I have just returned from my annual Alps trip, this year I headed to Saas Grund in the Swiss Alps with the Avon Mountaineering Club. It was an amazing but very tiring two weeks which involved eight peaks, 5 of which were above 4000m and I climbed my first two AD routes. In addition to the climbing we had plenty of enjoyment in the valley with a few meals out and a night out in Saas Fee.
The peaks I climbed during the trip are:
- Stellihorn (3436m)
- A 14 pitch sport climb on the Jegihorn (3206m)
- Strahlhorn (4190m)
- Alphubel Traverse (4206m)
- Lagginhorn Traverse (4010m)
- Mittaghorn (3144m)
- A half traverse of the Breithorn (4164m)
- Nadelhorn (4327m)
Stellihorn – North West Flank
To get to the alps we decided to leave on Friday evening and drive through the night, this drive went very smoothly and we arrived at 11am after having only had a few hours sleep during the drive. Instead of relaxing at the campsite we decided that it would be a good idea to walk up to a bivi site to sleep up high while we were tired before climbing the Stellihorn the next day to continue acclimatising.
During the walk up to the bivi site it looked like some weather might be coming in from Italy but we were hoping to just avoid it, the walk in was farily short but was hard work due to there being no path and very steep grassy slopes. Eventually we arrived at the “campsite” and it was stunning. Sitting eating dinner looking at the peaks which we planned to climb was just fantastic, it was even sunny in the evening! Unfortunately overnight the weather came in from Italy which gave us rain and low cloud overnight.
After a slightly later than planned start we headed off up to the col making our own way through the boulder fields due to there being no path, once we arrived there we kitted up for the glacier crossing and headed up into the cloud. The guide book suggested that you keep to the right on the glacier, and due to a lack of visibility we kept all the way to the right which ended up meaning that we had to do a few hundred meters of steep snow traversing on soft snow when we could have been walking up a gentle slope lower down! Eventually we reached the summit in very Scottish conditions, thankfully there were a few fleeting glimpses of the other mountains. We were soon descending as we needed to get off the mountain before the weather got worse as we knew there was a storm coming in at some point in the evening, the descent down to the col went quickly and as the cloud base lifted slightly we found the correct way down and couldn’t believe what we ascended.
Unfortunately while descending a snow slope below the col Becky stepped through a snow bridge and got her foot caught in some rocks which stretched some ligaments in her ankle. After many painkillers Becky was insistent to try and get down so we started trying to descend, but it took us 90 mins to descent around 50m and it was just going to take even longer once we carried on below the snow line. Due to this combined with the knowledge that there was a storm coming in and we had 900m left to descent we made the decision to call for mountain rescue. They arrived quickly and took Becky away, unfortunately we had to decline our lift down too as we had stashed our bivi gear at the campsite so had to go and get it, it felt really odd watching a member of our group get taken off in a helicopter and then carry on descending.
In good weather the view from the top of the Stellihorn would be amazing as we spent the next two weeks looking at it from other mountains, combined with the wild camp it is a really underrated route which is a great way of acclimatising without spending money on staying high in a hut.
Sport Climbing on the Jegihorn – Alpendurst
Our initial plan for the day after the storm was to climb the Dri Hornli ridge, however due to the rain continuing later than anticipated and being in a bad mood due to waking up in a lake we ended up going to the pub instead of walking up to the hut in horrible weather. Our plan b was to climb the “Alpendurst” a 14 pitch sport route on the Jegihorn which was graded f4c.
After drinking too much whisky I woke up with a horrible hangover but we made it to the first lift up and walked up to the base of the route in very atmospheric conditions, with all the high mountains looking very white after the storm.
We spent the day climbing behind two lads from Belgium who were slightly slower than us but it was really enjoyable as there was always someone to talk to at the belays, apart from two incidents with two separate swiss guides who seem to think they own the mountain it was a great day out. The climbing was really enjoyable all the way up, we certainly felt the altitude climbing at 3200m early in the holiday! At the bottom of pitch 5 I had an altercation with a swiss guide which ended up with me being told to go back to london, in the end we just sat there and let him pass as we didn’t want the stress of having him behind us. He then got stuck behind the party in front of the Belgians who wouldn’t let him pass which I thought was amusing.
After a quick bite to eat at the summit we descended quickly and got down with 15 mins to spare before the last lift having had a brilliant day.
Strahlhorn – West North West Flank
Having spent a few days up high combined with a good weather forecast we decided to head for our first 4000m peak of the trip. We chose to climb the Strahlhorn due to it being technically straightforward but also a long day so that we would continue acclimatising. The walk in to the hut was only about 40mins from a lift station to the Brittania Hut, the conditions were stunning on the walk in and we had a fantastic view of the Strahlhorn from the hut. After good dinner, followed by a poor nights sleep we woke up at 2:45 and attempted to eat breakfast before heading out on the route.
Due to the clear sky and lack of light pollution the sky was fantastic in the early hours and despite it being warm (we were in baselayers) the snow was frozen. Due to the good snow conditions and extensive snow cover we were able to make good progress, and by maintaining a constant but steady pace we made really good time. As the morning went on we began to pass the other few teams who were out on the mountain who had to keep stopping due to moving too quickly and we were soon in front. Dawn was stunning as the sun rose behind us and before the sun had too long to heat up the snow we were on the summit. As we were approaching the summit we stumbled upon a fantastic snow arete which we were not expecting which was great, and the view from the top were outstanding. We made book time on the ascent, which we were pleased with considering it was our first big peak of the trip.
The route was really straightforward for a PD, however it is given PD due to a treacherous glacier crossing but due to the extensive snow cover in the Alps this year it was covered in plenty of frozen snow which made it very straightforward.
After a few photos we descended off the summit due to it being freezing, thankfully by the time we started descending the snow was getting soft so we were able to lose height very quickly and we were soon at the plateau which looked (and felt) more like a desert in the morning sunlight. By the time we were at the end of the glacier crossing we were both very hot and just wanted it to end, however focus was required until the end as the bottom of the glacier was full of crevasses with soft snow bridges. After what seemed like an age we were at the ascent back up to the hut. This ascent seemed to go on forever but we soon arrived back at the hut very pleased but tired, speaking to the guardian who has been there for 35 years we were congratulated on our speed which I was pretty pleased with.
Alpubel Traverse – South East Ridge (Icenase)
We were both expecting a day off after climbing the Strahlhorn, however it looked like we had a two day weather window before some bad weather was coming in. Due to this we decided to head off and climb the Alpubel. In the afternoon we drove around to Zermatt where becky dropped us off at Taschalp where we had a short hour long walk in to the Tasch hut, the walk in was stunning with great views of the Weisshorn which is just a fantastic looking mountain that I have to climb sometime soon. The view from the hut was even more outstanding, and dinner with the sun setting behind the Weisshorn was pretty amazing.
The next morning was pretty brutal, there was 1550m of ascent over a very short distance. After what seemed like an age and very hard work, but within book time we reached the Alphubeljoch. After some cursory sweets we headed up the South East ridge, otherwise known as the Icenase due to a short but steep section which can be icy. At the start of the ridge the weather was closing in, we had wind, snow and cloud but we carried on due to having been prepared with compass bearings to get to the top and get off thanks to David’s preparation. While we were approaching the steep section it cleared and we were presented with fantastic views, and were thankful for the cloud as it left the snow frozen for longer. We short roped up the icy section which was very straightforward, but everything always feels more serious at 4000m! On the climb there were some amazing ice caves, although they were never in a great location to photograph.
We were soon at the top with a fantastic view of Zermatt which was unfortunately a bit hazy. After a few photos we started to descend the normal route back to the Alphubeljoch, during the descent it started to get pretty warm again and in the softer snow the ascent from the col up to the Feechopf seemed like very hard work. We were both expecting the rock section down to the Feejoch to be a short downclimb, however we were very wrong as it was a decent length PD rock ridge which turned out to be great fun. After a horrible glacier crossing on soft snow we were soon at the Mittel Allalin station where it was an easy descent back down into Saas Fee for some beer.
Lagginhorn Traverse – South Ridge
I returned to the campsite pretty tired, but before I left I had mentioned to Dave about potentially doing the Lagginhorn Traverse the next day which meant getting the last lift up to the Hohsaas hut. Due to the time and being really tired as I walked into the campsite I had decided that I was not going to do it, however he was enthusiastic so in 20mins I repacked my bag and got a rack together for the climb. While sitting at the hut waiting for dinner I did question my decision as a thunderstorm came in, however thankfully it cleared and left us with a fantastic sunset from the hut. After a few beers and another fantastic meal I headed to bed and had the best nights sleep I have ever had in a mountain hut due to being so tired!
The next morning we woke up and headed up to the col between the Lagginhorn and the Weissmies, thankfully we arrived here before the sunrise as it meant we got to see the sun rising over Italy which was fantastic. We were climbing behind another english pair, on the initial easy scrambling we overtook them by moving together efficiently. Unfortunately at the first more difficult section I managed to chose a slightly harder line which took us longer to climb so we ended up behind them again, this line involved an unprotectable chimney on the second pitch which certainly got the adrenalin flowing, but once I committed to it the climbing was straightforward.
The ridge just carried on being great with rock which you could mostly move together on which saved lots of time. The ridge gains height fairly quickly and then traverses with lots of downclimbing and climbing back up to get to the main summit. This section of climbing was great, often the rock was fantastic and the exposure was outstanding. About half way along this section of the ridge a storm came in and it was snowing fairly heavily and suddenly it all felt pretty serious, but at this point there wasn’t much we could do apart from keeping climbing. Thankfully after about 15mins it passed and left us with a blue sky and sun which made everything more relaxed again.
I didn’t want the ridge to end as I was having so much fun, however due to the dodgy weather and being tired I was glad to get to the summit. We were just behind book time, but if it wasn’t for having to queue behind the people in front of us on numerous occasions we would have been well within it. We started descending quickly and the snow section at the start was great as we lost height really quickly, however the same can not be said for the rock below. The rock section of ridge wasn’t technical at all, it was just slow with no distinct path and it went on forever. I wanted it to end so much that I actually wanted to end up on the glacier below in the sun as soon as possible, thankfully eventually we were at the bottom. We quickly crossed the glacier and ascended up to the Hohsaas lift station well within book time for the descent, which meant that for the overall day with a book time of almost 10 hours we kept to guidebook time.
The lower section of the lift wasn’t working so we had to get a minibus and coach down tiny mountain gravel roads which was terrifying, I have never actually been scared on public transport before, but being in in overloaded minibus skidding towards a hairpin bend isn’t much fun! I was certainly more scared on the descent down to the valley than I was at any point on the climb I had just completed.
The bad weather was again pushed back which gave us another two days of activity, I was really tired but wanted to make the most of my time in the alps. After a lie in I decided to head up the Mittaghorn Klettersteig, it wasn’t much of a via ferrata as most of it was a walk, and at one point I was walking along the crest of the ridge with the cable down at the side… There were a few fun sections but I was soon at the top, while climbing the views of the Saas valley was fantastic and it was great getting to the top and looking around at peaks which I had climbed.
The descent was even quicker than the ascent as I almost ran down and two hours after leaving the lift station I arrived at the lift for the descent, the time for the ascent on the via ferrata is 3hrs. After a lovely homemade ice tea I headed back down to the campsite and enjoyed an afternoon of sitting in the sun.
Half Traverse of the Breithorn [AD, III] – East Ridge
With the good weather continuing we headed up to do a Half Traverse of the Breithorn which can be done in a day from the Klein Matterhorn lift station. It was a bit of a shock walking out of the lift station at 3800m after being in the valley, after a quick dash to get into the sun we geared up for the glacier crossing and followed the crowds. We were soon at the Bergshrund which is the biggest I have ever crossed, however it was straightforward and we were then at the base of the climb.
The climbing was fantastic and was in three distinct steps, at the first step as we decided not to climb the IV section while at the base of it having had a committing approach we then had a fun traverse to get back to the normal route. After this traverse we moved together for the entire ridge, which was full of great climbing on generally good rock. The climbing was never very difficult and while the ridge was busy with guides they were all very polite and it was an enjoyable day out. After we passed the third and final step I had forgotten about the last grade III step up, we got stuck behind a very slow British party who didn’t know what they were doing. At one point I even considered being a bit Swiss and climbing over there rope as it was freezing in the gap as the wind was being funnelled into it, however I was patient and eventually we all climbed the section very quickly.
We quickly got our crampons back out and headed along the ridge to the summit, on the ridge there were some massive cornices but there was a great path so avoiding them was not difficult. Eventually we arrived on top where we had a group photo in the mist as the storm which would last the next few days had started to build. We quickly descended the normal route and crossed the glacier, by this time the snow was horrible and as we could see the lift station all the way it was a horrible crossing. By the time we got to the station I was shattered having had 8 days out without a rest day.
We got caught in a thunderstorm while in Zermatt and the thunder in the valley was amazing due to it being such a steep sided valley, can’t say I was so impressed with the rain! The next two days were horrible and it was a good chance to rest and recover, they weren’t entirely wasted though as we managed to fit a night out in Saas Fee which was good fun.
Nadelhorn – North East Ridge
On the penultimate day of our holiday the weather started to improve, with a good forecast for the final day we packed up at the campsite and walked up to the Mischabel hut. This is a proper hut walk in and involves 1000m of ascent from the lift station in a very short distance, this hut walk in was made horrible due to low cloud and rain, but due to it being so steep there was no point in putting coats on as we would have got too warm. This meant we ended up cold in the hut all night having to use body heat to dry our baselayers.
The next morning we woke up to crystal clear sky, with an inversion in the valleys and a hard frost. After forcing some breakfast down feeling very rough having not slept much we headed off and found that in addition to the cold air there was a very cold wind as well. While climbing up to the Windjoch the sunrise was fantastic and lit up the Lenspitze beautifully, once we arrived at the Winjoch we found that it lived up to its name as the wind got even stronger. The wind remained for the entire climb of the ridge and I really regretted not bringing my winter gloves as it was properly cold and I couldn’t feel my lower arm on my right side due to it being in the wind for so long!
The views while climbing the ridge were fantastic, there was an inversion down in the valleys, we could see a number of the big peaks of the Saastal and we could also see over into the Oberland. The snow on the ridge was generally pretty good but there was some windslab ontop of icy rocks in places which meant that care had to be taken. After a while we approached the final summit rocks which were straightforward but serious, and due to the number of people around and how cold we were serious care had to be taken.
The views from the tiny summit were outstanding and included the Matterhorn and Weisshorn over an inversion, we didn’t stay long as it was so cold and there were other teams approaching so we started to descend. Most people were sensible and friendly, a swiss guide even asked us if it was ok to climb over our rope as we waited! Once we were at the snow ridge we quickly descended and got out of the wind, at this point we instantly overheated due to the sun! After a short glacier crossing and descent we were back at the hut 1000m below the summit and with another 1000m left to go.
Thankfully on the descent cloud had bubbled up which had two advantages, firstly it kept the sun off us so we didn’t overheat and secondly we couldn’t see how far we had to descend. It seemed to go on forever but we soon made it back to the lift and headed down to Saas Fee where we met Becky for a well earned beer to end a fantastic holiday.