2019-07-06

Graue Wand (3172m) via "Conquest", 7a, ~395m (attempt)

We were planning something big for the weekend. Unfortunately the weather forecast was too uncertain and predicted severe thunderstorms in the afternoon for both Saturday and Sunday. So we tabled our epic for a later time and looked for alternatives. My suggestion was a super mellow climb at high altitude. The idea was to at least get acclimatized a bit. This was deemed too boring by the others and we set our eyes on "Conquest" on the Graue Wand instead. Graded 7a (VIII) it is anything but mellow.

Our sleeping arrangements: Mark, Sören, Luigi.
The small peak in the center is our objective. The sun is illuminating a triangular patch of the giant face with the crack.
Getting closer.

We drove up to the Furka pass on Friday after I had a comfortable dinner at home and put the kid to bed. We camped right at the Tätsch parking lot. A funny sight: Luigi enjoyed the full comfort of his car camper, including a therapeutic pillow, mattresses and down duvets. I brought my tent and thermarest. Mark slept on the ground outside. Mind you, that was his choice, he could also have joined either Luigi or me. In a way he might have had the best spot as we had a beautifully clear starry night. After a few hot and stuffy weeks in Zürich it was a real relief to finally have cold temperatures at night.

Lots of granite looming over Mark.
The first pitch. Harder than it looks!
The crux at the exit of pitch one.

We got up at 6 in the morning and were all packed and on the move an hour later. Our objective came into view fairly early on, but we still had quite a ways to hike. Past the Albert-Heim hut towards the graue Wand. Once we got there we saw another party getting ready to climb. Dang! So we waited around for them to proceed. A couple from Austria on their first climb of the season. He led the first pitch. After joking that the first pitch of a long route always felt at least two grades harder than it is, he cruised up with confidence. Super solid and smooth moves.

Luigi.
Mark and Luigi.
Vertigo. We're gaining height...

Then it was Mark's turn to lead the pitch for us. It turned into quite a fight and took the better part of an hour. Even as followers Luigi and I were huffing, cuffing and swearing. Definitely a stiff start! At nearly 3000 meters altitude everything feels just that crucial little bit harder. And the signature move for this pitch are laybacks which require full body tension and are generally quite pumpy.

Luigi complaining his way up our crux pitch.
Luigi and birds.
Mark and I following on the 6c pitch.

After that are a few easy slabby pitches before you reach a steep 6c. I had been struggling with a stomach bug and diarrhea even on the walk in. Now I felt super weak. Should have noticed that many of my desk neighbors at work had come down with something and so had Anita. I thought I had gotten lucky, but apparently not so much. This meant that I was basically a dead weight on the rope and only led one of the easy pitches. All the work was on Mark and Luigi.

Mark warned me that this would be a butt shot. I had no idea how bad though!
Strolling up the wall.
Mark.

Luigi started up the 6c pitch. As is his custom he was talking to himself, complaining, whining, bitching and swearing all the way up. Mark and I just looked at one another and nodded: as long as Luigi is crying about how hard it is; how he's shitting his pants; and how he's about to fall any second now - he's fine. It's when he shuts up that you need to worry. And so he made a clean on-sight of the pitch. It's nearly 50 meters long, vertical and follows a system of beautiful flakes. Fantastic climbing. I could enjoy it even in my sickish state.

Luigi on a super comfortable belay ledge just below the headwall.
Mark leading the first half of the signature crack.
Just look at this fucker! That is steep!

The next two pitches are the "super-fessura" - the signature pitches of the entire route and wall. A nearly perfectly straight crack running straight up a vertical and even slightly overhanging 50 meter wall. It looks beautiful. And intimidating. After some hesitation and struggle Mark leads the first half. Very pumpy layback moves that you have to protect yourself. Luigi and I catch up to him.

Mark reaching our high point. The belay just below the 7a pitch.
How the route would have continued: a slightly overhanging crack that widens into a v-shaped off-width.
Rappelling back down.

At this point we are all physically tired, mentally drained and intimidated by the 7a pitch ahead. It's also 2pm and clouds are forming. It doesn't take much deliberation before we unanimously agree to bail at this point. Conquest kicked our asses ;-) We still climbed about 250 meters and 6 out of 9 pitches which makes for a respectable day of climbing even without gaining the summit.

Last rappel over the deep Bergschrund.
Thunderstorm over the Albert-Heim hut.

Just when we rappelled back to the glacier the thunderstorm hits us, confirming that we've made the right call. We get back to the car and drive back to Luigi's place where Silvia and Anita are waiting with the kids. We have a joint dinner and give the kids a thorough workout by romping around and thrashing the apartment. A great finale for a good day out. If it wasn't for the fact that Leonie vomited all over the place later that night. The stomach bug travels on...

2019-06-23

Gross Bielenhorn (3210m) via "Niedermann-Anderrüthi", 6b, ~350m

A heatwave is rolling over Switzerland. Temperatures are expected to reach 37°C later this week. No better coping strategy than escaping to the high country. So that is what Mark, Luigi and I did. We met at six on Sunday morning and drove up to the Furkapass. Curiously there were lots of people camped out on the winding road up to the pass. Turns out we picked the exact day of the final stage of the Tour de Suisse that crosses the Furkapass among others.

We climb the red one on the left.
"Snow on the approach".
Hiking up.

The Sidelenhut has only been open for a week and mentions on its website that there was still "snow on the approach". No kidding. We were breaking trail straight from the parking lot. We reach the hut after about an hour, rope up and continue over the glacier to the base of the Gross Bielenhorn West face. A massive, and massively steep, hunk of granite. There's still so much snow that we skip half of the first pitch by climbing up over the Bergschrund.

Mark, still roped up for glacier travel.
The snow field is rather steep.
Later in the season this part would already be rock climbing.

We have set our eyes on the Niedermann-Anderrühti, a great classic route. Niedermann has bagged a lot of first ascents and this is considered one of his masterpieces. We had a personal recommendation for the route that said: "Don't trust the grades! I was crying on the route!". By a strong climber, no less. Thusly inspired I led the first pitch, linked it into the second and startup up the third. The latter by accident rather than intent. I simply missed the anchor. I run out of rope and steam and have to improvise an anchor in the middle of the pitch.

Mark demonstrating layback technique.
Good footholds...
The dihedral of pitch three. You just have to admire this thing! Beautiful!

Many granite routes are relatively low angle in the beginning, consisting of huge slabs polished by glacier ice. The primary skill for those types of routes is delicate footwork on tiny crystals. This route has quite a different character. It's steep and physical. The primary move required here are laybacks: hands and feet to the same side, with hands pulling on small cracks to keep pressure on the feet. Very pumpy. Very fun.

Luigi.
Fantastic belay ledge just before the crux pitch.
Balcony with a view. The Hannibalturm way down below my feet is a respectable multi pitch climbing destination on its own. From our vantage point it just looks insignificant and quaint.

All three of us struggle with the altitude. Going directly from a desk job in Zürich to hard physical exercise at 3000+ meters altitude is not the best acclimatization strategy. We have a few minor slips, but overall manage to climb the entire route in good style. Difficulties are very sustained with most of the ten pitches going as 6a, 6a+ and the crux at 6b. Three pitches in particular stand out to me: the endless dihedral of pitch three; the pumpy chimney with beautiful crystal formations half way up; and the final pitch. Most of the route is exposed to the west and we were getting roasted by the sun. For the final pitch you traverse around the corner to the North side and suddenly find yourself in an ice box. The difference is stark. The final pitch is also peculiar in that it is a sequence of very diverse and challenging boulder problems with comfortable rests in between. Es lebe die Abwechslung!

Luigi leading the crux. Pumpy laybacks at first, followed by a bit of dancing.
Only one more pitch to go.
Mark signing the route book for us.

The route has been re-bolted in 2005. They used the drill only very sparingly, so some pitches of 40+ meters only feature a small handful of bolts. This is exactly as it should be: solid bolted anchors for safe belaying and rappelling but otherwise you still need a full set of cams to protect the climb yourself and keep a sense of adventure. The abundance of cracks makes placing gear a joy too. Impressive how they managed to climb this in the 50s using wooden blocks and self made pitons for protection! It takes us about five and half hours to top out and another two to get back down to the snow. We finally reach the car by 8pm, tired, but happy and super satisfied with a great day out!

The book has been around since 2005 and there are many pages left. Not too many ascents...
Looong way down. We basically came straight up from where I'm pointing.
Obligatory summit selfie.
Rappel.
Mark.
Luigi bouncing around.
Looking back. Towering granite.
Until next time!

2019-06-01

Gelmerfluh, "Sagittarius", 6b, ~400m

An entire weekend of glorious weather. Arne, Luigi, Mark, Piotr and I decide to take advantage of this and climb at the Gelmerfluh. The Grimselpass hasn't opened for the season yet, but it is passable up until the hydro electric dam. This is all we need and we figure the fact that it's still early season for the high country means there'll be fewer climbers on the wall.

On the approach. We traverse the snow band into the wall and start climbing roughly where there's a gap in the snow.
The stoke is high at the start of the route!
Piotr on the sharp end.

Mark, Piotr and I rope up to climb Sagittarius. A great classic on the wall. Luigi and Arne have already climbed this one and go for the neighboring Savoir Vivre instead. The routes share both the start and the top, which makes them a perfect pair to climb simultaneously. Our strategy is to lead in blocks and Piotr does the first few warmup pitches. He's recovering from tennis/climbers elbow and doesn't feel fit to lead the harder pitches. His foot slips early on the first pitch and he takes a fall. Harmless, and he recovers quickly and leads the rest of his block without issues.

Luigi, crawling upwards in a sea of slabs.
Spiderman Mark.
Our entire rope team of Piotr, Sören and Mark visible in this picture.

After that Mark and I take turns on the sharp end of the rope. It works out that I get to lead the famous seventh pitch: a 6a+ 30m splinter crack. Absolutely gorgeous. Climbing doesn't get any better than this. Definitely one of the top three pitches I have ever climbed. The pitch leading into that was already quite a spectacle. "The black corner" 6a+ requires powerful athletic moves and a super delicate traverse on a blank slab. Unfortunately I screwed up my lead on that one. I was led astray by the way the route is bolted and was looking for a solution too high up. I climbed up and down a few times, trying to find purchase on the smooth slab. Eventually I gave up and loaded the rope just a tiny bit to make it across. Super annoying as it spoiled a clean red-point. Turns out there was a much better solution just a meter further down. C'est la vie.

Piotr sneaking up on a tiny ledge.
Arne and Luigi.
Blank slabs and nice flakes in "Savoir Vivre".

Mark gets to lead the crux 6b pitch. A short traverse under a roof. No footholds at all, you can only smear your feet on the granite. The handholds are pretty marginal too, so you need good balance for a reachy move around the corner where it continues with a mantle move onto a slab. A short, but intense, pitch. Mark leads the next pitch too, the final 6a "slab dance" on delicate footholds and tiny crimpers before the terrain gets steeper and more structured.

Gaining height. The final few moves of the fantastic splinter crack of pitch 7. Climbing doesn't get any better than that.
Oooooh yeah!
Arne above the giant hollow flake.

The final batch of pitches all feel easy compared to what came before them, even if some of them are nominally still graded 6a. We speed through them, topping out a little over five hours after starting the climb. A pretty good time, given that we're a party of three and the guidebook suggests 5 to 7 hours of climbing. We have a well deserved break for snacks while waiting for Arne and Luigi to catch up to us. They are not far behind and before long we start the long descent, rappelling back down the way we came.

Mark and Piotr following up towards the crux pitch.
Mark leading the 6b crux traverse.
Some footholds are worse than others.
The handholds to go with those feet. The right hand is pretty good, but the left is a tiny crimp and you have to let go of the right to make progress...

We rappel as a group of five, sending two people at a time on a single strand each. To make this safe we fix the ropes at the anchor. The last person to rappel, the odd fifth, undoes that and performs a regular rappel on both strands at the same time. The technique is fast and efficient and barely slows us down compared to rappelling as just a regular party of two. We do learn that Mark's fancy new 7.7mm ropes, which we affectionately call "shoelaces", make it very difficult to tie a prusik that actually bites. Combined with the fact that most belay/rappel devices are designed for thicker ropes makes it so that you have to be extra careful on the way down.

Cruising terrain. Plaisir climbing at its best.
After finally leaving the slabs behind us the terrain gets steeper but much more structured.
Mark having a good time. As witnessed by Arne in the neighboring route.

On my commute back from work on Friday I crashed my bike when a jogger forced me to reduce my turn radius a little too much. This meant I was climbing with a bruised right hand, elbow and shoulder and an injured heel. By the time we started rappelling my foot hurt so much that I prefered to go barefoot. Five+ hours in tight climbing shoes had a similar effect on the others, so before long most of us were barefoot. Somewhat ironically, considering we were at 2000 meters altitude surrounded by glaciers and snow, the rock was almost painfully hot from the sun. I don't have my summer feet yet, not having spent a lot of time barefoot this year ;-)

Hanging around on a comfy belay spot.
Mark negotiating an overhanging block.
Piotr.
Sagittarius:
5a, 5c+, 6a, 5c+, 5c+, 6a+, 6a+, 6b, 6a, 6a, 5c+, 6a, 5b
Savoir Vivre:
6a+, 5b, 6a, 6b, 6a, 6a+ (6c), 6a, 5c, 5c, 5c+, 5c, 5b+, 5a

I think Mark was the only one in the entire group who pulled off a perfectly clean red point ascent. Congratulations! Overall this was another perfect day out in the mountains. Fantastic route, beautiful weather and fun company. What more could you ask for? Thanks everyone!

Summit!
View from the top.
Action photographer.
A sofa with vertigo inducing views.
Mark and Luigi waiting their turn to rappel.
It's a long way down...
Many rappels later on the final slabs.
Reaching the snow fields.
Arne, demonstrating proper alpine ice tool technique.
Mission accomplished!