A Traverse of Monte Rosa

(by Noel Brown, from the IMC Journal 1956-57)

On the 6th August last year, Betty Healy, Frank Butler and I were in the Betemps Hut on Monte Rosa. Our plan for the following day was to do a high-level traverse to the Magherita Hut via the Dufourspitze (15,217 feet), Zumsteinspitze (15,004 feet) and the Signalkuppe (14,965 feet). Since none of us had previously climbed Monte Rosa we felt keen anticipation for the morrow’s adventure, which we hoped the weather would allow us to enjoy in full. Before retiring that night we packed our rucksacks so that we could depart as expeditiously as possible next morning.

At approximately 3 a.m. I was jabbed in the ribs and told to get up, which I reluctantly did. Breakfast was the usual meagre coffee and bread affair and did not detain us for long, so that by 4 a.m. we had stepped out into a dark, cloudless morning. We took to the moraine track above the hut which led us rather quickly to the foot of the Monte Rosa Glacier. This glacier forms the north-western slope of the mountain and gains 3,300 feet in height before ending abruptly on the western ridge. I strapped on my crampons before starting up the frozen slope which, although long, offered practically no difficulty. We climbed steadily upwards until at last we were separated from the main ridge only by a narrow ice arete. This section, however, was the steepest part of the glacier and made heavy demands on our stamina. Fortunately, it was short and inside half-an-hour we had gained the rock ridge proper. By this time the sun had risen and the weather was still good, so we took a breather and admired the magnificent scene around us. Now that we were on the ridge, the slope up which we had come seemed steeper, while on the opposite side a terrific mountain wall of snow and ice-glazed rock plunged down almost vertically beneath our feet. Most of the great Zermatt peaks were visible, and far away in the west the snow dome of Mont Blanc, King of the Alps, could be seen gleaming in the brilliant sunshine.

But it was time to move again. At 14,280 feet, when most climbs are over, the real part of this was just beginning. The ridge soared above us, half-a-mile long, like a giant’s saw with teeth turned to the sky. We climbed along it, moving together on some sections and singly on others. Our progress was good and several times we thought the summit was near at hand, but on reaching one high point another and higher one always loomed up in front. So it went, up, down, up again and sometimes around the red rocks of this seemingly endless ridge. The rock-climbing was not difficult, but at an altitude of 15,000 feet it became very strenuous. We were relieved when finally, after cutting steps up heavily iced rocks and rounding an exposed corner, the summit came into view. Another fifty feet of rock, a short chimney and we stood on the Dufourspitze, the highest peak of Monte Rosa. The climbing had so absorbed us that we had not noticed the deterioration in the weather during the last couple of hours. Big clouds were piling up about the mountain and above us the blue sky was gradually being blotted out. We had taken eight hours to reach the summit, which was longer than expected, but the day was still young and we had no intention of forfeiting our well-earned rest. We stayed on the summit until the biting wind made further loitering impossible, yet not once did our eyes pierce the impenetrable clouds which obscured everything. Before we could sample the comforts of the Margherita Hut we had to climb down the ridge and cross two more 15,000 foot peaks, so we had no time to lose. After a last look round we moved off down the ridge while the wind tore at us and blew loose snowflakes into our faces. In a situation like this speed is of paramount importance, so we had to make a decision: we could climb together along the ridge and hope that none of us slipped, for on both sides were great precipices, waiting for a false move on our part. Alternatively we could choose the much safer but far slower process of moving one at a time. Neither method seemed attractive under the circumstances, but we adopted the latter. Betty went down first while I belayed her. She belayed me in turn and Frank followed up the rear. This maddeningly slow process went on for hour after hour and still we seemed no nearer the Grenz Sattel which is the col below the Zumsteinspitze. By this time Frank’s balaclava was covered in tiny icicles and wind-blown snow and Betty’s hair sticking out from under her anorak hood looked frozen hard. I wondered what it would be like to bivouac on this ridge with the merciless wind blowing into us all night. I conjured up visions of three huddled figures, minute specks on this vast mountain, rubbing hands and stamping feet all night long. Strangely enough, the thought did not disturb me very much at the time, although I still had a preference for the hut.

Suddenly the mist began to thin out and the col became visible. The ridge from the col to the Zumsteinspitze looked iced and terribly steep but we would soon know all this, for we were much nearer to it than we had thought. We celebrated this discovery by opening a tin of fish (we had not eaten for twelve hours), but unfortunately they were frozen so hard, as to be indigestible. I flung them over the ridge while Frank rummaged in his rucksack for something more edible. He produced bread and cheese which appeased our hunger to some extent. As Betty was, eating I noticed that she had frostbitten fingers. By gentle massage I endeavoured to revive the circulation, but to no avail. Since nothing could be done for the time being, she replaced her gloves and we continued down to the col. From here the route up to the Zumsteinspitze was quite easy and not nearly as steep as I had thought, although a dangerous looking cornice had to be treated with care. But it was now Frank’s turn to massage, for one of my fingers was causing me great pain. He applied the necessary treatment and we carried on to the Zumsteinspitze without further mishap. We descended as quickly as possible to the Col Gnifetti, 250 feet below. Above us rose one more slope–the final one–leading to the summit of the Signalkuppe. On the top of this mountain is the Margherita Hut, the highest in Europe. We toiled upwards in semi-darkness with ever slowing pace until at long last we reached the hut, seventeen hours after leaving the Betemps. We had to kick and hammer the door, for the guardians, not expecting any climbers to arrive so late, had gone to bed. A minute later a head appeared out of a window and muttered something in Italian. We heard footsteps coming down the stairs, a latch being lifted, and then the door opened. We entered the hut and were admitted to the guardians’ private little room where they supplied us with coffee to which we added whiskey. Fortunately, Betty’s frostbite was mild, which was as much a relief to us as it was to her. After having a meal we retired, thankful for the four walls around us. The wind was still raging outside, but sleep came easily.

The weather had improved the next day, but we decided to stay at the hut and descend the following morning. We greatly regretted this decision, for before we could clear out the weather became so bad again that we were forced to prolong our stay for another two days. On the fourth day the storm subsided and we grasped our opportunity to descend to Zermatt, as glad to be out of the hut as we had been to enter it four days previously.