Dog DaysIt was the middle of August and much of Europe was once again sweating its way through the dog days of summer. Geneva set record highs each of the six consecutive days between Friday, August 19 and Wednesday, August 24 with temperatures ranging from 30°C to 35 °C. The heat must have been getting to me, because I was feeling like a lazy dog when Roland asked about climbing on the weekend. After running around most of the summer, barking up another tree was the last thing I felt like doing, but the weekend weather forecast was absolute perfection and I did not want to pass up the opportunity to get out of the dog house and bite off another 4000er in the Valais. In addition, my partner on this trip would be of the highest pedigree, a real pick of the litter, and this would be a chance for me to run with one the big dogs. What the hell, I thought. Anything can happen during the dog days of summer.
And so, it began. Around noon, we parked the car near Ferpecle, took a few bites and after having to go see a man about a dog, we tore off like the hounds of hell. The approach of 9km with 1650m gain was largely void of trees and the sun beating down on us during the hottest part of the day provided enough motivation to move fast. At least it wasn’t raining cats and dogs and the treeless expanse allowed for some inspiring views of the Dent Blanche along the way. Our path would pass by the Bricola military hut, traverse high above the Ferpecle Glacier to a moraine, follow cairns across the Manzettes Glacier (or what was left of it) to polished slabs and then up a snow dome before finally arriving at the hut.
We stopped to catch our breath and down some doggie treats an hour into the approach. While sitting there, we got our first glimpse of the Dent Blanche, including the west face and our intended route on the south ridge. At 4357m, it certainly qualified as one of the Valais big dogs and we must have been licking our chops at the thought of climbing the Grand Gendarme direct. With three pitches of grade IV rock at over 4000m, this gnarly tooth was without a doubt the most interesting feature on the south ridge. An easier variation avoided the crux, but we decided earlier in the week that we would bite off the big gendarme. What else would a couple of alpha-males do?
In the Dog HouseJust before 4pm, we arrived at the Dent Blanche hut (aka La Rosiere, aka the Dog House). Situated at the foot of the rock ridge dropping from the Wandfluelucke, it provided a scenic view back down the Ferpecle valley and across the Plateau d’Herens.
We exchanged our boots for some more comfortable hush puppies and threw our gear into the pup tent. There were still two hours before chow time and Roland was dog tired, so he retired for a cat nap. After chasing the mailman outside for a while, I also went into the hut to find my bunk and organize things for the next day. Roland was upstairs, snoozing quietly. I was reminded that it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie and that he who lies down with dogs, rises with fleas, but the fatigue of the day was also wearing on me, so I plopped down on my bunk and slept like a lazy dog.
Chow time was approaching and because of our relatively late arrival, Madame Caretaker placed us with the second service. This also meant we would get the late breakfast and possibly spend most of the next day climbing behind a few packs. This would have been a bone of contention, but we figured that its best not to bite the hand that feeds you, let it go and ordered a bottle of red to accompany the evening’s dog meat. Neither of us were booze hounds, but we weren’t planning on walking away with doggie bags either, so a little grape juice rounded out the meal. After the chow, we helped out in the kitchen as dish dogs. Sleep came easy with help from the bottle of red and the warm evening temperatures. This was certainly no three-dog night.
In the morning, we gathered up our gear and headed downstairs for the second round of breakfast. We found our table prepared with the usual doggie treats, but someone pointed out that an accident took place earlier at the next table over. That accounted for the blankets on the floor and the odd smell of dog breath. Then I noticed a girl with puppy dog eyes, sitting in the corner, curled up looking sick as a dog. Did she have a little too much red the night before? Would some hair of the dog help her now? It was hard to tell. Only one thing was clear, she was one sick puppy. There wasn’t much we could do, so we went to the counter for coffee. By the time we returned, all of our treats were gone. Dirty dogs! We didn’t want to waste time complaining to Madame Caretaker and even if we did, we might not have been taken seriously. Besides, it was climb time!
The Dog RouteWe started up the rocky ridge behind the hut a little after 5 AM. Roland was the lead dog. We quickly passed a pack of six on the first snow field. They were following the pack mentality, everyone with crampons, slowly marching up the hill. The snow was relatively soft and boot tracks allowed us to pass the group. We left the crampons off until just before the traverse at the Wandfluelucke (3701m). While making the transition, we noticed some ankle-biters coming up from behind. They would be nipping at our heels in no time. Not wanting to engage in a dogfight, we jumped up and huffed our way to the base of the ridge. We immediately started up the ridge, wasting no time. I was on a short leash, bird-dogging Roland. I glanced back and noticed even more ankle-biters coming up from behind. Who let the dogs out? If they got any closer, we would have to tell them to heel.
Just after 6:30 AM, we reached the Grand Gendarme. Roland just headed straight up while the ankle-biters gazed in astonishment. The easier variation was clearly to the left. They may have thought we were barking up the wrong tree. It was just what we needed to throw them off our scent. It was just like we thought. Their bark was worse than their bite.
On the gendarme, Roland climbed like a bloodhound, hot on the scent, sniffing around for the best way. He was relentless, like a dog with a bone, jumping from hold to hold, following His Master’s Voice. I kept bird-dogging him, climbing simultaneously to make sure we moved as quick as a dog can lick a dish. Fortunately, all the moves were well within our grade, so there was no need for hangdogging.
Within about 15 minutes from the base, we pawed our way over the top of the Grand Gendarme (4097m). Hot diggity dog! Those three pitches were almost worth the grueling approach. This gnarly tooth would have been a great place for hot dogging cover photos, but we weren’t in the mood for dogging around. After all, there was still 300m of gain to go.
The time we saved by climbing the gendarme directly put us smack into more slow dogs. We kept passing as the route allowed; going direct while the packs took a dogleg. It was clear that some of the pups were dog tired. We could have slowed down and got in line with the rest of the mutts, but neither of us subscribed to that dogma. We knew it was a dog-eat-dog world and alpinists all wore milk-bone long underwear.
We reached the summit a little before 8:30 AM and there was already a dog pile, undoubtedly from the first round of breakfast. The views were extensive with long valleys fanning out in every direction. To the south and east, we had clear views to the other Valais big dogs and they all seemed just a stone’s throw away. Combined with the gendarme, these views made it worth the effort to climb this mountain.
Down Boy!After enjoying some treats on top, it was time to head back to the dog house. I would lead the way this time. No problem, I thought. You’re the man now, dog! We would have to pass by all the packs we passed on the way up, but at least there would be a nice view of the Matterhorn and Dent d’Herens to accompany us along the way.
Somewhere above the Grand Gendarme, I lost the scent and ended up chasing my tail like a blind dog in a meat market. We were descending a ridge, so it wasn’t like I screwed the pooch, but I certainly had my tail between my legs. The correct way was so obvious. If it were a dog, it would have bitten me already.
For the sake of expediency, rather than rappel the nose of the gendarme, I climbed down the normal way on belay. At half a rope length, I clipped to a hanger and Roland came down on rappel. We climbed further down the gully to a series of ledges that brought us back to the base of the gendarme. The rest of the ridge was uneventful and we were back to the snow before too long. We disagreed about whether the traverse at the Wandfluelucke warranted crampons. Neither of us had a dog in this fight, so we decided to unleash and walk back to the hut with the rope coiled. Roland put on the points. I didn’t.
However, I realized who was the wiser after taking just a few steps on the icy slope without metal points on my paws. As a young pup, I enjoyed taking turns on the neighborhood slip n’ slide, but this slip would have resulted in much less enjoyable slide hundreds of meters down to the frozen depths. So, I wagged my tail back to the start of the traverse and put on the points. I realized then that you can teach an old dog new tricks. This little trick put me a couple minutes behind Roland, but he was nice enough to wait.
There was an interesting rock fin on the last section above the dog house. I contemplated going a-cheval, but realized doggie-style would be much better. We arrived at the hut just after noon. In the morning, we were the underdogs from the late breakfast crew, but now we felt like top dogs.
Lucky DogsOn the descent back to the car, we stopped briefly at a stream flowing from the Dent Blanche glacier. There was so much water spewing forth that we were getting wet from the spray. It was just another reminder that sometimes you're the dog, sometimes you're the hydrant.
Just before reaching the car, we stopped again. This time it was for beers and hot dogs. It was a nice way to cap a good day in the mountains. Either we were lucky dogs or every dog has its day.