Monday 30th July dawned bright & with me having tried to level the fitness playing field by over cooking the running during the weekend Dave & I headed off to Switzerland, the perfect climbing pair?
Today was to be reasonably relaxed, a 2/3 hour journey, park up at Tasche, taxi into Zermatt & then the Gornergrat cog railway up to the Rotenboden station at 2, 815 metres. From here a relaxed 3 hour walk in to the Monte Rosa hut, our base for the night. Time had appeared to be on our side as we made a lazy start but the transfers from car to station took a bit longer than expected so reaching Rotenboden at 14:30 meant only an hour to spare between expected arrival at the hut & supper which would be served at 18:30.
The walk in began pleasantly, I again took the opportunity to capture the flora with my camera with frequent stops although these were interrupted by the ladders, glacier crossing & scree (should have taken crampons off here, yes both!) before the path again became easier. Soon after passing a couple of azure blue lakes & their feeding waterfalls the final climb to the hut began, a bit of a slog but on a clearly defined path which mostly wove around the rocky landscape. We reached the hut as hoped at 17:30, the last to do so except a couple of American’s who arrived shortly after dinner was served.
The hut is modern, expensive but the food was good & service pleasant even if at first they had failed to allocate us a table. The yanks sat next to us, we explained our goal, the Nordend & they seemed attracted by it rather than their original aim of the Dufourspitze (Monte Rosa’s highest peak & 2nd only to Mont Blanc in the Alps height stakes). After dinner Dave did a recce of the first part of our route whilst I completed my 4th book of the trip.
Soon we were tucked up in our bunks, for once I slept reasonably well before rising before the alarm at 1:45, don’t you just love these early Alpine starts. Breakfast though was the best I’ve had at a high hut, there was even Cheese & Ham, a real treat.
By 2:55 we were ready & set off into the night, two other groups had already left for the Dufourspitze & the yanks left soon after us. Initially we made good progress over the rocks of the Unt Plattje using the odd marker to show our way but then we got lost. Snow bank, back off having put my crampons on, rock wall, back off, right, back off by this time the 2nd group (also having difficulties) had gone left & not come back, law of averages we went left & proceeded with the Yanks in toe. It was a relief to arrive at the Monte Rosa Glacier, see two sets of lights in the distance above, crampons back on, this time both would remain on for many hours to come.
We had been told by the hut Guardian that our route had not been climbed recently, that a couple planned to climb it today (no sign of them at any point in the hours ahead) & with 40 cms of fresh snow a couple of days before that it should take us 6/7 hours to the summit. Having descended most of the route with Tim & Kean after our summitting the Dufourspitze in 2014 I had some idea of the route & this would be backed up by Dave having summitted the Nordend with his partner Tamsin in 2017, what could go wrong? Well for approx. 3 hours nothing did, we slowly plodded up the steepening glacier having successfully negotiated some initial crevasses, we closed the gap on those ahead & we were treated to a wonderful sunrise giving plenty of excuses to stop & snap.
Cresting a steep rise the Dufourspitze track bent right it was time to leave it & head in isolation & with no tracks to follow towards the Nordend over to the left. Here I made my first mistake, with Dave leading I began to feel we should be swinging left & making less vertical headway, I made my feeling known but weekly, as Dave marched on I meekly followed. Clearly whilst in the U.K. I would be more than inclined to take control in such a situation in the Alps I was use to just following & so stuck to type. Our ‘good’ progress came to a sudden halt (the snow pack had become a bit concerning too) when we topped a rise to be met by a huge crevasse, no alternative turn round & descend to a snow bridge which led to the right & a glacial basin that my week self had been willing us towards earlier. I led to the snow bridge, it was more of a slanting traverse between two more crevasses, ‘Dave, I’m not crossing that!’. This led to a further descent & then swinging right into the bottom of the basin, we had lost time & about 200 metres in height but we were temporarily back on track.
Here with a restricted view I made my next mistake thinking we should head to the left of the Silbersattel ridge before cutting right high up behind a ‘small’ serac. This would see us slightly right of a recent serac collapse as well as a major serac hazard higher up. Dave, now back in the lead made good initial progress but began to slow & take breaks as the incline steepened, we began to disagree on the best line, in truth Dave’s experience of reading the ground & what we were heading into was more accurate than mine. With Dave taking in rope he led me to a safer spot, I straddled the lip of a crevasse to rest from the 40 degree slope. From here Dave led left, called me across & then front pointed above the minor serac, ice screw in, ‘come up Paul’, which I did. Dave led the next pitch but 20 metres later ground to a halt, ‘Dave can’t we keep going’, ‘Paul you are not going to like this, this is not Pd, it’s not the route, we need to descend & look for another line & if we don’t find it we will have to bale out’. I didn’t argue, it made sense, we slowly retreated to the safety of the crevasse lip.
From here Dave wanted to traverse right, me & traverses said ‘no, I’ll front point down if you belay me & we can traverse right on less steep ground’. This we did, both then convinced a slanting upward line to the right would give us a chance to break through the serac barricades onto the summit ridge & onto the summit, we agreed tos give it one more go. Dave led two pitches, the snow pack becoming a concern, Dave stopped again, played with his axe in the snow ‘Dave can we continue’, ‘that’s not what I’m thinking, it’s the snow pack’, I had thought it but not evaluated it, again Dave’s experience showed to which I responded ‘O.K. Dave we are going to bale!’ I had come to my senses, understood today was not our day, Dave, having first suggested it earlier, willingly agreed.
From here a cautious & long retreat was needed to first extricate from the iffy snow pack & then down steep slopes to the side of the serac debris, Dave needing patience at my front pointing for longer than he felt necessary.
Once out of danger we climbed the small rise to the North of the glacial bowl, looked back, this was the view we needed & had missed on our first eroneous line, it was obvious now, we should have gone into the bowl but swung up out of it further to the right. In truth that could well have taken us onto another un-consolidated snow pack (that fresh snow from days earlier), had our errors been our blessing? Anyway time & energy meant there was no going back for a 4th try, we had a train to catch preceded by a long descent, it was now almost 11:30 & we should have been on the summit an hour ago. It is hard to be sure, at times I thought we were within 50 vertical metres of the Nordend’s summit (4,609 metres), looking back from our view point in truth we’d probably ‘topped’ out at 4,450 metres, we had given it our best shot & had to accept our failures, no summit but at high point for the trip a very minor consolation.
Good progress saw us reach the hut at a little before 2:00 pm to be greeted by the two American’s, they had continued to the Dufourspitze but un-like the two groups ahead had turned back as soon as they reached the more technical ground, these conquerors of several of the Sierra Nevada’s 4,000 metre peaks had clearly found the Alps to be a different ball game, they made promises to go home & train to return another day, no doubt an equally good call to our own.
Time for a quick bite to eat & to call Dorina before our final descent & long walk back up to the heights of the station, not all plain sailing but with crampons off on the scree this time it certainly felt easier for me. Waiting for the train I put a 2nd call into Dorina to confirm we were safe.
We arrived back at the camp site at Les Bossons at 10:00 pm having stocked up on wine, beers & snacks at Zermatt, it is not often that I open a bottle of wine & don’t drink it all, today was an exception, 15 hours on our feet (2nd of the trip) & 20 hours on the go in total, it was soon time for bed.
& so ended our Alpine experience, Dave & I, as planned, went our separate ways but would both reach the U.K. by the Friday with me having fitted in one early morning run in Boulogne (simply too hot the evening before) before rediscovering the joys of the U.K. roads, despite getting through the tunnel 4 hours ahead of schedule. Reaching Dolgellau my phone rang, Dorina’s voice, ‘where are you’, ‘just picking up something to eat for tonight, I’ll be home in 20 minutes’, I was, we were re-united with joint relieve & happiness.
All in all a full on but largely successful trip, arguably to equal mine & Kean’s ‘Royal Tour’ of the Monte Rosa peaks in 2014 but it’s Breithorn & Nordend still alood me, I will have to go back but not next year, Cho Oyu & only Cho Oyu is my summit focus for 2019.
Thanks to Dave, Tim & Ali & of course, & as ever, Dorina.