Climbing Sustenhorn

The plan for this trip was to practice glacier crossing techniques, a skill many of us badly needed to work on. Our group met in Basel, Switzerland and we quickly made our way to the town of Meiringen to collect supplies for the trip. Less than an hour later, we were hiking into the Alps. Our destination for the day was the Tierbergli hut, perched precariously on the boundary between glaciers and steep cliffs.  

In our group’s typical manner, we ran late. Nonsense with the rental cars and time wasting in the super markets led us to begin our ascent quite late in the afternoon. We made it to the hut whilst everyone else was eating dinner and dealt with some rather surly hut keepers. We had planned on waking up early to make an attempt on the summit of Sustenhorn, a stunning ice covered peak. When we awoke, it was obvious that this just was not going to happen. Snow was dumping down from the heavens and to say that visibility was poor would have been lying. It was pretty much non-existent. Considering the conditions, there was no point in trying to make it to the top of Sustenhorn, so we spent the day practicing glacier climbing techniques and rescue skills.

One would expect the highlight of such a day being an event associated with snow, ice, or anything outdoor related. Sadly not. During the evening the non-cooperative, non-friendly, and non-English speaking staff served up some soup that looked for all the world to be made from a mix of corn and celery. Four spoonfuls in and it was clear that the corn was in fact white beans. For anybody else, this would have been a “oh, how funny, these things are beans and not corn”. For me, a lucky bean allergy sufferer, the reaction was, shall we say, more significant. 

Fortunately some quick thinking and rapid drug treatment managed to stave off what would have been a trip ending catastrophe. Rather remarkably, the Sustenhorn hut staff, who had been informed of group allergies, shrugged their shoulders over the incident. I swear they were out to kill me.

The following day conditions improved dramatically. The sun was shining in a bright blue sky with just a few scattered clouds. We gathered our equipment and prepared to make our ascent. The route that we followed crossed a number of crevasses. As the snow was thick, there was no way to know where these were and we roped up. 

There were eleven of us total and we roped into two groups of four and one group of three. Throughout the trek, we stayed far apart so that if one person fell into a crevasse, there would be little chance of a second person joining them for the ride.

We made good time ascending from the hut towards the summit, but were delayed by some character building experiences. Just before the shoulder of the final summit, Jens, our faithful group leader started sinking up to his knees in very deep snow. I thought nothing of it initially, but then my partner Thalia, who was tethered right in front of me started to sink quite deep as well. As I approached the area where the two of them had sunk, I stepped gingerly to avoid the same situation. It didn’t matter. Within second I was up to my thigh in the snow.

At this stage, it had still not dawned on me that this was anything more than merely deep snow that had strangely accumulated in the area. Then, while I was trying to pull myself out of the deep pocket that I found myself in, I glanced over at one of Thalia’s deep sunken footfalls nearby. To my shock, the bottom of the footfall was not white or light blue as one would expect in snow, it was a black void of nothingness. 

Terror poured down my spine as I realised that I too was now in the midst of snow bridge over an open chasm. I gently rotated my foot to see if I met any resistance in the snow below me, and to my horror, I realised that my foot had entirely broken through the bridge. I called out to Jens and asked if this was a crevasse, and Jens, in his eternally calm demeanor, responded “Yes Matt, it is a crevasse, I’m thinking we should find an alternate route” I heartily agreed, distributed my weight as best I could, and crawled my way to safety.

After the crevasse incident, the weather started to close in on us. Blue skies were quickly replaced with grey. Snow started to fall, and worst of all, the wind started to blow. The final segment of the climb was brutal. The air was thin and the gradient was steep. Trying to keep the same swift pace left my legs on fire, but we made it. 

Lunch at the top was simple and quick. Temperatures were low and the weather was becoming more threatening. We swiftly made our way back to the hut, collected the rest of our gear, and hiked down into the valley below. We enjoyed a simple dinner together at a hut in the valley, sipped our tea by a fiery stove, and went to our bunks for the night.

In the morning we travelled to Interlaken and went our separate ways, with some catching flights home and other continuing on for a bit more hiking before catching flights of their own later in the day.