Father and Son in the Alps: Climbing the Alps Trilogy
by Shawn Olson
AAI Program Coordinator
It began with a promise. John Elley, a 54-year-old entrepreneur and resident of Camano Island, WA, promised his three sons each the same high school graduation gift: a trip they would share together to a destination of their choice. Brandon's two brothers had taken their dad up on the offer as soon as they graduated - the oldest brother, Matt, joined a hunting and horse packing trip into the remote Dole Lakes in the North Cascades, and the middle brother, Travis, opted for a 1400-mile trip on motorcycles through the desert southwest.
Brandon Elley and John Elley at the top of the Pitit Aiguille Verte, with the Aiguille Verte in the background. Tim Connelly
Brandon, however, moved to Hawaii on his own after high school to work in construction. Three years later, with some free time and his dad's offer still kicking around in his head, he decided it was time. While on a family skiing vacation in Whistler, BC, in November of 2005, Brandon approached his dad about the subject.
"I told my dad I was thinking about AAI's 6-day Intro to Mountaineering course," Brandon said. "I had done some multi-pitch trad climbing, and my brother took me up Eldorado once, a glacier climb in the North Cascades, but I wanted to learn proper glacier travel techniques. My dad has always had AAI catalogs around the house, so he was familiar with the course I was talking about. He thought about what I said, then completely surprised me by asking what I thought about taking a trip next summer to climb in the Alps instead. The rest is history."
John and Brandon discussed their options for guide services and outfitters and in the end decided on AAI because, as John told Brandon, "If we're going to do something like this, then we're going to go with the Harvard of the climbing world."
Preparation - North Cascades, WA
Both John and Brandon knew that what they wanted to do was far from a walk in the park. "I knew they were serious mountains," Brandon said, "and that serious mountains require serious training." They knew they would both need excellent physical fitness as well as technical climbing ability on rock and glacier. John, who had never had time to commit to a regular exercise routine, started on his fitness training right away. He began by stepping on and off chairs to condition his leg muscles for hiking up and downhill. "It was the perfect exercise program for me because I could do it in my spare time and when I was traveling. By April, I could step up on a chair one thousand times per hour with five-pound weights on my ankles." He also started hiking up and down the rocky beach for hours at a time with 50 pounds on his back. Brandon, already strong from his construction job, began conditioning his lungs by running and road biking a few times a week. They also needed to research and purchase equipment so they could begin breaking in the gear - the mountaineering boots especially.
Next on the list was technical training. In the spring, the father and son team drove north to Bellingham, where AAI's administrative office is located, and met up with a program coordinator. The result of this fateful day was a detailed plan - a series of three guided climbing trips in the North Cascades that were to serve as their technical preparation for their Alps trip set for July. Their training program consisted of 1) a combined glacier skills course on Mt. Baker and rock climbing course at Washington Pass in May, 2) a climb of Mt. Rainier at the beginning of June, and 3) an additional one-day rock climbing seminar on Mt. Erie at the end of June. "The preparation with AAI was perfect," said Brandon. "We practiced a wide range of skills on the different kinds of terrain that we knew we'd find in the Alps - alpine rock, glacier, and steeper snow and ice. Our glacier climbing was especially great practice for Mont Blanc, and the rock climbing we did at Washington Pass was essential for the endless rock climbing and scrambling that we knew we'd find on the Matterhorn and the Eiger."
John agreed and said that, in retrospect, the rock they did at Washington Pass was harder than the Matterhorn turned out to be! John, who had never in his life set a finger or toe on a vertical rock wall, turned out to be a natural. John and Brandon, with AAI Guide, Dylan Taylor, began with a day of skills practice, then climbed two classic alpine rock routes at Washington Pass: the Becky Route on Liberty Bell (5.6) and the South Arete of South Early Winter Spire (5.5). John quickly learned to rely on his feet instead of his arms, an important, energy-saving skill for climbing long alpine routes such as they would tackle on the Matterhorn. Though most climbers would normally wear rock shoes, John and Brandon climbed these routes in their mountaineering boots, which they would need to use on their climbs of the Matterhorn and the Eiger. John also learned that, "You need to learn to trust both your rope system and your team (especially your guide). While on Liberty Bell's summit, snow showers moved in and visibility dropped to around 100 feet. We had to hurry to get down and ended up lowering 195 feet with our 200-foot rope, which meant there was a 2.5% margin of error. I just had to trust that Dylan had it all worked out. Later, I asked him how he knew that the rappel would be exactly 195 feet, and he said, 'I measured it on the topo map this morning, just in case it snowed and we had to do the rappel. Plus, ropes stretch.' This was definitely an eye-opener for me, and I realized what a skill not only climbing was, but also guiding."
John and Brandon did one last day of training a month later, traveling to Mt. Erie, a well-known cragging area near Anacortes, WA, not too far from their home. They met with AAI guide Kurt Hicks and did a 3-pitch, 5.6 climb called Zig-Zag to solidify and refresh the skills they had learned at Washington Pass before leaving the country a few weeks later. After several months of physical and technical training, the two felt strong, able, and ready for the Alps.
To the Alps: July 17-26, 2007
When they first got to Chamonix, Brandon was struck by how big the mountains are. He said, "They felt so much bigger than the North Cascades - you're in a valley at 3,000 feet (Chamonix) and the summit of Mont Blanc is right there at over 15,000 feet, so the mountains just tower over you. But the cool thing is that the climbs are actually much shorter than in the Cascades because the téléphériques [cable cars that lift climbers and tourists high into the mountains] eliminate the approaches. The infrastructure they have there is pretty unreal. There are huts and téléphériques everywhere. It really is a climbing mecca. The logistics are so easy. You pay $50 for an insurance card and that will cover you for a whole year in case you get into trouble while climbing and need a helicopter ride off the mountains. The huts where you sleep before making your summit push have delicious meals for a reasonable price. The hut staff literally does a wake up call and feeds you breakfast, then off you go to climb your mountain of choice."
John and Brandon met up with AAI guide Tim Connelly at Hotel Richmond; Tim would be with them for the ten days of climbing ahead. Tim said, "I knew we were all in for an energizing adventure; these guys could not sit still and were so jazzed they could hardly wait to start climbing." After doing a gear check, they took off for the Petit Aiguille Verte, a favorite starting point of Tim's. After taking a téléphérique lift up from the valley, they journeyed across a short, steep glacier onto a spiny, rock ridge where they enjoyed ice climbing and steep rock with their crampons on. It was perfect practice for the peaks to come, and they were able to edge into some higher elevations (around 11,000') and start acclimatizing. They had great views across to the Aiguilles Rouges, into the famous Mer de Glace, and over the Argentiere Glacier.
After completing the ascent, they were stuck at the top of the Grand Montets téléphérique for hours due to mechanical problems. The mechanics were not able to fix the problem so the three of them, as well as a 100 other people, were actually helicoptered off, six at a time!
To continue improving their acclimatization, the next day the three first rode the téléphérique up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (a 9000-foot ride from Chamonix), crossed the glaciated Vallée Blanche on foot, and then traversed the rocky and very exposed Aiguille d' Entreves. This was fantastic training for both the upcoming Matterhorn and Eiger climbs, as well as for moving quickly and efficiently at altitude.
That night they slept at the Torino Hut, which is at the top of the Helbronner lift on the Italian side of the mountains. They enjoyed their first night at altitude, dining on fine Italian cuisine and gazing at the southern side of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco in Italian!).
So far, beautiful, clear weather had allowed for expansive visibility and great climbing. They hoped it would last, as now they would move onto the first of their three main objectives, Mont Blanc.
Since the birth of mountaineering, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and the Eiger have fascinated the climbing public: Mont Blanc because its ascent heralded the dawn of alpine climbing, and because its 15,771-foot summit is the highest point in Western Europe; the Matterhorn because of its appearance as an unclimbable rock tower; and the Eiger, with its dark, brooding North Face, the last of the "Three Great Problems" to be conquered.
- Dunham Gooding, AAI Director
The First of the Trilogy: Mont Blanc 15,771 ft / 4,808 m
The highest peak in Western Europe and offering long and beautiful glaicer climbs, iconic Mont Blanc is the perfect starting point in the trilogy. John, Brandon, and Tim planned to attempt it via the "three summits route", which begins at the Cosmique hut at the top of the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique and traverses two peaks on the way to Mont Blanc's summit.
The three slept at the Cosmique hut that night. They woke at 2 am, ate a quick breakfast in the midst of the busy early morning hut scene, and stepped out into the night, where they found they had the good fortune of a star-filled sky. Making excellent time, they first crossed the Mont Blanc de Tacul summit and then the shoulder of Mont Maudit. Continuing on, they reached the Col de Brenva at the base of the final 1600-foot slope to the summit of Mont Blanc. Both Brandon and John felt good, and they reached the top in under six hours. "The view from the top was incredible," Brandon said. "And on the way up and down you notice so many mountains with so many different types of climbs and climbers all over the rock walls and glaciers. You get off the téléphérique at the Aiguille du Midi and you cruise over to a hut, on the way passing maybe six 700-foot walls with three parties on the wall, hanging out and climbing in the sun. Then you cruise over a little more and see another wall with more climbers. There are literally climbers and routes everywhere - alpine rock, glacier, ice. The whole experience is like nowhere I've been."
After photos and congratulations, they descended and were riding the Midi téléphérique down by mid afternoon - just in time for showers and a well-deserved meal in Chamonix.
The Matterhorn: 14,691 ft / 4477.5 m
Unclimbed until 1865, the dark rock tower of the Matterhorn looms 9500 feet over Zermatt, truly dominating the glaciers surrounding it and the valley below. Its extremely recognizable and forbidding shape has lured climbers for over a century and a half. With its dramatically steep shoulders and pointed summit, it appears unclimbable to most who view it.
After a great night's sleep, the three traveled by train from Chamonix to Zermatt, Switzerland. There they met a second senior AAI guide, who was to join them for the two remaining peaks in the trilogy - the Matterhorn and the Eiger - as both peaks require a 1:1 climber to guide ratio. Once in Zermatt, Mike introduced them to an excellent Swiss restaurant, and there they discussed their plan of action over a gourmet meal. They would stay in the Hörnli Hut the next night and climb via the Hörnli Ridge, a route that rises nearly in a straight line from hut to summit. Though made easier by the presence of fixed ropes and other anchors, the climb still remains a long and very exposed route. It consists almost entirely of rock climbing, with occasional snow patches where the route leaves the sharp ridge crest and dips into gullies and chimneys on its flanks. The line is easily seen from Zermatt, and John and Brandon had inspiring views of it as they walked back to their hotel later that evening.
The next day they had a casual start and made their way to the Schwartze téléphérique, above which they hiked and scrambled for two hours before reaching the Hörnli Hut. "I was really excited to climb the Matterhorn," Brandon said. "When I was a little kid, I had a book that had a picture of the Matterhorn in it, and it always stuck with me for some reason. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to climb it someday."
After a quick lunch of rosti in the hut, Brandon and Tim went out on a recon mission and climbed close to half the route - being able to see this part of the route in the light was very helpful and enjoyable, since the next morning they would be climbing it in the pre-dawn darkness.
That morning, the hut dwellers were all awakened around 3:30am by the hut guardians, and "immediately the place was exploding with bustling climbers." Quickly donning boots, harness and helmets, they ate a basic breakfast of coffee and bread and were out the door by 4 o'clock. They climbed for the first hour over the terrain they had checked out the previous afternoon. Once they reached new terrain, they had the dawn to help light their way.
It was a spectacular sunrise, and the four of them enjoyed pulling themselves onto the platform that housed the Solvay Hut (a bivouac shelter high on the ridge) to take a five-minute break to drink some water and marvel at their position. They kept their rest short so they could resume their ascent before the climbing parties below reached them. Upward they scrambled (though technical in parts, the route is about 80% scrambling), and after a while the route became icy, so they decided to put our crampons on. These plus the fixed lines added to their security. A while later, the angle started easing off and with a healthy amount of snow on the route, they found conditions to be great and were able to crampon easily up the final slopes to the summit.
Adding to the excitement of being on top was the fact that it was Brandon's 21st birthday. Surely not something many 21-year-olds get to experience! They had expansive views of Mont Blanc, where they had stood just a few days earlier. Father and son posed for summit pictures, but before long Tim and Mike urged them towards departure - they knew that the descent often takes just as long as the ascent. Once they had descended all the way to the Hörnli Hut, they fueled up on more rosti, then trekked down to the téléphérique, which eventually brought them back to Zermatt, where more food and sleep again welcomed them.
"Climbing all three objectives in the Alps trilogy is quite an accomplishment. It's not easy to get the weather, conditions, and climber strength all coming together during this relatively short, 10-day trip. The real tricky part is climbing both the Matterhorn and the Eiger. Both are rock climbs, and both require that the routes are very dry with no snow on them. Also, often after a person summits the Matterhorn, they are somewhat ready for something a little more tame as their next climb instead of the Eiger."
The Eiger 13,025 ft / 3970 m
In the heart of the Bernese Oberland (the highlands in west-central Switzerland), classic wooden Swiss chalets dot the hillsides amid green fields of grass and flowers. In this part of Switzerland, the valleys of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen epitomize the traditional alpine vistas that have come to characterize the country. Brandon, John, Mike, and Tim made their way by train from Zermatt to Grindelwald, the starting point for their final objective, the Mittellegi Ridge on the Eiger. When they arrived in this beautiful mountain town that sits above the Interlaken district, they went to sleep immediately as another early rise was on the itinerary.
John had decided while coming down the Matterhorn that he would give the climb of the Eiger a pass while he "could still walk." (He said this with a smile, referring to the non-stop nature of their trip!) However, he and Mike planned to see Brandon and Tim off for this last, momentous climb. The next morning, they boarded the Jungfraubahn railway, which runs almost entirely within a tunnel built into the Eiger and Mönch. The train first stopped at the North Face Station, where passengers can disembark and gaze out the infamous North Face "windows". The second stop was the Eismeer Station, which is high on the Eiger's southeast face at 10,364 feet. This is where the four stepped off. Another set of fantastic big windows looked out over the glaciers and peaks of the Bernese Oberland. Brandon said, "You can stop and look out the windows, which are windows looking out of the side of the mountain, and you literally look down the side of the Eiger! It's as if you were climbing, but you are inside the mountain looking out . . . just unbelievable."
Brandon and Tim said goodbye to John and Mike, donned their climbing gear, and opened up a small metal door that led down a dimly lit corridor and to the start of their route. "Our approach was pretty wild," Brandon said. "Once we got off the train, we went through a few more tunnels, then we opened a door out onto our climbing route! We literally stepped off the train, went through a few tunnels, opened a door, and stepped onto the glacier on the south face of the Eiger." He continued, "The infrastructure in Switzerland's mountains is unbelievable. I heard that part of the reason for this is because Switzerland wasn't damaged during the First World War, and so they didn't have to spend time and money repairing anything, but just continued to develop and keep the economy busy. You look at some of the tunnels, railways, and doors they've built through and into the mountains and you think 'how and why was that built?'"
Brandon and Tim quickly moved across the Fiescher Glacier and onto the solid rock approach slabs. After 3 pitches, they went back to scrambling and soon found their way traversing small ledges and increasingly loose rock. Eventually, they came upon the Mittellegi Hut, which stands on the ridge at just over 11,000 feet and where they would sleep that night. They enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the hut, eating apple pie, and drinking tea, and turned in early for their upcoming early rise.
The next morning they woke early and began climbing. Their route was the Mittellegi Ridge, a fine dividing line between the mile-high North Face and the Fiescher Glacier. From the hut the route climbs steadily along the exposed ridge to the Eiger's summit, mixing third, fourth, and fifth class rock climbing that is significantly exposed. Brandon and Tim cruised at a great pace, thanks to Brandon's strength and comfort with exposure - a benefit from his iron-working experience, during which he would walk high beams daily. They didn't stop very often or take many pictures, but just kept moving. Even though the route was more difficult than what they had been on before, Brandon was surprised to find that he felt a lot more relaxed on the Eiger. "The Eiger was my favorite climb by far because there were a lot less people. The hut we stayed in was about a fourth the size of the other huts, and there were maybe only 30 people on the route, most of whom you get to know while climbing. This is probably because the Eiger is harder than the Matterhorn, and for some reason there is less of the image thing. There is a real nice overall feeling of comraderie amongst the climbers on the Eiger and none of the attitude I noticed on the Matterhorn." With so few other people on the route, they were at times climbing completely alone. Great, exposed rock pitches with breathtaking views fueled their energy and smiles and they climbed higher and higher. Soon they topped out, reaching the third and final summit of the trilogy!
After a long descent that consisted of rappels, icy traverses, belayed rock climbing, and a final glacier traverse around the Mönch, they reached the train station at the Jungfraujock (the saddle between the Mönch and the Jungfrau). They rode the train back to Grindelwald and triumphantly met up with John and Mike, big grins on their faces.
In the end, the trip to the Alps was for John and Brandon a very positive life experience. For John, who had wanted to climb mountains since his early twenties but never got to do so because of getting "swept up in life" with his career and family, the climbs he did in the Alps were a long-awaited dream come true. And, as he says, he "wasn't going to get any younger." John urges others that have dreamt of climbing in the Alps or other famous ranges to take action, and claims that just the training alone will "add life to your years!" He also says to remember that "life isn't about the number of breaths you take, it's about the moments that take your breath away."
Brandon, who in addition to achieving all three objectives of the trilogy, had the priviledge of summiting the Matterhorn on his twenty-first birthday, feels very fortunate to have had the opportunity to climb with his dad amidst the beauty and history of the Alps. Of climbing with his dad, he said with a smile, "Find a climbing partner over 50 years old and you're guaranteed to have a good time!"
Click the link to learn more about climbing the alps with American Alpine Institute