Journeys in the hills and mountains
Having spent the summer of 2012 on the Cambridge Tien Shan Expedition in Kyrgyzstan, I was very much looking forward to returning to the Alps for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2013. My normal climbing partners were off in various parts of the Alps this summer and so I was spoilt for choice. In the end, I went back to the Swiss Valais for a week of climbing with Geraint, and then joined up once more with Owen Samuel, a IFMGA guide, with a view to pushing my grade a little further for the second week. Geraint and I arrived in Switzerland to stormy weather, though fortunately the forecast looked good for the week ahead. For the third time I stayed at the excellent Camping Mischabel in Saas Grund with the added bonus that this year all of the cable cars were free with a ‘Citizen Card’ that came with the campsite. Geraint and I made the most of this and, for our first acclimatisation walk, we got the cable car from Saas Fee up to Felskinn and then walked to the Britannia Hut before moving on to Plattjen from where we took another free cable car down to Saas Fee. It’s amazing just what the free cable car card opens up! We spent a quiet evening climbing on the slab behind the campsite.
We decided to push our acclimatisation a little on the second day by making a push to do an early ascent of the Allalinhorn by its ordinary route. Normally I wouldn’t be heading over 4000m on day 2 (having learnt on the Breithorn in 2008 that this is a bad idea) but we reckoned that a rapid ascent and descent would be possible without being fully acclimatised. We set off early from Saas Grund to get the cable car from Saas Fee, bustling with Russian teenagers who were on their way skiing. We had glorious views of the Mischabel on the ascent and, from the col, we could see all of the giants surrounding us. The summit was busy as ever. This was my second ascent and, to spice things up a little, we descended from the summit towards the north west down a short but exciting snow arete before joining the usual route just above the col. Our third day, after which we hoped our acclimatisation would be complete, was spent walking up to the Monte Moro pass where, once again, I failed to get views of the east face of the Monte Rosa.
So, feeling fit, we decided to spend the next two days traversing the Weissmies. The Allalinhorn had been Geraint’s first 4000m but, as a route, it is a fairly dull plod to the top. We were aiming to do something a little more exciting for his second peak, and doing the Weissmies traverse from the Almageller Hut seemed ideal. I had previously done this route in 2011, but was keen to go again (and would happily go a third time!) on what is supposedly one of the best traverses at the grade in the Alps. We walked up to the Almageller Hut in the heat, taking it slowly, and then set off early the following morning. The weather was not as good as on my previous ascent and the clouds were beginning to look threatening, but a local guide thought it would not be a problem to complete the route. We were one of the first groups to the col and stormed up the snow slope to the ridge. Unfortunately, Geraint tripped as we crossed from the snow to the rock and put a hole in his leg from this crampon. After some first aid he was keen to continue, and so we took off crampons and began the scramble. It is an excellent route: never difficult, very little loose and a few nice scrambling moves to keep things interesting. Unlike last time, and unusually from what I can gather, we did not see anyone else during the scramble. We were well ahead of most groups and there were a couple ahead we did not see, while the guided group behind was moving more slowly. I think I was on the middle of a three-man rope last time I did the route, and it was all the more fun to lead the ridge. Highly recommended. From the summit we descended the normal route, chuckling cruelly to ourselves at the faces of those ascending up what must have been a thoroughly unpleasant slog. From Hohsaas we used our free cable car card to get down to Saas Grund. A wonderful excursion.
This was all the time Geraint had, but he now headed over to Zermatt for a final day to soak up the atmosphere there. I headed to Randa to meet Owen. A huge storm broke over the valley during the journey, and I arrived at Randa to much excitement. It was not my arrival, however, that was causing the buzz, but the two huge rocks (each the size of a small car) that had just come crashing down the mountainside, bouncing off the road and into the golf course which now sported a new bunker. Unfortunately the weather was not looking great for the week ahead, but we reckoned that we had two or three days to hit something big. It did not take long to settle on a traverse of the Ober Gabelhorn and the Zinalrothorn.
I am not a particularly skilled climber or mountaineer, though I think generally my confidence lags a little behind my ability, and I was keen to make the most of a few days with a guide to check that I was capable of taking on something a little more challenging. Traversing the Ober Gabelhorn and Zinalrothorn involves two ascents and two descents at AD, and this looked like the perfect opportunity to test myself out at those grades. We headed up to the Arben bivouac hut on the first day. The walk in was quite pleasant, though I found the final climb up to the hut a little too much without a rope. The hut was very busy indeed. We met a pleasant British couple who spent their summers out in the Alps, and the rest of the hut was occupied by Swiss Alpine Club members who were planning to do the same as us on the following day. We made an early start and were keen to be ahead of the crowd and so we sped our way up the initial slow slope to reach the difficulties on the face. The challenge is to find the entrance to a snowy couloir which unlocks the way to the ridge. We managed to get ahead of everyone else which proved a real bonus as the face was very loose and the couloir all but impossible to protect, and so being at the front was important for reducing the danger of rockfall.
Once on the ridge our pace slowed down as took it more cautiously than the Swiss groups, placing more runners as we moved together. I found this route quite challenging, both technically and in terms of required speed, though I dealt with the exposure better than I thought I would. Although in places the exposure was considerable, it was all on good rock and handholds which made it feel secure. Eventually we reached the summit, a little snowy cornice with no summit cross. The descent was down the normal route to the Rothorn Hut via the Wellenkuppe. Much of the descent went down a snow arete where a trip would have sent one down the beautiful north face that fell away beneath our feet down hundreds of metres to the glacier below. We took it slowly. The ‘Grand Gendarme’ proved challenging, but then I often find fixed ropes difficult, and I was quite exhausted by the time I was down at the col before the Wellenkuppe. Climbing this was a walk, but by this point I was quite fatigued and the short time it took to get to the summit felt like hours. Once over the Wellenkuppe we had to do some down-climbing and a few abseils to get us to the easy ground from where we made good time down the glacier to the hut. I think we managed the route in 10 hours, broadly within the realms of guidebook time.
Our next day took us over the ZInal Rothorn and the route was very busy indeed. We ascended by the ordinary route which heads up a ridge before traversing the south face. We saw a near-miss here as a rock fall crashed down the face, narrowly missing some parties on either side. The face was relatively straightforward (at least for a second) and we eventually emerged at the Gabel Notch on the ridge. From here the climbing was pleasant, though there were several very exposed moves, particularly near the top where one had to make a hand traverse whilst hanging out over the south face. This was a more impressive summit, complete with crucifix. Our descent was to the down the north ridge and this proved to be the best route so far. It was consistently interesting with several abseils needed down La Bosse. The most interesting barrier was Le Rasoir, an airy fin that adorns the back page of Martin Moran’s The 4000m Peaks of the Alps. After a final snow arete we were down on the glacier and then walked all the way down to Zinal. After several poor transport connections, we arrived back in Randa tired but happy at completing one of the best traverses in the Alps.
The following two days the weather was poor and we managed little on the first. With the weather looking marginally better in France was headed over to Chamonix (my first time in the town). Owen had heard of a cave which had a number of ice climbs and so on our second wet weather day we headed off to find this. After hunting around in the woods for a while we eventually found the cave entrance and abseiled down around 100m through three caves to find several fun water ice routes. This was about as good as it gets for wet weather days! The hardest route of all was climbing back out of the cave, though somehow I hauled myself up without dropping an axe.
Our objective for the final day was the Cosmiques Arete, a well-known and justifiably popular route on the Aiguille du Midi. We took the cable car up with the crowds and then left the station down the exposed snow arete, taking a sharp breath when three fellow countrymen took a slip beneath us. Fortunately all was fine and we were then with them for much of the rest of the day. Owen let me lead most of the route, taking over for the difficult pitches, and it was great practice under instruction for taking the lead while moving together on AD ground. The most difficult bit is a short wall where two small notches, carved from frequent use, can be used for crampon front points to ease the way up. Most of the route involves weaving between pinnacles, with an abseil or two required in places. On reaching the cable car station I climbed up the ladder to find someone pointing an SLR in my face. This is not a route for those who want peace and quiet in the mountains. All in all it was two excellent weeks in the Valais and Chamonix, and now I find myself increasingly thumbing the pages of my Bernese Oberland guidebook with thoughts towards 2014.