A journal of our climbing trip to the Alps in 2004

02 August 2004


After weeks of preparation, packing, repacking, worrying if we have too much or too little, we are finally on our way to Switzerland.

Our party includes the three of us (David, Susan, and Kendric), plus our friend, Tom, from Boulder. He will arrive two days after us and we are to meet him at the train station as we did two years ago.

On that previous trip, I decided that I did not have enough mountaineering gear (i.e., warm clothes!) in the event of serious weather. In addition, my leather hiking boots were just about worn out. This year, I have a better selection of mountaineering clothes, plus new, heavier boots. And my pack weighs considerably more.

We will spend a few days with our friend, Sonja. Since we last saw her, she has married Adi and they are now the proud parents of son Lukas. How exciting!

03 August 2004


Our flight arrives at Zurich only a few minutes late, then we work our way through Passport Kontrol, baggage claim, and customs inspection. Sonja and baby Lukas are waiting for us. To get to her flat, we travel by train to Oerlikon, then tram to RadioStudio, and then walk the final few blocks. It's a nice, two-level flat with many windows and a small yard. She and her family share the flat with a few other friends.

That afternoon, after a short nap, Sonja and Lukas join us as we go to the old part of the city. We've been there before on our previous trip but want to visit again. It has many shops, cafes, restaurants, churches, and narrow streets and is a fascinating place to walk.

04 August 2004


Sleeping was an odd experience. I was so tired I fell asleep quickly after going to bed at 9:30 p.m. A few hours later, I awoke and remained awake until 8 a.m., then slept until 11 a.m.

We return to the old city and to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station, or HB) where we will meet Tom tomorrow morning. We want to be certain we can find our way quickly to our meeting location. Our main attraction today is the Swiss National Museum. One could easily spend a day--or more--but we kept it brief at an hour or two since we have not yet recovered from our travel.

It's another warm and humid day in Zurich and we are looking forward to cooler weather in the mountains.

In the evening, we go down to the river Limmat with Sonja. There is a walkway along the water along with many food and drink establishments. The water is warm and swimming in the river -- both during the day and evening -- is very popular. We finally stop at a cafe and order drinks. Because the drinking age for beer is 16 in Switzerland, Kendric can order a beer but he isn't too impressed with it.

05 August 2004



Sleeping is still a problem but I think it has less to do with jet lag and more to do with growing anticipation about what lies ahead on this mountaineering trip.

We take the tram to the HB and walk through the immense building to our meeting spot. I recognize Tom from a distance and walk up behind him, asking "Hello. Do you speak English?" He turns and laughs when he sees that it's us.

We go to the rail office and validate our train tickets and board the next train for Geneva. But instead of going to Geneva and then on to Chamonix, the conductor tells us there is an easier route to travel. We transfer trains at Lausanne, and again at Martigny, where we board the Mount Blanc Express -- a cog railway. After switching trains at the Swiss-French border, we descend to Chamonix and catch our first glimpse of the Mt. Blanc massif. It's not much of a glimpse because there are many clouds obscuring the view.

Once in Chamonix, we leave the train station to board a bus to take us to Les Houches, a village a few kilometers away. After an unpleasant bus ride (crowded and hot), we arrive at our lodging, Hotel Les S'Nailles. It is quaint and cozy, roomy enough for the four of us, but nothing like the hotel we stayed at in Zermatt a few years ago, i.e., it's not a climbers hotel.

After settling in, we walk to the market to buy food for dinner and breakfast and return just as it begins to rain in earnest. We have a nice meal of bread, butter, cheese, tomatoes, yogurt, and fruit. And breakfast will be the same.

The view from our little porch is grand. The Mt. Blanc massif lies before us with rock and glacier spilling downward from a summit that is lost in the clouds. We wonder if the weather will improve.

06 August 2004



We all slept well. Oddly, we all report strange dreams during the night. Breakfast is the same as dinner the night before and just as tasty. Our next stop is the téléphérique du Bellevue (a cable car). This saves us about 800 m of elevation gain. From there we walk a short distance, then board the Nid d'Aigle tramway and gain another 600 m of elevation to 2386 m. We disembark from the train in the fog with very limited visibility.

The trail to the Tête Rousse climbers hut (3167 m) is moderately steep -- and it was warm and humid. Our brows are dripping with sweat, our clothes are wet, and even my boots are damp. We arrive at the hut in 2 h, which is good time (the guide book says 2-3 h). The hut is not yet full, but begins to fill with French, Swiss, English, Czechs, Italians, Spaniards, and Americans.

Although the hut is not as nice as some we have stayed in, we are very pleased with the meals that are served. We have delicious soup, fresh bread with butter and jams, pasta with sauces, coffee, water, and, finally, desert. The meal was very good and filling.

07 August 2004





After retiring early, we are up at 0100, have a breakfast of juice, bread, butter, jelly, and either hot chocolate or cafe au lait. We are out the door to start our climb at 0200. The guide book suggests 2-3 h to climb to Refuge du Goûter (3817 m) and we arrive at 0430. The climb is up a rock rib with occasional 3rd class moves required, and always taking care to avoid rock fall. This section was done in the dark, of course, with headlamps. And, more than once, I bump my head against a rock or overhang and am happy to have my climbing helmet protecting my head.

At Refuge du Goûter, water, food, and warmer gear are dealt with and then we head back out the door at 0500. We are ascending the Dome du Goûter as morning twilight arrives and soon there is a grand sunrise. By this time it is quite cold owing to both the increase in elevation and the cold pre-dawn temperatures.

Slowly, slowly, it warms but our increasing altitude counteracts the warming so that we remain cold, but not uncomfortable. We arrive at the Vallot emergency shelter (4362 m), find our way inside, and eat more food in preparation for the final summit push.

The climb steepens and we struggle for air. The track is crowded with many climbers both ascending and descending. I am jealous of the descenders because they have already completed the climb to the summit. For us, there remains a great deal of climbing.

Finally, Kendric declares that he has had enough and chooses to descend. He is fatigued and feels no special need to ascend the remaining elevation; this point is as good as the summit. Susan decides to accompany him back to Refuge du Goûter where we will regroup later. Best estimate of their turnaround elevation is 4650 m near the rocks of La Tournette.

Tom and I continue and reached the summit at 1000 -- 5 h after leaving Refuge du Goûter. It is time for some food, water, and photographs. While on the summit we meet a group of climbers from Estonia. They plant a small flag on the summit and I take a photograph.

Slightly refreshed from our brief rest, we begin our descent at 1020 and arrive at Goûter hut at 1230. It's amazing how fast we can descend on the snow. Susan and Kendric take a more leisurely descent and have arrived shortly before we do. Since they serve hot food at the hut, we decide that a hot lunch was a grand idea--followed by chocolate for dessert. Finally we leave at 1330 and arrive at Téte Rousse at 1600. The downclimb on the rock ridge takes as long as the ascent. While descending, we watch in awe and fear as massive rocks come crashing down the nearby couloir.

It should be expected that we are exhaused. Very exhausted. We climbed from 3167 m to 4810 m (1643m; ~5400 feet). We should sleep well tonight!

And the weather cooperated nicely with sunny skies, normal temperatures (-7C at the summit) and breezy winds. Finally, late in the afternoon, it begins to rain but we are already back at Téte Rousse so we don't mind.

08 August 2004


We should have slept well. Instead, it is miserable. By 2200, it is hot and stuffy in the room. By the way, this is not the same room we stayed in the first night. I wish we were in that room again since it remained cool enough to use a blanket for covers. By 0100, it is like a sauna. Around 0130-0200, climbers awaken and leave to have breakfast and start the climb. With fewer bodies in the room, it slowly cools to barely acceptable levels. Breakfast can not come soon enough since it gives us a reason to leave this hot room and move around the hut. We depart around 0830 to start the descent back to the train at Nid d'Aigle. We arrive at the station close to 1100. Once again, it takes about as long to descend as to ascend. We reverse our tracks and transfer from the train to the téléphérique.

Finally back in Les Houches, we recover the remainder of our gear that we stashed at the hotel, then repack it before taking the bus back into Chamonix. We wander around the town for a short while as we wait for our Mt. Blanc Express train that takes us to Martigny where we transfer to another train that takes us to Brig, and a final train to Zermatt.

We arrive at the Bahnhof Hotel and get a private room for the four of us. Although we had forgotten to call and confirm our reservation, they still have a room for us. Quickly, Tom and I run to the store to buy groceries before they close. They have short hours on Sunday; however, two years ago, they weren't even open on Sundays. We make it just in time and get ingredients for a great supper.

The evening slowly winds down as we walk and window shop in the village of Zermatt as a gentle rain falls.

09 August 2004


We all get a good, restful sleep until the construction crew starts working next door! A bit frustrated, we get up and out to buy food for breakfast. We have yogurt, blueberries, croissants, bread, butter, jam, and juice.

Tom decides to hike the Mettelhorn (3406 m) and Susan joins him. Kendric and I have simpler goals. We walk through town and up the valley to find the Gorner Gorge (Gornerschlucht). It's a deep and narrow gorge with glacial water thundering through it. Beautiful! Kendric and I continue up the valley to Blatten and Zum See before we decide to turn back. Along the way we photograph many wild flowers.

In town, we investigate the cable car to learn of prices and times. It costs CHF39 for the round trip, but our Swiss Railway pass gets us a 25% discount. And the cars run continuously until late in the afternoon.

Back to the hotel, I do some much-needed laundry that has accumulated since our arrival in Switzerland a week ago. The washer and dryer combo are a bit troublesome but eventually they get the job done. I remember from two years ago that these machines were trouble -- and nothing has changed. But time has passed quickly while doing this and it is now past 1900 h and the food store is closed. What to do? We have a potpourri of leftovers and other items to piece together into a meal, or we can go to a restaurant. We eat out.

Along the way from our hotel to the restaurant, Tom stops to check out the Victorinox Swiss knife with altimeter. He has heard that it is quite accurate and he wishes to learn more. Funny thing, though. I end up buying the knife. It comes with a nice day pack as a bonus. A carrying case for the knife!

10 August 2004


Hörnli Hut day! Susan and Kendric have decided to not climb the Matterhorn, nor to hike to the Hörnli climbers hut but, rather, to stay in Zermatt. Tom and I will make the climb to the hut today. But, first, breakfast. Again a feast of yogurt, fruit, croissants, bread, butter, jam, and juice. Then we finish packing and we're off to the cablecar station. Susan joins us to the station to give us a sendoff.

The first cable (Luftseilbahn) takes us to Furi, and the second cable (Matterhorn Express) to Schwarzee. We go from ~1650 m to ~2580 m with no effort at all. From Schwarzee, we hike to the Hörnli Hut at 3260 m. My knife altimeter reads 3170 m and Tom's watch altimeter reads 3171 m. Interesting that they are in close agreement with each other but large disagreement with the actual altitude. This may mean that the pressure is changing which will give us an incorrect reading. The weather forecast, by the way, calls for a cold front followed by high pressure.

At the Hörnli Hut we are so close to the massive pyramid of rock known as the Matterhorn that I have lost all perspective of scale. It almost looks diminished in size -- an interesting illusion.

By late afternoon, the weather deteriorates and it begins to rain. We wonder if the weather will prevent us from climbing in the morning.

Dinner is meat and potatoes and sauerkraut -- or cheese and potatoes and sauerkraut for vegetarians. Oh, well. Then it's off to bed for a 0400 wakeup and breakfast.

It rained most of the night.

11 August 2004



My watch alarm goes off at 0400. All the climbers get up to look outside. It is raining and foggy -- dangerous conditions for a climb. Disappointed, we all stumble back to bed and sleep until ~0700, then get up for breakfast.

While waiting for the weather to improve, we watch a helicoptor rescue take place. A group of climbers has bivouaced in the Solvay Hut high on the Matterhorn. Late afternoon thunderstorms with a mixture of rain and snow had engulfed them before they could descend and accumulating snow made the descent too dangerous. As soon as it was possible, a rescue helicoptor was dispatched to bring them down.

By mid-morning, the clouds begin to break and a bit of sun shines through. Around 1130, Tom and I decide to take an exploratory walk up the Hörnli Route to evaluate conditions. The rock is mostly dry but the dirt and sand is still wet and clings to our boots, making firm footing on the rocks difficult. After about an hour, we stop and then descend. A pair of English climbers has done essentially the same thing and we return to the hut together. The climbing is low-end 5th class. This is well within my abilities. But is 5 hours sustained of this type of climbing within my abilities? Plus the descent? After much deliberation, I choose to pass on the climb because of the potential difficulties and the continuing threat of inclement weather. The onset of thunderstorms each afternoon severely limits the amount of time available for the ascent and descent and I don't believe I can accomplish the climb under these conditions. Tom chooses to stay, confident he could find other climbing partners.

No one climbed Matterhorn today.

I hike back down to Schwarzee, take the cable to Furi and then into Zermatt and walk back to Bahnhof Hotel to have dinner with Susan and Kendric. They are happy to see me but incorrectly assume that we have summitted the mountain. Um, no. I explain all that has happened and why I made the decision to not climb.

Did I make the right decision?

12 August 2004


Did I make the right decision? All night long I toss and turn and ponder over the choice I have made. The morning weather is substantially better than it was yesterday and the climbers will have a good chance of reaching the summit today. A remaining question, however, is how much snow fell a few days ago and how much remains on the climbing route?

We decide it would be fun to go mountain biking and choose a route that will take us from town (1605 m) to Sunnegga (2295 m) and beyond if we desire. The road is moderately steep and sustained for much of the ride. Only a few of the many trails in Zermatt permit mountain biking and all are a minimum of 2 m wide. No single track here. Yet.

At Sunnegga, we stop at a small lake where a number of kids and adults are swimming. Since we don't have swim suits, we are content to watch them swim while we eat our lunch and take photographs of the wild flowers. I've been experimenting with macro photography using a simplistic technique of removing and reversing my regular lens to get closeup shots. I wonder if the photographs will be interesting?

All that elevation and potential energy that we gained earlier in the day as we pedalled up the road was quickly released as kinetic energy as we zoom down the mountain back into town!

Back at the hotel, we prepare dinner and wait for Tom. And wait. And wait some more. We take a walk down the main street and sit at an outside cafe so that we can watch for his return along this route. We return to the hotel and prepare for bed. We no longer have our private room since it was reserved for this night by another party. Instead, we are in the attic dormitory. We have lodged here before and find it quite pleasant. Susan and I even got to have the same corner cubby that we had two years ago.

Tom finally arrives at the hotel around 2230 with an interesting tale to tell of his successful ascent of the Matterhorn. And he's hungry!

13 August 2004


Happy Birthday, Susan! It's travel day and we leave Zermatt by late morning and begin our journey to our next destination: Grindelwald. Along the way, we disembark at Interlaken for awhile so that we can walk through town. There are plenty of activities including a horse show, a "beach soccer" camp, parasail rentals, window shopping, a classic car show of Citroens, and more. Oddly, we saw a poster for a lecture and slide show and the image on the poster was of "The Wave," an amazing rock formation along the Utah-Arizona border that Susan and I had visited just a few months earlier.

Soon enough, we are back on the train to Grindelwald. Upon our arrival and visit to the Information center, we learn that there are very few rooms available, so we grab four beds in a dormitory-style hotel -- The Downtown Lodge. Although mostly empty tonight, it will be filled with mountain bike racers tomorow who will be riding in the 7th Eiger Bike Challenge. We should try to enjoy tonight because tomorrow will be busier and noisier.

Once again, we make a quick run to the food store before they close so that we can prepare dinner. There is a kitchen in the common area of the lodge and we share the facilities with other guests of the lodge. It's an interesting opportunity to meet some new and interesting people while preparing a meal. After dinner, Tom and Susan take a walk to get some information on the bike race while Kendric and I take a walk in a random direction.

Tonight is also opening ceremonies night for the Olympics. There is a large common room with a television at the hotel and a few of us gather to watch. The announcer is speaking in Schweizerdeutsch (i.e., Swiss-German), so we cannot follow the discussion but it is of no matter. The pageantry speaks for itself.

14 August 2004



It rains during the night and is a cool, overcast morning. We have breakfast at the lodge buffet -- cereal, yogurt, bread, and coffee. Excellent coffee! We wander down to the tourist information center to get ideas on hikes and other activities. Finally, we decide to hike the Schwarzhorn (2928 m). Kendric declines and chooses to walk around town and explore the local possibilities.

We start in Grindelwald (1034 m) with a cable car that delivers us to First (2168 m), then we begin the walk. The trail carries us through lush meadows with many wild flowers and almost as many cows. Higher up on the summit ridge, we encounter fresh snow and must move more carefully. We drift in and out of clouds that fly across the ridge and summit. It's also windy and we are cold, but not uncomfortable. A few minutes at the top, a bite of food and a photograph, and we begin the descent. Back at First, we decide to save some money and walk all the way down but the steep, occasionally paved walkways are hard on our feet, ankles, and knees. It might just have been worth the money to take the cable car back down.

We arrive back at the lodge to find the room full of bikers and bicycles. Since we have free passes to the city swimming pool, we head that way. The locker room experience was novel. Both genders enter the same area and must remove shoes. You use a small changing booth to change into your swimming gear and then place your clothing in a locker. Down the hallway, the path diverges with separate mens and womens showers. There are hair blow dryers and body blow dryers on the wall for drying off after your shower. Yes, this is quite different from anything I have seen before.

15 August 2004



We get up early so that we can watch the start of the 7th Eiger Bike Challenge mountain bike race. The long course is 88 km/3900 m; the short course is 55 km/2500 m. Once they go by, we won't see them again until they cross the finish line. So we go back to the lodge, eat breakfast, and pack our gear. Finally, we walk down to the park where the finish line is located, along with multiple bike vendors, to watch the racers trickle in one at a time. Certainly, the start of the race with large packs of cyclists is much more exciting to watch than the spread out finish.

It is time to leave Grindelwald and we embark the train to Interlaken, then connect to Luzern. There, we get off and walk around the city. We visited here two years ago with Kaspar Oswald so Susan and I try to be tour guides to both Kendric and Tom, neither of whom have seen the city. We discover a Picasso exhibit and buy tickets to the art gallery. Except for Kendric. He decides he would rather walk around the city.

The Picasso exhibit is a collection of works from the last 20 years of his life. It is accompanied by the photography of David Douglas Duncan who documented the work of the artist. I've only seen a few of Picasso's works in art books, so this was an art education for me. He certainly visualized the world in a manner different than most of us.

While we view the exhibit, Kendric spends his time climbing up and down the towers of the old city wall and taking pictures of the beautiful architecture the city has to offer.

We return to the station and catch the next train to Zurich and finally arrive back in the Haupbahnhof, catch the tram to RadioStudio, and walk back to the flat.

16 August 2004


We are again in Zurich and spend the day walking around the city center. There is a vegetarian restaurant (Hilti) in our guide and we set out to find it. Successful, we enjoy a very interesting meal: green Thai curry, bananas Madras, Jalfrezi, and more.

The weather today is neither hot nor humid so we walk down to the lake (Zurichsee) and through the lakeside parks -- until it begins to rain. Then it's back to the shopping district with all its stores where we window shop and stay out of the rain.

We arrive back at the flat to find that Adi has prepared a very nice meal for all of us -- except for Sonja who is fasting.

17 August 2004


Kaspar Oswald takes us on a driving tour of the eastern cantons of Switzerland, including where he grew up. We visit and tour a cheese factory in Appenzell. This is followed by a visit to the cafe where we sample the cheese and tried some hard apple cider. The day includes visits to many villages and places including the Abbey at St. Gallen. There is a very old, working library here and we enjoy looking at the hand-written mansucripts and many other volumes.

Another stop is at the swimming ponds where Kaspar swam as a youth. The facilities have not aged well, but there are still swimmers. We take our lunch nearby and enjoy some Swiss dishes plus wine and mineral water. Finally, we visit the WildPark, a zoo with a few animals: chamois, steinbock, peccary, and others.

It's been a long day of sightseeing and we're tired at the end of it, but are delighted to have seen and explored another part of Switzerland.

18 August 2004

It's travel day and it will be a long one as we journey back home. Sonja has baked us a loaf of delicious bread for the trip home. We start to eat almost as soon as we are in our seats on the plane and the bread doesn't make it to the end of the flight.

Along the way, we were able to see and identify both the Matterhorn and the Mount Blanc massif as each poked up through the low clouds. This will be our last view of the Alps until we return again.