Saturday, July 27, 2013

Schreckhorn Southwest Ridge

Super fun glissade on the way down from the Schreckhorn
Strava
Photos

I had driven this trip to get the Eiger. Once satisfied, I offered Homie the choice of the next objective and he chose "Terror Mountain", aka the Schreckhorn, which is one of the 4000-meter peaks of the Alps. This list is similar to Colorado's 14ers and there seems to be similar debate about which summits should be include. This site shows the various lists and the peak difficulty. It seems that the most generous number is 84. As a general rule these peaks are much more difficult than Colorado 14ers. Most, if not every, peaks require a rope (by a typical climbing party) even by the easiest route and almost always require some sort of glacier travel with its corresponding crevasse danger. It is this crevasse danger that makes soloing such peaks a dangerous affair. Even during Kilian Jornet and Mathéo Jacquemond's recent speed record on Mt. Blanc (the Alps highest peak at 4810 meters or 15,781 feet) they used a rope to guard against a potentially fatal drop into a hidden crevasse. The Alps are dangerous mountains. The average number of climbers killed each year in the US is 15, but in 2008 58 climbers were killed on just one massif (Mont Blanc) in the Alps. That is certainly partially due to the greater number of climbers, but also to the much greater objective danger here.

We rode the bus to the Hotel Wetterhorn stop - the highest point we could go for free and the highest we wanted to go to get to the Schreckhorn hut anyway - and did the long, steep hike to the hut. The hut is located at 2529 meters and we'd hike gain over 5000 feet getting there. On the way we stopped at a picturesque restaurant called Baregg. They did have some sleeping spots here as well, but this was too low for us. We did stop for a break though and I enjoyed an ice cream while taking in the jaw-dropping mountain views.
The deck at Baregg
The next part of the approach dropped steeply and then climbed around a section where the entire mountainside fell away, before dropping again and going around a corner where we got a view of the chaotic ice fall coming down from the upper basin. I wonder how long it would take for me to get blase when looking upon this wonder...

Though the angle is steep the greatest impediment to a quick pace is the setting. Every second of this hike has spectacular views and often they are so overwhelming that I'd hear the twins sounds of Velcro ripping as both Homie and I simultaneously whip out our cameras. I've always thought that Angel's Landing in Zion is the greatest short hike I've ever done. That hasn't changed. The greatest long hike was Half Dome. Not any more. The hike into the Schreckhorn Hut is spectacular every step of the way. For the Half Dome hike there are miles of boring wooded terrain on dusty, unpleasant trails. This doesn't have a single step that isn't nice, not a moment when you aren't flabbergasted by the vistas. Alas, this hike is not for the faint of heart or anyone with a tendency towards acrophobia, for the final section to the hut is festooned with ladders and chains as the "trail" climbs a nearly vertical cliff.

Once again, despite not starting our approach until 11 a.m., we were the first to arrive at the hut, at least on this day. The hut guardian (who lives there during the season with his wife) showed us around. He didn't speak much English, but it was enough. We were shown to a room with "Schreckhorn" on the door. They organize people into rooms based on what mountain they are climbing because that determines when they wake you up and when they feed you. For the Schreckhorn you wake up at 1:15 a.m., eat at 1:30, and should be moving before 2 a.m. This is an interesting feature of climbing in the Alps - they determine when you start, regardless of how ast you think you might be. At least at this hut, we all got to eat breakfast at the same time, so maybe Homie and I wouldn't be the last to start this time. As it turned out, we were second to last. Yeah for us!

The weather continued to be perfect and we sat on the deck and enjoyed it. We watched a steady stream of climbers arrive, each one headed for the Schreckhorn. By the time all was said and done, we have 20+ climbers all going for the same route up the peak. This is another Euro-experience. Climbing is very popular here and hence all the trade routes are crowded. And most parties are guided. Guiding is a huge business and highly regulated. One of the guides on the mountain with us guides 150 days per year. He was climbing the Schreckhorn on successive days with different clients.

I watched as a fit couple approached the hut with smaller than usual packs. They guy looked very familiar. I whispered to Homie, "Psst. I think that's Ueli Steck." I urged Homie to get his gear off the seat next to him so that our table would appear to be the most empty. This worked perfectly and the couple sat down next to us. Sure enough, it was Ueli - the Swiss Machine. I seem to attract speed climbers. I co-authored a book with Hans; I've climbed a couple of times with alex and now I'm sharing a table, a hut, and a route with Ueli. Ueli is perhaps most famous for his amazing speed record on the North Face of the Eiger. The video here is enlightening and inspiring. This has since been surpassed (with a more generous use of fixed ropes and easier conditions) by Dani Arnold. Steck owns numerous speed records throughout the Alps and in the Himalayas, where he soloed the Shishapangma in 10.5 hours. A few years ago he teamed up with Alex Honnold for an attempt at the Nose speed record. A fall there halted progress on that goal and Alex eventually teamed with the Nose king Hans Florine to set the current record.

I knew from talking with Alex and Chris last week that Ueli was joining those two in the Bugaboos in early August, so I dropped those names and his upcoming plans as an ice breaker. It worked like a charm and we are now fast friends...not! I suspect Ueli viewed me much like a Hollywood celebrity looks at the paparazzi. Or maybe it is just the Swiss aloofness and Germanic demeanor. He reluctantly allowed Homie to take a photo of us together, but it was clear he didn't want to chat.

Two well-known alpine speed climbers...
Speaking of Alex and Ueli, it seems that solo climbers, at least really extreme ones, are like Sith Lords - there can only be two of them at any one time. For instance, do you ever hear about Dean Potter any more? Nope. It's because we have Alex and Ueli - there isn't any room for poor Dean. Even having two at a time is unusual. First, we had Bacher (now dead from soloing). Sure there were others before him but not world famous to non- climbers. Then it was Croft and Hersey (now dead from soloing). Then Dean Potter and Michael Reardon (now dead from soloing). There was also Alex Huber who soloed the Hasse Brandler Direttissima (5.12a) on the 1600-foot north face if the Cima Grande and a short 5.14a. With the exception of Steph Davis (Potter's ex-wife) all extreme soloist are male and almost are are American (yes, Croft is Canadian and hersey was a Brit but they lived for decades in the US).

Dinner was excellent. We had a very tasty steak and all-you-could-eat mashed potatoes. I laid down to sleep around 9 p.m. and got just four hours before being rousted. Breakfast was the usual bread, butter, jelly, some chunky fruit/yogurt concoction that seems to be a staple here, and some coffee. We were the second-to-last team out the door. In the distance we saw groups of lights moving up in the dark.

We descended steeply to the glacier and then up it for 500 meters before climbing steeply on path. One fixed line protected a steep slab and then more hiking. We caught a team of five and they let us by. We then hit a long snow slope and followed kicked steps relentlessly upwards. This dumped us onto another steep, rocky path and here we passed the guide climbing it for a second time. His client was a bigger guy and we quickly left them behind.

Just before stepping onto the glacier, parties stopped to put on crampons, pull their axes, and rope up. We did the same. We followed right behind a pair of climbers and when they pulled left and passed the group in front of them, we pulled further left and passed them both. We caught another team and followed them for a bit when I heard the front climber let out a yell and appear to drop into a crevasse.  I was glad he had found the hole, but when I got to that point I found a yawning gap. In the dark it was very intimidating. The distance to jump looked large and it was just blackness below and more than vertical walls. I feared I wouldn't get out at all if I fell in. I didn't have any prusiks on my rope or even on my harness. That just isn't smart. The only point of roping up for glacier travel is in case you fall into a crevasse and the only way out of a crevasse when you have one tool and no front-points is via ascending the rope. It seems to haste to keep moving continues to force mistakes on me.

I paused here and yelled back to Homie about the situation. I told him to give me enough slack to make the jump but not any more and to be ready to catch me. I didn't want to get too close to the edge for fear that it would give way, but doubted my ability to bridge the gap. I wondered how the smaller women in front of me had done it. Were these Swiss chicks all Olympic broad jumpers? I leapt, leaning forward with my axe outstretched, ready to swing it mightily and hang on for all I was worth. I made and the rush of adrenalin soon passed. I walked on until it was Homie's turn and gave him a boot-axe belay just in case, though the chance so of him not making the leap after I had done it were nearly zero.
The Southwest Ridge follows the ramp on the right side to the skyline and then up that to the summit.
We moved on to the bergschrund - the crevasse that forms where the glacier hits the steep rock wall of the mountain above. There wasn't a gap here at all, but the climbing was nearly vertical for ten feet or so. Plunging my axe to the hilt and pulling on it worked nicely and this section was easily passed. We traversed, still on steep snow, up and left to a rock ledge where the teams in front of us were pulling off crampons and stowing their axes. We did the same, right next to Ueli and his wife Nicole. Doing this quickly, we passed the party that was in front of us at the crevasse and moved quickly up the rocky ridge.

The climbing here and clear to the summit was 4th class to 5.3 or 5.4 and on gneiss which was extremely solid. Each time I reached up for a hold I seemed to be rewarded with a incut jug. We moved swiftly, simul-climbing, usually with a piece between us, but sometimes not. We each had 15 or so coils across our head and shoulders and had 70-80 feet of rope between us.

Homie high on the Southwest Ridge of the Schreckhorn
I think we passed another party on our way up to the final ridge. On the final ridge, still nearly 1000 vertical feet of rock climbing, we caught a pair of young Swiss climbers, Sebastian and Simon, and followed on their tails to the summit. We didn't recall seeing them in the hut the night before and, in fact, they weren't there. These two started from Grindelwald at 10 p.m. the previous night. We summitted with them at 6:30 a.m. They had covered 11,000 vertical feet in the past 8.5 hours. Impressive to say the least.

On top with us were the two teams that beat us: Ueli and Nicole and another male/female team. Ueli took the summit photo of Homie and I before both moving on to complete the traverse to the Lauteraahorn (another 4000-meter peak). Later we'd learn that this is one of the most classic traverses in the Alps and we had plenty of time to do it. We could have tried to followed Ueli and Nicole across, but it wasn't in our minds then and we descended.

On top of the Schreckhorn (photo by Ueli Steck)
The descent went smoothly. We rappelled whenever a bolt anchor was available, while the Swiss kids downclimbed. We passed them when they took a break at the top of the lower ridge. Further down I cut left to some dicey, wet slabs in an attempt to get to easier ground prematurely. Homie wisely eschewed my route and stuck to the ridge. Back at the gearing up spot I was pulling out my crampons when Homie spotted an anchor below and said he had read that you could rappel the bergschrund. As I previous stated the bergshrund wasn't really an issue, but I was game to rappel with Homie.

We thought there was a good chance that the rope wouldn't reach, so I went down first. Sure enough, it wasn't even close to reaching. I found a suspect anchor of slings around a small, somewhat wobbly block and stopped there. When Homie arrived he was less than pleased with our next anchor. He wisely insisted on backing it up and I dug a cam out of my pack and did so. He went first, with the back-up in place. Once down, I pulled the cam and followed him down to the glacier.

The rest of the trek back to the hut was easy, including the feared crevasse jump. It was easier in daylight and going the other direction. Glissading the long snow slope on the way down was definitely the highlight of the descent for me. Not only was it a blast, but saved my knees more than 1000 feet of descending, out of the 11,000 feet I'd be doing today. Homie declined the ride and walked down.

Back at the hut we relaxed, ate, drank, dried our gear and changed into shorts. Before lassitude took too tight of a hold on us, we packed up and started the trek out. It was hot now getting hotter the further we descended. We stopped at the awesome Baregg restaurant on the way out and both had a piece of chocolate-walnut cake with whipped cream. The rest of the hike was endless, but we eventually hit bottom and walked back to the hostel.

I've now climbed x 4000-meter peaks in the Alps:

  1. Mont Blanc
  2. Mont Maudit
  3. Mont Blanc du Tacul
  4. Matterhorn
  5. Jungfrau
  6. Monch
  7. Schreckhorn
Only 70+ go to!

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