This is the central statue at a roundabout in Bad Füssing, Germany. I think the author deserves an award, whether it was intentional or accidental. Upon noticing that also the second “s” in the town’s name might just be an assimilated “t”, the citizens of the neighboring town called it Angering 🙂
In July 2017, my friend Honza asked me if I would like to go with him up the Eiger. He intended to climb the Heckmair route on the north face at some point and wanted to take a look at it from the west ridge and familiarize himself with the descent route. I was hesitant at first, due to the information I found about the character of the west-flank route – a very slippery, unstable terrain for the descent, basically the worst type of terrain for my equally unstable knee. But the more I read about the route and the more videos I watched, the more my worries became overwhelmed by the expected beauty and challenge of the ascent. And, of course, by the simple fact that it was the Eiger. We still had to wait for a good weather forecast. It finally came for the 20-21 August.
I hadn’t been feeling particularly healthy when Honza picked me up in Strakonice (South Bohemia) shortly before midnight, and though it was quite warm, when it was my turn to drive, I had to put my junkie suit on – i.e. a hoodie and a winter cap. Neither of us had slept much prior to our trip, so we turned in a few kilometers past Munich. I felt a bit better in the morning, but I was still unsure whether I would be able to continue above our planned bivouac the next day.
We finally arrived in Grindelwald in the afternoon, a bit later than planned, and took a train all the way up to Eigergletscher station (2320 m). Though the forecast predicted clear sky for the next two days, there was a thick cloud sitting on top of not only the Eiger, but also some of the other peaks. On the train, I realized I had left my camera in the car – fortunately Honza hadn’t forgotten his.
From the station, we followed the rail tracks up to the tunnel and then went up the obvious path toward the southern slopes of Rotstock. The trail goes up some good rock and offers some enjoyable easy climbing (I UIAA). We took a break in the col between Rotstock and the cloud-clad Eiger, enjoying the atmosphere and the two non‑alcoholic beers that we brought along as liquid energy bars for the start of the ascent. From this point, we continued up toward and along what looked like a snowfield, but in reality was a small glacier, rather thick at its head. We had intended to go up this “snowfield”, but upon observing the gaping tunnels opening into its side, we opted to go up the scree as far up as possible. When we got all the way up, we found that there was a big bergschrund (a gap between the glacier/snowfield and the rock), up to 10 m deep and about 2 m wide. We put our crampons on and traversed along the bergschrund toward a gully, where the easiest point to get on the rock was supposed to be. And it was, but I would advise anyone who goes up that way to rope up – it wasn’t obvious, but there was an inconspicuous snow bridge at the foot of the gully – it looked as if the bergschrund had tapered off, but in reality, we were standing above a 10-15 m hole above rocks and a stream of water. We would realize this on the way down, only after we had crossed it again, unroped. The snow bridge was solid enough, but I wouldn’t cross it unroped again. After entering the gully, we had to go through a tunnel under another snow bridge, and we emerged at the foot of the second rock step, about 50‑100 m high, the first more demanding part of the climb. There was a fixed rope with some knots there. We took off our crampons and Honza surmounted the first more difficult point (III UIAA), right at the foot of the step. With the heavy bag on his back, it wasn’t without difficulty, and he appreciated the fixed rope being there. I went the same way, but in my case, the rope had skipped over some bump on the rock above, and I turned into the bob of the pendulum. Once on the ground again, I tried to climb up the 10 mm rope, now hanging over a small cliff, but with my feet in the air, it proved to be too difficult. I opted to clip my bag onto the end of the rope and climb up the same way Honza did, only without the heavy bag weighing me down – which proved to be quite easy. After I climbed over the first few meters, I hauled the bag up, and we continued up the rest of the rock step without any difficulties (I-II UIAA). There were two more fixed ropes above this one, but there was no need to use them on the way up – but I would later more than appreciate them on the way down. Once we climbed over the first 50 m or so, straight up, with the gully to our right, we traversed along the ledges to the left (i.e. north), following the few cairns – there are only three of them that I noticed, but the route is quite obvious on the way up, it is much more difficult to find the right path on the way down. At one point, even though I was careful about what I was grabbing and stepping onto, a foothold collapsed under my foot when I had all my weight on it, but fortunately I was holding onto the rock with both hands, so I was able to stay where I was. Otherwise I would have probably just dropped only about one meter onto the ledge below me, but with the fully extended leg, the heavy bag, and the wobbly knee, this would not have been pretty.
Surprisingly soon, we arrived at the bivouac – the “Eiger Hilton” (3066 m). The bivouac on the outcrop of the west ridge was rather windy, but we had ascended above the clouds at this point, and the views were really beautiful, making up for the wind. It took us less than 2 hours from Eigergletscher station, including the beer break.
As I have mentioned, my main concern regarding this trip was the safety of my bad knee, and I expected some increased risk on the route. What I hadn’t expected, was that my knee would buckle when I was taking off my boot. Well, there wasn’t much to do about it but to hope that it would be OK in the morning, since it didn’t seem too bad.
The bivouac became increasingly windy after midnight, and when it was time to get up at 5:30, neither of us was too eager to crawl out of our sleeping bags, not having slept much. The sky was one big cloud and the strong wind was quite unpleasant. We decided to sleep in for a while and see if the weather improved. I finally dozed off, and Honza woke me up around 7:30. The weather was more or less the same, and I could feel the knee, but we decided to at least take a look at “the mushroom”, where basejumpers jump from, and only then decide whether we would continue further up or not.
The terrain was quite OK on the way up and the knee warmed up and didn’t hurt or feel unstable, so after we reached the mushroom, we continued up, traversing away from the ridge. The wind wasn’t so bad there, and we had a good pace. We were both surprised by the quality of the terrain – according to the accounts we had read, we should have been passing through some unstable, stone-quarry-like terrain – but the rock seemed reasonably compact, just with some scree on it. We reached the abseil point at 3668 m, drowned in mist at this point, and continued along the ridge and then traversed a snowfield under some steeper rocks. The weather had gradually worsened, with about 50 m visibility in the mist now and with that strong wind gathering some force again. But being only about 200 m from the summit at this point, and thinking it was less than 150 m thanks to the altitude meter on my watch, we decided to continue. For me, the summit part was the most enjoyable bit of the whole ascent, since we had good snow conditions – good, solid firn from about 3750 m all the way up to the summit. The snow field was quite steep (I would guess around 50-55°), so we put our crampons’ front spikes and ice axes to full use for about 200 m. One ice axe was sufficient in the conditions we had, but for the first time, I appreciated that the shaft of my axe is slightly bent – so I didn’t bruise my knuckles too much against the firn.
We reached the summit at 11:45, so it took us 3.5 hours from the bivouac (we started very late, at 8:15). We took a photo of each other, ate some grape glucose tablets, and hightailed out of there, since the mist was becoming thicker and thicker and the wind was very strong at the top, the combination of which created some icy crust on parts of our equipment.
Climbing down the snowfield was rather enjoyable as well, and it was reasonably quick, so we opted for climbing all the way down the snowfield to where we had stepped onto it, not using the abseil post that was on the rocks at the ridge in the lower part of the field. When we got back to the abseil point at 3668 m, the visibility was still low, with the strong wind still unceasing, plus, as a bonus, it started to rain. We abseiled about 4 pitches (we had one 60 m rope), freezing in turns when one was waiting for the other person to abseil the pitch. Luckily, we were below the freezing altitude now, so the rock was just wet. If it had been freezing, the rock would have turned into one giant ice-slide. The wet shale wasn’t much more slippery than when dry, so climbing down wasn’t the main problem – the main problem was orientation.
Though we were trying to memorize some reference points on the way up, finding them on the way down in the mist was quite difficult. I had had to take off my glasses below the summit on my way up due to the mist, so I couldn’t really see any cairns and other smaller pointers. Luckily, Honza’s corneas had been polished with laser, so in the end, we zig-zagged through the maze of ledges and rock steps surprisingly smoothly. Had it been just up to me, I’m pretty sure it would have taken me longer, with some detours. And despite all the accounts of the unbelievably slippery, crumbling terrain, I have to say that with the exception of a few places, it is possible to climb down a rather solid rock – you just have to focus really hard not to slip on the scree that covers it, and of course watch out for loose holds and footsteps. I did dislodge one piece of rock the size of a large watermelon and sent it tumbling down straight in Honza’s direction with the accompanying shower of smaller stones – I yelled at him to watch out, and luckily he was able to move aside and hide behind an outcrop in time.
It stopped raining, and the visibility somewhat improved in the lower parts of this section. We somehow emerged from the mist already below the mushroom, and continued down the clearly visible path toward the bivouac. We packed our things, had a quick snack, and continued down the last unpleasant part of the descent. For me, personally, this was the most unpleasant part of the descent – even though climbing up the previous day, I had found it easy and enjoyable, now, on the way down, after several hours of highly demanding descent, it was really uncomfortable trying to avoid falling down at every single step. The terrain is very steep here, and if you fall, you either fly down a 50‑m gully or towards a slightly more distant snowfield/glacier at the foot of this rock step. There are three fixed ropes in the lower part of this rock step, each following the other, but it is not very enjoyable to get to them, and neither is climbing down them – though it is the easiest, quickest, and relatively safe way down. But I really have to stress the word “relatively” here. The access to the ropes and the condition the second rope was in (which I only found out after I had climbed down half of it and was in a vertical section), the rope on which you then swing involuntarily, does relativize the word “safe” quite a bit. I would advise against using the second rope (i.e. the middle one), and recommend rappeling down using one’s own rope.
After we got down this rock step, we crossed the snow bridge I mentioned earlier – again, I would highly recommend roping up here. After the snowfield, there was just one small cliff to downclimb, and then it was over the scree field past the col between the Eiger and Rotstock, and down the ledges back to Eigergletscher station. There are many fixed ropes in this last part, most of which I think will amuse anybody who just came down the terrain further up on the Eiger. But two or three of them do come in handy for a faster descent down the ledges.
We reached the path above the station around 7:30 PM, so the descent from the summit took us about 7.5 hours. A person with healthy knees could do it a bit faster – I think Honza would have been there one or two hours earlier, if he hadn’t been waiting for me, descending at the grandpa speed with my walking sticks.
We walked back down to Grindelwald, which took us over three hours – when we saw some similar figure on the signs along the way, we thought that would be at a leisurely pace, and we should be able to do it in two. Nope, three hours, not a leisurely pace. Again, Honza would have been there sooner, but I wasn’t going extra slowly either.
Starting point: Grindelwald – paid parking lot (not very expensive, I think we paid 10 CHF for two days). Eigergletscher station (2320 m) – from Grindelwald either on foot or by train. I would recommend taking the train, it will save you 3-4 hours walking up an asphalt road.
Bivouac: I think the “Eiger Hilton” on the outcrop at 3066 m is the best option, and above the second rock step, it is the only safe option. The terrain further up the mountain would expose you to potential rockfall virtually anywhere on the west flank. If the Eiger Hilton is already occupied, it shouldn’t be a problem to find a spot somewhere in its immediate vicinity, you would just have to rearrange the rocks a little bit. The downside of this option is the lack of water in summer – there are no snowfields around, you have to bring all the water you are going to need. The only snowfields are in the steep terrain in the upper part of the mountain. The col below the second rock step, between the west flank and Rotstock, is another option – plenty of space there & snow or water available. You can also find a spot somewhere above Eigergletscher station if you don’t mind that there are going to be people there coming down from the Rotstock klettersteig.
Time needed: Eigergletscher station to the “Eiger Hilton” bivouac 1.5-2.0 hours, Eiger Hilton to the summit 3-4 hours, descent from the summit back to Eiger Hilton 4-6 hours, descent from Eiger Hilton back to Eigergletscher station 1.5-2.5 hours. We went all the way up and down solo, without protection, and abseiled only about 4 pitches in the upper part of the mountain – our total time on the way up from Eigergletscher station to the summit was 5-5.5 hours at a good pace and back down about 7.5 hours with me descending slowly. With protection, the time would be much longer – if you need a rope on the second rock step above the Rotstock col, you will probably need it on about one third of the route, so take that into account.
Equipment: Helmet, one ice axe, crampons, one rope (I would recommend at least 50 m), some protection – you might not use it as there are metal abseil rods in some of the more difficult parts, but I would highly recommend bringing it as it may come in handy even if everything goes smoothly, let alone if it doesn’t. If you take the same route that we went up, you probably won’t need the rope for the way up, but you will need it for abseiling. Also, if you decide to get on the second rock step elsewhere than from the snowfield, you will probably need a rope and some protection to do that – the terrain is steeper there. In bad snow conditions, the rope and protection might be necessary on the way up and down in the final part, i.e. in the part that we climbed on snow – it seemed possible to place some protection on the rocks closer to the ridge.
Dangers:1. The bergschrund on the approach to the gully at the second rock step – from the snowfield/glacier itself, it may not be visible, and you may be standing on a snow bridge over a 10‑15 m hole! Rope up before you step onto this snowfield/glacier! 2. Some loose holds, a lot of scree on the inclined shale, and rockfall from people above you. 3. Fixed ropes along the gully on the second rock step above the snowfield – check the quality. I would advise against using the middle one on descent – when you climb down, it swings and grinds against the rock, and it is impossible to check for defects from above, it is anchored at the bottom. Use your own rope to abseil. 4. Weather – as in the case of any mountain, but here I would stress it as an especially important factor – in icy conditions, the inclined shale would be very difficult and extremely dangerous to climb down, in most parts requiring abseiling and a lot of material left on the route, since most of the route is on inclined shale. Eiger is also well-known for unstable weather, and a day-old forecast might not be accurate, as in our case. 5. Water – we had more than enough due to the weather conditions we had, but I imagine on a hot, sunny day, the lack of water would make the descent very, very unpleasant, and it would make a mistake more likely to occur. As I mentioned above, there are no snowfields between the Rotstock col and the upper part of the mountain (say 3500 m).
In July 2017, our climbing and mountaineering plans suddenly changed when my girlfriend sprained her ankle at Sustenpass, and it was soon obvious that it would not get better in a matter of days. So, like in 2015, I chose to make an ascent where crevasses weren’t an issue – this time the Weissmies south-east ridge.
We drove to Saas Grund, and like in 2015, we stayed on the camping grounds of Hotel Étoile – great spot for a reasonable price, I highly recommend it. I tried to go to bed early but only managed to hit the sack after 11 PM, with the alarm set to 0:30 AM. However, having built our tent close to the toilets – and the hotel – there was some annoying fan going off every 30 seconds or so, successfully keeping me up, and though I reset my alarm to 1 AM, I still managed to get only about 15 minutes of sleep. Never mind, it was high time to get started, since the forecast promised some baphomrds (= bad, bad things) in the afternoon. According to the tourist signs, it was supposed to take me 3 hours and 20 minutes from Saas Almagell to the Almageller hut (which I knew I could do faster), and according to “The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes” guide, 7-8 hours from the hut to the summit (which I thought had to be a typing error). I wasn’t really hungry, so I only ate an apple with a piece of bread and drove our car to Saas Almagell, where I left it in the parking lot (5 CHF per day), downed one non-alcoholic beer for energy, and set off at 2:20 AM.
The route to the hut was quite pleasant and reasonably quick, though there were thunderstorms in the neighboring valleys and around Alphubel summit across the valley. I continued up, hoping these were just the usual early-morning storms that would disperse at dawn. At the Almagelleralp (hut, 2194 m), you have the option to go right, or left (a quicker option by 10 minutes, according to the signs), I chose to go left. I reached the Almagellerhütte (hut, 2894 m) shortly after 5 AM. There were already several parties by the Zwischbergen Pass (3268 m). I refilled my bottle about 50 meters above the hut – there is no readily available water above this point, save for a small glacier lake on the other side of the Zwischbergen Pass, but you would have to descent to it a bit.
The dawn was underway, and soon I turned my headlamp off. It started to get a bit windy and chilly near the pass with some clouds coming in from the east, so I put my jacket and pants on (I had walked in my T‑shirt and shorts up to this point). I went up a crumbly slab just below the pass, which proved to be a mistake, and I had to descend a bit back onto the right track – the track turns left before the crumbly slab becomes steep. When you reach the ridge, it is still a few dozen meters to the left (north) to the pass. The small glacier lake is about 50 meters below the pass on its east side, and it seemed easy to connect back to the ridge track further along the way without having to go back up the same path. Anyway, I got here at 6:30, and continued along the trodden path first a bit down some scree, and then up a few snowfields and some more scree. The snowfields were still frozen, and though I was using my ice axe at this point, the second snowfield was getting unpleasantly steep to walk on without crampons, so I had to chip some steps into it with my boots first. I chose to climb onto the ridge at this point – and it was a good decision, since the climbing proved to be pleasant, though maybe slower than a walk up the snowfields, had I put my crampons on. I wouldn’t recommend going up the snowfields for another reason as well – about an hour later, stones the size of a melon started to fall down the upper snowfield, as the sun started melting the snow. I joined the ridge just above one of the parties that started from the Almageller hut and continued at my pace up the ridge.
The weather seemed quite stable now – the storms in the neighboring valleys had stopped rumbling, and it was mostly sunny with a cloud coming over the ridge every now and then.
The ridge is quite wide and easy, and there is little exposition most of the way. But there are a few exposed places where you need to be absolutely confident climbing at II-III UIAA grade, if you’re climbing solo without protection. It is probably possible to climb around the one or two III UIAA spots, but the climbing was so enjoyable I chose the more interesting way rather than the easier terrain a few times.
The rock above 3600 m is just great – very few unstable rocks (but watch out for them anyway, there are some), and I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the climbing – compared to the neighboring Lagginhorn’s west-south-west ridge with mostly loose rocks and only one short II UIAA section.
But I did start to feel the altitude, having spent only two nights at 2000 m, so I had to slow down a bit to reduce the dizziness. Still, I felt perfectly safe and confident on the ridge, a pure joy with beautiful views of the four thousanders in the Mischabel group and the Monte Rosa massif – Dufourspitze, Nordend, Strahlhorn, Rimpfischhorn, Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Dom, Taschhorn, Lenzspitze, and Nadelhorn, with the clouds constantly covering and uncovering them.
The rocky part of the ridge ends at around 3900 m. I geared up and continued along the snowy ridge past a narrow rocky band to the top, meeting about three descending parties – incidentally, I think one of the descending climbers was the Swiss girl I met on Lagginhorn in 2015 – the one ascending late in the morning – this time she was in a team with another girl and obviously had set her alarm clock to a more appropriate hour 🙂 I wonder if she was a guide at this point, or if it was just a coincidence. The snowy ridge to the top is quite nice, but watch out for cornices, the trodden path was too close to the edge in some places – do not follow it blindly, this is where you can fall a few hundred meters to either side.
I reached the summit around 9:20 and spent about ten minutes there, alone. The clouds were still coming over the mountain, making for a nice atmosphere.
I went back along the snowy ridge to the foresummit, where I had some snack, filled one of my bottles with snow, and continued back down. On the way up, I thought I would have to rappel down a few sections, and thought I would get off the ridge midway down, to make the descent quicker. But surprisingly, I found it quite easy to climb down the harder sections, even though I was thirsty and had a headache. Though the snowfield on the left (eastern side) of the ridge looked tempting and there were even places where I could just climb down without rappelling, I chose to continue down the ridge as I was descending in quite a good pace, virtually the same as when I was ascending. Even though there wasn’t any rockfall on the snowfield at this time, it was a good call not to descend that way – when I later got off the ridge in the same part where I had climbed onto it in the morning, the snowfields proved to be quite unpleasant – mushy, unstable snow on a steep slope, crampons making zero difference – I chose to descend as much as I could down the scree field to a less steep part of the lower snowfield. One of two British guys, whom I had passed on the ridge shortly before this section, chose to slide down the snowfield, breaking with his ice axe – quite an elegant solution.
I reached the Zwischbergen Pass at 12:30 – so three hours up the ridge, three hours down the ridge. Though I was parched at this point, had no water, and the snow in one of my bottles had not melted much, I didn’t descend down to the small glacier lake, as I felt one more hour to the hut wouldn’t make any difference. And it didn’t – there was a short, windy shower, when I reached the pass, but it lasted only for about 15 minutes, and right after that
I came upon a stream from one of the snowfields. I took a short break, and continued down to the hut, where I bought a cup of tea – I wasn’t in the mood for any solid food but I was in the mood for some energy. The weather cleared, and I continued down to Almagelleralp (hut), taking pictures of the many beautiful flowering alpine plants. This slow descend proved to be a good strategy, as my left knee was quite OK after that (I had banged my left knee against a rock in a fall while climbing 2 years prior to that, and since this is my healthy, weight-bearing knee, it had hurt during lengthy descents ever since). The flip side was that the weather worsened once again when I was only at Almagelleralp, and I walked the remaining hour down to the valley in rain. I reached the parking lot at 5:20 PM, so it took me 7 hours up to the summit and 8 hours back down. People with healthy knees would probably make it back down in about 6 hours. On the other hand, if someone were to use protection on the ridge, it would slow them down a bit in both directions.
Needless to say, I slept for over 14 hours that night, fan or no fan.
Starting point: Saas Almagell, paid parking (5 CHF per day in 2017)
Time needed: The ascent to the Almagellerhütte 3 hours; from the hut to the start of the ridge near Zwischbergen Pass 1 hour; the ridge to the summit 3 hours (may take longer if using protection); roughly the same for the descent
Equipment needed: Ice axe, crampons, helmet, rope and some protection for descent during bad conditions or if you are not comfortable in a II UIAA terrain without protection (I think all the III UIAA places can be climbed around through easier terrain, I might have climbed down only one during the descent).
Dangers: In good weather very few, the rock in the steeper sections of the ridge is very good, there is no glacier on the approach. The only slightly dangerous place is the snowy/firn ridge near the summit – it is quite sharp, and the trodden path is sometimes too close to the edge of the steeper (north-east) face – do not follow it blindly! There is a several hundred meters drop to each side and the snow/firn can be easily stepped through! This final part of the ridge could also become quite dangerous if there is a lot of snow – it would basically become one big cornice on one side and an avalanche slide on the other. A larger amount of fresh snow on the firn underneath would also be very dangerous here.
In the last days of September 2016, my girlfriend and I went for a trip to the Austrian Alps. Our goal was Östliche Simonyspitze (3448 m) and possibly some other peak in the area – the Venedigergruppe, the mountain range around Grossvenediger, Austria’s second highest peak.
We chose to go from the south, from a parking lot near a little village called Streden. Delightful little village. If you like the movie Deliverance, that is. (Those who wish to skip to the description of the ascent itself, please go to the next paragraph starting “Anyway…”)
Our plan was to get to the parking lot in the afternoon, go up the valley and bivouac somewhere above Essener-Rostocker Hut (2208 m) so we could go up Simonyspitze the very next day. We arrived late, but still had about one hour of daylight left, so I thought we would walk at least part of the way without the use of our headlamps. That proved to be an overly optimistic assumption. The parking lot was paid, which we knew beforehand, but it soon became obvious that it was virtually impossible to pay the fee. Which we wanted to pay, since A) we didn’t want to come across as jerks, and B) we didn’t want to receive any unnecessary fine. But there was no one in the parking lot, and you had to have a filled-in parking card behind your windshield – which, according to the sign on the wooden toll-booth, you had to obtain in the tourist center in the next village, Pragraten, if no one was present. We weren’t sure we understood the German instructions correctly – luckily, there was some man just running past us. I said “Hi”, he said “Hi”, I asked “Excuse me, how do I…”, he ran past me like he didn’t see or hear me. No reaction whatsoever. What the fuck? I’d never gotten a non-response like that, and definitely not in the Alps. Never mind, let’s try the tourist center. Closed, open till 6 on weekdays, closed on the weekends. Well, there are never any tourists on the weekends anywhere, are there? We were there on Wednesday, but we certainly didn’t want to wait until the morning to get a parking card, or better yet, to find out that the center was closed anyway.
We went back to the parking lot and looked around, hoping to find someone we could ask. With the exception of a large barn with cows, we didn’t find anybody, so once again, we went back to the tourist center. Although the center was closed, there was someone in one of the two or three offices. The light was on, and he was doing something on a computer. I’ll wait for him, I thought. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, he turned the lights out. He will come out. Just a few seconds. OK, just a few minutes. OK, where is he? I went around the corner to our car, parked next to what must have been his car – the only car around – and waited in the car. Five minutes. Ten minutes. OK, this is getting ridiculous. Well, he is probably scared of us, we thought. It was dark at this point, and yes, our car was just two years shy of becoming a veteran, and yes, it was the shabbiest car one could find in 50 kilometers in any direction. And certainly with the most dirt and bird poo on the roof. Back to the parking lot. We chose to stay until the morning, not because of the damn parking card, which we found out only about half of the cars had on their dashboard, but because it was too late to go anywhere. Two cars came into the parking lot, each time they drove around slowly, and drove away. Around 10 PM, we were sitting in our car with the ceiling light on, when a third car came into the parking lot, with a spotlight mounted on the roof. It stopped, and the driver was searching the nearby hillside with the spotlight. OK, looking for cows. Then he turned the spotlight to the parking lot and started checking the individual cars there, one by one. OK, maybe some municipal employee checking the parking cards. He turned the light to our car, and I stepped out to talk to him. He kept pointing the light at our car and me, and halfway to his car, I waved hello at him. At that point he turned the engine on and drove away. What the fuck? It was dark, but I don’t think I looked like Jack the Ripper, though maybe I did, since no one knows what he looked like.
Anyway, we left the parking lot early in the morning, leaving a note in both English and I think quite OK German saying that we would pay when we got back down from the mountain. The trail up to the hut along the Maurerbach creek is very beautiful, especially once you get above the tree line – the autumn rusty-greenish colors and the character of the landscape reminded us of New Zealand, and we got to snack on blueberries at one of our stops.
After about two and a half hours, we passed the hut and continued up the valley, now flat with just a little elevation. It still looked quite New-Zealandish, grassy with a lot of boulders. We found a nice spot for our tent among a group of big boulders (some of them are nice to climb) and set up camp. At first we intended to at least go to one of the lower peaks nearby, but both of us soon developed a headache and were feeling utterly tired – the lack of sleep prior to our trip and the elevation sucked all the energy and zest out of us, and we decided to rest, go for a dip in the creek, and enjoy the views.
We set out at 4:40 in the morning, in the dark. We went a bit back downstream and turned right onto the SE ridge of Simonyspitze – the path is marked with a sign at the branching. We quickly gained height on the slope. It was quite warm, and I ended up walking just in my T-shirt and cargo shorts, until the wind at a higher altitude talked me into putting my jacket back on.
We reached the rim of the glacier shortly after dawn. Lazy to put on my crampons, I chipped steps into the firn with the tips of my boots to get up the two-hundred-or-so meters of glacier to the rocky part of the ridge, with my ice axe as a walking stick/emergency break. It would, indeed, be one hell of a ride toward the edge of the glacier, and if successful in swooshing over the crevasses, the final jump over the edge of the steep wall to the bottom of the valley might ruin one’s day. I got off the glacier at the first suitable place to climb onto the ridge, whereas my less-lazy, crampon-shod girlfriend continued further up toward what seemed to be an easier way to mount the outcrop. My chosen option was quite all right, though unexpectedly exposed – up to some twenty meters above the glacier, where, in the event of a fall with unbroken limbs, it would still be quite difficult, if not impossible, to take out the ice axe from in between my back and my backpack in time to avoid the jump into the valley. But the climbing was enjoyable (about II UIAA), though a layer of fresh snow on all the holds in the upper part of the climb provided a mild adrenalin surge at one point. Once on the ridge, I continued up the ridge to wait for my girlfriend. Her chosen variant proved to be less suitable than mine, as the terrain there was quite unstable, with a lot of loose rocks. I built a belay station, threw her a rope, and gave her belay.
We continued up the rocky ridge, onto a snowfield, and up another rocky step, this time a lower one, but still entertaining to climb onto. After this step, it is only a few hundred meters’ walk on a glacier to the summit. We tied ourselves to the rope and left a full length of it between us because we didn’t know whether there were going to be cornices at the summit ridge and how big they could be. The ridge turned out not to be that sharp, though I can imagine cornices there at the more narrow parts or with more snow. Still, my girlfriend didn’t feel comfortable getting on the ridge, not to mention continuing a few dozen meters along the ridge toward what seemed to be a slightly higher point – probably the true summit. This part of the ridge was pretty sharp, and I opted not to go there without belay, since I didn’t know how stable the snow was – with the potential prospect of sliding and flying a few hundred meters down onto the heavily crevassed glacier below. Anyway, the summit seemed dwarfed by the western summit of Simonyspitze, a few dozen meters higher. Connecting the two was a sharp rocky ridge, which seemed to offer some interesting, exposed climbing (according to various online sources, there should be some places of II-III UIAA), but it was hard to judge how stable it was from the distance.
We went back down the same way to the spot where I had climbed onto the rocky part of the ridge, where I had climbed onto it. After some reconnaissance, this proved to be the best point to get off the ridge as well. We rappelled down onto the glacier/snow field (a rope really comes in handy here – it is possible to climb down, but not easy, and not really safe, especially with fresh snow on the rock).
On our way down, we admired the nicely eroded rock among the grassy patches on the outcrop of the lower SE ridge before its final drop to the valley. We got back to our tent quite early – around 2 PM, so the whole trip to the summit and back took about 9 hours at a relaxed pace. We had another skinny dip in the creek and went back down to our car, where we eventually spent another night. Again, there was no one there to give the parking fee to, neither in the evening, nor in the morning. But we did pass some friendly locals on our way to the parking lot, so the place lost its Deliverance vibe 🙂
Time needed: At a slow pace, about 2.5 hours from the parking lot in Streden to Essener-Rostocker Hut. A round trip from the hut to the summit and back about 9 hours. Could be easily done as a round trip from the parking lot in one day.
Dangers: Objectively very few, just watch out for loose rocks on the ridge, there may be some rockfall if there are climbers above you (we were there alone). The summit ridge seemed to have potential for cornices.
Equipment needed: Helmet, ice axe, crampons, it is good to have a 50-m rope and some protection to rappel down the 20 meters from the ridge on the way back, especially in more difficult weather conditions, and also for the summit ridge.
We arrived at Shitiping and checked in at the campsite. The campsite is very nice, with open shelters for tents – you basically pitch your tent inside a small cabin with only two walls (without the front and back wall). For the first time ever, we encountered a little baby toilet there, and were quite amused by it. The campsite is also occupied by a pack of semi-wild cats, and if you leave your things outside overnight, they will sleep in/on them – my backpack was quite fuzzy in the morning 🙂 The cats aren’t the most cleanly of creatures, and they do drink out of the toilets (literally, they drink the water out of the squatting pans), but they certainly are a pleasant enlivening of this beautiful place.
The coastline at and around the campsite is just breathtaking. The color combination of very vivid blue, green, white, and black, and the splashing of the waves is just wonderful. We met another lovely Taiwanese couple here, this time with kids, and again, they gave us some nibbles.
We checked out the nearby village as well – it is apparently mostly a fishing village, and you will find some of the little privately-owned general stores here. You can find those everywhere in Taiwan, especially outside the big cities. They are usually tiny places or shelters attached to the owner’s house or hut, with a cooler for drinks, some instant noodles, canned products, sometimes fruit and vegetables, and usually other stuff as well – anything from scooter parts to fishing gear.
We spent the afternoon enjoying the sun and the sea – we found a nice little cove at the campsite where the waves didn’t go, and even though the water was only knee-to-waist high, it was the first place where we could access it. There aren’t many places around the east coast where you can swim – we still found it strange at this point that there were signs everywhere saying “DANGER – NO SWIMMING” or something to that effect. We would only later find out that the waves along the coast were just too strong and that it really would be dangerous to go swimming at an open rocky coastline, and any casual swimmer would likely be thrashed against the rocks badly. There was also one very interesting thing about the rocky coastline – the amount of broken, washed-up corals among the pebbles – far greater than the amount of shells.
The next day, we woke up with our faces and arms red as a lobster. I even had dried-up yellow plasma on my face. We didn’t have any sunblock, and the entire day spent in the sun turned us into two little piggies.
We got on the bus back to Hualien, where we purchased some baby oil – sunblock is quite impossible to get outside the big cities – and continued north by train to our next stop, Fulong.
Fulong is a nice little town on the coast with a temple at the seafront, a large sandy beach, and an even larger campsite. We met an interesting guy at the visitor center – not only did he speak perfect English, he also knew where the Czech Republic was and knew the Czech greeting “Dobry den” – his flatmate was from Slovakia, once part of the same country, Czechoslovakia.
The campsite in Fulong (Longmen Camping Site) was completely empty, we were the only visitors at this large but pleasant facility – with a lot of trees, tables, benches etc.
The next day, we went on foot further north to Aodi. We went along a nice trail, starting at the beach (paid entry) in Fulong. The trail leads along a bike path, where you will encounter quite a humorous DANGER sign – Taiwan is rife with DANGER signs, but this one takes the title. To paraphrase, it says “Warning, bikers, you are going downhill!” Which would be funny in and of itself, rendering the bikers complete morons, but its location makes it ten times funnier – the slope is roughly….well, I don’t know, maybe 0.001%? So, beware, if you pedal with all you’ve got, you might go slightly faster than you would on a leveled path.
In Aodi, we got on a bus to Longdong, where we wanted visit the Longdong Ocean Park (recommended to us by the guy in Fulong) and check out local climbing opportunities. I can’t say that the park impressed us very much, as four years later, I don’t really remember anything interesting there – but I think it wasn’t even open at the time of our visit (off season). But we saw how seaweed is processed in Longdong – it is dried in the sun right on the sidewalk by the road. I wonder if this is where various bio-eco dietary supplements get their seaweed from 🙂 At the park, we asked a local woman sitting with a group of cops on the terrace if there was any campsite nearby. She informed us, quite happily, that there was a rest stop – near the “Bat Tunnel” (Pien-Fu-Ton, or something like that) just outside Ruibin, a few kilometers away. That surprised us, because up to this point we thought that wild camping was really frowned upon in Taiwan (that was what we had read on multiple blogs) – due to safety concerns, above all.
With the blessing of a table full of cops, we got on another bus, headed to Jiufen, a nice little town up in the mountains above Ruibin. We drove past the waterfalls in Jinguashi (I would recommend a stop there) and got off the bus in Jiufen. The town has its charm, especially in misty weather that we encountered there, spoiled only by the crowds of tourists, sadly (locals, or so we assumed). We took a peek at one of the local temples, and continued down the switchbacks toward Ruibin, where we replenished our larder and asked about “Pien-Fu-Ton”. Obviously, I pronounced the name of the tunnel intelligibly, and received proper bearings. We went through the tunnel – at the east end of Ruibin – and set up camp in the parking lot, which is right at the end of the bat-infested concrete tube (actually, we didn’t see a single bat). Though there were some cars in the lot, no one cared that we built a tent there. However, we waited for the dusk to do that so we wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention. But no one cared in the morning either, which meant the lady in Longdong was quite right that it was OK to spend the night there (back in 2013, don’t know if it still is). The rest stop is right at the shore, and there are toilets with running water there and some monkey bars as well. In case of bad weather, there are two gazebos available. Local fishermen on the rocks put on quite a show after dark, with fluorescent lights on their rods and all 🙂
The next day, we continued by bus from Ruibin to Keelung, where an older lady gave us some fruit after we asked her where our next bus to Jinshan was leaving from. We got to Jinshan without any hitch, and after a visit to the information center, we found out that there were no campsites in the area, and the cheapest option was the local YHA hostel, referred to as the YMCA by everybody. Finding the YHA in Jinshan is easy, just look for the largest military air-force base in town, and that’s it. Really, it looks like a fortified airport, with the control tower visible from afar. The tower is the main lodge. The service there was great, but it was a bit pricey – though the standard was more hotel-like than anything else, and the overnight stay included wonderful breakfast – again, hotel style – which would give us the opportunity to sample several new dishes. We went to explore the town until our room was ready. We went through a very interesting cemetery with a lot of unified tombs, varying only in color – you get to choose between blue and red – and small statues outside of them.
The local street market was one of the more interesting ones that we visited around Taiwan, with a variety of local foods. There is a nice temple in the center, though at this point the whole temple architecture had gotten quite old and wasn’t that exciting for us – basically all the temples look alike and only vary in size or the presence/absence and style of the casino-like neons above the entrance. We met another friendly local here, a guy named Chon (I think), who told us the temple was Confucian. Chon actually lived in California and was on a visit to his mother. And as the approximately hundredth proof of the hospitable nature of the Taiwanese, he offered us an overnight stay at his mom’s. We had already paid the lodging at the YHA and didn’t want to be a nuisance, so we declined. Looking back, maybe we should have accepted the offer anyway, as we could have learned a lot about Taiwan from Chon, who seemed like an interesting guy, and I have since come to believe that the Taiwanese really are that hospitable, and their invitations aren’t only gestures, but are genuine.
After we checked in at the YHA later in the afternoon, we went to the Shitoushan Park by the sea to take a look at the Twin Candlesticks – two tiny, tall islands a few hundred meters off shore. It is a nice walk for the evening, and you get to see what is probably one of the fattest, most indolent buddhas in the whole of Taiwan.
We got to the Taroko Visitor Headquarters around noon – it was only slightly over one hour on foot from Xincheng. We asked the park employee (again a nice lady with a big smile, very happy to help) for some detailed map of the mountains, but they only had simple touristic/schematic maps – they were free and enough to get around, but not really what we were after. We would, of course, later find out that detailed maps wouldn’t be of much use to us anyway, as the lower mountains are completely covered with impassable vegetation and as the lady told us, we would have needed permits for the higher mountains.
We might have felt an earthquake while we were waiting for a bus to Lushui, a village further up in the park near Heliu camping ground, though I did not find any record of it on the Internet a few weeks later, so maybe the kids running around the restaurant we were sitting at were just really heavy 🙂 We also enjoyed the sounds of a bus worth of Taiwanese men’s cleansing at the toilets at the bus stop. Shortly after the spittle-snot symphony ended, our bus arrived, and after about 30 minutes of jumping up and down in a bus without shock absorbers on a pothole-filled road, we stepped out in Lushui. From here, it was only about 7 minutes to Heliu camping ground on foot.
The campsite was empty, and the groundskeeper – a very nice and friendly guy – told us to pitch our tent under the roof at a nice terrace above the river, even though the sign said not to 🙂 The camping grounds were quite nice, with water taps and fireplaces at the individual tent platforms, and with cold-water showers. I am not sure if the water was potable, maybe it was, but at this point we still avoided drinking water out of random taps outside plus there were some little signs on each tap (in Chinese or Taiwanese only). Also the campsite’s cesspit was just getting a makeover that day and we didn’t want to take the chance of getting any of the old makeup into our bottles.
The next day we went to Tianxiang. There is a nice monastery on the hillside – Xiangde Temple – with a pagoda visible from far away.
After a tasty lunch at a local restaurant, we continued toward Wenshan, properly sunburned at this point. Our original intention was to reach Lianhua (Lotus) Pond, but there was not enough time, so we turned off onto a trail from Wenshan to Lushui. The trail is quite nice and well marked with signs. It leads through thick vegetation, but at one point, it goes along a ridge with beautiful views. It also goes past small remains of police outposts and two Taroko villages from the Japanese era, but these aren’t anything spectacular, they are mostly just the very bases of walls, covered with dirt and vegetation – basically just bumps in the forest. The trail crosses a small stream of clear water, but I don’t know whether it is potable. After about fifteen minutes of an effort to get our SteriPEN working, we decided to get water somewhere down in Lushui.
The trail took slightly over 2.5 hours from Wenshan to Lushui (it said around 5 hours on one of the signs, but I suspect that would require either several lunch breaks or walking backwards). In Lushui, we asked for tap water at a local restaurant and the waitress was happy to fill both our 1.5 liter bottles.
It was Friday and we were no longer alone at the campsite. When a couple from Taichung saw us eating cookies and drinking water for dinner, they invited us for a meal. We didn’t want to impose, but upon their second invitation, we accepted. They were very nice people and gave us each a bowl of broth with noodles. There was just one catch to it – in Taiwan, the broth is usually full of fat meat, to which, unfortunately, I have a heaving reflex. So I swallowed even the biggest chunks whole, smiling 🙂 We thanked them and talked for a while. Since we didn’t know any Chinese or Taiwanese, and they didn’t know any English or any other European language, this comprised of a lot of dictionary searching and picture-drawing. As a thank you, we at least offered them the technical gasoline we bought by mistake in Taipei, but they had no use for it. After the dinner, they brought us a small lamp for our tent and in the morning, they brought us some fruit and vegetables, candy and cappuccino. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything to give them in return, but as we gradually learned with each such act of niceness, the people in Taiwan are really selflessly generous and happy to help. In the end, we gave the technical gasoline to the groundskeeper, and he brought us a bottle of flammable gel in return.
In the morning, I lost a game of hide and seek to some formosan macaques, trying to take a picture of them that wouldn’t be blurry. We went back to Xincheng by bus. Once again, there was not even a hint of the bus having shock absorbers, and this time it was going downhill. A piece of advice – take off your backpack, when you sit down in the bus, especially if the backpack is heavy. I didn’t bother taking it off for the short ride and my back certainly wasn’t pleased. Also, have the exact amount of money ready – buses in Taroko have a coin box by the door and the drivers do not handle money, so they don’t give change back.
From Xincheng, we went to Hualien by train, and then further south to Shitiping by bus.
Taroko – first impression
Overall, Taroko, or at least the small part of it that we visited, is definitely worth seeing if you are in Taiwan. However, I liked it more for the vegetation, the people, and the atmosphere of something new more than for the everywhere-advertised Taroko Gorge. The gorge is nice, but for anyone used to alpine scenery, it is not that special. Unfortunately, we didn’t have permits to go to higher mountains, so I can’t say anything about that. Maybe next time 🙂
There are many signs warning about wasps and snakes – especially in summer and autumn. We were there in spring and apart from a few individual wasps and some wasp nests, we didn’t encounter either. But judging by the size of the wasp nests, things might get quite stingy if you cross their path. The term wasps probably includes hornets as well.
Practical note 2
From time to time, you’ll see someone with an open wound caused by some flesh-eating bacteria. I’m not sure which bacteria is the cause, maybe staphylococcus or, less likely, vibrio vulnificus, but I don’t know. One such man (a station garbage collector with an open wound on his mouth) wanted to help us at the bus station in Hualien and touched our map, which was not entirely pleasant, since we didn’t know the cause of his wound, but obviously it wasn’t anything highly contagious since no wounds opened up on our bodies after that 🙂 I later rubbed the map with whiskey, but still, it plants some seeds of worries into your head.
The main hostel facilities in a high-rise across the street from the main train station were fully booked, and the lady receptionist took us around the corner to the secondary facilities of the hostel. These rooms were on the second floor of a low-rise building, and the entrance was really inconspicuous, wedged in between the numerous street buffets and shops. Before the lady went away, she showed us a plastic basket and told us to “put shit” in the basket before we left, which later found its way into my book, as it was pure gold (the basket was meant for our sheets).
The next day we slept in quite a bit, and in the afternoon, we looked around the surroundings of the hostel and bought train tickets to Xincheng for the next day – our destination was the Taroko National Park. We asked a random guy at the train station where the ticket machines are, and not only did he show us to the machines, he basically bought the tickets for us (with our money), very polite and happy to help.
In the evening, we ate at a street buffet – which is very cheap in Taiwan, and as we found out, it is the best option for you if you are here only for a few days and don’t have a place to cook. Fair warning though – if you buy anything on the street, it will have meat in it (usually beef or duck). It is very hard to get any edible food, even in the numerous small food stores, that is without meat. The only milk products that you encounter are very expensive cheese and very, very, very artificially tasting puddings. You will also encounter eggs boiled in tea.
But other than that, it’s just meat, rice, and noodles. I am sure that if we had stayed longer, we would have found other options and alternatives, but in our two-weeks stay, moving about, we had to eat meat (which I normally don’t, but I am not fanatic about it), otherwise we would be stuck with instant noodles. It is also not always easy to get bread or vegetables. We came across a fruit-and-vegetables store just once during our stay in Taiwan, otherwise it’s usually just a small assortment of fruits and vegetables in the general food stores. But aside from the fact that every single meal comes with meat, the food on the street is very tasty, and you definitely won’t be disappointed with it. With bread not being readily available outside bigger cities, we later took the advice of a local guy and started eating the omnipresent instant noodles “as cookies”, i.e. dry – which is apparently a common practice in Taiwan.
We got up early the next morning and hurried to a gas station to get ethanol for our camping stove before we left for Taroko. We later found out that we had successfully bought technical gasoline instead and that it is not easy to get flammable ethanol in Taiwan – they use flammable gel instead.
We boarded our train to Xincheng and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of local rail service – clean trains, tickets for individual seats (without paying anything extra), and overly polite conductors. The first one, a girl, greeted everybody in the car and bowed literally into a right angle before she proceeded to check tickets. Riding south, we admired the green rice fields covering the flat areas around cities and villages, with little embankments between the individual fields. Rice fields are of course everywhere in Taiwan, even in the middle of Taipei, as we later found out.
In Xincheng, we bought some food, water, and a small bottle of whiskey to get any hostile parasites drunk, and set out for Taroko on foot.
Practical note – food and other supplies
What you can get anywhere:
Instant noodles, rice noodles, meat products, canned fish, dried fish, basic fruits like apples, bananas, and melons; water, soda, ice tea, especially green ice tea (without sugar, very good), beer, spirits.
What you can’t get that easily:
Potatoes, broccoli/cauliflower, or other staple/main-meal vegetables; cheese (if it is available, it is expensive) and other milk products, bread; ethanol for a camping stove.
What you won’t find outside big cities:
Sunscreen! The reason I guess is simple – locals don’t need it, at least not as much as pasty Europeans do 🙂 But you will at least get baby oil and similar moisturizing products without UV protection in smaller cities.
We had read a lot of warnings about potential dangers of drinking tap water outside bigger cities (one of them being typhus infection), but we drank tap water everywhere without any health consequences that we know of. We just avoided drinking water from streams. We bought a SteriPEN (UV disinfection device) before our journey, but we apparently used a wrong type of batteries, so we basically ended up carrying a useless dildo around 🙂
Tips for substitutes:
bread => dry instant noodles
ethanol => flammable gel – best used in a cut beer can, as it leaves residue – not very suitable for a regular camping stove
“And we’re off!” joyfully flashed through my mind as I was looking at the station through the window of a bus leaving for Prague. Finally. We were leaving for New Zealand.
It was the end of winter in 2013 and our long-standing dream finally came true. My girlfriend and I were finally headed somewhere outside Europe. The first stop was Taiwan.
The main thing we wanted to see in Taiwan were its beautiful national parks. Discouraged by the requirement to arrange permits for various areas of Taiwan’s national parks up to a month in advance, we had decided we were just going to wing it, as well as everything else on this beautiful island. Make it sort of a getting-to-know visit. It turned out to be a good idea for the most part and certainly made our visit more interesting.
We got on board an early morning flight with China Airlines from Prague to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Bangkok, where the leaving passengers received instructions – first in Chinese, but there were a few English words clearly audible throughout the monologue as well, in a nice succession: “…engine…blow up…get out…start crying.” Judging from the reaction of two girls a few seats back, I was not the only one who heard that. Contrary to the stoically delivered information of doom, the engine didn’t blow up, and after a short break in Bangkok, we made the last leg to Taipei. This journey from Prague to Taipei was my first time flying, and I spent much of the time looking out the window. The highlights were the snow-covered Tatra Mountains (Tatry) in Slovakia and the meandering reddish rivers and dustroads of the same color in the green rainforests of South East Asia. And of course the ocean. We flew around Himalayas at night, so perhaps next time. I also have to give it up for China Airlines, an absolutely great experience.
We repacked at the Taipei airport and left the unnecessary stuff at the left luggage office. Our wing-it approach hit the first minor obstacle when we asked the lady at the information desk where the nearest campsite was. Well, as we later found out, there are about seven campsites in all of Taiwan. Apparently, camping is not big here. But we probably weren’t the first ones to have come unprepared, and the lady produced a list of hostels and called one of the cheap ones for us. She and her colleague were very nice about it, which we later found out to be typical for Taiwanese people – very nice and accommodating people, ready to help anyone anywhere. You don’t even have to ask – they just see a foreigner with a map looking for a way and they help on their own initiative. That was something new for us, a very pleasant surprise indeed. A side note for those who have visited SE Asia before – it is not like in Thailand or Cambodia, where the act of helping is usually the start of a more or less elaborate scheme to extract money from you; in Taiwan, the helping is sincere, selfless.
Since the airport is not in the city itself, we got on the shuttle bus from the airport to the city. The journey took about forty minutes, if I remember correctly. The bus dropped us at the train station in the center, and we started looking for the street with our hostel. At this point, we already stank quite a bit since we hadn’t showered for almost two days and didn’t change our clothes at the airport. Also wearing pants was not a good idea, especially since we came straight from the freezing temperatures back in Europe to a very humid climate with temperatures around 25°C. But as I stated above, the Taiwanese are very nice people, and despite our appearance, it didn’t take long and a nice lady asked us what we were looking for. We showed her the address written on a piece of paper by the airport information lady. The nice lady thought about it for a while, during which another 5 or 6 people joined our little orientation session. Finally, after a brief discussion with the others, the lady took us to our hostel and even gave us her business card, saying we could contact her in case we needed anything. This was another one in the long line of selfless, hospitable acts we were yet to encounter during our stay in Taiwan.
Practical note – maps and orientation
We bought a map back in the Czech Republic, but there is no need for it – you can get very good free maps at the airport or at any information center around the island, both bilingual (in Latin and Chinese scripts) and in Chinese script alone. We ended up using these free maps.
We got by fine with English, a Chinese dictionary, and hand gestures. The main touristic points, stations, and public transport connections are English-friendly. Since the maps were bilingual, it was easy to figure out when and where the buses go at small bus stops as well, despite the timetables being only in Chinese characters.
Many people speak English in Taiwan, and those that don’t are patient and nice enough to communicate with using hand gestures, schematic drawings, and a Chinese dictionary. With the exception of the oldest generation, they all know Chinese (the primary language being Taiwanese), as we have been told by locals.
At the end of June 2011, we went to check out the climbing possibilities in the Gosaukamm, a small Austrian mountain range about 60 km south-east of Salzburg, and possibly set foot on the summit of the adjacent Dachstein. Archeology enthusiasts might know the area thanks to the nearby town of Hallstatt, with old salt mines and both bronze-age and early-iron-age burials, the latter giving the name to the prehistorical “Hallstatt culture.” There is also an amazing ossuary in St. Michael’s chapel in Hallstatt, with nicely decorated skulls on display, each of them bearing the name of its former owner. All around the area, mostly to the north, there are numerous large lakes with beautiful aquamarine water, certainly worth a dip.
We left our car at the uppermost parking lot at Vorderer Gosausee (lake). There are four large parking lots there, the upper one furnished with toilets, you can spend the night there. We left at 13:30 toward Hinterer Gosausee (lake) along the gravel road connecting the two lakes. Among other things, the road serves as a track for the local Bummelzug – a tractor with an open trailer adjusted for transportation of those who can’t (or don’t want to) use their own legs. It takes about 1.5 hours to get to the upper (or rather “rear”) lake. From there, we turned up toward Adamekhütte (hut). The sun was going at it, and the path was winding through low vegetation that was keeping the air nice and sultry while not providing any shade at all, and soon enough, we were sweating profusely. The vegetation gradually disappeared with the gained height, and the air was much more pleasant. To refill your water bottle, there are two streams crossing the path, one at c. 1400 m, the other at c. 1650 m near the small stone ruins of Grobg’stoanhütt’n. As we continued further up, nice views of all the three lakes opened – both Hinterer and Vorderer Gosausee and the middle d’Lack’n. At around 1900, the path slowly straightened, and we could see the hut. It took c. 4.5 hours from the parking lot (c. 900 m) to the hut (2196 m), and we continued a little bit further above, where we found a small lake, or rather, a bigger puddle with clear water. We prepared a small wind barrier from stones so we could sleep more comfortably – we didn’t bring our tent since the weather was stable. One thing that is worth mentioning is the fossils of various prehistoric sea creatures that you will find all around this area – in the rock, polished by the glacier, that has been receding for years and has revealed this open-air museum of natural prehistory. The small fossils displayed back down at Vorderer Gosausee are truly runts, compared to these.
Thanks to the fresh breeze blowing into our faces all night, we didn’t sleep much, but the sky full of stars was truly amazing – as it always is high in the mountains. We got up at dawn, and shortly after 5 AM, we set out. The way was marked by red dots, which, as we learned, was not the best way to go up in the conditions that were there then – not enough snow for that. The trodden path led on the right side (looking up, orographically left side) of the glacier (Grosser Gosaugletscher), but the red dots continued further to the right under Schneebergwand, where 50-meter sections of smooth rock alternated with 50-meter sections of frozen firn. Not really the best terrain to go through in crampons nor without them. Putting them on and taking them off every 50 meters was not really an option either. A little fun right at the start 🙂 But maybe when there is even less snow there later in the season, the firn fields may not be there, so it may be a suitable path. Just 2 hours after we left our bivouac, we got to the Obere Windluck’n, the col between Hoher Dachstein and Mitterspitz. The summit rock of Hoher Dachstein seemed quite small from the glacier even though it is c. 250 m high.
There is a via ferrata from the glacier all the way up to the summit. Since no one was there, we left our things at its start. The climb is easy, but it is a good idea to have your harness sling clipped onto the steel cable since the rock can be icy. There is basically no vertical climb, so an ordinary sling will do. It takes 30-60 minutes from the glacier to the summit. We got to the summit at 8 AM – 3 hours from our bivouac at a rather slow pace with breaks. We achieved quite an unusual thing – we were alone on the normally very frequented summit. Probably because it was the end of June and it was Wednesday. We met four mountaineers on our way back in the lower section of the via ferrata, three of them Italians in aviator sunglasses, wearing jeans and sneakers. It reminded me of the normal route to Grossglockner. At least these weren’t on a leash. They were faster on the descent, sliding on their shoes. I have no idea how they had managed to walk up the glacier without crampons in the morning, maybe it had softened a little bit by then. We felt a little bit over-equipped in our crampons, harnesses, with helmets and ice axes, roped together. These Italians may have even had hair gel in their hair. Nevertheless, a fair warning to those who should be tempted to try an “Italian” ascent – it is not uncommon here for people to end up in a crevasse – one such case happened just a few weeks after our visit.
After getting cooked in the sun on the glacier, we filled our bottles at our puddle and continued down the mountain. The views on the descent from Adamekhütte are amazing, but the descent to the parking lot at Vorderer Gosausee is quite long, about 4 hours.
Difficulty: (F) The ascent is very easy in good conditions, yet it is not a good idea to underestimate the glacier. According to an email from out Austrian friend, it was quite crevassed by the end of August that year, and their party was the only one (!) with glacier equipment – the others just waited for them to cross and followed their path.
Right at the start of our trip to the Alps in 2015 my girlfriend’s back refused to go any further up Rimpfischhorn, so after coming back down we decided to spend a few days climbing and wait for things to improve. After two days it became clear that it wouldn’t get any better, and since she wasn’t able to climb either, it was pointless to wait any longer. Luckily I knew there was one four-thousander that didn’t require crossing a glacier and was easy enough not to require belaying either. And luckily, my girlfriend has the same-size boots, so I didn’t have to worry about the fact that my right sole had decided to become independent and was now just barely hanging onto my boot.
Lagginhorn, with its 4010 m, is one of the lowest four-thousanders in the Alps. The standard route to the summit goes up the west-south-west ridge. You can either go up the ridge from its foot, or you can get on it midway up from the Lagginhorn Glacier, at c. 3500 m. As you can avoid any glaciers completely, my main worry was not to sprain my not entirely stable knee on the way down from the summit because of the many scree fields and loose slabs.
The suitable starting point is Saas Grund (around 1590 m). If you decide to make the trip with an overnight stay on the mountain, you can either use Weissmieshütte (hut, 2726 m) or you can bivouac at several places above the hut – there are both water and prepared sites for tent at the foot of the WSW ridge. There are also several good spots on the ridge itself, again with sites prepared for tents, up to 3200 m, but there is no water anywhere on the ridge nor are there any snowfields in this part of the ridge.
There are several possibilities of accommodation in Saas Grund. We chose a campsite right across the main street from the cable car station. Their standard price per person includes a ticket for the lift, which I didn’t want, and they offered me quite a decent price for the area (25 CHF for 2 people, a car, and a tent) and were absolutely OK with us leaving around 5 PM the next day.
I got up at 1 AM, and at 2:00 I set out from the cable car station and reached the hut at 4:25. There were already a few groups of people ahead of me on their way up the mountain. At the hut I made a mistake and went further up – there is a stream to the left of the hut when looking up the mountain and the easiest way to get to the foot of the WSW ridge is to cross the stream right at the hut – there is a small metal bridge there, a bit hidden, which I didn’t see in the dark. I continued up from the hut along the path that led up to the glacier and missed the path branching off it toward the foot of the WSW ridge, which would have been impassable anyway as there was too much water at the crossing. I realized this after a few minutes, when I was unnecessarily high for crossing the stream, descended toward it and crossed it without any problems. This is the last spot where you can refill your bottle, which I did and continued to the foot of the ridge where I climbed onto the right path that leads from the bridge. As the dawn had begun by now, it was quite easy to find a suitable point to start the ascent of the WSW ridge.
The ridge itself is very wide at its foot and is basically a scree field. The path is marked by cairns and is visible quite well. Even if you wander off it, you’ll be able to continue up without any problems. The only danger is to watch out for loose slabs – in most places you can’t fall off the ridge, but you can still take a fall or a slide of several meters, which can be just as inconvenient for a safe return. A helmet is a must – in this part of the ridge not because of a rock fall from above (which is the case in the upper part of the ridge), but for the simple fact that in the case of tripping, you can easily bust your head open in this terrain. The last suitable place for pitching a tent (no pun intended :-)) is roughly at 3200. From there on, the ridge gets more narrow. Still, there is almost no exposure anywhere. This middle part of the ridge is also much more entertaining, as it requires using your hands (an easy climbing of I UIAA). The way up is still marked by cairns and is well defined, with many possible variants. Just watch out for unstable slabs – there are quite a few, and at several points they could knock you off the ridge even though generally it is still almost impossible to fall off the ridge here. I met the first party here – the path from Lagginhorn Glacier joins the path on the ridge here. They were a bit surprised to see me in a T-shirt and shorts, but since I hadn’t gone up the glacier and had kept a good pace, I was warm.
I met a second group at around 3600 m, preparing to surmount a slab of II UIAA – there was a child in the party, so they were tying themselves to a rope. The slab is easy and wide without any feeling of exposure, though you can fall off it toward Fletschhorn Glacier if you climb it on the left side – which I did as it is the most obvious choice, with very good holds, and won’t even slow your pace. The climbing part of the slab is only about 5 meters, above it the inclination drops to the point that you can walk. After this slab comes a giant scree field with occasional easy climbing (I UIAA). A helmet is absolutely necessary here because of the rockfall from people above you. Up until the snowfields further up the ridge, the only way to fall off or get injured here is by rockfall. I met another group here, a Swiss guide with two clients. They courtly ignored my “Hello” though at least the guide definitely wasn’t mute, as he kept instructing his clients. Without flinching, they successfully ignored my presence and carried on at their pace with me behind them. After a few minutes I managed to climb around them and continued up.
Only a few minutes later, somewhere around 3800, I reached the first snowfield. It was a very hard firn when I got there (at about 7:30), almost ice. I put on crampons, took out the ice axe, and dressed up, as I finally cooled down when unpacking the necessary gear. The guide with his clients were quicker about it since they were dressed already and got ahead of me again. The snowfield, when icy, is indeed a place where you can fall off the ridge – it would be quite difficult to stop on the few meters before the drop to Fletschhorn Glacier. At least there were frozen, trodden-down steps from the previous day. I walked carefully, and above the field I caught up with the guide and his clients again, which I didn’t mind as the main thing here was to walk/climb carefully. The second snowfield, just meters above the first one, could be avoided for the most part on the scree to the right, but it seemed a better option to walk up the firn. It definitely was not the better option, as I found out – the firn was much steeper here without any steps, and the tourist crampons with my girlfriend’s boots were pulling my heels quite unpleasantly. I had to stomp the crampons in (though I had sharpened them) and had to use the front spikes at one point. However, the tourist ice axe blade’s wide tip, though sharpened as well, just chipped the ice, not even remotely sticking in. The only possible way to go up was the French style, i.e. sideways, feet inclined, using the ice axe shaft’s tip as a supporting point. I got on the scree again and after a few meters I entered the last snowfield. This one was less inclined with good steps, and after a few minutes I got to the last few meters of rock (I UIAA, maybe not even that) at the summit.
The Swiss guide with his clients sat about a meter below the summit in the east face without any belay, watching the clouds. I wondered what the guide would have done if one of his clients had fallen down. Not too hard to imagine – but that has been the case with all guides I have seen so far, the best example of which was a guide on Austrian Grossglockner dragging three very insecure clients basically on a leash on the summit ridge without any sort of belay – I doubt he would have had a chance to react and jump down the other side of the ridge if one of the clients had lost their “balance”.
I got to the summit at about 8:15, ate a bar and tried to take a photo of myself with the summit. After a few tries I asked one of the clients, sitting closest to me, if he could take a picture of me with the summit cross. He refused (probably not feeling overly secure) and referred me to his guide, who helped me out and took the picture. I thanked him, looked around one last time and went down.
The firn fields had somewhat softened by this point and getting down was easy. The guide with his two clients were descending above me. At one point, I heard a rock getting loose – I looked up, and sure enough, a rather large rock was tumbling right at me from one of the clients – who didn’t make a sound to warn me, nor did his guide. I had but time to duck behind a bigger boulder. The rock slammed into the boulder and stopped. A few minutes later, I appreciated having my helmet on, as I received a rather big hit right into the back of the helmet by a small rock, which I didn’t hear falling. Quite a punch. Again, it came from the same group, and again, absolutely no warning. I looked at them, expecting some sort of “my bad!”, but they carried on without any sort of regard for their surroundings. The helmet was OK, but had someone without a helmet (there were some people without helmets there) received this little present, I think it is safe to say they would have had a pretty big hole in their head. If they managed to stay on the mountain, that is. I’m not criticizing the fact that the group had dislodged some stones – I myself succeeded at that a few minutes later – I’m criticizing the fact that they didn’t warn anybody about the falling stones, which is selfish, irresponsible, and very dangerous.
I climbed down the II UIAA slab a bit further from the edge to avoid landing on Fletschhorn Glacier in case I slipped. Shortly after that I ran out of water, which was a bit uncomfortable, since the sun was now going at it with all its might and to reach any snowfields, I would have to divert quite a bit from the ridge. This was the first time I had used a tube mounted on my bottle in the backpack, and it proved to be a great and comfortable thing, but the downside was I hadn’t kept track of the amount of water left.
About two thirds down, past the turn-off to the glacier variant of the descent, I heard someone coming in the other direction along the ridge. A girl emerged from behind a rock and asked a few questions about the conditions and the time left to the top. Her climbing partner caught up with her, a bit winded, and they continued up the ridge. It was about 11:00 AM, so my guess is they got to the top around 1:00 PM, which weather-wise was OK that day, only no one on the upper part of the ridge got to enjoy the views at that point as the summit got drowned in a cloud around noon.
In the lower part of the ridge, I enjoyed two chamoises not even trying to pretend they would flee if I tried to get to them. They were probably laughing at the lame animal with two metal sticks for front legs and felt absolutely secure, though I went quite close past them.
I was back at the foot of the ridge at 13:20, took a few pictures of the colorful rock plants, refilled my bottle at the stream and went across the little metal bridge to Weissmiesshütte, where I met with my girlfriend and continued to Saas Grund. We came back to the campsite at 16:45 without any sort of hurry.
Starting point: Saas Grund (1559 m), camping grounds available
Elevation: Saas Grund – Weissmiesshütte 1127 m; Weissmiesshütte-Lagginhorn summit 1284 m; Saas Grund-Lagginhorn summit 2411 m
Time: Saas Grund – Weissmiesshütte 2.5 hours, Weissmiesshütte – Lagginhorn summit 4 hours (4-5 hours back down); Saas Grund-Lagginhorn summit-Saas Grund 14-15 hours
Difficulty: PD; in good conditions a very easy climb. !!This applies only if the rock is dry, without ice or snow (see “Dangers” below)!!
Dangers: Rockfall in the upper part of the ridge (helmet is absolutely necessary), snowfields in the upper part of the ridge can be tricky when icy; otherwise a very safe climb. According to the information from a Czech mountain guide Viktor Korizek here, the upper part of the ridge can become very dangerous when there is a lot of fresh snow (especially early in the summer), which becomes soft during the day and turns into a very unstable layer and any reasonable belaying is virtually impossible in such conditions. This is not very hard to imagine with the icy snowfields under such a layer, and there were fatal accidents in this part of the ridge in 2011 and 2012 for this very reason.