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Alphubel Rotgrat (aborted at ca. 3900m)

Published by Stijn , 29 August 2017, 20h38.

Region: World » Switzerland » Valais » Oberwallis
Date of the hike:26 August 2017
Mountaineering grading: AD
Climbing grading: III (UIAA Grading System)
Geo-Tags: CH-VS 
Time: 2 days
Height gain: 2000 m 6560 ft.
Height loss: 2000 m 6560 ft.

In hindsight, the Alphubel Rotgrat was too ambitious for our group. Being five people was too much as well, because even though we moved in two roped parties, we spent a lot of time waiting for each other. But let's start from the beginning...

Day 1
Täschalp - Täschütte
1h15, 500m ascent, T2
The Täschalp can be reached by car (access and parking free) or by shared taxi. The Täschhütte was renovated and extended in 2008. However, the friendliness, organisation and dinner quality at the hut could all still do with an upgrade as well.
Day 2
Täschhütte - Rotgrat (bottom of the "bastion" at 3880m) - Täschhütte - Täschalp
15h, 1500m ascent, 2000m descent, AD/ZS and III
Start at 3.40 from the hut. During the first hour, we gain altitude quickly on the hiking path towards the Weingartensee (old white-red-white markings). Then we start following the upper part of the Wyssgrat, initially on ledges south of the ridge. In the dark, it's not obvious where the best place to climb up to the ridge itself is. We stay in the south face for too long and lose about half an hour looking for a good way back up. Some other climbers make the same mistake, but they are more efficient in finding their way up to the ridge, so that we end up at the back of the pack. This is not a big issue, because we're not faster than the others anyway.
Where we regain the Wyssgrat ridge, there's a bit of exposed grade III climbing. This is followed by a longer ascent on scree and 50m of plates with cracks (II-III), leading to the point where Wyssgrat and Rotgrat unite (3635m).
After P. 3635, the ridge is easier and flatter for a bit, leading to the Weingartengletscher, which is crossed in three parts, interrupted by two 80m escarpments. The first one has some relatively nice climbing along cracks. The second one has one tricky grade III move, otherwise the climbing is easier, but the rock quality is rubbish. The final short firn ridge along the top of the Weingartengletscher leads to the foot of the "bastion", the final 300m of climbing to the Alphubel summit. According to the topo, this is the hardest part of the route, with climbing up to 4a.
We have caught up with the climbers ahead of us, who are all moving quite slowly. The two Italian-speaking climbers directly ahead of us (by no means bad climbers) are struggling with the first pitch. Their lead climbers rips several holds out of the wall, cursing wildly as only Italians can. The belayer isn't any better off, as another party 80m higher up breaks off a huge rock which crashes down within a meter of where he is standing. Scary stuff. The first pitch is 3a according to the topo, but it feels a lot harder for several reasons. There's one useless bolt, out of reach in the middle of a smooth plate, too high above the top of the firn. It looks like the bolt was placed there when the glacier still reached 2m higher... In the current situation, you can only secure the first pitch with ice screws in the highest bit of firn. For the whole seriously exposed first pitch, the rock is rubbish and there seems to be no possibility for additional protection. The lack of a suitable place to take off the crampons is a further complication. For all of these reasons, we don't feel comfortable continuing and after much hesitation we abort our ascent.
The hesitation comes from the fact that our alternative is not very attractive either. Down-climbing the whole ridge will take ages. The only easier possibility might be a descent along the Weingartengletscher. The two upper glacier slopes are lethal ice slides which are out of the question. Therefore we down-climb the two escarpments, reaching the lower glacier slope. This access looks friendlier and there is even a trail in the snow. All five of us rope up together to try to descend the glacier. A 10m patch of steep ice is quite hard for me, with my lack of ice climbing experience and only one ice axe. Below that, the glacier is easier until ca. 3480m. The "normal" route moves towards the eastern edge of the glacier here, but this is not an option for us because of the sizeable rock falls that occur there every couple of minutes. The middle part of a glacier has too many impassible crevasses. The only possibility might have been the western edge of the glacier, but this does not look very promising either. We decide to abort our glacier attempt and retrace our steps back to the Rotgrat. Almost two hours were lost on the glacier. By now, we've been going for more than 11 hours, we're still at 3680m, with 400m of demanding down-climbing ahead of us, before we might get to easier terrain...
The rest of the story can be easily imagined. If the rock quality already felt below-average for climbing up, it now feels truly horrible for climbing down. At ca. 3370m, there's the possibility of abseiling into the valley between Wyssgrat and Rotgrat to avoid the final difficulties. However, the other three, who opt for abseiling, end up being considerable slower than us two, who down-climb until the end.
By the time we reach the Täschhütte, the guests there have already finished their dinner. We have a short break at the hut before the other three arrive as well, after which we immediately continue down to the Täschalp. It's 20:45 when we arrive at the car park. We have been going for full 18 (!) hours. Even if you subtract the longer breaks and the time lost by sticking together with two roped parties, this still leaves a total time of at least 15 hours.
Many thanks to the others (especially my rope partner Oliver) for their perseverance in bringing our misadventure to a safe end. In spite of everything that went wrong, there are still some positive takeaways as well. I've learned a lot and the experience will undoubtedly come in useful in the future. The fact that I've managed to climb for so many hours at such a high altitude, is even a little confidence boost for me. And I in fact still enjoyed most of the ascent. The scenery along the Rotgrat is absolutely stunning. But it's a very serious route which really really should not be underestimated.

Hike partners: Becks, sudorock, Stijn

Click to draw, click on the last point to end drawing


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