Mountains that Made me who I am: Part 4 The Alps

Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau, photo from Wikipedia Commons

Shortly after Logan (see previous blog), I followed Eddie to Grindelwald, Switzerland, never suspecting that his guiding services might be fully booked.  He had time for only two climbs, and our first objective was Monch, one of a magnificent trio that also includes Jungfrau and Eiger.  The weather had been bad for several days so the early train to the Jungfraujoch overflowed with guides and clients.  As we exited the station we found ourselves wallowing in fresh snow.  All the other parties quickly turned back, but Eddie, using brute force, ploughed a path.  On the ridge of the mountain Eddie was sometimes chest deep in snow, commenting that if we caused an avalanche, at least we would be above it.  Still super fit from Logan, I followed him with ever-increasing joy.  It was a beautiful day, we were on top of the world, and the mountain was ours alone.  They called him “crazy Eddie” when we got back.

So began one of the most memorable phases in my climbing career.  Over the next four summers I climbed dozens of mountains great and small, far too many to include here even if I could remember half of them.  I will deal only with those which were especially meaningful to me.  Unfortunately I took very few photos in Europe and have lost almost all of them, but Wikipedia Commons provided me with some stunning views for this blog.

Monch held no real technical difficulties.  The second climb Eddie selected was the west ridge of Vorderspitze, a rock route that that was longer and far harder than any I had ever done.  I remember his constant urging and encouragement as I struggled, the tight rope that held me when my arms were too tired to hold on, the warning on a difficult traverse, “Don’t fall there – you’ll kill yourself!”  I remember thinking on the summit, “I didn’t realize I could climb like that.”

Eddie returned to his clients and I met my new guide, Hans Muller.  Small, quiet and cheerful, he gave no outward hint that he had done a significant winter ascent of the north face of the Eiger some years before. Hans decided to do Jungfrau, an easy snow climb but one that would allow him to judge my abilities.  After that, he invited me to stay at his home in Kandersteg in a small cottage near the house.  I soon became good friends with him and his wife, taking meals with them when we weren’t climbing.  And climb we did: rock and snow, high peaks and short valley routes.  We climbed for one glorious month, during which the highlight was our ascent of the north face of Doldenhorn.  This was a steep wall of ice and snow, where Hans had to chop quite a few steps and most of the belay platforms.  As the only north face of my career (weather would interfere with plans to climb two others in succeeding years), Doldenhorn remains as much a source of pride as Vorderspitze.

If I had maintained the same level of fitness I had after Logan, I think that the following summers would have yielded more substantial results.  But without a high-altitude prelude, I was far less prepared to do challenging routes.  One summer, bad weather chased us around Switzerland and even into Italy, looking for something to climb in the rain, since major routes were not possible.  It is from this period that I have the only two surviving photos from all the climbing I did in  Europe (not just with Hans, but also from earlier visits to Austria and the Dolomites).

Hans Muller leading

The only photo of me climbing in Europe

The most memorable, if not the most pleasant, climbs with Hans took place when both of us were injured.  Hans had fallen, and although he had broken no bones, he was very stiff and sore.  Since he could not guide me, he chose another guide to take me up the Finsteraarhorn, the highest peak in the Bernese Alps. We reached the summit, then spent the night at the Finsteraarhorn hut.  Next morning, I sat up in bed only to have my lower back seize up in agonizing pain.  Somehow the guide prodded me onto the glacier and down to the valley, where I caught a train to Kandersteg and the Muller home.

Finsteraarhorn. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

For a week I could barely move, requiring 45 minutes just to get out of bed each morning.At last I decided that if nothing could ease the pain, I should at least try to do something I enjoy.  I began walking, bought new climbing boots and told Hans that if he was ready to climb, so was I.  So off we hobbled for a week that included Mont Blanc and Eiger.  Amazingly, the mental focus required for climbing almost completely masked my pain; when not climbing, the pain was intense and sleepless nights were the norm.

Looking out from Mont Blanc. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Our route on Mont Blanc began from the Tete Rousse hut, which is reached by a dangerous rock passage with frequent rockfall (to my mind, the most difficult part of the trip).  A mixture of wine, schnapps and codeine bought me two hours of slumber, but in the morning the pain was bad and I was very slow to get going. Hans had to bring me my breakfast tray because I couldn’t carry it, and he put my boots on for me.

I think we left the hut around 0300, almost the last climbers to depart.  On the snow slopes above us I saw a sight that is etched in my memory: a long chain of lights curving back and forth under a star-lit sky.  The scene lacked only the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly to be complete; indeed whenever I hear that music I am back at the hut, enchanted by the beauty.  Hans set a very slow but steady pace.  We began passing other parties, then more and more, until we were among the very first to reach the summit, just in time for sunrise.

The Mittellege ridge on Eiger is a steep, very strenuous and exposed route that I consider the most beautiful and entertaining I have done. The climb begins on the Jungfraujoch train, which burrows through the inside of the Eiger for much of its journey.  Climbers exit midway, into the rock core, and follow a narrow, snowy tunnel to a door  that opens onto the back side of the mountain.  From there some exposed scrambling leads to the Mittellegi hut, perched precariously atop the ridge.

In good weather the climb is very popular, so popular that I had my first experience of people passing through our rope (apparently it’s not that uncommon in the Alps).  I would reach for a handhold only to have someone’s foot get there before me, without so much as a word of warning. After a few pitches, however, everyone had passed us.

The steepest sections of the ridge have fixed ropes; the arm strength required to haul oneself up is exhausting, and the ropes seem to go on forever.  When my face wasn’t plastered to the mountain, I could look straight down into the valley, thousands of feet below.  On this narrow, airy ridge one should dance lightly, tied to the earth by nothing more than secure technique.  I could not dance, but even while gasping for breath and struggling to raise myself onto the next foothold, I understood the elegance of the route.  And when I stood at last on top of the Eiger, it was awe, not pride, that I felt.  To be there was a privilege undreamt of.

There are numerous excellent photos of the ridge but all that I have found have copyright.  By far my favourite is at the site below:

http://www.summitpost.org/mittellegi-ridge-eiger/32862

I returned home shortly after Eiger and never climbed with Hans again, although we did ski the Haute Route a year or two later.  After a couple of months of yoga classes, my back stopped bothering me, and has given only occasional trouble since.

6 thoughts on “Mountains that Made me who I am: Part 4 The Alps

  1. I had to wait until I was done work to finish off your “mountains that made me who I am” section but oh, they have been lovely. I even found and listened to The Humming Chorus (which I’d never heard before) when you mentioned it, which made your descriptions that much more romantic and enticing. Well done!

    And on a side note, if you are only going to have one photo of yourself climbing in Europe, then what luck that it’s the one where you’re not just acting like Spiderman (well, woman), you *look* like Spiderman (well, woman)!

  2. Man, I envy you for those mountain trips!! Awesome, surreal, stunning, and all undescribeable feeling every time I see the greatness of the nature! Good for you 😀 And thanks for sharing the great pics..

  3. This is a very good series, really appreciate it.

    Like this part best in this post : “… And when I stood at last on top of the Eiger, it was awe, not pride, that I felt. To be there was a privilege undreamt of.”

  4. Pingback: Legendary European Climbing Routes | escape-sydney.com.au

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