Weisshorn – 4506m, by the east ridge

Fresh from our success on the Matterhorn, despite a severe lack of altitude acclimatisation, Mike and I were now feeling good. A day summer skiing above Zermatt netted us a ski ascent of the Zermatt Breithorn at 4164m, so we had now acquired at least a bit of altitude fitness. Accordingly, we headed up from the valley to the Weisshorn Hutte, noting with a bit of concern the thunderstorm rolling round the Mischabel chain on the opposite side. Although the rainbow was pretty (and did indicate that the sun was shining from a clear sky behind us) we were hoping this didn’t indicate fresh snow on the tops for the morrow.

Being less popular than the Matterhorn, and in particular, there being fewer guided groups, the hut wasn’t quite such a chaotic mass of people milling about, so we got a good start. Feeling fitter, and over mostly easier ground, we were moving quite a bit faster this time, and were high on the ridge as the weather gave us a glorious day of sunshine with extensive views, especially towards the frontier ridge and our previous ascents.

We found the east ridge fairly straightforward, moving together O.G.Jones style, crossing the rope over between gendarmes and rocks to provide some protection. So much so that we had no difficulty whatsoever in getting back to the hut in good time, and were soon romping back down towards the fleshpots below. 10,000 feet of descent was a bit wearing on the ankles and knees, particularly as we hadn’t bothered to bring light footwear and stomped on down in plastic boots the whole way. The weather held and we were celebrating success by late afternoon on the campsite.

Matterhorn, by Hörnli ridge

We’d left the UK overnight on the 5/6th August to drive to Randa (one cannot drive further up the Zermatt valley than this, as a tourist, and there is a decent campsite here), arriving on the 8th. As the weather was good and promising not to remain so for too long, several of us headed up to the Hörnli on the 9th. Bernard Smith and his mate had been here for a while and were acclimatised, but obviously we were being a bit optimistic heading for a very high peak so soon. We reccied the first part of the route above the hut in the evening, as we would be on this in the dark first thing. Parties with guides would be dragged up very fast, so we saw no point in trying to get ahead of them – we would just get trampled. But we got a fairly good start and made our way slowly and inefficiently up. We were quite high when we met Bernard on his way back down – he looked at us, looked at the time and reckoned we would make it up and off in daylight – just. I had imagined that the fixed ropes on the top steep section would be the sort of thing you could clip an ascender to, for protection, but in fact this was a huge thick gymnasium-type rope, useful as a hand-hold but no good for clipping. We weren’t fast up that, but at least we weren’t getting a lot of traffic coming the other way, which would have made it a lot harder. We made it to the top, unlike the third NPC group who were slower and did get impeded by descending traffic – when they met Bernard he reckoned they were not going to have time, and ought to retrreat before the top if they wanted to get off the mountain by nightfall.

Andy on the summit, depressingly late in the day. Photo: Mike Thomas

Going down was much easier, but it’s high and exposed, and we were not in good condition so could not afford to rush and make mistakes. This meant, however, that we were running out of time and could see that we would have to bivouac in the emergency hut on the way down. We didn’t really have food and drink for this, so it was a pretty miserable night (we were by no means the only folk to be in this state). We set off down after letting the upward-bound crowds pass, calling in at the Hörnli for some refreshment before the long plod down to Zermatt and the train back to Randa, where we met up with Kev and the other group, who were sufficiently grumpy that we immediately felt much better.

Mont Blanc from Grands Mulets

Having acclimatised with a week at Saas Grund on my own, and a week at Arolla with various NPC/TSG (more blog posts will appear, but scanning dusty old slides is a bit time-consuming), Steve and I moved over to Chamonix to meet up with various other NPC folk who, having seen Mont Blanc from the top of the Midi the previous year, had decided they were going to climb it in 1983. Chamonix being quite a bit lower than Arolla, we immediately started to lose some of our acclimatisation, so were keen to get high as soon as possible, but the sight of spin drift blowing off the tops when we arrived deterred us for a while. However, on August 4th, Steve and I decided we had to go for it, so got the first stage of the Télépherique up to the Plan d’Aiguille and headed out across the glacier. This was a bit of a revelation – we’d not been anywhere remotely as crevassed as this before, so were glad we’d started early enough to reach the Grands Mulets hut with plenty of daylight.

Heading up towards Grand Mulets approaching the heavily crevassed area

Plenty of tracks on the narrow ways between crevasses – some led to dead ends

This was probably the crux, once past it got easier quite quickly

Relaxing at the hut, we were surrounded by heavily crevassed glacier, and watched an almost continuous stream of climbers descending off Mont Blanc, most tramping straight on past the hut heading for the valley. The weather was now looking settled, and the Aiguille du Midi towered above us.

Looking back to the Midi from the hut

The climbers we had watched descending had also by now trodden down the fresh snow to leave a well-defined track which we hoped would not involve us in any trail-breaking in the morning. We opted for the “give your food to the warden and he will cook it” option, which backfired somewhat on Steve, as the warden seemed to think his instant mash was for making soup ! However, as dehydration is always an issue, it probably did no harm at all – just made for a rather odd meal. We were somewhat surprised to see yet more climbers still arriving from the valley as the sun set over the layer of cloud below us – the hut was already overfull, with extra mattresses being pulled out of the attic to accommodate the crowds.

The Chamonix valley was full of cloud at sunset

2 am saw the usual frantic but rather woozy rush to get something eaten and drunk and get outside, roped up for the first section where it was still very crevassed. We had made reasonable progress by the time the sun started to colour the sky, but were clearly not going to be anywhere near the first up the mountain.

Quite a way up the mountain as it started to get light

Above the crevassed section is a very steep pull where we felt we no longer needed the rope, and really preferred not to be carrying it. We made a cache and left it to collect later, which aided our progress somewhat, but we were both feeling the altitude quite badly already. Eventually, as we crested the ridge, Steve pulled ahead as I slowed down even more and we reached the summit separately.

The top (of western Europe)

Descent was much easier, and fairly quick, reunited not far below the top, though we failed to relocate the rope (not a particularly new one, but a bit annoying nonetheless). We paused only briefly at the hut to pick up the gear we’d not needed on the mountain, then plodded on down the glacier – not really missing the rope, as the deep trail led over very few scary snow bridges (it was easier to see the best route in descent, too). I’m afraid we got really quite grumpy in the long queue for the ‘frique down, but having ice axes and crampons strapped on the outside of the rucksacks did make it easy to accidentally hurt bolshy Italian youths trying to queue jump, which we found quite a satisfactory result…

The ridge was much quicker in descent

Back in the valley, the NPC contingent never did make it up the mountain, as the weather came in again and time eventually ran out – though not without incident, as they managed to drop Jim Birkett into a crevasse on the Bossons Glacier whilst practicing technique – fortunately he landed on a snow bridge not far down.

First alpine season

Having looked across from the top of the Midi télépherique in 1982, a number of NPC had determined that they should climb Mont Blanc in 1983, as it was essentially just a snow plod. Although I wasn’t in that party, I’d somewhat bought into the idea, but not as a “one-off”. If I was going to climb the highest mountain in western Europe, I wanted to have a bit of an idea of what I was doing, and probably quite a lot of acclimatisation, first. Accordingly, July 1983 saw me wild camping in the Saas valley just above Saas Grund (you really can’t get away with this nowadays). I walked up past the big reservoir and towards the Monto Moro pass, then, using borrowed boots and crampons, up Joderhorn, my first 3000m peak (but at 3035m, not a 10,000 foot one). I was up the mountain before almost anyone else, and felt a real sense of achievement – that is until on my way down I encountered numerous Swiss teenagers crossing the pass in trainers, no ice axes in sight.

As the week progressed, I’d set my sights on Weissmiess as my first 4000m peak. To get more acclimatised and also get a view across to my planned route, I climbed the Almagellhorn. Although this is quite a lot higher than the Joderhorn, at 3327m, it was pretty much snow-free, and an early start saw me on top, with the peak to myself. The voie-normale on Weissmiess climbs from the south, but is quite crevassed, and I wasn’t in favour of this as a solo first-time alpinist, so my recce was intended to suss out the nominally slightly harder route from the other side.

Weissmies, from my reconnaissance peak, Almagellhorn
Looking across to the 4023m Weissmies from Almagellhorn

From my position on Almagellhorn, this (the steep snow slope on hte right side of the peak) looked OK, so two days later with an even earlier start, I was on my way. I did pretty well for time, and the route, though steep, was essentially a snow plod with nothing technical. However, having attained the SE top at 3962m, the ridge to the main summit proved unnervingly narrow, and I gave up very near the top. Merely getting myself turned round to face back down my route was something of a trial – I was just not adequately practiced in wearing crampons to cope with this stuff. This was all a bit frustrating, coming so near the top, but it certainly showed that I was coping with the altitude.

Dawn in Wysstal, on way up to Zwischenbergenpass
Looking back to the Mischabel chain from the top of Wysstal as it got light

From Saas Grund, I made my way, with a fleeting visit to Zinal (to take photographs, it says in my journal, but I don’t seem to have any) to Arolla where I expected to meet various cavers. Before they arrived, I had a wander around, taking photos, first from Pra Gra up onto the glacier below Aiguilles Rouges where I encountered my first crevasses, then over the Pas de Chevres towards the Dix Hut. Clive Westlake, John Cordingley, Steve and possibly others then headed for an acclimatisation walk to the Bricola Hut. The next day we headed up to the Bertol Hut, and the nearby Dents du Bertol S summit which didn’t need an early start. We didn’t plan on staying at the hut (we weren’t going up any high mountains and didn’t want waking up at 3 a.m.). Instead, we found an old, partly collapsed “chalet” (a shed with a corrugated iron roof) and bivouaced inside. During the night, it got quite windy, and kept slapping a loose sheet of the roof onto the timbers. So much for not being awake at 3 a.m. !

Towards the Bouquetins hut, via the Haut Glacier d'Arolla
Heading up the right-lateral moraine of the Haut Glacier d’Arolla towards our planned peak

On our rather groggy return to Arolla, we packed a bit more gear and headed up the Haut Glacier d’Arolla towards the Bouquetins Hut with the intention of climbing Point Marcel Kurz, a proper snowy peak, although at 3498m, not as high as yesterday’s rocky eminence. Whilst some chose to stay in the hut, I’d brought bivvi gear again, and had a much more comfortable night than at the Chalet de Bertol, with the added bonus of being somewhere I could watch the sun rise over the mountains.

However, owing to lying in my pit taking photos, I was slightly late up, and had to head up the route with the others in sight a short distance ahead of me, but not close enough to catch up. The summit view, towards Italy, was extensive.

Looking into Italy from Point Marcel Kurz, 3498m
View from Point Marcel Kurz

At this point, it was time to head west to Chamonix, with a view to the main objective, but on arrival, the aiguilles were plastered in fresh show and large volumes of spin drift were coming off the top of Mont Blanc, so there was a bit of a wait…

Note: Although the photos from 33 years ago are providing quite good scans, they are taking a couple of hours each to get rid of all the dust spots, so expect a few more … eventually …

The ridge traverse – Isle of Skye

This was my second year visiting the Black Cullin of Skye – a traditional destintation for the Northern Pennine Club every Whit Holiday week. The Cullin are the most inaccessible of Britain’s mountains, though only the Innaccessible Pinnacle requires actual rock climbing to reach. I remember meeting a big group from some private school, who were visiting the Cullin to prepare them for the exposure they would experience on a visit to the alps in the summer. Having had several alpine seasons myself since this trip, I can honestly say that very little in the easier grades in the alps prepares one for the exposure to be had in Skye !

Having warmed up on the Pinnacle ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean on the first day, we set off from the Sligachan Hotel with bivouac gear for a two day traverse of the main Skye Ridge. A vast amount of time can be wasted trying to find key passages on this ridge, and we had the advantage of a couple of people who had done it before and knew not only the mian route, but various “skulker’s routes” which could be used to bypass some of the more technical or time-consuming obstacles. It’s quite a long walk in just to reach the start of the difficulties, but the first col gace a splendid view of Loch Coruisk and the jagged ridge we would aim to complete on the next day.

Loch Coruisk, Dubh ridge & main ridge
Loch Coruisk, Dubh ridge & main ridge

Dropping down, we crossed the outflow of Loch Coruisk and wandered up the shore to the foot of the Dubh Slabs, where we stopped for a picnic lunch before starting the ascent. The shores of Loch Coruisk are hemmed in with high and very rocky peaks wit about half the main ridge visible from our resting spot. Lunch over, we shouldered packs and started up the slabs. Although technically a rock climb, and looking intimidatingly steep, the grade of “Moderate” implies no more than a scramble, and the incredible frictin of the coarse-grained Gabbro meant that we had no need of ropes on the ascent, despite being in big boots and carrying packs. It’s still long way up, as the route starts not far above sea level and ascends to the summit of Sgurr Dubh na da Bheinn, a peak just off the main ridge.

Upper part of the Dubh Slabs, Coruisk, Sgurr na Stri and the sea
Upper part of the Dubh Slabs, Coruisk, Sgurr na Stri and the sea

As the rock was dry we made good time up the slabs, but from the top there is a gap separating the route form the main ridge and although it is possible to downclimb this, it’s a lot quicker just to abseil, since we did have rope with us, needed for harder parts of the route ahead.

Abseil from Sgurr Dubh Beag to join ridge to Sgurr Dubh Mor
Abseil from Sgurr Dubh Beag to join ridge to Sgurr Dubh Mor

Once on the main ridge, the most significant obstacle is the “Dubh Gap”, a very polished chimney climb up trap basalt (a much finer-grained rock than the gabbro). This tends to become a bottleneck as parties queue to get started along the ridge, so our plan was to get along the ridge and bivouac as close as possible to the gap, so as to be among the first on the rock in the morning. Since this is also a popular strategy, there are lots of little low-walled shelters in this area, and we soon found a group of such bivouac spots with enough space for the group.

Fading light over the ridge, with Inn. Pinn. below sun
Fading light over the ridge, with Innaccessible Pinnacle below sun

I think we ended up being the second grup at the Dubh gap next day, and it soon became apparent why it was such a bottleneck as we took some time to get the first man up. Once a top rope was established, the rest of the party followed in good order and we were soon on our way. Just as well as the weather started to deteriorate, and route-finding was a little harder later in the day as the mist closed in. Once past the climb, we moved along and took Collie’s Ledge, rahter than King’s Chimney, and it was only some years later when I had started to take Munroing seriously that I realised that we had entirely bypassed the summit of Sgurr Mhic Coinnich. The immediate objective was to climb the airy An Stac and then the Innaccessibe Pinnacle. We did rope up for the latter, though it’s a bit of a token effort as runners are hardly plentiful nad again, it is just a scrmabe, albeit a lot more polished than the Dubh Slabs, and spectacularly more exposed. We were early enough to avoid being held up on the ascent, though there was already a bit of a queue for the abseil back down the steep end.

View back south along ridge
View back south along ridge

We now made good time along the ridge as those who knew the way were able to steer us past difficulties and onto the optimum route which was often far from obvious. One or two points had enough technicality to slow us down, though I don’t recall needing the ropes again. Once on the summit of Bruach na Frithe, we were on terrain we’d already visited two days earlier on our Gillean traverse. Bruach is also the point, late in the second day, when the Sligachan Hotel becomes visible, and the voices of mainy pints crying “drink me ! drink me !” became audible to the group. I don’t think we had seriously entertained the idea of going all the way to Gillean anyway, and from the top of Bruach we made a very rapid descent to the fleshpots below.