He licked my shoe
It is polite to greet people you meet when you walk in the Alps. Being a polite person I always try to start the greeting. The only problem is that I seem to have a bad timing. I say "Hello" and the answer is "Guten Tag", next time I say "Guten Tag" and the answer is "Grüss Gott", next time I say "Grüss Gott" and the answer is "Grüezi", next time I say "Grüezi" and the answer is "Bon Jour", next time I say "Bon Jour", and the answer is "Hello", and that's the way it continues.
I had promised myself not to take any pictures with flat two-dimensional mountains motives this year. The obvious reason was that I had more than filled my quota of uninteresting mountain photos. Both foreground and background were to be my new melody. The first five pictures I took had pine branches hanging in from the right but I still doubted the result. The perfect picture? Is it possible that it could happen to me? The foot path was blocked by pigs, yes ordinary pink pigs. They were standing in front an alpine hut with a typical stone plate roof. The red flag with its white cross left no doubt of where I was. Far behind the retreating Fee glacier on its way down from the Allalinhorn formed the background. After a while I had everything in the viewfinder and pressed the shutter button. At the same second I felt something strange on my left foot. One of the pigs licked my shoe so that it got wet. My left street shoe was all wet from pig licking! I considered putting my right shoe forward as well for the sake of symmetry, but refrained. Instead I walked down towards the village with one wet and one dry shoe. Sadly my left shoe never fully recovered from the incident.
The primary goal for my 1997 Alpine adventure was no less than the Matterhorn itself. To climb the Matterhorn directly from your armchair is not a good idea. A somewhat less ambitious climb was needed for training and acclimatisation. I remembered seeing a film called Valais Mountain Paradise showing an interesting ascent of the 4327 meter high Nadelhorn. A classic alpine ascent with a long hut walk, a glacier crossing and further along a long snow ridge via some rock to the summit seemed to be the perfect tour.
The Nadelhorn is one of the eight 4000 meter peaks in the Mischabel chain stretching north–south separating the Matter valley from Saas valley in the Swiss Valliser Alpen. The German word Nadel translates to needle and Mischabel is an old form of Mistgabel meaning dung fork. Thus, the Nadelhorn is one of the needles on the dung fork which describes the situation in an excellent way. In addition, the Nadelhorn is the leading lady of the Nadelgrat running east-west including Stecknadelhorn (4242m), Hohberghorn (4219m) and Durrenhorn (4034m).
The Nadelhorn summit was first reached by a Swiss party of six led by Franz Andermatten, who also has first ascents of Strahlhorn and Laquinhorn to his name. After having cut 1470 steps they erected a giant wooden cross on the summit Nadelhorn on September 16, 1858.
Having waited in vain for my luggage at the Geneva airport I stepped a few hours later out from the bus station in Saas Fee. I was completely surrounded by high mountains. From left to right: Allalinhorn (4027m), Alphubel (4206m), Täschhorn (4491m), Dom (4545m), Lenzspitze (4294m) and Nadelhorn (4327m). If that isn't enough, behind you Weissmies (4023m) and Lagginhorn (4010m) are towering while Strahlhorn (4190m) and Rimpfischorn (4199m) are hiding behind the Allalinhorn. The feeling I had was well captured by famous German writer Carl Zuckmayer when he came to Saas Fee for the first time in 1938. ”You stand at the end of the world and at the same time at its origin”, he wrote. I could not but agree even if my version was: “Here I stand at the end of the world without my luggage.”
Hopefully my equipment would arrive in the afternoon the next day. It was a long time since I slept eleven hours, what a luxury! My plan was to hike around to get acclimatized. Off I went in my best pair of street shoes and a new t-shirt that cost me 30 Sfr. What happened to my left shoe we already know.
He almost killed me
The nice lady at the bus station made me happy by giving me my lost luggage with my mountaineering equipment. Preparing for the coming days I decided to hike to the Britannia Hut at 3030 meter even though the sun already had passed its zenith. The cable car to the mountain house Plattjen helped me to quickly gain 600 meters from Saas-Fee at 1800 meter. The hut was just over two hours away and this time I wore un-licked solid mountain boots. The first part of the foot path goes around the Mittaghorn on a ledge close to the steep mountainside high over the valley floor. Weissmies could be admired on the other side. I did not expect anything notable to happen. But I was wrong.
Suddenly I heard the sound of bouncing rocks. What do you do? Stand still, run back or run forward? For better or worse I leaned inward and pulled my backpack up over my head. Two fist-sized stones hit the ground just beside me. I did not move and waited a minute but nothing happened. Carefully I looked upwards and what did I see? A family of mountain goats was trotting about on small ledges. I picked up one of the stones as a souvenir and quickly disappeared from the danger zone. Mountain goats may be beautiful animals but be sure not to be in their line of fire. I did not get all the way to the hut but in the end it was an interesting day. I was however a bit doubtful if I was ready to go climb a 4000 meter peak in the coming days.
For two full days the needles of the dung fork had been hiding in the clouds. And this was the situation when I met Alfred Grossniklaus, ski teacher and mountain guide. I had met Freddy in 1994 when he was an aspiring guide and we climbed the Wetterhorn. Our goal for the day was the Mischabel hut at the altitude of 3340 meter meaning an ascent of 1540 meters starting from Saas-Fee. We decided to take a little shortcut by using the cable car 500 meters up to the station Hanning, nearby where I had encountered the pigs the previous day. The last gondola took off while we were about to buy the tickets. Closed during the lunch hour, we were told. “No problem, we can walk all the way", I said without really knowing how far it was. We set off with a good momentum wearing only shorts and a too heavy backpack. After two hours, I felt the steam beginning to run out so the last part was done by sheer will. The hut is located more or less directly over your head all the time and the path is zigzaging upwards. When I looked up the feeling was always, "still far to go". The last part was difficult but there were cables attached to the rock that Freddy took pride in not to touch. I was not as fussy.
Completely exhausted I fell in my one meter wide bunk bed. I froze, I had a headache, I was sleeping and I was awake, all at once. A couple of hours went by and Freddy proclaimed from the door slot that it was dinner time. Two aspirins and two spoonfuls of soup was all I managed to eat. There was no doubt what the problem was; the height and effort to get there, i.e. no time to acclimate, and not drinking enough to compensate for the sweating. After a while the headache eased and I felt a bit more comfortable. But I tried not to think about tomorrow’s 1000 meters ascent.
Clouds still covered the Mischabel peaks but across the valley the intensive evening sun made the Weissmies group look as if it were on fire. This extraordinary alpenglow was so beautiful that the terrace outside the hut was completely crowded with photographing mountaineers. In the end the sun set as we settled into our beds. It was a long night's journey into day, people around snored and made all kind of noises. For a short while the Sandman paid a visit.
The Nadelhorn normal route takes the North-East ridge to the summit. The ridge is reached at Windjoch (3850m) being the low point between the Nadelhorn (4327m) and the Ulrichshorn (3925m). From the hut the trail follows the moraine ridge up to the Hohbalm glacier which is crossed before reaching the steep rise up to Windjoch. The route grade is PD with some II-pitches and snow to 40 degrees.
The stars glittered in the cold night when we tied into the rope left the hut at four. We were not alone. The number of people that started out from the hut this morning could have formed almost two football teams. Most of them were headed the same way as we were, some had the Lenzspitze by the Dreieselwand (North-North-East Face) in mind, a classical ice route up to 55 degrees graded D.
We passed the traffic jam at the rim of the glacier where people stopped to put on crampons. Since the snow was hard Freddy and I took the lead in our vibram soles. Sometimes the rope between us was just a few meters, sometimes it stretched out much longer when the ground looked more insecure. To travel on a quiet windless glacier with only the stars as a spectator is peaceful and for sure one of a mountaineer’s best moments. I felt good.
Eventually we approached the steep snow slope leading up the saddle on the North-East ridge. Zigzagging our way up I felt a first sign of weakness. I had however no problem understanding why the place was called the Windjoch since an icy wind hit us hard when we reached the ridge. During a break we put on crampons and more clothes, ate a fist-full of nuts and had some warm tea. But I did not feel so good.
Daylight broke as we moved up along the ridge. The only thing disturbing the peace was my abnormally heavy breathing. Taking breaks is often of no help, the best thing to do is to keep a calm and steady pace. Only once we stopped on the narrow ridge to drink some water. In front of our eyes we had the 600-meter-high Dreieselwand on the Lenzspitze. Ten dots moved slowly up the incredibly steep looking face. I glanced along our ridge and the summit felt terribly far away. And I did not feel good.
The last hundred meters were on rock, or rather ice covered rock. We caught up to a team that had passed us earlier. They were busy belaying each other while we passed trusting our feet. The summit cross came slowly closer and in the end I found myself hanging exhausted over it looking like a scarecrow. What glorious moment it could have been had it not been for the fact that I vomited at the very summit. I felt bad.
We went down a few meters and sat down on a rock. I drank a sip of water. "You must eat something," said Freddy and offered me dried fruit and nuts. After two bites I vomited uncontrollably and missed the feet of a passer-by by one centimeter. Altitude sickness is not something you wish anyone, not even your worst enemy. I felt very bad.
Back at the Windjoch Freddy suggested that we should continue on the ridge up to the summit of Ulrichshorn. Sadly I had to say no. Back at the hut I sat down on a bench in the dining room. A second later I was lying down on my back. An hour later I woke up. “You snored loudly”, said Freddy adding, “but that’s okay, I just pretended I didn’t know you”. I felt infinitesimally better.
For every meter descended the feeling of success begun to occupy my senses. I did not say no to the luxury of taking the cable car the last 500 meters down to the village. I felt good.
In the evening things were back to normal and we had a well deserved pizza accompanied by a glass of Chianti. Among many things we talked about were the modern telescopic trekking poles. It was argued in the press that they only moved injuries from legs to the arms. Freddy had a further point in favour for the poles: "They prevent people from smoking because both hands are busy".
I felt like summing up the lessons learned over the past few days. First, if you walk in the Alps wearing your best street shoes be careful, especially if you run into pigs. Second, always try to avoid having mountain goats directly over your head. And third, perhaps most important, coming in from sea level spend at least three days to acclimatize before taking on a 4000 meter peak. And do not forget to drink plenty of water.
On the good side I now felt well prepared to climb the Matterhorn. But that is a completely different story.
Thanks to desainme and isostatic for comments on the original text.
Thanks to Freddy Grossniklaus for excellent guiding of a client not feeling so good.