3 x 4'000: a good week in the Alps.
Crevasse jumping on the Aletsch glacier. Photo: André Gerber
During a week in August (15-21 August) 2009 I was blessed with fantastic weather and was given the opportunity to experience three beautiful 4'000'er in Valais-region of the Swiss Alps.
Saturday, day 1: En route to the Mittelaletsch hut.
After waking up in the sleepy village of Fiesch it was time to go to the cable car up to Fiescheralp up at 2.212m where I met with my friend Andi whom I met in the Caucasus last year. We made plans to climb the Aletschhorn together many months ago and it seemed now that we managed to pick the right weekend. The weather forecast for the next coming days was excellent.
With very heavy backpacks with lots of food, fuel, beer and warm clothing we crossed the heavy crevassed Grosser Aletsch glacier. After some daring jumps and some bruises and scratches we made it over to the other side of the glacier were the long walk began through the Mittelaletsch valley to the Mittelaltesch hut. This route is not extremely well frequented so the tracks were sometimes not obvious through the steep scree sections.
Climbing to 3.000m from Swedish sea level with 0 acclimatization in the body is never a good thing and I did suffer from slight AMS at the end of the day which made my progress very slow but after some sips of Andi’s delicious hot soup I got after arriving, rather exhausted at the hut, I soon started to feel better. The hut itself is small but cozy. No water and no fuel is available, only the standard heavy blankets. It was almost too warm in my down sleeping bag…
Sunday, day 2: Aletschhorn summit attack
Around 04:00 we stepped out in the dark night. Stars were twinkling above us when we put our crampons on and started our ascent up through steep ice fields just behind the hut.
In the beginning we came a bit off route and needed to adjust our approach. The icy surface was very hard and frozen which made our crampons bite into the ice with full support.
Finally we arrived on the right track which led up to the saddle, the Aletschjoch up at 3.623m.
The knife edged ridges looked somewhat scary as it was a 600m deep gap to the north and a rather long and steep slope down the other side too. However, as the snow was still frozen we went over the ridge with no problems, although it was not the place were you stopped in the middle to shoot some cool pictures.
After continuing on the easier part of the ridge we went up through some nice slopes and finally a bergschrund which took us up to the false summit. Behind the false summit we crossed a small plateau which finally led us to the summit ridge. The ridge was narrow and I had to watch my steps carefully.
The Aletschhorn summit is big and spacious. It is the perfect place to sit down and have a sip of tea and a sandwich. Together with two nice British climbers we enjoyed the marvelous views from Mont Blanc to Mischabel and the Bernese alps. An outstanding panorama.
As we lost some valuable time in the early hours of the morning made us slightly behind schedule. This would usually not be a problem as we did not have any trains to catch as the plan was to spend another night in the Mittelaletsch hut. However, we were moving fast as we did not want to cross the Aletschjoch ridge in the late afternoon with wet and soft snow.
If the traverse was scary on descent it was much more serious on descent. The snow was rather soft and every move on the narrow ridge was made after the iceaxe was in a safe as possible belay position. I praised my sharp, reliable Grivel technical iceaxe who gave me the support and confidence I needed to cross the section. We did not rope up as a fall would probably take us out both. With quite some relief I arrived safely at the other side of the passage. From here to the hut the route was an easy walk on the glacier.
A cold Carlsberg beer was giving that extra touch to Andi’s spicy pasta!
Monday, day 3: Transfer to Randa camping-site
We woke up early to a beautiful morning and descended from the hut over the Mittelaletsch glacier. In the beginning the descent was quite steep. Most of the glacier was covered with mud and dirt on the lower part. We carefully entered the huge Aletsch glacier at a point we had been scouting so that we could cross the heavy crevassed glacier as smooth as possible.
After a long and tiring walk back to Fiescheralp and the cablecar which took us back down to the village of Fiesch, we split up. Andi went back to Basel and I was making my way to Visp and Randa.
After lot’s of front pointing with my crampons on the Aletschhorn I damages a few of my toes so I was limping with bleeding toenails into the camping site Randa Attermenzen with all my equipment. The camping site was very good. Well organized and clean. After a refreshing shower I stocked up with supplies and enjoyed a good meal at the camping sites excellent restaurant. This and the following day were forecasted to be this summer’s hottest days in the region. No down sleeping bag was needed in my four-season-tent.
Tuesday, day 4: Approach to the Dom hut
Now it was time for my second mountain: Dom, 4.545m is the highest mountain entirely on Swiss ground and of the most important mountains in the Alps. It is not a technical climb but since it is of such altitude it is a rather tough trip.
At noon I slowly made my way up the hiking trail towards the Dom hut. Since the Dom hut is hosted and meals and drinks can be obtained up there, it was no need to carry an overloaded bagback with supplies. The trail goes through a nice larch-forest and as higher up you get the more majestically the view of the neighboring Weisshorn gets.
After a very nice three-course meal served by Kathleen and her friendly and service minded team, it was time to go to sleep in a totally packed Dom hut.
Wednesday, day 5: Dom summit attack
Full activity around the breakfast-tables in hut. Everyone were fixing their gear outside in the dark. Soon a visible path of glittering headlamps were making it’s way up the mountain. As I were in no particular hurry I let some climbing teams go ahead and just concentrated on a comfortable and steady pace. As I’ve made the route up to Festijoch saddle twice before in 2007 I remembered the route quite well. The ice was frozen and the sharp teeth of my crampons were biting firmly into the ice.
My body felt a bit stiff after my previous exercise on the Aletschhorn when I negotiated the grade II rocks up the Festijoch. Quite many people were scrambling around me so I had to watch out for falling rocks.
The sun came up but still it was cool down on the Hohbärg glacier as it’s eastern stream were in the shadow of the Festi ridge.
Now the long walk begun. Surprisingly I did not encounter many crevasses on the route. Actually only one rather big one in the curve where the route took a sharp right turn.
Soon I was reaching the spot where I turned around during unstable weather in September 2006.
Now the weather conditions were excellent and route was easier than I expected.
At the end near the summit the slope got steeper but the route was not exposed but reasonably safe. The view on top was impressive and it really felt that the Dom de Mischabel is on of the giants in the Alps. I was higher up than Weisshorn, Matterhorn and Täschhorn. Far below in the valley I spotted my beloved village of Saas Fee and familiar friends like the Weissmies and Allalinhorn. The summit cross was beautiful and impressive, very worthy a summit like the Dom.
I was invited to join in with a Bavarian rope-team for the descent over the Hohbärg glacier. It turned out that the crevasse danger was much more obvious after the Festijoch than before.
After a refreshing beer and some feet care it was time to start the long descent down from the Dom hut to my campsite at the Attermenzen camping outside Randa.
In the evening and around 3.100 altitude meters further down, I had a big dinner at the excellent camping restaurant and went for a good sleep in my tent. It was a nice feeling to slip out of my heavy boots.
Thursday, day 6: Klein Matterhorn
Thursday morning also came with blue skies and sun but would it last for my third and final mountain – Pollux?
After catering some supplies, dried some wet cloth and put down my tent I took a ride with a bus from the camping up to Zermatt at the end of the valley. I hadn’t been in Zermatt for many years and the famous village seemed even more busy and hectic as the last time I visited when climbing the Breithorn.
I made my way to the Zermatt cable car which would take me all the way up to Klein Matterhorn at 3.900meters. This was the first time I rode with the cable car and the ride was truly spectacular and the views of all 4.000’ers outstanding. After two transfers I stepped out on the huge Breithorn plateau together with crowds of skiers. The mountaineers were all on their return back from the summits.
With my full backback and my tent and sleeping pads I was not as mobile as usual, thus it took a while until I came out to the flat area just north of the rock Gobba di Rollin were I erected my tent and prepared for the stay. My jetboil stove worked excellent and I melted snow to stock up a supply of water. In the late afternoon I went on a scouting trip towards the Breithorn pass from where I clearly saw my goal of tomorrow, the summit of Pollux.
I created some GPS waypoints on the route and tried to explore as much as possible of the rather good beaten out trail in the snow. The only problem was that the entire Breithorn plateau was more or less covered by trails and tracks which could cause problems in the dark at night.
A scary crevasse was crossing the main trail which revealed a lethal trap. I tried to memorize it’s precise location and made another waypoint on my GPS.
At around 18:00 I suddenly bumped into three climbers from Spain. They walked slowly in the soft snow and it turned out that they had climbed Pollux. I was utterly surprised to meet them at this time of the day. They could have not gone for an early start, that was for sure.
Despite of this they obviously missed the last cable car down to Zermatt so I guess they must have walked all the way down or at least to the Gandegg hut further down.
When I prepared my meal in my tent I enjoyed the piece and quite of the huge glacier plateau. The weather was still nice and the last touch of the sun was hitting the southwest face of Breithorn. However, over at the Lyskam and the twins some thick and scary clouds were building up. I knew that the weather forecast was not suppose to be brilliant for the next day. I made sure my tent was sturdy attached to the snow and prepared for an early start to get a chance to summit before the eventual bad weather would strike.
Friday, day 7: Whiteout on Pollux
My Suunto watch woke me up at 03:30. It was a cold night and I did not get too much of sleep. Sometime during night a fierce storm hit the Breithorn plateau and rain and snow hit the tent. A couple of times my tent interior was lit up by lightening and which make me doubt about my upcoming climb next morning.
My headlamp lit up the outside of my tent at 04:00 I spotted a few stars above and there was no snow in the air. The outside surface of my tent was covered by a thin membrane of ice which fell apart when I gave it a firm brush.
To make breakfast, boil water, eat and get dressed in a small tent is very time consuming and I guess requires some more training. At 05:00 I stepped out in the dark with my headlamp lighting up in front of me and my GPS ready in my hand. The loneliness and quietness was very impressive.
After the Breithorn saddle the track continues straight forward. There were much more crevasses than I expected on the route, fortunately all with deep frozen snow bridges. Soon I saw the lights from an Italian hut far below me and I could recognize lights from some rope teams who also started their ascent.
Close to the Schwarztor saddle I passed another tent(!) just on the trail leading to the Twins. It was fun to see that at least there were two more crazy climbers out there.
The weather was still reasonably okey and I was feeling fine. My backup plan was to climb the higher but slightly easier summit of Castor but I felt ready for Pollux, left the glacier and slowly begun making my way up the rocky south ridge. The easy grade-II climbing was fun but down below I saw more and more clouds coming in from the Breithorn saddle in the west and also the lower slopes of Castor was starting to fill up with thick fog.
I tried to speed up my climbing as I realized I wouldn’t have all day for this trip. Suddenly I stood at the key passage with the fix ropes I have read about and then I knew I was not far away from the summit. I belayed myself with a sling and a carabiner which I clipped into the thick rope and scrambled up the rocks.
After this short rock climb I found myself up at the Holy Maria statue at around 4.000m. From here an easy snow ridge is leading up to the summit. I put my crampons on and went up the ridge as fast as possible.
On my way down I met some Italian climbers and more people were moving around on the mountain further down.
By now the fog got more intense so I hurried down the rocks as fast as I could and when I came down to the base of Pollux everything was completely white.
Now and then small windows opened up which gave small hints of orientation. Already after a couple of minutes I found myself much closer to the Schwarztor than I thought. It was very interesting to see how fast one can loose sense of orientation. Thanks to my Magellan GPS and the waypoints I had memorized I found my route and suddenly I stood at the tent I passed two hours ago.
From here it was basically only to follow the tracks all the way back to the Breithorn saddle, the Klein Matterhorn cable car station and my camp. The fog lifted and soon I was on the big glacier plateau. The Breithorn-business was in full swing and loads of climbing parties were, as always, moving around on the Breithorn normal route.
From far I saw a small orange dot which was my Marmot tent.
I celebrated my successful climb with some hot, fresh boiled tea and my very last portion of dried food which I had brought all the way from Sweden. The pasta carbonara tasted very good up there at 3.800m. It was a nice place to take in my lunch.
After clearing my camp I took the cable car back down to Zermatt, walked to the railway station where I picked up my remaining luggage I had stored and boarded a train back down to Brig and further to Berne.
This was the end of a successful and fantastic week in the wonderful Swiss alps. Life cant get much better, can it?