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Written by George Fisher

Image for article THE CRYSTAL HUNTER

We were sitting in a cafe in Andermatt attempting to use one of the alpinist’s 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 capitalise 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 get online 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 benefitting 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 are formed.

The Crystal Hunter proudly told us about how he wandered around with the tools of his trade; namely a crowbar, 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 yourself 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 guardians’ pals burst through the door looking rather agitated. Despite Switzerland having at least three official languages and most of its inhabitants are 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, 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 unfortunate guardian nursing a very badly broken ankle. Apparently he had tripped 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 and 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 which flew off to the nearest 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 4am. 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 unfortunately had no card or present for him.

We set off in the dark along what is called the ‘Himalayan Highway’; apparently a Nepalese bloke constructed this path. He worked at the Albert Heim hut for several summers and built the path in order that he could more easily visit his friend who worked in a neighbouring hut.  It struck us as a Herculean task as it was rather like a raised dyke made of glacial rocks, and at least three kilometres long. It certainly made our approach straightforward, well at least until we got to the glacier - it then took about two and a half 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 it in a wonderful situation and the quality make its one of the outstanding granite ridges of the Andermatt area. We did manage to stay ahead of the weather, but it was bitterly cold and windy when we finally climbed onto the summit block.

The descent was tricky, requiring careful route finding and several abseils, the last one being onto a steep glacier. After the glacier we found ourselves on a moraine with no discernible path. A few hundred metres below we could see that the ground mellowed out, yet we found ourselves having to down-climb 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, crowbar and a lump hammer leaning up against a 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 that might have been overlooked, 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!" 

Cover photo: The hut guardian is rescued after his accident.