American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Traverse of the Dent Blanche

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  • Publication Year: 1930

A Traverse of The Dent Blanche1

Hassler Whitney

TIME had defeated us on the long ridge from the Triftjoch to the Rothorn. We had descended from the Pointe de Mountet, and were now crossing the expanse of the Glacier du Mountet between large crevasses. The work of climbing over, we were free to admire the scenery about us. The Rothorn directly above us we forgot, as our eyes turned towards the setting sun, the Dent Blanche, and, further to the south, the Ober Gabelhorn. It was the Dent Blanche that ruled the scene. In the late afternoon light, it seemed separated from all else by a thin mist, but a mist which left every line and shadow in the rocks sharp and clear. The mountain’s mood was not one to attract us to its rocky sides, nor yet to repel us from its flanks. It stood there, noble and serene, in a silent world not made for man to roam in. The light gradually faded. At 8.45 that evening we woke the keeper of the Hotel du Mountet.

After an immense breakfast the next morning, we walked slowly up the Roc Noir, which lies directly below the Dent Blanche. Having arranged the rocks of the summit into a couch, we settled down to a study of the Viereselgrat. This famous ridge of the Dent Blanche was first climbed on August 11, 1882, by John Stafford Anderson and George P. Baker with Aloys Pollinger and Ulrich Aimer. Its name is due to an exclamation of Aimer’s, on reaching the summit, “Wir sind vier Esel!” A friend suggested to Anderson that this be the motto of the Alpine Club. Bradley Gilman and I were to attempt this climb on the morrow. We roused ourselves finally, walked along the glacier towards the foot of our peak, and returned to Mountet.

At midnight, Brad and I were called. At 8.30 a. m. we were still there, for the weather was snowy and misty. To make use of our time, after some patching of rock-torn pants, we ascended to a point of the southwest ridge of the Besso where my brother and I had left it two years before, and finished the climb up the glorious chiselled rocks to the summit. Before long the cold wind drove us down. Back at the hotel, we had a pleasant chat with an Englishman and his wife from Geneva. The Englishman had one leg wooden below the knee, yet greatly enjoyed snow and ice climbing, and had come across the Col de la Dent Blanche from Ferpecle the day before.

It was midnight again. This time the weather looked more promising, so we packed our sacks, had breakfast, and at 1.00 a. m. departed. We set out upon the glacier. For awhile, the low moon aided us on our way. The peaks in front were in a deep darkness; behind, in contrast, the Rothorn rose out of a beautifully white glacier. As we rounded the Roc Noir, the moon left us entirely. Crossing the mound of snow and ice along our former tracks onto the upper part of the glacier seemed queer, so different was the world now, and so different our purpose. We heard a roar at the foot of the Ober Gabelhorn, but could see nothing. A tremendous avalanche was dashing down its cliffs. Five minutes later it died away.

Leaving explored ground, we wound around the glacier, and struck at the base of the Dent Blanche. A few steps in the ice led us into the lower couloir. Trudging up the hard shale, we readied a small patch of snow, which we had noted two days before. It was the only thing we could see in front of us; all else was black. Turning to the left, we scrambled up the rocks, feeling our way, with some help from the lantern. A steep pitch, and we knew we were in the upper couloir, for the ground was flatter again. Soon afterwards we were on the ridge, sitting in a tiny col, wondering whether to wait for the dawn.

But it was dull staying still in the darkness, so we started off again. As our sight could not penetrate across the face of the mountain to our right, we stuck to the ridge. A large gendarme now blocked the way. With the lantern in my teeth, and my ice axe dangling from my right wrist, I struggled upwards. With much use of friction, the top was reached, and Brad followed quickly. To descend the other side, we unroped, put the rope around one end of the gendarme and across the top, and rappeled down the other end.

It was now 5.00 a. m., and dawn was just commencing. We blew out the candle, and Brad started up that long and magnificent slope that ends in the top ridge. For a while we climbed quite quickly. But as the face steepened, our pace gradually slackened. We remained continuously on the ridge, that is, on the left hand end of the north face. At times we could see over the side on our left. A horrible couloir led straight to the glacier below in such a dizzy sweep that we had to restrain ourselves from following our eyes down those fearful depths. As we climbed, the great mass of snow covering part of the north face and reaching nearly to the ridge we were on slowly dropped below us.

In the meantime the sun had risen. Ten days before, on the Weisshorn, we had had a red sunrise. Yet it had not been nearly so vivid a red as this. There were clouds strewn here and there over the Monte Rosa chain. The Dent Blanche, in contempt for us, kept a veil about its head, and was not to remove it the whole day. We inwardly wondered whether we should turn back; yet at times it almost cleared off to the north and west, so we kept on.

The mountain was gradually straightening up. Far above us yet, on the top of the wall, rose those two gendarmes, grand guards to the roof of the castle, and the top ridge was yet above that. At Chamonix one twists and twines about strangely hewn rocks, till one is not sure whether the peak or oneself goes through the greatest contortions. Here the battle was not against the rocks at one’s hand ; it was against the Dent Blanche itself. We were assailing one peak, one wall, and one difficulty. We could only mount, and mount on, inch by inch. Each foot and hand hold must be found among the cracks of the broken rock. It must be brushed free of snow, and must show itself firm. It was good to have three sound holds when moving, and two when remaining still for a moment.

We rose above the great gendarme of the east ridge. Far below, the Pointe de Zinal thrust her head out of the surrounding glaciers. And the clouds drew their forces together, watching us grimly.

The two gendarmes were now close above us, but not yet conquered. We pushed up the nearest till the wall became vertical. A delicate crossing to the right, a slight ascent, and we were on the sharp knife-edge of the top of our end of the wall. As we climbed the gendarme on our right, the one on our left presented a stern spectacle, rising like a finger out of almost nothing. I have since dreamed of climbing the Dent Blanche. Half of the climb was surmounting that gendarme. But why there should have been an inn on its side, my dream did not explain.

One more tower, steep but not difficult, and we were on the top ridge. A few paces ahead a little shelter for a meal was found. It was a great temptation to lie here in relative comfort, the two of us just filling out a little crack. But there was no time to dally, so at 9.00 we turned and headed towards the summit. For a while it was nice scrambling. The cloud that enveloped the summit now closed about us, and snow started falling. But it was too late to turn back. The best way to descend was to cross the summit, for we knew there were few if any cornices ahead, it being an exceptionally dry year. The north face below did not invite us to return.

We saw now no great peaks rising on all sides; just a pleasant stone wall, with a soft mist about, perhaps in some lonely field, or on a rocky beach. A powerful impression came over me that I was back at home, chatting with friends. But I drove it away, and we climbed on. A steep tower now blocked the way. To continue, we must slide along the north side, on small and icy handholds. Brad had on woolen mittens, that grew wet and then froze, making a good protection against the cold, and a good surface for gripping jutting rocks. My heavier mittens I had to take off at times.

Back on the ridge again, a high wind swept up from the left, driving a curtain of snow flakes before it, and shutting us still more completely from all but the rocks beneath our feet. From this intimacy with our peak I was once more transported into a strange land of strange beings, beings whose existence would not pass unnoticed. We paused, amazed: there were voices behind. “Salut!” we called out. “Salut!” was the cheerful return. We were not alone on the mountain.

Snow passages now alternated with the rocks. They were narrow but uncorniced. It was rather tiring work, cutting or pushing steps in the snow, perhaps making hand or arm holds to help. Brad stopped at the foot of a gendarme, rising like a needle from the ridge. We had no desire to revisit the north face, so Brad pushed me up the gendarme. With some tugs on the rope and a helping hand, he arrived at my side. In the meantime the other party, following in our steps, had caught up, and were traversing the side of the gendarme. It was a guide and German tourist who had come up from the Schönbühl hut.

We let them take the lead to cut steps in the hard snow. But we had, in place of this work, to wait behind in the cold, which was not altogether preferable. Mostly we were below the crest of the ridge, on the north side. But at times our heads appeared above. Then the wind, coming straight up the other side of the ridge, blew a fine and sharp snow into our left cheeks, numbing them almost instantly. In these leisure moments we discussed how much we would enjoy being able at any time in the future to be back on this ridge in this weather. Brad thought he would like it for a minute and a half; I thought I could stand it three minutes.

The working ahead, and the waiting behind, kept on. There was one more patch of rocks, and one rather steep slope of icy snow. The ridge looked always the same. Then suddenly there was a yell ahead. The summit was reached.

It was 1.05 p. m., just twelve hours since we had left Mountet. The final ridge, owing to the perfect conditions, had taken only four hours. The guide who was on the summit with us now had taken three times as long on this same ridge the year before.

We stopped only to snatch a bite to eat, and then faced the south ridge. The other party started ahead of us, and we followed, literally running along the path the first part of the way. Upon reaching the steeper rocks, we put our ice axes in our sacks, and began the more serious part of the descent. The holds were sufficient and firm, and the angle was just steep enough to keep our minds steadily on the work. Usually we were on the west face, but sometimes we scrambled down the pleasant gendarmes of the ridge. A more careful descent of the couloir by the Grand Gendarme and a short walk led us onto the snow point 3912, past all difficulties.

We trotted down the ridge and the snow-field to the left, arriving at the great rocky and shaly slope leading down to the Schönbühlgletcher. On this snow slope, almost horizontal, the tourist had practically to be held up by the guide. He had overcome the difficulties of the Viereselgrat, yet he was unable to walk on a flat snow-field without slipping.

The snow had now ceased to fall, so a halt was called for another real meal, the first since 8.40 in the morning. The other party had eaten still less. We then went running and jumping down the slope, losing height very rapidly, and soon arrived on the glacier. Here the guide rather shocked us, as guides often do, by holding the rope so his tourist was walking but five or six feet behind. At the moraine we stopped to unrope. The pause lengthened into ten minutes of fumbling with the frozen knots before our clumsy fingers won the battle and the stiff and icy cord was stuffed into one of the sacks. A very slow and lazy walk brought us finally to the Schönbühl hut, at 4.30 p. m.

The climb was done ; there remained only wet clothes and pleasant memories to tell us we had been in the heights.1

1 Aug. 29, 1928.

1 An account of the first ascent of the Viereselgrat is given by Anderson in the Alpine Journal, Vol. XI, p. 158. In Volume XXIV, page 627, Harold Raeburn gives a fine description of the ascent, utilizing the whole east ridge.

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