“Hey guys… I forgot my poles.”
Now, that’s one way not to start your skitour. But here we are — Luki, Pius and I — at the trailhead at the very end of the Sernftal; boots on, skins sticking, bindings locked in. Ready to rumble.
But I didn’t bring my ski poles.
We start skinning anyway. We drove far enough to get here and there is no way we are turning back and screaming abandon. Pius lends me a pole; he says he’ll need it to ski back down, though. Luki says to look for a suitable branch in the forest. I laugh and joke. The adrenaline is pumping. With such a start, this is likely going to be a hilarious (and probably exhausting and frustrating) day.
We skin up for maybe three minutes when Pius shouts:
“But Jo — don’t you have your trailrunning poles in your car?”
He’s right! My lightweight summer poles have been hanging out in the trunk of my tiny orange Suzuki for months. I’d always been too lazy to take them out and stow them away. I’m suddenly thankful for being a lazy bugger.
I tell the guys to wait as I sprint-skin-ski back to the car to grab the poles. They only have a microscopic basket at their bottom, so I know that they’ll sink straight through any kind of snow except the boilerplate kind. But at least I’ll make it up this mountain (in hindsight I know I would not have made it without them).This is going to be a hilarious, albeit now slightly less exhausting and frustrating, day.
Luckily for my inappropriate poles, the skin track turns out to be of slippery, boilerplate quality as we ascend through the forest, following a summer hiking trail. No way they’ll sink in. My climbing skins, on the other hand, aren’t as lucky. My skis slip out from underneath my feet every third step. It hasn’t snowed in several days. There is extremely little snow in the forest. This means the best-before-date of this skin track has long passed and we’re left with more of an icy bobsleigh track than an actual uphill track.
I naively imagine that it will become less slippery higher up once we get out of the woods.
It turns out that it, well, does not get better higher up. The track on the hiking trail soon joins up with the summer road which goes up to the Skihütte Oberebs — a wee hut overlooking the head of the Sernf valley, which is open year-round. I know the place; it was one of the checkpoints my friend Nadia and I had to visit on our gravel bikes when we participated in the Dead Ends & Cake race. The terrain just below the hut is quite flat, giving Pius and I a nice rest from sliding around (Luki seems to have no issues whatsoever, he is just skinning up without sliding, as happy and chirpy as ever). But what comes after — oh my.
From the hut at about 1700m, the route follows a broad, open shoulder in a north-westerly direction until about 2500m. The terrain is never steep, except for a micro-feature in the shape of a tiny roll-over here and there. The views are quite stunning. We ascend overlooking a little vale and cirque, the headwall of which we will have to traverse to looker’s left, and notice some tracks down a very shaded slope on the opposite side. It seems extremely sheltered from the sun; from a distance the snow looks to be fluffy, preserved powder.
We are travelling upslope in the most sun-exposed terrain one can find. Since the Glarus Alps have mostly towering rock giants for mountains with very deep and narrow valleys cutting through them, it takes a while for the morning sun to actually hit our slope. Once it does, it comes full force and remains until the late afternoon. This basically means that the snow here gets baked over the course of a sunny day and then refreezes over night, especially without cloud cover. Add to that the refreeze of ski and snowboard tracks made in the softened up afternoon snow. It is a recipe for disastrous skin track slippage.
Luckily for us, the terrain is so gentle that the icy skin track isn’t dangerous, but mostly an utter annoyance — one that drains extra energy over time. Pius gets out his ski crampons but quickly stows them away again, swearing as he does, as they make the ascent even more frustrating. You see, the snow in the tracks is so hard but the terrain is so flat that ski crampons dig themselves in all too well, slowing you down even more. The best strategy is to simply break a new trail instead of using the existing one. But even so, my skis still slip out from underneath my feet a lot because of the aforementioned refrozen downhill tracks. And here I was, thinking that it’ll slide less once we get into the sun…
It takes a lot of sweat and delicate weight distribution on our skis to make it to 2500m, where we leave the main skin-track-highway going to Chli Chärpf. Instead, we head due west on a relatively flat band of snow, traversing below the headwall of our objective — Gross Chärpf. Unfortunately the track remains just as slippery. Pius now gets his ski crampons out for good (which is a sensible choice as a bad tumble here would likely send you over the edge and down several hundred feet) and Luki just keeps plowing on ahead (nothing can stop this guy, really).
We soon get to a tiny bootpack and clamber up it to find ourselves on the proper summit shoulder. We click back into our bindings. The route now follows a small traverse and switchbacks through steeper, west-facing slopes. Considering the skin track frustrations up to this point, I decide to finally put on my ski crampons as well. No more delicate redistribution of bodyweight. I just want to get to the top without subconsciously tensing up my entire body in fear of a slip.
The terrain is now steep and consequential enough to actually warrant the use of ski crampons, anyway. Using them makes you worry so much less. So, without a worry in the world (who am I kidding — I’ve been worrying all morning about the “easy climbing” to the summit that I’d read about in the Swiss Alpine Club’s route description) we reach our sunny Skidepot (that’s the German term for where you leave your skis and continue on foot to the top) about 50 vertical meters below the summit. I get a little anxious when I see the way up; there is definitely a rock band we need to scramble through. Alright, I guess it’s time to scare myself a little…
Luki goes up first, not wanting nor needing to wear his crampons. Pius and I follow suit after a few minutes (with crampons, of course). Here, too, the snow is rock solid and so are the previously made steps. I breathe a sigh of relief when I notice that the rock band has been made more secure thanks to a metal rod and a piece of rope to hold on to. I clumsily manage to clamber up and over (not without using a classic “climb with your knees” alpine move) thanks to Pius patiently guiding me through it.
What can I say, I feel uncomfortable and not confident moving over rocks in ski boots and crampons. And I also have to get back down. Oh boy.
My worries are put aside for a moment as we reach the top of Gross Chärpf at 2794m. The views are extensive. To the north our gaze swipes over the Glärnisch massif as it towers over the town of Glarus far down below. The Linthebene lies behind, giving us a glimpse of how dark and dreary the day must be out in the Mittelland covered in a thick layer of fog. Almost 100m right below us, the more frequently visited summit of Chli Chärpf is covered in tracks.
To the east I can make out the famous Martinsloch, a hole cutting through the serrated Tschingelhörner. Twice a year, shortly after sunrise, sun rays shine right through this hole onto the village of Elm (they illuminate the church’s clock tower) far below on the valley floor. The Canton of Graubünden, my chosen home in eastern Switzerland, lies behind these geologically unique formations — the UNESCO’s Sardona World Heritage Site.
As I keep looking south, the Hausstock and Ruchi come into view. To the west of them, far in the distance, the gigantic Tödi massif reaches toward the sky. By its sheer appearance and height alone, it thwarts the peaks around it into a quiet submission.
It is time to stop being awestruck and get off the rather windy mountaintop. I struggle my way through the crux, as expected. But I make it without any hiccups (like I always end up doing — I see some kind of “anxious for no reason” trend, don’t you?), once again thanks to Pius coaching me through the climb. Put your left foot here, hold on to this solid flake, step down onto this outcrop around the corner — you got it.
The day is far from over. Already full of impressions, emotions and memories, we still have to tackle the best part — skiing down. Our daydreaming about that good-looking, shaded slope we observed on our way up quickly cements our group decision of taking a gamble: an alternative Abfahrt round the back, despite not knowing what that back looks like (I had very briefly read the description and only remembered there being a steep section). We had tracks to follow, though, and avalanche conditions were good. Thus, instead of retracing our steps, we descend in a southwesterly direction.
We quickly notice that, despite all the sunshine and it already being one in the afternoon, the sun-exposed snowpack hasn’t softened up yet. The old, mushy-now-a-solid-death-cookie tracks make for a bumpy and annoying ski (especially with basket-less poles). I see Pius struggling, too — this is his first tour after twisting his knee (and said knee subsequently miraculously healing) over the New Year. Understandably, he cannot muster the necessary confidence under these borderline circumstances.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” I think to myself. He makes it down the first section just fine.
We are suddenly standing on top of a 40-degree steep couloir. Ah, this must be this steep section I briefly read about. It fortunately doesn’t look very scary but it is quite skied out and the snow is just too hard to ski properly. Nothing a good old sideslip action can’t solve, though, and the three of us make it down the funnel in less time it takes to say “luckily I am an excellent survival skier.” I am very glad it goes down without a hitch as it turns out to be Pius’ first steep couloir. (He doesn’t think it is anything to be proud of as it wasn’t possible to ski it properly but I highly disagree.)
We are now in a broad, high plain named Wichlenmatt. Due to its exposition and it being surrounded by high walls of rock, it is sheltered from the wind and we find ourselves getting baked to a crisp. As we push ourselves through the flats below the Stockplanggen, we realize that we have to put our skins back on to reach a little saddle and the top of that line of hopefully good snow we’ve been longing for all day. Bummer.
Although it is now well into the afternoon, the skin track up to this little col is as slippery as its cousins we encountered in the morning. I cannot believe it. I thought those struggles were behind us. I employ the same method I’d used earlier: I make a new track right next to the existing one. Like this, the snow is softer and my skins get better grip.
As much as we did not enjoy this added uphill, we are quite stoked when we reach the saddle and get a glimpse at what awaits us. Oh boy — that snow really does look good. And while earlier skiers have found this stash of goodness before us, there is still plenty of room to draw our own, fresh lines.
Something we, in fact, proceed to do.
Luki goes first and immediately lets out shrieks of joy and stoke and excitement and — ah, what a relief to find this sun-sheltered powder! He pins it more to skier’s right, away from the majority of the tracks which trend to the left. He’s looking for some fun chute he saw in the morning. He stops on top of something that is either a drop-off or a steep rollover. I decide to join him and tell Pius to stay to skier’s left and the easier terrain, just to be safe.
Luki and I end up skiing down this chute he stood on top of. There was one entry for each of us, on either side of a rock. He picks the better path, fully in the shade, as I hit some slightly sun-affected snow. But it was fun nonetheless — especially the transition out of the funnel to the flats, slaloming in champagne powder through tiny larches.
We reunite with Pius who, in fact, also skied down a funnel (“it was steeper than it looked but I was in it, so it was too late,” he said), cross a stream and step back onto this morning’s hillside, into the sun and onto, frankly, absolutely terrible snow. At that point, I feel terribly lucky for having taken this alternate descent in good snow. The gamble sure had paid off.
We get back to the Skihütte Oberebs and make an unanimous group decision to enjoy a little après-(backcountry)ski before skiing out. Gluten-free chestnut cake and non-alcoholic apple cider go down really well after a tiring but hugely successful mission.
The last stretch back the car follows the summer road and is basically a super fun cat track — the perfect ski out. Our cars are some of the last leftovers of the parking lot. The sun is long gone behind the mountains and so is the heat; the winterly cold and soft afternoon shadows have reclaimed the head of the valley.
I think I might just keep leaving my trekking poles in my car. Just in case.