A Trip Down Memory Lane or Up Memory Mountain (to be more accurate)
Above: The Monte Rosa massif in Switzerland. From left to right Nordend (4609m/15,121ft), Dufourspitze (4632m/15,203ft) and Lyskamm (4527m/14852ft) above the 7 mile long Gornerglestcher.
At this time of year many look back over the previous twelve months but for me the last few weeks have been extremely busy and largely consumed with packing and moving house. (We've moved just a little ways up the Colorado River to Glenwood Springs.) In my opinion packing is very overrated (unless one is going on a big, fun trip somewhere) but in the process I did unearth some old photos and memories which I think are worth sharing. So I hope you will indulge me on a little trip down memory lane, or up memory mountain in actuality.
Fifteen years ago I was stuck in the London rat race. I was in my early twenties and knew this was not for me. So one day I threw in the towel, moving quickly from a career in finance to being a professional mountain bum in Zermatt, located in the Swiss canton of Valais. It was early summer and my goal was to hike and run trails and climb as many peaks as possible in the Alps. Zermatt was a perfect location as it is surrounded by jaw dropping scenery (the Matterhorn perhaps being one of the most photographed mountains in the world), miles and miles of footpaths to explore, 32 peaks over 4,000 meters and all travel is on train, by cablecar, foot or bike. I literally went a whole summer without once taking a ride in a car (which are banned in Zermatt). There were so many things about that summer which were spectacular and life changing for me, I could talk about it endlessly and no doubt the only person who would be remotely interested in my babble would be myself. Ultimately the experience confirmed my absolute love for the mountains and now I can't imagine life without them.
Above: Myself on the left and Johanna Bergkvist on the right, climbing Pollux. I met Johanna early on in the summer and we shared a love for rock climbing. Most days would find us on a little crag just above town or bouldering up in meadows around Findeln. I'm still in touch with Johanna after all these years (hate to love Facebook) though she is now back in Sweden.
If there was a common thread through the summer and the mountains it was friends and partners. As most know it is a challenge to safely travel and climb in the mountains without good partners. As well as meeting Johanna I was fortunate to become friends with a gang of young up and coming local mountain guides. Not sure if they just wanted to practice their english on me or were impressed with my beer drinking skills(not) but they took me into their fold. Consequently I was able to climb some of the major peaks in the area while hanging onto their coat tails or ropes in this case. Amongst many fantastic days there were three climbs which were stand outs.
The Matterhorn: In July the snow cleared sufficiently for us to summit the Matterhorn via the Hornli Ridge which although a technical easy climb was by far the biggest exposure I have experienced. Climbing up the shoulder one could peer (dizzily) 6,000 feet down the north face. Although the route is very crowded I benefited from having friends in the biziness (ha!) and Martin Lehner (one of the guide gang) and I summited ahead of the pack and were a third of the way back down before meeting the ascending masses. Watching the sunrise over Mont Blanc from the summit of the Matterhorn in solitude was an incredible experience.
The North Face of the Breithorn: One day Mario Julen and I came up with the wild idea of summiting the North Face of the Breithorn from Zermatt in one push. Although the Breithorn is an easily reached summit from the south walking from the Klein Matterhorn cable car station, the north face is a technical snow, ice and rock climb. It is most frequently climbed after an overnight stay at the Gandegg Hutte. We, however left Zermatt on bikes at midnight, rode several miles up gravel roads to Findeln, and then hiked to the Gandegg Hutte for an early breakfast at 4 a.m.
Above, the Gandegg Hutte on a different day with the north face of the Breithorn looking behind.
From there we descended down scree slopes to traverse the Breithorngletscher in the dark. After dropping a few legs in barely covered crevasses (luckily not all at the same time) we finally reached the base of the climb. Unfortunately I do not have any photos but it was spectacular steep snow and ice climbing before popping out on the summit several hours later. We were greeted by the masses who had walked from the cable car who were somewhat surprised when we expained our route in response to their questions about from where we came.
Tour of the Monte Rosa: 15,200 feet high Monte Rosa, also known as Durfourspitze straddles the italian-swiss border and is the second highest peak in the Alps (after Mont Blanc) and gives its name to a group of spectacular peaks high above Zermatt. Many of these peaks are over 4,000 meters and so one day we set out to summit as many as we could in one push. Catching the last cable car up to the top of Klein Matterhorn one evening we hunkered down in the cable car operators quarters for a few hours sleep before we left just before 2 a.m. First we summited Castor, an easy snow climb before beginning the traverse of Lyskamm - a massive and airy 5km knife ridge. It was a little precarious in spots with one high adrenalin moment when I plunged my ice axe into the precipitous cornice and my hand went all the way through. If it wasn't still dark I would have been able to see Italy several miles below through the hole I inadvertantly made in the snow. Lucily the cornice held, as did I, and we made it across in time to see the sunrise from the eastern summit. I know of no better place than to be on a mountain as the suns warming rays first strike the earth. That's the Matterhorn in the distance by the way.
We continued on, ticking off Signalkuppe and Zumsteinspitze both pleasant snow climbs, before hitting up the biggy of the trip - Dufourspitze. Here we had an enjoyable rock scramble (though we kept our crampons on) to reach the summit of the highest mountain in Switzerland. With Nordend (another 15er), the final summit of the Monte Rosa Tour, in the bag we began the long hot and brutal descent down the Gornergletscher for a late lunch at the Monte Rosa Hutte. I was so exhausted I could barely eat but summoned up enough energy to continue on the climb back out to the Gornergrat cog railway. It was a big day as the following diagram, drawn up by one of the gang, shows:
Over the period of 17 hours we traveled 25km (16 miles), climbing almost 6,500 feet and descending almost 10,000. We reached 7 summits over 4,000 meters. Most people attempt this tour in several days but when you are young and mad about mountains as our group was.....
Thanks for joining me on my little jaunt down memory lane. Happy New Year!