Engelberg – I’d never heard of it. A small town, high in a valley overlooked by the 3239m Titlis and a place that many would view as a ski resort. Not me however, I now know different. Two weeks in the Alps, a potter halfway up the Eiger, swimming in a river by the Italian border and the best memories, the ones tucked away for those days when you need a little motivation or a pick-me-up… they’re the ones of Engelberg.
My holidays normally come with a focus, a do this or that but somehow I ended up drifting across Europe with no real goals fixed in mind. The Ultra came with a penalty clause, as many fulfilled targets often do – a sense of loss almost, once the goal has been attained. During my time in Switzerland, that feeling of loss seemed to seep through my consciousness daily and for someone as positive as me, it was really quite disturbing. Previously, in the aftermath of March’s adventure race, I’d had a couple of days when I didn’t know what to do with myself and I guess the Ultra was always going to twist my mind. Oh to be a sports psychologist – now that’s one career I wouldn’t have minded pursuing in hindsight.
The people. A holiday without meeting strangers and leaving with new-found friends would be a tragic vacation. I’d met Joe, a South African climber, in Morocco just after new year and plans, vague and last minute, were made to meet up as he was over in Switzerland for the summer. Ignoring all the details and the whens, wheres and whys – through Joe I met some amazing people. Kind, hospitable, fun, caring, positive and just downright charming. Not least of these was Joe’s girlfriend Martina, a dreadlocked jazz guitarist and teacher, who exuded quiet confidence and made me so welcome. There are people you meet as you pass through this life that are worth emulating and Martina is high up on my list. Can’t say any more than that.
So what’s special about Engelberg? Luckily, with all these new found friends, I didn’t have to hunt through guidebooks or trawl the internet. Martina’s family has a place up above the town with the most amazing views across to Titlis and I was invited to spend a few nights there and to take the opportunity to (try to) climb and (try to) boulder. Lower Schlanngen was first up, “This must be one of the hardest crags in the world to on-sight, even on the easy routes”. So reads a guide on the interweb and for me, it was utterly brutal, impossible and frustrating as hell. I’d hardly climbed this year due to all the running, the fingers and arms were weak and technique had waved goodbye as it launched itself out of the window! Bolted limestone, small holds for hands and feet, overhanging and vertical for the most part… it would take a brave person to start their climbing career on this crag. I got as high as the second clip whilst on a top rope on some new line round the corner from the big boys (and girls) routes and never even made the first clip on the 6a next to it. Shameful. I have however learnt how to spot footholds and small ones at that.
There’s a fair few boulders up the valley, via ferrata too and multipitch sports routes leading way up into the alpine landscape. Alberto and Tabea, accompanied by a mat or two, wandered up the valley with us a few miles and the natural beauty of Engelberg was displayed for all to see. We had a play on a small boulder over to the left, Martina making it up a corner first and not long after was followed by me – a new line and she gets to pick a name. Ace stuff! A heel hook, followed by a stab at a two finger pocket and with a bit of persuasion you were over onto the slab. No idea of the grade but it was nice to at least finish something!
Crossing over the valley, we headed up to Fuchs Stein. The photo says it all. Ondra had even made a trip to Engelberg to have a play on this house sized piece of rock. Being a little special, he flashed the V10 but the V15 was left unfinished. Needless to say, I made it to the top… using the rope that’s round the back for descent. Having never bouldered outside I didn’t know what to expect. It was fun, sociable and I even got my first flapper, yup, blood issued from the torn tip of one finger and to my mind – that qualifies me as a boulderer, albeit a poor one. We went back a few days later and one could only be impressed watching top climbers work the moves on the harder routes, offering beta and encouraging one another. Good stuff and I was lucky to be there with two of only five people who’ve managed the V10, Rene and Alberto.
After a few days down by the Eiger, I headed back to Engelberg and had a cracking day walking up high and looking across to Titlis. Whereas Grindlewald was a real honey pot for foreign tourists, the North Face of the Eiger having a particular appeal to Japanese visitors, it seemed to me that most of the trekkers up high and and using the huts where Swiss. Looking across the valley towards Titlis, it was easy to spot the hordes escaping their coaches for a trip in a gondola and I was happy to have chosen the route I did. Plenty of small kids dashed ahead of their parents and the hut was finally reached after a few hours. A quick pint and a couple of photos later and I headed back down.
Back down to Engelberg and it was dinner round at Alberto’s, with Rugy and Tabea showing a mischievous side with a dead fly strategically placed on the salad. Haha. The photos adorning the walls were mostly of Alberto’s father, a bold and brave mountaineer by the looks of things and it was easy to see were Alberto got his love of climbing from. Alberto is another guitar player and if you’ve seen ‘The Wizard’s Apprentice’, the film about Adam Ondra released last year, then you will have heard his music and seen a clip or two of Alberto and the Fried Bikinis.
Aye, holidays for me are about the people you meet. This was a great one, up there with the Canadian Rockies in 2004. I had no preconceptions of Switzerland before I went, all I knew of was The Alps… Engelberg and the people I met through Joe and Martina, exceeded even those great alpine peaks.