The AGP In The 1970s – Part 2

Ed Bramley was part of the original Alpine Glacier Project Expeditions. Here he shares memories and images from the 1975 and 1976 seasons.

If you haven’t read Part 1 of the AGP In The 1970s, you can do so here.

For those of us who like mountaineering, there are probably few places in Europe you could be better based.  At the end of the glacier was the highest peak in Switzerland, the Dufourspitze, down the valley was the highest mountain solely in Switzerland, the Dom, and out of site from the base camp, but presiding over the glacier itself was the Matterhorn.  Being on the glacier meant we were both acclimatised to the altitude and we were fit, and we could watch the weather building.

So one evening, when all the signs were good, my friend Mike and I set out for the Monte Rosa hut, a few kilometres distant from the base camp, with the aim of climbing the Dufourspitze the next day.  In those days, the hut was only a short distance above the glacier, and there was also a route across to the path up to the Riffelhorn.  These days, there’s a good 20 metres or more of ladder to descend to get onto the glacier, and the Gorner See, which used to be so prominent, has now all but vanished.  But I digress.

Above the clouds, 1976

We couldn’t afford to stay overnight in huts in those days, so we had brought our sleeping bags, and found a sheltered spot not too far away from the hut where we could get a kip.  From the hut, it’s both a long way in distance and height (over 1,600m) to the summit, so a very early start is needed.  We’d only got a few bits of sustenance we’d brought with us, so we had the advantage of not joining the breakfast queue before making our move off in the darkness.

Ascent, 1976

The immediate track from the hut is wide and well-marked with the tracks from previous days climbers, which is just as well, because at that time of the night you can only see the immediate surroundings in your torch beam.  But the stars are out, and they seem to cover everywhere.  Not just the odd one or two, but a whole sky full, complete with the dusting that is the milky way.  And from time to time, a shooting star adds to the scene.  It’s cold, but it’s not cold.  You can feel that the air around you is cold, and it makes itself felt on exposed extremities and as you breathe, but you’re not cold inside, provided you’re moving.

Slowly we ascend, and slowly the dawn comes.  The merest hint of mountains separating from sky at first, until the morning alpenglow begins.  Still largely monochrome, pinks start to suffuse into the palette, and we can see the scenery unfolding around us.  We’re well over 4,000 metres now, and the altitude is slowing our pace, but not desperately so.  Before long, we’re leaving the wide expanse of the slopes and heading up to the summit ridge, as the morning light breaks around us.  Back down the valley, the Matterhorn is standing there dominant over the glacier and Zermatt.

Summit Ridge, 1976

The summit ridge is not long, but is made up of rocky outcrops, a bit like Striding Edge with attitude.  We decide to leave our ice-axes securely in a smally gully at the start of the ridge and venture out across the rocks in our crampons.  The moves are not difficult, but it’s not a place to get it wrong, particularly as we’re climbing un-roped.  All too soon we’re at the summit itself, and a glorious view greets us.  Whilst Switzerland is bathed in morning light, Italy, on the other side of the ridge, is a sea of cloud.  Overhead, the high level clouds are still yellow and pink.  It’s only 8:30 in the morning and we’re on the top of Switzerland!  There are only three other people up there with us; two Iranians and their guide, and we’re all grinning like mad.

DNC and Ed, Summiting the Breithorn in 1976

Back now along the summit ridge.  We pass a group of four Frenchmen roped together, moving one at a time.  We virtually run past them in the opposite direction – mad Englishmen.  The descent to the valley is straightforward and largely uneventful.  Apart from when we catch up with two Germans who had been up to the summit first today.  They had managed to find one of the few crevasses on the route, and one was still busy extricating his shoulders out of the hole.  Note to self – think about roping up in future.

All to quickly we’re back at the hut, and it’s a bottle of Apfelsaft each to celebrate.  How that slakes the thirst.  We lie outside, with our kit drying in the morning sun, chasing off the occasional over-inquisitive marmot from diving into our sacks.  Presently, an American lady and her daughter crest the slope and come across to us.  In their distinct accents, they exchange pleasantries and then let us know that they’ve made the long journey from the top of the Gornergrat railway to the hut, that morning.  ‘And what’ve you guys done’, inquires the lady, looking down at two half-dressed individuals lounging on the rocks.  ‘Oh, us… We’ve just been up there today’, I say, pointing at the roof of Switzerland.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.