Sam in Europe, Part 3: Göschenen, the Bergseehütte, and the Uri Alps
I’m going to tell things a bit out of order here, in order to keep with the Alpine theme. I went to Italy, of course, and that was a cultural shock. I was going to go canyoning in the Val Bodengo too while I was there, but that will be in the next post.
But, I was back in Zurich again, in Culmanstrasse 26, still slightly traumatised by the worst toilet experience of my life in Milano Centrale Stazione. Two days left on the Swiss Pass, and what to do?
Back in Australia, I’d had a vague plan to visit the Salbitschijen, one of the most celebrated rock towers in Switzerland, try and meet some partners, and climb something. It’s pretty much Federation Peak, but made of fine alpine granite instead of weird quartzite, and a couple of hours out of town with a climber’s hut at the base. That plan didn’t seem very likely though. I was browsing through the ‘Uri Alps’ section on Summitpost looking for 3000’ers, and decided to go to the Bergseehütte instead, just up the valley from the Salbithütte. It had more hiking options, as well as still having plenty of granite towers around.
(Once more, online Swiss topographic map!)
So on Tuesday at about 2pm, I caught the train to Göschenen. The St Gottard Railway is a wet dream for civil engineers – bridges, tunnels, spirals and switchbacks lead to what was for a long time the longest railway tunnel in the world, between Göschenen and Airolo. From the square outside of the station, the Post Bus rolled up with the distinctive Dukes Of Hazard horn:
The trip up the Göschenertal cost me 4 Francs and it was quite worth it. The bus slowly ground up the narrow valley on a skinny, switchbacking road, passing through tunnels and cuttings, horn blaring at every corner. If we met a car coming the other way, someone (usually the car, but a couple of times it was the bus) had to slowly back up until they reached either a bay or the last corner, and could pull over and let the other vehicle pass.
At the Hotel Dammagletscher, I stepped out into the glaring sun, and started up the trail. Soon I was passing through another Swiss farm, perched on a terrace overlooking the dam. You had to suspend disbelief a little bit to pretend the lake was natural, but it was still amazingly beautiful.
The spire of the Bergseeschijen came into view, and I could see the Swiss flag fluttering at the hut, seemingly just up the hill. It was an hour of climbing switchbacks away, of course, but it was still a pleasant afternoon’s walking. As I caught up to an American woman and her two kids, a thunderstorm over the valley threatened, but never caught up to us. I made the hut with an hour to spare before dinner.
The hut, perched just over the diamond-clear lake and rocky green fields, and framed by granite spires, was astoundingly beautiful.
The first night I dined with a Dutch father and his two sons, who were doing a circuit around the lake, via the Bergseehutte, the Chelenalphutte, and the Dammahutte. Pretty good walk, and I met a lot of people hiking this route.
I struck up some conversation with the groups of climbers who were there, claiming I was on my own as my partner was running a day late. This was kind of true, as Alex was supposed to have come with me, but couldn’t make it and (as I understood at the time) was going to turn up tomorrow. I did feel like a bit of a crazy oddball soloist.
Anyway the next morning I had breakfast and started up the approach trail to the Schijenstock. It disappeared pretty quickly really, and I tried to skirt the vast talus fields by sticking close to the cliff. After a while I was in the snow-filled bowl beneath the SE face, and staring up the obvious couloir that led to the easy SE ridge.
It was steep, and ugly. Partially snow filled, the rest was dirt, scree and talus, some of which had rolled down into the snowy bowl leaving impact craters and bulldozed tracks, now half-melted into the grey snow.
I climbed maybe a couple hundred metres up the couloir, avoiding the snow by traversing in from the right. It was the sketchiest stuff I did on the whole trip, insecure dirt-and-scree thrutching. I thought “This is death on granite ball bearings, you’re going to break a leg. Turn back”. That would have been the sensible thing to do, so I climbed a bit further. I reached the rock wall on the right of couloir and the going got a lot easier with something solid to hold on to. So I climbed down a little. Then I stopped, and started back up again. I really wanted to at least get to the start of the damned route…but, the sketchiness continued. I thought “Impossible to walk in this muck. No footing at all!” and started back down. But then I had a surge of confidence and started back up again.
Finally I started having bowel cramps and that really was the clincher. “Well, it’s just not on today…” I started down for the final time. The descent was much easier, as I found an actual path, and also walked on the snow patches instead of skirting the cliff, which was much faster.
I arrived back at the base of the south ridge of the Bergseeschijen, where one of the parties I’d met the night before was roping up. I felt jealous and god damn did I want to climb something, so I put my shoes on anyway and did part of the Via Ferrata on the third tower, then walked down to the first tower, and climbed some easy chimney and rib system on the west side. After I’d come down from the summit I decided that was waaaay more than enough risk for the day, and retired to the hut to wait for Alex.
At the hut, I saw a group of three guys looking at the handsome folder of hand-drawn topos that was lying around the hut, and
pounced struck up friendly conversation. It turned out to be James from Salt Lake City, and Felix and Robin from Bavaria, and yes, they did have two ropes and were climbing in a party of three. Yes, I could climb with them for the afternoon, sorry your partner hasn’t turned up.
(I was actually worried about Alex at this point, and frustrated with the lake of phone reception and information)
Below the hut, there was a climbing area on the Glattenberg, with a whole bunch of three and four-pitch routes, well protected and on granite. Ten-minute approach down the trail, and afterwards you top out at the hut. Perfect for a lazy afternoon.
As we walked down, James described how he’d climbed with another Australian guy in Utah, Angus I think, when he’d been ticking all the Fischer Towers. Gulp, well this guy is a veteran – I hope he doesn’t think I’m a moronic gumby by the end of the day, I thought.
I put James on belay and he started up a shallow crack (Geissrigga 6a if I recall correctly), while to the left of us Felix and Robin took on a slightly harder route (Tip Top 6a+). The climbing was good (if you liked slabs), on slightly mossy granite, in a beautiful location above the lake and underneath the glacier and the Dammastock. A bit like Mt Buffalo, except with the easy safety of a fixed hanger every two or three metres.
The crux was a very blank and awkward traverse left across the top of a weird chimney. At the top, we joined forces and did two 50m raps to the ground. We walked around to the west sector, and started up the next route, Solo Trip 6a. Again, Felix and Robin started up something slightly harder, this time to the right.
Solo Trip was quite a bit more exiting and varied. The first pitch was only supposed to be 5c or something, but getting off the ground was a bit desperate, even with the chipped hold. Then James followed a ramp-like weakness off to the left, then traversed back over right to the first belay. We swung leads, and I nervously climbed above the belay and placed a shitty cam, then up the flake system with more confidence as I started clipping bolts. Great thoughtful climbing followed, with actual holds, not just cracks and slab. I slung a horn to protect the final moves, a traverse right past a scary creaking flake to the belay.
The final pitch looked easy, an corner system leading up and out of view. But above that, it turned out there was a hard slab, then a couple of strenuous overhangs, full value for 6a. James had built a trad belay at the top. “Walk off from here?” I asked. “I’d rather not…put me on belay, and when you run out of rope just start climbing”. Oh yeah, simul-climbing. I know how this works, in theory.
Finally, with the rope gently tugging at my waist I managed to clean the belay and start upwards through the grass, bushes, and boulders, then up the final grass slope, to emerge on the trail about twenty metres from the hut. Then we drank beer.
I had a small situation that afternoon, when I though I only had 100 francs in my wallet to pay for room and half board for two nights. At first I thought I was only going to be there for one night, and then I though Alex would be coming and I could borrow money or food, but that clearly wasn’t happening any more, so I started to worry a bit. It got to the point where Maria, the hut warden, said she’d offer me breakfast if I helped in the kitchen that night, but as it turned out I had 200 francs in my wallet after all! So I paid all my fees, and went slacklining with some German kids. Problem solved.
That night I dined with the party of four who I’d talked to at the base of the Bergseeschijen that morning. Ironically, while my day had gone safely and smoothly, they’d come back very late descending off the S ridge after a minor epic. There was also a pair of two older women from Luzern who were doing the circuit hike around the lake.
The next morning, I set off to climb the Bergseeschijen by the hiker’s route. James, Robin and Felix had bought me a beer the day before, so I figured the best way to say thanks was to buy the next round and leave it on top of the peak for them. (They were climbing it by the route ‘Via Claudia’ on the south face)
It didn’t start off very smoothly. I lost the trail in the great talus field below the SE face. Up behind me came two young Dutch guys, who were also lost. I was a bit annoyed at this point, how the hell did I manage to loose a hiking trail in Europe for goodness’ sakes! There’s trail markers every five metres!
I then spotted an absolutely gigantic cairn in the middle of the bowl. Hmm, I guess this is a common problem. Turned out we’d followed the trail that goes to the base of the Klettersteig and then ends, not the one that goes to the pass between the Bergseeschijen and the Hochschijen.
Anyway, we climbed up to the smallest part of the cliff between those two peaks. I thought the trail would go up a hidden gully, but no, it followed a line of holds in a rising traverse up the cliff, with a cable handrail for protection. We reached the ridge at the top off the cliff, and I felt like I was again in some real-life RPG quest, “Guide the Lost Dutch Brothers to the Top Of The Mountain”
It was very fun and exposed ridge scrambling after that, with one more section with a cable. I was glad to use the cable on the way down as it was quite wet and slippery in that part. An hour or so after being lost in the talus field, we were on the summit of the most visible rock spire in the valley, with perfect weather and wonderful views.
I cached the beer with a note, and wandered around the summit ridge a little. The Schijenstoch, which surprisingly was fairly hidden from the valley and the hut, was in full view.
The Dutch guys left, and I hung around on the summit a while longer. On the way down, I passed the two women from Luzern, and was able to say goodbye.
Back at the hut, I had lunch, and said a final goodbye to Maria and the hut staff.
Then I walked all the way back down the valley to Göschenen. It took me four hours or so – I felt I had to do it as a kind of final farewell to the Alps. My feet were a little trashed by the end, and it was a bit hot down in the valley. But it was beautiful, as it had been everywhere I went.
The Ragged End
The ends of trips are always so awkward and frustrating. Or maybe disappointing is a better word? I had two more days in Zurich, and there was a goodbye party for Alex coincidentally on my last night! And it was also the night of the Olympic opening ceremony. That one was pretty fun. At one point, a Spanish guy, wearing nothing but an American flag around his waist like a towel, held an empty bottle of Glenfiddich in one hand and a squirt bottle in the other, and ran around spraying the girls who were dancing on the table with dishwashing liquid.
“This is about…60% as wild as it gets in Culmanstrasse”
Crikey. Not to mention the Italian duo playing an impromptu acoustic guitar concert in the foyer, or the midnight swimming in the river, and the new drinking game I played, and it kept going until like 6am. Yeah, it was a good night.
But then I was on the train to the airport, and then I was at the airport, hoping like hell I’d managed to say everything I’d wanted to say to everyone, and unsure whether the trip was perfectly complete or completely meaningless.