Urner alps climbing

Since my Nepal trip, we’ve tried to get to go do some climbing every summer with my tentmate Markus – a very experienced Swiss mountaineer, but for various reasons it has failed to be so. Until now. In the past Markus has climbed Gasherbrum I in Pakistan, all the ridges of Matterhorn, Baruntse and Mera Peak in Nepal and last summer climbed and paraclided off the Muztagh Ata. I would be in good hands.

At first we had a plan of not to have a plan and just decide what to do and where to go once we would get there, but I started to hesitate on this plan as we would have only four days to use – including the travel from and to airport. Thus quickly was realized, that IF we would we like to utilize the time as best we could, we would need to have a plan. Also it came quite apparent the 4000m peaks would add the difficulty of acclimatization. Four days would be just oo short time to both acclimatize properly for some big peak and actually climb it. So we decided to opt for the 3000m peaks that are plenty there too. Many of them very, very nice and difficult.

On one sunny Monday morning in July, I arrived at the Zürich airport and was this time a bit wiser and bought the ticket from the vending machine already inside the baggage claim area. A good way to spend the time waiting for your luggage. We had agreed to meet in Luzern – an hour train ride away – and conveniently en route for both of us on the way to the mountains. Finding the right train was again a struggle and eventually I made a useless stop and long walk to change trains in Zürich HBF just to board the same train that left the airport some 20 minutes later. A mental note to myself to check the train schedules already at home. Despite the excellent train system in Swiss, it is rather difficult to find a timetable from one place to another – all the machines seemed to only sell you the tickets and not tell when the next connection would be. Or I just could not find the right one.

Gearing up at the Göscheneralps

Markus Stähelin Gearing up at the Göscheneralps

We had decided to hit the Uri Alps –  or Urner Alps as they are also referenced –  a group of 3000m peaks with probably less trafic than you would find in the neighboring Bernese Oberland. Markus had booked as beds in the Bergseehütte for the first night. It was sold out for the second so we would have to move. After 1,5 hours of driving we arrived at the Göscheneralp at the end of the road in Göschenertal – a valley leading up to an artificial lake bearing the similar name. A quick gear up for the evening and the next days climb and we were off for the 600m vertical approach to the hut. It took us only 1h 15min for the walk in, which did give some indication that we weren’t totally out of shape.

Our sleeping quarters at the Bergseehütte

Our sleeping quarters at the Bergseehütte

Once there we got our dedicated sleeping “cave” and heard also that we would have in the end space also for the second night. Great news that we do not need to move right away and climb more from the same base, but bad in a way as we only backed snacks and spare clothes for the one night. And that 600m down and back up next day after the days climbs didn’t not sound too inviting either. We just had to be a bit more smelly 🙂 We did not spend too much time taking in the place and headed pretty instantly to a nearby Via Ferrata (or Klettersteig as they are called in the German speaking parts) called “Crocodil” to climb that as we still had time.

Markus starting the klettersteig Crocodil

Markus starting the klettersteig Crocodil

I hadn’t climbed a Via Ferrata before, so did not know exactly what to expect. Or what would this Grade III mean on the 5 grade scale. The picture of a family next to the topo diagram did sound ok, though 🙂 I had good feelings that I would survive. The approach to the route was only around 20 minutes and clearly marked with blue&white paintings. Markus headed off and I soon followed. I have to say that it was pretty exposed in places, though not in anyway to be uncomfortable. Which is probably a good thing since we were supposed to some proper climbing too in the next days.

Near the end there was this airy cable walk you could do. It was possible to bypass it, though, by climbing down and up. At the back you can see the mouth of the "crocodile" which gives the name to the route.

Markus Stähelin Near the end there was this airy cable walk you could do. It was possible to bypass it, though, by climbing down and up. At the back you can see the mouth of the “crocodile” which gives the name to the route.

The Via Ferrate only took some 45 minutes, though the topo says 1,5-2,5 hours for the route. It might take that time going on a leisure pace, but we did not really stop for the views en route. In some 20 minutes we were back at the hut. There was still time before dinner and we went to do some crag climbing at the closest Klettergarten where we had looked some interesting looking routes on the way back. Nothing very difficult, just a couple of 5a-5b and one 5c route. Markus had bought the local guidebook Granit Zauber from the hut, as I had mistakenly left my new Schweiss Plaisir Ost, at the car. Markus also did not take his as he thought I would take the new one. Luckily they were selling this here and Markus thought that it might be actually better since it was pretty light and had pretty much all the route you could do from the hut.

Markus climbing on of the sport climbs we did. Regular "butt shot".

Markus climbing on of the sport climbs we did. Regular “butt shot”.

Then it was time for the dinner. I’ve only stayed – before this – I think only twice in alpine huts and for the both times the food has been great (though, pretty much all the food tastes great while outdoors). And there has been plenty of it. This was no exception. The potato-pasta with sauteed onions and apple sauce might not sound fancy, but there it was just excellent. Not too long after that it was time to hit the bed.

Staple food in the Swiss alps: Pasta, potatoes, sauteed onions and apple sauce to give the mix an odd twist

Staple food in the Swiss alps: Pasta, potatoes, sauteed onions and apple sauce to give the mix an odd twist

The next morning the weather was a bit foggy, but the forecast promised it to clear up towards the day. I had not slept that well as the top bed right above as made the most horrible creaking sound every time the people above us moved a bit. Still it was a pretty good nights sleep. Breakfast at the huts is perhaps the one thing you could complain about for the nutrition value. Usually they consist of cereals & müesli, bread, juice and tea & coffee. In addition there was slices of some strong alpine cheese, but still you can’t really call it a “strong breakfast”. Just how many bowls of cereals can you eat? Well, I guess the idea is that you fill-in during the evening and in the morning go “light ‘n fast” as they say. Personally, I might prefer something more filling as I can be quite heavy eater when the need be as Markus can recall from our time in Nepal… I hardly ever left any food on the table.

Bergseeschijen as seen from the hut. Our route the South Ridge climbs the left edge of the slabs on the face in the shadow. Then follows the rightward curving ridge to the top.

Bergseeschijen as seen from the hut. Our route the South Ridge climbs the left edge of the slabs on the face in the shadow. Then follows the rightward curving ridge to the top.

Markus coming up the first pitch.

Markus coming up the first pitch.

After getting our gear ready we left the hut around 8am heading for the Bergseeschijen Südgrat, a classic climb which is fully bolt protected. This “fully bolt protected” in these alpine environments means taking up to 5-7m meter runouts, though on easy ground. The route started off with a surprisingly sketchy slab climbing even before the first bolt and continued pretty much the same for the whole first pitch. After that it started to easy out, though having some trickier moves here and there, but generally pretty easy stuff until the very last two pitches which were again harder. We spent 3h on the climb and topped out well before noon. It was pretty apparent that our team work was pretty good right from the beginning. We both had pretty much the same level of comfort in climbing, protecting and setting up belays and all. Things worked quick and we did not spend too much time working out ropes and all.

Moving on to the ridge proper. Multitude of routes join this classic South Ridge route for the final few pitches.

Moving on to the ridge proper. Multitude of routes join this classic South Ridge route for the final few pitches.

At the very top of the Bergseeschijen

At the very top of the Bergseeschijen

Wrote the names to the Gipfelbuch. Managed to mess the date, though.

Wrote the names to the Gipfelbuch. Managed to mess the date, though.

We had a snack break at the top before heading down on the backside by the standard Alpine Trail path which descends to the adjacent saddle and down the rock face protected with cable and few steel rungs. Since it was pretty early still, we decided instead of heading back to the hut, go for the neighboring Hochschijen and climb its south ridge also. Another classic in the area. The walk from the top of Berseeschijen to beginning of the Hochschijen took pretty much exactly an hour. This route would be in two parts divided by an saddle which would give us an option to bailout if time looked too late.

The way down from the Bergseelücke is protected with few steel steps and a cable

The way down from the Bergseelücke is protected with few steel steps and a cable

Key points of the Hochschijen South Ridge route

Key points of the Hochschijen South Ridge route

The first pitch of the Hochschijen South Ridge. Markus decided to try to do some of the climbing in trekking boots, but had to change into real climbing shoes already on the second pitch.

The first pitch of the Hochschijen South Ridge. Markus decided to try to do some of the climbing in trekking boots, but had to change into real climbing shoes already on the second pitch.

The crux pitch. It was a bit steeper for the first half.

The crux pitch. It was a bit steeper for the first half.

The summit book of Hochschijen

The summit book of Hochschijen

The start was easy, but runout followed by another easy pitch but with just a couple of trickier moves in the beginning. Next few pitches were again pretty easy up till the top of the first tower and the saddle. At the saddle it was only 2:30pm and we decided to go all the way to the top. The first pitch right off from the saddle is the crux of the route and rightfully so. It was some proper climbing for sure. There were some thin face moves followed by a crack and the pitch was also quite long – 40m or so and in places a bit runout to make it more fun. There might be an alternative on the right, but don’t know if it would be easier or not. After that it was a gain few pitches of easier climbing to the top, though the final pitch had again few more harder moves. All in all, it took 2h 30min to the top. We did not spend much time on the top other than taking the mandatory summit pictures and headed straightaway down via the four abseils you need to do. The abseil route in itself looked also a nice slabby climb too if the south ridge route would be too much. We were back at the hut again quite exactly one hour later we left from the top.

Abseiling from the top

Abseiling from the top

Then three more abseils down the slabs

Then three more abseils down the slabs

Next to the hut there is a crystal clear mountain lake which gives the hut its name. After having climbing or walking closer to 1000m vertical during the day in a perfect sunshine that appeared after the foggy morning, it was quite refreshing to dip into the cold lake. Markus thought that every Finn is basically living off a hole in the ice during winter time, but I proved that wrong as I’m not actually that keen on cold water. I dipped in, kind of liked it, but it was still freaking cold. Being refreshed by the lake, it was nice to put back on the same dirty clothes since we had none other to put on. Not worrying the smell a bit we took the last two pieces apple pie they had still left and I had the mandatory “topout” beer. Then dinner, relaxing and off to bed.

Swimming in the cold Bergsee

Swimming in the cold Bergsee

Beer, apple pie and both of our routes visible - Besgseeschijen on the left and Hochschijen on the right

Beer, apple pie and both of our routes visible – Besgseeschijen on the left and Hochschijen on the right

The hut warden made me these croquettes as the others got some meat. Being a vegetarian is not a problem at the huts.

The hut warden made me these croquettes as the others got some meat. Being a vegetarian is not a problem at the huts.

The next day we had planned a bit longer route: Schijenstock Südgrat. Again one of the classics. That way we started somewhat earlier and were off the hut already before 7am. One hour approach took as to the back of the ridge and up a gully filled with loose rock. There we put up the rope and started up simul climbing. This route was quite different from the two we did the previous day. First of all this route is all trad – not minding the few odd pegs – and it had in total 9 towers to cross over and from five you need to abseil down, many a full 25m abseils. This brings the total upward movement pretty much close to 1000 meters of vertical.

Early in the morning on the approach above the hut

Early in the morning on the approach above the hut

The final climb up to the ridge was through this loose gully

The final climb up to the ridge was through this loose gully

The route is starts with a long easy section of around grade 2-3a, which should be well in our simul climbing range. Well after 1,5h on the route and already having done quite a few pitched climbs, we were pretty damn surprised when we realized that we had not yet reached even the first tower! And it was supposed be that easy section all the way up here. Well… not worrying that too much we headed on. The climbing was varied and had all kinds of things from nice and easy to very exposed to having scary 10m runout on pretty steep face. Ok, we might have been a bit of route on that last one, but there were still some surprisingly runout and difficult stuff there considering the grade. Markus had to actually bailout on one lead and let me try instead. Eventually I managed to get up, but not going straight up but traversing to the right and even before that the moves that Markus had done were pretty tricky already.

A solid anchor, right?

A solid anchor, right?

Some of the easier bits were still quite exposed. Markus perhaps counting just how many towers we still have left.

Some of the easier bits were still quite exposed. Markus perhaps counting just how many towers we still have left.

There goes the route

There goes the route

Did I mention that there were 5 abseils? Meaning you needed to climb that same distance back up again? The actual abseils were ok, though some of them were in places were it was a bit difficult to start the abseil. All the abseil anchors were fully bolted though so no worries there. When we reached the top we had spent 7 hours on the route which still is in the guide book range (5/6-7h depending on the source), which means that this really is that long route. Not to be underestimated this one.

Some of the abseils were a bit awkward to get off

Some of the abseils were a bit awkward to get off

The very last wall to the summit. Finally. We simul climbed this all the way finding the easiest way up on the righthand side.

The very last wall to the summit. Finally. We simul climbed this all the way finding the easiest way up on the righthand side.

We had not spent pretty much any breaks during the climb so, having a snack break at the top was a welcomed thing. Again we did not spend much more than 15 minutes on the top as we knew that there was still a long descent to do back to the hut. Not to mention the walk back to car and then drive and walk up to the next hut. Anyway, we had not brought the double ropes with which we could have abseiled down the South Face straight back to the bottom. Instead we had read about another option to walk down the ridge to a West Couloir, which leads to the same basin as the abseils would. Only worrying thing was that all the sparse references said that you should have “good shoes” to go down that way and it was unclear if the writings on the topo also said that you would need double ropes on that way too.

A snack break at the summit

A snack break at the summit

The summit pose. You can btw just barely see the summit needle of Salbitschijen left of the cross.

The summit pose. You can btw just barely see the summit needle of Salbitschijen left of the cross.

Nonetheless we started down towards the gully, which we reached about 45 minutes later after scrambling on loose rock, on some small snow fields and making an abseil close to it. The way down the couloir looked pretty awkward as best. It was pretty soon apparent that nothing in the couloir is attached to anything and pretty much all you touched slipped loose. Lower down the coiloir was partially covered in snow, but it was still pretty steep. It did not help much that my “good shoes” were actually just trail running shoes which gave absolutely no purchase at all on the steep snow. After the first abseil from the top of the coiloir we decided that Markus would lower me full 50 meter down so that I might find something work on lower down and Markus would follow with his proper trekking boots from higher up. When I reached the end of the rope I was still on quite steep snow and had really no option other than to start desperately kicking steps on the snow and somehow get down. Just few meter lower I tried to step on a big – I mean BIG rock, like 1,5m by 1m – just it to rock loose by the lightest touch leaving me grasping the snow feet dangling in the void the rock left in. I was starting almost shit my pants with the situation. Inc by inch I managed, though, to get further down into a safe spot so that Markus could start coming down without a great change of him loosing some rock towards me. We he reached the place where I had left the rope, he tied the rope in to another (very suspect) anchor that was right there and I crept very cautiously back towards the rope to use it to glide down until the slope angle lessened. In the end I managed to slide unhurt all the way down to a level where you could walk, though my style of gliding on all fours was perhaps not the best example of glissading 🙂

The way down on the loose rocks

The way down on the loose rocks

Halfway down. You can see many of the towers of the route at the back.

Halfway down. You can see many of the towers of the route at the back.

Markus abseiling to the horrendous gully. First you need to abseil towards the big block with an anchor. Then do some more abseiling to the right on the very loose couloir.

Markus abseiling to the horrendous gully. First you need to abseil towards the big block with an anchor. Then do some more abseiling to the right on the very loose couloir.

This anchor had nice array of anchor tat in various stages of decay

This anchor had nice array of anchor tat in various stages of decay

Markus coming down the horrible gully. It is much steeper than it looks and basically none of the rocks on the right were stable enough to step on. Grr...

Markus coming down the horrible gully. It is much steeper than it looks and basically none of the rocks on the right were stable enough to step on. Grr…

After this one of the most scaring things I’ve ever done in the alps (or climbing in general) it was a nice pleasant walk back to the hut. We had some pie to replenish our strength before heading down to the car. We had booked the last night of the trip in Sidelen Hütte, close to Furkapass in the next valley. At the car there was no time to waste as we had another 1,5h of driving and over 400m of vertical to climb. We had not decided exactly what we would try to climb on the final day, so we took some gear for both rock routes and glacier and snow too. It was over 8pm when we arrived at the hut and luckily we had been able to reach them by phone and told that we would be late. Vegetable soup, another set of potato-pasta and apple sauce and a beer was pretty awesome to have. Knowing that we would have a rather early start the next morning we headed off to bed soon as we could.

Well earned beer at the Sidelenhütte

Well earned beer at the Sidelenhütte

After all the hesitation off what to do on the final day, we decided to try out the Galenstock in the end. Despite the fact that we had walked and climbed the previous day almost 1500m vertical and today we would need to go up again almost 900m. Our chosen route was South East Spur, which is not the most demanding route, but has a bit of everything: glacier approach, rock ridge and a snow field to the summit. Ultimately we decided that this is perhaps the only route we could have time to do in our chosen 10am turnaround time. We calculated that if we turnaround latest by 10am, where ever we would be, we should have enough time to catch my flight. With this in mind, we had a breakfast at 4:30am and we left the hut 5:15am.

Ready to go in the early morning light

Markus Stähelin Ready to go in the early morning light

At the time we left, it was already bright enough to not to need headlamp at all. Also the weather seemed to favor us in other ways too, as the sky was pretty much the whole climb overcast by gray clouds and it was not too hot on the glacier or snow and we did not need even the heavy sunglasses or sunscreen at any point. About 1,5h later we were at the base of the ridge. The glacier conditions had favored us too and did not need to put on crampons as there was enough snow on top get good purchase with just our big boots.

The approach from the base of the climb. The Sidelenhütte is behind the ridge on the left.

The approach from the base of the climb. The Sidelenhütte is behind the ridge on the left.

Some of the easier sections of the route

Some of the easier sections of the route

What to do when you have more cams than quickdraws on a bolted section? You improvise of course :)

What to do when you have more cams than quickdraws on a bolted section? You improvise of course 🙂

The start of the route was filled with loose rock, though the climbing was easy scrambling with just one real climbing move to do. After that the rock was better and climbing more enjoyable. Most of the route was easy climbing and despite we pitched the whole route, we did not use very many pieces of gear to protect. The more difficult places had bolts or pegs in just the right places and that made climbing quick and safe. The grade does not get harder than III+/IV- and the big boots are way to go here. I took us about 1,5h for the ridge and we topped around 8:20am. Which meant we had plenty of time to get to the top of Galenstock. The snow field to the summit took about 45 minutes. We had a little snack break at the top, but at 9:30am we were already well on the way down.

The last bit of ice to the top as seen not too far from where our route topped out. This is taken during the descend though as we can actually see something.

The last bit of ice to the top as seen not too far from where our route topped out. This is taken during the descend though as we can actually see something.

At the summit. I really need to start to improve my summit pose...

At the summit. I really need to start to improve my summit pose…

There are few options for descend, but for us the most convenient was the new abseil route put up in 2009 from P3252 as it is marked on the Swiss maps. In some places it was said that the point is difficult to find, but we did not have particular difficulties in finding it. There is a large steinman just north of it and there is perhaps a bit misleading text sprayed on the rocks saying “50m” with arrow pointing the way. That perhaps refers to the old abseil route which starts right next to it and has 3x 50 meter abseils with some awkward traversing or scrambling in between I’ve understood. The new route, however, is suited for single rope abseils the longest one being just shy of 25 meters. There are 6 or 7 abseils to do depending on the glacier, but the last one is very short one in any case. The route is quite steep and even overhanging in places and some of the anchors have been equipped with steel grills to stand on. Convenient, but pretty exposed. Much nicer than hanging in your harness at any rate. The abseils took closer to an hour, though there were some minor incidents of missing the next anchor by a meter or two. It is better to look around carefully for the next anchor while abseiling since some of them are a bit hidden away.

There is a big steinman near the abseil point. Markus is right on top of it in the picture.

There is a big steinman near the abseil point. Markus is right on top of it in the picture.

On the rock was written "50m" and an arrow, but the new abseils are all less than 25 meters

On the rock was written “50m” and an arrow, but the new abseils are all less than 25 meters

Couple of the abseil anchors had these metal plates to stand on. Convenient, but exposed at the same time.

Couple of the abseil anchors had these metal plates to stand on. Convenient, but exposed at the same time.

The descend down the glacier back to the hut went pretty smoothly, though, I completely lacked the glissading skills Markus had and found in places more efficient to slide on my but instead. It was fun and before noon we were already at the hut eating well earned and very fresh apricot pie. Now also the weather had changed from the lead gray skies to clear blue and perfect sunshine. What a perfect way to end the final day 🙂

What better than to sit on the patio eating apricot pie fresh from the oven after an excellent climb?

Markus Stähelin What better than to sit on the patio eating apricot pie fresh from the oven after an excellent climb?

Though the day was not yet over, as we still had the walk back to the car and the long drive to the Zürich airport and we had a schedule to do it. Once back at the car, I packed everything ready and off we went. On the way down we stopped in one self-service cheese shop, which sold local cheese made right there. I wanted to buy some cheese to take home with.. The “shop” was actually just a large cooler filled with different cheeses and a metal box next to it where you put the money. All the items were ready prices and you just took what you wanted and put the amount of money into the box. Simple. On the way in, we had passed this one road tunnel, which was under repairs as there was a big landslide next to it. The road had been apparently fully closed for some time and even now you had only one lane in use and cars needed to alternate on both directions. On the way in we had no problems, but now it was quickly apparent that this was not the case this time. We were completely stuck there and the line advanced only shortly when the cars were allowed to pass from our direction. I was pretty pleased we had decided on the early turnaround time and did not stretch the schedule. It would have really blowed to miss the flight.

Stuck in a traffic jam at the tunnel repairs

Stuck in a traffic jam at the tunnel repairs

Pro tip for all beer drinking people visiting Switzerland. Co-ops own brand beer only 0,50e for a pint! It is not perhaps the best one out there, but, hey, it's beer.

Pro tip for all beer drinking people visiting Switzerland. Co-ops own brand beer only 0,50e for a pint! It is not perhaps the best one out there, but, hey, it’s beer.

In the end, when we finally reached the airport after passing the traffic jam in the tunnels, making a short stop to buy some food and getting stuck into another traffic jam close to the airport, I had still plenty of time to pass while waiting for boarding. At the airport it was time to say goodbye to Markus, but we hoped that it would not take another four years for us to have a change do some climbing together.

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