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The Monch


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Distance: 3.4 miles

Led by renowned mountaineer and climbing editor John Harlin III, four BACKPACKER editors enjoyed a gorgeous early-winter ascent of the standard route of Switzerland's Monch, a 13,488-foot peak that sits between the Eiger and the Jungfrau in the heart of the Swiss Alps.
  • Jungfraujoch
  • Near the base
  • Monch hut
  • Rope up
  • Midway up
  • Route narrows
  • Summit ridge
  • Summit
  • Sunset

Snow levels above 4,000 meters in the Swiss Alps in early November are often hip- or even head-high. But during a week of backpacking on the Alpine Pass route, two groups of BACKPACKER editors were extremely lucky to encounter very low levels -- and nothing but sunny blue skies. At the end of the week, our two groups came together in the picteuresque village of Grindelwald, where we enjoyed a splendid fondue feast at the Hotel Eiger and more bottles of beer and wine that I'd recommend the night before attempting to climb a semi-technical 14er.

But early the next morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we jumped the first train to the Jungfraujoch, a mountain station (and incredible piece of engineering and architecture) perched in the saddle between the Monch and the Jungfrau. The train -- actually a cog railway -- climbs steeply for about an hour, much of it through a tunnel burrowed into the rock. A stop midway through lets you climb out and peer through windows carved into the north face of the Eiger; we had the pleasure of looking down on the route that John Harlin's father pioneered before his death on this very peak.

After a few obligatory photos at the Jungfraujoch, which sits at the head of the longest glacier in all of the Alps, six of us walked out into the snow to climb the Monch, which is slightly higher than the Eiger. Four of us completed the summit, gaining what must be the best peak views in Switzerland. We could see hundreds of snowy peaks, and even into the Italian Alps. At the summit, John -- who's climbed the Eiger but never the Monch -- told us the story of how this trio of peaks got their names. Short version: The Monch (or Monk) sits in the middle to protect the Jungfrau (or Maiden, i.e. young woman) from the Eiger (or Ogre).

In the conditions we found it, the climb requires crampons due to one 45-degree section of hardened snow and ice. In deeper snow, you might be able to kick steps all the way to the summit, which is gained via an adrenaline-pumping knife-edge walk of 500 feet -- barely two feet wide, the path drops away very steeply several thousand feet on either side, making a rope and harnesses highly advisable.

We completed the climb in 3:30 hours, making it back to the Jungfraujoch just in time to catch the last train to Grindelwald. (Don't miss it -- you'll get hit with an 800-franc charge!) We moved steadily but leisurely, but know that in high season this route can be clogged with traffic. One option is to stay at the Mönchsjochhutte, a superb hut 10 minutes past the start of the standard route if you're coming from the Jungfraujoch.

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