It had been raining for a week, they told us when we arrived in Lauterbrunnen. It drizzled steadily most of the way
up to the Rottal hut. At two o’clock next morning the mist was still down and we spent a cheerless day in the cold empty hut, nibbling dry bread and
eyeing bundles of wood at an unaffordable price.
Every now and then the mist would lift a little to reveal the rocky lower face. Very impressive it was too, but the notorious seracs remained out of sight
hanging somewhere above. By this time, however, we did not really believe that we were going to climb the mountain, it was just a matter of propitiating
conscience. We were not in the least surprised when at two o’clock the second morning the mist was at exactly the same level, less than half way up
Purely as a formality we reset the alarm for three thirty and it was without interest that we poked our heads out of the window when it went off again.
But, lo and behold, this time the moon was shining bright, and there was the face, all 1,200 metres of it, looking huge and dark and magnificent, only
a wisp of cloud hovering in front of the rocks and the seracs bristling and gleaming up above, but apparently to one side of our line. I was almost
angry. It couldn’t be true, it was just a trick to get us out of bed. Still suspicious, we stuffed ourselves with muesli and more bread and it was
not until we were crossing the glacier, with the sun just over the edge of the world and head torches unnecessary, that scepticism was replaced by
The slope below the bergschrund was like dough, soggy and unfrozen. The bridges over the bergschrund were soft too, so we kept falling through till we
found the right way. But these were little things when day was coming to a sky miraculously clear, even if there was a lowering bank of cloud on the
horizon. The climbing was interesting from the start, Scottish II and III with easier ground between. There is no point using a rope unless it is needed,
so we picked our own lines. I followed a shallow couloir, which contained some little bulges, but the ice was perfect and axe and hammer picks bit
in reassuringly. Rob took to the rocks on the right, which was out of character, but then he is always suspicious of couloirs. After a couple of hundred
metres my ice became a bit too steep and I traversed across to join Rob. The rock rib had petered out and he was on steep mixed ground, ice with helpful
rock handholds. A little higher, Rob became involved with some unfriendly slabs so I went off further to the right which was awkward also—delicate
moves on thin ice.
Above was the big rock barrier that splits the face horizontally. The only way through looked to be an intimidating ice pitch. From a distance it had seemed
a gully, but in fact it was more of an icefall. There seemed to be no alternative, however, so I climbed the slope beneath it and then broke left up
a steep little chimney to bypass as much as possible, until I was beneath a vertical rock wall. I took a belay and dropped Rob an end of the rope.
He took a traverse line to the right about five metres lower, on snowed-up rock. ‘Fifty Nine Face route must be like this’, he mused (referring to
the winter climb on Creag Meagaidh), as he peeled away chunks of ice to excavate rock holds. It looked rather too steep for comfort and I think we
both perked up when a moac nestled into a tailormade slot. A funny move with a knee and then Rob was on a snowy ramp leading rightwards on to the upper
section of the ice pitch. Behind the startling red of his helmet and cagoule, the sky was blue and the sunlight was just beginning to creep across
the seracs. Down below, the face was visible as a series of broad snow ledges up which our footprints wandered, reappearing slightly offset at the
top of invisible steps. People look for different things in their climbing, but this was how I wanted it. We were on our own, committed, with no one
above to drop a top rope and no one below to call the helicopter. There aren’t many places left in the Alps where that’s true.
"Only forty foot
to go," shouted Rob. "Looks steep, though," he added as an afterthought. Then he moved out of sight round the corner and I could see and hear no more.
I expected the climbing to be hard but that rope moved slowly by any standards. The snow may not have frozen lower down, but up here it felt quite
cold enough. My Dachstein mitts were petrified into solid lumps and my feet felt the same way. Streams of spindrift were flowing down the face all
around and every so often, one of them found a way over the rock barrier and down my neck. Longingly I watched the sunlight across the face, so near
yet two hours away at least. I thought of the pile jacket in my sack, but always it seemed that Rob must be nearly there and I did not bother. Instead
I jumped up and down in my steps and banged my hands together, though it did not feel safe doing both at once. My right leg was shaking uncontrollably.
Then, for no particular reason, it stopped and the left one started. I gibbered quietly to myself and occasionally yelled wordlessly into space, which
seemed to have a slight warming effect. A few feet of rope moved out. A faint voice shouted that it had a nut runner and was nearly there. Life suddenly
seemed more cheerful. Then nothing happened for almost half an hour. The rope never moved. There wasn’t even the encouraging sound of chipping and
I relapsed into numbed apathy.
When eventually the rope leaped out and Rob yelled that he had an axe belay, it took a while to re-coordinate mind and body and the first few moves were
desperate. Clumsy frozen mitts could not grip the holds and when a projecting rock gave way beneath my feet I nearly fell off, crampon points scratching
frantically till they caught on something. But, as usual, it didn’t take long to warm up and soon I was stepping round on to the ice that had taken
Rob such an age. I could see why. It was not simply that it was steep, though many of the moves were out of balance, but the ice was rotten, inspiring
no confidence, and in places very thin so that our new-fangled tools were of no help.
Being an icefall rather than a gully and having half the face stretched below, the exposure was unnerving. It was a fine piece of climbing, which would
have been Grade V on Ben Nevis. We knew we’d cracked it after that. The top half of the face consists of fairly steep slopes, about fifty-five degrees,
but unless the ice turned really nasty we did not expect any problems. And in fact it was beautiful soft ice most of the way, the sort on which you
feel you are front-pointing but really the first down points are biting as well. In places unstable flour had accumulated in runnels which wasn’t too
pleasant because at that angle you never know what is making it stick. Sometimes the really hard permanent stuff came a little too close to the surface
for peace of mind. But neither lasted long enough to prevent us moving together. I was in front, climbing fast, glad just to be warm again and revelling
in the sense of space and isolation induced by the sweep of ice above, below and on either hand; but Rob had a bad cold which was slowing him down.
Earlier, following his steps, I had kept finding these green things on the ice. Now, as we zigzagged through rock outcrops and round bulges, our progress
was interrupted by volleys of retching coughs. I was impressed by the way Rob managed to keep going. The Rottalhorn col was well below by this time,
the summit rocks looked close. The slope steepened for a last fling and the ice became harder. In went a drive-in ice screw and I kept moving. A brief
pause fifty metres later while Rob took it out and I was on the corniced saddle just below the summit being welcomed by a bitter wind.
we chewed dried bananas in the lee of some rocks, we felt pleased with ourselves at being up so quickly. But congratulations were premature. Suddenly
the Jungfrau disappeared and a grumbling and a rumbling came from the distance. Luckily the storm centre remained over the Aletschhorn but the descent
was fairly wild all the same, groping through near whiteout among angry whirling snow devils. On the flat col of the Kranzberg I jumped across a crevasse,
not realizing it was on the rim of a slope. I landed flat on my face, winded and wondering for a moment how I had reached the bottom of the hole so
quickly. Nor was the route as simple as the photo in the book implied—descents never are—huge rifts splitting what should have been a gentle
It was good to reach the furrow winding up to the Jungfraujoch and the Tolkienesque little door tucked away at the base of a cliff, where you would never
notice it but for the track. The last train was on the point of leaving. The gnome in the ticket office wasn’t pleased at being recalled and he was
even less pleased when we paid him with an assortment of Swiss, French and English currency. Kleine Scheidegg was wrapped in mist, which turned to
a fine drizzle as we arrived. This was where we came in. Wistfully we watched the tourists trooping off to the big hotel and the solid Swiss railwaymen
tucked behind their beers in the brightly lit station buffet. But we had no money left and the prospect of a bivouac, even at Kleine Scheidegg, did
not appeal. We headed downwards into the gloom.
We had not gone far before virtue was rewarded by a slight clearing of the sky and traces of pink in the west. The evening was warm and still and the tranquillity
of the landscape with its cowbells, orchids and waterfalls, contrasted sharply with the elemental hostility of two hours earlier. It was like one of
those huge sombre nineteenth-century paintings, except that it did not feel at all gloomy. Rather, it reminded me of the quiet bit after the storm
in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. At Wengen, the first fireworks were being let off into the dusk and groups of children were gathering with coloured
lanterns. We remembered that it was August 1st, the Swiss national holiday. Two years before, to the day, folk watching the fireworks down in the valley
had seen our head torches on top of the Grosshorn. As we descended the steep muddy track to Lauterbrunnen, bonfires flared below and a band struck
up, making us feel like conquering heroes being welcomed home. Except that no one would give us a lift the last four miles up the road to the campsite.
Fortunately, we were too tired and too content to care. Next day it was raining properly.
Rob Collister's new book, Days to Remember: Adventures and reflections of a mountain guide, can be purchased on amazon.com in paperback for $11.66 or on Kindle for $15.99.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Best known as an alpinist in his youth, Rob Collister was in his element climbing unnamed peaks in obscure corners of the Himalaya. In
1976 he qualified as a British Mountain Guide, and was one of the first British guides to ski the Haute Route with clients, soon taking parties to
places such as Kashmir, Kulu, Alaska and the Lyngen Alps—long before they became popular destinations. Recently, concern about carbon emissions
has led to a reduction in his expedition mountaineering and to the use of public transport to travel to and around the Alps.
Throughout his career he has been based in North Wales, raising a family of three children with his wife Netti. He has been a trustee of the Snowdonia
Society and the John Muir Trust, served as a nominated member of the Snowdonia National Park Authority and was president of the British Mountain Guides
from 1990 to 1993.
Rob has contributed to a number of anthologies and has written regularly for the Alpine Journal and other outdoor publications. His previous books include
Lightweight Expeditions (Crowood Press), Over the Hills and Far Away (Ernest Press), and Snowdonia, Park under Pressure (Pesda Press).