2012 July ~ Balfrin 3783m

Alpine Hiking Tour to Balfrin (3783m), Canton Valais

Grosses Bigerhorn & Balfrin

Since nearly 10 months I am in Switzerland now, and since about the same time I have been bugging DOminik about a trip to Valais, a cantone in southern Switzerland, 3rd largest of the country in size, but only 9th (out of 26) in population. Valais by the way is also where probably the most iconic mountain, the (in)famous Matterhorn (4478m) is located, though not the hightest peak but one of the most sought after summits. Highest by the way would be the Dufour Peak (4634m), also in Valais. 

But back to our trip... I have been training since spring to improve my fitness, did the ice & glacier training with the Swiss Alpine Club SAC, and a little "beginner's" tour to a mini glacier in Ticino a couple of weeks ago. So, Dominik suggested to climb the Balfrin, with its main summit of 3796m is overshadowed by closeby 4000+ peaks, but I did not mind at all. It was supposed to be my first real alpine tour, and I had a good portion of respect for the altitude anyway, as I wasn't so sure how I would react to physical exercise in that height. Dominik joked anyway, that being german our altitude comfort zone only reaches up to 2962m, which is the height of Germany's highest, the Zugspitze. 

So, Saturday shortly after lunchtime we arrived in Gasenried, parked the car and hiked up to the Bordierhütte, at 2886m already at a respectable height. The hike there took us about 4 1/2 hours, and yes, I did notice the altitude. And the weight of my backpack of about 12kg, although Dominik then carried some stuff from me, to save me some strength for the next day.

Approaching the hut, we had to cross the glacier, that at that point was probably about 600m wide. No crampons needed, it was harsh and flat, no crevasses, and the path clearly marked by the guard of the hut. Once across, another 30meters up over ladders and secured with ropes and finally we were there!! I don't think I could have climbed a lot further. 

Across the Ried Glacier  impressive  Alpine Ibex 

Dinner was already ready, hungry as I was the soup and pasta was just right. The after dinner treat was a private show of the alpine ibex family, in german Steinbock, who posed for pictures very close to the hut.

Early to bed, as the wake up call was at 2.45am. Yes. When hiking up so high, departure times are usually rather early. Main reason is that during the midday sunshine the glacier surface gets dangerously soft and snow covers or bridges over crevasses could melt or break down. Also, rule of thumb, the later in the day the higher the risk of avalanches. And in the end it also gives the climber enough hours to reach the summit, come back to the hut, and make the way down to the valley again. 

Maybe I was a bit nervous, maybe I was too hot (it had been a gorgeous sunny day), maybe my stomach hadn't liked the food, but I had an even shorter rest, as I was counting sheep, or ibex, and still could not sleep very well. Finally getting up and having breakfast was actually a relief.

Lamps on the head, light backpack only, enough water, and off we go. It was a cloudless night and nearly full moon, there would have been enough light without the headlamps, but they were very useful as the path was marked with reflectors, very smart idea, and we could not misstep at any point there. 

Our first aim was the Gross Bigerhorn, no skills required, "just" a hike up to 3626m. From there a ridge had to be crossed, which is a bit more challenging, to finally go up across a steep névé to the Balfrin. But first, concentrating on getting up here, and enjoying the sunrise spectacle that was already a tremendous reward at 5am:

     

Weisshorn Sunrise

Nadelhorn & Stecknadelhorn

At about half past 7, after 3 -4 hours hiking, we reached the summit of Gross Bigerhorn with a height of 3626m. Already this achievement for me personally quite a success, as I had never hiked up that high.

In view of the ridge, the really steep climb over the snow cap of Balfrin, that was so clearly visible from where we were, and knowing that physically I was on the last reserves I wasn't so sure anymore if we should try it. It might sound to you like an Everest or other Himalaya expedition, and it is not even 4000 meters high, however, after 8 years of sea level living and not much exercise let alone mountaineering I was pushing limits here. And that actually should come even more literal a little further on. 

Anyway, here we were. The ridge, doable, and Dominik decided we could just as well train climbing on the short rope, so we got the harnesses on and started making the way over. Maybe not my strength, but my will was clearly challenged at one point where I had to jump over the void to the next big block.... 

Once on the snow, again it was my decision to try and climb the firn (old snow), so crampons on and icepick out. Had I known.... Halfway up, my right calf started to cramp, and of course at the steepest point. I was still on the rope with Dominik, and most probably he would have been able to hold me just by his weight, but there is no margin for error, if I would fall I could just as well slide down to the valley (sounds funny now, but a high fall from the edge would have marked a harsh stop). So, only remedy, keep going. That I was able to do that was wholly Dominik's merit, with his continous mental support I made it. 

Once at the North summit, which is a bit lower than the main one, I called a time out. Going to the main summit would have been another half hour or so, and I knew I had to make it down that slope and over the ridge again. So, instead, we sat for some minutes in the sun and had a cereal bar and water. 

     

Downward we wanted to traverse the firn and get to the rocks that you can see on the right edge of the mountain. What was supposed to be easy turned out to be tricky, as I had to cross an icy part. Had I rammed my crampons better into the ice, well, than I would not have fallen. Luckily Dominik had set an ice screw and was belaying me, so apart from the - pretty big - shock, nothing happened. Just my nerves were complaining, and that a lot. 

After the ridge climb back to Bigerhorn we made our way down to the Bordierhütte again, had a short rest and lunch and hiked down to the valley, that we reached shortly after 6pm. 

My learnings? 

1 - train more

2 - train even more. Then my weakness that led to the slide is ruled out.

3 - we were always on the rope and belaying each other, so my nervousness was unnecessary, although probably normal for me as a first timer. I trust my partner, and we are both no high risk takers, so all is on the safe side. 

Next tour? - Tomorrow, Vreneli's Gärtli, not even 3000m, so I am tempted to say "a walk in the park". Might be true in reference to physical challenge, but it's a glacier, cautiousness is always required.

(Click here for the full german tour description with map)

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