Arne and I met on the company internal climbers mailing list and are pondering some ambitious mountaineering projects. As a warm-up and getting to know one another project we chose the Zinalrothorn (4221m) south-west ridge. Quite a warm-up it should be!
We invited Vladimir (who has a nice write up of the experience on facebook) and Sebastian to join us and took the train to Zermatt on Saturday morning. This mountain needs to be earned, no cable cars or shortcuts. The trail follows the creek through the beautiful Trift valley before climbing a steep moraine for the final ascent to the Rothornhut at 3198m for a total of 1600m altitude gain. We stopped half-way up at the Trift hut for some beer but still made it to the hut within a respectable four hours and a bit. Especially Sebastian and Vladimir were in turbo mode and arrived even sooner while I was suffering from the heat and lagging behind. Just as we arrived at the hut a rescue helicopter landed to transfer the patient dangling from the long line into the helicopter. Unfortunately I've had that pleasure myself and it always brings back uneasy memories.
Enjoying our next round of beers while waiting for dinner we notice we are in prominent company. Dani Arnold is staying at the hut as a mountain guide. Always the fanboys we flock to him and ask him for a group photo. He turns out to be very approachable and a genuinely nice person, confirming the impression I got when attending one of his presentations a while ago. I think it's awesome that a sponsored celebrity climber of his caliber still works as a normal mountain guide enabling your average Joe and Jane to experience the joys of the high country.
Dinner is outstanding, the best I've had in any mountain hut so far. We go to bed early and set the alarm for 3:20 in the morning. The hut is crowded and sleeping space is cuddly and warm. None of us is properly acclimatized and the resulting elevated heart rate makes sleep even harder. A short and restless night ensues.
We leave the hut around 4 in the morning as part of a long queue of headlamps. There is a bit of a traffic jam after crossing the first glacier (Rothorn glacier) and reaching the "Wasserloch", a steep chimney presenting the natural weakness in a barricade of rock. Past that it's a lot of scrambling through scree and two more ice fields.
Vladimir and Sebastian (and a few other parties!) don't pay attention to route finding and keep following the rope teams headed for the normal route. We are on a 35° snow and ice field that ends in a steep cliff. It's still pre-dawn and in the dim light of our head torches it's hard to make out where we should be going. Arne and I call back the others and use our altimeter to make a best guess of where to leave the ice and scramble down the rock onto the Trift glacier.
After crossing the glacier we arrive at the Bergschrund at the base of the ridge shortly after dawn. This is where the actual climbing starts and it gets interesting. 400 meters of altitude gain on a seemingly endless ridge of beautiful red granite with climbing difficulties in the UIAA IV range. The ridge is completely "clean" in the sense that there are no bolts and you have to use mobile protection all the way. Arne and I mesh together really well and quickly fall into an efficient rhythm. We climb almost the entire ridge on a running belay, meaning that both of us are climbing simultaneously with the more or less outstretched rope between us as protection. You either sling it around outcrops of rock or place cams or nuts that would catch a fall. Once the leader runs out of gear the second person, who is now carrying all the collected pieces, assumes the lead.
The quality of the rock is second to none. Solid and offering fantastic climbing moves. Sometimes in ridiculously exposed settings. Especially near the summit pyramid with a partially overhanging east face you'd be balancing on a tiny ledge more than 600 meters over the Hohlichtglacier. And all that surrounded by the majestic peaks of the Matterhorn, the Weisshorn and the Dent Blanche. Life doesn't get any better than this, it's absurdly beautiful ;-)
We rappel off the summit and join the normal route at the "Gabel". This is prepared as a rappel route, but we decide to down climb some of it instead. The terrain is easy enough to risk this without protection and we want to be fast. The normal route follows a couloir that turns into a proper shooting gallery. With many parties climbing in it it is by far the most objectively dangerous part of the entire route. Constant rockfall makes you want to get out of there as quickly as possible. I'm really glad we chose the harder Rothorngrat route for the ascent. Vladimir actually does get hit by a fist sized rock, but luckily his backpack takes the brunt of the force and he remains unscathed.
Once off the summit pyramid the normal route follows a steep razor's edge snow ridge where you balance right on the very top with steep forty degree plus ice fields on either side. I don't like this at all - I don't mind the exposure but balancing in bad early afternoon snow with no way of protecting it makes me uncomfortable. I feel safe with good protection or when I can use my hands (i.e. climbing rock), but this is neither and thus intimidating. Fortunately Arne is cool about this and graciously offers to walk behind me, taking me on the short leash as a mountain guide would. It's still mostly about psychology though as the only way of saving a fall would be jumping down the other side of the ridge. Nerves of steel, lightning fast reflexes and superhuman situational awareness required. Better not stumble.
We make it through that section okay and race to catch up with Vladimir and Sebastian. They had been much slower than us in the technical climbing parts and retreated via the normal route before reaching the summit. We catch up with them and we surf down the slushy snow of the final glacier before the hut together.
A quick round of celebratory beers and we rush towards the valley. The last train for Zürich leaves Zermatt at eight and we're afraid we won't make it in time. In the end these worries turn out to be unfounded - we manage the descent in just over two hours despite stopping for a piece of cake on the way. We even nearly got the train an hour earlier. This leaves us some time to chill in the village and hang out at the village fountain to clean up and sort gear. Zermatt is car free and very touristy. On a beautiful warm summer night like this the atmosphere is really nice, with people strolling the streets and sitting outside for dinner.
An incredible weekend! In terms of the original mission, getting to know a new climbing partner, I think we can book this as an outstanding success - here's to more great outings Arne! ;-)