AUTHORS: Alexandra Schweikart, Christopher Igel
PHOTOGRAPHY: Michael Meisl, Peter Untermaierhofer, Christopher Igel
The winter didn't do us ice climbers any favours: thanks to the warm temperatures and an abundance of powder snow, we spent more time with skis on our feet than ice tools in our hands. Ice climbers talk about "standing" waterfalls when they are frozen to columns and candles of ice. For me, hacking my tools into a frozen column of hard, blue ice, I sometimes think that it's a miracle that only a few days ago this solid mass was bubbling slush. And in just a few weeks, it will turn back into falling water, and we will once again hear its deafening crash into the valley.
Last winter, however, the waterfalls just didn't want to freeze. Still, JungHee Han, a friend from South Korea, said he wanted to come visit me and do a couple of tours. Although South Korea is a peninsula in the ocean, a continental freeze rips across the land in winter and turns the many waterfalls to ice. JungHee loves winter, and the ice climbing in Korea has whipped him into an awesome competition ice climber. However, the call of the European Alps reaches as far as South Korea. When he arrived in Munich, we didn't hang out for long before beginning our search for ice. First stop: Switzerland.
Our destination, St. Moritz, is a winter metropolis located at the foot of Piz Bernina in the Engadin valley. From here to Piz Morteratsch, the Morteratsch glacier dominates the valley, dropping away into a steep and wild wall due to a step in the valley floor. Here, the glacier cleaved open, exposing layers of centuries-old ice piled in steep and bizarre shapes. Deep blue, the glacial ice sparkled at us, radiating its deep chill. We were going to need warm jackets here. This so-called Gletscherbruch formed an ice cliff that produced the finest steep ice climbing mdash; more overhanging than any waterfall. In fact, the climbing was so overhanging that the belayer had to look behind rather than above to see the leader climbing out of the glacial cavern. In contrast to ephemeral waterfalls, you can rely on a glacier. The quality of the ice was super, if a bit hard and brittle. Fortunately, we were well prepared, having sharpened our ice tools and crampons for the trip. Every ice climber has his or her own special techniques and preferences. Ice climbing such steep and overhanging terrain requires not just having the sharpest tools, but also the highest level of agility. Like an acrobat, JungHee swung from one hook to the next, often ramming his crampons in at head height. At the steep edge of the roof his feet were in the air and he swung up and over with a figure-4. This tricky move involves using your arm as a hold, hooking your knee over the crook of your elbow. Impressed by JungHee's strength and skill, I followed him up the steep overhang. I fell, tried again, and fell again. Farther up on the cliff of the Gletscherbruch, I discovered a line that was longer but not as steep. Here, I could really let rip with what felt like a mixture of bouldering, martial arts and Pilates. We climbed into the evening — an unforgettable training session! At the end of the day, we submerged our aching forearms into a pool of two-degree glacial water. Seldom are the circumstances in which water that cold feels so good! Back in St. Moritz, we treated ourselves to a beer and regenerated our aching muscles in the sauna to prepare for our next icy adventure. Another day, another challenge. Personally, I was hoping to find a real waterfall — deep-blue, frozen and vertical. I remembered a basin in a valley near Chur that was completely shady, often providing perfect conditions well into late spring. We ventured toward the Sertig Valley, located at almost 2,000 metres, hoping to find at least one of the 200-metre tall waterfalls in good, frozen condition. We had woken up early to make the most of the coldest temperatures. From the car park, we were stunned to see that all five waterfalls were frozen solid! We began hiking through powder in a beautiful winter setting, with our snowshoes proving a blessing. Wearing snowshoes was a first for JungHee, and hopefully there would be more firsts to come. We sorted our equipment, ice screws and quickdraws, gulped down tea out of the thermos, and then hit the first waterfall. I started on the first pitch. It wasn't too steep; just the right angle to wake and warm me up. JungHee followed and we swapped equipment at the first belay.
The waterfall became steeper and it was JungHee's turn to lead. Safely and skilfully, he cut the best line up the now vertical, if partially overhanging ice. Wherever the natural shape of the ice offered a good rest, he placed an ice screw. In ice climbing, good route-finding is important, not to mention being able to recognise the best locations for ice screws. Ice climbing is all about efficiency of movement and conserving energy. JungHee executed a rapid sequence of moves to overcome the final few steep metres of the pitch. He placed two ice screws for a belay and I followed. As I climbed, I enjoyed the view below, the superb ambience and the fact that, despite the warm winter, we had still managed to find such excellent ice climbing. We set up an Abalakov anchor, which involves boring out a V-shaped tunnel in the ice using two screws and threading the runnel with leaver cord. We rigged a rappel, and descended the route. I found myself chuckling on the way down as I reflected on how special this sport is. My life was being held by nothing more than the strength of frozen water. We arrived at the base and peered over at the candle, a partially free-standing column that was almost 100 metres tall. Because the waterfall was cylindrical, the climbing was extremely exposed. Climbing the front of the waterfall, JungHee appeared from my vantage point to be suspended in space: a narrow column of ice in front of him and, just behind him, the valley. We were not able to top out this pitch, however, because the warm temperatures had already diminished the quality of the ice farther up. Back on the ground, we stashed our equipment, heaved our packs onto our backs and stamped our way down the powder slope in our snowshoes. JungHee, who is normally quite reserved, couldn't resist letting loose a whoop! "What is cheese fondue?" asked JungHee, as we headed toward the mountain hut at the car park. "Melted cheese in white wine," I replied, "with a baguette to soak it all up." "And what do you eat with it?" he wondered. "Nothing else... Um, you'll see," I said, looking forward to supper. The steaming fondue bubbled away and we enjoyed every bite. Ice climbing makes you incredibly hungry! There was one thing JungHee particularly liked about the cheese fondue: everybody ate out of the same pot, as is customary back home in South Korea. He ordered another two cool beers. Turned out, his beer-ordering skills were almost as good as his ice climbing! It was a super trip. Due to such a warm winter, we weren't expecting to find so many incredible metres of ice to climb. Yet again, I was surprised at how universal the language of ice climbing is: JungHee and I understood each other to the extent of blind trust throughout our climbing. Before he left to go home, he vowed to return to Europe and hunt down more ice with me again — and, of course, enjoy more cheese fondue and beer.