Monday, 27 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 7

After descending from the Rimpfischhorn back into the valley Jordan and I took a rest day and debated what to go for next. We knew we would probably only do one more climb, so it had to be something big. Initially the Dufourspitze and the Dom (2nd and 3rd highest independent peaks in the Alps respectively) were the main candidates. However, both would demand long approaches, tedious glacier/snow plodding, and not an awful lot of exciting climbing. I couldn't summon any enthusiasm for either. Several other ideas were discussed, but really there was only ever going to be one answer.

In Zermatt it is impossible to forget or ignore the Matterhorn. It is far more than just an imposing, isolated physical presence at the head of the valley. Every shop has dozens of duplicate images of it, on t-shirts, mugs, and posters. Businesses with no connection to mountaineering are named after it. There is no escape from it, the peak gets under your skin and whispers in your ear 'climb me'. The moment the idea entered my head I knew we would be attempting the Matterhorn, whether Jordan liked it or not.

In good weather we took the lift up to Schwarzsee and followed a trail to the Hornli Hut at 3260m. Our target of course was the Hornli ridge, by far the mountain's easiest route. Despite this, and the large amount of fixed protection on it, the ridge is still a serious proposition. Over 1200m long, and notoriously much harder to get back down than climb up. It would push us hard.

We pitched the tent on a scree field, geared up, and went off for a quick recce up the first part of the ridge. Apparently the route finding on this section was especially tricky in the dark, so we wanted to get to know as much of it as possible. Unfortunately, after barely 10 minutes out it started raining and we were forced back to camp with all our gear soaked. A worrying evening followed, where we tried to dry our kit over the tiny gas stove, and listened to a rescue helicopter lift stranded climbers off the mountain. Further warning, as if we needed it, that getting up and down again quickly was essential. Due to its isolated nature, the Matterhorn attracts bad weather very easily, and is prone to sudden thunderstorms in the afternoon.

After fitful sleep, we geared up and started the climb around 4:30am. Dozens of parties from the hut soon overtook us, and we followed a chain of headtorches upwards at a very rapid pace. The first few hundred meters passed by in a blur. But as each team settled into a rhythym, we all spread out, and Jordan and I had to find the way ourselves again. The climbing was sustained scrambling, up ribs and chimneys, never hard, never really easy. Sometime just before dawn we made a route-finding error and stuck to the crest where we should've traversed onto more straightforward terrain on the adjoining east face. Harder grade III climbing cost us time. Two guided parties overtook us and we followed their lead to regain the correct route.

By this point it was fully light. What we saw was not encouraging. The last 300m or so of the peak was completely hidden in a wall of ominous looking black cloud. All around the skies were grey, there was no sun coming through. We carried on up slabby ground, enthusiasm waning. Our aim was to be at the Solvay emergency hut, perched around 4050m, within 3 hours of setting out. This was a turn around time we'd agreed to strictly adhere to. The hut was still some way above us, and 3 hours had been and gone. I was tired, Jordan was moving very slowly. I realised that we'd struggle to reach the top like this, and if we did getting down would be very hard indeed, perhaps impossible if the weather got any worse.

Belayed to an old thread, I brought Jordan up to my stance and told him we were going down right now. He'd been thinking along the same lines. Better to retreat with enough time and energy to safely get off the ridge. So at c3950m, we turned our backs to the summit and began the long climb down. True to reputation, it was constantly difficult, requiring concentration and technique every step of the way. We moved steadily, as a team, belaying each other wherever possible. It didn't take long for the guides who had overtaken us to reach the same desicion, and abandom their attempts as well. Those who caught up with us said the rock became increasingly icy higher up.

Several hours later, the weather worsening all the while, we finally stepped off the ridge and back to our tent. There was no disappointment, only a sense of being challenged, and satisfaction at having made the right desicion. Live to climb another day, the mountain will still be there next time. As we began the long hike down to the valley, I looked over my shoulder at the shrouded bulk of the Matterhorn, and knew I'd be back.

Zermatt 2012 - Saturday 18th to Sunday 26th August.

Peaks/Routes climbed/attempted;

Rimpfischhorn (4198m) - West-South West flank, PD+, descent via the same route.
Matterhorn (4478m) - Hornli ridge, AD III-, retreated from c3950m due to our insufficient speed and deteriorating weather conditions.

Alps 2012 Part 6

After a few days at home, I headed back out to the Alps with another old climbing friend of mine, Jordan. Our intention this time was to have a more relaxed approach, probably only attempting a couple of peaks and having rest days in the valley. We arrived in Zermatt late in the evening, and immediately started hiking up steep woodland trails towards our first objective; the remote 4198m Rimpfischhorn. This was a peak of personal significance to me, having made several unsuccessful attemps on it back in 2010 with my Dad.

Sometime around midnight we found a meadow to camp in just outside the alpine village of Findeln. The next day we pushed on past the Berghaus Flue (traditional starting point for the route), and made a base camp by a pool at just under 2700m. From here the route followed a long and tedious trail over a subpeak called Pfulroe (3314m) before finally reaching the West-South West flank of the Rimpfischhorn.

In order to split up the long approach, and also help speed up Jordan's acclimatisation, we packed what we needed for the climb, hiked over Pfulroe that same evening, and found a good bivy spot on the Rimpfischhorn itself at c3300m. We slept on a ledge in our sleeping bags. Fortunately the night was clear and warm, and we began our attempt at 4am feeling pretty good.

We traversed over easy slabs and snowfields for a while, before joining a whaleback glacier. Two years ago, Dad and I were sinking up to our thighs in fresh snow every step; this time it was bare and icy. We gained height steadily. At 3800m the glacier ended abruptly in a wall of rock. Here we scrambled up the vague crest of a loose ridge, passing the odd step of II.

At the top of the ridge lay the snow dome of point 4001m. This gradually steepened into a couloir which breached the defenses of the final summit buttress on the right hand side. Here we encountered bad conditions, and the crux of the route. The couloir wasn't steep, I'd guess somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees at the top, but it consisted of bare, bulletproof ice which our axes could hardly penetrate. Knowing it would be much worse coming down, we moved together as fast as possible, and were relieved to get back on rock again. Slightly harder scrambling, and sections of II+, led to the summit, which we reached sometime around 8:30.

As feared, the couloir was tricky to descend. We belayed the initial steep part then front-pointed down together back to the snow dome. A sudden storm developed on the neighboring Monte Rosa massif, so we retraced our steps to the bivy ledge at full speed, anxious not to be caught out should it spread any further. Fortunately it didn't, and we regained our bivy kit and slogged back down to our tent in the afternoon.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 5

On Saturday Pat and I went back up to Hosaas to attempt the North ridge of the Weissmies (4017m). This long and difficult route would be the hardest thing we'd ever done. Being rock nearly all the way we opted for a later start around 3:30.

We made a big route finding mistake on the approach, traversing NW across a glacier rather than NE, and ended up on icy choss miles from the start of the route. After retracing our footsteps to the base of the glacier we spent awhile wondering what to do. Having already wasted time and energy, with our confidence in the conditions shaken, we debated turning back for the tent. Then some other climbers appeared. Reminded that later starts seemed to be the norm out here, we carried on.

Having finally found the right way across the glacier, an easy snow slope led to the start of the ridge. It was just before 7:00. The route followed the jagged crest over an endless series of pinnacles and towers. We moved together quickly over the first third. Protection was a simple case of looping the rope over spikes as we moved. The exposure was constant but the climbing straightforward until the first crux.

Called the 'Grande Dalle', the crux was a steep grade IV (equating to roughly Severe/Hard Severe) slab protected by various in situ bits of kit. I led, and found it tenuous and challenging. The footholds were very small and hard to trust in big mountaineering boots. I climbed it 'French Free', which is to say not free at all, time being the key rather than style.

Easier scrambling led to a subsidary peak at around c3700m. After a brief descent to a col, the ridge rose up sharply in a series of knife edge pinnacles. Here we encountered the most sustained climbing of the entire route. None of the pinnacles were easy, and we had to move together over slabby Diff/VDiff terrain for long periods of time. The last tower was the second crux, a short pitch of IV-. It was well protected by bolts, so we moved together past this as well, pulling on gear wherever possible.

Although the hardest climbing was now done, it took us almost an hour to negotiate the rest of the rock section and reach the snow arete that led to the summit. It was now gone 12:00. Very late to be topping out on an Alpine peak. The arete was easy but in shocking condition, the snow largely melted away leaving bare ice that our crampons could barely penetrate. We put our heads down, and Pat led the way to the top.

We reached the summit at 12:50. Conscious of the time, we hurriedly snapped a few pictures then started straight down. Although the standard descent route of the Weissmies was a simple snow plod, it was threatened by numerous seracs, which would be very prone to collapse under the hot afternoon sun. We went as fast as we could. A couple of crevasses proved awkward to negotiate, but we made good time, and were back to our camp an hour and a half after leaving the summit.

Sadly, finnancial issues forced us to end the trip a few days early, and we packed up and left when we reached the valley. However, it was a fantastic week, the most successful in the Alps I've ever had, and the North ridge of the Weissmies was a fitting climax.

Saas-Fee 2012 - Friday 3rd to Monday 13th August.

Peaks/Routes climbed;

Lagginhorn (4010m) - West-South West ridge, PD, descent via the same route.
Allalinhorn (4027m) - Holaubgrat, PD+, descent via the West-North West ridge.
Weissmies (4017m) - North ridge, AD+ IV, descent via the North West face.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 4

Today Pat and I summited the Allalinhorn (4027m), via the classic Holaubgrat route.

We hiked up to the Brittania hut yesterday and followed a trail to the Holaub Glacier. Our intention was to bivy nearer the hut but we couldn't find a decent water source. Instead we ended up perched on broken moraine on the edge of the glacier. There was nowhere flat to pitch up, so we slept with rocks digging into our backs.

At 2:30am we left the tent and started up the mountain. Finding a way through the glacier was far harder than we imagined, and we had to make several twisting detours around crevasses, and jump straight over a few more. Eventually, the glacier became a steeper snow slope, which was long and tiring. Somewhere around c3500m we crested the ridge proper. The climbing was straightforward but exposed in places, and there were large cornices to our left the whole way.

After traversing the sub peak 'Point 3837', the ridge briefly descended, before finally steepening up to the crux rock band. We climbed this moving together, ensuring there was at least one bit of fixed gear clipped at all times. The gear consisted of wobbly pegs and rusty old stakes jammed under boulders. Grade-wise, it was around 'Diff', with fixed ropes over the hardest bits. Easily the best climbing of the entire route.

After topping out onto snow again, we put our crampons back on, and Pat led through a narrow arete to the summit. We reached it around 6:45. Rather than reverse the Holaubgrat we opted to shoot down the easy North-West flank to a ski station at 3500m. The hardest bit was probably dodging all the skiers as we ran across the pistes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 3

Monday's weather forecast was bad, but rather than waste the day Pat and I decided to get into position for our first summit attempt. We took the Hosaas lift up and once again hiked past the Weismiess hut to a base camp at the foot of the Lagginhorn (4010m). It rained heavily. Our kit got pretty soaked and we had to dash outside the tent and spread it all out to make the most of the brief dry spells.

However, we knew the rain and cloud was due to stop sometime around midnight, which would be ideal for an early start on Tuesday morning. We slept fitfully, and woke at 12:30. I unzipped the flap and saw a clear night sky and the dark bulk of the mountain looming over us. Perfect. We left an hour later.

The start of the West South West ridge followed a vague trail up a moraine crest. We hiked up this to the Southern flank of the Lagginhorn glacier. Here we put on crampons and traversed the glacier North West, and entered a shallow couloir which led to the crest of the ridge. Clouds drifted up from the valley but disappeared before they reached us. We passed a pinnacle tower at circa 3500m, via some straightforward scrambling, and began the final stretch up to the summit. We moved together on a short rope the whole time.

It was all going well for a while, until first Pat, then I, began showing signs of altitude sickness at c3700m. Clearly we'd been wrong to assume it would be alright having been to 3200m on Sunday. Despite headaches and nausea, we continued upwards, climbing a steeper slab that was probably the crux of the route (easy 'Moderate', perhaps). Here a broken snow slope appeared, running parallel to scree and loose blocks. We should've put crampons back on and climbed the snow, but we couldn't be bothered. Instead we followed lines of weakness in the blocks and slid all over the place on the scree, protecting each other with marginal running belays.

With the summit in sight but still a way away, we considered turning back. Instead we carried on. I had to dig deep just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Finally we reached the top at 6:30, just as the sun came up. The wind was bitterly cold. After taking a few photos of each other standing beside the iron cross fixed onto the peak, we sheltered in an alcove and put on our crampons. The descent was much easier following the snow, and we both felt better with every meter of height lost. Roughly 10 hours after leaving, we returned to the tent, exhausted but happy.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 2

Despite a bad forecast it was clear and sunny when we woke up this morning. So we packed light, got our free lift passes, and headed up to the first station of the Hosaas uplift. From here we hiked up a trail to the Weissmiess Hut and pushed on towards the Lagginhorn (4010m), our first target. We had no intention to make an attempt. Instead we scouted the first part of the route and looked for potential bivy spots. We hoped to get all the way to the first glacier, but a thunderstorm rolled in and we descended rapidly from circa 2900m. However, it looked fairly straightforward, so we shouldn't have any problems navigating at night.

Rather than go all the way down we got back on the lift and rode up through the rain and clouds to the top station some 3140m high. It would be valuable acclimatisation. Here the weather cleared again and we pushed up another path to the base of a rotten glacier at c3250m. Neither of us had any problem with the fast altitude gain. We hung around awhile longer before catching the lift back down to the valley. A further night spent sleeping around 3000m will hopefully see us fully acclimatised. Once the weather clears up we will have a go at the Lagginhorn.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 1

Sitting on a ferry with 12 hours of driving across Switzerland to look forward to. Pat and I are heading to Saas Fee to climb in the Valais Alps. We have no specific targets, no definate objectives. It depends on weather, conditions, our own fitness and confidence. After a shitty trip last year it will be good just to get up a few peaks, regardless of how easy or difficult they may be. If everything goes well, we might have a go at the Matterhorn, or the Dufourspitze. Something big anyway. There's plenty to do out there.