10 Aug 2014

Ailefroide rock and Dent d'Herens

It was great to see Pete again! I drove to Geneva, a little worn out by heavy traffic around Zurich, but my spirits were restored by a wonderful, healthy dinner with his family. In the morning I read a story to the small fellow of the house, and we played with some wooden toys I brought. Pete and I set off in the late morning, semi-exasperated with poor weather reports. It was raining.

We decided to head to Ailefroide, and fought bizarre traffic jams all the way. But no matter, by the evening we’d picked an excellent rock climb for the next day. Sadly, I don’t know what it’s called, but it was fantastic! Rated 5c, and about 14 pitches, it was a long and moderate romp up bolt-protected granite slabs and corners.

We slept at the Ailefroide campground, a pretty unique place. Saturday night we hiked up to the base of the route which had a great view down to the tents. During the night it rained a bit (the bivy sack was a bit problematic but still adequate, at least for today).

Pete enjoys good Ailefroide granite

A crux pitch at 5b

We hiked up and swapped leads the whole way, enjoying the moderate ground tremendously. We talked about all the vagaries of modern life, raising kids, vacations, whether to live in Europe or the USA. All good problems!

Then, I think we started the rappels a bit too hastily. Another party sped up behind us, and we walked to the obvious rappel anchor and made our first rappel, which should have been 50 meters. Hmm. I blew past that with no sign of an anchor, and made it to a strange tree-based anchor system at the exact end of rope stretch for a 60 meter rope. In fact, I had to clip to a solitary bolt on the face, release the ropes for Pete, and then solo a couple meters across to the anchor. This was strange, and it worried me!

Near the top

Our route

Pete came down and we saw on the diagram a big “NO!” marked at the little tree island on the cliff where we were. Awesome. Har.

I was inclined to grumble about the whole thing, but Pete didn’t see a huge problem. If we could just traverse off right we could rejoin the rappel line. Indeed, this worked despite my premonitions. I realized I was kind of replaying some previous rappel mistakes in my head, “resonating” with various past conditions.

So we got back on the line and anchor system with two rappels, only one severely diagonal. I left quick-draws to hold the line, and Pete was able to retrieve them since I could hold the rope below him. Natch!

The rest of the descent proceeded normally. It was early afternoon, and we still had some energy. So we went over to an impressive 70 meter high slab on the other side of the campground. Pete and I both led a fairly difficult 5c. Then I tried to lead a 6a, but my gosh, it was hard! I resorted to aid to clip a bolt above me, then tried to get the moves properly with limited success. After the crux, the terrain eased. All good learning!

We had an excellent pizza dinner in the campground. Later, somewhat tired, and stressed by the ever changing weather reports (sun? rain! No? Sun again? Really? Rain!), we started to wonder if we’d driven too far south and should have waited somewhere else for rain to stop. I started to get the idea that a persistent low pressure system is an almost living enemy of climbers: it corrodes confidence, sends you on fruitless missions and feeds on dashed hopes!


But we read the tea leaves of the forecast, then checked our own motivations and abilities, finally deciding that making a break back north for high country was the right idea. We readied for an early morning departure to the neighborhood of Arolla for a run at the Dent d’Herens.

The type-A portion of my personality was happy with an early morning departure, and the empty roads felt nice. Later, there was no traffic around Turin which was a relief, too. We had some great baked bread along the way.

At the trailhead I was attacked by an upset stomach, eventually finding relief at a restroom near the dam. Whew! Terrible how such mundane problems can loom large…

We made a long walk along the lake, then stopped at a restaurant at the far end for an excellent spaghetti lunch. Mmmm. In muggy heat, we kept hiking into a long boulder-filled valley. It started to rain, then kept raining quite heavily for hours. I had taken off my shirt before, and eventually my arms were so cold that they hurt. Pete was off up ahead, and he found a nice boulder to switch into rain gear. I did the same a little behind. Grr. Would the weather improve for the morning?

Ugh, heavy pack!

Lunch at Prarayer

The Aosta Hut

Pete on the West Ridge of Dent d’Herens

A final steep moraine led to a traverse of boulder-strewn slopes, then a short descent to the hut, where we tried to dry wet gear. I napped for an hour, and then the weather started to get better. We had a kind of strange dinner. Pete cracked me up with some jokes about the sausage we were eating. “Climber fingers,” he called them. “Fresh from the glacier,” he said, pointing to the roiling wall of ice cascading over a cliff out the window. The thing was, he was exactly right. The shape, texture, and even the rather foreign taste of the sausage was…conducive…to outrageous interpretations!

But if this was strange, we were even more scandalized by breakfast, which consisted, basically, of two packages of Saltines formed to look like cute little pieces of toast. Which they weren’t. Don’t get me wrong, the hut was nice, the people there was wonderful and friendly. But gosh…maybe it’s an Italian breakfast thing. Or actually, the lack of (any) thing!

Comically, we departed the hut in the 3 am darkness (thankfully with a sky full of stars!), and didn’t know which way to go. I asked a Dutchman, and he pointed in the opposite direction we expected to go. Finally enough people set off that way (back down the approach trail for a ways, then left up a moraine) that we had to conclude this was correct!

We walked through the darkness a long time. We put on harness, crampons and rope as we reached the glacier, essentially going on autopilot for hours of what was a pretty standard ascent. We thought we should climb the West Ridge, but if conditions were poor we would do the Southwest Face. In fact though, it seems that the West Ridge has really become the normal route now, unlike when my buddy Georg climbed the peak some years before.

We got into a line of guides and clients for a fixed rope/chain that led up rotten rocks for about 60 meters to the ridge crest. We climbed through them, being a little bit aggressive about continuing to move among people who are standing around a lot. I don’t like this attitude or atmosphere of stress in regards to 4000 meter mountains, but I don’t like to be stuck either.

The Tete de Valpelline

The Matterhorn on the right

But once past that, the ridge crest offered excellent climbing! I enjoyed this part of the climb the most. We moved together, protecting as needed. I was in my own world a little bit though, because Pete was thinking we should remove crampons and I just kept going. It’s no fun to do moves that feel sketchy and I’m sorry to have been so oblivious! At least I got some payback later! On the descent we reversed the ridge without crampons and gosh, it was my turn to feel sketched out! Everything felt so…slippery?

Once the various ridge towers were completed, we began an interminable climb of uncomfortably angled snow (45 degrees?) to a final selection of rocks just below the summit. We commiserated with banal phrases like “…it’s so long!”, or “Man, I’m tired!” We were feeling the altitude as this was our first high tour.

The weather began to close in, with strong wind and a long horizontal sweep of cloud obscuring the summit of the neighboring Matterhorn. The final rock climb and a few dicey moves on narrow ridge crest were done in strong, cold wind. We took one or two pictures and started down as quickly as possible.

We kept looking for a turn-off from our long slope onto the Southwest Face and glacier, but we must have missed it. So we descended the ridge, as mentioned already, without crampons. Down here the weather was good again, even sunny for a while.

The sun had the ability to make us smile, and momentarily forget the difficult weather environment. Looking back a month, I can see this was only the beginning of a difficult emotional period regarding the weather, and it finally forged a new understanding in me on how to deal with the problem.

Looking south from the Dent d’Herens.

Goodbye, high country!

But while we could smile and laugh, we did!

Cleverly, we’d brought everything with us, so we didn’t have to return to the hut, but could continue straight down the moraine to rejoin our valley trail. This was a pleasant journey, despite heavy packs and tired feet. We reached the restaurant of the day before, ordering another lunch, which was almost as good, but it seemed they’d learned about me and there was now a rationing policy on the Parmesian cheese.

It started to rain as we made the long mostly flat walk along the lake. I was dreading this section: mountain boots and long flat roads don’t go together very well! But listening to good music (Family of the Year), and a overt decision to have a positive attitude worked wonders. By the end, Pete and I were moving very fast, and if not entirely happy, we at least successfully outraced our fear of tedium and pain!

Congratulating ourselves on having fully used a sub-24 hour weather window, we now drove back to Geneva through the Mont Blanc tunnel, arriving late and committing to a wonderful rest day.

Pete had an excellent day with family, and I enjoyed myself exploring Geneva (mainly exploring the interior of a coffee shop, actually!). During the day, continuing to look at more poor forecasts, I resolved to go on a multi-day hike as a way to exit this antagonistic relationship with the weather. It was taking away the joy of mountains! Pete and I chatted, and it seemed best to send me off on this hike, while he would enjoy some family time and then hopefully get some technical climbing in on the weekend when the weather was slated to improve.

Another wonderful dinner and breakfast with lively conversation, and they sent me on my way, with a few packs of granola cookies that would fuel my next adventure with pleasure!

Thank you Pete, thanks Alena! Y’all are great. Until next time, with blue skies and enough high-pressure weather to give us nosebleeds :).