Mountaineering Course 2023

by Caesar Meric and Thomas Ribarits

On day 1, 26 July at 6am in the morning, a group of enthusiasts met at the parking of the Maison Relais in Niederanven to start a 6-hour trip to the spectacular Sustenpass in the country of William Tell, situated at the border of cantons Bern and Uri.

According to the legend, Tell – the famous marksman of Uri with a crossbow who was to become the father of the Swiss Confederacy – was also an expert mountain climber! As we all know, any expert needs to start with basics, and this is what the FLERA group was aiming for during this trip: to cover the essentials of mountaineering.

Arrived at the base of the mountain, little did they know their first lesson awaited them: adapting to changing weather conditions. While it was initially planned that all teams would learn the basics of glacier travel together before a smaller team would separate on the penultimate day to venture onto some rock-climbing traditional techniques, due to unfavourable weather forecasts in the following days on the rock climbing venue, the group would split on the first night and re-join the next evening. The small team of three would head to the quaint “Sewen Hütte” after a 1 ½ hour ascent eager to savor their first meal. Meanwhile the majority of the group, after some 2 ½ hours of ascent, partially in light snowfall, reached the comfortable “Tierbergli Hütte” at around 4pm and later on enjoyed its first dinner.

The following day, Thursday, the larger group all gathered at 7am outside on the glacier – which is conveniently placed just next to the hut. They started with basic crampon training (“Always use all vertical teeth!”) and the handling of the ice axe in easy terrain (“Spazierstockpickel”), followed by the ascent to “Sustenhorn” (3,502m) in three rope teams led by Ingmar, Maurice and Fred, respectively. They learnt about the importance of keeping ropes tight, placing crampons correctly (in particular when it gets steeper), navigating across crevasses, and the importance of constantly staying hydrated. Resisting a bit of wind up there, all three teams made it to the summit! For many participants it was a very special moment, having used crampons and being “up there” for the first time in their lives! Undoubtedly, all of us shared a deep satisfaction of achievement.

The group of three, led by Thomas, marched towards the “Sewenhorn” to attempt the ascent of a multi-pitch route. The two pupils learned about the importance of reading the signs in the land to find traces of past or existing tracks. From the obvious painted markings and handmade piles of rock to the more subtle evidence of wear on the rock or muddy trails, even animal droppings, all are useful traces to identify a secure path to walk on. Once at the site of the climb, they prepared themselves by changing hiking boots for climbing shoes and preparing their ropes and harnesses. Off they went on a five-pitch ascent of the 200m rock face learning to adapt their fingers to the cold air and rock, and to trust their shoes on wet rock.

After an exciting ascent, the team enjoyed a packed lunch at the summit looking over the peaceful mountain chains before starting their descent in rappel. Once down, they returned to the hut to retrieve all their equipment and headed off to the “Tierbergli Hütte” to retrieve the rest of the team. Happily reunited, the team caught up on one another’s prowess of the past day over a warm meal before heading to bed to regain strength for the next day.

Day 3, Friday, was dedicated to roping up quickly, respecting correct distances, setting braking knots, tying chest coils efficiently (including the clove hitch!), traversing steeper parts, changing direction in 2 different ways and ascending/descending very steep slopes using “Steigpickel/Geländerpickel” techniques. The afternoon was devoted to self-rescue (“Aufprusiken”), including how to overcome braking knots.

For Thomas’ team, day 3 was the day to reach the summit of the “Sustenhorn” peak and catch up on the glacier travel training. Following the steps of their group mates the day before, they headed off learning along the way some rope techniques, such as shortening the rope with coils, and travel techniques, such as how to identify crevasses, keeping the rope tighter in such terrain, and ways to walk up steeper paths. They were also able to learn some more intermediate glacier techniques such as how to build T-anchors and 3-point pulley systems to rescue people that have fallen in crevasses.

Getting up at 3:30am on day 4, Saturday, did not seem too hard for most of the participants, given that we expected a great reward in the form of the sunrise at the Vorder Tierberg (3090m), an ascent which we needed to plan ourselves the evening before. It was a good experience to find one’s way in the dark and after some 1:30 hours we reached the summit via a snow ridge and a bit of rocks at 5:30am – well ahead of the sunrise, actually! On their way back to the hut, they practiced the dangers of “short roping” by simulating a slide in rope teams of 2 and 3. This exercise also taught them how to properly construct a belay stand using two ice screws (redundancy). It was great fun and one of them needed to (temporarily) say “farewell” to his helmet which – slowly but surely – rolled into a crevasse. (To their great surprise, a Swiss mountain guide brought the helmet back to the hut later that day – he managed to find it deep down in the crevasse). Thomas’s team meanwhile used the return hike to learn self-arrest techniques in case of different ways to slip on a steep path. Later they learned to put in practice the techniques learned the previous days by simulating a fall in a crevasse. One teammate would simulate a fall in a crevasse while the other had to prepare the correct rescue system to get his partner out of the crevasse.

Having started the day so early, they had “late” breakfast at the hut at around 8am while their hardworking guides prepared a parcour in the glacier ice, allowing the entire group to practise the techniques they had studied beforehand plus doing some decent ice climbing. For some of them, this was a special experience, climbing up ice walls using the front teeth technique (4, not 2!) and ice axes. Thanks again to Ingmar, Fred and Maurice for setting this up! After lunch they continued with a classical rescue technique applied to a rope team of three where “number 1” simulates a slide into a crevasse. They repeated the exercise three times such that every member of the rope team could practise each position. With the rain starting later that afternoon, they finished the day with instructions on first aid and mountain health and a “feedback session” involving all participants. No surprise that the feedback was very positive and literally everyone hopes that such event would be repeated by FLERA in the near future.

The last day, Sunday, was devoted to the descent back to the cars in wet conditions – one participant slipped on a stone – luckily without getting injured! They had a decent lunch at the “Hotel Steingletscher” before most of them were hitting the road back to Luxembourg where they arrived safely at around 7pm.

It was a great trip, they learned a lot and became true teammates and friends, the guides did a great job and, importantly, they all had good fun together. In short: to be repeated!