Kandersteg, nestled under jagged Alpine summits in the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of the best ice climbing in the Alps. Dreamt up by Alvaro and I, by the time the 2010 New Year’s ice climbing extravaganza rolled around we had more than 15 people hailing from Switzerland, Germany, Colombia, France and the U.S. coming along. Klemens, got stuck with making the arrangements. Funny thing was that Klemens had never met Alvaro or I… this trip could have turned into an epic disaster.
Thankfully, Klemens was a relaxed and very capable CERN physicist who was also able to decipher how many people would be showing up and where that many people could go. He found a great base at the Kandersteg International Scout Center, with a room that could fit more than our 15, complete with a kitchen to cook in at the affordable rate of 23 CHF per night… it doesn’t get better.
The ice climbing was spectacular. We started with some easy one pitch stuff and top ropes in the Stock area just below the top of the Sunnbuël lift. After two days of hard top roping and getting acquainted with the world of ice again I was in the mood for something a little longer.
The next morning, with my novice but incredibly resilient childhood friend Nikolai, I headed to the Oeschinenwald climbing area. More accessible than Stock, the falls along the ski slope coming from the Oeschinensee (a beautiful mountain lake) has many multi-pitch ice climbs. With only one set of tools between us we had to pick a route that I could set anchors on then lower the tools back down for Nikolai to use. This technique is a terrible idea; it should be problematic simply by the nature of lowering axes down a frozen waterfall. After three hard pitches and 120 meters of grade IV ice we made it to the top and had time to throw a top rope over a dangerously appealing 20m pillar near the top of our climb. The day was clear, the climbing hard and scary, all in all a great finish for Nik’s first ice climbing trip that would end the next morning as he headed back to the U.S.
Here is where we come to the beginning of a sequence of events that culminated in a few rules that should always be applied to climbing if not life.
1) Mind the sequence of events
2) Don’t be a jerk
3) Don’t scream if you don’t want help
Nikolai and I were tired, the day was turning to dusk and it was time to go down. We made several uneventful rappels. Just before the last 60m rappel I made my way across a small but steep, snow-covered, ravine and planted my ice tool in the frozen ground while Nikolai made his way down to me across easier ground. Throwing the ropes just as the sun set I made my way down over the edge and began descending. As I went I saw a group of five or six climbers who were just getting started. I yelled down as I threw the rope over a second balcony. “Rope, ziel.”
The climbers yelled from below, “Your ropes aren’t touching.”
“OK. Thanks.” I continued sliding down my ropes and underneath a massive icicle to where I could see a large knot in my rope. After fixing a prusik knot to my rope, freeing my hands, and working out the most unholy knot I have yet come across I finally got to the ground. I felt relieved and tired as the dark, cold night settled around us. Yelling up to Nikolai, who had no idea why everything had taken so long, I said, “Ropes free.” Then made my way over to the other group of climbers to introduce myself.
“Hey, my name is Dan. Where you guys from?”
“Half of us are German, the other half English.”
The group had set two top ropes on the first pitch of ice Nikolai and I had gone up. Nikolai descended and we made to leave. As I packed up I realized I was an ice axe short. I had left one of my trusty Black Diamond Vipers next to the rappel station. Nikolai had been freezing when I finally got the knot out and freed the rope and he’d been focused on getting down. It was dark as asphalt now and we were spent. No problem. I had retrieved a guys ice tool two days before in a similar situation… surely these guys would do the same. Climbers help each other out.
“Hey fellas, do you think you could do me a favor. I left an ice tool above the first pitch and would really appreciate it if you grabbed it for me.”
“We can try, where is it?” I explained and asked where they were staying. It couldn’t have been easier. They too had a room at the Scout Center and were using the ‘yellow’ kitchen.
“Great, we’ll stop by your kitchen later tonight. Thanks.”
That night the yellow kitchen group showed up empty-handed but said they would go back to the same fall in the morning. I started to get an uneasy feeling and debated going back but instead drew Alvaro and Adrien, part of our group, a detailed map and told them they would enjoy the climb. Surely one of the two groups could get the axe.
The next morning I took Nik to Bern to catch his train. Hoping Alvaro and Adrien would get the axe I took a rest and explored Bern. That night, Alvaro showed up empty-handed. Adrien had hurt his knee on the approach, they had moved slowly and the axe was not there when they arrived above the first pitch. I wondered over to the yellow kitchen.
“Sorry man, we didn’t climb there. There was another group already on it.”
“OK, well if you come across someone who found it please let me know.”
I went back to my green kitchen feeling dejected and angry with myself. What a dumb mistake. I made plans to go there the next morning with Marieke. Alvaro, also made plans to climb there with another from our group. Sylvie, a sweet rock climber with a cute French accent. Marieke and I would walk around the first ice band and wait for Alvaro and Sylvie to climb up to us on my ropes, then the four of us would climb the rest together (with my found axe).
By now, several alarms should have gone off in my rational mind. For one thing, the ice tool probably wasn’t there anymore. Secondly, the yellow kitchen crew had started climbing at sunset, this is not safe let alone pleasant on ice; they weren’t legit. Third, what would I do if I didn’t find the missing axe?
The next morning we set off early. By mid-morning Marieke and I had sourly discovered the ice tool was not where I had left it. We had no choice but to descend. We passed one Italian couple who decided to have a domestic dispute on the side of the ice cliff… bad energy today. Further down I passed another climber on the same climb. His name was Igor and he made a mistake.
As I came to a small ledge to set an anchor before freeing myself I could see across to him and told him, “Nice climbing.”
“Thanks. How is it ahead?”
“Nothing to worry about, you are through the difficult stuff till the next pitch.”
“My name is Dan. Hey, I left an ice tool up here two days ago. Can you keep an eye out for it?”
Igor answered, “Oh, you’re the American guy who left his axe here. Yeah my friends found it. They have it in our hotel.”
Great, what a relief. “Seriously, where are you staying?” I asked with great naïvety.
“We are staying in the Scout Center. We have the yellow kitchen.”
Whoa, the gears turned. He was part of the yellow kitchen crew. Those guys did find my axe. “Great, thanks I’ll come get it tonight.”
Next along the traffic jam that was this ice climb, I came to Rachel, Igor’s partner, Alvaro and Sylvie all piled on top of each other on the same micro ice ledge. Rachel was attempting to start climbing but had too much slack in her rope.
With the cry of a little mouse Rachel whispered, “Igor, take.”
Igor and Rachel were on double ropes and one rope was tight while the other hung loosely below her gloved hand. Did this guy know how to use doubles? I yelled up for her. “Igor slack on red. Take!” Finally the ropes both tightened and Rachel picked her way up the ice fall. Whispering sweet nothings up to Igor to ‘communicate’ her needs.
Alvaro and I exchanged some words. I silently hoped he would decide to come down and set top ropes with me so we could all share his and Sylvie’s ice tools. Unfortunately, his heart was on the climb. Marieke joined me at the anchor I had established and could feel the burning I had buried under my Gortex. I told her about Igor’s friends who had my ice tool. Marieke, the ever positive, sensed what I thought and said, “Maybe they found it and didn’t tell each other. You probably just talked to the wrong guy.”
Mad with the yellow kitchen crew and frustrated that Alvaro couldn’t see my predicament (not being able to climb) I grunted and made myself ready for the next rappel. Ice climbing is inherently dangerous. Ice breaks and flies, it’s cold and wet and you are flailing around with sharp instruments; you need to have some sense. Unfortunately, the Italian couple had apparently finished their argument and decided to throw their ropes at that very instant. It sailed down the fall and nearly hit all of us. I was about to lose it.
The day passed as I undulated between anger, resignation and finally calm. Climbing with another friend’s axe burned away some of my confusion and resentment as I hacked my way up the ice with no thought for form. After dark, Alvaro and Sylvie still had not come down. Marieke and I packed up our stuff and decided to make our way to the car, we were their ride but we didn’t need to wait at the ice fall any longer. Shitty day, but at least I knew where my ice tool was.
Halfway to the car we stopped dead in our tracks. A shrill scream had pierced the moonless night. Marieke tentatively asked, “Did you hear that?” Just as an unmistakable scream shattered the air around us again.
“Oh shit. That doesn’t sound good.” It was a woman screaming high up on the ice cliff.
We listened to make out what was going on. Blood curdling screams made the hair on my neck stand on end. Screaming, “I can’t. I can’t!”
We heard Alvaro’s voice. It was unmistakable. He was too far to understand but we knew he was talking. Was Sylvie hurt? We had to go back.
We turned on our heels and pounded back up the trail through the otherwise serene, snow-covered pine forest. Fifteen minutes later we arrived. Four of our friends were still there. They had packed up hoping Alvaro and Sylvie would reach them before they left when they too had been frozen by the shrill screams much too high up the cliff for this late in the day.
Within minutes the six of us at the base of the frozen waterfall made a decision as a group. Something had happened. Gus and Maty were experienced climbers and had both done some rescue work. Unfortunately it was difficult for us to communicate as they spoke French and I decidedly did not. Maty would lead up the first pitch, fix a rope and continue up on a second rope. Gus meanwhile got the Kandersteg rescue team on the phone and filled them in. They sent a team to figure out if we needed a helicopter. In the meantime, we had looked through Sylvie and Alvaro’s packs. Sylvie had left her extra warm jacket and thermos and didn’t have a headlamp. Alvaro had left his headlamp.
Maty completed the first pitch, fixed the line as planned and climbed on. The rescue team arrived as we received a call from Maty. “Their rappel rope is stuck. Nobody is hurt.” Maty had climbed up to Rachel, the mouse whisperer, and found her stuck hanging with her hair deeply knotted into her belay device. Alvaro had descended beside Rachel and Igor when Rachel had begun screaming.
Igor had used a tree so far up the snow slope above the third pitch that their ropes didn’t reach the ground. Rachel had panicked. Alvaro had rappelled to Rachel, attached her to his rappel and gone down to free the rope as she begged him not to leave her. Freed from her first predicament Rachel had managed to get her hair into the belay device 5 meters lower. Maty meanwhile climbed to Rachel, took out his knife and cut her hair. In his hesitant English he repeated to the scared woman, “sorry, sorry, sorry.”
Below the snow field Maty showed Alvaro and Sylvie his fixed line to rappel on. Once Igor and Rachel were with him Maty told them to go ahead and use his line as well so it would be faster for all. Igor flatly answered, “I don’t use other people’s ropes.”
Maty, ever calm, later told us that he felt like hitting the asshole but instead descended. The rescue team had left. We were all frazzled and cold. Igor got down and without a word began pulling his rope to no avail; the rope was stuck. I offered to help him. We walked up the slope, he locked off his belay device and I said to him, “I’ll pull with you. Ready?” Then grabbed him and ran down the slope with him hoping our combined weight would break the rope free. When nothing happened he screamed at me.
“What are you doing? Get off of me. I’ll ask for help when I need it.”
Whoa. I walked away and let him struggle by himself. His rope would not pull. Gus had to climb back up to retrieve some gear Maty had left and without a word dropped Igor and Rachel’s stuck rope.
Hours had passed in the dark, freezing cold night since we had first heard screams high up on the cliff. Nobody had said thank you. Not to any of us at the bottom nor to Gus who had freed the climbers. What would they have done if he hadn’t climbed up? They had no other rope. Rachel was paralyzed with fear. Igor was at the top. Alvaro and Sylvie could not have helped them.
Back at the scout camp our other friends had figured out where the hospital was incase someone had frostbite and gone to get my axe.
Odile and Priska, two strong swiss climbers walked to the yellow kitchen knocked on the door and stepped inside. “Hey, are you guys missing two people?”
“Your friends are OK. They are on their way down with some of my friends.” Said Priska.
One of the yellow kitchen crew exclaimed, “Yeah! I told you they wouldn’t make it back before 9.”
Odile, appalled, changed the subject, “They said that you have my friend’s ice axe.”
Odile and Priska stood in the kitchen and waited.
“It’s in our room.”
Odile and Priska stood in the kitchen and waited some more.
“Oh you want to get it now?”
Odile politely answered, “Yes.”
Upon my reunion with the rest of our group and my stray ice tool I felt exhausted. Nobody in the yellow kitchen crew had seen anything wrong with the situation. I have since concluded that some climbers have no business being ice climbers. Kandersteg is beautiful, just don’t let the inevitable jerks that seem magnetically pulled to great climbing areas around the world get a hold of one of your ice tools. Also, carry a knife in case you need to cut some hair because, well, someone might not quite own it.