Welcome to the Climbing Adventure of Brad Weimert and Carl Drew. Over the first three weeks of September, 2011 we will set out to climb Mont Blanc, The Matterhorn and The Eiger. This will be an ongoing log of our experiences – through stories, pictures and videos.
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.
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.
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…
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…
(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…
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***
***Click below if you don’t see a video***
Have you ever slept with a garden hose in your mouth?
Me either – but sleeping at 12,000 ft is sort of similar. At 12,000 feet you are breathing roughly 64% of the oxygen that you would normally breath at sea level. Our bodies are conditioned to breath at a certain rate while we sleep to keep us alive. That rate will not keep us alive when there is 36% less oxygen in the air. The result: every 15 minutes or so your body gasps a little for air – which makes it very difficult to sleep.
After laying in bed for about 4 hours Carl nudged me and said that it was 1:30AM and nobody had been in to wake people up. We both quickly threw on some clothes and ran down the steps to scarf down some breakfast. We were met with an unhappy cook who told us breakfast was over.
*I’m not too proud to beg for food*
The idea of climbing all day on an empty stomach did NOT sound great. With a little pleading, we got a few slices of bread, some Nutella, cornflakes and a bowl of coffee. Four minutes of downing food didn’t make me feel Great… but it was better than not eating.
A group of roughly 40 climbers had already hit the trail as we put the finishing touches on our gear.
We decided that unloading a few extra pounds from our bags would make the next several hours more pleasant. So at the base of the hill below the Cosmique Refuge we put a stake in the snow and tied a couple bags of gear to it. An extra pair of gloves, light weight clothing to wear in the Refuge and dirty socks could stay behind.
As we trekked across the valley in the dark, we could see the climber’s trail of tiny lights far above us. It was impossible to tell just how far ahead they were, but it was cool to get a glimpse of where we were headed. The excitement of seeing climbers in the distance grew daunting as the night went on.
As we pushed up the first of the three mountains (Mont Blanc Tacul), I began to feel increasingly ill. I wasn’t sure if it was from the altitude, the lack of sleep or the sludge we ate for dinner the night before. When you’re on the side of a steep mountain, kicking your crampons into the snow to get a foot hold and jamming the tip of your ice axe into the snow above to climb – there’s just not any time to stop and address a little feeling of sickness. So we climbed on for the next two hours.
It was only then that we encountered the first flat area of our climb. Next to a giant crevasse, we found ourselves on an ice bridge that was about ten feet wide and twenty feet long. It’s important to note that as a rule, you never stop on an ice bridge or while crossing a crevasse. As days, weeks and years pass the constant change in temperature can dramatically affect the stability of these features on the mountain and cause it weaken.
Then it hit me. No question about it. It was the food from the night before that was making me ill – and my body didn’t want to throw up the food… nope. It wanted to come out another way… and fast.
The challenge with relieving your bowels on a mountain is that beyond the multiple layers of clothing you have on, you are connected to your climbing partner with a rope. This rope is hooked in to your harness, which is tightly secured over all of those layers. Not only is it time consuming and inconvenient to undo the harness and disrobe – it’s also incredibly dangerous. Taking off your harness leaves you with zero security. Without a harness, there is nothing to stop your fall if something goes wrong. You are completely exposed.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of an unforeseen incident increases when you’re hanging out on an ice bridge next to a large crevasse. This particular bridge had a very small footpath through the center of it – with the edges untouched. It is VERY important to stay out of fresh snow when on a bridge. Those areas could simply be snow bridges with no footing underneath. But I couldn’t go right on the trail… and when ya gotta go, ya gotta go!
Stepping a foot off the trail, I raced my own body as I dropped my harness and disrobed. FORTUNATELY, Carl was smart enough to put some toilet paper in my pack the night before – lifesaver. What I failed to remember: When you defecate, your body tends to urinate as well. While I got half of it right – I failed to point everything in the preferred direction. Yes yes, I just said that. And yes – I did that. AND I didn’t realize it until I had a small pond in my thermal underwear.
So what do you do in this situation? Put on a different pair? Wring them out? Stop at the laundry mat? Nope. Continue climbing… for the next 15 hours. All you can do is HOPE they dry as you climb – otherwise they’ll keep you shivering the whole time.
Carl gets EXTRA points for packing Imodium AD (an anti-diarrhetic) our emergency kit. It’s really amazing that a little pill like that could so dramatically alter the course of the several hours. It’s a great reminder of just how important the Angel Wings mission to build hospitals in Haiti really is. Because of the countries I live and travel in (and Carl’s forethought!), I had the luxury of having a a pill to make my life easier and more convenient. There are far more critical conditions in Haiti – left with no medication, no attention and no solution. I’m grateful that there are people like the staff and supporters of Angel Wings to help fix that. And I’m immediately grateful for Carl – who helped stop my from running a bad course.
As we moved on from the ice bridge, we continued on a steep ascent. We passed over the largest crevasse we had encountered so far (via a very narrow path) and moved over the top of Mont Blanc Tacul. It was another flat spot and we took the opportunity to rest for a few minutes…
stay tuned for the next chunk of the adventure…
As we journeyed down the back side of the first of The Three Monts, it started to get a little lighter outside… the sun was going to rise soon and we could start to see the features on the mountain ahead of us. Far off in the distance, we saw the crux (most difficult part) of the Three Mont Route – The Pass of Mont Maudit.
Mont Maudit was by far the steepest ascent of the journey. We moved back and forth across the face of Mont Maudit on very narrow traverses that were comprised of single foot or toe holds and mandated the use of an ice axe to move upward. It was during the second mountain that both of our weaknesses were becoming clear.
Carl and I both have strengths and weaknesses – unfortunately they are not particularly complimentary as far as climbing is concerned. While Carl is a very strong climber and very technically skilled (and I am a very novice, green mountaineer), he has not trained in quite some time and his physical stamina is low (this is an area where I am at an advantage). Without proper physical training, your body slows down a great deal after 4-5 hours of constant physical activity.
Our pace moving up Mont Maudit slowed dramatically. Carl pushed forward with vigor but it became increasingly difficult to get in a rhythm. Having this sort of staccato approach to ascension takes a toll on your body and spirit. Not only was the extended amount of exercise starting to have an impact, the altitude was starting to become a factor. We were now over 14,000 feet and it was becoming more difficult to keep from getting winded.
As we moved horizontally across a very narrow, single boot foot path on the side of Mont Maudit, we saw the last group of people in front of us heading through the Pass of Mont Maudit. The Pass itself started with a huge crevasse that had an strange ice bridge across it that took for form of 3 or 4 very steep stairs. What was unique about this crevasse was that immediately after it there was no place to stand. The other side of the crevasse was a near vertical climb that relied on using and axe and kicking your crampons in to the snow and ice. A slip here could mean falling into the crevasse – and there was very little protection your climbing partner can offer in this situation.
Carl’s expertise is what got us through the Pass. Without it, I personally would have been in much greater danger and had to take unnecessary risks. With a rope between us, Carl began to climb quickly up and over the large crevasse and began methodically climbing up the steep Pass – one crampon kick and axe swing at a time. When our thirty meter rope was stretched fully between us, I began the climb.
Both of us climbing at the same time is referred to as a “Simul-climb”. Without being anchored to any point on the mountain, this pass posed a larger risk than any other part of the journey. Roughly 50 meters up the Pass Carl was able to anchor in to a rock and belay me up to the anchor. From there, we tackled the second 50 meters in the same fashion until we reached the top of the Pass, which had a quick but now completely vertical climb.
From the top of Mont Maudit, we could see Mont Blanc in all its glory. Unfortunately, its close appearance was very deceiving. While coming down the back of the second mountain, we stopped for a couple minutes…
Oh, and should probably take this opportunity to point out that a lack of oxygen tends to make people a little wacky…
Just to put this in perspective for you, I asked my good buddy Google to tell us a little about how much oxygen your body receives at 15,000 feet…
Mont Blanc itself is a very long, relatively uneventful mountain. The ascent was full of steep switchbacks and lasted for hours and hours. Every crest we eclipsed unveiled another climb towards the top that subjected us to a little more wind and colder and colder weather. Finally, with very cold toes and fingers, we reached the summit!
As Carl mentioned, the challenge at this point was that the ascent took us 9.5 hours – and if we missed the cable car down at 5:30pm we would have no place to sleep as The Cosmique Hut already let us know that they did not have space. That leaves us one option if we miss the last lift… the outhouse-like bathroom at L’Aguille du Midi…
Unlike the next mountain we’ll be tackling which is an entirely vertical climb and then decent, The Three Mont Route has nearly a vertical mile of climbing (5529 ft UP), but has 4359 feet of decent mixed in between each mountain. Climbing back over both Mont Maudit AND Mont Blanc Tacul was going to take some time.
With the help of a little caffeinated Hammer Gel, Carl and I kicked it into gear and made it back to the Pass of Mont Maudit in about 2 hours – which put us in a good position to make the last tram. Unfortunately, as we reached the top of the pass, we found 3 guides and roughly 12 climbers waiting to descend the front of the Mont Maudit pass.
I can tell you from experience; climbing DOWN a vertical ice/snow wall is much more meticulous and intense than climbing up one. When you throw in another handful of climbers that are trying to use the same pass at different speeds, it amplifies the effects. Ideally we would have had about 60 meters of rope to make the safest decent – unfortunately we only brought 30 meters… Carl deserves a LOT of credit for some very creative rope work. With a little creativity, we managed to stay relatively safe and get down the Pass. Unfortunately we spent about 90 minutes doing so.
When we realized that there was no possible way to catch the last tram, our pace slowed… neither of us was excited to sleep in the bathroom – which is essentially an outhouse. None the less, we pushed on. I was NOT interested in getting caught on the mountain after dark.
After another hour of hiking, a few large crevasses and an all too familiar ice bridge, we found ourselves at the top of Mont Blanc Tacul – and we could now see the Cosmique Hut. Unfortunately it was now 6pm.
While we knew the hut was booked, we had met SEVERAL people on the mountain who seemed to be in our predicament – they were returning too late for the last cable car down, but still needed a place to sleep. We weren’t sure how everything would pan out, but we knew that IF there was any “extra” space at the hut, it would be first come first serve. Time to hustle…
Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, Carl and I disconnected the rope between us. At this point, my endurance would have a chance to serve us well. Carl continued to the hut at his own pace while I trekked forward with as much speed as possible – doing what I could to reach the hut before the other mountaineers who were without a room. There was no evidence to suggest that we would have a place to stay – but I knew we’d still have the best chance if I got to the hut before the other climbers.
From the bottom of Mont Blanc Tucal the trek to the Cosmique Hut appears very short… but a 3 mile hike can look that way on when you’re in the mountains. To say it was a draining experience to make it to the hut would be a horribly inaccurate understatement – but all I could keep thinking was how much I did NOT want to hike an extra hour up the knife ridge just to sleep in the L’Aguille du Midi bathroom. I was also dying for food – and I’m fairly sure the “food” in L’Auille du Midi at that point was not something we’d want to eat.
As I stumbled into the hut I began thinking about the motivating factors behind this climb; fundraising, experience, bonding, physical challenge, personal growth and a variety of others. As I approached the counter of the Cosmique Hut, I felt a landslide of emotion coming on. I knew the person working the desk from the night before – and while she was a nice, she was a less than accommodating hostess (which is to be expected at a 12k foot refuge). After 17 hours of climbing and hiking, I’m sure I looked like a complete mess.
For what seemed like a half hour, I let my heart out to this woman. I explained our mission, the challenges we had faced with the route, then the weather and most recently the congestion at the Mont Maudit Pass. I spoke from the heart and explained just how grateful we were for what the hut had been able to offer us the night before the climb. I did everything I could to paint the “Climbing For Charity” picture.
We didn’t spend the night on the floor of the latrine that night. In fact, we didn’t even need to skip another meal. As Carl reached the hut at 7:30PM – more than 17 hours after our departure that morning – we found ourselves with a warm meal, great company and two beds to sleep in. It’s amazing how grateful I felt for a thin mattress in a group bunk bed with a dirty blanket.
As I fell asleep that night, I remembered once again just how important the Angel Wings foundation is. Carl and I were exhausted from nearly a full day of exercise – but there are thousands of people who have serious medical conditions and don’t receive even close to the same accommodations while being treated. I went to sleep feeling fortunate to have the opportunity, time and energy to raise money and awareness to change that.
Thanks for following the journey and helping us with the cause…
And thanks to Mont Blanc and Chamonix for the lessons they’ve taught us.
On to The Matterhorn!!
After a few grateful hours of sleep and a traditional french breakfast (7am breakfast for us), we left The Cosmique Refuge, hiked the ridge to L’Aguille du Midi and took a tram back to our friends and family in Chamonix. A shower, toothpaste and real food never felt so good. Carl and I were both happy to finish such a long climb.
After a couple hours of rest and relaxation with Heather and Drew, we started on our journey to the next mountain: The Matterhorn.
The Matterhorn is one of the most iconic mountains in Europe, and is located in Zermatt, Switzerland. Zermatt is was first identified on a map in 1495, but was thought to be settled many years before. One of the particularly interesting facts about Zermatt: No road leads there. The closest you can get is a town by the name of “Tasch”, where you must take a train in to Zermatt. The Matterhorn itself was first summited by Ed Whimper inn 1859… half his team didn’t make it down alive after the first successful summit.
After the train ride in, Carl grabbed my arm and we quickly embarked on our explorative mission: setting the stage for our next climb. We needed to know weather conditions, the gear needed, the suggested route, cable car and train schedules to get the highest point on the mountain and refuge lodging accommodations. Unfortunately, there’s no “one stop shop” for this.
After talking to the people at The Zermatt Information Center and several climbers in a variety of climbing stores, we felt like we had a decent grip on the “lay of the land”. Despite differences in personal skill, each person we talked to echoed the same thoughts: As long as you stay on the route, you’ll be fine with the the gear you have.
Carl Drew is one of the most planned, well though out, prepared people you’ll ever meet in your life. We have all the gear you could possibly need. Carl was pretty clear on the gear we’d need – but what neither of us was clear on: How much rope we’d need.
*** A Little Mountaineering Lesson ***
The significant threat on Mont Blanc was falling into Crevasses. Of course there was some threat of falling off a ledge or sliding down a several thousand foot slope – but the most significant danger were the apparent and hidden crevasses. The goal in this environment is to keep enough rope between you to allow time to react if someone falls, but not so much that they could hit the bottom or a crevasse if they fall.
The significant threat on The Matterhorn is falling off a the mountain. No crevasses, no snow, just unstable rocks, unsecured movements and very, very step ledges. This was a threat while climbing – but is considered a much larger threat during the decent from the summit. The likelihood of slipping and falling is much higher when you can’t see the footing below you. If your rope is too short – you may not be able to lower your partner to the ledge below you while descending.
We own – and have been using a 30 meter rope up until this point. The only time we could have used a longer rope thus far was during the Mont Maudit decent. But in Zermatt, EVERY person we talked to addressed this specifically: 30 meters should be fine, IF you stay on route. The implication: if you get off route, you won’t be able to get down with a a rope that length.
We took two significant things from this:
1) We needed a longer rope.
2) The route was not easy to follow.
As with any climb, the weather plays a huge role when attempting The Matterhorn. This particular mountain is unusually dangerous after snow or rain. There is very little security as you climb – a small slip could have a fatal result. Unfortunately our arrival to Zermatt was met with a viscous thunder storm – which meant snow and ice on the mountain.
Our hope is that after a couple days of sunshine the mountain will be in good enough condition to climb safely.
The weather forecast in Zermatt looked good after the storm. With a couple days of sunshine, the majority of the snow and ice on The Matterhorn should have melted off, offering a relatively safe route up the mountain. With this in mind, we booked two nights at the the refuge at the based of the mountain; The “Hornli Hutte”. As with Mont Blanc, our plan was to sleep at the refuge the night before, wake up very early the next day and head for the summit.
Two days after the storm, we woke up early to prep for the journey. We made a decision to bring a longer rope with us, so a quick run down to one of the local climbing stores was necessary. We ultimately went with a 70 meter rope, which we really looked at as our safety net. The downfall to carrying this rope is it added another 10 pounds to my pack – very unwanted weight. I also had the good fortune of paying entirely too much for the rope – which is really to be expected in Zermatt. Can’t put a price on safety though right? Well – I guess the climbing store can actually…
We unpacked, organized and repacked all of our gear, xeroxed our route from a guide book and headed off to the lift. We weren’t entirely sure what equipment we’d need on the mountain, so we brought EVERYTHING with us. Worst case scenario we could leave things at the refuge – but at least we’d be prepared. But that just bumped up the weight of our packs again. What we WERE certain of was the exact amount of Hammer Gel, and Hammer Nutrition fuel we would need. This is a staple in our diet while climbing.
From the city of Zermatt, we had to take two cable cars and then hike half day hike to get to the Hornli Hutte. Our last minute packing left us running to catch the last cable car with our now VERY heavy backpacks and boots on. With the time on our trip running out and uncertain weather conditions, this was our one and only chance to climb the Matterhorn. Fortunately we are fairly well acclimatized at this point, so the 6,000 ft elevation of Zermatt didn’t slow us down too much.
While being acclimatized is nice – the “little” half day hike up the Hornli Hutte was far from pleasant. Between the obnoxious weight of our bags and the pitch of the route, the journey to the hut alone felt like an adventure.
The accommodations at the Hornli Hutte was a few steps down from the Cosmique Refuge. There was one toilet on each floor, no running water and no heat. Of course, what we were most concerned with was certainly a bed to sleep in and a good starting point for the climb – which the hut certainly provided.
In addition to the extravagant accommodations, the hut offered some good conversation with fellow climbers. We met a couple climbers from Holland who clearly had experience and some insight on the route. With their guidance, we paired our backpacks down to nearly nothing. Before the end of the day my pack was locked and loaded with no more than my ax, emergency kit, very long rope, fuel and water. We packed a number of carabiners and slings on our harnesses as well, but it was roughly 20% of the gear we hauled up to the Hut.
We went to bed at 8PM that night – aiming for a solid 7-8 hours of sleep.
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…
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…
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…
After working a few different angles in the scree covered couloir, we found what looked like a secure rock tie onto. We pulled out our xeroxed copy of the route description and read through it yet again. But somehow “look for the yellow-brown rocks next to tower, go L 3 Meters to the chimney and continue up ridge 50 Meters to tower” was not a good enough explanation for us – imagine that.
As we folded up the papers and tucked them away, a loud bang gave me a visceral reaction. Carl and I both immediately looked up the mountain and around us – hoping not to see any movement…
We had been hearing that sound all week in Chamonix – the sound of rock fall; the sound of a very large boulder slipping out of place and falling down the mountain causing a rock avalanche to be released. When you’re tied at half way up a couloir where most rockfall will come blasting down at you obliterating anything in its path, this is NOT the sound you want to hear. Fortunately, in this case we didn’t see any falling rock.
With an hour spent on navigating the scree covered couloir, we looked at the clock; it was 10:45AM. We were 5 hours into the climb at this point and way off schedule. If we were going to be able to make the summit at all, we’d need to know exactly where we were going and start moving quickly. As we discussed our options, a group of German climbers mounted the top of the ridge we were below. We had heard from climbers at the Hornli Hutte that they got stuck at the top of the mountain the day before and had to stay in the emergency Refuge 75% of the way up the mountain – the Solvay Hut.
The Solvay Hut is the last salvation for a climber stuck on the mountain after dark. There’s no heat, no water, no sheets, pillows or blankets. It will get you out of the elements if there’s a storm, but won’t help much beyond that unless you have a sleeping bag and food in your pack to get you through the night. The German climbers didn’t seemed too thrilled to be coming down a day late, and they seemed to be a bit worn from spending an entire night at altitude… but they WERE alive and happy to be able to get off the mountain. We were thankful for their presence as they were able to point us to the route!
Carl and I hustled up the ridge as fast as we could. The climbing grew steeper as we got higher, but we were able to move much quicker now that the hand holds didn’t move and we had a more secure route to move on. In addition, by this point we were becoming accustomed to the exposure the Mattherhorn presents in the way of shear cliffs and our climbing took on more of a smooth bounding and leaping technique. Carl made mention on several occasions that he was blown away by the growth of my climbing skills over the past few weeks, and that it was only because of this growth that we were able to now move quickly on the Matterhorn.
Placing less protection and moving quickly seemed to be the choice approach for Carl others who were making timely progress on the peak. It meant we could move quicker, spend less time in “the danger zones”, and have a chance to rapidly ascend the peak. On the flip side, it meant that Carl could take a 75 foot plunge before there was any chance of the rope stopping him, the same rope I was attached to.
In many cases there simply was no place to fix an anchor and I found myself mounting a ledge to find Carl using a body belay to secure me incase I pulled out a rock or slipped while climbing. It was of very little comfort to know that if I biffed it on a handhold or foot hold and took a plunge, Carl would be joining me for speedy tumble down the east face of the Matterhorn… but it was the way this peak is climbed. Go fast, go light, or go home. As we got to a bend in the ridge, we could see the Solvay Hut clearly. Unfortunately, the ONE valuable piece of information the guidebook DID have to offer: It takes twice as long to get down as it does to ascend – so if you haven’t made it to the Solvay Hut in the first 3 hours, you should turn back. We were now 5 and a half hours in and just approaching the hut.
Many climbers we talked to referenced The Matterhorn as as one of “The Most Difficult Mountains to Navigate”. The guides that worked on the mountain said that you can expect to get lost the first 5-10 times you climb it, and navigating after nightfall is the worst decision you can make. We knew that we could stay in the Solvay hut if we didn’t get down before dark, but we didn’t have any sleeping bags or food to get us through the night so it would be a rough 24 hours for both of us. It seemed like a risky move to continue without a clear route past the hut – but we both wanted to push on.
As we began to move again, we saw a large cloud front moving in on the mountain. This was the nail in the coffin for us. Moving up the mountain without a clear route was difficult, but trying to navigate through a storm at the same time was a different story altogether. Neither Carl nor I were interested in entering into situation with risks that we could not predict or back out of. Making the decision was not hard, but turning around was. We had set a goal for ourselves, and had gone through all the steps necessary to succeed, but the cards were quickly stacking against us. The challenge at this point was finding the route back down. From the start, this was the challenge we were warned of – staying on route coming DOWN was the dangerous part of the mountain.
One of the particularly dangerous parts of the descent was how it was supposed to be executed. On most mountains, you face the rock for most of the descent and climb down and used fix lines, rappels, or walk offs to descend the mountain. While there are several points on the Matterhorn where you do this, the recommended method for 90% of the decent is to face outward and slide or jump down to the rock below while your partner above feeds you out slack on the rope. This can be a faster way to descend but it is definitely a less secure way to travel, especially for the last climber coming down, which in this case was thankfully Carl.
As we made it to the bottom of the ridge we were on (still many hours from our starting point), we stopped for a minute to squeeze some Hammer Gel into our mouths to keep our energy up. This turned out to be fantastic timing as we bumped into a guide and their climber who had made the same decision to turn around. It felt great to have our decision confirmed, but it also gave us a lot of security as the guide knew the mountain well. And as it turned out, the guide actually slept in the bunk next to us when we climbed Mont Blanc. Having a little rapport with this guy was fantastic – and definitely helped the language barrier.
As Carl and I made it back to the Hornli Hutte, and then went on a several hour journey to the lift. Both of us were quite frustrated with the fact that we had to turn back before summiting, especially given our fitness and acclimatization level at this point, the speed at which we were both physically able to move up the peak, and our lack of fatigue due to constant fueling with Hammer Nutrition Products. Ultimately we both knew that it was the right decision to turn back, but it leaves a hole in our hearts as we’ll need to leave Zermatt tonight. The Matterhorn Summit will be looming until we make it back to the Hornli Hutte someday…
Discussions continued on the hike down about what we learned from the climb. We both expressed our frustration with not having a chance to to summit the Matterhorn – but there was no question that we made the right decision. It’s frequently not the ascent of a mountain that causes fatalities – but the descent after pushing the envelope.
Besides, we have another mountain ahead of us and a very small window to climb it. After the long hike and multiple cable cars back to Zermatt, we arrived at our apartment to find a new member of our team – Harlan Turner. Harlan is a great friend who flew in to support the Angel Wings effort and spend time with us as we climbed. We hurriedly packed our things and headed for the train station.
A quick train ride and several hours of driving later we found ourselves an hour outside of Grindelwald, Switzerland, completely captivated by a bizarre site -What do Christmas trees, bells the size of a human head and cows have in common? A field in Switzerland apparently…
Grindelwald is the home of the most dangerous mountain on our trek: The Eiger. The Eiger stands at 13,065. While this is roughly 3,000 feet shorter than Mont Blanc, it is notably more difficult. The North Face of The Eiger has been given a German nickname “Morwand”, the literal translation: Murder wall. We are going to need great weather and a lot of luck on our side to pull this off in the time we have left. There are only two days left before I’ll have to leave Europe and head to New York for a family member’s wedding. We need your help raising money for Angel Wings before that happens. Donate Now.
As with the other mountains we have spent time on, The Eiger has a train as well as a lift that takes you up to the starting point for the climb. While the view is great – the train ride alone is 240 EURO (roughly 340 dollars) – PER PERSON. This doesn’t include the hut we will have to stay at or any additional expenses we’d incur.
With clouds looming around the rock, the weather is a significant concern. As proven by our other climbs, two days isn’t much time to orchestrate things on the spot. Next stop… climbing shops to map the route, learn the details and look at the forecast.
Our Grindelwald experience was enlightening, but very quick. Our first stop to do research was at the town information center. After looking into train tickets and cable car tickets to the highest point they would take us on the mountain, we found a local who knew the other details we were looking for.
Not only was the hut we needed to stay in booked for the next several days, but a storm was expected to come in the next day. With only two days remaining before the end of our expedition, a storm completely knocked out our chances to climb this epic beast of a mountain. The Eiger has the highest fatality rate of the three mountains we set out to climb. Good weather is a mandatory prerequisite to climb this one.
For the last several weeks, I hope you’ve enjoyed following our adventure as Carl and I risked our lives. We both climbed for a variety of reasons, but an important one has been to raise awareness for those whose lives are at risk every day. While we’ve been climbing, 8 of our friends have been in Haiti working with Angel Wings to serve those people.
If you haven’t had a chance to yet, please donate NOW and help us help Angel Wings. They are making great strides to erect a hospital and bring medicine to those less fortunate than us – and they can use your help.
I hope the money, energy and time that has been put into this adventure and entertaining you for the last few weeks shows the commitment we have to the cause. Now it’s time for our friends and family to step up and help out as well and Every dollar helps. Eating out one less time this month, drinking coffee at home today and carpooling when possible are all very easy ways to find a little extra money for the cause. Please, Donate Today.
Thanks so much for following the adventure. We’ll keep you posted with the progress of the hospital in Haiti and future expeditions. If you want to ensure an email for the next adventure, let us know who you are: