Thursday, 30 August 2012

In Praise of the Easy Way

Last week I made an amazing discovery; fear does not need to be a part of mountaineering. This road to Damascus like revelation was catalysed by the fact that my normal climbing partner has gone AWOL to Thailand on honeymoon.

When Dom and I climb together I always end up expanding the upper limit of my comfort zone rather more than I had intended. As someone who could win a gold medal for enthusiasm he frequently sandbags his partners into some form of harrowing experience; how else do I explain the appearance in my log book of the Orion Face surrounded by a mass of steady grade threes?

So with Dom no doubt trying to convince his good wife Katherine that what she REALLY wants to do on honeymoon is explore Thailand's climbing scene I made my way to Switzerland to meet a mutual friend of ours Andy whom I know has a deep empathy for my situation having been on the receiving end of a number of sandbaggings himself.

The view from near the top of the Hohass lift

To celebrate the fact we don't have to do anything hard we decide to spend the week emulating our forefathers from the nineteenth century and collect a few 4000m peaks by the classic "Grand Courses" of there early ascents. 

There are limits to this historical emulation, we will not be resorting to hiring guides, cutting steps, clothing ourselves in tweed, or heaven forbid walking in to the climbs as begets the style of the Victorian mountaineer. Had Wymper had access to the Hohass cable car I'm, sure he would have made use of it in any attempt to climb the Weissmies, the mountain we have set todays sights on.

The free cable cars currently running in Saas Grund meant we had popped up the previous evening to have a look at the route and trace the inevitable motorway or snow trench that leads up the mountain by it's most popular route the north west flank onto the south west ridge. Its a reasonable nice looking line, across the glacier before climbing onto the shoulder of the mountain and following the ridge to the summit.

The normal route crosses the glacier before climbing onto the shoulder and then following the skyline to the summit. The track is just about visible.

Climbers in amongst the avalanche debris, we steered clear of this keeping low till well past it then climbing the edge of the glacier.

Having caught the first bin out the valley were on the glacier in about ten minutes weaving our way in and out of the crevasses which this late in the season are relatively easy to see and avoid. We take a big round the fans of avalanche debris recently fallen from the seracs which tower above the start of the route and sneak up the side of the glacier and on to the shoulder. This passage is easy but with a nice dab of exposure as you cross the steep face to the base of the shoulder with the slope dropping steeply away towards ice cliffs on your right.

Hers a short steep ice step provides a few minutes of interest and active deployment of the axe in anger. In fresh conditions the step would prove a bit tricky at PD but the passage of hundreds of boots has smashed a pretty good staircase through it. Now all it manages to do is create an obvious bottleneck which we fortunately avoid having powered past everyone else on the climb up from the glacier.

The path between the shoulder and the glacier, BIG drop to the left!

High on the final summit ridge

Above this the route runs up to join the south west ridge and is a nice non threatening snow walk. The trail leads away ahead of us flowing easily over the terrain weaving about to trace the easiest line; occasionally blobs of colour in little groups of two and three brake the monotony of white as groups of climbers plod towards the great white cone ahead and above.

I'm feeling really strong and acclimatised having been above 3500m the last four days running and we make really good time to the summit arriving a little after 2.5hr from leaving the lift. The top is really exposed to the wind and bitterly cold; todays weather is a little more mixed than earlier in the week when we had cold but quite still conditions on the summit of the Allinhorn. Amazingly considering the huge number of groups (20+) we passed during the climb we have the summit almost to ourselves just a one other couple arrive almost at the same time as us up the SSE ridge. 

For me one of the main joys of mountaineering are the summit moments; standing high above your surroundings and taking in a truly spectacular view on the world. From here the panorama is pretty spectacular even if the brilliant blue sky of earlier in the week is now flecked with high white cloud. Towards Italy a cloud inversion fills the valley hiding everything from view. In spite of the view we don't linger long in the bitter wind, turning for home back the way we came.

Ninety minutes later I'm sat on the sun terrace of the Hohass restaurant beer in hand and soup and pretzl ready to go as we watch a steady stream of climbers move down the mountain to join us, yep I can get used to this

The very top of the SSE ridge

Job half done, now for the beer.

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