Our plan was to climb Dufourspitze (15,202 feet), the high point of Switzerland. I met my friend Rob in his home city of Amsterdam in April so we could discuss the details. Dufourspitze was the highest summit on the giant Monte Rosa massif. There were plenty of other summits we could use for acclimatization, and a number of climbing huts which would allow us to sleep high and climb without carrying a lot of extra supplies. We also discussed our hopes for the Lyskamm traverse, a 3 mile long snowy knife-edge with thousands of feet of air on either side. The thought of this peak scared me. They used to call it The Man Eater. We would only attempt it if the conditions were good. After Dufourspitze, Ryan (my friend from Arlington) and I would go to Chamonix to Climb Mont Blanc.
I arrived in Zermatt on July 22 and met Ryan at our hotel. We walked around town and took some photos of the Matterhorn. I can't properly describe the feeling of being a climber in Zermatt the day before your big climb starts. We were surrounded by mountains of epic proportions and everywhere we went there were others decked out in climbing gear and mountaineering boots. It was like the air was charged with some kind of electricity.
The next morning we met Rob and we took the cable lift up to Kleine Matterhorn station (12,530 feet). From there we roped up and climbed the easy south face of Breithorn (13,661 feet). There was a multitude of other teams on the peak. This route has got to be one of the easiest ways to get a 4000 meter peak in the Alps. Our views of the Matterhorn and Lyskamm from the summit were a little cloudy but good.
After the summit we climbed down into Italy and the Rifugio guide di Ayas, which was a large crowded hut. On the way there we crossed a few minor crevasses but nothing to write home about. Rob ordered dinner but Ryan and I only bought boiling water so we could cook dehydrated meals and save money. It's amazing that you can climb in the Alps without carrying a stove, dinner, sleeping bag, water filter, etc..
The next morning we got packed in the predawn hours along with everyone else and head out for the next peaks. We came to southwest face of Pollux (13,425 feet) and climbed steep snow up to the ridge crest. We short roped as we scrambled up along the crest, mostly class 3. Then we came to the crux section which has fixed hemp ropes. It felt like 5.4 and was very enjoyable. Beyond some exposed slabs there was a notch and above the notch 30 feet of vertical climbing with nice holds.
At the top it opened up to the base of the final snow ridge to the summit, a lovely peak and an excellent route. Here we unroped and climbed to the summit. I didn't know it yet but this would end up being my favorite climb of the trip. We climbed back down, encountering a Cluster-F*** of other teams coming up and down through the notch. Back on the lower glacier we traversed over to the Pollux-Castor saddle and then started up Castor (13,871 feet).
The west face of Castor was a snow climb, straightforward if not a little steep in places. We didn't stay on the summit very long. The clouds were building. The descent on the east side was much more interesting than the ascent. We followed the ridge which turned into a true knife-edge. This was just a preview of what we might encounter on Lyskamm. We climbed down into Italy again and this time Rifugio Quintino Sella, another crowded hut. Rob ordered spaghetti and we ate dehydrated again. People kept staring at Ryan and I while we sterilized water from the bathroom tap using his Steri-Pen. Everyone else bought water.
The next morning we prepared for Lyskamm. I noticed a strong gusty wind when I west out to the bathroom building. If it kept up like that, Lyskamm was out of the question. I looked over at the mountain and noticed the whole ridge was covered in clouds. Not good. After breakfast there was no improvement so we decided to take the bypass route below the south face. There were other peaks east of Lyskamm which were less dangerous in high winds.
Several hours later, as the sun was rising in the sky, I noticed several rope teams consisting of teenagers. They seemed to know what they were doing. There was one team, all girls who looked between 16 and 19 years old. It impressed the point on me once again of how advanced and accepted the climbing culture is in Europe. You would never see that in the states. Sure there was the occasional Josh Lewis, but such young climbers were the exception back home.
After one steep down-climb we came to a broad open plateau. There were several good looking peaks to choose from. Rob assured me that they were not as close as they looked. We still had to descend the Grenz Glacier all the way to the Monte Rosa hut if we were going to climb Dufourspitze the following day. We chose Ludwigshöhe (14,242 feet) as our Lyskamm alternative. On the way there Rob and Ryan climbed Corno Nero (14,180 feet) while I waited. I was not feeling well at all. I had some kind of problem going on in my lower back. The pain had been building over the last few days. My harness and pack both pushed on it, making every step painful.
We climbed Ludwigshöhe which had a nice northwest ridge. Lyskamm was an impressive sight from the summit, as was Dufourspitze. I had mixed feelings about Lyskamm. I felt a sense of relief by avoiding the danger, but I also knew it could have been awesome, probably the best of the trip.
We started down the Grenz Glacier. It was a little later in the day than I would have liked. I knew that there were two times during the trip when a crevasse fall would be likely, descending the Grenz and descending Dufourspitze. Both glaciers are known as being very broken up and we would be crossing snow bridges in late afternoon. Also, on the Grenz we would have no company. Up to this point we had been climbing on common routes but this descent was much less popular.
We came to the first icefall. We were able to skirt around it on the right side, weaving through a few seracs. The north face of Lyskamm was towering above us now. Look at those hanging glaciers! What a face... We were hemmed-in between Lyskamm and Dufourspitze. The only way down was to cross this massive glacier. We came to the second ice fall. This one was not as simple. Seracs forced us further out into the maze. We couldn't stay along the right side. We crossed some suspicious snow bridges. At one point my foot went through a little bit. Then we were able to get back over to the edge. I relaxed a little.
We were passing a spot where some rocks had fallen onto the glacier surface. Left of the rocks there were some small crevasses. Ryan was in the lead and he picked his way through, treading carefully. Then a strange thing happened. I was looking at Ryan and then he was mostly gone. Just his head and arms were still above the surface of the glacier. It literally took me a whole second to realize what had happened and then I threw myself down into self-arrest. As the middle person, he wasn't putting any weight on me yet but I knew he could go in completely at any second. We were prepared for a full rescue but it would be easier if he could get himself out. Thankfully he was able to do that. He had stretched his arms out when he felt he was falling and this saved him from going all the way in. Once he was out, he explained that those crevasses were not as small as the looked on the surface. Below the lips he was dangling in open space.
We back-tracked a little and went through the rock fall to avoid the crevasses. The top layer of snow was really soft now. We passed through one more ice fall area before reaching the lower glacier. There we were able to get onto a rocky rib and boulder hop down to the giant Monte Rosa Hut which was less crowded and very modern. Ryan and I were out of dehydrated meals so we all had dinner together and it was good. I went to bed worrying about my back. I obviously had some kind of infection and it seemed to be getting worse each day. Could I go on climbing if it got really bad?
The next morning I fought with myself. I was right on the edge of realizing my dream. We had been planning this trip for 6 months and I had put so much into it. But the answer was clear if I was honest with myself. I could not do the climb. I needed to go to a hospital immediately. The pain was now unbearable. Because of the location of the infection, I could not go another full day wearing a harness. Sadly I told Rob and Ryan I was going down to the hospital. Ryan didn't want to climb alone with Rob so this was the end of their Mont Rosa trip as well. I felt responsible for their loss of Dufourspitze but this was turning into an emergency and I had no choice.
Ryan said he would accompany me to the hospital. I was very grateful. I said goodbye to Rob and we started down. We still had to cross two glaciers and take two trains before we could get to the hospital in Visp, below Zermatt. These lower glaciers were snow free and so everyone crosses them unroped. It was a lovely hike and I enjoyed it despite the pain. Alpenglow set the Matterhorn on fire. Then we could see some of the peaks we had climbed, Castor, Pollux, Breithorn.
At the edge of the second glacier we climbed bolted ladders up onto the rock where a ledge allowed access to the climbers path. From there it was just a long walk to the train station. At the hospital they gave me an examination. I had an infected cyst which was close to my spine. They said I should have immediate surgery. Patients undergoing this procedure usually stay in the hospital 2 to 7 days. Thankfully I was released the next day but it certainly changed the rest of my trip. Weeks later I still can't carry an overnight pack. Ryan was able to summit Mont Blanc solo. I'm glad that he made it.
Impressive report and great photos, Gimpilator. Sorry to hear about your back, but very glad you were some place that could quickly address the situation. I am also glad to hear that your friend accompanied you to the hospital. That was the loyal and responsible thing to do. Again--great photo essay of a beautiful region. ~z
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