Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Eiger: Day 2: Ostegg Hut to the Mitteleggi Hut (the technical crux)

The Mitteleggi Ridge as seen from the summit of the Schreckhorn. We traversed this entire thing!

The next morning the rocking girls were already gone, having left at 4 a.m. They got to the summit of the Eiger before 11:30 a.m. They do, indeed, rock. One was training to be a mountain guide and they were fit and fast.

Phillip and Sami left just 5 or 10 minutes before Homie and I. We hiked up to my gear stash and I geared up while Homie continued. The climbing here was all unroped, mostly on loose slopes, but with short steep sections. Phillip and Sami roped up and led one pitch, while we found and easier way and passed them. When we took a wrong turn, they went in front.

We weren't racing each other in any way. Neither team was hurrying, just moving along at nearly the same speed. We passed them again at the saddle and then failed to stick strictly to the ridge beyond and they got in front again. The scrambling now became very steep and it was a bit loose, so we roped up and simu-climbed. There was the occasional bolt, mainly at the top of each steep section, generally, which would be every 25 meters on steep parts and none when the climbing was easier. I'm sure there are mainly there for the guides, but just as handy for other climbers. This is all the pro we used on this section. 
The ridge is complex, exposed, and loose. We had to downclimb a number of sections and eventually came to what looked like an impassable section. There was a small cave there and I remembered the guide in Grindelwald telling us about a tunnel through to the other side. Sure enough, this was it. The tunnel was tiny and required you to remove your pack and crawl through on your belly, but it solved an otherwise very difficult section. How fortunate! It was so cool.

On the other side we found our first fixed line. The climbing here wasn't that tough - probably only 5.6 or so, but a fixed line will speed up the guided groups quite a bit.

Just beyond this we rappelled 25 meters to base of the crux of the entire Mitteleggi Ridge - a VI- (5.8/9) section that was reportedly three 25-meter pitches. The first pitch was indeed quite difficult with very tiny footholds that amounted to just smearing. Homie and I both put on rock shoes for this. We were the only ones on the mountain carrying rock shoes. We could have done it in our boots, but we had the shoes in our pack and had to wait on Sami and Phillip anyway.
Leading the second of two crux pitches

The climbing was engaging from the start, with small holds and technical feet. I ascended up a thin, discontinuous crack in a tiny corner for a ways and then had to make a very technical traverse left across vertical rock. I grabbed a couple of pieces here, as I didn't want to fall. This was alpine climbing and I had a non-trivial load on my back. The rating here is VI- or 5.8/9. I felt more like 5.9 to me, hence the gear grabbing. I got to the belay and found both Phillip and Sami still there. Phillip was clearly the leader of this team. He had led the first pitch and would continue in the lead. I belayed a little lower down from a giant fixed corkscrew.

Homie followed nicely, moving efficiently up the pitch and over to the belay. Soon I was heading up the next pitch, which was a steep, obtuse corner. There were occasional bolts to protect the climbing, but I placed some gear as well. Frequently the bolts were too far off to the side and it was more convenient for me to place a cam. Phillip had stopped to belay just 20 meters above and I had no reason to move fast, as there wasn't room up there. Phillip then did another very short pitch to a belay just short of the top of the wall. He let Sami lead through to reach the very crest of the ridge again. I led up past Phillip and hit the belay at the top, doing in one 30-meter pitch what these two had done in three tiny pitches. This seems to be the general strategy for guides - to belay early and often on difficult sections so as to give you client as much help as possible with less stretch in the rope and more guidance. Then they short-rope all the easier sections, moving together, roped, only about twenty feet apart, and not putting in any gear. Homie didn't need my help, so I ran out all the rope (we were climbing on our doubled 7.8mm 60-meter line). On the easy sections, we simul-climbed with 80-100 feet of rope out, but placing gear.

The rest of the the ridge to the hut was much easier, but it was still a very long way. Homie and I moved continuously, catching and passing the Swiss guys when they took a break. There was some snow in the ridge here, but it wasn't icy and not steep enough to require crampons, so we continued without them. Everyone we saw climbing anything in Switzerland was wearing heavy alpine/mountaineering boots. We were in high-top scrambling shoes - the La Sportiva Explorers. I put a pair of K10 Kahtoola crampons on these. These are super light steel crampons, weighing only 21 ounces. They have no frontpoints, but I hoped I wouldn't need to do any of that on this climb and that was the case. This setup turned out to be ideal for this route (and the later route we'd do on the Schreckhorn). This combination was so light and comfortable. It climbed rock better than the big, bulky, heavy boots worn by the Swiss and was sufficient on the snow sections. Homie wore the more serious Grivel G10 crampons (29 ounces) with frontpoints, but they also attached nicely to these boots.

We arrived at the hut at 11:30 a.m. and briefly thought about continuing to the summit. Once again, had we known the route up and down, we'd have probably done it. But the unknown  can be a bit daunting and we decided to stop. The hut guardian, Hansruedi, who only spoke German, but he was expecting us - each sleeping spot in the hut was already assigned. We were the first climbers to arrive for the night, as the Rocking Girls had continued on. Any thoughts of a uncrowded night were steadily erased as the climbers poured in.

Eventually, we'd have 22 people for the night, including the guardian. They were us, Phillip and Sami, Reno's group of seven, Evelyn (supposedly one of the top Swiss female alpinist and mountains) and her client - an older chap. Guillame (I always thought of guillain-barré syndrome every time I heard his name) and Rob (an Aussie), Javier and Bruno- two older German guys, Bruno we thought might be a guide, but a really slow guide. The German guide, Thomas, and his client, Dominic, and a pair of Swiss guys, a big guy and a smaller guy.

That night we had a great dinner of all you could eat spaghetti bolognese, bread, soup, and pineapple with whipped cream for dessert. You have to pay for water here, but you can fill up your bottles with tea in the morning for the day's climbing. This is the tradition at the huts, we'd learn - to climb with your bottles filled with tea. Homie didn't want the tea, but I found the hot tea in my pack's bladder to be quiet reviving.
 After dinner they post the breakfast schedule. While we all eat dinner together and could eat breakfast together, they stagger breakfast to spread out the teams on the knife-edge ridge climb. How this order is decided was beyond me and no one bothered to explain it, but I think they show a marked preference for the guides. Reno's team would go first, probably because they would need the most time to make the summit. Unfortunately, they'd also hold up most of the other teams on route. We were getting the full Euro-experience. But, like complaining about the crowds on the Third Flatiron, it is silly to do that. If you want an uncrowded route, go climb the North Face. There are plenty of uncrowded routes in the Alps, but they aren't the trade routes. The trade routes are packed.

Not all of Reno's team would be ascending. Stella just about had a coronary getting up to the hut. It is a testament to Reno and his two apprentice guides that they got this team up this route, for they would have no chance in hell by themselves. In my mind they had little business being there, but that is not the way in Europe. They thrive on guiding people like this up the classic routes. It cost $700-800/day for a guide here. To get guided up the route we did, including huts fees, cost $2400. So, they aren't likely to turn any prospective clients down if there is any chance of getting them up and down the route. And when trouble arises, they have such great helicopter rescue services in the Alps...

Stella was going to take a helicopter down the next morning. Everyone else was going up. 

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