Classic alpine faces are books, history books that tell of the development of climbing from the beginnings to the present. But you need to be prepared to read and to understand the language in which the stories are written. The north face of the Grosser Bockmattliturm stands high above the waters of the Wägitalersee in the Canton of Glarus in Switzerland and tells of Supertramp and many other stories…
EPISODE 03: SUPERTRAMP | GLARUS ALPS, SWITZERLAND
Classic alpine faces are books…
|Region:||Glarus Alps | Switzerland|
|First ascent:||1980: Martin Scheel, Gregor Benisowitsch|
|Repeat:||June 2016: David Lama, Katherine Choong|
|Rock type:||Slabby limestone, sometimes quite smooth, sparingly rebolted (renaturalized after intensive rebolting).|
|Type of climbing:||Primarily face and crack climbing, long runouts, sometimes psychologically demanding without really being dangerous. It is possible to free climb the pendulum traverse (7b+).|
|Grade:||3 pitches over the Alte Nordwand (Old North Face), then 6a+, 6c+, 6a, 6b, 6a, 5c+, 6c+, A1 (pendulum traverse, free 7b+), 6a, 6b, 6a+, 6b, 5a|
|Face height:||400 m|
A director couldn’t arrange a more perfect backdrop for a production of Heidi film! Below are the turquoise waters of the Wägitalersee, above, contented cows grazing on green hills, between them picturesque mountain huts and above them all, the mountain, or rather the massif: for many years, the Bockmattli has been home to Zurich’s climbing community, who refer to it lovingly as the “Bockli.” The undisputed king is the Grosser Bockmattliturm, with its front face – the 400-m north face.
Divided by cracks and dihedrals, the enormous slab of the right part of the wall immediately catches the eye. Bordered by a huge dihedral on the left and running out into broken topography on the right, this slab gets most of the attention – for some, it is utterly impossible, for others, it is the ultimate challenge. But all in good time…
The nature of things determined that it took a relatively long time before climbers showed interest in the towers of the Bockmattli. There are without doubt more imposing summits and larger walls than on the “Bockli,” so it was only in 1921 that the Grosser Bockmattliturm was first climbed by Paul Stähin and Sepp Schnyder from Lachen on Lake Zurich.
More than 25 years later, in 1947, the north face (the highest face in the region) was first climbed by C. Hauser, J. Kost and J. Krebser. They followed the simplest line up the huge slab from the bottom right to the top left: today this is known as the“Alte Nordwand” (Old North face) (V+/A1 or VII). Finally, the legendary Max Niedermann and Peter Diener found a direct line up the face in 1956 (V+/A0 or VI+). Known as the “Direkte” Niedermann’s route ultimately made the Bockmattli famous outside of Switzerland, as it made it into Walter Pause’s climbing bible Extreme Alpine Rock.
The fact that other routes were eventually added – the “Nordwestwand” (North West Face) (VI) by Wisi Fleischmann and Kurt Grüter (1959) and the “Nordwandrisse” (North Face Crack) ((VI–, A1 or VII–) by Ueli Hürlemann (1963) – was only of regional interest; the main focus was the “Direkte”, which after all, was one of the first routes to be free climbed in the dawning era of free climbing in 1978 (VI+). Today, heavily rebolted, it is one of the great classic climbing faces of Eastern Switzerland. From the upper part of the “Direkte”, you have perhaps the most impressive view of the enormous slab: during the first free ascent of the “Direkte”, the author of this article watched towards this part of the wall thought it utterly impossible and would have never considered an attempt himself. But as they say: “never say never.”
To overcome limits, you sometimes have to break the rules, not only those of climbing, but those of society. The early 1980s in Zurich saw the political rebellion of the youth against the rigid structures of the upper classes and politics – the result was street fighting, squatting and demonstrations. During this time, the climbers who protested in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse met at the Uetliberg climbing crag, near Zurich, as the KCÜ (Uetliberg Climbing Club), an informal association of climbers. Members of this anarcho-dadaist association, whose only statute was that all statutes should be repealed, were young sports climbers from the Zurich scene, including Martin Scheel (b. 1960), at the time an apprentice in the field of telecommunications.
As so often in history, the avant-garde declared its protest against established tradition and was willing to push the limits. In June 1979, Martin Scheel, just 19 years old, and his climbing partner at the time, Gregor Benisowitsch, climbed a new route called “Free Trip” up the right side of the enormous layered slab of the north face: eight pitches of exposed, daring crack and dihedral climbing up to VII with just a bolt and three pitons for protection. Martin placed the bolt protecting the first crux only after having climbed the hardest part, while the remaining protection took place in the “clean” style of the time with nuts and hexentrics –”Friends” only became available many years later.
The seed was sown, and a route up the central part of the north face slab had become an obsession for Martin. The following year he returned – again with Gregor Benisowitsch – to attempt a direct line up the holdless slab. A tough section was waiting already at the second pitch: a steep, 25-m, grade VIII right rising traverse, not brilliantly protected by a bolt and three pitons!
After two more VII pitches and a short VI section they reached the first ledge – enough for the first try! The few bolts, which were drilled by hand, cost time and energy and Martin and Gregor rappelled down the route. It sometimes takes more than half an hour before a bolt holds in the hard limestone. Back then, people worked with the new Mammut drilling system: the drill bit was also the expansion bolt for the bolt and it was sometimes necessary to use two drill bits for a bolt in the hard stone – it’s hard to be a hard man…
On the next attempt, Martin and Gregor climbed to the first ledge via the neighboring Free Trip route and crossed to the highest point they had reached. After a VI section to warm up, the crux pitch awaited – a smooth slab leading to a crack. Martin later recalled in an interview with Klettern magazine that “there were two pitches where I stood below with my heart really racing before I started to climb…” Martin constantly had to climb away from the last protection, meter by meter at upper grade VII and low grade VIII, in the hope that he could eventually place a skyhook from which the next bolt or piton could be drilled or hammered in – an arduous and nerve-wracking situation! And then finally a pendulum traverse – then came the crack and shortly thereafter the next belay. But Supertramp fought on and kept presenting new challenges: an almost 30-m dihedral and then more slabs, all upper VI and VII, until they finally reached the summit ridge.
Two years passed before Wolfgang Güllich and his friend Thomas Düll came, saw and conquered on August 11, 1982 – they managed the second ascent in seven hours. Güllich noted soberly in his tour book: “First full-length and first redpoint ascent – a great route in solid rock … all pitches as lead climber.” Later, in Boulder magazine, he wrote that it was “more difficult than the Eastern Alpine top routes Locker vom Hocker [Ed. note: VIII–; first ascent: Güllich/Albert] and Bayrischer Traum [Ed. note: VIII–; first redpoint ascent: Güllich/Albert]. The spell of Supertramp had been broken and it was repeated ten times before 1984.
Rebolting vs. renaturalizing
In the early 1980s, climbing was characterized by the belief in leaving as few traces (bolts) in the rock as possible. “Clean” was the watchword of the day and if bolts were necessary, then their use was to be kept to a minimum. The mental factor was at least as important as the physical factor, so at the time, many tours placed a very high moral standard on those who repeated them.
Then a tsunami called Plaisir rolled across Switzerland and later the entire Alpine region. One of the main initiators of this movement was Jürg von Känel from the Bernese Oberland. He was one of the best Swiss sports climbers of his time and wanted to remove some of the seriousness from rock climbing: he made countless mid-grade routes accessible with optimum bolting. The fact that this idea was enthusiastically adopted by the climbing community goes without saying, as climbers finally no longer had to get to grips with their favorite routes psychologically and could simply climb for “plaisir” (fun).
The opening up of perfectly secured Plaisir routes was complemented by the rebolting of classic climbing routes. And it all happened very quickly – thanks to drills and the support of the Alpine Associations, all the pitons were replaced by bolts on countless old classics. And as if that weren’t enough, the “modern classics” from the 1980s were equipped with new and additional bolts: neither Free Trip nor Supertramp escaped.
The rebolting work on Free Trip involved simply adding, without asking those who first climbed it, as many bolts as were needed to make any mobile means of protection unnecessary for subsequent climbers. Christoph Schaub, a Mammut employee who climbed Free Trip in its old state in the 1990s, rappelled over Free Trip as part of the film work for the Supertramp video and was extremely “surprised in a negative way” about the large number of bolts that had been added.
In the case of Supertramp, those who rebolted the route asked those who had first climbed it and it was agreed that the pitons and bolts placed during the first ascent could be rebolted. And the actual work followed quickly: Supertramp was rebolted in 2004/2005 – and how! Friends of Martin climbed the route and found out that they didn’t have to use any additional nuts or Friends, so they asked those who made the first ascent whether they could “renaturalize” it. After consultation with Martin Scheel, 28 bolts were removed from Supertramp in 2009. Martin wrote that on his website :
“The so-called ‘risk sports’ are an important way for people to fulfill themselves without jeopardizing others. The point is that not just the mass and commerce have the say, but that a field of activity remains for minorities. Pushing through a certain style with no regard for others is an ideological cul-de-sac that was attempted decades ago – back then it was called ‘superdirettissima’, today it is known as ‘plaisir.”‘ And on the subject of “copyright” for those who made the first ascent, he added: “In my opinion, this is more pronounced the more important the route is for the history of climbing. Milestones such as “Der Weg durch den Fisch”, “Supertramp”, “Silbergeier” and others must not be destroyed under any circumstance; the value of these climbs lies partly in their seriousness.”
Heidi and Peter the goatherd
Welcome to Heidiland! Is that Heidi and Peter the goatherd walking across the lush alpine meadows between the peaceful, grazing cows? No, it’s two Mammut athletes on the way to begin the Supertramp route – David Lama (26, from Tirol, Austria) and Katherine Choong (24, from Glovelier, Switzerland) want to repeat Martin Scheel’s legendary route 36 years after the first ascent. Introducing David to the climbing world would be like taking tea to China: he cemented his place in the history of alpinism with the first redpoint ascent of Cerro Torre. Katherine is primarily a sports climber with competition ambitions and got people talking with high positions in the Junior European and World Championships. She is understandably excited because Supertramp is one of her first multi-pitch routes: “There are certainly worse things than climbing such a historic route with David!” she later said.
David and Katherine climb like clockwork, alternating leads up the shady slab, David climbing the two 6c+ pitches as lead, as the intermediate protection is sometimes quite far apart on those. David praises his partner, saying “we more or less took turns to lead – what she achieved was fantastic, especially considering her lack of experience in alpine terrain!” The climbing rhythm is broken just once – on an attempt to free-climb the pendulum traverse, a hold breaks and he rushes back along the entire traverse. The next attempt works out and David manages the free 7b+ version. As Katherine climbs the last pitch to the summit, the sun hits the face and shrouds the climbers in the golden light of the evening – could there be a better end for such a classic?
Both Katherine and David agree on reflection that Supertramp is a pioneering achievement in the history of climbing. “I admire Martin Scheel and his achievement,” says Katherine. “More than three decades ago, with the old equipment and these mental demands – it was a big deal. In contrast with where the focus is today, namely on the physical climbing ability, psychology played a really big role back then. Martin wrote climbing history with this first ascent.” “Martin certainly is not the first person to attempt to transfer the challenges of safe sports climbing to alpine terrain, nor will he be the last,” adds David “but for me his route is still one of the pioneering achievements of climbing. Martin found the simplest logical line through a clearly defined face – a feat of creativity!”, he explains.
History is a story is a story
Events only become a history when you look back on them, place them in sequence, compare them and assess them. A look at the history book of the north face of the Bockmattli has revealed that between 1947 and 2016 climbing history was written by the best of their time and that they have many stories to tell.
Written history does not judge, it records these stories: classic climbing, the beginning of free climbing, the years of grade climbing and the Plaisir climbing of today. Let’s give the last word to Katherine Choong, a representative of the new generation of sports climbers: “Climbing is a multi-faceted sport! There are performance-oriented climbers, who wish to push their limits, there are those who primarily seek the adventure and physical challenge, and there are those who just want to have fun climbing. But in the end, we all share the same passion. It’s a passion that unites us and teaches us values like respect and openness towards other