Andrey, Håvard and me set out to climb the Salbitschijen South-Ridge on Saturday. It is often praised as the best granite climbing in the Alps, a symphony in rock, unforgettable, unique and world famous! Quotes from the guide book. Lured by this Siren Song we reserve spots in the Salbit hut and hike in early on Saturday. The approach to the hut takes us just under three hours and we arrive around noon.
To familiarize ourselves with the rock in the area and the local difficulty ratings we spend the afternoon climbing in the Salbit crag close to the hut. We start with "Hoppla Vreni", three pitches rated 5c+, 6a and a crux on a slabby 6a+. I get to lead the crux and it is an indicator of things to come. 6a's don't usually make me break a sweat, but this foot smearing does take some getting used to.
Next up is Varia, two pitches of 5c. Andrey leads a variant of it as a trad route, ignoring the bolts. Håvard free solos half the first pitch while waiting for Andrey's lead. As is my custom I run around the belay barefoot. Turns out to be a mistake, as I step into something and cut a pretty big and deep hole in my sole. This will turn out to be annoying the next day.
Returning to the hut we have a big session sorting out our gear and distributing it on two back packs for the big day. The idea is to have the leader climb unencumbered while the others carry the packs. We share a small room in this very nice and freshly renovated hut with a bunch of kids. Perfect roommates - they don't snore, go to bed early and don't mind being woken at sunrise. Also, they fall asleep instantly, having had a thorough workout with the approach and the hut's adventure slide and swing which are both pointed in a way that makes you think you are flying out over the valley.
We leave after an early breakfast at 5 in the morning and arrive at the crag and start climbing at 7. We've decided to try the "Super-South-Ridge" an enchaînement of three routes: "Takala", "Südgrat" and "Gipfelnadel Direkte Südwand". It's the longest link you can do on this ridge. If everything goes according to plan it should take us about 9-10 hours.
Of course no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Right of the bat we have issues finding the route. Bolts are few and far in between and hunting for the next one often takes a while. The climbing is great though and we are enjoying ourselves.
Reaching the Zahn, the first tower on the ridge, is a real highlight. The weather is perfect and we take in majestic 360 degree vistas. It is also pretty obvious to me that we are progressing far too slowly. The others aren't yet as worried as me, but I start making haste and push on.
The climbing isn't particularly difficult (but seemingly a lot harder than the grades in the guide book warrant) but very exposed, with 100s of meters of air below your ass. Falling is not allowed. We augment the bolts with our own protection by placing slings and cams, but you are still often 7, 10, more meters above your last piece of gear with prospects of taking falls on ledges and nasty granite teeth.
Andrey gets to lead the crux of the route a 5c+ edge with quite a bit of run-out. By now we are used to the dominant technique for the area, "piazen" (layback), holding with both hands to one side around an edge and smearing your feet up the wall. The difficulty is more psychological, getting used to the exposure and run-out, than technical.
By the time we finally reach the Zwillingsturm at 2920m, after about 20 pitches of climbing, it is already around 6pm. Dangerously late. However, we only have one rappel and three more pitches to go before reaching the summit and, with that, a 1.5 hour scramble back to the hut. However, as luck would have it, it starts to rain at just that moment. I saw the clouds boiling up over the east ridge and was admiring how beautiful they looked...
Climbing the slippery wet rock is completely out of the question so we are left with only one option - bail. Håvard goes first. We are not returning the way we came, as that would involve a lot of dangerous downclimbing, but head straight down the steepest section. Somehow we miss the official emergency rappel route though and end up with no anchors after our first rope length. Seeing some evidence (pitons and slings) that others went the same way before us, we decide to continue on.
It is raining, we are in a cloud with almost no visibility, it is getting dark and we are rappelling down an unknown cliff with no fixed anchors. Håvard saves the day by leading the rappels and improvising anchors along the way. A sling around a flake, a cam in a crack. It is a slow and arduous process. We are shivering wet, the ropes are soaked and the rappel device wrings out water, running down our arms.
Imagine rappeling across an overhang, seeing your ropes disappear into the blackness below and knowing that you'll have to get back on the wall and find something you can use for an anchor. If you fail you face having to jumar up the rope again and try again.
We are in a steep couloir that has turned into a small creek. I experience a scary moment when, as the last to rappel, I see Andrey's headlamp disappear into the dark. Following that I hear the dreaded sound of a huge boulder smashing down the mountain and rumbling into our couloir. Followed by silence.
It takes a while for Andrey and Håvard to respond to my shouts with an OK. We are all hanging on a slippery wet wall on a single sling stuck into a 2cm deep crack behind a flake. If we unloaded it, it would come off and take us with it. With no footholds on the wall we try to stand in more slings, hanging from the first. An awkward position. Now we need to get our ropes down for the next abseil. A nail-biter. You never know whether the ropes will come down or maybe trigger rock fall instead. Or worse, get stuck.
We had more than one situation where all three of us would pull with all the strength we had and the rope still wouldn't budge. Jammed somewhere far out of sight. I'd clip in my ropeman ascender and with our combined strength and my weight we'd win another time.
It's two o'clock in the morning and we are still not down. Håvard does one more rappel but can't find anything to use as an anchor. He begins the long and strenuous process of climbing up the rope again. We are all exhausted and tired. I had infected myself with something on the day before, leading to diarrhea. My fix was to simply not eat anything. So I had been exerting myself on a dry slice of bread and a single snickers all day. The others don't fare much better. We decide to bivouac where we are. Tied in to our improvised anchor we huddle together in our narrow and wet couloir and shiver waiting for the sun to come up.
At 5 in the morning I do the final rappel to the base of the wall. It is made slightly tricky as it ends in the Bergschrund, the 10+ meter canyon between the ice field and the rock. Swinging sideways a bit it is possible to use a snow bridge and reach the ice field. While the others are following me down I start cutting steps down the steep slope, using my nut extractor as an improvised ice-ax. By the time we get back to the hut we've been on the go for 23 hours.
Now many would say "I told you so" and think we've failed. It's easy to start second guessing decisions (Should we have gone in the first place? Route finding - turned left maybe? If we'd only found the proper rappel route! Should we have gone as a (slower) three person team when our fourth couldn't join? What if we didn't have as many tangled rope fuck ups? More experience? Should we have climbed the direct route instead of including the Takala extension? Turned around earlier? ...).
However, I consider the expedition a success. We have worked well as individuals and we have worked well together as a team, playing to our respective strengths (Andrey and me sharing most of the tricky leads between us while Håvard turned rappel hero). Everyone has learned a lot, not least about himself and his psyche in the face of adversity. We have kept spirits high and everyone stayed productive, calm and focused at all times. We had no fuck-ups using our gear, have lost nothing and are all unharmed and well. (Minor correction: I have lost almost 3kg of weight that day. Even after re-hydrating and several good meals later I'm still down 1.5kg ;-))
It was a fantastic climb on a magnificent ridge. Majestic and beautiful. I'll be back.