Journeys in the hills and mountains
The second week of our trip to the Alps was aimed at making a traverse of the Monte Rosa. The highest peak on the massif is the Dufourspitze, at 4634m, but it is a classic expedition to combine this with an ascent of all the nearby 4000m on the ridge that, for most of its length, forms the border between Switzerland and Italy. The traditional expedition stretches from the Theodul Pass and then continues along the border, traversing the peaks of the Breithorn, Pollux, Castor and Lyskamm. The massif itself stretches from the Pyramid Vincent over the subsidiary tops of the Corno Nero, Ludwigshohe and the Parrotspitze before reaching the height of the Signalkuppe. From here the ridge continues over the Zumsteinspitze, over the Dufourspitze, and then finally on to Nordend. Our aim wasn’t to climb every peak, but certainly to do the majority.
The weather forecast, however, did not fit well with our aims. We knew we had a couple of days of good weather, but it looked far more uneasy in the middle of the week. We set off with the intention of making the best of it that we could, hoping that the poor weather would be confined to typical evening storms. Early on Monday we paid the fare to get up to Klein Matterhorn which allowed us to traverse Pollux and Castor in a day. We had already climbed the Breithorn on a previous trip and so missed this off from the start of the ridge. There was beautiful weather and views across to Mont Blanc as we traversed over the Breithorn Pass. We ascended Pollux (PD+) using the fixed ropes to cross the more difficult part of the ridge. The descent to the Zwillingsjoch was more challenging as the snow and rock was lose. It took us well over an hour to descend two hundred metres. Nevertheless, we arrived at the col with time to ascend Castor (PD) which we did by an easy snow slope. We ascended a little too quickly, nursing a couple of headaches near the summit. From here there was a pleasant ridge and less pleasant, though thankfully short, glacier slog down to the Quintino Sella hut. The rumours that the Italian huts are cheaper than the Swiss huts are, in these parts, unfounded.
We made a later start on Tuesday. We had contemplated an ascent of the east summit of Lyskamm by the easy (or easier) south ridge, but decided to content ourselves with a traverse of the Naso del Lyskamm (PD). This turned out to be harder than expected requiring a couple of pitches on thin snow and ice. We waited for almost an hour in a traffic jam as guided groups went on ahead, one of the guides rudely overtaking us in the queue. Simon ably led the pitches and we had our lunch on the summit. The afternoon was far easier with a steep snow slope down to the glacier and then a quick climb up to the top of the Pyramid Vincent (F). The cirrus clouds and higher winds did not bode well for the morning. We made the quick descent from here down the glacier to the Gnifetti Hut.
Wednesday was an important decision day. We had been unable to get a booking the Margherita Hut which, being on top of the Signalkuppe, allows for a two traverse of the whole Monte Rosa massif without losing much height. We had to decide, therefore, whether to attempt to whole traverse from the Gnifetti Hut, or to descent to the Monte Rosa Hut (over 1000m lower than the Margherita Hut) and then attempt the final summits on Thursday. We made excellent time on Wednesday morning and were almost on the Lisjoch within an hour of leaving the hut. The weather, however, looked ominous. There were dark clouds over Switzerland and the summits over 4200m were smothered in cloud. We decided we would make a push for the Dufourspitze, missing out the smaller tops along the way. Our pace was excellent and we had reached the Signalkuppe (F), and the Margherita Hut, by 9am. Unfortunately, so had the weather. Conditions were, in Simon’s words, not dissimilar to being on the Cairngorm plateau in Scotland in winter, though perhaps the winds were not quite so strong. Nevertheless with very limited visibility and the wind it was not looking likely that we would have been able to traverse to the Dufourspitze, requiring a short ridge graded AD to reach the summit. We therefore decided to head down to the Monte Rosa hut in the hope of better weather in the morning.
That evening we watched the weather from within the hut. The hut itself is brand new and is an interesting design, though perhaps lacking the homely feel of traditional alpine huts. As we shared our dinner with several British teachers a thunderstorm broke and we watched, disheartened, as lightning flash after flash lit up the sky. Breakfast was at 2am: we decided we’d look out the window from our beds at 0150. We woke up accordingly and saw stars. We therefore ate our breakfast and began to ascend the tricky boulder field and moraine to reach the Monte Rosa Glacier. As dawn broke we were treated to stunning views, particularly of the Matterhorn and other Zermatt giants, with the mountains catching the morning light. We crossed the glacier with no difficulties and, by the itme we began ascending to the summit ridge, we had overtaken the first guided party.
The ridge proved a bit more challenging than expected, not least because the snow, much of which must have fallen overnight, was soft and crumbling. We took our time on the exposed ridge, weaving the rope around the rocks, and a guided party overtook us. As we approached the col below the summit block the guide stopped and told us that, for them, this was the summit, citing the snow conditions. They were turning back. Looking up to the summit, only a couple of hundred metres above us, we had to make a decision: climb the last bit to the top of the Dufourspitze, or turn back. We followed the example set by the guide and reversed our route. Several other parties were happy to risk the summit; at least two guided parties descended with us. The summit of the Dufourspitze remains, therefore, for another day.
As we descended we were nevertheless treated to more spectacular views. The Matterhorn looked particularly enticing and may well prove an objective in a future summer holiday. For this one, I had a few days to spend in Zermatt as Simon and then Alex departed, reading about the history of the region and, slowly, formulating some plans for a future trip.