Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mountains of mystery

Project HaMo (translation): puzzling out a new route in the Bernese Oberland

I’m lying on my back in front of the Finsteraarhorn hut, my face ruddy with sunburn, windlessly ensconced on the warm flagstones.

View from the SAC Finsteraarhorn Hut
Photos by courtesy of Alpine Light & Structure
A late afternoon sun stands over the Grüneckhorn. Sailing along sluggishly before a light fine-weather breeze, shimmering clouds send down their dazzle into overstrained eyes. The Gross Grünhorn casts lengthy fingers of shadow halfway over the snowfields of the Fiescher Glacier. The lesser Grünhorn does much the same as his big brother. The obsidian pyramids of the Gabelhorn and the Kamm stare across glaringly white snowfields at the wood-shingled hut.

The hollow under the Grünhornlücke is warm enough to sunbathe in, its snowfields flawed only by the occasional early-summer crevasses and cracks, and all this framed by the sun-glazed flanks of the Weiss Nollen and the blue-violet shadows of the Grünhörnli. Behind me break the icefalls and bergschrunds of the glacier surrounding the hut.

Meltwater is gurgling stealthily somewhere. The glacier is embalmed in this Saturday afternoon silence; the only human sound is the shuffle of hut-slippers. Now and then I glance up as another chute of snow rattles down from the sunny walls of the Finsteraarhorn. Now the north wind weaves delicate strands of mist around the Bernese Oberland’s highest peak. Lying beside me are my Zeiss field-glasses – will they magnify the wonders of these mountains? As if they could.

Far back in the shadowy glacial basin silently beckons the secret of a steep, still-virgin wall. This is what brings me here. Up it soars, out of the bergschrund, through avalanche-swept gullies and black rock ribs up to the bright cornices – a full 600 metres. The southeast wall of the Hinter Fiescherhorn is still unknown to men. Is that due to its dangers and difficulties? Or has it simply not been worth the effort? Why have alpinists so far steered clear of it, although they’re usually thirsting for new routes? Well, this is my life’s highest aim, my one and only thought – until I have won through to that knowledge.

Again and again, I sweep the wall with my binoculars, searching for weaknesses. Ever and again, the light changes, constantly tricking my eager and searching gaze.

Although the day is still not over, we are trying to get some sleep, so that we can wake up refreshed in the middle of the night and get going. Going to bed so early is not easy. Light still pierces through the window shutters, annoying us. The heavy blankets are too warm. We’re still thinking about the mountain as we fall asleep – still not sure about those cornices, on the summit rocks. If the sun hits them too soon, it’ll trigger avalanches. Or stones. We need to be closer in. We’ll see tomorrow. The mountain wind tugs at the roof, as if it wants to help us.

The Gross Grünhorn, seen from the Finsteraarhorn Hut
One o’clock in the morning. The moon is a slim crescent, dull red, hanging just above the Grünhornlücke. A lake of molten silver has pooled on the firn, edged on all sides with pitch-black margins. The peaks too are touched with droplets and splashes of the noble metal.

Roped together, the two of us stumble down the snowslope, not yet frozen hard, to the silver lake. Then we plunge into the utter darkness of its shoreline. Driven by an unslakeable desire, we move over the firn, brittle as glass.

Now the lake has drained out. A last glowing bight falls along the Finsteraarhorn. When it fades out, all is dark. An ice-cold wind blows down on us. Little stones sparkle tremulously. On our left looms the dark wall of the Grünhorn peaks. Ant-like, tiny, we crawl steadily along under their feet. Flakes of snow are flung in our faces; the wind rushes in the cliffs. I think of falling stones.

Day breaks just under the bergschrund. Quick, point those Zeiss glasses at the cornice. Looks better than I thought.

So, let’s go!

The bergschrund is the gateway to a new world. We finagle our way over it onto steep, icy slopes. We need to move it out, hacking steps as fast as we can. Three hacks with the ice-axe for every step. Hard labour for hundreds of metres, racing the rising sun. Lungs heaving, we make the rock-rib leading to the summit. Now we’re out of harm’s way. And the cornice is small.

A rose-red glow wafts over the snow, rose-red glow the rocks, lighting our new route right up to the summit.

Amid the silence, a great happiness.

So you’ve solved a problem with amazing ease, simply and quickly, a problem that once looked all but impossible. Which was better then, getting to grips with the problem in all its gnarliness, scrabbling for a solution? Or feeling pleased that you’d finally cracked it? Aren’t you sorry now, just a bit, that the hapless, harmless problem has just ceased to be a problem?


This is an excerpt from a centennial translation of Ihr Berge (1916), a mountain memoir by Hans "Hamo" Morgenthaler (1890-1928). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

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