The Crystal Hunters

Crystal Hunter
Quartz crystal

We were sitting in a cafe in Andermatt, attempting to use one of the alpinists most important tools: the Internet.

We needed a weather forecast for our next mini adventure. Peter Little and I had just descended from climbing the south ridge of the Salbitschijen: possibly the finest rock climb of it grade in the Alps, maybe the world. Keen to capitalize on our momentum, we had had a quick wash in the icy river by the car and were now looking to walk up to the Albert-Heim Hut in preparation to climb the south ridge of the Gletschhorn via the Lochmatter route.

We were not finding it easy to hook up to the web, and the cafe owner, while sort of helpful, was much keener to tell us about his prowess as a Crystal Hunter. He seemed to be one of the few people in the alps who was benefiting from the dramatic effect global warming was having on the glaciers.

As the glaciers recede more and more, “crystal ovens” are being discovered.

These crystal ovens are like mini caves where the crystals formed. The Crystal Hunter proudly told us he had wandered around with the tools of his trade, namely a crow bar, shovel and lump hammer.

Interesting as all this was, he couldn’t actually get us connected to a weather forecast and time was pressing, so we decided to head up to the hut and take pot luck.

The walk to the Albert-Heim Hut is only an hour on a good path. As we neared the hut, the guardian came bounding toward us and welcomed us profusely. He explained that he was just going to help his pals who were making some repairs to the path.

“Just go and make yourselves at home and help yourselves to a couple of beers and I’ll see you later,” he said.

Peter and I duly did just as he suggested. We were the only guests. It was ten minutes later that one of the guardian’s pals burst through the door looking rather agitated. Despite Switzerland having at least three official languages with most of its inhabitants meant to be able to speak two of them, in my experience this is not the case. I speak French, but not German. Nevertheless it was clear that something had gone badly wrong.

Peter and I left our beers and rushed out of the hut door and headed back down the path. Shortly we came across the other path builder as he pointed towards a small cliff. At the foot of the cliff was the hut guardian, nursing a very badly broken ankle. Apparently he had tripped up and tumbled over while looking for a suitable rock to fill a hole in the path.

Fortunately Peter is a member of Keswick Mountain Rescue team.

He quickly took charge of the immediate first-aid while I busied myself calling a helicopter and finding some blankets to keep the casualty warm because he was suffering from shock.

The helicopter arrived about 20 minutes later. The paramedic gave the casualty some medicine for the pain, splinted his ankle and then spectacularly winched him into the helicopter and flew him off to hospital.

Peter and I returned to our beers and wondered who might now cook our evening dinner. As if by magic, a young women arrived from the valley to take over. The afternoon had proved pretty eventful.

The next morning, breakfast was at 4.00am.

When I arrived, Peter was already tucking into his while opening his birthday cards, which he had packed.

I wished him a happy birthday, but had no card nor present for him.

We set off in the dark along what is called the “Himalayan Highway.” Apparently this path was constructed by a Nepalese bloke. He worked at the Albert-Heim Hut for several summers and built the path in order that he could easily visit his friend who worked in a neighbouring hut. It struck us as a Herculean task because it was rather like a raised dyke made of glacial rocks and it was at least 3 km long. It certainly made our approach straight-forward.

Well, at least until we got to the glacier. It took about 2-1/2 hours to scramble up to the bottom of the ridge from where the climb started. It was windy and the weather looked as if it was deteriorating from the west. I became concerned that we needed to move quickly if we were to succeed. The ridge is a magnificent rock climb: not very difficult, but located in a wonderful situation and the quality makes it one of the outstanding granite ridges of the Andermatt area.

We did manage to stay ahead of the weather, but it was bitterly windy when we finally climbed onto the summit block. The descent was tricky, requiring careful route finding and several abseils, the last being onto a steep glacier.

After the glacier we found ourselves on a moraine with no discernible path. A few hundred meters below we could see that the ground mellowed out, yet we found ourselves having to climb down over steep walls where the glacier had retreated. Eventually, we negotiated the last cliff and decided to take a well-earned break.

Peter said, “Look behind you,” and pointed at a spade, a crow bar, and a lump hammer leaning up against this small cave.

They appeared to be the tools of a Crystal Hunter.

I crawled into the tiny alcove and could see that he had been busy: there were bits of crystal scattered around, but it looked that the excavation had been done.

Still, I did see something which might have been overlooked which was stuck in the ice. I dug around and eventually got hold of a fist-sized crystal. I crawled out of the cave clutching the crystal triumphantly.

“Here you are! Happy birthday, Peter.”

–Mark Seaton, 15 Feb 2013.

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