Pollux, a peak too far
This is the story about a long day in the mountains, a day that started out perfectly, and then got bad, really bad, before finally having a happy ending. It surely taught me a thing or two.
The trip was done on the second week of a two week holiday in the Alps together with one of my friends, Jacob Anthonsen. The first week had been spent in Canazei climbing a bunch of via ferrata, then a weekend in Davos running the Swiss Alpine half marathon before ending up in Zermatt for some true alpinism. The plan was to climb Castor via the normal route (PD difficulty). The main goal being to bag a 4.000’er and warm up for the ultimate goal of the holiday – climbing Dom a couple of days later. We had climbed Breithorn, another 4.000’er, two days earlier and that combined with the week in the Dolomites meant that we felt well acclimatized. Ok, climbing Breithorn doesn’t involve much climbing, as it is basically just a 1,5 hour walk up from the lift, but the point is that we felt very confident for the Castor excursion. Additionally both of us had been on a couple of other alpine peaks including Mt. Blanc before, so even though Castor was a challenge, we had climbed more difficult peaks and we would call ourselves rather experienced.
Castor - Happy go lucky
We got up at 5.30 as it was starting to dawn. The weather was prefect, clear blue sky and no wind. We were staying at a campsite down in the valley and had booked a taxi to take us to Zermatt in time to get the first lift to Klein Matterhorn (charging 60 euro for this lift is usury, but the lift takes you from 1.500 meter to 3.900 meter and saves you a lot of boring walking). From Zermatt we got a nice view of Matterhorn. This looked to be a very fine day.
Matterhorn in morning sun seen from the Zermatt valley
Coming out from the cable car station things got even better. It had been frosty weather during the night and the snow had gotten a hard surface that enabled us to walk on it at a good pace instead of slowly tramping through soft snow. We walked a couple of 100 meters along the lift and then roped up as we left the secured skiing area. Due to the hard snow surface we could leave the crampons in the bag pack - excellent. Another good thing was that since we had taken one of the first lifts up, only a few people were on the mountain – quite a change of pace compared to Breithorn, where we had been walking in a slow queue towards the top.
Leaving the skiarea at the Klein Matterhorn cable car station. Castor in the background (right) and Pollux to the left. The trails in the background are going to Breithorn (the left one) and Castor/Pollux (the right one)
Ahead of us lay approximately 6 km’s snowfield/glacier walking without much gradient before hitting the foot of Castor, from where it was a 400 meter climb/walk up a 40 degree snow slope. On the first part we would pass below Breithorn, Roccia Nera and Pollux. It was supposed to be a 4 hour trip to the top and 3 hours for the return. We left the cable car at 7.00 and the last lift was at 16 or so. We didn’t check this really well, because we should have plenty of time. This was probably the first mistake of the day…
The approach to Castor went smooth. We kept a good pace, and quickly passed a couple of groups heading for Pollux. It looked like most people this day were heading that way and only a few took the longer trip to Castor. In several places we passed avalanches that looked fairly fresh. The weather had been warm the previous days, so this came as no surprise. We talked about avalanche risk on our route, but agreed that it was a safe route, but that we ould turn back, if we found it to be to risky. We were still thinking quite responsible at this point.
Avalanches on the southern slope of Breithorn
We reached the foot of Castor in just two hours and took a small break with chocolate and water. The snow slope looked safe, but since it was rather steep and the snow surface was frozen, we put on crampons. We found a steady pace and walked towards the top. Technically the first 300 meters were really easy: walk/climb 50 meters, small break, walk/climb 50 meters etc. Shortly before the top we reached a short 15-20 wall of snow/ice with some huge crevasses below it. Jacob secured me and I ascended the wall. Jacob followed shortly after. From now it was a classical snow ridge to the top. We reached it shortly after 10 o’clock and were greeted by a couple of Israelis and their guide. Sadly the weather had deteriorated a little and clouds had come in. There wasn’t much wind, but the clouds blocked most of the views. In glimpse however did we get to see the awesome view from 4.200 meter. So far this had been a great day in the mountains. We had some more chocolate, drank a coke and talked to the Israelis. After half an hour we were getting a little cold, so we decided to head back.
Climbers on the ridge of Castor
The trip down went in high pace and as we passed Pollux on the way back we estimated that we would be back at the lift station after just 5 hours. This was when Jacob came up with the genius suggestion: “Ehh, what do you say we climb Pollux, now that we are here and now that we are in such a good time”. I had originally been thinking about combining Castor and Pollux for a long day, but had more or less given up the plan, as I was unsure, if it would be possible to do it in time and as Jacob had been satisfied with just climbing Castor. However now that Jacob suggested climbing Pollux and time was plenty, I instantly caught “summit fewer” and heartily supported this great idea. We had another check at the clock; time was ok. We looked at the peak; it was just approx. 300 meters to the top from where we were standing, so just a short trip. We checked the weather; some more clouds had come in but it still looked pretty stable. The plan was to start climbing Dom the next day. We both felt pretty fresh, but we didn’t want to spend all our energy before starting on Dom. Hmmm, there were both pros and cons. In our infinite wisdom there was only one way to settle this: paper, scissor, rock. I won, Pollux it was! Now maybe this was the second mistake of the day – leaving fate to decide whether you should climb a mountain or not. However I believe we actually did think the situation through and had safety in mind.
Pollux – A peak too far.
Pollux, seen from the top of Castor, Breithorn in the back
We ate a little food and drank some water and then started the second climb of the day. The climb started up through a small snow covered ravine. This was the route we had seen all the guided groups taking in the morning – however it was not one of the three routes to the top described in the tour book we had with us (Goedecke, Alpine 4.000ers, 2003). Again a small mistake climbing along a route we didn’t know, but it was clearly the most used route and therefore we assumed it was also the easiest route up.
On the way up through the ravine we passed a guided group coming down. One of the members was clearly not feeling safe, but kept ignoring the suggestions from the guide on how to safely descend the steep snow. We kept well to the side of the ravine to avoid the snow and ice he was sending down and watched his unsafe descend in disbelief. One of the reasons the guy had problems coming down, was that it was now so late in the day that the sun had melted the frozen snow surface and turned it into heavy and wet slush ice. Our third mistake of the day was that we failed to notice that this change in snow conditions would mean that going back would be much harder and take much longer, than when we had walked out in the morning. After climbing the ravine we came to a section of rock climbing / mixed climbing. We put the crampons in the bag pack and continued. The climbing/scrambling wasn’t difficult and we made good progress. Shortly after however we reached the most difficult section of the route. At first you had to climb 20 meters across a vertical wall before climbing approx. 25 meters up another vertical wall. There were ropes, cables and bolts, so you could secure yourself and therefore it wasn’t too difficult, if you were just careful. The problem was that a group of four Frenchmen had arrived a few minutes before us. The first and most experienced one came across quickly. A woman on the team however did not want to climb it. They convinced her to give it a try, but after just a few meters she got really afraid, started crying and begged to come down. The other idi*** of the team kept pushing her and in the end more or less dragged her across the surface. She surely did not have a good time and probably will not ever want to come back to the mountains. This scenery lasted for 45 minutes. What we were focusing on at this point was how irresponsible and foolish this group was acting, how we were starting to fell a little cold and how annoying it was to get caught behind this group. What we only paid little attention to was that the weather was now surely deteriorating, that this section would take a long time to climb down and that we were running short on time. This was the fourth mistake of the day. We had however reached the point that we felt, we had wasted so much time that if we didn’t reach the top that was “just up there”, it would all have been a complete waste of time. We were finally able to cross the difficult section ourselves and came out on the final snow ridge next to a Madonna statue! We quickly pushed the last bit to the top. It was now more or less completely clouded and also getting a lot colder. We shot a few pictures and then started our way down. It was now 13.15 and reaching the top had taken us 1.5 hours. We now had approx. three hours to get back to the cable car. We were still quite certain that this could be done; it was after all just a climb down from Pollux and then a walk of 4-5 km’s.
But now things really started turning against us. At first we were hit by a hail shower, then snow, and then, worst of all, thunder started just above our heads. Hail and snow I can deal with, but standing at 4.000 m with thunder just above my head scares the hell out me. I think it was at this point, I finally realized just how stupid this idea had been. But stupid or not, now we just had to try to get the best out of a really bad situation. We climbed down as quickly as we could, but due to the worsened weather conditions it took longer than expected. When we hit the foot of Pollux, we still had two hours or so to the last cable car. Two hours for 4-5 km’s should be doable. What we had forgotten to take into account, was that the snow was now 20 cm of slush ice and you could only stumble ahead. Pushing ourselves back, thunder above our heads and time running out. Half way back the tracks separated into two directions. I was pretty sure we had come along the right track in the morning, but I wasn’t completely sure. Jacob couldn’t remember either. I decided we didn’t have time to dig out the compass from the bag pack and anyway both tracks led back towards the cable car. This was mistake number 5. Taking the right track led us up the southern slope of Breithorn and cost us at least 15 minutes and some extra 60-70 height meters. We could now see the cable car station, but Jacob was getting tired and even though we were struggling hard and sweating like hell, we only moved at a slow pace due to the heavy snow. When we reached a safe part of the glacier we decided to split up. I should run ahead with both bag packs and inform the people at the cable car that we were coming. I ran, walked and stumbled through the snow cursing our planning. The only positive thing was that thunder had stopped. I reached the cable car station 15 minutes after the last departure. Jacob arrived 15 minutes later. We had made it back, but now we were stuck at the cable car station. F***, this was the punishment for getting too eager to climb an extra peak and for making several mistakes in a non forgiving alpine environment.
We looked around and thought about what to do. Everything besides the toilet was closed at the station. We had seen a construction crew working outside and went out and asked them if they were going down and if we could come with them. The message was that this was strictly against the rules. We could either walk to the nearest hut (a 1 hour walk), or walk down the valley (2.500 height meters). None of these options seemed appealing to us as people were waiting for us down in Zermatt. We gave it a thought about “borrowing” some of the skies standing at the entrance to the station, but quickly dropped that idea. We then noticed that the cable car was still going up and down once in a while, though not taking any people along. We walked to the exit platform and waited 15 minutes for the next one to come up. It had a new group of construction workers in it, and one of them, our angel of mercy, felt sympathy for us and told us to wait 2,5 hours and then we could go back with another shift. Yes, saved by the bell. We spent the hours eating our pitiful remains of candy and bread and otherwise just tried to keep warm. Around 19 in the evening two Spanish climbers showed up. They were also pretty happy to hear about the late cable car down. At 20.00 the cable car took us down, got stuck for 20 minutes for no clear reason and then finally reached Zermatt, approx. 14 hours after our departure in the morning. We met the other people in our group and celebrated the happy ending with beer and pizza.
Thinking back about this day, things could have gotten really bad, but we were pretty lucky and came down unharmed. On this day we made the following mistakes:
1. We didn’t check the timetable for cable car. It turned out we had only seen 15 minutes wrong, but not knowing when you have to get back, is a pretty bad starting point for any planning.
2. Leaving fate to decide whether to climb a mountain or not is probably not the wisest thing to do, we had however evaluated the consequences and climbing Pollux was doable.
3. We climbed a route we didn’t have a description on. It was quite clear that this was the official route to Pollux, but in other conditions this could have been a grave mistake.
4. We ignored the fact that snow conditions were changing and that going back would therefore take much longer. Both of us should have known this.
5. We got blinded by “the peak is just up there”-fewer and failed to notice the deteriorating weather and the running out of time.
6. We got into such a rush on the way back that we actually took a longer way than we needed to
7. We clearly overestimated our strength and underestimated the toughness of the extended route.
The trip to Dom was postponed one day, but three days later we reached the top of Dom and had a clear view of the whole western part of the Alps, amazing, but that is another story. The trip to Castor and Pollux taught me a number of valuable lessons and will probably stay on my mind longer than the trip to Dom.