Obergabelhorn Arbengrat (AD) and Zinalrothorn SE Ridge (AD-)
Pete and I got our gear together in the Randa parking lot. The next train to Zermatt was due to leave in 18 minutes. I was amazed that we converted our rock climbing packs into big mountain equipment, got the boots and contact lenses in, bought our tickets and made the train! Now we had to run a hilarious gauntlet of petty expenses.
"We need a map!"
Okay, 25 Swiss francs.
"We forgot the sausage at your house!" This one from me.
Drat, 12 Swiss francs.
"We can save 700 meters of elevation gain by starting from the Schwarzsee." Sounds reasonable!
40 Swiss francs.
At the top of the Schwarzsee lift, we got out into cold, wet, windy cloud. We need coffee and cake!
15 Swiss francs.
At least that last fee gave some immediate pleasure (very good Apfelstruedel). We were so happy to finally be away from cash tills, expectant hands and the dull tyranny of our consumer brains. Now we walked gently down from the lake, eventually getting under the cloudbank and crossing a great gravel plain of water and sump works. Enormous placards extolled the wonders of hydroelectric power, which we read dutifully. One day, climbers in the Himalaya will have to slog through road, placard and sump like us here in "fully developed" backcountry. Only a little jaundiced, we crossed the great valley and finally set foot on real trail by a waterfall, beginning our journey into what we could more comfortably imagine as wildness.
Eventually we reached the hut...
The Ober Gabelhorn
We climbed steadily up into a basin below the South Face of the Ober Gabelhorn, visible only as an occasional floating rock island above a thick band of clouds. Soon we were dodging rills and torrents of water descending from an out-of-control river emerging from a glacier up in the clouds somewhere. The flow was outrageous! A little stronger, and boulders would begin gnashing down the overloaded stream. It was only with the perspective gained by a steep moraine-climb that we recognized we hadn't left the confines of managed wilderness just yet. A hydro-works employee in gleaming yellow helmet was orchestrating the watery drama below by busily turning lock-handles at a massive concrete structure that apparently held back a lake. He must have seen us below, and was now increasing the flow even more to satisfy the needs of industry. So much for the poetic dance of nature and her waterways!
After traversing slabs and broken terrain, we came to ladders and cables, which we first primly avoided touching. I'd tease Pete: "Oh, you used the cables on the approach? Ah, when are you going to go back and climb it free?" But eventually a full-on "via ferrata" led us up a cliff that made us wish we'd bothered to put on harnesses. With some relief we gained the bivouac hut, admiring the legendary sanitary facilities, world-renowned for the view they provide of the Matterhorn, at least for those users who elect to sit down for their visits. For the next several hours though, that view would be of a cloud.
We met our bunk-mates, Alex and Katya, planning on the same climb as us. We convinced them to traverse the mountain as we planned, descending to the Rothornhuette to the north. All excited about the improving weather, and the adventure for the next day, we took turns outside in the sun, and inside to drink cups of tea. I ended up leaving my freeze-dried meal for future hut visitors, as we had more than enough for dinner without it. Our new friends shared a big bowl of pasta with us, along with stories of Alex's great grandfather, a certain Herr Biner who had climbed the Schaligrat long ago, and had the Biner slab named after him (tragically, I think). We slept well, despite my fear that a rowdy party would arrive at the hut late and keep us up. Thankfully no rowdies! So a comfortable, boring sleep...
In the morning we all anticipated the alarm, and got up quickly. After a bit of tea and bread, we headed out, Alex and Katya a few minutes ahead. Pete and I decided to rope up right away, traveling with a few coils between us. In general, we climbed very differently, but overall our parties kept pace with each other.
Pete checks out the view.
After a scramble up cold rocks in the dawn, we climbed snow to a headwall. Pete and I put on crampons and attacked it directly, enjoying the secure bite of steel into icy snow. Alex and Katya elected to chop steps off to a rock band on the side, and thusly we passed ahead.
Now we traversed into a steep gully that would lead to the ridge crest. Staying on the good icy neve as much as possible, Pete and I found this a very enjoyable part of the climb. I even placed an ice screw in a particularly frozen gully where a belay was helpful. Alex and Katya caught us here by scrambling up rocks on the side of the frozen gullies. We felt a little silly, because in alpinism the fastest way is always the best. But the joy of one hand on rock, one on snow, one crampon embedded in ice and the other on a small ledge...was sublime! It was worth a few minutes extra. We reached the notch in the ridge that marks the proper beginning of the "Arbengrat."
Michael is happy to be in the 'pine
We scrambled a long ways without belaying, just threading the rope around horns, or placing the occasional cam or nut in a crack. The rock was very solid, but the wind was uncomfortably cold. I began to understand that too-cold wind on a nice clear day could actually turn you around. I wiggled my toes to bring them back to life, and gripped the cold rock in wool gloves. Occasionally we removed crampons to travel a little faster on the rock, but then found we needed them again when runnels of ice or hard snow dominated the terrain.
The cold tower
We came to a place we thought of as the "first tower," which Alex had said requires a traverse around on the left side. This looked dubious, so Pete and I went up to the base of the tower at the ridge crest. Pete belayed me for a short but entertaining rock climb on the sunny (right) side that made an ascending traverse on solid rock. K. and A. went with the icy left traverse but it seemed to take much longer. Meanwhile, we found ourselves at the crux of the rock climbing for the day: the Great Gendarme. From a cold and windy belay in the middle of the tower on the west side, we had three choices for the way ahead: a furthur left traverse, which looked thin and icy at the moment, a slight right then left traverse, which was hard to see, or a rightward ascent which just cuts to the chase and climbs the tower directly. I was thinking about this option the most, as it was just too cold on the shady side, then I saw a bolt over that way which made my decision easier. "Bolt!" I hollered happily, clipping it and scrambling up and right to the windy but sunny crest. Here was a climb of about grade IV+ (5.6 or so), which your grandma can do but maybe not in big boots with frozen fingers. Actually my fingers were okay, but in order to surmount the steep slab I'd have to remove the gloves because I needed every ounce of friction my fingerpads could provide. "Watch me here," I called out uselessly, as Pete was too far away and around a corner to hear or see anything, then carefully danced up the crux corner and slab, recognizing that when the feeling in my fingers are gone then so is my ability to climb or even stay still! After a few more moves, I found small horizontal holds for my boots and compounded the pleasure by putting on gloves again and placing a good nut in a crack. Ah, heaven! A few moments rest for the fingers, then gloves off and back into the fray. 4 or 5 moves with a good handjam in a deep, cold crack, and I reached a spot to build a gear belay, one cam and one nut in a crack with at least my back in the sun. Whew!
I belayed Pete up, then he faced a shorter, but stouter crux. Truly tiny nubbins for (ungloved) hands AND big clumsy boots, he seemed to levitate up over a bulge to easier terrain. I wanted to holler down to Alex and Katya that this way works, though it was rather tough going, but I don't hear them anymore. After another pitch of careful climbing, we can move together again, and finally I see the couple down a ways on the ridge, slowly abseiling. I think that it was just too cold around the Great Gendarme, and Pete and I could have easily turned around if we had spent even 15 more minutes in the area. We silently wished them luck for the descent, and for next time.
Continuing on, we passed a horizontal step in the ridge, then some more solid slabs for which we made short belays or moved together. Somewhere in here Pete found a Omega Pacific "Link Cam," which turned out to be a great piece of gear. In good condition, we used it often that day and the next.
Jangling with hardware, we emerged on a rocky platform just below the true, snowy and corniced summit. Resting here awhile in the sun, we marveled at how much fun the climb had been. Gear when you need it, weather that only got better (the wind subsided a bit), amazing rock and position. Wow with a capital W!
Excellent mixed rock and snow
The old meaning of the word "mixed". Good gear placements abounded.
Intimidating cornice world begins at the summit...
Pete is well-pleased!
As am I!
Now we entered a new adventure, descending the Northeast Ridge. We began immediately with a mistake. Misreading a description the night before, I'd become convinced that we needed to descend on the side of the ridge for a while, then gain it again about 50 meters down. This misconception, along with finding a sling around the rock at the "right place," and Pete's quick look down an appallingly vertical ridge, convinced us to start downclimbing snow of the West Ridge. After about 50 meters, we realized we were making a mistake, and would never gain our Northeast Ridge this way. D'oh!
Insert quarter. Restart. Back at the summit, we now found a rappel anchor that made a rocky ridge descent plausible. Soon we were in the midst of many, many awkward 25 meter rappels that brought us slowly down the impressive ridge. I kept arguing that we could leave the ridge, traversing and downclimbing "snow" of the North Face. You know how you look down such faces and they don't look all that steep? Well...that is a misconception! Pete argued to keep with the ridge and as we gained ever more perspective on the whole face and situation, I am glad we just did that! Finally, after who knows how long, we finished and reached a dramatically corniced, roughly horizontal snow ridge. Feeling cautious and tired in the afternoon, we traversed this slope moving one at a time, for many short "pitches." Eventually we made it to the Gendarme, climbed to it's crest and stopped for a rest. This was turning out to be pretty tough! We still had to get down from this tower, climb up to the Wellenkuppe, then descend that mountain in order to reach the Rothornhuette. We were plenty tired, as it was.
But we ate and drank a bit, and set off for work again. Descent of this tower was made easier by a hilariously thick fixed rope, that, by the end, we were comfortable just "batmanning" down. Happy to have saved some time, we traversed more cornices, then hiked easily but slowly up to the Wellenkuppe.
On top, for the first time we could see the hut, which still looked impossibly far away. On the other hand, so did the slopes we had just descended...impressively steep, with an icy blue sheen where snow touched the rocky ridge. An incredible place to be! We were surprised that no one had come up the Ober Gabelhorn this day. But people had certainly climbed the Wellenkuppe, and at first their tracks in snow helped point us down. Later, we made 3 rappels on good rock of the North Ridge, then were able to pretty much "scramble" down to snow slopes above the Trift Glacier. We lost the correct way twice, each time picking our way down loose gullies and corners, and wondering how we could so easily lose the route (often marked with cairns). Hoping not to bother with crampons, we managed to boot our way down hard snow, then to the sometimes icy glacier and all the way to the hut without the need for them. Halfway across the glacier, we pulled out the cell phone and called the hut, reminding them that we were coming, and hoping to hear something about keeping dinner warm for us.
We descended the snow ridge coming down and left from the summit
No such luck. "You can have some soup!" said the cheerful female voice in German.
How would we possibly climb the next day without a decent meal? We were pretty wasted!
Oh well, I guess it'll sort itself out.
As it was, we were very lucky and very grateful, that at the late hour of 9 pm the hut staff was willing to do some cooking and essentially give us a full meal of pork, potatoes, salad, soup and even dessert! We met our friend Petr, he would join us for the next day's climb. As I told him a few times, I was glad he was here...as insurance policy that I would get up and go climbing after such a long day! Completely wasted, I crashed hard in "der Kuhlschrank," which is what the staff called our downstairs room. That is German for fridge.
YEAH! On the Wellenkuppe. It felt so good to have come down and across the endless snow ridge...
I thought about the next day, which this picture shows completely. We'll ascend the long East Ridge from glacial terminus up to the summit pyramid, then transition to the South Ridge and West Face in a gentle, incomplete corkscrew...
The ZinalrothornIn the morning, we ate and started walking. Again, going our own unique way, this time with Petr's idea to follow a steep boulderfield on the side of the glacier and avoid using crampons for a long time. We hiked on the icy upper edge of the glacier right under a rock wall for a while, but finally put on crampons as the sky lightened. Pete and I climbed up a loose chimney system that was part of the normal route, while Petr walked around on snow a different way. After crossing another snowfield and some scrambling, we gained the scenic East Ridge, with an excellent view of the peak beyond, and the first part of the real climbing.
The Matterhorn, Ober Gabelhorn and Wellenkuppe hiding it...
On the East Ridge...
Our job was to make a rising traverse across the face between the East and South Ridges, gaining the South Ridge at a high notch called the Gabel. We roped up into "short roping" mode, carrying coils, and set off for some excellent scrambling over steps and ribs, crossing short snowfields, and finally ascending a narrow snow ramp in a gully. Other climbers were sticking to the rock on the left, but with crampons on we found the snow/ice very enjoyable for climbing. We ascended the neve ramp to about 60 meters beneath the Gabel in the ridge, when it finally got too narrow to fit in. We'd passed numerous parties belaying tedious loose rock on the side of the couloir, and felt like we'd won points for elegance of ascent! It was similar to the work Pete and I had done the day before getting onto the Arbengrat.
At the ridge, we belayed 3-4 pitches to get past the most difficult rock climbing of the Biner Slab, which was on excellent granite with mixed snow steps. The best kind of classic alpinism: one hand on rock, crampons in neve, ice axe at the ready. We started moving together again up a still steep rib that gained a shoulder right below the summit rocks. Some scenic scrambling on the crest, then we were on top. What a beautiful summit and view!
Petr at the Kanzel
Petr had climbed the Matterhorn in winter, and told us exciting stories about that. Now we could study his route at leisure, and look back on the Ober Gabelhorn. We looked to the Schaligrat and the Weisshorn, sad that the weather didn't co-operate with our idea of traversing further or somehow fitting in the Weisshorn. Better luck next time then!
We reversed our route carefully, finally making a 25 meter abseil down a slab that put us in an ice gully a few moves away from relative safety on a warm rock ledge of the South Ridge. I placed our ice screw here to protect the guys moving to the rock, and to have a safer stance for retrieving the rope.
We made several rappels, combining at one point with another party for a double rope rappel down the access couloir. Later we went ahead to traverse the face. A long simul-climbing pitch through rock towers that seemed easier on the ascent got us to the non-technical access ridge. Whew! Good times!
We put the rope away and walked down, getting in some fun boot skiing coming down from the ridge. Later, below the chimney near the start of the route, I put on crampons again to walk straight down the blue-ice glacier. Pete and Petr stuck with the ascent line, along the bergschrund near the rock. I enjoyed my variation though fooling around with crampons had me bringing up the rear on the hike to the hut.
Once back we had nothing to do but take pictures and wait for dinner. We were joined at the table by two nice German girls, eager to climb the Trifthorn the next day, despite a forecast of low pressure and clouds. I could tell one of them was a really keen alpinist, hoping to show her friend the magic of the hills. We slept in der Kuhlschrank again, which was tougher this time because I wasn't so exhausted. So co-o-old in there!
In the morning, we hiked down to Zermatt. I was fueled by my music, Norwiegen metal by Wintersun and Ensiferum! Despite the pack and the big boots, we eventually flew down the lower, softer switchbacks that brought us to town.
Pete, Michael and Petr...
Just a few hours later, we were back at Pete's place in Geneva, then I hopped on the flight home. The "mountaineering" part of our trip had worked out perfectly for the weather window. A couple of long-time goals had been achieved, and a new friendship made. I can't wait for my next rendezvous with the high Valais!