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On Some of Getrude Bell's Routes in the Oberland

On Some of Gertrude Bell’s Routes in the Oberland

Miriam E. O’Brien

IN 1901 and 1902 Miss Gertrude Bell and her guides, Heinrich and Ulrich Fuhrer, made a great many remarkable climbs in the Oberland. They were, of course, much more remarkable at that time than today, primarily because any first ascent is several times as hard, and immeasurably longer, than the same route known, marked on maps, and described in guidebooks; and partly also because current standards of difficulty are higher owing to recent developments in rock-climbing technique and skill.

Last summer, at the end of August and the first part of September, I repeated a few of Miss Bell’s climbs, finding them interesting in themselves as climbs, and also for their historical associations. So much is just the same now as it was thirty years ago: the peaks, the chimneys, the glaciers! Whole pages of Miss Bell’s letters to her family could have been written this last year, and they would have been as accurate in their descriptions as they were in 1901. On the other hand, so much has changed! Miss Bell enjoyed an “unexploredness” in these mountain regions that one does not find today. What fun she must have had wandering around the Engelhörner chain when “the whole place up there is marked with chamois paths, no one, I expect, having ever been there to disturb them."1

In the first place, we both, Miss Bell in 1901 and I in 1930, went to the Engelhörner to escape bad weather. Miss Bell writes from Rosenlaui in August, 1901 : “I am established for a day or two in this enchanting spot, having been driven out of the higher mountains by a snowfall on Monday, which renders the big things impossible for a day or so. Here, there is a fascinating little rock range, that can be done in almost any weather."2 I wrote the same thing to my family in August, 1930. And it may be worth mentioning that we both did these rock scrambles with our minds fixed on the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn, intending, as soon as weather conditions would permit, to attempt its ascent. “All our thoughts are turned to the virgin arête on the Finsteraarhorn."3

Miss Bell’s new routes and first ascents in the Engelhörner, although still amusing rock climbs, are nevertheless done every season by crowds of climbers—if not good, bad and indifferent, at least by the good and the indifferent—and I shall not take space here to describe them. But not so often done, probably because of its greater length, is the Welligrat. “Between the two Wellhorns there is an arête of rocks which has never been attempted—it is indeed one of the four impossibles of the Oberland—and we intend to do it and we think we can."4 They succeeded on July 13, 1902.

Miss Bell’s descriptions of the ridge seen from the Vorder Wellhorn could not be improved on today. “There was a most discouraging bit of smooth rock and above that an overhang round which we could see no way. My heart sank—I thought we should never do it. However, we set off and when we came nearer we found that these two places were not half as bad as they looked "5 That is true. The steep, smooth slabs at the beginning flattened out as we approached, and we could almost walk up without using hands. The overhang was very easily turned on the left. But Miss Bell’s description of the difficulties of the rest of the climb, judged by modern standards, seems a little overrated. Beyond the overhang there was, it is true, a ridge of very loose and breakable rock, but the ridge was relatively broad. “And it [the ridge] ended in a sharp gap on the farther side of which two short but extremely exposed chimneys led up to the final slopes."6 Getting up the farther side of this gap is, indeed, the only bit of real rock climbing on the whole ridge. We detected two routes besides Miss Bell’s chimneys. Adolf is still convinced that the one he chose, around to the left of the ridge, is undoubtedly the easiest. Unfortunately he never got a chance to try it, since he was roped to me, and I went up Miss Bell’s chimneys.

Miss Bell’s party went down presumably by the east ridge of the Gross Wellhorn and, crossing the Rosenlaui glacier under the séracs, reached Rosenlaui that night. We continued on along the south ridge of the Gross Wellhorn until the gendarmes got too plentiful, when we went down the east face to the glacier, across the glacier to the little sattel between the base of the south ridge of the Wellhorn and the little rocky ridge known as the Wellhorngrat (that continues to the south), along the latter, and up to the Wettersattel, which made a total ascent for that day of approximately 10,000 feet. We reached the Gleckstein Hut in time for supper and I, much to Adolf’s disgust, decided to spend the night there and refused to accompany him down to Grindelwald that evening.

Finsteraarhorn

On July 31, 1902, Miss Bell and her guides set out from the Pavilion Dolfuss for one of the other big problems, which she had had in mind for two years, the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn. “The mountain…comes down in a series of arches radiating from the extremely pointed top to the Finsteraar glacier…The arête…rises from the glacier in a great series of gendarmes and towers, set at such an angle on the steep face of the mountain that you wonder how they can stand at all and indeed they can scarcely be said to stand, for the great points of them are continually overbalancing and tumbling down into the couloirs between the arêtes and they are all capped with loosely poised stones, jutting out and hanging over and ready to fall at any minute."7

It seems to me that Miss Bell’s arête is perhaps not sufficiently differentiated from the rest of the wall to bear the name “ridge,” and might rather be called a rib. In any case, it runs up about two-thirds of this stupendous 3,000-ft. wall and provides a route exposed to fewer falling stones than the rest of the wall. Miss Bell’s party followed this rib nearly to its top, the last part of the way in the face of threatening weather. They tried to turn the last gendarme, which presents a sheer, forbidding face of rock, by means of an iced chimney on the left, but conditions were so bad they could not advance, the storm broke in earnest, and they were forced to turn back. That night, in a raging thunder and snow storm, they bivouacked on the rocks just below their turning point. The next day they worked their way down the rib again, struggling against snow, cold, and wind, and having to rope down almost all the way over snow-covered rocks, with iced ropes. They bivouacked a second night on the glacier in pouring rain. Their descent was, throughout, a marvelous feat of endurance and courage.

After Miss Bell’s attempt, and before ours, the wall was twice climbed, in 1904 by Gustave Hasler and Fritz Amatter, and in 1906 by Val Fynn and Brüderlin. These two parties bivouacked at the beginning of their climbs near the bottom of the rock wall, and the Fynn-Brüderlin party bivouacked a second night just before reaching the summit.

Adolf Rubi and I had had some thoughts of trying this climb in the summer of 1929, but the proper occasion never seemed to present itself. In 1930, however, our arrangements worked out better, and towards the end of August even the weather conditions seemed favorable. On September 2nd, taking Adolf’s younger brother, Fritz, with us as porter, we went up to the Strahlegg Hut —which had not been built when the earlier climbs were done. We preferred starting early from the Strahlegg Hut to bivouacking, especially since, in September, a night out would be long and probably cold.

We left the hut at exactly midnight, and followed the regular route to the Finsteraarjoch. Near the Joch we met a bitter cold wind which was to be with us all day. Going down the other side, we wound around the base of the Finsteraarhorn wall until we were almost under the Studerjoch, where we sat down to wait in a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind. It was then ten minutes to four; we should have about an hour before daylight. But the cold was intense—I shudder to think what a bivouac for the whole night would have been like!—and after a few minutes, concluding that it would be light before we got to the rocks anyhow, we started on again up towards the enormous and wide-open bergschrund. As far as we could make out in the dark, the only possible place to cross the bergschrund was where the stones falling down the main couloir of the wall above—the couloir just to the left (looking up) of Miss Bell’s rib—had worn a deep gully or groove in the ice of the upper lip and piled themselves up in a cone underneath. By standing on the top of this rock cone Adolf was able to reach across with the pick of his ice-axe and, not without difficulty, cut some holds in the groove above and pull himself up. The danger of this proceeding was somewhat mitigated by the earliness of the hour (4.30) and the coldness of the day. Adolf continued cutting up the very steep ice gully, when suddenly down the gully came a fall of stones. Fritz and I rushed for shelter to a place where the upper lip of the bergschrund was overhanging. What was happening to Adolf? Nothing, apparently, for when the stones stopped falling, the chips of ice began again, and the rope ran out in its accustomed little jerks.

When my turn came, I followed Adolf’s route with feverish haste, impatient with the darkness that made it difficult to distinguish quickly the holds that he had cut in the hard ice. Finally— and with what relief!—I saw a line of steps leading to the left up and out of the gully. But before I could get to them, the rope below me tightened. I shouted to Fritz to come up, and to come up quickly. Then down the gully came another stone fall. There was nothing to do but crouch flat against the ice with my arms and rucksack over my head. The stones had apparently come from only a short distance, however, and were all small, as well as rolling gently. After I had been showered with them for what seemed like a very long time, there was a cry of warning from Adolf, above: “Stones are falling!” I supposed, of course, that this time there would be big ones. However, only the same gentle patter continued.

After gaining the rocks, we went up for a few minutes before turning to the right (northwest) to cross the big couloir, which we did as quickly as possible. This brought us over underneath a large red tower, the lowest gendarme of Miss Bell’s broken rocky rib. Her party had gained this rib more directly than we had been able to do, by crossing the bergschrund on the right of the big couloir and reaching a little rocky promontory below the main rock rib. The Hasler-Amatter party had followed much the same route, while Fynn and Brüderlin had attacked the wall farther to the left —considerably farther to the left than we had—and crossed the big couloir higher up.

We climbed up along the rib, as all the earlier parties had done. I think probably we kept more on the crest of the rib than they did. Hasler mentions snow-filled couloirs, gullies and chimneys,8 and Miss Bell says, “Every now and then we had to creep up and out of the common hard chimney, or round the face of a tower, or cut our way across an ice couloir between two gendarmes."9 It must be remembered that they all climbed earlier in the season (July 16, July 31 and August 12) and no doubt they used snow-filled couloirs that we in September found iced and swept by falling stones.

On the crest of the ridge there was no danger from falling stones, except from those unavoidably dislodged in huge masses by the man above. We turned the gendarmes whenever possible on the left (south) ; we were cold and wanted every ray of sun that we could get. But the sun went over to the other side of the mountain shortly after twelve and left the entire face bleak and frigid.

About half-way up we came to one pitch of considerable difficulty, which Adolf surmounted by climbing, for about forty meters, an exposed and difficult ridge on the north flank of the rib. This, I think, may be the place which Miss Bell mentions as being so particularly difficult (especially later, on the descent), where her party climbed up by means of an overhanging chimney on the left, on the south flank of the rib. I noticed such a chimney there, although only Fritz used it.

Farther up the ridge “the towers multiplied like rabbits above and grew steeper and steeper….The ridge had been growing narrow, its sides steeper as we mounted, so that we had been obliged for some time to stick quite to the backbone of it; then it threw itself up into a great tower leaning over to the right and made of slabs set like slates on the top with a steep drop of some twenty feet below them on to the col."10 This is the gendarme that Hasler calls the “Great Grey Tower” and which he characterizes as “the key to the mountain."11 “So we tried the left side of the tower: there was a very steep iced couloir running up at the foot of the rock on that side for about fifty feet, after which all would be well. Again we let ourselves down on the extra rope to the foot of the tower, again to find that this way also was impossible. A month later in the year I believe that this couloir would go; after a warm August there would be no ice in it, and though it is very steep the rocks so far as one could see under the ice, looked climbable."12 Miss Bell was quite right in thinking that the couloir would go, although even in September it was ice-filled. We must not forget, however, that the couloir seemed more possible to us because we were not climbing it in a snow-storm, and we had, moreover, the knowledge that the couloir had gone before, which is of inestimable value in getting up a difficult pitch. But in saying that “after [the couloir] all would be well,” Miss Bell was unduly optimistic and it is perhaps just as well that she did not get up, above the couloir, to try in a raging snow-storm to climb the steep final walls of the face.

After we had roped down to the left for about twenty-five meters, Adolf cut holds up the brittle waterfall-ice in the couloir for a short distance and then out to the left on to a wall of loose and ice-glazed rocks. After about ten meters of real difficulty, we reached gently sloping slabs of rotten rock covered with loose stones. Here the climbing was very easy but dangerous. Stones might fall from the final wall that rose, menacing, straight above us, or pieces of ice and frozen snow from the ice-sheathed rocks and the cornices of the summit ridge. After about eighty meters we could traverse to the right to approach the ridge again.

Here our route diverged markedly from everything that had been done before on this wall. From this point the other two parties had continued straight up, presumably in the shallow couloir just to the left on the south Hank of the rib, a narrow couloir that apparently drained all the falling ice and stones from the steep walls above. Amatter remembers hard snow here at the time of his ascent, but when we were there the couloir was ice-glazed and so long that cutting up it would have been an interminable process as well as a dangerous one, if, indeed, it would have been possible at all. Farther out to the left, also, the ground looked uninviting— exposed to too many falling stones.

We turned to the right, therefore, and a short traverse brought us on to the ridge. From there we could not work upwards, either following the crest of the ridge, which here rises in a perpendicular step, or upon its north flank. Below on the north was a vertical sheet of ice and an unbroken drop of several hundred meters. The only possibility seemed to be a traverse still farther to the north into a small chimney thirty meters away. This traverse along a vertical wall of ice-glazed rocks with all the handholds and footholds loose and icy cold was a passage of extraordinary difficulty. It was by far the worst passage on the whole face. I held my breath while Adolf worked his way, slowly and surely, across, and felt an intense relief when he arrived safely in the chimney. He then climbed up the chimney for about twenty meters to a little platform. I started over, and I have rarely been so surprised as I was when I got across that traverse without falling off.

From there to the summit, I can see every step of our route up those fearful, ice-coated walls, and Adolf with tremendous energy and vigor hewing out huge chunks of ice and hurling down whole armfuls of rocks in his efforts to find something to use for a hold. There was one pitch where Adolf climbed the full forty meters of rope between us and still found himself in a very uncertain position on steep ice. Somehow—no one knows how—he managed to get a spare rope out of his rucksack, tie it on, and then go on fifteen meters farther before he reached a firm stopping place. The last forty meters before reaching the summit ridge were glare ice, and very steep, with a few rocks sticking out here and there. (See illustration opposite.) But these rocks were held in position only by the ice itself, and any chopping intended to make them serve as holds merely dislodged them.

At last we reached the northwest ridge and the ordinary route up from the Hugisattel, about sixty meters from the top (northern summit). The other parties had both reached the southern summit first, and from the left (south). What a joyous gambol along a broad and level path were those last sixty meters! At half past five, thirteen hours after we had started up the wall, we reached the top of it. How pleasant to lie there sheltered from the wind, eating, enjoying the delicate sunset colors and even, from time to time, peering over the edge at the northeast face!

After a long time we rolled up some of the ropes—a party of three does not need ninety meters of rope to descend the ordinary route on the Finsteraarhorn—and strolled casually down, reaching the Finsteraarhorn Hut at 8 o’clock, twenty hours after we had left the Strahlegg.

1 The Letters of Gertrude Bell, p. 124.

2 Op. cit., p. 123.

3 Op. cit., p. 122.

4 Op. cit., p. 135.

5 Op. cit., p. 137.

6 Op. cit., p. 137.

7 Op. cit., p. 139.

8 "The Northeast Face of Finsteraarhorn,” G. Hasler, Alpine Journal, xxxiv, pp. 268-280.

9 The Letters of Gertrude Bell, p. 140.

10 Op. cit., p. 140.

11 Hasler, op. cit.

12 Bell, op. cit., p. 141.