It was fitting that the one day it rained, my friend Linda left to head back to reality. It wasn’t fun to bid her farewell, but she had a family to be with and I had mountains to climb.
It was equally good timing with my trip. A forced rest day between adventures. I’m never quite as invincible as I fancy when I plan these trips. I had planned one rest day between my three day trail run and my five days of mountaineering. I can run one hundred miles in a day; certainly eighty in three wouldn’t be so bad.
So I could blame the rain for the extra day. Instead of taking the gondola–teleferique–up into the sweeping mountain vistas, we dove down into the gorge. Gorner Gorge has been in the making for thousands of years, carved patiently by the Gornera River. There is a guide-required route which utilizes some sketchy looking planks and logs and include one Spiderman-type swing and a few rappels. The turquoise layered rock was exquisite. Steve had gone the day before to check out the route and said I really missed some amazing blue water. That day, it was muddied from the rain.
It’s a three hour excursion, leaving time for a coffee on the way back down and time to pack and re-pack and pack once again for four days in the mountains. A different experience from backpacking in the US, the only food I had to take was snacks for the day. One outfit for the four days, plus an extra, semi-clean shirt for the huts made up my clothing allotment. I brought a silk sleeping bag liner, which was not really necessary, but a nice alternative to contact with the scratchy blankets provided at the huts.
I slept surprising well that night. It didn’t hurt that everything happens at a civilized hour in Switzerland. Coffee and croissant for breakfast and a brief walk to the gondola. It was still overcast, but the snow had stopped above, so it was a good time to begin.
The gondola carried us away from grey dreariness into blinding sunlight reflecting tenfold off the new snow. The Matterhorn’s so-familiar silhouette commanded the view. It was the 150th anniversary of the first ascent and we had met the winners of Backcountry’s online contest to summit the eternal peak. It didn’t look like they would be successful in that regard, but they weren’t ones to complain, after first class tickets from Colorado to Switzerland.
The day could not have been more spectacular. It was late in the season and the new snow replaced the hard ice we would have otherwise been climbing. Sardines had more room than we did that morning, people catching up from the bad weather, and I strained to peer around, taking in as much as I could, forgetting I would have four glorious days to absorb it all. I didn’t want to blink and miss a second of it.
Steve and I took our time with final preparations once the gondola deposited us at 12,000 ft. We were happy to let other teams break trail. We put on crampons and helmets, pulling out our ice axes. He showed me how to use the Mammut RescYou, a system for getting yourself or someone else out of a cravasse. It is an odd feeling to hope, if it had to happen, that you would be the one that fell. I had complete faith in Steve’s ability to get me out safely–not so much faith in myself to do the same for him. We were both counting on people being around to help.
Most teams on the mountain were five or more, so we move more quickly than most, able to time our breaks and keep pretty good pace. Pollux was the first–and only–peak of the day. My first 4000 meter European peak. A steep and slightly icy climb, a bergschrund (the crevasse that forms when the moving ice pulls away from the stagnant ice at the top of a ridge or mountain, often very difficult to cross), and a knife edge preceded the summit, making it all the more rewarding to achieve the summit.
As I discovered on the run, downhill isn’t any easier on European peaks, and it was a long descent to the first hut. Not that I can really complain. If you ever want to mountaineer in comfort and relative ease, huts are the way to do it. Our mountain climbing was done by about 2pm. There is soup and light snacks available for purchase when you get there, then it’s nap time. I was too excited to sleep that first day–a problem I did not have after that–and pulled out my journal to write down all the poems and adventures that were playing in my head.
I wanted to share my amazing day with fellow travelers, but language proved to be a formidable barrier. Not to mention attitude. I’m just not cool enough to be European. I was almost bouncing with my enthusiasm but it wasn’t shared. So I found a quiet place in the sun and kept writing. A couple of Germans joined me after a bit and we held a short conversation, not sharing many words in either language. I would share a room with one of them again on the last evening of my trip, his laughter over my paper journal (he wrote everything in his phone for his blog) cut short by a very serious bout of altitude illness-all over the floor of the room we shared.
Breakfast was toast and coffee–there is no shortage of carbs in the Alps. Best, they filled our thermoses with hot tea to take with us into the cool morning. I was still full from dinner (soup, pasta, meat, veggies and dessert), so I didn’t mind. I was appreciative of Steve’s suggestion that I bring dried fruit and nuts to counterbalance the bread laden diet. It was another one peak day–the Naso de Lyskamm: Lyskamm’s Nose. Below the gloriously intimidating summit of Lyskamm, it was another knife edge traverse, more straightforward than Pollux and every bit as breath-taking.
Done again with time for a snack and nap. After a short nap, I went back outside and soacked in the sun and the view. I half wished I had brought my nice camera, but was equally relieved to be able to sit there and simply enjoy the view. As the sun set, I pulled out my little camera to take some shots. Steve walked up behind me and scoffed “What are you taking pictures of?” My mouth worked, unable to find words for exactly what I was photographing. I turned in time to see his smirk.
“Another shitty sunset.”
The next two days were the big days, in opposite ways. The first day was all up–five peaks up to the Margherita Hut at 14,941. Now three days past the storm, the tracks from the many groups crisscrossed over the snow–shorter trips and shorter routes crossing the more leisurely expeditions. The first peak had a larger-than-life statue of Jesus. In Italy, all peaks have some sort of religious statues. It seemed somehow fitting, but a ritual I was glad had not been adopted everywhere, although I have often thought of leaving a small Buddha statue behind on a peak or two.
The short descent of one of the peaks had my attention, the snow soft and the pitch steep. Not having secure steps is one of my nemeses in the mountains. I pulled the first happy song out of my head. “Raindrops on roses; whiskers on kittens.” I didn’t realize I was singing aloud. Steve’s mouth twisted as he said “This is the only down of the day–I can’t believe you’re not enjoying it.”
Margherita Hut was our last hut stop–and the best.Sitting atop the summit of Signalkuppe, completely renovated in the 1970s, it is one of the largest huts in Europe. It was dedicated to Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy, in 1893.
They had just gotten a supply of food, and the fresh vegetables had the exquisite taste that only completely fresh food after a hard day of physical exertion can have. Fresh fruit and chocolate completed the meal. The meals are served “family style” with everyone sharing the courses. No one was eating much and I found myself finishing everything, half embarrassed and half envious that these people were so used to this kind of flavor that they didn’t partake more.
It wasn’t until I was awaken by my roommate’s vomiting that I realized what was probably the real reason no one was eating. Coming from Colorado and used to climbing 14,000 ft mountains, I was one of the few not suffering from the altitude. It made me love my home state all the more.
An interesting aside: the nearest settlement to the Margherita Hut is Macugnaga–the third stop on my three day trail run.
The last day contained the highest peak of the trip, Zumsteinspitze, which is on the way to Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in Europe. A small statue of St Mary greeted us at the summit. From this point, it was a long hike back down to the gondola back to Zermatt, nearly ten thousand feet below where we stood. I reluctantly began the journey.
It didn’t take long for us to be in the crevasse ridden glacier. Steve’s tone had gotten more abrupt, warning me that this was real. Each step was carefully placed, my arm quickly growing tired from the death grip I had on my ice ax My left brain reviewed how the Resc-You worked as my right brain cycled through more “Sound of Music” tunes.
At one point, we were following a group speaking a unique dialect of Italian-German, very sexy to hear in kind of a scary way. The trio stopped as the first climber came to what seemed to be a bit of a precarious step. I couldn’t understand a word that was spoken, but I understood every intonation and body movement made. He was convinced death would be immediate if he continued. The guide, patience worn thin, recited I’m sure the same words Steve had said to me many times. The climber refused to move. The guide, pushed now past his patience, grabbed the rope, raised it above his head, shaking it and shouting. The climber finally took the step–and lived. As did the next climber and the guide.
My turn now and I could see what had given the climber significant pause. Eventually, that one step across the crevasse would fail, an obvious crack between the step and semi-firm ground. “Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and I made the step–and lived. As did Steve, happily. I hadn’t gotten any more confident that I could save him, but I know I would have given everything if it had come to that.
We weren’t down yet, but the crevasses became shallower, and soon we were able to discard the rope. Where we stopped, Steve pointed out that we were at the absolute beginning of the Gorner Gorge. Full circle again.
We came to the Monte Rosa hut, our last stop. Coffee, removal of all external layers and the application of sunscreen. We were off the glacier and on solid ground.