we do get a great view of the Bernese alps with the sun about to come up and the sunrise on the Nadelhorn. Getting to the peak of the Gross Bigerhorn is pretty straightforward, with a bit of easy scrambling, and the views really are amazing. We get to see greg's three favorite (in terms of shape) Swiss mountains at once: the Bietschhorn, Weisshorn, and the Finsteraarhorn are all nicely visible (though it's not the best angle of the Finsteraarhorn). Great stuff!

From the peak of the Gross Bigerhorn we follow the ridge towards the Balfrin. Here the route-finding isn't quite as straightforward and things are "a bit" more exposed, but it doesn't take too long get to the edge of the firn. Here we break out the crampons and ice axes and continue. The firn is pretty icy (we heard someone mention this at the hut yesterday) and it's the first time we've done anything with crampons this year, so we pretty quickly opt to head over to the rock at the edge of the ridge and follow that - the deciding point for greg was slipping and getting the chance to practice his self-arrest technique (including a bit of dragging his face on the snow while rolling over; good thing he hadn't shaved, that extra friction was certainly helpful!). The rock leads us up to a broader, less steep firn shoulder that we follow the rest of the way to the North peak of the Balfrin. After a bit of picture taking we continue along the ridge, with a mixture of rock and snow, until we make it to the South peak. Here we run into the first other people of the day: two Germans who had planned to do the Ulrichshorn and Nadelhorn but had broken that off and are returning to the hut via this ridge. The rest of the ridge is just rock, so we take the crampons off and continue on our way. The descent along the ridge is a pretty straightforward: easy route finding and no real technical challenges, though the wind is pretty intense. We hit the snow saddle between the main ridge and p3644 and end up putting the crampons back on after a bit of time on the hard-frozen snow. We do the rest of that ridge with the crampons on (kind of painful because of the screeching on the rock, but good practice) and make it easily down to the Riedpass.

This is our decision point. We're doing ok on time (it's 10:30, which was our planned time assuming breakfast at 3am and a 4am start) and we're both still feeling pretty fit. However, it's unpleasantly windy (and has been for a bit), greg isn't particularly enthusiastic about how steep the last bit of the climb to the Ulrichshorn looks, Andrea has some concerns about what the descent from the Windjoch is going to be like, and we're both still a bit nervous about the overall time factor. On top of that, we're both pretty hungry; this shouldn't be part of the decision process (we can always eat before continuing), but it almost certainly plays a role. We decide for plan B: take the glacier route back to the Bordierhütte. We break out the rope and the rest of the gear for the glacier and head a bit around the corner (to try to get out the wind) for a quick food break. We keep the break fairly short because we aren't 100% sure how to get through the mess of seracs and crevasses onthe glacier at around 3400m and we want to keep the two people who are descending in front of us in view (they've come up the glacier in the morning, so we assume they know a good way back down). We end up catching up to them just before the rock between 3400 and 3500m and make the decision that this is where we should leave the glacier and switch to the rock. After taking off the crampons and putting away the rope, we continue for a bit, only to discover pretty quickly that we'd made the wrong call: the glacier is ugly, but the rock is worse. So: back on with the crampons and the rope (significantly shortened this time) and back out onto the glacier. The pair in front of us have already made their way through the mess and the pair behind us has caught up, but since they have done the Ulrichshorn traverse from the other side, they don't have a specific idea of how to get through either. Ah well. Andrea sets out, manages to find enough remainders of the trail from others (easy on the snow-covered bits, not so easy on the ice), and leads us all safely down through the mess. On one steep bit we do another bit of self-arrest practice as Andrea slips - we both react appropriately and she doesn't slide much at all, yay for the short rope and well-trained reflexes. We do another food break on a nice flat rock in the middle of the flat bit of the glacier below the step and then head onto the rock at around 3200m.

We just had a food break, so we pack up all the gear and follow the stonemen back to the hut after filling up a couple water bottles with cold and delicious melt water. At the hut we eat a bit more and enjoy cool beverages while appreciating the last of the views, and then pack everything away before heading back down to Gasenried. On the hike down we get to enjoy the great views to the North that had been obscured by clouds on Saturday. At the bottom of the valley we opt to take the Europaweg down the last bit; this ends up being a nicely wooded (and soft! great for the tired feet!) path down. We get into town 10 minutes before the bus leaves; enough time to enjoy some last views backwards into the valley before starting the long (and after Visp crowded) trip home.

This was a great and extremely varied tour that had a bit of everything except actual climbing in it. We had excellent weather and were in a beautiful area. We got home with tired legs and very full eyes. :-)

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Climbing the Balfrin: day one

We've seen the Balfrin and the rest of the Mischabel group from a bunch of different hikes and talked about going up to the Bordierhütte a few times, but never got around to doing it until this weekend, when the forecast sent us to the mountains and whatever process governs our tour selection picked that. :-)

On Saturday morning we do the train-train-bus-bus (surprisingly, the bus from Visp isn't packed and we're the only people on the bus from Niedergrächen to Gasenried) thing and end up in Gasenried. After a short bit on the street (with nice views up the valley and towards the end of the Riedgletscher), the path starts leading us up, up through the woods. Eventually we hit the bottom of the valley and things open up some. After crossing the river the path heads up onto the moraine and then leads us up the valley. Up, up we go, past Alpja, passing the occasional other group (we definitely aren't alone, no surprise there). Though the view behind us has clouds obscuring a lot of the mountains, in front of us is mostly clear most of the time. After a lunch break on the moraine we continue up, up towards the glacier, past a group wearing city clothes (nice work making it this far up this path in ballet shoes!), past some folks coming down, up, up, up until we hit the edge of the Riedgletscher at around 2700m. At this point we'd normally break out the rope and put on crampons, but since the glacier is completely snow free, the folks at the Bordierhütte set out poles marking a safe path across the glacier. It's pretty cool to hike over the stone-covered glacier at edge, cross stone-filled crevasses, and then cross the glacier itself without needing gear. At the other side a set of metal stairs leads us up off the glacier and a well-established and -secured path takes us the rest of the way to very, very nicely situated hut.

We check-in, mark our mattresses, and then have some cake while enjoying the views across the glacier towards the Dirruhorn, Hobärghorn, and Stecknadelhorn (we can't see the Nadelhorn itself from here) as well as the West face of the Balfrin's North peak. After a nice break we put the boots back on and head out to do a bit of reconnaissance for the next morning. We follow the well-marked (with stonemen and reflectors) path up and around the corner and then turn to the left at the fork to follow the path up to p3146 on the saddle between the Klein and Gross Bigerhorn. This is easy enough to follow and without the packs on we are on the saddle pretty quickly, despite the altitude. We don't have a ton of time before we need to head back down for dinner, but it's a quick trip to the peak of the Klein Bigerhorn with its fantastic views and loads of cairns (there's even a small shelter). We enjoy the views for a bit and then head back down, passing a couple of groups who are also doing their reconnaissance tours along the way.

Dinner is served early (6pm) and the hut gets sun until quite late (almost 9!), so we spend a couple hours after dinner enjoying the sun and views outside before heading to bed to get ready for the early start on Sunday. Organizing the breakfast time ends up being somewhat challenging. We had read that the hut normally does breakfast at 3 and 7. Since our planned tour for Sunday is long and has a fixed end-time (to catch the last gondola down to Saas Fe), we had planned for the 3am breakfast. When talking to the hüttenwart, we were offered possible times of 2 and 5. 2am is really too early (they're doing this for the group that's planning to do the Nadelgrat traverse, which is quite a long tour) and 5 is definitely too late for us. After more negotiation than seems necessary we convince them to just leave our drinks and breakfast out for us so that we can eat at 4 and then head off to bed.