Category Archives: Meta
Thanks in part to interest from a couple of Eastern Sierra bookstores, and to that expressed by some correspondents, I will be printing more copies of my California 14er guidebook. I will try to contact people who expressed interst in a print copy, but I will probably miss some; please email me. Anyone who wanted a print copy, but had to settle for the e-book instead, can contact me to get a print copy for the price difference, i.e. $12.95 including shipping. Books will begin shipping within two weeks, so they will arrive well before the best 14er season in a heavy snow year.
I deliberately constrain my writing here to the subjects of mountaineering and (occasionally but relatedly) climate change. However, I think this deserves making an exception.
I met Shannon this past fall, and found her to be a talented and highly-motivated trail runner, a strong scrambler, and a pleasant and positive partner in the hills. Apart from some long outings in the Sierra, we did a couple of tough routes that were on my bucket list (White Mountain’s west ridge and Badwater to Telescope), and even explored the deserts I normally avoid. When I learned that she had only been to the tourist part of Mexico, and that flights between Las Vegas and Mexico City were ridiculously cheap, it seemed natural to head down there to climb and see some of the good, non-tourist parts. Tickets were bought, and plans were made.
The week before we were to leave, she texted me that her son was experiencing abdominal pain that could potentially be appendicitis. Since that is not serious if treated quickly, I hoped that he could have an appendectomy and recover before our trip. Unfortunately, rather than a swollen or burst appendix, the doctors at the local hospital found a large mass. They promptly sent him down to the UCLA children’s hospital, where tests determined that it was Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. While modern survival rates are high, treatment still requires chemotherapy using (among other things) Methotrexate, a drug developed in the 1940s and ’50s with horrible side effects. So while I was in Mexico running up and down volcanoes, Shannon was in a hospital watching her son suffer; both remain there today.
Her friends have set up a donation page, both to offset the substantial cost of care, and to help fund research into improving treatment of this rare and terrible disease. If you can, please consider contributing to a worthy family and a worthy cause.
I came into 2018 adrift, with no grand goal to drive me and structure my season. I had finished my project to dayhike the lower 48, and while I have much more to explore in Canada, especially the Coast Range, the options were either inaccessible (Waddington) or unexciting (lots of driving and bushwhacking north of Whistler). Fortunately, the idea of traveling to Europe and the Alps presented itself, and while it was not cheap, it was not as expensive as I feared. This, along with some fitness tourism to Ecuador (thanks, Ted, for sharing the fruits of your mad frequent flier skills!) and ski trip to Canada in May (hi, Bob!), made the year a welcome departure from my usual routine. This novelty revived my love for the mountains, making this one of my best seasons in a long time, on par with 2012 and 2014.
It took some time to recover from the magnitude and intensity of my trip to the Alps, but I was surprised at the end of the season at how much I enjoyed some more mundane outings in the Eastern Sierra. To the extent that I have a home, it is northern New Mexico, but my mountaineering roots lie in the Sierra. Having drifted away from and lost interest in them over the past few years, I was surprised at how much I appreciated returning to a familiar, friendly range in an extended Fall season. As much as I enjoy exploring new terrain and pushing my limits, rambling through my sort-of backyard has its own charm.
If the season produced one major disappointment, it is that I have ended back where I started. Though I have different trails to run and peaks to look at this winter, my situation has changed little from a year ago. I have a few ideas for next summer, but no clear direction of progress or area of the map to fill in. I trust that I will be able to put something together by next Spring, as I did this year, but it will take more reflection and consideration than before, some of which I hope to write about in the future. I suppose that’s what the long winter nights are for…
Anyways, on to the summary.
When Ted offered to buy me a ticket to Ecuador with frequent-flier points, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a place I never expected to see. Though the trip involved some peak-bagging, it felt more like tourism much of the time. Despite not accomplishing all of my objectives, I left glad to have visited, and possibly a slightly broader-minded citizen of the world.
- Cotopaxi: At 19,347′, Cotopaxi was a new altitude record for me. It almost didn’t happen, as the park officials seemed to make up arbitrary rules aimed at increasing the amount of money flowing from our pockets to theirs, but I managed to sneak through. The lack of a clear summit view was disappointing, but hardly surprising on a trip where it rained almost every day. We had also planned to climb 20,561′ Chimborazo, but our tight timeframe and some third world nonsense in the form of armed park guards and arbitrary closing times shut us down.
- Galapagos: Though I preferred my time in the cheaper and less tourist-infested areas north of Quito, it was worth paying American prices and dealing with gueros to visit these unique islands. We passed through too quickly to see more than a fraction of their distinctive flora and fauna, but I was happy to swim with fearless iguanas and watch tortoise sex.
Skiing in Canada
With lift tickets far out of my price range these days, I had forgotten how much I loved to ski growing up. I finally acquired a pair of AT skis last year (thanks, Scott! (the man, not the brand)), so this spring I headed up to the Canadian Rockies to put them to use. I ended being a week or two late for the best skiing, but it was still great by my south-of-the-border standards.
- Columbia: The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice cube south of Alaska, and I was fortunate to make two trips to it in just a few days. The first, a trip to Snow Dome with Bob and his friend Matt, gave me the confidence to return for a solo mission to Mount Columbia, on the northern end of the icefield. While I was pleased with my time, I was far off the FKT set by some members of the Canadian national randonée ski team.
- Hector: Had I visited just a bit earlier, I could have skied 5000′ from summit to car. However, I still got in 3000′ of vertical, flying down a wide-open glacier at ludicrous speeds.
There is a reason that mountaineering was born in the Alps, and is often called “alpinism”: I cannot think of another range that combines more dramatic terrain with easier access. First, there is the incredible relief. From valleys lying between 1500′ and 5000′, the highest peaks rise above 13,000′; Mont Blanc rises 12,300′ from Chamonix in just 6.5 miles. Second, the Alps hold glaciers larger than any in North America outside of Alaska or far northern Canada. The largest, the Grosser Aletsch Glacier, is still 2500′ deep at its thickest point; the highest, the Bossons Glacier on Mont Blanc, descends from near the peak’s 15,781′ summit to just 4500′. Sadly, these glaciers are rapidly disappearing, having lost 1/40 of their mass this year alone. Visit while you can.
- Mont Blanc: While most people start their Mont Blanc climb with a cograil or tram ride, I eschewed such costly things and walked from my car in Chamonix. I followed the Grand Mulets route, which ascends the Bossons Glacier to join the standard Gouter Ridge route just before the summit. This choice offered solitude for much of the climb, at the cost of manageable but non-trivial crevasse risk. Rather than descending through decaying snow, I traversed several sub-peaks over to the Aiguille du Midi, where I took the tram down, getting off at the midway station to avoid paying the exorbitant fee. (The woman at the upper station looked a bit confused when I said I had hiked up…)
- Matterhorn: As part of my effort to minimize time spent in costly Zermatt, I chose to climb the Matterhorn from the town of Cervino on the Italian side. This meant ascending the somewhat more challenging Lion Ridge rather than the standard Hornli, and scaling all manner of sketchy ropes and ladders. Between those and the crowds of other climbers, this felt like my craziest climb in the Alps. It also would likely have been my favorite, had I not witnessed my first, and hopefully last, fatal climbing fall.
- Dolomites: I almost skipped the Dolomites, since they are lower and less glaciated than the western Alps, and more suited to rock climbers. I am glad I made the drive, though, at least as much for the history as for the climbing. Growing up in the States, my education about World War I focused mostly on the northern war between France and Germany. I was completely unaware of the White War, a brutal, heroic, and pointless conflict in which the Austrians and Italians waged trench warfare year-round in the high Alps of Sudtirol (South Tyrol).
- Bernese Alps: While it does not contain the Alps’ highest peaks, the Bernese Oberland holds their largest glaciers, and therefore most fully expresses the Alps’ character. Unlike elsewhere in the range, there are few lifts, making the approaches to most high peaks long and arduous. Of the 14 and 1/2 hours I spent climbing the Finsteraarhorn, about nine were on glaciers.
With the High Sierra remaining snow-free through late November, I had more time than expected to run around the range. While the nights were too long and cold for my normal late-season backpacking, conditions were perfect for some long runs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite spending most of the summer doing few long days and almost no running, I was able to adapt to doing 30-40-miles quickly and without injury.
- Picket Guard: I had sworn not to do this remote peak, hidden between the rugged Kaweahs and the deep Kern Valley, but curiosity got the better of me. Unlike others who have day-hiked it from Shepherd Pass or Mineral King, I chose a shorter, pleasant, and familiar cross-country route from Whitney Portal via Wallace Creek. Thanks to the shorter route and my unusually high energy, it took only 13h20, a long but reasonable day.
- Badwater to Whitney: The 135-mile Badwater Marathon, following the road from the lowest point in the United States to the trailhead for the highest, holds little interest for me. However, when I heard of this similar-length route avoiding most paved roads, it took only a week for me to somehow convince myself to fast-pack it. While I am not sure I would repeat the experience, it did have some transcendent moments, like walking across the smooth Panamint salt flat in the moonlight.
- Miscellaneous speed: As usual when I find myself with good fitness and near hills, I end up trying to establish some Fastest Known Times (FKTs). While I am far from the fastest guy out there, I do enjoy putting up times on interesting routes to encourage others to come along and beat them. Two fun routes I did this fall are Laurel’s northeast gully, an incredibly fun low-fifth-class scramble, and White Mountain’s west ridge, a 9000-foot cross-country grunt from the valley floor to the highest peak on the east side of the Owens Valley. Hopefully neither of my times will remain the fastest known for more than a year.
By the numbers, my two months in Europe and seven weeks in the Alps were more successful than I expected: 52 summits, 43 of those in the Alps, including 26 of the 49 4000-meter peaks. This was in no small part thanks to the abnormally hot and dry weather which, while terrible for the glaciers, allowed me to only fight the weather or take a forced break on a few days. But I can also credit some of the choices I made in my approach.
The most important choice by far was to rent a car. As good as public transit may be, it would be next to impossible to do back-to-back peaks from different trailheads while riding trains and buses between them. This was painfully expensive — a bit over $1300 for the rental, plus gas that ranged from 1.20€/l in Spain to 1.60€/l in France. These two things together probably cost more than the whole rest of the trip, including food, airfare, tolls, and Zermatt-area parking. However, this big chunk of cash did a lot of things. First, while public transit may be great in Europe, it is not cheap: a Eurail pass alone would have cost me around $800, and then there are buses. Second, the car was a free place to store gear I was not using, such as town clothes, laundry, and heavy/light mountain gear. Most importantly, the car was also my lodging: it turns out that a Citroën C3 is almost one Dirtbag long diagonally if you slide the driver’s seat forward, and with a fat air mattress, was both comfortable and discreet. Staying in huts or hostels would have cost at least as much as the rental, and camping seems frowned upon, though often tolerated.
Second, I did all but two outings (the Grandes Jorasses and Tasch-Dom traverse) with my Alpine fast-and-light setup: trail runners, wool socks, hiking pants, t-shirt, hoodie, shell, poncho, ice axe, and running-shoe crampons. Wearing trail runners made it possible to do summits requiring 2000 to 3000+ meters of gain in a day without destroying my knees and feet in boots. I jogged some descents, but mostly just walked quickly, since I was not trying to set any speed records. Expecting the Alps to be cold, I brought most of my winter gear, including mountain boots, softshell pants, down parka, goggles, and long underwear. I brought the parka for the Tasch-Dom, where I expected bad weather, but did not end up needing it. The only reason I used mountain boots on two occasions was for short sections of steep glacier travel for which I needed to front-point. In the future, I may be able to upgrade my fast-and-light setup to cover this sort of terrain.
Third, I did absolutely no roped glacier travel, which requires gear and partners, and dooms most Alpine climbers to heavy packs and a plodding pace. I did this with a mixture of conservative route choice and a small amount of calculated risk. Many of the large stretches of glacier travel, particularly in the late summer in the Bernese Alps, are mostly dry. A dry glacier is just about the opposite of threatening, since you can see all the holes. A mostly-dry glacier is similar, since you can just stick to the bare parts. Slightly riskier are snow-covered glaciers on popular routes. Starting from the trailhead, I was always behind the hordes starting from the hut, who put in a clear boot-pack while carrying more gear. An established boot-pack is not as safe as bare ice, but still quite low-risk if you are paying attention. Finally, on Mont Blanc, somewhat on the Finsteraarhorn, and weirdly on Monte Cevedale, I cautiously made my own way. I generally tried to do the route-finding early in the day, before snow bridges deteriorated too much, and took a cautious line at the expense of some wandering. Other than putting a leg into a small crack on a side-trip to see the artillery near Monte Cevedale, I had no glacial mishaps.
As expected, this trip was expensive, though nowhere near the insane costs of the seemingly-common guided ascents. A two-day guided climb of the Matterhorn alone costs at least 1200€; add in transportation, lodging, and a couple of restaurant meals, and such a climb could end up costing half the price of my whole trip. Food-wise, my usual trail staple of PB&H sandwiches does not work in Europe, where large jars of peanut butter are impossible to find. The best substitute I found was store-brand Nutella on wheat sandwich bread, all of which is available for around 1000 cal/$ everywhere. I supplemented this with baguette and cheese sandwiches, which are also fairly cheap, and better than anything you can buy in most of the United States. I almost entirely avoided eating in restaurants, since while groceries cost around American prices (less in Spain and Italy), restaurants are generally more, especially in Switzerland.
By an interesting coincidence, there are almost the same numbers of Colorado 14ers (53), Canadian Rockies 11ers (50), and Alpine 13ers (58) — somewhere in the mid-50s, depending upon your definition. The Colorado 14ers are definitely the easiest list to complete, with very few requiring more than 4000 feet of elevation gain or any scrambling. Probably thousands of people have climbed them all. The other two lists are much more serious, with probably only a handful of people having completed either.
Having now climbed a good number of the other two lists, I have been debating with myself which would be harder for me to complete. The Canadian peaks are certainly wilder and harder to access; some like Clemenceau, I believe, cannot be done as dayhikes. On the other hand, access to the Alpine peaks is almost too easy, making all of them dayhikes from their huts. They are harder from the car, but probably still all doable in a day. None of them is very far from a road, though many rise 3000m or more above their trailheads, making for hard days. They are also more technical than the Canadian peaks, and while I think they are all within my ability by their easiest routes, I have not climbed enough of the hard ones to be sure. For example, I will probably not attempt the Aiguille Blanche near Chamonix, which sounds like it has a sketchy descent.
I made a few plots comparing the lists. Apologies for the ugly format, but I don’t have my preferred plotting tools working on my computer right now. First up are some histograms of the prominence of all but the highest peak in each list. Prominence is the drop from a peak to the highest saddle connecting it to a higher peak, a measure of “independence.” Both the Alps and the Canadian Rockies’ most prominent peaks are significantly more independent than Colorado’s, because the Colorado peaks all lie on a high plateau. However, the Rockies 11ers are, on average, more independent than the Alps 13ers, reflecting the fact that many of the Alps’ high peaks are clustered in a few groups (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa).
Next are some altitude histograms. Colorado’s high peaks are all clustered within less than 500 feet of each other. This continues lower down, with over 600 peaks between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. Both the Alps’ and Canadian Rockies’ highest peaks, Mont Blanc and Mount Robson, are outliers. Both ranges also have much more variation among their highest peaks, with the Alps’ spread over 2700 feet, and the Rockies over 1900. I am not sure what this means.
Anyways, I had some time to kill today. Back to mountaineering-related programming activities tomorrow.
Cima di Piazzi is a stylish-looking peak rising 2100m above the town of Isolaccia in the Valdidentro, its north face covered in glaciers. There are routes from all directions, with the easy standard route coming from the south. With limited information, I chose to approach the northeast ridge from the gondola parking lot in Isolaccia. This turned out be a pretty bad plan, since you can drive higher on a road out of Isolaccia, and the ridge is a long hike followed by some obnoxious choss. I found a shorter way down, though it was just as chossy, so I recommend using another route to the summit. I was woken by rain during the night, so I was in no rush to get started, getting a semi-alpine start with only a few minutes’ headlamp time. I located a likely trail using my Peakbagger map, and started up a steep dirt road past some houses, then up some ski slopes, passing under a gondola, then around some poma lifts higher up. This was not the most inspiring “climb,” but I hoped things would improve once I reached the ridge. The peak finally came back into view at a shrine built in the 1600s, dedicated to a random Irish saint who supposedly granted women fertility, a belief apparently local to the Valdidentro. From there, I left the official trails to follow what I thought might be a goat or chamois trail along the gentle ridge. The trail saw a bit of human traffic, as evidenced by occasional cairns, but much more animal, with enough dung in some parts for it to smell like a barn. There was a bit of scrambling, but it was mostly an easy walk to the Corno de Colombano. Descending to the the col on the other side, I finally saw what had made the trail: a herd of domestic sheep. They were lazing around the saddle until I passed by, then started to follow me a bit before giving up interest. This is where things got annoying. The rock is mostly garbage, either unstable talus, outward-sloping stuff with gravel on it, or rotten. The ridge also has a number of ups and downs, each different as to whether one should go around or over. The one highlight of this section was seeing a lone ibex, who watched me from a safe distance. I had seen them before below the Matterhorn, but those had remained silent. This majestic creature was more vocal, and it turns out that ibexes squeak like marmots. I never would have guessed. The rest of the climb was fourth class in a few places, but mostly just annoying. However, it was uncrowded and nearly unmarked for a change: I saw no people or boot-prints, and only a single old sling. The summit had the standard cross, with a well-protected register attached, which I dutifully signed. The north glacier was too steep to descend with running shoe crampons, so my only option was to return down the ridge. I tried to cut off some distance by dropping north down a subsidiary ridge. It was more uber-choss, but at least it was short, and relatively easy going in the valley back to another road. From there, it was just a road-walk back to town.
Global warming strikes again
Europe is experiencing an historic heat wave, of which I was well aware while sitting comfortably on a 3400m summit in a t-shirt. This can be dismissed as just weather, not climate, but global warming is ever-present in the Alps, where you are constantly surrounded by rapidly-retreating and long-studied glaciers. Just today, Olivier Bonnet died when a rock broke under him on the Dent du Géant. As the article concludes, “because of global warming and the high temperatures of recent years, the mountain is drying up and is weakening.”
If you have some time, you should read this recent Times review of our sorry history of climate policy. I knew about some of the players, but did not realize how close we came to doing the right thing, or how richly John Sununu deserves a special place in hell. The takeaway is that we humans have known about the greenhouse effect since the 1950s, but have demonstrated fairly conclusively that we just don’t care enough about the future. Neither our political institutions nor, perhaps, our evolved psychology, is capable of addressing a long-term problem like climate change. I don’t think we will go extinct, as much as we may deserve it, but I’m sure glad I won’t be alive in another 100 years.
Better known as the Matterhorn, this famous peak has two close and near-equal-height summits, one each in Switzerland and Italy. Whymper’s famous and catastrophic ascent was made from the Swiss side, up the Hornli Ridge, and that remains the most popular route. The Italian route, up the Lion Ridge, is slightly harder and less crowded, though it still sees quite a bit of traffic. The route would actually be quite a bit harder, but as far as I can tell, the Italians saw the Swiss making money guiding tourists up their ridge (1200€ a head these days) and decided that they wanted a piece of the action. Thanks to dozens of fixed ropes and chains, and a super-sketchy rope ladder passing an overhang, the Italian Ridge is now suitable for clients.
After getting a proper alpine start for the south-facing Jorasses route, I got a lazier start for the Matterhorn, leaving the large parking lot in Breuil-Cervino around 5:30. I did not expect it to be a long day, I was concerned about rime from the previous day’s high clouds, and the ridge is mostly west-facing, so it receives little morning sun. There is a dirt road all the way to the Aosta hut, but there are also more direct trails, including both social ones and the official trail number 13. I was not really going for speed, but put in a decent effort on the hike past the now-quiet hut.
Above, I followed a cairned trail for awhile, then wasted 20 minutes on a stupid detour across a snowfield, thanks to inattention and not remembering the guidebook description well enough. I realized my mistake, then returned to the leftward cleft through a cliff band, where I found the boot-pack again. Beyond that, I found bits of trail and crampon marks as I climbed a mix of slabs and talus, then regained the boot-pack on the snowfield below Lion Point. The helpful crowds had made nice stairs, and a perilously narrow walkway with a very bad runout, around the southern side, so I was fine continuing with an ice axe and no crampons on my nearly-dead trail runners.
Most hut approaches are nontechnical, even if it is necessary to add hand-lines or blast steps. The approach to the Carrel hut, at 3829 meters, is another story. After following fixed ropes up some slabs, I was confronted with a vertical face called the “Whymper Chimney.” There was nothing chimney-like about it; rather, it was a 30-foot face with a hand crack and some extremely polished feet. There was a fat rope anchored to the top and to a few bolts along the way, plus a couple of cord loops to pull on or use as stirrups. I prefer not to use fixed gear when I can avoid it, partly for style, and partly because it feels sketchy, but climbing the face was definitely beyond my abilities. I made it about half-way up the rope before chickening out, then carefully descended and rested my forearms.
Defeated before even reaching the hut?! Not if I can help it! The left side was hopeless, but it looked like there might be easier ground around to the right, which consists of various slabs and talus slopes of different steepnesses. I retreated down one of the ropes, then made my way to the most promising of these, which was topped by a chimney and chockstone that looked possible, or at least secure. My persistence paid off, and after some stemming, chimneying, and groveling, I topped out over the chockstone onto another talus ramp. This ramp led under the south side of the hut and up to the deck; unfortunately people often pee of this deck, and while I did not suffer a direct hit, I had a strong desire to wash my hands.
Back on-route, the fixed gear went next-level, with probably a couple dozen fixed ropes between hut and summit, along with other random bits of aid. I had gotten into the European mood by now, happily standing or pulling on whatever sketchy horrors had been installed. On the one hand, they made the climbing easier; on the other, they concentrated the climbers on one path, and the nearby rock was incredibly polished by crampons and boots, making all the holds less secure. I am not sure whether or not I could have climbed the route in its original condition.
I passed a couple guided groups on the south side of the ridge, getting a surprisingly late start, then returned to the ridge via a steep pitch to climb on or left of the crest, eventually moving to consistent snow. I somewhat sketchily avoided crampons for awhile, but after getting a good look at the route ahead, I saw that it was mostly snow, and stopped at a flat section of ridge to put on the spikes.
The crowds began to become a problem here, as I had to climb through rope teams both ascending and descending (I was apparently the only solo climber). The flat stretch of ridge ended with a downclimb to a notch containing a twisted little gendarme. It looked fragile, but other people had clearly used it, so I stemmed off it to get into the gap, then continued up snow and ice on the other side. Above, I passed a pair of Frenchman rappeling using a crazy-looking device from Beal to do full-length rappels on a single strand. It looked like a short piece of rope with two pieces of flat webbing braided around it, tied to the anchor on one end and the rope on the other. After rapping on the single strand, the climbers released this device by yanking their rope a dozen times, slowly unraveling the braid. This seems like a terrible idea, but… I guess it works?
The ridge turns to rock and steepens to a final headwall below the summit. I took off my crampons, then fought my way through more parties toward the crux, working around ice and snow where possible, and cautiously sketching my way across a few patches. The crux Jordan Ladder, installed to overcome a slightly overhanging step, is the absolute pinnacle of Euro-sketch: a 20-foot rope ladder with 1×1-inch wooden rungs. The ropes are partly iced over, and almost everyone climbs the wooden rungs in crampons. Some of the upper rungs had metal shields duct-taped to them to lengthen their lives. I cautiously and unhappily made my way up this horror-show, moving both feet up a rung, then wrapping an elbow around one rope to spare my grip.
Above, it was mostly easy rock and a boot-pack to the Italian summit, where I found two groups of two hanging around the cross. It had taken me about 5.5 hours from car to summit, which I thought was a good time given my detour lower down and unfamiliarity with the route. However, I was nowhere near Killian Jornet, who climbed it town-to-town in about three hours. Just like on Mont Blanc, I can understand his rate of ascent, but it is absolutely incomprehensible how he manages it over complicated technical terrain. At my best a few years ago, I was maybe 20% slower than Killian on the Grand Teton. However, on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, I could probably do no better than twice his time.
One of the pairs at the summit left soon after I arrived, but I spent a good 10-20 minutes talking to a young Austrian couple, who were friendly and spoke excellent English. An annoying tourist helicopter kept buzzing the summit, so after jokingly suggesting we moon it, I was egged on to actually do so on one of its closer passes. I hope the tourists enjoyed the view of my pasty buttocks. It was warm and almost wind-free, and tempting to hang around longer, but I still had the descent to deal with, and hoped to get in another peak in the next day’s good weather. I said goodbye, then crossed the perfect snow arete to the Swiss summit on an excellent boot-pack. The Italian summit at least had a few rocks on which to stand or sit, but the Swiss one was just snow, so after taking pictures of Zermatt, Monte Rosa, and (maybe) the Grosser Aletschgletcher far to the north, I crossed back over the Italian summit and headed down.
Above the ladder, I passed a young guide and client, who noted my footwear and helpfully warned me to be careful of the wet rock on the descent. I thanked him, then made my careful, crampon-less way down past the evil Jordan Ladder. On the steep section below, there was a bit of a shit-show, with two teams sharing their ropes to rappel, another team of three, and a party of two climbing up. I waited, climbed through when I could, and eventually extracted myself from the tangle. As usual, I used my crampons more going down than up, keeping them on from below the ladder to where the route drops off the south side of the ridge above the hut. Though I do not enjoy it, I am getting better at using them on rock.
After some minor route-finding trouble, I reached the hut again, and was about to pass by silently when a young woman sitting on the deck greeted me in what sounded like American English. She and her boyfriend turned out to be from Slovakia, but she had clearly had an American teacher, and spoke excellent and only slightly accented English. Since the weather was perfect and it was only early afternoon, I hung out for the better part of an hour talking to the couple. Though they had done a lot of hiking in the Tatras, and trad climbing near Bratislava, they had done relatively little mountaineering in the Alps. They had previously done the Breithorn from Breuil-Cervino (using a tram), and were spending the day acclimatizing at the hut before hopefully climbing the next day. (As it turned out, it snowed that night, ruining their summit bid.)
I was reluctant to leave, partly because it would be hot down in the valley, and partly because I did not want to climb down the rope or the pee-slope. I finally left, descending some semi-sketchy slabs to the top of the rope and, after psyching myself up for a bit, committing to the thing. I used one foot-loop at the top, then descended it like I was rappeling, leaning back on the rope to keep my feet stuck to the rock rather than using the meager footholds. Down was definitely easier than up, and I made it to the bottom with forearms only slightly tired.
I passed more climbers above and below the narrow snow traverse, then boot-skied a bit and jog-walked the trail back to town in no particular hurry, reaching the car a bit less than 12 hours after starting. I took off my soaked shoes, had a snack, then drove down the Cervino valley, back through Aosta, and up the Bionaz valley to sleep at my next trailhead.
Death in the Afternoon
Ernest Hemingway said that “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Presumably, what elevates them from games to sports is the possibility of death. Though I do not plan to do any motor racing or bullfighting on this trip, I will be doing much more mountaineering, often with many others doing the same nearby. I suppose it is inevitable that I will witness the ugly consequences.
Hanging out at a stance below the Jordan Ladder while waiting for some people to finish rappeling, I heard a loud sound on the south face. Another climber nearby shouted something, and I leaned out a bit to look. Maybe a thousand feet below, I saw two climbers, roped together and bouncing out of control down a snowfield, having already fallen probably 1000 feet from the ridge above me. The sound was surprisingly loud for only 300-400 pounds of matter; it seemed much louder than a similar amount of rockfall. As in the past, I was verbally reduced to irrelevant cursing, but utterly attuned to the details of events that took place over a couple of seconds. Before the climbers disappeared off the snowfield into the void below, I noted the color of their packs and clothes, and tried to see the color of their rope, to tell whether it was the couple I had just met on the summit. Later I found out that it was, two twenty-somethings from Austria.
The other climbers around suggested calling 911 (112 in Europe), but apparently none spoke Italian, so I pulled out my phone and, with a crappy signal, made the call. The operator spoke some English, and apparently transferred me to mountain rescue, but they couldn’t understand me with the weak signal, and hung up. More dazed than scared, I made my way carefully down the rock to a low-angle section where I tried calling again 10-15 minutes later with a better signal. Apparently someone else had already called by then, and the mountain rescue person told me that they were sending a helicopter. “They usually end up at the bottom,” he chillingly remarked before encouraging me to be careful on the way down. So I did, moving slowly down the ridge as the helicopter came and went to the snowfield at the base of the south face, eventually finding the bodies and departing for good.
I lived to climb another day, while they did not, and there is no lesson to be learned beyond the obvious one that death is real and close in the mountains. They had experience and all the proper gear, and were moving roped as one is supposed to. I was in worn-out trail runners, downclimbing unroped. So it goes.
Though I haven’t written in awhile, I have not been idle. As usual, I spent the first part of June in the Tetons, painting cabins for a week (brown this year) and improving my fitness while living at the base of the mountains. After so many visits, I do not have many objectives left in the range, but I did finally tag Prospectors Mountain via an interesting traverse from Open Canyon (class 2-3) to Rimrock Lake above Death Canyon (tricky, vegetated class 3-4). I also made a failed attempt to reach the Zebra, an obscure and remote peak northwest of Mount Moran (go get it, Peggy!). Since then, I have managed a few moderate outings in the eastern Cascades, accumulating Bulger Points. My season will begin in earnest in a couple of weeks — stay tuned! In the mean time, here are a few photos.
I have recently had the good fortune to be entrusted with some old climbing photos from Canada, specifically of the Bugaboos and Mount Robson. The Bugaboo photos were taken in July 1973 by Charles Calef. The Robson photos were taken in 1968 by either Dave Brown or George Bell. The modern photos are mine. The pairs aren’t perfectly matched, but they’re close enough for comparisons.
The modern photos are from early August, 2014.
The modern photos are from mid-July, 2017. There’s no way I could have day-hiked the Kain Face in 1968, even if the Thoni Trail had existed.
I recently tracked down these historical photos for a presentation. The pairs aren’t perfect, because I took my photos before I saw the old ones. Still, the comparisons are revealing.