Wednesday, 19 December 2012

North Ridge

We climb in the dark early hours of the morning and lose our way on the glacier. Chossy ice, rotten rock. Crampons skate and grind. Pat trips and breaks a toe, and will not realise until we return home. Cold, we huddle round the map and look for an answer. Turn back or try again. We try. This time no mistake. Steepening snow leads to the lowest point of the ridge. It’s just getting light.

The way is clear. A north ridge, saw-toothed pinnacles, distant snowy summit hidden from sight. We climb. Over spikes and towers, traversing slabs, we move together quickly. If one falls the other will hold firm or die trying. But it will not come to that. Though we don’t yet know it, this day is ours.
Flashback a year. Chamonix, black clouds fill the skies, mountains made inaccessible by snow and by storm. Shut down. Months of training gone to waste. We are trapped in our tent for long hours by a blizzard that kills on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Early return, disappointment. Failure. A hunger unsatisfied. No question of coming back again. Given a chance I know we can accomplish anything.
The ridge is unrelenting. I find the easiest way and worry about time. Perfect weather, little wind, the sun rising fast. Too fast. The way back down off this mountain will be dangerous in the midday heat. A maze of seracs waiting to fall, ever weakening bridges over crevasses without bottom. No matter though. We live for the present, for this winding ridge of golden rock. Concentrating on finding handholds. Feet clumsy in big boots. Hard to trust upon tiny imperfections. And just above, the crux awaits.
A steep tower. Finger cracks and edges. Pat belays and I climb quickly. Smearing on nothing. Muscles tremble as I hang on to place protection. Legs ache. Cold fingers uncurl. I must not fall now. Upwards, ever upwards. If I can reach the next ledge we are halfway there. Old rusty pegs hammered into fissures. They will not hold but I clip them anyway. The ledge within sight, within reach. A final grasp. I catch my breath and bring Pat up. We continue without rest.
Meters pass, the ridge drops away beneath my feet. Pure instinct. Life or death desicions made in a heartbeat. I realise I am experiencing one of the great days of my life. Putting ideal into reality. We forge our dreams of rock and ice. The climbing is getting harder, more intense, each pinnacle a riddle we must solve to carry on. Gatekeepers of the summit. We climb effortlessly as one, each safeguarding the other. Communicating through the ebb and flow of the rope alone.

A final obstacle. The ridge narrows. On either side a terrible void drops away. Incuts hewn into the stone, a stairway to perfection. Beckoning me onward to exponential heights. Tired now. We slow and puff. At last the rock ends and a snow arĂȘte climbs up to nothing but sky. The summit. The reason for my being. Pat out in front, a lone figure battling through the wind. His ice axe bites deep, his crampons cutting the steps that I will follow. Lost in the wonder of the moment. Not there yet but soon we will be.

Just a few feet now. The crunch of snow. I can see mountains all around me, challenge enough to last ten lifetimes. Nowhere else I’d rather be. Fuelled by a fire within that burns hot and bright. Time loses meaning, seconds crawl by with the weight of decades. One more step and I can go no higher. An experience that will be mine forever. I step at last into a depthless, rushing blue, where the world ends and the mountain becomes the sky.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Alps Photos

Approaching the Lagginhorn (4010m) on the Hohsaas cable car. We climbed the obvious left-hand ridge line.
Looking towards the chossy approach from our bivy spot.
The view towards the Bernese Alps from the summit, which we reached at first light.
Me suffering from the altitude, having not fully acclimatised prior to our ascent.
Pat very happy to be back down again.
The death trap face we had to traverse underneath to reach the Brittania Hut.
Panoramic shot from our bivy. The peaks, from left to right, are the Strahlhorn (4190m), the Rimpfischhorn (4198m), and the Allalinhorn (4027m). I returned a couple of weeks later with Jordan and finally succeeded on the Rimpfischhorn after several failed attempts back in 2010.
Pat on the summit of the Allalinhorn with the Zermatt peaks on the horizon.
Looking back at the Allalinhorn from the cable car station. We climbed the left-hand snow ridge through the obvious rock band to reach the top.
The awesome north ridge of the Weissmies (4017m), viewed from the Lagginhorn.
Me climbing a typical pinnacle on the ridge with the summit still a long way away.
Best route I've ever done!
Panoramic of the rock section of the north ridge, with the Lagginhorn in the background.