Back in the Saddle

By Rob Gibson

Kandersteg is one of those clean cut Swiss Alpine villages, sheltered in a valley between steep mountains, large wooden chalets and a handful of expensive looking hotels spread out along the narrow road. Nordic skiing is big business with miles of pisted track for weekday pensioners keeping fit and weekend races. There is a long tradition of tourism and travel at least partly due to a hundred year old railway tunnel connecting the Northern towns to the ski resorts South of the mountains. The fondue and chocolate producing cows have their winter chalet near the village centre and children are transported by their parents using sleds rather than buggies. But beneath this precise Swiss exterior a dark secret is brooding (well it’s not really dark or a secret but…..) by some quirk of fate one of the highest concentrations of ice and mixed routes in the Alps is found dripping from the cliffs overlooking the family toboggan run. Getting to Kandersterg from London takes the same time as driving to Fort William even if a Sea France sailing is required. The route that avoids the French toll roads goes via Luxembourg where a full tank of fuel should be brought to make the most of the low tax rate. Reliable ice is found for 2 – 3 months most years (even if the ice is a bit lean this season) and liberally scattered within two hours walk are steep overhangs that grow hanging daggers of ice for intense mixed routes in the M8 – 10 grade range, most of the pure ice routes really get going at about WI5 but guides and groups still find enough to do at places like Kiental and Stock. I have been ice and mixed climbing in Kandersteg for 5 years and still only just scratched the surface (we even did a new route last week).

Ramon on Rise and Shine *** mixed line 20min from the centre of K’steg

Ice climber in crampons climbing steep detached icefall
Ramon on the alternate top pitch of Reise N Reich

Ramon and I have been in Kandersteg for about a week now and somehow don’t have a long list of routes ticked as only one of our two man climbing team is anywhere near the required standard, as Ramon only narrowly avoided on-sighting ALL of the pitches of the brilliant Rise and Shine M7/7+ he must be climbing well. We have been out most days and tried lots of routes but as often happens with routes near the limit some loose their appeal after the on-sight is blown and others were found to be out of condition after closer inspection. A couple of days are easily spent working on the line of a new route but the main reason the slow start to this trip is mainly I’m not hungry enough to take the sharp end of the rope. I’m not sure exactly why leading feels tricky for me now but I’m putting it down to several factors: a) a fall b) lack of training because of a) and c) ‘Mirrors of the Unseen’ an awesome book about travel in Iran. After reading about the history of an ancient civilisation (in a hot country) faffing about halfway up a frozen cliff really seems a bit pointless! I did recently repeat an M9 I had done years ago (without spurs this time!) so that was a step in the right direction.

Why climb?
It seems that ticking well know routes or getting photos doesn’t motivate me, if I’m not enjoying climbing well I don’t have a reason to climb……… what does really motivate me for climbing though is to retrieve a pair of axes some knob end left half way up the Breitwangflu, some string tied Grigri roped soloing soon solved that slight hitch (good news Danny!)

“Rob, don’t forget your axes”

Why walk?
The relatively mild winter has meant that a lot of the approach walks (2 hrs to Breitwangflu, 2 hrs to Uschinen, 1 hr to Gasterntal) can be significantly reduced with careful use of good tyres, throttle and momentum. Driving two tonnes of 4x4 that can take on a mind of it’s own when friction fails (why does it always depend on friction?) has taken some getting used to and maybe some more practice in the UK could be useful. Snow chains on all corners would also be nice but none of the Swiss climbers seem to use chains and I was startled to find a Skoda parked half way up a mountain until I saw it’s Synchro badge and heavily treaded tyres. I guess if I lived in a country where Snow can last for a third of the year then I’d be better at driving in it.

Why no British?
Considering the amount of good winter climbing here I can’t understand why there are so few climbers from the UK here, although I have met some keen parties in the last week, mainly the dedicated father and son team who deserve full credit for camping in their tent and van throughout the winter. Not only that, they have been climbing the local test pieces and adding some new routes of their own.

The new route…

Climber drytooling in Switzerland
Ramon on the new route.
I spied the cracks from the toboggan track and Ramon tried the direct start (r of rope) but it is poorly protected. The LH groove (out of shot) lead me to the crack just below Ramon. Where I lowered off, tired and out of cams. Using the in-situ gear Ramon got past my high point then lead the crux of the route. P2 - interesting mixed by me. P3 - good looking ice by Ramon.
As it was getting dark I didn’t 2nd P3. A good route. Just about acceptable style!!
Technically easy climbing - no bolts, unusual for K’steg

Ramon on P3

Provisionally named new route, inspired by the nautical wood panelling of the basement apartment.

read Ramon’s take on the route.

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