Whiteout – A day out on “Via Luzzo”

Sometimes it’s “do or die” … Bad weather conditions still prevailing, a good load of fresh snow had fallen only a couple of days ago, at least an attempt on one of the alpine routes that permeate the beautiful south face of Serra Dolcedorme had to be made. The forecast  had not been that bad … reality, however, caught up with us, fiercely intended to teach us a lesson. 

New companions and the quandary how to choose a route with uncertain weather, rather inauspicious snow conditions and not knowing each others abilities. The choice was made and fell on “Via Luzzo”, a route of moderate difficulty (PD-, 50° max.) without particularly technical passages. Early morning and the sky was overcast. But the view was still good and there was no sign of an imminent deterioration in the weather.

First snow around 1,300 m and benign temperatures. A walkabout, so we thought. Well, being the only one in today’s team without snowshoes the first 300 m of the actual route would make me sweat quite a bit. After a short break, and just before reaching the point of the couloir where the route starts getting steeper, we watched a strange fog move in that soon covered almost everything around us.

“Guys, is it snowing?” … “No, but … wait. I don’t know. It looks like … frozen fog?” And it was, indeed. – We pushed on, now with crampons under our boots. The snow was terrible. Both climbing with or without crampons turned out to be a rather cumbersome business. But the steel spikes helped us to find at least some hold on the denuded rock and where the ice axe wouldn’t grip. “That snow is s**t!” … “Yep.” … And it was. – Do or die!

In any case, further up it seemed wise to avoid the center of the couloir where the snow had conglomerated and was more than likely to give way to a nice powder snow avalanche. On more than one occasion I tried to reenter the couloir, but a dull sound under my boots was advise enough to stick to the rocky ridge we were ascending instead of following the main route.

In the meantime the view had become worse. On reaching the second bottleneck of the route it was almost nil. Fortunately, the snow conditions higher up the mountain started to ameliorate, little by little, and it seemed feasible to attack the most demanding part of the route, a narrow gorge and, right at its end, a slope with an inclination of almost 60°, without taking too much of a risk.

Only a few meters beneath the summit ridge,  I was looking up, trying to make out the weakest point of quite a showy snow cornice, I slipped … Well, time and again it is an interesting exercise to observe your mind as it is reckoning your chances of surviving a fall and taking decisions for you. I knew instantly that I had only about 5 or 6 meters to catch that slide and prevent it from becoming a fall down the chasm I had passed only a few minutes before. My mind, however, was already calculating what had to be done in order to make my body rotate 180° and find the most convenient angle for the grim prospect of an impact.

… Thankfully, my reflexes turned out to be faster still and, throwing all my weight forwards and on both my ice axes, one of them took hold almost immediately. A sudden jerk and I was hurled sidewards … but not sliding anymore.

That was close … Get up! Once again I faced the cornice and started digging in order to create a breach that would allow us to mount the ridge. One leg already on the ridge I could feel the wind … no, the storm … no, a full blown-gale! The temperature on the lee side had been quite comfortable. What we had to faced on the ridge was a different story altogether!

Eventually we made it to the summit, … but only to stay a few moments and take a foto or two. Everything was freezing! “Let’s get down! I can’t think straight anymore!” … Indeed, equipment and clothing, all parts of the body … frozen. Even the brain seemed to be almost paralyzed by the glacial wind and its noise that made communication almost impossible.

With no view at all we decided to stick to the GPS in order to find the easiest and fastest route off this mountain.

… Only a few meters below the ridge again all that seemed a strange dream, though. “Hey, somebody killed the stereo!” … Indeed, the sudden silence felt like someone pulling the plug. … No sound at all. Only the frozen fog that kept falling. Later on our descend the sky began to open again. By the time we reached the timberline the clouds ripped open and the evening sun bathed everything in the most beautiful colors that already announced the end of the day, a day to remember.