Region: Europe >> Switzerland
Travel time: 2011, August 13th to August 16th
Picture Gallery: Link
I’m completely exhausted after ascending a nearly vertical rock formation for nearly 20 minutes on my way back from the summit. Descending down from Europe’s highest hiking mountain already takes me a solid five hours since getting off the beaten path in thick fog at the top. Even though this will not be a good preparation for my upcoming Kilimanjaro climb in terms of altitude, it certainly shows me how serious it is to summit mountains and how careful you have to be in bad weather…
It is a nice sunny Sunday afternoon and I’m on the way to a small Swiss village called Visp. Moving down south from there deep into the Pennine Alps, I make my way to the Barrhorn (3610m) – the highest walkable summit in the Alps. All you need is a good pair of shoes; crampons or Ice axes are not required as the mountains’ main route never has any snow. Most of my equipment is brand new, including a super light 1kg / 58L backpack from Osprey and I can’t wait to finally use it.
Sitting in the train and enjoying the nice green landscapes of the Alps, I reflect on the beautiful day I had in Bern yesterday, including some close up contact with Bears in their mini zoo and a night of festivals which was luckily taking place during my stay. As usual, Couchsurfing was a great tool to connect to the locals and I met a lot of funny Swiss chaps. The train ride is very comfortable and I use the time to explore my new camera, a Sony Alpha A35. Turns out it has a ton of features and great picture quality compared to my old Superzoom – I can’t wait to use it outdoors!
I have to take another bus, cross a huge airstrip and use a funicular to finally start the hike with my heavy backpack that contains everything I need to provide myself with food and shelter for the next days. The sun is coming out and I’m happy to make good progress on the way up to the Turtmann hut, located at 2.519m. A conversation with a fellow hiker slows me down a bit and I reach the dam (2.363m) while the sun is long gone and its getting dark very quick.
My plan is to set up my tent somewhere behind the hut and I have to hurry from now on if I don’t want to set it up in total darkness. It’s just 156 Meters to the hut from here, but the path is very steep now and my feet are letting me know that it’s about time for a long rest now. I eventually make it and decide to set up my tent close to the hut after asking the owner for permission – I just can’t be bothered to cook in the dark now!
The warmth of the sun wakes me up and I look at an amazing glacier after zipping down my tiny tent entrance – I just love these moments! I’m up in no time and start to walk – luckily I can leave my tent behind as I will come back the same route. I reach the first exposed section after half an hour, using some steel ropes to scramble along the rock. Nothing too fancy though.
Just minutes later, the sky turns grey and it starts to rain – luckily I’m prepared in terms of clothing and rain cover for my backpack. It’s just a pity that the sight gets worse and worse as I climb up higher. Missing out on the great views one would have here during a nice day, I at least have the glacier as a constant companion to my right side.
It’s pleasant to meet two other hikers and their little dog as it is very quiet here today considering the fact that this is a very busy mountain usually. They are telling me that they won’t go all the way to the top as the weather keeps getting worse. We do a bit of talking, take some pictures and I then continue up to the summit on my own, it should just be about half an hour away from here…
Half an hour later, I am still wandering through what turned into a complete weather disaster. The visibility is not much better than 5 meters at stages and I am struggling to find the next sign post leading me to the summit. The wind is also getting stronger and stronger and it’s turning into a very unpleasant situation. I move forward on all sorts of surfaces: big stones, small stones, gravel and ice for instance. There are also some passages to climb up smaller rocks and all of that is not easy in those conditions.
I keep on going though and am now stuck at a very exposed spot. The wind nearly blows me away here and I need to find shelter behind one of the bigger rocks to wait for better conditions. I have no idea where to go as I am not able to see the sign posts anymore! Sitting behind the big rock, I can just tell that in front of me must be an enormous cliff – unfortunately the fog is too thick to even tell if that is true or not and I don’t want to find out by getting too close to the edge.
From time to time, the fog vanishes and reveals the great landscape surrounding me. It is amazing to witness how quickly the weather changes from absolutely no visible to a nearly panoramic view – just to change back to fog only seconds later. I use one of these precious seconds to spot the next marker up a rock and finally reach the summit and it’s ice-covered cross moments later. I was so close all the time while I was waiting for the wind to go away!
The icy cross at 3.610m marks one of the highest spots you can be in Europe without using climbing gear, but unfortunately, the weather conditions do not allow me to just sit and wait here for better weather. I start going down again while the weather keeps getting worse – no chance to see any signposts again! I keep walking and walking and slowly start to wonder where I actually am. Nothing looks familiar anymore and I can’t find the way back marked on my map that should be somewhere here.
Eventually I realise that I missed the correct path and am now lost. Now it’s important to stay cool and keep a clear head. I decide to walk back to the summit and then return on the exact same path I was coming from. Shortly after heading back. the weather finally starts to improve now and I can see what lies ahead of me. I can actually spot the hut in the distance now and wonder if there is any chance to get there without walking back in a circle.
I keep on walking in the same direction now, getting closer to the hut. About 20 minutes later, I can’t continue anymore from here as the mountain becomes very steep and it would be too dangerous to get down here. I’m low enough now to be out of the fog and have better view on my surroundings for most of the time. This allows me to find the best way back off the beaten path and I decide to continue side wards towards another cliff instead of scrambling all the way back up on the very loose gravel.
Getting to the cliff takes a lot of concentration as I need to constantly back my self up with my hands and very carefully cross several icy spots, slipping here now would be very uncomfortable! I eventually make it to the cliff and can see the glacier being very close to me already. That’s finally some good news, because it means that I’m certainly on the right way. If I could just make it down here, I should be able to reach the path again and finally come back to the hut after a good four hours of walking around at the top already!
Sitting on all four, I slowly make my way down the cliff. It is very steep indeed and I have to be super careful again to not slip down here. My gloves and backpack are already showing the results of constantly being very close to the rock, they both look like I’ve used them for ages and are full of dirt. The further I get down, the more I realize that this is a pretty serious situation. Should I be stuck at some point, it will take a very long time to climb up again and look for the proper way – at least five or six extra hours at this stage which would mean that I’d need to walk around in the dark.
I keep my focus and make sure that every step is well placed and that my hands are always holding on to something. Suddenly, my heart stops beating for a second as some rocks slipped away underneath my shoes and I can barely hold on to the wall with my hands – that was close! There is no turning back now and so I keep going down, very carefully and very slowly… It’s been an hour on the cliff now and I finally manage to get off it, looking down to an immense scree field that I need to cross now. Nothing easier than that after getting down the cliff!
The path must be very close now and although I am very tired from the last very intensive five hours, I am also very happy to be down the mountain and back to normal terrain. I have to hurry up now as it’s getting dark and there is still a good hour walking ahead of me. To make matters worse, I hit my knee at a rock while nearly running down towards the now visible path. I need to take a ten minute break before I can continue and have some time to relax for a bit as well.
Finally arriving at the hut in darkness, I am certainly not getting my camping cooker out now! Instead, I will go to the hut and have a nice proper meal there. It just tastes amazing after the adventure that I just went through and I’m getting very tired very quickly… The next morning brings amazing weather and I walk back to the valley, skipping the alternative route that I originally wanted to take – I just spent too much time on the summit yesterday.
The rest of the day is very pleasant as the sun is constantly burning down on me and there is no time pressure or other obstacle on my way. I enjoy the landscape and am looking forward to get home again, one adventure richer and one important lesson learned: You should never climb a mountain of that altitude on your own…