Friday, July 25, 2008
Gertrude Bell wrote of the 'terrible and wonderful things that happen in high places' after climbing the north east face of the Finsteraarhorn in August 1902. She spent 57 hours in the attempt amidst a blizzard and mist, her ice axe teased by lightning, which provoked her cool words: 'It's not nice to carry a private lightning conductor in your hand in the thick of a thunderstorm'. Finally the party made a safe retreat to Meiringen, where she consumed a great many boiled eggs and jugs of hot milk and discovered her toes to be frostbitten. This made Finsteraarhorn the end of her illustrious and extraordinary climbing career.
My own attempt last Tuesday was on a far easier route - the south west flank and north west ridge that most parties take from the Finsteraarhorn Hut. The cloudless star-filled sky gave way to a lilac and rose dawn, a day that later fulfilled its promise, higher up, when it exposed below us and far away the fins, butresses, waves and ripples of the Alps. The dark rift of the snowless Rhone Valley was a shadow separating us from the further reaches of the Valais where we had climbed the week before.
Our own expedition was not hampered by bad weather but by a heavy fall of snow the previous day which made the going slow, hid the yawning crevasses from us, and turned the final ridge to a mix of ice-silled rock and slippery snow stacked loosely against the steep fin-side of this monarch of a mountain.
Mindful of the 'terrible things' that had befallen my father's party in 1952 by decending too late in the day, I'm proud of our decision to embrace the sense of height, achievement, view, and our fast-beating, roped-together, joyful hearts and turn back 100 metres from the summit. Looking back the following day as we left the mountain to descend to the green valleys via the Grunhornlucke (pictured), the wisdom of this choice was spelt out by the chaotic scribble of avalanched snow that now covered the graceful curving line our feet had drawn into the snow.