Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Weisshorn (4505m) - From Dream To Reality

The Weisshorn, East Ridge is on the right hand skyline
I have had a great year this year with mountaineering both in summer and winter but the experience of the Weisshorn to me was on a different level entirely. On my first trip to Zermatt back in 2005 it was the Weisshorn rather than the publicly glorified and brutally impressive Matterhorn that caught my eye. It is a beautiful peak that seems to rise up in perfect proportions to challenge the sky. The great golden age guide G.W. Young does it better justice than I ever could.

"Though not the highest, in supremacy of form and of position, the Weisshorn is the snow queen of the alps and looks out on a concourse of lesser princes."

The Standard route on the mountain is the East Ridge which is one of the longest and most demanding standard routes to any 4000m peak in the Alps. It forms a knife edge crest initially consisting of rocky teeth shifting to a slender snow arete before finally a snow face and the summit rocks, from Randa to summit it is over 3100m (10170ft) of ascent.

We were Staying in Tasch and the weather was great. I had been up a couple of 4000'ders via the Klein Matterhorn and had felt good enough at such altitudes to feel comfortable having a go at the Weisshorn. I had planned to wait for the end of the trip but I had no guarantee of the weather so decided to go for it. Soloing seems to many a dangerous way to go about things but in my opinion it is just as safe in many ways when it comes to actually climbing, where less than perfect rope work can become a hazard in itself and more importantly a distraction from the reasons for being there in first place. To me the main reason soloing is more serious especially on big peaks is that you have only your own judgment to trust and go on, no one to keep you in check and spot the obvious. Personally I like having company in the mountains but being alone in such places is a completely different experience, not so much better or worse but certainly more focused.

I lazed about on Sunday and ate a lot, even managed a sleep in the afternoon before leaving at 2130. Most people ascending the peak will stay in the hut at about half height but given I was myself, I seen no real benefit to me doing so. Working my way slowly up the steep path in darkness it was quite warm for most of the night. I passed the Hut at 0115 where I seen a head torch moving about and later found out this was the warden, no doubt getting ready for the 0200 wake up call the hut users get.

I kept going to the edge of the Schali Glacier where I geared up. I was carrying quite a bit of gear including my boots and a rope. I put my boots and crampons on and headed out across the glacier following the footprints with my head torch. The tracks took me low which felt unnatural but I knew to trust them as I was making for a break in the long rock barrier that skirts the western edge of the Glacier. By the time I had gained the barrier and began working my way up it, there were parties of head torch's appearing from the path to the hut. Moving on, I had a lot of time and the route finding here was at times difficult given it was pitch black. One of the parties was moving very quickly and caught me up about half way to the bottom of the rib that leads on up to the ridge. Turns out they had a GPS route logged in so had something to follow. They also seemed well acclimatized and where moving quickly. Having light ahead to follow helped a lot and I gained the bottom of the rib without too much bother.

The Rib leads up to point 3914m, known as the 'Breakfast Place'. The point is the start of East ridge as far as those climbing it goes. The rib for me was the low point of the climb. I hadn't struggled coming up the 1500m+ to the hut during the night but now life was getting hard. I knew nothing but darkness and I began to realise that bringing a rope for emergency's and not stashing my Approach gear where bad choices. Morale was failing all the time but I did have time on my side. None of the other parties seemed close to catching me up either so I knew I was not moving as slowly as I felt but the rib seemed endless. the rib itself was made up of ill-defined steps with loose rock all over the place all marked out with little cairns, to go off the rib into either of the bounding couloir's meant a mass of loose and treacherous gravel and rock would unleash itself on the abyss below in which head torches were stringing their was up at various intervals. Eventually I could feel myself getting closer the the top and the pre-dawn ambiance was beginning to light up the world. Suddenly I reached a large rock which I peered over and seen the summit of the Weisshorn in all its glory and my spirits lifted. I had reached the start of the Ridge and for the first time that morning I felt that this was possible and that it was perhaps even likely that I was going to grace the summit even though there was still a long way to go, at least it was within sight.

I left a lot of gear at the breakfast place and noticed the difference straight away. The ridge from here is extremely exposed with massive drops on both sides and gendarmes to climb or turn. The climbing is fantastic, never too difficult but always serious. I moved quickly over this section and by the time I reached the end of it the sun was beginning to rise. Where the ridge becomes a snow arete proper I stopped to put my crampons back on. While doing his I was treated to the Alpenglow. for a few minutes on clear mornings the peaks are bathed in a red gold. It is incredibly beautiful and well worth being awake at such hours to see. By the time I was ready to leave, a guided party on two ropes of two from Slovakia had caught me up and where impressed that I had come up in a single effort saying that they had gone to bed at 2130 when I had started.
Looking towards the Dom and Taschhorn
The View up the Ridge

Climbers below me passing a Gendarme

Alpenglow at the start of the snow arete

Heading up the ridge it wasn't long before it broadened to a shoulder then a bergschrund was crossed before the arete became a face. I was beginning to feel the altitude and was pausing often for breaths. At 4505m the Weisshorn is debateably the 5th highest mountain in the Alps and it sure felt like it going up the last 300m! The party of four that had passed me lower down now passed me on their descent, I reached the summit at 0800 and had it to myself. It was incredible and certainly the happiest and most emotional I can ever remember being in the mountains, after 8 years of dreams and plans I was there, I had started well over 10 hours before and had traveled up well over 10,000 ft, there was no anticlimax or dissatisfaction, I knew I still had the descent but felt not the slightest bit of dread. The view was superb, not least down the other two main ridges that also form the mountains impressive pyramid. I didn't have the summit to myself for long, one of the Slovak ropes arrived and embraced each other before shaking my hand and taking my photo for me on the summit. When the other Two arrived I left, with five people on the small summit it was very crowded!
on the summit

Looking down the East Ridge From the summit rocks

The first part of the descent was enjoyable and I passed 10-15 more people heading for the summit at various points. I collected the kit I'd left at the Breakfast place then headed down the rib which wasn't any more fun in descent. Being able to see now I skirted much of the lower barrier on a snow slope and thus made very good time over the lower sections before climbing back up the glacier to the path to the hut. I arrived back at the hut at 1140 and waited for John and my Dad to arrive.

Looking Down the Rock section of the East Ridge
The weather began to turn bad the next day and was poor for the remainder of the trip until the day we left making me very glad that I had taken the opportunity when it was there.
John, my Dad and I before the edge of the Schali glacier