Articles - Alpine Climber: Difficile & Beyond. Chapter 4 - Learning from experience
by Martin Moran and Bruce Goodlad
You chance the weather at your peril: Stewart and I had great plans for the week, but the weather forecast was grim. A big storm front was due next morning and so we went to the Gandegg Hut under the Breithorn North Face. Our objective was the Bethmann-Hollweg route – a rarely climbed D+ snow and ice line, well plated with recent snow. The plan was to climb the route at full-speed, descend the short normal route to Klein Matterhorn and get the cable car back to Zermatt before the storm broke. We left under a star-filled sky at 2am, and elected to move together on a short rope without belays for maximum speed. After a complex glacier approach we headed up the big ramp in the upper face at sustained 55-58° angle. At dawn solemn banks of frontal cloud massed to the north. Expecting the front to arrive with a violent thunderstorm, we had to get over the peak before it broke. There was no option to belay. We ploughed onwards 3m apart on a short rope, praying that we wouldn’t hit any hard ice or gnarly mixed ground. The summit was reached in thick fog and, with the first thunder peals chasing our tails, we galloped down the descent tracks minutes before the advancing blizzard covered them for good. We tumbled into the lift station tunnel as lightning fizzed overhead and rode the last cable car down to Zermatt, glowing with satisfaction at plucking so sweet a success out of the maelstrom. Yet, was this a victory of dynamism and speed, or a lucky escape by two over ambitious alpinists? The margin between brilliance and foolhardiness in alpine climbing can be wafer-thin.
Teamwork and patience
Teamwork and patience are critical on D terrain: One July morning Simon Jenkins and I commenced the traverse of Les Droites – a confusing AD+ arête, bristling with little gendarmes. Having despatched the Aiguille Verte and endured a chill bivouac we were anxious to progress and complete our goal of traversing both Les Droites and Les Courtes. The route traverses under a rock barrier before doubling back to gain the Les Droites West summit, supposedly by a Grade III pitch. Unable to see any obvious Grade III line and unwilling to prolong a tiresome traverse on the east flank, we were tempted by steep chimney lines in the barrier, both patently harder than III. Simon thought the best route went up the right chimney; I was champion for the left. The result? We unroped – a dreadful idea in retrospect – and I started soloing up my line.
Having got extended in a strenuous off-width I took my crampons off. Then I decided to retreat. Squirming and twisting back down, one of my crampons lifted off my harness karabiner and clattered down the face out of sight. We regrouped, instantly crestfallen. The day was lost and our safe retreat now jeopardised. While I sat fuming with guilt and self-loathing, Simon descended the face on the off-chance the crampon had lodged on a ledge. He emerged 5 minutes later bearing a wry smile and the lost crampon. With luck that I didn’t deserve we continued our day…
Know your limits
Epics are avoided by planning within your capabilities: We were 15 hours into our day, far behind schedule, and had traversed all the 4000m tops of the Grandes Jorasses in a biting north wind, continuous Grade III/III+ climbing with some dizzy exposure. From Pointe Whymper we commenced descent of the 400m rock rib on the south flank. Having escaped the wind we were immediately swallowed by a soup of fog. My client was exhausted and I had no memory of my previous descent 12 years previously. This was not the time to realise that we had extended our ambitions far beyond our safe capacities in the conditions. Committed to an unknown descent on steepening rock I decided to abseil. After the first abseil the ropes jammed, my temper snapped and I screamed my frustration. No longer in cool command and with my client unable to down-climb any further, I rashly abandoned the spur and we abseiled down vertical walls on its flank. To our good fortune belay anchors materialised, as did slings and pegs from other teams who had faced a similar predicament. In four abseils we gained the snowfields of the normal route but it was to be a further 5 hours before we reached the safety of the Boccalatte Hut sometime after midnight!
Judging the Conditions
September 21st is late for summer-style ascents on the highest Alpine peaks, but the Domgrat Traverse over the 4491m Täschhorn and 4545m Dom was a particular prize for us. Despite a bout of cool snowy weather we trudged in to the Mischabeljoch Bivouac Hut. Climbing the Täschhorn’s SE Ridge next morning we had no inkling of any looming epic. Exposed to the sun this AD ridge was highly co-operative, the snow firm and the rocks dry, and we raced to the top in guidebook time. On commencing the descent of the NNE Ridge to the Domgrat, the change of aspect brought a transformation of conditions and the difference in technical standard between AD and D terrain doubled the shock. Smooth Grade III slabs, covered in powder snow, fell away down the sunless arête. By the time we thought to turn back we were already committed. Inescapability is a hallmark of serious D routes and we were now committed to follow the Ridge all the way to the Dom. There were only a few rusted pegs in place and we carried a minimal rack of our own hardware, so abseiling was not an option. I lowered David down from ledge to ledge while he put in runners and then I down-climbed, bare hands burning with cold on the harder moves. Each 30m pitch took half an hour. Climbing in total isolation above a sea of cloud, we took 4 hours to reach the Domjoch and a further 4 to link the crumbling rock steps and corniced arêtes to the sanctuary of the Dom’s summit cross. We flopped into the Dom Hut after an 18 hour day, knowing that we’d been well and truly trumped by the conditions.
Staying in the Comfort Zone
We had left the Fourche Bivouac Hut at 1am and climbed through a still moonlit night up Mont Blanc’s Brenva Spur. Pioneered in 1865 the Spur was much the hardest snow route then climbed in the Alps, and is still D in standard with a difficult exit through séracs. Our progress was swift and sweaty as we weaved up the initial rock buttress, barely stopping before tackling the snow arête that sweeps up to the final ice cliffs. Wearing just a thermal vest, stretch-trousers and thin windproof I became damp and chilled as the temperature dropped below zero, but I gambled that the morning sun would soon warm us. As the ridge merged into icy slopes at 4200m the sun appeared but simultaneously a cutting wind rose, ripping through my flimsy garments. The dawn wind is a normal feature of Alpine days as the sun hits one side of the mountain causing differential heating. Within 20 minutes I was desperately cold, my hands numbed and my eyes blurred with tears and rime. Worse still, my brainpower was rapidly fading and I was barely able to climb or belay. Before control was lost I had to stop and somehow get into warm fleece layers and overtrousers without falling out of my harness while balancing on a one foot belay ledge in 45° ice. After this tortuous and painful process I slowly re-warmed as we pitched rightwards round the séracs. Ironically, we were baked to toast later that day as we descended the Grands Mulets, but that hour of self-neglect on the Brenva is not forgotten. Unless you ensure thermal comfort, it becomes all but impossible to climb Difficile terrain.
Intuition or guidebook?
Which to follow - intuition or guidebook? The Nant Blanc Face of the Aiguille Verte is a wonderful introduction to more serious face climbing. Originally graded D+ (now TD!) it was first climbed by whirlwind step-cutter and legendary local guide, Armand Charlet, in 1935. Being dangerously star-struck by both mountain and guide, I went for a solo ascent one September, carrying just three ice screws and a 40m rope for emergency. The first two-thirds of the route went without pause or delay. I was confident I could get over the top and descend the Whymper Couloir before it became too hot. Then came a dilemma. The summit ‘calotte’ – a huge ice cap ringed by séracs – loomed overhead. The guidebook prescribed a line up the left side. I could see a bulge at this exit, whereas there was a clear unbroken line up to the right of the calotte. Timidity and self-doubt made me reluctant to diverge from the guidebook. The fateful decision was made to go left. Surely, there would be a sneaky way through the sérac? Unfortunately, I hadn’t bargained that snowice faces change radically over the years and an hour later I was perched dry-mouthed under a glassy ice overhang. Belaying my rope to a single ice screw I aidclimbed through the sérac, leapfrogging my remaining two screws for 15m until the angle eased. Three hours late in reaching the summit I was stranded in the baking heat of midday, unable to descend until the next night. After an uneasy bivouac I reached Chamonix 24 hours behind schedule. With hindsight of 20 years experience I would always follow my intuition in routefinding rather than being enslaved to guidebook detail. The speedy development of self-confidence in route choice is a vital process for young alpinists.
Don't miss Chapter Five in the supplement, which recommends five great Difficile routes to go at!
If this Alpine Climber series has left you wanting more, then go to the Alps & Beyond feature library where you'll find a range of other alpine articles.
For overseas insurance covering you for Alpine climbing check out the Climber Marketplace for a variety of options.