Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gruben -> St. Luc

We do an early breakfast and get a pretty early start for a hiking day: underway by 7:30. The route leads us up, up the side of the valley under the trees, very nice. As we go higher the view out towards the end of the valley and the Bishorn/Weisshorn pair opens up... fun to see those two again. After some good climbing we leave the trees and come out into the sun at the buildings of Meide. Ah what a beautiful day! Blue skies! Warm! Sun! Along deeper into the valley beside the Meidhorn, climbing gently, enjoying the views and the warmth. Then the wind starts... It's coming from in front of us and it's chill and pretty strong. On with the gore tex shells and continue. Sooner than either of us expect, we are at the Meidsee and the Meidpass is clearly in view and close. The path, as expected, isn't exactly empty. ;-)
Shortly before the last bit of ascent to the Meidpass begins, we turn off to the right on a poorly marked path that will lead us to the Pas du Boeuf. Now we're in empty territory, the path is clearly not one of the popular ones, but it's really great. We do some climbing and come to the Borterpass, from which we have very nice views back towards Weisshorn and forwards to Bella Tola. From here the path finding becomes mainly a matter of knowing which direction is the right one and looking for stone men. Fun! Nice section on blocks partially covered by snow. That's a very different experience: one can't make good time since there is way too much thinking about traction and weight transfer. It makes block walking even more of a puzzle-solving exercise than normal.

At the Pas du Boeuf we do a quick break and then head steeply up the side of the Bella Tola. Twisting and winding and climbing and climbing. Towards the top we see a couple of people up there and Greg thinks sadly that we won't be alone up top. Then we get there and... horrors... it's crazy full of people. We hadn't realized that the path up the other side was a super popular one (not really suprising... An easy 3000m mountain with great views on a day with good weather). Ah well... Quick change of expectations and then a bit of enjoying the 360 degree view and trying to find a reasonably wind-sheltered spot (without success) before heading down the other side, against the stream of people still coming up. Down a bit to a small hut where we get a good place in the sun and out of the wind for lunch. Man oh man are the people streaming up this mountain!
After lunch we head down to the bowl where we did sone really nice snowshoeing a couple of years ago (highlight along the way: a woman heading up wearing a skirt and Tevas; guess she doesn't realize that there's snow on the ground up there) , and head over to the Cab. Bella Tola. A break there to have a refreshing drink and enjoy the last of the views out towards the Weisshorn (now cloud covered) and the Matterhorn (still clear of clouds). Finally we head down, down, down to St. Luc where we catch the bus that takes us to the train that takes us to the train that take us to Basel.

Another nice day of very varied mountain hiking.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

St. Niklaus -> Gruben

We were originally supposed to do a hochtour this weekend, but fresh snow on Thursday and Friday as well as a somewhat questionable forecast for Saturday put a stop to that. Andrea pulled this tour out of her bag of tricks instead.

An early start from Basel with a train to Visp, from there changing to the train up into the mattertal, whic we take as far as st. Niklaus. Now the Andrea special begins: we're heading up, up, up. The path starts uncharacteristically hard to find, but we manage to keep on track and eventually the markers start getting nicely regular. The path is lovely, under the trees, with occasional views out over the valley, soft footing... A dream. A dream with plenty of vertical meters. :-) We climb and climb, and eventually hit Jungu, 800m above our start. 800m that we could have done with a gondola, but we're too tough for that. Heh

From Jungu we continue upwards, through some cows, and then pick up an educational path with lots of information about flowers. Here the weather starts to play games with us: intermittently sunny then overcast then windy then lightly raining (Andrea points out that it wasn't really rain... kind of a mix of hail and snow with a bit of rain mixed in... something in between). The fresh snow above is clearly visible (it had snowed down to 2400m on Friday). After more climbing, the wind-blown drizzle wins the battle and we put on jackets and pack covers. Eventually we round a corner and both the wind and the precipitation let us loose. Deep below in the valley is a rainbow - don't remember being above a rainbow before - and in front there isn't too much to see... the clouds are pretty low. Shortly we end up back in the wind and rain-snow-hail drizzle, where we will stay for much of the rest of the day. Some nice block walking, not quite as carefree as last weekend, but definitely still fun.
We do lunch under an overhanging rock which keeps us dry and out of the wind. There are plenty of people out and about, most coming against us. Funny encounter with a group of Amis who all look pretty shell shocked and warn us about how slippery it is in the pass. Further on, into the fresh snow, always climbing until we hit the pass. Not good conditions for the planned detour to the Schwarzhorn, plus it's windy as hell, so we just go ahead and descend. Again, the fantastic views at we would have over the Turtmanntal are mostly wiped out by the low clouds... Tja.
From the pass we descend and descend and descend and descend and eventually we end up in Gruben, where a comfy hotel and refreshing beverages await.

Despite the unstable weather it was a really good day in the mountains. We did enough up and down that we went from lush green under trees to green with flowers above the tree line to the grays of the high alpine environment and then back down again to the lush green and trees. Plus, the constant changes in conditions and views made it so that the day absolutely flew by. Great!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Backpacking in Tessin: Lago Nero->Ossasca

Woke up to another clear day with mostly cloudless skies above and a bit of cloud coming Into the valley below. Once again a couple early people show up at 6:00; unlike yesterday though, today it is clear why they have come : fishing the lake. After breakfast and packing everything up we are underway by 8:30 again.

The path leads more or less flat away from the lake and around the valley wall. Nice views back over the glacier, Lago Bianco, and the very impressive wall of the dam for Lago Cavagnöö. After a bit of walking and heading slightly downwards we start to encounter folks heading towards the lake, these must be the early risers from the Cap. Cristallina. Onwards we head, past several people walking against us, with a bit of ascent up to a pass, where we have a really nice view down onto the Lago Sfundau and the Cristallinahuette in the distance.

Around the valley wall above the lake and up a bit more and we are at the hut. The plan was to have coffee and cake, but since the staff are all busy cleaning, we end up just doing an energy bar and then, afterwards a coffee. The hut is really nicely situated and quite modern. I guess they must also be pretty busy: half full both Monday and Tuesday nights... That's crazy.

After our nice break we head down the other side of the pass, it is really all downhill from here. The path leads us through a nice mixture of rock and grass and flowers, past people heading up to the hut, down to the floor of the hanging valley, where we follow the stream to the end before descending to the next step. And so on, and so on... Really nice hiking through a beautiful landscape. Lunch under some trees past the Alp Cristallina, then the final bit of descent to Ossasco, the bus down to Airolo, and the train back to Basel.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Backpacking in Tessin: Laghi Boden->Lago Nero

Start the day by greeting a group of hikers who are passing by at shortly before 6 a.m. What are they doing? Where are the going? The weather is initially pretty clear, but then some clouds move in, the view shuts down, and the perceived temperature drops a bit. We do the normal backpacking start with the successful muesli experiment (though the temperature is really ideal for this), pack up the still-damp tent, and are underway by 8:30. Start the day right with a steep climb up 300m to the Bitta di Val Maggia over blocks and some residual snow fields. From the pass good views out over Tessin and back to Italy which we enjoy briefly before starting our way down.
We head around the valley wall for a while over block and rock and dirt and grass and snow (varied hiking it is!) and then head steeply down to the Lago dei Matörgn. While descending a steep patch of snow, Greg is too concentrated on his footing and misses a steinbock running 20m in front of him. We see it again in a couple of minutes, but it's dumb to have not seen the close encounter. Tja... Down to the lake and a nice energy bar break on a rock above it (the energy bars turned out well). Then onwards and onwards and onwards along the valley wall, with plenty of rock and block and a steady descent. Past a group of mostly abandoned stone huts at Arzo, and then steeply down to a stream which we follow to the steep descent to the Lago di Robiei.

The lake and the area around it are insanely crowded. Can't imagine what it must be like here on a weekend. We decided the forego the cool beverage in front of the octagonal hotel in order to avoid the crowds, grab a quick lunch in a shady spot near the dam, and then head onwards across the dam. Up the other side to a road and down to the path by the stream. Some fun finding a spot to cross the stream/river where Andrea didn't require Tevas, but we do make it. From there past Lielp and then it's steeply up (quite steeply sometimes, goat-path steep). The total climb is only about 500m, but since it is the heat of the day the packs do start to feel a bit heavy after a while. We eventually reach our high point and then traverse some very nice patches of block (Greg has an absolute blast) before reaching the lake.

We scout around for a while to find the optimal spot for the tent, then settle down. After setting the tent out to dry, the boots come off and we head down to dip feet in the wonderful lake. The pull of the deep, crystal-clear water eventually becomes too much for Greg, who strips down and dives in. He's in the water (COLD!) for max 15 seconds, but they are a really good and refreshing 15 seconds. Andrea will not be tempted to try... ah well, her loss! :-)

After another batch of yogurt making and some putzing around and view enjoyment, we pump water and make dinner (polenta with ground-meat-textured soy, tomato soup, and plenty of hot paprika) and pitch the tent.

We're a bit higher tonight and the tent is situated such that the sun drops between two mountains on the other side, so we have sun until almost 9... ah what luxury! We get some really cool effects from the low-angle reflection of the sun off the relatively smooth lake: ripples of light on the rocks, and a doubled shadow (once from the sun, a weaker one from the mirrored sun). Nice close to the day. :-)

A longer day than Sunday, and a very, very good one.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Backpacking in Tessin: All'Acqua->Laghi Boden

Not too early a start from Basel, then the train direct through to Airolo. Of course the sun is shining and the sky is blue in Tessin. :-) Onwards with the bus (and some value-added tour guiding from the driver) until we reach the day's start point: All'Acqua.

After a short stretch along the road, the Andrea Special begins: 700m up to the Passo San Giacomo. Despite being the first day with the packs, things are riding easy and the going is good. The nice, mostly empty, path leads us first through trees, then above the treeline through fields of green and flowers. We do a nice break in the sun after the first 400m and then continue onwards. Towards the top we start to see more people, particularly around the buildings of San Giacomo. Lunch break shortly before the pass to admire the view out over Italy and the crowds heading down that way. After a short nap (!), onwards through the pass and around the corner until we reach a small saddle with the lakes of Laghi Boden in view. This settles the "It's been a short day, should we keep going?" question easily: the lakes are beautiful and inviting... we're staying here!

We pick a spot near the smaller of the two and do some exploring while waiting for people to leave (some fishermen, a school group, misc hikers). A nice rest in the sun, some reading, some more napping (!), picture taking, etc. Then things empty out and we can really settle in. Start by making yogurt for the next morning (a new experiment), then make dinner (chopped sausage with dried tomatoes and mushrooms and mashed potatoes). After tidying up, pitch the tent, take the pictures, and do a post-prandial stroll to watch the sun go down behind the mountains on the other side of the valley.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Through the Zwischbergenpass

Another SAC tour, this time organized by Peter K.

On Saturday we took the early train (6:01, same one as last week) and ended up in Visp. From there we took the bus to Saas Fee and began the day with a bit of fun: the klettersteig through the gorge of the Feevispa down to Saas Grund. In the description of the tour Peter said this had plenty of moving parts; a very apt description. This was our first klettersteig (despite talking about it for more than a year), and it's not anything like typical, but it was still interesting to try out the equipment under the eyes of a bergführer. Plus the 'steig itself was tons of fun: three different zip lines, a rope swing, a couple nice suspension bridges, and a ladder bridge to nowhere that was just great. Good fun; probably even better in a smaller group (we were 13 in total).
After finishing our bit of fun we take the gondola from Saas Grund up to Kreuzboden (the normal hiking paths were closed due to rockslides) and then follow the panorama path around the corner and down to the Hotel Almagelleralp (2194m). Along the way we have a bit of rain, just enough to trick most of us into putting on our jackets before stopping again; still, you won't find us complaining about "too little rain". After a nice break at the beautifully situated hotel, we head up the valley side on a great path to the Almagellerhütte (2894m). After arriving and picking our places in the dorm (with 13 people we get our own room... woo hoo! at least I'll know the snorer's name!), we settle down for a nice cool beverage on the terrace in the evening sun. The hut is full (most everyone is heading up to the Weissmies... 4000er madness) and we eat in the second shift, so there's plenty of time to enjoy the last of the day before having a good meal and heading off to bed.

Sunday starts early since some of the groups doing the Weissmies leave around 3am. We head down for breakfast at 4 -- earlier than necessary for us but they do breakfast at either 4 or at 7 and 7 is definitely too late -- and are on our way shortly after 5. Some fun while waiting watching the line of headlamps heading up to the Zwischbergenpass and then along the ridge towards the Weissmies. By 5 it's light enough that we don't need headlamps as we make our own way up to the pass (3243m). Up top we have a break on a spot above the pass, soak up some of the morning sun, and enjoy the views out to the sunlit mountains to both the East and West. ahhhh, nice. We also get to enjoy the last watching the last of the lines of people working there way up the steep snow field at the beginning of the ascent to the ridge that leads up to the Weissmies... (man are there a lot of people heading up there!) From the pass it's steeply down the other side, across some snow/firn, bits of glacier, rocks, snow, etc. until we reach the next break (and second breakfast) at around 2700m. The weather is really fantastic: sunny and not too warm, nice cloud play in the mountains all around.
For the next stage we stay on the wall of the valley instead of taking the older path down along the moraine. Onwards and slightly down, over stones and streams with a bit of scrambling here and there, past some people camping (!, Dutch, of course), and further on until we get to grass (audible sighs as the feet applaud the soft grass), another break on the grass in the sun at around 2300m (we're in no hurry and Peter is generous with the breaks), past a herd of sheep and their people, and finally down to the valley floor. There we follow the river down the valley. Along the way we go through a herd of cows, a few of which decide we're interesting enough to follow (must have been lonely down there).

So we head on with an honor guard of three or four cows. After we're gone some of the rest of the herd decides we must be doing something interesting, so they follow too. Now we're 13 people, four cows, and another 20 or so cows about 100m back down the path. What a parade. :-) At the end of the valley we pass a gate, leave the cows behind, and stop for a lunch break beside the lake. Of course the cows aren't really keen on being left behind: they come down to the low stone barrier by the lake and look sadly over. Eventually curiosity and greed overcomes one and she scrambles over the wall. Peter prevents a repeat by the others, but the cow who crossed over hangs out with us while we're eating (occasionally investigating people's backpacks or lunches... as one would expect). Before leaving Greg tries to get the cow to climb back over the wall, that works about as well as one would expect, so we just leave her and head off down the dirt road.

Onward, onward, we go down the road; past the turnoff for Zwischbergen to the crossing just above the lake. Here the group splits up with some heading up to the restaurant at Zwischbergen for a second (!) lunch and the bus down, the rest of us continuing along the path through the valley to Gondo. This is a really nice path, mostly under trees, often through grass, beside the river. There are some fantastic looking pools for swimming but it's not exactly warm enough for that, ah well. After another hour or so we arrive in Gondo (839m). We've got half an hour before the bus back over the Simplon pass, which we enjoy outside the restaurant, under an umbrella (the rain starts 10 minutes after we arrive), with a cool beverage. The day ends with the bus back to Brig and then the train to Basel.

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.