Sam in Europe, Part 2: Bern and the Berner Oberland

Friday and Saturday nights in Zurich were great times, with good people and good wine. We went to the carnival that was in town in Bellevue, and rode a bunch of rides.

On Sunday I took the train to Bern, to see Scott and Nicole. They were having a long-overdue housewarming. I meant to catch the train in the morning, but just managed to get on one at about 2pm, which only really gave me an hour to wander around Bern.

Einstein’s house was closed, so here’s the Zytglogge instead.

Something needs to be said about the rivers in Switzerland at this point. The kayaking must be off the hook. I swear I did not see any flatwater the entire month. Every river is at least grade one at times, and most have kilometres of grade 2 wave trains. The Limmat in Zurich moves at like 2m/s and you can barely keep in one spot if you swim as hard as you can. The Aare in Bern is just plain scary. It looks like it’s 50m across and just channels a huge unstoppable flow. Pretty big water – no one swims in that. Scotty was going to take us boating but the weather wasn’t good. Apparently you can cruise through the whole city in a couple of hours.

After a pleasant night in Scotty and Nicole’s new apartment, talking about hiking in Corsica, aeronautical engineering in Basel, the lengendary conservativeness of the Swiss,  and other such things, I got up pretty early and caught the train to Interlaken Ost about 7:30. From Interlaken you change to the narrower gauge rack-and-pinion trains of the Berner Oberlandbahn. And so I made it to Grindelwald pretty early in the day.

(Again, to help follow these adventures, use!)


Grindelwald is one of the oldest mountain tourist towns in the world. It kind of reminded me of a bigger, more spread-out Thredbo, until I realised that this is the archetype of European mountain villages, and in fact, Thredbo was built to look like this.

The Jungfrau was climbed in 1811. Eighteen freaking eleven. They’ve been mountaineering here for two hundred years. The Golden Age Of Alpinism started in 1854 with the second ascent of the Wetterhorn, just over there. And over the hill in the other direction, in Wengen, they invented downhill skiing. I’m not even kidding.

Anyway, perhaps it’s time to try and describe the sentiment I had a lot of time in Europe. Going to New Zealand, or Tasmania, or even some wilder parts of the Blue Mountains, kind of feels like you’re at the end of the world, or the edge of civilisation. Europe still has an incredible natural environment, but it’s almost the opposite of wild. It feels like you’re at the beginning of the world, the heart of civilisation, the birthplace and cradle of Western ideals. With the Alps thrusting up like a physical embodiment of that heart, where all the activities and culture and adventures and ways of living you thought you knew, have been running off the rising flanks of rock and through these people and villages for hundreds and thousands of years.

So anyway, there was a lot of low cloud around, when I finally stumbled up the hill from the station and found the hostel, a very classical chalet. I remember looking at the map, and the chossy buttress above the town, and thinking “Surely that’s not the Eiger Nordwand…it doesn’t look any bigger than Mt Banks. It must be that snow covered ridge behind”. But after a few hours wandering around the town, the cloud lifted, and I realised this Mt Banks-sized pile of limestone strata was just the tip of the western toe of the Mittellegi ridge, a rock arete of such length and sharpness and towering complexity that my definition of ‘a great line’ was quickly redefined forever in my head. The foreshortening alone was messing with my head like an Escher drawing. And…yep, that’s it, that’s the White Spider. It does kind of look like a spider.

The Eiger, from the window of the hostel common room.

Grosse Scheidegg and the Schwarzhorn

I had a pleasant Monday, wandering through the town, basically shopping. I went to the Mammut store and got a pair of softshell gloves. I went to the Salewa store, talked to the woman there, and rented a Via Ferrata kit for ten bucks.

Back in the hostel, I’d met the bunch of old Japanese men I was in the dormitory with, and also met Dave, an american who’d struggled through the door with an enormous bag on his back. It turned out to be his paraglider, and seeing as we seemed to be the only young guys in the hostel here to do something besides the typical tourist photoshoot, we ended up hanging out a lot and talking about crack climbing and such.

On Tuesday morning I got up and saved about ten francs by catching the bus to Grosse Scheidegg instead of the gondola to First.

At this point I have to say it was explained to me, in between giggles, that ‘Scheidegg’ is very close to ‘scheide’, a German word for vagina. ‘Scheide’ can also mean ‘border’ according to google translate, and ‘egg’ is kind of like ‘place’, so a literal translation of Grosse Scheidegg and Kleine Scheidegg might be Big and Little Border-places, or passes. But it’s much more fun to think of them as the Big and Little Vaginas.

From the Big Vagina I had to walk north-west through a farm. Big herds of cows surrounded the road, a continuous ringing of cowbells accompanying the smell of manure and disgruntled looks of these very large and scary animals.

The Schwarzhorn

Closing the last electric fence behind me, I left the terrors of the farm to the Valley of Marmots. I swear I actually did have a vague idea that Marmot the clothing brand was actually based on some kind of animal. But it didn’t really sink in that it actually was a kind of squirrel thing until I read the helpful information sign on the trail. Apparently, ‘chamois’ are an actual animal as well, they’re like mountain goats. I guess this must be what northern hemisphere people feel like when they see a wombat for the first time.

I was soon below the great bowl made by the south-west flank of the Schwarzhorn. There were a few other parties about, including one couple behind me that were also doing the Klettersteig. Crossing some slippery patches of snow, the talus started and I split off to the left, towards the south-west ridge and the Klettersteig. Now I was following the white-blue-white striped trail markers of a mountain trail, rather than the white-red-white trail markers of a hiking trail. Below the base of a cliff I found the chain handrail, but I didn’t bother to harness up until I’d skirted the cliff, and started up a system of cracks and weaknesses towards the low point in the ridge.

I pretty much free climbed all of the Klettersteig, only using the cable for protection. Except for the ladders of course. And the wet bits or where there was snow, of course. And the exposed bits. And the bits were I was just lazy. Yeah.

The main cliff interrupting the S.W. ridge.

Seriously though, I did free climb everything except the ladders, which were surprisingly pumpy. The rhythm of clipping both your leashes over an anchor point in the cable is almost exactly the same as making clips when sport climbing. There were some points in between sections that were definitely pretty exposed three-points-contact scrambling with no protection. I thought it was a bit weird, you engineer the crap out of a route, and then leave a section or two natural that’s harder than some of the sections you did protect?! But all in all, despite being an obvious brutalisation of the rock into slavery, Via Ferrata is a pretty fun, safe and easy day out, especially when you’re by yourself.

Anyway, after the main rock steps, I left the handrail behind, and the ridge opened out to glorious exposed walking, with the barren SW face to the right and the snowy NW face to the left, and a chain of barren brown peaks and snow patches of the Pre-Alps extending behind. And, suspended like the background on a movie set, the Wetterhorn, Shreckhorn, and Eiger, a white and black wall above the green meadows.

Summit vista – Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger.

Unfortunately, the summit had no cross or log book, which left me a bit disappointed. But I sat on the grey licheny rock, and had lunch looking north, enjoying the altitude. Descending, I nearly ran down the normal route, a dirty trail carved out of the scree and choss. Returning across the farm meadows in the summer afternoon, the heat rose, and the colours and scents of green and yellow and purple flowers melted against the blue sky. Brown cows and cowbells. It was a scene of ridiculous classical beauty, like I’d fallen (Super Mario 64 style) into one of those paintings on my grandma’s wall.

The Jungfraubahn and the Mönch

With a half-decent summit bagged, I started thinking about a trip to the Jungfraujoch, Europe’s most expensive highest railway. Yeah, I know it’s expensive, but what are you going to do, not go on the Jungfraubahn? I paid 128 CHF with my Swiss Pass, which isn’t too far off a day’s lift ticket in Australia, so it wasn’t too bad, at least in my frantically justifying psyche.

I’d checked with the main ski gear rental place in Grindelwald, and yes, they did rent out boots, crampons and ice axes.

“Um, I have my climbing club membership cards, and also my insurance details, travel for medical and also helicopter rescue, do you need to see any of that?”

“…Uh, non?” replied the woman.

So, a total of less than 60 CHF to rent the gear. The fact that they rent technical gear to random Australians, without requiring any proof of qualifications, and groom the glacier approach to the Mönchsjochhütte with a snow cat is priceless.

The guy who actually fitted me, Frazier, actually asked a few more questions, about acclimatisation and similar. I did feel a bit like I was trying to prove myself to him. I mentioned I was going to try the Mönch from the first train. He raised an eyebrow. “Well, you can do it, but you’ll have to move fast!”

The next morning, I took up my packed breakfast from the hostel kitchen, put on the battered but serviceable boots and walked the ten minutes down to the Jungfraubahn station, in time for the first train at 7am. There were two or three other climbers on the train.

The trip takes a couple of hours, winding up the slopes under the Eiger to the Little Vagina, then diving into the rough pick-hewn tunnel below the Eigergleitscher. I got out at the Eiger Nordwand station, looked out the windows, in a subdued kind of way. Not really sure what I expected to see. Surrounded by crowds of Asian and European tourists.

I’d gotten plenty of advice regarding acclimatisation. “Drink lots of water” said Frazier. “Just pay attention to your breathing. I reckon I can go straight to 6000m when I’m paragliding, 3500 is not that high” said Dave. I’d been sipping water the whole way up on the train, and all it really did was make me find the toilet the moment I stepped off.

The station at the Jungfraujoch is like a full-on moon base tunnelled into the rock, straight out of Ender’s Game or Gateway or something. Arched tunnels with soft blue lighting slanted at odd angles, as I followed intersection after intersection towards the Aletschgleitscher in the freezing air.

The stroll across the groomed path to the Mönchsjochhütte was already starting to get crowded. It was a bit weird, finally walking across a glacier, surrounded by the Alps, on a perfect bluebird day. I felt kind of calm; I was finally here with the equipment and skills and conditions I needed, I was ready to just calmly take whatever came, I was ready for it, in fact it was overdue.  I was a bit worried about my stomach and energy levels.

Eventually (it can’t have been long, twenty minutes or something) there was an obvious line of people waiting just off the path, making a beeline for the base of the route. I plonked down on the end, and put on the crampons.

The starting line.

Well, here we go…I pushed through the ungroomed snow for about 50m to the base of the rock, picking out the route of least resistance through the first snow-free buttress as I approached, almost as an afterthought.

The base of the route.

The initial lower part of the buttress was a hike up shaley blocks and scree, with almost a worn path in parts. An obvious trail was hacked through the snow sections. Hitting the second buttress of red gneiss, I skirted around it to the right in the snow, to find the first bit of actual committing climbing: three or four meters of a 4th class corner. Above that, I continued up snow slopes, weaving around rock outcrops. The second bit of climbing was the same deal as the first, but could also be bypassed to the left on a steep snow slope. On the way up I climbed the rock; on the way down I went down the snow slope.

Low on the ridge.

Above the second rock step a beautiful rib of snow curved up into a knife-edge ridge.

At this point I really started having fun, humming Kaiser Chiefs and starting to fully appreciate where I was. Crossing a very knife-edged section and some more rock, I got to the third rock step. Although not nearly as steep as the first two, it was slabby, and exposed. There was a bolt at the bottom, and a big spike at the top. I clipped in to the bolt to sort through my day pack and put away the axe, then climbed it.

Above the third step I continued a little way. I could see a party ahead climbing the final rock steep, with nothing behind that but the summit ridge and snow cone. But I started getting bad vibes; although I’d had absolutely no problems or close calls, I was still moving slowly, a little uncomfortable in the crampons, and not feeling as secure as I would have liked. And I could feel the snow getting softer. Turn back? …yep. Yeah. Life’s good at the moment, a nice Swiss girl just friended me on Facebook, I just don’t want to die in a cornice collapse. Turn back.

I got a passing party of Italians to take this high point shot. 3900m. Yes, there really was a party passing every 5 minutes.

The descent took maybe a little longer than going up. I took my 6m of static rope and fixed it down the third rock step (the one with the spike at the top), then classical rappelled down it. Later, a guide called Rolfe and his client Naomi whom I’d met on the route had collected it and gave it back to me. A totally viable rope retrieval strategy! Classic Europe.

I got into a bit of a mantra, with every crampon and axe placement I’d be like “Is is secure? Because what am I doing? Not dying with this step” Coming down the snow slope to the left of the second rock step, probably the steepest snow pitch, took quite a while. The snow had turned to soft slippery sugar in the midday sun. Definitely a good decision to turn around, I thought. Too slow, too late in the day. I rested for a bit, before descending the first rock step, and then all the way to the base, where I jumped onto the snow and nearly ran back down to the glacier path, totally satisfied.

Mönch S.E. Ridge from Sam May on Vimeo.

After a visit to the Mönchsjochhütte, I spent the rest of the day wandering around the station at the Jungfraujoch. Although the location is ridiculous (it seriously does feel like a moonbase), it was so touristy I was worried I might spontaneously combust, and turn into a pair of elderly Belgian retirees on their second honeymoon. On the train back down about 80% of the people in the carriage fell asleep/passed out from the altitude, it was hilarious.

The Street Party

When I got back to the hostel, I ran into Dave the paraglider and he said “I totally flew over the Mittellegi hut on the Eiger and didn’t die!” and I said “I totally tried to solo a 4000’er and didn’t die!” and so we felt a good day was had all around. The woman who ran the hostel said “Party on tonight, in the street. You should go!” I never did find out what the occasion was, maybe they just get out in Grindelwald on Wednesday nights. So we went and wandered through the crowds. I have to say it wasn’t the most pumping festival. But playing a deadly serious game of giant Jenga, with Dave the paraglider on the main street of Grindelwald, while the live band bantered in German and random tourists took photos of us, and above all the lights of the Mittellegi hut and the Eiger Nordwand station winking in the night sky: that’s a pretty cool memory to have.

The next day I got out of town pretty fast, unfortunately I missed Dave and didn’t get to say goodbye, I also missed a bag I’d left in the bathroom and left behind about $60 worth of stuff. Oh well.

I took the train around to Lauterbrunnen and Wengen, the limit of my Swiss Pass. It was an amazing valley, I guess. I went for a short walk, but my heart wasn’t in it. Funny, it was one of the places that had looked so amazing in photos, that sounded so amazing in theory. Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell. A limestone Yosemite – “spend enough time in Lauterbrunnen and Half Dome starts to look small”. Maybe I was just sick of the pervasive tourism, or more likely I was just buggered from two straight days of mountain climbing.


I went back to Interlaken, and tried and failed to find somewhere that would sell canyoning shoes. That town is funny – there’s booths advertising PARAGLIDING! RAFTING! CANYONING! ADRENALINE! SKYDIVING! every twenty metres on the sidewalk. I was unimpressed. It’s a perfect location for a town though, in between lakes and all.

I went back to Zurich.


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