July 29, 2009: Monch (4107m or 13474 ft) via the normal route, rated PD.
Starting from the Monchsjochhutte at 6:45am we walked back toward the Jungfraujoch for a few minutes, and then left the trail to get to the rocky base of the Monch where the climb starts. The first section consists of bad rock, all crumbled up, scree mixed with ice, and not very pleasant to ascend. We avoided this by climbing left to the rock in the snow and ice and we made progress a lot faster. This was also a lot more fun. Finally, after passing a pluviometer, we arrived at a small snow field. From here on the route would consist of alternating snowfields and rocks, all of very good quality. I recall for instance a nice little gully we had to climb early on. Downclimbing these rocks is not really a problem. They are grade II at most, more often I or lower. But in case of icy conditions, there are also metal stakes that can be used for belaying or rapelling. We never had to use them because the conditions during our climb were very good. As we gained altitude, the climb got steeper gradually and flattens out a bit when arriving at the final ridge which was completely covered with snow. It is very narrow (sometimes there is only room to put 1 foot in front of the other, so you're constantly hoping that your crampon does not hook into the gamache wrapped around your other leg) and extremely steep (high exposure!). We crossed a pair of descending climbers on this narrow ridge, and did not waste too much time doing it. But I guess that if there are many parties on the mountain, this can substantially slow down the trip. There is also a continuous snow covered overhang there, often pierced by our ice axes so we could see the drop down the other side of the mountain (yes I swallowed a couple of times hoping the overhang would not give way!). On the day prior to our climb we had met 2 English climbers in the hut, and one of them had warned me that "You would not want to trip up there". Now, his comment made perfect sense to me. After reaching the final ridge it did not take very long to get to the summit. We arrived there at 9:15am, so the whole ascent took us 2 hours and 45 minutes. We only stayed on the summit for 5 minutes as it was very windy and very cold. Enough time to chat briefly with a couple of climbers who were already there and pointed out the Matterhorn several km's away. We took pictures of each other with the Jungfrau in the background, and started our descent the same way we came up. Again we crossed a pair of climbers on a narrow section, but all went well. The trick is to in advance decide on who will make what sort of move, and then things go really smoothly. Once we arrived back at the rocky sections in the middle we had to wait for more and larger parties, but the weather was good, and we were in no hurry, so we simply enjoyed the beautifully sunny day, and the gorgeous sights. Again we bypassed the final bad rock downclimbing the snow and ice and returned to the hut by 11am.
In some sense, the normal route on the Monch has all the ingredients of a classic Alpine climb: scrambling on the scree below on the mountain, nicer rock climbing/scrambling higher up, mixed in with snowfield crossings, and finally a beautiful (but steep and very exposed!) summit ridge. All this is compactified in time, so it goes by very quickly. I guess that genuinely classic climbs in the Alps have the same ingredients, but are also considerably longer.
July 30, 2009: Jungfrau (4158m or 13642 ft) via the normal route, rated PD.
Again starting from the Monchsjochhutte at 4:30 am we walked back to the Jungfraujoch to the snowfield called the Jungfraufirn, crossing the glacier and reaching the first rocky section around the time of the first daylight. The sky was ominously cloudy, but not much later it cleared, and the day became very sunny, only to have a new cloud cover roll in later in the early afternoon not long before we finished. While still on the Jungfraufirn, I twisted my left ankle when I was trying to adjust my headlamp (so I could not see the tracks in front of me, stupid!), but it was not too bad and I could continue. The very first little rock section is steep, but not too hard to climb. Again, we passed a nice pluviometer. It is better to take off your crampons here. Then comes what is perhaps the hardest piece of rock climbing of the entire climb. It is grade II, and consists of some sort of wide gully. Once climbed, a fixed anchor is placed in the rock that I guess is used to help in downclimbing or rapelling this section (we descended via a different route, and frankly, I was not too unhappy about that). Here we were not completely sure which way the trail went. There were signs of a trail to the right, and also on the less visible left. It turned out that the left side was the way to go, around a protruding rock. From here on the rock climb is just a scramble, and pretty straightforward. Circumventing another protruding rock on the left we came across a plaque in the memory of a 25 year old climber who died in 1997 after falling in a crevasse which is visible some 100 meters below. This encounter made me a bit silent, but also more focused and determined to remain cautious, and to try to avoid unnecessary risks. I believe this spot was also more or less the place where about 10 years ago I aborted an attempt to climb the Jungfrau (with Niek and Steven, but starting from the Konkordiahutte lower down on the Aletsch glacier), although I cannot recall seeing this plaque then. Possibly it was not there yet, or perhaps the accident happened later? Oddly enough, we aborted our attempt then because we were trying to traverse a slightly steep snow section on the left, which at the time was in bad shape because it was late and the sun had begun melting the snow. However, there was no need to make this traverse, since the right route simply continues upward in the rock. In fact, as it turned out, these are the final parts of the entire rock section. We reached the top of it around 7:30 or 8:00 am, and took a little break (read: Sergei smoked a cigarette, and I filmed the evidence with my camcorder). Here we put on our crampons again and headed over a snow field towards the traverse that gives access to the short steep climb of perhaps 30m (after jumping a small crevasse!) towards the Rotalsattel. From far away (such as the Jungfraujoch), this traverse appears to be quite exposed, but in reality it is not that bad. We also had a nice trail ahead of us, made by climbers already higher up the mountain, and this certainly made things easier for us. Once on the Rotalsattel, the climb of the final pyramid begins. We met two couples on their way down. The first one was our Japanese friend Kenny whom we had met the day before. He is a guide from Chamonix and Grindelwald in the summers, and he was climbing with a client. He told me that the ascent was beautiful, but that it was a bit tricky because of the icy conditions that we would encounter soon. First there is a snowy section curving to the left, and from here on there will be alternating rock and snow sections all the way to the summit. Initially this part of the climb is rather steep, and was indeed quite icy as Kenny had told us. The steepness declines very gradually towards the summit, so the hardest part is situated at the beginning. Also, from here on, there is a sequence of metal stakes anchored in the rock every 20 to 40 m or so which can be used for belaying. We continued steadily and reached the summit without too much trouble around 9:15am. The entire climb to the summit had taken us 4h and 45min. Again it was very, very wind up there, and we did not stay longer than 2 minutes (unfortunately enough, we forgot to document the summit by taking pictures). The downclimb proceeded along the same mixed rock and snowy ridge, and sometimes we faced the snow using having to rely more heavily on our ice axe and crampons to get down. There was also some occasional sliding, but all in a controlled way by using straighforward self-arrests. We were delayed at the final steep rock section before reaching the Rotalsattel. First, there was an annoying French group of 3 just ahead of us whose leader (a guide??) had taken up all the space at one of the final stakes while I was descending a steep snow section facing the mountain. Because of that, I had to wait there, occasionally sliding down a bit, so that some snow would trickle down on monsieur's helmet. This made him shout to me "Do not fall on us!" He could have yelled "Should I make some room down here for you?", but he choose to say something else, which I thought was kind of rude, even though he had every right to be somewhat concerned. After this group had finally descended that final section, I could get to the stake and secure myself to it. After Sergei had joined me we decided that he would rappel down from this stake, but we made the mistake to do it in a rather unorthodox fashion, using a friction knot around the stake (rather than around the loop on the top of the stake), which buried itself in the snow at the bottom of the stake. Moreover, the rope that lead to Sergei on his way down got all tangled up, and he had to wait and climb up a few steps while I tried to untangle it, an effort which took up a lot of time (and some energy!). Meanwhile, a Russian guy who was with me at the stake, and who was still going up with his climbing partner, had to wait for this whole scene to unravel before his partner could climb towards us from the previous stake. He did so in a very gracious way, even helping me out to untangle the rope a bit, and I was thankful for that. I did not wait for his partner to join us, and climbed down facing the mountain as soon as Sergei was secure, but it was not a short nor straightforward stretch. We finally made it and headed towards the Rotalsattel where the steep 30m downclimb was waiting. Sergei built and anchor using my axe by clipping a carabiner through it and connecting one end of the rope to the carabiner. This way he could rappel down quickly. Then I tied in to the end of the rope and downclimbed it facing the Rotalsattel. In retrospect I wonder what use it was to tie in because if I had fallen, nothing could have helped me. The only reason is probably that I could not have fallen more than an additional rope length after reaching the bottom of the 30m rise. Regardless of the objective risk, it was a very enjoyable piece of climbing, although the quality of the snow had gotten worse because temperatures had risen significantly. At the bottom of the rise, the small crevasse was waiting but crossing it did not pose any trouble. We started to descend the traverse, but by now the sun was out in her full glory, and was melting the snow of the wall of the saddle next to us which had started to look a bit dangerous. In fact, some of the snow started to rain down on us -a mini-avalanche, so to speak- and we decided to hurry up to get out of harm's way. About 15min after starting the traverse we left the trail that we used to get up there, and headed left straight down towards the Jungfraujoch, hereby bypassing the entire rock section at the start of the climb. Although there was already a trail made by other people before us, the entire downclimb went over knee-deep snow in hot conditions, making it quite exhausting as time progressed (and water supplies started running low!) Still, we probably made up at least an hour, by choosing the direct descent route (btw, using this route to go up is strongly discouraged!), because on the normal route we would have had to rappel at least one section. The sights were gorgeous, but we did not enjoy this part of the climb very much because thirst and fatigue were setting in. I actually only found out how beautiful the panorama was after going over my pictures when we had finished our climb. There was however a fun encounter in the first third of the descent when we had to jump another crevasse. Also, we had to be careful to avoid more hidden crevasses, and we crossed at least one big one, which was covered only by a narrow snow bridge. It was actually located very near the Jungfraujoch. Now it made sense to me why near the Jungfraujoch -where hundreds of tourists wander around daily, most without any climbing gear- there are big signs recommending that to people stay on the main trail. This trail is made by the snowclearing bulldozers. In fact, early in the morning at the beginning of our climb we had seen some at work. Finally, we had to ascend a few meters (maybe a 100 or so?) to reach a little ski area on top of the Jungfraujoch. We got there around 12:30pm, changed our clothes, sorted our gear, bought ourselves a well-deserved fresh coke, and took the train back to Grindelwald at 2pm. The descent had taken us 3 hours and 15 min, and the entire climb took us 8 hours.
This climb is really a classic alpine experience with some easy rock climbing, glacier travel, crossing of snow fields, and mixed snow and rock climbing in somewhat icy conditions. I personally think that later in the season this might become a much more difficult climb when there is less snow, and more ice on the rocks high up the mountain. But all in all, it was a great experience, and one I would recommend to anybody who is considering to climb in the Alps.