First Things FirstEver since the publication of Karl Blodig’s book Die Viertausander des Alpen, four thousand meters has marked an invisible line to distinguish the highest mountains in the Alps. The UIAA recognizes 82 peaks in this group, but the exact number of 4000m peaks varies depending on the height separation used. Switzerland’s Weissmies (4017m) marks the first ascent of a 4000er for many climbers. Being one of the eastern most 4000m peaks in the Valais Alps, it provides a nice panorama from its summit. This combined with a relatively easy ascent makes it a popular objective. However, each year the summit dome has progressively melted down with recent map revisions lowering the elevation by six meters. Therefore, one would be advised not to wait too long for an attempt on the Weissmies. In a few more years the peak may no longer be a member of the exclusive 4000er club.
Having climbed other 4000m peaks before, an ascent of the Weissmies would not mark my first 4000er. Instead, this trip would turn out to be a 4000er of firsts. It would be my wife’s first ascent of a 4000er and our first 4000er together. It would be our first stay together at a Swiss alpine hut. It would be the first time we were woken up by two different bells at two different times. It would be our first aluminum ladder-assisted crevasse crossing. And it would be the first time that my mountain boots did not rub holes in my heels!
We would do the traverse, a classic route of modest difficulty involving an ascent of two very different aspects of the mountain: a rocky southeast ridge and glaciated northwest flank. The southeast ridge ascent involves a long and windswept rocky ridge while the northwest flank descent involves the heavily crevassed ice of the Trift Glacier. We would park our car in the village of Saas Almagell (1670m), stay a night at the Almageller Hut (2894m), traverse the mountain from south to north, take the gondola from Hohsaas (3130m) back to the village of Saas Grund (1559m) and catch the bus back to our car in Saas Almagell. If we could pull it off, it would also be our first traverse together.
Two of my colleagues, both experienced mountaineers, successfully completed the same traverse a few years ago. The first colleague led a group of beginners that were so traumatized by the event that they vowed to stay away from mountaineering from that point forward. On the other hand, my second colleague traversed the mountain with a few family members and everyone had a good time. It was my hope that this trip would be fun for both of us and turn out to be the first of many more climbs together. We would find out soon enough!
Almageller-it!After a few hours of driving, we reached the village of Saas Almagell where we parked the car. Our approach to the Almageller Hut would involve 1224m of elevation gain over seven kilometers. We began by heading up a meandering trail through a pleasant forest. After about an hour, we crossed a bridge to the north side of the Almageller Bach. We stopped for lunch a short while later by a spot in the shade of a gigantic boulder just up from the stream.
Continuing up, we passed the Almageller Hotel (2194m) where dozens of day trippers were chowing down on the local cuisine. From here, our path headed up at a steeper grade toward the upper alp, a grazing area for sheep and cows. Eventually, we reached the Almageller Hut, a modern and efficiently run alpine accommodation with all the usual luxuries one can expect from today’s Swiss huts. The views across to the Mischabel and Allalin peaks were great.
We were assigned to the winter cabin, a separate building away from the main hut that sleeps around twenty outside of the regular spring and summer seasons. After finding our bunks, we dropped our packs and enjoyed some rest and relaxation. We spotted a few people on some of the multi-pitch climbing routes adorning the cliffs of the Dri Horlini just a few hundred meters from the hut.
Waiting for dinner, we lounged around in the dining room, reading the climbing magazines on the shelves and studying maps on the walls. We also browsed the guest book and noticed that while locals made up the vast majority of the clientele, we were not the only vacationers. Some people from as far away as New Zealand had signed their names.
Dinner was both delicious and filling. Afterwards, we headed back to our cabin to watch the last few rays of sunshine fade away. We hit the sack just after sunset and settled in for what would hopefully be a restful night. Sometime during the night, we awoke to the sound of bells. Someone left the window facing the pasture open and the sound seemed as if it was right next to our beds. The bells were fairly high-pitched, suggesting the ringers were probably sheep. After a while, our nocturnal visitors passed and we were left with only the snoring of our fellow cabin mates.
After a few hours, we were woken up by a second round of bells. This time it was the cows. The bells were low-pitched and there must have been at least a dozen. The sound intensified as one of the animals approached our cabin and stopped under our window. What we heard next was something like a fire hose spraying into a mud puddle. For the next minute or so, this beast let loose a torrent that filled the air with the smell of its four stomachs. It was definitely the first time something like this happened and we both hoped it would be the last. Finally, our second batch of bell ringers passed and we managed to get a few winks before the alarm rang at a quarter to five.
Up and OverFollowing a generous breakfast, we headed out the door and up the trail to Zwishbergenpass (3268m). There were just one or two icy sections of ground that required extra care, but otherwise the path to the pass was uneventful. The sun was just beginning to poke out of the clouds to the east as we got to the pass. From there, we continued heading north a few hundred meters over rocky ground. We soon came upon the start of the ridge where some teams were roping up. A few people were taking the snow slope to the right, but this seemed like the slower of the two options, so we stayed with the ridge. We also discussed the possibility of roping up, but opted to free climb in order to move faster over what still felt like easy ground.
The ridge offered some really enjoyable climbing. It gained approximately 600m and consisted of only a few short technical sections, almost always on solid holds. An hour and a half from the pass, we stopped for a bite to eat at the plateau marking the end of the ridge.
We strapped on crampons and roped up at this point since the rest of the traverse would be mostly on snow and ice with some exposure in places. Continuing upward, we followed the boot track along the crest of the narrow snow ridge to where it met the summit dome. A few more steps and we were on top. We just climbed our first 4000er together!
After hugs and high fives, we looked around at the views, superb in every direction. The wind was howling fiercely, so we decided to snap only a few photos and quickly turn our attention to the second half of the traverse, descending the Trift Glacier. Most accidents happen on the way down and it is not hard to imagine why this could be the case on a descent of the northwest flank. The northwest flank is blanketed by the heavily crevassed Trift Glacier. In late season this mass of ice opens up to show some spectacular chasms. Some of the gaps we passed could have easily swallowed a few Almageller-sized huts.
Beginning our descent from the summit, we were careful to avoid straying too far from the beaten path. After passing a few parties coming up the Trift Glacier, we continued snaking our way down; first left, then right and then left again, following the path that avoided this year’s crevasses on various parts of the glacier. We eventually caught up with a party of three at an interesting, yet unsigned crevasse crossing.
An aluminum ladder had been thrown across the gap of the crevasse, secured on both ends with a wooden stake driven into the ice. Running around or jumping over this two meter gap would have been a bit difficult, so this ladder was certainly a welcome addition. After the party ahead of us cleared the way, we made the crossing ourselves. It was hard not to pause along the way to admire the seemingly bottomless pit and the Swiss ingenuity that enabled its crossing.
After the aluminum ladder, we continued our winding descent. We crossed a slender snow arête that formed the downhill side of a gaping crevasse. We snaked around some enormous chasms and over snow bridges that were close to supporting their last legs. The slope eventually eased and before too long we were at the edge of the glacier, relieved to have the biggest hazards behind us. A short walk up the loose moraine and we were on the trail to Hohsaas. From here, we took the gondola back down to the village of Saas Grund. At the base of the lift, we noticed a young couple just finishing a cruise down on some fat tire scooters. If only we had known, riding down on these could have been another first!
From the base of the Hohsaas lift in the village of Saas Grund, we walked over the nearest bus stop. There appeared to be two bus lines, one going up to Saas Fee and another going to Saas Almagell. Looking at the schedule, we noticed the Saas Fee bus was coming in a couple minutes. We could have taken this bus to the post office, where all buses stop, but we made the short walk instead. The bus to Saas Almagell was there, ready and waiting. In a few minutes, we arrived where we started the day before, roughly 24 hours ago, back at the parking lot in Saas Almagell. We closed the loop and completed our first traverse!