Two Weeks In Mecca: climbing ice in Switzerland

The sign held by the tall, fit-looking man at the airport in Krakow read “Jimmy, Kandersteg.” I figured there couldn’t be too many other people milling around the small terminal who fit that description, so I walked up to him and extended my hand.

“Hey, you must be a friend of Krzysztof’s!” I said. “How’s it going?”

He shook my hand slowly. “You are Jimmy?” he asked, his words precise but shaded by a thick Polish accent.

I nodded my assent.

He studied me for a second, and then uttered a single word: “Come.”

“Not the most talkative of guys,” I thought as I shouldered my heavy duffle and followed him out to the car. I didn’t know it then, but this stoic individual would be my climbing partner for most of the next two weeks and, by the end of the trip, a good friend.

Krzysztof (Kris) and Jan (pronounced “Yon”) drove me back to Kris’s place in Krakow for a quick shower while they worked to pack the rest of the gear into the Rav4. With Kris and Magdalena in the front seat and Jan and I sharing the backseat with a pile of ropes and packs, we set off on the fourteen hour drive to Kandersteg.

Food and gear for four, packed and ready to roll.

Food and gear for four, packed and ready to roll.

The trip went without incident, although my ass was less than appreciative of stacking a long drive on top of an international flight. The personalities in our group quickly became evident as we made our way through Germany on the way to Switzerland; Jan and Kris were the serious, quiet ones who didn’t mind silence or peace…and Magdalena and I were the fourteen year old boys with no filter or sense of maturity.

Don't fuck with Polish gangsters.

Don’t fuck with Polish gangsters.

We arrived in Kandersteg at about 0200 on Sunday, too tired to do anything except unload the gear and food from the car and dump it in the foyer of our little apartment. Kris and Magdalena took one bedroom, and Jan and I claimed the other. After a few hours of sleep, I woke up to Kris yelling, “Wake up, you perverts!” and I stumbled outside, coffee in hand, for my first view of our surroundings.

The view from the front door of our ground floor apartment.

The view from the front door of our ground floor apartment.

We enjoyed a relaxing morning, eating breakfast and drinking tea and coffee as we unpacked and settled in to our home away from home. Just before noon, we left the apartment to warm up on Rattenpissoir (WI5). It’s a four-pitch route, but only the first two pitches are steep. Jan was kind enough to let me lead the first, second, and fourth pitches, and we quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm as we climbed together.

The three ugly members of our team below Rattenpissoir, WI5.

The three ugly members of our team below Rattenpissoir, WI5.

The next two weeks honestly passed in a blur. Certain moments stand out: avoiding being hit by an avalanche on Black Nova by two minutes because I needed a rest before the next pitch. The team rallying around me and supporting me when I was drunk and sobbing over the death of a friend who passed away years earlier. Leading the hardest, scariest ice pitch of my life on Rubezahl (or as I call it, Ruby-Booby) because I forgot where the belay was supposed to be and ventured onto shitty, overhanging ice. Having more fun than I have ever had in my entire life acting like an adolescent with my partner in crime, Magdalena (aka Turbo). There are a million memories from those two weeks, and the experiences were some of the most powerful of my life. I’ll let some of my favorite pictures tell the tale, but if you’re around and you want more stories, I can fill you in over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer.

Running up the easy third pitch of Black Nova.

Running up the easy third pitch of Black Nova.

Jan with an impressive lead up the fourth pitch of Black Nova.

Jan with an impressive lead up the fourth pitch of Black Nova.

Rappelling the fourth pitch of Black Nova as a spindrift avalanche pours down the couloir.

Rappelling the fourth pitch of Black Nova as a spindrift avalanche pours down the couloir.

Rappelling the second pitch of Black Nova after being hit by several small slides and nearly being hit by a large avalanche.

Rappelling the second pitch of Black Nova after being hit by several small slides and nearly being hit by a large avalanche.

Climb hard, party hard. At less than 2 Euros per bottle, it's hard to feel bad about going through multiple bottles every day.

Climb hard, party hard. At less than 2 Euros per bottle, it’s hard to feel bad about drinking a couple – or several – everyday.

The wine bottles in the preceding picture may have contributed to these antics.

The wine bottles in the preceding picture may have contributed to these antics.

Kris on the first pitch of an M9+ WI6 route that he climbed with Jan. Magdalena's shoulder and my fractured hand needed a rest day, so we had a five hour snowball fight and made some unique snow sculptures.

Kris on the first pitch of an M9+ WI6 route that he climbed with Jan. Magdalena’s shoulder and my fractured hand needed a rest day, so we had a five hour snowball fight and made some unique snow sculptures.

Turbo and I made a friend for Jan while he napped. We left it on his bedside table looking directly at him...and yet somehow it found it's way into my duffle bag. Hmm.

Turbo and I made a friend for Jan while he napped. We left it on his bedside table looking directly at him…and yet somehow it found it’s way into my duffle bag. Hmm.

Leading the last pitch of a WI5+/6 route we did as a team. Kris caught this shot on rappel as he and Magdalena were coming down.

Leading the last pitch of a WI5+/6 route we did as a team. Kris caught this shot on rappel as he and Magdalena were coming down.

Two fourteen year old boys (one of whom is actually a woman) and Jan.

Two fourteen year old boys (one of whom is actually a woman) and Jan.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Turbo living up to her nickname on Rubezahl, WI6. Her lead on the first crux pitch was her hardest to date.

Turbo living up to her nickname on Rubezahl, WI6. Her lead on the first crux pitch was her hardest to date.

In the cable car on the way up the mountain during a rest day.

In the cable car on the way up the mountain during a tobogganing adventure on our first rest day.

Magdalena with a smooth lead on the steep first pitch of Namenlos.

Magdalena with a smooth lead on the steep first pitch of Namenlos (WI4+).

Leading the third pitch of Namenlos (WI4+) with Magdalena.

Leading the third pitch of Namenlos.

Leading the last pitch of Namenlos on the best, most fun day of climbing I have ever had.

Leading the last pitch of Namenlos on the best, most fun day of climbing I have ever had.

Magdalena at my manky anchor at the top of Namenlos. Seconds later I discovered a perfect bolt anchor a few meters to her left that had been hiding under fresh snow.

Magdalena at my manky anchor at the top of Namenlos. Seconds later I discovered a perfect bolt anchor a few meters to her left that had been hiding under fresh snow.

Kris had hair jealousy. Luckily the local climbing shop had just what he needed.

Kris had hair envy. Luckily the local climbing shop had just what he needed.

(Occasional) allies in the Great Snow Wars of 2015.

(Occasional) allies in the Great Snow Wars of 2015.

Leading the last pitch of the last day on the stellar WI5+ route that I called Pair Of Titties (I could never remember the real name).

Leading the last pitch of the last day on the stellar WI5+ route that I called Pair Of Titties (I could never remember the real name).

Turbo demonstrating some hostility after driving through the night coming back to Krakow.

Magdalena demonstrating some hostility after driving through the night on our way back to Krakow.

The trip wasn’t perfect; no adventure ever is. What it was and always will be, though, is one of the best, most exciting and transformative experiences of my life. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Two Weeks In Mecca: climbing ice in Switzerland

    • It just wouldn’t have been a good trip without at least one…like some of those fixed pins in Cody. You can pull them out by hand, but you rap on them anyway because there’s nothing else and at least there are two of them splitting your weight. Good times.

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