Rapid "marathon" times for Steck and Schäli and in the Alps

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 03/09/2013
Schäli on the summit of the Jungfrau having completed the Marathon. Behind and to the right is the Monch. Supplied by Roger Schäli
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This August Ueli Steck made a remarkably fast traverse of Mont Blanc, from valley to valley via the Peuterey Integral, while over in the Bernese Oberland David Hefti and Roger Schäli made the first one-day ascent of the so-called Jungfrau Marathon.

The Peuterey Integral, arguably the longest and most difficult traverse of its type in the Alps, with more than 4,500m of ascent over all forms of terrain, involves climbing the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey by the south ridge, rappelling its precipitous north ridge, continuing over the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey and Grand Pilier d'Angle, to the summit of Mont Blanc.

Due to the length and commitment, the overall grade (TD+/ED1) is higher than the sum of its individual parts and two bivouacs are normally necessary. It was first completed by Hechtel and Kittelmann in 1953.

Steck first inspected the climb with Chamonix based guide Caroline George, confirming that despite difficulties with route-finding, the climbing was quite possible without a rope.

However, a solo of this route is not a lightweight dash, as a long rope must be carried for the infamous rappel descent of the Noire's north ridge, in the distant past often considered the crux of the expedition. Steck used 60m of 6mm Dyneema, and also carried equipment for rock, snow/ice and mixed climbing.

Arriving in the Chamonix Valley mid-August, Steck left his tent at a campsite in Les Boissons, drove through the tunnel to the Val Veni and walked up to the base of the Aiguille Noire's south ridge (1,000m of ascent), where he left his sac.

He then spent the night down in Val Veni and left the next day at 4:00am, running. By 5:10am he had re-ascended 1,000m and was picking up his sac.

Using rock shoes he climbed the south ridge of the Aiguille Noire in a little under three and a half hours, and then made 16 rappels down the north ridge.

He continued, over rock, snow and ice, passing a couple of climbers below the Aiguille Blanche, and reached Mont Blanc de Courmayeur a little before 3pm.

He started his descent of the Normal Route on Mont Blanc at 3:25pm, and reached the church in Les Houches at little after 8pm, 16 hours and nine minutes after leaving the Val Veni.

As a testament to his legendary fitness, rather than get transport to the campsite at Les Boissons, and considering it was "such a nice evening", Steck decided to walk, and an hour later was sitting by his tent.

There have been several rapid ascents of the Peuterey Integral, though none seemingly come close to this.

In 2000, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the Courmayeur guides, Arnaud Clavel and Matteo Pellin started from the Val Veni, climbed the Peuterey Integral, and returned to Courmayeur via the Normal Italian route on Mont Blanc in a total time of 28 hours.

In early August this year the young Slovenian Luka Lindic left the Borelli Hut below the south ridge of the Aiguille Noire, and climbing solo, reached the summit of Mont Blanc 15½ hours later.

This included a wait of three quarters of an hour below the Grand Pilier d'Angle while the upper section went into shade, quelling the rockfall. He descended to the Tête Rousse Hut the same day. Lindic's only prior knowledge of the route was the top section.

A few weeks after his ascent of the Ghilini-Piola route on the Eiger, Roger Schäli returned to the area for an attempt at a one-day ascent of the Jungfrau Marathon.

From near Stechelberg in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a huge ridge rises southeast to the summit of the Eiger's near neighbour, the Jungfrau (4,158m).

The lower section crosses the steep pillars of the Stelliflue, after which a long quasi-horizontal section of generally loose ground leads to the base of the Rottbrett, a 500m-high rock triangle below the summit of the Silberhorn (3,695m).

The left edge of the Rotbrett is climbed by the classic but serious northwest ridge (D, IV-), after which climbers continue over the summit of the Silberhorn, then ascend glaciated terrain to the Wengen Jungfrau (4,089m) and so to the main summit.

This route is normally climbed after a night in the Silberhorn Hut below the Rotbrett, reached in a good six-hours hard walk from the valley.

Sam Abegglen, Andreas Leibundgut, Christoph Mauerhofer and Sacha Wettstein spent from 1993-96 climbing the main pillar of the Stelliflue at 7a+, naming their 11-pitch line Stägers Bürtblätz. It is an exposed route and the fourth pitch features a traverse below a large roof, making retreat a trifle problematic.

Prior to this, during 1989-90, Leibundgut and Mauerhofer had already climbed the steep, west-facing rock wall right of the Rotbrett ridge to give Fätze und Bitze (11 pitches up to 7a).

To link the two and finish on the summit of the Jungfrau would give a remarkable outing with a vertical ascent of 3,383m. In 1997, starting from a bivouac below the Stelliflue Pillar, Leibundgut and Wettstein did just that over the next two days, with a night in the hut.

But could this link, christened the Jungfrau Marathon, be climbed in a single day?

Hefti and Schäli began from the valley floor at 3:30am, despatched the complex wooded approach and first few pitches of the Stelliflue pillar by headtorch, and reached the Silberhorn Hut "in time for a gourmet lunch".

No party had climbed  Fätze und Bitze for 10 years, and Hefti and Schäli found the climbing demanding. Above, friable rock and rubble, a short section of vertical ice, and snow slopes, pitched them on the summit of the Jungfrau 16 hours after setting out.

The two believe this is "the limit in terms of length and difficulty of any route we can climb in one day".

Read more: 

Living Fast - what's next for Kilian, Ueli and Alex?



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