Dan Slater embarks on a majestically scenic Swiss Alps adventure, but one replete with muscle-screaming, rock grasping challenges.
It seems silly now, looking at this photograph, two hands weren't on the rungs. Credit: Dan Slater
I’m fortunate to be in the Engelberg region, a beautiful part of the country just south of German-speaking Luzern. The town of Engelberg sits at the head of a long, straight valley, surrounded on all sides by intimidating peaks of limestone and granite, the tallest and most famous of which is Mt Titlis ( 3,238 ). It’s a classic chunk of postcard mountain paradise with numerous crags providing epic opportunities for the seasoned rock climber. Sadly, with climbing skills which could politely be described as ‘fatal’, I am not in a position to take advantage of the many sweet routes. Or am I?
Luckily for me there exists an activity aimed specifically at enthusiastic-but-talentless climbers like myself – the via ferrata. Translating directly as ‘iron way’ from the Italian and called ‘Klettersteig’ or ‘climbing path’ in German, the phrase refers to a climbing route protected by a fixed cable and aided by various hand- and footholds, generally iron bars, cemented into the rock. The idea of fixed scrambling routes is centuries old but the first modern via ferrata were constructed during the First World War for Italian and Austrian troops to engage in running battles across the Dolomites. More recently the idea has been adapted for extreme hikers and brave tourists to scale routes that would otherwise be well beyond their abilities.
Oh, the air up there. Jelly legs gingerly straddle the three-cable bridge at Eggishorn. Credit: Dan Slater
Which brings us back to me, and the K4 Klettersteig up the west face of the Brunnistöckli. Via ferrata are graded in difficulty from 1 to 6, with 4 representing a ‘difficult’ route. According to the English translation of www.klettersteig.de, I should expect ‘often only small steps and grip possibilities’, ‘rather seldom iron hangs’ and I will require ‘not inconsiderable arm strength’!
A steep ascent via cable car and chairlift brings us to a timber chalet-cum-restaurant nestling in the shadow of a couple of stately peaks. In winter Brunni is an excellent skiing and tobogganing area and the current snow conditions tempt us to descend that way too, but first we must conquer Zittergrat. I say ‘we’ because I am not foolish enough to attempt this on my own; I have engaged the services of a local guide, Dani Perret of Engelberg Mountain Guides. Having grown up in the area and literally written the book on cool adrenaline activities around Engelberg, Dani has aeons of experience which he imparts in a relaxed and easy manner. I’m in safe hands.
After a short approach we stand at the foot of a pretty-much vertical cliff, eyeing a line of staples that runs upwards and out of sight. Well, to be fair they are actually iron rungs embedded securely (I hope) into the granite, but they do resemble improperly-fixed staples that might pull out under the slightest pressure. Nevertheless, Dani begins ascending the rungs like a regular ladder and there’s no option but to follow.
Iron stairway on Klettersteig. Credit: Dan Slater
Way over on the other side of the Engelberg Valley, again accessible only via cable car and chairlift, is a beautiful hidden nook comprising a picturesque lake and the Berghaus Jochpass - a mountain hut fancier than most Australian 4-star hotels. The 2222m station is the start point for the Graustock Klettersteig, a grade K4-K5 affair. Either it is normal for newcomers to skip straight to the penultimate grade on their second day or Dani has seriously misjudged my ability. K5 is described as ‘very difficult’ with ‘partly overhanging attachment’ and ‘large use of armour necessary’! Having left my cuirass and hauberk at home, I feel severely underdressed.
The first part of the route is pleasantly sedate, walking and scrambling along the edge of a sharp ridge which leads northwest to Huetstock, but the magnificent views north to the town and the peaks beyond are obscured by heavy cloud.
Cloud swirls dramatically around us as we ascend, the weather deteriorating by the second. Visibility is limited to the sheer rock before my eyes and the metal is slippery with forming ice. My arms start to tire quickly, no doubt improperly recovered from yesterday’s overuse, and too soon we reach the ‘partly overhanging attachment’. The strain of reaching for oblique holds, plus the balance complications on the overhang, result in too heavy a reliance on my arms, whose overworked muscles burn with lactic acid. Snowflakes are swirling out of the cloud; I can feel them hardening to hail and pinging off my helmet. I probably should have warmed up a bit, but it’s too late now - I’m pumped. My grip is weakening, my right leg is doing a passable impression of a Singer sewing machine and I resort to threading my arm through a rung and hanging off it like a human carabiner (and not even a locking one, just a measly snap gate).
Luckily help is close at hand in the form of Dani, who puts me on belay so I can rest my aching limbs. It just goes to show how quickly one’s arms can turn kamikaze without the appropriate training. After sufficient rest, the remainder of the route is still bloody hard but not quite suicidal. I don’t remember too many of the details – only the cold, hard iron beneath my fingers and my utter relief at reaching the wind-blown summit of Graustock.
How good are bridges? Credit: Dan Slater
It’s a week later, the storm has passed and Dani has been replaced by fellow hiker Vjeran, an impulsive forty-something Croatian with the enthusiasm and safety-consciousness of a 12-year-old. Suddenly, I am the responsible partner in this dynamic, old pro that I am.
We’re in a region called the Aletsch Arena, still in Central Switzerland but a few valleys further south, and the weather couldn’t be more removed from the grim flurries of Engelberg. Today is an absolute stunner, treating us to a panorama of summits brushing the sky in every direction, including the legendary peaks of the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn. Having just completed hiking the Bettmeralp-Eggishorn traverse we’ve chosen a short via ferrata to fill in the remainder of the afternoon. It’s only a K3, if that, but it does have a couple of exciting features and keeping Vjeran out of trouble should make things interesting.
Initially, the route tiptoes around the steep flank of the Eggishorn before turning skyward via the usual peg and rung arrangements, above which we are greeted by a new and exciting via ferrata feature – the three-cable bridge. Most ferrata bridges are built in a particular style, let’s call it: ‘flimsy aluminium ladders strung across a chasm with cheese wire handrails’. In this delightful design, one has to place one’s foot gingerly across the rungs, hands gripping the cable either side with the strength of a baby koala, and make one’s way across without setting the bridge swaying too ominously. Besides feeling like a laden Sherpa traversing the crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall, the slightest gust of wind puts me in mind of the famous collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. After mild winds set up a resonant frequency on the world’s then third-longest suspension bridge, ever-increasing oscillations led to the structure’s spectacular destruction. It’s probably not the best image to be picturing during a crossing.
Mate, did you remember to turn the gas off? Credit: Dan Slater
The three-cable bridge though is even more perilous. The Bunnings cast-offs are replaced with a single cable which is connected to the handrails every five metres or so to form a V. It’s a tightrope with banisters, basically, and looking along it turns my legs to jelly. Stepping out into thin air, I creep forward at the speed of treacle. At the first ‘V’ I need to unclip and re-clip past the bolt but I can’t take my eyes off my feet, and I nearly break my retinas trying to look in three directions at once. I didn’t sign up for a high wire circus act!
I take a moment to breathe, restoring my balance and concentration, before calmly moving past the obstacle, my bodyweight bending the cable downwards, distending the bridge like a rubber band. I baby-step further and further out, silhouetted dark against the cornflower blue sky, the whole of the Swiss Alps spread out below me. Every valley, every peak, every step I’ve taken in the last two weeks, on solid ground or precarious iron bar, I can see them all. Only now do I remember the more mainstream definition of the climber’s borrowed word, i.e. ‘filled with energetic excitement and enthusiasm’. I’m walking on air; I’m growing wings; I’m pumped!
Flights from Australia to Zurich are subject to stops. From here, catch a train to Lucerne on a Swiss Travel Pass for discounts on mountain rail and cableways (www.myswitzerland.com/rail).
For more information on travelling to Central Switzerland visit www.myswitzerland.com.
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