The Dent Blanche, and other decisions

When I reflect on the most satisfying climbs I have completed as a Mountain Guide, it is neither the hardest nor the highest that come to mind. Instead I often think of the climbs that have had that extra something. Something where the outcome was less than certain. This is not to say hazardous, but where making a whole series of difficult decisions has ultimately led to a success. Recounted below is an example of such a climb.

Mark Seaton
The Dent Blanche.
The Dent Blanche. CC BY SA-2

Last August, Charles Sherwood and I decided that we would attempt the Dent Blanche, (4365 meters). It is a mighty freestanding pyramid with four ridges, which are set exactly on the four points of the compass. We planned to attempt the south ridge.

The first challenge to be faced was the hut walk. The guidebook states that the walk to the hut takes seven hours (there is no way of shortening this with the aid of a cable car or mountain train).

After we had been walking for about three hours the mist socked in.

Then it began to drizzle, then rain and finally heavy sleet. We knew that this would mean it would be snowing hard on our intended route.

We stood in the pouring rain deciding what to do. If we continued on our chances seemed slim. If we went down we would waste two days before we stood any chance of climbing anything else. What should we do?

At that moment there was a crack of thunder and such was the ferocity of the rain it was as if someone had turned the fire hose on us. Our decision was made for us. We were going down.

Well, if there is one thing certain to bring the sun out it is the decision to retreat from a mountain climb. This precisely what happened. The clouds parted the sun shone with the intensity of a laser and the Dent Blanche began to appear through mist.

It looked…well, just like a Dent Blanche: it was all plastered in fresh snow.

No longer was the decision quite as simple as we thought. We stopped and discussed the situation again

“Well we could go up to the hut, wait a day and see if the sun burns the snow off the ridge.” I suggested to Charles. By way of agreement Charles suggested that, “An extra night at the hut would be time well spent because we would gain valuable acclimatization.”

With agreement reached we turned around again and finished the walk to the hut arriving tired and wet.

While eating our dinner another Guide announced that he was going to attempt the climb the next morning despite the snow on the rocky ridge. Of course this started another round of debate between Charles and myself. Should we go too, or wait? What happens if they make the summit and then the next day is bad again? We would really have wasted a lot of time.

These are questions that mountaineers are constantly asking them selves.

We decided to wait the extra day. The Guide set off at 3.00am. We reckoned he should be back by midday. Midday came and went then so did 3.00 pm. At 7.00pm the Guide and his exhausted client staggered into the Hut. “Too much snow on the ridge this morning,” was what the Guide said as way of an explanation for their epic day.

Charles and I did not know if to feel smug with our decision to wait or to feel pangs of anxiety over what lay ahead for us.

After a disturbed night’s sleep wondering what the conditions might be like for us, we set off, just after 3.30am. Apart from the normal problems of trying to find the path in the dark we made rapid progress. The previous afternoon’s sun had cleared the snow from the rock and conditions seemed perfect. We were shaking hands on the summit of the Dent Blanche at 8.15am.

We both felt that our tactics as far as this mountain had paid off and that we were on a “roll.”

So I suggested to Charles that instead of retracing our steps we should continue towards the Schonbiel hut from where we could traverse the magnificent Obergabelhorn (4063 meters).

My suggestion met no resistance from Charles, so off we went down the indistinct path to the Schonbiel hut. After a good night’s sleep we walked up to the Arben Bivy hut from where we hoped to climb the famous Arbengrat (southwest ridge).

The following morning we set off at about 4 am. By 6.00am we were onto the steep ridge and were taking photographs from the summit by 9.00am.

Ahead of us was an equally impressive mountain.

“It seems a shame not to take in the Zinalrothorn (4221 meters) since we are up here,” suggested Charles. He was right so we descended to the Rothorn Hut where we spent our fifth night of our evolving expedition.

Our final day began with a 3.00 am breakfast and we were away up the glacier by 4.00 am. Perfect conditions meant we could move very quickly and we arrived on the summit of the Zinalrothorn at about 8.00am.

We now faced the prospect of the huge descent walk back to Zermatt and the not inconsiderable logistical problem of getting back to our car. Although not a great distance as the crow flies it was about 100 miles by road!

We arrived in Zermatt at about 2.00pm, where we found a taxi to take us back to the car. It had been a truly outstanding trip, which for me was made even more remarkable by the fact that we had come so close to aborting the whole thing after only four hours.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *