During a fortuitous meeting in the street with Ben Tibbetts a few weeks ago, he kindly shared the news that Jon Bracey ad himself had made a rare ascent of the Loschental Breithorn North Face…the seed was planted and I was psyched to go have an adventure.
With lockdown rules in France allowing professionally registered guides to train during lockdown, a controversial privilege that I am forever grateful, I had been training hard with some very long days on my bike. My legs were strong but I hadn’t worn crampons or been in the alpine for 2 months and was completely unacclimatised. James Clapham would partner me on the climb and conversely he was climbing fit, but looking after a toddler at home hadn’t left much time for cardio. It sounded like with some team work we would complement each others strengths well.
Off we went to Switzerland with heavy bags and light hearts, our spirits lifted by seeing something other than the sides of the Chamonix Valley after a month of lockdown. We planned to park at the roadhead in Fafleralp but to our dismay the authorities had closed the road for winter at Blatten, despite a distinct lack of snow. When the point of the trip was to catch up on lost time in the mountains, whats another 4 km added to the approach?! I usually hate walking as biking and skiing are such superior methods of transport, but after a month at home I loved just being outside and feeling alive in nature. The conversation flowed keeping our minds off the effort and we steadily gained height passing some steep icy grass, only to be forced to wage war on evil crusty faceted glacier snow. Our intention to climb and scope out the first pitch faded with the failing light and we settled on making our home for the night and the lengthy process of melting snow and hydrating.
We had a relatively civilised (for alpine climbing) 4 am ‘reveil’ and listened to the purr of the stove from the warm of our sleeping bags. After a quick breakfast, it was a pair of reluctant alpinists that swapped the warm comfort of our down cocoons for the frosty night air, knowing the quicker we got moving, the quicker we would get warm. The full moon that had risen as soon as we went to bed and kept out tent illuminated all night, set the moment we got going and plunged us into inky darkness. At the buttress James traversed off into the dark on a snow ramp with increasing exposure. The boys had warned us of compact rock with sparse protection and James did well to find a decent belay. As I followed the rope the precarious nature of the climbing and the unfamiliarity of mixed climbing was making itself felt. The route was pretty dry and it was more effective to crimp small edges rather than dry tool. The next pitch was lower angle and easier, but I found thin delaminated ice and only found one piece in a 60 m pitch that might hold anything. My belay was akin to Gogarth style affair in an attempt to distribute the load across multiple less than ideal pieces.
The next pitch was the main deal with steep rock plastered with blobs of neve, thin delaminating water ice making you wary and hard to spot protection arriving just at the right moment. James was in his element and quickly sent it. I followed absorbed in the delicate and interesting climbing feeling fully back in my comfort zone and trusting my feet. After collecting the gear from James, I led off and a short step was followed by the conspicuous elliptical snowfield we had spotted from below that joined the upper icefield. It was time to unrope and pick up the pace as we had a long day ahead.
At 11 am I made the last few metres onto the summit ridge and stepped out of the frosty shade and into the sunlight. The snow capped Alps stretched out to the horizons all around, a subliminal moment after a month of ‘confinement’. We paused for a moment to eat before continuing up the PD+ ridge and traversing the summit to the Biechglacier. The day was far from over with shocking snow conditions on the descent down the glacier and on the far side Biechpass but we got off the rough terrain in daylight which was a big relief for tired minds and tweaked ankles. As the forest trail gave way to the last 4 km of tarmac, the moon rose and we made the last section without headtorches.