Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Wetterhorn


The guidebook calls the Wetterhorn the mountain to climb in this region. I obviously disagree, as for me it was the Eiger, but it seems hard to pick just one mountain, as it depends on your viewpoint. From Grosse Scheidigg, though, the Wetterhorn is indeed the dominate mountain and the north face of the Scheidigg Wetterhorn is incredibly captivating, as I've previously written. We choose the Wetterhorn as our last mountain, as it was the most obvious mountain left. In the San Juans of Colorado there is also a mountain called the Wetterhorn. It was named after this much mightier, though considerable lower, Swiss summit. The Swiss Wetterhorn is just 3701 meters (12,142 feet) tall. The Colorado version is 4272 meters (14,016 feet)
Our objective, from town
From Grindelwald there are five obvious directions to head. You can head down valley back to Interlaken, take a train west to Kleine Scheidigg, take a bus east to Grosse Scheidigg, or you can hike up the incredibly steep, narrow valleys to the glaciers to the south via the Schreckhorn Hut or the Gleckstein Hut. The latter is the eastern of the two and the basecamp for ascents of the Wetterhorn. Homie and I made a reservation there Wednesday morning. We then packed our gear and relaxed until the early afternoon before boarding a bus to the Hotel Wetterhorn (the end of the free buses). On the way we stopped in town for a ice cream to help fuel our hike into the hut at 2300 meters.

The amazing thing about the mountains in Switzerland is how nearly vertical slopes are covered in thick, vibrant, luxurious, green grass. We also saw pine trees growing straight sideways from the steep slopes. These bright green slopes, coupled with the deep blue ski and the beautiful white glaciers are what make these mountains so unique. In Colorado we have some slopes with grass on them, but they are rare up high and they aren't thick or deeply green.

We hiked initially through some cow fields, hearing the cows clanking bells that are ubiquitous here. We even some some cows against the rock wall on top of a significant snowfield and wondered what the cow was doing up there. There was no grass to it. Maybe it was training to make its escape over the mountains to Austria - sort of a reverse of the Sound of Music - The Sound of Cow Bells.
Hiking into the Gleckstein Hut enroute to the Wetterhorn. Hey, isn't the Eiger?

The cows fields are not ringed by barbwire, in general. They are partitioned by tiny half-inch-wide material strung between flimsy plastic posts. I wondered how this would possibly contain these huge, fat cows and learned how on the way down from the Schilthorn. The fabric between the posts has some metal in it and they electrocute the fence, at least some of the time, maybe until the cows learn not to touch it. Coming down from the Schilthorn we noticed a portal battery device hooked up to the fence. In trying to re-secure the barrier, after passing through it, I thought I had to get the metal hook through a loop in the fabric. Having trouble I grabbed the fabric to hold it still and got quite a shock. 

The exposure on this hike is tremendous and you need to pay attention. There can be no day dreaming or casually taking in the view. If you want to look around, you need to stop and stand still. For this reason, hiking this trail with young kids would be terrifying. I'd rope them up. In fact, we didn't see any small children on this hike and that's a good thing. At one point we had to walk right through a small waterfall

We made it into the hut in just 2h10m, mostly because there was no great place to stop and get an ice cream, like at Baregg on the way to the Schreckhorn Hut. This hut is the nicest yet. It is just gorgeous and you can even take a shower here (3 CHF), not that we did. It was so nice out and hot outside the hut in the lounging area. At dinner we sat at a table with three Japanese hikers. There was another group of about ten Japanese hikers also staying at this hut. The Alps are very popular with the Japanese and they are by the most numerous foreigners in Grindelwald. Next is probably the British. There are very few Americans here.
Our first hut, the Ostegg Hut, had no guardian at all. The second, the Mitteleggi Hut, had a solitary man. The third, the Schreckhorn Hut, was run by a couple. This hut had a whole family at it, including a son and daughter. After dinner the kids put out some salt on the rocks to attract Ibex and sure enough these alpine goats came right up to the rocks around the hut. We also saw the animals near the summit of the Schilthorn. 

This time we just got dinner at the hut and not breakfast, since it hadn't been that satisfying anyway, certainly not for the cost. The next morning we had to wake ourselves up (horrors!), which we did at 3:25 a.m. Not eating breakfast allowed us to start up the mountain first, at around 3:50. Homie led the way up a steep rocky trail, following the weiss-blau-weiss (white-blue-white) markings painted on the rocks. After 1500 feet or so this deposited us on the glacier, which is very small by Alpine standards, and completely invisible from the hut. We roped up and donned crampons and axes. I suspect we had them on for less than 20 minutes before we exited onto a rock rib. 

We stayed rope, more out of habit, but the climbing was mostly class 3. It felt a bit silly to stay roped, but we knew it would get harder eventually. It didn't for a quite a long way. The nice gneiss gave way to loose, slabby limestone and the climbing was more like 4th class but with many loose stones. We knew the route traversed right to the Wettergrat - a rib of rock leading up to the Wettersattel - a col between the Wetterhorn and the Mittelhorn, but I kept putting it off, as the going was pretty easy, though a bit unpleasant. This was a mistake, as the route on the Wettergrat is solid and much more appealing. 
Descending from just below the summit
When I did make the traverse to the Wettergrat I had to cross a couloir. This couloir did not have any snow in it and just a small stream of water coming down it. I didn't think much of this and paid the price. Within five feet of the stream the rock was completely verglassed. I didn't notice this until it was too late and as soon as I put my boot down on it, my foot slid out from under me and I went down hard on my left hip and calf. I started to slide down the stream, in the water and surrounded by verglas. I flailed instantly and quickly to get out of it before I tumbled too far down. In just a few seconds I was on the other side, wet and sore. The pain in my leg would stay with me for the rest of the day. 
One of the tricky, steep limestone steps on the final rock section

Once on the Wettergrat, we simul-climbed easily (5.2/3 at most) upwards towards the col. Just below the col I could see tracks leading through steep snow to the col and decided to stay on the rock, thinking, in correctly, we could climb to the summit completely on rock. This section, easily avoided, proved to be the crux and probably was around 5.6. Above, we had to immediately put on crampons. My deviations from the normal route were not working out very well and from then on I stuck to the script.
Climbers descending the snow ridge above the Wettersattel
We cramponed steeply up a hard snow arete, but with existing steps. Above was more slabby limestone with some steep steps. After struggling a bit with the first step, I pulled off my crampons for the remainder of the climb - the last 400 vertical feet. Homie kept his on. We followed the route marked with 3-foot tall metal bars and clipped the ring at the top of them for protection. Soon we were on the summit, just the two of us for the very first time on this trip. The view was outstanding, as was the weather. 

After thirty minutes to rest, eat and photograph, we started down. We had briefly thought about traversing two other peaks but neither one of us was motivated. We'd felt lethargic all day. I think the trip had just worn us down a bit, if not physically, certainly mentally. Homie led the way down the Wettergrat and I followed behind, slipping a couple of times, but never in danger, just clumsy. We put  our crampons back on for the glacier section and followed tongues of snow much lower on the way down than we used on the way up. Not ten feet from where I'd remove my crampons, I caught a crampon while trying to gain flatter ground and fell face first into the talus. Ouch. Further down, I was walking on the steep grass next to the trail and when I transitioned back to the trail, I slipped and fell face first again, this time tweaking my finger. Clearly I was fatigued, as I was walking lazy and making mistakes.
Homie high on the Wetterhorn
When we got back down to the hut the family there was making preparations for the big celebration that night. August 1st is celebrated at Swiss National Day - sort of like their Fourth of July, but this has only been a national holiday since 1994, though they picked this date due to some resolution back in the 1200's. Switzerland itself has only been independent since 1814 and didn't officially become a nation until 1848. Before that they were just provinces of Germany, though strongly independent ones. Independence and neutrality run deep in the Swiss, as evidenced by their widely known neutrality in both world wars. In both wars the nation was militarily mobilized to fiercely protect their borders, with 500,000 soldiers in World War II. Hitler did plan to eventually invade, but it wasn't worth the trouble at the time. Switzerland didn't even join the United Nations until 2002. They don't use the Euro in Switzerland, they use the Swiss Franc, but many places will take it. 

We rested at the hut for a bit and I wanted to take a nap, but Homie wisely got us moving before I fell asleep. The hike down went in around 1h45m. I was taking it very slow, as I was really feeling my knees. With about a thousand feet left to descend, I took my last fall, this time into the lush grass surrounding the trail, stopping just before a barbwire fence. Ugh. I was surprised I didn't fall getting on the bus back down the hill.

We stopped in Grindelwald proper to buy groceries for the next 40 hours or so. I bought too much and will likely carry a snack onto the plane. Back at the hostel we made dinner and tried to stay awake long enough to see the fireworks. We heard plenty and saw the burning fires high on the mountainsides, but sure didn't think anything to rival an American Fourth of July. Maybe we fell asleep before the big crescendo. 
Relaxing at the Gleckstein Hut

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