A Deadly Season in the Alps

August 19, 2014 in Featured, Mountains, The Alps

Orage – French for thunderstorm. Just one of the new words I’ve learned as the summer monsoon season in the Alps continues to drop new layers of snow with each day that passes. Historically, late July is the most stable time to climb in the Alps, but this year, as the snow line continues to lower and the precipitation accumulates, so do my French meteorological language skills: la grêle (hail), vents forts (strong winds), la foudre (lightening) – all becoming part of my everyday vocabulary.

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It’s 9:30 p.m. as I sit in the comfortable 11,965 foot environs of the Capanna Gnifetti, I look out the window at the snow, now in large flakes, continuing to fall, cloaking this refuge which clings precariously to a tiny rock rib separating the Lys and Garstelet glaciers. The jumbled icefall alongside the hut provides a chilling backdrop for the Garstelet Chapel, the highest chapel in the Alps, and dedicated to “Our Lady of the Glaciers.” This small metal structure was built in 1967 to honor those who have fallen in the mountains with a service every 5th of August. Tonight its walls are silent. It is July 28 and the snow continues to fall.

The refuge is like an abandoned outpost as poor weather has kept away what would typically be a crowded mayhem of 175 of my newest climbing friends. Instead, I wander its voiceless hallways, sensing the 138 years of history as I page through old photos, books, and maps to pass the time. The silence is arresting as I lay on my bunk in a private room, a spoil awarded by the small numbers and a friendly smile.

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I travel to the mountains to be in solitude and peace, and to feel at one with the nature around me. When the mountaineering becomes technical it requires a rope and a partner for safety. Up to this point, all of my sojourns in the high mountains have been with a partner. But for this trip I was compelled to go to the high mountains, the Alps, alone.

My intent was to do a 4,000 meter peak extravaganza beginning with Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain solely within Italy’s borders. I would acclimatize there and then head to the Monte Rosa massif for three days, staying the last night at the Margherita hut, the highest building in Europe at just under 15,000 feet. From there I had planned to tag as many of the 4,000 meter summits as I could on my way back down. On the list were the spitzes, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze, Schwarzhorn, Piramide Vincent, and Signalkuppe, from which the four-story Margherita hut emerges above the clouds. An inspiring view first enjoyed when its namesake, Margherita de Savoie, Queen of Italy, was the premier overnight guest in 1893.

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I knew these climbs would test me in ways I might not even know. But I was also secure in my skills and confident they could get me to the top, alone, in good weather. I figured I would shoot a few hundred National Geographic quality photos, spend some contemplative time looking at many of the peaks in the range, give a tip of the hat to the Mighty Matterhorn I climbed last year, and it would be the trip of a lifetime. But now, having dinner with a small gathering of Germans, Italians, and Swiss… we wait, look out the windows more than we should, and turn over in our minds alternative scenarios.

That is just what I was doing at the final lift station earlier today, considering alternative scenarios. I was fresh from a successful climb of Gran Paradiso, and although a bit depleted from the 7,000 vertical feet of climbing, I was acclimatized and eager for my next adventure to begin. Three lifts rise from the verdant valleys and alabaster cascades of Gressoney-La-Trinité to an unremarkable spot named Punta Indren at the base of the Indren Glacier. With each successive lift the weather deteriorated until I was welcomed by a full-on whiteout and Armageddon-like pouring rain. My usual climbing partner has often said, the Maestro does not like being wet!

So, every few minutes I would stare into the void, hoping for improvement, but the rain continued to fall, now in sheets. It was 3:30 p.m. and ninety minutes until the last lift could take me back to the comforts of the valley. To pass the time, a guide and six clients worked on the basics of glacier travel inside the remote and cold lift station, hoping for better weather. Occasionally a group of climbers would emerge from the mists, soaked down to their bones, their spirits lifted as they reached shelter.

It is one thing to be standing with your partner trying to decide between another layer of gore-Tex and heading into the whiteout, but quite another to be alone on remote and unfamiliar terrain, staring into the pouring rain, trying to decide to continue or retreat. With only sixty minutes before the final lift back down and time ticking away, my mind was racing: Will I get lost in the whiteout? Will the rain make the glacier traverse unsafe on the way to the hut? Can I make it to the hut? Can I ascend the fixed ropes in the pouring rain? What if I get halfway and need to turn back and miss the final lift?

So I wait, hoping for the rain to relent, or at least turn to snow. I calm the anxious voices, reminding myself that you can’t climb a mountain from the lift station. Eventually, taking steps into the unknown wins out over an easy retreat. I have a good map, good verbal instructions from the guide book, and just over an hour hike to reach the refuge. After twenty minutes the rain turned to snow and the visibility worsened. The traverse across the glacier followed a well worn track that eventually led to the rocks and a few painted blazes and cairns. At this point the path splits, the lower trail leads to the Mantova hut, and the steeper path leads more directly to the Gnifetti hut. I opt for the lower, longer path through the rocks and avoid the steeper way now flowing heavy with water.

After about forty minutes crossing the glacier, traversing the wet rocks and cables I was rewarded with a welcome site emerging from the mists and clouds. I see both huts! The Mantova hut sits about 500 feet lower from the Gnifetti hut, and from here, I could see that even in these poor conditions I could make my way. Who knows after that? Soon I was at the fixed ropes, using the rope for security while stepping on iron rungs called stemples to ascend the steep rock section just below the refuge. Even with wet rock, slushy footing, and two inches of new snow, after a few paces I was there.

Now, hours later, with no hope from the last weather forecast, we fortify – our tummies, our minds, our resolve, and our patience. Maybe the storm will subside during the night, leaving a new dusting of snow. Maybe I spend the next day at the hut, cancel my reservation at the Margherita Hut, and hope to climb the final day. It is all a waiting game now.

This is the reality of the mountains. What began months ago, the planning, reserving huts, memorizing the route, setting itineraries, all happens with optimism and perfect weather. But it can quickly become a full on snowstorm, covering exposed crevasses, creating avalanche concerns, and making simple, easy terrain dangerous, uncertain, and unsafe for a solitary climber. On the glacier, you must read the conditions, know where to expect crevasses, and assess the level of risk that accumulates with each new inch of snow. So we continue to gaze out the windows and wonder. Will there be a safe weather window to tag a summit or two? Or ascend the 3,000 feet to the Margherita hut? Or do we just sit tight in this gathering storm and see what tomorrow brings, or the next tomorrow…

The snow continued through the night, finally clearing about 5:00 a.m. leaving a foot and a half of new snow covering every inch of the hut. The obligatory early morning activity was the cold tiptoe in crocks and socks, carefully stepping to the edge of the terrace to take a few photos. Everyone spoke in whispers. The snow had given the landscape a silent voice, speaking only occasionally to us through the cool breeze and gathering clouds, obscuring the view, and then clearing for a moment or two, revealing unparalleled beauty now transformed by a second layer of new glacial frosting.

It is July 29 and the snowblower was unwilling to awake from its summer slumber. So began the three hours of shoveling the many steps, terraces, tables, and paths of this ancient structure. Two hearty souls took advantage of the break in the weather to begin reclaiming the track across the Garstelet Glacier. Just above the hut is a delicate crevasse zone and having the track in now would save a lot of time the next morning. Several of us watched the progress as their dance across the snow ensued: a step in the snow up past the knees, the wobbly placement of a trekking pole, the lean, and another step as they posthole their way to the next stumble and the inevitable fall. Then the whole cycle repeats itself again and again. Step, sink, pole, lean, fall. After more than two hours, the suffering got the best of them and they returned. The shoveling continued.

The weather forecast for tomorrow, and the next day, is improving. But by 11:00 a.m. the skies are once again white, leaving us another inch to ponder. Instead of the planned night at the Margherita hut, I elect to remain in my private room and wait out the weather, hoping for a hard freeze and clear skies in the morning. Perhaps tomorrow I can make it to Signalkuppe and back down in time for the last lift to Gressoney. Or maybe I can at least summit Piramide Vincent, a peak often climbed from the hut in unsettled weather. It is all a waiting game now.

By late afternoon my wait is rewarded with a remarkable clearing all the way down the valley to the Italian Piedmont. Many of us line the terrace and enjoy the view, trying not to notice the bad weather continuing above us, and instead, focusing on the long line of climbers making their way to the hut. With the promise of improved weather my abandoned hut fills to overflowing, and with that comes a barrage of questions. Where are you from? What were you planning to do? What are you planning now? How many days before you have to go back? Has anyone returned from the Margherita Hut yet? How early are you going to leave in the morning?

No matter the question, it’s really all about the track. The track is the route that winds its way in and around crevasses and takes the safest route to the many peaks above. By mid season, the tracks have been beat into the snow by countless sets of cramponed boots until the footing is easy and efficient. With a hard freeze overnight, the track becomes firm enough that each crampon sounds like it is stepping on a new piece of Styrofoam. A sweet sound to a mountaineer. But now, with well over four feet of new, wet, heavy snow, the track is gone. It’s filled with new snow, requiring a lot of effort postholing, searching for crevasses, and slow, suffer-filled steps to put the new track in. No one wants to be the first group out, breaking trail in this very wet snow. And I, being a solo climber, need to be in the middle of the pack when we all set out in the pre-dawn light.

I awake to surprisingly clear skies. Windy, but clear. Typically breakfast at 4:30 a.m. is a frantic time with every seat full. Climbers hurriedly inhale the standard hut breakfast of old crusty bread with congealed jams, drink coffee or tea in large bowls, and then make a mad dash to be out and on their way. Today, there is a leisurely quality I have never experienced before. People are talkative. Having a second cup of coffee. Seemingly not in a rush at all. I head upstairs to see how many have started their way up – not a one! You see, it’s still really all about the track – and no one wants to be first.

Looking up the glacier toward Piramide Vincent, I can see that the track now has been completely obliterated, no trace of what was there last evening. While the sky is clear, the wind is gusting at something just a little less than a jet engine. By about 6:00 a.m., a queue of climbers finally begin the ascent and the arduous job of breaking trail through the snow. I pack up, put on every layer I own, and begin my adventure for the day. It’s windy, but once I passed the chapel and started down the steep incline to the glacier I realize the hut had been blocking much of the wind. What I thought was brisk, wasn’t even a breeze compared to what I was in the middle of now and there wasn’t a hard freeze overnight, so now every step I took went well past my knees. It is laborious work just taking a few steps and that, combined with the incredible winds swirling around, was making the suck factor spike in ways I hadn’t imagined before. Now I have been in windy places many times. I have been wet and freezing. In whiteouts, hail, thunder, and lightening. As a mountaineer, you just shrug it off as “enjoying another day in the mountains,” add an extra layer, and just keep moving. But this particular wind made even the  most hardened mountain man wonder just what the hell he was doing here.

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As I looked up toward the saddle, looming very far off, I noticed that our International Delegation of Climbers, once zippy and quick under clear skies, was slowing a great deal. The space between teams was tightening up as the winds increased and the visibility worsened. With each gust, I stop and lean into my ice ax as the wind whipped down the glacier bringing a chilling vortex making each step seem futile. Our line of twenty or more climbers was getting slower and slower to where there was only ten feet between groups. The wind, now the lead player in our little drama, was blowing the track completely clean by the time the next climber took a step.

I am not sure if it was snowing again, or just blowing, but our clear skies had now become a full on blizzard. Above, the visibility became nothing more than a seemingly impenetrable opaque gray-white wall. By now, the line of climbers had nearly slowed to a stop. I began to reevaluate the weather, predicting what the conditions might be like higher and how they might be hours from now. Would I make it to the top just to get lost in whiteout conditions on the way down? Maybe I should throw in the towel and just summit Piramide Vincent once I reach the first saddle. Decisions need to be made.

I think every climber has that inner voice. A subconscious. A feeling. Perhaps it’s instinct or maybe it’s just anxiety or fear, but it is present whenever important choices need to be made. There’s no secret that mountain climbing is dangerous. It is an activity with inherent risk. But what is too much risk? This is a question that each must answer for himself. Our inner voice helps us to minimize the risks, and to look at the weather and conditions soberly, without the emotion that can cloud decision making.

Just above the crevasse system, I look up toward Piramide Vincent and eye the conditions. Foremost in my mind are some of the red flags of avalanche danger: unstable snow as you travel, heavy snowfall or rain in the last twenty-four hours, significant warming or rapidly increasing temperatures, and the presence of strong winds during or right after a large snowfall. The wind can compact and bond the snow into wind slabs which can be very unstable. I have turned around many times on mountains, and while I’ve occasionally bailed prematurely, it’s generally the right decision. So with an enormous number of reasons to turn back, and not one to continue, I turn around. On the way back, a friend offers for me to join their rope headed up. While I appreciate this generous offer, I’m at peace with my decision.

The first few steps seem like I have given up, that I am overreacting to the conditions, the weather. But as I continue back to the hut, the wind seems to actually worsen. The snow pelts my face and neck as I put on another pair of gloves. I watch the teams headed my way, their expressions more of dread than resolve. I look back up the mountain and I know that I will be at this very place again, someday, in better conditions.

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As I arrive back at the hut, I’m surprised to see that no one has broke the trail down to the lift station. Perhaps it is just the cold wind freezing my n#*ts off, or just a desire to get back home, but my confidence seems to be brimming as look down the steep rock section, now completely hidden by  snow, and the fifty-five degree snow traverse that will require some extra careful footwork. Without a pause, I begin descending the fixed ropes and soon have a small group happy to follow in my footsteps. I guess just to make me feel better about my decision, the wind continues to howl and beat on us all the way down to the lower hut. Every time I look back, the wind gusts so forcefully that the snow makes it impossible to see as the image behind me disappears into a world of white. With each step forward the conditions improve, and soon I am back in the dark lift station where this whole journey to nowhere began.

The next day on Pyramide Vincent an Irish climber was killed, and an American Mountain Guide was being treated for hypothermia, after they were swept into a crevasse by an avalanche. This was the very spot where I had turned around the day before. Two helicopters and twenty members of the Aosta Valley Alpine Rescue Team were on the scene and reported at least three more avalanches during the search. The same week two climbers fell to their deaths on Dent du Géant, on a famous ridge I climbed in 2009. Not long after, six climbers were found dead on Aiguille d’Argentiere. They were climbing the same Flèche Rousse route I had climbed in 2012. The accident occurred while descending the Glacier du Milieu in poor weather.

On August 5th, the tiny chapel next to the Capanna Gnifetti held its service to honor those who had lost their lives in the mountains this year, a tragic year. “Our Lady of the Glaciers” has seen much sorrow in her time atop her lofty pinnacle. While many pages have been written about the tragedies in the mountains, fewer pages are written about the climbing experiences that make you a better person, that give you a perspective which deepens your appreciation for everything around you. Non-climbers will always wonder why climbers continue, in spite of the inherent risks, to keep searching out summits and traveling into these remote worlds of rock, ice, and, snow.

Arlene Blum, who led an all-women ascent of Annapurna, upon reflection said, “We gained a deep appreciation for our lives, the people in them, and the wonders of the natural world. In risking everything, our lives gained new dimensions of experience and adventure, and we also learned in a deep way that life is fleeting and that it is important to live our lives in the best possible manner at every moment, cherishing those we love.”

Death, and your proximity to it, forces you to evaluate your own feelings about death. It is surely coming to us all, so I choose to live life to the fullest until that time, always saying yes to adventure, something quickly eroding from our human experience. Yet I know when to say no for safety. There is an old saying that goes, “a famous climber dies young, but a great climber dies of old age.” I vote for the latter.

 

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