Dent Blanche (4357m) via South Ridge (AD)

September is frequently the best month for mountaineering. Old snow is almost completely gone while new snow hasn't arrived yet. That, and you tend to get good stable weather windows. This weekend was such a perfect opportunity. As luck would have it it was also "Knabenschiessen" - the one-of-a-kind, only-in-Switzerland, fair, where you give teenagers assault rifles for target practice. For the canton of Zürich that implies a half day off on Monday, so it wasn't too much of a stretch to turn that into a full day and head for the mountains.

Beautiful trail on the approach to the hut.
Where glaciers used to be...
Lots of low angle granite slabs on the approach. Fine in these conditions but I imagine they quickly become impassable with rain or ice.

Anita and I attended a special event at Leonie's crib on Saturday. Directly afterwards Mark came over for dinner before the two of us left for the Furka pass. The idea was to get at least a minimum of acclimatization by camping right at the highest point of nearly 2500 meters. Many people had the same idea and there were quite a few tents and car campers when we arrived in the early darkness of the night. We drove the remaining 2.5 hours to the tiny mountain village of Ferpècle in the morning and started hiking around 10.

Final approach to the hut. Quite a spectacular location.
Mark in front of our objective.

The hut is at 3500 meters altitude, a full 1800 meters higher than we parked the car. Still it takes us less than the posted time of 5 hours to get there. There's a single warden for about 20 guests. She has to manage cooking a three course dinner, handling reservations and payments and answer the telephone. She somehow manages to juggle all of these responsibilities but is a bit stressed out at times. Mark and I get assigned to bunk beds usually reserved for mountain guides. These are a little more spacious and it's just the two of us to a bunk. Nice.

Early morning. Roping up after climbing the ridge directly behind the hut.
Matterhorn dominating the skyline.

Breakfast is served at 4:30 in the morning and we leave in the darkness at 5am. The ridge is notorious for strong winds and cornices. We encounter none of that. It's a beautiful and calm day and the 30 cm dump of fresh snow from the previous week doesn't slow us down at all. There's a question of whether to climb the grand gendarme or go around it via a steep couloir. We are of half a mind of climbing it, but in the end decide to follow a party in front of us who opted to go around. This seems to be the consensus decision on that day. I struggle a bit from the altitude and the last half hour to the summit is a bit arduous. Nevertheless this time around I led most of the route on "the sharp end of the rope". Good for my ego after I got the comfortable middle spot on the Obergabelhorn last time.

Who needs two legs for climbing a mountain? I can do it on one!
There were some steeper bits.

We reach the summit at 9:20am, just 4:20 after leaving the hut and thus much faster than the suggested time of 5-6 hours from the guidebook. We lose that time again on the way down. For one thing it's surprisingly tricky to retrace our steps and we end up rappelling too far down into the face at one point. No harm done, but it takes some time to scramble back up and fix the ropes. For another, on the descent Mark is starting to feel the effects of the altitude. We both agree that this mountain is definitely at the limit of what we can squeeze into a single weekend without proper acclimatization. You spend a lot of time around 4000 meters...

To quote Mark: "Let me take another picture - you look so grim in this one!" Balancing on ridges somehow does that to my expression ;-)
Me pointing out our location in the shadow cast by the mountain.

When we get back to the hut we intend to just have a quick drink and continue with the knee breaking descent to the car. After all, it's a total of 2500 meters down from the summit. We are surprised to meet Andreea on the terrace. She's a colleague from work and had just arrived with her climbing partner David. So we hung around a bit longer. They came from the Dent d'Hérens, a neighboring 4000 meter peak and were asking us about the route for their summit bid the next day.

Mark in massive landscape.
One of only a handful rappels.

On the way down to the valley another party catches up with us. Two guys we met on the mountain and had a bit of a conversation with. One of them is just one mountain short of ticking off all 82 4000 meter peaks in the alps. They seemed to be an interesting couple anyways. They decided to go to Whitehorse, Yukon, in their twenties and built their own little cabin on an uninhabited lake. They lived there happily for a few months until the police showed up and evicted them. Talking to them rekindled my own escapist fantasies. But then again, I still have 74 4000 meter peaks to go before I can leave here ;-)

Shall we trust this? Typical Alpine anchor: a mess of old slings and ropes.
Mark is in this picture.
Final snow field.

Because no trip with Mark and me would be complete without getting at least a little bit lost, we manage to miss the correct trail in the scree field and take an alternate route. Turns out to not even be a detour, just a little rougher a trail, but still. Dang! After a traditional stop at Cindy's diner on the highway home in the middle of the night we finally get home just after midnight. Another great day out! Thank you Mark!

Looking back at the ridge.
Just above the hut on the descent. Easy climbing but still very exposed. We did it unroped and you really shouldn't fall. Muster the last bit of concentration after a long day at altitude.
Chance encounter with Andreea and David. She's a colleague from work. They had just climbed the Dent d'Hérens and were about to head up the Dent Blanche the next morning. Chapeau!
Huge debris fields. Don't sprain your ankle!
Glacier covered in scree. We were discussing how trustworthy these arches might be. Seconds later they were shedding tons of rock and ice.
Hot day causing lots of melt water runoff.
Looking back. We climbed the ridge from the right.
What self respecting mountain aficionado could resist a pyramid of such exquisite beauty? Perfectly symmetrical topo lines.

1 comment:

  1. Attempted and aborted about 2/3rd of the way in 2011, because of the point you noted: you spend a lot of time at altitude and I was being slow. One of only two mountains I have had to turn back on...

    Congratulations on your successful tour; I quite enjoyed reading your report.