Dufourspitze normal route under fresh summer snow

Dufourspitze normal route under fresh summer snow

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 23, 2018
Activities Activities: Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Summer

Learning Flexibility

2018 was my first summer "mountaineering" in the Alps.  I knew about the huts and mountains and the changeable weather but hadn't yet learned how to plan a trip properly, being used to holidays where all accommodation, and perhaps much of the transportation, is booked weeks or months in advance in order to secure limited space or favourable rates.  I reckoned the only way to achieve my mountaineering objectives in 2018 was to "book" my climbs (Dom and Dufourspitze) a few days apart and hope to get lucky with the weather.

As it turned out I did get lucky with the weather and I went into Zermatters (formerly Alpin Centre Zermatt) to confirm my Dom climb on the date I'd specified several weeks earlier, and I was assigned a guide.  That trip report is on the Dom page.

When my guide, Daniel, and myself had descended from Dom on 20 July he asked about my plans for Dufourspitze.  Clearly I would need a guide and it hadn't yet been organised.  He must have enjoyed working with me since he offered to take me there in a few days' time.  My apprehension was high though, because his availability was limited and the weather was looking ominous for my planned date.  In fact the weather looked terrible for about five or six consecutive days.  After carefully studying several forecasts Daniel suggested there could be a brief opportunity on the morning of 23 July.

Moving dates and plans around might seem insignificant, actually expected, for experienced alpinists but for me it was daunting.  Despite this being a relatively minor change of plans, I learned much on this trip about how summer mountaineering in the Alps works which would come in very useful in 2019 (I never booked anything more than two days in advance).

Hut Climb

On 20 July I descended all 3100m from the summit of Dom to Randa.  My knees really hated this.  On 21 July I spent the day in Zermatt and thought the trip was certainly over as I hobbled around with a very worrying pain in each knee.  On top of this it rained heavily all day, which meant the sparkling track to Dufourspitze on the Monte Rosagletscher I could see from Trift a few days earlier would surely be obliterated.  With low expectations I decided to see how I felt early the next morning and in the worst case scenario I might need to cancel the climb.

The next day my knees felt significantly improved, though still slightly dodgy.  The obvious advantage of the walk to Monte Rosa Hütte compared to Domhütte is that it's nearly flat, relatively speaking, and benefits from some mechanical uplift in the Gornergratbahn.  This is actually a really stunning walk in its own right because the path contours along the mountainside overlooking the enormous Gornergletscher which itself is overlooked by the dramatic north faces of Liskamm and Breithorn.  At this time of year, it was also abundantly populated with wild flowers.

The path does actually go downhill, very gradually, to reach a strong ladder leading to the terminal moraine of the upper Gorngletscher.  It would seem that the Gornergletscher is only barely continuous, because a significant rocky stetch including a bridge over a meltwater torrent now exists where older photos show glacier.  This is marked with stakes or cairns and eventually leads to a small arm of the glacier which still does connect to the lower glacier, which is actually mostly fed by the Grenzgletscher.  I put crampons on here - the glacier was dry with a rough, grippy surface but the initial route (marked by stakes) descended a bit too steeply for comfort without them.

Dufourspitze from Gornergletscher
Dufourspitze from Gornergletscher

I get the impression the landscape around here is changing dramatically each year because the stakes didn't lead me up the Grenzgletscher as suggested by the map, but rather to a lovely moraine lake left behind by the retreating Monte Rosagletscher.  From here a new path meandered up the hillside to reach the very modern gleaming hut.

Liskamm from just below Monte Rosa Hut
Liskamm from just below Monte Rosa Hut

The hut was not very busy, probably due to the appalling weather that had just passed and the very narrow window ahead.  Daniel arrived several hours after me, and there were a few other groups including a guide and his client who had driven from Amsterdam that day.  We were astonished (and concerned!) that his intention was to climb Dufourspitze in the morning and then drive all the way back to Amsterdam in the evening!  And this without prior acclimatisation on the second highest summit in the Alps.

Gornergletscher and Matterhorn
Gornergletscher and Matterhorn

Summit Climb

We arose at 3am and set off second from the hut (after the guide and his client from Amsterdam) at 3:40.  We overtook them within the first hour, which was mostly occupied by silently scrambling over the boulders of the Plattje.  The weather was concerning - warm and misty - we couldn't see very far with our head torches as we were walking through cloud.

I think it was no more than an hour before we reached the bottom of the glacier (though time seems to run very quickly when walking up in the dark).  We put on crampons and continued on the glacier which was covered with a lot of snow, so that was reassuring against the modest temperatures.  There were a couple inches of fluffy new snow on top of the very firm older snow.

We continued to plod upwards in the dark and it gradually got a bit colder, but the going was difficult because there was no track to follow whatsoever (nobody had climbed from here the previous two days we were told) and the fresh snow on top was increasing in depth, eventually reaching about three-quarters of a foot.  Daniel was doing very hard work by making a fresh track but I was mostly astonished that he had any idea where he was going in the darkness with the mist preventing any potential visibility of larger features that could have been used for landmarks (we were briefly able to make out the rocky band with p3827 to our left).

Very suddenly we were no longer in the clouds and we were a lot higher.  It was possible to make out some of the forms of the surrounding mountains and it was evident that natural light would be arriving soon.  My main memory of this part of the climb is the constant slog at an almost unchanging gentle angle, the meandering as Daniel adjusted our route, and the discomfort of making big high steps in the deep snow.

Thankfully light soon arrived as we ascended the Satteltole and it was a delight to see the sea of clouds below us filling Mattertal, with the high peaks recognisable on all sides.  Though the clouds hid many of the mountains, we were treated to a lovely sunrise just before Sattel.

Breithorn sunrise
Breithorn sunrise
Mattertal from Monte Rosa
Mattertal from Monte Rosa
Briethorn with Mont Blanc and Matterhorn
Briethorn with Mont Blanc and Matterhorn

At Sattel we dropped the poles, which would be no use on the steeper route ahead.  It was noticeably much colder, perhaps just below freezing.  This offered a great view of the intimidating route ahead, which from this point looked like a steep and exposed snow ridge.  It was surrounded by swirling clouds which increased the drama of the route.

Steep snow ridge above Sattel
Steep snow ridge above Sattel

This was the hardest route I had done at this point and I had yet to feel truly confident on this sort of terrain, but once we got moving on it I felt pretty good.  It was similar to Festigrat on Dom where we were a few days before, though noticeably shorter.  The main discomfort I noticed was the increasing cold actually, as the sun was not striking us and the temperature continued to drop with height.  We were rewarded at the top of this, p4498, with great views of the Pennine Alps, especially the Mischabel group which looked very rugged and dramatic from this rocky side.  The clouds were noticeably rising, which gave many of the peaks an island appearance.

Mischabel with Rimpdischhorn and Allalinhorn
Mischabel with Rimpdischhorn and Allalinhorn
Mischabel
Mischabel
Weisshorn
Weisshorn
Zinalrothorn
Zinalrothorn
Dent Blanche
Dent Blanche
Matterhorn and Dent d'Herens
Matterhorn and Dent d'Herens
Gran Paradiso
Gran Paradiso

From p4498 there was an airy section of scrambling to traverse, which wasn't very hard and was nearly level but it had breathtaking exposure and a few narrow snow aretes to tiptoe along.  This was followed by a shorter icy ridge ascent - I was noticing the thinness of the air here - which led to the final rocky section of the ridge.  The rocks had less fresh snow on their tops than the lower slopes probably due to wind, but they were icy so I took abundant care - probably more than necessary from Daniel's experience.  Most of the movement was moderate but the exposure certainly made it feel more serious than similar terrain would be lower down.  Just before the summit there was a sort of icy chimney which had a fixed rope, which was actually a bit tricky because the fresh snow made it hard to see where any good holds were and the axe was called into use a bit.  Very suddenly there was no longer any higher land and we put fresh footprints on the second highest Alpine summit.  It was 8:10, four and a half hours since we had departed the hut.

Dufourspitze summit approach
Dufourspitze summit approach
Dufourspitze summit
Dufourspitze summit
Dufourspitze summit photo
Dufourspitze summit photo
Dufourspitze summit ridge
Dufourspitze summit ridge

It was a special experience to be the highest people in Switzerland and the first on the summit that day.  The views was interrupted in places by moving (but non-threatening) clouds but I still managed to get some great photos of the immediate environment and the mountains around us.

Liskamm from Dufourspitze
Liskamm from Dufourspitze
Nordend from Dufourspitze
Nordend from Dufourspitze

We spent only about ten minutes on the summit and had a light refreshment before readying ourselves for the return by the same route.  We soon came upon the next groups coming up behind us, which included the Amsterdam client and his guide, and had an awkward moment moving around them in the fresh snow on very steep rocky slopes.  From there, it was a very careful scramble back along the ridge.  Before getting back to Sattel there was another good opportunity to get some photos of the other Monte Rosa summits which had stayed clear of clouds and Breithorn ahead of us.

Monte Rosa Summits
Monte Rosa Summits
Zumsteinspitze and Signalkuppe
Zumsteinspitze and Signalkuppe
Breithorn and Grand Combin
Breithorn and Grand Combin
Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

After descending the steep icy slopes it was a relief to get back to Sattel.  From there the decent went very quickly and due to the easy nature of the terrain it was possible to thoroughly enjoy the views of the surrounding mountains while descending.  There are some crevasses on this route, but there was a lot of snow this year so the small ones tended to be filled and the large ones were visible and avoidable.  It took about three hours to descend summit to hut, and as always it was a welcome sight to see it approaching.

Monte Rosa Hut
Monte Rosa Hut

We were taking off our crampons before the final easy scramble to the hut, when to our surprise the guide with the client from Amsterdam appeared on some rocks to our right having rapidly decended the glacier behind us.  He had managed to summit but it must have been a momentous effort because he collapsed flat onto his back with exhaustion and seemed unable to move to remove his crampons for several minutes.

At the hut the clouds were breaking up a bit so we had some refreshments on the sunny terrace.  The other guide joined us a few minutes later, followed by his client who looked like he might collapse again.  Everyone was relieved to hear that he decided to stay in the hut again that night rather than attempting the return to Zermatt and drive all the way to Amsterdam.

Soon enough we returned by the lovely path above the Gornergletscher and were back in Zermatt for mid-afternoon.  I said goodbye to Daniel, who had done a brilliant job on both Dufourspitze and Dom and had given me some helpful tips and confidence in my climbing.  It is a special experience to be climbing one-on-one in the mountains with an experienced guide.  The guide provides experience, technique and judgement to keep the party safe but also to help the client reach his or her goals.  Of course, the guide has to always be assessing the client as well as the conditions, to be sure that nothing is attempted that would be unsafe or beyond the client's abilities.  But being satisfied on this, I think the experience becomes a little bit more like a partnership and it is nice to have someone to share it with.  It is also good as the client (and I'm sure, equally as the guide) to have confidence in the other and know his or her ability, which provides a foundation to build on with future climbs.  I would end up climbing Grand Combin and Dent Blanche with Daniel in summer 2019, both a considerable step up in difficulty from Dufourspitze but offering wonderful scenery and really rewarding, enjoyable climbing.

The Dufourspitze itself is well worth the trip.  We managed to get away with it in a very narrow window but it was a great experience.  The main difficulties were the fresh snow and corresponding lack of path, cold feet up on the highest portions of the mountain (which quickly warmed on descent) and the exposure of the airy summit ridge.  Despite the 1800m elevation gain from the hut, much of this is at a gradual pace and though it may take some time it is not as strenuous as the figure suggests.  At some point I hope to return this way, perhaps to visit the Margherita Hut and some of the other Monte Rosa tops.



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