Skiing Winterhorn (2660m)

Trying to decide where to go for a ski tour in Switzerland on a beautiful day with favorable avalanche conditions is like trying to buy chips in an American supermarket. Any of it will work, but the deluge of options means the perfect one is there somewhere… You stare numbly at the available options and your mind just barely manages to wade through the torrent of information… vertical climb, aspect, quality of views from the summit, length of train ride, steepness of ascent, steepness of descent, technical considerations, weather, avy forecast… sometimes this is just too overwhelming when you try to figure it out during coffee breaks on a Friday at the office. So you resort to either whatever you stumble upon first, or an old stand-by (Doritos are not a gourmet choice, but always satisfying and crave-inducing).

So off we went to Winterhorn, a somewhat uninspiring mountain between Hospental and Realp just southwest of the more well-known Andermatt. It’s actually a defunct ski resort, so 3/4 of the uphill are accompanied by decaying skeletons of someone’s failed idea. I’ve actually been here before with the ski club (see here) but we were stuck in a cloud most of the day and the snow was terrible.

This time, the plan was to do a steep descent to the northwest toward Realp. I was skeptical about wanting to ski 45-degree slopes on breakable crust, but I remembered from the trip four years ago that we tried to find a way down to the east but got lost… presumably it would be fine in good visibility.

Here’s the quaint little village of Hospental in the mid-morning:

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This is really an easy route up — here is a canine old-timer following his crew (of old-timers):

Stefan thought the weather was pretty nice:

Ascending the steep last few meters of Winterhorn:

Leaving the summit:

And finally the downhill:

Finally we opted to skip the steep way down to Realp and instead pick our way to the other side toward the Gotthard pass road. We would follow a series of gullies, hoping that maybe some soft snow would have been preserved in there… and that the east-facing open slopes would have corn instead of breakable crust. Turns out our thinking was correct, and we even found something resembling powder!

Here’s Jö shredding the gully:

Lower down, we skied some fun corn-like snow… an hour sooner it would have been perfect, but even though it was a little slushy it certainly was better than crust!

You know it’s spring time when you can’t ski all the way to the village…

Lovely Hospental:

And a well-deserved break before heading off to the train:

Full gallery here.

Birthday tour — Rorspitzli 3220m

Part of this year’s annibirthday (2 birthdays + wedding anniversary) fell on a beautiful, sunny Friday. Luckily, it happened to be my birthday and not the anniversary, and I managed to convince Tobias to go ski something. He had told me about this great tour from Göschenen with a 2000m descent before and it fit my wish for “something tall in Uri”.

If you want to skip the text and just go to full-screen photos, go here.

We knew that there would be lots of climbing — 2100m of vertical gain. We also knew that this effort most likely will not lead to powder heaven, but instead to some nondescript crusty mess.

In the end, this felt like many ski tours rolled up into one — first the spring-like approach and blistering heat, then some proper alpine-looking scrambling above 3000m followed by 1000m of very enjoyable north-facing snow, and finally the worst death crust you can think of for the last 1000m down to the valley floor.

We started like all good spring tours should start — carrying skis.

Heading up from Göschenen -- snow levels not looking promising

Finally up in the open looking over at Salbitschijen:

Near Salbithütte:

Heading up on the open slopes near Salbithütte

Looking toward the impressive walls below Dammastock

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Heading toward the couloir that gives access to the Rorplatten that eventually lead to the Rorspitzli:

Climbing the little couloir:

Looking back in the direction of Andermatt:

We were trying to move reasonably quickly, but the warm weather got to us and we started slowing down… so not many photos until the summit 🙂

A couple following in our tracks seen from the summit of Rorspitzli (they were super friendly and eventually gave us a ride back down to the train station…)

The summit of Rorspitzli is a kind of unremarkable rubble pile. The scramble up and down is straightforward, but you have to be on the lookout for loose blocks… here we’re downclimbing and you can see the glacier with ski tracks below:

Ridge leading up to the summit pyramid:

Downclimbing the ridge to get to the glacier:

Finally, skiing… the snow was windpressed, recycled powder, but skied much better than expected.

Until we hit about 2000m — then the game was over and for the next 1000m of vertical we skied some pretty horrible breakable crust all the way down to the road.

Here’s Tobias demonstrating the proper technique for skiing this kind of crap:

This will be a great tour to do before work one day… 🙂

Pizzo Rotondo 3192m

I’ve had plans to get into the Rotondo area for the past four years but the plans never quite materialized. This year it was the destination for the annual “Ralf & Guido Tour” with the ZSS — in previous years, R&G tours have gone to Wallis for multiday high-altitude ski touring at its finest (Turtmanntal and Zinal) but this year a single day trip was the only possibility. The magic of the Rotondo region is that it marks the border between the typically colder north and milder south right in the middle of the main alpine ridge, offering views of the central swiss alps and the 4000ers of the Berner Oberland and Wallis to the west. All of this coupled with a tour that ends in an exciting 200m couloir to get to the summit of Pizzo Rotondo makes for a very attractive tour.

The Bedretto was a particularly popular spot that morning — I guess the scary amounts of new snow and strong winds in the north pushed everyone south of the ridge. You had to be quick if you wanted a spot to sit down on the bus from Airolo:

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Soon we found ourselves on the north side of the beautiful Bedretto valley in flat light…

On the lower slopes we definitely were not alone…

But soon our track veered off from the main stream onto some steep and firm terrain:

Eventually the visibility went down to almost nothing. Once we reached the couloir, its walls provided some much needed contrast and a reference point:

Our group on the summit:

Descending the narrow snowy ridge was quite spectacular in the flat light:

Back in the couloir:

Then it was time to ski! It looked a lot like this:

Although the visibility improved lower down, the snow deteriorated…

On the way out, we waited for a bus next to this family-friendly ski resort:

This friendly woman wanted to make sure no one needed to use the facilities before she locked up…

And everyone generally enjoys huge amounts of snow, especially on roofs…

See the full size gallery here.

Life decisions… and mountains early in the morning

A few years ago, we were faced with the heavy burden of making one of those decisions that would clearly mark our lives forever. Choosing where to move after Seattle was a task that defied any clear optimization. Though it seemed trivial compared to all other parameters (job, language, city size, music scene, beer quality etc.), being near mountains was a bigger factor to me than I perhaps dared to admit. In retrospect, it’s something I craved the most during the long years moving around the (mountain-less) world — Cairo and Missouri, where I spent a combined 11 years certainly have their charms, but snowy mountain tops are not among them. Spending some time near the Cascades rekindled my love for the outdoors and for the special kind of suffering that brings you to places not accessible to those with less resolve.

Now, with the mountains an easy train ride away, I can head out almost anytime conditions and time allow. In this case, it was early last Wednesday morning. 1000m of beautiful snow and bluebird skies, a few hours with friends and time to be alone with my thoughts during the meditative ski up the mountain. Steep powder-inspired adrenaline. Back at work by lunch-time.

As usual, the full gallery here.

Early morning commuters

Starting out just after sunrise

Sunrise over the Redertengrat, Lachenstock, Zindlenspitz…

The Wägital still enshrouded by fog

Finally in the sun…

Approaching the upper slopes of Fluebrig

Coming on to the ridge with the retreating moon…

Incredible views from the saddle

Going down — in the end, what every tour is about…

And before heading to the office, a final look back

pre-work lake-to-sky adventuring

Abundant snow fall at low altitudes meant that some “special” tours were doable — including Stöcklichrüz, which is a hill above the town of Lachen on the southern end of the Zürisee. What this tour lacks in fun steep slopes it makes up for with the novelty of skiing basically from lake level…!! Good fun, back at work before lunch time…

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First skiing of the season — Redertengrat

… this actually happened two weeks ago, but somehow I haven’t found the five minutes I need to post the pictures. We went to the closest awesome place, Wägital with its always-tracked-to-hell Redertengrat. The freshly-coated forest looked spectacular in the diffuse light coming through the fog and it was a lot of fun trying to capture the feeling on camera. With the falling snow and the wind and the crap that got stuck on my lens somewhere in between and the zero visibility it was pretty satisfying. It looks like it might be a yearly tradition to ski this tour in a white out. Always fun but leaves you wanting just a bit more… aching for the next adventure.

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Furggeltihorn (3043m) – Läntahütte – Furggelti

Tobias and I chased the weather window for a two-day trip all the way to the border between Graubünden and Ticino, to the picturesque Läntatal. The end of the valley is marked by the tallest peak of Ticino, Rheinwaldhorn. The rolling Läntagletscher provides the source of the Valser Rhein, one of the tributaries of the Vorderrhein, which eventually becomes the river Rhine, which does important things like demarcates the borders of France, Switzerland and Germany, and winds its way into the North Sea.

We skied in to Läntahütte (a great little hut with very friendly hut keepers) over a somewhat mediocre Furggeltihorn and hatched an awesome plan for the next day — ski up to Rheinwaldhorn, over to Grauhorn, and ski the west-facing slopes into Ticino. Apparently, this descent can only be done during winters with a lot of snow in the south, which has certainly been the case this year. We set out well before sunrise toward the Läntagletscher to be ready to ski off Grauhorn at noon. After gaining the glacier proper the conditions quickly deteriorated and all of a sudden we were in a complete whiteout. We weren’t expecting much crevasse hazard but since we couldn’t see hardly at all, we roped up and continued upwards. Several times the visibility would improve enough to lift the morale, but eventually we realized that it’s probably never going to clear. Going over Rheinwaldhorn and into unknown terrain on the other side was not an option in those conditions so we descended back to the hut, had some coffee, hung out with the dog, stared mournfully at the fog-wrapped glaciers and headed back up the way we came in the previous day. Turned out we made the right call, as the conditions didn’t really improve for the rest of the day, it even rained down in Vals. Still, we were glad to have checked out a new area and will leave this itinerary for a future outing…

coming up out of the valley to the impressive view of the Zervrailahorn
spring-time snow craters
on the summit of Furggeltihorn looking out toward Güferhorn and Grauhorn in the background
Steep drop-off from the summit
starting the descent off the summit toward Läntatal
our objectives for the second day in sight — Rheinwaldhorn on the left and Grauhorn on the right
mountains are big, people are small. good thing to keep in mind.
final steep slope down to Läntahütte (you can see it if you look very closely… second largest boulder in the photo)
slightly before the whiteout got really bad
heading back up out of Läntatal
some eXtreme skinning was required
skiing down toward the artificial Zervreilasee
end of the road

Böshorn (3269m) – Fletschhornhütte – Sengchuppa (3607m)

I met Yves two years ago during the Davos conference, where we did a couple of tours together. Over the past two seasons, we’ve been trying to come up with a weekend when we were both free for a tour somewhere in Wallis since Yves is from those parts. Last year we were foiled by weather, but this year the plan worked out and we had a great two-day tour near Simplon pass.

We headed to the Fletschhornhütte, an awesome little hut positioned at just over 3000m on a dramatic ridge line looking out toward some of the the eastern Wallis 4000ers. It’s an unmanned hut, meaning you have to bring your own food but everything else including blankets, a wood-burning stove, and cooking utensils, is there. A really awesome place: simple, clean, and away from the crowds. We were the only two people there.

On the first day, we approached from the Simplon pass road and headed over Böshorn, a classic peak of the area since it’s relatively high (3269m) and apart from the airy summit scramble fairly easily accessible. The way up to the peak was a complete zoo, since part of the approach is shared with other popular peaks that are favorites with large groups on the weekends. We were happy to disappear over onto the other side into complete silence and isolation.

We miscalculated the elevation gain needed on the first day a bit and ended up doing slightly over 2000m of climbing — which would have been fine except that we had to chop wood, melt water etc. as soon as we arrived, preferably before it got dark. Instant noodles never tasted better.

Next day we awoke to a glorious morning and headed over the Gamsagletcher towards Sengchuppa, which definitely takes the crown for the most amazing peak name of all time. We reached the top in 2 hours and descended back toward Sirvoltesattel over the glaciers. There were pockets of really amazing snow, which in parts had strangely not even been touched by wind. At the end of the glacier, we skinned back up and over Sirvoltesattel and descended back to the Simplon pass road. A really great weekend in a nice corner of the alps, which serves up with some spectacular solitude. Fletschhornhütte is highly recommeded!

Crowds rolling over toward Sirvoltesee above Simplonpass road

wind-sculpted snow on the lower slopes of Böshorn

Yves on the approach to Böshorn

Finally in view of the summit… erm sort of. We spent the next hour or so in a whiteout. 

Since I expected the scramble to require full attention, I left my camera in the pack where we left our skis… big mistake, as the views from the summit were amazing and the scramble really fun. I kept my phone in my pocket though, so the next few shots are taken with that.

Once on the summit, the clouds would magically part every few minutes and give us an amazing view of our surroundings — here, Fletschhorn in the background and Sengchuppa (our sunday objective) in the foreground)
looking north toward Berner Oberland

summit selfie
downclimb selfie

Yves navigating the ridge on the descent
Once away from the summit ridge, we were also out of the fog — Yves searching for our exit

starting the descent toward the foot of the Gamsagletscher
Our tracks and the summit in the middle right
Checking the map on the glacier

Popping over the ridge toward the hut served up an amazing panorama

the little hut is on the ridge in the lower right

Weisshorn on the left and Brunneghorn in front on the right — I climbed it two years ago

traversing toward the hut

first things first — chopping wood

cozy inside
cooking snow
sunrise and the latrine

Sunrise on Dom, Lenzspitze, and Nadelhorn

Looking north toward the Aletschgletscher

leaving the hut

approaching Sengchuppa

on the summit!

Yves descending 

Skiing down the glacier

crazy wind pattern — the smooth part was completely untouched by wind

Looking at Böshorn from Sirvoltesattel before our final descent

On-location with Filme von Draussen

Tom (of Filme von Draussen) somehow convinced Andreas and I to get up at 2am and go on a sunrise ski tour… two of them actually. In retrospect, getting up at 2am was worth the glorious sunrise views we got each time and after coming back into the city in the late morning, the rest of the work day was actually quite productive. Each time we had nice fluffy powder to ski on, which made the early morning much more bearable. So not such a bad idea at all… plus, now we know Hüenerchopf, the area’s preferred ski touring mountain for everyone over 65, like the backs of our hands.

The first time we went I left my camera behind (idiot) but managed to snap a few pics of the process during our second outing. Tom’s video will tell the rest of the story…

Andreas happy to see the sun rising

tops of the Churfirsten get some morning rays

breaking trail through fresh pow on Hüenri — by the end of the day this would be completely tracked out. On a Tuesday. 

set up

Andreas shredding the Hüenerchopf gnarly (!) NE face… 

Andreas in a sea of slightly wind-blown pow