(by Kevin Byrne, from IMC Newsletter Winter 1999)
Two weeks climbing the mountains around Zermatt.
Both of us had been to Chamonix within the last few years so the choice of Zermatt for our second trip to the Alps in the 1990’s was fairly obvious. Being the other contender, along with Chamonix, for the title of most popular (or frequented or crowded or spoilt, whatever you like) climbing centre in the Alps it can’t be denied that it has a lot of raw material on offer. The biggest collection of 4,000m peaks, good access and a wide range of accommodation options…and eh, oh yes…the big M…almost forgot to mention that.
Wednesday 21st July, leaving mid-week meant over two weeks for climbing — a chance to sit out a bit of adverse weather. A direct flight from Dublin to Geneva at 11.00am was followed by train connections from the airport terminal to Visp and then on to Zermatt on the rack railway. Efficient and painless, we were checking in to Biner’s Banhoff hotel at 6.30pm..
30 Swiss Francs (£15) per night for the dorms and use of kitchen, good showers, washing machine, ski room and storage facilities Biners still represents good value. And the owners/staff are very knowledgeable and helpful — for example phoning huts to make bookings or enquire about climbing conditions.
The next day, after shopping, we set out for the Tasch Hutte. The walk took 4 hours and passed through the pretty village of Ottovan. The Hutte is well situated with a fine view across the valley to the Weisshorn. It was about half full. Rates (for those interested in the practical side of things) were 50 SF for dinner bed and breakfast; a bit more without a reciprocal rights card. No washing facilities and water 8 SF for 1.5 litres.
We were aiming for the Alphubel, a relatively straightforward PD route to 4,206 metres. We didn’t help ourselves by not properly reconnoitring the start of the route. So 4.00am next morning saw us looking for a non-existent path up the wrong valley. Soon corrected, we had an uneventful slog up glacier and snowy ridge to arrive at the summit feeling every one of those 4,200 metres. A lovely day and a fine summit with superb views, especially of the Dom and Tasch. We reversed the summit snow slopes and ridge to descend (many parties descend the east face and traverse back to the bottom of the ridge).
The following day we completed a traverse of the Allilinhorn (4,027m) by ascending the SW ridge (PD) and descending via the Feekopf (3,880m — also graded PD). Despite this being a very popular climb, particularly from Saas Fee, we had the ascent ridge to ourselves. A steep icy slope to begin was followed by a pleasant if somewhat loose ridge. The route description urged a move to the east side of the ridge in the upper part but doing this left us with Hobson’s choice of steep soft snow or loose rock. Eventually, we made our way back to the main ridge and thereafter made quick progress. Unfortunately, our encounter with the east side lost us an hour and a half and that meant summiting at 12.30 — somewhat later than we would have liked. The Feekopf, traversed in descent offered a narrow rocky ridge with some scrambling at the top. Returning to the Hutte at near 5.00pm we decided to stay a third night and returned to Zermatt next day to a warm shower, a good feed and plenty of rehydration.
The next day we headed up to the Rothorn Hutte which occupies a superb situation at 3,200m. To enjoy this superb refuge requires a five-hour walk from Zermatt, the latter part of which is up a seemingly interminable moraine. The Hutte was full of climbers of many nationalities but we were unfortunate enough to be at a table with a Frenchman and his wife who complained about a German group at the adjoining table taking up too much space. His accusations of German expansionism almost led to an outbreak of hostilities. But at least the food was very good.
We opted to attempt the Obergabelhorn (4,200m AD), via the Wellenkuppe (3,900m). Most people at the Hutte had evidently opted for the Zinalrothorn which we hoped to do the following day. About a dozen or so set out on our route. These included a number of guided parties. The ascent of the Wellenkuppe was straightforward and well worth climbing in its own right. The Obergabelhorn was more challenging, especially the traverse to the Grande Gendarme, which had an icy approach, and then the main ridge which did not have enough snow cover, necessitating more time-consuming rock climbing. While we were slow enough on the ascent of this ridge, we squandered too much time in descent by opting to abseil too often. By now the weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse which turned into a fully-fledged electrical storm by the time we had descended the rocks of the Wellenkuppe. "Did you see the rockfall over there?" said Seán. "Yes", I replied, "and that’s directly on the descent route". More rockfall just behind as we made our way back to the glacier spurred us on. Eventually at 7.30pm, very tired and very wet, we got back to the Hutte. Apparently our late traverse of the Wellenkuppe was watched and commented on from the Hutte. As soon as we got in, Seán was despatched to the common room to make use of his German language skills to plead for dinner, as we were an hour late. No problem, the friendly young staff organised a fine meal which would have been sufficient for 3 or 4 in the normal way. Envious eyes all round. Mutterings of "Luck of the Irish". A pleasant end to what was a terrific route, even if it was a bit of an epic.
The storm continued all night and that ruled out any attempt on the Zinalrothorn. A poor weather forecast did not encourage hanging on so, in common with just about everyone else in the Hutte, we headed for the valley early next morning.
So one week gone and three good routes under our belts. But the weather was deteriorating. At least we could get the postcards out of the way and, truth be told, we needed a rest after 5 days of action in the form of walks up and down to huts and the climbs themselves.
The next day, Thursday, was bad so we spent the time festering, reading, and generally hoping the poor weather wasn’t here to stay. We met 4 of the lads from the MCI Arolla trip who were now in their last few days.
On Friday, we decided not to go for the Matterhorn on the basis that the weather was sure to improve in the week and so we set off on the Gornergrat railway for the Monte Rosa Hutte. Not the best in terms of food but who was complaining? We were more concerned about the conditions. Saturday (and into our final week) we set off for the Dufourspitze. A vertical ascent of 1,600m and a guidebook time of 7 hours. Unfortunately we had repeated the mistake of our first day by not checking out the route the evening before (it looked straightforward) and we duly paid the price of getting lost. We headed out onto the glacier with the intention of trying what looked like a feasible alternative to the huge boulder field we had been in. Soft snow and the occasional sudden plunge through the surface made us think again and once dawn came we headed back for the rocks. The time lost put the climb in doubt. The snow had not frozen well and there were lots of crevasses to cross.
We pressed on and on up what seemed one interminable snow slope though in reality the surroundings were impressive and varied. The Dufourspitze, at 4,600m is second only to Mont Blanc and by the time we reached the narrow summit ridge we were feeling the altitude. But it was a wonderful place to be. A real feeling of being on a big mountain. At noon, the deadline we had set for ourselves, we were almost level with the summit cross but as we still faced a slight descent before making the final few metres, we opted to stick with our self-imposed limit and reluctantly we headed down. Only four parties had set out from the hut and one had turned back early on when clouds came in. With uncertain weather, it was not a place to be caught out for the night. So, a light tick on the list of 4,000m peaks. As we descended quite quickly we certainly could have spent the extra 20 minutes or so it would have taken to achieve the true summit and return to where we stopped. But that’s hindsight!
We opted for a second night of the pleasures of the Monte Rosa Hutte (now with more people in residence) and we had an enjoyable night with some Greek and Norwegian climbers. A few beers helped. The Greeks were very grateful for a bottle of water we gave them.
Sunday 1st August, Switzerland’s national day, was not blessed with great weather but the spectacle of bands, Alpine horns, speeches in many different languages including Japanese, and fireworks on surrounding hills made up for the dampness.
With the three-day weather forecast still predicting a mixture of sunshine and storms on the hills (as it had done everyday since we descended from the Rothorn Hutte), we were uncertain whether we should head for the Hörnli Hutte or try something else. Still hoping for an improvement later in the week, we set out for the Flualp Hutte and the Rimpfishorn. I had a long-standing date with the Rimpfishorn having failed on it some twenty-odd years earlier in the company of Jim Leonard.
This time we were successful and it was a success made all the sweeter by the fact that most of those who set out on that Tuesday morning turned back in the face of the mountain clouding over, fresh snow falling and reports that the summit rocks were out of condition. And so it turned out. We were unsure of what to do when the snow started to fall as we reached the lower rocks but after hanging around for 30 mins or so until we were stiff with the cold, we pressed on. Taking a line left of the normal route near the top and following a series of snow-covered ramps we eventually reached the summit. We hung about hoping for a clearance but it never fully materialised and we had to be content with tantalising glimpses of the surrounding summits. It did clear as we descended to Zermatt but our thoughts were now firmly on whether the general uncertainty of the weather right around the valley would continue.
On Wednesday morning a check on the weather and a visit to the guides’ office confirmed our worst fears — the weather was going to get worse before it got better. Thursday offered some hope of an ascent of the Matterhorn but the forecast for Friday was definitely bad. So, pack the bags again and off for the Hörnli — a two and a half-hour walk from the cablecar.
The Hutte was anything but full (not something one would expect in August) and the rain started soon after we arrived in late afternoon. Taking heed of our earlier mistakes we decided to check out the first hour or more of the route — as recommended by the guidebook. We took a helmet but opted to leave the rope behind — we had no real intention of climbing into the teeth of a storm. Our explorations were very useful but the rain and wet rock did little to inspire us for the following day.
After dinner the guardian announced that with a poor forecast she would only call us if there was some hope of success. The general air was not one of confidence.
Four a.m. and the lights came on. Four of the six in our dorm made ready. By 4.30 breakfast was finished and the decision do we go or not? We decided to give it a go and along with 40 or so others joined in the mad scramble up the fixed ropes at the beginning of the route. As so often happens, trying to keep up with guides who were moving quickly over ground familiar to them proved a futile exercise. No rain but clouds were moving in and out quickly. Three hours later we were just about 100 metres below the Moseley slab when we took time out and decided that the summit was not for us that day. So, again in common with most who set out, we decided to head down. The descent on the Matterhorn takes as long at the ascent so it was just 11.00am when we got back to the Hutte. Had we made the right decision? On balance yes. As far as we could find out, only about a dozen summited that day and they were guided parties. On top of that the mountain remained in cloud all day.
Our Norwegian friends hadn’t even bothered to try. They stayed in their tent. Three lads from Lancashire walked up to the Hörnli to see how we did. Sorry we couldn’t give them a really good excuse for a few bevvies. Our Japanese friend from Biners had made it the day before and he was genuinely disappointed for us (though over the moon for himself).
Despite the success we had in achieving 5 major summits and two minor ones, we couldn’t hide the disappointment at not completing the Matterhorn climb. One good reason to go back — and there are many more. In truth Zermatt is a wonderful centre for climbing.
Our final day was spent walking to Zmutt, Rifelalp and Kaldermatten where we were fortunate to find some Edelweiss. Another good feed, a few pints and it was time to pack the bags for home. Tired but happy…as all the best essays say.