| Swiss/Italian Alps
2008 Italian/Swiss Alps Trip: Return to a Climber's Paradise
In early 2008 my new climbing buddy Bill told me about a Colorado Mountain Club-sponsored climbing trip to the Swiss Alps. Having been to the Alps, specifically the Matterhorn (Hornli and Italian Ridges), several times before my interest was piqued. I mentioned it to my long term climbing partner Mark and he was in. Over the summer many other climbers expressed interest but up to our mid-August departure none had committed. Rather than scrap the CMC trip we decided to just go ahead as a group of three friends.
Our primary objective was the Matterhorn. I'd tried it seriously three times before, once almost to the top, but other times we needed to retreat half or more the way up due to poor conditions (severe icing in early June, too cold for our gear in late September, sickness another time). I suppose the Matterhorn is my climbing White Whale, both a nemesis and a siren.
The flight over was done solo by each of us due to work schedules, different airlines, etc. We arrived within a day of each other, then got down to the important planning stage...over copious amounts of beer & wine! (Drinking pictures deleted for the sake of posterity...I have kids, ya know? )OK seriously, we didn't need much planning given our past experiences, we just needed to assess conditions and pray for a decent weather window to go after the Matterhorn.
That window never opened. We inquired locally and learned that the mountain had been in and out of shape sporadically all summer, but currently was pretty snowy & icy. Don't get me wrong, it's still climbable in such conditions, but it alters the challenge and makes a safe one day ascent almost impossible, particularly for a three person rope team. The Matterhorn is a long sustained climb of almost entirely exposed 4th class terrain with a few spots of low 5th class rock; usually cold, wet or icy rock with a few patches of snow and ice thrown in. So while it's not super hard, it's more sustained than any similar alpine climb I can think of in the US. But it's the hardest standard route up an alpine 4000 meter peak and I have concluded that the Matterhorn is a serial killer.
That conclusion was reinforced by emails received the day before our departure telling us that some Colorado climbers had been killed on the Matterhorn climbing our intended route the week before. Bill knew the lady who had died and that put a definite pall on our mood.
So we defaulted to our secondary choice: A three day traverse of the Monte Rosa Massif. It looked cool on paper. A chance to summit several 4000 meter peaks, one over 15,500', lots of glacial travel, and a traverse of the infamous Lyskamm ridge, nicknamed the Menschenfresser ("maneater"), a looong narrow ridge traverse with alternating cornices and ice to 45-50 degrees. Sounded fun!
The start the next day was hardly alpine. I think we got going about 10AM because it was to be a short day (or so we thought). We went up the cable cars, exited and hopped onto the glacier and were off. A really beautiful sunny day. Our first objective was just a glacial slog, the Breithorn. Here's a pic of me on top of the first Breithorn summit, note the Matterhorn just off my left shoulder:
The climb got a bit spicier as we went after a secondary summit, following a knife edge snow/ice ridge with a steady 30 mph wind and surprisingly cold temps (yeow! Don't slip!). Here's a photo of Mark topping out on that ridge:
Then things got ugly. Unbeknownst to us it had rained on the lower glacier the night before and as we descended to the Guide's Hut (just over the Italian border) the snow turned to midday slop. Hours were spent slogging and post-holing to the hut, as the sun hid behind the clouds. A confession: I like to climb, not hike, so I was going nuts with the tedium of roped glacial walking. But after several hours we spied the hut in the distance and descended to it through the now almost snow-free glacier. We had to be on our toes here, icy with lots of crevasses (Bill and I each took short self-arrested falls after blowing the icy, sloping landing after jumping across a crevasse...c'est la vie!). Here's the view from the hut looking back up to the glacier we descended (we took the ramp in the center of the photo):
Over dinner we learned that an approaching storm had apparently accelerated and snowfall of a meter or more was expected on Friday. That made retreat our only viable option. Why? The Monte Rosa Traverse is a 2-3 day outing over cornices, crevasses, and snowy miles of schlepping over unmarked glaciers, all at altitudes up to 15,500'. Doing it in limited visibility with 3 feet of new snow seemed pretty silly, pushing our luck. We later learned our decision was the correct one: Two other climbers pushed into the storm Friday and were found by guides frozen to death.
But on our retreat out the next day we decided to take advantage of the last clear day and detour to climb a nearby peak, Pollux. What an absolute hoot! It's a short climb (half day, top to bottom?) With a mix of everything. The first section is a narrowing couloir of hard snow that gets up in a spot or two to about 45-50 degrees. Not too bad, a short 15' section of ice but a slung rock horn adequately protected that. After that, a short section of snowy 3/4th class rock, then...looking good, looking good, then...holy crap! The rock just reared up steeply in our faces, right above a steep couloir which emptied onto the glacier floor hundreds of feet below. We had a light selection of gear, but not enough to do this as a full-on rock climb with patches of ice. Here's a shot of this initial steep slab section (taken on the descent, my buddy rapping down):
But as we 'scoped out the section we watched a nearby guided party do it (we were the only unguided team on the hill that day) and it quickly became apparent that this would be a snap. The local guides had fixed two sections of chain across the slab, and climbing it was like climbing a fixed line, on belay with a rope but clipped into the chain with a couple of quickdraws. I took the first lead across, Mark then took the second lead scrambling up a steep icy slot to a cramped (for 3 guys) cold belay in a notch. A short rock section (5.2-ish?) followed, protected by a pin and a bolt and, voila! We were through the difficulties! After that a short romp up the summit ridge, as seen below. Mark is in the foreground:
Finally on top! That's Bill over my shoulder, the high point of Monte Rosa is in the background:
All that remained was the retreat. Here's me on the first rappel/second rock section, green Italy far below:
Down the second rappel in the notch to the base of the slab:
After that, a slow and steady downclimb of the icy couloir then the safety of the smooth glacial snowfield. Here's a look back on the way out; Bill has taken "point," I'm "middleman," Mark is "tail gunner":
And then a sad note. On the ride down the cable cars we were told by a guide that a climber had been killed that morning on the same route & mountain we'd just climbed. Helicopters we'd heard early in the day were not, as we thought, sightseers but were instead retrieving the body. We speculated that the climber had been in the hut with us the night before, a sobering realization.
After the ride down we were back in Zermatt, had a celebratory dinner, and slept off our hangovers the next morning. Due to the forecast of several days of rain and snow I decided to leave a couple of days early, scoring major domestic points with my wife . After my arrival yet another sad note: I learned that several climbers died (8?) due to a collapsing serac on Mont Blanc, which was just off in the distance from where we'd been climbing.
So overall it was a great trip, 8 days door-to-door. Also a good adventure without any injuiries or even anything near a close call. But I mentioned all the deaths which occured shortly before, during and after our trip to reinforce a conclusion I've come to: Alpine climbing is probably the riskiest of all climbing genres, and the Alps are hard core mountains. True, a fair number of things make them easier than they would otherwise be (huts with hot meals, occasional bolts, chains, cable cars, etc.) but it can't be denied the climbs themselves are much tougher than almost all alpine climbs in the US (the climb up the Pollux was considered an "easy moderate"). The Alps are also relatively close to the ocean and as a consequence are icier with significant glaciers. The weather can be atrocious. But I am convinced that with the right skills, decisions, gear and experience you can have a relatively safe trip in a drop dead gorgeous area. Just my opinion....
I love it there, it's beautiful and make no mistake it's mecca for alpine climbers. If you go, enjoy, it's a climber's paradise. But be safe!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):