Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sveits

Sunset on Piz Palü and Bellavista

My friend Casey suggested we meet up for some mountaineering in Switzerland this summer, and I jumped at the opportunity to see the Alps. Jeannie jumped even faster though, and had agreed to coming within 45 seconds of my asking her. What a sucker.

So the two of us met up at the Zürich airport and then hopped the train to Lucerne to meet Casey and his mystery woman Megan. It was really good to see Jeannie. She is a pretty special friend in that we don't actually talk that often when we're apart, but when we see each other after long periods it is easy to immediately feel comfortable and pick up as before.

We found Casey and Megan (who I liked immediately as I realized she was a fellow hedonist,) and hopped another train to Grindlewald, which is right below the north face of the Eiger. We had cleverly stocked up on swiss cheese, chocolate and wine at the store and we spent the train ride enjoying these as we gawked at the scenery and joked about how the Swiss must spend millions a year buying all of that aquamarine dye for their lakes.

Grindlewald is out of control Swiss. The Eiger, the bimmeling cows, the meadows and cutesy houses, the smiling yet cheese-induced-hypertensive locals...it's almost too much. But we settled into a hostel for a few days of meadow-prancing, fondue-eating, and cable-car riding there and in/around Lauterbrunnen. We also went for some 'hikes', which usually just ended with us taking a beer in some mountain hut. This area is ridiculously beautiful, and I liked the way the plump little locals were always smiling even with hoards of Asian tourists walking around in lines. They really didn't seem to have a care in the world, and I don't know if I would either with all of the cheese and mountains they are blessed with.
The Euro-mountain-experience

After Grindlewald we hopped on the train again to head all the way around the country and to the very Southeast. We had decided to try our pudgy little hands at some alpine mountaineering in the Bernina group. This landed us a night in St. Moritz, which seems like a pretty ridiculous town. The day afterward though we cruised up to Pontresina and started our hike up toward Bernina to spend the first night in the Boval hut.

180 degree pano from the Boval Hut, thanks to Claire for stitchin'er up for me!

And what a hut it was, with amazing views of Piz Morteratsch, Bernina, Bellavista, Palü and the confluence of two large valley glaciers. Oh, and as soon as we showed up they had beer and a 5-course meal made. I think I could get used to this euro-mountaineering afterall.

The trick is the wake up times. When you show up at the hut the hut-keepers ask in a very friendly way, 'so, what are you climbing tomorrow?' I got suckered into answering this every time, ready to talk about the cool routes we had planned, how sweet the mountains were, etc. But when you tell them which mountain they just nod and say 'breakfast is at 3:00am then.' And me who thought they wanted conversation...

So the next day we stumbled out of bed and started scrambling up toward Piz Morteratsch. There was a big group from the Swiss alpine club advanced mountaineering course that was also on the route, and they had a different style of climbing. Namely, they roped up for everything. The rock section on Morteratsch wasn't that hard (about class three) but all of the Swiss roped up for the entire thing. This was a bit weird, and caused Jeannie and I to doubt a bit why we weren't roped up. Casey insisted that we didn't need to be, and that it was actually more dangerous to simul climb those bits, so we decided against it. It was the right decision on this route too, as the rock had excellent holds and was not as difficult as it looked. We then climbed around a ridge and up to the summit of Piz Morteratsch, which has one of the cooler views I have ever seen. Amazing glaciated peaks all around, and the elegant snow ridge that we had planned to climb on Bernina.
Nearing the top of the rock section on Morteratsch

At the top we were visited by some seriously awesome Flemish Belgians, who were such a fun contrast to the more business-like Swiss mountaineering style. They announced their summit arrival with hoots and hollers, shook out hands and engaged us in conversation about delicious beer, the worthless french-speaking Belgians, and Belgium's little-known status as a world mountaineering center.

Going down to the hut we had to climb down a waterfall/rock step on a rusty chain, and this may have actually been the crux of the route. We were rewarded though at the hut with beer, and then a leisurly afternoon gawking at Piz Roseg and trying to figure out how the hell we were supposed to climb it the next day. Jeannie was not feeling all that well, and decided that she wouldn't be joining. Later the Swiss guide walked up and talked to us, and he was actually a really awesome and nice guy who gave us a lot of good information.

So Casey and I set out alone at 3:45, a half hour behind the Swiss (show offs.) We had to cross the two large glaciers and then climb up to the rock section, but we made a wrong turn in the darkness and ended up too high above the first glacier. We continued on though, because we could see the Swiss team crossing it and they were still up the valley from us. This turned out to be a big route-finding blunder and ended up putting us almost two hours behind the Swiss team. At this point were were considering bailing on Roseg given the difficult route and forecast for thunderstorms, but at the last minute we found the route and decided to make a run for it.

Our route on Piz Roseg

We hoofed it across the two glaciers and actually managed to catch up to the Swiss at the base of the rock section. This section was really cool, as it was challenging without being too scary. It was also my first time using a running belay, and I really enjoyed this efficient style of climbing. The rock section would traverse two towers and then join the hanging glacier above, and we got had some airy moments as the wind picked up. We also got off route for a bit and had to belay a couple of sections that were about 5.6 (fun with mountaineering boots and howling wind :-)
Casey starting up the rock section on Roseg

It was a relief to finally gain the glacier above, but as we started up and neared the snow-saddle we knew we had a problem. The wind became more and more intense as we climbed higher, and as soon as we got to the saddle it was strong enough to literally throw both off us off out feet several times. It was a struggle to even walk and when we got blown down we would immediately anchor in with our ice axes. I had never felt wind this strong in my life (not even in the 80-90mph storms back home.)

There was no way I was going to continue the route in these conditions, as above us it narrowed to a knife-edge snow ridge with a HUGE drop off the side the wind was blowing toward. I really believe that if we had gone up there our chances of being blown off and to serious injury or death would have been upwards of 50%. FTS. So we called it good and bailed out down the normal route. This dropped down a steep glacier and then couloir to a very long traverse of several glaciers on the way to a different hut where Jeannie would meet us. What a slog. I was pretty beat by the time we made it to the hut, but Jeannie showed up and bought the two tired and shut-down mountain climbers beers for our efforts. And she kept us entertained with tales of the cow-chasing, cable car crossing and meadow napping that had filled her day.

By this time I had gotten a little bit smarter about the workings of Swiss Mountain huts, and managed to corner and flirt with the hut-keep girl for a while in my quest for Swiss citizenship. I was also a little more strategic with the 'what are you climbing tomorrow' question and bought us some time with a 5:30 breakfast. Sweet.

So in the morning we set off up the glacier again with Jeannie, to see what we could see. We thought to climb a peak at the top which we believe to be the border with Italy, and that would be a good enough day for us. Once on the summit we made an elaborate show of dancing around and touching the downhill side of the summit, joking about how we couldn't wait to get home and mark off Italy on our facebook stuff-white-people-like where i've been maps. (Later we would see another map and realize that we were on the wrong mountain entirely. Douche bags.)

We spent the rest of the afternoon hiking down from the mountain and back to the other hut. This took some time as we had to stop and swim in a beautiful glacial lake. Turns out I am a bit out of practice with polar bear swimming though, as I made some pretty funny noises getting in and out of that thing. We then crossed the river on the cable car and hiked up the moraine and back to the hut from two nights before. And this time it was packed, but that didn't stop them from busting out some really delicious food for dinner.

The next day we had a long hike out to Pontresina, which was made more fun by the bimmeling cows and later game of spot-the-Italians. In town we marched our little butts into a pizzaria before heading off to meet pick megan up from her horse tour. While waiting for her we sipped wine by the rushing river and reflected on how Switzerland is pretty much the best country ever and the kids who are born there are all lucky little shits.

The next day we parted ways and Jeannie and I headed to Zürich. We spent several hours walking on the beautiful lakefront before heading to the airport where we had decided to crash before flying out early in the morning.

3 comments:

Little Yeti said...

Thanks for taking the time to write that! Good stuff.

Scott Pendleton said...

The best part of that is if Jeannie hadn't fooked up her passport a couple years ago she would have spent a week in St. Moritz skiing some seriously great terrain.

Carie said...

So... you guys are coming back, right? Like, in a month and a half when I'm there? I mean, I don't know if you guys remember, but Munich is on the southern border of Germany, and Germany shares its southern border with such mountainous countries as Austria and Switzerland (sound familiar?). There's also a nice hike out of Munich called the Zugspitze that may also ring a bell. And I'll be there during ski season, too.