The Rhone Gletscher (source of the river Rhone) is the main glacier of the area and the village of Andermatt is the main alpine centre, both for skiing and for mountaineering.
The area is often neglected as its peaks are slightly lower (sub 4000m) than the peaks found in the neighbouring alpine regions of the Valais and Bernese Oberland. However the routes here are of extremely high quality, being made up of excellent solid granite. Most routes don't have a loose hold on them or even a loose pebble, which can be a refreshing change from the rock climbs of the Oberland and Valais Alps. There is also an abundance of beautiful quartz crystals to be seen on the routes, which adds to the pleasure, the region having long been a mecca for crystal-hunters. At present there is no guide book in English which also tends to keep the crowds away, adding to the quiet enjoyment of the area.
The finest routes of the Urner Alps are mainly long alpine rock climbs on fantastic granite and situated high above the glaciers. The most famous of these are the West ridge (TD) and South ridge (D) of the Salbitschijen, and the Graue Wand (TD). These compare to anything in Chamonix and are well documented in the book “Extreme Alpine Rock” by Walter Pause and Jurgen Winkler.
The two main climbing huts here are the Alert Heim (2540m, 1 hr approach) hosted by Armin Rey, and the Salbit Hut (22105m, 2hrs approach) hosted by the famous Swiss guide Hans Bergen. Both huts are family run and very enjoyable places to stay, with great food and comfortable lodging. Unlike the crowded huts in the more popular alpine areas such as Mont Blanc, the hut experience in the Urner Alps is much more relaxed and civilised. I'll now describe some of my favourite routes in the Urner Alps according to which routes can be accessed from each of the main huts.
Routes from the Alert Heim hut
This hut situated just below the Furka pass and offers a wealth of alpine climbing. The principle peak is the Galenstock (3583m), which has a variety of alpine climbs on it from the classic North to South ridge traverse, to some excellent alpine rock climbs such as the Galengrat.
The Galengrat is a 10 pitch climb on the south pillar of the Galenstock and is rated Difficile (5+). The rock pillar may be descended by rappel but if axe and crampons are carried it is possible to finish on the classic snow crest of the South ridge to descend the North ridge, giving an extremely rewarding alpine day. The views from the top of the Galenstock are amazing, having the Bernese Oberland, Rhone Valley and Weisshorn to the west and the Bregalia group (Piz Badile) to the east.
The grand classic rock route from the Albert Heim hut however the Graue Wand (3172m) a 400m, 10-12 pitch, south-facing vertical granite wall, which was first climbed in 1964. The belays are equipped as are certain parts of the route, but the climb still maintains its trad character as large sections of the route are unbolted. Axe and crampons are needed to cross the glacier to access this route but they can be left at the bottom as descent is by abseil. The quality of this climb is world-class being comparable to the great rock climbs of Yosemite but in a high mountain setting. Most pitches involve either some type of crack climbing or laybacking or a combination of both. Pitch seven is a particularly memorable wild laybacking pitch with plenty of exposure to get the heart racing!
The Gletschhorn (3305m) is another superb peak which has an excellent south ridge rated AD (grade 4). Again axe and crampons are needed to approach and this time also to descend the peak. The South Ridge is a very fine exposed climb on excellent solid rock, being climbable in mountain boots. The view across the Dammastockgletscher and down to the Goschener Tal is breathtaking.
The Bielenhorners (Gross, 3206m, and Kleine, 2940m) are two smaller peaks which have some great middle grade (grade 4) rocky ridges situated in a high mountain environment.
Routes from the Salbit Hut
This is home of the Salbitschijen (2981m) which is a very striking granite peak being formed by three monumental ridges (the south, west and east ridges).
The South ridge (D, 5+, 5 to 6hrs) is an another route of world class quality. It takes around 20 full pitches up an immaculate south facing knife-edged ridge to reach the highly photogenic summit tower. This sustained route is a truly unforgettable experience as each pitch by itself would rank as a 3 star classic in the UK.
The West ridge (TD, 6+, 12 to 16hrs) is in the same league as the south ridge with regard to quality but is much harder and longer. First climbed in 1948 it had a formidable reputation. There is superb little bivouac hut at the base but the route is now usually climbed in a long day from the Salbit hut.
Also above the Salbit hut is the subsidiary summit of Gemsplanggen (2571m). It features a 250m south-facing wall taken by the mega classic route “Incredible”, a 6 pitch, grade 6. Do the climb and you will appreciate the name!