Tödi by fair means

It starts by chance: brainstorming ideas on Slack for a safe mid-May ski camping tour in the face of poor conditions, I suggest Tödi. Yoann shares that climbing Tödi from Zürich using only human power, in the spirit of Anderl Heckmair or Goran Kropp, has long been on his bucket list. I’m surprised and excited: I thought this was just my own private crazy idea? Turns out, not at all: within minutes, half a dozen others chime in enthusiastically. I sketch a bike route to Tierfehd. Yannick and Rachel contribute information on recent conditions. We make a plan.

And so, at 7:30 on Saturday, 14 May, eight of us—Alex, David, Diego, Felix, Max, Rachel, Yannick, Yoann—line up for a photo at the Zürichhorn jetty. We hoped to have a view of Tödi on the horizon, but the weather is too hazy. It will turn out to be one of the very few disappointments of the trip.

Near Schmerikon

The bikes are heavy with mountaineering and camping gear, and the setups range widely, from Yoann’s predictably minimalistic road bike arrangement to Rachel’s cargo bike. But we are remarkably well-matched, suffer no mechanicals, and proceed at a steady clip around 23 Km/h. A lunch stop in Linthal fuels us for the climb to Tierfehd, where the pavement ends, and the steeper climb to Hintersand. Long sections of 20+% gravel force us to push more than pedal on this section. The grade eases shortly beyond Linthschlucht and Tödi’s north face comes into view, towering 2400 m above us.

We park the bikes at Hintersand (1300 m) and load our packs for the hike up the Bifertenbach gorge. At 1600 m, a well-drained spot near the creek beckons us to camp. It’s a magnificent place for dinner: the day’s last rays light up Bifertenstock above us. We’re joined by three more friends—Antoine, Florian, and George—who cycled from the Linthal train station, and by Jonas, who ran out of time and drove to Tierfehd.

The climb begins at 3:30 on Sunday morning. It’s tough going at first, a mix of rocks and patchy snow. We put on skis around 1950 m, just as night begins to fade. From Fridolinshütte (2111 m), we descend a fixed rope along the lateral moraine, then climb on skis towards the first icefall.

Now our twelve-strong group begins to fragment. Felix, worn down by yesterday’s approach and possibly hampered by his splitboard, turns around. We rope up below the second icefall: one team of five, one of four, and Rachel and Yannick as a team of two several minutes back, after they have made sure that Felix has left the glacier safely. We lose sight of them on each icefall and pause until they reappear. Beyond the upper icefall the terrain becomes less challenging, but it’s a long, warm climb to the top, and we lose visual contact again for several minutes.

We summit Piz Russein (3612 m) around 11:00, Rachel and Yannick following about 10 minutes later. The views are splendid despite some clouds. Zürich is somewhere on the horizon, in the haze behind Druesberg. It feels incredible to have come from there entirely under our own power.

But the day’s not over. With half the group already far down the mountain, one of George’s skis slips away and makes one final descent of Tödi’s east face. Normally such an incident might require calling mountain rescue, but not this time: George happens to have brought his paragliding kit with him! We hold his sail open to ease the one-ski takeoff. Minutes later, the Fridolinshütte warden will wonder about the unusually equipped paraglider sailing over his hut.

For those of us on skis, the descent takes longer. The upper icefall’s conditions convince us to ski roped up, and the lower parts require occasional traverses on foot to find skiable patches of snow. One way or another, we’re all back at our bikes by 16:30.

Flat tires, overheated brakes, a couple close calls: the gravel descent to Tierfehd causes more mayhem than the way up did. But now the adventure is almost in the bag. Three of us coast to the train station in Linthal, three more ride until Glarus, and four of us—Alex, Max, Rachel, Yoann—decide to ride all the way back to Zürich. Twenty kilometers from the finish, one final challenge: a massive thunderstorm with strong winds and rain that floods much of the road between Männedorf and Zürich. It is a fitting conclusion to a spectacular weekend.

– Max Poletto