Justin’s last report of the Bottom Up Switzerland.
My eyes snapped open to the confused swirling of stray headlamp beams flying about the room. It was 1:30 AM and Giuseppe, Marco and Alessio had already sat up in their beds and were sorting their things out. ‘Time to get up’, I told myself, but didn’t stir. It wasn’t until Marco crossed the room and switched on the light that I pulled my body up, rubbed my eyes, pulled out my ear plugs (which I always wear when sleeping in huts), and swung my legs over the edge of the bunk, very nearly kicking the Belgian bloke who’d slept in the bunk below me in the face as I did so. That would have been starting the day on the wrong foot!
I had all my things ready in a basket by my bunk so getting ready was just a matter of pulling my ski pants and thermal top over the long-johns and t-shirt I’d worn as a PJ, and putting on my soft-shell jacket which had my gloves and headlamp stowed in the breast pockets.
Breakfast – if a 1:45 AM meal can be called that – was cereal, orange juice, some bread with jam and butter, and – you guessed it – two coffees. There were loads of people up and milling about, and everybody had that deer-caught-in-headlights expression on their face, which people get when they are awake when they should be sleeping.
Once adequately nourished, I took my basket of things down to the ski room, finished packing some odds and ends, pulled on my climbing harness, shouldered my rucksack and was out into the starry-calm night. We gathered on the terrace with the other groups forming. A couple of guides lounged casually at the tables waiting for their guests to get sorted and engaged in jocular banter with each other. ‘Shall I go first’ asked one, ‘or would you like to do the honor?’ to which the other replied, ‘age before beauty’, with a smirk, and motioned for the other to go ahead.
It was much warmer than we were anticipating, so all of us shed a layer or two and stuffed them into our bags before stepping off the terrace. Despite having reconnoitered the route the night before, it was quite disorienting walking through the dark. In the beam of my light I couldn’t even really tell from any great distance what was light-colored rock, and what was the dirty summer snow. We were the only ones with skis which meant we needed to find our own route; all the other parties – about 20 people in all – were sticking primarily to the rock. I sometimes found I could see more and orientate myself better with the lamp switched off, enabling me to see, however subtly, the terrain at a further distance which was illuminated by what little ambient light was refracted from other headlamps in the area. It was in this way that we found our way up the scattered initial snowfields above the hut.
Further up, we rejoined the other parties and once again shouldered our skis to ascend a short steep ramp of snow and rock that lead to the beginning of the glacier at about 3400m. Here we dropped our bags and had a drink, unpacked our ropes, tied in and prepared for glacier travel.
The sky would start lightening in about a half an hour. Now we simply made our way through the darkness, following behind the spots of other climber’s headlamps cast on the snow. A faint breeze drifted past us occasionally. The temperature, weather and conditions were ideal.
We set in a slow pace. My heart rate fluctuated between 100 and 120. Not much exertion. But the reserves of energy spared here would serve me well later, I would find.
We stopped around 5:00 for a snack and some water. The sky had now lightened and you could see the panorama of peaks standing patiently in the still morning air. At the end of the valley, the Matterhorn stood in all its majesty. Incredible.
Nobody said much. We slogged. For hours. Which is a lot of what a tour like this is about. You look up. ‘Wow, look at that serac!’, you are impressed. Five minutes go by, you look up and think, ‘holy shit, I haven’t passed that serac yet?’ Thoughts drift through your mind. You find yourself thinking about all sorts of things. The pleasure is in letting them come and letting them go. Being in the moment, relishing the sights, spotting faces in the rock formations, delighting in the timelessness of the landscape around you.
At about 4000 meters we took another break, imbibed, munched. Giuseppe asked me as we set off again if I couldn’t go a bit slower. ‘Slower?’ I thought, ‘how?’ I don’t mean that condescendingly, but I find it can be even more strenuous to move at an exaggeratedly slow pace, like a mime mimicking a slow-motion jog in place – it isn’t easy. So I employed something my mom taught me: the rest step. And if you don’t know what that is, I suggest you google it.
The terrain steepened. Soon we were sliding around on the icy snow, trying to keep an edge without expending too much energy. Our skins held surprisingly poorly on the refrozen surface. I pulled out my axe and etched in a small ledge for the ski to rest on wherever the snow got too hard to effectively hold an edge, but this was a lot of work. Soon we reached a point where the trail crossed between two towering walls of ice about 30 meters high each. I was worried both about falling ice from the former and the prospect of slipping and sliding over the edge of the latter. The suggestion to re-shoulder our skis and make the traverse on foot was made and agreed to. We spent a good five minutes faffing about with our kit and then set off through the passage. At the top of this we entered a gaping snow-filled crevasse which we had to climb out of using a steep snow ramp. Here we were all happy to use our axes. Five minutes afterwards we were at the Silbersattel (4515m) with just over 100 meters to our goal – the Dufourspitze. We were tired, but still in good shape. The tour to this point had gone without a single complication or setback.
The route now would go through a steep and narrow couloir to the summit ridge which we would have to traverse about 100 meters to the peak. We stashed our skis, mounted crampons to our boots, and everyone but me left their backpack; this being a habit I’ve abandoned after finding out too many times that I wanted something from a backpack that was waiting for me a few hundred meters out of reach. We started up the couloir amidst a shower of snow and ice raining down on us from climbers already descending from above. Although the couloir was equipped with fixed ropes, anyone who lost their grip on this would take a fall they’d be sure to regret assuming they lived through it, so we also roped up and belayed each other through any sketchy bits.
The couloir, which made for classic mixed climbing, was filled with snow and ice, and there were a few sections of rock to overcome. A passing Walliser guide informed me in his nearly incomprehensible Wallis dialect that the route hadn’t been in such good condition for 20 years.
Once at the ridge we were all fatigued, and it started to show. Things which would normally be easy suddenly put high demands on our willpower to do. The terrain fell away on both sides. A fall here would have catastrophic consequences, and now we didn’t have the added security of fixed ropes or points of protection. A step you would never think twice about making on a sidewalk suddenly felt impossible. As I advanced along the ridge, I slung the rope into cracks or laced it around spikes so it would snag in the event of a fall.
In addition to the exposure, we also had a lot of traffic. At one point Giuseppe had to wait for 10 minutes on an exposed ledge as nearly 10 people in two parties edged past him. Finally, we were looking at the last section to the peak: an airy passage 20 meters across and the breadth of your feet placed next to each other. Nothing to hold onto; nothing to support yourself with. Again, an easy task under most circumstances, but not quite so when the next level ground to the right and left of you is hundreds of meters below. But on the other side lay our goal. There it was, a little perch of grey rock with a small iron cross bolted to it (though I’m sure it didn’t feel so small to those who had lugged it up there). First I crossed, then Giuseppe, we scrambled the last few steps, we were at the top! The Bottom Up Climb of Switzerland had been completed. We were elated. We snapped off some pictures, took in the view from the highest point in Switzerland (second highest in the Alps, and the highest point any of us had ever visited) had a bit of a snack and a drink of water – very glad that I’d brought the backpack – and awaited Alessio and Marco’s arrival at the top which came in a few minutes.
But, of course, although our project was now technically complete, our work was not. We still had the descent. Giuseppe joked about ordering a helicopter to lift him off the summit. Descending the couloir happily went well, but still took more than an hour. Once back at the Silbersattel, it was already past 12:00, we had been underway for 7 hours, and were suddenly aware of the lateness of hour – the glacier would be getting mushy and increasingly unstable as a result – so we readied ourselves to ski. In fact, we were right on time for perfect corn conditions on the glacier: the snow was soft enough to carve, even on the upper slopes. We were astounded: the 15th of July and here we were skiing. For those 30 minutes, every kilometer of dry land we had lugged our ski equipment over to get it to that point seemed worth it.
Around 3500m the snow started getting a bit too soft, and here we made our only real mistake: we decided to take another route down over the glacier. We descended in that direction for about ten turns until a bunch of crevasses and seracs began appearing over the event horizon. We quickly pulled the brakes and had a quick confab: none of us had a good feeling about descending on a south-facing slope, un-roped, along a bit of glacier familiar to no one in the party, past 14:00 on clear July afternoon. So we turned around and began back up the glacier – not a welcome task. The day suddenly felt swelteringly hot. I considered stopping to shed some clothing but waited, preferring to simply get off the glacier as soon as possible. I, being at the front of the column, searched for the route back across to the route we had taken up the glacier in the morning, looking carefully at the signs the glacier was showing me: slight changes in colorations, undulations in the surface, anything that might indicate a softening snow-bridge over a yawning chasm below. Yes, that we wanted to avoid. I was having one of those unsavory moments one gets occasionally in the mountains, and fortunately my first on this tour: I felt like something bad was going to happen. I kept thinking, ‘so this is how today is going to end, is it? With a crevasse rescue?’ I started reviewing in my head the method for setting up a glacier rescue pulley system. At the least, it was good that I was no longer carrying both ropes, which I had for the first half of the ski descent before it occurred to me what a bad idea that was. I made my way across, spotted a strip where the snow was whiter than elsewhere. That didn’t look good. I prodded it with my pole and was shocked when, after about 30 cms depth there was nothing but air. Glancing to the left, I spotted a couple of small black holes in the glacier’s surface no bigger than dinner platters. Cautiously, I backed away and moved 10 meters to the right and tried again with my pole. Here it felt better, so I backed up, gathered some speed and got across it as quickly as I could. The others followed, and soon we were back on our ascent route, descending. Minutes later we were off the glacier and skiing down the last snow fields above the hut.
Once back at the Monterosa hut we shed our gear and sweaty clothes, ordered beers and basked in the afternoon sun, engaged in light banter. We were very pleased with ourselves. It was roughly 15:00 – 13.5 hours since we’d woken up.
We rested for about 30 minutes before deciding it was actually time to pack our stuff and start the long walk out to Rotenboden where the last train would be leaving at 20:12. Giuseppe cautioned that if we didn’t want to miss the train, we’d better get moving around 16:30, to which I cockily replied that something really bad would have to happen in order for us to miss that train – apparently my math is worse than I thought. The walk had taken us a good 3.5 hours the day before, and we had been considerably fresher then.
We retrieved whatever belongings we’d left in the hut and stuffed them into our bags, reapplied some sun screen and, without further ado, departed. It took us an hour just to get down to the glacier, and another hour to cross it. In fact, by the time we reached the last stage of the hike it was 19:00 and I passed a sign which read: Rotenboden, 1hr 5min. Shit. If we missed that train, we would be walking until 22:00, the 1200m down to Zermatt. As you can probably imagine, none of us were much game for that idea, so we put the hammer down.
Walking at a high pace after what was now roughly 16 hours of movement was taxing, but our bodies obliged. At times, I felt a bit delirious, and off balance and at one point Marco abruptly stopped and bent over, resting his weight on his ski poles, overcome by the sudden onset of nausea. However, once again, good fortune was on our side, and we arrived at the Rotenboden train station at 19:50 – time enough to collapse and describe in profusion our utter sense of exhaustion to each other.
The train arrived and we boarded, and slumped into our seats, resting our heads groggily against anything that would support them. As the day’s light faded on the towering shape of the Matterhorn, we descended to the valley for a celebratory beer, a hearty meal of pizza and, finally, sleep, which came at about 23:00. It had been a day none of us will soon forget.