Survivability, Cold, and the North Face of the Matterhorn

adventure journal survivability

This year has been a cold year for me, starting with 50 days living at -30 in Queen Maud Land, and then slowly growing the dream of soloing Denali in winter, perhaps the coldest climb there is. And so the cold has been my constant companion, as I strategize gear for Denali and think about how I will cope with the super low temperatures, storms, crevasses? Not just survive, but thrive.

My mate Ed Stobart a man who knows a lot about what makes good TV, always says that “cold doesn’t play well” on TV, that people, sat in their warm living rooms, just don’t get it (whereas heights always play well). And this is the problem with Denali, where sitting in a warm house thinking about it I could underestimate real horrific cold, killer cold, cold that cuts into your lungs and sucks the heat out from inside you, cold that turns your sweat to ice on the outside of your base layer, cold so intense you know it will chew off any part of your left exposed. This is real cold.

When planning such a trip you need to think like an astronaut, as you’re going as far from this world as any man could. You need to have all you need to move comfortably (never too hot, never too cold) at a temperature over a hundred below with windchill.

Luckily for me recently I went to try a hard route on the North Face of the Matterhorn with über-youth Calum Muskett and found ideal conditions to ponder the cold, and climbing mountains. With the winter room closed for repair, we trudged up from the valley in bitter cold and deep snow, bivying in our tent halfway, then dossing in a scruffy basement of the Hornli. The winds were ferocious (80/90 kmph), which mixed with super cold weather (it was -11 degrees C in Zermatt!) made it feel like a very high mountain indeed. In such a place you feel very small when the wind blows, worrying about any exposed part of you, or even not covered by a windproof layer. It’s ideal frostbite terrain, where a few minutes of inattention can leave you with damaged fingers that will never be able to deal with the cold again.

With bad weather, we switched objective from super hard to pretty hard, reducing our rack and rations from five days to two. I worried about Calum’s feet, his Scarpa Phantoms not being up to the cold we faced or suitable for multi-day routes (having to put the whole boot in your bag is a big problem). I had Sportiva Spantics and even my feet were pretty cold at times.

On my body I wore what I planned to wear on Denali this winter, my “action suit,” a single layer of pile/Pertex in the form of the Montane Extreme smock and salopettes, a system that seems to cope well with sweat (on Denali I will add a one piece Brynje base layer made from a mix of wool and polypropylene mesh). Over this I had a XL Montane IceGuide jacket – like a Patagonia DAS parka, but with a better outer fabric), which I’d throw over everything when static. I’ll be wearing a special face mask, similar to what the Russians used when trying to climb K2 in winter, a neoprene “snout” that recirculates warm air and so reduces heat loss and cold damage to your lungs (high altitude cough). This will be worn with some Julbo goggles so that every part of my face will be covered – and fur trim also traps warmth around your face.

The morning we set out we encountered some of the worst snow I’ve ever experienced in the mountains: thigh deep under breakable crust. By the time we’d fought our way to the face we knew we’d blown our plan B, the wind blowing hard and making us shudder at the thought of an open bivy, a suicide bivy in this weather, so we switched to plan C, the classic North Face. I led up over the bergshrund on the same odd snow, now at 45 degrees, my footsteps just giving several times, probably due to the intense cold. Still tired from the approach I climbed in stops and starts, holding up Calum, who began to get cold.

When Calum reached me at the first rock band I just said, “I don’t think these are optimal conditions,” and Calum seemed to agree, and down we went, and literally fought our way back against the deep snow and wild wind.

Walking back down from the Hornli, dodging in between a fusillade of wind-blown ice and snow, I reflected back on the nature of winter alpine climbing and hard mountain routes. In summer, alpine climbing and big rock routes are really just about the climbing, not about survival – survival only comes when things go wrong – benightment or an accident. In winter climbing and on a big mountain route, survival is the game, and often climbing comes second – because once you stop surviving you’re definitely not going to be climbing.

On the Matterhorn, the Eiger, Troll Wall, Ulvertanna, my approach has always been one of having the maximum “survivability,” that each item of kit has the maximum ability to sustain my life in the worst case scenario, while not hampering me when it comes to climbing. This has meant super-warm boots (you can’t move on frozen feet), layers that were very insulting but would not lead to sweaty overheating, and bivy kit that was dependable in the toughest conditions (synthetic fill bags/blanket and synthetic duvets). It’s only when you feel you’ve armored yourself against the mountain and its moods that you can feel free to really play on it – and that’s where all the fun lies.

Andy Kirkpatrick is a climber, author, and speaker. You can learn more about him in this interview on AJ or visit his site, Denali photo by Shutterstock

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