Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Alps Part 2 - Zermatt

I had three options. I could go home with Pat there and then, stay in Cham and wait for another partner (I'd been in touch with someone from UKC but this would mean hanging around for nearly 2 weeks), or move on to another area. It came down to what I was happy soloing. Everything that interested me in Cham was either too hard or required glacier travel. In the end I decided to go to Zermatt and try one of the peaks there. The obvious one was the Matterhorn, of which the Hornli Ridge route featured no glaciers at all. Before long the idea was fixed in my mind. I said bye to Pat and got on a train to Switzerland.

However, the recent bad weather had plastered all the high peaks with snow, and it would take a few days to clear. In the meantime I lazed around in the sun, read lots, and hiked up a 3000-odd m peak called the Wisshorn as fast as possible to gauge my fitness. The office in town said when the local guides were going for the mountain, and I decided to make my attempt then. The morning before I took the cable car up to Schwarzee and walked up to the Hornli hut. After pitching my tent and resting awhile, I made a quick recce of the ridge, climbing the first 300m or so to memorise the route. Not only that, I wanted to get an idea what it would feel like to be soloing on the Matterhorn; it was OK. As long as the rock was clear of ice I reckoned I'd be alright.

The next morning I left my tent just after 3am and was the first person on the ridge. There was a team of 3 just behind me. I pushed on in front but soon reached a confusing section negotiating a couloir. It turned out there was another group already out, somewhere up the loose couloir, completely off route. The team of 3 pointed me in the right direction and I didn't see anyone for a couple of hours after that. Easy climbing on or just next to the crest led me to somewhere near where the route traverses onto the east face. I spent a few minutes assessing my options, unsure of what to do and not wanting to commit myself to bad terrain. Then suddenly a load of lights appeared behind me and I was swept up in the long chain of guides and clients from the hut.

We shot up a few hundred meters in this ghastly human centipede fashion. The moment my foot left a hold the guy behind me would grab it. Guides tugged their charges on very short ropes, dragging them up the mountain. At one point the person in front of me halted, forcing me to stop as well.

I don't know the name of the guide who was behind me, but I'll take an educated guess and assume it was 'Stupid Cunt'. The moment I paused Stupid Cunt started punching me in the back and saying "go go go". By this point the person who'd stopped was just getting moving again, fumbling for handholds. Stupid Cunt kept hitting me. I turned and said "I can only move at the pace of the line", something I thought very obvious and reasonable. But Stupid Cunt just didn't understand. "Go go go or go away" he shrieked like a petulant child. I found myself wishing he'd 'go go go' the quick way back down to the bottom.

We were moving freely again but my heart wasn't in it anymore. After a couple minutes I waited on a ledge and let them all by, the Stupid Cunts leading the Ignorant Cunts; all fixed together with their heads jammed up the arse of the one in front, a Cuntish line of utter Cuntishness.

This is a disgrace to mountaineering in my opinion. In fact, to even call it such is an insult to mountaineering. And it isn't really the guides' fault, either. It's a very dangerous job, they have to rope up on a difficult mountain with any old Ignorant Cunt who comes along waving fistfuls of Swiss Francs and begging to be taken to the summit. No, the fault lies entirely with those who create the demand; the clients.

Here's a thought. Why not actually earn the right to climb the Matterhorn? Go out climbing, work your way up, gain experience and confidence on lesser peaks before attempting the big one. This process will be far more enjoyable than just being dragged up by some irate Swiss in a huge conga line. If you are not good enough to do it under your own steam then you should not be doing it at all. Mountaineering is nothing if not an exercise in competence and responsibility.

Thoughts such as these were swirling round my mind as I worked my way up the East face. The climbing was very straightforward but I was noticing more and more ice on the rock. Often I was climbing over it, following lines of shallow boot marks where my feet skidded unnervingly. These were just about OK to climb up, but going down? Without a rope? It just seemed too risky for my liking. And it was only going to get worse higher up as well. At around 4000m, with the Solvay Hut in sight, I turned around and started back down. As I'd suspected, the icy sections were extremely awkward to descend, and I often had to make detours onto steeper, looser rock to avoid them. Eventually I regained the crest of the ridge and was back at my tent in less than an hour. All told I was 4 hours tent to tent, having covered some 800m of the 1200m route.

My enthusiasm was gone now. There were no other peaks I was interested in climbing that didn't have glacier approaches. I had no desire to wait a few more days and see if the Matterhorn would get any better, and in any case my money was running out faster than I thought. So I hiked back down into Zermatt, and then headed home, left to wonder what might've been.

The Alps Part 1 - Chamonix

Pat and I arrived in Cham, dumped the car, and headed straight up to the Tour Glacier. Once again the target was the Aiguille du Chardonnet. We'd wanted to do it for a few years now but conditions were never right. However this time the guardian at the Albert Premier hut said everything was all good; not only that but we had a perfect 3 day weather window that allowed for acclimatisation and the best forecast for our projected summit day. It seemed we'd never get a chance like this again.

The Aiguille du Chardonnet from our bivy. We climbed the hanging glacier left of the north face, and reached the top via the pinnacled ridge on the skyline.

We got up early the next morning to have a nose about on the glacier, acclimatise, and maybe look at a route on Aiguille du Tour if we could be bothered. A couple hours in we realised we were still knackered from the overnight drive, so we just plodded about a bit (taking our gear for a walk) then descended. After sleeping the rest of the day we both felt pretty fired up for an early start on the Chardonnet. It started badly, when for some reason we couldn't find the path down to the glacier and I had a bit of a 'teddy out the pram' moment. But we got there in the end. The approach took around 2 hours, traversing around the left bank of the glacier and underneath the north face of the mountain.

The Forbes ArĂȘte route climbed straight up a steep hanging glacier, via a ridge of ice, to reach the long, pinnacle-ridden summit ridge. The first section was pretty easy with 2 axes but crossed over several worrying snow bridges. A couple of them partially disintegrated while we stood on them. After negotiating the glacier, the steeper but sound ice was a relief, and we soon reached the security of rock on the ridge. Keeping crampons on we moved together through the pinnacles, sometimes climbing them directly, sometimes traversing below them on the north face. There was nothing too hard, and the snow was just about OK but declining fast as the day went on. We avoided a particularly bad looking and unprotected traverse by climbing a steep pinnacle then abseiling off the other side. It cost us a few minutes but was definitely the safer option.

A 3 year alpine obsession fulfilled; on the summit of the Chardonnet.

Eventually the ridge ended and we scaled the left-hand side of a final tower to reach the summit. It was awesome finally getting there but we didn't hang around long. The descent had a reputation for being tricky and dangerous in bad conditions. We downclimbed a couloir on the mountain's west flank then made a couple of abseils down a steep dry gully. Exiting the gully required moving over a small patch of bad ice. Here Pat had a bit of a slip and almost sent us both tumbling down to the bottom. His crampons skated off and I absolutely have no idea what he arrested himself on. A ripple, some flaw in the ice, god knows. I did the best thing when faced with a person struggling in a stressful situation; I shouted at him. We continued down and gained the glacier without further incident.

After that the weather got a bit rough, but we still managed a day of multipitch sport at Les Gaillands and an ascent of the South East ridge of L'Index in the Aiguilles Rouge. We did the latter in the pissing rain and it felt just like doing some horrible Welsh VDiff.

Perfect British conditions on L'Index.

The forecast was looking good for the next week and I couldn't wait to get one with some more routes. I hoped to do bigger rock routes until the snow conditions improved, then finish off with another big mountain. Then, rather unexpectedly, Pat came to the conclusion that his head wasn't in it this year, and decided to go home. I won't bother with any details. I guess he was right not to push alpine climbs while not feeling right, but I was absolutely gutted. What to do next?