After my fun two-day tour with Ben Bardsley, I headed back up to Les Diablerets and the Col du Pilon to guide Ishbel, Phillip, Andrew, and Jacob on the Mountain Tracks Wild Western Berner tour. Compared to my previous tour, things did get a bit "western".
Our first day was spent practicing avalanche rescue and steep skinning techniques during a particularly robust foehn wind. The foehn is an unfortunate reality in the alps. When the warm, mediteranean wind gets sucked northward by a deep low over north central europe, the skiing gets crappy, the wind strips powder off of the south faces and saturates the snowpack up to a suprisingly high elevation for late winter (2800 meters in this case).
Our second day was clear, cool, and sunny. We rode the Glacier 3000 lift up to the Sex Rouge, skied down the Tsanfleuron glacier, and toured up to the top of the Arpellistock. This time, instead of continuing east in a rando-racer-inspired panic, we dropped down to the Gelternhütte for afternoon Rosti and a warm bed to sleep in.
Our third day began with the arrival of a real storm out of the north. Bad visibility, high winds, and 5-10cm of fresh. We left the hut at a normal post-breakfast 6:30am, hoping we could figure out a way to get over the Wildhorn and down to the Wildhornhütte, but by the time we reached the Col du Brochet, we realized it was not meant to be. I was blown backwards up a hill while trying to ski down it. That's a strong headwind. We confined ourselves to the sheltered north side, skied a fairly good run off of the Gelternhorn, and retreated to the Gelternhütte for more rösti and tea.
Day four brought no improvement. A lenticular enveloped the upper Wildhorn, and high winds were evident. We were already a day behind schedule and needed to make some progress. Plan B involved skiing down towards the german-speaking village of Launen, where a construction worker drove us the last 5km to hot coffees and a bus stop. From Launen, we bused to Gstaad, took a train to Zweissimmen and then to Lenke, and finally a taxi up to to Iffingenalp. From here we were able to skin up to the Wildhornhütte in just three hours.
Day five was one of the only "storm days" we've managed to experience this dry season in the alps. Several cm fell north of the Oberland crest, while at least double that fell to the south. 40cm+ fell on the Valais. We teamed up with Graham McMahon on an all-day white-out tour to the Wildstrubelhütte. Stability was good enough - but just good enough - to cover the exposed terrain next to the Wildhorn, across the schneedjoch, and down towards the drainage below the Wildstrubelhütte. In my vain attempts to break a good trail in a whiteout, I became disoriented and skied off of two small cornices during the day. Setting track in the white room is never easy, and one mustn't take it for granted. My GPS told me where to go when I needed it to, but microterrain features, such as wind lips, etc, could always trip me up. Disgusted with the sudden feeling of freefall, I resorted to the traditional AK-style flycasting technique of tying a 20-foot cordalette to my ski pole tip, and flicking it forward across the great white.
Hours later, after an exhausting route-finding challenge past the iffingenalp military cable car station, we found the Wildstrubelhütte - with less than 50m of visibility. Snowfall intensified, stability was poor, and our following day's plan of traversing the Wildstrubel became unadviseable.
On Day six, we took the safe option and descended to Sierre via the Grand Montana ski pistes. The beer at the bottom had a taste quality proportional to the effort it took to get there. And the company was good! Thanks to Phillip, Ishbel, Andrew, Jacob, and Mountain Tracks for a good trip!