Sunday, March 15, 2015

Aletsch Glacier Trek

I previously assumed that we would need to go to Argentina or to Norway for glacier trekking, but it turns out we can try it basically in our own backyard. Aletsch Glacier, the Alp's longest glacier is located in Bernese Oberland, Switzerland - a few hours train ride away from Zurich. The glacier starts at the Jungfrau (above Lauterbrunnen Valley) and heads southward for 23 kilometers. At its thickest point it allegedly 1 km deep. It is also a popular spot for a one or two day guided trek.
The Aletsch Glacier is actually composed of three smaller glaciers converging at Concordia.

I had been eying this summer time activity for a while but conditions had to be just right in order for a guiding company to organize a tour - no summer lightning storms (which had happened a lot this summer) and ideally a clear sky. After watching the forecast with my fingers crossed for a couple weeks, an opportunity finally came up. We signed up to join a weekend group tour with Swiss Alpine Guides. The package cost included everything expect transportation, lunch, snacks, and drinks at the hut.

Before setting out - Acclimatize

We arrived Friday morning in Lauterbrunnen Valley to help acclimatize to the altitude. The glacier trek begins at an elevation of 3,454 meters or 11,332 feet, so it's best to start getting used to the thin air before the trek. Instead of hiking the day before the trek, we spent our day we just worked and studied at high altitude. Friday night we stayed in Grindelwaldblick Hut to further help with the altitude (at 2116 meters or 6,940 feet). Because it was located one train stop away from the Jungfrau (where we would be meeting our guide and group bright and early Saturday morning), we could sleep in a little later.
Looking back at Lauterbrunnen Valley as we make our way by train up to  Kleine Scheidegg.
Able to keep working online at Grindelwaldblick Hut.
Dinner is not included at Grindelwaldblick Hut, but its restaurant has a filling menu selection.
The view of Grindelwald from the just outside the hut.


Meeting our group

We met our group around 10 in the morning at the Jungfraujoch Observatory. We had been there before in 2013 so we didn't leave much time walk around before meet our group. If it's you're first time there, leave yourself over an hour to explore the building.

We arrived early and some time chat with our guide, He was older guy raised in the nearby city of Interlaken -  I love having experienced local guides because of their knowledge of the terrain. He turned out to be quite a character. He had a ton of energy and looked like a 80's rock-star. We were joined by two German guys who were living in Switzerland and a young couple - a Swiss woman and her boyfriend from Mexico. Within a short time of meeting, we were out on the snow, setting up our gear, given a quick run down of how to walk as a group, tied up together (so kinky) and on our way.
Our guide pointing out the route we'll be taking down.
And this is the reason we're roped together.
Our two day route


The Glacier

Our trek started out looking similar to what we would see on a typical ski tour - lots of fresh untouched powder. Since it had been snowing, we could only see powder and not the glacier ice underneath. As we descended south, things slowly started to look more unique as the crevasses got larger and the ice showed through.
Looks similar to a ski tour, except for those long crevasses up ahead.
Snow is thinning out and we can actually see the ice of the glacier.
This sweet little stream....
....grows into this....
And becomes a waterfall into the glacier, with no visible bottom. Gulp.
Air bubble trapped in layers of the glacier.
Crystal blue glacier ice beneath the dirt and pebbles.


Konkordia Hut

From the glacier, we ascended a grueling staircase up to Konkordia Hut where we would be staying for the night. As much as those stairs sucked climbing up, it was well worth it for the view. This was the first gorgeous weekend it weeks, so the Hut was fully booked with 150 people. Our group was assigned the Winter Hut just below the main building to sleep in. This building wasn't heated but at least we were far from the crowds of potential snorers.

After a bit of scrambling over boulders, we were faced with this seemingly never ending staircase.
Konkordia Hut's terrace and drying area.
From the front step of the winter hut.
I'm not a cat person but this one wants to convert me.
Full view from the Konkordia Winter Hut

We spent the rest of our day relaxing, enjoying snacks and drinks on the deck while soaking up the sun, going over the next day's itinerary and even spotted a Steinbock (an alpine goat, or ibex). As with most Swiss mountain huts, a set dinner and dessert was served in the dinning hall. And as always, it was very satisfying.

For better or worse, the guides agreed that our group would be one of the first ones to depart in the morning. Upon receiving the news of a 5am breakfast, we didn't spend much time socializing before hitting the hay.
Getting the rundown for tomorrow's route.
Our first wild steinbock sighting just behind the hut.
Assigned a table in a cozy corner. Felt more like a restaurant than a hut dinning hall. 


Back on the Glacier

After packing our bags and eating a light breakfast, we headed down a narrow rock path fit for a mountain goat - at moonlight no less. And to make things even more fun, we were tied up together.
Once on the glacier, we were required to wear our crampons for the remainder of the time. The crampons cause us to walk a little slower but considering the depths of some of the glacier waterfalls and crevasses that we were walking along, you'd want to be wearing crampons.
Finished breakfast and getting ready for the rocky path down.
Our guide wanted us to concentrate on our steps, so he did not allow us to take photos on the steep rocky path.
By the time we got down to the glacier, the sun was just rising over the mountains.
Our guide dropped a small boulder down this hole. Probably 7 seconds later we heard a huge boom when it hit bottom.
Damn that's deep.
Boulders have been slowly moving along with the glacier river.
Some of them are nearly falling in the crevasses.
We are starting to cross some serious crevasses.
This is what we came to see.
A maze of seemingly impassable crevasses. And that's why we have a guide.


Glacier Trekking, Minus the Glacier

We did not plan to complete the entire glacier - there's a longer tour for that one. After covering approximately three quarters of the glacier's length, we stepped off the ice and hiked the rest of the way along a trail back to town.
One can't tell from this perspective, but that wall of ice behind us was roughly 30 feet tall.
Making our way back to town.
I wonder how long ago this area was covered by the glacier.
Sometimes you are unlucky in the Alps.
View looking back at the smaller arm of the main glacier: the Fiescher Glacier

Overall the trek was not seriously physically challenging (no special skill or previous experience necessary) but it required a little bit of stamina because it covered two 5 - 6 hour of trekking per day. We did a good amount of walking (especially on the second day in crampons) and my legs were happy to reach our finish point of the mountain tram.

Check out our friend, Jose's (AKA Pepperazzi) post on our Aletsch Glacier weekend. He included a lot of great photos with a very cool layout.

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