Western Alps, part 2
PART II. Part I is here
Also posted to Summitpost.org here
Georg approaches the Valsorey Hut
I took a different approach with this (very) long trip report. I only selected the best pictures. There are about 25 of them for this segment. Georg and I took over 700 pictures!
Showered and restored, we asked the next logical question: what about the weather. It was raining outside the Belvedere! That won’t do. So we looked east, and found an island of sun around the Gran Combin. There was an enticing ice route, the Northwest Face, and descent via a nearby ridge of rock. Georg paid Kiki and we drove off. We stopped at a climbing store to try and buy a helmet for him. Rockfall on the Hochferner in May had dislodged the inner styrofoam of his helmet, making it a two-piece unit. Surprisingly, we were unable to find a decent helmet in the Chamonix valley. They all seemed to be strange brands, and sat very high on the head “mushroom-like.” I didn’t blame him for sticking with his old helmet. I on the other hand found an exciting new backpack, the Black Diamond Epic, which allowed me to store crampons outside among other features.
The hike to the Valsorey Hut was pretty long, but pleasant. It had rained in this valley, but clouds were lifting to reveal broad green slopes that were restful after the Aiguilles. We stopped to rest in a sheep-filled meadow and admired Monte Velon on the other side of the valley, a peak that marks the border with Italy. We joked about Martigny as a steampunk industrial hub of concentrated decay, extracting value from it’s hinterland in the meanest possible ways. We riffed on an Italian tunnel under Velon, and were generally silly. A short but steep walk to the hut finally tired us out, and we admired the rocky side of the Gran Combin, steaming above in remnant clouds like Vesuvius. After a spartan dinner, we slept.
Gran Combin, NW Face (D-)
Georg with Mont Blanc behind
Michael prepares for the next lead
Georg heads off alone to tag the remote Tsessette summit.
3 am found us leading a train of climbers up to a high col. We dropped down on the north side while they climbed the rocky ridge. Now we traversed glacial slopes looking for our ice way. Crossing a large bergschrund, we actually stood below it but didn’t believe it, chosing to traverse slowly east on tricky ground. Finally we realized our mistake and went back halfway, settling for a traversing ascent up the ice shield. Deploying the rope, we climbed many pitches with ice screw protection, usually belaying for 60 meters and climbing together for another 40 or so. Distance is deceptive, and we kept saying things like “looks like you get the gem of the final headwall!” Three pitches later, the headwall was still high above!
Calves tiring, we once saw a man walking on the ridge crest above, peering impassively down at us but not slowing. Why do we make more work for ourselves with these variations? I’d had enough, and after placing my last ice screw, gunned it for the top, gradually leaving blank ice for good steps in snow. Wonderful to level out, able to stand up straight like a proper human and feel the sun again too! Georg came up and we short-roped to the Valsorey summit.
Georg is a collector of 4000 meter mountains, and here his fanaticism enabled him to find another store of energy. He wanted to climb the distant Tssette summit, and would need more than an hour to get there and back. He took off running down the slope, then back up to the true summit and beyond. I contented myself with a slow saunter to the true summit. Frankly I couldn’t move any faster. Somehow the altitude was really affecting me. On top, I saw no sign of Georg, but I knew he should be safely motoring between snowy summits to the east. I took some photos, then went back to the Valsorey summit, moving our packs to south side rock and settling in for a short nap.
Georg returned and we started down the unknown rock ridge. Wow, it sets a record for looseness! Horizontal quartize ledges covered with shards of disappointment that get restacked after any fresh breeze, and that for over 1000 meters. We rappelled when it seemed appropriate, sometimes downclimbed carefully, sometimes jumped into piles of sand and scree and let them scoot us down more easily. It was so long before the difficult ground was complete, but eventually we sat at the hut again and ate some soup before the hike out.
Back at the car, nearly dead on our feet, we exploded the contents onto the road, firing up the gas stove for pasta and staring glassy-eyed at catapillars crawling across our sleeping bags. Slurping noodles contentedly in the darkness, we were only surprised twice by a car roaring around the corner, sending us scattering out of the street boots in one hand, hot pot in the other. Amazing that we didn’t think to actually quit the road, but it was all we had and we weren’t strong on making decisions at that point. At least we slept on the shoulder, my snores sending Georg across the street as I won the game of falling asleep first!
Back to Chamonix
Morning was wonderful, and we knew what we were going to do: back to Chamonix for the Diable Ridge on the Mont Blanc du Tacul…nothing would stop us! In the previous days, Georg had alternated between expressing a strong wish for the climb, and with puppy-dog eyes, intimating that somehow it would never happen due to cruel fate, dealing casual hands of weather veto, insufficiently committed partners, etc. By gorry, not on my watch! Let’s go, dammit.
Clutching new piles of food, we stuffed our sacks in the broiling Aiguille du Midi parking lot. This time we had rock shoes for the difficult rock we expected and what confidence that breeds! I started arguing irreverently to take less cams, not more. Less, less, less. Keep it light! But suitably chastened from the Aiguille Verte, I had my bivy equipment of a down jacket and a (too large) bivy sack.
On the Aiguille du Midi we waited an hour for the Hellbroner lift, chatting with some American climbers about the Cascades, which I miss. Ah…to head into the Pickets again! One day.
The Torino Hut is a strange place, like a military institution. Climbers are assigned to steel bunks in white rooms with green doors aligned at right angles in gray hallways. All services are by queue, and you should get in line early because the soup dispensation has more calories at first as the servers “dig down” for vegetables. Stony-faced guard women I remember from my childhood in Huntsville were serving. It really had the atmosphere of TDC (Texas Department of Corrections). Smiles among this set passed over the heads of climbers only to other personnel, and I munched my bread, feeling ever smaller, ever more “institutionalized.” Georg said “I feel the spirit of this place is one of competition, not cooperation, like other huts.”
Oh well, at least it was fairly cheap, especially compared to the Cosmique Hut. The fact that they had alpine club discounts was a redeeming feature. And the intake warden was kind, if sardonic, along with a Chinese lady who got me some tea.
Mont Blanc du Tacul, Diable Ridge (D+, V)
Georg on the summit of Pt. Chaubert.
Michael on Pt. Mediane
M.C. Escher world…
The summit of Pt. Mediane with the awkward squeeze window.
Once again, carefully down.
At 3 am, we walked northwest, once climbing too high and dropping, before finally entering the Maudit Cirque. We saw lights climbing the wall above us to the Diable Ridge. We hoped we could get up there without getting brained by falling rocks. As if in answer, a couple came down to us. “It is too warm, much too warm! We go down. The water is flying down the couloir.” Whoa, sounds lame!
But we thought we’d have a look. I was pleasantly surprised with the transition from the ice to the rock, which was easy with a couple of ice screws to protect it. We had a bead on the traversing line to follow, with 2 climbers just ahead of us and some headlamps visible in the distance. We climbed easily, and reached the great couloir coming down from the east side of the towers. Other climbers decided to just go up here instead of traversing further right and then back left as our guidebook had mentioned. Why not? There was good ice to climb, and decent opportunities to protect the ascent via rock on the side of the couloir. We followed this course too, placing pro and belaying a bit more than others, who then went ahead. After several pitches it grew light, and another 30 minutes of effort allowed us to reach the top of the couloir.
We were happy about this, because just getting to this point worried us quite a bit. Now we would be doing rock climbing, in rock shoes no less, and this worried us less.
We joined two parties at the Breche, and Georg led up the Diable tower in one nice pitch of cold grade III+. An abseil, then I was leading up the sunnier wall of the Point Chaubert, via a thin crack. I was a bit scared here with the heavy pack and some hard moves ahead. I rested on a piton, then placed a cam in the crack and rested on that experimentally. Then I committed to the moves, a burst of powerful liebacks transitioning to hand and foot jams. I stepped outside of myself to see each hand and foot lock into place until I could breathe again and stand still, face pressed against the rock. A few more moves and I could protect the rope with a cam in a good crack. We had 30 meters of rope, and I needed to stop below the summit, riding a wave of granite a chavel. Georg came up and made enjoyable moves to the top. Now we were truly in the highest, most unique cragging environment in the Alps. Looking over to Point Median, two parties were already dealing with the 4 pitch route to the top, with another party creeping through the Breche beneath to get in position. Another party was rappelling into the notch below the next tower. We had the feeling of security you get at a cragging area in settled weather, with plenty of folks around. Deceptive, but helpful anyway!
After the rappels, and a transition to the next wall, Georg was leading up the Point Median. He climbed a steep crack, huge pack threatening to unbalance him, but it’s not so easy to knock him off his game. From a hanging belay he brought me up the crack and distinctive traverse that make this pitch a delight. I set off for another crack directly above, stopping to take pictures of the wild environment, and raving about the warm, secure hand-jams. The next pitch led up a steep, snowy wall then traversed an exposed Diedre to a belay. An easy pitch with an awkward bouldering move climbed through a window to the top.
We make a steep and rather unnerving rappel here, chosing not to touch the very top of this tower (“contrived” is my excuse). Two Germans, Jochen and Constantin were just ahead of us all day, and we struck up short conversations along the way. Here we tried awkwardly to pass, but it just wasn’t possible and was complicating things. They went on ahead while we occupied ourselves trying to touch the absolute top of this tower (“not contrived” was my justification). Georg went up and did it, leaving a sling to protect the downclimb. I swaggered that I would retrieve the sling and do the downclimb unprotected, but I quailed once I was up there, taking a picture, then feeling grateful for the sling to protect my trip back down!
A couple of rappels got us to the base of the last tower, l’Isolee. I led off up and around a corner for some entertaining crack climbing (V) and passed two ledges to a belay. We were able to leave our packs at the base which made everything so easy! Georg brought us to the summit where we admired the view for a few minutes in the sun. What a great day and a great climb!!
A steep rappel got us to our gear where we switched back to mountain boots, and set off in short-rope mode for the summit. Jochen and Constantin were around, and we scrambled together up relatively solid rock, searching for the easiest way. We popped over a ridge into a much snowier world, and there the true summit was before us, all whipped cream and glazed ice with an ocean of glaciers beneath. We roped up as one team for safety, and walked slowly to the top. A minute later, we were heading down steep chimneys to broad slopes of snow. 600 meters of descent down the famous glacier with a deep trough (used by folks climbing Mont Blanc from the Cosmique Hut), then we stood on the flat plateau below the mountain. A long, slow walk up to the Cosmique Hut followed, in which I became so tired and bored! Georg took a picture of me in the front of the rope and named it “the Tired Man,” which was true.
Cosmique Arete Dessert
Michael at the top of the Cosmique Arete
Michael and highly interested spectators belay Georg.
We had done it, the Diable! We were very happy, but pretty exhausted too. Nonetheless, in the morning, I couldn’t stand the idea of the boring walk up to the Aiguille du Midi lift station, so I proposed climbing the Cosmique Arete. I’d done it once, but Georg hadn’t climbed it yet. He was always ready to climb, so we hiked over there and dispatched the route fairly quickly, only taking a bit longer because of a wrong turn onto some steep, rotten rock. We got back on track and I had the pleasure of reaching the top and marching to the ladder and onto the tourist platform first. Folks gave me some room and I brought Georg up with a hip belay and a body belay on the platform wall. Truly, the view these folks had of the last meters of the climb was amazing. I was thinking, “Yes, it’s every bit as amazing as it looks,” but perhaps I misinterpreted their gaze…perhaps they thought it was a horrible, insane endeavor to do what we were doing. A nice girl, Naike, emailed me some of her photos later.
Back down to the Belvedere, and an unsettling confrontation over jars of Magnesium crystals. But I’ve already related that. The important thing is what can we do next? The weather is becoming unsettled…
Munching a late lunch of eggs, bread and oil, orange juice and pasta, we worked out the logistics for a climb of the Frontier Ridge to Mount Maudit. We’d sleep in the Fourche bivouac hut, avoiding the need to stay in the oppressive Torino Hut. This would give us a chance to scope out the route, which we’d fallen in love with since looking across at it from the Diable towers. It looked magnificent, especially since I’d never seen the shape of the line before, I only knew that it was popular.
But as we munched and talked, the weather was changing. We finally accepted that we could still do the route as long as the Wednesday bad weather wasn’t going to arrive until somewhere after 10 am…we needed good weather from 3 am to 9 am at a minimum. Who cares if we come down the easy way in a snowstorm, we thought.
But the forecast lurched again that afternoon, such that snow would arrive at 4 am Wednesday. Ugh. Okay, that plan is off. No amount of wishful thinking could justify any kind of ascent. So we looked east. At first we got excited about the Bernese Alps, which we’d never visited. The Schreckhorn looms large in our minds as a climb to do. But the weather fell apart there too, even worse than in Chamonix. Only the Valais offered hope.
With a gleam in his eye, Georg mentioned the Taeschhorn-Dom traverse, in fact a bigger thing, continuing on for the Lenzspitze and Nadelhorn too! We’d have to bring gear for an open bivy on the glacier after the Dom. “Why not?” I said. “You’ll only keep badgering me about it until we do it so let’s do it!” Ha. Not really. But I have to tease because I was not that enthusiastic about carrying a full bivy kit over all those ridges. Almost since the beginning of my climbing career, I’ve done my best to stay away from heavy packs. But sometimes it’s unavoidable. So let’s go!
The next morning we were in Saas Fee, slowly getting gear together and taking the lifts up to the Mittal Allalin Station, above 3000 meters. We emerged into a world of bulldozers and beeping construction equipment. “Ugh,” I thought. Georg agreed, it was an uninspiring place. We hastened away on the standard way up the Allalinhorn, then branched off it to scramble the rocky Feekopf. From there, we dropped onto a glacier and went up the easy (even boring) Alphubel. Our goal was a bivouac hut at the Mischabeljoch below the North Ridge of the Alphubel. On top of the Alphubel, Georg felt a little sick, and wondered why. I had an idea…he listened to me too well when I complained about heavy packs, and stuffed too much heavy gear into his own. I had a rope, but he had all the protection, stovewear and cooked food. So his pack was damn heavy. We went down the tricky North Ridge, taking almost twice as long as guidebooks suggest. We re-arranged packs a bit in the Michabel Bivouac, giving me a more equitable share of the weight. We would see in the morning if Georg felt better. Actually I was feeling pretty good (I wonder why!).
The bivouac was very nice. It had a wood stove, plenty of snow and firewood, making it very warm. But our inexperience and uncertainty about the weather nearly cost us the ascent.
The Täschhorn-Dom Traverse (D, III+)
Halfway up the ridge
Georg and Michael on top
Will it ever stop!
The wild Domjoch.
Georg on the Domgrat
The rock becomes solid and hard as iron.
Michael in a priviledged position. Grateful.
At the summit! Crows dispersed as we arrived.
Modern men with mobile phones.
A windy rappel, resulting in a stuck and cut rope.
Descending endless glaciers to the Festijoch.
Michael appoaches the Domhuette, closed for construction.
The next morning we got up before the others, and went outside into the howling wind. “This is crazy!” we said. We couldn’t imagine climbing in this stuff. We thought bad weather may have arrived early. We went back to bed for an hour. We checked again, and again the wind deterred us. This time we slept while others got ready and left. Now it was 5:30 am, and we were thinking how to escape back to the ground most efficiently. Two guys gave us some advice before they left: “probably it’s just windy here at the joch, why not try it and see?” Indeed, some climbers were high on the South Ridge of the Taeschhorn directly above…maybe we are just being ninnies?
So we set out at 6 am. Boy were we embarrassed, because only 10 minutes above the hut, the wind was fairly calm. We passed one party, then caught up to two very entertaining women who had regaled us the night before in the hut about a traverse of the Grandes Jorasses a few days before. Soon we were on the summit, having made up for our late start with an ascent done in half the usual time. The conditions were amazingly good…we didn’t need crampons at all, as all significant snow and cornices had disappeared from the ridge. The rock scrambling was quite pleasant. Really, this was an excellent climb!
So we sat on the Taeschhorn summit with the two women, took pictures and considered…should we keep going or quit while we are ahead?
We were a bit scared of the next section: descending the North Ridge of the Taeschhorn is reputably without belays, on slabby, downsloping rock, and remembering our descent of the North Ridge of the Alphubel the day before, we had found that terrain unnerving. Plus, when we reach the bottom of the ridge at the Domjoch, we are absolutely committed to climb up the South Ridge of the Dom. We read that the rock on this ridge is “dangerously loose,” not like the South Ridge of the Taeschhorn.
But on the other hand, if we make it, then the descent of the Dom should be very easy, and we can sleep anywhere with our bivy gear. One of the women even checked the weather for us on her smartphone. She said we are good to go.
Gulp. Okay…let’s do it!
Right away we set off before we could change our minds. Indeed, the descent of the Taeschhorn was rather stressful.Georg set off in the lead, placing occasional gear on 20 meters of rope and I downclimbed behind him. I became rather superstitious. It was working, and I didn’t want to upset the balance so I asked him to keep leading as a block. He did, but I know going in front was exhausting because of the mental strain of making so many choices about which way to go and where to place gear. Also, the wind had picked up and we became quite cold. We were wearing all our clothes, and felt like “Michellin Men” moving around in a cumbersome way, with gear jangling all over, with heavy packs and wind, and on icy, unforgiving slabs of rock. In general, there were many areas where a foothold couldn’t be found, and you had to move hand over hand down angled slabs with the toes of your boots resting on insignificant nubbins. Though Georg placed some gear for protection, we both knew that a single slip by either of us would be complete disaster. No mistakes allowed. This is why superstition became a viable mode of thought, I’m afraid.
As we neared the Domjoch, I finally took over, eventually putting on crampons as we had to traverse slabs of ice on the northwest side at times. Cornices of snow on the southeast side of the ridge were visibly rotting, and at one point I was walking on snow and a massive cornice collapsed just inches from my crampon points. I was walking to the side, aware of this danger, but still it was shocking to see this great mass of snow let go all at once, very silently at first, then creating a great rumbling noise as it swept the face below and filled the air with countless shimmering blocks of rock and ice in it’s wake. “F*(kin A!” I croaked, stumbling to the safety of the next solid gendarme which Georg was lashed to.
Later Georg dealt with a tricky section of loose, stacked blocks, and had to ignore the great cracks and rumbles as a cornice right behind me disintegrated over several minutes. Indeed, it was a lonely, insecure place we were traversing. And when the ridge leveled out, our troubles weren’t over. Some of the trickiest climbing was on steep snow of the level crest, harrowed and incut by smooth slabs. Endless decision making: climb down and around, across or over the top? Climb delicately onto the southwest side, risking rotten snow collapse? At least if each climber is on the opposite side of the ridge, theoretically a fall can be stopped by the weight of one climber on the other side. Hmm.
Gratefully, we mantled onto a rocky ledge slightly above the level of the Domjoch. It had taken us 3.5 hours, every minute nerve-wracking. The guidebook said it should take from 2 to 3 hours. So again we felt inadequate. “Descending is our weakness,” intoned Georg. I wanted to protest, but facts don’t lie. Still, I couldn’t imagine doing it any faster with any security…I felt I was moving as fast as I could in that stuff.
But it is done…now to climb back up to the Dom. We removed crampons and followed our noses over and around towers. Happily, many people have climbed in crampons and scratch marks on the rock point the most likely way. It would be very easy to go wrong in here. For example, once we started traversing to the right, by an easy ledge system that made it seem possible to avoid two towers. That could save a lot of time. But if the ledges peter out, they’ll leave you on a very loose and dangerous face, with the solid crest of the ridge high above you…maybe higher than it’s possible for you to reach safely. Then you have to go back, and how far back? In the morning we had wandered onto the South Face of the Taeschhorn by precisely this logic, and it was rather nerve-wracking to regain the crest. With the rock on the Dom so much worse, I know I was pretty scared about losing the crest. “Georg, let’s stay on the top, I see the trail too, but I think it’ll go wrong.” Georg agreed, and though we may have done more work than necessary climbing over towers, we later looked down to where that ledge system led, and it didn’t look…good. At all.
Here we are in a real wilderness. Man’s inner life, the hunches and feelings he has, they become much more important in a real wilderness. The ability to pay attention to them is vital. When to protect, where to go up. Which footholds can you trust, sticking out as they do from the horizontal bands of Gneiss. Is it a rock solidly attached, or only lightly frozen in place…immovable to the testing hand, but quite different for the foot with 200 pounds bearing down on it? Thousands of decisions to make, seemingly unconscious, but certainly there…taking a toll. As the towers become more narrow and spindly, as the drops on either side more dramatic, you may feel something closing in.
But we had assets too. Some food, some tea. The sun, and the right side of the ridge offered shelter from the wind. We had the evidence of progress piling up. The summit grew closer, and we knew the rock should become more solid. We had even seen this happening. The exhausting, icy North Ridge of the Taeschhorn receded from our minds as well. Now maybe there is time to smile.
Oddly enough, it was a pitch of hard rock climbing that lifted my spirits. I stood below a vertical wall, having tested to find good initial holds. “Georg, extend the rope all the way, I need 50 meters!” I called. He did this. With two good pieces of protection at the base of the wall, I felt good to continue up, still testing everything carefully. The whole trip had made me strong for this. I had the sun on my back. The time is now, the holds are good. A bit right, then back left. A turn to the side, fitting the left foot on a ledge, and carefully stand up. Though I bonk my head on an overhang it doesn’t matter with the helmet…I chuckle. Soon I’m on top, and with a real solid belay, and the wind has died! “Come on up, Georg!” I’m back in my most comfortable identity: a rock climber on the crags, just belaying a friend on a nice, easy climb.
This mental stance of security spread outward in two directions, up and down the ridge…softening the memories of what we’d come from, and paving the way with confidence ahead. “This is AMAZING!” I said, and meant it. We swapped leads up more towers, climbing out of holes in the ridge and the mind.
Georg reached the summit, occupied by a gaggle of crows hiding in the lee of the wind. They fluttered away on my approach. Only a moment to smile and look around, to shake hands. There seemed to be faint flashes of heat lightening, so we quickly geared up for the glacier descent. A last look back at the sinewy ridge from the Taeschhorn, and the Alphubel behind, then it was obscured in cloud.
Down, easily down, down. Then it was icy, and we faced in. We tried to angle for the Lenzjoch, as a place to sleep. Maybe we should have followed the standard route, but even though our way was tedious it was nothing compared to what we’d been through. Kick, kick, hammer. The way flattened…“this is the spot, let’s camp here.”
In the morning, we gamely tried to keep going. After a cold, somewhat uncomfortable night, we reached the Lenzjoch and climbed over a tower. We warmed up a bit in the weak morning sun, but the strong wind was exhausting me already. Was I ready for another day of this? We knew it should be easier, but I was suspicious about how much easier. I thought it might be almost as hard as the day before, and I didn’t want something almost as hard. Frankly, I was tired and felt I was losing my edge. Then, on descent from a tower I pulled the rope down and the wind blew it far left into a blank cliff…save for a flake of rock that caught the rope well and fast. Disgusted, I pulled and pulled, but it was caught. At that moment I knew I was done. I didn’t want to continue after this, omen or whatever it may be. We cut the rope, losing about 15 meters due to the accident.
Georg was able to keep going, saying that he would be happy either way. So it was up to me. I hated to be the guy to stop a trip early, but I realized that I had run out of patience for the many unexpected things that can happen in a big climbing day. Sure, if everything goes great, then no problem. But I’ve climbed long enough to know that such days are rare, and that you have to be ready for the unexpected. I no longer met that requirement…I didn’t want any more unexpected and would react to it poorly. So I was done. I called it, and led us down a steep ice wall to a bergschrund. Georg found the way over the ‘schrund, then we walked easy glacier to the Festijoch. Here, some difficulties led to him climbing down a loose horror-wall, and me rappelling from anchors on the standard descent. After some hours, we made it to the Europa Hut for good lunch and beer. Another hour and a half and we were in Randa, having descended 10,000 vertical feet since my decision on now aching knees. A train and bus got us back to Saas Fee as the rain started. With poor weather for the next days, we decided to head home.
It was enough.
Massive thanks to Georg, an unbelievably competent and steady partner, always willing to do MORE than he should, always with a smile and a sense of humor even when such things left me behind.