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An Alpine Fix: Grosshorn North Face Direct Solo


by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

"One flesh, one bone, One true religion; One voice, one hope, One real decision; Wowowowo, gimme one vision." --from One Vision by Queen

It was the perfect setting for a religious vision: a long, lonely, winter's night bivouaced in a tiny roadside chapel high in the Swiss Alps. I'd stumbled, exhausted, into the little village of Faleralp with the last gray twilight, in desperate need of a place to crash after three days of solo mountaineering. The summer cabins were dark and silent, deserted and locked for the winter. I pulled at a couple of doors and shutters, but gave up when it became apparent I'd really have to break things up to gain entry. Then I spotted the chapel.

More like a little shrine, it was closed with a rough wall of planks held in place by large rocks. The interior was barely large enough to lay across diagonally with my knees bent; but it was better than nothing, so I gently moved the statue of Mary to the corner and lit one of the devotional candles. I managed to pull the "door" back into place, but couldn't push on it or it would fall back out. I quickly got in my sleeping bag, and heated up my last cup-a-soup for a meager repast.

A religious experience would have been a nice diversion from the cold, dark, interminable hours. My throbbing frostbitten toes, and the rough stone floor gouging my back kept me from the sweet anesthesia of sleep. But the Virgin Mother was silent. The candles didn't begin to glow with a supernatural light. I couldn't even imagine voices in the wind whispering at the door. I don't know what I would have done had Mary begun speaking, probably attributed the "miracle" to hallucinations brought on by stress, hunger, and fatigue; but it would have made for a great story! I just turned over, trying to find a comfortable position, and checked my watch for the twentieth time, 10 p.m.

It's this miserable type of situation that makes my non-climbing friends wonder at my sanity. What perverted twist of personality led me to this dismal place, and even worse, to derive a strange masochistic enjoyment from it?

To really get the feel for this article, put on some of your favorite psyche-up rock-n-roll, like I did on the nine hour drive to Switzerland. The beat of Queen's One Vision served as the soundtrack for the movie playing in my head. Long solo drives, coupled with good music, can bring out the hopeless romantic in me. Waxing nostalgic over past people, places, and events, or projecting myself into the enterprise I'm driving toward, fills me with a sense of purpose.

This ego-centric viewpoint has pervaded my life. Climbing seemed so important, a magic key that unlocked the potential of everyday students, transforming us into heroic figures capable of greatness. As the years and climbs accumulated, I took a more jaundiced view. Who really cared what death-defying feats we accomplished, and what did it matter in the larger scheme of things? The exhileration and personal adventure were still there, but the costs and risks started to add up. I suppose I'm maturing, but I worry about sinking into middle-age blahness.

This drive to the Alps was a pilgrimage, seeking the regenerative power of youthful intensity. I desperately needed a bit of pure climbing adventure. A psychologically rough autumn had left me adrift on a sea of melancholy. Nothing seemed important or worthwhile. Crag climbing weekends in the local Bavarian Frankenjura kept my head above water, but I needed a fix of hardcore alpinism to jolt me out of the stupor.

I've often used climbing as a mood elevating drug in such circumstances. Like illicit substances, it is expensive, dangerous, and addictive. Heavy involvement can lead to social withdrawal, as well as problems at work and at home when all you can think about is getting back up on the rock. Addicts display a number of physical deformities ranging from emaciation, to enlarged forearms and calves. Chronically strained tendons and ligaments, sunburnt skin, and scabeous hands are other telltale signs. Despite these side effects, the deep euphoria it can produce keeps me coming back for more . . . .

The four-day Thanksgiving holiday was the "window" I had for the Alps. I could only hope (without much reason) for good conditions on this off-season weekend. A solo was in the prescription, so it had to be ice at this time of year. I wanted something big, and easy to drive to (no high passes) so the Bernese Oberland came to mind. Flipping through the guidebook, the direct on the Grosshorn's north face stood out as a prime candidate: "The most classic of the Lauterbrunnen north faces, the safest big climb in this area, but regarded as having the most sustained ice climbing." The glaciers on approach and descent appeared to be fairly short, so I locked onto it as a goal.

It snowed in the Alps the week before Thanksgiving, so I threw in ski gear if conditions ruled out climbing, but doubted I'd use it. I was determined to get out alone into the high peaks, if only hiking to the hut. Alpine skiing wouldn't cut through the mist fogging my mind. I needed hard, solitary work, up in the cold, quiet, winter mountains. I drove south, resolved to put my well-trained body (hard workouts another coping mechanism) to the test.

I finally left the car around noon Thursday, and made good time up the first couple miles of trail, which was packed down by farmers. The guidebook gives a summer time of three and a half hours to the Schadri hut. I optimistically added an hour and a half for the new snow, hoping to pull into the hut near dark. When I first left the farmer's track, it was easy going in boot deep snow; but then I had to climb over, under, and around some fallen trees. I was never sure of the trail after that.

Nearing treeline, the rocky slope got steeper and the snow deeper. A gray overcast had crept in, and a brisk wind cut through the thin polypro I was wearing. I put on another shirt, and a Gortex jacket, but then found myself sweating as I plowed up knee-deep snow. My pace slowed to a crawl when I began breaking through to my crotch in an interminable boulder field. It soon became obvious I wouldn't make the hut before dark, so I descended to a farmer's cabin/barn in a meadow. Luckily, it was open, and there was a good supply of firewood, so I spent a pleasant evening drying wet boots and clothing. I crashed out early, tired from the afternoon's effort, and doubtful about reaching the hut the next day.

I luxuriated late the next morning. I was still unresolved after coffee when I went out to relieve myself in some nearby trees. The clouds had lowered to the rim of the circ above, obscuring any view of the mountains. Pizza, beer, and young ski bunnies were creeping into my mind when three strange, glowing red lights appeared through the lower edge of the clouds. Blinking my eyes, I looked down, then back. They were still there. I still don't know what could have caused this "vision," there was certainly no one up there, and the sun doesn't hit on the north side of the mountain this time of year. They were swallowed by the mist a few minutes later, but my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to make it at least as far as the glacier to see what I would find.

It was slow, hard going; especially when my Walkman ground to a halt. I mentally continued the Dire Straits tune as I struggled with the variable snow. At times I'd sink only a couple inches when stepping on top of a boulder, then plunge up to my hip with the next step into powder. When I finally scrambled up a rocky windswept slope to the crest of a moraine, there was no sign of the mysterious lights, but the clouds parted for a few minutes, providing a tantalizing view of the face. The central band looked interesting; I couldn't tell if it would go when the clouds closed in again. The topo map came in handy locating the hut in a white out.

Again, I was lucky to find a good supply of firewood, so I rested a couple hours, drying sweat-soaked clothes, before heading out for an afternoon reconnaissance. I needed a trail in the deep snow on the glacier in order to have a chance at the face the next day. Negotiating crevasses in the dark was out of the question, so I hurried to make the bergshrund. Hugging the slope below the face, I avoided the crevasses until I had to traverse out around an ice fall. This was the most dangerous part of the climb, a calculated risk I hated to take. Slow, careful steps and probing got me onto the slope below the shrund at 4 p.m. Again, I was lucky to have the clouds part at an opportune moment. Fore-shortened from below, it looked quite reasonable.

I slept well and woke up feeling fresh at 4:30 a.m. It was socked in and snowing lightly when I went out, but I didn't have anything better to do, so I gulped some coffee, munched a few oatmeal cookies, packed up, and set off into the darkness. My muffled footsteps were the only sound in the foggy, early morning air. Tiny crystalline snowflakes fell softly, glittering like diamonds as they fluttered through the beam of my head lamp. I felt a deep contentment alone in this magical winter wonderland, blue serac walls and shadowed crevasses lurking like ogres in ambush at the edge of my light. I thought I'd just go up for a look at the shrund, maybe boulder on a nearby serac, then head down.

I reached the shrund at first light. The fog was thinning, so I decided to at least get onto the lower slopes. I put on crampons, stretched across in a wide bridge, and chopped at the soft overhanging snow until I'd carved a passage. A couple careful moves got me onto the easy snow above. A last end run around a large crevasse established me on the main slope as I passed through the last of the valley clouds. A cold thermocline held the gray scud down. Above three thousand meters, it was a brilliant clear winter day!

I stopped for a bit of nourishment, to put on mittens and Gortex, and lighten my pack by dragging the 8.5 mm rope. I had decided to try a line to the left of the central band not described in the guide. It would be easy enough to down climb if it looked unreasonable on closer inspection.

Boot deep snow turned to good 50 ice a hundred meters below the band. My proposed line looked the only reasonable way, so I traversed up and over until just below steep mixed ground. A short vertical step, breached by a snowy flow of ice, barred the way. I approached it cautiously, ready to back off before committed, if I couldn't get decent placements. The ice was good, so I moved up into the jumbled maze of frosted rock, little ice patches, and short twisting gullies.

The next twenty minutes were just what the doctor ordered: interesting, committing, yet never desperate or out of control. Massive exposure below, a huge blue serac wall hanging high above, and shining peaks all around. Rising above the clouds, the sunrise on the snowy summits was symbolic of my soaring spirit, set aglow with the fire of total concentration. The flames burned through the enervating complications that crusted my mind. There was no questioning here, only decisive action. Pure, simple, all-consuming. The physical problems set forth by the mountain were so different from the subtle, never-ending maneuverings of human relationships that had me down. Yes, I would have to return to the same situation, but I would come down with the memory of this perfect moment; when balance, rhythm, and movement integrated mind and body with this wildly beautiful place. I was turned on, fully connected, flowing with the mountain, climbing into a sky so sharp and cold that every breath of its crystalline essence filled me with power and joy.

A tricky little up and down traverse between boulders established me on the first of the upper ice field. Streaked with old black ice between patches of thin new snow, it was no great technical challenge, but demanded powerful swings to penetrate for secure placements. My toes had been cool for a while, but got quite cold on this long constant slope with nowhere to stop or rest. I tried to wiggle them when stepping up, but it wasn't enough. By the time I turned the serac up a narrow ribbon of blue ice, they'd gone numb. There was nothing for it, but to continue climbing toward the sun. I'd hoped to hurry the last bit, but it was unexpectedly steep and hard, slowing me to a careful deliberate pace. No sense losing my life trying to save my toes!

I stepped into the sun twenty-five easy meters from the summit; but headed down without that ritual. The descent worried me more than the climb, since I'd only seen a drawing in the guidebook. It was 11:30 a.m. and there was a long way to go.

I stopped on the first rocks of the south ridge to take off crampons, and try wiggling some life into my toes. I gobbled a snack, drained the last liquid from the slush in my water bottle, then set off down the ridge. Conditions were extremely inconsistent. The steeper slopes were ice, covered with a couple inches of mush. At times I thought I'd have to put crampons back on, but then figured a way to skid down in self-arrest position. Low angle areas were knee deep mashed potatoes, which was especially scary when traversing the crevassed central horizontal section of the ridge.

At the Hint Locke Col, I had to decide which way to descend around the Jegichnubel rock buttress. Snowy glacier slopes fell off to either side, but I couldn't see the lower section of either route. The wrong way could mean a cold high bivy. I hadn't made up my mind when a glowing column of light began forming at the bottom of the Lotschental valley on the right. Sunlight reflected off the surrounding snow slopes was momentarily reflected on a devil of snow crystals swirling in the wind. More than fifty meters high, this "vision" was the coin-flip that sent me scrambling down a couloir off the west side of the col, and across the Jegi glacier.

Near the bottom I had to traverse above a final band of cliffs. Coming over a small ridge crest, I startled a group of four Chamois. They turned, stared at me for a moment, then bolted down the mixed ground in an amazing series of death- defying leaps and bounds. I was sorry to have scared them, but felt lucky to have shared a moment, however brief, with a few of Switzerland's few remaining wild creatures.

I soon found a nice little gully to glissade, then set off down the Lotschental valley at dusk. With the last objective dangers behind, I could finally relax my mind; but couldn't rest my body. There were still miles to cover down to the tree line where I planned to bivy.

The snow was beautiful, reflecting the lavender of the late afternoon sky, but appearances can be deceiving. There was an insidious crust which would support body weight only if I took very small, flat-footed steps which distributed my weight. Every ten steps or so I'd break through, and wallow for a ways, until I managed to gingerly balance up onto a firm spot and continue my little shuffle. The sage advice of my old friend, Human Aprin, came back to mind. He'd kept telling me to "walk like a fairy, think like a fairy, be a weightless fairy flying through the night," during an endless deep-powder descent from a winter climb in the Wasatch.

By the time darkness fell, I was stumbling along more like a drunken troll, but was finally down in the trees. I was ready to pull out the bivy sack, when I saw the first buildings around a bend in the river. . .

I guess I finally fell asleep in the chapel sometime after Midnight and woke before dawn, cramped and hungry. When the first light finally came, I painfully pulled boots onto swollen feet, rearranged Mary and the plastic flowers, closed the chapel back up, and headed down the valley.

I walked into the village of Blatten on a quiet Sunday morning, and soon caught a bus down to Goppenstein where I had to take a train through the mountains to get back on the north side of the range. Three trains, and a last bus, got me to my car around noon.

I punched in a tape, opened a coke, and put pedal to the metal once I hit the autobahn. I was determined to make it back for work Monday morning - all part of the "weekend blitz."

I'd gotten my fix. The self-prescription had been successful. Like most drugs, there were side effects; but the minor frostbite on the tips of my big toes was well worth the cure. I hadn't solved my problems, but things were back in perspective. I'd returned to the strong, vital, center of myself. Unlike the ephemeral high of chemical drugs, this trip left me with a long term charge of psychic energy that cleared my mind, rather than clouded it. Energy to be summoned with a flicker of memory - back to a moment, poised between heaven and earth, high on the central band, when the elation couldn't be contained. "Yeah!" I'd exclaimed, "this is it!"

"One man, one goal, one mission; One heart, one soul, just one solution; One flash of light, yeah, one God, one vision."
One Vision, Queen

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