Alpstein Marathon (6b+, 21 pitches)
Adrian and I took a day off work to go do a climb that he’d had his eye on for months. A 21 pitch monster called “Alpsteinmarathon,” it’s the longest climb in the Appenzell Mountains of Switzerland. Over 800 meters of climbing through long and sustained pitches, it wouldn’t be easy as we both felt a bit out of rock climbing shape despite being in peak condition a month before. Activity had fallen off to nothing! Oh well, let’s see what we can do…
We drove down after work and hiked in to the Bollenwies Hut under the stars, arriving at about 10:30 pm. After many admonishments to remove our shoes and put on our pants (well, for Adrian. It’s a long story, but he was kind of just hiking in shorts that looked suspiciously like underwear), we were allowed up to a room to sleep. In the morning we hiked for 15 minutes along the beautiful narrow lake to the start of the route, only about 50 meters above the lake and a small sheep farm.
I got the first lead, a 6a+ “entry test,” that was indeed a good test. Strenuous but fun too. I combined with the next pitch and ran into what would be a common problem on the climb: awkward bolt clips. In fact I had to climb up and down 3 times to feel secure enough to clip this particular bolt, which required pasting feet on a crumbly, sandy slab, and making due with an equally crumbly handhold. Above this clip the pitch was enjoyable again, going over a little roof to broken face.
Adrian continued and we swapped leads for a while. The sun was getting uncomfortably hot, and this part of Europe has been in a heat wave for over a week. Our energy already flagging, we worried about being able to finish the climb. Increasingly, I thought hiking or swimming was the right thing to be doing now!
Pitch 6 was an amazing steep face which required some commitment. A long (8 meter?) runout between bolts mandated a nut placement, thankfully bomber. I really enjoyed the continuous 6a moves on this pitch. Adrian took the next, at similar difficulty, then led the crux pitch with it’s outsized difficulty of 6b+. Aside from this pitch, the route is 6a+. Adrian used an aider to get past most of the pitch, which was fairly sustained. Following, I could climb free until a brutal transition out of a crack to a face and slabby terrain on the right, then I was happy for the etrier Adrian had left me. I remembered that aiding is pretty tough too, twisting around on slings and basically doing pull-ups on occasion. Emerging at the belay short of breath, I was happy for Adrian to lead again.
At pitch 10 we started swapping leads again. In here, beaten down by the heat, I started pulling on draws reflexively. How would we possibly finish? We had a fair amount of water left, but were conserving it. The rubber in our shoes heated up so much that we had to try to keep the toes out of the sun to prevent painful burns. A few days later, I’ve got a nasty blister on the back of my ankle where I missed a spot of sunscreen. Only our stubbornness kept us on the rock for the next few pitches. We slowed down, cheated liberally and just tried to keep moving. The forecast called for some clouds in the afternoon and we were counting on that! I try to write down a detailed pitch description right after a climb, but for the life of me, I can’t remember a stitch of pitch 11 (5c), which Adrian led. Was I a zombie?
Pitch 14 was cruxy at 6a+. I climbed enjoyable slab, then had a heart stopping moment traversing to the left with a crumbly undercling hold and slowly slipping-off feet. Although mostly a bolted climb, it’s not “over-bolted” at all. A fall in here wouldn’t be great. I pressed my cheek to the wall and contemplated the few millimeters of skin and rubber holding me to the wall as I pawed for a right handhold. Whew! That was a certain kind of fun! At this point I started cursing like a sailor and would continue for the rest of the climb. Me and Adrian both, actually.
But some shade was sent by deities unknown, and did so much to improve my spirits. Adrian hit “the wall” a pitch or two later, feeling unable to free climb for a while and making strenuous moves in slings. Stubborn man, he pulled through and regained strength as we climbed in shadier conditions.
Pitch 16 climbed a runout face (well, I missed a bolt, that’s why!) to a steep chimney with a tough exit. Pitch 18 featured a slabby buttress, a dicey move around into a gully (I pulled on this draw), then a fantastic overhanging crack. Finally, a “sting in the tail” with a really difficult traverse of a steep slab to reach the belay. This route makes you work for every inch!
Adrian came up, asked me to sign the route book at the belay, and set out on a hard move right off the belay (6a+), going past an overhang via crack and face. After this workout, thankfully the long pitch moderated considerably on a left-leaning journey to easier ground. Another pitch led to the grande finale: the 15 meter pitch 21, rated 5b.
Here we had a hilarious argument, though we were really mad at the moment. I felt it was really important to clip these last two bolts, but Adrian wanted to do a “walkaround” of those final moves. We hollered at each other heatedly for a minute, me demanding to lead the pitch if he wouldn’t, and Adrian pointing out I was being an unreasonable son-of-a-bitch. Finally he told me to f*(k off at which point we both broke up laughing. We were tired, strained and at the end of our tethers…finally we’d been able to step outside ourselves for a moment and see the ridiculousness of the situation. “Okay, I’ll clip your bolt, but MY WAY!” he said with a smirk. In the end he didn’t clip it. As I followed the pitch, flipping the rope over the buttress crest so I could follow the bolt line I had to admit it was both hard and contrived. I guess the routesetter wants to make sure that the last move feels the hardest, because 5b after 20 pitches will certainly feel like 6a+, at least.
We were all smiles on the summit, happy to have a lot of work done with, enjoying the evening air and lack of hot sun (it was 7 pm, the climbing took about 11 hours which was 3 hours over “normal time”). We shared Adrian’s sandwiches, looking out to the Bodensee, and in to Saentis and other Appenzell peaks. We saw gaemse grazing steep meadows. We hiked down, reaching the Bollenwies in an hour, where beer and coffee restored what was missing. Laughing and talking with two women on a multi-day hike, listening to an impromptu men’s choir, we watched the light fade from the dark water. Hiking away, 23 hours after we arrived, we made the long drive home.
Thank you Adrian for a good adventure! Thanks to the weather, the mountain and the route.
Detailed description below. A PDF is here.
Pitch French YDS Meters Leader Description
1 6a+ 5.10c 20 Michael Short, sporty moves up a pillar and into a gully
2 5c+ 5.10a 40 Michael Continue up a gully wall, awkward clips but a nice roof
3 5c+ 5.10a 50 Adrian Faces with water runnels in a grassy garden
4 5c+ 5.10a 45 Michael Follow a buttress up on slabs with holes
5 5c 5.10a 40 Adrian Short slab with water runnels to a grassy exit
6 6a 5.10b 35 Michael Beautiful steep slab with good holds. Nuts required.
7 6a 5.10b 25 Adrian Continue up the slab with a few tough moves
8 6b+ 5.11a 45 Adrian Crux pitch, we aided liberally
9 6a 5.10b 40 Adrian Initially difficult Wasserrillen on a smooth slab
10 5c 5.10a 40 Michael Straightforward rock avoiding grassy sections. Ends with a hike up the 4th grass band.
11 5c 5.10a 45 Adrian I have no memory of this pitch! It was very, very hot.
12 5a 5.8 50 Michael Pleasant climbing staying on clean rock with occasional grass. Ends with an interesting traverse into a gully to belay.
13 4c 5.7 30 Adrian Climb easily left to connect with the main summit buttress
14 6a+ 5.10c 35 Michael Very nice face/slab climbing, with a real “cruxy” move traversing left with a tiny undercling.
15 5b 5.9 50 Adrian Follows good rock left between grassy bands. Pretty sustained for the grade thanks to this “always seek the best rock” principle.
16 5c+ 5.10a 50 Michael Excellent pitch up a featured face, finishing with a few steep moves in a chimney.
17 5b 5.9 50 Adrian Climb easily left again on the increasingly defined summit massif.
18 6a+ 5.10c 35 Michael Nice moves on a slabby pillar to a hard traverse left into a gully, then spectacular steep crack climbing. Ends with a difficult moves across a slab to the belay.
19 6a+ 5.10c 45 Adrian “One move wonder” very hard move climbing above the first bolt, then easier terrain up and left.
20 5b+ 5.9 50 Michael Up and left to the first bolt, then traverse hard left for every subsequent bolt. I missed this, and was soon walking grassy ledges.
21 5b 5.9 15 Adrian Somewhat contrived difficulty clipping two bolts on a ridge, then begin scrambling to the summit.