2009 - 2 - Climbing the Monch (4107m)

We drove to Switzerland and spent five glorious days walking in the Grindlewald area to acclimatise in preparation of climbing the Monch, one of the three fabulous mountains overlooking the Grindlewald valley. (View Location)

15 July 2009  Up to the Hut 

The alarm went off at half past seven, but it was raining. I had a quick glance outside at the low cloud, then went back to sleep. We woke again at nine o’clock. It was still drizzling but the sky looked a lot brighter. We had breakfast and then chilled out – Glenys pottering about and me playing with my Netbook.

The weather gradually improved throughout the morning, with the occasional sunny patches breaking up the rain. By mid-day, we were both nervous wrecks worrying whether we should go up the Jungfraujoch railway or not. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money going up there to find that it was bad weather and we couldn’t get to the hut.

Glenys Guards the Golden Tickets

At quarter past twelve, we decided to get the train which left just before two o’clock. We went into a frenzy of activity, Glenys making lunch and I just HAD to check my gear and repack my rucksack. I went to the hotel and asked the receptionist if she had a weather forecast. She said that tomorrow was going to be better than today, which, although sketchy, was good enough to convince me that we should go.

At twenty past one we were ready to go, so rather than hanging about at the campsite, we walked to the station. The train fare was £80 each for the return journey, but what the hell. Glenys hung on to the train tickets like they were the Golden Tickets from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, carefully putting them into a zipped pocket.

The train journey was “interesting” - going up to Kleine Scheidegg was normal and then we entered “Disneyland”. We loaded our rucksacks onto a baggage compartment on the Jungfraujoch train and then sat in a very nice compartment with the tourists – about 50% Japanese. There were TV screens scattered about showing audio-visual presentations in German, Japanese and English. By the end of the journey, I was getting sick of hearing their tag line “Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe”. However most of the content was very good and it was interesting that when they showed video of the shopping facilities at the top station, it featured Japanese tourists buying souvenirs.

The train runs through the middle of the Eiger with the first stop at the Eigerwand station for five minutes. This is about a third the way up the North Face of the Eiger and has a set of plate glass viewing galleries looking directly down rock face (with very nice toilets, of course).

Unfortunately, it’s not very high up, but it does give you an impression of the conditions on the face – wet, loose rock seemed to predominate. The wetness is caused by many waterfalls which I assumed are very cold originating from snow melt.

The next stop was the Eismeer station, which again has a set of galleries with plate glass windows. This is the station where one would disembark to go to the Mittellegi Hut. The route to the hut is across a glacier then up the side of the ridge. According to the guide book, crampons may be needed in the tunnel out of the station and an abseil to the glacier may be necessary. The route across the glacier is threatened by seracs, the climb up the rock has two bolted pitches of V Diff, and then it’s across two couloirs and a scramble up to the hut. This all takes 2-2½ hours - not a normal walk to a hut.

Glenys on the path to the Monch hut

We finally arrived at the Jungfraujoch (“Top of Europe”) and started to walk through the cold tunnel towards the glacier. We were only wearing shorts and t-shirts so we decided to go to the toilets to get changed into something a bit warmer. Looking through the window at the thick, swirling mist, I expected the worst and put on all of my clothes – mountain trousers, polo neck jumper and waterproof jacket; my hat and gloves went into my pocket. We walked past the tourists in the souvenir shops, down the tunnel and onto the glacier (at the “Top of Europe”.)

The view was obscured by thick mist, but the path was very obvious being as wide as a “piste-basher”. We walked past tourists sledging and going on an aerial runway. After ten minutes of trudging through mushy snow, we stopped to shed clothes. When the sun occasionally broke through the mist it was blisteringly hot. After 20 minutes we were back down to t-shirts and wishing that we still had our shorts on.

It took under an hour to walk to the hut, which is perched strangely on stilts on the edge of a ridge. The path/road was clearly marked and would be no problem to navigate in a full-on blizzard. Heidi, the hut warden was very friendly when we booked in and took us up to our room, where people were already sleeping at five o’clock in the afternoon. By half past five, we had settled down at our table with a large beer waiting for dinner.

Hut life is quite strange – the first thing that you notice is that everyone moves very slowly. I thought at first that this was something to do with the altitude, but I’ve come to realise that we move slowly because there is absolutely nothing to do but wait. Wait for dinner, wait for bed and wait for the interminable night to end so that you can climb a mountain. I think that the after-dinner wait for bed-time is the worst - 1½ hours. You can’t drink too much beer, you’re nervous about the next day, but you can’t go to bed too early because you know that you won’t sleep through the snoring, snorting, and rustling of the night.....

A small notice on the wall stated that the people climbing the Jungfrau would be getting up for breakfast between three o’clock and half past three, whereas the people climbing the Monch don’t have to get up until six o’clock – luxury! 

16 July 2009 The Monch
It should have been luxury. Instead, we had a very disturbed night; I had one of those restless dreams where i went around and around trying to do a task but never finishing anything. Then, at quarter to three, the other people in the room started to get up. Forty five minutes of people getting up, whispering, rustling, going out, coming back in, talking, zipping, going out; it was interminable. The guardian had obviously put us in the wrong room with the people who were going up the Jungfrau.

We woke again just before six o’clock and discovered that we were the only people in the room – at least we didn’t have to try to get up quietly. The wind had been blowing during the night, but it seemed to be a lot quieter now. We had breakfast – cornflakes, solid bread with jam and hot chocolate. We put on our harnesses and left the hut at about quarter to seven.

Walking up a steep, narrow arêteScrambling in Crampons

It was only a short 5 minutes walk to the start of the South-east ridge of the Monch route and after sorting out our rope we set off on the climb at seven o’clock. The first section is horrible loose dirt and scree, turning into solid rock which at that time of morning is covered with verglass in many places. After about 15 minutes, we reached a rain gauge and put on our crampons for the first section of snow, which is a plod up to another rock band – this time good, dry rock. After the second rock bank, life gets a bit more interesting with a very steep section where we had to front-point – my already sore calves were burning by the end. Then there is a very narrow arête for about 50 metres with a steep 60 degree drop at either side.

Another rock band give a bit of light relief with some scrambling in crampons before another snow section which starts steeply up a bank, then sweeps left into another airy arête. The final rock band leads onto a very steep section which has some stakes to provide protection – we didn’t bother to use these, but continued up on a short rope. This section was very awkward because the snow was very sugary and it was all too easy to find your feet sliding down in the soft snow.

On the summit of the Monch

At the top of this steep section, the angle lessens and there is a long arête leading to the summit. This ridge is very narrow with fantastic exposure and very steep slopes at either side. The view down to Kleine Scheidegg 2000m below is stunning. However, we didn’t stop to admire the view, we just focussed on putting each foot carefully down in some places the arête is so narrow that you have to put your feet in front of one another. We had briefly discussed our strategy if one of us falls – the other one jumps down the other side of the arête, not a pleasant thought with a 2000m drop down to the valley. This is no place to trip.

The top is a very small area – probably only 6 metres long with a cornice along the south edge. There are two other ridge routes leading up to this peak – the North-west “Nollen” route and the South-west ridge which starts nearer to the Jungfraujoch terminus. When you are stood on the top it seems unlikely that there would be three ridges leading there. Clear skies with very good visibility allowed us to see most of the major peaks in the Bernese Alps as well as the Valais Alps – the Matterhorn was very clear.

We took this scenery in for five minutes and took the obligatory summit shots of each other. We then set off down. We didn’t want to hang around because we were aware of another party of five people close behind us and we didn’t fancy trying to pass them on the very narrow summit arête.

The walk back down the summit arête was fantastic; no effort apart from trying to keep balance while looking down the sheer drops either side. We used the protection on the steep slope, with Glenys leading the way while I used a Munter Hitch to belay her on each stake. We met the party of five coming up just as Glenys approached the next to last belay stake, where she had to wait for five minutes while they sorted out their rats-nest of ropes, prussics and axes at the belay stake.

We could now see lots of people walking along the path from the Jungfraujoch to the Monch Hut and quite a few parties on the ridge below us. We waited for a couple of climbers on one of the narrow arêtes, hoping that the next party would wait for us to descend. No chance. The next party (a guide and client) just kept on walking, so we set off down and had a worrying time having to step down off the path onto the steep slope while they passed us. Meanwhile another guide and client started up the arête. We continued down and they kindly stepped off the path (unusual for a guide.) The client looked very worried about being stood on a 60 degree slope while we squeezed past.

Walking back down the summit ridge

The rest of the descent was fine apart from the lowest rock section was running with water and awkward. We arrived back at the bottom of the route at half past twelve – a little bit slow but just in time for lunch. What a fantastic route - lots of variety, exposure and not too long.

We walked back along the path which was even slushier than when we’d walked up the previous day. There were hundred of tourists wandering up and down the path, skiing, sledging and generally lurking about. We walked inside the cold tunnel which was a great relief after being in the beating sun for six hours. The terminus was very crowded and a bit of a culture shock after the peace of the Monch. We got changed out of our mountain trousers into shorts in the toilets and went to find something to eat. We ended up in the self service cafeteria which was an unpleasant place, but all we wanted was a cold beer and some “stodge” and chips.

The journey back down in the train was long, hot and boring. There was a huge queue of hundreds of people waiting for the 1430 train. Fortunately, they put on another train and we were only kept waiting for about 20 minutes – the normal trains run every 30 minutes. We finally arrived back at the campsite at half past four, tired and hot and looking forward to a cool shower.

It was a very hot afternoon with the sun beaming in through the side door of our van. Glenys took refuge in the trees behind the van while I power-napped in the van, gasping for air. We decided that we have to get an awning to attach to the side of the van. We only need a light awning supported by two poles perhaps with a simple side flap – it would make a great difference giving shade when it is hot and shelter when it is raining. It would also define our “space” – one of the problems with a van is that people sometimes pitch their tents very close to us, not realising that we will be opening the side door and want a bit of space.

We had dinner on the shaded patio of the hotel - cold beer, salad and smoked trout. Then we had a few glasses of red wine, sitting on a picnic blanket, staring at the mountains, before collapsing into bed.