Monday, 9 September 2013

Gorner Glacier explorations 2013

Back to the Gorner Glacier, Zermatt, to once again explore the 'moulins' or sink holes in the glacier. I wasn't sure if I could make the trip this year but literally at the last minute managed to steal a week and join good chums Martin Groves and Gareth Davies on the second week of this years trip to the Gorner Glacier.

Arriving in Zermatt on a damp Saturday evening I had unfortunately missed the last train up the mountain. In addition the useful shops had already shut... So it was either back down the valley to Tasch to a campsite, or try and find some over priced bed in Zermatt, or start walking. I opted to start walking.

What daylight had been left was gone by the time I entered the trails in the forest. One of those damp but muggy nights which made the steep lug up the track very sweaty, especially with a big pack. The idea was to bivvy down somewhere on route, but a nice flat spot just wasn't appearing in the gloom as I slowly stomped up the mountain.

Rather surreally I arrived at one of the higher stations for the mountain train and was suddenly in the grounds of a luxury hotel! Definitely out of my price bracket but also felt very wrong. I walked past to escape the opulence and noise.

The map suggests a possible good spot. Flatter contours and a small stream - a little alpine meadow. The rain and mist reveal enough to suggest this is the case and I quickly set up the tent and can escape the damp. Sadly I have no stove - the boys have enough with them and it saved trying to find fuel the other end of the flight - but sadly this meant no hot brew or food. Just water and some breakfast biscuits. Somehow this didn't matter - I was alone in my small spot on the mountain.

Morning arrives and I lounge in the sleeping bag not terribly keen to get up! But sticking my head out of the tent and glimpsing the Matterhorn through breaks in the cloud spurs me to get the back side in gear. I pack as the first mountain trains make their way up the mountain.
Morning with the Matterhorn pocking out of the clouds.
A steep stomp brings me to the next station on the mountain railway. Here I take advantage of a civilized toilet and the sale of some coffee! I move on keen to find the others on the glacier.

A few hours later I'm at the camp on the glacier. The day sees a changeover - and effectively seven is reduced to four. The tent is soon set up and before long it's off to explore an ice cave. Martin is keen to do more science and wants to go survey a site called the 'Balrog'.
Camp by the glacier - scarily somewhat reduced in just two years.........

Normally descending these holes is left to the night when temperatures drop, water levels reduce and the metal work doesn't melt out of the ice! However as the day was cloudy Martin thought it would be worth looking at descending into the Balrog. The original choice of route was quickly abandoned by the very large boulder on the lip of the ice shaft held in place by a melting step of ice... hmmm. Instead we descended an open canyon in the ice and climbed into another entrance rigging the rope off ice screws deep in a melt hole and down in the good ice, a traditional ice bollard and some additional icescrews placed after hacking away the poor ice, and then recovering the screws with the displaced ice!
Placing icescrews out of the sun!

Entering the Balrog

Inside the 'Balrog' was very atmospheric with the large open entrance we had entered by, and the light from the shaft we had wisely decided to avoid! Progress was soon halted by a lake, and we set about surveying and placing in markers to allow for future monitoring of the site. However the Balrog started rumbling and we decided it was time to leave!

Midnight and its little rest. Three of us are up and away - me, Martin and pro photographer Robbie Shone. A thick mist is down making navigation necessary. We head off for 'Son of Monster' Moulin. Monster Moulin had been an epic two years ago but was now a former shadow of itself. Instead 'Son' was forming behind. I was given the task of rigging. The entrance was the normal severe ice hack to find good ice, but once in the hole the ice was soon superb. The shaft was a superb fluted rift, rigged with regular rebelays to allow a descent along the rift. At the bottom a false ice floor would have resulted in very wet feet except I was wearing canoe dry pants which proved to be a great be of kit choice! I pushed along the bottom rift, down a short pitch and gained the stream... but then it just got too tight. That was it. We headed out. Martin surveyed and held the flash gun, while I posed and Robbie took some very cool piccies! We exit the hole to the first hints of the dawn.
Martin ascending 'son of monster' moulin

..with Robbie ahead taking some proper pictures!
A misty walk back.

...which clears as we arrive at camp
The weather deteriorates, and the next couple of days proved a little vexing for getting down ice holes, but does mean some sleep! The plan was to go back to the same area as 'Son' and explore some of the other holes. We ended up doing a morning daylight trip. Results were mixed. Water was too high in some, although myself and Gareth revisited a hole we'd be in two years go. It was still recognisable, but bigger and we could get further. With water levels getting noticeably higher, and icescrews getter looser we head for home!
Gareth rigging

Martin on the descent

Surveying the hole

Robbie heading up hoping to get some piccies!
Exploring canyons on the glacier on a wet day
Sadly mid way through the week we said good bye to Robbie, giving him a hand getting his kit to the mountain rail station, whilst stashing some of our extra kit on the way.

With a cold night promised by the forecast we had our next Moulin in sight - the 'Growler'. This looked ominous in the day with water thundering down. So with some trepidation the three of use set off to explore. Martin started the rig. The cave proved to be a superb trip in the end. A 10m pitch dropped into a fine meandering canyon in clean white ice. Deep pools required traversing, and Martin set me the task of rigging as I could wade straight through them!

Another fine pitch was descended and we explored a little further, but with ice screws running out we opted to started the survey out, ascending to a cold and clear night.

All that remained now was to pack up a ridiculous amount of kit and head home! We got up very early again and started the first kit shuttle, exploring some contact caves on the way.
Contact cave with stream

Ice shapes

Monster bag man

Gareth with very big bag!

Ascending from camp

Some of our kit!
All in all an excellent and tough trip - cheers chaps!

And to finish some random pictures of pretty flowers and other nice shots...

Three stooges at dawn

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