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.

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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.