This Geezer made his highest and most romantic mountaineering climb in his late 60s.
I’d just hiked from hut to hut with Herb and Judy across the Bernese Alpine Passes Route.
So I was feeling jaunty in my mid-sixties. Herb talked me into checking off a climb from my bucket list.
I’d been eyeing Monte Rosa on several visits to Zermatt, Switzerland, thinking someday I’d have to climb it.
So Herb, in his practical way, said, “Bill, if you don’t do it now, you’ll probably never do it. You’re already up in years.”
That was in a Grindlewald tavern.
I knew instantly that Herb was right. While I’d done a few peaks in the Northwest’s Cascades and the British Columbia Bugaboos, as well as a number of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Fourteeners, that was mostly when I was half my current age.
I was in good enough physical condition though, to have just done a trek across the Bernese Alps. And Herb pointed out, “You’e already here.”
So I figured why not give it a go?
I took the train to Zermatt and hired a Swiss mountain guide who agreed to take me on the climb.
I’d insisted we would have to don it in three days to be sure I could manage the altitude.
At three in the morning the day we were to begin the guide called and said, “We’ve had an early snow storm. So we’ll have to put it off until tomorrow to allow the snow to settle a bit.”
I was disappointed.
“Will we still be able to give it three days?”
“Not to worry,” he said. “I’ll get you up and back in two.”
I knew why. He had a large climbing party lined up for that next day and didn’t want to put them off, for a bigger group meant bigger fees.
After I was fully awake I decided to cancel and find another guide. But, all were booked.
I had my lunch and after pondering my situation – the weather forecast was stellar, I had already cancelled my flight back home, travel all the way to Zermatt, and was now eager to check it off my bucket list – I decided on a bit more daring solution.
I Decided On a Bit More Daring solution
In my fascination with Monte Rosa over the years, I’d studied the guide books and read about a route up the Italian side called “The Normal Route,” which was more direct and somewhat more difficult. But it also had a hut up at 12,000 feet elevation at which I could acclimate a bit before heading up the final 3,000 feet to the summit.
Furthermore there was a hut at Monte Rosa’s summit on the Italian side, actually the highest hut in the Alps
I wondered how difficult the climb could be if it was labeled the “Normal Route” and attracted enough climbers to the peak they stay overnight in a huge hut on its summit?
So I checked with the guide service about it’s difficulty and they said that climbing Monte Rosa by the normal route was rated “F” meaning “Facile,” which in Italian means “Easy.”
However, I figured this must be their rating for the Swiss route. But probably just as true of the Italian Normal Route.
I was shortly to discover the difference.
I hopped a train to Italy, had a great meal of spaghetti Bolognese while waiting for the next bus to Alagna, which turned out to be a pricey Italian resort town situated at the base of Monte Rosa.
Unlike Zermatt, where most people speak English, I couldn’t find anyone in Alagna who did. And I didn’t know a word of Italian, except for ciao and grazia.
I tried to find a room, but wherever I inquired they saw how I was dressed and said, “al completo.”
It was getting dark when a teenager noticed me wandering rather aimlessly down it’s main street.
He said in perfect English, “My mom has a room. Would you like to see it?”
It turned out to be a beautiful spacious inexpensive room.
And I was able to chat in English with him about how to get up to the Gnifetti hut.
He showed me the cable car that would take me up to Salati-Indren, the cableway station, from which I could hike to Gnifetti hut.
The climb to the hut was already “challenging.” Not exactly “F,” Facile, as I’d been led to believe. I’m sometimes baffled by my “innocence,” to coin a euphemism.
As I was writing this post, I was stunned to discover a YouTube video of an Italian couple taking this route. Here is their take. Have a peek. The image below is the hut at the summit of Monte Rosa.
The video is really in three parts, the first is the climb to Gnifetti hut. The next is their trek to the summit of Monte Rosa. And the last is their trek to other peaks beyond it. I was only doing the second part, to Monte Rosa.
My mind blanks out at how difficult it was to climb to just to Gnefetti. I do recall though, wondering at the time, that if this was “easy” what would it be like climbing the last 3,000 feet from there to the summit?
High Altitude Climb
So, of course, next morning I was up, took the cable car up to the top of a ridge and climbed three hours up to the Gnifetti hut where I spent a couple of nights acclimating to the altitude.
The climb up to this hut was an adventure in itself, over a steep, rugged, rocky route with a series of iron ladders and fixed ropes for handholds while climbing just to get to the Gnifetti Hut.
The YouTube video of the climb I’ve added (above) to this post shows this in dramatic takes.
Life at the hut was geered to climbing. Early to bed and up at 1:00 AM. Even if you were not going climbing, and just resting as I was, the racket of clanking iron and chatter of those who were going off climbing made it impossible to sleep.
After a big breakfast with the climbers I watched long lines of the lights of climbers’ headlamps winding up the trail among the glaciers in the darkness as they moved slowly toward the summit.
I reasoned, ‘How dangerous could the climb be if so many climbers regularly make their way to its summit?’
‘After all,’ I thought, ‘the greatest danger of glaciers is falling into crevasses. I’d my share of glacier climbing, even crossing crevasses. Obviously with so many climbers trodding a path over the glaciers they’d be avoiding crevasses by a wide margin.’
If a hundred or so roped-up climbers made their way along a well-used path, I couldn’t see why I couldn’t do it too, regardless of going solo, without ice ax and crampons.
During my day acclimating to the altitude I met a fellow who spoke English. He’d come down early having stayed the prior night up at the Margherita Hut on the summit.
He confirmed that the climb was mainly a long slog through glacial snow all the way to the summit, with a short stretch near the top where the trail narrows to cross a very steep wall of snow that drops off precipitously on one side.
He said, “You have to watch your step. But the rest of the route is a steady walk along a snowy path across the glaciers.
Ah well, fool that I was, I decided to give it a go, at least up to that bit of narrow traverse.
I was in bed early that night and up with the crowd at 1:00 AM next morning for a hearty breakfast and a speedy start up the trail with my new headlamp pointing the way ahead.
Climbing in the Dark
Heading out onto the glacial snow was so different than it had appeared from the hut. I could see only a small portion of trail directly in front of me.
I was cocooned by my headlamp’s little shaft of light. I could hear the sound of other climbers, but could barely see the feet of the one directly in front of me. And often the climber ahead of me was altogether out of range of my headlamp.
I’ve only known the deep stillness of the glacier a few times I’ve crossed them, especially in the dark when there is no breeze.
Though it seemed we were climbing just one glacier, it actually was a complex of glaciers mingling together beneath various mountain passes.
We were on the Garstelet Glacier right out of the hut, crossing over to the little steep Lys, along the west base of the Pyramid Vincent, going along the seracs at the north-facing base of Parrot Spitze past Sesia Col, and up the Grenz Glacier climbing northwards along the head of Grenz Glacier. Shortly before reaching Gnifetti Col before the traverse across that steep pitch to Margherita Hut at the summit.
So, it wasn’t at all clear to me where we were when first light began creeping over the ridge upon us giving an ominous appearance of other climbers ahead of me, especially when the trail took a bend and the long string of dark ghostly figures moved slowly and quietly upwards.
Was the mysteriousness of death up there somewhere with us? Crazy thoughts arose beneath them.
The dimness of first light briefly passed, as we climbed up into the day, which came blindingly over the peak-lined skyline above.
Finally when we were immersed in ful brilliant sunlight, we donned our sun-goggles and stepped out onto the last pass meeting that last pitch of narrow trail to the summit.
I stopped there, letting the other climbers behind me pass on up to the hut now visible at the top of a thin pinnacle of snow, the summit.
I then realized why the hut was there.
It was a base to spend nights while climbing more of the pinnacles atop the huge Monte Rosa massif.
The Margherita Hut atop one of them, Singlekuppe, which at 14,900 feet (4545 meters) is not the highest, just the most picturesque, dramatic and clearly on the Italian side of the International border between the two countries.
Then too, another realization, I still had 300 feet of altitude to gain and half a mile to climb to the hut – if I decided to do it.
BUT . . .
I was now facing that bit of narrowness that chap had told me about that traversed across and up the steep snowfield, which dropped off through the clouds to eternal rapture, far, far below should I lose my footing.
I ate a bite of the lunch I brought from the hut. I rested there, taking my time to decide whether or not to push on.
Of course, after observing maybe a hundred or so climbers pass me on their way up that stretch with no hesitation, I was beyond resistance.
It didn’t take long to decide that the path would be wide enough for me not to lose my footing, even with just lug-soled boots and no crampons.
So why not give it a go?
I’d come all this way from Grindelwald for this moment of life!
The Steep Traverse
It was impossible while climbing not to marvel at the beauty of the world all around us beneath a wide scattering of clouds. Something like looking down from an airplane, though with a wonderful free feeling of being there with only the clothes on my back and my beautiful wooden Alpine hiking stick.
As I entered the hut it seemed a fools game. There were swarms of climbers eating, chatting, drinking beer and laughing. A great big sky-top party!
I was a bit light-headed I presumed from the thrill of being there.
I headed up the path.
It seemed wide-enough to even pass other hikers going in the opposite direction if need be.
The thrill though, was of course, knowing the perilous drop-off on my right and a steep verticle wall of snow crowding me out from the left.
It really would not be that difficult – if you didn’t consider the surface becoming slippery from the sun-melting the snow on it.
It was not until I decided to come back down that it became an issue.
That was because of what occurred in the short space of time I was in the hut.
At the Summit
The high-spirited crowd was letting loose after their climb. But it was all in Italian or French, with a smidgeon of German. And I could not understand anything but English.
I took a seat at an unoccupied table to rest a moment before ordering a hot chocolate. When I heard that the hut had beds for 175 guests obviously many of these climbers had not just arrived with me from the Gnefetti hut. Many were still there from last night, and a substantial number had even climbed from Zermatt, on the Swiss side of the mountain.
My Reaction to Altitude
I was getting dizzy and queasy in my stomach.
‘Oh oh,’ I thought and felt my forehead. I was getting a head-ache, but fortunately no fever.
Best I get back down as soon as possible.
The serious reality of my situation struck me. Sure, the path was wide enough.
But I would need help navigating down that stretch. I did not have crampons.
It would be slipprier now that the sun was melting more of the surface snow.
And I was getting dizzier. Trying it without help would be an invitation to disaster. The only part of the trek that was hazardous.
I was wise enough to know what danger I’d be in if I lost my footing. Considering how dizzy I was getting by the minute it was suicidal to attempt it.
I felt so much like stretching out and having a nap. But I knew this would be even more dangerous, as it would permit the sickness to gain on me.
I have a giddy recollection of my wandering around like a drunk, asking anyone I bumped into, “Parlez-vous ainglais?” Or, “Parli inglese?”
Most responded in words I did not understand except for the negative “N-n-n” sound in their responses.
Need for Help
Finally a young Frenchman, enthusiastically spoke decent English. I told him, the best I could, that I was getting sick and needed to get back down.
“Oui. Oiu. Our guide speak ainglais.”
He rushed off and came back with an Alpine-attired mountaineering guide, climbing breeches, turtle-neck wool sweater, and colorful fuzzy wool berette.
Taking a rather haughty look at me, said, “Yes, I may be help.”
“I’d appreciate it if you could help me down to the col. I’m too dizzy to take that first section of the trail. I am getting really sick!” I grasped my forehead with my hand.
“Yes, do you want to go now? Where are the others?”
“No, there are no others. I came alone.”
He shook his head slowly in undisguised disgust, obviously taking me to be a brash, foolish American. I probably was. But at that point I didn’t care about appearances. Just wanted down. Past that tricky snow slope.
Then he said, “Corde?” Looked around, rolling his eyes, knowing I wouldn’t have a rope unless I had climbed with others.
Then almost as if his lines were memorized for some little skit, he asked, “Piolet?” looking derisively at my hiking stick.
I knew what he meant, but didn’t give a damn.
“None,” I said and handed him a couple of tenty dollar bills.
He handed me the end of his rope, which I fastened around my waist. He followed behind, belaying me as I picked my way down the path to the col between Margheritta Hut’s Signalkuppe peak and a nameless peak beyond.
At that point the trail takes a turn down the mountaineering path across the Sesser glacier. I was sure I’d be alright from there down to the Gneffiti Hut.
From there I was plodding through sun-softened snow that came over the toes of my boots.
When I got down a thousand or so feet above the Gnifetti hut I decided to take a different route down, so took a week-worn trail to the Mantova Hut, which is situated on the glacier in a bit lower elevation than the Gnifetti Hut.
It was a good choice. The food was a lot better and there were far fewer guests. And for me that meant a more relaxing ambience.
From there back down to the trams and on to Alagna the following day.
And despite my altitude-sickness wrinkle, the adventure was one I’ve cherished ever since.
As it turned out that Monte Rosa, just shy of 15,000 feet, will be the highest peak I’ll ever climb.
Ergo, my age!.
And the true romance of ivy climb is I’ve followed in the footsteps of Leonardo DaVinci, who was one of the first to climb the slopes of Monte Rosa more than 300 years before me.
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