Dufourspitz, Monte Rosa (15,203ft)
August 10, 2014
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Our alarms went off at 3am, but we had already been woken up by the increasingly loud claps of thunder and bursts of lightning. We were huddled in our small tent perched on the edge of the Ob Plattje Cliffs at 10,000ft on Dufourspitz, the highest mountain in Switzerland. Our intended alpine start for a summit bid this morning didn’t seem like a good idea – the storms were only getting closer, if not already directly above us, and the highest point in the country had a good chance of getting struck. With little alternative, we crawled deeper into our sleeping bags and hoped the storm would end before too long.
We were on a 2-week country highpointing trip in Europe to celebrate me handing in my PhD thesis, and had just summited Mt Blanc two days earlier on Wednesday, August 6. After descending from basecamp to St Germains Les Bains in France Thursday morning, we hoped into our rental car and immediately proceeded to our next objective, the highpoint of Switzerland.
I took the wheel, driving through Chamonix, then up a winding mountain road to the Swiss border at a pass near Vallorcine. We stopped to buy groceries in the Swiss town of Martigny, then drove east through the apricot fields along route 9. At Visp we turned back up into the mountains toward the tourist mecca of Zermatt. Zermatt is the closest you can get to Dufourspitz by road, but tourists aren’t officially allowed to drive into the town. The town is actually so popular, and located in such a small mountain valley, that the government of Switzerland has ruled that, to limit congestion, only locals are allowed to drive into town. Tourists must take the train, or hire an official taxi to drop them off.
Matthew and I drove as far as we could, to the town of Tasch, and parked at one of the many large tourist parking lots. We decided to take a taxi into town as a slightly cheaper option than the train, and soon repacked our gear and loaded up into a waiting van. As we drove towards Zermatt the wide valley narrowed considerably, and the road changed to one lane as we weaved between old farm buildings. The drive was only 15 minutes or less, but the atmosphere changed considerably. The town was very densely packed with touristy buildings in the traditional Swiss Chalet style, with many tourists walking around. There were plenty of mountain bikers, backpackers, and mountaineers strolling through town. This is definitely one of the adventure hubs of Switzerland, like Mammoth Lakes or Jackson Hole in the US.
In town we made our way to the Gornergrat Mountain Railway, and here had a decision to make. We could either take the mountain railway to the trailhead like most people, or hike up directly from town. Hiking up would be a bit more honorable, but would add at least a half-day approach to the normal start. The train would get us to the normal start, but would be a bit more expensive and seemed a bit more like cheating.
This is a question we often face – what is the limit where it is acceptable to use mechanized transportation (cars, planes, helicopters) to get up a mountain vs using human power? On one extreme, taking a helicopter to the very summit doesn’t seem fair, but on the other extreme it seems unreasonable to try to get from my home in the US all the way to the summit purely by human power, without flying or driving at all. The solution is there’s some middle ground that every mountaineer has to figure out is fair. Matthew and I generally say it’s fair to take mechanized means to the standard starting point of a mountain but not farther. So we think it’s fair to fly in a ski plane to base camp on Denali or Mt Logan, or in this case taking a mountain train to the trailhead of Dufourspitz. Of course the human achievement is much greater the less mechanized means of transportation is used, but sometimes we’d just rather hit more mountains on a trip than spend more time on an approach.
In this case, we decided we’d rather take advantage of the decent weather forecast, and maximize the number of mountains we could hit on this trip. So we forked over the money for the railway ticket and started the journey uphill.
A short 30 minute ride in a train full of tourists brought us out into the forests above town, through a thin layer of clouds, and eventually into the meadows above treeline. We got off at the Rotenboden stop (not the last stop), at around 9,300ft. The train goes higher to the last stop, but this doesn’t actually help to approach Dufourspitz. The standard approach involves descending from the train to cross the Gornerglet glacier before starting the ascent of the mountain.
Outside the train we got our first view of the mountains outside Zermatt and it was spectacular. We were perched on a ridge overlooking the Gornerglet glacier far below us, with huge 12,000ft+ glaciated peaks visible to our south. We would later learn they were Breithorn, Pollox, and Liskamm. The Matterhorn should have been visible farther west, but was still shrouded in clouds.
We started following a trail traversing down the slope of the ridge towards the glacier below. Before long we reached the edge of a cliff 100ft above the glacier, and it didn’t look possible for the trail to proceed. But Europeans are adept at making trails in the most difficult locations, and around the corner we noticed a sturdy metal ladder attached to the cliff. I cautiously peered over the edge and saw that it extended all the way to the bottom.
“It looks safe, but I’d hate to stumble going down that ladder,” I said. “Let’s rope up just in case.”
Matthew agreed. We tied together with our 30m glacier rope. I belayed Matthew down and he clipped the rope to the ladder in a few places as he went. Then he belayed me from the bottom as I descended. If I were to fall, the slings clipped to the ladder would catch my fall. We both made it down safely, then crossed a small metal bridge over a stream and were finally on the glacier.
We changed into our mountaineering boots, donned our crampons, and started hiking. At this time in late summer all the snow bridges were melted out and the glacier was solid ice, and any small crevasses were clearly visible. So we didn’t bother roping up but instead just hiked across the ice.
There were little wooden tripods marking the route through the glacier, and we followed these all the way to the base of a large rocky ridge. Sunset was fast approaching, and it appeared there wouldn’t be any flat places for a while, so we stopped there for the night and set up camp.
In the morning we were treated to an excellent view of the Matterhorn, finally free from the clouds, poking out to the west. It looked impossibly steep to climb from our angle, as it does from almost any angle.
We soon broke camp and continued hiking up the trail.
The trail switchbacked up the slabby ridge, requiring fixed ropes at times, until we eventually reached the Monte Rosa Hut. The hut had recently been renovated and looked pretty fancy. There were some picnic tables outside where we took a break to admire the scenery. I briefly poked my head inside the hut, and it was pretty nice, with wooden restaurant booths, tables, and mountaineering books on the walls. It still amazes me that there exist such fancy hotels like this in the middle of the wilderness in Europe, but I guess the European mentality of mountaineering is different than that in the US.
Rested up, we put our packs back on and continued up the mountain. From here the trail disappeared, likely because most people hike to the hut and have different objectives after that, and also because most of the year the ground above the hut is covered in snow and no trail would be necessary. We aimed for a weakness in the right side of the Ob Plattje cliffs above, and generally scrambled up a rocky ridge until we reached the snow at the base of a gully. Here we pulled out our ice axes and kicked steps upwards. As we were climbing a pair of Bosnian mountaineers descended and wished us luck for Dufourspitz.
After scrambling up some sketchy sloping rocks at the head of the snow gully we reached the top of the cliffs, and the lower reaches of the Monte Rosa glacier. There was a large flat rocky section just at the edge of the glacier, and we picked a spot here to set up our tent. It was a bit late in the afternoon to continue on to the summit, with the snow bridges likely softening in the heat of the day, and we had planned to camp here anyways.
I put up the orange Nemo mountaineering tent as Matthew started cooking some cous cous for dinner. In the distance we watched as a gigantic cloud pummeled into the Matterhorn from the southwest, slowly engulfing it. It looked like our sunny weather might not last after all.
We opted to go to bed early in preparation for an alpine start the next morning. We hoped the weather would hold out to let us reach the summit.
The bad weather did not hold back, though, and thunder and lightning struck throughout the night. At 3am when our alarms went off, the storm was directly above us. We held off our summit bid hoping the weather would improve, but by 5am with the lighting still striking we gave up and went back to sleep. This is what spare summit days were for, and we had built in enough time for a spare day on this trip.
We slept in til 9am, and when we poked our heads out of the tent the storms had finally passed, leaving just patchy clouds above. It was tempting to start up the mountain then, but we realized that would have us descending in the heat of the day, and probably wasn’t a good idea. It was at least a very scenic place to have a rest day.
I walked around camp for a while, taking in the view, and Matthew went in search of a melt-water pool to get some drinking water. Eventually we got kind of bored, and came up with an interesting way to pass the time. There was a huge table-sized flat boulder near our tent, and it looked like it could make an excellent checker board. We each trundled over a few smaller boulders to sit on, then carefully created a grid on the table using mud. I then gathered a bunch of white rocks and Matthew a bunch of black rocks, and we had a full checker board!
Playing checkers occupied a few hours, before it was time to eat lunch. We each spent some time reading the Europeans Highpoints guidebook we’d brought, and admired the view. By late afternoon we cooked dinner and went to bed early in preparation for another summit bid the next morning.
At 2am we were woken up before our alarms, again, this time by another group of climbers passing outside our tent. They must have started very early from the hut. We were planning to start at 3am, so stayed in the tent and listened to what went on. Eventually their voices died down, and I poked my head outside the tent. I could see their lights higher up on the glacier, but they were heading back toward the tent!
I overheard them talking and it sounded like someone had punched their foot through a crevasse, and the group had gotten scared and turned around. This made me and Matthew kind of nervous. Maybe the conditions weren’t that safe right now after all. Our guidebook warned that the route was heavily crevassed, and here in the middle of the night when all the snow bridges should be solid someone still poked through. Perhaps the spring was really the safest time to climb Dufourspitz, not late summer.
Reluctantly, possibly influenced by being sleepy at 3am, we decided to continue sleeping and abort the summit bid. It was disappointing, but we still had plenty of other mountains on the agenda.
By 8am we crawled out of the tent and were met with perfectly clear bluebird skies. We could see where the group’s tracks had turned around at an obvious crevasse. It probably wasn’t so obvious at night, though.
“We’re all the way up here, and we can see the crevasses perfectly well in the daylight,” Matthew started, “Why don’t we just give it a shot and turn around if it looks sketchy?”
“Yeah, I would feel pretty disappointed to come this far and not even try to go farther,” I replied.
I felt a wave of relief to be once again pushing for the summit. We would probably be descending in the afternoon, but that hadn’t been a problem on Mt Blanc a few days earlier, and we could assess the glacier as we ascended to see if anything might be risky.
We donned our harnesses, tied in to the glacier rope, and started up the mountain following the other group’s footprints. They soon ended at a small crevasse, but this was clearly visible in the daylight and easily avoided. We continued following other footprints from previous groups, and were soon past the small crevasse field.
Now the route ascended a long snow slope, with no visible crevasses. The snow was the difficult consistency of having a semi-solid crust with a softer layer underneath, so we would sometimes punch through and sometimes it would hold our weight. This was actually more tiring than if it were just always soft, because we could never predict when we would punch through. We had opted not to bring snowshoes, which we now regretted.
Above the hill we traversed below the start of the start of the Sattel Ridge route, and met an imposing ice fall. In front of us loomed huge crevasses punctuated by house-sized seracs fallen from the glacier above. We could see the col we were aiming for between Dufourspitz and Nordend peaks, and it looked like there may be a series of snow bridges between the crevasses that could get us there.
We carefully weaved to the left end of the icefall, then traversed right through the middle, and started climbing steeply up a headwall on the right side. Luckily we would have our tracks to follow on the way back to navigate this tricky section.
Above the headwall the glacier became better-behaved, and we easily marched right up to the col. We had finally reached the tricky part of the mountain. Above the col, we’d read, required ice and rock climbing up a gully and across a knife-edge ridge to reach the summit. This sounded like true mountaineering with a little bit of everything involved.
I’d come prepared with some ice screws and rock gear, so took the lead. I kicked steps up the snow in the bottom of the gully, and when it turned icy I put in an ice screw. Soon I was surprised to see a fixed rope dangling down, and clipped a sling onto this as well. Before I could top out I reached the end of the 30m rope, and we started simul-climbing. The terrain wasn’t too difficult, but still would be a bad place to fall and I was happy to have the rope.
After going through all my screws and a few cams I reached the top of the gully and found a solid metal chain attached to some rocks, which I used as an anchor to belay Matthew up. When Matthew reached the anchor he clipped in, handed me back my gear, and put me on belay again.
From here the route turned right to follow a knife-edge snow and rock ridge to the summit. I led carefully along the ridge, kicking steps in the snow until I encountered a rock step. I put in a cam, then traversed along the right side of the ridge under some overhanging boulders. On the other side of this I reached the end of the rope and we started simul-climbing again. After a short ascent up more snow I reached a large metal cross, which I clipped some slings to as an anchor to belay Matthew over. This was the summit!
It was a little hard to tell we were actually on the summit because we were engulfed in clouds, but this big cross was hard to mistake. The summit register beneath it also gave us confidence we were in the right place. I had read a lot about this mountain, and found that the summit ridge was actually not as hard as I’d expected. It was only about 200ft from the top of the gully to the summit, so two of our 30m rope lengths, and not that difficult or exposed.
We admired the summit for a little while, but unfortunately the clouds never cleared, and we never got a view. At least we had hit the highest point in Switzerland, though! We soon started getting cold, and Matthew offered to belay me back. I retraced my steps, this time knowing exactly where to put the cams in the rock, and we soon regrouped back at the top of the gully. Now, if we had a full 60m rope here it would have been an easy choice to rappel the gully, but this wasn’t really possible with our 30m rope. The terrain was easy enough, though, that we decided to simul-downclimb. In this way I went first, placing gear while down climbing, and Matthew followed retrieving the gear.
If either of us fell, the gear would catch our fall. Given that the terrain was pretty easy, this was a reasonably safe and fast way of descending. Everything went according to plan, and we soon rendezvoused back at the col.
We followed our tracks back through the icefall (luckily the tracks were still visible), and then descended the long snow slope. Our final obstacle was navigating the crevasse field near camp. It was mid afternoon now, in the heat of the day, and this was the section we had been most worried about. But we had found a safe route in the morning, avoiding all crevasses, so it wasn’t actually that risky in the afternoon. We just followed our footprints and made it back to our tent without issue.
There was still plenty of daylight left, so we packed up and descended back down to the hut. I was amazed, thinking back over our ascent, that we were the only climbers to summit Dufourspitz in the past few days, even though this was a sunny summer weekend in the peak climbing season. Perhaps mountaineers are more interested in either more technical mountains like the Matterhorn, or less technical mountains like Mt Blanc, and Dufourspitz kind of falls in the middle and isn’t that popular.
Back at the hut we stopped for a break, and realized, not for the first time that day, that we were completely out of food. We hadn’t really planned to stay on the mountain this long, but had stretched our food to last, and were now out. The hut did sell food, though. On one hand I really wanted to be self sufficient and not have to rely on the hut for help. But on the other hand, I knew I could tough it out and hike back to the trailhead with no food if needed, so I wasn’t really relying on the hut. It was more like treating myself to a victory meal at the hut.
With this justification, we walked inside and asked if there was any food we could buy. They said they were cooking spaghetti with tomato sauce for guests that night, and we could buy a plate each for 25 euros. We hesitated a bit at this extremely high price, but eventually agreed. The spaghetti did taste pretty amazing after going without food for much of the day.
After dinner we packed up and continued hiking down the trail. We crossed the Gornerglet Glacier, then belayed each other back up the 100ft metal ladder to the top of the cliffs. From here we hiked a little ways, but sunset was soon approaching. It looked a bit tight to catch the last train of the evening, and we were pretty tired, so we found a flat spot overlooking the glacier and pitched the tent right there.
In the morning we hiked back to the train, rode back down to Zermatt, and caught a taxi back to our car. We pointed our car back down the valley towards our next object, Snezka, the highpoint of the Czech Republic.