The Matterhorn Ascent…

Going to bed early was a good idea… But that’s all it was.
Neither Carl or I slept for more than 15 minutes at the Hornli Hutte.  We both laid there for 7 hours – but neither of us slept.  The refuge was very cold, I was tight from the journey up the hut and while I wasn’t gasping for air, periodic deep breaths through the night were necessary due to the altitude.

Carl and I got up at 4:45 to get a jump on the other climbers.  Unfortunately, quite a few others had the same idea.
In addition, The Hornli Hutte has a strange rule:  Nobody is allowed to leave the hut until 5:20AM.  There was literally a line of climbers and guides standing at the door at 5AM waiting to leave.

While climbing Mont Blanc, the Cosmique Refuge had a reasonable french breakfast (toast, cereal, croissants, nutella, jam and coffee).  There was a VERY limited breakfast at the Hornli Hutte.  There were 15 tables on the main floor of the hut, but only 6 of them were set with silverware.  On each of the 6 tables there was a basket of bread and a jar of jam… no coffee, no tea, no service and 65 climbers.  We were almost completely dressed and prepared to leave by 5:15 – but had no sleep and nothing to eat.

While I struggled to come to peace with the idea of many many hours of climbing with no food (we weren’t the first ones downstairs), we had one priority:  We NEEDED to follow the group to know where we were going -The single loudest piece of advice we hear: the route is very, very difficult to follow.  With a few minutes until the doors opened, we discovered that our brand new rope had been wrapped in a funny way and needed to be re-wrapped.  While this only took 2 minutes, it left us leaving the hut behind everyone else… which on this mountain – makes a world of difference.
After fixing the rope,  left the hut and had only a guide and his climber directly in front of us – no one else in sight.
As we headed out we zoomed in with Carl’s magical 8Million X zoom and took a picture of Zermatt…

Carl and I moved at the pace of a slow jog to get to the initial ascent.  For a first time climber, running up a narrow ridge with nothing but a headlamp and moonlight above you isn’t the most comforting way to start a climb.  But in short order we made it to the first wall – a very clearly marked wall with a few supports.  Unfortunately this was as comfortable as we would be on this climb.  There’s not much to see here, but it’s all we could see ourselves…

Within the first 15 minutes, we had temporarily lost sight of the two climbers in front of us.  While we had heard that staying on route could be challenging, we didn’t fully grasp exactly why until this moment.  In an instant, the person in front of you can step around a corner or eclipse a crest and be completely out of sight – and out of ear shot.  Very often you needed to follow a small ledge to find the next point to ascend – and when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff with a several thousand foot drop below you – walking out on a ledge isn’t the most intuitive next step.

During the next 4 hours of the climb we found ourselves off the route at least 6 times.  At the top of almost every climb we had to scout out the route and hope that we were following the traveled path.  Needless to say, this took a LOT of time – and stopping just once to explore our options left us behind the climbers who knew the route (95% of which had guides).  But beyond the amount of time it was taking, being “off route” posed some very serious safety concerns.

The Matterhorn is made up of a tremendous of amount of lose boulders.  Unfortunately, good weather on the mountain is a mixed blessing.  With rain and snow, these 500 lb boulders tend to hold in place – but the ice is a much greater issue with a steep climb.  With better weather, the route itself is safer but being off route amplifies a climber’s exposure to rock slides as the warmer rocks are often just balancing in place.  Any lose rocks on the route are moved or worked around as more and more climbers use the Hornli Route each year.  A good indicator you are not on route is hand holds and foot holds that move as you pull yourself up the mountain…

While we were certainly off route a great deal of the time, we kept finding our way back to places that other climbers had clearly been.  We would find scratch marks in the rocks from crampons, stomped down dirt and occasionally an anchor left in the rock.  We were confident we were on the right route at those points – until about 5 hours in… when we found ourselves at the bottom of a couloir in a scree field.

A couloir is essentially a funnel on a mountain.  All of the loose rock from above end up falling through this passage as it tumbles down the mountain.  A scree field is the result of falling rock.  It is a collection of all of the lose rock on the mountain – from small rocks to huge boulders.  The identifying attribute of the scree field is that none of the rock is stable.  Every step is met with a shift in the rock and every time you reach for a handhold, it’s necessary to test how much force can be put on the hold before it moves.

After 45 minutes of navigating our way through the scree field we were completely unclear on which direction to go.  We tested 4 different routes, all of which were met with moving rock, shear drops or inverted climbs – none of which seemed to be the correct route.  There’s nothing like being lost on a mountain when it looks like the clouds may be moving in…

This pic is from our “guide book” – just to give you an idea of what kind of instructions we were trying to follow…

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It never feels good to get rejected…

Today we put the final touches on preparing our gear for the Mont Blanc climb.

While it is critical to have warm enough clothing, adequate water and back up safety measures for a high altitude climb, those are also the items that add weight to your pack.  With several hours added to our journey, the less weight we have to carry, the better. Every extra layer, change of socks, underwear and tool that we carry adds weight to an already heavy bag that we need to carry up three mountains.
***Click below if you don’t see a video***

After a big breakfast in Chamonix, we ran some last minute errands and hustled over to the lift.  We plotted out our time line the night before to make sure we had adequate time to make it to the Cosmique hut for dinner before our few hours of rest.  As we ran to the door of the lift, we were greeted by a staff member…
***Click below if you don’t see a video***

Unfortunately, the wind is expected to be equally strong tomorrow – AND – the Cosmique hut is already booked for the next four nights.  Our window of opportunity is closing.  After talking to locals, IF the lift is open tomorrow or the next day, that leaves us with two options:  camping in the snow for the night at 12,000 feet or sleeping in the bathroom at that last cable car stop – L’Aigille du Midi.

Stay tuned…

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(posted by Carl Drew)
Today was the first of many days we will be spending at high altitude. Today we spent roughly 7 hours hiking behind L’Aguille du Midi – the highest point a lift will take you (12,000 feet). The weather still isn’t good enough to safely ascend Mont Blanc so our top priority is getting acclimatized for the inevitable ascent.

Midi Aside from spending our first significant chunk of time in high altitude, we also accomplished a few other goals… Brad had a chance to get some more experience with being exposed on the mountain – as I think he mentioned, the entrance to the Three Mont Route does not allow a missed step. He definitely took a few steps in the right direction as far as getting more comfortable with the exposure on the mountain is concerned.

Because of the length of the Three Mont Route (potentially 13-18 hours), it’s incredibly important to utilize every minute we can to push the climb forward. With the first lift headed up to L’Aguille du Midi at 8:10AM and the last lift coming down at 5:30PM (only about a 9 hour gap), it’s important that we sleep on the mountain the night before the climb. There are two options for this; camping on a glacier or the Cosmique Refuge. Unfortunately we have heard that the refuse is often full.

The Cosmique Refuge is a little over an hour hike from L’Aguille du Midi, so we hoofed it on over to look into the sleeping arrangements. As it turns out, they have pretty nice accommodations for a 12,000 ft hut. They provide a meal at night and a breakfast at 1AM, 3AM or 5AM (though we’re not quite sure what kind of food we would be eating). The rooms hold “group bunk beds” with single foam mattresses all lined up next to each other and a blanket and pillow is provided for those who are lucky enough to get a reservation.

Lucky for us, tomorrow night has an opening. Unfortunately, the four days following that are already completely full. Hopefully we’ll be able to summit Mont Blanc and get back to the lift by 5:30PM…

otherwise we’re going to have an issue…

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Mer de Glace

(Brad’s Thought’s)

After looking at the first 100 meters of the Three Mont Route, my lack of mountain climbing experience set in. Specifically, I had never worn crampons before. Walking out on this ridge with a pair of heavy metal spikes strapped to my boots seemed like an absurd idea. In fact, before I knew it was the entrance to the route I told Carl that only crazy people would walk on that ridge.

With the weather conditions being poor on the mountain and my lack of experience, we decided to spend some time training on a glacier at roughly 6,000 ft (“Mer de Glace”). The city of Mont Blanc spends a great deal of time maintaining an ice cave that has been dug into a hole in the glacier, but what was of interest to us was the surface above the cave.

I’ll tell you this – walking on ice with giant spikes metal spikes strapped to your feet takes some getting used to. Un. Comfort. Able. But INCREDIBLY valuable. I had a chance to walk some extremely narrow ridges (all solid ice), climb up some near vertical walls with only my ice ax and crampons and jump across crevasses. From a mountaineers perspective, this is all very mellow activity – but certainly not for the faint of heart.

Simply the approach and exit to the glacier presented some problems for a novice mountaineer. There was not a clear cut path to get on the glacier so the first step was to find an access point. Once we did, the only way down to the ice was to slide down 20 feet of rock to a small foot hold, then slide the remaining 20-30 feet to the boulder below (which sits next to the glacier).

While the ice presented great lessons and practice for our journey, our trip back to Chamonix should not be ignored. The only exit to the Glacier (unless you have a 20 foot vertical jump) was to climb up what can only be described as an unsupported via ferrata. There are a series of ladders, tiny metal foot platforms and rungs that take people up the side of a very steep mountain to a train back to Chamonix.

A ladder’s a ladder right? I mean, if you know how to climb a ladder, why should it matter where it is? The rungs and the tiny footholds – well that may be a different story. But either way, the challenge is knowing how far you would fall if your step was just a little off… no harness, no safety net, just rock below. Walking and climbing ladders is easy…

I just hope there’s a method to this madness…

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Chamonix, Rhône-Alpes, France

After TWO separate 27 EURO fees to cross a bridge, then use a tunnel, we arrived in Chamonix, France today.  It’s a gorgeous little town in a valley between several mountains in the area.  Most notably, it’s one of two cities that climbers use to access the Mont Blanc routes (the other is in Italy).

Our first order of business was to find lodging for the group and do some initial research on mountain conditions, route conditions and lodging possibilities on the mountain itself.  Lodging for the group was relatively easy.  The other items took a little more energy…

The “information center” didn’t seem too friendly, the local climbing store didn’t seem to have a very good grip on english and the local climbers we talked to seemed to have slightly different information than the shops.  There WAS however one thing that everyone seemed to agree on:  The Gouter Route (which is what we had charted out, learned and planned on taking) was not safe do to excessive rock fall.

In short, the Gouter Route is the most travelled route and also the most balanced. Essentially, there is a hut midway through the route which allows you to have two equally long days of climbing.  But because of the lack of snow this year, the rock on the route has become less stable and has resulted in more rock fall than usual.

The second most traveled route is La Trois Mont Route (The Three Mont route).  With the current conditions, this is the safest of the five routes.  The downside: The route is a couple hours longer than The Goutier Route AND it has to be done in one day.  For us, that means a 16 or 17 hour day of climbing – that HAS be be concluded by the last tram down, which leaves at 5:30… That means a VERY early day for Brad and Carl…


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La Colmaine Via Ferrata

The “La Colmaine”Via Ferrata climb has been a gripping experience. We were blessed by the joining of two friends on the climb, Heather Drew (Carl’s wife), and Drew Weiland (a recent friend). During the climb we were able to begin acclimatizing, but it also served as a great exercise in teamwork, trust in our equipment and dealing with exposure to great heights. All of which will be crucial during our attempts to summit the big mountains we will be tackling in next days to come.

The route was a NOT for the faint of heart. The route begins at about 5,500 feet above sea level and reaches a summit of about 7,000 feet. We found ourselves constantly switching between: scaling and traversing shear cliffs, walking across tight ropes that spanned 150 feet between cliff faces, and crossing swinging bridges suspended between rock spires. At times a single foot hold made of a ½” rebar and a one hand grip onto small cracks in the rock was what held us onto shear cliffs that towered more than 500 feet above the bolder strewn valley below us.

Despite our having safety harness and being clipped into the route, it did not take a lot of mental energy to imagine how catastrophic a fall from this height would be. Yet, among all the vertical fears we knew the most important factors were focusing on the next move, our team mates, and trusting in our equipment. We also noted the value of taking a break from focusing on the fear and the goal of moving forward, so that we could take in the amazing beauty of the sights that surrounded us.

At one point during the climb we joined by a special mountain friend, Billy. He kept things very entertaining; he took a special liking to Carl and followed him closely for quite a while. We’re still not sure on who is the better climber, Carl or Billy the mountain goat, but apparently goats are not that good at crossing tight wires, so we were eventually able to leave him behind. It was a bittersweet departing, but we felt good knowing we didn’t have to be embarrassed knowing that a goat could do everything we were doing.



With a 1 hours decent from our high point, we found ourselves arriving in the parking lot as the sun was setting… and off to the east we were able to see one of the most beautiful moon crescents any of us have ever seen.



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Via Ferrata Acclimatization

For the last few days we have been making our way up the Mofia cost of Italy, along the French Rivera, and through the foot hills of the French Alps towards our first stop. While the first large mountain we’ll be climbing is Mont Blanc, we need time for our bodies to acclimatize to the high altitude.  To help accomplish this, we will be climbing a Via Ferrata route in the Parc National Mercantour (VIA FERRATA du BAUS DE LA FREMA, COLMIANE, ALPES MARITIME, FRANCE). This will give us some entertainment, a little exercise and most importantly a chance to acclimate to the altitude in the mountains.

A via ferrata (Italian for “road with irons”) is a mountain route which is equipped with fixed cables, ladders, and bridges. Climbers can follow via ferrate without needing to use their own ropes as they can clip into the protective cables that follow along the route.  The first via ferrate were built in the Dolomite mountain region of Italy during the First World War, to aid the movement of the Italian mountain infantry, but today these kind of routes exist in mountain ranges throughout Europe and are a great recreational activity for the vertically inclined adventurer in all of us.

After a fun day of Via Ferrata climbing in the French Alps, we’ll return to our hotel and begin preparations for a day of canyoning in one of only two locations in Europe that provide this type of sporting activity.

Stay tuned for a post and pictures of today’s Via Ferratta climb.

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