Swimming through cornices | The Viereselsgrat on Dent Blanche
Words and images by Silvan Metz
"A real hammer" is what the Godeke guidebook says. Experience has shown that this does not bode well. Or perhaps it's just a matter of opinion... Doro and I are in the mood for another long alpine adventure, so this comment on the Viereselsgrat on Dent Blanche arouses our curiosity. This perfect gneiss pyramid sits remotely high above the Mountet basin in the farthest Val d'Annivers. The demanding normal route uses the other side of the mountain, and only a few climbers stray here. No wonder we hardly find any reports. The few blog articles almost all tell of high time requirements, crumbly rock and slushy cornices. Adventure guaranteed.
Mid-June is very early for such a tour, the reports are all from August or later. However, "thanks" to the rapidly progressing climatic catastrophe, the snow situation is particularly poor this year and we give it a try.
The approach is impressive. This applies not only to the spectacular summit of the Zinal valley, but also to the length. We walk four hours high above the sad remnant tongue of the Glacier de Zinal to the Cabane du Mountet before we finally have a clear view of the Dent Blanche. Phew, looks like the mountain lives up to its name (although that was actually just confused with Dent d'Herens. Different story). Time to go through our options.
The actual Viereselsgrat leads over the north-east spur. The difficult parts are bypassed on the north side, which still looks very snowy. So maybe the southeast spur, which starts at Col de Zinal, is the better option. Here, one rather avoids the south side. The east side is completely free of snow, so the south side should not be a problem at all - at least we think so.
There are two options for the Col de Zinal itself: The direct variant is a rockfall hell, the only remaining option is the traverse under the Pointe de Zinal from the Col Durand. The longest of all the access options. All right, the plan is in place.
From the hut we first have to descend to Glacier Durand. And that's a long way. The days when you could walk almost flat across the basin are long gone. But the glacier is not just retreating, it is leaving traps behind - in the form of highly unstable moraines. We follow a marked trail to the southwest, but apparently the wrong one: A short time later, the tracks and markings end in a fresh rockslide. A few scraps of an old fixed rope hang from the rocks above us, but below that only rock scars. Well, that's bad, but only one choice: Put on your helmet, take a deep breath and then hurry down through the debris onto the glacier. Ten sweaty minutes later we are out of the danger zone. No need for a repeat.
A long glacier hike to Col Durand follows. Shortly before our destination, the bergschrund almost put a spanner in the works, but some degrading swimming movements later we are at the pass. The view reaches up to the summit of Dent Blanche. Very far up. Piling up a few stones, unpacking the sleeping mat, sleeping bag and bivi bag and we are ready for the short night.
The alarm clock rings at half past one, and at two o'clock we set off. Moonlight shows the way to the Pointe de Zinal. The traverse in good firn is harmless, the following descent metres are a mixture of gravel, mud and snow and cost time. At the Col de Zinal, a pale strip of twilight on the horizon already announces the end of the short June night.
At last we are heading uphill. We can even climb without crampons. The rock is bad, really bad. Despite being very careful, I regulary send rocks flying down and envy Doro, who has to take cover again and again following, but otherwise has to behave less. Then I look up. What is that? Above me, loose stones pile up vertically and overhanging like an exaggerated Jenga tower. Go around? Pointless. So straight up. Very carefully I feel my way up the steep egg dance. Putting cams between the loose stones would not only be pointless, but dangerous. So the 40 vertical metres have to be done without any significant protection. At least I find a few solid rocks to belay and then the mountain recedes again. After a small tower, we follow the ridge edge until we stand on an incredibly pointy crest.
Finally we have a view of the further ridge and the south side. A narrow firn ridge leads to the saddle behind it. But what is this? Doesn't the mountain know that it is in the northern hemisphere? The south side is shiny with firn, while the east side is completely dry. Our escape from the snow seems to have backfired - it looks like crampons are the order of the day from now on. We climb up and down over sharp spikes and steep towers until we reach the foot of the big Gendarme. At least here the firn is very welcome for bypassing it, so that we soon arrive on the firn ridge behind it without too many problems.
Nevertheless, the conditions take their toll, and our lack of acclimatisation does the rest. We have been walking for over six hours and have only done half the tour. But it doesn't help, we can't go on without a break. At least the panorama from Dent d'Herens over the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Obergabelhorn, Zinalrothorn to the Weishorn makes this break palatable. We can't stay long, because the cornices in the upper part are surely already dripping away.
As we continue climbing, a steep tower gets in our way. The diversions over broken rock and slush doesn't seem inviting, the only way left is the direct route - clearly more difficult than the III+ in the guidebook and a good example that you can be lured into more difficult terrain by the conditions very quickly on such routes. A little later we arrive at the unification point. Here, coming from the northeast, the original ridge variant joins our route. The ridge becomes sharp and jagged, but the rock is solid. At least until the upper big Gendarme. I traverse too low and have to climb back before I find the right way through a delicate grey chimney.
We have reached the infamous snow ridge. Waist-deep soft snow lies on the narrow ridge, cornices with changing directions pile up on top of each other. There are no traces of this season yet. Our pace becomes slower and slower. I often have to dig away cornices to make any progress at all. At least the rock is occasionally within reach, so we can at least belay.
The ridge is repeatedly interrupted by rock towers, but with every metre the snow increases and our pace slows down. Dripping snow all around. One more blocky upswing, then only the very last snow ridge is missing. "Only" is relative. The last 100 metres are tough. Step by step, I inch my way forward. As if swimming, I push the snow to the left and right into the steep walls. The thunder of avalanches at the base of the wall comes back in response. Sometimes I ride the ridge, sometimes I dig my way under cornices, then I swim back up a flank. The trail of devastation is a deep trench behind me.
I have lost all sense of time. My little world reduced to a few things: the sun burns, sweat runs from under my sunglasses and drips from my nose into the snow. Gasping for air, rummaging, next step. The altitude hammers mercilessly in my head. Next step. Even though it may seem otherwise - I feel like a million bucks. Isn't it an insane privilege to fight off the first trace of the year from such a pristine sky ladder?
And then, finally, a few last blocks and we are standing at the summit cross. It's just before four, the tour has given us a fair fight. We stay for half an hour and enjoy the view. Or, more honestly, just doze off a bit. But the descent is calling. Actually, it should be a maximum of three hours to the Cabane de la Dent Blanche, but given our condition, I have a feeling... Four and a half hours of descending, abseiling, stuck ropes, counter ascents and of course soft snow later, we are finally there. The hut is still closed, but the winter room is open and full of nice people.
The next day brings the long descent to Les Hauderes and the return journey by bus & train, before we can reward ourselves with a well-deserved kebab...