Wednesday 2 October 2013

Swiss alpinism: Weissmies traverse from Saas Almagelle to Hohsaas

Somehow I became convinced that, should 2013 pass without my ascending an alpine 4000 m peak, I would be diminished as man, a worthless and contemptible specimen. Fortunately  I had at my disposal a crack team of similarly minded comrades: Colin, a man who has climbed slowly in most of the world’s mountain ranges; Dan, the only one of us capable of cranking 7a on a good day; Mike, the youngest, keenest and loudest.  We spent the summer engaged in our individual fitness drives with one single-minded goal, that of not being the least fit of the four. 

From sea level to the Almagellerhutte (2897 m)

Mike, Colin and Dan, gearing up at Saas Almagelle 1670 m

We met up at Edinburgh airport on thursday morning and by that evening we were ascending steeply through the trees from Saas Allmagelle at 1670 m to the Swiss Alpine Club’s Almagellerhutte, a touch below 2897 m, panting in the thin air with lungs that had not been higher than 1200 m for over a year.

Approaching Almagelleralp 2020 m

We almost made the hut in daylight, arriving around 2030, too late for dinner. Instead we greedily devoured soup and sausages washing them down with pints of beer. We were split over whether or not to have a third pint. Fortunately the hut’s policy was for lights out at 2200, saving us  from our self-destructive urges. After a wander outside to inspect the cold beauty of the view towards the 4000ers of the Mischabel chain: the Dom; the Allinhorn; Alphubel and others, we repaired to our room. A group of jovial Swiss who had been preparing for their ascent of the Weissmies with beer and shots welcomed us with great hilarity. As is always the case at altitude my sleep was disturbed and I woke frequently but managed to doze between and didn’t notice the Swiss departing for the 0500 breakfast. We took the later sitting at 0700, for our intention was to make an ascent of an acclimatisation peak, Portjenhorn at 3567 m. However, while we were debating the relative merits of the F and PD+ routes up it,  the hut guardian advised us against any ascent saying that it was not good on account of rockfall.  She suggested Mittelruck as an alternative, slightly lower at 3363 m but much further from the hut, across interminable moraines.

Sunrise on the Mischabel chain, from the Almagellerhutte

Acclimatisation on Mittelruck (3363 m)

After photographing a family group of chamois gambolling outside the hut we panted our way across the moraines to the Sonnigpass and after a pause to admire the view out across Italy, endless ridges and cloud-filled valleys, we struck up the blocky ridge which gave nice scrambling to below the summit. Here it steepened and we donned ropes for the final metres, climbing as two pairs. We met a local guide, Gabi and his client. They had ascended from the valley to do a via ferrata on the far side of the ridge. He asked where we were from and then acknowledged our cold weather adaptation.

“It is better for you at this time of year. In summer there are many people and it is too hot for you.” He asked that we pass his regards to the guardian of the hut, then resumed his descent.

Mittelruck is above the lake, to the left
View into Italy from the Sonnigpass
It had been very difficult to decide what clothing to wear for this trip. The forecasts had indicated low temperatures, snow and significant windchill, so we brought full winter gear. This proved to be the right choice, for though it was warm in the sun, when the wind got up we needed it all on to stay warm when we stopped. We made short work of the remaining ridge, placing only a sling and a hex near the end. We enjoyed the summit before setting out to descend the ridge, happy with our day's sport and looking forward to the invigorating effect of losing a few metres.
On the ridge of Mittelruck
Putting the rope away after descending from Mittelruck's summit tower
Back at the hut Dan and I enjoyed half a beer before the lads returned.I nipped inside to buy them a pint and as I handed it over a gust blew the head all over my jacket. We relaxed in the sun, a good day in the bag and some acclimatisation gained. Dinner was soup, stew with runner beans and mash and coffee ice cream. We packed our bags, had one further beer then retired for another unsatisfactory broken sleep.
Enjoying a well-earned beer back at the Almagellerhutte

Traverse of the Weissmies (4017 m)

On leaving the hut in the moonlight I was reminded why we choose to do this: why we exhaust ourselves by carrying heavy bags up steep hills; why we subject ourselves to the debilitating effects of being unacclimatised at altitude; why we endure restless nights in dormitories packed with snoring strangers and farting friends.   The dawn’s beauty was almost unsettling. One party shot off into the twilight. A guide and his client offered us the opportunity to go ahead. We declined, preferring to follow at a slow pace. Colin made much of the fact that we were maintaining guide pace, however we all knew it was actually client pace, and we that weren’t quite maintaining it.

Mike, Dan and Colin about to leave Almagellerhutte by moonlight
Sunrise at the base of the Weissmies S ridge
The ascent to the col was on a good path compared to the up and down moraine  hell of the previous day. We arrived on the ridge at daybreak. Mist-filled valleys and intervening ridges spread towards the horizon, over which the pink light of the rising sun was just visible. The ridge was bathed in spectacular alpenglow as we traversed below on rock and snow, following the two parties above to gear up and pack poles away at the first steepening. I didn’t think the rope was really required but accepted the wisdom of having it at the ready in case we encountered a steep step. And so we embarked on the long scramble up the ridge on blocky gneiss, it maintained interest all the way as we drew ever closer to the summit. Our pace was slow but steady. When we paused I ate half a large fruit and nut bar, the sun had softened it but I used some snow to firm it up.

Traversing below the lower pinnacles on snow, Portjenhorn behind
High on the Weissmies S ridge
After an age we reached the top of the ridge and put on our crampons. Euphoria began to kick in as we picked our way along the snow arete that led to the summit. Colin had told Mike a white lie that it was actually 20 feet wide. In reality it was so narrow that it was barely possible to place two feet side by side at the narrowest. I got Colin to pause a this point for a photo but a disquieting gust of wind made him reluctant to linger. 

Snow arete leading to the summit
Colin and me on the arete
Dan, Colin and Mike on the summit
The Weissmies is a mountain of two sides, for the other side is glaciated, the glacier’s dirty ice rendered pristine by recent snow. Most parties used this for both ascent and descent from the Hohsaas cableway at 3200 m, and a constant stream of parties, many of the consisting of a guide leading 4 or so clients on a short rope like dogs, streamed to and from the summit. After summit photos and the rest of my chocolate we all tied in to one 50 m rope and set off down steep snow slopes. I took the lead, as I'm normally quite frightened on steep snow, however I appear to have conquered this fear. Mike is at the level I was at a few years ago and exhibited a high level of excitement. 

Starting the glacier descent
Lots more punters on the glaciated side of the mountain, tempted by 800 m of ascent from Hohsaas compared to our 2350 m from Saas Almagelle
Downclimbing a short steep section

Climbing used to be an activity that was enjoyable mostly after the event, once the memory of the fear had subsided. Now I have turned a corner and it is actively enjoyable at the time, at least this type of straightforward alpine climbing is. The descent was on straightforward but exposed snowslopes and I was surprised by the clients that the guides were prepared to bring, including a teenage girl with jeans and soft soled trekking boots. There was one tricky section on the descent where the route steepened sufficiently to necessitate facing into the slope and down-climbing. In front a pair faffed fearfully, one giving the other a psychological belay. Mike was reluctant to pass them, but they took so long that another party backed up behind us and we did just that, once off the steepening we were on flatter ground but with seracs above it was no place to linger and we made a good pace, leaping across the occasional exposed crevasse without pausing to savour the view into its depths. 

Not a place to linger any longer than necessary
And relax...
By this stage I was getting thirsty and had a slight headache due in part to caffeine withdrawal, but I had no water with which to wash down my pills. Mike produced a bottle containing a dribble just as we exited the glacier and I gratefully accepted a sub-dribble.

Looking up it seems amazing that it's possible to walk most of the way down the glacier
After a short hike up a snowless piste we drank cola and beer at Hohsaas and stared back up at the icy flanks of the Weissmies. It seemed incredible that it was possible to descend such a face without doing much more than walking, but we had done just that and now the fun was over. There was a lingering rush to be savoured: a deep sense of satisfaction and achievement that would last a little longer. But soon we would no longer be alpinists, we'd have only our  photos and memories. Even a short trip like this, involving less than three days in the mountains, is life-affirming. Supping a beer at Hohsaas I felt in love with the mountains, with the beauty of nature and with life itself.  Life is short and there is so much to see. Now is the time for doing, for all too soon it may be too late.

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