Dolomites and the Weisshornby Alan Heason Feb/2008
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I remember clearly as if it was yesterday the two weeks that I spent with you in the Dolomites and then we moved on to the Alps. They were probably the hardest two weeks climbing of my life and fortunately because I have a fairly orderly mind I have kept records of the climbs we did and I will highlight some of the best ones for your book.
It was way back in July 1974 when you joined me out in Italy. I remember meeting you at Milan train station and us running to get away from a gang of very determined prostitutes wearing very little. We first climbed one of the Sellaturm and left it a bit late because it was late evening when we reached the top and we had to abseil down in the dark.
We knocked off a load more routes finishing up with Torre Winkler which almost proved the end of me it was so difficult and steep, but you got us up it but my fingers were worn out and bloody and I couldn't bear to touch rock, so off we went to Switzerland and did the Weisshorn which turned out to be a desperately hard and dangerous day, and I remember that it was the first ascent that year and we had to rope down two Italian guides who were in difficulty.
I've never repeated climbs like those since, and want to thank you for giving me the inspiration and backing to get me up them. The memories will always stay with me.
All the best, and keep on being a mountaineer, it keeps you young!!
Thanks, Brian, and thanks for the photos taken on the Weisshorn day.
Hope you don't mind, but I'm going to flesh out your account a little, because several episodes were quite exciting.
To put things in perspective, Anne and I were working at Aberglaslyn Hall, and we met you when you visited on a rock-climbing course. I was your instructor and we got on uncommonly well and, in the evenings – and subsequent weekend visits - we climbed regularly and completed routes of increasing difficulty. We were both very fit and before long talk turned to a rock-climbing holiday overseas. The Dolomites won as the chosen venue. Anne went on an all-female climbing party to the Spanish Pyrenees and you drove out to Italy, a week earlier, with Sue your wife. I trained out, and well I remember the incident with the ladies of the night. (Just a point of clarification, gentle reader, it was they who were 'wearing very little', not Brian and me...). I would never have guessed that such an encounter could be anything less than titillating, rather than seriously menacing.
So, to the limestone towers of the Dolomites, a first visit for each of us. I was really impressed by the beauty, the high passes and the almost unbelievable sight of these vertical towers leaping starkly into the sky. I felt seriously intimidated but sanguinely refused to let it show. I found out later that you were similarly apprehensive.
Without pause for thought we booked in at a convenient mountain hut and climbed steep hot scree to the base of the third Sella Tower. Two easy, unroped scrambling pitches devolved onto a broad, horizontal ledge that skirted round a steep corner and delivered us beneath the forbidding north wall. The ledge narrowed dramatically and sloped steeply outwards beneath our feet. Far below the tower was the zed-bending Sella pass with Dinky toy cars crawling over it. We roped up and you lead the first pitch. It was not unduly difficult climbing but the unrelenting absolute verticality tugged at our heels and the white rope curved from alternating leader to belayer without resting on the wall. We led through exhilarated at our position and, upon attaining the flat summit, which is about the size of an average dining table, and were rather perturbed to see dark clouds approaching, glowing purple from within from lightning flashes. Thunder rumbled. We felt rather like lightning conductors. Darkness was fast approaching. We snapped a couple of pictures and threaded the rope through the fixed abseil sling and cast off down the overhanging face, swinging free. Absolute faith had to be placed in the guide book description, telling us that, if we used a rope of the correct length, we would arrive at the next abseil platform. It was our first experience of repeated abseils, and the feeling of vulnerability and trust was beyond previous experience. The storm was about us now and it was dark; happily it remained dry. Moving fast, without mishap, we came to the scree foot of the tower and scampered a thousand feet down to the orange glow of the hut and I remember to this day sitting down to big white dishes of orange goulash, chunks of crusty bread and a flagon of red wine.
Day followed fine day. Each of us pushed the other. Each assumed the other was more competent and confident than he. Wrong on both counts, but it certainly pushed our grades more rapidly than would have occurred had we adopted a more cautious approach.
We finally had to admit retreat after eight days when, after a particularly steep, long and vicious route up the Torre Winkler, which I had been compelled to lead throughout, your finger tips were in such a raw, bleeding and painful state that you could no longer tolerate placing them on rock, much less crimping them onto miniscule rugosities and supporting your weight from them.
So, we decided to pop over into Switzerland and do a peak or two there. We gravitated to the Zermatt Valley. And, after a brief deliberation, chose to attempt the Weisshorn, probably followed by the Matterhorn.
To see the fang of the Matterhorn soaring white into a clear blue sky reawakened many memories. The first incredulous sighting in 1962 as we peered from the train window climbing up the approach valley. The quite perfect setting of green, grassy alps studded with grazing cattle. The place-perfect mountain lakes reflecting picture-book views. Walks amongst high valleys, squishing through snow melting in the hot summer sun and eating meat soup in picturesque mountain-hut restaurants.
And a winter visit, skiing over the high route from Cervinia in Italy. Ah, but that did not go too sweetly. I was alone. That time Anne had stayed behind in Wales having recently given birth to Ben.
It was a Sunday and the weather in Italy was kind, so I took the early high cable car almost to the summit of Monta Rosa and skied easily and peacefully over perfect snow into Switzerland. The pistes were deserted for it was early, and the rising sun cast long, purple shadows. One set of ski tracks preceded me and I hummed happily as I skimmed effortlessly and silently past the west and south faces of the Matterhorn. A plume of spindrift was tearing from the summit like a golden pennant. Down, far down below, Zermatt was still in shadow and smoke whisped up from breakfast fires. The skier who preceded me, unseen, was good. His – or her? – tracks cut a confident path across the steepening snow. It seemed that the skier was very familiar with the route and I surmised whether he could perhaps be an instructor like me. Whoops, hang on, fellow, that was a steeper route down than I would have normally chosen. I'm a climbing instructor, not a skier....Oh heck, this is too fast. Out of sunlight into shadow. Follow the tracks. They disappeared. Abruptly without warning. I was airborne. I think I have a memory of a sighting of his tracks where he had landed after the huge jump and sped on his way. But I was not (and still am not) a ski jumper. I landed in deep snow, still upright, but in totally the wrong posture, and pitched forward, my booted feet clamped perhaps too firmly onto my skis. I heard a loud crack as my right Achilles tendon snapped and I fell sideways into the snow. I have no recollection of the passage of time before someone found me. I don't think it was very long.
Landed at Cervinia hospital, plastered under insurance, and an unusually frustrating six days kicking my heel waiting for my return flight. Had a whole row of seats to myself and all the stewardesses wrote nice and naughty things on the plaster. Example: 'I did it skiing, but my wife found out and broke my leg'. I hadn't mentioned the business when I'd 'phoned Anne. We had a bit of difficulty shoehorning me into the mini for the drive from Manchester airport.
Now, where was I? Quite pleasant how one memory leads to another, then another. We were in Zermatt, I believe, and we had decided to attempt that most beautiful of mountains, the Weisshorn. The Matterhorn is brutal in its beauty and forces its image into one's consciousness. The Weisshorn is immense, gracefully proportioned and, in my humble and comparatively inexperienced view, the loveliest mountain in the Alps. Steep sharp ridges cup deep cwms and valleys and soar knife-edged to meet at a perfect summit, aloof and alone in magnificence, towering above all proximate peaks, even the Matterhorn. Because of the surrounding retinue of foothills it is not an easy mountain to view from lower altitudes and its splendid isolated grandeur does not unfold to the eye until considerable energy has been expended in gaining some height
It is necessary, if intending to climb the Weisshorn - or the majority of alpine peaks for that matter - to first ascend from the lower valleys where there are roads, to a mountain hut specifically constructed and strategically placed to enable mountaineers to first climb to them, eat and rest, perhaps sleep, before making an early morning start to gain the summit. It is prudent to complete the difficulties of the climb before sun's heat softens the snow frozen hard and secure overnight, rendering it soft, unstable and prone to avalanche. The same applies to stones and boulders frozen high above in gullies that must be navigated.
These huts are, more often than not, built on a rocky spur safely removed from dangers of rock fall and avalanche. We toiled up from our car for many a long and arduous hour, zig-zagging up a craftily constructed path through pine forests which devolved onto grassy alps bestrewn with white cotton grass, edelweiss and deep blue gentians. Above us the hut seemed impossibly far away and so small, and we were weary when we arrived, after six hard hours. The summit of our peak was hidden from view, but across the valley reared the Dom, another major peak, and through a telescope we spotted a hut corresponding to our own, an insignificant speck on the tremendous bulk of the mountain.
The hut guardian was pleased to have company and cooked us a simple meal, the constituents of which I no longer recall. Although it was fully daylight, he advised us to go to the dormitory and try to sleep; there had been heavy snowfalls of late, on top of winter's contribution and he was of the opinion that the ascent would be challenging. We were the first to attempt it that season; the mountain did not normally 'come into condition' until August.
At eleven-thirty we were awoken and sleepily donned boots and gaiters (we had slept fully clothed, the dormitory was unheated and the duvet none-too-effective), switched on head torches, donned packs and trudged off into the icy night. We sensed, rather than saw, the brooding bulk of the mountain above us; heads down, alone with our thoughts, we used our ice-axes as walking sticks. After three hours or so a sickle moon appeared briefly and we donned crampons, for we had reached a steep and frozen gully. Kick. Step. Kick. Step. We didn't consider roping up although, when we came to descend that same gully later, rather thought we should have done, and taken turns to belay the leading climber, he in turn bringing up the second man in comparative safety.
I remember emerging from that gully and sensing that we were in an awe-inspiring situation. There was an open-ness, a feeling of being surrounded by immense space. The softest of winds sussurated around us. On the eastern horizon slivered the faintest suggestion of an ice-gold dawn. The lower sky lightened from black to indigo. Imperceptibly slowly, we became aware of our surroundings. Like a dimmer-switch being turned, peaks, ridges, summits, soared around us floating above the black valleys. We were in a humblingly beautiful presence. A silent cupful of sweet hot coffee was our first rest, and, seeing our intended route climbing steeply along a corniced ridge above us, we roped up.
Far above us was the sharp summit of the Weisshorn. Our route had to traverse a frighteningly corniced ridge climbing steeply, at about the same angle as a house roof, for perhaps three-quarters of a mile. A cornice of snow is formed by a prevailing wind striking a ridge from one side and blowing snow over towards the opposite side. In so doing, some of the snow is deposited beyond the ridge, and, over a period of time, this deposit commences to over-hang the steep downwind side of the ridge and the ridge crest takes on a flatter aspect. This continues and, eventually, a flat walkway appears, which may be a dozen feet wide. A motorway. But this motorway has no foundation and little substance. If a hole were to be bored through it, some feet from its lip, one could peer down a vertical cliff for a full thousand feet. Whilst there could be an element of rigidity and load-bearing strength in this creation, there can be no way of finding out whether that is the case or not. The first indication of stress failure would be the silent breaking of a length of cornice which would hiss frighteningly down the ice-cliffs below. The 'safe' technique is to proceed directly along where one assesses one stands directly above the underlying rock of the mountain ridge.
So deep was the snow, although still frozen comfortingly hard, that we had no clear and unambiguous knowledge of where this line of safety lay, and we were confronted with the dilemma of whether to proceed together, or one at a time whilst the partner belayed. Deciding that there was nothing really stable enough to belay to, we nervously decided to proceed roped together, with a tacit agreement that, should one of us fall from one side of the ridge, whether by cornice collapse or simply slipping, the other would instantly cast off into space down the opposite side, the rope theoretically preventing either of us from continuing their fall. We never got round to discussing the ensuing plan of action.
To say that the last hour was tense would be to somewhat understate our frames of mind. By now we were so high that lack of acclimatisation to the altitude was becoming an increasingly difficult factor. Heads banged. The sun was now burning, even though it was only six in the morning. Breathing was laboured and I have clear, unpleasant memory of Brian – who acclimatised better than me – leading me up the final hundred feet single step after single tortured step, each step interspersed with twelve gasping gulps for air. Interminable. But then, there we were. Nothing before us except panoramic stupendous-ness. A simple metal cross. A belay spike from which to abseil. And, unbelievably, a party of three climbers a couple of hundred feet below us approaching the summit from the opposite, steeper, side. We ate chocolate and drank coffee and waited on their approach. They arrived and it was clear that all was not well. One older guy of perhaps fifty and two younger, in their twenties. The fear on the younger ones' faces was tangible and the elder one was troubled. They were Italian, guides, we were led to believe, and their chosen route of ascent had proved so difficult because of snow conditions as to be irreversible. Their French was no better than my own, and neither Brian nor I had usable Italian or German. They elected to descend by our route of ascent but as we commenced, became embarrassingly incoherent and frightened, so we ended up roping them down along the corniced ridge, across the face of the gendarme and beyond. I rather think they were not in fact 'guides'; maybe they thought we were.
However, we had been - and were in - a frighteningly dangerous situation and well understood why it was that we had made the first ascent of the season, and, according to the hut book, the first British ascent for two years. We took stock of our situation, concluded that neither of us was a sufficiently competent alpinist to continue with such escapades, decided to forgo the Matterhorn (although it is classed as a far easier ascent than the one we had achieved) and returned home.
I will be 70 next March and am starting to develop the odd ache and pain. Anne, my wife, is 61 and we have two sons, Mathew, (Matt) whose business, Heason Events, organises ShAFF, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, and Ben, who has made a name for himself in the worldwide climbing scene.
I started climbing accidentally at the age of 18, and, because there is an outside chance that I could get in touch with someone who meant a lot at the time, I will describe the event in some detail:
I had made a tent with an old sewing machine and wanted to try it out. In August 1956 I found myself, for the first time, in Snowdonia, alone and wandering. Into Cwm Idwal. Where to camp? I espied another tent somewhere below what I now know to be the Idwal Slabs. I pitched mine not so far away and, spotting a couple of figures nearby, wandered over. Two girls. One was standing at the foot of the slabs and the other was some fifty feet up Ordinary Route. She called down that she was a 'bit stuck' so off I went to join her, totally inexperienced, but eager to make an impression, and between us we both got down safely. Well, the two of us got on really well and spent a week galloping up every mountain in sight, borrowing a rope from a couple of 'experienced' climbers, tying ourselves on by various improvised methods, and actually climbing Ordinary Route. The descent, traversing across the top of Suicide Wall, scared us. Are you out there, Jill (Gill?) Howarth as you were named in 1956? Does anyone know of her whereabouts?
Anne and I met through being members of the Oread Mountaineering Club in the late 60's
We live close to Tremadog, at the foot of the Aberglaslyn Pass; we've been there for thirty eight years now, and Mathew and Ben were born there. We moved here to work at Aberglaslyn Hall by way of Ben More Lodge and Plas y Brenin. They didn't start their climbing careers until 1992; I should have taught them earlier, having been a climbing instructor, but their formative years coincided with osteo-arthritis of my hip. I found even walking difficult for several years until it was replaced. They didn't hang about though, climbing Vector together 20 months later.
Spasmodically, when aches and pains allow, I still follow Matt or Ben up easy climbs. Ben took Anne and me up Christmas Curry at Tremadog last Christmas day. It was enjoyable but not as easy as it used to be. Ben tied a chalk bag to my harness. The cheek of it! And last August we were in Kyrgyzstan in the Tien Shan Mountains. So the spirit is still willing, and when my two new knees are fitted next August things should be as they were. As for Brian, he's still climbing and waiting for Ben to take him up Vector, so the ages old partnership lives on.