Schmoolz Indoor Dry and Ice Climbing Tools

I received a pair of Schmoolz a few weeks ago to tryout by the inventor in the UK. I’ve since spent a few trips to the gyms around Zurich with these interesting ice or dry tools for indoor climbing, getting a feeling for how they work and how useful they are. If you want to know the answer before getting to the end of this article, I’ll just tell you, I think they rock.

What are Schmoolz?

Ice climbing is really a special sport. With normal rock climbing it’s already enough of a hassle finding a partner. They need to be reliable, push you when needed and understand your limits. Plus they need shoes and a rope. With ice climbing and dry tooling you now need a partner one step up on the “alternative” sport ladder. You need one which has money to accessorize with ice axes, decent crampons, ice screws, the equipment list starts to explode a bit. And you need to find a climber who likes the idea of climbing sheets of ice. Then factor in the fact that you can’t generally climb all the time. Routes have to be in the right conditions, at the right time of year. Ahhh, but when you’re out on the ice, the details dissolve. But what do you do when you want to train, to go to the gym?

Climbing gyms are generally not the place for ice tools. Steel picks destroy resin holds and the crowded nature of many gyms makes it dangerous to be tooling around with a pair of axes in your hands. There is actually a dry tooling bouldering area at Kirche Fluntern in Zurich (part of ASVZ, the university sport division). Basically they took a bouldering area and replaced the resin holds with little blocks of wood. It’s a sweet place to train, but I don’t live around there anymore. There have been some attempts to develop ice climbing indoors. Grivel  offered an indoor pick at one point (if I remember correctly). However, unless you build your own bouldering area or set wood blocks in the wall of your basement, there are few ways to train for ice climbing in they gym. In Colorado for example, some gyms have fake ice, but it’s a rare gym you can find this stuff in and they generally won’t let you lead climb. The Schmoolz is an answer to the question of indoor ice climbing training.

The Design

The Schmoolz design is very simple, place an industrial strength rubber loop on the end of a well-designed wooden shaft, which is cut in the contoured form of an ice tool. The contours of the shaft are perfect to grip and hang on, while the rubber loop hangs on climbing holds in the gym. Now you have the feel of an ice tool in the training environment of a traditional climbing gym. You can train your ice technique when you like and don’t have to worry about the ice conditions outside. This mean you can maintain and develop your technique throught the year.

How do they Work?

The concept is simple, the rubber loop is similar to a climbing shoe, which means you generate a lot of friction when placing the loop on a gym climbing hold. As you pull down, tension is created in the loop and it conforms to the surface of the hold, and you climb up like normal. When placed correctly the Schmoolz are very secure. The design is an excellent adaptation of the ice tool experience to the climbing gym environment.

Now, as you might imagine, not all holds work with the Schmoolz. The best are small knobs that are usually meant to be foot holds. The loop grips very well over these knobs and the placement is totally secure. The most problematic holds are those which are larger and slopping downwards, it’s sometimes impossible to get a secure placement and you run the risk of falling off. One alternative is to turn the Schmoolz upside down and use the contour to hook on to small features of holds. For this reason, it takes some time to choose a route to climb with the Schmoolz, and you’ll probably need to climb on holds from two or three routes when sending a line.

The Schmoolz Experience

Is the Schmoolz experience like dry tooling in a parking garage? Well, no, just like climbing in a gym is no substitute for navigating alpine sport climbs in the Swiss Alps. You use different techniques for ice, dry, gym, sport, and trad climbing. The point of training is to develop your mind and body to meet the challenge of whatever route you decide to climb. The thing I love about using the Schmoolz is that it’s really another subset of the vertical experience. I don’t know if that was the intention of the inventors, but the thing about technology is that you never know exactly what people will do with the thing you give them to play with.

The way I climb with the Schmoolz is possibly not exactly the way I would dry tool up a similar route. But I don’t see that as being a problem. I love that it’s a combination of ice and rock climbing. You have the free feeling of using leash-less tools and also the dancing form inherent in climbing. I see routes in different ways with the Schmoolz, and that new challenge is the thing I love about climbing with them.

I often hear people describe rock climbing as a puzzle, a delicate balance between toeing a rock edge and falling into a void. The same person might describe ice climbing as a masterful battle with the frozen world, the assumption being that you have to hack the hell out of an ice sheet to climb it. I think this latter stereotype is complete BS. I enjoy ice climbing much more when I use movements developed from sport climbing, rather than imagining myself as some new-age superhero wearing black tights and sporting two axes fashioned after the claw of a Raptor skeleton. Obviously, with the Schmoolz you can’t develop your swinging arm strength as would be used in waterfall ice climbing to get tool placements. Instead you focus on the placement of the tool more as you would be dry tooling. I think a lot of emphasis is always placed on the arm strength required for ice climbing, but if you do it with finesse and focus on secure tool placements, you end up using less energy, and that’s a very important technique which is pushed when climbing with the Schmoolz.

What I Love about the Schmoolz

Since you can’t swing like an ice maniac indoors, the Schmoolz forces you to climb elegantly with ice tools. I think that is the best reason to buy a pair. It develops your ability to rethink routes and plan your tool placements instead of just swinging into an ice wall. When you rethink your routes on the wall an easy 4a might turn into the equivalent of a delicate 5b using the Schmoolz. Unless your gym is rearranging the routes once a week (I don’t know any which do) it’s easy to get lazy in a comfortable gym while always doing the same climbs. But with the Schmoolz, you’re challenged to rethink the routes, as well as climbing using tools instead of fingers. Naturally you balance differently with ice tools than when you’re rock climbing, and this technique is developed with the Schmoolz. This just adds a lot more to a climbing evening. My favorite thing at the moment is to climb normally for 3/4 of the night, and then boulder with the Schmoolz after my finger strength is gone from attempting 6b routes. In this way I’m able train my legs and balancing skills even after I’m too tired to climb with my fingers, and I’m forced rethink easy routes – and to find new ones on familiar walls. All in all it’s a fun way to climb. The Schmoolz adds another dimension, they challenge me, and additionally I get a lot of looks from all the other climbers in the hall.

If you’re looking for a way to train to ice or dry tooling in the gym environment and are tired of trying to get your tool fill on wood blocks and buildings, I recommend checking out the Schmoolz.

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Lazy Swiss Sunday – First Ski Tour

pizol_sls-5Some time in 2005 I walked into the Oerlikon outlet store of Baechli Bergsport and picked up a pair a yellow and grey Lowa Evo ski touring boots. They were on sale and I thought, “ski touring, always wanted to do that.” In the winter of 2008 I bought a pair of NAXO N02 touring bindings, a pair of Atomic skis, Black Diamond skins, a BCA avalanche beacon, Black Diamond probe…ready to realize my ski touring dream.

Dreams take time though, they need to develop over a certain period, especially something like touring. I hadn’t been on skis in like three years and I wasn’t in the avalanche dodging mood. My idea was to start out small and build up to some real mountain tours. So on a Lazy Swiss Sunday I decided to head to Pizol and tour around the avalanche (theoretically) free area of the Pizol ski area in Eastern Switzerland. Pizol is one of those all-inclusive winter sport places. You can ski, snowboard, winterwandern, paraglide, snowshoe, ski tour, whatever involves snow, they even do igloo adventure trips. I wanted an easy day so I took the gondola up the first station and then toured up the snowshoe trail to the top of the ski resort. I packed along an assortment of accessories including crampons, snow shovel, avalanche beacon and an ice axe. Not that I needed all of this to tour in a ski resort, but I figured I should load up my Osprey Exposure pack and train my legs. Plus, I felt fly in my mountaineering gear. I generally only use these things for ego-inspired photo shoots, so it was a joy to use my mountain stuff for a utilitarian purpose. Naturally I also packed along my Ricoh GR Digital, that fantastic high-quality compact digital camera that just fits in your pack, no matter what mountain you’re heading up.

pizol_sls-12At Pizol you have the option of heading on from the resort for another 600 vertical meters to the Pizol summit, but as I was alone, I decided to stay out of the backcountry. Avalanches sound like trains, and it’s ill-advised to stand in front of either one. I’ve had the pleasure of having an avalanche come down on me in Colorado, a pleasure as I ‘m still here to talk about it. It’s good to experience some things ONCE, and that once was once enough. At Pizol the weather was fantastic above 1500 meters. Down below in the valley was Das Nebelmeer, German for sea of clouds, that beautiful event where the clouds are pushed below the mountain peaks, and you look out from the sunshine. The light was perfect, beyond perfect, which is impossible, but it was.

pizol_sls-11Ski touring looks fly, but it’s surprising exhausting. I was vacationing in Detroit for Christmas and my Swiss mountain legs hadn’t been exercised in months. So when I skied down the slopes and tried to turn my legs revolted with deep screams of muscle fatigue. I’m a weak, flabby man, a poor example of a mountaineer, but there’s always next weekend. I made it back to the gondola without crashing and decided to head back for a relaxing Sunday night in Winterthur. “Why push it?” The best ski season in February and the best touring in March (so I hear) and I just want to be in touring shape for the days to come.? That’s the point of Lazy Swiss Sundays, to not kill yourself, but to enjoy life. Their are many firsts in this life. Many things to be remembered, and many things to look forward to. A lazy tour in a resort area doesn’t sound exciting when written down, but it was a start, a flickr of adventure for the soul. It was the start of the beginning.


Santis – Mountaineering and Strobes

June 1st was a sunny Sunday in the Swiss-German land, and seemed like the perfect day to begin my return to the mountain environment.  On another sunny day in April, the 28th to be exact, I’d sweated through my dissertation defense, and after jumping from Zurich to Amsterdam, to Zurich to New Orleans to Detroit, to Boston, to Detroit, and finally back to Zurich, I found myself unemployed and in need of a mountain tour.

So on a sunny Sunday, the first of June, I headed out for a tour up Santis, the iconic mountain massif floating in the green landscape of Appenzeller, the heart of Swiss-German speaking peoples in Switzerland.

Santis is one of those mountains that people grow up with, starting with hikes as children and continue into old age.  This was something like my 5th trip up the mountain, and the first early summer ascent.  It was also an introductory trip for Matt Anderson, the Seattle mountain guide-turned Zurich-based commercial photographer.

I’ve photographed Santis in Summer and Winter, blanketed in snow and covered in wildflowers.  However, I’ve long since grown bored with basic landscape shots, the type perfected on postcards sold all over Zurich.  So to make the trip more interesting I packed along some off-camera lighting gear.

Route Up Santis
The essential problem with mountaineering and photography is the weight trade-off.  In the Swiss Alps every once counts, and as your desire to include cameras, flashes, and light modifiers goes up, your physical mobility in the mountains decreases.

A normal hike in the Swiss hills generally means a minimum elevation gain of 1000m, and by the time you finish the tour, the elevation gain over summits and passes adds up pretty fast.  So, in principle it’s ill advised to take more than a DSLR and a lens or two.  My photo and lighting kit included a Fuji GA645wi, a Ricoh GR Digital, Sunpak 383 flash and Gadget Infinity radio trigger.

The Ricoh GRD has proven itself many times as more than capable with it comes to off-camera, or Strobist flash techniques.  Choosing the Ricoh dramatically minimized the weight penalty as compared with packing my Minolta 7D DSLR with a macro lens.  The Fuji was used for basic landscape shots. 

Off-camera lighting on a mountain side isn’t so easy.  After you’ve ascended 1000m the body is shaking a bit, and when you’re on a rock ridge, it’s not like there’s any place to set up light stands.  I put a Gadget Infinity radio trigger on the Ricoh GR and held the Sunpak 383 at arms length from above the wildflowers growing on the mountain ridge.  In a few minutes and a little exposure management I could balance the landscape exposure with the flash lighting the flowers.  Wham!  Bahm!  And there we have a mountain photo I haven’t seen in the postcard stand.

In early June there are few people making the ascent up Santis, mainly due to the snow, which covers most of the Alpine route.  Many people will ascend with nothing in the way of mountaineering equipment, but I recommend taking crampons and an axe, because slipping on an exposed snow-covered 50 degree slope on a Sunny June Sunday is probably as stupid and just as deadly as putting a bullet in your brain.

Santis is a tamed mountain.  There’s a weather station at the summit and Steinbock have long since lost any fright-or-flight instinct.  The animals roam the Santis as they like and have no fear of humans, which means it’s pretty easy to make some of those iconic mountain wildlife shots.
Well, the Steinbock have one predator – avalanches.  And if you climb up Santis in early Summer don’t be surprised to find a decayed carcass or skull in the snow.

Lazy Tokyo Weekend – Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji, Fuji-san is possibly the easiest and most awestruck climbs I’ve ever done.  The term "climb" is a stretch when describing Fuji-san.  A winter ascent up the iced face might warrant crampons and axes, but a summer/fall experience falls into the hiking category.  The pathway is wide and primarily maintained with heavy machinery, and during the official climbing season, you can buy food and drinks along the way.  I climbed Fuji-san the third weekend of September, just after the close of the official climbing window of July 1 to August 27.  I’d been in Tokyo for about two weeks and my body and soul were screaming from some escape from the manic metros and crowded Shibuya streets.

Mountaineering has historically had a certain man vs. nature connotation.  Climbing magazines like Rock and Ice or Climbing sometimes use the terms assault to describe a person ascending to a mountain summit.  Popular culture uses terms such as conquer when to romanticize the act when a climbing team attains the summit of Everest.  But to say that one has attacked or conquered a large body of earth such as Fuji-san by the simple act of standing on the summit is like saying that the mosquito which buzzes near your sweaty head has made you it’s bitch.  Even the Swiss Alps with their cable ways and hotels and huts have not been conquered by mankind.

Despite the explicit traces of humankind and the rampant tourism and gimmicks associated with an ascent of Fuji-san, all the reverence and sacredness of the highest mountain on Japan, forged in the ring of fire, and risen from the sea like a God of old…none of these things are diminished by the fact that you can buy Fuji-Inspired custard snacks.  The gimmicks don’t make the mountain anything less than it is, one of the beautiful places on Earth.

I left Tokyo early in the morning.  Normally one can catch a bus from Shinjuku, but I waited too long to reserve a seat and had to find my way there by train.  I pick up a rice ball and yummy looking lemon drink.  It had a funky taste, something in between sour and fire.  After downing half the can I looked and noticed that the funky lemon can of liquid was 7% alcohol.

You can start the hike near sea-level, but I, like nearly everyone else started from Kawaguchiko-guchi Go-gome (Kawaguchiko Fifth Station).  It’s a bus stop and tourist trap, and signifies the start of the trailhead up to the summit.  The 5th is like any other tourist pit between the Mystery Spot in Northern Michigan or the Edelweiss-inspired shops in Grindelwald selling Swiss chocolate and cheese and kitsch.  You can get a can of fresh Fuji-san air at the 5th station, just like you can buy a sealed can of cosmic mystery in Sedona Arizona.

The most popular product is the walking stick.  During the summer you take the stick with you and get it stamped at each station.  I opted not to pick one up, partially because it would be hard taking back to Zurich, also because I was tired of spending Yen, but primarily because I would have entered into a Samurai fighting fantasy and ended up hitting someone by accident.

The real draw of Fuji-San is that everyone who can reasonably walk can make it to the top.  If you’re not in prime altitude condition, you can bring along an oxygen canister (available at the 5th station).  I highly recommend visiting Fuji in the early fall, there are fewer transportation possibilities, but there are far fewer people and the shops along the trail to the peak are closed.

The hike up Fuji-san is uneventful at first.  You begin to rise from the forested slopes and move over some rock, passing huts here and there.  You wonder why you’re ascending and wasting time on this man-conjured joke until the moment you pass through the cloud curtain and see the world falling away below you.  At this point the Zen begins to set in, and you are propelled upwards with a deep sense of wonder, each step a prayer to the deity whom you are set to meet on the summit.

There are a number of station up to the summit, I have no idea when I passed which ones, I really didn’t care.  All I needed to mark my ascent was the continued view of my vantage point getting ever closer to the sky.

In the Ying of the Yang, there is no sunrise without a sunset.  The many visitors will do a night hike and arrive at the summit for the sunrise, and the mountain is a bustling highway at 5:50am.  But at 5:50pm there are only a few souls, those who haven’t found a hut for the night or already descended.  I can’t recommend the sunset enough.  The popular gimmick is the sunrise, but in my experience it in no way matches the calm magic of the sun falling behind the summits.  The clouds gather in full at the slopes and form the perfect curtain for the shadow of the mighty one to be projected upon.

I thought about descending after the sunset and finding one of the huts to stay at for the night.  The cost for one of these runs around 60-80,000 Yen, and for some reason I just didn’t feel like putting myself back into the confines of walls and windows.

The cold was creeping over the ridges and rocks like it always does in an alpine environment after the sun leaves.  We get used to the comforts and confines and forget how vulnerable we are in the world.  I alternated between sitting and trying to sleep for a few minutes near rocks and walking around the volcano craters to move and stay warm.  This also allowed me to see the sky as I never had before.  The moon rose and set and the sky was filled with stars and at other times guarded by clouds.  It was quiet and cold and I’ll never forget the wonderful sleep depravation on the summit ridges and volcano rims of Fuji-san.

I was shivering at 4am when the first night hikers crested the over the last gate and began looking for the best place from which to see the rising sun.  You can see the sunrise from everywhere, but I opted for the more popular location, along with most everyone else.  The view is filled with cigarette smoke and the light of cell phones screens burns into the eyes as you wait for the sun.  The sunrise starts very slowly.  The sky lightens, and slivers of red start burning themselves into the atmosphere.  Eventually the red eye looks out across Japan and rises up above the clouds which have come to gather around the lower slopes.

The trip up and down Fuji-san was a wonderful experience.  It was a trip in the most spiritual sense, the way from Tokyo, finding the train, getting to the 5th station, watching the sun set and the stars revealed, the moon set and the sun rise and the eventual return to Shinjuku.

For the inexperience mountaineer Fuji-san is a colossal trek, an adventure of one’s lifetime.  For the lazy sometimes seasoned mountaineer such as your humble narrator, Fuji can be done as a day trip if desired.  One just needs to make sure of the transpiration issues.  Camping is officially prohibited, but like in the Swiss Alps, if you do and no one else is around, there’s no one to tell you to stop.  A number of travelers set up tents on the summit during the night, although I think this is only in the off-climbing season.  Either way, I highly recommend it for those in Tokyo seeking an escape from the manic rhythms of the city.  It is a majestic climb, no matter your skill level or previous mountain experiences.

Specifics on the climbing routes up Fuji-san can be found at the SummitPost page.  Photos and images from this trip were produced with the awesome Ricoh GRD digital camera.

Ricoh GRD Review
Ricoh GRD and Strobe Lighting

Lazy Swiss Sunday – Bos Fulen

10,000 years ago, in the hunter-gatherer sense of our history, moving and beating the body to it’s core was needed for survival, so it is no surprise that some humans are not yet evolved enough sit in an office every day.

Bös Fulen is neither incredibly difficult, nor is deceptively easy to summit.  It’s the mountain to climb when you need to get away and are looking for a nice green – field – glacier – alpine climb for the day.

The starting point is Braunwald, situated at just over 1256 m it’s accessible by train in about two hours from Zurich.

Along the way we walked through the green fields and yellow and purple alpine flowers and came upon a group of four edelweiss.  The reclusive Alpine flower is placed on pretty much everything from hotel names, climbing stores, airplanes, and most souvenirs from Appenzeller, but are so rare that most people have never seen them in real life.

The summit of Bös Fulen is reached at 2801 m, after first climbing the glacier as high as possible, followed by free climbing the rock face.  You might find an old rusted piton here and there along the climb, but the hand holds are enough for one to feel secure.

There’s a bit of a scree field before the summit, and the keen climber will wait for those teams climbing ahead to summit before following the same line.  The alternative is to duck falling rocks and pray that one doesn’t take your fool head off.

Although it looked like a rather exhausting climb from below, the actual ascent was probably only like half an hour.  The hand-holds are bomber and the foot edges are wide enough to dance on.

The view from the summit is rather spectacular.  All the eastern alps are around, the klettersteig up Eggstöcke, the Glärnish Massif, Clariden and Ortstock.

Once in a while I get the feeling that mountaineering is for those who have realized the presence of their mortality, but not yet seen the wisdom in standing far away from the divide to this life, for one who needs some measure of sustenance to keep their fool unevolved spirits in line.

For the descent we traversed along the east ridge and then down the slope.  If you go too far you might notice the 1000 m drop down the east face, we didn’t stray too far and then boot-skied down the glacier.

The glacier was covered with small pockets of dust and dirt deposits.  They blow over from the Sahara and form these small depressions in the snow layer.  The dust absorbs more energy from the sun and then helps melt the glacier.  It’s like pricking someone a million times with a thin needle and after enough time all of their blood is gone.

If I return in ten years to climb Bös Fulen again, the likelihood that it will be climbable in the same condition is as absurd as buying a freezer in Alaska during December.  Bös Fulen is a fantastic climb for those who wish to see first hand the slow death of the last great European glaciers.

On the way back to Braunwald we happened upon a mountain rescue.  Nothing serious, looked like someone sprained their ankle and needed to be flown out.  Still, watching the rescue helicopter do a nose-dive landing was cool as all hell.

Some could write that mountaineering is a latent fool’s Provence.  Who taught the Swiss to climb?  Who conquered Everest and who starts the wars in the world?  Is it done by those with too much time and with nothing with which to lend fulfillment to their souls and have nothing to fill their days?  Is it like the writer who does not possess the courage to actually do something in this life, and takes to writing in an effort to provide an outlet for their ambitions?  Some might say so, but others might counter that mountaineering is also just a nice way to pass a lazy Sunday and take in the natural beauty which the world bestows upon those who seek the high-country.

All depressive attempts at writing aside, Bös Fulen is an awesome climb, and if you are so inclined I highly recommend it.

The Mind in Focus – Mountains and Latin Mottos

Sometimes I find it hard to focus, bring all the elements together in some form to comprehend.  A glitch just beyond the motivated shell you create to make it through the brain bleeding pressure cooker days.

This is the time when I need a reboot, pump the veins full to the 9’s of that thing you can’t fathom from behind your office walls and the comforts of plush down covers and Italian coffee makers.

Some days I go to work in the morning, then head out after lunch, chill in Star Bucks with a chocolate chip cookie and coffee writing my dissertation, then go over anodic bonding, and finish up with a review of the last German lesson before heading next door to the Inlingua language school by the Stauffacher tram stop where I sit brain-drained as my German teacher points out my lazy pronunciations and misrepresentation of the akkusativ.

When the soul cries out for an adventure you’re a fool to deny it.

Santis is the mountain for when you want high adventure without the effort required of a real alpine beast.  You can ascend from nearly every direction and I’ve been up three different paths in the past four years – in summer that is.  In winter snow morphs the mountain into a different breed of excursion.  Last year I turned back on a snowshoe ascent due to staying too long at the bar the night before – and general laziness.  Plus there were long streams coming off the peaks and I knew in my heart that it was the best to avoid the prospect of permanently visiting the nearest climber’s cemetery.

But those were comfortable days when relenting made sense – when the prospect of turning back seemed ok.  These days are illuminated by different suns – for now the PhD culmination looms threateningly beyond the next few months and there was that Functional Surfaces exam on Feb. 12th.  I may have passed it, but I screwed up the section on polymer surfaces, the topic of reversible reactions, I probably should have started talking about block copolymers.  Now the exam is done with and it’s too late for bright ideas.

Without the drive to conquer the physical trials you present to yourself, how can one hope to tackle the analogous mental ones? 

Summiting peaks is a pointless exercise in determination – and in my eyes, no different than dedicating three years to a PhD.  But we do many things which appear pointless on the surface.

"Mens sana in corpore sano."

"A sound mind in a sound body."

The school motto was one of the few useful things that I took away from Detroit Country Day School.

Halfway up Santis I ran into the Hut warden near the pass.  In the end I took the route down the other side of the pass to Schwende, instead of the route up Altmann and the summit ridge to the Santis summit.  The conversation was short and in German (the language class did work), in summation he said there was too much snow, and that it was better not to be featured in the newspaper on Monday or Tuesday – so that one would not need to read about another fool climber claimed by the Alps.

I took his advice, crossed the mountain pass and then half-skied, half-walked down to Schwende.  Backcountry sking isn’t easy for me, and it’s a tad chaotic when trying to do it in the Alps with short trekking skies.  Eventually I made it back to Zurich where I wrote these words to fulfill my pointless need to write.

A Personal Day in the Alps

For some reason the pressure cooker was working harder on my head than normal.  Probably something to do with writing my dissertation, trying to find a job, and organizing a research trip to Japan.  In any event I felt a need get out of Zurich for the day.  So I took a personal day and shifted the weekend foreword by one day.  Friday morning I got out of bed at 4:30 and biked to my girlfriend’s place to retrieve the trekking poles I had forgotten there.  An hour later I was heading to Zurich and then on to Kandersteg.
Of all the mountain valleys in all the regions I’ve visited, the view from the Kandersteg train station is one of the coolest in the world if you’re looking to get into the thin air.  The Blumesaple rises at the end of the valley like a fortress of mythic bygone kings.  You think of monasteries in the Himalayas and tales of adventure and journeys through time.  I was up at the Bluesalp before, the hut there is one of the highest at 2800m, and even has it’s own T-shirt for sale.  This time I took the cable car up to the opposite side, along the route leading to the Gemmi pass.  Three weeks ago the avalanche conditions were about a 4 out of 5 in this region and the cable car from Leukerbad to the Gemmi Pass wasn’t even working.

But these were now bright, stable, low avalanche days.  I took the first cable car up, half of my fellow travelers were 60 something, since this is what many Swiss senior citizens do to pass the time.  The rest were back-country skiers and one pair that had their ice climbing gear.  I took the well-groomed walking path for a bout a mile before taking an extreme left and strapped on my snowshoes for the ascent.  My goal was the Rinderhorn, an easy 3200m peak which, given the agreeable weather, wouldn’t be an avalanche factory.

The other people on the ascent were all skiers, and probably had stayed in the hotel the night before.  Yes, there’s a hotel at the Gemmi pass, sitting there at just over 2000m above sea level.

Every excursion into the Alps looks good on paper.  The topographic map does little to convey the physical power needed to ascent the slopes.  I looked up and the skiers were as ants on a white hill.  I cursed them for being so fast and wished I had bought that touring ski-snowboard for the season.  The skiers came down, some in perfect tight turns and some looked as though they were just concentrating on not crashing and looking the ski-fool.

Soon I was alone and the incline took the inevitable turn to the extreme.  These are the features I never get from maps, at first it looks find and you think, "yeah, sure, no problem."  The thing is, all I had for breakfast was some birchelmuseli and a coffee; then two white-bread sandwiches, one salami and one cheese.  This is not what one would consider a healthy breakfast for one who needs to ascend 1000m on foot.
Below the ridge is the worst, the mind start asking the logical question "why am I here?"  Does the last 30 meters really mean that much?  I’ve come most of the way, it’s been a nice hike, why not go down, avoid the last extreme slope the…

Then you look up and the sun crests over the ridge and you can almost see the cool blue expanse beyond, that vista, that fleeting moment that draws from your bed at 4am.  The slope was too steep for snowshoes and I put on my Grivel crampons – at last getting to use my climbing gear for something besides a photo shoot.

The last 20 meters were an amazing lesson in perseverance.  My energy was gone, because given my pitifully breakfast, I was hiking on empty.  The snow was now hard and my spikes bit in and held firm.  I was pouring sweat inside and thought my heart might explode.  You just focus on your feet and keep moving…a few minutes later you crest the ridge and realize anew why you came.

The Rinderhorn is one the easiest mid-alpine peaks, the cable-car gets you most of the way and then it’s just up the slope.  So I was confused when I looked at the map and saw an easy route, but looked at reality and saw a rather intense 30-40m rock climb to the summit.  It was no matter, I had to be down for the last cable car and it was already 1pm.  I was in fact, standing on the ridge to the Balmhorm, slightly higher at 3600m, it would take far too long to summit and get back down.

On the descent I became slightly aware that I was standing on a 50 deg slope without an avalanche beacon and no one to hear me scream.  Not that I would, screaming is a waste of energy, and when a mountain is bearing down, you run like hell because it’s what your survival instincts say is needed.
I imagined the mountain letting loose and rushing at me, pulling me down into the valley.  I probably could’ve ridden the bastard out.  As long as you stay on top you’ll survive.  But fear swam through my blood.  Now in these older years I could feel it.  I had no desire to leave this life so soon.

Mountain Zen

The shit thing about exploring the in the mountains is that you can’t purge it from your system. The sickness gets under your skin and the more you do it the more you want to be out there above the ridges touching the clouds. You walk through beautiful corridors and past quiet peaceful cafes and wonder,
Can I climb that?
What would it be like if I were three inches tall and could climb up that table leg? If I leave at 5 a.m., can I get my head into the thin air by mid day? You climb the stairs two at a time because you’re trying to keep the legs honed for the next tour.

Every hour behind the computer you’re getting weaker and mountains are still rock and ice and as hard as before. And when you do get out there, when you’ve been walking up a mountain for 3 hours, after the face climb, when your knees are banged up and your knuckles are raw, when you crest the main ridge and still see a path leading up to the summit and you wonder, Is this it?

Where are the long rock spines we were promised?Where are the cliffs and mountain chills that make the body uncomfortable and remind your spirit of its sad mortality? Where are the knife edges and notch finger holds daring you to fall off balance and let go into oblivion?

Where is the fleeting morning light? That grey-transient morning kiss morphing into a golden pre-afternoon blaze? Feel the solar atomic rays frying the DNA of your exposed skin, courting a cancer inspiration set to break out in 10 years time.Where is the death whisper you were promised? The avalanche roar, the glacier snap, that last sound your brain will ever process. The rock breaking loose and your toe slipping off a razor edge. Like that same edge Col. Kurtz crawls along before he’s transformed into something lifeless.

You might call it the dark side of my Mountain Zen

This is my Ice Tool

You’re confused because you don’t lust for anything material, neither power nor money or fame, but you have a deep desire to exist on that divide between living and some something else.
 Mountain Madness

Only when one realizes that the line doesn’t exist will the mountain lust be purged from the soul – and the true Zen attained.

I’m not quite there yet.

Couch Potato

The city is quiet on the morning of the Saturday before Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed walking through public places decked out in mountaineering tights and big red boots. The mind focuses, going over scenarios: getting lost, hoping the weather holds, pondering the logic of it all.
I had a mushroom pizza for breakfast, and I felt ready. My legs are tired and out of shape, but we’re not tackling a 4000 meter peak today, just a few hundred shy of 3000 meters, but as I have an aversion to paying for lift tickets, I’ll be starting from the valley floor.
With the cable cars and lifts, the Pizol summit, hanging above the popular Zurich ski area, is just a few hours hike from the last cable car station, but starting out from the valley at 546m, it becomes a race to get there before the sun starts to fall or the weather turns ugly.
I’m wearing the Big Red Beasts, the Koflach Degree mountaineering boots that were with me on my failed attempt to the summit of Huyana Potosi in Bolivia, and on the long winter nights along the great frozen lake in Northern Michigan near the Porcupine Mountains, and they were with me on the summit of the Wiessmies, and now we’re heading to Pizol with a new pair of short trekking skis.
I get to the mountain plateau at 2222m around 3:30 p.m. and in the back of my mind I know that the sun goes down sometime around five. Most of the ski tour to the hut involved me trying not to get decapitated by downhill skiers and now, while enjoying a hot bowl of Goulash – I’m pondering the thought of heading to the summit.
But I say "Ah fuck it," to myself, this is Christmas vacation after all. The front of my shins are ragged and bloody from my socks and boots.  I could do it, but the 1500 meter ascent up to the hut was a lot for me in one day, and the act of doing another 400 meters up to the summit and being back before sunset just isn’t happening.
This is why I’m just a couch potato – an armchair mountaineer.  A real athlete would tackle this beast of a trip and would have been on the summit an hour ago.  But I am by-and-large an armchair mountaineer.  The thought of the summit is nice, but not altogether necessary for my enjoyment of the mountain environment – and so, much of my collection of climbing paraphernalia is mainly used as props in photo shoots.


Sometimes you have to get out and prove to yourself that you can do something besides wasting away behind a computer screen Mon.-Fri. On Sunday morning I took an early train to Bad Ragaz, and from there planned on taking the cable car to the top and then head up Pizol. Pizol is the mountain to go to from Zurich for a day of skiing or an easy glacier climb. In September I took my dad there for a short 4 hour hike that turned into a 7 hour ordeal and, as he tells it, almost killed him. That was back when the ski area is a hiking heaven. The cable car takes you from the valley at 546m to the Pizol hut at 2222m and from that elevation one can frolic in the Alpine sun. The cable cars run during the winter, but this being some time inbetween the tourist seasons, well, the mountain transport was abandoned and not in operation. Of course, I had paid 30 CHF for the trip and had no intention of turning back. So I started hiking from the valley. Through roads and wooded trails and then snow, I finally crested a ridge and strapped on my snowshoes for the final approach to the hut at 2222m. There were a few impediments along the walk, mainly the fact that all the wonderful yellow, never-get-lost hiking signs had been taken down for the winter and I lost an hour going the wrong way along trails that lead no where that I wanted to go. From the hut the summit was only another 400 vertical meters. It was 3pm and the skies were grey. Pizol is not a hard assent. It’s the uncrevassed glacier you learn on and most people more or less run up it for kicks. But these were high winds with no sign up letting up. Plus, going for the summit would mean descending the glacier and mountain ridges in the dark, possibly in fresh, unsettled snow. I knew in my soul that I could do it. But while I am a bit crazy, I am by and large not a particularly stupid person. Plus, I have this unwritten pact with my mom; she doesn’t hassle me about not living in the US and more or less supports my ambitions – and for my part, I more or less promised that she’d never have to come visit me in a small cemetery in a quiet Swiss village. I didn’t attempt the summit and instead descended the slopes on snowshoes, soon finding my way to the trails leading down through the woods. Before leaving the alpine level I looked back towards the summit. The skies around Pizol were clear and painted in those fleeting layers of red and magenta mystery that master landscape photographers can barely capture with any true integrity. I could have made a weather-safe ascent, but I also have time till they kick me out of the country, and ignoring the effects of global warming, mountain summits, unlike women, will always be there, and there is no reason to attempt the peak if things seem a bit hairy. It was dark and the forest, while not threatening – did evoke Blair Witch Project chills all along my spine. There was a full moon, and while it looked romantic enough, it was also covered in clouds and the crunchy fall leaves seemed to follow a bit too close to my heals. I spun around once or twice to see if a tree Nome was stalking me with a hatchet. Eventually I came to one of those covered bridges, the kind you see Ichabod Crane walking along before the headless horseman makes a move for his neck. At any moment I expected Johnny Depp to come at me from behind wielding a giant candy cane Scythe. An hour later I was down in the valley and on a train headed to Zurich. There was a Budweiser (the Czech kind) beside me and a chicken-avocado wrap between my teeth. I was reading Wicked, the book about the misunderstood Witch of the West. A little girl in the next train stuck her tongue out as her car passed by. Without hesitation I returned the salutation with my own out stretched collection of pink soft tissue and taste buds. She seemed astonished, and my inner child smiled.

Prayer Flags

Glacier Napping – Oberaletschhütte (un)Tour

Let’s recap, get all the facts in place – establish the sequence of events that lead up to me deciding not to do anymore multiday hiking this year.

Early Saturday AM: Bought a ticket to Blatten, the plan is to hike up the Oberaletsch Glacier to a hut (Oberaletschhütte) and the next morning climb the Fusshorn, a somewhat secluded, somewhat taxing alpine rock climb.

Mid Saturday AM: Got to Blatten and found there’s not much there, no cable car to Belalp and nothing makes sense according to the map. I double check the bus stop; Blatten, it says Blatten. For sure I’m in Blatten. By chance I look at my guide book and note that there are actually two small Swiss towns that are essentially in the exact same part of the country but are separated by a few rather giant mountains and glaciers and are both called Blatten. As you might guess, I bought a ticket to the wrong one.

Early Afternoon: Get back on the bus and take a train to the town of Brig. Wait for an hour to get to Blatten (the one I want).

Late Afternoon: At Blatten, catch the cable car to Belalp and start to hike. Now it’s 2000m and 4pm and ETH to the hut is about 4.5 hours. I have a headlamp and the correct map so I’m not worried. 20 minutes into the hike it starts to rain, not hard but enough to soak through the very breathable non-waterproof jacket I’m wearing.

Pre-Dusk Saturday PM: Get to the glacier, it’s not the traditional wind swept inclined flatness you might expect. This is a block glacier. A glacier that is essentially dying, the rocks that were encased in ice that was flowing down to the valley is mostly gone. The rocks remain and the ice and snow have formed a rushing river at the end of the mass.

By rocks I mean pebbles, small bits of the mountain carried by the rivers. I also mean sand and sentiment. Unfortunately I also mean fist sized rocks, body sized, up to mid-sized sedan size and a couple of Hummer H2 sized behemoths balanced here and there. In short, it’s great god-damed blessed maze of rocks and ice canyons. IF you know the way it’s easy. I have a headlamp, I’m not worried.

Late Dusk Saturday PM: It’s getting dark and the sky is covered in clouds, which means I can barely make out the land marks I’m headed for. I have a headlamp but with the cloud cover and light absorbing terrain I have a visibility of maybe 30 ft in front of my nose. To make things better, I hiked up the left side of the glacier, and when I tried to cross and head towards the hut I notice a rather steep ice wall drop off in front of my path.

Early Evening Saturday: Backtrack, try to descend into the middle of the glacier, somehow find my way through the rivers of ice where the water has carved out fantastic canyons, canyons with 30 ft walls that i need to find a way around because they were impossible to see in the dark.

10pm Saturday: I might be on a rock plateau, and if I keep going I might find the hut, but it might be another ice drop off over the horizon of my visibility. There’s no guarantee I’ll even find the hut if I’m in the general area of it and I haven’t seen a trail indicator in over two hours.

I say fuck it and call it quits.

The rains are done with and I put on all my warm dry clothes, new socks, eat an array of power bars and a curry for dinner, and lay down next to a compact car sized rock for the night. the good news is: those emergency space blankets really do work. The bad news is they don’t replace 0 deg mountaineering sleeping bags. I only have a small foam pad and my backpack to sleep on. I get maybe two hours sleep and spend the rest of the night shivering and trying to induce adrenaline rushes by imagining falling from a cliff. On the plus side the clouds clear now and again and I get to see the stars and mountains.

Early Sunday AM: I have a mad craving for a coffee and a chocolate croissant. I skip the climb and start hiking to keep the uncontrollable shivers at bay. I get off the maze of rocks and eventually to the Zurich direct train at Brig. I sit down with some pastries and a coffee and am content. I resolve to spend no more nights in the mountains (this year).

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. (Like that validates my stupidity)

Lazy Swiss Saturday

For one of those weekends when you don’t know what to do with yourself, here’s my suggestion:

1) Wake up at 5 am, let the alarm go until 5:15, think about it again, and then get out of bed.

2) Find your way to the main train station in Zurich and take the 6:12 train to Ziegelbrücke. Curse yourself for not getting to the station early enough to buy a coffee, then ask yourself why you had the idea to get up so early to go hiking in the first place. Praise the Gods when the guy with the food cart comes by on the train, get yourself a coffee and chocolate croissant. All will then be well in the world.

Switch trains at Ziegelbrücke and get off at Braunwald. Hike two hours towards the Eggstöcke, your goal is to do a Klettersteig (protected climbing route) to the summit.

Extra Credit: take the wrong path, look up and realize you’re quickly becoming lost, trail blaze up the side of the mountain and after crossing the scree (loose rockfall from the mountain) and basic class two unprotected climbing, get to the start of the Klettersteig.

3) Do the Vor Eggstöcke Klettersteig, pass all the slow people and take 10 minute breaks here and there for energy bar consumption. Finish the first Klettersteig and continue to the next, more difficult one. Extra Credit: Climb halfway up the second Klettersteig until your arms start shaking and your feet become unstable, debate about continuing, look down and imagine loosing your grip and falling 2 meters before the rope catches you. Climb down and have another energy bar. After watching two other sets of climbs do the climb you just retreated from get up off your lazy ass and climb it as well. Summit the peak and feel good for doing something that means nothing.

4) Follow the blue alpine ridge trail off the summit and start descending from the Eggstöcke. Extra Credit: loose the path and start down a section of half solid, half crap crumbling rock.

Bonus Points: Grab a big handhold in your right hand and watch helplessly as it breaks away from the mountain and gets deflected by your right knee and leg before free falling through the fresh alpine air and joining all its other friends on the slopes below.

Double Bonus Points: Remind yourself that you’re a dumbass and should have died in the mountains years ago, climb back up and find the trail. Descend along the alpine trail, at times balancing on a rock ridge with a width twice as wide as your boots. Look to your right and notice the multi-hundred meter straight-down-drop that ends in jagged rocks. Remind yourself that you’re a dumbass and climb down to your left so you don’t fall to your impending death.

4) Leave the ridge and descend through the field of giant boulders and smooth rock left by the last glacier. Imagine Kate is hiking next to you and singing the chorus line from the Sound of Music. Look across the boulder field to the snow dusted ridges of the Ortstock and think about climbing it instead of getting hiking back to Braunwald and catching the next the train. Remind yourself that you’re a dumbass and take the trail back to Braunwald.

5) Change into your Chaco sandals on the train and relax.

Extra Credit: Sit in the dining car and drink a beer while recounting the day in your Moleskin journal. Bonus Points: Have the bright idea of turning your Lazy Saturday into a blog entry. 6) Get back to your place, bake a fresh mozzarella pizza, reflect on the fact you went hiking for 9 hours. Go to bed. Double Bonus Points: Mess around with the digital camera Sunday night after cleaning your room.

Journals in Motion


Climbing Switzerland Alps Braunwald