The climbing life – Part III: Switzerland

We were warned by our fellow campers that Switzerland is even more expensive than Chamonix, but figured if we were to go somewhere without so many gondolas to tempt us we’d surely save hundreds.

We bought a guide book of alpine climbing routes in Switzerland and Rowan dutifully read through the whole thing, highlighting our options. He ruled out anything that required a longer rope than we have – on our 60m rope we can climb at most 55m at a time, and abseil only 30m. He also ruled out anything that was likely to require more protection than the three “friends” we had bought in Chamonix – this second parameter is difficult to judge as how one places friends in rock cracks is all down to personal preference and choice; however, our guidebook did helpfully rate the fixed-bolt protection of each climb on a rough psychological scale of ‘secure’ to ‘terrifying’, so we erred toward the safer end of the spectrum.

Having narrowed down our options, we checked the transport options and weather forecast for the various possible locations around the country, further shrinking our list. Finally we realised that one or two of our top choices were located not too far from where some Swiss friends of ours lived. We had found our climb.

We have been very lucky throughout our travels to have met up with, and enjoyed the hospitality of friends, family and even strangers. Although we hadn’t seen our Swiss friend for nearly 10 years since working and snowboarding together in Canada, she invited us to stay with her and her partner. We ended up staying with them for a few days, in awe of their dream life surrounded by mountains. On their doorstep they have endless rock climbing opportunities and mountain biking in summer, as well as skiing and snowboarding in winter. Their whole town is basically a ski resort with gondolas giving access to the mountains all around. Our friend’s parents even live in a village in the mountain tops – their commute to work in the town centre is by gondola.

Looking down on Altdorf from the mountaintop

After a few days of eating homemade cheese fondue and luxuriating on their sofa (you don’t know how much you miss a sofa until you haven’t had one for a few months), we made our way to the Goschenenalp valley to climb ‘Sudgrat’, the south ridge of Salbitscheijn.

Best fondue ever

This route that we had managed to narrow our options down to, is a bolted alpine route. Alpine routes like this with fixed protection aren’t that common outside of Europe. The fixed bolts on the rock are the only reason we could get away with so little trad gear (we only had a few slings and our 3 “friends” that we bought in Chamonix). Sudgrat is also a very famous route in Europe, although we didn’t know this until we had told a few people we were planning to climb it.

Our climbing route as detailed in our guidebook

It took us three days to complete the climb. First we hiked 3 hours up to the Saltbit hut, luckily avoiding most of the rain which started down on us as the hut came into sight. As usual we carried in our own food to save money. Normally we would have to cook outside, but the hut manager took pity on us because of the rain and let us cook in the shed.

The next morning we got an early start. It was a Saturday and we weren’t the only ones attempting the climb. The weather was windy and cold, visibility was low, and the rock was still wet from the day before. The first few pitches of the rock route were sloped slab climbs. There was not much to hold onto and it was slippery as f**k. To put it mildly, I did not enjoy the climbing.

This is a view of Westgrat (the west ridge) taken from Sudgrat on our second attempt. Sudgrat looks pretty similar. The lower slopes may be flat, slopey and slippery, but the upper slopes on the ridge are steep, sharp and ‘knife-edged’.

After about four pitches (or 100m) we got to a point where there was an option for us to walk out, down a gully. My fingers were frozen and not working properly, even with gloves on, and we were going so slowly stuck behind other groups of climbers that we didn’t have a chance of reaching the top.

I told Rowan I thought we shouldn’t continue. It’s always a hard decision to make, but sometimes it’s easy to know it’s the right one. It felt good when another climber from the group ahead of us decided to turn back too.

We explored around the mountain for a while before heading back to the hut. On the way we met up with the rest of the group who had been ahead of us on the climb. They had also decided to turn back after completing a few more pitches. It was just too wet and cold.

Mountain explorations…bridge to nowhere

The next day Rowan and I slept in. Having given Sudgrat a shot, our plan was to head back down the valley, but at the last minute, with some encouragement from the hut manager, we decided to give it another go. The weather was better than the previous day, with less cloud and no wind. We booked in for another night at the hut and set off.

This time we skipped the four slopey pitches at the bottom of the route and scrambled up the gully instead – the way we had come down the day before. We didn’t have time to spare. We started the climb at the base of the high ridge. We had 13 pitches to complete in total. After pitch 3 or 4 there would be no turning back for us, as some of the pitches were more than 45m long. With our 60m rope we could climb up 60m but only abseil down 30m, so the only way out for us was to walk off the summit and down the gentler east ridge.

Rowan setting up for a climb

It was cold enough that I was wearing my puffer jacket – initially just when I was belaying Rowan, but later even while climbing myself. I had given up on gloves, learning that they didn’t help my climbing, especially once wet. I also gave up on socks under my climbing shoes, something I had tried the day before on the advice of another climber, but it just didn’t work for me.

Unlike the alpine climbs we did in Chamonix, at least half of these pitches were graded at the higher end of our technical climbing level and definitely required all our gear. Because of my freakout on the slabs the day before, we decided that Rowan would lead (ie, go first) on the harder graded pitches. The climber who goes second has the rope above them, so if you come off the rock you’re not going anywhere. I would lead the easy pitches.

Coming up second on a pitch on Sudgrat. I’m a little freaked out by the exposure, and somewhat numb from the cold.

Route finding is another aspect of alpine climbing that was new to me. You don’t just go straight up, but often along or around rocks, which is terrifying when there are no bolts to guide you and you think you could be going the wrong way. At one point I had to go either left or right around a tall boulder. To the right I would be climbing above the slope of the boulder and couldn’t see how I would get down the other side. To the left, the boulder would be leaning over top of me and I couldn’t see where my feet would go on the far side. In both directions, as this was a knife edge ridge we were climbing, there was a sheer drop of several hundred metres down to the base of the ridge. Holding on to the underside of the boulder for dear life, I tentatively stuck a leg out to the left and blindly felt around with it for a foothold. Sure enough, there it was. I had made it around the boulder.

3D climbing: Rowan has climbed over the first boulder and is partway up the next rock pillar. At some point he’ll have to edge around to the left to get to the next section of the climb.

I may have been leading the easy pitches, but what we hadn’t counted on was the fact that whoever set the bolts in the route obviously didn’t feel the need to place them very frequently on these ‘easy’ sections. At one stage found myself 15m beyond my last point of protection staring straight down 500m below. While the technical climbing on the pitch wasn’t hard, the added exposure, height and cold were pushing me over the edge. There were only 2 bolts on this 30m pitch and I couldn’t find the second one.

Scanning my eyes everywhere around the rock, and terrified I had gone the wrong way, I eventually found the 2nd bolt. I had already climbed past it. I could have put a friend into a crack, but I had forgotten to take them off Rowan before starting my climb. I was not willing to climb back. So, after letting Rowan, and anyone else within earshot, know that I it was probably the last thing I would ever do, I looped an insecure sling (loop of rope) around the only pointy rock within reach – the only thing this was protecting was my psyche – and kept on climbing.

Rowan on one of the slightly harder grade pitches. It’s a long way down if he falls.

Of course, having no other options, I made it to the top of the pitch, but panic is dangerous in a situation like this, so Rowan, who was bravely keeping his shit together, led all of the remaining pitches.

Sudgrat was quite simply the most insane thing I have ever done. While I was doing it I wished I wasn’t. When we got to the top, 10 hours after we started, I was extremely glad it was over.

Summit selfie. That’s pure relief you can see in my eyes. To summarise the words of mountain climber & writer Jon Krakauer: ‘I don’t want to climb [this face]; I want to have climbed it’.

By the time we got back down to the hut, I desperately wanted to do something like that again; and this time I would be braver.

The way down the east ridge. This was the easy part.

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