“All the Grindelwald via ferrata are closed.” The woman at the tourist information office said these words in a firm, brisk tone that indicated that she didn’t realise that I would find them disappointing. I knew that there was a risk that the long, cold winter might mean that some mountain routes would still be impassable with snow that the hot July sun had not yet melted. I had started to accept that this might be quite a high risk when I had seen snow clinging to slopes and hiding in gullies as I looked out of the train window on the way in to Grindelwald. My trip to the tourist information office in Grindelwald had been done in the hope that I would be told my concerns were unfounded because there was one via ferrata around Grindelwald that I particularly wanted to climb. Not only had the tourist information woman confirmed that I wasn’t wrong, but added that there was also a risk of rock fall. I could have not let this news stop me from trying to climb, as you can’t, strictly speaking, close a cable and a series of ladders running up a mountain. However, I know the importance of listening to local advice about mountain conditions if you want to stay safe and so thanked the woman before walking out dejectedly.
My disappointment came from my feeling that I was going to miss a chance to do a via ferrata that would allow me to climb a little bit of the legendary Eiger by a route that is within sight of its iconic Nordwand (North Face). Admittedly, this via ferrata actually goes up a subsidiary peak of the Eiger called the Rotstock, but this simple climb would probably be as close to climbing the challenging and dangerous Eiger Nordwand as someone with my climbing skills would ever get. I’d wanted to climb the Rotstock Via Ferrata ever since I’d heard about a via ferrata on the Eiger a couple of years before. With a baby on the way for Valerie and I, this trip might be my only opportunity to try this route for a few years. But with the Rotstock Via Ferrata off the agenda, I started to think about where to go for a walk.
The Green Light
A couple of days later, Valerie and I walked from Mannlichen towards the Eiger. The Eiger looked magnificent, while the Rotstock looked like an insignificant wedge of rock at its side. A vertical cleft separating the Rotstock from its parent peak, breaking what would otherwise have been a continuous crest. I looked at the patches of snow around the Eiger and wished they would melt faster.
When we reached the tourist and rail hub of Kleine Scheidegg, Valerie pointed out a large board with a map. On one side of this was a list of the walking and skiing routes around the Eiger. Next to the words “Klettersteig Rotstock” (Klettersteig is the German for via ferrata) was a green light. The Rotstock Via Ferrata was now open.
The next day was our last full day in Grindelwald and only the second day that year that the Rotstock Via Ferrata had been open. We got up early and rode the railway back up to Kleine Scheidegg. The crowds catching the views and catching the trains of the Jungfraubahn mountain railway were beginning to grow as Valerie and I walked slowly up the ridge to the Eigergletscher Station. The Jungfraubahn is one of Switerland’s most famous attractions. It’s a railway that climbs up and inside the Eiger, through the Monch and out at the Jungfraujoch station perched on a ridge at 3,454m between the Monch and Jungfrau. The views from the Jungfraujoch are supposed to be as amazing as the price of the tickets to get there. Even getting to the first station on the line at Eigergletscher is painfully expensive for such a short ride, so we walked up and drank in the wonderful views.
From Eigergletscher we walked down the Eiger Trail towards the Nordwand, crossing the odd patch of snow and feeling the chill of being in the shadow of the mountain.
Now we were at its foot, the Rotstock had an impressive bulk, with steep cliffs and a mean, huge overhang running across half its face. Thankfully, the via ferrata misses all this. It goes up the buttress and gully to one side of the Rotstock before it climbs around the back of the Rotstock to the saddle (the Rotstocksattel) that sits between it and the Eiger proper. Valerie and I turned off the Eiger Trail at a place inexplicably called Wart to climb a grassy, whale-back ridge to the bottom of this buttress.
I was feeling quite excited as I put down my rucksack and began getting myself ready. I was happy to be about to climb, but strangely uneasy and a bit sad that Valerie wouldn’t be able to share this with me. Via ferrata is definitely out when you are pregnant and Valerie was going to watch me climb the first part of the route before getting in place from where she could see me when I got to the summit.
I gave her a hug goodbye and scrambled up to the start of the via ferrata and the first of a series of ladders that switch-backed up the buttress. The ladders wobbled and creaked as I climbed and occasionally looked at the mountains stretching out around me. At the top lip of the buttress I came into the sunshine and stopped to wave at Valerie and look at the dark mass of the Nordwand that was now so close.
I then walked and scrambled up neatly stacked or broken pancakes of rock. I was really enjoying moving over the rock, the feeling of being almost wrapped in the mountain and stunning sights of the Alps. An unprotected walk up grey scree took me into the back of the gully and the Rotstock train station.
Around the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the Jungfraubahn had a station in the Rotstock that was the starting point for tourists to climb along a protected path to the top of the Rotstock to enjoy the view. This path makes up the second half of the via ferrata. It’s the reason why this section has lots of steps cut to take advantage of the natural layering of the rock, some old metal posts for safety ropes and the last, rusty, but seemingly solid, ladder on the route dates from 1899 (according to my guidebook). The station is long closed and sealed up behind metal doors. When I got there a waterfall of melt water was falling between these two doors and an old snow drift was pilled up.
I climbed steps that became more broken up as I moved into a rock scoop at the back of the gully where the cliffs stood tall and framed an amazing view. A large patch of snow sat in this scoop and buried a section of the cable. This was probably why the via ferrata had been closed. That the snow was only about 10m across near the top and that a rope had been attached over the snow was probably what had allowed the via ferrata to be opened. I happily clipped into the rope and walked across, enjoying the exposure and the chance to do something slightly more adventurous.
The via ferrata then curved and climbed around the other side of the scoop before reaching a ladder in a narrow cleft that led me up to the broad Rotstocksattel. A short walk along the saddle and a short section of mostly protected scrambling and I was on the 2,663m summit of the Rotstock. It had been only an hour of easy climbing and walking.
I spent nearly an hour on the summit basking in the views and the sun and eating lunch. I just wanted to enjoy the panorama, particularly the relatively close-up views of the west face of the Eiger and of the Monch and Jungfrau.
I probably looked like a complete idiot to the other people up there as I waved at the dot 400m below me that was Valerie, but I’m pleased that she saw me. Retracing my steps back to the Rotstocksattel, I started down the back of the Rotstock to the Eigergletscher station.
Getting back down from a climb can sometimes feel more risky and difficult than getting up. This was certainly the case with getting off the Rotstock. I zigzagged across scree and slabby ledges as I followed the white and blue paint marks that marked the path. Apart from trying to avoid the odd patch of snow, I had to take care that the bits of rock strewn over the ledges didn’t act like ball bearings under my feet, sweeping them out from under me and sending me bouncing down the mountain. Some of the steps between the rock ledges were also quite tall and I had to take care finding holds. Ropes had been fixed across some of the trickier sections. I initially clipped my lanyards on to these to catch me if I fell, but stopped doing so when I realised that most of these ropes were only connected to the mountain at the top and ended with a knot that would easily pass through my karabiners. Instead, I down climbed some of the ropes.
Partly because of these slight challenges and partly because I was enjoying the odd glance at the glaciers around the Monch and ridges of the Jungfrau, I was having a really good time.
I was about two-thirds of the way down when I met two climbers who stopped me with a hopeful “klettersteig?” and pointed fingers up the way I had just come. They were surprisingly not that annoyed when I told them that they were on the wrong side of the mountain and showed them where to go on the map.
After this I picked up the pace to make sure I wouldn’t be too late for meeting Valerie. I met her at Eigergletscher station and celebrated having done a fun little via ferrata, and a little bit of the Eiger, with a big eis cafe.
The English language guidebook that describes the Rotstock Via Ferrata is Via Ferrata Switzerland by Iris Kurschner and published by Rother in 2005. This includes a description of the route and a simple map.
The SummitPost website has a good, detailed description of the Rotstock Via Ferrata together with lots of useful photos, including photos with the ascent and descent routes marked on them. There is also a summary of the Rotstock Via Ferrata on the website of Switzerland Tourism.
If you don’t have any experience of via ferrata and want to give the Rotstock Via Ferrata a go, Grindelwald Sports runs a via ferrata taster course in which a mountain guide will take you up this route.