This is the Dave Butcher photo diary of a ski mountaineering trip in the Bernese Oberland from the Jungfraujoch above Grindelwald / Wengen to Reckingen.
This 6 day trip was in the last week of April in 1995. We skied from theJungfraujoch station (3454 m) above Grindelwald (1034 m) to Reckingen(1326 m) in the south (north-east of Brig), taking in 4 peaks despite bad weather on several days. I flew out a day early to get my ski legs going before starting the tour but the weather was so bad all the ski lifts were shut. There had been around 3 m of snow on the higher slopes in the previous week and it was still snowing.
Guides: Jon de Montjoye, a British UIAGM mountain guide living in Vallorcine near Chamonix, and he had arranged for French guide Fred Charlet from Chamonix to help him as the group was quite large. Finally, aspirant guide Andy Cave, a climber from Yorkshire, completed the guiding contingent (note – Andy wrote the book “Learning to Breathe” in 2005 and became a fully qualified UIAGM guide in 2008).
Our group: 13 clients, including Mark Rogerson and Graham Arthur, destined to become members of the No Polenta Club which had its first trip the following year.
Day 1, Sunday 23rd April 1995: started with us catching the first funicular train of the day from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg and then on to the Jungfraujoch. The train stopped 3 times on the way up to let everyone off to admire the view but the weather was so wild, with strong winds, snow and low clouds, that it was impossible to see anything. We waited quite a while at the top to see if it cleared, visited the ice palace, the cafe, etc. anything to pass the time. In the end we could put it off no longer, we had to leave. We climbed over the locked metal gate stopping visitors venturing out the back, put our gear on in the tunnel, including skis and climbing skins. Then it was outside into the teeth of a gale, an absolute white-out. Visibility was less than 10 m. It was uphill most of the way to the hut in deep snow and if you stopped for more than a second or two the person in front was lost from sight. After an hour and a half or so we reached the slope below the Monchjoch hut (3650 m). We took skis off here and carried them up the steep track to the hut. What a relief it was to get inside out of the storm. We were the first ones to stay at the hut in 3 days because of the bad weather.
Day 2, Monday 24th April 1995: was a bit better, it had stopped snowing! There was still low cloud and a strong wind. Our guides radioed ahead to the next hut to say that we were coming and ask if there were any problems to look out for. The reply was that food was running short and we must bring food with us since we were such a large group and they hadn’t had a food drop in over a week because of bad weather. We returned to the Jungfraujoch and raided the kitchens for cheese, bread and other assorted foods that they were prepared to sell us. Our packs were now considerably heavier! Once more we put skis on in the tunnel before venturing back out into the wind, this time without skins since we were heading downhill. The visibility was about 50 yards but it had started snowing and was too bad to go the usual way down which avoided most of the crevasses to Konkordia. Instead Fred Charlet took us down through the heavily crevassed slopes, which he said he had done before! The clouds thinned as we got lower and with great relief we reached the plateau heading to Konkordia Platz, the junction of 4 large glaciers. We poled along and then put on skins for the last section to the foot of the steps to the hut. Skis were left standing in the snow at the bottom. Then we went up two rickety ladders tied to the rock wall which led up to an impressive metal staircase which went up the cliff face for maybe 100 m. This finished at a snowy track that led directly to the Konkordia hut (2850 m). No views as we arrived but later we could see what an impressive position we were in, so high above the plateau below with big peaks all around.
Day 3, Tuesday 25th April 1995: and the weather had cleared slightly. We had a late start, waiting to see if the weather improved, and skied westwards across Konkordia Platz and on to the lower slopes of Kranzberg, a peak just SE of the Jungfrau. The sun even came out at the bottom of the climb and it looked like we were in for a good day. We dumped the skis just below the final climb and then made our way up the steep snow slope to the top. The clouds were closing all around so although Kranzberg (3738 m) was clear we didn’t have the extensive views we had hoped for. As we descended the clouds followed us down so the views disappeared. As we were crossing Konkordia Platz back to the Konkordia hut the clouds started to briefly thin and clear around the two peaks behind the hut (Faulberg and Kamm) adding a bit of atmosphere to black and white landscape photos of skiers crossing the plateau. We returned to the Konkordia hut after 4 pm.
Peak: Kranzberg (3738m)
Day 4, Wednesday 26th April 1995: Another late start because of bad weather. There was lots of fresh snow, wind and it was still snowing. We skinned up to the Grunhornlucke col (3286 m) and then down through heavy deep snow, and around to the east. Here we stopped for a team talk to decide whether to go straight for the hut or go up a peak. We agreed to go for the peak much to the amazement of Fred Charlet, our French guide. Fred said no French group would have gone up in such weather. We dumped our gear and skied up through more deep heavy snow and thick cloud. It was still snowing as we reached the top of the Wyssnollen (3594 m). There were no views, as if we had expected any! The ski down through the heavy snow was dreadful but we managed to find our gear again and set off for the hut. It was now very warm and oppressive. The final climb to the hut was steep, icy and a bit exposed just before the Finsteraarhorn hut (3048 m). Another hut in a spectacular position and about 30 in the dorm.
Peak: Wyssnollen (3594 m)
Day 5, Thursday 27th April 1995: started about 7.30 am, skiing out from the hut and down to the plateau below with our ski edges chattering on the icy slopes. We stopped to put skins on and crossed the Fieschergletscher southwards. It was warm to start with then a cool breeze came up and stopped us over-heating as we climbed upwards. There was lots of light fresh snow everywhere and we were hoping it stayed like this for our descent. We climbed up to a saddle and then the steepish slopes from here led along a ridge and on to the main top of the Gross Wannenhorn (3906 m). We had a brief glimpse of a view but nothing more. Then we geared up for the descent. The light snow had unfortunately transformed since our ascent into deep heavy porridge and gave us another difficult ski down. My skis were icing up so Jon waxed them for me. They were much better after this and slid through the wet snow much better. We were soon back to the glacier plateau below. It was now quite warm and we had to strip down to keep cool. The last section skiing to the hut was much more tricky than previously. The last bit of track to the Finsteraarhorn hut, across the tops of some cliffs, was now swept clear of snow and was sheet ice. One look beyond the cliffs below was enough to focus the mind on the task in hand!
Peak: Gross Wannenhorn (3906 m)
Day 6, Friday 28th April 1995: A clear blue sky day for a change. We were up at 5.15 am and out by 6 am, starting with head torches. We were treated to a fantastic sunrise as we skied down the Fieschergletscher. Then it needed some poling along to reach the SE corner of the Finsteraarhorn where we stopped to put climbing skins on the skis. We climbed up the Galmigletscher, through the icefall, and I took lots of black and white landscape photos, including the one with the starburst sun and long shadows above. For some reason Fred went much higher than Jon as we crossed a plateau area, which made for some good photos. Then we traversed around into a steep corrie where we zig-zagged up below huge ice cliffs to reach the col at 3386 m. We left our sacs here and headed up the last steep slope southwards to reach the top of the Vorder Galmihorn (3517 m). We could see for miles, it was crystal clear with a few clouds hanging around the lower slopes of the larger peaks. To the north the Finsteraarhorn (4274 m) was wreathed in clouds and the other way we could see to the white pyramid of the Weisshorn (4506 m) with the Matterhorn (4478 m) just beyond, 45 miles from us, and even Mont Blanc (4810 m) some 70 miles away. The view compensated somewhat for the rest of the week! We returned to our sacs, geared up and skied down the Bachigletscher through lots of deep powder at the top, then some deep heavy snow, then spring snow and finally the dreaded breakable crust. There was lots of avalanche debris on both sides of the narrowing valley so we kept in the middle as much as we could. Jon and Fred were very anxious for us to ski past this area as quickly as possible. Finally we were skiing through avalanche debris and snow like porridge, it was now very warm and the snow was suffering from it. From here we took a forest trail through woods, more avalanche debris, mud slides to fields beside the road. We came down a few hundred yards outside the village of Reckingen to finish our ski tour at about 12 pm. Beers and lunch sitting outside in the warm sunshine at the Bahnhof Hotel in Reckingen finished the trip off nicely while we waited for the train to take us back to Grindelwald via Brig. We were back in Grindelwald by 6pm.
Peak: Vorder Galmihorn (3517 m)
Camera: Mamiya 6 MF + 50 mm lens (wide-angle)
Film: Ilford FP4 Plus and HP5 Plus 220
Peaks: Wyssnollen (3594 m), Wyssnollen (3594 m), Gross Wannenhorn (3906 m), Vorder Galmihorn (3517 m)
Huts: Monchjoch, Konkordia, Finsteraarhorn