Friday, August 25, 2017

Big Classic Alpine Climbing : East Ridge of Beitschhorn 3934m

The Alpine Club Guide book states
Beitschhorn Viewed from almost any angle it is a magnificent sight, standing proud of all the adjacent peaks. It has three principal ridges, each of which is quite narrow … None of the routes are easy
… The East ridge is probably the hardest of them . Naturally this is the route that John Young and I decided to attempt. Yet before the attempt there is the herculean task of actually getting to the hut: The walk in from the highest road point is a formidable five and half hours. The longest walk in in the western alps. Fortunately it is also the most beautiful once you have negotiated the 1600 meter long tunnel which is a "new" Bise a water irrigation system. The original was built in the 1400's and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The route passes through fabulous terrain , plus a sort of summer village come hippy retreat, before eventually arriving at the Baltschiederklause Hut. [Not before time.] Having invested all this effort in actually getting to the hut we felt we should perhaps climb another peak while we were there and so choose the west ridge of the Jagihorn. The ridge was good and quite hard, with some thought provoking rock climbing. The descent was relatively short although probably a little longer day than we would have wanted considering the task we had set for the next day. Just before dinner I was invited to "Cocktails" by the Guardian . It was a chance to meet other Guides. No one else was planning to climb the Beitschhorn the next day. The Guardian gave us the weather forecast. It was stellar. 21st August 3.00am Breakfast . Then we were off up the path following the reflective markers. These ran out just when they would have been really useful but we still randomly found the toe of the glacier. We trudged up the dry glacier and after about an hour we had a debate about where we should leave the glacier and start on the lower part of the ridge. The options looked difficult although in the end the correct choice was made and it was a lot less difficult than it looked. Once we were established on the ridge things went well. It is very long , mostly on good rock and the route finding is on the whole straight forward. If in doubt stick to the ridge. After about 7 hours since leaving the hut we arrived on the summit feeling we had made a good account of ourselves.
The plan was then to traverse the mountain and descend to the Beitschhorn Hut. This is where the plan went awry. The cloud behind John in the photo was not as benign as the forecast had predicted . Soon we were enveloped in thick mist. Then the wind got up. It then started to rain. John's glasses steamed up and he could see his feet. Then the wind started to really blow. We now couldn't see further than an out stretched hand and the only way we could communicate was to yell into each others ears. In addition this side of the mountain was plastered in thick unconsolidated snow where as the east ridge , our route of ascent was dry. So strong was the wind that we could not climb down the ridge for fear of being blown off. The whole outing was turning into a bit of a challenge. Eventually we got forced into descending a steep couloir on the north side of the mountain just in an attempt to get out of the wind. We were making very slow progress because John could not see through his misted up glasses. It was now raining hard and we were getting very cold . Again we were forced onto some more unpleasant loose ground . Eventually I spotted an escape route and a rappel point. We rappelled onto the glacier out out of the mist. We were feeling mightily relieved even though the glacier was soft and there were lots of holes to navigate around it was a thousand times better than what we had had to endure. Eventually at about 9.00 pm we arrived back at the Baltschiederklause Hut. Drenched through. The first thing we did was get the Guardian to call the Beitschhorn Hut to inform them we would not be coming. Then we both sat down while the Hut Staff prepared lots of food for us and some large beers. A big day. The next day we awoke to a leisurely breakfast. The main topic of conversation was how could the weather forecast be so wrong? A local Swiss Guide who had been on an adjacent mountain told me that when the storm came in he called Geneva Airport to ask them what was happening in real time. Apparently they denied there was any bad weather!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

First Time on Crampons

The brief was to find somewhere high and spectacular where someone who had no previous alpine mountaineering experience could spend a week in an incredible environment. This was a challenge I accepted with Bob & Annie Taylor. Saturday 5th August. We met at the sports shop , Stamos Sports in Argentiere where Bob and Annie were kitted out with alpine climbing boots, crampons etc. We then headed up Les Grands Montets cable car for an initiation day. Annie had never worn crampons and the whole climbing thing was new to her. Meanwhile Bob was coming back to alpine climbing after a 30 year break. He was shocked that his new boots weighed virtually nothing while his boots of 30 years ago were more like deep sea diving boots. A lot of kit has changed in the last 30 years. We spent the morning learning the fundamentals of proper safe crampon technique. In the afternoon descended onto the glacier des Rognans. In the last 30 years it is not only the equipment has changed but the flip side is that so have the glaciers . It is utterly shocking to see the devastation reaked by global warming. What should have been a simple walk down a steepish snow slope turned into a baptism by fire of negotiating very intimidating open crevasses. What is the start of the ski piste in winter had become a very serious descent in the summer: The three of us headed down the "ski piste" before steeping over some eye wateringly huge crevasses. Next we turned left and climbed up the aiguille de Grands Montets eventually following the rocky ridge to the top. Sunday 6th August. We drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel down past Aosta then took the turning to Gressoney. We dumped the car at the road head at Staffel ,jumped on the cable car which conveniently put us at just over 3000 meters. We then walked and scambled to the Refugio Mantova for our first night at a very respectable 3500m. The sunset and view of Mt Blanc some 70 km was impressive: Monday 7th August. We left the Mantova at about 7.30 am , threaded our way through the the glacial rocks and then headed up the glacier negotiating some very photogenic crevasses. We made very good progress and were very happy to pass the magic 4000 meter mark. We continued on and reached the summit of Vincent Piramid 4200meters. We walked back down to the Gnifeti Hut slightly higher than the previous night. We sat on the terrace and Annie had the inspired idea of opening a bottle of Prosecco. It was all very fine , my only issue was it was just too hot. Tuesday 8th. Being too hot was not the issue the next day. The weather was not good for much as it snowed all day, Yet for us it gave us valuable further acclimatization which was going to be all important for aim of staying in the Margherita Hut. Wednesday 9th. The day started bright. The over night snow made everything look beautiful. We were careful not to be away too early so that other teams could break trail. Although we couldn't really afford to relaxed because the forecast was for storms in the afternoon. We enjoyed a wonderful ascent to the Margherita Hut at 4554meters , the highest building in Western Europe. We arrived at the Margherita at about 11.30am. Just before the weather turned bad . It started to snow and then the hut was hit by lightening knocking out the power for a while. Lightening strikes on the hut are a big deal. Recently according to the Hut Guardian someone had been fatally hit by lightening while taking a photo out of the window during a lightening storm. Although not fatal someone had also been hit by lightening which came through the air vent in the squatter toilet. Thursday 10th August. The last time I awoke in the Margerherita hut had been the Friday 24th June. The morning the Old , the Poor and the Stupid killed off the next generations future by voting for Brexit. [Why wouldn't you want your children to have the opportunities that a European passport provides?] Unfortunately I will always have this association with the Margherita. However on this morning I had the more practical issue of how we were going to get down in what was 30cm fresh snow and zero visibility. There was only one other Guide and party in the Hut that night. A very personable and very competent Grindlewald Guide named Patrick. We agreed to team up and work together. We didn't see much for the first couple of hours but once we got back to the Gnifeti Hut we were just below the cloud base. We stopped at the Mantova Hut for a cappuccino before sauntering back to the top of the lift syatem ending very good week.