Thousands of feet above sea-level, in the rarefied air of the Engadine Valley, my axe crunches into the ice wall. A cloud of rock dust kicks up under the curved blade and tumbles down the face of the glacier. I arc the second ice axe over my head and swing, my weight shifting to the sharpened points of the crampons, hastily gouged into the ice. In the moment, with a tenuous grip on the surface and an animal rush of adrenaline it’s easy to forget the belay rope, the instructor, and the pair of climbers below keeping the line taut, ready to slow your descent. For somebody who spends his life in the office, now clinging to a vertical ice face in the shadow of the Diavolezza peak, it all seems a bit like madness.
As with most days, it started with breakfast. Today it’s scrambled eggs, fruit salad and black coffee in the ornate dining room of the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, with sunlight streaming from the snow-capped mountain views. The dress code is usually smart-casual for breakfast but only the jammiest of hikers dons their blazer and cravat for the craggy walk ahead. A stroll on a glacier calls for boots over brogues and jumpers over dinner jackets, as well as a healthy sheen of suncream, though the red glow in my cheeks that evening suggests I made this discovery too late.
A quick visit to the Bergsteigerschule Pontresina means acquiring the services of a mountain guide and decking ourselves out in the necessary safety gear. It is impossible to walk the main street of picturesque Pontresina without pausing to look out at the mountains that surround the town. For residents they are both a vital presence, drawing tourists with the fantastic views and winter sports opportunities, and a threat, indicated by the extensive dams and avalanche barriers strewn across the mountainside. For the Alpine enthusiast, a skyline like this spells adventure.
Suited and booted, we set off on the hike through Engadine’s stunning landscapes, crossing streams of milky glacial water in the shade of towering trees. The glaciers of the Engadine Valley have receded dramatically in the last 150 years – a combination of climate change and the last gasps of an ice age – retreating higher into the hills. While this may sound concerning to the globally conscientious, the thaw has the benefit of revealing the dramatic, scarred path beneath. In the winter this boulder-strewn trail would be covered in uniform white snow. But during the warmer months the striking rust red of the rock and the translucent blue of the glacier punctuate the landscape with magical vibrancy.
The route we take is low on exertion but dense with beauty-spots. Aqua-marine pools, sparkling glacial caves and cascading waterfalls punctuate our ascent, before the alien curvature of the glacier, looms into view. The ground is carved at a definitive line where the rubble and dust turn to rough ice. From here crampons and ice axes are the order of the day, and while the crunch of metal feels damaging at first, the therapeutic benefits of landing a clean swing into the white earth soon becomes too tempting to resist.
For all the rock and permafrost the landscape feels lively. It is one of the Engadine Valley’s striking thrills to turn your head to look up into the mountains, then down into the green valley below, then at your own feet, planted on the colossal ice flow making its way, inches at time, between the two worlds. From where we stood earlier in the day in the centre of Pontresina, the mountains felt weirdly illusory, like a set on a Hollywood backlot. But hours later there we were, toes nestled in the flaking frost, and all it took was an expert guide and some hiking boots.
Eventually the glacier began to slope into a well of rock and ice. We descended to the level floor, digging footholds with our ice axes as we went, until the far wall towered over us at a near-vertical angle. A bright orange belay rope snaked down its pristine blue surface, knotted and ready to climb. Ice climbing in the Swiss Alps is one of those things that, however you say it, can’t help but sound a bit Bond. And for the summertime Alpine adventurer, this ice axe assault course will provide a welcome source of adrenaline. While deceptively simple from the ground, maintaining grip, coordinating your movements and managing your stamina are all key to getting that lactic acid flowing on your ascent, though a mad scramble is just as fun.
But what comes up must come down, and when the ache in your shoulders starts to call out for the Kronenhof steam room, the views of the verdant Engadine Valley are just as spectacular on the hike back, out of the wilds and back to the civilisation of Pontresina.
A day on the glacier, then: less a frigid trek in the hills, more a bracing work-out with a side of jaw-dropping natural beauty.
Header Image:Dom Smith, MANTALITYMAGAZINE.COM
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