IntroThe comment of my profile image reads "Loving relationship with mountains ...". As everybody knows, love is often costly. On what was my biggest mountain trip since long, a 9 day trip to Switzerland's Valais at the end of July 2009, I could experience and assess these costs, and I want to frame this assessment at the end of the TR in an "index of happiness".
What is happiness in the mountains? The meaning of this kind of happiness has, for me, changed considerably over the years. Over more than 2 decades I have identified myself as a climber, with happiness meaning dancing up, ideally, a sunny funny rock climb (mostly in the low mountain climber paradise of Frankenjura). More recently this has quite suddenly and decisively changed to high alpine promenades, with the emphasis on skywalking as high as possible, not on conquering difficulties.
Always, from the very beginning, being high above the valley's haze and breathing the depth and vastness of space around me has been a sought-after experience.
So, how becoming happy in Valais?
PreludeWhen I'm away for 10 days or more I have to leave the car with my family, so I came to Visp by carpool rides and public transport. As often, I came alone, since finding a climbing mate for such an enterprise and reconciling on short notice vacancies, weather forecasts, wishes, time schedules and aims is always a problem.
My main aim was to get once again over 4000 m, so I had to prepare
physically (at home, I'm not the great sportsman jogging or biking every
day). Therefore I decided to make an initial step by renting a bike for the
switch to my 1st destination Zermatt. This is made quite easy (meaning cheap)
in Valais by official cantonal bike renting stations, which in the case of
Visp was located very near the railway station. I started out around noon
with very fine weather, and the first 7 km to Stalden went very well,
probably due to sound tailwind (which I didn't notice explicitely at that
At Stalden the route steepens, actually half of the ascent to Zermatt is
contained in the next few km to St. Niklas, and in the developing afternoon
heat and with my 18 kg backpack on the bike this leg turned very hard.
Despite the fact that it was intended as a training unit, I would recommend
everybody in such a situation to use the train for the section Stalden - St.
Niklas, also because this section comprises a long road tunnel, which I had
to circumvent laboriously since it is forbidden for bikes. I arrived finally
at Zermatt about 7 hours after departure at Visp, and installed myself
immediately at the camping place.
Zermatt training trips
The following day I took the first cable car to Schwarzsee, 2583 m. I planned 2 warm-up or acclimatisation trips: ascent to Hörnli hut, 3260 m, and a first touch of high altitude the other day, using the cable car to Little Matterhorn and then going to Breithorn, 4164 m. Schwarzsee is in fact a nice lake with a picturesque chapel. It was not surprising that - despite the not so superb weather - quite a lot of people followed the comfortable path to Hörnli hut. There were even mountain bikers, carrying their bikes over the metal balustrades installed halfway up. The last 300 m are rather steep and sustained, and when I arrived at the hut I was done - as always when I make my first long ascent to over 3000 m. So in the first place I settled in the hut and had 2 wonderful Minestrone soups. Later I tried the beginning of Hörnli ridge for about 100 m to get an impression. Unfortunatly, the ridge disappeared in the clouds from about 3600 m on. Nevertheless Matterhorn is really an extremely impressive mountain, with an unbelievable rise of still 1.2 km over Hörnli hut. On return, I camped close to Schwarzsee, which was also part of my acclimatisation plan. Heavy wind brought me a loud night in my small tent.
The other morning presented excellent weather. The starting point at 2940 m for the cable car to Little Matterhorn is called "Trockener Steg". At times, there is a cable car connection from Schwarzsee to Trockener Steg, but it was currently not operative, perhaps due to the fact that there were construction sites everywhere from Schwarzsee to Trockener Steg. However, Trockener Steg looked quite close by, and the altitude difference was just a bit below 400 m (disregarding that one has first to descend into a valley about 130 m below Schwarzsee), so when I started at 7 am I was not at all prepared for a never ending approach winding its way up in long detours and, as it seemed, systematically avoiding the direction to Trockener Steg until the very last meters. I was quite upset at the end, even seriously considered giving up, and was done again when I finally arrived. Again I had to relax and have some food before I continued with the cable car up to Little Matterhorn, 3880 m.
Meanwhile the weather had turned bad again, and when I left the tunnel at the top station and entered Breithorn glacier plateau, heavy storm hit me. Clouds however were definitely over 4000 m, the sight over the approach route was good, and so I joined the procession of people going to or coming from Breithorn. When I descended to the glacier plateau, the storm settled considerably and actually I loved this arctic surroundings very much and would count the long crossing of the plateau and the subsequent ascent as the first moments of full mountain happiness on my tour. Yet I had to turn back in due time, because I wanted to get the last cable car from Schwarzsee down to Zermatt (i.e. I neither wanted to spend another night at Schwarzsee nor was greedy of walking down the 900 m). Clouds falling in at about 3950 m with the perspective of a white-out over the glacier plateau helped me to decide when it was time to turn back, and in fact after the long descent to Schwarzsee I arrived just 10 minutes before the last cabin departed.
Another night at Zermatt camping, then I saddled my bike again and drove down to Visp (btw, on the part from Stalden to Visp I experienced strong headwind - probably the unnoticed tailwind of my ascent), where I handed the bike in and took the bus to Saas Grund. The training part of my trip was over, and the target part was on the doorstep.
Saas valley high altitude tripsFor the camping I choose the small Bergheimat camping place close to the center of Saas Grund, and I strongly recommend that one to everbody - at least everybody who does not dispose of a car. There are 3 other camping sites between Saas Grund and Saas Almagell (there's none at Saas Fee), but Bergheimat is closest to the hub which is Saas Grund market place, and the site's maintainers were very friendly (I could leave all of my camping gear there for 2 nights without being charged). There is also an indoor swimming pool free of charge for camping guests.
My first target was Weissmies from Almageller hut, because it offers a glacier-free ascent. It was a glorious morning when the next day I took the bus to Saas Almagell and made the 1200 m hut ascent. Only the Mischabel group vis-a-vis was still hidden in clouds, but fine weather was clearly coming in. My training seemed to bear first fruits, because this time I wasn't done when I arrived at the hut, although I felt it was definitely enough.
Notwithstanding the fact that the normal ascent to Weissmies still seems to be the NW-ascent via the crevassed Trift glacier (to be frank, I don't know why - is it just because of the cable car over there?), there were many people leaving the hut next morning around 5 am, most of them heading for Weissmies. Zwischbergenpass (note: not Zwischenbergpass) at nearly 3270 m was readily attained, but there I had to have a break and some food (actually consisting only in scroggin), since breakfast had been a bit scarce (albeit varied - the hut is well organized) and basically too early for me. The pass is followed by a crest passage - which I had to pass under furious breathtaking squalls - leading to the SSE-flank where a long snow field draws up over 600 m to the final rock ridge. Thanks to the break I saw all the other people now way ahead of me. There is a fascinating rock formation at the beginning of the snow field, where a yellow-brown ridge is closely paralleled by another one in markedly grey appearance. Here I put on my crampons and embarked on the ascent over the snow field (32° in the upper part). Now this was again the sort of terrain I like: a flawless, clear pathway to heaven, so to say. However, the twice 1000+ m of ascent in sequence became apparently noticeable, or was it the empty stomach that in the final part of the snowfield I felt several times a sort of dizzy spell lurking just below the surface.
When I arrived at the final 200 m-rock ridge above the snow field I was baffled: although not steeper than about 45° it seemed to pile up enormously, almost vertical. 2 things were immediately evident to me: that I would have no difficulties with climbing this, and that I nevertheless wouldn't do it. It simply appeared too big, too long - I was quite aware that I also had to go back the whole thing, rock ridge and snow field, and that I was never strong in downclimbing, so downclimbing the rock section would take me probably more time than climbing it up (not to speak of the nerves). However, since in my earlier years I had been a climber, I could not fully refrain from climbing up. So I did and enjoyed some 50 m of altitude (fraught in the same time with regard of the descent). Then before downclimbing I sat down for half an hour, admired the pano, suck in the pure air - it was wonderful even with the little fly in the ointment that I had given up the skywalk over the final snowy summit ridge which I had considered as one of the main attractions of Weissmies for me ... On the other hand I was also aware that although this decision was primarily a mental problem, it had also a physical basis in that I was unsure what these onsets of dizzy spells were signalling, and in that I knew that the descent would take me at least as long as the ascent and that the snow field was quite slushy already now (around 10 am). This helped make it a sound decision.
In conclusion of this account on Weissmies I would like to add a hint concerning a possibly very worthwhile traverse - maybe more interesting (and safer) than the normal traverse from Hohsaas to Almageller hut (or vice versa). This traverse starts and ends at Almageller hut, using the normal SSE-route and the upper part of Rotgrat and the 2 snowfields below, as shown in this picture:
and described shortly on this SP-page.
The snow field below Rotgrat (i.e. the 2nd of the 2) is a bit steeper than the one on the SSE-ascent, but when I studied this route from various points it appeared that one could even exit the snow field to Rotgrat without much rock climbing, i.e. exit straight-on to the broad fore-summit instead of the left turn indicated in the above picture (of course there is also the perhaps better known but much longer variant which turns left on the lower snow field to reach Rotgrat at a much lower point for a real rock ridge climb).
Because the time I could dispose of was running out, I descended the same day to Saas Grund and, after another night at Bergheimat camping site, set out for Mischabel hut. My second - and crowning - target was to go to Windjoch and then the Nadelhorn NE-ridge up as high as feasible, but not necessarily to summit Nadelhorn itself. My attention has been drawn to this route by Sebastian Hamm's superb picture, and in a subsequent correspondence both Sebastian and Rafa Bartolome (author of the route page of this ridge) assured me that it can safely be done solo. In fact, a route like this comes very close to my dreams of high alpine promenades, so here the saying "the route is the aim" clearly held for me, while the summit attained inferior importance.
I took the cable car from Saas Fee to Hanning, which saves about one third (500 m) of the hut ascent. This can be recommended because the path linking Hanning with the normal ascent is straight forward with virtually no loss of altitude. The upper half of the hut ascent follows the rock ridge on which the hut is located and is partly secured by steel ropes. I arrived at about 1 pm and had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view over the valley to the Weissmies group and north to the mountains around Aletschhorn and Furka pass.
In contrast to the positive contributions of Sebastian and Rafa, some people at the hut - among them at least one mountain guide, but not the warden this time, as I have to acknowledge - tried to unsettle me, singing the old song that one must absolutely not, under no circumstances, adventure alone on a glacier, and that even some crevasses can be seen crossing the track. The warden was an older person who was a bit odd but very friendly. The organisation was very different from Almageller hut, not so clear-cut, more on demand and sometimes a bit chaotic. He offered breakfast at any time between 2 and 4 o'clock.
The next morning I didn't have to line in with the procession, as I started deliberately a bit later, in order to assure that I wouldn't have to cross the glacier basin with only the headlamp light. As planned I arrived at the top of the rock ridge at 3600 m just when dawn fell in at about 5:30. The twilight view over the basin to the long 700 m wall from Lenzspitze over Nadelhorn to Windjoch was incredibly impressive and was in itself worth the ascent. I discovered a party in the Lenzspitze NE-wall, already at the beginning of the upper third (see images "Pano Lenzspitze to Windgrat" and "Lenzspitze NE face" above). Here I put on my crampons and - for safety reasons, just in case - also the harness. The rock ridge turns left and continues up to 3800 m without difficulties, then continues as the Lenzspitze east ridge climb. I took my way straight on and entered the glacier basin. The snow was well frozen and the path developed clearly along a wide right hand bend. In fact several crevasses close to the path could be guessed, but due to the good snow I never felt unsafe. However, I made up my mind to be back over the basin not later than 10 am. The full situation could only be assessed from above (see the image "Glacier basin", where also the track can be discerned). At about 7 am I reached Windjoch, with only low wind except for occasional gusts - the weather was splendid today. The snow ridge to Nadelhorn now swings up in several waves. At the 2nd of these, about 80 m above Windjoch, I had to cross an unexpected and astonishingly deep bergschrund, but there was a solid snow bridge. I continued my promenade, following the excellent track, until a point at approximately 4150 m where the ridge flattens before the final rise to the summit and where one could comfortably sit down. With my 10 o'clock-limit in mind, I preferred to have a sight-seeing break for half an hour or so instead of rushing further up and then rushing down again without such a break. So I did, of course again nibbling scroggin and sucking in the wonderful stimulatory air.
At 10:15 I was over the glacier basin, back on top of the rock ridge, where I stayed another hour before descending to the hut. I wasn't in a hurry, because I wanted to pass the rest of the day at the hut with its exceptional surroundings and well above 3300 m - no second 2000 m-descent at one fell swoop, and above all it was my final day and probably the last for a long time in this altitude. Thus I had the opportunity to watch closely a rescue action by helicopter from Nadelgrat of a very slow couple who in addition had started too late, and to make the acquaintance of a nice Swiss guy.
One might argue that stopping short of the summit without need cannot yield a satisfying mountain day. Yet I don't feel that climbing the small but overcrowded summit would have added much to my mountain happiness. Well, I could have prolonged the experience I was in. I could e.g. have gone to the saddle below the summit rocks, from where I would have been able to look over to Zermatt valley. Perhaps I should have done this, now that I finally was physically fit to go as far, and should have postponed the crossing of the glacier basin. But there was this Big Brother inside me who told me "do not question your decision to pass the basin at 10 am latest", and I obeyed. Instead of prolonging my high altitude promenade as long as possible I preferred to act reasonably - or what I held for. I do not deplore that. Instead, I want to thank Sebastian and Rafa for encouraging me to solo this wonderful route, which I else had not taken into consideration.
Index of happinessTrue, I've gained it. I have experienced mountain happiness - including, at least to some 80 percent, at Weissmies. I have collected the memories I wanted to have in my stock. So let us now turn to determine the index of happiness.
I will define it as the ratio of weighted "happiness time" to the total time of my tour to Valais (not counting 8 hours sleeping time - titularly - per day, which would have been the same at home). So the time basis for 9 days + 2 days (for arrival and departure) is 176 hours. What I will count of it as happiness time will be weighted by a factor of 1/3, 2/3 or 3/3, reflecting partial or full mountain-happiness.
Let's start with the bike ride Visp - Zermatt. Despite it was exhausting, it was a good decision, which also allowed to mentally tune in to the surroundings much better than rushing through with the car. Except, as mentioned, the section Stalden - St. Niklas I would not mind doing it again. However, since I was so tired, I could not be fully appreciative, so I will weigh these 7 hours by a factor of 1/3 (furthermore, it was not a mountaineering experience in the strict sense).
I do not want to annoy my dear readers with further lengthy considerations of this kind, so I will only list the hours with weight 3/3, summarize the hours with less weight and then give the result. As fully mountain happy hours I count these 18:
- 2 hours at Breithorn
- 6 hours at Weissmies
- 10 hours at Nadelhorn/Mischabel hut
Weighted hours with weights less than 3/3 add up to 33.3 h, thus we arrive at an index-of-happiness of 51.3/176 = 0.29.
71% overhead, i.e. just "normal" time (plus not to forget several 100 Euros I had to invest) except that I had been held off my duties at home (large garden during harvest time, poultry to administer), and only about 10% of full mountain happiness - was this worthwhile? Well, at least I feel it can't be normal, it has just a right as a rare exception. Since in lower mountains like the Northern Alps, which are found much closer to my home (but still about a half-day car ride away) I can hardly achieve many/any 3/3-hours, I think in the future - at least for the next years - it will be wise to stick to the "stabilitas loci" of St. Benedict's Rule: "Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything". And if necessary, I can go through the memories I have in stock.
PS: My scroggin consists of - in about equal parts - walnuts, almonds and raisins, plus ≤10% sunflower or pine seeds - recommended!