Eiger (3970 m) by the West Flank

Typical terrain somewhere around 3450 m. This is the part of the route that is very difficult for orientation on the way down. Photo by Honza.

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.

On the way from Eigergletscher station toward the Rotstock col. The route goes up the left part of the rock step. Photo by Honza.

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.

Below the Rotstock col. You can see the Eigergletscher station below. Photo by Honza.

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.

At the bivouac at 3066 m, above the clouds. Photo by Honza.

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.

A beautiful view of Jungfrau from the bivouac.

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.

Just above “the mushroom” around 3250 m. You can see the bivouac at the furthest outcrop (pointing toward the lake), Rotstock, Eigergletscher station, and Kleine Scheidegg (station + hotels & restaurants). Photo by Honza.

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.

On the final snowfield leading toward the summit, at around 3800 m. Photo by Honza.

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.

Enjoying the summit views 🙂 Photo by Honza.

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.

Getting back to the abseil point at 3668 m. Photo by Honza.

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.

In the final parts of the maze around 3350 m. Photo by Honza.

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.

The last fixed rope at the foot of the rock step above the Rotstock col. Photo by Honza.

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.

The Eiger still in clouds as we walked back down to Grindelwald. Photo by Honza.

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).

The terrain above the bivouac. The difficult maze of rocks starts around the skyline – not difficult on the way up, but on the way down. The summit is not visible. Photo by Honza.
Looking into the north wall. Photo by Honza.
“The mushroom”. Photo by Honza.
The views from about 3500 m. Photo by Honza.
Honza on the summit.
A look down from the end of the maze at around 3350 m. Photo by Honza.
At the end of the maze at around 3350 m. Photo by Honza.
The snow tunnel at the foot of the gully above the Rotstock col. Photo by Honza.


Weissmies (4017) by the South-East Ridge

The summit from the rocky foresummit

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.

Almagellerhütte, photo taken during descent in the afternoon

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 ridge from the Zwischbergen Pass – it is a good idea to climb onto the ridge below the uppermost snowfield (the largest one) due to rockfall

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.

Typical terrain in the lower part of the ridge – an easy scramble

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.

But a few more interesting places can be found in the lower part of the ridge as well

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.

Some very nice climbing on firm rock in the upper part of the ridge – there are several such beautiful steps

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.

Strahlhorn (right) and the Monte Rosa massif from the lower part of the ridge

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.

The final foresummit and the summit

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.

The final snowy ridge leading up to the summit (photo taken from the summit, looking back down the ridge)

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.

The snowy ridge between two foresummits (looking down during descent)

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

Climbing down such sections in the upper part of the ridge is easier than it looks on the way up

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.

What are all those two-legged animals doing up there?

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.

The ridge in its lowest parts
Very good rock in the upper part of the ridge
A look down the north-east face from the final sharp summit ridge
Left to right: Monte Rosa, Strahlhorn, Rimpfischhorn, and Allalinhorn (taken from the lower parts of the ridge)
Left to right: Rimpfischhorn (part), Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Täschhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze, and Nadelhorn (taken from the lower parts of the ridge)
Summit selfie 🙂 Yes, I brought a tomahawk and a dead fox.
The summit with Lagginhorn
And of course the beautiful alpine flora
And our non-tumble dryer, The Red Dragon, sadly now operating as a taxi in Nigeria 🙁


Östliche Simonyspitze by the South-East Ridge

Östliche Simonyspitze – the south-east ridge and the snowy summit

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…”)

Nice autumn colors in Maurer Valley

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.

Westliche (left) and Östliche (right) Simonyspitze from under Essener-Rostocker Hut

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.

Vordere (left) and Hintere (right) Gubachspitze from above Essener-Rostocker Hut

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.

The upper part of Maurer Valley above the hut

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.

On the SE ridge

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.

A view of the nicely crevassed Simonykees (glacier) with several three-thousanders in the background

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.

A look to the north-east from the summit ridge

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.

A look from the summit ridge to the west with Westliche Simonyspitze summit

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).

Getting off the ridge

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 🙂

The SE ridge in all its beauty

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.

The view of the valley from above
The valley to the south-east with Essener-Rostocker Hut
Just rocks?



Hoher Dachstein (2995 m) from Gosausee

Dachstein from Vorderer Gosausee in the evening
Dachstein from Vorderer Gosausee in the evening

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.

Fossils at Gosaugletscher
Fossils at Gosaugletscher

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.

An evening view of Höher Dachstein (in the middle) and Mitterspitz (on the right) with the Obere Windluck'n col in between; photo taken from our bivouac above the Adamekhütte
An evening view of Hoher Dachstein (in the middle) and Mitterspitz (on the right) with the Obere Windluck’n col in between; photo taken from our bivouac above Adamekhütte

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.

The via ferrata to the summit
The via ferrata to the summit

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.

The summit cross
The summit cross

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.

Our bivouac above the Adamekhütte
Our bivouac above Adamekhütte

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.

Time: Vorderer Gosausee – Adamekhütte 4 hours, Adamekhütte – Summit 2-3 hours.

Elevation:  Vorderer Gosausee (933 m) – Adamekhütte (2196 m) 1263 m; Adamekhütte – Summit (2995 m) 799 m; Vorderer Gosausee – Summit 2002 m