Archive for November, 2019

Needle in the Sky

Monday, November 4th, 2019

Best laid plans and whatnot meant that after a few weeks of team shuffling, three of us went on a lightweight, faff free and cheap week-long trip to the Swiss Alps. More precisely, Myself, Mike S and Russ W drove across to the Salbit Area near Andermatt. The area is famed for its granite rock climbs on 3000m mountains and there is an amazing amount of rock out there. Unfortunately so much of the info about the climbing is in German and in local guidebooks, hut topos and most likely websites I couldn't understand. We looked at great walls of granite, several hundred metres high with teams scaling them but didn't know what they were on (or more importantly the grade). Mike, in particular, had eyes for many fine lines, likely hard.

After a 20hr drive we arrived on a mid afternoon to a small campsite in Goescheneralp. Basically its a tiny hamlet with a Hotel, a few houses and nothing else except a campsite, lakes and mountains. Not quite as tranquil as it sounds since the campsite is squeezed into a tiny area for no apparent reason. Its something between a festival site and a Refugee camp, with tepees, caravans and all manner of wooden constructions adjoining.  Oh, and it has two toilets and no showers. Still we squeezed into a bit of land, gentleman's agreement about not washing for a week, and got on with it. Something a bit boys own 'vietnam' about it all, but by the end of the week I quite liked the place. and it was cheap.

The main focus of the trip was the South Ridge of the Salbit. (grade D / 5b). This is often called the 'best route in the alps of its grade'. We'd see. The first few days promised settled weather so we decided to hike up to the base of the mountain and maybe 'knock the bastard off'  by day two! Typical Brits with a lack of German, not much money and a penchant for outdoor life we decided to bivi (near the Hut). 2hrs walking got us to the hut, an hour scouting around found us a bivi spot with access to water and then it was onto a 'warm up' route. 

I'd chosen the Huttengrat,on the Gemsplanggenstock 14 pitches and alpine '4c'- (ADish). about 30mins from the bivi site. Block leading saw us getting into the swing of climbing as three, the two seconds simultaneously climbing whilst the leader belayed with a guide plate. Pretty efficient. I thought the climb was great, interesting, enough fixed gear, finishing on a summit (2600m), no one else on route and not too difficult. A scramble and a couple of short abs got us back for tea and early bed ready for days two attempt on the 'big one'.

Arising early, (well 6am as it was getting light) we headed up to the Salbit South Ridge. This is a popular route and our fears about queuing were well realised. In fact we waited a bit before getting going and there must have been a dozen teams on the mountain, most of them in front of us. Setting Mike off first saw us getting up the first four pitches and abbing into a breche. We'd just been behind a team of three Germans who appeared pretty experienced and knew what they were doing. At this point they informed us they were abseiling off the mountain as rain was due to come in. The nature of the ridge makes escape tricky (in short bloody scary)  with this first breche being a classic 'point of no return'. So deferring to their experience and knowing we had a long way to go, we also abseiled off. 6 abseils got us back down the mountain and avoiding a loose gully scramble that we'd gone up. Midday by know and no real sign of rain, just cloudy. In fact the rain did not turn up, no storm and we felt a bit silly for bailing. Hindsight is magic. A slow walk down the mountain feeling slightly sorry for ourselves for afternoon frolics

The next few days were very unsettled and we made the best of it. We hiked up to a another refuge and did some single pitch bolted climbing. Slabby granite with wonderful views, but I found them a tad tricky. An afternoon sheltering from rain in the refuge, exploring other granite walls and back down before we got too wet.  A via ferrata near Andermatt filled another day along with the age old alpine exercise of checking the 'meteo'. The last two days promised good weather so it was decision time. Back for round 2 or go and see something different.

Better the devil you know proved the decision. It is 'world class', 3 stars etc and I was 2 hours hike away, had two rope guns with me and a favourable forecast. Not many times that happens in life. So back up to familiar bivi sight. A bit of single pitching on crags in the cirque filled the afternoon before bedding down. Refined tactics now.

We decided to start earlier to be ahead of the crowds, aiming to arrive at the base at first light. Also, we'd take a short cut and do a two pitch route up to the breche where we'd abseiled from. Justified as we'd done the first part of the ridge previous. I took the lead at the start, got lost, tested an old piton (if it has pitons must be a route….as opposed to the shiny bolt 10ft away just out of sight.) sweated a puffed and got us back to our high point. Expediency (and a bit of fear) meant I put the 'A team ' out in front to get us up the tricky stuff over the next 10pitches or so.  Mike lead the crux (5b) freely and we kept ahead of all other teams much to our joy. We let a pleasant swiss pair pass so we could enjoy the climbing and experience. And it is a good route. Interesting, slightly devious and keeps you guessing and needing some mountaineering nouse. Bolts are spaced, 5-7 per 50m pitch. To paraphrase the Welsh Slate guide 'enough to save you from the mortuary, but not enough from Ysbyty Zurich'. I'd been warned about the grade being 'tough' and certainly felt the swiss grade were comparable with English. i.e 4c swiss = 4c English. So good going by Mike n Russ. Good time as well, about 6hrs up the ridge.

It has a final 'sting in the tail' in that the summit itself is a 15m needle sticking up above the surrounding shattered blocks. A 4c slab pitch protected by one bolt sees you to point were there is no higher. We all took turns to stand, kneel, touch the summit before lowering / abbing off. To put  ourselves into too much perspective we meet another English team who'd done the West Ridge, Mega classic ED1 (English E2 and 20+ pitches) in the impressive time of 7hrs. Skilled in the dark arts they were (and young and fit and good).

A pleasant scramble down and back to reality. Next day it was raining (good) and packing up and a steady drive to the tunnel and back to the mountains of York. So finally, thanks to Mike S and Russ, without whom none of the above for me would have been possible.