With winter approaching and some snow in the alps now seems like the perfect time to recount my ski touring trip in the Bernese Oberland last year.
After a day of getting the ski legs back in Murren we took the train from Interlaken to Jungfrau Joch via a few changes and a quick stop to have a look out of the windows cut in the side of the Eiger.
Despite the expense (this is reputedly the most expensive train journey per mile in the world) this is a great way to start any tour as you can get to just under 3500m in a warm and comfortable train which arrives and departs like clockwork. The station, visitor centre and research facility at the top is something of a maze of under ground tunnels and it took us a while to find the exit onto the mountain. This wasn’t helped by the fact we were there early in the season and the outside areas weren’t open to visitors. This meant we had to climb over a barrier and when we found the door out it involved a scramble up the snow piled against it to get out!
Having dressed up for cold in the tunnel before emerging we quickly discovered that it was a beautiful day with no wind and loads of sun – the layers quickly came off as we started to overheat even before beginning the descent.
Our first night was in the Konkordia Hutte and our route to the hut took us down some easy terrain with a short section of skinning to get over a col. We opted not to bag the nearby summit as our faffing in the tunnels had cost us some time and we wanted to save some energy for the remainder of the tour.
Our plan for the day was to summit Trugberg (3933m) and return to the Konkordia Hutte. The route to Trugberg was long but not steep and didn’t involve any skiing, only skinning to about 200m below the summit. To actually bag the summit we would have to take our skis off to do the short ridge.
Unfortunately, going from sea level to nearly 3000m with no acclimatisation was resulting in a slower pace than we had been anticipating, so when we arrived below the final summit ridge we were behind time and feeling tired. It was also very windy and were standing in metre high sastrugi for shelter. Given the conditions we opted not to do the summit ridge and took the long ski back which was easy though, as there wasn’t much steepness to it not particularly exciting.
On returning to the Konkordia Hutte we had to tackle the never ending metal stairs which lead from the glacier to the hut. As a result of the glacier shrinking since the hut was built there is now 150m climbing to the hut and 433 stairs – pretty depressing after getting back from a long day out!
The plan was Konkordia Hutte to the Finsteraarhorn Hutte via Wysnollen (3595m) and unusually, the day went exactly to plan. We were beginning to feel more used to the altitude and the short sections of skinning and skiing to get to the base of the Wysnollen were nice. It was a fairly long skin up Wysnollen to the summit but we rewarded ourselves with lunch at the top. The ski down was probably the best of the tour with nice soft snow and a decent length at a pleasant steepness. From the glacier it was then short skin up to the base of the Finsteraarhorn Hutte.
Despite finally bagging a summit the previous day we opted to change our plans which were to do the Finsteraarhorn (4274m) and return to the Konkordia Hutte.
This was a result of the Finsteraarhorn looking really big, steep and rather intimidating, as well as the news that the settled weather was due to end on what we had planned to be the last day of the tour. With this is mind we opted to abandon the Finsteraarhorn and head straight to our final hut, the Hollandia Hutte.
Unfortunately this involved traversing the huge Konkordia Platz which meant hours of skinning through fairly soft snow up a very slight incline, which was pretty boring. The scenery and weather was stunning, however.
With the forecast still indicating a big change in the weather for the following day we opted to try to summit the nearby Abeniflue (3962m) before skiing out down the valley and getting a combination of buses and trains back to Interlaken.
Abeniflue was only a couple of hours skinning from the wonderfully situated Hollandia Hutte. After skinning up past some descending heli-ski parties we arrived below the final summit, which had been completely scoured by the wind and was solid ice, this meant it was skis of and crampons and axes out.
As I belayed my partner from a stance just above where the snow ended and the ice began, my partners crampon came apart and, with no ice screws in yet he slipped from about 10m above me. I made the split second decision to catch him rather than attempt to get out of the way and let him fall a further 10m having gotten tangled in the belay and shocking the single (but solid) ice screw belay I was tied into.
The result was that he clattered into me, I succeeded in stopping him but ended up with a hole in my leg just above the knee courtesy of his crampon. We headed back to the hut after this to apply some bandages and recharge with some sugary pastries and drinks.
After turning down the offer of helicopter assistance from the hut guardian we skied (gingerly) all the way down the valley to a village where we could pick up a bus and then a train to Interlaken. If it wasn’t for having a bad leg the ski out would have been excellent as it was by far the longest descent of the tour and involved some interesting sections and mostly good snow. There were some large sections which had been covered by huge avalanches and a long skate out along the road which wasn’t so good.
I popped into the A&E (Alpine & Emergency!) in Interlaken with the view that they would just put a few stitches in my leg and we could go out for a meal and some beers. This didn’t go to plan either. After an operation to clean the wound and check the knee joint for damage, followed by a night in hospital I was discharged with a brace to stop me bending the leg which made walking round an airport with a ski bag somewhat challenging!
Except for the final part of the final summit on the final day it was an excellent tour, despite only bagging just one summit of the planned six. I must go back with better fitness, time to properly acclimatise and my brave hat on to attempt Finsteraarhorn which, according to the guide book isn’t that difficult, despite how it looks.
Lessons learnt include making sure your crampons are secure (it was the extension bar which was not clicked into place on a pair of Grivel G12s which caused the holey leg). It’s also worth noting that the summary in the guide book (we used the Cicerone Guide) which tells you the total ascent for each day simply gives the difference between your starting altitude and summit altitude: The actual metres ascended is considerably more on most days! This was certainly part of the reason we underestimated how long the skinning on each day would take.
The skiing and skinning is technically easy and there are plenty of options for altering your itinerary to suit your party’s ability & objectives. The huts are large, comfortable and friendly and if you go early in the season like we did they are nearly empty (10 guests was the most in any of the huts we stopped in).