Our day started at 3am. By 9pm that same day, we were still carefully finding our way off the glacier, having just climbed one of the truly great Alpine peaks. We were soaking wet, tired, but more or less safe. We had experienced what is euphemistically known as a “Quality Mountain Day”, but had also been the victims of a totally duff weather forecast.
The Alpine Club guidebook states: The Beitschhorn. Viewed from almost any angle it is a magnificent sight, standing proud of all the adjacent peaks. It has three principal ridges, each of which is quite narrow… None of the routes are easy…
The East Ridge is probably the hardest. Naturally, this is the route that John Young and I decided to try and climb. Yet, before the attempt, there is the Herculean task of actually getting to the hut; the walk-in from the highest road point is a formidable five and half hours, the longest approach in the Western Alps. Fortunately, it is also the most beautiful. Nevertheless, it starts by entering a rather forbidding 1,600m tunnel, part of a ‘new’ water irrigation system. By ‘new’ I mean the 1970s; to put it in historical context, the original was built in the 1400s! It is justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and worth a visit in its own right.
The route passes through fabulous terrain, steep-sided granite cliffs with cascading waterfalls, plus there are some quirky moments when for example, the path weaves through a sort of summer village/hippy retreat complete with New Age inhabitants. The trail then really steepens up, and is unrelenting for the next three hours until you collapse at the door of the Baltschieder Hut, known in the trade as a “two beer hut”. First beer for the thirst; second beer for the pleasure.
The ridge was good and quite hard, with some thought-provoking rock climbing. The descent was relatively short, although the day was probably a little longer than we would have wanted, considering the task we had set for the next.
Just before dinner there is the traditional guides get-together hosted by the hut guardian, a sort of ‘Alpine Cocktails’. But in all seriousness, it was a chance to meet other guides and get a good overview of local conditions. No-one else was planning to climb the Beitschhorn the next day, and the guardian provided us with the detailed Swiss Meteo weather forecast, which was stellar. Absolutely perfect.
After a 3am breakfast, John and I were off following reflective markers on rocks at the side of the path. These ran out just when they would have actually been useful, and we were left stumbling about on the glacier moraine struggling to find the best line. Despite this, we found the toe of the glacier and stopped to rope up and strap on crampons.
We easily climbed up the dry glacier and enjoyed watching the sunrise, savouring the unique solitude. About an hour later we had a debate about where we should leave the glacier and attack the lower part of the ridge. The options looked tough, because there were some big crevasses between the glacier and the start of the ridge. In the end the correct choice was made, and was a lot less difficult than we feared.
Once we were established on the ridge, the climbing went well. It was, however, a very long way, mostly on good rock and the route finding was fairly straightforward (if in doubt, stick to the ridge). About seven hours after leaving the hut, we arrived at the summit cross; we felt we had made a good account of ourselves.
The plan was then to traverse the mountain and descend to the Beitschhorn Hut. However, this is where the plan went awry. As I took the obligatory summit photo of John, I noticed behind him there was a lot of cloud bubbling up. It seemed benign; how wrong I was! Frighteningly, suddenly we were enveloped in thick mist. Then we were battered with an icy blast of wind that shocked us with its violent ferocity. The whole situation suddenly became very intimidating. John's glasses steamed up, and he couldn’t see. Even with no glasses, I couldn't see further than an outstretched hand, and the only way we could communicate was to yell. In addition, this side of the mountain was plastered in thick unconsolidated snow whereas the east ridge, our route of ascent, had been perfectly dry rock.
So strong was the wind, that we could not climb down the descent ridge for fear of being blown off. We had to backtrack and quickly come up with a different solution. Eventually, after a couple of testing hours, we were forced into descending a steep snow couloir on the north side of the mountain in a futile attempt to get out of the wind. There was no escape. It was as if it had a demonic character, and would only stop when it had blown us off the ridge. To make it even more of a challenge, we were making very slow progress because John could not see through his misted-up glasses. It was now raining hard, and despite having all the right clothing we were getting very cold and tired. Again, we were forced onto more unpleasant loose ground where every rock we touched moved or crashed off down the ridge.
It is vital to beware of tunnel vision, which stops you looking for different solutions. It was while reminding myself of all this, that I spotted an escape route; a loop of rope anchored to the rock. An abseil point. This was to be our “get out of jail card”.
We abseiled onto the glacier, out of the mist, out of the wind, and out of the rain. We were feeling mightily relieved, even though the glacier was soft and there were lots of crevasses to navigate around. There was a critical need to pick a careful line, as it would have been stupid to fall in a big hole after what we had been through. Nevertheless, negotiating the glacier was a thousand times better than what we had had to endure. Eventually, at about 9.30pm, we arrived back at the hut we had left 18 hours earlier. Drenched through. The first thing we did was ask the guardian to call the Beitschhorn Hut to inform them we would not be coming.
Then we both flopped down in the comfort of the hut. The staff prepared lots of food and some large beers, followed by some more large beers. Finally, there was the chance to gather our thoughts and ask the question; “Why had the weather forecast been so wrong?”
There were no immediate answers, just some observations from a Swiss guide who had climbed the Breithorn when John and I were on the Beitschorn. Although nowhere near the summit, the Swiss had also noticed the cloud build-up. He phoned Swiss Meteo for an update, because if the weather was due to deteriorate he was going to turn around. The guide was told the cloud was benign, so he carried on. When the cloud became anything but benign, he decided to call Air Traffic Control at Geneva Airport to get a real-time situation report. Apparently, as far as Air Traffic were concerned, there was no bad weather anywhere in Swiss airspace. All of which proves very little other than, in mountaineering, be prepared to “expect the unexpected.”
In Issue 100, Mark Seaton's article 'Crevasse Rescue', Mark stated that "the Echo 112 app ... will send your location via GPS to the rescue services". This is incorrect. The Echo112 smartphone app works without connection to the internet for mobile data, but not without a mobile signal, as this is required for making a call.
Are you a confident walker? Want to widen your experience into alpine mountains? Based in Chamonix below Mont Blanc, Mark Seaton offers guiding services for all mountain activities. To contact Mark for more details or to book, click HERE.