23 Sep 2006

The Grunduebelhorn, South Ridge

South Ridge (UIAA V-, 20 pitches)

Josef suggested a climb of the Grunduebelhorn for a day trip on the last day of September. Reeling somewhat from exuberant Oktoberfest celebrations, I agreed anyway. In the previous two days, I’d ridden every rollercoaster twice at the Wies’n, getting the most out of my lunch break at work. The route was long, about 20 pitches, and went at a moderate difficulty of V-. Josef liked it because the guidebook promised all bolted fixed belays. We brought 2 cams, 12 nuts and a pile of slings just in case. This turned out to be a good idea!

We drove down late Friday night and slept by the car at the parking lot. A sky full of stars promised a good day. Awakening early, we walked off by 5:30 am. I was cold because I’d meant to bring a sweater but accidently brought useless fleece pants instead. So as we hiked up the flat road I sang and talked loudly to warm myself (and irritate my friend!). I made an elaborate story about “Holzarbeiter”, primitive creatures who do useful work with wood, but will eat you by gnawing on your ankles if you get lost deep in the woods. We were both so enthralled by my fiction, we didn’t notice that we’d surely missed our turn off. You are supposed to walk up the road about 5 minutes and turn right to gain a steep road leading up into the basin below the Reiter Alpe. This delay (#1) cost about 30 minutes, but no matter, it’s still pitch black out!

After a steep hike up the road, we started looking for a cairn that would mark where we leave it to the left on a trail. We didn’t find it, but there was a sign and a faint trail. Not trusting it, we hiked another 10 minutes to reach a junction that we knew was too far. Delay #2 dealt with, we hiked back down and took the side trail confidently. As it got lighter, we easily followed the faint trail. At a fork, we took the direction that seemed to make more sense. Then we walked for a long ways along a mossy hummock seemingly going the wrong way. “I don’t like the feel of this!” I said. We emerged at a broken ravine, which we climbed down into and pieced our way up over loose boulders. With no more signs of human passage, we thought we were probably in the wrong place. Looking some more, and quickly ruling out a direct ascent to the ridgetop above us (loose, scary terrain), we hiked back to the start of the ravine and resolved to bushwhack up and left to eventually find the trail we knew should be there. 15 minutes of steep hillside scrambling brought us to the trail. (Delay #3!).

We followed the faint trail in many switchbacks up to the ridgecrest between the mass of the Reiteralpe and the Teufelskopf. Now, the trail went up toward Reiteralpe, only to turn left and piece together goat trails beneath the mass of the Knittelhorn. Josef got hot and took off his outer sweater, revealing a thinner sweater underneath! Actually, Josef had a little bit of everything, which explained his large-looking pack. We’d read a trip report about some guys who spent two nights(!) out on this route, and were very thankful for their bivy sack and other gear. Josef therefore brought a bivy sack, a heavy Gore-Tex jacket, 2 sweaters, a large thermos of hot tea, and a bunch of other stuff. Whereas I was in “light is right” mode carrying almost nothing. My bivy gear was a warm hat, a pair of thin gloves, and a 10 dollar Wal-Mart windbreaker.

After hiking up and down through little latschen trees and gullies, we attained the base of the south ridge, marked by a “Gedankentafel” (a metal plaque). Cool, it was only a bit after 8 o’clock, so our delays hadn’t put us too far behind. As we got ready a man and woman arrived, said hello and sat down in the little cave under the Gedankentafel. We were surprised to see anyone else, given the rather long and complex approach. The man had actually climbed the route before - 15 years ago!

Josef sent me off first, on a pitch that climbed right of the cave, then over a vertical wall with a piton that marked the first section of grade IV climbing. It was a good “wake up call” for climbing. Josef then led a section of grade III to reach a stance below overhangs. Some delicate IV+ moves led leftward on small hand and footholds, followed by some nice crack climbing. I went around the corner and got confused. Immediately I saw a piton and horn belay station, and a possibility to go up or to the left. Josef came up and we discussed the way. To the left was a grassy ramp that might match the topo. Josef climbed up and right to check out that way, which from the belay looked improbable. He didn’t see anything enlightening, so he then headed left on the grassy ramp. I think this is where we got off route.

The party below joined me at the belay, but didn’t remember anything about the correct route. So they followed me up the ramp to Josef’s belay of two old pitons. I took off, looking for a “Holzkeilriss” (a crack which was protected by a wooden block), but didn’t see it. Instead I arced up and back right to end up on a pedestal on the main face, building a belay from a nut and manky piton. Josef arrived and we talked about two possibilities. Directly above, we could see 2-3 bolts protecting a very steep chimney/crack combination. And by going down to the right and back up, we could gain a parallel pedestal that we thought was probably on the route. We were just getting the courage to try the bolted chimney, when the man from below arrived, certain that the route was far, far to the right. “Hmm…” Taking that in, we decided to climb down and back up to the parallel pedestal to see what could be seen.

40 feet of downclimbing led to a piton belay, then Josef sent me up to find the way onto the pedestal. There was a very thin vertical section requiring a delicate mantel move. I was scared to try it until I discovered a piton buried behind solid rocks above my head. Happily accepting the courage thus provided, I made the moves and built a belay on the pedestal from a piton and sling. Josef arrived and headed up, finding a real bolted belay only 20 feet above. My idea of where we were on the topo led me to suggest that he keep going, adding another 30 meter grade III pitch. But as it turned out, Josef was struggling with the hardest pitch on the route, a steep crack rated at V-. Unsure of the way, and feeling burdened by his heavy pack, he climbed down and built a 2-cam belay a bit below the crux. Meanwhile, the 2nd party passed us.

At his belay we resolved a policy of “heavy pack for follower, light pack for leader,” but also sought to equalize the packs a bit more. I noticed as time went on that I felt better, and I could almost feel Josef getting dehydrated. I realized that my camelback was making it easy for me to stay hydrated, but Josef’s water tightly sealed in bottles of his pack was less accessible. For a while, it seemed like we would reach the summit with all of his water intact! Also, in this area we wondered if we should retreat. Due to the routefinding errors, we’d lost considerable time. Also, there were some dark clouds in the sky. We knew we wouldn’t make it on top by 1 or 2 pm as we’d hoped. Hmm. But retreat didn’t sound fun either. We put our heads down and kept climbing.

I had a go at the vertical cracks, finding them streneous but enjoyable and solid, thanks to my light pack. I reached a bolted belay stance above and Josef came up pretty easily. He marvelled at how different it is following a pitch like that! Now he headed off on a long grade III ramp to the left, protecting with a mix of slings, cams and pitons. He reached a belay by some latschen schrubs which marked where we needed to traverse right on easy ground to gain a crack that divided massive slabs.

According to the topo, we had more than 60 meters to go rightward on this ramp, so I recommended we shorten the rope and simulclimb. But…it was more like 20 meters to reach the bolt that marked the crack! Sigh. The 2nd party was a pitch above us now, and the way looked obvious for once. I started up the crack, enjoying it very much, though I got my foot stuck about 20 feet up and nearly lost my balance. I believe there was one piton, and I placed a couple of nuts too. Above the crack I didn’t find a belay as indicated by the topo, so more steep climbing led up to lower angle terrain where I could sling a latschen schrub. The party above was getting into interesting terrain. While Josef climbed, I watched them shimmey up an intimidating squeeze chimney and then climb right on the crest like spiders. Josef led a pitch up mostly easy ground to reach a belay bolt right beneath the chimney.

It wasn’t as bad as it looked from below, but it was nice and steep…and rarely protectable. Sometimes I had a hard time squeezing through due to my pack, but I arrived at the belay notch feeling pretty good for pitch 12. I had to laugh hearing Josef murmuring curses at the chimney as he fought his way up. But a picture taken when he exited the chimney showed that he was undaunted and still smiling!

Now Josef got to head out for probably the coolest pitch of the route. From my belay notch, it looked absolutely improbable - maybe a Grade VII set of friction moves to get around a corner, then scary unprotectable steep slabs above.

But an easier way is there, you just have to try it. Asthetically, it was a great pitch, and I won’t reveal it’s secrets.

Josef had reached a sling belay on a tower, and we were confused to see that rather than drop down then climb the next tower, the 2nd party had traversed a ledge system on the left to climb a long chimney. They said they’d tried going directly up, but it was too hard. “We’ll see about that!” I said, all over-confidence. We could see a piton on the blank looking face, and thought the topo would have told us if we needed to detour so far. We climbed down from the tower, then I wrestled with the face of the new tower.

Wow. It was steep. I placed a cam, then worked hard to get my feet up to that crack.

Now overhanging, I fought to hold on and stand up while my feet tried to slither off the holds beneath me. Beginning to experience “Elvis leg”, I worked methodically to place a nut in the crack holding my fist, then asked Josef to hold me on tension.

“Whew! This is Grade VI at least!” I exclaimed. While I rested I thought about the danger. Clearly, either this wasn’t the route or rockfall had altered it tremendously.

The piton was about 15 feet above me. I thought I could get to it with a rest. But what after that? I tried to remember if it looked harder or easier beyond. The next move was a delicate mantel with nothing for hands - in short - deeply committing. The moment I felt rested and tried to make it, but I knew it felt wrong. “Okay Josef, lower me back to the ledge, let’s go around into the chimney.”

So if you go up there, you’ll find a nut, 2 neutrino binders and a dyneema slings for your troubles! Be sure and tell us what the pitch was like!

So we went down and into the chimney, where I could only find a single piton belay. It looked easy for a good while, so Josef headed up getting plenty of protection to increase our safety. Somewhere around halfway the rope came to a halt. Although I couldn’t see it, Josef was struggling on a steep face, and trying to transition into a deep chimney. He thought about it and made several attempts. After a while I had a hard time understanding what he was hollering down to me. I recognized the kind of indecision he was facing - wondering about remaining strength, remaining gear, the unknown above, and a truly difficult move to be overcome. “Either go up or come down!” I called. That seemed to clench it for him.

He unclipped from pro above the half rope line, and downclimbed, arriving a little exhausted by the mental strain. Just as I had come down on the attempted direct line, completely sure that I wasn’t going any further that way, Josef experienced the same feeling. He was kind of mad at himself for not committing to the moves, but actually I think these are good experiences at sharpening your judgement.

“That kind of thing gets easier to deal with, once you’ve experienced a few of those crux moments. It doesn’t matter if you go up or down at them - what matters is that you made a decision based on the numerous variables. And that’s giving your best.”

“Yes, but I don’t know if I ever want to get used to such situations.”

I knew what he was talking about. The feeling that as you get desensitized to these various problems in traditional rock climbing, you set yourself up for ever-greater danger on the day when the dice finally come up wrong. I had no easy answer for that, because I believe it can happen. Somehow, it has made me value my retreats as much as summits now. When I back off of something, I know my internal radar is working properly. And I’m proud of that - because it’s easy to ignore the quiet inner voice.

So we drank some water and Josef sent me off on top rope for a long ways. Sooner than I wanted, I was on the steep face, invisible from below. Two pitons protected traversing moves across the face, then at the entrace to the chimney, which stretched into blackness beneath and light above, Josef had placed a solid cam and nut. I clipped both, really grateful for his intuition to build a “mini belay” at the base of what looked to be difficult and run-out.

First a stem across to paste a foot on the opposite wall, then a grope for handholds on the left wall. The broad gully below seemed to suck at me, and the ropes felt very heavy. With one move at a time, in absolute quiet I climbed the vertical left wall, occasionally managing to stem a foot on the right. 20 feet above the cam and nut, I managed to place the yellow Alien cam, making sure to only clip one rope to it to minimize impact force. Another deep breath and I climbed up to contemplate the exits.

It looked vaguely possible to exit right on a ledge that went to a level area atop a tower. But on closer inspection, it would be a horror fest, either shuffling feet on the ledge with a bulging, holdless rock above, or hand traversing with pasted feet.

All of which would be a good distance above protection. So I committed to continue to the top of the gash, having to sway under an overhang to gain blocky ground on the left of the chimney when the walls became too smooth. Slowly, the final moves unfurled - methodical progress had won the day! I belayed from a slung latschen tree at a notch, happy to stand in the shade away from the sun blasting the chimney.

Josef arrived, saying how enjoyable the pitch was: clean rock and excellent problems - provided that all the mind games on the lead are suspended! We laughed and drank more water, safe on our ledge. I took off again up the obvious ridge crest and ran into trouble once more. Steep, more than vertical moves gained a piton in a broad chimney, then more streneous overhanging moves gained another piton, which I could just barely clip and ask Josef to hold me on tension. After looking around a few moments, I asked him to lower me. I tried other possibilities, but became pretty sure that our route (something less than grade VII!) would be found by walking across our ledge and avoiding this tower. So…I bailed and left another quickdraw!

Sure enough, on the opposite end of the ledge we found the promised easy ground leading for several hundred meters to the summit. We put one rope away and used a doubled half rope along with some coils for the long simul-climb across faces and ridge walks to get right below the summit block. Belaying through this mix of latschen and sharp blocks would have sucked, though Josef was frustrated by the coils of rope hanging off him, and my erratic climbs and sudden stops ahead of him. Doh!

We had a short pitch at the end, which I’d rate grade III for an interesting hand traverse move under overhangs, then we stood on the summit after exactly 20 pitches.

It was 4:30 pm, and much of the stony Reiteralpe was in blue shadow, contrasting with the yellow, luminous rock of our summit. What an excellent climb it had been! We’d had all kinds of problems and wrong turns, but in the end we stood on top, looking thousands of feet down to the Hintersee and our car. We signed the register, and Josef broke out a delicious feast of cherry tomatoes and salt. Mmm…just put salt on a section of tomato and eat! We also had a cup of hot tea from his thermos, and finished drinking his water (I’d finished mine about 2 pitches before). Happily, there would be no need of the bivy gear.

We hiked easily down to the notch between the Knittelhorn and our peak, then wondered what to do. The route description said to generally head down gullies to the north, making a leftward traverse at some point. Well, it was an ocean of Grade II and III ground where it was difficult to see the correct way. We found occasional cairns that reassured us, but at one point we tried three ways, each of which dead ended in serious cliffs (and Josef had a large boulder he was using as a handhold pull out of the face and barely miss him as it crashed away). We had to climb back up and go down a different way. I was getting tired and Josef did a great job finding our way down, letting me drift along behind. At one point a steep slab descent unnerved me and I found an easier way with Josef’s help. Several hundred more feet of scrambling got us down to where we could walk on scree and pick up a trail heading down.

Josef had a second wind, and took off always in front, practically running down the mix of steep trail and occasional wooden ladders that led down into the level meadows below the Reiteralpe. We met up with a route called the “Boeselsteig” and continued down it’s cable-protected path for a long ways. As the light failed, we jogged down the steep road from so many hours before, never stopping until we hit the level road 5 minutes walk from the car.

The South Ridge of the Grunduebelhorn was a great adventure route. I’d recommend it if you like that sort of thing!

On the approach. Typical scenery. Climbers at the grassy ramp. A steller hand crack, 10 pitches up. Josef leading into a dark chimney. Josef escaping the chimney. Josef on the face climbing pitch. Climbing down and around Problem Tower. Looking down the intimidating chimney. Josef tops out of the chimney. The easy, upper section. Tomatoes and salt! Contemplating life on the summit. Sharp rocks of the summit with the Reiteralpe behind. Strange, sharp summit formations. The Hintersee at dawn.