The Rhine-forest peak (Rheinwaldhorn)
Summit day - Thursday, June 20
Peering out of the window of the hut at 2 a.m., things didn't look all that bad. I could see a few stars here and there. Periodically, the waning gibbous moon would show its face. But there were a lot of clouds about, and the air seemed heavy with moisture. It was time to get up, get geared up quickly, and attempt to get up and down the mountain before mid-day, when the worst of the weather was forecast to hit.
We had done a better job of carefully preparing our things the night before, and after a quick cold breakfast, we were ready to go - only one hour after getting up (in comparison to the 2.5 hours it took us to get ready on the morning of the summit climb of Oberalpstock). It was not at all cold as we set out under headlamp, following the stone cairns we had spotted the day before.
The day before, I had unfortunately accidentally dropped my paper topo map down at the lower Adula CAS hut, so I was unable to consult it as we climbed. I did have a topographic map and a climbing track programmed into my GPS, however, as well as a decent mental picture in my mind of what terrain we would be encountering. The first order of business was to make our way over to a long, well-defined lateral moraine - a ridge of glacial debris. We would follow this upwards until reaching a set of cliffs, where the trail would somehow zig-zag up to a higher bench. After that, presumably, we'd be on snow the rest of the way.
We found the moraine easily enough, and in the pre-dawn darkness we trudged upwards along its crest. Presently we saw a dark, black shape looming up ahead in the dim light. This was the cliff band I had mentioned earlier. In the poor light, it looked quite formidable, and I couldn't make out any path leading up it. Since we weren't all that far from dawn, we decided to wait a bit for the light to improve, rather than fumble around in the dark on steep and unfamiliar terrain.
We burned through about thirty to forty minutes waiting for things to brighten up. As it did, a diagonal line started to become visible on the cliff - possibly the way up. We decided to start moving again and scrambled up to get a closer look. Immediately it became clear that this was indeed the way - a grassy ramp complete with an obvious worn path in it. Surmounting this cliff wasn't so difficult after all.
At the top of the diagonal ramp, we emerged onto a higher terrace beneath a dark peak known as the Cima della Negra. Cairns marked the way partially along this gently rising terrace. Soon a continuous snowfield covered the ground, and the cairns ended. From here on we would be following an alpine route to the summit.
snowfields and Cima della Negra
At this point, the weather wasn't ideal, but neither was it a problem. There were a few small patches of lighter sky, but for the most part it was quite cloudy. There was no visibility up towards the summit - in that direction was solid cloud. On the plus side, it wasn't raining nor was it windy.
There were several sets of footprints leading up the snowfield we were following, giving us confirmation that we were headed in the right direction. The tracks were partially melted out, and appeared to be several days old.
After walking uphill for a while on the snowfield, we noticed something else: the snow wasn't all that bad. As in, we weren't sinking in as much as we had been while climbing Oberalpstock. On a grander scale, the snow was indeed still soft, perhaps too soft, but it was much better than the slop we had been climbing in on Oberalpstock. Good. There was also (so far, at least) no sign of any wet snow avalanching here.
The alpine route we were following basically described a large curve, following a high glaciated bench above the large basin draining the west side of the Rheinwaldhorn, rising as it went along until it eventually merged with the northwest ridge of the peak. At some point we technically crossed onto an area of actual glacier, but it was such a small apron section of glacier (therefore relatively inactive) and the snowpack was of sufficient thickness, that it seemed unnecessary to rope up. So, we didn't.
High up on the Rheinwaldhorn
We made steady progress up the gradual slope. By 6:30a.m. we had reached the 10,000-foot mark (3000 metres) - not bad, considering we only had to reach 3400m//11,150ft to get to the summit.
Unfortunately, the weather seemed to be in a hurry. Although we had seen a few patches of blue during the first hour on the snow, that had now been replaced by a thick cloud bank. The wind started to pick up. And worst of all, we started to hear rumblings in the far distance. Was the inclement weather forecast for the afternoon arriving early?
Soon, it began to rain. Thinly but steadily. It was quite cool out, probably low single digits celcius, and as we ascended further, the rain was mixed with sleet. We put every bit of our cold and rain-gear on, from rain-paints all the way up to a fleece balaclava. We weren't far from the summit, and we weren't quite ready to give up yet.
The clouds partially lifted for a bit, giving us a view up to the rocky north-west ridge, now only a few tens of metres above us. Ahead we could see a narrow bit of curved snow, and just beyond, the tip of a cross - the summit! According to my GPS, it was only about 600 horizontal metres away.
The rumblings of thunder approached in tandem with our approach to the summit. Not necessarily a good thing, to be in a thunderstorm high on a peak, but for now, the lightning seemed reasonably far from us. It seemed, in fact, that there were multiple small pockets of thunderstorm activity, gliding by some distance on either side of us. Hopefully, nothing would come directly over us.
The snow became a bit softer as we climbed above the 3200m mark - again not as bad as on Oberalpstock - but enough to slow our forward progress. We tried hard to keep up a good pace, knowing that the sooner we finished our summit and started down out of this worsening weather, the better.
Surveying the dramatic view
Finally, at 8 a.m., we reached an important psychological goal: the small pass that granted us access to the upper part of the Rheinwaldhorn's north face. We were close now!
A flash of light and a closer clap of thunder told us that wasn't all that was closer. We nervously surveyed the surrounding skies, dark and gloomy in spots, and lighter in others. Even though there seemed to be a storm close by, the majority of the clouds had lifted away, and we were treated to the best views so far on our climb. The combination of the dramatic weather and the rugged mountain scenery was, despite everything, quite beautiful.
A mere 150 meters of sloping snow separated us from the summit. The nearby storm, though, had other ideas. I was standing talking to the others when I noticed an odd buzzy sensation on one of my eyebrows. I briefly scratched at it before realizing that the sensation had coincided with a flash of light off to my right.
At that, we decided that the best course of action was to (a) not climb to the metal-cross-tipped highest point in the vicinity, and (b) lower our profile, and (c) stay put. So, we sat down in the snow and waited for our pesky little thunderstorm to pass us by. It was damp and cold and a little nerve-wracking to just sit out in the open at 11,000 feet in a thunderstorm. We chafed to get moving.
When it seemed that the local bit of storm had moved on, we decided to go for it - make a fast climb up to the top, tag it, then head back down as briskly as possible.
The soft snow and high altitude made it tough to move really fast, but move we did, and at 8:45 a.m., about twenty minutes later, we stepped onto the wet rocks of the summit, and took a few quick pictures next to the metal-framed summit cross.
Really, he shouldn't be pointing
As we arrived on the summit, clouds re-enveloped it. There was no incentive at all to stick around. A final nearby rumble of thunder sent us scampering back down the way we came.
Jenn and Brian on Rheinwaldhorn
As soon as the slope steepened enough to permit it, I got onto my keester and glissaded all the way back down to the little Adulajoch pass. Efficient and very fast!
With Jenn and Brian soon following behind, we picked ourselves up and headed back down onto the northwest face. That bit of thunder we encountered on the summit did indeed seem to be the parting shot of the storm, for we didn't hear any more thunder for quite some time. The rain had stopped, too, leaving us in a misty cloud.
Down below the Cima della Negra