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Max Neidermann’s Grau Wand

As a climber you realise that a chunk or rock ain’t just a chunk of rock but often a major part of a personal dream. Like many a mysterious name in climbing The Grau Wand (Grey Wall) conjures up images of serious commitment, leading edge struggle and history. Not until 1964 did this 2,500ft wall of perfect Swiss granite finally succumb to Max and his 2 mates. Over a period of 3 days of climbing, 65 pitons, hanging belays and bivouacs in slings were utilised before topping out to face a near death thrashing from a storm as they escaped along the summit ridge at 11,000 ft towards the Winterstock. A decade later I bumped into Tut Braithwaite, about to leave for Everest on the now historic British ascent, which included Scott & Haston’s highest ever bivouac below the summit at 29,000ft. Tut wasn’t boasting of his inclusion on this major expedition but exuded about his first British and third ever ascent of the Grau Wand “Stunning you’ve got to do it youth, take plenty of pegs….”. 30 years on and two previous attempts I’ve finally got the perfect weather forecast and opportunity, no big sacks, bivi gear or pegs, just 11 hours of Autumn daylight, modern lightweight gear, food, drink and a fit fast partner and we’re ready to commit to an uncluttered free ascent, one day is all we’ve got….up and down.

However beautiful pre dawn Alpine starts are, they’re little incentive to evacuate a warm cocoon. Apprehension of what’s to come often reinforces that. But once out in the open you realise that the hardest move of the day is behind you….. Crawling out of the tent onto the dew wet grass and squinting at the purple glow on the horizon I realise, we’re already late. Grabbing a banana and swig of cold milk on route to our rucksacks ready and waiting for another fun day out and a free ride, we head off into the still, crisp dawn. Being tight arsed Brit climbers we’d opted for the traditional strategy approach to the route; camp low, walk hours in the dark and avoid extortionate Swiss hut fees, “we’ll be climbing before any bugger in their cosy hut gets up, don’t you worry”. Brit plans often backfire, but hey why make life easy.

We travelled steeply up the mountainside, no one else to be seen, we’re alone as it should be, the world still asleep. Although the air was glacier cold, sweat dribble down my face as I struggled to maintain the pace set by my 15 year old partner. As we bypassed the small Albert Heim hut perched on top of a rocky outcrop I managed to catch a breath as the path finally levelled out. Ahead a maze of huge boulders create an almost impenetrable outer rampart at the base of a huge vertical granite wall, a cold Grey Fortress, the Grau Wand, our first sighting of our task for the day. A single light in the hut alerted us to double our pace in anticipation of likely company on route, lets hope their intentions are elsewhere. Too late, young eyes spotted movement way ahead breaching the ramparts. “Damn, there’s a pair in front of us”. “Wrong dad it’s worse, there’s three”. “Gutted!”. The pressure was on. Could we unlock the secret of the maze, ascend the steep rock hard snow slope to the base of the wall, gear up and get climbing before them, we had to, otherwise it would be the difference between following a rope of three in shame or leading out across a sea of granite like explorers alone in charge of their destiny, the way we wanted it. Faster legs, faster. ‘You snooze, you loose’ a very apt but annoying expression in this case. By the time we reached vertical rock the lead climber was thankfully racing up the first pitch, only to slow their progress by bringing up the second and third one at a time, double gutted !

Whilst hurrying through the boulder maze, sunlight touched on the summit ridge some 3,000ft above, providing sufficient light to pick out the vague line of our intended route up the looming wall, but our urgency prevented a lingering study. Now at the foot of the wall our outline memory from those earlier glances and a page ripped out of a guidebook were to act as our only tour guide. All we can see of the route is a stunning crack and ramp line screaming up leftwards for at least 600 ft, the first quarter of the route, containing the main crux. The three climbers were already on the second pitch, either the climbing is easy or they’re super fit, we’ll soon find out.

It was 9 am before I got my chance to sample, fondle and then dance on the rough grey Alpine granite I’d waited 30 years for, like nectar to a honeybee, it was irresistible and impeccable. Rather than ruin the experience we decided to hang back and give our front runners a good head start hoping they’d continue moving quick enough to leave us with empty belays avoiding muddled ropes but more significantly we wanted to feel the buzz of striking out alone on this magnificent structure.

The early ascentionists retreated from the summit via a long exposed ridge and treacherous gully. Now a series of airy abseils boldly venture down acres of wall away from the line of the route, with little option but to continue once committed. Abseil anchors are hidden from view until your hanging confused at the end of the rope as you pendulum back and forth in search mode, not a place to be in darkness or storm. With only 9 hours to climb the 15 full rope lengths, descend the abseils, slide down the snow slope and weave a way through the maze, we needed a clear passage ahead. We carried a small sack of rations for a day out, we soon noticed that the threesome were carrying sacks suspiciously large enough to include bivi gear, we had to pass and soon.

The initial pitches followed a superb crack system snaking up leftwards, obvious to follow but harder and harder to escape. The enjoyable first pitches finally blend into a blank exposed shield of rock, where you’re forced to layback a viciously thin crux over a roof and commit fully to the blank walls above. Two smiling faces greeted us on the belay below the crux the other was nervously aiding over the roof. They weren’t super fit.

The Grey Wall is set in a huge south facing cwm intensifing the heat of the sun even at 10,000ft. especially on such a perfect day. By mid morning the heat became almost unbearable. Our water ration was getting thrashed, on every hard move chalk dust was heavy in the air and sockless feet began to rub and swell.

We planned that the slightly easier ground in the middle section of the route would be our time to make an overtaking move, but the purity of line gave little opportunity. With no common language it was difficult to communicate our urgency, resorting to British thuggery was almost considered, but the friendly polite smiles and gestures from our companions made us grin and bare it at their pace. How do you hand sign “PLEASE can we pass, my son has to be in bed by 7pm”. The final straw came around 4 pm, still three difficult pitches to go and the exhausted young Italian female climber in the party, who for some reason was carrying the largest rucksack, became wedged in a long, vertical off width crack. Time was seriously running out, so a helping shoulder and shove from below was the only way to clear the congestion, but we were starting to contemplate a long night. Knackered, thirsty and frustrated but twitching at the thought of a T shirt bivi we instinctively responded or was it just a reaction to fear. We finally managed to accelerate past our friends topping out on an unexpectedly wild knife sharp ridge. The summit was the size of a grand piano top, worryingly just as smooth and tilted at an angle straight down the huge north face. The late afternoon lighting on the endless vista of glaciers and granite was something to savour, but not at that moment. If we’re lucky without hitches and such a clear sky we’d have a couple of hours maximum to make the 2,500 ft abseil descent into the unknown, do we go or stay ?

The Italians arrived and the girls large sack opened to reveal a secret, the obvious dedicated aim for their climb; a huge clothe banner from their home town climbing club somewhere in Italy but more significantly a picture, we could only presume a recently decessed club or family member, probably frozen to death during a forced bivi, just here. We hoped the ashes weren’t next to out of the sack. But her sacrificial effort and their elation at completing the climb may not be totally in vain in respect of our impending overnight prospect, the size of the banner gave me a scouting idea, a tent!

But the Brit team decision was made ‘we’re offski’. Parachutes, or even a banner, for a base jump would have been perfect from the initial abseil point, now’t to touch straight down for more than 2,000ft. Somewhere down there we hoped were 12 easy to find abseil anchors, if not we were in deep sh…. Like a well-oiled but worn out machine we launched off, sliding, clipping, pulling down and spinning into the abyss. Palms burning, belay plates sizzling but perfectly on schedule until three abseils from the bottom when the inevitable Sods Law stepped in. With mates a serious situation would call for an ‘every man for himself approach’, but the protective instinct of a parent places a different perspective, fearing the worst possible outcome. As I swung back and forth across a blank wall out of sight of an oblivious Simon, confident I had any situation under control, I stretched unsuccessfully to clip the next anchor in the dimming light. Something’s wrong, I was dragged back across the wall. In my haste I hadn’t cleared the knotted ends of the rope below me on the way down and they’d caught behind a flake well off and up to my left. Stupidly I tugged on the rope, jamming it further with no chance of retrive. “Ahhhhh”! With daylight almost gone the only quick alternative was to hand over hand up the jammed rope, hoping it didn’t release and send me plummeting back down to my low point, as if things could get any lower. Trying not to alert Simon to the problem; a slack rope at his end would automatically signal his turn to attach and descend, I gingerly hauled myself up the rope trying at the same time to keep tension on the rope spiralling up to Simon. “You alright dad?” A dry, rasping and exhausted cry launched back “Oh aye fine, just sorting the ropes, bit tangled”. Once at the jammed knot there was no time trying to avoid the inevitable bridge jump swing, just let go. Bruised, grazed and hanging some way below the abseil point I was thankfully for small mercies but back on route! Once Simon was down oblivious and totally accepting of the situation, almost darkness, he nauchalontly commented “Took your time over that didn’t you, we’re not in a rush any more ?” “Oh sorry, just thought I’d spotted a new route prospect off to the side, wanted to have a look, lets get down, great day kid, proud of you”. “Dad, fancy a spot of torchlight bouldering once we get down”. “I’ll see you in the tent”.

The exuberance of trying too hard can sometimes cost dearly, it nearly did. But had everything gone smoothly on one of the worlds most perfect chunks of rock then maybe the day wouldn’t have been etched so deep into the grey matter as ‘One of the most memorable free route days I’ve yet enjoyed’.

Stuart & Simon Cathcart September 2nd 2005
Grau Wand on the Winterstock, Switzerland. Totally free @ E1 5a/c.

Footnote:

Without gear that you implicitly trust you’ll never sensibly step over your edge and you would never truthfully recommend something you don’t trust. Beal Cobra ropes 8.6mm x 60mtr, Black Diamond ATC-XP, Metolius Safe Tech Harness above all helped in our success, displaying admirable latitude in comfort, ease of use, durability and ultimate safety.


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