In 2012, I wanted to ski the Haute Route, the fame ski mountaineering tour from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. I couldn’t get any of my friends to go, because it’s not the sort of trip too many people understand. I found a guide, signed up, and went with 9 other people I didn’t know. I met a guy on the trip named Michael, a Portlander who had the same story: job, family, great skier, and network of friends who also couldn’t go. A couple from Bend, Gillian and Jan, were on the trip. Our guides were Pete Keane (timberlinemtguides.com) and John Race (mountainschool.com). We had a spectacular tour. Michael and I stayed in touch but rarely saw each other except for a one-day ski-circumnavigation of Mount Hood. Another awesome trip, btw. In 2014, we got geared up for round two and hired Pete and John for a tour of the Ortler Circuit in Northern Italy: nicer huts, more skiing. Jan and Gillian caught wind of it jumped in and we filled the trip with friends in a couple weeks. Another fabulous trip of sun and powder. Not wanting to give up the good run, in 2016, we booked a 9-day backcountry tour of Hokkaido, Japan, with Hokkaido Powder Guides. This time, we filled the trip in two days! All I can say about skiing in Japan: go now. It is unbelievably the best powder on the planet. So when planning for 2018 rolled around, Michael and sat down over beers on my kitchen table, we picked one of the burliest and most famous ski tours of all: the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland’s Jungfrau Alps. We dropped and added a few friends and booked Pete and this time John’s wife Oliva Race. Here’s the short (or maybe verbose) version of our ski mountaineering tour in the Bernese Oberland.
Day 1, Interlaken to Kleine Scheidegg. Our group trickled in over a few days, some waiting for the airline to deliver skis. I had carried on my full mountaineering pack and boots (yes I was that guy with two big carryons). I met up with Ben from Park City, we caught a train to Grindelwald, met up with David from White Salmon, and continued up to Kleine Scheidegg. The trains in the Jungfrau circuit are fabulous: run on time, your ski pass includes all train fairs, and they are all set up on a 25-minute run with 5 minutes in station, so you walk off one train on to the next. They are electric and have cogs for the steep valleys of the Jungfrau region. We went for a small ski tour in the closed part of the ski resort, made some chairlift laps in the spring corn snow, and saw the famed Eiger and Kleine Scheidegg hotel. We skied on a ribbon of snow through cow pastures all the way down to Grindelwald. It was a spectacular day, which is, as you will read below, a recurring theme.
Day 2, Interlaken to Piz Gloria. We got the whole 10 of us together including Michael, Gillian and Jan, me, David, Ben, Jill from White Salmon, Wendy and Chris from Seattle, and Eric from Hood River. We headed out for the Schilthorn ski area and the Piz Gloria, the famed rotating hotel where the first James Bond was filmed (and the second Kingsman film). Donning ski gear, we walked to the train station, caught a train to the famous Lauterbrunnen canyon and then jumped on a bus to Stechelberg. From there, the road ended at a tram station where we caught four trams, perfectly synched, to Gimmelwald, Murren, Birg, and ending at the Piz Gloria. We spent an hour looking at the views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks and touring the James Bond exhibit called 007 World—it was pretty neat with some movie memorabilia and crowded with non-skiing tourists. We skied a dozen chairlift laps in soft spring corn, had a few beers on the deck, gawked at the views, and took a “sky walk” on a walking platform about a quarter-mile long that was basically a two-foot-wide steel catwalk bolted to the side of a 100-foot cliff. We made it back to Interlaken—three trams, one bus, one train—by 6 pm.
Our trip was counterclockwise: Day 3 red, Day 4 green, Day 5 blue, Day 6 yellow, Day 7 purple, Day 8 orange and off map.
Day 3 Interlaken to Hollandia Hut (3240m). After meeting up with Pete and Olivia and having a briefing and dinner the night before, we set out that morning. We again donned ski gear and our packs which we would live out of for 6 days. Most of us had our day ski touring gear, a ski mountaineering kit (ski crampons, boot crampons, ice axe, helmet, and harness), and a change of underwear, spare socks, a sleeping liner, and cotton t-shirt for the huts. The huts supply breakfast and dinner, and a bunk with a mattress, small pillow, and comforter. We walked in ski boots to the Interlaken train station, took three trains to Grindelwald, Kleine Scheidegg, and then through the Eiger to the Jungfraujoch, with a stop half way up to peer out the windows in the Eiger. The Jungfraujoch train station is at 11,333 feet elevation, essentially the top of Mount Hood. From the Jungfraujoch, this would be the last time we would see any hint of clouds. We skied down the Jungfrau Glacier a bit, and then put on skins to ascend a crevassed slope to a col above the Kranzberg Glacier. From there, we made a long ski descent on the Kranzberg, avoiding crevasses, to the Hollandia Hut. Snow was soft and creamy. When we arrived at the 100-person hut, we were the only group. As typical, the hut had bunkrooms, and was Swiss-clean and Swiss-orderly. Dinner that night was also typical, all eaten out of one bowl. Soup first, then cabbage salad, and then meat in brown gravy. Pudding for dessert. Bottled water cost around $12-15 for 1.5 liter; tea water and beer around $8/liter. The water from many of the huts is collected in cisterns from melting glaciers the year before; power comes from solar and/or diesel generator; supplies come from helicopter sling loads; toilets are a mix of self-composting the liquids and hauling out the solids. We could charge phones and had cell receptions at the first two huts.
Day 4, Hollandia Hut to Konkordia Hut (2850m). On day two, we skied up the Abeni Flue Glacier to the Abeni Flue peak. The snow was firm in the cool, clear morning but softened to perfect spring corn for our ski down at 10ish. We descended the AbeniFlue and Grosseraletsch glaciers to a ginormous flat meeting of several glaciers called Konkordia Platz above which was the Konkordia Hut. This is the famed hut with the stairs built into the rock cliff: 467 steps (the last two flights extended in 1980 due to receding glacier) for a 150-meter climb. Sure, it was a bit nerve-racking, especially every time I looked at the bolts holding the staircase to the rock. The routine at the huts is to pull of ski boots, get the foul-smelling liners, socks, and climbing skins in the sun to dry, find a bin in the boot room for sharps—ski crampons, boot crampons, ice axe—and getting water and a beer. This was one of the first huts I recall having beer on tap on the deck: keep in mind the kegs come from helicopters. This was a full hut of 100 people, and the barkeep were poured liters constantly. Some folks mix beer with Sprite or grapefruit juice. Some folks order rostie—a Swiss hut specialty consisting of hash browns, cheese, an egg or two, ham, bacon stirred up in a skillet and baked. Dinner: soup, no salad, chicken in a light favor-less curry sauce, pudding. This hut had a two-minute shower for $10!
Day 5, Konkordia Hut to Finsteraarhorn Hut (3048m). We left Konkordia Hut in boot crampons to get to the top of the stairs, descended the stairs back to Konkordiaplatz, and then put on skis with skins and ski crampons. We skied up the Grunegg Glacier to the apron of Grunegghorn, had a great ski down in barely soft snow—the snow softened every day starting at 10am and turned slushy around 1 or 2. We then skied uphill up to Grunhornlucke Col and down the other side to enter another huge glacial valley. After skiing down from the col, we were near the next hut, but kept skiing: back uphill to the apron of the Wyssnollen peak. We had another excellent ski down and then had a 30-minute crossing of the WalliserFiescher Glacier in the hot sun. We rolled into the Finsteraarhorn Hut at 4pm—it was a long day with over 5000-feet of climbing. At the hut, same routine: boots off, sharps in the bin (sort of like checking your weapons at the door), beer, and water. Then find a bunk, drop your gear, and hunt down more water and find time for a nap. This was a nice hut, clean and beautiful with knotty pine walls and ceilings, generator power, and bunks that were small cubbies instead of a row of bunks together. It was large and full, about 100 people. Someone mentioned it looked like Ikea. Gear management is key: we leave boots, socks and skins outside, sharps in the ski room, and everything else in the bunk: there’s gear everywhere from 100 skiers so you have to keep track of your stuff. We’d spend 3 nights here. Dinner: broth soup, cabbage salad, pasta and brown gravy meat, pudding.
Day 6-7, Finsteraarhorn Hut
The next two days the crew toured from this hut after the typical breakfast. Breakfast was almost always: Instant coffee and/or tea, muslie and cornflakes with either yoghurt or milk (when mixed up was quite dry and bland), dense bread (quite dry and bland) with butter, jam, and some hard cheese (dry and bland). I lost weight due to the immense calorie burn of skiing, lack of protein and fat, and the dry, bland food. We did a long tour up the GrossesWannenhorn—this would be the only peak we would summit since most of the time we were skiing the aprons below the peaks. The top section was a narrow ridge that crossed over a low angle snowfield that ended in an ice cliff—a little dicey. The peak was a craggy rock that we scrambled to the top of. After a beautiful ski run about 3000 feet, we had to cross the flat part of the glacier again in the heat of the day: it was hot and took about an hour. Chris, Jan, Olivia and me took another short lap. The second day the crew did a long tour up the apron of the Finsteraarhorn. Dinner at this hut was first broth soup, salad, polenta and sausage, canned pear half and the next night, broth soup, salad, and risotto.
Day 8, Exit at Bettmeralp. There was some consternation on how to exit the Bernese Oberland. Pete and Olivia did a lot of research and networking with other guides and the hut wardens. The exit they planned from the Finsteraarhorn Hut turned out to be somewhat melted—so we would have to walk up and down a cow pasture quite some distance and they were worried about the avalanche prone slopes in the afternoon with all the sun and solar heating. So, we backtracked a bit on a 14-mile, 6-hour exit which was shorter and safer. We had an early start with a 5 am breakfast, skied back up the Grunhornlucke, and skied back down to the Konkordia Platz—it was 7am so skiing down icy and firm and the snowpack was broken from many ski tracks leaving deep ruts from the previous afternoons’ slush. From there, we had a long ski—because the snow was so firm, we could glide straight down the immense Grosser Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the region. About two-thirds down the glacier, several miles, we negotiated a crevasse field and exited the glacier. We put on skins and climbed an hour up to a ridge where we traversed into a closed ski area and across some large, recent wet avalanches. We skied across the ski area to the small, quaint, idyllic village of Bettmeralp: no cars, all snow-covered roads, maybe 3-dozen tiny Swiss cottages with snow-covered roofs. We skied right on the streets of the quiet village (the ski resort was closed for the season). We followed signs to a tram and took two trams down to the village of Fiesch. From there, typical Swiss fashion, we got the connecting train in 5 minutes and headed back to Interlaken. No one dared to remove ski boots for fear we’d be kicked off the train they smelled so bad. Once in Interlaken we had a short walk to the hotel where we had stored our gear: on the way back, the summer tourist took pictures of us as we walked through town—we must have looked odd, and smelled really bad. The hotel let us shower, and after food, some of us jumped a train to Zurich and others spent more time in Europe.
Two final notes:
First, our guides Pete Keane and Olivia Race were excellent. Low key, observant, safe pros. They had a good eye for good snow. Most of the Europeans left the huts at 5 or 6 a.m. and were skiing down before the snow softened. We had great timing every day because we left the huts later.
Second, don’t ask me where the next trip is for Michael and me, it’s already full.