Ski Touring the Western Bernese Alps

I took a week off at the end of April to go ski touring in Switzerland. After a bit of weather-indecision we settled on the western Bernese Alps tour and headed for Les Diablerets, a small ski town to the east of Lake Geneva.

Getting to the start of the tour proved fairly interesting – being out of the main ski season meant public transport was virtually non-existent, but after a spot of hitching we all made it to the Col du Pillion for first lift and winged our way skywards on the Glacier 3000 cable car to not-quite 3000m.

Day 1 takes you down the pistes on the Tsanfleuron Glacier then up and over the Arpelistock to the Gelten Hut. The Arpelistock ridge is described as ‘exposed and can be verglassed’. In reality we skinned the majority of it, switching to boot crampons for some short sections. There were a couple of steep traverses towards the top where we opted to continue on the ridge rather than bootpacking the SE face of the mountain, it was getting pretty hot by this stage and we weren’t convinced of the stability of the face. It wasn’t the most enjoyable climb but the summit was reached without any dramas. Unfortunately the ‘fantastic descent’ of the NE face consisted of breakable crust which made the skiing a little entertaining at the top; this softened up as we dropped down though and the final run down the valley was great, in a sloppy kind of way. Getting to the hut involved a bit of steep traversing and stream crossing and we were all glad of the cool running stream water once we got there!

Approaching the Arpelistock – the route climbs the ridge on the skyline, cutting to the right at the top to avoid rocks.

After a lovely night with the hut to ourselves we had a much earlier start to go halfway back up the previous day’s descent then up and over a col towards the Wildhorn, the highest summit in the area. The ‘day to savour’ in the guidebook turned out to be the worst day of the tour, showing just how closely snow conditions and enjoyment levels are related! The long, icy skin up to the Col du Brochet was slightly un-nerving having just passed below the 200m high cliffs that were awaiting you if you slipped – axes at the ready! In hindsight, from the col we actually went the wrong way but at the time the description and map seemed reasonable – not so reasonable however when we were ski-cramponing across a 45 degree hard-packed deathslide. Lots of cursing, a bootpack and a few lessons learnt later we reached the higher col just as the cloud decided to envelope us – this day was not going well! Taking a group ‘we can’t be bothered’ decision topped with uber amounts of jelly babies, we decided to forgo the summit (muttering something about ‘well there won’t be a view anyway’) and skirt the mountain on it’s east side. Having dropped out of the cloud we enjoyed a surprisingly good corn descent to the Wildhorn Hut, arriving a few minutes later having forgotten the earlier part of the day and stoked to ski again, so much so that two of us went back for another run.

Below the summit of the Wildhorn, cloud clearing.

The third day took us over the Schneidehorn then down and up again to the Wildstrubel Hut. The Schneidehorn was a great little climb, taking around 2 hours from the hut and involving quite a bit of steep bootpacking to the summit with fantastic views of the Wildhorn. From the summit down was a short but good run, followed by a long skin across a rolling plain to the base of the ascent up to the hut. In baking heat, this wasn’t too enjoyable, but this and the following hours climb was well rewarded by the best hut of the trip, with an afternoon of sun on the deck, free schnapps (in reward for our efforts to pronounce the Swiss-German word for ‘kitchen cabinet’, which it turns out is rather a tongue twister), a lovely guardian and a modern but characterful hut.

Summit of the Schneidehorn, with the route to the Wildstrubel Hut following the valley before climbing the prominent sunny V shape in the middle distance to the hut.

Day four dawned cloudy with spots of rain – this was not in the forecast! We held back to get an up-to-date forecast, which showed a clearing in the weather between 7am and 12, just enough time for us to make it up and over the Wildstrubel to the final night’s hut. We had been dreading the long flat section across the Glacier de la Plaine Morte after the previous days bake-fest, however the cloud cover worked to our advantage and it was a perfect temperature for the 5km to the base of the Wildstrubel. We were able to skin the whole SW ridge of the mountain to within a few metres of the rocky summit, although some parts are fairly steep and I would imagine in worse snow conditions you might be bootpacking. At 3244m the summit is only a couple of metres below the Wildhorn and provides a stunning viewpoint back across the terrain you’ve been traversing and also over to the higher Bernese Oberland in the east. Followed by an incredible 900m run down perfect spring snow on the Wildstrubel Glacier to the Lammeren Hut this was a fantastic way to finish off the tour, arriving at the hut an hour before the rain started.

Fantastic descent down the Wildstrubel Glacier

In good conditions it is possible to ski all the way to Kandersteg after a short climb from the Lammeren Hut, however given the weather (snowy and cloudy) and the late-season snow level (about 400m above town), we opted instead for the lower level, well marked cross country ski trail to the top of the Sunnbuel cablecar, which we were more than happy to ride down – paying for the laziness with a half hour walk in the rain back to Kandersteg train station!

Although not one of the most well known of the Alps ski tours this was a great 5 day trip, well away from the crowds. We were the only group doing the tour and, aside from the Wildhorn Hut, had the huts virtually to ourselves. None of the days are huge meaning that you do actually get some holiday sunbathing and book-reading in too! The tour zig-zags over the spine of the Bernese Alps which means that you spend a bit of time re-ascending the previous days descents on the second and third days. Whilst this can be a little disheartening, none of the ascents are too arduous and at least you got to enjoy the ski down the day before! This also means that you can escape from any of the huts with relative ease (the Gelten Hut being the hardest but do-able), making it a good lower-level touring option if the weather forecast is a bit suspect.

Approaching the summit of the Wildstrubel, with the second, third and fouth days routes marked. The Wildhorn in the prominent mountain in the background, with the Wildhorn Hut out of sight in the valley to the right.

Some possibly helpful tips for anyone thinking of completing this tour:

  • The guidebook times, particularly for the third and fourth days, are far too short. Our daily totals were: 7, 9 (with terrible snow conditions & a whiteout), 6, 5 & 3 hours respectively. These were around the bottom end of the guardians’ estimations too, so I’m sure it wasn’t just that we were horribly unfit!
  • At this time of year, the first Glacier 3000 lift is at 9am – however there’s a staff one at 7.30 that you should be able to get on if you ask nicely, though this isn’t advertised anywhere.
  • The guidebook conveniently ignores the 400m ascent to the Wildstrubel hut on Day 3. This day will definitely take longer than the 2-3 hour guidebook time! It also mentions running the third and fourth days together – we were advised against this by the hut guardians and it would be a very long day with south facing slopes to ascend late in the day. Plus, the Wildstrubel hut is lovely! If you were to run any of the days together, the 2nd and 3rd would be the best best, cutting out the descent to and re-ascent from the Wildhorn Hut. It would also be easily possible to get all the way out to Kandersteg from the Wildstrubel Hut in a day using the low-level cross country ski trail from the Gemmi Pass.
  • The Gelten Hut has running (stream) water (and showers!); the Lammeren Hut has non-potable running water. The two higher huts have no running water. The huts are all fantastic and worked out at 55-60 CHF/night including food, with an Alpine Club membership.
  • The cheapest place to stay the night before the tour was Hotel-Guesthouse Mon Sejour, about 2km west of Les Diablerets, which has a dorm room (and also gave us free pizza!). It’s connected to Les Diablerets by train (currently a replacement bus service that is actually more convenient). There are plenty of hotels in Les Diablerets if your budget is a little bigger. Getting to the Glacier 3000 lift is a little harder – the earliest weekday bus in April is 10.30am (earlier at weekends). We had no problems hitching from Les Diablerets.
  • This tour is covered in the Alpine Ski Mountaineering Volume 2: Central and Eastern Alps Guidebook.

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