Wednesday 31 August 2011

Salbitschijen W Ridge

With the good weather continuing over the Alps, Tom and I were keen to make the most of it and decided to head over the to Salbit area in Switzerland. This area is surprisingly unknown, although those in the know absolutely rave about it, and in particular the Salbitschijen (2,981m), which whilst modest in height is bristling with long ridges and immaculate granite faces

Once we arrived at the Salbit hut it was pretty easy to see what all the fuss is about. The mountains are low enough to be warm well into October, there are no glaciers so approaches are easy, and there is enough climbing to last a long, long time, all within easy reach of the hut.

Approaching the Salbitschijen, with the classic South Ridge forming the left skyline. The West ridge is behind this.

Without doubt the most sought after route on the mountain is the West Ridge (6a/A0, ED, 1000m), which is frankly a beast of a route. Although there is "only" 1000m of technical climbing (!), the route takes in 5 towers before finally reaching the summit, each of which requires abseils to get off. This makes the whole route a much bigger proposition than a face route of the same length as you have to also take into account the amount of time required to move from tower to tower whilst also climbing 35 pitches (of which about 12 would be HVS - E1, and another 10 would be VS). It seems worth it though, as it is an incredible route, described on one website as "...the most beautiful, longest and hardest ridge rock climb in the whole Alps. 35 pitches on 5 towers of perfect granite". 

Despite the clear length and difficulty of the route, we were confident that we could do the route in a day, and so carried on past the Salbit Hut and up to the Bivi hut which is literally 40 metres from the start of the West ridge. Although a great spot, there is no water at the bivi hut, so we carried up 6 litres each, which felt tough! The bivi hut is amazing, with really comfy beds and nice fleece blankets, and couldn't really be any closer to the ridge.

The newly installed bridge that leads to the bivi hut

Sunset from the hut

Looking up at the ridge from the hut. 

The next morning saw us climbing by 6.30 and making good time through the first pitch (thought to be the hardest on the whole route, but which fell to "combined tactics" - it was too early for free climbing ethics). On the second pitch however, I ran it out about 15 metres, clipped a bolt and then carried on legging it upwards, only to suddenly find myself airborne. I'm not quite sure what happened but I was climbing a layback that would be about english VS, didn't place my foot carefully enough and promptly fell off. I managed to shred a load of skin off the tops of the fingers on my right hand, bruise my backside and scrape both elbows pretty thoroughly, but was otherwise ok. I quickly got back on and finished the pitch and eventually managed to stop the bleeding out of my fingers with a bit of sock and a load of climbing tape. Lesson learned though - respect the climbing even if it is well within your grade. I paid the price for my mistake for the rest of the route when Tom got to lead anything that looked like you might need to crimp, and I had to second as best I could, mainly with one hand and sometimes with 2, which resulted in plenty of yelps whenever I caught my bad hand. I did manage to lead some of the more juggy, steep pitches though, so all was not lost for me, and Tom was chuffed to bits with getting to choose his leads! "This incredible layback pitch on perfect granite looks like it will definitely require some crimping, I better lead it." 

Anyway, the rest of the first tower went smoothly but the second was a bit of a nightmare. We got down to the bottom of it (tower 2) only to realise that our guidebook was still on top of the first tower, and then we got lost on probably the easiest bit of route finding on the whole ridge, and lost over an hour as a result. We also got a rope completely stuck when abbing off tower 2, so the whole thing was a bit of a nightmare! By this stage we knew that the chances of doing the ridge in a day were virtually gone, but pushed on to see what would happen, as the climbing and the rock is of such incredibly quality that we were having too much fun just to give up.

Looking up at Tower 2. The route takes the obvious splitter crack just right of the left hand arete.

The third and fourth towers both went well but by the time we got to the foot of the fifth tower it was gone 7pm, but we decided that we'd both rather sit out a cold night and finish the route than to bail. As it turned out we found an awesome bivi site under a massive boulder, and even found a space blanket under a rock - result! We also had the Jetboil with us from our night in the bivi hut, and there was a snow patch nearby so we were able to melt snow and keep hydrated. All in all, it was about as civilised as unplanned bivis go, and we managed to get a bit of sleep even without sleeping bags, before getting up at 5am to melt snow and get away at first light.

Sunset from the bivi

7 am plus rock climbing = cold hands. Not a bad view though.

The higher we climbed the more relieved we were that we had stopped where we did as there were no sites as good as the one we'd found, and none with space blankets included! The route finding on the final 2 towers was not that easy and took quite a bit of faffing with short abseils and awkward traverses, so we would never have made the summit in daylight anyway. The quality of the climbing gets even better towards the end, and the final pitches to the summit are incredible. The 6a/A0 pitch is amazing in the top half but bold, as layback moves up the Arete lead you ever further from the bolts in an incredible position. The final tough pitch (the last pitch of 5c) is up the Arete, no matter how much I wanted it not to be, and is equally amazing but a bit gripping after a long route! Luckily there is only one spicy move, but it felt tough enough at the time with only a cam behind a wobbly flake between me and a factor 2 fall. 

Tom leading on tower 5.

Self portrait near the summit with the W ridge behind.

Tom high on the 6a/A0 pitch.

The final pitch to the very top of the mountain is basically an easy solo (graded 4+ but with only a single peg after 2 metres serving as the only runner in 15 metres), and then the summit is amazing. About a metre square, with views of all the 3 classic ridges of the mountain and huge drops all around, it is definitely how a summit should be. 

Looking down the West Ridge from the summit.

Tired but happy on top.

Ab off the summit

After snapping a few shots we quickly abbed off the top and then walked down to the hut, scoffed a load of soup and sausage, and then carried on down to the car and a 3 hour drive back to Cham.

The South ridge seen from the Salbit hut

Amazing views across to the Finsteraarhorn on the drive back to Cham

Despite a grim night for both of us and a smashed hand for me, we both agreed that the ridge was the best rock climb either of us had ever done. Perfect granite, an incredible line, consistent and sustained climbing, and an amazing summit. I cannot recommend this route highly enough, but if you are going for the onsight in a day, you better be quick!

I took my headcam on the route so there is a video on the way, including onboard footage of my fall....!