Expedition report … warning: lengthy!

Here are the reports I posted on Facebook during the trip. Photos coming later.

Mid-expedition report 8/07/07

I have finally managed to find an internet outlet in Zermatt! This place is amazing, and despite its heavy tourist presence and obviously developed nature, it still manages to convey a powerful and very tangible essence of Alpine history. I can look straight out of the tent door at base camp and see the Matterhorn, loaded with snow, its summit reaching higher into the sky than I would have imagined possible. Walk down the main street in the town and you pass landmarks every few minutes: the Monte Rosa hotel, where Edward Whymper stayed in 1865; the square where Zermatt guides have gathered to meet every week for 150 years; the famous church; and of course the graveyard, filled from head to toe with memorials to famous climbers, most of whom lost their lives on early attempts on the Matterhorn, Breithorn, and Weisshorn.

The weather here is far more “British” than I had been led to imagine. The first few days where characterised by cold, blustery rainsqualls. Despite this, on Tuesday mid-morning we decided on impulse to make a start on Mettelhorn, which at 3,400m was our first objective. The plan was to reach as high as possible that day, make a high camp, then summit the next morning and descend. As it turned out, we climbed 1,500m in increasingly inclement conditions, finally stopping at a col (3,100m) because I was suffering from the altitude.

We dug a snow cave and settled down for the night. Although my snow cave started out very well, I hit a 45-degree bed of water ice while digging, which meant it was impossible to cut a flat floor for the cave. We went to sleep sloping against the walls of the cave and constantly slipping downwards, with the result that part of me was always resting against ice and my feet were sticking out into the deep cold and snow in the entrance trench. The temperature plummetted overnight and we awoke to find our gear (and feet!) buried under about a metre of spindrift. All of our gear was frozen solid, including rucksacks, crampons straps, and spare clothing. Worse, my down sleeping bag was soaked and I was badly cramped from my uncomfortable and claustrophobic position.

Nevertheless, we awoke just before dawn, weakened but still alive! After packing our gear, we set off across the glacier towards the final summit pyramid of Mettelhorn. It was very cold indeed and despite our long rest, I was still having trouble breathing the thin air and my headache was coming back (both signs of poor acclimatisation). The wind increased, it started to snow.

However, just before we reached the summit dome, the clouds cleared and we were treated to a stunning dawn view over the valley, towards the tremendous ice walls of Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Breithorn, and the Matterhorn itself–all plastered with fresh snow. A thousand metres below us, cloud boiled over Zermatt. It was worth all the cold and discomfort!

The final climb was not too technical (Scottish Grade I), but in my weakened state it took a lot out of me. I led the climbing but James made all the decisions, being the only one of completely sound mind. After ascending a 50-degree ice wall, we finished up a mixed slope of boulders, new snow, and ice-filled cracks. The summit was amazing but deadly cold: air temperature alone was below -10, and wind chill must have taken ten degrees off that. Not anticipating the poor weather, neither of us had thought to pack our down jackets and thus were wearing only thin fleeces and waterproofs.

We descended that day, then slept a great deal! Next day the weather had improved somewhat, and we took the Gornergratbahn up to Rotenboden and made the ascent of Riffelhorn, an absolutely amazing little rock summit perched above the glacier at 2,927m. The weather was sunny, despite occasional snow flurries, and the rock was dry and of excellent quality. I’d grade the climb of Riffelhorn East Ridge at Grade 2+ overall, with two crux pitches of note, each of which qualified as Moderate. We moved together over the whole route except for the two hard sections, which we pitched. The vertical abseils on descent were conveniently equipped with bolts. In character I’d say it was similar to Tryfan North Ridge, only shorter; more difficult and exposed, but generally less serious due to occasional bolted sections and a mountain railway at the foot!

After a rest day, yesterday we decided to go for something a bit more serious. Cima di Jazzi, a 3,800m Monte Rosa outlier, was suggested, to be reached via the Stockhorngrat. We took the train as high as it went, to 3,089m, then started along the ridge. Our first mistake was to underestimate the technicality of the Stockhorngrat. We had anticipated a swift walk along the ridge to reach the glacier, but instead we found ourself faced with a fairly serious rock arete with steep, exposed snowfields and sections of crevassed glacier. The climbing didn’t really go above Grade 1 scrambling, but we had to climb it in big boots and crampons and route-finding was something of an issue.

In the end, we settled for the summit of Stockhorn (a bit over 3,500m), which turned out to be a superb summit in a remote location with an absolutely amazing panorama of mountains surrounding it–all the 4,000m peaks of the Zermatt and Mischabel areas. Unfortunately, despite a reasonable air temperature the sun was out and we had forgotten our sun-cream! On the return, the glacier softened, making progress slow and necessitating much step-cutting down steep terrain we had simply front-pointed up on the ascent. On two notable sections of glacier, I kept falling into small crevasses, in some cases up to my chest. It was slow going and by the time we got back to the station, it was after 5:30 and we were both badly burned on our faces by the intense radiation being reflected off the glacier.

Today we’re recovering from our bad dose of sunburn and revising our objectives. From the amount of snow still about, my slow acclimatisation, and our questionable experience of snowholing, it is clear that Nordend is out of the question if we want to get down alive. It seems likely that our ultimate objective will now be the South-West Face of Pollux, with Breithorn West and Central as possibly our only other venture into 4,000m+ terrain.

The truth of it is that the Alps are menacingly huge for mountaineers from a background of Welsh rock and Scottish winter. I had not considered how much of a factor high altitude would be, and there are psychological factors too–all those gravestones in the churchyard, memorials to hundreds of climbers who failed to come back. You just don’t realise what the Alps really mean, how serious they really are, until you’re here in Zermatt with the Matterhorn towering above you.

This is by no means to say that I’m not enjoying this immensely, but it’s clear that I have somewhat overestimated my own abilities. I have progressed so fast in Britain that I thought it would be the same over here. Clearly the Alpine environment is one that should be taken slowly and steadily, building things up gradually over a number of years.

In any case I’m back on the 16th! Please wish me luck for the rest of the trip.

Quick update 11/07/07

Not much happening here in Zermatt at the moment. Weather is highly dodgy, quite cold (about 7 degrees in the valley and -4 at 3,000m), big clouds and sporadic rain and snow. The mountains are being loaded with fresh snow down to about 2,500m and right now the Matterhorn is completely plastered, putting it out of bounds for prospective summiteers. There are few climbers here, but the ones who are hanging around are mostly just dossing in the campsite, like us.

James and I are taking this time-out to recover from our severe case of sunburn. In my case, my skin has almost stopped flaking off in chunks by now, and it seems as if my nose is almost entirely intact again … quite a change from the peeling, bloody mess it was two days ago! My lips, however, are still quite bad, my lower lip particularly. A viral infection of the coldsore variety has colonised the blistered skin and I suspect that’s going to prove more of a problem than the sunburn wound over the next few days.

I’ve been buying and reading no end of books to pass the time, but Zermatt’s a pretty cool place to ‘vegetate’ in and I can’t say I’m bored, even if I would rather be climbing. In any case, the weather is set to improve a little on Friday, so we are planning on climbing Breithorn that day. The plan is then to head up to the glacier behind Breithorn on Saturday, stay overnight at a rather feral 12-birth hut near the Zwillingsjoch, then summit either Pollux or (probably) Castor, before returning to base in time to strike camp and head back to the UK.

Final report: Castor West Face with Variation, 4,228m, PD 15/07/07

We’re now back in Zermatt after our final climb of the season. On Friday morning the weather looked promising, so we packed our gear and took the first cable car up to the Klein Matterhorn station at 3,800m. It was quite amazing flying over the glacier in a box of metal and glass packed with skiiers and fellow climbers … the mighty north faces of Lyskamm and Breithorn looming large in the near distance.

We were on the glacier by 8am. From the south, Breithorn–mighty mountain wall when viewed from Zermatt–seemed utterly unappealing, and since every single other climber in the area was making a beeline for the summit along a well-worn, easy track, the idea of climbing this mountain suddenly lost its attraction. For many people, this is their first and only 4,000er. Why blend in with everyone else, we thought? There is no point in climbing a mountain just to say you’ve done it, or to add another summit to your list. I have climbed seventy-two mountains and feel no need to plod to the top of another one just to make it to seventy-three.

We decided on something more worthwhile, more difficult, and most importantly, something that appealed to my sense of what a climb should be, emotionally and ethically. Some people say I have a massively romantic view of mountaineering in exactly the same mould as George Mallory, and I guess that’s so. A major climb must mean something to me.

Castor was the perfect choice. At 4,228m, this mountain is not a soft touch and is more remote than many of the other Zermatt 4,000ers. It has a mighty outline, a massive but elegant pyramid, rising in slopes of pure ice and snow to a finely-wrought summit ridge. It has many famous and epic climbs. Haunted by images of the summit view I’d glimpsed on the Internet, I knew we had to climb this mountain.

On the first day, we crossed over into Italy and traversed two miles of glacier, reaching the hut–run by the Italian Alpine Club, and reachable only by abseil–at about eleven o’clock. This seems to be the watershed point after which it becomes excessively difficult and dangerous to climb in the Alps. The sun is unbearably hot, the previously hard snow and ice reverts to a metre of nightmarish slush, and the cliffs begin to release volleys of stonefall and avalanche. We remained for the rest of the day in the hut, acclimatising (the hut is at 3,700m) and trying to sleep, but at that altitude sleep is rather difficult.

It was actually a pretty cool hut to stay in, with a superb view, and beat snowholing by a long way. Instead of getting up weakened, cold and wet, we awoke at 2:45am ready to face the mountain.

Since the hut is perched right on the edge of a cliff, reachable only by a difficult rock-climb or a 100m-high face of sixty-degree ice, it took us an hour to get down onto the glacier. To begin with we followed a line of steps down the steepening face but this soon became impractical. We resorted to building hasty ice anchors (mostly of the buried axe variety) and belaying each other down pitches of steep ice. It took a while, but it was a lot safer than moving together over that kind of terrain!

We walked above the huge bergschrund at the foot of Pollux, then made our way towards the foot of the face. Castor loomed huge above us: our route took a 550m face of mixed snow and ice, averaging at 35 degrees but exceeding sixty degrees at many points. The lower part of the face was a tedious, zig-zagging plod on excellent snow. As the line steepened, some front-pointing was required and after we crossed the bergschrund (luckily mostly filled in), we abandoned the track and struck a line directly up the face towards the narrow ridge. This final pitch of climbing exceeded seventy degrees, although luckily the sun had only just come up so the ice was still of excellent quality.

We topped out to rosy sunlight illuminating the harsh, icy wilderness of Lyskamm and Monte Rosa, and looking down into the deep valleys of Italy. The atmosphere was incredibly clear. Mont Blanc loomed a gigantic dome on the horizon, and other ranges could also clearly be seen, such as the Ecrins. To the north, Taschhorn, Dom, and the frontier crest culmunating in the Weisshorn; further still, the Bernese Oberland, home of the Jungfrau and Eiger. Zermatt nestled far, far beneath in the shadowed valley. Glaciers stretched in all directions.

It was an incredible summit. The final ridge was a fine crest of perfect snow. The summit of Castor, despite the cold and the wheezing from the rarified air, was the embodiment of everything that is magical about mountaineering. It’s in places like this, although exhausted from the climb and the stresses of altitude, that you can appreciate the raw beauty of the wilderness, and see deeper into what makes us who we are. Summits are places of revelation and self-discovery. You only spend a few minutes there, wary of a descent on melting snow, but those minutes burn themselves deep into your mind and are a source of inspiration for years to come.

We descended from Castor’s West Face very tired, but uplifted. Not only had we climbed a significant 4,000m+ peak by a route that was harder than the average new alpinist’s big climb, we had met guidebook time (two hours for the face) and completed the route in perfect style. However, by the time we rounded Pollux’s bergschrund, the glacier was in a dire state and we knew we would have to spend another night in the hut. James’ skin was starting to burn again.

But there was the problem of how to get back to the hut! Put off by the dire state of the snow, attempting the steep ice face was tantamount to suicide. We decided on a fifty metre, mixed line weaving between snow gullies and rock buttresses. In the end, it took us an hour of exhausting, frustrating climbing, some of the most dangerous climbing I’ve ever done. The rock wasn’t too bad but the snow was now melting slush down to a metre, and on a sixty degree face, this is bad news. By the time we reached the hut, I was totally exhausted and in a foul mood.

Later that afternoon, some Italians arrived in the hut. We resented their intrusion into ‘our’ little world at first, but they made an effort to be friendly and discussed routes in broken English. Turns out they were making an attempt on the full Breithorn traverse the next day. They awoke at 3am and after half an hour of clattering about left the hut. This morning, when crossing the glacier beneath Breithorn West Twin, we saw them on the ridge, two moving specks between rocky spires.

We were back in Zermatt by nine this morning, and it was a surreal feeling, being whisked down from the intensely cold, alien environment of the glacier straight to the middle of town. Walking through the town centre was also very odd: both of us carrying heavy packs, heavily laden-down with rope and ironmongery, James still wearing his down jacket, both of us with disintegrating skin from having spent forty-eight hours at high altitude. We received many odd looks from tourists, but also a few nods from fellow climbers. It felt good to be returning to base camp having proven ourselves worthy.

I spent this afternoon relaxing on a bench in town, enjoying the sunny weather and recovering. We’re catching a train early tomorrow morning out of here and will be back in Norwich by midnight. I’m looking forward to going home, but I’m going to miss Zermatt a lot as well–this place is unforgettable and I know I’m going to come back here many times. There is so much left to be climbed. Breithorn by a worthwhile route; the Lyskamm; Monte Rosa; Strahlhorn; and many others. In fact we’re even thinking about coming back here next year instead of having a go at Mont Blanc. The Alps deserve a gradual introduction. Why rush straight to the biggest and most popular?

In any case, the five hundred pictures we’ve taken will take a bit of sorting out, but I daresay I’ll be uploading some of them over the next few days!

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