CLIMBING THE MONTE ROSA AND ITS SISTERS
“Because it was there.” That was, reportedly, Edmund Hillary’s reason for climbing Mount Everest. It’s a valid reason, I suppose, if perhaps a rather lacklustre one. Back in 1953, it wasn’t as though Mr Hillary was seeing Everest in social media – or even regular media, for that matter – in an alluring tease of “you want me? Come and get me!”. In fact, from his home in New Zealand he was several thousand miles from Mount Everest, with plenty of other mountains “there” and waiting to be summited much closer to home. So I don’t really buy his “because it was there” explanation. You eat all the peanut butter because it was there on the shelf. You finish the bottle of wine because it was there in the cupboard. You watch another episode of some average series because it was there on Netflix, auto-playing. My point is you do things because they are there, when you can see them. When they are taunting you, calling to you, begging you to come closer and eat, drink, play.
My summit attempt of the Dufourspitze on the Monte Rosa was largely in part “because it was there”. Whether glimpsed gilded in gold on an early morning train journey to Milan or admired blushing pink on a sunset drive home from Como, the Monte Rosa taunts me with its beauty on a regular basis. It’s right there, less than two hours’ drive from my home in Varese. Its massif stands like a fortress, guarding the high alps. It rises abruptly, the first of many massive mountains in the Western Alps. It commands attention. I had to get closer. I had to test myself on its snow fields, rock faces and lofty summits.
Why climb one when you can climb three?
Me being me, I didn’t want to do it by halves. I chose the hardest ridge route, from the Italian side. I added in Lyskamm and Pyamide Vincent. If I was going up there, I wanted to tackle a few other summits in the process, while I was acclimatised. On the Mountain Spririt Guides website, the five-day 1:1 guiding programme was classed as advanced. Perhaps I was being cocky, but seeing as I was in training – and feeling good about it – for a 25km +2000m mountain trail race in Macugnaga, I thought I’d be able to handle it.
Day one was a mostly rock route, up the Cresta del Soldato ridge of Pyramid Vincent, a 4,215m pyramid shaped summits close to the lift station and pretty much directly south of the Monte Rosa. It was a one-day thing; I slept back in the valley afterwards.
The route was beautiful. Lofty, exposed, but not challenging rock climbing. I was able to fully enjoy the views, until the cloud swept in, gobbled them up and left me feeling like I’d ascended to heaven. My movements flowed with ease. My body felt strong. My relationship with my guide Tazio was strong. I trusted his judgement, and he didn’t hold my hand or make it too easy. The balance was perfect. I returned to the valley brimming with excitement and confidence for the following three days.
I was restless the next morning. I packed and repacked. Tazio sharpened my ice axe and crampons. We went over the plan several times – for my benefit, not because he felt I hadn’t understood. After lunch we took to the lift up to 2,500m or so then made the shortish crossing to the Gnifetti hut (3,647m), home for the night. Tomorrow was the start of two big days of mountaineering. Exposure would be high. Altitude even higher. I needed to sleep but my foot was burning.
A massive blister had developed on my left heel the previous day. It was now of gigantic proportions and was threatening a full-blown puss expulsion. It was disgusting. It looked infected. But what could I do? I taped it. Took some pain killers and bedded down for the night.
The Lyskamm is a striking mountain. It’s how you’d draw one on paper: two steep ridges and an affronting face. It almost looks 2D, it’s face is so steep. But trust me, this thing is 100% 3D. The summit stands at 4527m high, almost 100 meters higher than the Matterhorn. I was to climb it via the Cresta Sella south ridge, descending via the snowy east ridge and continue on up to the Capanna Margherita, 4554m high making it the highest hut in the alps.
We woke at 5am to a freezing, clear morning. Snow had fallen. The mountain was silent, the silence that falls and fills the space after fresh snowfall. The wind was dancing, right now just a ballad but it threatened to graduate to a whirling waltz.
Tazio decided that the Cresta Sella route was out of the question. There was too much snow on the ridge, making the route far more challenging and out of reach for me. Furthermore, he’d had to break trail through 30cm or so of snow for more than 1km to get to the start of the ridge. We’d lose time and face a difficult ascent.
The next best option was to ascend and descend via the now very snowy east ridge. As there was no rock and the snow was cold, this would be the safest and easiest route to the summit of Lyskamm. So off we went. My heel taped, my stomach full and my mind racing.
A steady slog up the snow field was first. The lights of valley villages twinkled; a smog-free Milan vaguely discernible in the distance as an orange glow of streetlights. The horizon was already turning blue.
As the slope flattened slightly, we bared left towards the eastern ridge of Lyskamm, the sky now a clear blue, the moon setting and the stars obliterated by the dawn of morning. My hands and feet had yet to warm up. I was keen to feel the warmth of the August sun. But as we started up the snow-covered ridge, the wind picked up. It wasn’t getting any warmer – the opposite in fact. I told Tazio. We upped our pace a little, but the deep slow made it tough going. If only the sun had hit the ridge the combination of snow wading and radial warmth would have done the trick. But the wind was relentless, the valley was monopolising the sunshine and my feet and hands were getting colder.
A little side note here: I’ve had frostnip (basically chilblains) before. It’s left its mark. Not physically – there’s no permanent marking on my skin. But every time I start to get cold, I experience extreme pain in my feet and hands. Add to that the fact I have Raynaud’s disease and getting cold is not a good idea for me. I have to be especially careful when there’s no quick way to warm up, i.e. when I can’t go inside but have to try and warm myself up.
At 4,300m or so, Tazio and I decided to abandon our attempt of summiting Lyskamm. It was the right decision at the time, but it wasn’t an easy one. As we turned back, I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking it’s not that far, the sun will warm us up soon. But if I continued, and my core temperature dropped further I’d be in trouble and I’d have to abandon the whole adventure completely – perhaps even need mountain rescue. And the main goal was, of course, the Dufourspitze of the Monte Rosa.
Tazio sensed my disappointment. He didn’t say anything trite like: “don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. It’s no big deal.” Instead he suggested a quick jaunt to Ludiwigshöhe, a mound of a peak with some impressive windlips, and then to summit Parrotspitze, a 4,432m snow covered peak: an easy walk with relatively low exposure and because of its aspect, was soon to be bathed in sunshine.
From its summit the views over the valley were striking; the world below was now awake. Toy sized but moving, cars were on the roads, church bells were tolling. No doubt it was warm down there. For a moment I questioned why I choose to climb mountains – cold, harsh, wild places – when I could be down there in the warm, soft, comfort of the valley. As I looked around, down, up and back, seeing bigger mountains still to climb, the beauty of the scene’s purity the doubt drifted away. Where else could I come this close to discovering my capability?
We walked down the eastern ridge of Parrotspitze then up the snow-covered Monte Rosa glacier all the way to Signalkuppe/Punta Gnifetti (a long, hard physically but not technically trek of 500m or so) where unbelievably, the Capanna Margherita (Margherita Hut) is perched. Clinging to the mountain at 4,554m it is the highest mountain hut in Europe and a true wonder of engineering and human determination.
Photos on the wall document its construction. It was pre-built in the valley in 1892 and hauled to its current location by mules and men. It was opened in 1893 and dedicated to Margherita of Savoy, the queen of Italy (and its namesake) who was present for the unveiling.
I was completely exhausted upon arrival. The fact that you can see the hut for the entire journey up the glacier makes the climb all the more frustrating. It’s like a mirage. You think you’re almost there, only to realise you have a few hundred metres left. And the altitude had its soporific effect on my walking speed. Add to that the pain in my left heel as my feet warmed up and the pain from the now-burst blister sunk into my consciousness with vigour.
After devouring a margherita pizza and a beer I had a nap. I awoke for dinner and stuffed myself with pasta and chocolate cake. Then went back to bed. We’d rise at 5 the next morning to be out the door by 5.30 am.
Sleep came in waves. The altitude was clearly eating away at my body. Rising the next morning I felt nauseous. I couldn’t eat. And I was so incredibly tired. We didn’t leave at 5.30. We left at 6.30, a good 45 minutes or more after everyone else, even those not summiting. I wasn’t sure I could make it to the summit. It was only 700 height metres away, but seeing as the ridge was like the back of stegosaurus there was a lot of up and down, so over the space of the kilometre of distance (ish) there would be a lot more than 700 metres gained in height.
The view was like nothing I’d ever seen before: waves of blue-grey mountains; valleys glowing golden with the first rays of sunshine. Contrasts deep. Shadows long. The light glassy and shimmering. It was mesmerising.
I looked at the summit. Dug deep. And moved forward.
From the hut, you cross a flat col before climbing up the snowy banks of the Zumsteinspitze. By this point I was feeling better and looking forward to the lofty, narrow and highly exposed ridge that lay ahead.
Getting to said ridge requires a downclimb, or down walk really, on snow and a few rocks. It didn’t pose any challenges despite the massive exposure. The ridge itself is knife-edge narrow. Either side the snowy slopes are steep enough to make finding purchase in case of a fall virtually impossible and while not of the sheerness of vertical rock faces, you wouldn’t have much chance of surviving if you wrong footed, especially on the Macugnaga side.
I enjoyed the ridge. The views were spectacular, and despite the fact I was just walking, my pulse was racing. I suppose you could call it extreme walking, that kind of slow-paced balancing act slightly to the right side of a pointed ridge of snow, hardened by the constant cold of 4,500m of altitude.
Back on rock we had a quick snack break – I hadn’t been able to eat breakfast, remember, and now that the altitude sickness was wearing off, I was famished. My Raw Bite bar didn’t help much, but it was enough to power me through the next few moves on rock. Or so I thought. The climbing wasn’t challenging. By I just had no energy left in my body. It was as if the Raw Bite bar had alerted my body to the fact my stomach was empty. My eyes asked my stomach if there was enough reserve energy to power up another 100-150m. My stomach replied no. My brain said, 100m more to go up is doable, but add the 100m to get back down to here (and I hate downclimbing) plus the return along the ridge, the mini climb up Zumsteinspitze and the massive 1000m slog down the glacier back to the Gnifetti hut and suddenly things aren’t so doable anymore.
I turned to Tazio and asked him what he thought. My heart was pulling me onwards. I could make it. The summit was so close. He looked at me. His eyes said it before his mouth: I wasn’t climbing like I was two days ago. My feet were sloppy. I was moving it a snail’s pace. I was incredibly tired. He vocalised the decision, but deep down I already knew it: we had to turn back.
I said nothing on the return back to the glacier. I had failed. I’d never failed before. I’d had a goal I hadn’t achieved. I felt useless and pathetic, weak and disheartened. It wasn’t even a good reason for turning back. The failure was all mine. The weather was wonderful, clear skies and without any wind, it was quite warm. I had a fantastic guide, great equipment. The route was well trodden. It was all on me.
Waves of regret washed over me as we walked down the glacier. Tazio dallied between positive words of encouragement and distraction. None of it helped.
When we got to the hut and de-robed of climbing gear, the metal hardware clinking against the balcony, I let everything sink in. I had pushed my body to its very limit. Just a week previously I had run my first mountain trail race – 25km and an altitude gain of 2,000m – and clearly it had left its mark. I contented myself with the fact I had reached my limit. I hadn’t done anything stupid. Could I have made it up and back? Yes, but there was a chance I wouldn’t have done it safely. And risks at 4,500m are not worth taking. I hadn’t achieved my goal, but I wasn’t a failure. I had done things I’d never done before. The climbing, the ridge exposure, the quick rise to altitude, pushing through the pain in my foot, putting brain before heart – new to me – and enjoying the comradery of the rope.
The Dufourspitze isn’t going anywhere. Neither is the Cresta Sella ridge of the Lyskamm. These mountains are real. But they’re also of the mind. I won’t be able to let them rest until I have touched them and experienced their enormity. I will be back. For now, I will have to make do with looking at them from my home in Varese, as they wait for me.