Clinging to civilisation for a bit longer, our planned ‘first lift of the morning’ start turned in to a savoured hotel breakfast and more of a 10 am-ish lift. Our plans for the day weren’t too ambitious – lifts to the Indren station, ascend to the Mantova Hut to set up camp, and then hopefully an ascent of Vincent’s Pyramid. We arrived at the Indren station to find many keen men and women had stomped a good set of trails already. As the first non-guided trip for both of us, route finding and the possibility of being the only people for miles had been significant sources of anxiety. Spirits ran high at this point, as it was clear that at least the first part of this adventure was very much within our capabilities. We reached the Mantova Hut easily to find an array of well-used camp sites – another win for a pair that hadn’t camped at altitude before. The weather was slowly deteriorating but with a strong sense that things were falling in our favour, we unloaded as quickly as possible and set off for Vincent’s Pyramid.
We were behind the crowd by this point but had the advantage of clear tracks and the advice of the odd descending party. I managed a little Italian to one such party and confirmed that the lower Lys glacier was still easily passable by this stage in the day. The end of our winning run came slowly, and under our own force, as oxygen and visibility faded with each step. The rapid change in altitude was catching up with us and clouds had set in. With a GPS in hand and still plenty of parties around, we pushed on, realising that it was safe but certainly unpleasant. Rewarding summit views had been removed from the menu and all of a sudden, a GoPro and a compact camera were dead weight. Eyes remained of some limited use. A notable positive to come out was a pleasant introduction to the friendly, and largely unguided style of climber on this part of Monte Rosa – quite distinct from my personal experiences as part of a guided party elsewhere. Armed with our GPS, we teamed up with some other climbers to make the last few route-finding decisions in what was by then, a featureless white world. Having made some friends along the way only added to the enjoyment of reaching the summit.
Descending seemed only marginally easier on our heavy legs, much to our dismay. Reward came very late as we exited the cloud in to blue skies once more at our campsite. The triumph of the day brought a second wind of energy to set up camp and set about melting snow for cooking and drinking. Above all else it was a pleasant afternoon in a pleasant place so nothing was a chore.
Had there been a soundtrack, a cautiously optimistic percussion arrangement would have faded in to the sound of pitter-patter on fabric. The fabric of a not-so-waterproof mountaineering tent, as it was. Imagine our relief to find it was hail peppering the tent – good, honest frozen water. Not complete relief though, there was certainly a risk that rain would follow, and knowing this it took at least an hour of observation to fall back to sleep. Having grown used to the apparently innocuous sound, it would be the water that woke us next. It wasn’t clear how long it had been raining for, but our things were wet and to a lesser but increasing extent, we were wet. Also, it was dark and cold. We decided to tough it out until sunrise, which is to say, we wallowed in self-pity until sunrise. A dubious on-going weather forecast and gear that now weighed significantly more for its dampness meant that retreat was the order of the day.
The afternoon in the valley was spent drying sleeping bags, clothes and the tent. It was an opportunity to stock up on a few food items that we decided we wanted. The freeze-dried adventure food we had didn’t … sit very well … so a change of diet was required. Moreover the afternoon was a good opportunity to digest the adventure so far, clear our heads and decide how to proceed given the forced change to our plans. In light of a weather forecast that was not set to improve a great deal, we decided to scrap the camping approach. Camping added an additional layer of complexity to decision-making, and a significant handicap if and when the weather turned against us. Having ruled out a premature move towards Castor and Pollux, with Castor likely to be dangerous after fresh snowfall, we decided to ascend to the Gnifetti hut to attempt the Signalkuppe. We would reach the Gnifetti hut rain, hail or shine! We would spend one night there and weather allowing – although with the intent to push through bad conditions – summit Signalkuppe the following day. If the weather was fine, we could ascend via the subsidiary tops and if it was bad, trudge directly to the top.
And so as planned, we ascended to the Gnifetti hut, rain, hail and no shine. Perhaps 6 inches of snow had fallen since we retreated the morning before. It was a post-holing mission, with the main drive to continue coming from the knowledge that the path ahead was deteriorating before our eyes. Arriving at the hut brought the physical relief that was required but also provided incredible views as the storm finally cleared.
The vibe in the hut was indicative of a productive day to follow. We met a pair of Swedish climbers whose plan was to reach the Margherita Hut, atop the Signalkuppe, with intentions of pushing through some difficult conditions if necessary (like us). We agreed to align our plans for the morning and critically, let the guided parties go out ahead to stomp through what was by then a foot of fresh snow. We awoke to clear skies over the valley but a shroud of cloud over the Massif. And wind, howling wind. The plan was therefore to get to the Margherita hut and nothing more, with the hope of clear weather to follow, and a chance to link up the subsidiary peaks in descent. A modest plan on paper, we thought. The foot of snow made the going tough and the howling wind meant no one was spared. Moments after the leader stomped a trail, spindrift had almost removed it without trace. The guided groups provided no help in breaking a trail. Furthermore, the combination of whiteout conditions and spindrift meant catching up and keeping them in sight was essential. Navigating the route in a featureless landscape was definitely beyond our abilities.
The ascent from the Gnifetti Hut to the Signalkuppe summit and Margherita Hut would be a 6-hour marathon. As if 6 hours of post-holing wasn’t enough, an almost constant gale of face-buffeting spindrift was provided the whole way. It was truly awful, without exception, as I had imagined any situation involving face icicles to be. Then in a welcome twist, we arrived to blue skies at the summit – the kind of thing that makes you feel that you’ve been toyed with all along. In telling this part of the story, it occurs that it must represent almost a quarter of total time spent out on the mountain and yet there’s very little more to say about it. The highlight, in fact, was an encounter with a nice (yes) Swiss guide who sparked up conversation with me, enquiring why we weren’t on the beach with a cocktail.