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  • iainthow


It's a long way from Ross-shire to the Bernese Oberland, and doing it in an overloaded land rover doesn't make it quicker, especially if one of you (me) has never driven one before. I soon got used to the idea that there was no such thing as acceleration. We broke the journey in Cumbria so that I could "climb my age" with 54 routes at Hutton Roof (plus a couple of extras in case I had become too aged to count properly 😁), then spent a night at my mum's in Staffordshire and another very noisy one camped in a layby near Calais. Ben was still recovering from the after effects of his quad bike accident and I was suffering from a combination of a long term hangover from Lyme Disease and a back problem so we needed a day off afterwards to recover (I certainly did anyway). The Kandersteg campsite was relaxed and quiet, with a nice bakery and a good bar down in the village. Not a bad place to laze for a day, although I have to admit to spending quite a lot of it asleep in the shade.

The Gspaltenhorn. We climbed the RH skyline
Gspaltenhorn, Lauterbrunnen
The Gspaltenhorn, we climbed the RH skyline

With all the ailments and injuries we had fairly unambitious plans. I had liked the look of the Gspaltenhorn (3436m) when I had seen it from Lauterbrunnen a couple of years before and the Blumlisalp and Balmhorn also looked good and not too taxing. Ben wanted a mid-height peak or two at around PD/AD as a starter for a longer trip and was happy to go along with this, so the Gspaltenhorn it was. The land rover managed to chug up a spectacular Swiss toll road to a high hamlet called Griesalp – I definitely didn't drive that bit! It was a gorgeous place, with classic alpine meadows carpeting the deep trench of the Kiental below impressive snow-capped rock faces.

Kiental, Kandersteg, Switzerland
Ben in the Kiental

The first half of the walk in was up a steep farm track, and halfway up a tractor and trailer offered us a lift. Having big sacks we accepted and hoiked ourselves and our loads onto the trailer. Ben said later that it was by far the scariest part of the trip, as we bounced round corners on the narrow track with huge drops to the Kiental below, sparking memories of the quad bike episode.

Blümlisalp from Kiental, Kandersteg, Switzerland
Blümlisalp from Kiental

Soon after being dropped off at the track end we were passed by four chatty twenty-somethings, all also carrying big sacks. They told us that although they had grown up locally this would be their first alpine peak and seemed very fit and raring to go. We were off the main tourist trails here, and at the hut everybody was local except for us, which made for a very friendly atmosphere. Unfortunately it also meant that very few of them were heading for the peaks. For them a night in the hut was the main objective and a cause for celebration, which went on till the early hours of the morning. I abandoned the place eventually and went to sleep outside, but still only managed an hour or so's sleep.

Dawn on the Eiger
Dawn on the Eiger from above the hut

Luckily reaching the North-West Ridge of the Gspaltenhorn doesn't involve crossing a glacier so we could have quite a late start by alpine standards. We left the hut about 5am for the usual plod up foul scree by head torch, but within half an hour there were glimmerings of dawn over the Eiger. The four lads followed us and we kept expecting them to surge on up past us but they never did. There were huge bulbous masses of cloud hanging about and the route mostly followed a steep ramp overhung by the looming rock wall of the Bütlasse so everything felt tense and oppressive.

Bütlasse, Gspaltenhorn, Bernese Oberland

The scree seemed interminable, but as we gained height the clouds started to break up and the views started to open up a bit, so things started to seem a bit more welcoming. As usual, life seemed better in the daylight. Both of us felt that we had been trudging along at a glacial place and been scree-plodding since around the age of the dinosaurs, so when we finally reached the ridge it was quite a surprise to discover that we had only been going for an hour. Apparently we were managing faster-than-Naismith pace on a first day at altitude despite our various ailments, which in Ben's world merited a handshake.

Sunrise on the Blümlisalp, Kandersteg
Sunrise on the Blümlisalp

An easy stroll up a broad ridge led to some slabs with a spiky arete beyond, known as the "Cockscomb". This was graded II (Diff) so we roped up but carried on moving together. Actually it was enormous fun, easy scrambling over little pinnacles on a knife edge with 1600m of very steep rock dropping away below us. The North Face of the Gspaltenhorn rises direct from the valley in the same way the Eiger does and the Welzenbach route up it has been described as "magnificent" and "one of the finest limestone faces in the Alps". Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, but to me it looked horrendous; tiered ranks of loose rock walls cut by ice ramps open to stonefall. Not for me thanks. As it was, the face just provided us with a gulp-inducing swoop as a foreground to the classic Eiger-Monch-Jungrau triptych.

Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau from Gspaltenhorn
Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau from the ridge

The ridge itself had character, a steep chimney crack descending to a sharp notch and a hole piercing right through the ridge being memorable spots.

Blümlisalp from NW ridge of Gspaltenhorn
Blümlisalp through the hole in the ridge

We soon arrived at the "Bad Step". This turned out to be a 15m wall of limestone, well supplied with square cut holds and with a metal cable hanging down it. It was about 80 degrees in angle so a proper belay seemed like a good idea. The guidebook advised just using the fixed rope, but I would much rather pull up on rock than metal any day. It gave me an enjoyable lead up nice square edges, about V Diff in UK terms. There weren't any natural runners but I clipped a sling to the midway anchor on the fixed rope and was perfectly happy with that. I led another pitch afterwards but it was very easy so after that we reverted to moving together.

NW Ridge, Gspaltenhorn, Berner Oberland
Ben above the Bad Step

The four lads had slowed down considerably at the Cockscomb, once they started using ropes, and the other people on the route had only started at daylight and were even lower down so we had the upper part of the mountain to ourselves. The ridge finished with a delightful snow arete, a nice bit of variety on what had been almost exlusively a rock route. The view was superb, with the Eiger trio inevitably catching your eye and the Lauterbrunnen Breithorn looking savage to the south. It was only 8.20am so we had plenty of time to enjoy it.

Lauterbrunnen Breithorn from Gspaltenhorn
Lauterbrunnen Breithorn from the summit

The descent went easily, abbing down the bad step from the convenient metal spike. We passed the lads at the chimney crack, then discovered that the group of four below were a family including two girls of about 11 or 12. Their parents were belaying them up in pitches so taking lots of time but they were coping fine and really excited to be that high on a big mountain.

Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau from Gspaltenhorn
Wetterhorn, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau from the summit

Once we unroped below the first slabs things slowed down a bit as the lack of sleep caught up with us, and scree descents aren't helped by bad backs and knees. The lads finally careered past us a few minutes from the hut, but then their total age for the four of them was almost certainly less than for the pair of us. I needed a rest so stopped at the hut for a brew while Ben headed on down. Not far down he realised that waiting in a scenic spot with a view of the mountains made more sense than waiting at the bottom in the land rover so I caught him up by a little waterfall and we ambled down together.

Thunderstorm arriving in Kandersteg, Berner Oberland
Thunderstorm arriving in Kandersteg

There was a spectacular thunderstorm overnight, with the rain hammering down most of the night, and it was still raining on and off the next day, so our plan for the Balmhorn was shelved. I wouldn't have been able to climb it anyway as my back had seized up and I could hardly walk. Ben's lungs weren't in much better nick - we made it as far as the pub for lunch. My diary tells me we saw a band in the bar that evening, though I can remember nothing about it (alcohol and painkillers, always an interesting combination!). I'd recovered enough to lead a group in North-West Scotland a week later, and Ben managed a couple of climbs around Arolla the same week, although poor weather put paid to bigger peaks. The Gspaltenhorn had been a great day out, and despite our ailments and decrepitude we'd made a very competent ascent in a decent time – ok for a couple of complete crocks.

NW Ridge, Gspaltenhorn, Berner Oberland
Ben on the NW Ridge

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