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The fifteen most terrifying seconds of my life

Swimming more than walking, Kristoffer was making steady progress in the fresh snow. The unclimbed ice wall was only a few meters away now. As the rope came taut, I put the camera away and started coming up, sinking a meter with each step. It was very hard work and I was entirely focused on the effort when I suddenly heard Kristoffer shout “COMING DOWN!“. There was urgency in his voice, but my first thought was that it didn’t make much sense. There couldn’t be ice coming down yet, and the angle of the slope was too low for anything to do real damage anyway. I looked up and everything seemed normal. Then I saw it. The whole slope was moving, coming straight toward me.

Sketchy Fossen in terrible nick.

Sketchy Fossen, our initial objective, in terrible nick.

* * *

This trip was a gamble on weather and conditions from the start. Over the past two days, we had driven 12 hours from Denmark to the heart of Norway, not far from Bergen. We only had one potential climbing day before having to drive back home if we wanted to be at work on Monday morning. Kristoffer had his eyes on some of the lines first climbed by Will Gadd and Andreas Spak last winter, and in particular the aptly named Sketchy Fossen, probably one of the steepest and longest ice falls in the world, with over 400 meters of vertical ice. This would be way too hard for me to have a chance of leading, but I was happy to belay Kristoffer on what would be the second ascent.

On climbing day, things had gone wrong from the very beginning. Despite a cheerful forecast, heavy snow had fallen all night, depositing at least 20 fresh centimeters on the roads. We started the approach well before sunrise, and our minimal scouting the previous day made us miss the correct turn by a mere hundred meters, forcing us to an exhausting climb of a buttress on the wrong side of the gully. We realized our mistake later and had to negotiate a series of tricky abseils to get back on track, only to discover that while the upper part of Sketchy Fossen looked good, the bottom wasn’t quite frozen and the first two pitches had collapsed recently. It was clearly impossible to climb. After the initial disappointment, we settled on another ice fall at the back of the canyon which looked in better nick. On the way over there, we also discovered a hidden gully on the left and decided to climb it right away, since it would likely be a first ascent.

The approach gully was very wide, probably 100 meters across, an angle varying between 30 and 40 degrees and with at least two meters of snow cover. Halfway up, a gigantic avalanche came down Sketchy Fossen. Being a couple hundred meters away from the base, we were out of harm’s way but still felt the wind with amazing strength when tons of snow hit the ground. If the icefall had been in better conditions, we would have been straight under it. I don’t even want to think about what that would have meant. Stupidly, we kept walking toward the cliffs and their promises of steep, clean vertical ice.

A giant avalanche coming down Sketchy Fossen.

A giant avalanche coming down Sketchy Fossen. This is not the one we were caught in, ours was much smaller and came a few minutes later.

* * *

There was no time to run and nowhere to go, the whole slope was going. I remembered tales of small Scottish slides where people had managed to stay standing and, hoping I could do the same, I braced for impact, less than a second away. As the wave hit me, I was instantly knocked over with tremendous strength and before I could realize what had happened, I was going at a terrible speed, head first, on my back. I then made my biggest mistake yet and opened my mouth (to scream or breathe, I have no idea) and it instantly filled with snow, pushing its way down my throat and blocking my airway. I was suffocating already.

Somehow, I had imagined being caught in an avalanche like being on a very fast toboggan slide, but the reality was a lot scarier. It was pure chaos, a maelstrom if there ever was one. None of my senses were working. I was in darkness most of the time, with the occasional bright light telling me I was getting close to the surface, only to be pulled back down an instant later. All I could hear was the deafening roar of the tons of snow coming down the slope. Shaken hopelessly, the only direction I could be certain of was where downhill was, though I had a vague idea I was still sliding head first. All I could taste was the combination of the snow filling my mouth with my terrible fear.

As soon as the slide had started, I got convinced I was about to die. It didn’t mean much, though, it was too abstract in a universe which had been reduced to tons of snow tumbling down a mountainside. What I could understand, though, was that I couldn’t breathe at all, and that I was likely to end up buried alive. This was the purest, most abject terror I could ever have imagined, and it focused on a single thing. It went on like a mantra in my head: “Let me end up near the surface, please let me end up near the surface“. This was all I could think about. The animal fear of these few minutes I believed I would have to spend in a snow coffin, slowly asphyxiating, knowing my predicament to be hopeless, was the most terrible part of the whole experience.

I vaguely tried swimming, as I remember being advised to, but the ropes had wrapped themselves tight around my whole body, forbidding any movement. From the moment the slope had started sliding, I had lost all control over my fate, now at the mercy of forces infinitely more powerful than me. Nothing I could do would make any difference over the outcome, it all depended on the depth of the avalanche, the exact angle, the stability of the snowpack and a thousand other parameters. And yet, flapping desperately my arms and trying to dislodge the snow from my throat, I was keenly aware that, in a very primordial way, I was fighting with all my strength to survive.

The end of the avalanche on Sketchy Fossen.

The end of the avalanche on Sketchy Fossen.

* * *

Writing this, two days later, I keep remembering details I had been careful to not think about in the immediate aftermath. First to come back was the very beginning, when the strength of the slide made me realize that this wasn’t just yet another incident in an unlucky day, it was big trouble, the kind people don’t walk away from. And then that other moment, after a second or two, when I realized the slide was picking up speed instead of slowing down, and I thought that this was it. I was going to die today.

The latest memory to come back is the soundtrack. Not of the avalanche, but of myself. Unable to breathe, I kept trying to scream, to expel those foreign objects from my body, and I can now hear my muffled, pathetic and desperate cries.

Kristoffer about to head into the left gully, a few seconds before the slide started.

Kristoffer about to head into the left gully, a few seconds before the slide started.

* * *

The slide lasted ten to fifteen seconds in total, though adrenaline helping, it felt like hours. It was strangely similar to a long lead fall, where you have enough time to keep asking yourself “shit, why haven’t I stopped yet?”. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it came to a halt as the angle kicked back a little. Miraculously, my face was right near the surface and I managed to get my upper body out. I immediately coughed out all the snow that was blocking my lungs. I took a deep breath in and screamed twice. It wasn’t fear or relief, but the animal in me expressing his frustration of having been deprived of the basic need to breath for so long.

I heard a laugh a couple of meters to my right. Kristoffer was also sitting on top of the snowpack, as uninjured as myself. The laugh turned to swearing, however, when he realized that having let go of his ice tools during the slide, they were both buried below tons of snow. The final assessment left me with a sore elbow and Kristoffer with a big bruise on his thigh, along with lost Nomics and three ice screws, an incredibly lucky outcome given what we had just been through.

We later estimated the slide had gone at least 200 meters before stopping. It was between half a meter and a meter deep, and at least 50 meters across. We also agreed that all the signs pointed to high avalanche danger and that we had been really stupid to go there in the first place. The real issue wasn’t that we miscalculated the risk, it was that we did not calculate it, a combination of many factors (tiredness from the approach, disappointment at the condition of our initial objective, the long drive, the fact we only had a single day to climb, the deceptive “non-seriousness” of a fjord compared to big mountain environment, and probably some others), and it could have cost us very dearly had we not been so lucky.

Kristoffer, smiling after we both survived.

Kristoffer, smiling after we both survived.

Today I am sure of only one thing. Mountains kill, even small ones, especially when you least expect it. Today, I am not invincible anymore.

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Midi-Plan ridge – a photo essay

On September 2nd and 3rd 2010, Nic Mullin and myself attempted a full traverse of the Aiguilles de Chamonix, from Midi to Grépon. We left early in the morning of the 3rd, but lack of acclimatisation, route finding mistakes and general slowness made us reach the summit of Aiguille du Plan in 8 hours instead of the guidebook 4. Since the traverse is a committing route and since we were starting to really feel the altitude, we decided to bail and returned to the cablecar station in 5 grueling hours.

Here is a photo essay of a wonderful climb. Enjoy!

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Despite the appearances, we were actually sorting the gear…

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Part of the Aiguilles and our intended traverse. From left to right, Blaitière, Ciseaux, Fou, Dent du Caïman, Dent du Crocodile, Plan and Rognon du Plan.

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As we had the end of the afternoon free on the first day, we decided to scout the first part of the ridge. We cached the bags at the end of the Arête des Cosmiques so that we could move fast and unencumbered.

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A solo climber ascends to the cable car station from the Col du Midi, with the Glacier du Géant and Italy in the background.

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A team tops out on the south face of Aiguille du Midi, probably via the Rebuffat route. I was keen to try it out on the last day but Nic’s fingers were too damaged for granite jamming after ice climbing without gloves.

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A glorious sunset awaited us from the same spot.

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One year after my Mont Blanc climb, a nearly identical sunset on the Dôme du Goûter and the Glacier des Bossons.

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We started at first light, and our first obstacle was the easy but exposed snow ridge. Overall, conditions were acceptable though there was a fair bit of ice on the latter portions of the ridge.

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Nic on the knife-edge ridge, in front of a rising sun. A magic moment.

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We overtook a guided team which had come from the Cosmiques hut, but they went in front again later on when we made a routefinding error which costed us a couple of hours. They decided to abandon their climb shortly before the summit of the Aiguille du Plan due to tiredness.

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Nic in front of the bergshrund which then led to significant rock difficulties. We realized later that there was a much, much easier way.

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Nic abseiling back on the normal route. We lost 1h30 to 2h to this routefinding mistake (but gained some fun rock and snow pitches).

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Nic on one of the intermediary ridges. The route then goes into the wide gully in the shade, littered with horribly loose rock, before reaching the Rognon du Plan.

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After abseiling and downclimbing the Rognon, we had to traverse an icy slope on the Col Supérieur du Plan.

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A wide panorama of the col supérieur du plan. The summit of the Plan is on the left edge, and the Rognon on the right. The return route involved climbing the steep pillar on the right edge of the picture. Click on the image for a higher resolution version.

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Mont Blanc from the summit of Aiguille du Plan. The rock sheet on the left is the rognon du plan, and the whole ridge is visible, up to Aiguille du Midi on the right side.

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A sea of granite, the rest of the Aiguilles traverse, which we had to give up. This time.

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Nic descending the Rognon du plan, in front of a wonderful Chamonix landscape.

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The easy way through the first rock formations, which we had missed in the morning.

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The ridge and the Aiguille du Peigne seen from close to Aiguille du Midi as the sun was setting. In the background, the Aiguille Verte.

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Nic on the last part of the ridge before well deserved rest at the Aiguille du Midi.

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Scottish Towers

Alpine Start

5:30. Both our alarms go off at the same moment. I had just found something resembling sleep in the decidedly not so comfortable bivy bag, but, excited by the climb to come, get up in an instant. It’s too early to eat anything, but Dave manages to force a Scottish egg down while I lace my boots. We prepared the packs a few hours ago, when we reached the north face car park: a small rack, two 8mm ropes, our personal kit, a quart of water and some cereal bars, we’re going light today. In less than half an hour, we are gone.

Approach

Dave on the approach, with Observatory Buttress in front.

The path starts in a forest and goes steadily uphill. It takes me a little while to find a comfortable pace, especially with my huge Spantiks on the feet, but the walk in the dark soon becomes quite pleasant. After a little while, we reach the upper car park and a wide plateau void of any trees. In the distance, some lights close to the CIC hut let us know that we are not the only ones heading up the Ben.

According to the watch, the walk to the hut takes us almost two hours, but I don’t really notice it. In the light of pre-dawn, the majestic and very intimidating north face is slowly unveiled, and I can’t help thinking along the lines of “Are we really going to climb that?!”. It’s a far cry from the gentle slopes of the zigzag route taken by thousands of tourists every year.

As we reach the hut, the snow becomes deeper, but seems well consolidated, with no recent falls. Still, we hear half a dozen avalanches starting on the nearby slopes, and resolve to avoid gullies all day long, especially on the descent. Another twenty minutes of uphill slogging brings us to the east side of the Douglas Boulder. Between us and the summit stand 600 meters of snow-plastered technical rock. The climb is finally on.

Prologue

Last October, I was lucky enough to be invited to the AAC International Climbers Meet, in Utah, as a Danish Alpine Club member. We spent a week of amazing climbing in Indian Creek (leaving me with many gobbies, a sprained ankle and a huge smile) and Little Cottonwood canyon. But of course, the best part of the meet was to meet climbers from all over the world. Two of them were from the UK: Dave Brown and Andy Turner.

Incredible Handcrack

Andy on Incredible Handcrack, Indian Creek

Fast forward a few months. As part of my PhD, I have to move from Copenhagen to London until the end of the summer. Though it’s another big city, it has the advantage of being much closer to good rock and real mountains. Before even setting foot on British soil, I have contacted Dave again and we agreed to go do some of the winter climbing Scotland is famous for. He has much more experience than me, but is happy to go repeat what is probably the most famous route up Ben Nevis: Tower Ridge.

It’s actually not the first time I try to go up the highest mountain of the UK. On my first trip to Scotland, a weekend two years ago, I tried to go up the tourist route but due to late snow, poor weather forecast and lack of crampons, I bailed an hour away from the summit. Reaching the top by a route as difficult as Tower Ridge would mean a lot to me.

Finally, on a Friday afternoon, loaded with warm clothes and winter climbing gear, I take the train to Sheffield, then meet Dave for the long drive to Scotland. It’s almost midnight by the time we reach the promised car park and unroll our bivy bags. Tomorrow will be a long day.

On the ridge

Instead of attacking the Douglas Boulder head on, we choose the traditional way of traversing to it in an easy snow gully. There is a lot of snow, which makes upward progress a serious effort when breaking trail, but we are soon at the small gap, looking at a 10 meters high corner before we can reach the crest of the ridge. Because of the amount of snow, We decide to play it safe and belay, and while we uncoil the ropes, Dave asks me if I want the pitch. Until then, I had expected that, on the grounds of having much more experience, he would lead most of the technical ground, so I am most surprised to hear myself answer “Sure, I’ll give it a go”.

The belay is a good stance, soon backed up by a slung rock and, a bit further, a good nut. As I start climbing up the dihedral, I realize that there is no ice, hook placements are not many and all covered by a lot of snow. I make some upward progress on very sketchy feet when suddenly, both crampons cut loose and one of my tools rips off. I am held in place by friction of my body on the low angle rock more than by my remaining tool. With some very ungraceful movements, I manage to restore some sort of balance. As I glance down at a worried-looking Dave and at my last pro, a good 3 meters lower, the seriousness of the situation starts to sink in. This definitely isn’t sport climbing, falling is absolutely not acceptable and I have to give this my full attention. No more jerking around.

Douglas Boulder

Dave climbing to the top of the Douglas Boulder.

Two more moves lead me to a high step on a small ledge, a hook on the exit of the corner and I am suddenly on easy ground. The first pitch is over. A few meters further, an in-situ sling around a conveniently placed boulder give me the perfect belay station. As Dave quickly climbs to my position, I am glad to hear him comment that the moves were harder than he thought.

In front of us now, the ridge itself looks quite easy, if very snowed up. We decide to simulclimb instead of soloing, as we predict that we’ll probably need the rope soon, to overcome the looming tower that stands above us, impossible to ignore. Still a bit shaken by my stint, I gladly give the lead back to Dave.

The next section is indeed very easy, but due to the amount of snow, it is both hard and time consuming to find protection, and despite the generous length of rope we decided using, it becomes quite rare for us to have the required two pieces at all times.

Ice Patterns

Details of the very wintery North Face.

We soon reach what we (incorrectly, as it turned out) believe to be the Little Tower, the first of the prominent features of the ridge. Knowing that the topo doesn’t call for any traversing before the Great Tower, I argue that we should attack straight up, as a line seems doable, but Dave is of the opinion that much easier ground is to be found on the right hand side of the mass of rock. The amount of snow makes the traversing easier, though the only protection is provided by poor nuts hammered into shallow cracks. Dave disappears out of view for a while, then announces having found a good looking gully and the rope starts moving quickly. I follow, finding thin but good ice which allows fast movement. Running out of gear, Dave finally belays me from just below the top of the tower. The only thing left to climb: a blank corner.

He hands me the gear and I start optimistically, only to be stopped after a couple of meters. The corner is not very high, only 4 meters, but it is steeper than the previous one, both sides are completely blank and there is no crack to hook into. No gear either, though the belay isn’t far away. I tentatively go up, looking rather desperately for anything to pull or push on, but to no avail. After messing around for a while, I stand on my frontpoints as high as possible and swing blindly over the edge. *Thunk*. The feeling is unmistakeable, I’ve hit good ice. Knowing how thin it probably is, I don’t dare taking another swing. Gathering all my courage, I finally commit to the move. Supported only by my single tool, I smear my crampons on the right corner while dynamically high-stepping to the ledge on my left. Everything holds. Almost crawling and with an impressive lack of grace, I manage to wedge the right knee in the corner and finally to stand up. Phew.

Traverse

Dave on the traverse below the first unnamed tower.

In front of me, a gentle snow slope to a rock outcrop. I still haven’t placed any pro, and my only is hope that the rocks will give me something to sling. I of course run out of rope two meters before reaching them. Luckily, we have both been carrying coils, and after a few minutes of fumbling around to drop mine, I finally manage to reach the promised belay.

We simulclimb the next snowy sections, with Dave back in the lead, when the solo climber we had noticed earlier catches up with us, having gone over the previous difficulties in just a few minutes (though probably using another line). It turns out that he is rigging a fixed line on the Great Chimney (IV,5) for the cameraman filming a re-enactment of Jimmy Marshall’s extraordinary week, exactly half a century ago. And the two climbers coming up? Well, Dave MacLeod, one of the best climbers of the UK, and Andy Turner himself!

Unfortunately, Dave and Andy haven’t started climbing yet when we reach the top of their route, and we can’t afford to wait for them as we still have a long way to go. It’s also my lead again. We are approaching the not very aptly named Little Tower, and in front of it, a corniced and narrow snow ridge. I cautiously walk across, half expecting to fall through with each step, but the deep snow holds firm and I soon reach the steep slope of the tower. A few rock steps later, I finally find pro with an in-situ sling around a large diamond-shaped boulder. Above, more rock with awkward looking steps. I hesitate going on, make a half-hearted attempt and finally decide against it, too tired mentally to ignore a good belay opportunity. I downclimb to the sling and finish bringing Dave up. Of course, he gets through the next lead with no effort, and we simulclimb again until he runs out of gear, at the top of the tower.

Ice Tools

A long way to go…

We are now nearing the summit, but most of the technical difficulties are still ahead, including the steep Great Tower. In an almost perfect mirror of the previous sequence, I get to lead over a scarily narrow snow ridge, then up the base of the tower. But since distances are a bit bigger, Dave has to leave his belay and start simulclimbing before I can find any gear. I try for a while to place nuts in various cracks at the bottom of the slope before finally accepting there is no decent placement and going on. The climbing isn’t very hard, especially as ice appears much more frequently now, but I am acutely aware of the consequences a mistake would have for both of us. This makes me climb with more focus and precision than usual, and it is a bit frightening to now realise that it actually is one of my best memories of the whole climb!

After I sling a horn and reach the steepest part of the rock, it becomes obvious that we have reached one of the two cruxes of the route: the Eastern Traverse. And indeed, a very sloping and not so wide snow ledge looks us in the face. It is a bit difficult to find protection for a proper belay, but we dig out a decent boulder and Dave hammers an ok-looking piton which, combined, give us enough confidence. Plus, we won’t fall anyway, right? Dave is actually enthusiastic at the idea of leading this, so I gladly hand him the rack and sit back to enjoy the show. He moves very cautiously but doesn’t seem to find it difficult, as the deep snow is very supportive. He even finds good nuts every couple of meters. After a few minutes, he disappears behind a turn and the rope starts moving faster: he’s now on easy ground, and soon tells me I’m on belay. Since we are traversing, it isn’t necessarily safer for the second, but following tracks definitely is much easier! The only scary spot is a 2 meters downclimb to the edge of what looks like a cornice, but it’s over quickly. I join Dave at a cool belay near a huge chockstone stuck in a chimney.

Moving Up

Dave simulclimbing above the Douglas Boulder.

I can smell the summit and start my pitch with renewed energy, but soon meet difficulties. With a tied-off piton as only pro, I have three possible routes in front of me, each looking equally difficult. I try traversing to the left, but the rock steps are too high and would require some advanced acrobatics. To the right, then. I manage to get slightly higher but soon find myself in an awkward position, with the only way out being a notch between two overhanging rocks. Far above the belay and without much illusion as to the strength of my piton, I can’t commit to the move. I try exploring further and finally discover a bomber nut, but my way out is still blocked. I spend a while more fumbling around, evaluating the consequences of a fall (not good) before finally swallowing my pride and asking Dave if he wants a crack at this. I downclimb to the belay, leaving the nut in place, and Dave heads up. Swinging far above his head, he hits good ice, then does a very awkward high step, manages to put his right leg above one of the boulder and, relying on its friction, finally gets up the rock. Of course, when my turn comes to try again with the safety of a top rope, I find that going slightly more on the left yields a pretty easy move…

We are at the top of the Great Tower. The infamous Gap is the only obstacle left, but I’m also exhausted mentally. Dave is still going strong, though, as always. He hands me the rack and, without a word, I take it. The gap is very close but we are now in the clouds and we can’t see more than a couple of meters away. A small downclimb leads to a very, very narrow ridge. I recall photos of what this looks like in summer: rectangular blocks, no more than half a meter wide and unevenly spaced. With great care, weighing each foot slowly before fully committing to it, I finally reach the gap. As instructed, I clip into one of the many slings lying around, then sit à cheval on the last block and belay Dave.

Rime

The North Face covered in rime.

I have seen photos, of course, but I wasn’t prepared for what was in front of me: a tiny ledge below the overhang of the boulder I am currently sitting on, then a good horizontal meter of pure air before another small ledge and a high vertical step. On our side, plenty of old tat, but the only gear on the other side of the abyss is an old fixed nut. At this point, it is fair to say that I am terrified. So I do feel very relieved when Dave, having joined me, asks for the rack.

Since leaving the soloist at the top of the Great Chimney, we have been completely alone on the ridge, but this is about to end: a rope is already in place in the steep right hand side gully of the gap, Glover’s Chimney. We wait a few minutes for a climber to emerge from the fog, scale the end wall of the gap and disappear higher up, lost in yet more clouds. It’s our turn. Dave steps over me, then I give him tension as he drops on the invisible ledge, hidden by the overhanging rock. Without much hesitation, he bridges to the other end of the gap, sinks his tools in good snow and commits, bringing his body entirely on the other side. A few easy moves later, he’s safely over the last obstacle. He keeps going for a while, looking for a good belay for his scared seconder.

Before I can follow, however, another party emerges from Glover’s Chimney. The leader, though moving quite gracefully, mentions that this is his most difficult climb ever and that he wouldn’t mind things to get easier soon, which immediately wins my sympathy. I point to the fixed slings I am already belaying from and he joins me. He tries to bridge the gap but doesn’t want to fully commit, so instead offers me to go first, which has the advantage of avoiding any tangle of ropes. Dave signals the belay is ready, I have no more excuse. Still scared, I unclip from the belay, sink my ice tools upside down in the snow on the far side of the boulder, the only decent placement to have, then drop down blindly. I can’t find the ledge for my feet but pull on some of the slings (there goes my free ascent) while keeping my left hand grabbing the tool by the knuckle fang at the very bottom! A bit stuck and still not really knowing where to go, the other climber guides my foot until I can finally stand up more or less safely. The hardest is yet to come. Just as I saw Dave do, I fork to the other end, pushing my flexibility to its limits, then get two good ice tools on the next boulder. Extended horizontally, I just need to bring my weight on the other side and I know I’ll be done. I close my eyes, gather what’s left of my courage and commit to this leap of faith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s actually a pretty easy move, and I find myself smiling on the other side before I realize it.

Puny Human

Standing below one of the first obstacles on the ridge.

The other climber has been observing carefully but he still doesn’t feel too confident, so asks me to clip his rope on the fixed nut. Services trading high on alpine ridges is fun! I wish him good luck and scale the last rocks to the belay. We revert to simulclimbing as the terrain is now easy, but we won’t actually find a single gear placement before the summit. It takes barely two rope lengths on easy snow slopes before we top out. It’s 14:45 and we are higher than anyone else in the British Isles!

Epilogue

The weather isn’t too bad, but we still can’t see very far away. We take a half hour break on the summit, eat some well deserved chocolate, stow away ropes and harness and finally begin our descent. Because of the avalanch risk, we decide to take the tourist route instead of the traditional gullies. Navigation from the top is tricky, as expected in a whiteout, but with the help of both compass and a series of huge cairns, we find the descent route without too much trouble.

Curved Ridge

Dave simulclimbing on Curved Ridge.

It takes us three hours to get back to the car, through snow, scree, pathless bog and finally forest. As we reach the car park left 13 hours earlier, night has just fallen. We are knackered, hungry and thirsty but most of all happy. We had just completed an amazing route in good style, and most importantly, we had had a lot of fun!

This evening, we head to the pub for some hot food and celebratory pints. Still exhausted, we crash before 21:00, bivying in a Glencoe car park. The next morning, we head to the much mellower Curved Ridge (II) on Buachaille Etive Mor, probably the most photographed mountain of the UK. We solo, pitch and simulclimb in equal proportions in a whiteout until we reach the summit in terrible winds. Without even stopping, we head down an easy gully which brings us back to the base of the mountain. Roundtrip in less than 6 hours, and a perfect conclusion to a weekend of climbing and friendship in Scotland.

Scottish Feathers

Crazy ice formations up on Buachaille Etive Mor.

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Don’t piss off the water gods – A wet epic on Jubiläumsgrat

Preparation

When I learned that I would attend a conference in the small town of Marktoberdorf, a hundred kilometres to the southwest of Munich, I realized that the German and Austrian Alps would be so close that I would probably be able to fit in some hiking, or even climbing. I quickly settled on the area around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, as it had many advantages: easily accessible from Munich, home to 2962m Zugspitze, the highest point of Germany, and it offered plenty of options, from easy hiking in the valleys up to multi-pitch outings. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have a climbing partner, which forbade any form of belayed climbing, but I was still pretty sure I would find fun things to do in the mountains.

After some more research and with mvs’s help, I finally found several options for the three days I would spend in Garmisch. At least to some extent, all were via ferrata.

In the interest of our non-European readers, allow me a brief interruption to explain what this Italian-sounding thing actually is: starting around WW2 in the Dolomites, and then expanding mostly to France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the hardest and most exposed parts of some mountain routes have been permanently protected. Forget the odd bolts that arouse so many passions overseas, we are here speaking of 60cm long pitons every 3 metres, continuous steel cables and ladders. One can then clip a cow’s tail into the cable and be protected in case of a fall. Which, incidentally, has the interesting property that you can get very high fall factors (4 or more), since the arrest will only occur when hitting the next piton connecting the cable to the rock, possibly after several metres, but with only 50cm or so of “rope” out. So one can blow up carabiners or slings if falling at the wrong place…

But back to Germany. My options were, in order of difficulty, the Mittenwald ferrata, a half day ferrata, mostly downhill, the Höllenthal, a long day of climbing 2200m up to the summit of Zugspitze, including some ferrata and crossing the only year-long German glacier, and finally the Jubiläumsgrat, the famous ridge connecting the summits of Zugspitze and Alpspitze. Only 8km, but very exposed, with lots of up and down, and only a few sections actually protected by ferrata fixtures, with downclimbs of up to (French) 3-. A long day out, it is a serious and commited climb, with only one possible escape halfway on the ridge, and one emergency shelter. It also has the reputation of having tricky routefinding and of fogging up very easily. Indeed, all the information I could find on the internet agreed on one point: it should only be attempted in perfect weather…

The original plan was to climb Höllenthal, spend the night on top, in the Münchnerhaus, and start at sunrise the next day on Jubiläumsgrat, in order to have ample time to catch the last cablecar down from Alpspitze. And then do Mittenwald on the last day if I wasn’t too tired. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t quite agree. Though the forecast kept changing, it was clear on one point: from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning would be rainy, with possible thunderstorms. Having arrived in Garmisch on Saturday, I consulted the last weather report, which roughly said that Sunday would be a nice day, with thunderstorm in the late afternoon, but after that, all bets were off. People I asked, and the pattern from the Saturday seemed to indicate that I should be fine until at least 15 or 16h. Time enough to be finished with the ridge and on the way down from Alpspitze if I started from the first cablecar at 8h and was fast.

It was a gamble on the weather (and on my climbing skills), but I also knew that this would be the only chance I would get, and by now I was so psyched that I at least wanted to give the famous ridge a try. I also had the emergency shelter as an overnight option if the weather turned quickly. I deferred the final decision to the next morning, but when I got up at 5h45, the sky was beautifully clear and all hesitation was gone. I hurriedly finished packing and caught the (grossly overpriced) 6h30 bus to Eibsee, the departure point of the cablecar to Zugspitze. Arriving there at 6h45, I had more than an hour to kill, but in a stroke of luck, an early employee noticed me, asked me if I was going to Jubiläumsgrat (always a good idea to leave the helmet hanging on the outside of the pack to be identified as a climber) and then told me I could get on the special 7h30 cablecar, usually reserved for people working at the summit station. This half hour made a huge difference in the end, and it is quite possible that I would have stayed overnight in the shelter if I had started later, then getting stuck all of the next day by heavy rains…

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The whole Jubiläumsgrat seen from the start. Alpspitze is the round summit at the left.

On the ridge

At barely 7h40, I was on the summit (now, that was a bit easier than the Höllenthal…) and got out of the ugly station as fast as I could. I reached the summit cross and, without even pausing for a picture, I started on the path. The day was beautiful, no clouds anywhere, just enough wind to keep me cool, and I was very glad to see at least two other parties already engaged on the ridge.

The first thing that I noticed was how bloody damn exposed the route was. Constantly going up and down and from side to side, with sobering (and undoubtedly fatal) falls just a step away, the ridge alternated between climbing moves and upright walking on a very narrow path, with no chance of grabbing anything to help stabilize. There is but one way of progressing: trust your balance, make sure you are fully in control, and just go for it. It reminded me a lot of running it out in trad climbing, and my mind quickly settled in that mode for the rest of the day, scared to death but not allowing my movements to be affected by it (other than the occasional cursing that anyone who has ever belayed me knows very well).

The second thing I noticed was how bad the rock was, very loose limestone that was looking for any excuse to turn into scree. Many of the handholds were beautiful jugs, but more than one stayed in my hand at the worst moment, and I quickly learned to pull test every single one of them before trusting them with my weight. The upside of having such a rapidly evolving mountain was that there had been very little erosion and friction under the feet was very good, even when the rock was wet. Things changed as I was nearing Alpspitze, though, and by the very end, slabs were becoming awfully slippery.

The climbing crux was also one of the first real difficulties, barely half an hour after the start. A 10m downclimb followed by a small traverse, graded 3-, it gave me a real scare as it was a real slab, one portion of which without a single handhold. I retreated on my first try, as I wasn’t certain about my balance, but I went through on my second attempt. The altitude lost is immediately regained in a 2- upclimb, which seemed so easy in comparison, prompting me to loudly complain about how I hate goddamn downclimbing. This was to be the general pattern of the day, though I was certainly grateful that nothing felt as dangerous as that first passage.

I had by then passed the two other parties on the ridge. Of two and three people, they were both very similar, with a leader progressing with ease and the others being very slow and clearly unsecure. When I reached the summit of Innere Höllenthalspitze, at about one third of the way, I saw that they had joined forces (maybe to use the rope that one of the guys had brought) but weren’t even halfway to where I was. I can only hope that they retreated early enough, as they wouldn’t even had had the time to reach the emergency shelter before the storm hit. I didn’t see any more of them after that, but since I heard nothing about rescue operations in the next days, I assume that they managed to get out safely.

I had initially been quite fast, but soon got tired, both physically and mentally, and as the day went by, it took me longer and longer to clear technical passages when they were exposed. Despite that, I was an hour early on the topo schedule when I reached the shelter, just before noon. I had initially planned to have lunch and to take a good break there, but the weather was starting to seriously deteriorate, with the sun now completely out of view, clouds thickening by the minute and the wind picking up. I only stopped for five minutes, long enough to swallow a sandwich and drink some water, and then was gone again. Äußere Höllenthalspitze, the last of the three intermediate peaks, was quickly covered, so I only had one major difficulty left, the Volkarspitze, which involves a vertical via ferrata with little feet and nasty consequences in case of a fall. The whole thing is graded D, one of the most serious for ferratas, currently only going up to E.

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Two parties on the technical crux of the climb. The weather was still nice by then…

The storm hits

But the weather had decided to turn. The ridge was now entirely in the clouds and visibility was down to a dozen meters. It quickly started raining as well. At first only a few drops here and there, and with a considerable amount of wishful thinking, I could convince myself that it wouldn’t get any worse, but I was proven wrong alomst immediately. As I was getting close to the Volkarspitze, which I still hoped to climb in relative dryness, a terrible sound was heard not far to the south. I barely had time to think “It’d better not be thunder” that I heard a second and a third, closer, which left no doubt. Even though it was only around 13:00, the thunderstorm was here. And that definitely wasn’t good.

I hurried again, trying to get to easier ground, past the bloody Volkarspitze. Rain was now falling hard and the rock was getting very wet, though keeping a surprising amount of friction. Due to the poor visibility, I lost my way once, then twice, having to do some sketchy traversing to reach the route again. I passed several ferrata sections and couldn’t help but notice how slippery a wet cable was. I pushed it as much as I could, but just as I was finally reaching the bottom of the Spitze, I realized it would have been foolish and very dangerous to keep going. Thunder was very close by now, rain was pouring down and I was about to go on one of the most difficult sections of the whole ridge.

There was a small overhang at the bottom of the rock face, and I initially thought it might offer me some protection from the rain. As it turned out, the wind was so strong that it didn’t make any difference. I went a bit outside of the ridge, looking for better shelter, but stayed connected to the steel cable by a couple of slings, as the terrain was very steep. I finally clipped my two bags to my line, put on all the layers of clothing I had and started to wait for the storm to calm down.

This wasn’t a fun moment. I recapped my situation in my head and really didn’t like it: I was alone, at altitude, with several hours of hard and exposed climbing to get out, the rock (not to speak of myself) was getting wet, my cellphone didn’t work outside of Denmark, and rescue in those conditions would have been completely impossible anyway. To top it off, lightning was striking scarily close by now and I could see the flashes of light even in the whiteout. And I was connected to a steel cable that went all the way to the highest point of the surroundings. I vaguely hoped that a dyneema sling and a perlon cord between me and the ferrata would make a difference, but didn’t really believe it.

After maybe twenty minutes, the rain eased up a bit, and I had the impression that the clouds were getting slightly brighter. And then, suddenly, as if someone had pressed a button, the clouds opened, the rain stopped completely and I was in full midday sun. Rarely in my life have I seen a more wonderful thing. I waited a few minutes then started up again, determined to gain as much ground as possible before the weather gods decided to send another storm my way. Helped by the strong winds, the rock was drying astonishingly fast, and the famous D section of ferrata, though scary indeed, was done in just a few minutes with renewed energy. It was still quite clear that trying it in the full storm would have been a very, very bad idea.

The route was now simple enough: a long downhill section, then a climb back up Alpspitze, and I was done. As I started gaining some ground, the sun went in hiding again and I was back in the clouds, with awful visibility. The route was also getting less and less obvious. Initially, there had been very regular red paint markings and cairns indicating the way, but they grew increasingly rare and soon were just a way to confirm that I had made the right guesses as to where I was supposed to go. What saved me more than once were the crampon scars on the rock, leftovers by generations of winter climbers who had slipped on those slabs. From the bottom of my heart, let me give a big thanks to everyone who attempted this climb in winter!

However, even that wasn’t sometimes enough, and when I reached a low angle slab system off the ridge, I had absolutely no idea where to go. One cairn at the top and very obvious signs that the ridge was not to be followed were my only indications. I initially followed a wide crack downhill, then reclimbed some of it as I still was seeing no cairn nor red paint, and the fog was hiding anything that I assume would have made the route more obvious in normal conditions. I traversed from side to side several times, looking for any hint, cursed almost as many times, but finally realized that there was no way around it: I had to commit, choose one route, follow it and pray. Staying as close as I could to my only reference point, the ridge, I followed the obvious line down. After a while, I could see that a parallel line to my right looked wider and more like a real path. I traversed to it and was relieved to see a cairn after a while. I wasn’t yet out of the maze, but I had understood its rules and, emboldened, I kept going in a somewhat straight line, occasionally traversing a bit, until I reached a second, then a third cairn. I would have relaxed if it hadn’t started to rain again.

The terrain was now going up, and I was rejoiced to soon see a plaque indicating, in German, that the way I was coming from was the Jubiläumsgrat and that it was no joke. Better yet, a red arrow was pointing in front of me, with a single capital A, that I knew stood for Alpspitze. It was now 15:00 and I could almost smell the beer and sausages I would have down in the valley. I however understimated how long it would take me to reach the top of Alpspitze, and every piece of rock, lost in the clouds, looked like the final summit. The rain was now falling hard and I could hear the thunder coming back my way. The rock was also getting more and more blank, hence more slippery, especially when wet, and I had to take extra care. I knew I couldn’t keep going very long in this downpour but I was still hoping to see the summit cross and get started on the much easier and better protected Alpspitze ferrata.

Finally, I had to stop. Not even an overhang or a ferrata cable this time, just a wide ledge. My pants, not waterproof at all, had been soaked for a long time now, and even though I now had both soft and hardshell on my upper body, the shirt I had been wearing earlier was also completely wet. I could feel myself getting colder and colder, and if anything, the rain was now increasing, falling with a rage I have rarely seen. And after a while came the best part: rain transformed into hail. I was suddenly very glad to be wearing my helmet! I withstood this treatment for about twenty minutes before I realized that I was getting hypothermic and that I had to get moving no matter what. As the hail turned back into rain and started slowing down a bit, I got up and started climbing again. The terrain, so wet, was feeling really dangerous by now, but I knew I didn’t have much choice.

I believed I had been very close to the summit when I stopped, but it was actually almost half an hour away. By the time I finally reached it, I was starting to believe that the whole thing was just a cosmic joke and that the ridge would go on forever. I didn’t quite fall to my knees and thanked the heavens when I reached the top, but I was incredibly relieved, knowing that there only was easy ground left between me and a warm shower. A quick look to my watch, however, sobered me. It was 16:20, and the last cablecar departed at 17:30. To reach it, I had to downclimb the Alpspitze ferrata, which, depending on who you listen to, takes between 1 and 1.5h. When the ground is dry, that is.

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As the ridge was getting in a whiteout, it started looking extremely hostile…

Descent

Compared to the Jubiläumsgrat, the Alpspitze ferrata is incredibly easy. Everything is protected and there is an almost continuous cable from the bottom to the top. And one barely needs to walk on the rock at all, as there are ladders and pins everywhere. The downside being that it takes forever to clip and unclip the safety line every other meter. If I dutifully did at the beginning, as I wasn’t finding wet steel to be any more stable than wet limestone, I found myself “forgetting” to do it more and more often, trusting my hands instead. But even as fast as I could go, it still took me a solid hour and a half to reach the bottom.

I was barely a hundred meters away from the cablecar station and its promise of shelter when the storm, which had calmed quite a bit for the past hour, suddenly went full blast. In an instant, I was in the middle of hurricane winds that almost knocked me over and it started hailing with fury, hurting every part of exposed skin I had. My feet, that I had managed to keep dry that far, were instantly soaked, as were my pants which had somehow managed to dry a bit. I ran the last few meters to the cablecar, only to find myself locked out. It was 17:45, and I had missed the last service by a mere 15 minutes. While I took shelter in the entrance of the building, I slowly came to terms with what it meant. I was now just above 2000m of altitude, and the valley was at 700m. I was looking at between two and three more hours of walking, which happened to be the exact amount of daylight I had left.

I waited a few minutes for the storm to quiet itself – now an all too familiar task, and started downhill. At least the paths were wide, clear to follow and tripping would result in a few bruises, not in a deadly fall. The first portion was rather nice altitude terrain, with the first bits of grass I had seen in the whole day, but after a while the path went into the forest, still very wet, and the absence of any reference point made the hike look endless, once again. I was by then completely exhausted, and both my legs and my feet were crazily hurting. I also discovered that I had my trad climbing “sewing machine” shaking legs even when just standing still…

I had to make more and more breaks, but the fading daylight kept pushing me. I had brought my headlamp but wasn’t keen on using it, especially if it meant more possibilities of getting lost. Finally, at around 20:45, as night fell, I stepped on asphalt and saw the first humans since I passed the two climbing parties in the early morning. But I was only in Hammersbach, and my tent was in Untergrainau, a further half hour away. I walked there slowly, dragging my feet, feeling like an old man. I was looking for a restaurant on the way, a place where I could sit down and eat something warm, but couldn’t find any until I reached the one next to the camping. By then, I was fearing that all kitchens would be closed (they would be in Denmark), and when I was told that it wasn’t the case, I almost felt like kissing the waitress. I collapsed on the chair, feeling vaguely ashamed for injecting so much water in it, and, realizing that I had eaten almost nothing during the day but powerbars, ordered a hearty dinner. Only then did I realize just how cold I had been all along, as I started shivering uncontrollably, despite having my jacket on and being in a toasty restaurant. Food helped a bit, but it was only after a very long and very hot shower that I started feeling better.

When my beer arrived, I toasted to the Jubiläumsgrat. It had decided to let me go this time, but made quite clear that things could have turned out differently. I had been scared, cold, wet and tired, but I was as happy as one can be. This is, after all, the reason I climb. To live an adventure.

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The station of Hochalm seen from the bottom of the Alpspitze ferrata. I could see more than a few meters for the first time in several hours!

Epilogue

I have to give it to them: the water gods have a lot of humor. When I got back from the restaurant to my tent, looking for nothing more than a good shower and a long night of sleep, I realized that I had made a small mistake when leaving this morning. My towel had been left to dry outside. It was my fate this day to be wet, I guess

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