Scott and I were on a military exchange tour with the Dutch Marines, who, believe it or not, specialize in mountain and winter operations. Each summer, they take their mountain leaders, veterans of many Norwegian winters, Scottish training deployments, and special qualification schools, down to the Valais region of Switzerland, two weeks of refresher training among the big mountains and glaciers of the Alps. Scott and I were lucky enough to be invited along. We'd both done some instructing in the Sierra, and Scott is a hardcore sportclimber.
The first week of the trip was spent on the Rhone Glacier, working on basic glacier travel and ice climbing techniques. The second week was reserved for small group climbs--basically, a group of guys get together, pick a peak, and go climb it. Scott and I were angling for the Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn, but the Dutch guys wanted to start a little smaller. I'd been snowed off the Weisshorn a few weeks earlier, knew the first third of the route... so the next day, we found ourselves walking up the trail to the Weisshorn Hut, a 5000 foot elevation gain, which went quickly and easily on a great path. We made the hut in the late afternoon. The Weisshorn Hut is a fairly small Swiss Alpine Club facility, built out of hewn rock and stout timbers. The warden had gone to the valley for the winter, but there was wood, a nifty stove, water, and we'd brought our own food.
Our 4 Dutch mates stripped off to work on their tans, but Scott and I went farther up the trail to look at the route in the slanting rays of the rapidly descending sun. The route crosses a tongue of 400 meters or so of glacier, ascends a 100 foot 3d class rock step, ascends 1000 feet of snowfield, followed by a fairly substantial 3d class crumbly buttress, then the long, long long, steadily rising east ridge, featuring small rocky gendarmes, turning to snow with a layer of hard ice underneath. It's about 4500 feet elevation gain from the hut to the summit.
We returned to our Dutch colleagues, and then as late afternoon warmth turned to the sharp cool of twilight, went into the hut and ate a hearty supper, compliments of the Queen of the Netherlands (military rations--not bad). We discussed the climb--Scott and I had already decided on an early start--no later than 3:30 am. Our Dutch mates, led by "Bergfuhrer Bob" (a proud graduate of the German Army guides course) insisted that it was silly to leave so early. He knew, he said, a "shortcut" to the base of the buttress. However, Scott and I demurred. We, being uninstructed Americans, would probably need more time than our highly-qualified NATO allies, we humbly explained. We were sawing logs in the loft by 9pm.
We got up early, stoked the woodstove, and fueled up on oatmeal, fruit and as much hot chocolate as we could put down. We filled our buddies' thermos bottles, stoked the stove so they would have a fire, and stepped off into the crisp, cold darkness a little before 3:30.
We didn't rope up on the glacier (my mistake, as I saw when we returned later that day, looking at the yawning crevasse chasms that we had crossed while following by headlamp the climber's path beat into the firn). Route finding was easy, as I had been to the beginning of the ridge on my previous trip, and in quick succession, we surmounted the 3d class step and the long snowfield. Scott was puffing a little, but when we got on the rock of the buttress, he started a blistering pace which he never let up. Dawn found us at the aptly named start of the ridge, the Breakfast Place, and we continued on from there, roped, but setting no protection. Occasionally, we hip belayed a slightly dicey move, but for the most part, we just scrambled over the rock, keeping about 30 feet of rope between us. Although there was 3-4000 feet of exposure down very steep snow and ice sweeping uninterrupted to the glaciers surrounding the mountain, we figured moving fast on this exceptionally long route was more important than constant protection. There was always the emergency measure of leaping off one side of the ridge if your partner happened to tumble off the opposite side....!!??
Soon, the rock gave way to hard snow, which cramponed well. We were still not fully acclimatized, and the last 1000 feet or so of elevation gain were tough, causing us to have to dig a little to keep a reasonable pace. Soon enough, about 11 am, we were on top. We yodeled a little, snapped a couple pics, and looked down the unbroken mile or more of spectacular ridgeline, trying to spy our Dutch colleagues. Nothing--"niks."
The crux of the climb was the descent over the snow of the ridgeline, which had softened with exposure to the sun. Wet and sticky on top, yes, but an inch or two below the surface, hard, treacherous ice lurked. Too treacherous and not angling in the right direction to glissade, it was the only real difficulty of the climb. We were forced to knock the snow off our crampons with every step to get purchase in the ice below. To add to the misery, my right boot was about a quarter size too narrow, and my foot was starting to let me know.
We were still roped, still adhering to the jump over the side theory. We realized, at the end of the snow section, that we had barely drank or ate all day, so we stopped for 15 minutes and fueled and hydrated, staying just a nose ahead of the bonk-monster. We'd made a mistake, slopping our way down, our muscles starting to get jerky from glycogen and electrolyte starvation, but we were back on track and at the bottom by 5:30 pm. Our long descent time indicated our still-marginal acclimatization and poor nutrition discipline, but then, it was training.
Two of our Dutch pals met us on the glacier, and we gladly tied into their rope to cross to the trail to the hut. "What happened to you guys?" we asked. They sheepishly explained that they had left even later than they had planned, and that the time-saving shortcut advertised by Bergfuhrer Bob had turned out to be a deadend. So at 1130, still on the glacier, after what could be termed "dynamic group interaction" they returned to the hut for more sunbathing and vicarious alpinism, watching us through enormous binoculars a hiker had brought to the hut that morning. There was some more group interaction directed at Bob when they saw us summit, and heard our whooping.
Back at the hut, Bob suggested that there was no reason to spend the night, since we were due back at the base hostel the next day. Bob said he wanted to head down that night. Scotty and I quickly re-packed our packs, and took off at an easy jog, much to Bob's consternation--keeping it the whole 5000 feet to the car.
WEISSHORN, EAST RIDGE, AD+, 45 degree snow/ice. 14 hours hut-to-hut One ax, crampons, 100 feet of 8 mil rope, and a helmet. Consider wearing crampons on the buttress--probably be faster and give you better gription in the wet gravelly places. The British Alpine Club puts out the best English language guidebooks to the Alps (check out their website). There is also the handy: "The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes: A Guide for Mountaineers" by Richard Goedeke, Hill Neate (Translator). It's in print, it's in the States and gives all the info you need to do this route. Dutch route guides, not recommended.
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