Funemployment: Switzerland part zwei (II)

Day 1: Grindelwald to Konkordia Hut

“Good ole’ fashioned Type 1 fun”

2 years after my first trip into the Bernese Oberland I find myself on the same train, impossibly winding it’s way up through the interior of the Eiger, towards what will be the jumping off point for our long ski mountaineering tour through this part of the Alps.

Unlike that first trip, with more snow and big mountain experience under my belt (versus just rock), this one will represent a lot of immensely enjoyable Type 1 fun (fun that’s fun while you’re having fun) versus the crippling anxiety and fear of Type 2 & 3 fun that characterized the first trip for me (“OMG these f*cking mountains are terrifying and trying to kill us!”). But we’ll get to all that.

My third week in Switzerland on this trip, we’re riding the Jungfrau line, a railway from Interlaken and Kleine Scheidegg, running partly underground through a tunnel through the Eiger and Mönch. Culminating at the Jungfraujoch railway station (3,454m) it is the highest in Europe. A tourist stop (“The Top of Europe!”) for most, it’s a convenient way to access this massive landscape for skiers, climbers, and hikers alike.

Half point stop, these tunnels are located partway up the notorious Eiger Nordwand (north face) and have witnessed their fair share of mountaineering drama.

Half point stop, these tunnels are located partway up the notorious Eiger Nordwand (north face) and have witnessed their fair share of mountaineering drama.

At the end of the line, the masses are shuttled off Disneyland-style to the multitude of gift shops, view points, ice caves, and all manner of other tourist traps. We sneak around them, donning jackets and harnesses, our packs laden with gear. Stepping out onto the glacier we prepare not only physically but mentally to enter another world. Leaving behind the safety and boredom of the Jungfraujoch, we pause to eat at a set of those recliner lounges more typically found beside a pool, a quick snack of cheese and bread before it’s time to duck the ropes and venture out.

Roped up for crevasse danger as we start the journey. Being in the front, Sean will likely fall in first and it would be my job to arrest our fall and potentially rescue him.

Roped up for crevasse danger as we start the journey. Being in the front, Sean will likely fall in first and it would be my job to arrest our fall and potentially rescue him.

A short ski brings us out onto the glacier and to the foot of our first objective: gaining a saddle onto the next glacier which we’ll ski down towards our first hut. We rope up due to crevasse danger (though not until I’d skied back to a shoe I dropped, “don’t fall in a crevasse and die during the first 1/2 hour of the trip Tommy!”) with Sean in the front and myself bringing up the rear (hopefully he falls in first). You can see our route outlined below in red (seen from a neighboring summit the next day), we wind our way upwards through crevasses and bergschrunds, very purposefully going slow as the last group in order to let the guided parties lead the way to safety. Unlike the states, most people in Europe opt for professional mountain guides in the Alps, though our pride and practicality ($600/Euro a day for some!) would not allow us to do that. There’s a lot of benefits to hiring a guide, and I’ll agree in many situations it makes sense, but this was terrain we felt was within our abilities, and the sneaky truth is that you can always let the guide go first and follow their lead.

Getting ready for the ski down through the glacier and icefall area.

Getting ready for the ski down through the glacier and icefall area.

Sean looks for our safest route down the Kranzberg.

Sean looks for our safest route down the Kranzberg.

After our first long, uphill slog (helllooooo altitude!) we reached the shoulder of the Lowitor and peered onto the icefield of the Kranzberg. Today being a relatively easy day, most of what lay ahead should be fun skiing. The only concern was that, skiing unroped you would really rather not fall into a crevasse, as that would probably represent your ultimate demise (and a really terrible way to go). Your speed while skiing makes this a lot less likely, but as we studied the icefield it wasn’t entirely clear where previous parties had gone. The only thing to do was study the map and directions some more, pick a choice, and just go for it. We left some distance between us in the hope that if the first person did manage to find a crevasse, at least the second would have time to stop and we’d only lose one of us.

Luckily, we managed to avoid any major mishaps like that along the way, and after some careful route finding we picked our way through the icefield and onto the lower slopes. Even better, the corn cycle was perfectly timed (good “corn” or “al dente” snow being that which has frozen overnight and is just thawing out at the right point, if you don’t have fresh powder this can be the next best thing) and we were rewarded with super fun skiing across the lower slopes onto the massive Konkordiaplatz glacier.

Out on the long, endless flats of the Konkordiaplatz making our way towards the hut. We would eventually exit this way days later (after crossing the pass just left of center).

Out on the long, endless flats of the Konkordiaplatz making our way towards the hut. We would eventually exit this way days later (after crossing the pass just left of center).

Another hour or so of poling across the flats brought us to our accommodations for the night: the Konkordiahutte. The hut lies above Konkordiaplatz, the point of convergence of several glaciers in the great Aletsch Glacier system of the Bernese Alps. Views from the hut are out of this world, with multiple glaciers all coming together, and massive mountains in every direction you looked. Only problem was, first you have to get UP to the hut!

Built high above the glacier, the hut employs a long stair system to access it. As climate change accelerates and the glaciers retreat, they’ve had to extend these ladders quite a ways. To get up, you’re forced to climb a staggering 400+ steps of creaking metal stairway, with guardrails on only one side. This was definitely not for the faint of heart, and surprisingly probably the scariest thing we did all day (the next morning we saw people roped up and being belayed down the stairs as there were multiple areas where a slip could be fatal).

The rewards though were well worth it as we quickly dropped packs and gear and headed straight for the kitchen, where warm food, cold beers, and jaw dropping scenery awaited us. In the picture above you can see another party enjoying afternoon beers from the helicopter pad, which is the main method of resupply for most of these remote alpine huts.

20190420_173216.jpg

After a few beers (ok probably more than a few), a huge dinner of cheese cheese and more cheese, and an evening sorting gear we got ready for sleep. The only drawback was that since this was Easter weekend, the hut was fairly crowded (must have been 60 or 80 people there) and sleeping quarters were a little cramped. Being exhausted enough to crash hard was great because it helped to even out the snoring, smells, and general cramped feeling we got snuggling up with 8 new bunkmates of various nationalities.

Sunset over the Bernese Alps from the deck of the hut. Early to early to rise for the next day’s adventures.

Sunset over the Bernese Alps from the deck of the hut. Early to early to rise for the next day’s adventures.

Ice ice baby (in Hyalite Canyon)

(Various ramblings and remembering from a week of ice climbing in Bozeman, MT with @nat_exploring

Apparently the way you get off ice climbs is using a technique called v-threads, you drill two holes that meet each other in the ice and thread some cord through that. The problem is, the ice here at the belay is pretty bad and we’re having a hard time finding anywhere to set one up. Sun is hitting it now, and everything is getting pretty melty. After a few tries we get some set, and each go over how much everyone weighs and sort ourselves from heaviest to lightest. Those weighing most will rappel first from the v-thread backed up with a few ice screws. Natalie, who’s lightest, will rappel last after cleaning the ice screws and relying only on the v-thread. The rappel heads down a snowy slope and above and overhanging rock face, a failure of the v-thread here would likely be very bad.

“See you at the next belay, be safe, don’t die."

 

We’ve headed out to Bozeman, Montana to climb the plentiful ice flows in Hyalite Canyon. Only about an hour from town, this shady canyon fills with frozen waterfalls in the winter, making it veritable playground for the ice addicted.

 

Being from sunny California I don’t get a lot of chances to climb ice, and for years I avoided it religiously. “Why would I get cold and climb ice when there’s plenty of warm, dry rock here year round? Cover myself in sharp points and trust my life to skinny ropes, risk the dangers of falling ice, and be generally miserable? No thanks!” However, as soon as I swung my first tool into the ice a few season ago I knew this would be a new thing. The visceral feeling of impact, chopping away ice and the satisfying thwack of a solid placement were amazing, and it came with the added bonus of increasing my skills for ventures into the alpine realm.

 

 

@chad.thedad  crushing the first step of Dribbles

@chad.thedad crushing the first step of Dribbles

Chad is a legend. It’s getting dark and we’re in the parking lot getting ready to head into town for dinner, but he’s just getting started, waiting for his brother so they can go climb in the dark “You just gotta drink enough wine and eat enough candy until you’re stoked again! You know, we have a thing here, if you’re not stoked enough you get whipped, 30 lashes with a rope!” “Fuck that I’m getting paid this is my paid time off! I’m going to make the most of it and climb!” I’m sorry Chad that I doubted you, the more we spoke the more I realized what a fantastic eloquent and completely stoked individual you are. 

 

“With every new day, you have another chance to fail again!”

This motivational sign hangs in the kitchen, appropriately depressing.

 

 

“This ice is great! It’s hero margarita ice status!” 

 

Look, margaritas are great, I love margaritas. However, climbing a big melting pile of margaritas is not necessarily ideal. As I follow, I’m hooking my tools into holes in the ice, that although great for hooking, remind me that I’m precariously perched on a thin sheet of ice barely attached to rock with flowing water behind it that’s quickly melting in the sun. GOOD TIMES. (That reminds me, the first place I officially remember reading about The Fun Scale was Kelly Cordes blog, the climber, writer, and margarita specialist.)

 

"They’re out of donuts…. Donuts and the Wu-Tang, I’d say that’s like 50% of who Tommy is. I’m often known for bringing big batches of like 36 donuts to work, you’d think it was because I love my coworkers and it’s for them, but really, it’s because I want to eat 24 of those 36….” Ramblings about donuts, which we never really manage to track down because the local communists bought all of them.

It's time to head home now, we set off into the night for the long drive. Alternating snow, ice, and various other meteorological conditions keep me on my toes as we drive, the last thing I want is to get the rental stuck in snow drift somewhere. Surprisingly, it wouldn't be frozen water that does us in, instead it's a large hairy mammal that appears suddenly in front of the car somewhere outside Yellowstone. I've got just enough time to react, slamming the breaks and swerving the car hard, enough time to help but not lessen the impact. The deer spins haphazardly into the air with an intense crunching sound as our hearts and car come to stop. Bits of fur are all that's left as we survey the damage on the side of the road and contemplate next steps. 

Our rental limps into the gas station, dragging pieces everywhere, people look very confused. Here we perform a feat of automotive home surgery, ripping, splicing, and removing the dead parts. Onlookers are still very concerned, but soon we have an appropriately Frankenstein of climbing rope and vehicle parts to get back on the road and knock out the final 12 hours to California.

IMG_7145 (1).jpg

Stetind: Type 1, 2, and 3 Fun

We were so naive.

What we thought we could accomplish, in such a short amount of time, was in retrospect laughable.

IMG_2409.jpg

Sean had been to Norway’s national mountain before, rising directly above the fjords, and been turned back by a snowed-out approach on this route once. They opted instead for the more traditional “Standard Route” on that trip. Still an impressive feat by any measure, the South Pillar would be a bit more of an undertaking. 

In my Yosemite dirtbag days it might not have been much, but today all of us climbed a lot less, we were a party of 3, and the approach was deciptively arduous for something that close to sea level.

We traveled the day before to the Tysfjord region by way of two ferries and in numerous twisting mountain roads. Awe struck by the vast displays of granite, our little blue car stopped at nearly every pullout for pictures and exclamations. Weather wasn’t ideal, having rained most of the day, but it cleared up enough in the afternoon that we had enough hope or gumption to give it a try the next day. “Hey, we drove all the way here right, might as well give it a shot.”

That night we settled into the only accommodation we could find that wasn’t more wet camping: The Stetind hotel, which clearly existed for the sole purpose of guided Stetind climbing parties. Though pricey, it offered some of the best pizza we’d tried and a hot tub, luxury compared to the damp grass fields we’d occupied to this point. The little town of (XYZ) was home to a cement factory and not much else, with no nightlife to speak of and an alpine start ahead of us we settled in for the night.

Northern Norway’s unique sun schedule prompted a vigorous debate about the definition of the next day's ‘Alpine Start’, luckily Sean won out with an earlier time than I suggested, perhaps deep down he knew our estimates would be off.

5am cups of instant coffee an oatmeal were punctuated with the ambitious goals we’d later approach with a mixture of hilarity and hatred.

“If we’re down early enough, we can catch both ferries back to Lofoten and get settled in for some beers.”

“Either way we’ll easily be back down in time for more pizza and beer!”

We’d be nowhere close to either of these time, in fact, we were so far off it’s still almost not funny.

Our first surprise came on the approach, which while it looked short, involved numerous bog crossings and endless uphill sections that quickly sapped any semblance of life from our tired bodies. On the way up, we ran into another party descending, who had bailed due to the “wet approach slabs and wet first pitches”. Not a good sign.

Undaunted, we continued up until the initial approach was in sight, and what a terrifying sight it was. 

IMG_2432.jpg

Hundreds of feet of steep, wet, imposing slabs guarded the entry to the climb. Crossing these would be a nightmare, and an unroped slip would certainly mean death. We pondered and schemed and honestly I threw out plenty of votes of non-confidence, advocating to bail. This is what scares me most; I’m happy on incredibly hard hard climbs roped up, but the idea of low-risk high-consequence approaches like this leaves me terrified. 

Luckily (perhaps) Sean convinced us there would be a reasonable way through if we only tried. Staring at them longer and longer, we began to piece together a potential passage. Opting to check it out, we were surprised to find a tiny path, only a foot wide at points, that lead through. The exposure at points was stupefying, we made easy moves and stepped on grass clumps with hundreds of feet of open slab and air beneath us, walking gingerly and slowly. Within a short time though we were through the worst difficulties, able to avoid a snowfield that shut down Sean’s previous attempt and up a minor waterfall. (Fun note, I got to solo the waterfall slab section twice when I made the excellent mistake of forgetting my climbing shoes and only sandwich at the bottom).

IMG_2434.jpg

At last though, we here here! Situated at the base of the climb, staring up at 14 pitches of impeccable rock that we had all to ourselves. Jumping at the bit, I racked up and began my first block of pitches. The climbing was wonderful, all within an easy range and with plenty of nice belay ledges to bring Sean and Nicole up to. After 4 easy pitches I handed the rope to Sean for a traversing pitch, and things started to go pear shaped.

IMG_2433.jpg

What we had failed to do, was bring along the most current info for the climb, instead using a slightly outdated that failed to mention a crucial bit of beta for this pitch: if you reach two bolts at a nice belay you’ve gone too far. As any of us would have Sean, climbed to what seemed like the logical belay and brought us over, preparing to head up his next pitch. This belay had some of the most spectacular exposure I’d ever encountered, and combined with the shady, wet, and freezing position, my teeth chattered with a mixture of anxiety and cold. Without going into too many details, what followed next was classic off-route hijinx. He climbed up an amazing crack into ever increasingly difficult territory, soon facing really challenging climbing and a lack of adequate protection. Realizing we might be off route, there was a long exchange about where to go, lots of up-down-back-around climbing exploration, and finally some ridiculous moves pulled into funky territory to get us back on route. Sean shined here, making the best of a bad situation and getting us back on track quickly. Unfortunately, we we failed to realize at the time, was that this would make it extremely difficult for myself and particularly his girlfriend Nicole to properly follow him. Because of the way the route was setup, I opted to go first and have Nicole clean the gear, thinking this would afford her more protection. Instead, what ended up happening was a horrifying situation in which she got swung off the route, trapped hanging in mid-air with a thousand foot plus drop directly underneath, while her thin rope dragged across a sharp edge.

Needless to say, things were not good.

Sean mounted a rescue back mission to retrieve her, and by the time we were all back at the next belay, everyone’s nerves were sufficiently frayed. More fear and anxiety began to creep up as we realized the daunting task ahead: we were moving slower than anticipated, almost all our food was gone, we’d just narrowly avoided an epic (or potential catastrophe), and we still had more than half the route ahead of us. We talked through (admittedly at my suggestion) the option of bailing, but decided that posed it’s own challenges and heading up would be our best bet. I volunteered to take the next few blocks so Sean and Nicole could climb together, grabbed the rack and turned off my brain.

IMG_2440.jpg

Seven-ish hours later we arrived at the summit, having just finished some of the most spectacular climbing I’ve ever found on a climb of this nature. It wasn’t easy for everyone, we were out of food and tired, and the last pitches of climbing had been the hardest on the route, complicated by some rope issues. Yet we were here! Sunset glowed around us on the giant flat mountain top, every party that had come via the standard route was gone, and we basked in the beautiful light.

But it was short lived.

IMG_2474.jpg

Sunset light means one evil thing: darkness is coming. With this in mind, we headed for the descent, which involved reverse climbing the Standard Route, a heady task. Sean took back over and we performed a running belay for the next few hours, down climbing, rappelling, and crossing lots of fourth class to finally bring us to the second summit.

IMG_2492.jpg

16 hours after leaving the car this morning we took the ropes off for the last time, happy to be out of thought of constant danger. Yet the night was moving in fast and we had to continue moving. Again, our initial estimates of a “45 minute descent” turned out to be laughably wrong. We trudged down endless scree fields, boulder hopping, and just generally miserable terrain. 2 hours later we neared our initial approach, where the misery didn’t stop. Drowsy, hallucinating, and dead-tired we kept up our stumbling. We tripped over rocks, fell asleep when we fell, cursed our aching knees, lamented a lack of water and food, and generally hated life. I’ve had some death-march approaches and descents but this was easily the worst. At points I swore the walking would never end, I’d died, or been cursed by a troll, and doomed to forever wander the forest. The fjord never got any closer, the joint-crushing boulders never ended, and all hope began to be lost. All around me I heard noises, phantom climbers, long after I’d lost both Nicole and Sean. I would suddenly stop, terrified someone was behind me, and shine my dying headlamp. No one. Tree limbs across the path taunted me with sleep, and more than once I laid my head onto them, closed my eyes, and only startled awake and I was falling. Sometime around 12:30am I made it to the car, and since they were behind and had the keys, I curled up on the asphalt with the rope as a pillow and shivered myself to sleep.

Sometime around 1:30am the others arrived. All I could manage to do was hastily throw the bare minimum of my tent up, quaff an entire cup of scotch, and pass out it’s floor.

Stetind truly provided the entire range, from joyous type 1 to “never again” type 3 fun, thank god I have a terrible memory, because I’d do it all again in heartbeat.

 

 

 

Rain Days - PNW Fly Fishing

(This blog article includes pictures taken by P. F., perhaps with or without his consent, just keep that in mind..)

 

Tattoos. The trip started with tattoos. Sounds weird but it’s a thing and it would be more of thing if it weren’t for weather. My main SF tattoo artist (IG: @jacobsenart) moved up to Seattle a while ago, a major bummer because while he did awesome work for cheap having to fly up got expensive. Well I had to get that way for a second session on my second arm so why not see all my friends in the city that’s basically Santa Clara 2.0

My goal (as always) was to convince everyone I could into some terrifying climbing goals that might or might not kill us or otherwise provide great shots. Obviously that doesn’t jive with everyone, and it didn’t end up happening with this trip for 2 big reasons: 1) it rained the WHOLE time and 2) I was recovering from a big tattoo which isn’t great for those kind of adventures (I learned that dumb lesson by getting a tattoo and immediately going into the desert for some months, which caused all the ink to fall out and become an even worse tattoo than it was).

I don’t care how much all my friends tell me the PNW is great, it sucks. We showed up and the forecast called for like 12 days of rain. “No dude, when it’s nice it’s really nice!” yeah but it’s really never great. So I spent some time in Seattle getting ink pushed into my flesh then we tried to avoid all the rain by getting out to the East Side of the mountains. Fly fishing? Sure I had no experience of what it was like but it is in the Patagonia catalogue of sports so might as do it! Turns out it was great.

IMG_5649.JPG

Having no experience in a sport is great, I got to follow Pat around learning about where to look, what to imagine, and how’d they’d find the really special spots. Years before I’d served the same role for climbing, learning it myself then taking all my friends to do it! You spend all this time teaching yourself then when you get to share it becomes real, really real, and all these weird conversations you had in your head become real memories. I highly recommend everyone give up everything they ever did in their life ever 2 years and take up entirely new stuff, it will keep you so young.

 

So we drove all around the east desert finding different river bends before it was time to try fly fishing. To be honest I was pretty much just posing, trying to get some good pics, and that I did. But once I tried to actually fish I figured out how meditative it was, there’s something extra special about the whole experience you get into a flow like no other sport. You get the flow climbing, skiing, running, and in all kinds of other sports, but this was the most meditative easy beautiful and calming sport I’d done. Having put a lot of time and effort into meditation recently, fly fishing was the closest thing I found to it.

IMG_5696.JPG
IMG_5704.JPG