Thursday, 10 October 2013

Climbing to the top of Lesotho: The Kingdom in the Sky

Getting to the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho from Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa is no easy matter. It entails a 9 km drive up the infamous unpaved Sani Pass that snakes its rocky, tortuous way up the edge of an escarpment of the Drankensburg Mountains. Once a rough mule trail descending the Eastern Highlands of old Basutoland into Natal and used by drovers conveying wool and mohair on donkeys and mules to be exchanged for blankets, clothing and maize meal, it seems to be on every 4X4 masochist's bucket list. With features such as Suicide Bend, Oh My God Corner and Haemorrhoid Hill you need a strong anal nerve and a 4X4 to even attempt it.

Buckshot rain drummed on our jeep as it lurched forward erratically over deep gullies scoured by floods, through streams and bad potholes, loose rocks churning beneath the wheels. I soon got used to the violent and teeth chattering jolts as the road threw the jeep this way then that. No wonder local people call this getting an 'African massage'! Mud and freezing temperatures made traction tricky on the numerous hairpin bends – at least we couldn’t see the horrendous death trap drop-offs in the mist. A couple of small taxi vans bulging with people hurtled at breakneck sped down the road, one sweeping dangerously round a sharp bend, causing us to stop rather abruptly. Descending traffic have right of way as it’s easier to reverse and not stall going down than up. I prayed we wouldn't meet any on the higher part of the pass...

By now the adrenalin was really flowing and we weren't half way up! Martin, brow furrowed in deep concentration, was gripping the wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. We both knew that there was nowhere to make a U-turn and the only way was up. Close to the top, several vehicles were abandoned by the side of the road and another was attempting to tow a stranded truck, causing us to lose momentum and to shudder to a halt just before the penultimate hairpin. We could see that the road's surface right on the bend had been almost obliterated by flash flooding leaving a deep gouge which looked almost impossible to cross. We glanced at each other in sheer desperation - the game was up. We'd have to reverse back down the pass. Then the preposterousness of that dawned on us; it might be easier to have a crack at the bend...

The engine roared and belched black fumes as we hurtled forward nearly knocking over an onlooker in our determination to make that bend! We drew a round of applause from those proceeding upwards on foot as somehow, one of our tyres spinning, squealing and burning rubber, just managed to grip the frozen ground enough to provide sufficient traction to bridge the void and propel us forward. Our relief was palpable when the border post and a group of wretched rondavels lining the wet and muddy road finally loomed through the cloud and billowing coal smoke at the very top (2,873m). The freezing wind hit us like a sledge hammer when we left the jeep to get our passports stamped in the tin shack masquerading as a border post, its windows steamy and running with condensation. Duly admitted to Lesotho, and after a celebratory photo with a group of Basotho youths who shared our experience of the pass that day, we quickly made tracks to the famous 'Highest Pub in Africa' at the nearby Sani Pass Mountain Lodge to claim our liquid reward after such an exhilarating ordeal!

The pub with its large coal fire was warm and cosy with excellent views and we greatly enjoyed hanging out here. But the Sani Backpackers, sited some distance way down an unlit track, was a truly sobering experience. The four bed room we had was pretty OK, much like a typical dorm with just the bare essentials. We used our own down sleeping bags which kept us warm. The communal lounge area was also adequate although a bit scruffy and in need of a fresh coat of paint and a good clean. The open coal fire was certainly a great comfort in the bitterly cold weather, because the kitchen and communal dining area, sited in a nearby building where we prepared our own meals, were like an ice box. The biggest horror of all however, was the frigidly cold ablution block: unusable flush toilets and showers you'd not wash your dog in! The Sani Backpackers should only be considered by the truly hardy!

We awoke to a crimson dawn chasing away the stars which seemed huge, strung out across the night sky like crystal apples. The glistening earth steamed as the sun gently released it from night’s icy grasp. Thatched mokhoro (stone huts) emitted clouds of blue smoke as we drove with our Basotho guide to a nearby village to climb Thabane Ntlenyana (3,482m), the highest mountain in Southern Africa. At just over 22 km, it is not a technical climb, traversing treeless Afro-Montane grassland and a few river crossings only tricky in the rainy season, but it is at altitude.

The route traverses a valley for over 4 km before a steep climb up a ridge followed by a descent into another broad valley. A second ridge must be surmounted before the final pull up the shoulder of the mountain with its crown of rocks. This is big sheep country, unfenced under expansive blue skies, domain of jackal buzzards. Basotho shepherds clad in balaclavas, woollen blankets and gumboots greet you warmly in rapid Sesotho, the silence broken only by the clanking of sheep bells.

With winter approaching, there was fresh snow on the higher slopes but the sun was warm on our backs. After 4 hours we attained the summit, buffeted by strong winds. The Zulus call these mountains Quathlamba or ‘The Barrier of Spears’. We understood why as we gazed upon an army of emerald peaks, most over 3,000m, some topped with a pie crust of basaltic rock gleaming with snow. We watched mesmerised as cloud drifted languidly up over the edge of the dramatic Drakensburg Escarpment below, the inky blue ramparts of the mysterious Giant’s Castle floating between earth and sky beyond.

The descent back over the same route took just under 3 hours. You could climb this mountain without a guide, but we hired a lovely local lad named George, who, at 35 euro, was money well spent in such a poor community. We learnt much about Basotho culture from him, although we still can't pronounce the name of the mountain we climbed with him; he almost passed out laughing at our attempts to do so! He introduced us to a local family who had kindly minded our jeep for us and it was fascinating talking to them and learning more about their way of life in this tough highland country. As wood is scarce, people dry the scrubby bushes that grow on the windswept highland and use them to start a fire. Dried cow dung then sustains the fire, and every homestead has a neat stack of pats of cow dung outside. The thatched mokhoro are built of thick layers of stone covered in 'dagga', a mixture of mud and cow dung, which is also used for flooring. To maintain warmth, there are neither windows or a chimney and all homes face north to harness the sunlight and avoid the vicious east-west winds. A fire is built in the centre of the room, and the heat radiating through the floor helps to keep the mokhoro very cosy.

In all, it took us 7.5 hours with around 1.5 hours of stops and we were back in the pub to celebrate over a beer well before sunset. Not bad for a pair of 'golden oldies' according to young George...

Watch the video on YouTube:

Monday, 7 October 2013

Climbing to the Highest Building in Europe: Margherita on Signalkuppe, Italy and Switzerland

‘Mountaineering is an hazardous discipline which requires a high psycho-physical preparation. A little distraction can cost your life’. This was the sobering message that greeted us as we were disgorged along with numerous other climbers from the cable car at the Passo Dei Salato. We had already travelled up via two lifts from our camp site far below in the alpine village of Alagna Valsesia and I was beginning to wish I was languishing in my camping chair nursing a cool beer in the warm afternoon sunshine instead of contemplating an extreme few days in the High Alps, which might, just might, in my present half-hearted frame of mind, claim my life! Reluctantly, I trudged the few hundred metres to the final cable car that would take us up to Passo Salati-Indren at 3,200 metres.

From here a long line of climbers began making its way across the first of two glaciers for the Gnifetti Hut sited at 3,647 metres. It was not yet visible, as between it and the cable car was a huge shelf of rock which had to be surmounted. The pace was fast as we crossed the Indren Glacier, snow turned to a caster sugar consistency in the warm afternoon sun, making it mucky and slushy in places. Despite climbing a via ferrata the day before as part of our acclimatisation regimen, I had not anticipated how challenging surmounting this huge wall of rock would be. It was easily a grade two scramble and was very exposed in places, necessitating the use of fixed ropes or wooden stemples to facilitate access up its craggy face; one slip might have proved fatal without a helmet. Some climbers wisely missed out this section, taking a longer, but safer, route round this obstacle past the Mantova Hut (3498 metres) which then brought them on to the Garstelet glacier below the Gnifetti Hut.

It was with some relief that I arrived at the rocky plateau atop the shelf of rock, prominent upon which was a triangular frame fluttering with coloured strips of fabric printed with Himalayan prayers which looked strangely out of place in Italy. Two nearly parallel thin white lines were just perceptible leading across the gently rising glacier gleaming in the afternoon sun towards the Gnifetti Hut, impervious as a fortress atop another immense shelf of rock with near vertical walls. Donning our crampons, we set out on the upper of these two paths across the glacier, by now feeling the altitude a little, making progress somewhat slower. Pausing to remove our crampons, we then assailed the vertical wall, aided by a series of metal staples and fixed rope which led to a rocky ledge and a path that rose directly to the balcony of the hut via a flight of steps.

People thronged the balcony watching the progress of those who were still crossing the glacier below. The views from here were truly magnificent, with the Mantova Hut below clearly visible and the turquoise Lake Gabiet beyond, seemingly encircled by wave after wave of jagged smoky blue mountaintops. Martin registered us and, being among the first group to reach the hut, we were allocated a cosy double bunk room on the second floor, thankful indeed that we were not in a dormitory with numerous other climbers. Being members of the Austrian Alpine Club, we got a decent discount on the room too. Having settled in and stored our boots and ice axes in the kit room, we strode up to the bar for our reward: two cool draft beers, which we took outside to savour in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
It was only when I visited the loos (a line of cubicles, each containing a smelly stainless steel ‘do it yourself flush’ squat) that the enormity of the task ahead sank in. This was a loo with a view all right, straight up the Lis Glacier behind the back of the hut, its left side buckled, shattered and gashed with deep crevasses, the faint line of a path just about visible snaking its way ever upwards on the far right edge beneath Piramide Vincent, which we planned to climb the following day.

Dinner was served at seven, a tasty four course meal of soup, pasta, meat and vegetables, and a desert. Reluctantly, we resisted the temptation to have another beer, sticking to mineral water, as there’s nothing worse than a splitting headache brought on by dehydration at altitude, where the air is dry. After watching the sun slip behind the mountains in a riot of colours turning the clouds shades straight out of a Baroque painting, we retired to bed ready for an early start.

Piramide Vincent


We slept fitfully, trying to acclimatise to the altitude which, given that you need to drink a lot of water, has the annoying side effect of making you want to pee profusely! So we were up a couple of times in the night to visit the ablution block. From the loo with a view, the glacier, bathed in ethereal starlight, looked magical. The Milky Way was very visible, arching across the sky behind the small chapel of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, the highest in the Alps, above the hut. Martin couldn’t resist braving the cold of deep night to capture this on camera.

At first light we rose to have breakfast. Many other climbers had already left the hut pre-dawn but as we were only planning to climb the nearby Piramide Vincent, there was no need for us to hurry and no alpine start required! Fully kitted, we descended the rocky shelf at the back of the hut and began the climb up the glacier. The route was quite busy with numerous groups of other climbers moving slowly upwards and at times it was difficult to pass large groups roped together. Higher up, the glacier became steeper and more crevassed but we managed this with relative ease as it was still in the shadow and the snow was pretty firm. But after passing under the seracs on the western slope of Piramide Vincent, the sun drifted up from behind the mountain, its light reflecting back off the glacier with piercing brilliance. It soon became surprisingly warm.


After a break just past the bergschrund at the top of the glacier to admire the magnificent scenery and to take a drink of hot lemon from our flask, we proceeded up the steep flank of Piramide Vincent. Our pace slowed a little as we assailed the slope, the altitude taking its toll. Ahead of us was a group of German climbers and on reaching the crest of the narrow ridge we celebrated bagging the first of the 4000m+ mountains on offer in the Monte Rosa range with them by sharing their gummy bears! The views were fantastic. The viciously pointed Lyskamm, its eastern flank crevassed and covered in snow, looked as if it was about to pierce the sky. Beyond, fifty shades of smoky blue grey culminating with the distinctive Mont Blanc massif striding high on the horizon. We also caught our first glimpse of the mountains beyond: Corno Nero and Ludwigshöehe, both of which we planned to climb.

Just as we were donning our rucksacks to begin the descent back to the hut, a young man appeared on the narrow ridge. Approaching us, he asked in broken English whether there was another way off the mountain, other than retracing his steps. We all stared at him in total amazement. He was an Afghani, but that wasn’t the reason we were all stunned into silence; it was the fact that he was not wearing any crampons and had no alpine kit with him whatsoever. One of the Germans muttered something under his breath about him being a crazy fool and seconds passed before another suggested it was just safest to go back the way he’d come. With a carefree smile, he calmly walked back down the narrow ridge and vanished. Literally. On the glacier, it is easy to spot people and he did not ascend higher, he was most definitely not in front of us as we made our descent back to the Refugio Gnifetti and none of us saw him at the hut. Dubbed the incredible disappearing man, he showed crass stupidity by being in a high alpine environment alone with no proper equipment. We all hope that he did not fall into a crevasse…

We were back at the hut before lunchtime, and after taking a hot shower, ordered pasta and a couple of beers which we enjoyed on the balcony in the hot afternoon sunshine. We then retired to our room for a nap, rising in time to watch the climbers coming up from Punta Indren crossing the glacier below the hut. Another superb dinner was served by the very efficient and pleasant staff at the hut and after enjoying the vibe in the bar for a while, we decided to turn in, as we had an early start.


Margherita Time!


The rectangles of the window were still dark when I woke, disturbed from my slumber by the sound of other climbers moving about and what sounded like opera music from an indeterminable location. I can’t say I was looking forward to the climb up to the Margherita hut and I will never get used to being ripped from a warm bed at some ungodly hour, then plunged into the cold and dark to be dragged up a mountain! How the died muesli stuck in my throat as I tried to eat something for breakfast!

A thin thread of climbers was rising steadily up the Lis Glacier, their torch lights casing pools of light creating the impression that a gleaming necklace had been garlanded round the western flank of Piramide Vincent. The stars gradually faded as the dawn began to chase away the night sky. As we rose higher, we saw the deep purple shadow of the Mont Blanc massif cast against a sky that faded from marshmallow pink to a warm apricot, the first rays of dawn bathing its snowy crest in rosy light.

It didn’t take us as long to climb the glacier this time as we were a bit more acclimatised, but there was still a long slog up towards the Col de Lis through a brilliant white world of glistening snow and ice laid out beneath the deepest blue sky imaginable. The gradient eased considerably past the Balmenhorn and we finally got our first view of the Margherita Hut perched on the left shoulder of Signalkuppe high above the Grenz Galcier. The hut was opened on 18 August 1893, and named after Margherita de Savoie, Queen of Italy, who, together with some alpine guides, spent the night there. It still looked a long way off and involved a long climb up a featureless slope rising between Parrotspitze and Zumsteinspitze annoyingly made higher due to the fact that there is a descent from the Col de Lis.

However, this is leavened by the remarkable and magnificent scenery which is guaranteed to uplift the weariest spirits! A vast panorama framed by Dufourspitze, the highest peak of Switzerland to the north and Lyskamm to the southwest, unfolds as you progress below the seracs of Parrotspritze. Between the two lie many of the most famous peaks and massifs in the alps: Castor and Pollux; the Mont Blanc massif, Grandes Jorasses and the Aiguille du Midi; Grand Combin; the Matterhorn; Dent Blanche; Zinalrothorn; Weisshorn; Jungfrau and even the Eiger on the horizon.
After the long pull up which sapped our energy in the hot sunshine, the terrain flattened out and we could see the hut clearly, and the final very steep climb up to reach it. Taking it slowly, we progressed ever higher, our breathing becoming more laboured as we struggled with the altitude. It was a relief under five hours later to finally arrive at the hut, copper clad and reassuringly hunkered down against all that the Alps could throw at it.

Checking in, we were allocated to a 6 bunk dorm on the first floor, and, as we were the first occupants, claimed our beds close to the window. Dumping our kit we headed to the bar in the dining room to celebrate reaching the highest building in Europe with a couple of beers. Yes, even the highest hut in Europe is supplied with draft beer by helicopter! Outside on the balcony in the brilliant early afternoon sunshine, I gazed down upon a mass of fluffy white cloud as if viewing the scene from a jet plane. Alpine choughs put on an acrobatic display, whirling and cavorting on the thermals and through gaps in the cloud canopy, I spied a formidable landscape of gleaming glaciers, razor sharp ridges, chaotic masses of moraine, and far below, the ribbons of green valleys. Maybe it was the elation and relief to have made it to this altitude, but the sight of this incredible panorama promptly reduced me to tears.

Back in the dormitory we were disturbed by a couple of dour Swiss climbers who glowered at us for taking the bunk nearest the window and seemed to do their damndest to prevent us taking forty winks by conducting a long and loud conversation from their beds. I was glad when it was time to make our way to the dining room for dinner. This was a surprisingly gourmet affair, a three course meal with a choice of vegetable soup or pasta: I chose the former as by now I was all ‘pastaed out’ and readily declined yet another dish of insipid quills doused in a tasteless tomato sauce masked by copious helpings of parmesan cheese! The main course consisted of fried fish, potatoes and broccoli, rounded off by a desert of crème caramel and washed down with another draft beer! The mood in the dining room was highly jovial, the bar was doing brisk business as many groups were drinking rather heavily. Indeed, three Swiss climbers sharing our table were happily knocking back the schnapps, which, at several euro a pop, were not cheap and I wondered at their stamina to imbibe that freely at altitude. They drank enough to knock out a horse!

I wandered outside where a group of people had gathered on the steps leading down from the hut to watch the sunset over the alps. On the eastern side, the peak of a nearby mountain was reflected on the cloud below the hut like a mystic pyramid. They stood silently, locked in reverence as the sun sank lower in the western horizon, turning from a disc of mellow yellow to burnished gold and finally to a flaming ball of red light that exploded behind a line of grey cloud flanking the upper part of the distinctive triangular Matterhorn, skirted all round with a milky white cloud inversion. A sight I shall carry to the ghats. After visiting the uber smelly stainless steel squat we retired to bed and had a fitful night’s sleep due to the nocturnal wanderings of our Swiss room mates who obviously couldn’t hold their drink!


The descent to Passo Salati-Indren


The usual predawn bumps and bangs of climbers busying themselves for an early start heralded the beginning of another day. Blinded by the head torch of one of the Swiss who hadn’t the wit to think he might be annoying other occupants in our dorm, I gazed up at the window which was still a rectangle of purple light punctuated with numerous stars. Feeling sleepy, I nestled back into my duvet not wanting to get up. At least today we were making a descent, rather than another gruelling long ascent. But the hideous cacophony of sound masquerading as ‘music’ being played in the dining room was enough to wake the dead from their slumbers and soon ripped me from the arms of Morpheus. After a breakfast of yet more muesli washed down with orange juice and a couple of mugs of coffee for that all essential caffeine kick to start my motor, I was ready to kit up for the 1,500m descent.

Roped together we began our descent from the hut as the first rays of dawn warmed the brown rocky slopes of Zumsteinspitze opposite, causing it to be etched sharply against the indigo sky beyond, the surrounding peaks rising mysteriously from banks of cloud nestled in the valleys below. We made good speed to the Col de Lys, where we decided to tackle the summit of Ludwigshöhe (4,341m). Atop the crest of the steep snowy ridge we enjoyed fabulous views of Lyskamm, its steep face partially obscured with a thick covering of snow resembling royal icing, the remainding bare rock defiantly facing the brilliant morning sunshine. Scores of thin white lines criss-crossed the snowy vastness all around, betraying the trails scoured by the crampons of umpteen climbers heading from one mountain to another. One led up the impressive looking peak of Corno Nero, or Schwarzhorn (4,321m) just below Ludwigshöhe. We could clearly see a statue of the Madonna adorning a rocky outcrop close to its peak.

The way up this mountain looked more difficult than the other peaks we had surmounted, as it involved a very steep climb where one slip would have resulted in the need to self arrest with an ice axe pretty quickly! The challenge was there to be taken and we were soon making our way steadily upwards, plunging our ice axes deep into the snow to prevent ourselves slipping and soon attained the narrow ridge on top which gave vertiginous views down over the valleys below. Summit bagged we enjoyed the thrill of the descent before making our way onto the Lis Glacier down past the Balmenhorn, a rocky outcrop with a distinctive statue of Christ and bivouac hut, which we decided not to climb, mistakenly believing it not to be over 4,000m. Next time!

It was late morning by now, the sun beat down relentlessly and the snow bridge over the bergschrund at the top of the Lis Glacier had narrowed considerably over the yawning gap. The snow was now the consistency of caster sugar and we moved rapidly down through the crevasse field with its gaping turquoise holes bristling with long malevolent looking icicles.

We arrived back at the Gnifetti Hut before lunchtime, so contented ourselves with a cool draft beer on the balcony where we watched the antics of several cheeky snowfinches who seized on any small crumb that fell on the floor, while a flock of yellow billed alpine choughs entertained us with their aerial displays of acrobatics. Come lunchtime, we eagerly devoured a large plate of bacon, bread, eggs and cheese; what a difference from pasta! Another beer later we set off down the steep walls from the hut to the Garstelet Glacier leaving plenty of time to make the last cable car at 4.00 pm. We opted to down climb the rocky cliffs separating the Garstelet and Indren Glaciers which was far more challenging than the climb up, and after around 1.5 hours we were walking off the Indren Glacier, which had thawed rapidly from our ascent a couple of days before, towards the Passo Salati-Indren cable car lift. We’d been blessed with fine weather, but this was now beginning to break up, and great columns of ugly grey cloud were swirling up from the Alagna Valley.

Our acclimatisation regimen had worked perfectly, but now our luck ran out. We were planning to climb Mont Blanc, but consulting the weather forecast we learnt that a low pressure area was about to descend on the Alps and snow and high winds were forecast for the Mont Blanc Massif. Disappointed, we cancelled the Goutier Hut, but that’s mountaineering for you! It’s better to be safe than sorry. We’ll definitely return to this area, as the Gnifetti hut, staffed by a very friendly team and which offers comfortable lodgings and excellent food, is an ideal base for climbs to some of the most easily accessible 4000+m peaks in the Alps. Zumsteinspitze, Parrotspritze  et al await…

Watch the video of our climb on YouTube: