Friday, 17 July 2009

Dufourspitze, day 2.

At 2am, we had to force down the food that would keep us going for the first couple of hours of ascent. By 2.40, after a suitable amount of faffing, we were all booted-up and were setting off up the path that we had rehearsed the previous afternoon. I think we were the last to set off from the hut - our two English chums were just ahead of us and there were also a group of 3 (a French couple with a guide, but we think they were actually attempting the twin peak, since we didn't see them further up until back at the hut in the evening) and a solo Italian (a lissom waif of a climber, who looked like he could slither up the most difficult of climbs and hand you a box of Milk Tray at the top) who proved his mettle by being far faster than the (slightly smug) Englishmen we had dined with. There were also a pair of Austrians, a group of 4 English Army guys and a group of 3 of unknown nationality who were all bivvying at about 3400m to get a bit of a head start and to take a non-negligible 600m of ascent out of the equation. A total of 14 attempting the peak, we think. The purpose of the diabolically early start was to give us the best of the snow conditions - it's much easier and safer to make good progress on hard snow and ice than the slushy stuff it becomes in the afternoon. Avalanches weren't likely to be a problem, but these also happen much more frequently in the afternoon (we did hear a couple of ominous distant rumbles caused by things falling off the steeper mountains in the area during the afternoon).

Putting on crampons at 4am

The first hour and a half of the climb was across rock and we had carefully calculated the optimal time to change from boots to crampons, which turned out to be the same spot as the guide with the French couple (winner!), but they then went off in another direction. It was at 3109m, where the snow started and there was a split in the path. We continued up snow which became glacier, following the distant lights of our guiding climbers. A little while later we roped up for safety, with about 20m between us and plenty of knots in the rope. As we crossed the first part of proper glacier at about 4.30am, we realised that two of the bivvying climbers had had a bit of a lie-in and were behind us and they followed us at a steady pace as light began to creep eerily across the wintry scene.

Dawn, looking back down to the valley base from about 3700m.

By 6am, we had covered about half of the 1800m of ascent, but that was definitely the easy half. Most of it was a plod up the hard-packed snow on the top of the glacier - the tracks were fairly easy to follow and there weren't many crevasses to negotiate. At about 4000m, we passed the last crevasse (called a bergshrund) and then the altitude began to make the going very slow. At this point we were about an hour and a half ahead of schedule, but this began to ebb away. 4359m marked the end of the glacier and the saddle at the start of the more technically demanding summit ridge. We were here by 9.30am, but for the rest of the climb I was needing to stop every 5 minutes for a breather - it was a strange kind of tiredness since my muscles didn't feel tired, but everything was an effort and nothing could be done quickly. Fortunately we didn't feel any nausea, delerium or headaches, so we knew we weren't suffering from 'altitude sickness,' but weariness was there in bushels and more for me than for Ben.

The bergschrund

As we reached the saddle, we were able to discuss the conditions with returning climbers. First 2 of the army guys came back, saying it was too windy on one of the snow bridges and they had turned back - this filled us with some trepidation. Then the Italian soloist strode by saying that the conditions were excellent and it was just a breeze - we were more encouraged, but suspected that he may have said this about an afternoon jaunt on the north face of the Eiger. The Austrians and the 3 of unknown (possibly germanic) nationality had also gone on a bit, dithererd and come back. I don't think we were ever in any doubt that we were going to give it a go, but this was making us a bit more edgy. As we began to climb the first snow tower, the other two army guys came down, followed by our English chums, the former saying (with wide eyes) that it was 'epic', but they had made it and the latter saying that it was fine, but that we should be careful with the wind. This was better news, so we began our slow plod up the snow tower - this was about 100m high and quite steep, but continual plunging of the ice axe made it safe and not too scary. The snow 'bridges' which linked parts of the ridge were just crests linking two tops with nothing to hold on to. The wind made them a bit tricky, but they were quite short and perfectly solid underfoot, so we felt safe (especially as we still had 10m of rope between us in case anything went wrong). We just went one at a time quickly across to the other side and then held on whilst the other came across. There was a rocky section of good scrambling, which was more what I was used to, so that was ok. Another 100m snow tower reared its head next, which we slowly reeled in and we then left ice axes at the top of this for the final rocky section. This was more good scrambling, but included a couple of sections of 'fixed rope' which were just thick bits of rope to haul oneself up on a couple of the more tricky bits. Without these I guess some parts would have been considered rock climbing, but such as it was there was nothing to worry us technically. The second fixed rope led us right onto the summit, which led to much rejoicing, dancing and other forms of sitting-down.

Looking back down the summit ridge - it is quite difficult to gauge the scale here, but the saddle is the notch roughly 1/6 of the way across the photo from the left, 1000ft below us.

The views of Nordend were dramatic, since the ridge is almost sheer on the east side. We could see other people on the top of nearby Zumsteinspitze and when the cloud permitted us, we could see the Margharita Hut on Punta Gnifetti, which is the highest building in Europe. We took the obligatory summit shots and rested for about 15 mins while we took in our achievement. By the time we left the highest point in Switzerland (and second highest in the Alps), it was about 11.50.

The ridge along to Nordend - the side you can see is the less steep side. We didn't climb this.

Zumsteinspitze with Punta Gnifetti behind.

The summit shot.

The climb was by no means over though and we still had to maintain concentration for the descent, but at least the physical effort should be reduced. It was fairly easy to maintain concentration for the scrambling back along the ridge, but once back at the saddle, I really began to struggle to keep the pace up due to altitude-weariness. This improved a little as we lost height, but was only replaced by genuine weariness.

Looking back at the summit ridge from just below the saddle

Despite this, we still made reasonable time back into the crevasse field, but by this time it was well into the afternoon, so the snow was rotten and crevasses a genuine problem (especially due to a short rain shower we had weathered). We tried to find a route across them, but had to turn round several times, only to realise we'd been on the right route in the first place. This cost us an hour or so before we could get back onto the last snowy rocky bit. It was then safe to de-rope and we made better progress. That was apart from one point, when I slipped on a piece of wet snow and my crampon caught on a rock, causing the crampon to break and me to cut my hand - that slowed us a bit more as I had to descend the snow in just boots and had limited use of one hand (it wasn't badly hurt, just tender).

Eventually we crawled into the Monte Rosa Hut at some point after 5, taking about 5hrs 30 for the descent - probably 2 hours more than it should've taken, but we were able to celebrate with a large beer and a warm meal. We were thoroughly pleased with our achievement, especially since we were 2 of only 7 to actually make it to the top.


  1. Sounds as if it was pretty scary in bits! but a tremendous achievement well done!I'm glad you didn't give me all the finer detail before you went! Some lovely pictures
    Love mum

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  3. I like the part where you said you had to stop every 5 minutes for a breather because of the altitude. I just think it was because you were climbing one hell of a mountain but hey ho.

    Oliver and Pebble x