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Alpine Getaway: Two Classics in a Quick Vacation

Posted on: September 16th, 2009 by admin

The Eiger at sunset from the Mittellegi Hut. Photo by Greg Sievers.

The Eiger at sunset from the Mittellegi Hut. Photo by Greg Sievers.

Sievers on Eiger summit

Greg Sievers on the Eiger summit. Photo by Steve Giddings.

Approaching the Dent du Géant. Photo by Greg Sievers.

Approaching the Dent du Géant. Photo by Greg Sievers.

Fixed ropes on Dent du Geant

Fixed rope near the west summit of the Dent du Géant. Photo by Greg Sievers.

Greg Sievers, a longtime AAC volunteer and past section chair from Estes Park, Colorado, made a quick trip to the Alps in early September and bagged a couple of classic routes. Here’s his story.

Everything got started a day late because Lufthansa lost my bag in Frankfurt and it arrived at Steve Giddings’ house in Thoiry, France, 32 hours late. We then headed straight to Grindelwald, Switzerland, for our first route: the Mitteleggi Ridge on the Eiger. It was drizzling and foggy, but we jumped on the Jungfraujoch railway that afternoon based on a call to the Mittelleggi Hut warden, who said it was sunny up on the ridge. We rode the cog railway through the Eiger and exited at the Eismeer Station, geared up, and proceeded down a low, dark foot tunnel, out a portal, and onto the glacier. We made the 2.5-hour approach up the mostly fourth-class south face of the Eiger and arrived just before sunset at the Mittelleggi Hut at 11,000 feet, in time for dinner. I perused the guest logbook after dinner and found American names at a rate of about one pair per month among the 40 people per day that max out this little hut and climb this route. But I was pleased to see that most of them had listed “AAC” as their affiliation.

We roped up the next morning at about 6:30 and summited (13,024′/3,970m) about 11 a.m. One can’t possibly make any mistakes in route-finding—the ridge is an extremely sheer knife-edge with 3,000 feet of smooth wall to the left (south) and 6,000 feet to the right (north) toward Grindelwald. It was really weird to have all the difficult sections fixed with 1.5-inch nylon rope, attached to honkin’ big steel stanchions. But I wasn’t tempted to pass up any of the ropes in an attempt to free-climb this fractured choss-pile of a mountain. The rock is just a crumbling, decomposing pile of limestone tiles. At the upper crux, the tail end of the next rope swung free 20 feet below the first steel anchor on the near-vertical arête. It was my “lead,” and I sighed out loud, rolled my eyes at Steve, and said, “This is too weird!” Then I wrapped a prusik around the fixed rope, took off my light gloves to maximize my grip, and hauled away. The act of yarding my ass up this rope offended my very core as a climber, but “when in Rome….” Eyeing the rock quality, I knew I wouldn’t want to try to free-climb this crap anyway.

It was a cloudless, windless, beautiful day to look out across the Bernese Alps. We originally thought we’d descend by the west flank, but changed our plan to follow the herd on the standard descent of the south ridge. Steep down-scrambling and rapping on fixed anchors was followed by a traverse of a sheer ridge along the col toward the Mönch, and then we dropped onto the glacier and circumnavigated the Mönch clockwise to find the Jungfraujoch rail station and its portal into the earth. The round-trip from the village had taken exactly 24 hours. The Mittellegi is truly a mountaineer’s route of a modest level, but it will test your vertigo and focus. Find more details here.

We spent a lovely night in Gridelwald and then drove south to Täsch, which involved putting our car on a flatbed rail car and going through a ten-mile-long tunnel. Täsch is the closest point one can drive to Zermatt; you park there and catch the cog railway up to Zermatt. The weather was holding, and we had hoped to climb the Italian Ridge of the Matterhorn. Upon gathering info at the Alpine Center, however, we were informed that the Italian Ridge was closed due to a massive rock fall/ridge collapse. We heard that 40 people had been choppered off the ridge. The forecast called for rain late the next day, so we packed light crag packs and took yet another railway up about 5,000 feet, and then did a five-pitch rock route at the foot of the Dufoursptize (Monte Rosa) on an alpine outcropping called the Riffelhorn. The weather people were right: It snowed five inches down to about 10,000 feet that night. We returned to Steve’s house just north of Geneva and waited out a couple of rainy days.

Trying to salvage the end of the trip, we drove through the tunnel under Mont Blanc and popped out in the Courmayeur valley of Italy. Grabbing the tram, we were hoisted up about 7,000 feet to the Torino Hut. Saturday morning dawned clear and cold. We headed due north across the Géant glacier to climb the Dent du Géant (13,166′/4,013m). After scrambling up a good 2,000 feet of fourth-class terrain, we arrived at the fantastic 500-foot granite tooth. (Learn more about the route here.) Two pitches of steep, exposed, tricky 5.7 in mountain boots gained more fat ropes fixed to this frequently guided route. The summit pitches were short but super-exposed. Three 50-meter rappels got us to the snow, and we were back at the Torino Hut for a wonderful dinner by 7 p.m. The round-trip totaled 10 hours. By the way, the hut fee for bunk, dinner, and breakfast was 42 euros for members and 56 euros for nonmembers. Remember to travel with your AAC membership card to get that nice discount!

Sunday morning again was calm and clear. We headed south to the Trident du Tacul, a small tower of beautiful golden granite that resembles the Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park. But crowds on the route soon drove us down, and we returned to Steve’s home that same evening. After nine days on the ground in Europe and several satisfying routes, I flew home the next day.