Drei Personen steigen eine steile Stelle empor, es liegt Schnee, links und rechts der Personen ragen Felswände in die Höhe.

Winter sports

Ice climbing above Flims: scaling the ‘Cathedral’

  • #Ice climbing
Sales Consultant, Transa store Winterthur
© Fotos

Flo, Franziska and René’s goal was to tackle the ‘Cathedral’ at the end of the Bargis Valley, above Flims. The result was an unexpected first ascent. A story about fragile ice, flexibility and the fascination of ice climbing.

Looking out the window shortly after getting up on this crisp Monday morning, I can already sense: it’s going to be a beautiful day! After a clear, cold night, there is not a cloud in the sky. Perfect conditions for today’s adventure: ice climbing at the ‘Cathedral’ icefall, at the end of the Bargistal.

We meet up with our mountain guide Flo at 6.30 am. One last equipment check, then we’re ready to start our ascent, which takes us along the river to the far end of this magical high mountain valley. We relish the peace and solitude of this little oasis for mountaineering enthusiasts. After the first kilometre, the maintained path turns into a hiking trail that isn’t cleared in winter. This is where we need to put on our snowshoes. The snowpack is frozen solid – a good sign. The last few days have been warmer than average, less than ideal conditions for ice climbing. We wonder: has the icefall on our planned route frozen enough overnight?

  • We start our tour early in the morning – and enjoy the atmosphere.

    Photo © Jonas Jäggy
  • Verschneite Landschaft mit einem kleinen Fluss, drei Personen mit Schneeschuhen gehen dem Fluss entlang.

    The valley route to the icefalls in the Bargistal.

    Photo © Jonas Jäggy

The path leads us further and further along the river into the valley. After about three kilometres, a gentle ascent begins on the right-hand side of the valley. There are countless avalanche cones to our left and right: an impressive reminder of the power of nature. We can tell from the many grooves in the snow that it rained up here just a few days ago. Avalanches of wet snow – whether caused by the rain or heat of the sun – roll down the slopes to the valley floor like concrete. Fortunately, they’re frozen solid this morning, but the ascent over the numerous cones is always strenuous work nevertheless! Despite the hard trek, Franziska and I still have a grin on our faces. We’re just happy to be outside!

Adapting the tour to the weather

Further in, the snow becomes increasingly wet and heavy. But that’s all part of the adventure, so we concentrate less on the difficult conditions and more on the many chamois cavorting on the rocky ledges further up.

Flo soon points out a rock formation: the eagle. That’s where the plateau begins, the starting point for the gorge. By the time we reach it, the sun is already shining brightly, the snow has softened and the day is really warming up. It’s time to take a layer off. From here, we can just about see the surrounding mountain peaks; Piz Dolf is especially prominent. Right before us is the entrance to the gorge, and somewhere in there is the icefall we’re heading to – the ‘Cathedral’. Will we even be able to ice climb in these mild temperatures? The first niggling doubts start to creep in, but we remain confident.

We’ve reached the gorge. Surrounded by steep rock faces, we follow the snow-covered course of the river. We have to put our helmets on here – a rockfall from the steep rock faces on either side would be too dangerous. And, slowly, we begin to understand why the icefall is called the Cathedral: there are steep walls to the left and right, it’s cold and somewhat dark and opens up to the sky at the top. Combined with the unique acoustics of the space, it creates an imposing and impressive atmosphere!

And suddenly we’re standing before the icefall – and disillusionment sets in. The sun is already beating down on it, which really isn’t a good sign. The ice is washed out by water, brittle and unstable. To be honest, I’m pretty disappointed. Was the 90-minute climb over the many avalanche cones all for nothing? Flo, Franziska and I discuss our dilemma back and forth until we decide that climbing the icefall would be too reckless under these circumstances. Once again we realise that nature is simply the stronger force. But what can we do instead? Just to our left, there is a steep couloir which also leads to the level above the waterfall – is that the solution?

Using our ice climbing equipment

Our initial disappointment over and curiosity piqued, we get into our climbing harnesses, put on our crampons and tether ourselves to the short rope. In true alpine style – i.e. without any additional bolts or other fixed material, which we don’t have with us anyway – we climb the narrow gully towards the blue sky. The couloir is still in shade, which means the old snow is generally compact, but sometimes a little grainy. This isn’t pure ice climbing, so we can’t simply place our crampons and ice picks in the ice. Instead we have to work our way up the gully through a combination of old snow and icy underground – a welcome challenge. Crampons and ice picks have a good grip and hold wonderfully; the ascent is a dream!

Flo secures us from above with a T-slot anchor. This means that he anchors his ice pick horizontally in the compact firn and attaches the belay device to it.

  • Zwei Personen beim Eisklettern.

    The ice picks also grip in combined terrain.

    Photo © Jonas Jäggy
  • Drei Personen in den Bergen, sie freuen sich, weil sie auf dem Gipfel angekommen sind.
    Photo © Jonas Jäggy

I’m a bit disappointed that we had to switch to this route. I would’ve loved to climb the icefall, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. And I don’t want to risk doing something potentially irresponsible. Franziska, on the other hand, is delighted with the new route – and her outfit. She’s really raving about it. In the mix of old snow, ice and loose underground, her clothing is coming up trumps.

I’m also pleased we climbed the couloir, but I would’ve preferred to have climbed the icefall. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Risking doing something when you don’t absolutely need to would be irresponsible and it’s not the way I operate.

Avalanche risk – especially in spring

Once at the top, we’re sure that none of us has climbed up here before. We’ve managed a first ascent, so to speak! We give the gully the fitting name of ‘Il Cammino di Transa’. But there’s not much time for congratulating each other; the sun is already high in the sky. So, after a very quick break for lunch, we have to hurry back down. The descent leads through an east-facing slope, so it’s already been exposed to plenty of sun, which has made the ground very wet. At this time of day the risk of avalanche increases by the minute – something you should always bear in mind when ice climbing. In spring, especially, wet snow avalanches quickly grow in magnitude and can break off right down to the ground.

Then, just before we reach the valley mouth on the way back, it happens! A huge avalanche breaks loose and thunders down into the valley. Fortunately, we are watching this spectacle from a safe distance on the opposite side of the valley. As a final farewell, nature reminds us once again of its immense power.

A short time later, we’ve made it! After a long and eventful day, we treat ourselves to a long break out on the sun terrace of the Berghaus Bargis. The fruit tart is a dream, and the cooling drink we’ve ordered feels twice as refreshing as usual. We have a lively discussion of the day’s events, talk shop about past tours and make our next plans. A wonderful day with great company and a committed and thoughtful mountain guide comes to an end.

Right this way to the tour description.

Ice climbing tour – overview

Journey there/back: Take the train to Chur. From there, take the Postauto bus to Flims. The local bus runs from Flims Post to Flims Bargis.

The Flims Laax Falera shuttle runs throughout the destination area and has a regular timetable. You can find seasonal timetables and routes for all lines here.

Trip profile: Beautiful icefall – known as the ‘Cathedral’ – deep in the magical Bargistal valley. It’s a good idea to have a local mountain guide for the climb; we recommend Flo Möhl from the Grischa Mountaineering School (Bergsportschule Grischa).

Overnight stay: At Berghaus Bargis, a cosy, family-friendly establishment at the entrance to this beautiful valley.

More info: The ‘Cathedral’ is an insider tip which you won’t find in guidebooks. For other tours in the region, we recommend the ice climbing guide staple, ‘Hot Ice Ost’ by Urs Odermatt published by Panico Verlag. You can get your copy from Transa Books for CHF 62.00.

  • #Ice climbing

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