Urner Haute Route - variante Tiger!
I have always admired those who feel content. Content in the context of plenitude and completeness with the right here & right now. We live ‘in aspiration’, longing for the next promotion, relationship, social media like, dinner party… you name it! For a long time, I mistakenly associated deliberate content with resigned acceptance. Until I came across certain characters and cultures which acknowledge the richness of the far & beyond as much as the beauty of the known. Remember, a mountain range is enough for a lifetime of exploration!
Recently, I learnt that light becomes visible only by reflection, making it virtually ever-changing and dependable upon... everything else! Isn’t it magical? Predictability becomes an elusive concept even for the ancient tree that has seen a thousand sunrises and as many sunsets. And so it goes for our home mountains, gifted with seasonal changes, erosion, human action, and the always ruling NATURE.
No two days are the same in the outdoors. No two summits leave the same footprint in our memories and hearts. Today, I am writing about the concatenation of several summits over consecutive days – what we call a traverse. Traverses are, in my opinion, the purest expression of self-sufficient traveling. Whatever fits in your pack… as long as you can carry it! When alone, traverses might involve a great deal of commitment; shared with a partner or group, the ups & downs of the journey surely create a sense of long-lasting intimate camaraderie.
URNER HAUTE ROUTE – nothing exotic for someone like me based in the central swiss alps (Zentral Schweiz. A logic line between Andermatt and Engelberg over some snowed high hills 😊A ski traverse typically covered in 5-6 days of adventure, altitude, and raw beauty. This area of the central alps of Switzerland has been my backyard for the last decade. I have put my feet on most of these summits, walked and skied these valleys on my own and with friends… and still, approaching it as a traverse changes everything. Even more since I feel the responsibility of ‘showing around my paradise’ to Jorge, who is discovering the region with the avid and curious eyes of an enthusiastic child.
Speaking of being the same human, and yet entirely a different person… the packing approach has changed radically for me since I started managing my type 1 diabetes with a very low carb nutrition. There is not a single item in my pack without (at least!) a purpose. I typically divide the packing into 3 ‘chapters’: mountain gear, diabetes supplies, and food.
When it comes to mountain gear I stick to the essentials, considering cold temps are my friend and heat the enemy! During a multi-day traverse I find tit important to pack 1-2 ‘luxury’ items. In my case: a pair of socks and a headband to be used as a pillow case (multi-purpose, remember!). If you want to remain light, you should look at the pack as a whole; otherwise it is easy to keep on adding stuff because ‘it is just a couple of grams’. We make the final decision not to bring a rope.
Unlike last season, this time I pack pretty much just savory food (except for some 85% dark chocolate and porridge). Carrying cake is a waste of weight, I say to myself. Instead, I stock up on liver spread, salmon, dry meat and cheese. I also made a veggies omelette in advance planning to consume it for dinner & breakfast the first day. At the time of making the hut reservations, I asked them to skip the half board – which is standard at mountain huts. I can’t rely on them going the extra mile when most of the supplies arrives with a heli & they have +50 hungry tummies to feed every evening.
It is of course a pleasant surprise when suddenly I get to enjoy a warm meal. When would that happen? Either when my BG has been consistently low throughout the day; when the hut guardian offers to cook a lowcarb meal for me; or when the ‘normal’ meal happens to be sauce free and I manage to get hold of the meat part of the dish. Again, I don’t count on any of those and take it as a happy coincidence when it happens. To be clear, I have absolutely nothing against eating carbs during long mountain days for those with an insulin-producing hand. Me on the other hand…. Bring on the cheese & nuts!!!
Diabetes supplies don’t change much from trip to trip. It mostly comes down to one question: glucagon, yes or no? Since the long-standing recommendation to keep it cooled (like with insulin) has recently been lifted, I decide bringing it along makes sense. Another reason is that Jorge is around and it would take him no time to use it on me should the scary moment come… anyway, it is a precaution more than a plausible scenario. Lately I’ve started using sirynges to pull out insulin from vials – as per Dr. Bernstein’s recommendations. I really like this approach from an insulin delivery perspective, and it is less painful too! Now I discover another advantage: R insulin pen (the heavy echo pen from Novo Nordisk) can stay home; I’ll travel lighter just with the vial.
Unfortunately, I forgot home the short-acting T3 hormone but realize too late. Anxiety took over during the train journey to the start of the traverse. Typeonegrit community to the rescue! Within minutes, I receive reassuring replies from the sweet typeonegritters – what a relief!
DAY 0.5: REALP TO ALBERTHEIMHÜTTE
The trip before the trip had started the evening before as Jorge arrive in Zürich after a working shift at the hospital, a drive to Barcelona airport, followed by our ‘regular’ 8pm SWISS flight. We loaded up on protein during our train ride to Goldau. It was a +100g protein dinner with a P:E ratio over the charts – betting Ted Naiman would be proud of us
We start our ‘approach day’ from Realp after a 1.5h train ride. It’s late and we hope to make it to dinner just on time… or almost! The uphill to Albertheimhütte is like a swiss highway, almost always perfectly tracked. My mood is a bit off… the snow is scarce and really wet, my BG keeps crashing, and the worries about the forgotten T3 hormones have not yet faded away. It has been a stressful day; in fact, it has been a super stressful month at work and I feel it in the body and mind.
To unwind a bit, I listen to the audiobook ‘Mistakes where made, but not by me’. It’s about deception. Not the lightest topic but extremely interesting. After almost 2h we see the flickering lights of the hut still 200m above our heads. We can almost smell the dinner… mine for sure: it is in the backpack!
We arrive at Albertheimhütte quite wet. When did that happen? We were so focused on sticking to the most direct route that we hadn’t even noticed the light rain. Our thoughts are with our friend Christoph, who starts climbing up towards the hut as we enter the warm and cozy dining room. He does the uphill in full darkness. We welcome him with a big hug and a soft bed a couple of hours later. Now we are complete to rock the Urner Haute Route!
DAY 1: ALBERTHEIMHÜTTE – LOCHBERG – BERSEEHÜTTE – VORALPHÜTTE
The spirits are high at breakfast. Despite the sadness of seeing the mountains around us quite bare for this junction of the season, we are grateful about the very low avalanche risk and clear skies forecasted for the coming days. Full winter conditions are behind us – powder days too – now it is time for the big mountains; in these big mountains epic descents become secondary, while individual & group safety prevail.
We are the last party leaving the hut – as usual! Trained bodies can replace early wakeups… sometimes! We are heading to the first summit of our traverse: Lochberg. Going up on its south face, we still hold a small hope that the snow will be somewhat better preserved on the north face we will be skiing down. Wrong. It doesn’t always look pretty, but we still make our way down to the Göschneralpsee.
The water dam literally splits the day in two halves. We transition from downhill to uphill mode in the last corner of shade. The blistering sun awaits. It is barely midday, but the heat is quite unforgiving. There is some risk of wet avalanches below 2400m on south facing slopes. It is in these moments when the group dilutes into individual introspection. Not much talking, put the head down and move one foot after the other. Just get it done.
By the time we reach the top of the couloir, we are convinced the day is almost over; just a matter of skiing down to the hut. In reality, we end up putting the skins on twice! Christoph is under constant pain from his knee. He is a great skier but can barely make two turns without stopping. After a bit over 7h in motion, we reach a super busy Voralphütte. All guests had already arrived and were enjoying the sunshine in the terrace.
My glucose had been the image of perfection all day long. There won’t be a warm dinner for me tonight so I decide to go for a rösti (potatoes, cheese, bacon, egg) the moment we arrive at the hut. Why? I had been trending low for a while. I am hungry. There are many hours before bed to control ‘the potato spike’. Any other type one would get away with 30-40g carbs after such a long day… not me! I know it and act in consequence. Fiasp to cover the carbs + regular insulin for the protein. Some hours later, at the dinner table, I enjoy a portion of 130g smoked salmon.
DAY 2: VORALPHÜTTE – SUSTENHORN – GWÄCHTENHORN - STEINGLETSCHER
It is again a lonely breakfast for us. Everyone is heading to Sustehorn today, the highest peak of the region. A relatively easy ascent with gorgeous weather makes it quite inviting to the masses. We are happy to ascent last and meet the crowd almost at the top.
We hoped till the very last moment for Christoph’s knee to get better. When reality sinks in, common sense tells us what to do. With a heavy heart, we say goodbye to him as he skies down to the valley. That knee needs treatment and recovery time!
Jorge and I leave the hut towards the Chelenalplücke. About 1000m of easy and direct ascent. I soon change to t-shirt and sunscreen. Overcoming the lücke means entering the sustengletscher. Distances become further and slopes less inclined.
The last third of the ascent reminds us of Aneto – the highest peak of the Pyreenes. As predicted, the top is crowded like a Sunday ‘romeria’. The snow is really hard and my skis haven’t been serviced in a long time… the downhill to the next transition is far from enjoyable. Up to the first summit, my blood glucose was a flat line around 83 mg/dL. As many other times before, it starts creeping up with the downhill. I inject a correction when we reach the flat.
The moment of truth: shall we or shall we not go for a second summit? Arguments in favor: ‘it’s nearby’ ‘we are already here’ ‘wow it is the same height as Aneto 3404m!’. OK let’s do it. Should one of us show the slightest doubt, skiing down is the easy (and lazy) choice. I am easily influenced by the mood of my ski partners. Luckily, Jorge is fully motivated today.
The view from the top of Gwächtenhorn are simply breathtaking!! A balcony into the Berneroberland and the +4000m peaks. We don’t regret for a second the extra effort required to reach our second summit. We are a bit unsure about the ideal ski route. From above, the glacier looks much less snowed in than other years… indeed exiting the bergschrund (rimaya) requires better skiing skills than in the past.
The uncertainty was big since there was a big ice fall a couple of years ago and the normal route got ‘damaged’. The cleaning work has improved the conditions and we can again exit the glacier through the winter route. Soon we find ourselves drying our gear at the Steingletscher alpine center. In the name of luxury, I had booked a double room with bathroom – crazy!
I had underestimated the vividness of emotions of a theoretically distant past. That sense of accomplishment as Corinne & I reached the top of Sustenhorn for the first time was omnipresent as Jorge and I climbed the last 200m a decade later. Same mountain, same person, so diverging memories. Now, I add to my personal collection of memories this day 3 of our Urner Haute Route when, after a late breakfast at the Voralphuette, we executed our masterplan by the book.
Need another reason to learn the language of the locals? It brings healthy food on your plate! After some explaining and negotiating, the charming and accommodating hotel owner offers to grill a pork steak for me. Side dish of broccoli and bouillon as a starter. I definitely skip the dessert!
DAY 3: STEINGLETSCHER – FÜNFFINGERSTOCK – GRASSENJOCH – ENGELBERG
This time, we are the early birds! That’s what happens when one has to catch a plane in the afternoon… not me; Jorge! We continue our traverse northwards. Today we plan to reach Engelberg.
The first 200m of the ascent are so technical (no ski crampons because we’re cool lol) on the icy snow that we are awake within minutes. By the time we cross the pass road, I decide to inject 1u fiasp correction. That was a miscalculation at my end or perhaps it went into a vein. Long story short, soon I feel like gravity is fading away… shortness of breadth, sweating, shaking… the full hypo menu! Eventually a mix of table sugar, dextrose and dry apricots come to the rescue. Despite the low, we reach the summit of Fünffingerstock quite fast.
We are happy to finally hit the sun and excited about the first downhill of the day. Since it is an east face, exposed to the march morning sun, the snow was starting to transform. All things considered, this 600m downhill might have been the best one of our traverse.
We were having so much fun that we mistakenly skipped the transition point and keep skiing down – ooooops. Luckily we are in Switzerland. A quick look at the map shows an alternative way to reach the Grassen joch. Last uphill of our traverse!!
Exactly 4 weeks before we had climbed Grassen from Engelberg. A perfect 1900m vertical north face sought after by powder addicts just like us. Today, the same line is anything but powdery and fun. With extreme caution but confidence in our skills, we ski it down. I don’t want to check the bus connections since putting time pressure on us would be reckless. Quite efficiently, we reach the remaining patches of snows at the cross-country skiing slope. Wait… there is a bus in 3 minutes!!! The end of our traverse isn’t short of adrenaline. Surprised?
We not only catch the bus, but also enjoy a 40 minute lunch break in sunny Engelberg. I won’t lie. It was a celebration party with cake and flammkuchen. No blame, just bolus and let the glucose-depleted muscles soak up the indulgence.