S: My Alpine Years 1953-55
FC: MY ALPINE SUMMITS 1953 - 1955 by Les Miller
1: My ALPINE Summits or Alpine summits wot I have stood on by Les Miller. | 1955 The Pennine Alps Zermatt | 1953 The Otztal Alps Austria 1954 The Bernina Alps Pontresina
2: TWO WEEKS IN THE OTZTAL ALPS. 1953
3: The People - the guides and the climbers. There was eleven of us on this trip, ages from 19 to 50, all with some hill-walking experience. Our two guides were Rudl (top) and Sep (from Joseph). Rudl was a happy man, doing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. The mountains were his home and he loved them. Halfway up the steep ice ridge of the Brochkogel we paused, waiting for Sep's rope to move on, and I asked Rudl - as it was Sunday - if he was Catholic. He nodded, then shrugged, and with a sweep of his arm round the panorama of mountains and glaciers, said "This is my Church!" He was a man already in his heaven .
4: The Otztal Alps | For my first 2-week holiday in the Alps, I chose an "ice-climbing" course, based in the Otztal Alps of Austria. I felt I needed some professional guidance in using an ice-axe and crampons, and that is what they provided as soon as we arrived at our base. We consisted of a group of 11 keen hill-walkers who wanted to do a bit better. Our home for the first week was the Taschachaus, a mountain hut at a height of 7,980ft, overlooking the Taschach Glacier with its two icefalls. Where better to practice using an ice-axe and crampons. | The view from the hut, the two ice-falls.
5: Rudl demonstrates some step-cutting in ice. | Adrian tests his crampons on steep ice.
7: HINTER OLGRUBENSPITZE 10,700ft | Heading across the Sexegerten Glacier to our peak (in the centre).
8: Summit of OlgrubenSpitze, with Bob gazing at the Wildspitze, highest in the Otztal. | Rudl leads his rope up the North ridge. | The North ridge - our route to the summit.
9: The Descent...! | From the summit, our guides opted for the East ridge, an easy descent to its lowest point. We peered over the edge to see a steep snow slope down to the glacier, but the first twenty feet was vertical. Two spurs of rock plunged down on either side of the gully, and Seppy cautiously picked his way down. He then crossed below the vertical snow, to wait for the rest of us. Rudl fixed a rope at the top and let it hang down between the rock and the snow. One by one we clipped on to the rope and lowered ourselves down to join Seppy, who had placed himself firmly seated in the snow, and told us to sit behind him in a line, holding the straps of the rucsack of the guy in front. We sat waiting instructions from Seppy, but when one man flung himself on to the line ....
10: WE were OFF - in a glorious flurry of snow we shot off down the slope, each member hanging on for dear life to the man in front, and it was TERRIFIC! In a matter of seconds we went down 300 ft. Then Seppy braked by pushing his heels down into the snow, he slowed down, we didn't and the whole toboggan slewed round and broke up, and in a turmoil of arms, legs, ice-axes and crampons, we skidded to a stop in an amazing variety of postures | When we picked ourselves up, and dusted ourselves down, we found we had one casuality - Bob Forrest had sprained his knee, and could only hobble along. We made it back to the hut, but poor Bob was out of action for the rest of the holiday.
11: The WILDSPITZE 12,382ft | The highest of the Otztal peaks
12: The approach is a long slog up the glacier and then across the snow-field, then a swing to the left to get up towards the NW ridge. We were exhausted, and were about to tackle the NW ridge, a steep, narrow crest of ice, with precipitous drops on both sides.
14: Seppy's rope arrive at the top of the ridge | Rudl's words as we reached the bottom of the ridge : "When you fall, fall to the right not to the left."
15: The BLIGG SPITZE 11,250ft
16: Heading for the couloir to the top. | A distant view to Piz Palu rekindles my desire to climb it - next year. | The Taschach Glacier from the Bligg Spitze
17: A grandstand view of our first climb - Olgrubenspitze (centre)
18: Our most difficult day, that narrow crest of ice. | The tour begins. The Brochkogel 11,890ft
19: Three summit photos, plus one of the gully we came down.
20: SIMILAUN 11,907ft | Our ascent was up the gently sloping ridge on right.
21: Our easiest ascent of our course. | On the treck to the Similaun hut we met a party of French troops coming down with donkeys. The track was narrow, as I stood to the outside my rucksack caught in one of the saddles and I was pulled along backwards, perilously near the edge and a long drop.
22: The Fluchtkogel 11,430ft | Looking back to the Fluchtkogel on our descent.
23: Fluchtkogel (L of centre), our last peak. | With this being our last peak, we spent the night at the Gepatsch hut, then headed back to the Taschachaus, passing our first peak the Olgruben Spitze (see pic opposite) After a riotous night in the hut with Rudl on his guitar, we left the hut in the morning and set trail for home. Without doubt, one of the best holidays of my life.
24: TWO WEEKS IN THE BERNINA ALPS based at Pontresina 1954 | I still had my sights set on doing Piz Palu, but couldn't find any organised climbing holidays, so I contacted the Pontresina tourist office. To my delight the guides in Pontresina were offering to take groups of three up some of their high mountains, and to my even greater delight, Piz Palu was on the list. I immediately made my travel arrangements and booked myself into a "pension" (Guesthouse) Pension Kreis Felix. | I arrived in Pontresina on Sunday, and quickly discovered that Piz Palu was on the agenda for Friday. On Monday I went to the guides office and booked for Piz Palu, and also a rock-climbing day on the Wednesday on twin peaks called Las Sours.
25: Piz Languard 10,700ft
26: On the way up, sunshine on my first sight of Piz Palu | From the summit a grey birds-eye view of the Morteratsch Glacier. | Descent straight down then left over the snow
27: Las Sours 9,767ft
28: We had two ropes of three plus the guides Las Sours are twin peaks with a 200ft drop between them. I enjoyed doing them enough to book again for the following week!
30: PIZ PALU at last! 12,808ft
31: The rendezvous for the climb was the Diavolezza Hut, and I had been there on Tuesday on a guided walk, which took us up by a path and back over the two glaciers, Pers and Morteratsch. I found it easy enough to feel I could reverse it, back up to the Diavloezza Hut on my own. I set off at 10.0am Thursday..
32: The Pers icefall from the Morteratsch Glacier. | Route round the Icefall
33: The Diavolezza Hut at 9795ft altitude
34: 4.30 am and first light of dawn on Piz Palu | Route goes up left gully to skyline, then follows crest over three buttresses.
35: Heading up the gully to the crest, left of first summit. | View to East from top of gully
36: Back down to the Pers Glacier | Moving up to top of first peak | From first top across to the main summit.
37: Climbing the narrow ridge to the main summit
38: Piz Morteratsch 12,300ft
39: Piz Palu seen from Piz Morteratsch | Piz Roseg from summit of Piz Morteratsch | At this point on the descent we paused while I took this photo. I had just put the camera away when there was a loud crack like a gunshot, continuing as a rumbling roar, and a huge mass of snow broke off from the mountain about 100 yards to our right. The avalanche plummeted down the steep slope below us, generating a huge cloud of snow behind it. It all happened so fast there was just no chance to get a photograph.
40: Piz Bernina 13,280ft | First morning light on Piz Bernina.
41: Luigi pauses at the top of the Morteratsch glacier | View S into Italy. | View E to Piz Cambrena
42: First sight of the Sudgrat ridge, a bit worrying... | ...especially when I see the width of the ridge.
43: The Sudgrat ridge leading DOWN from the summit | The Sudgrat ridge leading UP to the summit.
44: A guide making his way to the top from North
45: Liugi on the summit of Piz Bernina | Luigi takes a photo of me on the top | Luigi on the summit of Piz Bernina
46: It's clouding over - and it's getting rather crowded... | The crowd of two arrive, so we get down out of here.
47: And so ends a great two-week holiday.
48: TWO WEEKS IN THE PENNINE ALPS at Zermatt 1955 | With Piz Palu behind me, my new target was the Matterhorn, so Zermatt was my next destination. I found a walking holiday run by the CHA group, based at a hotel in Zermatt, so I booked into that. The group of 16 travelled by rail to Zermatt where we were met by the CHA representative, and taken to our hotel - "Hotel de la Poste" in the main street. As soon as I got out of the hotel, I took a walk up the street, turned a corner, and was stopped in my tracks. I saw the Matterhorn, and it staggered me! It was so much bigger than I had expected, and more imposing. I had made arrangements through the UK's Alpine Club to meet another climber, Dr. Carrell) who was also aiming to do the Matterhorn.. When we met he introduced me to his guide, Josef Biner who advised us that all big climbs were ruled out for the present so we needed to wait for a break in the weather. Doc Carrell suggested a break-in walk to the Gornergrat (a 5000ft ascent) which we did on the Monday. On Wednesday some of the Hotel group were going rock-climbing on the Riffelhorn with the C.H.A's own elderly guide, Adolf, so I joined them.
49: The Riffelhorn 9,603ft | South face of the Riffelhorn, seen end-on
50: Riffelhorn's North face, done with Adolf, the CHA guide. A pleasant climb but not terribly challenging. | The Riffelhorn with Adolf
51: The Riffelhorn with Joseph | The Riffelhorn on left, with Gorner Glacier | Riffelhorn's South face, seen end-on | A totally different experience.
52: This was Josefs way of assessing if I was capable of doing the Matterhorn, three tricky rock climbs on this very exposed face. These were the Telmemetre Couloir, the Glacier Corner, and the Glacier Couloir. The length of each climb was about 600ft, but the mountain fell way for a further 900ft beneath the start of the climb. The first two went fine, but my arms were getting tired. Just below the top was a tricky move where the rock bulged out, with one good handhold and two good footholds, but the next handhold was over the bulge and not visible - you had to lunge at it and hope you got it. Three times I missed it, and was held by Josefon the rope. My left hand was giving way each time, so I asked for a few minutes rest then tried again. Confident now that Josef could hold me, I literally flung myself up over the bulge and managed to get a grip on the handhold. All was well.
53: The METTELHORN 11,175ft | The white peak is the Weisshorn, the dark grey one is the Mettelhorn.
54: Moving up the Trift gorge, with OberGabelhorn and Wellenkupe in front | Continuing up the plateau, towards the snow col
55: A break in the clouds reveals the Matterhorn
56: The Weisshorn
57: The summit tower of the Mettelhorn. | On the summit.
58: Looking back down, with Matterhorn, capped. | Heading back down
59: The Furghorn 11,454ft | View along the Furggrat to the capped Breithorn
60: A glacier pool, created by a stone revolving | We spent the night at the Gandegg Hut. | Making our way along the Furggrat ridge.
61: The MATTERHORN | 14,684FT | The Matterhorn from the Gandegg Hut.
62: Roof | Fixed ropes | Shoulder | Hornli Hut | Solvay Hut
63: We were under way again by 8.0am The day was bright with some low-lying clouds, and we were soon crossing a steep snow-slope, then climbing a snow-filled gully to get on the ridge proper. The climbing here was fairly easy, and we spent most of the time to the left of the ridge, on the East face. Some distance below the Solvay Hut we passed four people descending. They obviously had not had time to reach the summit and back, so when Josef had spoken to them I asked him what happened. Apparently they had got caught on the summit the previous day in a thunder-storm, and had taken ten hours to descend to the Solvay Hut where they had spent the night. Josef, of course, had also been up the mountain the previous day, and had left the Hut at the same time as these people, but had got his party to the top and back down before the bad weather struck. Approaching the Solvay Hut the climbing got steeper. We tackled some short but steep pitches in succession, and then found ourselves at the Hut. This Hut is merely a refuge, a single room with bunks, blankets and a table, no food or fuel, but primarily for emergency use. It is perched very airily on a platform of rock, just big enough to hold it. It was 10.0am and we stopped for five minutes and then continued. The climbing was now distinctly steeper, although there were good holds. Our exposure (or airy-ness) was also increasing, and below us to our left the East Face fell in one huge sweep for over 3000ft to the glacier. Cloud drifted round the Zinal Rothorn and the Weisshorn, and occasionally we were enveloped in it ourselves. Continues next page. | Josef was waiting for me at the Hornli Hut, and at 8.0pm I crawled into my bunk. At 3.0 am I was up again, and outside everything was dark. A group of quides and clients were clustered, gazing into the darkness that surrounded the peak. I asked Josef what he thought, could we try it, and he said if I wanted to we could. Chances of success - not great, possible but not probable. Had anyone else set off - yes, three ropes. OK, let's make it four ropes. At 4.0am we left the hut, roped, and there was a flash of lightning and a dull rumble. A few minutes later and we passed a lightning rod stuck in the rocks It was crackling fiercely. There was a more vivid flash and we dashed towards the ridge, scrambled up a short distance and ducked under a large over-hanging rock. "We'll wait here", said Josef. The storm rose to a crescendo, then moved on to the Monte Rosa group, and I was beginning to sigh with relief when the snow started. I was not wearing a pullover, just vest shirt and anorak, but did not feel cold. Presently Josef stood up and said he'd see what it was like, so I followed him as we started to climb over the next bit. The snow had stopped, but the snow covering made the rocks extremely slippery. We stopped, Josef shook his head and said "Unless the sun comes out today, it will not be climbed". When would we know whether it was going to be sunny? Not for at least an hour. We decided it would be wiser to return to the Hut. Even the short distance we had ascended, proved quite tricky to get down, and we were back in the Hut by 5.0 am. | FIRST ATTEMPT | THE ASCENT
64: Continues from previous page. We climbed on, and it was now nearly all "finger and toe" work, and then we arrived at the bottom of the big snow-slope below the Shoulder. Here we put on crampons, and no mean feat that was, standing on steep snow, with a glacier over 3000ft below, lifting one leg and bending down to buckle crampons on! This is a permanent snow-slope, and not just the result of bad weather. It stretches for about 150ft up to the Shoulder, and has three iron spikes with rings on the top, to provide belays for the rope. Josef told me to wait, and then climbed up the slope till he reached the first ring. Looping the rope round this, he called me to follow. It was quite easy, the snow being crisp and firm, the crampons biting well underneath. I reached the ring, and wrapped the rope round it as he continued, and in this way we made our way up to the crest of the Shoulder. And an awesome sight it was. The Hornli Ridge runs up as a distinct ridge to the top of the Shoulder, and then it runs almost level into the face of the mountain. From here it almost ceases to be a ridge, as the rest of the climb is completed on the North face of the mountain. The Shoulder then is really the level bit of the ridge that juts out from below the summit pyramid. It is quite narrow and broken , and falls steeply on the left down the East Face, and seemingly almost vertically on the right down the North Face. It is quite an airy place. | Ropes | Hornli Ridge | Start of Roof | Shoulder
65: My biggest worry at the moment (and for some time past) was the thought of the descent. Looking back down the snow-slope, it seemed to plunge vertically towards the glacier. A short scramble along the crest of the ridge took us to the first fixed ropes. Although we were now off the snow, we kept our crampons on as we would require them for the Roof. A short scramble took us to the first fixed rope, a thick manilla rope, fixed at the top to a spike and ring, and allowed to hang loosely down the rocks. The ropes are used purely as handholds, gripping them with one hand, and climbing with your feet as usual. They cover a height of about 400 feet in maybe 8 or 10 lengths They do not hang end to end but have easier unroped pitches in between. Josef would go up first, then twisting our own rope round the piton, he would summon me to follow. At the piton, I would belay him until he reached the foot of the next rope, and so it went on. We were now climbing on the North Face side of the ridge (although it was now hardly a ridge, but merely the junction between the faces) on the steepest and most exposed part of the climb. Directly below us was the Matterhorn Glacier. The strain of four hours rock-climbing was beginning to tell, and the pace was quite unrelenting. Rope after rope, pitch after pitch, we didn't seem to be getting any higher, and the mountain loomed perpetually upwards. Then suddenly there were no more ropes. The slope eased off slightly (but only slightly) and rock was replaced with snow. We were at the foot of the Roof. Josef grunted "Nearly there". The snow was still quite steep, and step by step I followed Josef up, the slope eased off some more and suddenly there was one last mound of snow in front of us. A few more steps - and we stood on the summit. | The Roof
66: Matterhorn's summit ridge.
67: The time was 12.15 and we had taken four and a quarter hours (average in normal conditions is 5 hours) The view was very poor owing to the weather, and Josef was in a hurry to get back down because he could see the a large crowd of climbers on the Shoulder. His reasoning was that snow-steps remain solid and unbroken as people ascend, but, as soon as people start going down them, the steps get hacked to pieces and much more difficult to negotiate. Obviously the fewer people who descended in front of us the better. Also the weather looked ominous. The descent of the Roof was not as bad as it looked. The worst part is that you are looking straight down to the glacier, 4000ft below. The steep snow-slope of the Roof drops down towards it, then plunges out of sight over the steeper rocks where the ropes are fixed. It is rather disconcerting descending a snow-slope which disappears over steeper rocks for a 4000 foot drop. Going down the ropes, Tarzan tactics were adopted. The technique is not to give way to anyone coming up, you just charge on relentlessly downwards. The strain on my arms was beginning to tell and I was thankful to reach the Shoulder. On the descent, of course, I was in front with Joseph calling directions to me if I wasn't sure which way to go. We charged down past the Solvay Hut, negotiated the few steep pitches below the hut, and at 3.40 we passed the over-hanging rock we had sat under 11 hours ago, and at quarter to four we dropped our rucsacks in front of the Hornli Hut. We had done the Matterhorn. | The DESCENT | Josef at the summit | Me - on cloud nine. | Josef on the summit.
68: Preparing for the descent.
71: Thus ended my Alpine Years. The following year I married Norma, my wife for 56 years, and have always regarded that as my best achievement. She came to the Alps with me on several occasions and we did some good walks in high places.
72: POSTSCRIPT Thirty-five years later (1988) on a return visit to Zermatt with Norma, I decided to have another go at the Mettelhorn. On the way up I found myself alternating with a German walker, I would pass him, then he would pass me. He was in front as we approached the col that leads to the summit, and, when he turned up the ridge, I followed without thinking. As soon as we reached the summit, I felt there was something wrong. I thought hard about my previous visit, in particular the zig-zag track up the summit tower. I looked all around, noticed another peak alongside ours, and the penny dropped. "This is the wrong peak", I said, "this is not the Mettelhorn, that's it over there." He said the equivalent of "Oh shit" in German, "How do we get there?". I explained we had to go back to the col and cross the snowfield that leads to the tower, and with a quick "Danke" he was off. I stayed to eat my lunch, debating whether to follow him, and decided against it. I had already climbed 6000ft today and unwittingly climbed a different peak. My 35-year old tick against the Mettelhorn would remain, so what's the point? I made my way back to Zermatt. The repeat ascent is shown on the following pages.
73: PLATTHORN (not the Mettelhorn) 10,975ft | No, sorry , it's not the big white one, nor the black one in front on right, that's the Mettelhorn, It's the smaller one, beside it.
74: My companion on this ascent turned out to be a marmot, who insisted on leading from the front. But he didn't have the tenacity required for climbing mountains, so he veered off into the long grass. | The walker in front replaced the marmot, although we didn't meet until we reached the summit.
75: The mountain is the Wellenkuppe, also seen on the previous page at the top of the Trift Valley.
76: Gabelhorn Glacier, with the Ober-Gabelhorn at back. | Our target the Mettelhorn, with the Platthorn in front of it. | The snowfield I should have crossed is behind the skyline - instead I followed the German up the ridge to the right.
77: The summit tower of the Mettelhorn, seen from the Platthorn | A very non-white Weisshorn, seen across the snowfield we should have crossed.
78: Time to go back, the Matterhorn is clouding over.
79: A fortunate shot, as Ibex are very shy. But he kindly popped out to see me off.