2020-09-04

Kingspitze North East Face, via "Steuri", 650m, 5c+/6a

Kingspitze North East face, or: Christian's alpine climbing baptism by fire. After climbing the Vorderspitz, and getting fantastic views into the Kingspitz North East face, it was already clear to us that we had to climb it. So it was, that barely a week after our first visit to the Engelhörner, Luigi and I returned. This time we were accompanied by Christian. Christian is a strong climber and regular gym and crag climbing partner. Until that point he didn't have any alpine multi-pitch experience though. While the route is bolted, it still requires additional protection by placing your own gear. So we decided Luigi and I would lead the entire thing with Christian following. It would be quite a stiff introduction to alpine climbing ;-)

Early morning moon.
On the approach to the Engelhorn hut.
Luigi in front of our objective, comparing the topo to reality to find the start of the route.

The Kingspitz is quite a bit longer than the Vorderspitz route we did last time, so this time around we decided to spend the night in a tent at the parking lot below the Rychenbach alp. A funny difference in perception between me, a parent, and Christian, not (yet) a parent: while he was worried about a short and rough night (sleeping on a mat, getting up at 5 am) I was looking at the same setup as finally getting a good night's sleep. And this is indeed how it turned out for me. Already at 1500 meters altitude the temperatures at night were a lot cooler and more bearable than at home in hot Zürich. And while the night was somewhat short, it was blissfully uninterrupted.

Me about to start on the first real pitch of the climb. At this point we had already scrambled for ~150 meters.
Christian and Luigi coming up the ramp. Following a nice crack.
A short tricky sequence with hardly any structure.

The climb starts with about 100-150 meters of scrambling and easy climbing. Some parties do this unprotected, but we decided to play it safe and rope up. I think both decisions are justifiable and mostly depend on your experience, level of comfort and whether there are other parties in the route (rockfall). I led this part in approach shoes and we got it over with fairly quickly. The primary difficulties consist of route finding and rope drag on the long traverses.

Sun coming up. We only got to enjoy it for a short while in this North East face.
One of the harder pitches: a steep ramp with only small crimps and cracks for progress.

We had a great time once the actual climbing started. The pitches were challenging enough to be interesting, but never so hard as to be intimidating or at our limit. We maintained a rapid pace with Luigi and me switching leads after every one or two pitches. Christian was enjoying himself and easily kept up. Luigi and I as a regular ropeteam have established a lot of weird lingo, insider references, bullshitting, and, most of all, a tradition of swearing and insulting one another non-stop. Christian was quick to pick up on this tradition as well and before long we were all gleefully hurling insults at one another. Good times!

Another one of the harder pitches. Starting on somewhat brittle crumbling rock...
...and traversing into...
...a steep pumpy section.

We were the only party on the mountain that day and made good progress, easily progressing faster than the guidebook suggested. That is, until we reached easier terrain a few pitches below the summit. It was my turn to lead and I had already switched back from tight climbing shoes to more comfortable approach shoes. I didn't study the topo carefully enough and on the easy pitches there are hardly any bolts to indicate where you ought to go. So I just kept going one way until I ran out of rope. Of course I missed the crucial "exit" and had to undo most of the pitch to climb the proper route. Luigi kept cursing about how I'm "piton blind" and "don't see bolts". Most of the time this is actually funny. I'll place a cam half a meter away from the piton because I've failed to notice it. This time it wasted us some time. C'est la vie.

Luigi making it through the steep sequence.
One of the easy pitches. Great views and exposure!
Christian fooling around.

We gained the summit at around half past three. The guidebook explicitly warns not to underestimate the descent and to budget a lot of time for it. So we didn't linger around for too long but started scrambling down the West ridge towards the first rappel. After we were convinced to be on the right track, the descent actually didn't seem all that bad at first. It did require some exposed downclimbing and about half a dozen rappels, but we were making good progress and generally feeling good about it. We had some minor SNAFUs with the rope getting stuck after a rappel, requiring a quick rescue mission. Or evading some rockfall accidentally kicked down by one of us. But it all seemed within normal parameters for this type of terrain.

The pitch leading up to the route book. Still many pitches to go to the summit.
Fun off-width crack climbing.
Christian trying to scale my embattlement.

This all changed when we crossed over the saddle back into the Ochsental valley. The descent route forks, with one route continuing down into the Rosenlaui valley while the option we took goes back towards the Engelhorn hut and thus presents the more direct route for us. What was a proper, if small, trail before, turns into steep scree fields ending in vertical drops. Terrible crumbling rock, no protection and great exposure. The type of terrain where mistakes will kill you. The words of the guidebook weren't enough of a warning to prepare us for this - it had used very similar text to describe the Vorderspitz descent and that turned out not to be so bad. I should have known though, much stronger and more experienced climbers (having climbed all the big North faces of the alps) have opted to never repeat this descent.

Luigi about to start another tricky pitch. This one was defined by a short sequence of pinches on a steep wall.
A few meters into that pitch.
Christian about to "step up".

We eventually reached a steel cable bolted to the rock that serves as a rappel anchor and allowed us to rappel all the way back down to the scree fields of the valley. What a relief! During the scramble Christian kept remarking how this was the most dangerous thing he ever did. While this may not be entirely true for me, it was definitely right up there with the worst descents we did in the Dolomites. Anyway. We all made it back down to safety and Christian has definitely earned his alpine climbing badge! Well done!

Christian and me coming up.
Final few meters before gaining the ridge. Luigi is already in the sun.
Easy terrain on the ridge to the summit.
Waiting my turn.
Christian and me coming up to Luigi on the summit.
The final belay stance. Not too bad ;-)
Summit selfie.
Scrambling down the west ridge.
A few rappels.
Downclimbing.
Nice views on the descent.
Christian scrambling down towards us. Horrible terrain. Loose rock and absolutely unforgiving. He has to climb down, cross the wet streak on the left and then walk towards where I'm standing.
Luigi scouting the descent.
Scrambling down exposed ridges.
Back down in the valley.
Enjoying celebratory beers at the hut while the sun goes down.

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