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Berner Oberland Haute Route Journal
by Tony Holt

A SKI TOUR IN SWITZERLAND - SPRING 2002


For many years I've been intrigued by the Haute Route, the classic ski tour over the height of Europe between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. This is a pretty strenuous journey and I began to feel that my age and skills weren't up to it. Recently, I discovered that there are other high country tours in the Swiss Alps and my son, George, and I discussed them. Finally, he said that he and his wife, Deb, would take me on a glacier ski tour in the Berner Oberland. We had found the web site of Chauvin Guides International, in North Conway, NH; and George signed them on to guide us on a Berner Haute Route. The following is an account of our magnificent, once in a lifetime for me, trip.

The Aletschhorn

Thursday, April 25

The journey started from the home of my daughter, Kyle Hopkins, who was going to take care of George and Deb's son, Colin, while we were gone. My wife, Kay, brought me and my many pounds of gear to Kyle's home. George, Deb and I left the Hopkins house and drove to Framingham, MA and the Logan Express where we were to leave the car and take a bus to Logan airport. Upon arrival, I left George and Deb to unpack the car while I went inside to buy tickets and to arrange the parking. Surprise!! The friendly Logan Express agent told me, in very hard to understand, sort of Jamaican-sounding English, that the lot was full and that the overflow lots were being shut down on May 1st, several days before we were due to return. We re-packed the car, drove to Logan Airport and, with plenty of time, boarded our Lufthansa flight to Frankfort.

Friday, April 26

We changed planes in Frankfort and flew to Geneva where Steve Colt, our friend from Alaska who had flown in to Geneva a few days earlier, met us, at 9:00 AM. Our luck kicked in. We boarded a train at the Geneva airport at 9:21 AM. The train took us through Geneva and on to Bern where we changed trains for Interlaken West. We were met by our guides, Marc Chauvin and Jay Philbrick, of Chauvin Guides International. Our hotel, Hotel de la Paix, was small, very clean and very Swiss. We spent the day checking gear (a lot of our gear was discarded by the guides as unnecessary), shopping for things we needed, resting, eating and crashing at about 9 PM.

Saturday, April 27
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The Eiger

 

After a good Swiss breakfast (yes, Kay, they had Muesili), we loaded up with packs and skis, walked to the station and boarded the train for Grindelwald and, eventually, Jungfraujoch. This trip involved train changes in Interlaken East, Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg. We had left our excess clothes and gear at Hotel de la Paix for pick-up at trip's end. We arrived at Jungfraujoch around noon. Jungfraujoch, altitude 3471 meters, is like a small city in a multi-story series of tunnels located near the summit of the Jungfrau, which, at over 4000 meters, is one of the larger mountains in Europe. It is geared for tourists, complete with shops, restaurants, an ice palace and toilets. It is also a jumping off point for people trekking on the glaciers of the Berner Oberland and there is a weather station nearby.

View from Monchjoch Hut

After doing touristy things like seeing the ice palace and buying, writing and mailing postcards, we emerged from a tunnel to the elements and to a world of long expanses of snow ringed by huge, gray/black and snow-streaked peaks. Absolutely Awesome! A word here about the weather. It had rained in Interlaken on Friday afternoon and night, and we awoke to gray skis and no view of the mountains. However, on Saturday as we progressed from Interlaken to Grindelwald and on to Jungfraujoch the weather cleared dramatically, and the views on the way up were spectacular, infinitely better than the best postcards or Swiss calendars. It felt as though the mountains were on top of the train as we rode higher and higher. It was windy and colder than one would expect in April, and two feet of snow had fallen on the glaciers. Our first day's trek was short, about 1-½ kilometers and up about 200 meters to Monchsjoch Hut. It was a good way to start as we were up very high and not used to the altitude.

We put climbing skins on our skis and went up, luckily in a snow-catted track, to the hut. I found this difficult due to my lack of acclimatization, but I made it. After warming up and resting up, we went outside for avalanche transceiver drills. I'll describe the huts in a later issue.

Sunday, April 28

This day was planned as the longest day of the trip and it was a workout. The trip was about 11 kilometers, descended about 1000 meters, climbed 400 meters and, finally, descended 200 meters to Finsteraarhorn Hut. The trip was complicated by the fact that a Foehn (the Alps' warm wind) was coming in and we wanted to beat it to the hut. So, we started a little after 7 AM. The first six kilometers were mostly downhill with snow varying from powder (great), wind blown powder (a little less great but skiable) to breakable crust and other varieties of "crud". The view of this first 6 kilometers was of a long, fairly flat, snow-laden valley, with peaks, on either side, rising as high as 800 meters from the valley floor. The valley floor, around one kilometer wide, was, in reality, snow on top of a glacier. The sun was bright and there were no clouds. Near the end of this downhill run, we saw our first crevasses, a whole series of them, which we skirted carefully. They didn't look particularly wide or deep, but Marc pointed out that often a snow bridge is formed inside the crevasse only making the crevasse to appear shallow.

When we got to the bottom of the 400-meter climb, we put skins on our skis, stripped down a bit and covered ourselves with sun protection, from lotions to sun defeating hats. I wore a baseball hat with a neckerchief under it and covering my neck and ears-sort of French Foreign Legionish. The guides took most of the heavy items, including ice axe, crampons, and water bottles, from my pack and distributed them among themselves, George and Steve. Then Jay, followed immediately by me, set a very slow, steady pace up the snowfield. I needn't tell you that the scenery was awesome. At the top of this climb and before our descent to the hut, we experienced a complete whiteout. The Foehn had arrived. The guides, by means of GPS and altimeters, got us to the hut with little trouble, but we were all very tired.

A word about the guides, Marc and Jay. They are both in their forties and have been in the mountains for many years. Marc grew up in New Hampshire. Jay was an Air Force pilot stationed for many years in Germany. They are humorous and very concerned about our well-being. I was impressed with their planning. They had pre-planned the GPS and altimeter readings they would need in the whiteout we faced today.

On the Wyssnollen

The Swiss huts are hard to describe to those not familiar with huts such as those found in our White Mountains. They sleep and feed around 60-80 people (one was larger), the meals are solid, Swiss fare like sausages, boiled potatoes, great soups and bread. The breakfasts are cereal, fruit, bread, cheese and good coffee. The facilities are minimal compared to AMC huts. There's no water, only an outhouse. The Swiss aren't as concerned about separating the sexes in the W.C. as are we. The bedding arrangements, too, are different from AMC huts in that mattresses are side-by-side in rows of 6-10 in rooms usually containing two such rows. However, in flavor and clientele and general design, there are many similarities between Swiss and U.S. mountain huts.

Monday, April 29
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Above the clouds

A word here on why the guides emptied my pack of significant weight before yesterday's climb. I was, at altitude, having trouble with a pack of 20-25 lbs. When I fell going downhill, it was extraordinarily difficult to get up. The only solution was to take it off, get up and then re-shoulder the pack. On the climbs, the heavy pack was too much. With a lighter pack, say 8-10 lbs., and a very measured pace, I could do it.

I had, however, really burned out my thighs snowplowing through crud during our brush with the whiteout. As we were to spend a second night at Finsteraarhorn Hut, I decided to stay in and let the young folk do their thing. They left, at a little past 8 AM, to climb Wyssnollen snowfield and then ski down. The climb was about 500 meters. I watched them from the hut. The run down was, apparently, difficult with powder and corn snow covered by wind blown crust. I was glad I only watched.


Tuesday, April 30

Finsteraarhorn

The tour today was to be the reverse of the last portion of Sunday's. We left Finsteraarhorn hut at 7:15 AM, put on skins and climbed 200 meters to the saddle through which we had come on Sunday. Then it was down 400 meters to Konkordia hut, which we had passed on the way up previously. The total distance was approximately 5-6 kilometers. Just below the saddle, Grunhornlucke, the group split. Marc, George and Steve went on an expedition up snowfields towards Grunegghorn, 3860 meters high or about a 600 meter climb. More of their trip later. Jay, Deb and I skied directly, and in a leisurely pace, to the hut. The snow was, as usual, varied---windblown powder, hard unbreakable crust and breakable crust. Except on the hard crust, which was familiar to us New Englanders, a stem turn was the turn of choice for Deb and me. Our destination, Konkordia Hut, is located at a sort of five corners of glaciers coming in from different directions. Each of the five varies in length and width, but they are all flanked by spectacular peaks. The Swiss Air Force seems to like these glaciers for their low level practice and we saw a group of red/silver jets screaming through the "five corners".

Fantastic mountain scenery

 

A word about ski touring in the Alps. I had thought that the objective was to climb in search of the perfect downhill run. With this as the goal, I hadn't totally appreciated the uphill work. Partly, of course, this was a reflection of my physical condition which is great for hiking around Mansfield but not totally adequate for the task at hand. Marc and Jay (and a look at the European climbers and ski tourers we saw in the huts) convinced me that ski touring is the "total experience" not just the run down; and that, inasmuch as 80% of the time is spent climbing, it doesn't make much sense to concentrate only on enjoying the downhill portion. This, too, explains why no one worries too much about downhill skiing conditions. The ski tourer gets down efficiently but not necessarily in picture perfect form. I'm told that Europeans say, "There is no bad snow, just bad skiers." At any rate, today's tour was totally pleasurable.

Climb to Koncordia Hut

 

Konkordia hut is more modern and larger than the two we've experienced to date. There's some washing water available but not much more than needed to get the armpits and face. It has a huge deck facing west and the beer is plentiful. We had full sunshine and much company-all, of a hardy, sun burned and healthy-looking variety. The only drawback to the hut, which wasn't actually that bad, was that the hut was 100 meters above the glacier and reached only by metal stairs bolted to the cliff.

Marc, George and Steve did, in fact, climb almost to the summit of Grunegghorn. We had watched them much of the way on their climb, and the ascent of a very steep section had been aided by a Swiss guide who had hand shoveled a ski climbing track for his party, which just preceded Marc, George and Steve. They had a great 45 minute run down, and much of the New England hard pack they had climbed over had turned to corn snow. They were very pleased to say the least.

I have to amend my comparisons of Swiss and AMC huts. With all due respect to George's culinary skills when he and Steve were hut men for the AMC, meals like the one we had tonight aren't found in White Mountain huts---delicious vegetable soup, salad/string beans mixture, perfectly prepared roast pork and a barley/beans/lentil mixture finished, finally, with a chocolate coated sugar cone filled with whipped cream. Another big difference is that beer and wine are plentiful. Believe it or not, I did not begin to overuse this attraction. (George and Steve, both ex-AMC hut men, disagree violently with this view of AMC huts).

Wednesday, May 1
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Today was our longest climb, 500 meters up over 7.5 kilometers all on a glacier from Konkordia Hut to Hollandia Hut. It was, until the very end, a gentle uphill. We left at 7:15 AM and arrived at the hut around 11:15 AM. The weather was, unlike most of our previous days, overcast. Apparently there is a system moving in from the south, which may make our last day, tomorrow, a wet one. We'll see. Actually, the sun came out for part of our trip, while at other times we were in a cloud. I really enjoyed today. Again, the pace was to my liking and George and Steve carried much of my weightier gear. I feel in much better shape and that is helped by the fact that we are at a somewhat lower altitude since Jungfraujoch and Monchsjoch Hut. I stayed at the hut enjoying a beer and salami/cheese sandwich and nap, while George, Deb and Steve went off on an adventure with the guides. From the hut (3240 meters) they were to climb up a snow covered glacier to Abeni Flue (3962 meters) and ski down the glacier. (As I write this, the group came in, shut out from their adventure by poor visibility.)

Final run down to Blatten

Because this is our last night in a Swiss hut and tomorrow night will be in a hotel with water, this seems a good time to talk about one subject, which has been on my mind from time to time. PERSONAL HYGENE. There has only been tap water at one hut, so hands and face get snow outside the W.C. and teeth are brushed dry or with "Marsch Tee", which is the tea-like fluid, which is dispensed in the huts to fill your water bottles. It's quite good and doesn't clash with Crest too much. I haven't shaved or combed my hair since Interlaken. The only guys that do are the ones with female companions (though that doesn't apply to George). I sleep fully clothed (not everyone does, I'm sure) because I usually have to use the W.C. in the middle of the night and one doesn't want to wake up cabin mates fumbling for clothes in the dark. I wisely brought along deodorant (which probably doesn't do much good, but everyone else probably smells too) and, most important, an anti-fungal powder, which kept feet and other parts healthy. A bath and shave tomorrow night will feel good even though clean clothes won't be seen until Friday when we retrieve them in Interlaken,

Tomorrow, we ski downhill from Hollandia Hut on a glacier until the snow ends, from where we walk or bus to a village called Blatten. This is usually an easy end to a stay in the Berner Oberland, but the weather has turned bad and we may have an interesting day. We'll see.

Thursday, May 2

Last night, before we went to bed (during the tour, usually at 9 PM, lights out at 10 PM), the group had agreed that if the sky was clear at 5 AM, we'd have an early breakfast at 6 AM and climb Abeni Flue before heading down the glacier for Blatten. Otherwise, we'd have a more leisurely 6:45 breakfast and then depart directly for Blatten. We slept in.

It had snowed through the night and was still snowing as we prepared for a downhill run in very poor visibility conditions. As always, preparation included packing the pack, putting on avalanche transceiver, struggling into climbing harness, putting on boots (stored at entrance and not allowed in hut) and plunging out to get skis.

It soon became obvious that around 6-8 inches of snow had fallen and it had not been blown around. We had been joined at Hollandia Hut by a great young British woman named Annabelle. Marc led us down and the visibility was not good-actually, almost impossible for the lead skier. Those following in these conditions at least have a point of reference in the skier ahead and in the tracks that skier has made. It was also obvious that, aside from the visibility problem, we were ending our tour with to-die-for powder skiing. It really was heaven. The visibility improved mostly as we descended. I say mostly because there were moments when it deteriorated, but they were brief.

Village of Blatten

The total ski run down to the town above Blatten where the snow ended (the glacier ended a little distance above that) and where we were to catch a bus to Blatten, 4 kilometers beyond, was around 8 kilometers. The altitude dropped from 3240 meters to 1540 meters at Blatten. I'm guessing that the great powder held up for about the first 2 kilometers. After that the surface turned to icy with patches of powder, and soon the surface became mush with a crust (very breakable) on top. If you plunged your pole it would go in halfway. This was very difficult skiing. I fell a couple of times in the mush and got back up and skis back on only with help from the guides. They were terrific!! Below the end of the glacier there was 2 kilometers skiing on decaying, but skiable, snow down the valley floor. The last ½-1 kilometer was walking downhill to the town of Fafleralp where we met the bus. George, Deb, Steve and Annabelle, not having had enough exercise, walked down to Blatten. The guides and I took the bus which, after we'd waited an hour, arrived exactly on schedule. "Great ski run!" doesn't really do justice to describing this wonderful last day.

In Blatten, we stayed at Pension Breithorn. The shower was most welcome and I shaved for the first time in a week. The group, now 7 with Annabelle, had lunch with well-earned beer, took naps and had supper at a local restaurant. Blatten is no Interlaken, but the restaurant was very good. Tomorrow we bus and train to Interlaken where we'll pick up our left luggage and where the tour officially ends.

Friday, May 3

It had been raining since we left the glacier yesterday and it really poured through the night. As we stood waiting, in Blatten, for the 8:53 bus, we heard a dull but incessant rumble and watched an enormous avalanche come sliding, or really floating like a wave of water, down to the valley floor on which Blatten is located. On the bus ride down the valley, we saw evidence of more, huge and recent avalanches. The entire group was thankful that we had left the glacier and avalanche-prone hillsides yesterday. (I forgot to mention that on our Tuesday tour from Finsteraarhorn Hut to Konkordia Hut we had seen, in the distance toward Hollandia Hut, what we thought was a huge cloud obscuring the col next to Hollandia Hut. It soon was obvious that this was a snow cloud caused by an avalanche. I point this out because avalanche and crevasse dangers were constantly on our minds and were why our guides had made sure that we were equipped, at all times, with avalanche transceivers and climbing harnesses.)

We caught a train to Interlaken West where we picked up our left luggage at the Hotel de la Paix, returned gear supplied by the guides, said long good-byes to Marc Chauvin and Jay Philbrick and trained to Geneva.

Tomorrow, Steve will leave for 18 hours of flight to Anchorage, Alaska and George, Deb and I will lunch with friends from Geneva, do a little Geneva exploring and prepare for our Sunday flight to Boston.

How do I describe this journey? I'm 67 years old and I don't expect to repeat it, but I've dreamed of doing it for years. The scenery was incredible and I'm pleased that I did the whole route well. I needed help from time to time, but no one, including me, minded one single bit or felt that I held up or detracted from the group's efforts. I'll always be proud of that.

CGI would like to thank Tony for letting us publish his account of his experience on the Berner Oberland Haute Route. We think it gives an excellent impression of what a ski tour in the Swiss Alps feels like.

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Chauvin Guides International, P.O. Box 2151, North Conway, NH 03860 Voice: 603-356-8919