One thousand miles of driving in a Citroen C1 is enough to leave anybody’s ears ringing. With an engine that sounds like it has several bee hives powering it and absolutely no air conditioning, the car is made more for fuel efficiency than comfort. Despite its compact size, and various other inconveniences, this car was to be our base for the forthcoming five weeks whilst we travelled to some of the best alpine climbing areas Europe has to offer.
For the first part of the road trip I’d be travelling with Welsh ex-pat Wiz Fineron. Wiz and I went to the same school together when we were both in our early teens before Wiz moved out to New Zealand aged thirteen. In the intervening six years Wiz has gone from strength to strength climbing 8c+ routes and 8B boulder problems with seemingly little effort. He’s currently travelling the world, living, in his own words, the ‘dirtbag’ climbing lifestyle, and whilst he was in Europe it seemed like a good opportunity to hook up for a road trip.
Having travelled and climbed in many of the more popular alpine areas over the previous five summers I felt that this year it would be nice to expand my repertoire and visit some new places. The Ratikön held our primary objective for the trip and after a short stop in France we headed across Switzerland and up into the mountains. It was night time when we made our final approach to the Ratikön and neither of our guidebooks made the slightest mention of the road that would lead us to our base camp. For most people, 7km of driving on a dirt track may sound like fun, a welcome respite after hours on the motorway, but in my Citroen C1 – the Corgi of the car world, I began to shudder at every bump or rock that I saw. After 6.5km of driving and only grounding out on several occasions I thought the lion’s share of the driving was behind us; unfortunately that was when we reached the crux.
A short and uneven steepening of the road marked the beginning of our plight and several attempts at upward progress saw the C1 rapidly retreating to the flat area at the farm building. We knocked on the door of the farm and discovered it would cost us 10CHF if we parked here each night. That was the extra spur of motivation we needed. Wiz got out along with a few heavy bags and the throttle went down. The C1 raced its way up the steep gravel track sliding left and right with wheel spin before finally overcoming the steep section and thereafter the parking area. It felt like a miracle that we’d made it up here with an intact car and we knew we wouldn’t be descending for a while!
We had one route on our agenda for the Ratikön, the classic multi-pitch test piece ‘Silbergeier’ which is renowned for its bold and difficult wall climbing. I’d read about Silbergeier in a magazine soon after starting climbing and had of course seen the classic poster of Pietro del Prà standing, one-footed, on a small edge in the middle of an otherwise blank rock face. It seemed like the perfect goal for this trip not only for me but it would also play to Wiz’s strengths as a first big multi pitch route.
After a heavy rainfall during the night we awoke to blistering heat and our first views of the Ratikön massif. We had the range to ourselves and after a slow start and a heavy breakfast packed our bags and headed up into the mountains. The climbing in the Ratikön lies on the Swiss side of a knife edge ridge which marks the border between Austria and Switzerland. The final approach up the scree is steep and frustrating until you find a good route and this is followed by a further 200m of scrambling up low angled limestone and grass slopes, all of which provide a good cardio vascular warm up for the first 8b pitch.
Your first attempt at Silbergeier is certainly the most memorable. When none of the holds are chalked up and the bolts look particularly distant it takes some will power to commit to hard climbing – well that, or a younger, stronger and fitter climber to send up first! After Wiz led the first 8b pitch we were all set for one of the ‘easiest’ pitches of the route, a 7c+ which I graciously offered to take the lead of. Unfortunately my plan backfired. Not only was this pitch desperate for the grade, but the bolts were spaced for maximum excitement and on the final moves of the pitch, miles to the side of the last bolt and having climbed myself into a knot, I made a leap for the belay seat hanging just above me!
After another tough pitch, followed by a short, run out 7a+ you finally reach the first comfortable belay where you have room to sit down and stretch out in a weather proof cave. We would be spending a lot of time here over the next week and a half as we waited for the weather to improve. Above us lay the final two pitches: the crux 8b+ which tic tacs its way up on small crimps and underclings followed by a tricky 7c+ which boils down to two powerful moves an inconvenient distance away from the last bolt. The route finishes on the jaggedy summit ridge of the Kirchlispitzen and it’s a great feeling ending at the top of something unlike many modern multi pitch routes. From the summit a series of abseils lead you back down to your bags and thereafter the path.
What can be more stereotypically Swiss than the gonging of Cow bells? It’s a sound I have grown accustomed to over previous visits to Switzerland and I even find there effect quite calming. We’d been camping in the Ratikön for about four days when the herd moved in. The smell of pastures new must indeed be strong to be able to draw an excess of 50 cattle alongside our tents at two in the morning. It was like being camped in the central reservation of a motorway!
With diminished sleep we returned to the route several times over the following week to try pitches and get used to the climbing style. Strong Finnish boulderer Nalle Hukkataival was also trying Silbergeier and was making the climbing look relatively easy after a few attempts. He was also staying in the hut which meant he was up and out considerably earlier than a teenager and myself.
One morning we reached the base of the route to find Nalle trying the crux pitch we’d planned to climb that day. Rather than wasting the day we climbed Hannibals Alptraum, an old school classic which was the pre-cursor to Silbergeier. Despite feeling considerably easier than Silbergeier it had some very chunky climbing thrown in on smooth walls that are desperate to on-sight. The bolts are placed at sporting intervals and the moves to reach them are generally very sketchy! On the final pitch we once again endured a hail and a hasty retreat was made back down having not quite repeated this amazing route.
As we tried Silbergeier more I began to realise it would not happen for me on this trip. Although fit enough that I could have red-pointed the individual pitches I was lacking the fitness to free the entire route in a day. It was a real disappointment but I was heartened to know that with a bit of extra fitness I know that Silbergeier is a possibility for the future. For Wiz it was a different story though and we headed back up for him to give the red point a shot.
Conditions were cold and crisp when we arrived at the foot of the climb and Wiz shot up the first 8b pitch without a warm up. Following with cold hands I could barely believe that he could feel his fingers on the small crimps. On the third pitch clouds began to roll upwards and embroil us in thick clag and Wiz had to climb the final few moves in a rain shower. We hid in the cave whilst it bucketed down for over an hour – Wiz sitting Monk like in the haul bag to keep warm, myself shivering but reading a book that I’d thrown in anticipating the change in weather. After a couple of hours the rock was once again dry enough to climb and we continued upwards. The 8b+ pitch was barely dry and Wiz cruised upwards until hit by another fleeting rain shower on the bold final traverse. Unfazed, Wiz gripped harder reaching the next belay and shortly after climbed a very wet final pitch in impressive style. I’ve never seen such a smooth ascent of so difficult a climb in such poor weather!
Having spent so long climbing and sleeping in miserably cold and wet weather we wanted a change of scene and felt like Chamonix was the next logical place to visit to end Wiz’s trip on a high. He’d never worn crampons before or walked on a glacier so found the whole experience quite different. It was also a good opportunity for the wily older climber to get his own back and take Wiz on a roof crack when he’d never climbed a jamming crack in his life. Ma Dalton on the South face of the Midi is a classic and rarely repeated route that has a Yosemite style roof crack on one of its pitches. Unfortunately it’s rather difficult and having underestimated its difficulty my poorly made jamming gloves soon slid off my hands and thereafter my hands from the crack. Hyperventilating somewhat I returned to the belay for another go and we continued upwards with slightly less difficulty after the awkward roof crack.
Wiz headed bouldering to South Africa the following day to go bouldering, perhaps a wise change of scene considering the continuing terrible forecast. The same day I picked Dan Mcmanus up from the airport – a man who is always up for an adventure and an adventure we soon enough had.
Above Sixt in the Aiguille Rouge is a little known and rarely attempted limestone face called the Paroi d’Anterne on the Fiz. I’d heard rumours of the quality of climbing up here but had yet to meet a climber that had experienced it first hand. On our way to the Ratikön Wiz and I decided we would first hone our skills at multi pitch climbing on the amazing sounding Djinn Fiz, a 15 pitch 7c. Unfortunately we underestimated not only the approach bur also the afternoon thunderstorms and after a few amazing and exceedingly technical pitches we descended before possible electrocution.
I was very impressed by this wall though, which is reminiscent of the South face of the Marmolada in the Dolomites. About a mile in length, it only has six routes ascending its flanks and they are all difficult propositions. Feeling confident after my time sliding off crimps in the Ratikön I sold Dan the idea that we should try the hardest route on the face, ‘Les Yeux dans le Bleu’, a 16 pitch 7c+. This time I didn’t make the same mistakes of underestimating the approach or the weather forecast but unfortunately I made the major blooper of expecting the climbing to be reasonable in difficulty. We hadn’t noticed how sustained the climbing was and despite somehow clinging to the crimps and on-sighting the crux 7c and 7c+ pitches we burnt out big time above as 7b pitch followed 7b. A bold 7a+ pitch was the final straw for me and with elbows above my ears and looking as if I was trying to mantel each hold I finally fell off utterly wasted.
Dan was in a similar state of turmoil and despite putting in so much effort we couldn’t face any more climbing on such tired arms – a rapid descent was made. We both agreed that this was one of the best and most difficult walls we had ever tried and the climbing style really doesn’t lend itself to on-sight climbing. To add insult to injury, when we got back to our bags at the foot of the route, we chased off a couple of Marmots and found that they had been eating our bags! There were gaping holes all over them and much of the padding had been thoroughly chewed.
We returned to Chamonix that evening to do a little comfort eating with friends at a pizzeria near the centre. After an enjoyable meal I thought I’d treat myself to desert and thought I’d ordered myself a cake – when an espresso turned up I nearly cried. That was the low point of the trip.
Back to the high mountains we headed, this time to what I considered to be the safe bet of the Grand Capucin which I’ve climbed five times before. After wading through the recent snowfall to its base Dan realised he’d left his rock boots at the tent and hence another day was lost.
After more dismal weather we decided to give the mountains one last go and approached the south face of Aiguille du Fou. It’s a classic alpine wall that I’d been dreaming of climbing for years. I knew that the approach gully required an early start to ensure all the detritus was frozen in place so Dan and I set off suitably early to facilitate success. After climbing a couple of hundred metres up the gully the sun hit the ridge line above and chunks of ice began showering down upon us. As the chunks got bigger we started to feel like targets at a firing range. Clearly we weren’t early enough and once again retreat was made. We were done with the Alps and its crappy weather and conditions!
When bad weather hits the Alps you are inevitably forced southwards to drier and sunnier climates. The Verdon was our final destination and finally it seemed we had struck lucky. Despite the time of year, conditions were perfect for climbing in the gorge – it was overcast and windy. We also met up with some friends for sociable camp scenes and got thrashed by the locals at table football every evening at the local bar.
Dan and I decided to go for El Topo, an amazing looking 8a big wall in the gorge to the left of the classic chimney line La Demande. After checking out the final few crux pitches we felt well prepared and even quite optimistic about going for a one day free ascent. After a rest day, we awoke to glorious weather and made an early start from the bottom of the gorge. The entire route was in the sun and the forgiving breeze of the previous days had disappeared. To cut a long story short, two gingers, climbing in the sun, in the Verdon, in the middle of summer was a bad idea. After six pitches 6a felt like the living end of difficulty and our feet and hands had were throbbing and swelling with the heat. We abseiled to the ground and made the walk of shame out of the bottom of the gorge, treating ourselves to ice cream to help cheer us up.
Sometimes, weather and conditions just get in the way of climbing, as do high ambitions. After five weeks spent in the Alps and Verdon I could count my list of successful climbs on a single hand. We were on such a losing streak that we expected something to go wrong every time we went climbing and that mentality isn’t useful for making upward progress. On the bright side the C1 had made it through the trip and what’s more I’d only had a single flat tyre. Maybe the weather will be better next summer? Maybe I should just take up bouldering?