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Bloody Helmet

Link to Morocco Part 2: Getting to Taghia is tough

Not too many people outside of the climbing community go to Taghia.  There is no hospital in Taghia and so there I hung, 25 meters above a rushing mountain stream, as warm sticky wetness dripped down my back.  I had definitely just blown it.

Juan crossing the dry stream bed to my Taghia Hospital; a.k.a. where my helmet was when I should have been wearing it...

“Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck”

Alvaro yelled up from below, “Are you alright?” His tone indicated that he wasn’t quite sure if I would answer.

“Yeah.” I said feebly.

I reached my right hand up and touched the back of my head and felt the blood that was leaking.

“Lower me a little.”

As Alvaro did so my feet wobbly touched the ledge I had miraculously not collided into as I careened upside down the 9 meters to my point of impact.  The fucking rock had broken on the first pitch of the first climb.  Shit.

I took off my shirt and tied it around my head as tightly as I could.  Then I stopped again, tried to chill, wiped some blood from my neck and forehead, and looked at my dully aching arm.

“Alvaro, I think I can go back up and get the gear.”

Juan who had appeared from inside the narrow gully further up-stream yelled something to Alvaro who couldn’t see me.  Then asked if I was O.K.

“Yeah, I think so.  Just cut on my head.”

Juan yelled back over the sound of the water, “Good.  Alvaro can lower you and he and I can get the gear.”

Minutes later I stood next to the stream watching red drops come off my blood soaked shirt run down my arm then drip into the clear mountain water.  I took off my harness and handed it to Juan who stood close by watching me.

“Don’t go back without us.  We will get the gear and come right back down.”

I agreed then walked to a small cascade and stuck my whole head under the frigid water as I washed the blood off my shirt.  I climbed out, sat down and re-tied the shirt around my head.  What a stupid move.  I had left my helmet on my mattress in the small Hutte we were staying in not expecting to climb… paradoxically I had brought a rope, harness, shoes and gear ‘just in case.’  Bad decision.  I surely couldn’t climb with a cut that would reopen and bleed half way up the 600-meter face of Oujdad in the High Atlas Mountains.  At least I was in a beautiful place and my brains weren’t spread out all over the ledge I had narrowly missed as gravity showed me who was boss.

A few minutes later, Alvaro, Juan and my new friend (the headache) joined me.  We started back to the Hutte as ominously dark storm clouds appeared from the East.  I wished the clouds had appeared an hour earlier as I walked slowly on with unsteady feet guided by unsteady eyes.  Within seconds of stepping into the shelter of the rustic Hutte operated by Ali and his family the sky opened.  I made to go and clean myself up while Alvaro and Juan went to ask about bandages. At some point Alvaro also snuck back into our room and snapped a quick photo of my helmet.

Lara working while a storm raged

The Angel of Taghia removing my 6 sutures after a beautiful week of climbing!

The nurse-climber in action...

As I washed the last bit of blood from my chest and hair Juan walked up and said that there was a nurse with the Italian party that was in the Hutte with us.

A few minutes later the angel of my trip showed up with a rather large first aid kit and an Italian friend, video camera in hand.  As the lights went out in the Hutte a small collection of Italians and Spaniards gathered while Lara the Italian nurse simply told me that she had sutures and that I needed some but unfortunately she did not have any anesthesia…

“Sorry” she said under the light of Juan’s headlamp.  The next minutes were spent digging my fingers into my legs, or anything else that happened to come close, every time Lara pierced and tugged.

Flooded stream bed in Taghia

Six stitches later we all walked outside where the dry stream bed that flowed past our Hutte to join its larger sibling (whom I had bled into) was a raging torrent.  The rain had stopped and the post-storm dusk light lit the scene well.  The dry bed was raging full with mud filled run-off as I realized how lucky I was… because of my cut I had narrowly missed getting stuck on the cliff in a downpour which would have made my first day of climbing in Taghia, Morocco not fun at all.

One question lingers: Was it kind of Alvaro to qualify my stupidity with evidence?  Leave a comment; let me know what you think. Maybe I’ll even post the picture!


The Eiger, Switzerland

The Eiger from the east side (and Mönch behind)

Image via Wikipedia

From Grindelwald up the East Ridge to Ostegg Hutte along the impossibly long ridge to Mittelegi Hutte then up Mittelegi Ridge, over the top and down the South Ridge. Brutal.

Now, Mittelegi Ridge has the title of being ‘the most popular route‘ on the Eiger. Like popular kids at school, when paired with its redheaded step-brother (the Ostegg Ridge) it is not enjoyed. Way to grueling to be popular in the sophisticated mountaineering world of the Alps the combination makes for questioning looks by Swiss Alpinists who do not understand the masochistic objective.

After our long day and the relief of Mittelegi Hutte my climbing partner, Alvaro, and I had the distinct privilege of meeting the four amigos of Bulgaria. These guys took crazy to a different level and really had no business being on the Eiger. I enjoyed their banter so much that it was tough to call it a night. To understand this a little better you have to understand that Mittelegi Hutte is a managed Hutte during the months of early June to September.

Alvaro making an alpine start on Mittelegi Ridge

Generally, to be the manager of a Hutte at 3000+ meters you are ‘special.’ Jutta was no exception. Probably about 55, never married, and rather motherly in an exaggerated almost scary way she made it her business to explain the rules to us in a strange high-pitched conglomerate of French, English and German. Imagine, after climbing for 10 hours at altitude being told how to do something that will take MORE effort. Now, imagine you come from a country in which corruption is a pretty significant problem and you are out for an adventure between debauchery and episodes of heavy drinking. Welcome to the scene at Mittelegi Hutte on 21 July 2010.

Tarzan (Bulgarian climber numero uno) was the star. With slightly askew teeth Tarzan enjoyed telling Jutta that, ‘we will now play poker,’ to her determined rebukes. The story took on a new twist as we all sat discussing possible scenarios for summit day… and the ensuing descent. Normally you should have these things well planned.

Unfortunately, being the ‘most popular route’ results in several inevitable things. 1) People that have no business being there are there 2) Those people are so excited about climbing this route they don’t worry about how they will get down 3) Numerous accidents and rescues throughout the climbing season.

After several minutes of frustrating and rather annoying conversation Tarzan’s compatriot blatantly stated his intent, asking, ‘And what would happen if we just got on the train at the bottom of the South Ridge without a ticket?’ This question is important. The answer would determine between a descent via the West Ridge, which has no train, and is rather tricky to an unfamiliar party or the South Ridge that is long but generally considered more straight forward and has the ‘railway at the top of Europe‘ at its far end.

Jutta was aghast. ‘This is not allowed. You must have a ticket.’

Tarzan’s friend: ‘Well we don’t have any money and we have to go down.’

Jutta: ‘Well you can make a paper ticket and pay later.’

Other Bulgarian: ‘But the point is that we don’t want to pay.’

Jutte: ‘But this is the way you take the train.’

This went on for some time. There was no progress. As the conversation continued to go nowhere Tarzan made a point of standing behind Jutta performing a pantomime routine that seemed to alternate between   sexual activity  with the Hutte manager and imitations of a rather obstinate older Swiss hutte manager’s body language.

Finally a breakthrough as culture became foremost in the discussion. ‘In our country it is OK to get on the train without a ticket. Two things can happen when the conductor gets to you. If you have some money you can pay the conductor, less than the ticket, and he will let you ride to your destination. If you don’t have money the conductor will make you leave the train at the next station. At that point you run to the opposite end of the train and get back on. When the conductor gets to you again he makes you get off and you run back to the original end of the train. This can go on for the entire train ride. What I want to know is what would happen if the conductor here came to me and I had no ticket. Would I have to get off or could I give him a little money?’

Now this may seem pretty straightforward to those of us familiar with how most of the world works. Unfortunately Jutta was totally uncomprehending of these possibilities. Alvaro and I, having finished our dinner and tiring of Tarzan’s hip pumping behind the apron wearing Jutta, decided we had to call it a night.

The next day we all made an alpine start. The next 5 hours were tough and gradually Alvaro and I grew further and further ahead of the four Bulgarians. The weather worsened.

Eiger summit with Monch in the background

At the summit, strong winds forced us to our knees. Tracks went in two directions… the West Ridge descent and the Southerly way. With deafening winds by mid-morning and seemingly worse conditions on the way we went south. Maybe we would make it to the Jungfraujoch Station by the last train at 1645.

Several hours later and only a few hundred meters down we realized things were not going well. This was especially evident as our frozen rope whipped in the wind perpendicular to the ridge defying gravity through the power of an unsympathetic gale.

Uh oh. As bad as things got over the course of our day I kept thinking, ‘I hope those Bulgarians turned around.’ By 1600 we had reached a saddle between the Monch Massif and The Eiger South Ridge. Our rope was hemorrhaging its insides as it had been severely cut on some sharp edge. Alvaro looked at me with painfully resigned eyes. Our only option was to keep going and to do this we had to go UP. Legs burning, no protection and cutting wind we forced our way slowly up each knife-edge ridge. Each corner and vista only making the world of safe warm places seem farther and farther away.

Gradually the light slipped away. The wind, unabated by nightfall was ruthless. To keep from dying of exposure we stopped in the closest thing to a refuge we could find. About 4 rocky meters across, the knife like ridge had opened up just enough. We moved rocks for the next two hours constructing a wall of loose scree to hide behind.

Cold morning after a forced night out

The rope uncoiled below us acted as a bit of insulation. Thankfully we had carried our sleeping bags and a small jet boil for such an emergency. After bringing some snow to a boil we sipped hot Gatorade and hunkered in to face the bitter cold. Completely focused on my own precarious situation I only briefly thought of the Bulgarians who we had lost sight of before reaching the summit. They were surely done for if they had not turned around and I was sure they had not.

Not really sleeping but not daring to expose ourselves we finally stirred with sunrise. Through the night we were pelted by freezing rain but by boiling more snow we managed to warm ourselves up. We packed our bags and began moving.

Up and down the ridge continued to leave no room for error and offered no shelter from the wind. At 1000 we reached a small lip where the ridge tapered off to the South East.

Finally the wind stopped. Silence. We skirted the South side of Monch and emerged several hours later on a massive glaciated plane. Overjoyed when two American climbers intercepted our path from the other direction we felt a wave of relief. What a night.

Once in the train station the sheer volume of tourists overwhelmed us.

Alvaro, as we entered the stillness... finally

I made my way down to the bathroom and destroyed a toilet while Alvaro bought our train tickets. No wonder the Bulgarians had been curious; the tickets cost 88 Swiss Franc each. I guess you can charge that much when at the top of Europe. We descended, sitting in the comfort of our train seats, exhausted. Out of the world of ice, the green valley surrounded our train car and a bright, peaceful sun drowned the wind.

‘Alvaro, do you think the Bulgarian guys are alright?’

‘I don’t know but the ticket guy told me that 5 helicopters had to rescue a party from Jung Frau last night.’


The train pulled to a stop and Alvaro pointed then jumped up.

‘Hey guys!’ Tarzan happily smiled on the far side of the train window in old cut off jean shorts and no shirt. He had seen us and come over.

‘Tarzan, we thought you guys would be dead for sure. How did you get down?’

‘We made it down the West Ridge… 27 hours. The others are at the base, I came for the car. We drive to Zermatt for the Matterhorn today.’

‘Man, we are glad to see you. Nice, good luck on the Matterhorn.’

‘We see if the weather is OK.’ As the train shrugged forward and pulled away.

Clearly there are people who are crazier than I am.

Alvaro's digital work on our map

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