I begin to ease out onto the little grass hummocks that were magically stuck to the slabs. Bits of dirt and moss rasp underfoot. Nothing is solid. I climb upward, glad that I won't have to reverse these grass-clump climbing moves. The crack I was using for my fingers ends, so I palm on gritty slopers, and follow the shrinking clumps that shift under my feet as I step on them. Finally turn the corner, and see that it all ends. The wall steepens and blanks out of all protection possibilites other than bolts (no kit of course). Further on the ridge are steep 10-15 meter high headwalls, ringed with more clumps of grass that dangle over the abyss. I am off route. Reversing my moves I begin the semi controlled process of further loosening clumps of dirt and grass, and stepping on sandy holds.
It was strange how normal all this seemed. The exposure of the ridge crest, the suspect holds, grainy fragmented rock. Footholds dependent on a few grass roots clutching rock. It was all part of alpine scrambling, but when I saw how off route I was, and stopped to actually think about what I was climbing on.....Well, suddenly sport climbing on clean solid rock sounded like so much more fun, or maybe even a round of golf.
Technical rock ridge climbs on high alpine peaks is, for me, the ultimate in climbing expression. Walls are too obtuse, and too difficult for my lazy abilities. Cragging and sport climbing have their allure, a great move here, a perfect hand crack there. But the alpine ridges give it all. Rock climbing, exposure, a summit, great views that just get better, a clear line to follow. But sometimes the line isn't so clear. Here is where route finding comes into play, a major part of ridge climbing. Left, right, or straight over? The game never ends, no one ever seems to climb the route the same way, and the guidebook authors either havn't climbed it, or were high when they did.
An hour later I'm back on route, flying along, passing features mentioned in the guidebook, climbing the prominent chimney, traversing on prominent ledges, finding the prominent slab with the prominent handcrack etc.
6 hours later I'm much closer to the summit. Sticky rubber approach shoes have helped trememdously, and simulclimbing has saved a ton of time on the easier ground. I've felt on route most of the time, usually seeing the decoys before being lured too close. A couple of short turn-arounds and downclimbs, no problems.
But now, I'm teetering out over the drop again. Nice ledges brought me here, and just 4 traversing moves away or so is an easy 4th class chimney with only a bit of grass in it for texture. But those 4 moves look ridiculous for a mid-fifth class climb, and the rock quality is especially bad. I couple half hearted gear placements only break off chunks of grainy rock, and everything is flaring anyway. Is this the right way? How did I get off route again? If this doesn't go, what alternatives do I have? I shift my feet on the one good foothold and have a look around. A wide crack is stuffed with grass, a grainy sloper is all I have for my feet to begin my unsteady lurch to safety. At my face is a hairline crack with water seeping down it. The rust colored crack is..........it is rust! Above my head is an ancient piton half eaten away by rust. I'm still on route.
The summit is just beyond my reach. Between me and there is a deep chasm. A rift in the rock, that feels more like a crevasse on a glacier than a gap in a ridge. The bottom is filled with filthy snow and piles of choss that have collapsed in. The guidebook says to jump over this 20 meter deep gap. The jump is over two meters. I just can't do it. My empty dehydrated stomach flops at the though of the results of failure. Gingerly I rappel off the overhang into the hole. A survey of the opposite wall from above showed a couple of possiblities for climbing out. Now, as I creep over the snow and choss, I find that it's actually quite easy and simple to climb out. Relief floods over me. All problems have met a solution.
The summit at last, despite all the mistakes and misgivings. Now, let's have a look at the guidebook one more time, and stare a little longer down at the descent route before we begin.....