Aletsch Express

A small spec on a massive mountain. A guitar strums the first notes and the as the spectator approaches the wall, flying in from a distance, the small shape evolves into a man moving across the dizzying face. It is vertical. This is not just any wall, it is the Nordwall, also known as the Mordwall. The man is not just any man. It is Ueli Steck on the Noth face of the Eiger and with that first clip he entered our world and became the shining example of the modern, speed based alpinist.

In Joe Simpson’s book, “Touching the Void”, he mentions that his desire to climb came from the many books he had devoured as a younger self (1). It was these tales of adventure that had pushed him on towards his first exploit and most famous misadventure, which is the basis of the biography. By reading, he discovered the famous climbers of his age, and came across the past accounts and heroic deeds performed on the vertical walls. The mountains are but inanimate, unmoving objects, and it is the tales of previous attempts that give them their romantic appeal. This is especially true in the Alps, where the sport developed and so many hard routes have been opened. Perhaps one of the most famous books to recount these epic deeds is the “White Spider” by Henrich Harrer (2). The author was one of the four climbers who managed the first ascent of the Eiger’s North face, where so many others had failed. This of course brings us back to Ueli. Even in the first years of the Nordwand saga, people had tried to climb it alone. Some failed and paid for it with their lives, but finally it was soloed (3). But where the first pioneers often spent days to traverse the concave face, our modern man was doing it in under two hours and a half. Seeing him almost running along the top ridge would send a shiver of excitement down our backs. For us a legend was born and a ideal to look up too. Often would we joke of that ascent and his quirky accent, and the strumming guitar would be the soundtrack for our pre-work ski outings (4).


As snow filled clouds start to roll across Europe one again, it is time to draw up new lines and projects, but also look back on last year’s successes and failures. Of all the outings one stands out above the rest and it took place (where else!) in Ueli’s back garden, in his native Switzerland. Having heard that there was a great ski touring potential around the Aletsch glacier (the largest in the Alps) put it firmly on the wish list. After much debate, and having only a few days at our disposal we set off. A band of high pressure had driven temperatures up and our first worry was the snow conditions. Having picked Nic up outside Chambéry we arrived late at Freiburg, where François Xavier (FX) was waiting. After sorting out our gear and a couple of hours sleep we were on the road again. Our objective for the day was to climb out of the Rotten valley. Not having studied the map properly, I hadn’t realised we would be attacking over 2500 m of vertical climb on our first day. With excitement rather than apprehension we started to climb above the snowed chalets, where large amounts of snow still covered the sloping roofs.

Over the course of the next few hours we left civilisation behind. Taking into account the price of lodgings in the Swiss mountain huts we had decided to carry enough equipment to bivouac if necessary. This meant carrying roll-mats, sleeping bags and cooking gear as well as the food. Thankfully we had decided to not take a tent, which meant that our bags were imperceptibly lighter. This was little consolation as we slowly inched up the white faces. Over the course of the morning we went around the Firehorn and set our sights on the first clear objective of the day: the Bächilicke Pass at 3377m. Once we reached it we had already gained 2000 m in one steady push. We were feeling the strain and debated what to do next. After arguing about the multiple alternatives we set off for the Galmihorn peak just above us. I had wanted to camp near the col, but the final decision was to descend and re-climb up to the Oberaarjoch hut. The last few meters to the peak felt very long and although the descent was magical, the reality of starting a third ascent hit home. By this point we had spend many hours under the sun and the ultra-violet rays had taken their toll. I felt sluggish and empty as I followed my companions up to the shelter. It is perched on the rock face and is accessed by a steep ladder. Wondering if any tired climbers had ever fallen just before reaching safety, I slowly entered the hut. Exhausted, we ate, rested and ate some more.

Chocolate sky

The departure was rushed, and in the early morning stupor I forgot my toiletries. That would be something less to carry as we headed for the Fiescher glacier. Before us the Finsteraarhorn rose up like a huge pyramid. Another argument ensued on how to contour the ridge: either ski right around it or take the small steep corridor that shortened the itinerary. We ended up doing the second and soon watched FX disappear down the bumpy slope showering tinkling shards of ice. Nic and I strapped on crampons to descend the hard packed snow. Sweating as I reached the bottom, the view in front was epic. The Fiescher, although smaller than the Aletch, is still impressive. It would become the centrepiece of our tour. From the base of the couloir we climbed the Wyssnollen peak just in front of us. Still very tired from the previous day’s efforts I reached the summit slowly, struggling for breath.

From there we backtracked across the glacier and entered the Finsteraarhorn hut. We rested in the blistering afternoon sun on the terrace in front of the glacier. Loud Americans chattered enthusiastically, blithely ignorant of the sleeping people around them. Feeling worse than the previous day I had hoped to spend the night in the hut and recuperate but soon found out it was full. After spending the evening trying to relax we set out so search for a spot to sleep. We only had to go a few hundred meters and were soon digging into the snow. Unfortunately we quickly hit rock and the resulting shelter was a rather poor creation. The roof was open, half covered with skis and an emergency blanket. I had been tormented trying to decide if I should attempt the peak or try and rest, before falling asleep still uncertain. A few hours later we were up, shivering as we put on our harnesses. We had not gone far before I finally made my decision. A pounding headache and general uneasiness pushed me back to the warmth of the sleeping bag. The sun was still absent from the heavens.

A DIY shelter

Time to climb, or not.

Over the course of the years Ueli became more distinguished in mountaineering circles, and his fame peaked after his ascent of the Annapurna’s massive South Face, which was acclaimed as one of the most notable solos in all of climbing history. I even had the chance to meet him briefly at the Rencontres du Cinema de Montagne where I was helping out and where he came to talk about his exploit. This was a couple of years before he fell to his death on the Nuptse in 2017, which shocked me greatly. Reading about I remember being surprised and especially saddened that the “Swiss Machine” was no more. That was an ill-fitting moniker, taking into his personality as expressed by his  friend Jonathan Griffiths in his touching eulogy (5).

It is strange when our legend disappears, taking a certain magic with them. The eternal question of what adventurers are for is summed up in an Alpine Mag’s article: to inspire, discover and temp us with the question: why not? (6) Always knowing we could not match such prowess, didn’t take away those beautiful images of the Eiger’s north face or the astoundment at hearing incredible speed records. It wouldn’t take away the desire to keep going out there and exploring the great outdoors.

And there was indeed more to explore in the peaks and valley’s surrounding our improvised shelter. From the very beginning of the trip one of my hopes was to see the Aletch glacier and in particular the Konkordiaplatz, where various branches join and create a flat piece of ice over 1 square kilometre. Once Nic and Fx had descended from a successful summit bid on the Finsteraarhorn and after a few hours rest, we stuck out towards the glacial confluence and the refuge that sits, perched high above it. My reticence to spend nights in mountain refuges is down to two factors: the price (especially in Switzerland) and the loss of solitude and wonder that you get when bivouacking in lonely places. But I would definitely say that a night in the Konkordiahütte is worth the exception. The receding glacier means that it can now only be accessed by a metal staircase bolted to the rock, which ascends over 100 meters to the platform. Cooking our meal on the edge of the precipice was a wonderful experience. The dark chocolate slowly melting in our mouths as the last rays of the sun lit up the panorama couldn’t have been sweeter.

A few hours later we were moving again. The staircase lit up in a white neon light by all the headlamps. Skiers, still sleepy but excited about the day’s objective, slowly making their way down the rungs were careful not to slip.  We headed north, multiple groups in front or behind us. As the first splash of colour appeared on the horizon we started to make out the white giants surrounding us. In front we  could see the Hinteres-Fiescherhorn, the culminating point of our expectations.

Ascent via the Fieschersattel

A few hours later and we are sitting in the sun. Around us the ground falls away on all sides. We move around carefully, enjoying the view and pointing out the landmarks that we now recognise. Not so far north a rounded pyramid catches our attention. It is not its shape that awakens our interest, for the south side it is neither spectacular nor aesthetic. Indeed, its name takes this into account, for it is the Ogre, or in german, the Eiger. Surrounded by 4000s that have probably seen many heroic ascents, it is the one we have hear the most about that captures our attention and imagination. It is the scale of its legend that pulls our gaze north.

From the peak we skied down, passing huge blocks of ice, the tormented shapes of seracs giving way to open crevasses. The glacier stretched out in front and we didn’t hesitate. Picking up speed as we reached the flat surface we streamed out across its immensity. Our legs started to ache as the snow beneath the skis kept moving and our small shapes, lost in the huge valley inched their way across. The slight incline gave us enough momentum and after an eternal crouch we slowly came to a stop. Several kilometres in one long push. We only had to skate a few hundred metres to the large rock that would protect us from the midday sun while we ate and waited for things to cool down.

Very much like people coming out from their siesta to enjoy the evening’s amusements, we set forth again once the glare of the sun had somewhat dimished. With Nic’s imperative to resume paternal responsibilities, the only way to finish on a high note would be to camp on one. As the sun sank, we rose on the slopes of the Grosses Wannenhorn. Reaching a decent snowdrift at around 3350m we dug our new shelter into the mountain. Practice makes perfect and this attempt yielded a solid refuge from the wind and cold.

It also proved to be the perfect spot from where to attack the summit the next morning. Rising once again beneath the stars, we advanced on the culminating point. Looking back the orange glow grew brighter on the south horizon. Suddenly the new day flashed across the infinite alpine peaks.

Finishing on a high note

During our own hectic marathon of vertical skiing (7), I thought about how we had evolved over the years from our fist tracks in the Ecrins powder. From a tentative beginning with all the gear and no idea, to a non-stop tour of some of the most beautiful Alpine terrain. From those first glimpses of the Eiger to seeing the actual thing from a neighbouring peak. With these thoughts in mind I decided to read Ueli’s posthumous biography upon return (8). It tells of course the tale of his Himalayan exploits, but what I think is most gratifying is the description of one of his other, perhaps less well known projects: to climb all the Alpine 4000s in a season with no mechanical support. This challenge had indeed already been done, but here the Swiss clearly states that there is no time to beat, no record to break. Indeed, the chapter is entitled: “Rediscovering the Joy of Climbing”. It is an unassuming (as much as possible) account of how he catches up with old friends and climbing companions to tick off the various summits of the list. His passage through the Aletsch region is duly noted, putting our foray into persepective. He mentions the Finsteraarhorn in detail, skiing with his wife: “We reached the highest point of the Bernese Alps in brilliant weather and were completely on our own. We had passed a roped party but they had not arrived yet. When we got back to the hut, I had time to climb the Grünhorn while Nicole was enjoying the afternoon sun on the terrace”

That sums up the whole feel of this part of his biography, which is not about speed but the fun of the mountains. For me the complete definition of ski touring is indeed pleasure tempered by haste. It is often a fast paced activity, where the rhythm is imposed by nature (daylight, snow conditions and weather) and often pushes one to keep going as quickly as possible. This natural cadence has been exaggerated to give way to competitions and records, but has also opened up a new type of mountaineering in itself. The famous Annapurna exploit would not have been possible without such speed. Applying this approach to people of a lesser physical aptitude such as ourselves, it does have its advantages. Not only did it allow us to complete an incredible tour of the glaciers, it also made it possible for Nic to get back to his kids before bedtime. By summiting before sunrise and descending over 3600m before midday, he was back to tuck them in. Any excuse is valid for a fast paced, intense tour.

Aletsch Express, the itinerary

Putting things to scale


Notes

(1) Touching the Void was one of the first mountaineering books I ever read. It should probably put me off the subject, but as the author explains himself, the more infamous the route, the more people want to try it.

(2) Henrich Harrer also went on to climb and travel in the Himalaya before writing an account of his adventures called “7 Years in Tibet”, which has since been made into a film. I thoroughly recommend the book but found the start of the movie unsatisfying. It is truly incredible how one man could have lived such a rich life and stayed alive to tell the tale.

(3) The first climber to solo the Eiger was Michel Darbellay in around 18 hours. Not only did he manage one of the most dangerous achievements of his time, but he lived to tell the tale until his old age.

(4) The song is “Welcome Home, Son”, by Radical Face.

(5) Jonathan Griffith is both an alpinist andl an incredible photographer who accompanied Ueli on many of his exploits. His webpage Alpine Exposures has wealth of stunning pictures but also some interesting tips about mountain photography that I’ve found very useful .

(6) Alpine Mag, 6 dec 2018 « A quoi servent les aventuriers » (French)

(7) During the course of four days and a half I managed to climb over 8800m as measured by our barometer, carrying sleeping and cooking gear. Nic and Fx with the Finsteraarhorn managed to add up an extra 1100 to complete over 9900m.

(8) Ueli steck’s book is called “My life Cimbing”, co-written with Karin Steinbach.

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