Attempt on Oberalpstock
Monday, June 17
First, a recap of the toils of the previous day: warm, snow very soft, much effort required to climb, observed recent signs of small wet snow avalanches. Not ideal climbing conditions. We weren't quite ready to give up, however - we hoped that we'd get enough of a cooldown in temperatures overnight to firm up the snow; we knew that we had chosen an ascent route that was technically easy and minimized exposure to terrain traps. Given the above, if we could get up to and off of the summit and back down below the Brunnipass before the snow softened, it all just might work out.
Pre-dawn Val Cavardiras
We set our alarms for 4am, striking a balance between wanting to get moving as soon as possible and the desire to get a good sleep after yesterday's difficult toiling. A look at the hut's outside thermometer showed a disheartening six degrees celcius. To me this seemed a bit too warm to allow for a sufficient overnight hardening of the snowpack.
Outside, the pre-dawn view down the Cavardiras Valley was beautiful, with a smattering of clouds helping to frame a view of mountains silhoutted against a line of pink sky.
We were slow to get moving this morning, and were only ready to move out at 6:30 a.m., fully 2.5 hours after waking. The sun was now fully up and casting beautiful light westward into the bowl of the Brunnifirn. Beautiful yes, but it was also a warming light, and that wasn't so good for us.
We stepped out onto the snowfield around the hut, and started to make our way back to the Cavardiras Pass. The snow did actually feel a little firmer under our feet. Perhaps conditions would be somewhat better than I'd feared.
Early morning, Brunnifirn
View from Cavardiras Pass
View back to the Cavardiras Hut
In a few minutes we were standing near the large stone cairn that marked Cavardiras Pass. From here, we had a perfect view of the summit of Oberalpstock. Unlike the previous evening, it was completely in the open - no clouds in sight. We could see our ascent route - a straightforward climb up the snow-covered Brunnifirn Glacier, with absolutely no crevasses visible, and then a final steep ascent up a snow-covered face to the summit crest.
What we could also clearly see, unfortunately, was that there were many wet-snow avalanche scars on that final steep bit of face. Hmm.
As I've mentioned several times already, the Brunnifirn Glacier, which extends all the way from right beneath the summit to pretty much where we were standing, seemed to be completely covered in a thick snowpack. We could see no open crevasses anywhere, nor even a sign of covered crevasses. Therefore, the danger of punching through into a crevasse was likely quite low. However, the snow was likely to be soft, and since we don't like to take glacier travel too lightly, we still decided to rope up.
Now roped up, we set off. There was less than three kilometres between us and the summit, the first part of which crossed the relatively flat lower part of the Brunnifirn. Our progress across this section was actually pretty good, and we were not really sinking in all that much. All in all, somewhat heartening.
View back to Cavardiras Pass
By 8:30am, we reached and started to climb the south-eastern face of Oberalpstock. Our pace slowed as the grade began to increase. And, as a consequence of the day's rising temperature combined with the south-east (i.e. sun-facing) aspect of the slope, the snow became noticeably softer.
Pristine Mountain Landscape
The summit block was now maddeningly close. We could see it above us, perhaps only 300 metres away. It was so tiring to posthole up the snow, however, that we simply couldn't manage any faster. When effort is high on hikes, I typically call out for a rest break for every 100m/250ft of elevation gain. On this climb, I soon wordlessly reduced this to every 30m/100ft of gain. Then soon again, to 15m/50ft of gain. Postholing up this slope was completely energy-draining.
Brian started to make some noises about leaving him, and waiting for Jenn and I to complete the summit without him, but we talked him out of that idea. We were determined to stick together. Onwards we plodded.
It took us two-and-a-half hours to cover a one kilometer distance from the base of the south-east face to a point just under the final steep 200-foot slope to the summit crest. Two-and-a-half hours to cover one kilometer and gain 400m/1400ft of elevation. That, my friends, was pretty damn slow. In fact, it was 0.4 km/hr slow. Did you know that the average garden snail can manage 0.1 km/hr? That meant we were only going four times faster than a garden snail.
Severely soft snow
We arrived, much later than we would have liked - at 11:30am - underneath the final steep face to the summit crest. We were quite close, and could easily see the individual boulders along the [summit] crest from where we were. We now also got a close look at the final slopes, and we saw the many wet-snow avalanche scars right in front of us. They didn't seem all that big or deep, but still we were dubious.
The most dropoff and obstacle-free path to the ridgecrest was right in front of us. It looked steep but straightforward. If the snow had been firmer, it would have been a cakewalk. Today, though, we were worried about the fact that this section of face had not yet avalanched; might it do so while we were on it? We could ourselves trigger it, in fact. We tried to weigh the various factors: the snow sloughs and avalanches seemed to be small, slow-moving, and not that deep - perhaps a foot or two at most. However, our desired ascent route seemed to be slightly concave. Might that perhaps concentrate any flowing snow enough to make it deep enough to be a real danger?
We stopped for a pow-wow to discuss. Brian had flipped from wanting to sit and wait for us to summit to wanting to continue on. I, however, was starting to feel that the most prudent course of action was to turn around. We probably had already tempted things a bit too much by continuing on in these overly warm, soft conditions (typically the rule is to be wary when you sink in to more than boot-top depth, and we were way beyond that at this point).
I knew that if we pushed on, we would likely make it - and with it the joy of a beautiful summit and a sense of accomplishment. However, I realized that if we got caught in a slow-moving, concrete-consistency flow of snow that was any more than two or three feet deep, it could mean real trouble for us. So, with a heavy heart, I put in my vote for a turn-around, and Brian and Jenn agreed. That was it, then - our high point of 3220 metres (10,570 feet) would have to suffice for today. We were 75 metres vertically shy of the 3295-metre summit.
We reversed course, following our tracks back downhill. Unhappily, even though we had gravity on our side, the conditions were too soft for efficient heel-stepping (a very fast and easy way to descend).
Not long after we started down, our decision was partially validated when Brian's left foot started a wet-snow avalanche. We watched with some fascination as a slowly-moving, hissing mass of snow gradually widened and trundled downward. After thirty seconds or so, it petered out on a flatter bench about 50 metres below us. Proof that conditions were such that human activity could indeed trigger an avalanche.