Recovery from defeatA day after an attempt on the Peterey Ridge, we tried to figure out what to do. I'd fallen sick on the approach to the Monzino Hut, losing my lunch and all energy in a hanging meadow with a beautiful view. I was going through a kind of crisis, feeling exhausted with the whole running of my life. Trying to have it all, the fun was draining from each individual activity, and at the same time I felt I was failing people close to me. This turmoiled emotional state seemed to lead directly to sickness, and when a worried Georg finally saw me finishing the ladders to the hut, I was weak as a kitten. Georg carried my pack, but I could barely climb the stairs to the hut, and the sympathetic staff gave me soup in bed. I had scraped bottom.
But I sensed possibility for a better future. I was defining myself too much with arbitrary goalposts. The physical and psychological events had "cleared the decks," and I could start over. That was 9 months ago, and I feel sure enough of the meaning of that event to be able to write about it.
But this is a trip report, and I'll try not to bore you too much with my tangled thoughts, for a while at least. Georg and I hiked down in the morning, reversed the complicated bus trip to Chamonix and listlessly searched for something to do that wasn't going to be stressful. Amazingly, the Berner Oberland had a decent weather forecast. Neither of us had ever climbed there, and it looked like now we had a chance. As we drove, we paged through books to find a suitable route. Georg was very patient with my sometimes alarming process of self-discovery, in which I'd vacillate between tossing all our shared mountaineering goals onto an ash heap, and then try to articulate what kinds of climbs could still possibly excite me.
Oddly, the Jungfrau Rottalgrat met all the conditions of my now delicate sensibility: long approach through new terrain, off the beaten track, technical but not extremely so, unusual way to climb a famous mountain, etc. Indeed, we had to climb 1800 meters just to reach the hut, which was unmanned, another plus. We divised a vague plan to nab additional summits once we were on the great Aletsch Glacier. We were excited about seeing this entirely new area.
I still felt weak, but also a little bit reborn. I was determined to honor my relationship with the mountains by appreciating the triptych of a long vertical approach through several climate zones. Georg didn't fare as well on the first day, having been unable to eat for 24 hours. Thinking of all this with some perspective now, it amazes me that the relationship between the mind and body isn't more clearly understood as one of cause and effect.
At the end of the road from Lauterbrunnen, low in a forested valley surrounded by waterfalls we started up a trail of gravel, wet roots and the kind of scrubby trail edges you see at low elevation. Ants and other bugs. Scree, dirt and wet rocks. But grandually we entered sub-alpine terrain with wide views across the valley to Grindelwald. Sunny alpine meadows with sheep followed, and overall it was some of the most beautiful country I've seen. We lunched and rested on big boulders, looking down on two girls doing the same. They were ski instructors, also coming to climb the Rottalgrat, and we'd share the hut with them. It was perched above a glacier, with a great view to north face of the Bernese escarpment.
Georg did an excellent job firing up the wood stove, and soon were were boiling huge pots of water for tea and noodles. The girls had an excellent gourmet meal, while Goerg and I made do with Ramen noodles which I made extra interesting by tossing in all available spice packets. The hot oil and spices did wonders for my appetite, but perhaps my Texan roots give me a cast-iron stomach! We drank lots of tea and decided to wake up at 2 am.
ClimbingThe girls left first, and when we followed their headlamps were out of sight. Hilariously, the trail above the hut is decorated with little stone ladybugs, painted and glued onto boulders; they always point the right direction, even when you have to use your hands and climb small cliffs. Look around a moment in the darkness, and you'll see a penny-sized ladybug on a nearby rock. What a cute way to keep to the route! This continued up to and a bit beyond the point where the route gains the lower Rottal ridge. We were traveling without crampons, and now entered a zone of endless gray slabs. We climbed a bit left of the crest, occasionally guessing at a sign of passage. The girls were above and right, exactly on the crest. Now we had to make some rather hard moves, boots edging sketchily on the slabs, hands liebacking or looking for tiny edges as we crept up. It was probably the longest stretch of slab climbing I'd ever done in mountain boots.
Eventually the ridge flattened out for a bit and we saw the next stage. The girls were now dealing with a steeper wall with two thick fixed ropes. Based on the rather serious slab climbing we'd just finished, we didn't dismiss those ropes out of hand: they would be helpful! In fact, we decided this route would be a real nightmare in icy conditions and you'd want every aid you could get.
But we had good conditions, and were soon climbing along the fixed lines, pulling on them occasionally, especially in a narrow, near-vertical chimney. Higher, we missed a sharp right turn on a loose vertical cliff, accidentally climbing about 50 vertical meters up a slabby channel that appeared to get more difficult. Eventually we figured out our mistake and down climbed to find the right way. A final fixed rope protected a short climb, and then after some additional effort we were standing at the edge of a steep snow slope.
We were happy we'd avoided using the rope the whole way. We had some food and put on the rope and crampons, then ascended the slope with french technique. It was quite exacting and steep! A short icy step with ice screw protection got us onto another rocky ridge, then we repeated the exercise with another steep snow slope and a final ridge of rock below the summit. The girls waved farewell as they descended from the summit, and 10 minutes later we were up there, in the sun for the first time and confronting a whole new and exciting view: the massive glaciers of the Oberland, in stark contrast to the green carpeting 11,000 feet below us in Lauterbrunnen.
It was a beautiful, wind-free day, and we enjoyed the summit for a while. The Aletschhorn looked especially nice by the northern slope we wanted to climb. I really enjoyed the way we climbed the Jungfrau. Man! 11,000 feet in two days! We could see a kind of circus below on the glacier near the Moench, with lots of tourists walking to the Moench Hut. We started down, intent on getting over there to sleep for the night.
The descent via the normal route was rather interesting. You follow quite steep and icy slopes with a lot of exposure. There have been many accidents here, and I can see why. The route is taken lightly, but I wouldn't call it easy, especially because of the exposure on descent. But soon enough we were descending the bergschrund. We decided to take a "short cut" down an ingenious ice ledge on the glacier below us, which made it easy to reach the great lift station, truly a carnival of touristic delight. Along the way we crossed some interesting crevasses in our desire to avoid descending too far. I remember some rotting snow bridges that took some real testing to feel good about.
Finally we were in the grand tourist station, and promptly headed for the cafeteria for a big plate of spaghetti with meat sauce. Stinking and blinking from two relatively isolated days, we felt very strange among the Chinese and Japanese tourists at the other tables who stared in wonder at our array of axes and slings.
Grosse FietscherhornWe hiked over to spend the night in the Moenchhuette, planning to climb some more peaks. But we pretty much decided we shouldn't try the Aletschhorn by the North Face because of the lateness of the season, the forecast, and the fact that we didn't have a robust array of ice climbing equipment. Without fully realizing it, this sensible decision had the effect of taking the wind out of my sails for further high tours. The next day I was crabby and cut our tour short after the Grosse Fietscherhorn. This was a nice climb, actually! But I'd decided, rather dimly and in a way of a man groping for a light switch in the dark to only do what I was enthusiastic about and not commit myself to checking off lists. Stubbornly, while Georg ran off to tag the Hintere Fietscherhorn I sat and waited. Since I didn't "feel" it, I didn't want to go through motions. This kind of grandstanding might be foolish and silly, but I think that we live much of our lives on autopilot, and when a moment comes to tell you that you are out of harmony with yourself, you should listen and try to find your way back. The act of sitting and waiting was for me, meaningful. The act of going home early from the mountains was too.
ConclusionI hope I never put anyone else through what I put Georg through that summer. He is very understanding. Seeing a middle-aged man rearrange the furniture of his life is only hilarious in retrospect. :D The Jungfrau was for me a shining mountain, suggesting new beginnings. But I wouldn't "follow the crowd," I would follow my nose into the bushes. I would visit lonely uplands, and then I would ignore all uplands. I would play music and allow mountaineering to rot. I would snowshoe alone and make an event of eating a sandwich and filming it...forgetting about the summit.
As I fell asleep in the Monzino Hut, feeling a whole skyscraper of future dreams collapsing, too weak to move, I confess I felt a great upsurge of emotion that brought tears to my eyes.
It was relief. Happiness was behind it. It began with letting go. This is my report.