Heading south into the Bernese Oberland from the picturesque, lakeside town of Interlaken one is confronted by the great alpine wall of rock and ice extending from the infamous North Face of the Eiger through the pointed, conical summit of the Monch to culminate in the elegant lines of the Jungfrau.
It had been a wet week spent encamped in a damp hayfield at the roadhead at Stechelberg before we set off up the scenic valley on the steep grind to the Rottal Hut perched on a rocky platform beneath the SW ridge of the Jungfrau - the original route of ascent. Leading the way along the narrow path I was challenged by the long, sharp horns of an apparently resolute ibex but after a tense stand-off it ceded passage and skipped nimbly off up an impossibly sheer rock-face. Around us the summits of the Bernese Oberland protruded like islands above a vast sea of clouds.
On ascent to Rottal Hut in the Bernese Oberlands
Opposite the hut, across the deep trench of the Rottal Glacier, the beautiful ice-fluted Nord Wand of the Ebnefluss sparkled, dazzling-white in the evening sun. Inside we were surprised to find the hut deserted - no resident warden, no other climbing parties - we were the sole occupiers. It made for a late start next morning when we had to light the fire and make our own breakfast.
Mixed climbing on rock and snow led inexorably upwards with spectacular views back down the ridge to the hut and the glacier even further below. A vertical rock wall barred progress. There was a fixed rope but it was embedded deep beneath a sheath of ice. In anger and frustration I lashed out with my ice-axe. Astonishingly the entire column shattered and collapsed around my feet releasing the rope. Above, easy ground led onto the summit but clouds and mist had swirled up from the valley to deny us any view.
Ascending the SW Ridge of the Jungfrau
On the far side a well-trodden trail dropped down a broad ridge to a level col seamed with a maze of crevasses. Late in the afternoon with the remaining visibility fast disappearing we found ourselves trapped above sheer drops. Retracing our steps we failed to find any way down and ensconced ourselves in a snow-hole to await the dawn.
A miserable, cold, uncomfortable night ensued but at a sudden brightening next morning we emerged to find all revealed. We were stranded on a steep-sided spur with the top terminus of the rack-and-pinion railway on the Jungfraujoch visible only a short distance away at the head of the Jungfrau Glacier.
Running long jumps, still roped together, cleared the 10 foot-wide bergschrund surrounding the spur to complete our escape from the Jungfrau.
A year later, with two different companions, I took the last train from Kleine Scheidegg to spend the night in the bunkhouse at the Eiger Gletscher station. In the morning however it was only after convincing the station staff that we had no intention of ascending the avalanche chute, offering apparently easy but frequently fatal access to the summit, that we were allowed to continue.
Initial snow slopes led up to a short gully giving access to the broad, rocky ridge extending above the dark, forbidding confines of the North Face. Higher up we traversed out onto the steep, open slopes of the South West Flank. The good cover of firm snow enabled rapid upwards progress. A rock outcrop with an embedded ring piton indicated the more difficult conditions that prevail under poorer snow conditions prevalent later in the season.
Ascending the South West Flank of the Eiger
Below we were concerned to see two figures ascending the avalanche chute.
On a perfectly cloudless, wind-free day we gained the nicely pointed summit to enjoy a splendid panorama. A narrow arete extended along to the neighbouring Monch and on past the Jungfraujoch to the distant Jungfrau. Across the Aletsch Glacier loomed the prominent shark's fin of the Finsteraarhorn - climbed only a few days previously. On the other side soared the isolated Schilthorn - featured spectacularly in the James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" with fine background views of the Eiger.
The other climbers, two young Americans, now joined us on the summit. After only a brief delay, despite our warnings, professing to having an aversion to rock-climbing, they started to retrace their route back down the avalanche chute.
Back at the Eiger Gletscher we were greeted more warmly by the station staff who had followed our progress through their telescopes. They were angry with the Americans however who were fortunate to survive the gauntlet of the avalanche chute unlike many others.
Subsequently on a day excursion from Grindelwald, in the company of a Swiss guide, I took the first train of the morning to the Jungfraujoch to climb the Monch. Only a short distance from the top terminus a pleasant and straightforward ridge-climb gains the 4000 metre peak - the easiest but most expensive of the three summits - a famous alpine trinity well within the capabilities of the moderate mountaineer.
(The Commentator, The ( Glasgow ) HERALD, Saturday 15th January 2000)
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