Adventures must be done!

Maggia Valley to Formazza Tramp (8. - 12. Oct 2009)

October is traditionally the time for the yearly autumn tramp.
This possibly needs some further explanation: autumn IS the best season of all; there are the beautiful colours of senescent leaves, the clearness of air and plenty of berries and nuts. Splendid!

The planned route led from the Maggia Valley towards Binntal. But where we got, we shall see in due course ...

Topomap showing the planned trail

Day 1

We left Zurich in the later afternoon with the goal of reaching the starting point of the tramp that very evening. In this we succeeded and the tent spot we had discovered the year before served us well again. Soon a merry fire was crackling and the tarp set up, as some rain seemed imminent. Some water was boiled and tea served soon after. Then Reto and myself relaxed on the shingles close to the fire and waited for Marcel, who had taken a later connection, to find our camp. So presently he did and our party was complete.

Day 2

There was quite some rain during the night, the best lullaby I can think off, well, if it hadn't been for a sloppiness on my account when putting up the tarp. There was a considerable pool starting to fill on top, till I got up, emptied it and retied the tarp in a smarter way, allowing the rain to flow off freely.
The morning started dry but extremely foggy.

Our camp on the first morning of the tramp.

We followed the road for a while, then reached a stone bridge arching gracefully over a stream. Here we left civilisation behind us and soon after lost the path. On we went, boulder scrambling uphill, trying not to slip on the soapy lichen covering the wet rocks.

Marcel on the old stone bridge leading into the wilderness.

Up we go!

Marcel consulted his GPS and confirmed that 'we were on the trail'. A comforting thought to those not yet used to bushbashing and boulder hopping!
A short while later, we came indeed upon a path that was even marked and progress got somewhat swifter although less interesting.
This was soon made up for, as we ascended into dense mist that shrouded the surroundings, creating a mysterious atmosphere. Truly, there is a wonderful aspect about such weather.

Tramping in diffuse conditions.

Beech trees in the mist.

Reto and Marcel starting to disappear.

It got darker by the minute and not before long a drizzle started that soon turned into steady rain and made us don the rain jackets. The rain ceased in time for lunch, which was kept shortish as our bodies were cooling down given the dampness and lower temperature regime.

Crossing a bridge with dysfunctional railings.

At was at this altitude that we came upon the richest blueberry grounds we had ever seen and we spent some time digging in. Most delicious!

The trail vanished after the last derelict shepherds buildings or we could not spot it due to the fog and rain, that had inconveniently regained in strength soon after we left the main tree line behind us. These circumstances led to some more bushbashing through dripping wet Rhododendron hirsutum and other shrub like plants. At last, brown alpine pastures replaced the bush and we got a few glimpses of the mountain pass above us.

Marcel with the pass guessable in the background.

We crossed the pass and pushed on, by now it was getting really wet and even chilly, after all, we had reached an altitude of 2300 metres after ascending 1900 metres. Marcel and I decided on the spot, that we would not tramp on to the originally planned camp site near a lake but find a suitable site as soon as possible. In this we prevailed, although finding a spot that was not too wet took some scouting. I extracted the tarp and we had soon set it up and crawled in.
The border between hypothermia and utter comfort can be crossed in an instant if you don't know what your doing or have the wrong gear. As things were, the only sensible thing to do was take off the wet clothing, put on the longjohns and spare shirts, blow up the matresses, stuff the sleeping bags into the bivvy bags and slip in. Then we started the stove for a nice cuppa and life was pretty comfy and agreeable again. Soon, we held steaming mugs of cappucino and nibbled some biscuits and chocolate. Still, it was raining, which was most pleasurable, given that the tarp was waterproof.

Me: "These cookies are AWESOME!!!"
Marcel: "Things are going extremely well!"

Happy campers

Reto studying the topomap.

Home sweet home ...

After teatime the rain reduced to a drizzle and we took the chance to take a leak, get some new water from the nearby rivulet and take in the vista.

Marcel sourcing fresh water.

Alpine trolls?

A mountain camp.

View out of the tarp.

Enjoying the scenery while the dinner is cooking.

Cooking and eating were the last main actions of this remarkable day and soon after we snuggled into our sleeping bags and listened to the rain, just in time starting again with curiously singular big, heavy drops, gradually leading to steady downpour again.

Day 3

Day 3 dawned rainless and calm.


After morning tea followed by porridge, the tarp was collapsed and all gear stowed in the packs. By now, the clouds broke up and wonderful sunshine reached the Earth. Not to diminish the qualities of a rainy day, but sunshine is quite nice once in a while as well!

Tarn next to our camp site.

It was not very far to the next pass, from where we had planned a traverse to reach a mountain lake that had been the original destination of the previous day. It was again a pathless place, but while on the ascending side, alpine pastures interspersed with rocks dominated, a wild jumble of boulders of all sizes met us on the other side.

Me standing on a boulder a few steps behind the pass.

An examination of the topography resulted in abandoning the traversing plan as there were steep, glacier polished rock slabs that would have been challenging enough in dry conditions but were much too risky on this particular day. Thus, we boulder-hopped downhill and then scrambled up a grassy slope to reach the lake.

Marcel on another boulder amidst wild landscape.

The mountain lake in light rain.

We had a hurried lunch at the lake (it was raining again) and tramped on towards the next pass, requiring our boulder hopping experiences once more. Marcel and I were most accomplished in this sort of travel and drew ahead, keen to see what lay beyond.

Far over the Misty Mountains we must tramp ere fall of dusk ...

Steaming mountain ranges.

The weather was quite varied, including brief glimpses of sunshine, mist, wind and rain.
On one of the slopes we met two curious cows that were presumably after salt and started to slobber all over my backpack, which I had taken off to put on my rain trousers.

I'm attracting the attention of two cows ...

Mountain beauty ...

Lake after the last pass of the day.

En route to the tree line.

Descent through larch stands.

Finding a camp site was not that easy today, as we had descended below the tree line to have the chance of a camp fire. We finally found a likely spot that needed quite some terrain reforming (moving boulders and building platforms to prevent us from slipping down the slope). While I was busy with terra-forming, Marcel and Reto occupied themselves with building a fire. No easy task after the heavy rains. I joined them a while later in the job of peeling the wet bark of branches and producing dry splinters.
It took considerable time, but then we had a roaring fire, warm enough to sit barefeeted, which was a relieve as the boots were soaked.
Now was the chance to roast some chestnuts we had picked up in valley on the first morning. Delicious!

Day 4

Day four started out as a stunner; not a single clould was to be seen!

Reto at the camp in the morning.

After breakfast cooked on fire, we descended further into the Valley of Formazza, traversed a mixed beech and coniferous forest and ascended via a dammed lake to a further pass, where we arrived in the afternoon.

On the 'Passo Busin'

From here we took a direct route over glacially formed terrain towards a bivvy.

Me tramping with the Punta della Scatta in the background.

Short break for some photoshooting ...

Marcel overlooking a tarn

European Alps or Patagonia?

Tea time in the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) bivvy.

We arrived at the bivvy in the later afternoon. It lay just a few metres past a pass and a fierce wind was blowing, causing us to retreat into the hut despite the sunshine. The bivvy was a a concrete construction and pretty cold inside, 6.5 degrees, but it kept out the windchill.
At dusk a weather change seemed imminent with clouds rolling over the next pass and quickly covering the hemisphere above us. We had mobile connection and figured out that there would be snow tomorrow. To cope with all eventualities, we developed an alternative route, leading back into the Valley of Formazza and allowing a swift retreat, should worse come to worst.
A few snowflakes were already blown by our hut when we retreated to our sleeping bags.
The night was the coldest yet off all on this trip; the building was a formidable fridge!

Day 5

We got up at 6am, prepared breakfast and look out of the door. There were about 10cm of snow and the view was down to about 20 metres. Reto was promoting the swift descent via the alternate and we finally consented to that, as the original route would have involved another pass and no one knew what the current weather might evolve into.
We were therefore on our way in the break of dawn, carefully moving among the snow covered rocks.

Descending from the bivvy in the first snow of the season.

Hiking conditions were actually quite good and we progressed nicely. The snow added some new flavour to the landscape and I enjoyed the darkness and stillness imposed by the fresh snow.
Tramping high above the lake, lying grey and forbidding below us, added to the wildness of the land shrouded in fog and drifting sheets of snow flakes.

Negotiating a boulder strewn slope.

Snow starts to accumulate at even lower altitudes while we descend.

Near the valley floor, looking back where we came from.

The path from the end of the lake down into the valley was neither exciting nor spirit lifting in any sort and I will pass over that bit. Suffice it to report that we found a restaurant in the village of Valdo where we ordered coffee and croissants.
We then had to pass a few hours in that place, whiling away the time till the next bus left in direction of Domodossola. While Reto rejoiced in shopping for regional groceries such as Prosciutto di Parma, Marcel and I felt downhearted and grumpy because we had failed in reaching our planned destination and had unfinished business in these parts of the Alps.
We grumbled and dratted as we were forced to join the shopping frenzy by our comrade, sneering at the cuckoo clocks and other touristic crap on sale.
Getting a lunch in a nearby pizzeria on the other hand was not that bad after all.

Still, I cheered up when being able to board the bus and leave the place behind.
The weather cleared up as we proceeded South and in Domodossola ample sunshine prevailed, allowing the savouring of an icecream (excellent stuff down in Italy).

We shall return!!!

Findelglacier Campaign (3rd - 6th Oct 2009)

This is the account of a scientific field campaign, which is adventurous enough to be added to this particular blog!

The Findelglacier is situated close to Zermatt in the Swiss Alps and has lately been chosen as one of the glaciers monitored by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) (see Traditionally, the mass balance is measured using so-called ablation poles. These are six metres long, vertically embedded in the glacier in nine metre deep holes. The poles are then visited on a regular basis and the amount of mass reduction can be estimated from their length above the surface. Such measurements are time consuming (although fun) and give only sparse sampling.
A new PhD project undertaken by RSLs (Remote Sensing Labs) former MSc student Philip, now with Physical Geography, aims at using LIDAR data for the estimation of the mass balance. Modern LIDAR systems may be calibrated radiometrically and thus produce not only range findings used for the production of surface models but can also provide information about the target on the ground, i.e. its reflectivity. For such calibrations, spectral measurements of ground targets are required and that was the reason why I was lucky enough to join this little expedition.

Day 1

Our first destination of the day was the airfield of Turtmann, which we had identified as suitable ground reference target. We carried our numerous material (GPS, tripod, spectroradiometer plus all our personal gear including full glacier equipment, sleeping bags, matresses and stove) to the airfield and started to acquire spatial positions and spectral data.

Acquiring white reference measurements with the ASD FieldSpec instrument.

Philip giving me a hand for the white reference measurement

We soon had sampled two patches of the airfield and returned back to the train station to take the next train to Zermatt. During this train ride, I had the joy to go over the food plan of the next days; we had been given the responsiblity of buying all the food and I was soon immersed in food calculations. Thus prepared, we entered the supermarket and got all provisions in a minimal amount of time. This was followed by another train ride on the famous Gornergrat Railway, world famous, I expect, at least in Japan, which provides large contingents of tourists to this region. We got out at the 'Rotenboden' station, from where we had a short walk to a little research hut, slightly dilapidated but well supplied with food and cooking ware.

The research cabin overlooking the Gorner glacier with the Monte Rosa region in the background.

Having arrived at the hut, we admired the wild scenery and had a brew before setting to work. The University had acquired new expedition tents from the Swiss outdoor company Exped. I had a lot of Exped gear myself and was dead keen to set up one of the tents for fun and training reasons. I must admit that we did not come close to the four minutes of setup time, but we perfected our setup sequence, which had started suboptimal due to the lack of a user manual.

Dinner preparations in front of the hut (2700 m asl).

Day 2

This was the day of the LIDAR data acquisition and our job consisted of setting up and operating a GPS base station for dGPS post-processing of the data. For that reason, we took the first train up to the top and set up our tripod. To keep off the tourists, a climbing rope was borrowed from the nearby hotel and we rigged up a fence.
The next five hours consisted of sitting around, looking at the scenery, watching tourists, observing the GPS and our fixwinged aircraft flying the LIDAR, not to forget the hearty breakfast at the hotel!

Setting up the GPS base station.

After finishing the GPS data take, it was time for a late lunch, during which we had a discussion with a former mountain guide, who regarded the climate change issue with suspicion. Fair enough, but what is really striking is that the public only gets the media hypes but lacks the facts of scientific evidence ...

Back at the camp, we prepared for another 3 guys who were to join the team this evening. As the hut had limited bunks, we set up a Russian made tent, that had been part of some deal including sleeping bags and down jackets as well. Most curious was the tunnel system at one end, for which we could find no explanation whatsoever.

The research cabin and our Russian tent.

The rest of the day passed with preparing all gear for the day after, cooking dinner and going through next day's plan again.

Day 3

We got up at six am, had porridge for breakfast and hauled all the gear up to a flat terrain section where the helicopter would pick us up. It was full moon and despite that the scenery was way too kitsch, we had to take a picture or two anyway!

The Matterhorn is illuminated by the first sun rays with the full moon still at summit level.

All gear was deposited in neat columns according to group and destination and everyone was putting on their climbing harnesses while waiting in the cold morning air. It had been a while since my last helicopter flight and I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the chopper. Then, the sound of whirrling blades reached our ears and soon the machine appeared and performed an overflight to check out the terrain.

Lama helicopter of the Air Zermatt doing an overflight.

Watch the overflight and landing as video!


About to board the aircraft.

Three of us plus our day packs were soon crammed into the back seat of the helicopter and we were off, our mountain guide was already in one of the front seats. The flight was short but stunning. Flying just a few dozen metres above the glacier with all the crevasses and the lateral morains and mountain flanks on either side was just awesome!

Our helicopter leaves for the accumulation area.

We were dropped off at around 3400 m asl. We ropped up for glacier travel and, guided by our GPS, soon arrived at the first point of interest. The goal was to determine the accumulation of snow since last autumn. Using our snow shovel and ice axes, we began to dig in earnest, taking turns as digging at this altitude gets exhausting.

Philip shovelling, observed by Horst ...

.... a bit later ...

We had to hack through some ice lenses on the way and eventually reached another hard and dirty layer, which was proclaimed as 'last year's level' by Horst. We then took snow cores that were weighted and an exact profile of the snow column was recorded. During the digging, Philip and I took spectral samples of the snow surface nearby while being belayed by the mountain guide. Soon after, too many clouds moved in and spectral sampling was getting impractical. Still, I had to tramp along with the spectrometer on my back and I'm bound to say that ergonomically speaking, it's a pain in the backside after a few hours.

On the way to our camp site, a few existing ablation poles were visited and measured.
I was already excited about getting to the camp, as it was situated near a little lake at 2900 m asl and had been described as a really neat place. Indeed, there were some flat spots above the tranquile lake and the first thing we did was to take off a layer or two, cause it had gotten somewhat warmer during our descent and put on the kettle for a nice cuppa.

The camp at the lake in the evening sun.

The camp at the lake (2900 m asl).

After the first evening, I had gotten the job of chief cook on this expedition. Tonight's dinner for a total of 10 persons (another 3 had hiked in today) was logistically a challenge, involving three different models of outdoor stoves and an assortment of pots and pans. Still, my helpers and I managed to produce soup followed by pasta with tomato sauce and tea.
The tents turned out to be a bit restricted in space with four persons, nevertheless, once the impertinent snoring had stopped (or I had fallen asleep anyway), the night passed fairly well and there was even a bit of rain, which I enjoyed particularly.

Day 4

Wake up call was at 6am again and once more porridge was on the menu. There is something particular about porridge. It somehow lasts a good deal longer than calculated. It is a mystery. In any case, a bit more than half the porridge was gone when everyone stated that they were really, really stuffed. Yeah, right ....
We packed the camp and prepared the transport netting of the helicopter. We gave the spectroradiometer to the cargo specialist to take down into the valley as the weather was too cloudy for measurements today, saying "Watch out for this one, costs about 60'000 bucks!".

Our team had no flight today, but tramped to the ablation poles, carrying along a Heuke. This apparatus is best described as a portable steam boiler with two propane burners providing the heat input. The steam is then lead through a long piping and ends in a lance with vents at the tip. With this device, one can virtually steam holes into ice, up to around 9 metres deep. Into these, new ablation poles are sunk.

En route to our measurement points. The lateral moraine exposed by the fast retreating glacier is clearly visible in light colours.

Philip and myself with the Heuke instrument and the Matterhorn on the horizon.

Getting the position of an existing ablation pole.

Having drilled and measured all poles we had to do, the long tramp to the train station started. I enjoyed the hike, as it led across some wild landscapes.

Braided river system below the glacier.

Tramping through a larch forest with the Heuke.

On the way to civilisation.

Sorting out the gear at Zermatt main station.

A most interesting and enjoyable trip! Looking forward to getting some more measurements out in the hills!

Cheers to the team!