The normal route to the left crosses the South Face up to the Gable Notch on the South-West Ridge. From “Berge der Welt” 1946.
This climb started half a year earlier in 1999 when during long winter evenings I carefully studied books on the Alpine four thousand meter peaks. Books like “The high Mountains of the Alps” by Dumler and Burkharh, and “The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes” by Godeke had been good reading. At first I leaned towards the Monte Rosa with its many peaks but I kept coming back to the Zinalrothorn. Why? Because it is beautiful mountain with an interesting normal route on snow ridges and steep rock. The mountain is not so well known and thus less crowded than the more famous and nearby peaks. In Goedeke’s list "How much sweat?" the Zinalrothorn is ranked in fourth place with the summit 2750 meter above the highest transport point. More sweat is needed only for the Dom (3160 m), the neighbour Weisshorn (3100 m) and the Aiguille Blanch (2800 m).
Map from 1861. The sharp eye can find Moming Rothorn between Weisshorn and Obergabelhorn.
Reading an old issue of the Swiss “Berge der Welt” from 1946 I found many interesting black & white pictures from different routes up the Zinalrothorn. My mind was made up, sweat and the 4221 meter high Zinalrothorn it was to be.
The starting point to climb Zinalrothorn, or Moming Rothorn or just Rothorn as the mountain was called in the old days, is Zermatt in the Swiss canton of Wallis. More specifically, a little sign on the Main Street in Zermatt points into a narrow side street. The text reads “Rothornhütte 4 ½ Sd.” indicating that the walk up to the Rothorn hut takes four and a half hours. It goes without saying that each step is upward, from Zermatt at 1600 m to the hut which is situated at 3177 meters. The summit of Zinalrothorn stands just over one thousand meters above the hut.
The first ascent of the Rothorn in 1864. From “Playground of Europe” by Leslie Stephen.
Zinalrothorn was first climbed in 1864 along the North Ridge, one year prior to the famous first ascent of the nearby Matterhorn. In the group of four that stood on the summit for the first time was the Englishman Leslie Stephen. He also wrote the famous book "Playground of Europe" but is probably more known for being the father of Virginia Wolf. Today’s normal route takes the South-East Ridge with start at the Rothorn hut, crosses the South Face up to the Gabel notch on the South-West ridge. After climbing the Biner Slab being the crux and finally traversing the exposed foresummit called the Kanzel (pulpit) the true summit is reached.
Question: To go or not to go?
The normal route along the SE-ridge starting from the Rothorn Hut indicated by the red dot.
I talked to Ueli Bühler over the phone in early spring 1999. Hearing my idea for climbing in August he answered "I had an accident". Before he said anything more the first thing that went through my mind was “Had he fallen while climbing? Was he severely injured?” Then he told me how he had been run over from behind by a skier. Having a disk in his spine compressed the surgery following the incident made mountain climbing out of the question for this year. Ueli suggested I should go with Freddy.
Freddy Grossniklaus, or Big-Niklaus as he also calls himself, I already knew since we had climbed together several times during the last ten years. “What you suggest sounds interesting” commented Freddy having not previously climbed the peak.
I woke up at five o’clock this Sunday August 8. Looking out from the hotel window I could see no stars. A few hours later I heard the unmistakable sound of falling raindrops. I pictured a wet long walk up to the Rothorn hut. Or rather I saw no walk at all. Freddy and I were to meet at eleven but at nine someone knocked at the door saying I had a phone call down at the hotel clerk. “The weather is gonna be unsettled for at least two days" said Freddy with genuine disappointment at the other end of the line. We decided to wait and see.
Looking into the eyes of Edward Whymper.
I could not hide my disappointment since this climb was to be the grand finale of this year’s Alpine activities. I had spent three days together with my Swedish friend Ronny who is more of a hiker rather than a climber. We had visited four huts and slept in two of them so I felt in good shape and was well acclimatized. Having nothing else to do I walked along the main street in Zermatt. Stopping at the Monte Rosa Hotel I looked right into the eyes of Edward Whymper or rather the relief of him on the wall. His look was encouraging since I at the same time spotted a big blue hole in the clouds. "I just want to inform you that I stand under an almost completely blue sky", I said stretching the truth to Freddy over the phone. He was still uncertain based on information he had gathered from the weather service. We decided to wait another half hour with the final decision.
Answer: To go!
The Zinalrothorn seen far away from the Gandegg hut.
Freddy was away in Interlaken located on the north side of the Bernese Alps and from there it was just over two hours to get to Zermatt. Half an hour later, we decided that the project "was on" although the forecast for Monday was not the best. On the other hand Tuesday was a reserve day before my flight left Geneva on Wednesday.
“Hello Hannes” I heard a familiar voice saying when I was sitting in the little garden in front of the nice and relatively inexpensive Mischabel hotel. With a strong tan wearing shorts and a large backpack with a coiled rope hanging out from both sides of the lid Freddy came walking in around the corner. He was not wearing his elegant looking Turkish hat. Sorry to say he had a more traditional cap. But as usual he was half blond as he used call himself meaning full blond with a receding hairline.
Immediately we began discussing the weather. A thunder storm was said to be approaching but no one could tell exactly when. Freddy was clear saying our chances to reach the summit were small. “I can’t stand the thought of fine weather coming and me staying down here” I replied. And so we decided to go.
Leaving the narrow side street the track led us up the west side of the valley. We reached the Trift Hotel located half-way to the hut. The track forks right to the Trifthorn (3728 m) being a popular goal for the tough walker. After a short stop we took the left turn into a more mountain-like environment. To begin with, the slope was moderate but gradually picked up considerably when the trail went up a long and steep moraine ridge. In spite of being warned by Goedeke’s sweat list I foolishly did not drink enough to compensate for the sweating.
On the long walk up to the Rothorn Hut (3198m) from Zermatt (1616m).
The Zinalrothorn. In the close up view you can see the Rothorn hut under the rib down to the right. Photo by Antonio Giani.
Talking about this and that I asked “What are you doing over at Interlaken?” thinking of the terrible canyoning accident a week earlier. “Interlaken has become world famous in the worst sense” I continued before he could answer. Hearing the story from Freddy I learned that the Swiss were even more upset about it. Heavy raining had caused a flash flood to sweep through the narrow Saxetenbach creek gorge near Interlaken killing 18 tourists and 3 guides. “Those responsible will be accused of murder”, Freddy said angrily. The story.
We changed to a modern subject. Freddy had recently made acquaintance with the phenomenon called the Internet. He was very enthusiastic and proudly told me that he had a website and from now on everyone knew who he was. Not wanting to disappoint him I let him live on in believing he was near the center of the cyberspace. I remembered myself five years ago when an e-mail to a prominent person was answered. Like when I in 1995 wrote a note to Chris Bonington about the Eiger. Or when I heard a government official mention the Everest 1996 disaster on the radio and sent him an e-mail about it. In both cases the answers arrived in less then five minutes. Those were the days.
Behind the Rothorn Hut.
The Rothorn hut can be found on the internet, even on SP. It looks very much like any other alpine hut, first a hallway where you put your boots and borrow a pair of wrong sized slippers. In a box you can put crampons and other things you do not need. This is also how far ice axes and trekking poles go.
The staircase leads up to the first floor with the kitchen and the dining room, and the next floor is for sleeping. In every room there are eight to ten beds in a long line at the same bunk. The luxury of a pillow and two blankets is provided. As soon as we had arrived, I drank plenty of water and disappeared under one of the blankets. Dehydration in combination with the considerable elevation made me freezing.
Freddy woke me up at half past six, just in time for dinner. He had been up above the hut to make sure we would find our way in the dark the next morning. The fact that Freddy had not done this climb before made him extra careful in preparation. The weather was still stable, cloudy with a little blue sky in between.
We were about fifteen people who had dinner in the hut this evening. Most of them intended to climb Zinalrothorn the next day. Several parties had made attempts early that day but they had to give up due to bad weather. One German told vividly of how wet they had become. Freddy and I sat at a table together with two Frenchmen: a guide from Grenoble and his client. If I say that their English was worse than my French it should be clear how that conversation went. Food yes, from the same plate we had soup, salad and the main course which consisted of vegetables and a large piece of meat. The latter I was unfortunately not able to take advantage of. An hour later I was again under the blanket after having brushed my teeth in the glacial water.
First in line
Climber on the rocks above the Gabel Notch.
Climbers on the Biner Slab. Photo by jsurinx.
I woke up at regular intervals. Through the open window I heard a strong wind but no rain. At half past three the door opened, the lights came on and someone said brusquely "Guten Morgen". I was quickly in my pants and folded the blankets, which is good common practice. I drank two large cups of tea to the dry piece of bread with marmalade. Only Freddy was ahead of me down the in hallway. The usual procedure followed: On with the harness, the cold boots, and finally the gaiters, the zipper of which as usual malfunctioned. Only when I came out on the hut terrace, I thought about the weather. The wind was blowing but when I looked up I saw the stars gleaming in the darkness. "What more can you ask for", I said to Freddy, while I tied myself into his rope. Exactly four o'clock Freddy and I were the first to leave the hut and to set foot on the glacier. "I don’t want to mess around in the hut and lose valuable time", I heard Freddy muttering.
Also, we did not want to lose time putting on crampons at the hut and as it was obvious that they were not needed when we followed Freddy's tracks from the evening before. After half an hour's going, I was more hesitant since the ground became steeper and it was only possible to kick the boots a few centimeters into the hard snow. When I later brought it up with Freddy, he meant that he had full control - which I cannot say I had.
We negotiated the Bergschrund without mishaps and we passed a section with boulders and smaller loose stones. At some point I looked down the glacier, and to my surprise I saw the lights of headlamps far down. The last ones must have started more than an hour later than we had done.
It was blowing hard when we came higher up. After a while it became so steep that we had to stop and put on our crampons. A procedure that is not straightforward when you are freezing and your fingers are stiff. When they finally were in place I took the opportunity to drink a mug of warm tea, which contributed positively to the situation. We started again zigzagging further up. "Please Hannes, just a little faster," urged Freddy being worried about the weather. We still had a long way to the summit.
One of the Frenchmen approaching the Zinalrothorn summit cross.
I heard steps behind me. Was it just imagination? No, it was definitely steps, rhythmic steps in the snow. In the end I turned and saw that the two Frenchmen were on our heels. I rarely looked up, but tried instead to concentrate on the immediate perspective, the next step and the next step. The tempo was slightly too high just like my breathing and my pulse. Yet I struggled on. The steep snow field narrowed gradually to a crest, sometimes with a small support on one side, sometimes without. We continued along what seemed to be an old track well inside of the edge and I realized that the reason was that we were near the lip of an overhanging snow cornice.
The snow ended and from now on it was rock, first along a ridge where we balanced on the upper stones. Up through a long and steep gully we slowly went over towards the South West Ridge. One minute rest and I stood completely still leaning my helmeted head against the rock. Helmet, by the way, how would a small helmet have helped against a boulder coming down from above? Grade III climbing in strong wind at high altitude wearing big boots and a bulky backpack is no walk in the park. At the most exposed section called the Biner Platte I had an awkward experience when I had to go back to retrieve a carabineer. I must admit that I several times, at least twice, thought of turning back. Afterwards, Freddy also said that he had noticed that I had a hard time at the crux locations. "But I knew you were gonna make it," was his simple view of things.
Climbers on the foresummit called the Kanzel. Picture by Cyrill.
Freddy negotiating the foresummit.
One occasion when I thought of proposing that we should turn back was when we came up on the South West Ridge and I looked up. A church tower, just a bit rough but much higher, was what I saw. Up there appeared a fore summit and behind it the real summit with a small summit cross - at least it looked small from our position. Seeing one of the Frenchmen slowly starting up a difficult rope length higher up did not make things look better. The two had passed us earlier making a better choice of route. It was at least what I told myself even though I knew it was my fatigue that was the reason they were in front of us. They were stronger than our weakest link, so to speak.
Freddy was always worried about the weather. "Look," he said, pointing at the dark clouds piling up in the south. The wind did not abate. One difficulty remained: To bypass the fore summit called the Kanzel. To do this you must climb more or less around a horizontal section with your butt sticking out overlooking the impressive East Wall, indeed a spectacular entertainment. The English mountaineer Walter Larden passed the Kanzel in 1904 and writes in his book "Recollections of an Old Mountaineer": "As we passed around on this side of the left hand summit, Corry told me to look between my legs. To what a terrific depth my eye plunged down that sheer precipice!"
The summit - yes!
Poor fellow on the top of Zinalrothorn.
One thing that explains the seriousness of the climb is that I not once thought of using my video camera during the ascent. Under normal conditions filming has top priority. There are only two photos as evidence of the ascent: One showing one of the Frenchmen climbing above the Gable Notch and the other picturing the summit cross from below. Close to the summit, however, the ground became somewhat easier and allowed for taking a few more pictures.
At nine o'clock, five hours after the start, we climbed up on top of the Zinalrothorn. We stood straddled to keep our balance in the strong wind. I sat down on the plinth to the summit cross, took off my backpack and picked up my video camera. On the twenty seconds of film that was the result the cross can be seen and then Freddy comes into the picture. I speak in a strained voice: "Say something".
"Well it's hard, it was a long way up and it's gonna be a long way down - and we have to hurry!" said Freddy trying to make himself heard in the heavy wind.
Looking south from the summit of the Zinalrothorn: Matterhorn partly in clouds, Wellenkuppe and Obergabelhorn.
Me on the summit with Dent Blanche to the right.
The views were first class. The Matterhorn towered among clouds in the south reaching two hundred meters above our position. Closer the slightly lower Obergabelhorn looked inviting and towards the north the beautiful Weisshorn dominated the scene. And to the west was the mighty Dent Blanche.
Leslie Stephen writes in his book "Playground of Europe" about the first ascent dated August 22, 1864: "11.15 A.M., we reached - I had almost said the top; but the Rothorn has no top. It has a place where a top manifestly ought to have been, but the work had been left unfinished. It ended in a flat circular area a few feet broad, as though it had been a perfect cone, with the apex cleanly struck off. Melchior and Jacob set to work at once to remedy this deficiency of nature, whilst Grove and I cowered down in a little hole cut out of the last rocks, which sheltered us from the wind. Here, in good temper with each other and our guides, and everything but Macdonald's absence, we sat down for some twenty minutes, with muscles still quivering from the strain."
View from the Zinalrothorn foresummit: Castor, Pollux, the Breithorn ridge and Kleine Matterhorn.
Suddenly a head popped up from lower down to the north. It was one of the Frenchmen. They had found a relatively wind-protected place a few meters down. The two came up to the summit and we congratulated each other for the achievement. I think I said "Bon jour". They took a summit picture of Freddy and me before they began the descent. Freddy and I spent ten minutes at the spot where the Frenchmen had rested. We had a cup of semi-hot tea and a piece of Appenzeller cheese. The piece of chocolate did not melt in my mouth, so finally I had to spit it out the texture reminding of sand. Later I discovered that the chocolate bar had been in the lid pocket of my backpack for at least five years.
Freddy worried that the weather should deteriorate further and wanted to go down as soon as possible. The hard wind had started to carry snowflakes so I had no reason to oppose his proposal, even though the rest had been too short.
Down - but fast!
The bad thing going down is that you all the time see how far it is. We went so fast that at one occasion I could not keep up with Freddy. The idea when descending is that the client goes first and the guide follows to provide security. Continuing marginally slower we met a couple on their way up. Freddy insisted that they should turn around. They were however not ready to give up – yet. Some rope tangle did not contribute to a pleasant meeting.
The weather was closing in as we got down to the snow ridge.
Down on the snow ridge I had to protect my face with my hands from the ice crystals carried by wind. Twice the wind gusts almost knocked me over. We met another couple on their way up who fought an uneven battle against the wind.
We rested only once on the way down. Or rather I sank down on a stone that looked too inviting. There I ate my obligatory apple, so juicy and so life-giving. Exaggerated slowly I chewed bit by bit, to prolong this wonderful moment. When it was impossible to eat more, I raised my arm to throw the core down the mountain. But I did not, instead I put it in my back pack.
As always, the snow becoming softer later in the day makes the going more strenuous. I could feel a pain in one of the achilles tendons. However, I had more important things at hand - as getting down to the hut. As I looked up the mountain I could see others with the same intention since the parties we had met had turned around.
The storm seemed to hesitate as we came lower down. The last notable thing that happened before we reached the hut was due to my bad glissading technique. I fell flat on my butt picking up good speed arriving at the hut in a condition more wet than dry.
Shortly after noon we were back down at the hut where we had victory soup together with the two Frenchmen. Such moments are rare, putting in hard work and succeeding, life was good. But soon enough we were ready for the final leg of seventeen hundred meters down to the main street. During a short rest I suddenly remembered my video camera. Since I didn’t have a single frame neither from the ascent nor from the decent I asked Freddy to tell about the climb. Not only is he a good guide but he also is a good storyteller as has been shown in the first section above.
At five o'clock in the afternoon we turned into the main street in Zermatt again after more or less having been on the move for thirteen hours, starting up 1050 meters and then down 2750 meters. We sat down at the first open-air café and had a large glass of mineral water. I sincerely thanked Freddy for the tour. We eventually parted after having discussed future projects.
I strolled slowly towards my hotel, which was of the old type with five floors without an elevator. Of course I had a room on the top floor up under the roof. My heavy suitcase had been kept in the basement during the days I had been away. Luckily it was only 76 steps up to my room. Had it been 77 I would not have made it.
A dark ending
The solar eclipse as seen from the train window.
We were on our way back home, me and my swollen achilles tendons. And I mean swollen. The train was rolling at a good pace along the northern shore of Lake Geneva and behind a veil of clouds only a narrow crescent of the sun was visible. Suddenly it became pitch dark and I understood why all passengers looked out the train windows with special glasses. It was August 11, 1999 and it was a total solar eclipse.
Thanks to Freddy Grossniklaus for excellent guiding.
Thanks to desainme and isostatic for comments on the original text.