Clariden Vorgipfel, 3191m – Climbed on Saturday the 21st of September 2019

It’s 3 in the morning. It’s Saturday. And I can feel something buzzing around my wrist: it’s my watch advising me it’s time to get up. Surprisingly I’m not feeling sleepy or like lingering in bed… I mean, it’s f***ing 3 IN THE MORNING!!! But I’ve been anticipating this moment for quite some time now. The day we would go on a glacier by ourselves, without a guide. We were just waiting for the right conditions. And I feel ready now, after our weekend in Chamonix, after re-reading the glacier travelling book and after practicing crevasse rescue in our living room numerous time, using the armchair as an anchor. So it’s 3 in the morning and I’m not feeling tired. I’m feeling excited. And ready.

I jump in the clothes I’ve neatly arranged the evening before on the living room couch. Standing in the kitchen, we eat a quick breakfast and we shoulder our backpacks, heavy with mountaineering gear. Half an hour after waking up, we are in the car, direction Klausenpass, a 1’948m high mountain pass, connecting the cantons of Uri and Glarus. It’s still pitch black when we arrive there around 5, but we are not the only party gearing up in the parking lot. Armed with gloves and headlamps, we start going up the mountain. Even though we’ve been here a few months before, on an “exploratory” hike, the dark makes it hard to follow the path and we end up bushwhacking for a few meters to get back on the trail.

Nevin at sunrise. © 2019, Justine Le Cam.

As we make our way up the mountain, the darkness slowly starts to give way to a timid glimmering light. After a tiny scramble, secured with a chain, we arrive on a rocky plateau. As I wander off trail with my camera, hoping to capture the first light of the day, I am stopped in my track by the view. I call Nevin. Hidden from the trails by some rocks, the view from where I stand is breathtaking: the first rays of sun are bathing a distant snowy massif in a pink-orange light. I’m soaking up the moment and I realize that this is it. Even if you don’t make it any farther. This is all worth it, worth the 3am alarm on a Saturday morning, worth the pain to try to find the trail in the dark and the cold. This exact magical moment. This is why you’re doing it.

Sunrise on the Urner Alps. © 2019, Justine Le Cam.
Sunrise in the Swiss Alps. © 2019, Justine Le Cam.

We snap a few pictures but don’t linger. We don’t want to reach the glacier too late. As soon as the sun is up, the snow will start to soften, making the snow bridges over crevasses weaker. Even if we practiced pulling each other out of a crevasse, we don’t want to contemplate that scenario too much. The rest of the ascent up to the glacier feels quite long. Not being used to carry much more than what is necessary for a day hike, we are slowed down by our heavy backpacks. Nevin is carrying a 50m rope and I have our climbing racks. On top of the usual water, snacks and extra layers; we are both carrying crampons, an ice axe and a helmet. For the last half an hour before reaching the glacier, I feel almost nauseous. I try to eat an energy bar, but I only manage to swallow half of it. I’m feeling anxious. On the way up, we’ve been catching some glimpses of the glacier, called the Iswändli (literally meaning “wall of ice”), and it looked rather icy and steep.

At sunrise. © 2019, Nevin McCallum.
Nevin gearing up for the glacier. © 2019, Justine Le Cam.

As soon as we reach the glacier, I start relaxing. The part we are actually going to climb is not that steep, nor does it look too icy. At the bottom of the glacier we start gearing up: first the harness, to which we clip all the necessary equipment for crevasse rescue, (and even more than necessary, but better to be prepared), then the crampons, and finally we rope up. A hiking pole in one hand, my ice axe in the other, I follow Nevin up the slope, keeping the necessary tension in the rope between the two of us. My calves are protesting because of the steepness of the slope but I don’t care. The weather is gorgeous. As we are traversing the glacier, the view off the back starts revealing itself. Icefields and rocky peaks as far as we can see. I’m suddenly experiencing an overwhelming feeling of joy. This is just where I want to be. It feels ten thousand miles away from the everyday concerns. Somehow this feels real. Outside, on the snow, warmed by the sun and surrounded by gorgeous peaks.

We reach the other side of the glacier and as we are back on a rocky ridge, we trade off crampons for helmets. It’s kind of late already and we give ourselves a turnaround time: 11am. Looking up at Clariden, which was our objective for the day, we quickly agree on the fact it’s too late to attempt that. Plus, it’s kind of crowded and I am anxious about climbing something exposed, secured by chains, surrounded by so many people. I’m afraid to feel like I need to rush and I’m not confident enough yet in my rock climbing skills and in my footing to feel comfortable rushing. To reach Clariden by the route we’ve taken, you first have to climb a secondary summit, 3’191m above sea level and we decide this will do for our first mountaineering attempt on our own. The way up is a steep loose scree slope and while scrambling up, I’m already anxious about the going down. We share this secondary summit with a few other parties. The sky is completely clear and we take in the jaw-dropping view. North of us we can see the pre-Alps, West the summits of Clariden and Tödi, and South-East a huge sea of ice, the Hüfifirn, surrounded by several peaks.

View from the Clariden Vorgipfel. © 2019, Justine Le Cam.

After taking a few summit pictures, we make our way back down the scree slope. Being lighter than Nevin, I’m going in front on the way down the glacier. I’m catching some glimpses of crevasses and I’m a tiny bit nervous when the slope is getting a bit steeper, but I’m really enjoying the experience and feel like I could stay on the glacier for hours. When we reached the bottom, the sun is high in the sky and we strip down for the last part of the descent. The rest is a hike down, but the tiredness starts to kick in and with the heavy backpacks it feels as long and tedious as the hike up. On the last kilometer down, my feet start to hurt whenever I make a step and I’m relieved when we finally reach the car. But there is nothing like this feeling of fatigue after a day in the mountains. It’s so rewarding. To celebrate our first mountaineering summit together, we treat ourselves to a dinner in our favorite pizzeria in Zürich, before collapsing in bed for an undisturbed sleep. No 3am alarm tomorrow.

More photos from that adventure

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