Monte Rosa
with Geo Dunn and Dave Hahn of International Mountain Guides

Monte Rosa
Monte Rosa
[click to zoom]
It was an easy morning in Zermatt as we did our now routine pre-climb chores. Into the supermarket for some lunch food. How about a little Swiss Chocolate, a chunk of Swiss Cheese and some more Swiss chocolate? Throw in a loaf of fresh bread for appearances sake... and some more chocolate. Back out on the street, it is hard not to walk close to the shop windows, checking out all the shiny watches and knives. Looking across the street I spy a friendly set of golden arches. Quickly checking to see that George is nowhere around so as not to get busted, and braving the disappointed grimace of the Bratwurst street vendor, I dart inside with my pack and ice axe. I'm not above coughing up good Francs for burgers.

Having squandered my money, francly speaking, I now was able to go directly to meeting the team at the train station. We got on the cog train to Rotenboden and enjoyed a fine and scenic ascent. I felt sorry for the many camera toting tourists on board though who were just dying to get an unimpeded shot of the Matterhorn, and the darn thing just wouldn't show.

Getting off the train at the Rifflehorn, we got to where we had a full-on look at Monte Rosa. It is opposite the Matterhorn in location and is the opposite of the sharp peak in terms of geometry. Monte Rosa is a "massif" in that it is something in between a peak and a mountain range. It brings a whole lot of earth to great height, and from that height sprout a number of smaller peaks and ridges. The highest peak on the Monte Rosa Massif is the Dufourspitz.

We set out for it by hiking to the hut. It was a pleasant day at first with great views and travel across a "dry" glacier surface. By a dry glacier, I mean that we were on the hard ice portion of this glacier with none of the recent year's snow accumulations remaining to conceal crevasses or rocks carried on the surface. Far from actually being "dry", the surface was sculpted and channeled with running meltwater in every direction.

Monte Rosa
Rest break at dawn
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George and I tried to emphasize that a slow and leisurely day to the hut was a good thing, but most of our folks were obviously in a mood to get the work done. We arrived at about four and I sat out in the afternoon sun reading about cruise missiles and White House interns in the newspaper I'd hauled up from town. George spent the time before dinner more productively. He scouted out the early portion of the route we'd need to find in the dark. It involves a somewhat circuitous and ill-defined path through the boulders of old moraines. He was back for dinner, and we did our family style gig. The hut was not terribly crowded that evening which meant we might more easily focus on the climb in the morning rather than on rope-jockeying.

We were up this time at 2am and walking just 45 minutes later. The boulder-hopping proceeded to get us all a bit sweaty. There was the understanding among the team that we'd have to make very steady progress on this day. We looked to gain 6000 vertical feet from the hut to the top, a big deal for most folks in the mountains. George had pointed out that the local guides did not often take climbers up Monte Rosa because it was such a long day.

We moved pretty well for the first few hours to the glacier's edge. The stop at that point was really just for putting on spikes and roping up, with a few minutes for some water and food thrown in. The early portion of the glacier was on bare ice through a maze of crevasses and seracs. Not difficult, but certainly requiring concentration as we stepped over and around some big holes. We then came to steady uphill plodding on the snow covered middle section of the glacier with only occasional cracks to avoid. At dawn, we were treated to the full Matterhorn view, among other things. It was a sunrise with a fair amount of color to it, you know, the old "red sky at morning" type of day where the sailor takes warning. The climbers did too. We pushed onward and upward, keeping an eye on the thickening overcast.

Monte Rosa
Monte Rosa sunrise
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The climb is actually quite easy, crevasse and thin air problems aside, until the ridges of the Dufourspitz are encountered 1000 feet short of the top. These were steep enough to get George and me rearranging our ropes for quick belays where needed and short-roping on the rest. There were pretty good tracks kicked into the icy slopes, but these were steep enough to take a nasty ride on if someone fell. Near the full height of the mountain, we came upon the craggy rock ridges that guard the summit. If you were one of those kids who grew up liking dinosaurs, you probably wondered what it would be like climbing onto a Stegosaurs' back with all those plates of armor jutting in different directions from the spine. There is a point reached where you have to commit to a last exposed rock ridge for 45 minutes even though you are only 20 feet below the height of the summit at the end of that ridge.

George took two climbers back from this point as they were feeling the effects of our full schedule and some odd fondue. I continued on with the last three who were moving quite well. They needed to be as I began the final spine by making a move past a plaque on the rock memorializing some guy who'd fallen from that very point. It is really fun climbing out that ridge, and I thought it nice of George to let me get on it. He'd been out to the true summit before, but he knew I'd been forced to miss out on it my only other time on Monte Rosa.

I checked constantly to make sure that the four of us roped together were not all on one side of the spine at the same time. If anyone slipped, I wanted the others to be able to hold simply by virtue of their position. There are some neat features where you clamber through slots from one airy side of the ridge to the other, and others where you do a mild balancing act on rock perched on the very crest. In only a few spots did I find need to place actual wired nuts to back up the natural belaying possibilities. The last bit is up 25 vertical feet of a rock chimney which I belayed my climbers up one by one. They were all climbing very well as they popped onto the windy and cold top of Switzerland. There is a big metal cross up there and a fine view of Italy, but on this day there was also that great bank of clouds dropping relentlessly and keeping us from any of the sun's warmth.

I figured George was holding up at some point to make sure we finished the "technical" part of the climb safely. I didn't want him to have to wait long. We moved out in a business-like fashion with Chris Groff leading back down the ridge to allow me a good eyeball on things from the rear. By the time we hit the snow, I was anxious to make real tracks down. If at all possible, it would be much better to keep out of the clouds, particularly in the crevassed areas where I wanted the option of looking for better bridges than some of the ones we'd crossed earlier. The race was on as the snow and cloud descended to nearly match our progress.

I knew my guys were worried about their tired knees and feet, but I hoped they'd keep indulging me in this rapid cruise down the easy part. I try to take safety over comfort on most days and I trusted that we'd climbed enough together that they'd understand I had no other reason for pushing them on when I knew they'd rather take it easy. I'm cocky enough to believe I could have found my way down the broad indistinct slopes in a true white out, but I'm thankful I didn't have to. We beat the storm and rejoined Geo and the other climbers for the leisurely boulder stroll to the hut.

Alps sunset
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The rest of the afternoon proceeded in splendid leisure with all of us beginning to relax with the knowledge that we'd passed the dangerous tests of yet another climbing trip. We could start soon to worry about more mundane things like travel arrangements, but we would no longer have to test handholds and fear falling off the world. It is a great feeling to have a tired body and a comfy place to put it.

In the morning, of course, it was raining as we geared up to hike home to the train stop near the Rifflehorn. George and I brought up the rear on the slow walk to the train, and I enjoyed thinking back 14 years to when I'd first encountered mountain guiding as a profession. George had guided the trip I was on back then and I begged him for a job afterward. To be fair to myself, I guess I didn't beg, I just knew that I was going to find a way to do what he was doing and to see all the corners of the world he'd gotten to see. He told me to wait tables that summer and go climbing every chance I got if I wanted to have a shot at the guide service the following year. That is the way it all worked out, and I now found it pleasantly surprising to think that we'd worked together for so long from the Himalaya to Alaska to the Cascades and now to the Alps.

That night in town, we went for the big dinner in the Stockhorn restaurant. The food there is great, but I like the atmosphere the most. The host of the place is a mountain guide and has the reserve and dignity of one who is most likely the son and grandson of mountain guides. He is probably 60 years old but still fit and still guiding. All in all, we were in a perfect setting for some of the best food and wine I would taste in a year of mountain climbing.

In the morning, we said goodbye to George who was staying to guide two climbers on the Matterhorn, and we piled into the van for the trip back to Zurich. By now I was a seasoned pro with the vehicle and managed most of the gears with ease over the wild Furka Pass. We found our way back into the big city, and I ditched the car. A few of us wandered the streets that evening, our relationship graduated to that of friends with shared experience rather than the old "guide-client" relationship. I suppose that meant that if I asked them to walk faster past this or that bistro, they'd tell me to get stuffed. We didn't have that trouble though, just a nice last night in Europe.

The next day was the usual progression of airport shuffles, only notable because now the world was in a state of tight, tight airplane security what with cruise missiles flying about and all. They even stamped my passport this time in Switzerland.

Dave Hahn, International Mountain Guides

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