Berner Oberland Ski Tour

Trip Start Oct 26, 2006
Trip End Aug 2007

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Berner Oberland Ski Tour
Seth and I were pretty ecstatic when our friend Keith invited us to go along with him and friends Adrian and Lissa on the Berner Oberland ski tour in Switzerland. Keith is a fully certified IFMGA/AMGA mountain guide who spends his winters in La Grave ski guiding clients around the area.  In order to further build his repertoire for his guiding company, he wanted to do a practice run in the Berner Oberland before taking paying clients. So we were his very willing guinea pigs. Adrian is an aspirant guide, which means he is in the middle of taking his tests to become a fully certified guide (which is normally about a 5 year, intensive process). He will take his final test, the ski part, next year. Adrian and his wife, Lissa, live in Aspen, CO, though Adrian is rarely there as he is normally off guiding clients on climbing expeditions in places such as South America and Asia. Lissa manages an art gallery in Aspen, and often joins Adrian on his expeditions. Needless to say, we would be in awe of the climbing abilities of all 3 of them over the next several days.
Day 1
The plan was to spend 5 nights and 6 days on the tour. We met in Interlaken on Sunday evening, to prepare for our early Monday morning start. We would begin by taking a series of trains (3 in total) from Interlaken at 568m (1863 ft) to the Jungfraujoch at 3471m (11,388 ft). The Jungfraujoch, or the "Top of Europe" as they call it, is the end of the train station at the base of the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains. Back in 1896, the Swiss bored a train tunnel up through the Eiger to get to this point. It took 30 years to drill the tunnel. The Jungfraujoch has a restaurant, hotel, highest post office in the world, as well as a high tech weather station. From afar it looks like something out of James Bond. Those Swiss are crazy! On the climb up through the Eiger the train stops at several points so that passengers can go and look out the "windows" part way up the Eiger to take in the views. After a coffee and some views from the top, we walked through the tunnel to the door leading us out to the sunshine and wild masses of mountains and glaciers. From the Jungfraujoch we had just a short 20 minute skin to the Mönchsjochhütte at 3650m (11,976 ft). At the hut we unloaded as much out of our packs as possible to make the climb to the top of the Mönch as enjoyable as possible. The climb up the Mönch involved skis on the packs, and ended up being a lot more technical than we're used to. I was very relieved when Adrian offered to "short rope" me. This involves me tying into the rope, attached to Adrian, and he and I walking/climbing up together very closely, so that he could stop my fall if necessary. I was climbing slowly, carefully, trying not to look down during my very exposed path, as Keith and Lissa danced their way up the mountain ahead of me, unroped. SICK! Excitement filled the air as we all reached the top of the Mönch at 4100m (13,120ft). After a quick snack, we proceeded to click into our skis for our descent off the top. Conditions at the top were less than ideal: steep (~45 degrees), with rotten snow on top of a refrozen, granular crust. AWESOME! Keith went first to test out conditions, then we followed, one at a time. The first 10 turns or so would be above rock cliff bands, so definitely a "no-fall zone". After that section the snow underneath softened up, so more enjoyable turns without our tails skidding out from underneath us. The run ended with a little huckery over the bergschrund, maybe a 4 foot drop. Then a 10 minute walk back to the hut.
Life in the Hut
The huts are these beautifully built, environmentally-friendly structures placed at amazingly high and precarious places in the mountains, normally perched on the side of a mountain like a bird's nest. Those Swiss are crazy! Huts in the Berner Oberland are pricier than others we have stayed at - normally between 50 - 70 Swiss francs ($40 - 56) per person, per night, which includes dinner and breakfast. On top of that, unless you bring a stove to melt water (which hardly anyone does to keep packs light), you have to buy water, which costs 12 Swiss francs ($10) for a 1.5 liter bottle of water. Why? Because anything that is taken up to the huts is via helicopter. We also learned, though not quickly enough, to buy the non-carbonated water as soon as you arrive at the hut, otherwise they will sell out and you will be stuck with carbonated. Carbonated is maybe nice for the evenings at dinner, but not during the day when you're touring on the baking hot glacier and want to gulp down a bunch of water. But of course this cost is all worth it, when you consider where you're at. There is also an etiquette in the huts. One, you do not wear your ski boots into the hut. They always provide some sort of hut slipper to keep the hut clean and dry. In order to keep the hut/rooms tidy, you are provided with a crate in which to keep any belongings that are not kept in your pack. Lights out at 10pm! Not that this was a problem, especially for Seth and I. We wished it would have been 9pm!
Day 2
Tuesday brought us, once again, beautiful blue skies. Our first task upon leaving the Mönchsjochhütte was to climb and then ski off of the Jungfrau at 4100m. Adrian short-roped me again for the final part of the climb, which was much appreciated! After we had all reached the top, a small, white with red stripes propeller plane did a fast curving arc around us, dipping its wing twice to say hello. The ski off the top was fantastic - perfect corn snow. SICK!
After the Jungfrau we started skinning again, as the sun really started to heat up, and I felt myself falling farther and farther behind the group. I figured it was due to fatigue from bootpacking up both the Mönch and then the Jungfrau, which my leg muscles are not used to. At the top of the col we then descended down through the most amazing serac field I have ever seen (or maybe the only serac field I've ever descended through). We saw some of the most intense colors of blue and gray in the glacier. The final skin up before the descent to the Hollandiahutte had a couple of options. There was, of course, a longer option, which would have involved getting to the top of Abeni Flue, resulting in a 2100m day (6,700 feet of elevation gain). This is by no means something out of my ability, as Seth and I had one 2200m day in La Grave this winter, and we had just finished a week of ski touring in Italy. After that I had 4 days off just prior to starting the Berner Oberland, so plenty of recovery time. The shorter option would result in an 1800m day (5700 feet of ascending), which is about an average length ski tour for us, though maybe a little more with our heavier packs today. After maybe ¼ the way up the Abeni Flue, I basically could go no further, feeling so hot, fatigued, winded. "What is wrong with me??", I was thinking to myself. We were not at so much of a higher altitude than normal for me to be feeling this horrible. The only thing I could attribute it to was just that it was the end of a long winter and my body just needed to rest, maybe some fatigue from bootpacking, hotter sun than I'm used to, but why weren't the others feeling this way? I'm never the strongest in the group, but normally I can hold my own and keep up decently well. Weird.
We arrived at the beautiful Hollandiahütte at 3238m (10,360 ft), thankful to take off our stinky, sweaty boots. There were fewer people staying at this hut, so we got a table all to ourselves for dinner and breakfast. Dinner conversation included sunburnt body parts. The sun does not spare anything that you have missed in your morning sunscreen lathering ritual. Dinner was a yummy chicken curry with rice, of which we had several helpings. In the evening I was continuing to feel very fatigued; easily winded walking up the stairs to our room, or even just rolling over in bed at night.
Day 3
Woke up to yet another day of beautiful skies. Our first task of the day was to ski/glide/pole our way across the slightly descending huge glacier (can't remember the name) to the Konkordiahütte, at which point we will drop off as much as possible before doing our tour for the day. We had already heard great things about this hut, including the 150m (480ft.) stairway going straight up the mountain to the hut. When they first built the original hut in 1877 (they have since rebuilt several times and expanded), it was built right next to the glacier. As is consistent with all other glaciers, it has since receded dramatically, and so they had to put a stairway in up the rock to access the hut. I barely made it all the way up the stairway, partly due to being nervous of the exposure, and partly because of fatigue. I was hoping that once we started skinning I would feel a little more energy than I felt the prior day. I ended up feeling reasonably well for the first hour, but then fell back quickly. After maybe 700m of ascending, I was down to a real snail's pace. I felt as if I had completely lost all of my fitness built up that winter, with the most amount of fatigue that I have felt in a very long time. I ascended maybe another 200m, until I reached the point where I could only take maybe 10 steps before having to stop to rest and breathe. My whole body ached, and the last 200m vertical to the summit seemed impossible. So I sat down on my pack to wait for the others to ski down to me while I took some pictures of the amazing scenery. From this point I could see the top of the Mönch and Jungfrau, as well as the Hollandiahütte from where we had just come. Don't miss the panoramic picture of this! The picture shows how vast these glaciers are. Incredible. The others then made their way down to me and we had a pleasant ski back down to the stairway of the Konkordiahütte in some nice corn snow. Dinner that night was another great one - another spicy chicken dish with rice and lots of great veggies. Seth was the best husband ever and gave my aching legs a nice massage. That afternoon/evening I began developing kind of a phlegmy cough.
That night I woke up at 1am and the small, stuffy room we were sleeping in with 10 other people seemed to make breathing difficult. Then I started hearing this funny noise as I exhaled. I realized that this noise was coming from my lungs! The only way I can describe it is the sound that comes from a paper bag after you have blown air into it to fill it, then suck the air back in. The crackling sound that the paper bag would make as it deflates is what my lung sacs sounded like. Yikes. I'm definitely having a harder time breathing. I woke Seth up to have him listen. We decided to go for a walk to the bathroom, during which time I also drink a liter of water, thinking that it is dehydration. The noise lessens after taking a walk and drink water, but then gets worse again after I go lay back down. It gets especially bad after I have a coughing attack, and then gradually gets better until the next cough. For the next 2 ½ hours we both lay there in bed, Seth worried as he listens to this noise coming from my lungs, and me laying there wondering if the lady at the hotel in Interlaken was able to successfully buy us helicopter insurance. As we had arrived in Interlaken on a Sunday, we couldn't buy helicopter insurance (which you need in the case of emergency evacuation from the mountains), but the hotel owner offered to do it for us first thing on Monday morning. We trusted she would do it. If you don't have the insurance, you would then have to pay an arm and a leg to get heli-evacuated out. So in my head I'm going through what we will need to do in the case that my lungs get worse and I can't get out on my own two feet. My first thought of course is that I have altitude sickness, however that didn't sound right since I had been in the mountains already 3 days and this was the lowest elevation point so far. Maybe bronchitis? Anyhow, we were both finally able to fall back to sleep, then to be woken up 2 hours later by the 5am alarms. So we got up to go to breakfast, telling the rest of the team our situation. It was decided that Seth and I would head out, exiting via the long glacier that we had skied down the day before, as I definitely felt strong enough to do that. I knew it would be slow, but for sure I could make it as it was only about 300m elevation gain. It also happened that an Italian guide, Marco (a friend of Keith's), was also going out that way with his clients, so we could tag along with them. So we sadly said good-bye to Keith, Adrian and Lissa, being bummed that we couldn't finish the tour with them, yet also happy that we at least had had 3 great days with them. The ski out the glacier and then down until the snow ran out was uneventful, fortunately. The noise in my lungs was gone by the time we took our skis off. We had a great ski down with Marco and his Italian clients. The snow was good corn up high, but quickly turned rotten as we got closer to the bottom. We were relieved to get back to the Hotel in Interlaken to take showers and go out for pizza. We also found out that the Hotel owner had in fact bought our helicopter insurance successfully. Fortunately I didn't actually need to use it. J
Very special thanks to Keith for organizing this trip and inviting us to come along. We felt very honored to get the invitation and hope that we can convince some of our friends and family to use his mountain guiding services at some point!  Of the American Internationally certified guides we have come in contact with, we feel Keith and Adrian are the best.
                                                              Keith's Website:
                                     →      ←
                                                            Adrian's Website:
                                     →      ←
Diagnosis: I finally made it to a doctor 4 days later back in La Grave to get an official diagnosis and to find out if I had any lingering issues in my lungs. After describing the events leading up to, as well as the culmination of awful crackling noises coming from my lungs, she said that I definitely had pulmonary edema, and it was a very good thing that we descended when we did. Fortunately, after giving me a good check-up, she said that everything now sounds completely normal. Pulmonary edema is essentially fluid accumulation in the lungs, due to the failure of the heart to remove fluid from lung circulation (from lack of oxygen). High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is the major cause of death related to high altitude exposure with a high mortality in absence of emergency treatment. The signs/symptoms listed in Wikipedia that I had were: difficulty breathing, frequent urination at night, inability to lie down flat due to breathlessness, and pale skin. According to the doctor, my first signs were the phlegmy cough the afternoon before, as well as the abnormal fatigue on the 2nd and 3rd days leading up to it.
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