(by Allister Gerrard, August 2008)
In August ’08, we spent an enjoyable few days venturing into the mountains towering above Zermatt. Here are a few notes, which might give you a few ideas if planning a trip there yourself.
How to get there:
- You can fly from Dublin to Milan, Zurich or Geneva, in 2008 anyway.
- If flying to Milan Malpensa airport, you must transfer to the central station from the airport (approx. 50km, 40 mins) before catching the train to Zermatt, which is 237 km, approx. 3.5 hours, via Brig or Visp.
- Zurich is 246 km to Zermatt, approx. 3-3.75 hours by train via Bern and Visp or 4 hours by car.
We both flew to Geneva and caught a train direct from the airport to Zermatt via Visp. The train appeared a bit slow, however, on the up side it was very scenic, winding its way through valleys, alongside Lake Geneva with the sun beating down. We had to get off twice briefly to change trains en-route, again the short wait is very bearable, a chance to relax, stretch the legs and take in the views of the countryside; a welcome sight if just out of Dublin. The last train to Zermatt is a short trip, approx. 30 minute; the scenery on the way to Zermatt on the final train is stunning, as you travel deeper into the valley, the snowy peaks towering above, glaciated rivers thundering down the mountains. The train was very modern and even had windows on the ceiling so you can appreciate the views.
Zermatt is a small town, which you can cross from one side to the other by foot in half an hour or so. Which is just as well, as cars are prohibited within 7 km of Zermatt, except authorised electric vehicles for deliveries only.
For accommodation in Zermatt I can recommend ‘Hotel Bahnhof’ (contact details below) which is a clean, self-catering hotel, very competitive to all its neighbours. The hotel has dormitories and twin/double rooms among others. There is plenty of room for cooking in a spacious kitchen and dining area and the supermarket is nearby. It is owned and run by an alpine guide, wife and son. We had the pleasure of meeting father and son, as they both worked on reception, the son almost a fully qualified Alpine guide himself. Both were very helpful in advising us on the local Alpine routes, weather, and so on. Gerry Moss recommended this place to us and sure enough we found it excellent.
Our first day, to stretch the legs and help acclimitise, we took the cable car to Schwarzsee (2583m) and from there walked up to the Hörnli Hut at 3260m to stay the night. It is about a 2 hour walk up from the cable station, track all the way, fabulous views, some wire cables to hand on the steeper sections of track. The cable car was expensive, €56 return to Zermatt, but deals can be done for multi-trips or if you have the Swiss card (ask at the airport and see below for more info). In the Hörnli hut that night we were surrounded by a posse of serious climbers, having their ‘last supper’ before an early night and the 3-4am start up the Hörnli ridge of the Matterhorn the next day. That day some were returning between 10 and 12pm. However, the night before, several groups were falling in the door at 9 to 10pm at night and even then outside I could see the headtorches with groups still coming down at 10.30pm. High up on the mountain, it was bitter cold outside the hut, so god knows what it was like on the ridge itself, baltic I’d say. The two lads who arrived in late had missed their dinner and looked seriously trashed, after being out for maybe 18 hours plus, so we gave them our desert, all we had left; they were very appreciative. We chatted away with them about their experiences and they talked of their Irish friend and about all the climbs they had done together. An odd party often sleep in the Solvay hut, an emergency shelter at approx. 4000m or even bivi if darkness has fallen, when it just makes no sense to continue. From chatting with the different parties, it appears, during the summer months, the biggest problems seem to be the overcrowding on the mountain; the best times we were assured by alpine guides were May, early June, September or even October. Without a guide, route-finding is also difficult. The climbing is scrambling to V.Diff+ in sections, with fixed ropes on harder sections, but very long, sustained day, with lots of exposure. The following morning, we decided to climb a section of the Matterhorn, as it was our first day and we were only there to start acclimatising and to take in the views. However, after a lazy start to the morning at 10am we climbed up a few hundred feet of the Matterhorn. On the first section there are fixed ropes over diff/v.diff climbing, which we moved together on. The next section we moved out left before gaining more open ground, leading to the “Grampiturm”. After only the second section I realised how easy it was to get lost as we did go off route, when I was sure I was following what looked like the route. We could see parties above us coming down which showed the line we should have been on. We enjoyed the little adventure anyway and had other plans, so we descended.
Allister on the lower slopes of the Hörnli ridge, Matterhorn
We walked back down and jumped on the cable car to Schwarzsee and Furi stations before heading back up to Trockener Steg (2939m). From here a 30-minute walk up took us to our next hut for the night, the Gandegg Hut (3029m) (privately owned; tel: 0041-796078868), or alternatively one can walk the five hours from Zermatt to the Gandegg hut. The next day we walked back down to the cable station to get a cable car to the Klein Matterhorn station, the highest station in Europe (3817m) (tel: 0041-79660101). The other option is to walk up from the Gandegg, Theodul or Testa Griga huts (cable from Brevil, Cervinia, Italy side) to access the surrounding mountains of the Breithorn, Pollux, and Castor etc.
From the Klein Matterhorn Station we walked up to the summit of the Breithorn (4164m), a PD- snow slope, 35 degrees, often icy, with routine crevasse and avalanche risks. That said it was more or less a snow plod, with a narrow ridge on the top. On the day it was breezy and high enough to slow the body down at altitude. It takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to reach the summit from the station. Unfortunately, the day we were up, it was clouded over, and so we saw nothing. Be prepared for large crowds in the summer, as it is one of the most accessible 4000m peaks in the Alps; however there is the comfort of having some people around too, which makes navigating easy in the clouds, as there are plenty of guided parties around.
Incidentally, Zermatt guides charge €665 for the Matterhorn 1:1, €103 for Breithorn (4:1); Pollux or Castor €210.
After climbing the Breithorn we dropped back down to Zermatt for a break after two nights in huts to re-charge and relax. The next day we wanted to attempt ‘Pollux’ or ‘Castor’ from the Klein Matterhorn but the weather forecast was for a storm. So we decided to walk from the Klein Matterhorn to the ‘Testa Grigia Hut’ (Tel: 00390166948369) (3451m), in Italy and stay overnight there so we could get an early start the next day without having to wait for a cable car from Zermatt, which starts at something like 7am.
The following morning, I woke at 4am, having slept only for a few hours, during the stormy night, waking up to a flash of lightning outside the window, which had no curtains. I thought at one point that one of the ten others in the room had left their head torches on flash mode during the night. I was first down that morning all weary-eyed, followed shortly by an Alpine guide to check conditions and to see if the storm had passed. The guide was a bit hesitant; I got ready all the same, and then suddenly he was ready and out the door with his two clients. Snow had fallen during the night, tracks were gone, dark clouds still loomed above. Eventually at 5.45am, we set off from the hut in the direction of ‘Pollux’ and ‘Castor’. It took about one and a quarter hours to get to the Klein Matterhorn area. From the Klein Matterhorn to the base of Pollux took about two hours. Total height gain from Testa Grigia to the summit is about 1000m. The route from the Klein Matterhorn drops to a saddle (3796m) and then heads east towards the Breithorn, over the Breithorn pass (3824m), and along under the Breithorn’s southern flank, below the crevasse zones of the upper Ghiacciaio di Verra glacier and then below the rock island with Rosso Bivouac (3750m) on your left as you pass it. The Rosso Bivouac, although we did not visit, when viewed looks more like a hut high up on the rocky outcrop; passing this, one reaches the slope to Schwarztor. Some of the tracks enroute cross over narrow crevasses and onto narrower tracks with some steep ground to one side.
Pollux and Castor
The start of the route to climb Pollux (4091m) we took was at the base of a rocky ridge, The West South West Ridge Route; we were advised to take this route by the Alpine guide at the Hotel Bahnof (there is also the North West Ridge route or the South-East Ridge). These two routes were described in my guide book, however, the Alpine guide advised us against the South East ridge route from the ‘Zwillingsjoch’ as it had very loose rock and was not as interesting.
Allister climbing on Mt. Pollux
A view down the the West South West Ridge of Pollux
The West South West Ridge was mixed climbing depending on the way you go up and down. We started climbing the ridge just left of the start of it. We stayed in crampons on the rock, moved together on the ridge, with some gear in between us enroute. We pitched one exposed V.Diff section before moving on again. After that we climbed up a short snow slope before meeting a vertical wall of rock, exposed on either side. Here there were a series of chains, lightly dusted with ice, to hold onto and clip into to help climb up the vertical rock wall with a bit more speed and safety, which has three chain sections to it. The guide book describes it as “the upper part has some steep pitches equipped with fixed ropes” and is reminiscent according to the guidebook of sections of the Hörnli Ridge, on the Matterhorn. The rock climbing ends on a shoulder where there is statue of the Virgin Mary. Thereafter a snowy ridge narrows onto an exposed narrow summit, not advisable to be on in strong winds. The summit views were thoroughly absorbing and fantastic (4091m).
Aileen Moloney (left) and Allister (right) on the summit of Pollux.
We descended the same ridge down, except we decided instead of climbing down the rocky ridge on the bottom half of the mountain, to descend the snowy slope/gully on one side of the rocky ridge; this was much faster. Had we gone up this snow slope (Scottish grade I/II) instead of staying on the ridge itself, we would have been quicker going up; however, we did not know that at the time as there as there was no one about and we had stuck to our plan and original route, which was probably more interesting anyway. After a brief chat with another group from New Zealand at the bottom of the ridge we headed back on our snow trail for the last cable car from the Klein Matterhorn station to Zermatt, where we intended to spend the night. Due to a long day and on the climb longer than expected, the early start, altitude etc., we were slower going back and marginally missed the last cable car and plan B was called for. So I rang the Testa Grigia Hut from my mobile and booked in again for the night. An hour later we arrived down at the hut just on time for dinner, tired, hungry but glad of a bed for the night and a beer or two. In the case of emergency, huts will not refuse a stranded climber high in the Alps, even if you arrive late and unexpectedly; however, you could end up sleeping on the floor.
Thanks to Gerry Moss, Barry Watts, Declan Cunningham, Kevin Byrne, James Aitken and Tony Barry for the advice prior to going and giving us the ‘heads up’ prior to travelling, it’s these pieces of advice which can make the holiday a lot easier when you get there!
- LKS 1348 ZERMATT
- LKS 5006 Matterhorn – Mischabel
Other recommended routes in and around Zermatt
- Castor (4228m), from Klein Matterhorn, PD, Snow or Ice to 35 deg, approx. 4 hours each way; 700m height gain; zigzag up the south west face, a snow plod.
- Breithorn Central (4159m), Grade F+, Snow ascent, 35 deg. From Breithorn pass go north into a snow basin and steeply up to a col. Climb east along the snow ridge to Breithorn Central. Traverse from the East summit (PD+, III + pitches on central rocky East Ridge).
- Alphubel (4206m), South-east ridge from west (easy except for often icy summit slope, 1550m ascent, 4-5 hours from Tasch hut at 2701m; Or from Saas valley side
- Allalinhorn (4027m), South-west ridge; From Tasch hut in 3 hours, +500m, 2 hours, pitches of II.
- Rimpfischorn (4199m), PD+, summit block there is exposed climbing, II+ , otherwise II and I. In couloir above Rimpfischsattel ice climbing up to 50 deg but up to that a long plod, with just 200m of climbing (I and II) to 4009m. From Blouherd station of the Zermatt/Unterrothorn railway involves about 80m descent and ascent (30 minutes) to reach the hut. Hut to summit is 1600m ascent (5-6 hours).
The Saas-Fee/Saas Valley can also be an option and is within reasonable reach i.e. the next valley over, by train/bus from Zermatt. Weismeiss and the Lagginhorn from the Weismeiss Hut are possible options. The Strahlhorn and Allalinhorn from the Britannia Hut, as is the Rimpfischhorn and the Alphubel.
Some gear can be hired in Zermatt if required, from shops such as Sports Zermatt or Anorak Sports; gear such as crampons, ice axe, boots, climbing shoes etc.
If you are thinking of hiring an Alpine Guide (and if there are no Irish ones available first of course), telephone the Alpine Centre in Zermatt , Tel: 0041279662460.
Other useful websites/contacts
- Zermatt Tourist Office, tel: +41279668118
- SBB Trains, tel: +41900300300 (or 0848030030)
Note: There is no need to pre-reserve train seats from Geneva to Zermatt return. Perhaps consider purchasing a ‘Swiss Card’ over there, it may save you some money. A Swiss Card includes a free round trip from the airport or the Swiss border to your resort in Switzerland. You are entitled to receive a 50% discount when travelling by train, bus and boat throughout Switzerland during your stay. You need to buy regular tickets for each trip, but you will only pay half the price when you show your Swiss Card. Furthermore, you will receive a discount of 50% on many gondolas, funiculars and mountain trains.
- Train Info: www.swissrail.ch www.sbb.ch www.cff.ch www.fahrplan.sbb.ch
- Zermatt info
- Hotel Bahnhof Tel: 0041-279672406. Catering for alpinists in Zermatt for over 100 years and is across road from the train station
- Saas-Fee/Saas Valley Info
- Hörnli Hut (Tel: 0041-279672769)
- British Mountaineering Council for alpine and rock insurance