It was 4 o'clock in the morning. I was awakened by the sound of someone knocking on the stairs and calling out in German. Although I didn't understand much of what was said, the message was all too clear . . . time to get up. I was lying on an upper bunk in the unheated dormitory of a mountain hut called the Stralegghut, high in the Swiss Alps. The hut is named after the Stralegghorn, the mountain at whose base it sits, and which, in a short while, I was scheduled to begin climbing. I had looked forward to that climb all week. But in the chill of that still dark morning all I wanted to do was pull the covers around my head and go back to sleep.
The events leading up to my being there had begun several days before, when I'd enrolled in a one-week course at the Swiss Mountaineering School of Grindelwald. The school is typical of several that operate in Alpine villages and teach prospective mountaineers the basics of rock and ice climbing. At any of the schools, people of all ages with no prior experience can climb in safety under the guidance of skillful, multilingual instructors and discover the pleasures and thrills of this challenging sport.
The Grindelwald school was founded in 1972 by Rudi Kaufman, a veteran of more than 20 years of mountaineering experience, and a government licensed guide. The courses include instruction in such techniques as rapelling, rope handling, cutting ice steps, the use of crampons (metal cleats that attach to the boots for ice climbing), compass reading, and even rescue techniques.
As the name indicates, the school is located in Grindelwald, a picture-postcard village at the base of the imposing Eiger in the Bernese-Oberland range of the Alps --a popular destination for hikers, skiers and climbers, as well as for those who plan nothing more taxing than taking pleasant strolls through the village and enjoying the gorgeous scenery from tables at terrace cafes.
I had already missed the first full day of training when I met the other would-be climbers early on a Tuesday morning at the Gasthaus Marmorbruch, a small, rustic inn just outside ot town, where most of the others were staying. There were 11 of us in addition to Rudi and another guide. The youngest in the group were two Swiss sisters ages 16 and 17. The oldest, a 60-year-old policeman from Stuttgart, Germany. Of the 11, only three of us had had any prior climbing experience.
After introductions (most of the group spoke some Eng lish), we set off for the Upper Grindelwald Glacier, about two uphill hours away. It was a perfect morning for hiking -- blue skies, bright sun, but still comfortably cool. We passed through a forest, savoring the pinescented air, and soon found ourselves in a rock area above the treeline. The going was becoming more difficult. Several times we climbed wooden ladders anchored to the rock to make access to the glacier easier. Finally, we had our first glimpse of this massive river of ice, 700 feet deep and crisscrossed with dozens of crevasses (fissures in the ice).
We put on crampons and roped ourselves in three separate parties. Rudi warned us of the danger of the crevasses. He said no one should venture onto a glacier alone, and that those roped together should be far enough apart to allow time enough to react should someone break through new snow and disappear into one of these cracks. Once tied together, we made our way to an area that offered ideal conditions for practicing ice climbing techniques.
Rudi demonstrated something he called the throng point technique. Using kicking motions, he drove the two horizontal cleats on his cramponss into the sides of a not high, but quite steep ice wall. In this way he made his seemingly effortless way to the top. He then invited us to try. We did our best. But, I'm afraid our best was less than impressive. I thought my performance especially dismal. Rudi examined my crampons and pronounced them dull. Greatly relieved to hear it wasn't all my fault, I persevered and eventually made it to the top.
Soon it was time for lunch. A welcome chance to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery -- the awesome icy landscape, the towering mountains all around us, and, far below, the distant green valley dotted with chalets. After lunch we practiced rapelling, a way of descending a vertical wall by passing the rope under one thigh, across the body and over the opposite shoulder. By pressing your feet against the wall, you, in effect, walk down. A bit frightening at first. Once we got the knack of it, it was fun.
Then came a lesson in cutting steps in a steep wall of ice. I found it rather hard work and began to wonder if my ice pick was as dull as my crampons.
I think by this time we were all a little tired and welcomed Rudi's announcement that it was time to head back to the village.
The schedule for Wednesday called for rock climbing. The first couple of hours were devoted to practicing basic techniques on the lower rocks. Rather tame, I thought, and wished we'd go onto something a bit more exciting. I didn't have long to wait. Rudi led the way to a higher, more exposed section, pausing at the base of a very steep cliff that rose several hundred dizzy feet above us. Some of our hard won confidence began to fade as we watched him climb that wall with the ease the rest of us might have displayed going up a flight of stairs. When he reached a point a couple hundred feet above his gawking and somewhat apprehensive students, Rudi ran the middle section of his rope through a piton and tossed the ends down to us. Now it was our turn. One at a time we attached an end of the rope to the safety harness we each wore and, as another member of the class controlled the other end, keeping it fairly taut, we made our shaky way up to join Rudi on his lofty perch. Once there, we had to traverse a narrow ledge that ran across the face of the wall. At least we didn't have to negotiate this nerve tingling trip alone. Rudi accompanied each of us on this maneuver, murmuring words of encouragement each time we hesitated or faltered. Back on firm ground, we were all rather proud of ourselves, and anxious to put our newly gained knowledge to the test. This would come on Friday when we were scheduled to climb the 12,000 foot (plus) Stralegghorn.
On Thursday morning, we left for the Stralegghut where we would spend the nights before and after the climb. Once again, we couldn't have asked for a nicer day to make the seven-hour hike.Did I say hike? . . . At times it seemed more like an expedition. We crossed snow fields, edged around waterfalls, and negotiated our way up some very steep rock. So Steep that Rudi decided to rope the two young sisters to himself. Soon we were in the high mountains, and the view was, to say the least, dramatic. We had been hiking for a little under seven hours, and I had begun to doubt the existence of the Stralegghut. We were ascending a long snow field when it finally came into view. It didn't look like much, but it could not have been more welcome.
The Stralegghut is like most Swiss mountain huts. It offers food and shelter , but few of the amenities. There is no electricity. In the evening, the dining room is lit by gas lamps, while upstairs, in the sleeping quarters, it's strictly flashlights or candles. The bathroom is an outhouse. There is no running water in the hut. Outside, plenty of ice cold water pours from a pipe that runs from a snow field far above. The food, abundant and surprisingly good , was prepared by the young married couple who, with their baby, live in and manage the hut from June until September. All of their supplies are flown in by helicopter.
It has been a long and exhausting day. By 9 o'clock I was in bed, buried under a small mountain of blankets. It seemed only minutes later that the wake-up call came. I crawled out of my warm cocoon, put on climbing boots, staggered down the stairs, and stepped out into the cold.
After a quick breakfast of bread and jam, we were again putting on harnesses and roping up. It was just before 5 a.m. when we left the hut in two parties and began the ascent of a long, steep snow hill. It was quite cold and the snow was firm enough to require a bit of step cutting. I've always felt more secure on rock than on ice or snow, and felt a sense of relief when, in an hour and a half or so, we left the snow and encountered rock.
This was the best part of the climb for me. We moved up a ridgelike formation with big drops on both sides. It was exciting and a bit scary. We made good time and reached the summit about 8:30. We spent about an hour on top , enjoying the warmth of the sun, marveling at the breathtaking view, taking pictures and feeling more than a little pleased with ourselves.
Of course, getting to the top was only half the job. Now we had to get down. Rudi decided that we'd descend by a different route . . . One that would be mostly snow. At first, the going was relatively easy. The snow was still fairly firm. But, as the sun became hotter, the snow became softer. Soon, we were sinking up to our knees in the stuff. Within a short time I was sopping wet . . . my shoes, socks and pants from the snow; the rest of me from the perspiration that poured from my body. I was beginning to have some doubts about the pleasures of climbing.In this way we made our way down the mountain. Presently we saw the Stralegghut off in the distance. It looked like home.
We left the Stralegghut the next morning at six. We made excellent time and shortly after noon were back at the Marmorbruch.
Later that afternoon, much refreshed by a shower, a shave, and a change of clothes, I sat with Rudi at a terrace cafe on Grindelwald's main street. We sipped a cold drink and admired the view of the Eiger. The fatigue of the day before had been replaced by a feeling of satisfaction and well-being. It had been a good week.
Classes at the Swiss Mountaineering School of Grindelwald begin the second week of June and continue almost until the end of September.Last summer, the cost for a one-week course was 505 Swiss francs (approximately $258, at today's exchange rates). This price included room and meals at the Marmorbruch. For those who prefer to select their own hotel (there are dozens in all price ranges), the cost of instruction alone was 295 francs (about $132). You'll need a parka or windbreaker, warm sweater, gloves, hat, sunglasses, and a knapsack. A poncho is a good idea in case of rain. As for special equipment, you can rent climbing boots, crampons, and an ice pick in any of several sporting goods shops.
Language is no problem.Rudi and his instructors all speak English. The school can handle individuals, couples, or groups. For more information contact Rudi Kaufman, Swiss Mountaineering School, Rehhalten, 3318, Grindelwald, Switzerland. The Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020, or Swissair can also help you make arrangements.