Saturday, August 31, 2013

Vacation Japan: the beginning

Arrive at Narita, go to Hotel in Shibuya, leave bags without checking in, walk (very hot) to get lunch at Nagi Ramen place (an adventure), walk around Shibuya on roundabout ways back to hotel, check in, rest, nap;
In the evening: walk through the Shibuya madness and love-hotel-hill towards the Yoyogi park, walk back (as it closes at nightfall), enjoy snacks and drink at Japanese pub without any English on the menu, walk through department store, check out food in basement, back to hotel, all in a yet-lag-culture-shock-daze.
ordering machine at Ramen restaurant
Morning: Senso-ji in Asakusa, walk through Asakusa along small lanes, get cucumber on a stick, walk through Ueno park, look at temples (Kiyomizu Kannon temple and Toshogu shrine), feel very hot, long and hot march on indirect route towards another recommended Raman place, give up and take metro, fail to find place, back to Shibuya to have lunch at restaurant in mall, rest and nap;
Afternoon/evening: take metro to Shinjuku, walk underground to town hall, go up to top floor for overview of Tokyo, is getting dark already, walk around some more in Shinjuku, have dinner in back-alley at Nagi Ramen after waiting in line in dark alley (rickety stairways up to 1st floor), walk around some more, back to hotel.
Morning: fishmarket, other market next to fishmarket, back to Shibuya, lunch at other Nagi Raman place, back to hotel for rest and planning, buying train tickets;
Afternoon: walk around Roppongi, along towards Eiffel Tower thingy, back to Shibuya, get cash money (not enough), in evening walk around Shibuya some more, have dinner at Tonkatsu place, back to hotel for packing and trip planning.
Tokyo fishmarket
take train from Shinjuku to Matsumoto, buy onigiri for lunch in station, take little train to Shinshimashima, change to bus for Kamikochi, drive into mountains, arrive at Kamikochi at ~2 pm, cloudy, find hotel, marvel at japanese stile room, wander around, try to buy lunch stuff, ask some questions, plan some more, experience Japanese hot bath, relax and rest, have elaborate dinner, go to bed.
our room in the Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge
first couple of dinner courses

Wednesday to Wednesday:
see Hiking in Japan posts, day one through day eight

Thursday to Sunday:
see Vacation Japan: the end post

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Strahlegghorn traverse

This weekend we did a trip with the SAC Basel to the Strahlegghorn. [Aside: Baechli has a good topo for this tour.]

From the train station in Grindelwald, we walked through town (crazy!) to the Pfinstegg gondola station to take the gondola up and save some time. The path leads us from the gondola station up the valley, above the Gletscherschlucht, steadily climbing with a nice view across to the Ostegg (end of the Hornligrat from the Eiger). Up, up we go, with more and more of the end of the valley and the chaos of what remains of the two Ischmeer glaciers coming into view. At Bäregg we take a break and have some cool refreshment (mmm, Holundersirup) before continuing on the blue-white marked path around the next bowl. At the tip we do a lunch break, enjoying the amazing views of ice and mountains. From here it's up, up, up, along the path, over some ladders, past some chains, always climbing until we reach the Schreckhornhütte. Cool beverages, a refreshing wash in the fountain, some planning for Sunday, and lots and lots of marveling at the views. I'm pretty sure this is the best view we've yet had from an SAC hut. It's really too bad that the tour possibilities from here are so limited unless you're crazy-skilled and -fit. After a good dinner we enjoy the views a bit longer and then head off to bed to be ready for breakfast at 4:30 (the folks doing the Schreckhorn breakfast at 2:00. yikes!)

In the morning we are underway by 5:00. It seems we're the only ones doing the Strahlegghorn, win! The sky is completely clear and it's pretty warm (~8C) as we set off in the dark. First it's down a bit, then along the glacier, past the stream coming down, then off the glacier and up. There is some marking here, but it's not super easy to see (particularly with just head lamps), so we're both glad to have Markus up in front scouting the way. Up, up, up, we go. At times with quite good footing and at times in "two steps forward, one and half back, boy I hope I don't kick anything big loose and onto the folks below me" mode. Along the way we see a few ibexes; it's been a while since we encountered those. Up, up, up until we reach Gaagg, where tracks lead off to the left towards the Schreckhorn. A bit further along we stop for a break and to put on the climbing gear and crampons, then it's up the last bit to the Strahleggpass. It's great to be in the sun! :-)

At the pass we rope in (two groups of three), 3-4m distance, and then set off up the ridge. This is really nice climbing: stable rock, great grips, plenty of places to drape the rope for a dynamic belay (no idea what the actual translation of this is), occasional glimpses of sun (we're on the shady side of the ridge), just great. We're at the top of the Strahlegghorn all too soon (we all agree there). There's not a lot of room up top, but we all manage to find a place to sit, eat something, and enjoy the views. We've got clear views to the Oberaarhorn and Studerhorn as well as the Mönch, Eiger, the toweringly beautiful Finsteraarhorn, Schreckhorn, Lauteraarhorn, etc. Just great.

After a good rest we get going again. We head down the Southwest ridge. It's pretty easy going (walking, not climbing), though it takes plenty of concentration to not do walk-and-gawk. At around p3174 we put the crampons on and head down the firn, with a bit of rock mixed in, until we run out of snow. The crampons go back in the bag along with the climbing gear and the rope and we continue normally the rest of the way. At around 2880 we pick up the traces of the path we're going to follow the rest of the way down. Down, down we go, past the foundations of the old hut, down down, until we meet the trail we took up this morning. Onwards and downwards, back across the glacier, back up the last bit, and then we're at the hut. Another refreshing wash in the fountain, cool beverages, more appreciation of the views, and a good rest before heading back down the way we came up yesterday to the Pfinstegg. We get to the gondola a few minutes before it starts to rain. What perfect timing. :-)

It was a great tour and really good for us to have done something like this... now we want to do more. Track:

Sunday, August 11, 2013


We're out and underway, beneath cloudless blue skies, shortly after 8a.m. We start along the path around the big green meadow and then divert off to climb gently outwards and towards the valley's end. There have been a few too many cows following this one, so the trail is somewhat chaotic, but it leads us along the valley, always climbing, towards the wall at the end. Steeply up the wall, past a couple of snow fields, and then we're at the Ammertepass. We enjoy the nice views, visually confirm that our planned off-trail route ahead looks like it will work, and then follow the trail down the other side.
checking out the planned off-trail route
At the first bit where it levels off, we turn off the trail and head up the rocky slope towards the wall of the Wildstrubel. We cross around the back of the first big bit of moraine, pass above the small lake, walk around the tip of the next moraine (there's actually a track here), and then pick our way through the rocks and snow fields as we continue to work our way upwards.

At around 2590m we hit a broad flat area that's almost Mars-like in color. The rock here is mostly shale (or something related), which breaks into lots of little pieces during freeze-crack-thaw cycles, so the ground is actually pretty soft. We've got great views in a couple directions, so we stop for a sandwich break before heading up the ridge to the Ammertehore.
Mars-like landscape
The ridge is broad, not overly steep, and has great footing (more shattered shale), up up we go until we reach the series of bumps that mark the "peaks" of the Ammertehore. On the last one we stop for another sandwich break (the views are just too good not to), marvel at the number of people atop the Ammertespitz across the valley (we're completely alone), and confirm our plan for the next bit of the route before working our way down the other side of the ridge, across the floor of the little bowl, past a couple little lakes (the last one *almost* tempted Greg in for a dip, but it's not quite warm enough) and then up to the saddle on the other side.
on the ridge/top of the Ammertehore
From the saddle we look for a big stoneman that's supposed to be our next waypoint. The stoneman seems to be gone, but there's really only one possible route, so we take that. A bit more walking, some steep descending, and then we're on the marked hiking path that leads from the Flueseeli to the Wildstrubel. Just before we reach this, a guy goes past carrying a mountain bike. This is pretty weird, because there's really nowhere up here where one would have a chance to ride and he's headed towards a glacier. Na, ja, people are strange.

We follow the path down to the beautiful Flueseeli, have a nice "dip-our-feet-in-the-water" break, and then head down to Simmefälle. There are plenty of people about (no surprise given the weather and how nice this path is), and Andrea is setting a "down from the Hochtour" pace, so we pass lots of people on the way down. At Bi de Sibbe Brünne we stop to marvel at the waterfalls materializing from the trees, then we continue down, down, down. The water level in all the various streams and rivers is quite high, so the Barbarabrücke, where a bridge crosses the Simme, is particularly dramatic. Down, down we go until we reach the restaurant/hotel at Simmefälle. We enjoy a rest and a cool beverage and then get on the standing-room-only bus that starts our journey back home.
beautiful Flueseeli
It was a really nice day and a quite different kind of tour. Good stuff!

Aside: this was Greg's first tour in a new pair of boots. The four-year old Meindl's were reaching the end of their life. The new ones (Kayland Contact Dual GTX) worked out quite well.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sunnbüel to Engstligenalp

The gondola drops us at Sunnbüel (last time we were here, everything was covered in snow) and we set out after tightening shoes, attaching came turning on the beeper, all the usual stuff. The trail starts down to Winteregg, from there we start climbing the wall on the other side of the valley. We manage to distract ourselves by watching some climbers and lose the trail, but it's easy enough to find again. The trail takes us up, up the valley side, with great views down to Kandersteg and across to the Bluemlisalphorn, steeply at points, until we come out onto the ridge (Üschenegrat). More nice views from here, across the valley is the path up to the Bundnerchrinde. Our route takes us the valley side, under the rocks at the top of the ridge, and up into the very pretty Üschenetal. Nice walking on a good trail, past sheep, great views, quite alone. 
At various points we get close to the edge and have views out over the Spittelmatte, the valley that runs between Sunnbüel and the Gemmi pass (plenty of people down there), and across to the Tatelishorn, Altels, Balmhorn, and Rinderhorn. After climbing up to and crossing the Wyssi Flue, we descend to the pass above the small lake at Tschalmeten. Now it's a path directly under the black rocks (Schwarzgrätli), past a very cool indentation (almost cave) where water was pouring out from the rocks, and then around and up into the next high valley. Up the wall of this we go, over the Tälliseeli (not so small) to the ridge (Entschligegrat). More great views down to Engstligenalp and across to the back of the Wildstrubel. Now it's along the ridge, around the Tschingellochtighore, then down the ridge on the other side to Engstligenalp, the crowds, and our hotel. We have a cool beverage, check in, rest for a bit, wander around some, plan the next day's route, eat, and then crash for the evening.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Spannort trip day 4: Kröntenhütte to Erstfeld

We hear the folks doing some mountaineering heading downstairs for breakfast at 4 a.m., but today we get to roll over and go back to sleep. After breakfast at 7 and getting everything packed up, we decide to skip the climbing today (we're both a bit tired and not convinced we really want to climb) and do a scenic route down to Erstfeld. We enjoy the last view from the hut and then head out on the path towards Päuggen. This is a nice, lightly ascending route through open terrain with great panoramic views; just what we were looking for.
Looking back at the Gross Spannort (l) and the Schlossberg (r)

Andrea and the end of the valley
At the fork for the panorama route (not for us today, but something to consider for sure), we turn down and head down, down, down, into progressively greener and greener terrain. We both need to make a conscious effort to adjust our foot placement: after three days where the (grippy dry) rocks are the places of choice, the (wet, often moss covered) rocks are now slippery as hell. Down, down, steeply down, past the alp at Ellbogen (great name), down, down some more through lots of different types of vegetation and terrain, until we hit the valley floor at Bodenberg. Our hopes for a lunch spot near the river are dashed when we discover that there are fences everywhere and just no good way to get near the water. Damn. We find a convenient bench in the shade instead and enjoy our lunch there.

After lunch we follow the gravel road down for a while (normally irritating, but at this point it's not bad to be able to do a good walk-and-gawk without worrying about foot placement) until we hit the paved road at Sagerberg. A bit past this we're expecting the path to Erstfeld to turn off to the right on a bridge; we get to the bridge, but there's no path sign. Hrm, weird. So we walk a hundred meters or so further until we hit a group of hiking path signs. No mention of the path down to Erstfeld. Very weird. Back to the bridge we go, across, and then up towards the farmhouse there. We see a trace where someone has crossed a field, but no path markings. Still weird. We hear some people, we walk around the barn towards the house and ask the guy doing yard work where the path to Erstfeld is. Apparently it's officially closed because some part of it got washed out and it's no longer up to the safety standards. He looks at us, looks at our boots, and then says "but you can still do it, it's no problem". He gives us directions to find the beginning and we set off. It's a great path in the woods that starts high above the river and then descends steeply. Before we know it, we're in Erstfeld. Wow, time flies when you're on a great path. We cool off in a fountain, grab some cool beverages at the kiosk in the train station and then hang out a bit to wait to start the trip home.


Saturday, August 03, 2013

Spannort trip day 3: Kröntenhütte by way of the Krönten

We weren't 100% sure what we were going to do today: it was clear that we were going to the Kröntenhütte, but we couldn't decide between heading over directly and then spending the afternoon climbing or climbing the Krönten along the way and getting to the hut a bit later. The weather forecast is somewhat unclear about what's going to happen in the afternoon, so we don't get much help there with the decision. Either choice requires an early start, so we opt to delay the decision as long as possible and just get started. :-)

So it's breakfast at 4:00 and we're one our way shortly after 4:30. There's a group of two in front of us today and a group of four behind. Up, up, up the trail along the moraine in the dark we go again. The sky is clear when we leave, but it closes up as we're climbing, so we don't get the cool moonlight on the Spannort effect as yesterday, ah well. Eventually we get to the Schlossberglücke, collect our cached stuff, take a short break, enjoy a fantastic sunrise (the clouds really help here!), then rope in and head out across the glacier the same way as yesterday. The two guys in front of us are still just visible and the group of four behind is just arriving at the pass.
heading across the glacier from the Schlossberglücke

Up we climb to about 2800m, then instead of continuing up and to the right (like yesterday) we contour around to the left under the ridge connecting the Zwächten to the Schneehüenerstock. The weather is very difficult to assess. It's definitely cooler than yesterday and the clouds keep alternating between threatening looking and innocent.

The last rocks of the ridge from the Schneehüenerstock mark the point that we have to decide what to do. There's a group of three from the Kröntenhütte below us, just starting onto the glacier from the rocks, but otherwise no one is visible. The clouds are all high enough that the peak of the Krönten is well clear. We opt for the peak (like we were going to make any other decision). We bend to the right and climb a bit until we reach the rocks east of the Kröntenlücke. Here we take off the crampons and cache them with the ice axes and have a sandwich break while enjoying the views. During this we see two chamoix run up the 50m (?) high half-circular vertical snow wall that forms the end of the glacier like it's nothing and then head out across the glacier. Amazing! We wish we could that!

After the break, we switch to a short rope and head out across the rocks to find the traces leading up the ridge to the peak. A couple minutes after we leave, the group of three from below comes into view. We find the traces and head up the ridge.  It's a very enjoyable way up: a combination of light scrambling, block hopping, and rough trail with great views and impressive drops to either side.
on the ridge to the Krönten

After lots of good ridge fun, we make it to the area under the 30m high tower with the peak. This has to be climbed, so we ditch our sticks and start up. The first 20m or so are a straightforward scramble, then we head for the standard route through a gap to the other side and find some very unpleasant footing, a steep drop, and no immediately obvious (to us) way up. There's also no good way to belay the person looking for the route, so Greg vetoes this approach. The other route up is through a narrow chimney, so we head back and ditch the packs and everything else we don't need, and then try this. Andrea goes first with instructions from Greg to be sure he will also fit. It's not pretty, involves some lizard-like slithering around, but she squeezes through and makes it to the top. Greg follows. This is even less pretty and more slithery, but he makes it too.
Greg slithering through the chimney...

We're atop the Krönten! The views are great, but it's windy, we don't have much of anything with us, and the other group is coming into view along the ridge, so we keep our stay short. We rig up the abseil, wait for the other three to clear the bottom, then abseil down and head back to our packs for a rest and a sandwich.

It's not particularly sunny, which means it's a few degrees cooler than yesterday, and we under no circumstances want to get stuck behind the other group going down the ridge, so we keep it pretty short and then head back. The way down is just as entertaining and we're back at the bottom and our cached gear almost too soon. Back to the glacier rig and then more or less straight down to the rocks above the Graw Stock. We're alone again on the glacier (great!). Conditions are great for heading down quickly (no glissading today because we've got the crampons on), so after a pretty short time we are back on rock.
packing away rope and glacier gear
Another break to pack away the rope and glacier gear and enjoy the last views across the glacier, and then we start following stonemen down, hoping they'll lead us to the path to the Kröntenhütte. There are a few too many contradictory stonemen, so after a short bit of this we give up and strike out in what we believe is the right direction. Down a bit and we hit a snow field with a bunch of sheep gathered at the bottom (sheep on snow? seems weird, but we see this repeatedly over the next two days; must be a way of dealing with the heat). We glissade down the snow field and hit the cross marking the beginning of the blue-white path down. This is a really nice and varied route with lots of great views. The views back to the 900m glacier-topped wall that forms the end of the valley and across to the 1500m high wall of the Schlossberg are simply amazing. Down, down, down we go. It gets warmer as we get lower and the hut comes into view a bit too soon, so by the time we reach the valley floor we're both a bit too hot and ready to be done. Crossing over to the hut we hit a nice cool little stream and decide to postpone our arrival in favor of some refreshment. Holding our hands in the cold water and splashing our faces and heads does us both a world of good and we do the last couple of minutes to the hut in the appropriately happy and relaxed frame of mind.

We check in at the hut, get some cool beverages and a great piece of apricot-cherry pie, and start to deal with the culture shock. The Kröntenhütte is twice the size of the Spannorthütte, is mostly full, and seems to be a popular destination for families. It's a very different crowd. We have a lazy afternoon, watching the clouds come in and out, having a nap on the grass, etc. After a good dinner, we take a short stroll down to the lake then head off to bed. At first it's louder than one would like it to be (a significant downside to being in a "family-friendly" hut), but things eventually settle down and we get to sleep.

Two great self-organized hochtour days in a row! Yeah!


Friday, August 02, 2013

Spannort trip day 2: Climbing the Gross Spannort

We're on hochtour schedule, so it's breakfast at 4 with the other four people who are planning to climb the Gross Spannort. We're underway at 4:30, following the blue-white marked path up the moraine with our headlamps on because it's definitely still dark. It's amazingly warm already/still (18 degrees), so we're out with t-shirts on. The path is pretty easy to follow, but quite steep and sometimes a bit slippery. Up, up, up we go. At around 5:00 we can see well enough to turn off the headlamps. Up, up, boy is this a long 700m climb, up. At some point, the Gross Spannort, towering above us, takes on a silvery color. The reason for this becomes clear as the last visible bit of moon comes into view through the saddle ahead. There's only a slim crescent there, but boy is it ever bright!

Eventually we hit the first snow field, guess which way to continue on the other side, scramble a bit up to a big stoneman  (we guessed wrong, but it's ok), cross another snowfield and do the last climbing up to the Schlossberglücke. While we enjoy a nice rest, the other two groups of two catch up. We rope in, put on the crampons, and head out across the glacier behind one of the other groups (they did a short rest). Up and around we go, through the end of the rocks that have fallen off the Spannort, slowly climbing and circling around the mountain. It's amazingly warm on the glacier: about 19C on a glacier at 7am at 2700m... wow!
Gross Spannort from the Schlossberglücke
After we've walked halfway around the mountain we get to the Spannortjoch and the beginning of the route up. Now things start to get interesting. :-) We watch the first group go across the first climbing stretch while we take off our crampons and transition to climbing gear, then we follow them up. Andrea leads the first bit of climb around a corner and then belays Greg up while watching the other two vanish around the next corner (good to know where to go). We can walk the stretch (rough footing, plenty of scree laying around, but still walking) to the next climbing section. This is a very enjoyable scramble up 20-25m or so, then another walking stretch following the "trail" left by countless other climbers, many of whom were wearing crampons (lots of little scratches on the rocks to follow). One last climbing/scrambling bit and then we can see the peak, about 100m further above us. The two in front of us are already up there (wow were they fast). There's been enough snow melting that we can do the last bits without heading onto the firn, so we can just slowly walk up the rest of the way to the top. Woo hoo! we made it!
ontop the Gross Spannort
We ditch the packs, enjoy the views, rest, have lunch, take pictures, enjoy the views, and in general enjoy ourselves enough that we're the last to leave. Down we go, down to the last climbing bit. Here there's a set-up for abseiling down past the step. We take advantage of this (our first experience doing this alone, so we aren't exactly super fast), then walk down to the next step. Again we abseil past this. As we're getting ready to move on, Greg realizes something is wrong: he managed to leave his backpack at the top of the abseil. Doh! Stupid! Andrea (not sure why it's Andrea, probably because she's faster), carries the rope back up that fun scrambling bit, collects the pack, and then abseils back down. Nice extra practice! Greg is going to be hearing about it for quite a while! Down some more to the next climbing bit, another abseil (no forgotten pack this time), and then we decide to skip the entry scramble by just abseiling directly onto the glacier. This has a fun "kick off the wall to clear the bergschrund" bit at the bottom. :-)
Greg abseiling down
Back on the glacier safely, we congratulate ourselves, rope back in, and then head back towards the Schlossberglücke. We're not wearing the crampons, so the descent is an excellent, and very fast, combination of plunge stepping and glissade. Seems like the six of us from the Spannorthütte were the only ones out today and we're the last of the six out, so we get to enjoy the very unusual experience of having the entire glacier to ourselves. Very cool! Back at the pass we take another break, eat our second sandwiches and then cache the crampons and ice axes for the next day. Now we just have the long descent on the moraine back to the hut. This is long and at times irritatingly steep and slippery, but we hit the hut at around 1:30.

After a rest and some cool beverages and cake, we do a bit more climbing. It's hot and we are both somewhat tired, so we keep it short. We each do a 4c route in climbing shoes and then attempt a 5a+. Greg gives up on this quickly (stupid when the challenging bit is at the bottom where it's most hazardous!), but Andrea powers through to the top.

Back to the hut, a refreshing shower/splash in the the stream (cold!) and then a nice quiet dinner (there are only four of us eating tonight) before we go to bed early with our heads full of great images. What a day!


Thursday, August 01, 2013

Spannort trip day 1: up to the Spannorthütte

We start not too early and grab a train/train combo to Engelberg. We've decided in advance to save ourselves the two hour hike along the alley floor in the heat and organized an Alpentaxi to take us to Stäffeli. Money very well spent! From here it's just 1.5 hours on a nice path up the valley side to the Spannorthütte. Up, up we go until we're surprised by the little hut appearing out of nowhere. Friendly welcome, something cool to drink, and the we head over to the klettergarten to do some practicing. We do three routes in the 4a-4c range with our boots. You never could do this in the Jura (too slippery!), but here it's easy and very good practice. It's pretty amazing how small a piece of rock you need to get a good hold with the stiff soles of our boots.
Greg belaying
Back to the hut for some rest, then back to the wall to climb some more 4 routes until it's dinner time. Dinner is good, not overly crowded in the little hut (25 out of 40 beds are full), and then it's off to bed after watching the sunset colors on the Spannort and the Schlossberg and enjoying the fantastic views and the late-day warmth.
The hut and the Gross Spannort
A word about the hut: it's small, pretty traditional (built in the 19th century and most recently renovated in 1961), and really, really nice. The views are fantastic, Tom and Marianne are great hosts, it's quiet (except for the sound of the streams coming down the mountain), and there's lots of climbing options available. Highly recommended as a base for a few nights. We'll have to go back at some point in the future when we've gotten (a lot) better at climbing to try out some of the routes up the Schlossberg. :-)