Aletschhorn (13h)

Looking around for something to do on a day with an unsettled forecast, the Aletschhorn seemed like a good prospect. Though it is a fairly long, hard day from Blatten, with a bit over 3000m of climbing thanks to some up-and-down along the way, it is not technically challenging or committing, and involves relatively little glacier-work. On a clear day, the summit offers a bird’s-eye view of the konkordiaplatz, where the Grosser Aletschfirn, Jungfraufirn, and Ewigschneefeld join to form the Grosser Aletsch Glacier, the largest in the Alps. Though it is much diminished, it is still very much alive, and remains around 800m deep at the junction.

I scouted out the route out of town, then settled in to sleep in Blatten’s car park (sigh…). (Side note: Most Swiss car parks print tickets reading “hertzlich wilkommen,” or “hearty welcome.” Blatten’s instead read “hexlich wilkommen.” It turns out that there are legends of witchcraft in Belalp, and even an annual witch-themed ski race.) I got started up the trail to Belalp around 4:00, and hiked by headlamp past the Hotel Belalp and down a steep descent to the trail traversing below the Oberaletsch Glacier. I finally put away the headlamp a bit after 6:00 — the days are getting noticeably shorter.

This approach has more annoyingly unnecessary climbing in addition to the return climb back to Belalp. The Oberaletsch Hut is about 100m above the glacier, which is bad but to be expected. However, after crossing a bridge at the glacier’s toe, the trail to the hut takes a rolling line along the glacier’s east side that often rises well above the level of the hut. The first part of the trail passes through several gates separating fields for cows and sheep, many of which were sleeping on the trail when I passed in the morning. I was almost tempted to hike up the glacier from the bridge, but saw no cairns or bits of path, so that would have been a wretched moraine-slog.

I startled a couple washing up outside the hut around 8:00, then took the ladders and steps down to the glacier. Of all the big Bernese glaciers I have seen, the Oberaletsch is in by far the worst shape, with large watercourses cutting the ice near its tongue, and a rocky surface for most of its length. As I approached the Aletschhorn, I saw why: the valley glacier is all but cut off from the cirque of steep glaciers that once fed it, with only one thin connection still extending down from the Schinhorn to its west. Though the corpse will take awhile to melt, I suspect the valley section will be dead soon.

The first trick in climbing the Aletschhorn’s standard route is getting back up off the glacier. The route description on my phone mentioned some reflective markings, but I did not see any, so I plotted out my own right-to-left traverse up the lateral moraine, trying to follow the more stable spots with plants on them, and crossing loose streambeds where possible. I eventually found a line of cairns and a faint trail, which is much easier to find and follow on the descent. With one inexplicable detour to the right, corrected by some fourth class climbing, I got back on the crest of the southwest ridge, where I found some useless cairns on a nice, stable talus-hop. Large cumulus clouds were building over the Rhone Valley, so I tried to climb as quickly as possible in my increasingly worn-down state.

The ridge is split partway up by a crevassed glacier, which could have been tricky, but was fortunately mostly dry. After an initial steep bit getting up off the rock, I made my circuitous way up to the left, then back right of the upper ridge, and finally left to get back on the rock, finding an old boot-pack near the end. I was once again surprised to meet no one else on either the route or the summit, and to find in the register that no one else had summited earlier in the day. This would be unheard-of on a moderate 4000m peak across the valley to the south.

Back on the rock, I hiked up some choss, then followed a line of belay posts up fun and fairly solid class 3 rock to the summit. The clouds were still building, but I was pleased to see that I had made it in time to get a clear view of the konkordiaplatz and the “head-ices” of the Grosser Aletsch Glacier to the northeast. I took some time to enjoy the views and the rest of my giant cheese sandwich, then got out of there with some haste. The clouds didn’t look too serious, but the summit cross had a nice melted spot.

I followed the trail on the way down, which takes a more direct line down the lateral moraine. The crux of the route was at the very bottom, where it descends steep, rock-hard dirt with loosely embedded rocks, terrain I find far more threatening than steep rock. It started drizzling a bit as I hiked down the glacier, and picked up a bit as I climbed the cold, wet ladders toward the hut. I tried putting on my poncho, found that it blew around too much to let me climb, and ended up just putting up with the rain and climbing as fast as I could.

The rain stopped just after the hut, and the clouds kept temperatures comfortable for the rest of the hike. I passed about a dozen people headed for the hut, then a herd of curious goats on the traverse toward Belalp. Not being familiar with farm animals, I gave them a wide berth instead of shooing them out of my way. I did not feel like climbing back up to Belalp, so I took another trail that supposedly also led to Blatten, hopefully with less climbing. It turned out to be just as bad, descending toward a reservoir before switchbacking up steeply to meet the trail I had taken in the morning. Oh, well.

Gardena Pass

Sella group


[This is way out of order, but something to do on a day with free time and decent internet. — ed.]

Gardena Pass is next to Sella Pass in what seems like the most famous section of the Dolomites among Real Climbers. Despite not being one of those, I still managed to find some things to do in the area, some more fun than others. Still, I think the place is best left to the Real Climbers.

Piz Boè

Piz Boè

I had originally wanted to do the well-known Brigata Tridentina via ferrata. I couldn’t figure out where to rent ferrata gear in town, but figured I could just scramble it. Unfortunately, there was a big, obvious sign at the bottom saying you were not allowed on the ferrata without gear, and it is popular enough that I would no doubt run into many other people. Instead, I hiked up the walk-off, which itself has a few cable sections, but no sign. From the top of the steep trail, I continued to the Pisciadu Hut, a large and popular establishment next to a rather pathetic little lake.

Ah, wilderness…

With plenty of time left in the day, I panned around the map on my phone, finding that Piz Boè was the highest thing in the area, and that there were trails leading there. I took off hiking in that direction, climbing onto a broad, rolling plateau surrounded by cliffs. Boè itself looked less than impressive, a broad cone-shaped thing with a hut on top, but I had nothing better to do with the afternoon. I set off across the plateau toward the summit, crossing one short ferrata section on my way to a large refuge at Boè’s base, which was a noisy, active construction scene.

From there, I continued on the summit path, joining the line of people who had taken a tram up to the plateau from the other side. I listened to people speaking various languages outside the ugly summit hut for awhile, then retraced my steps. Back at the car, I did some research to come up with something a bit more fun for the next day.

Cima Pisciadu (Northeast Buttress, 5.5)

Pisciadu hut

After some confusing about where to start, I got a late start up the trail to the Brigata Tridentina ferrata, which meant that there were people lined up at the base when I got there. Since I was not supposed to touch the ferrata without gear, I scrambled up some rock to its right, then thrashed through some scrub pines to rejoin it on a trail section above the first cable. Gotta play by the rules…

Slung sanduhr

Where the ferrata turns uphill for its main section, I continued following a traversing trail to the mouth of a sort of canyon, then left it at a cairn to follow boot-prints toward the base of the buttress. Based on the Mountain Project description, I thought I would have no trouble finding the start of the route (“a well-worn start” behind an “enormous block”), or the route itself (“slung sandurhs“, or rock handles). I turned out to be wrong. After going way too far up-canyon, I gave up and headed back down next to the cliff, eventually finding a small cairn next to the wall.

A bit of exposure

I started up and, finding a sandurh, was reassured enough to continue. The description continued to be unhelpful, so I just made my way up what felt like the best path, occasionally finding a sling here or there, but not enough for me to see the next from the previous one. Many of the slings were old, suggesting that the route is not all that popular. Unlike on the ferratas and other popular routes, the limestone was not worn smooth, so the climbing was fun, steep but moderate, on sticky rock and sharp holds. The crux was probably a steep section where I stemmed up an orange dihedral/chimney. Above, the terrain flattened out somewhat, and the rest was class 3-4 cruising up grass and limestone steps.

I found a faint climbers’ trail at the top, leading to the good old Pisciadu Hut. As I hiked, I watched the line of people crossing the bridge at the top of the ferrata. I once again had some time, so I skipped the hut and followed a trail to the top of the Cima Pisciadu, a minor summit across the plateau from Piz Boè. While it did not have a hut on top, it did have a cross and some communication equipment, somewhat spoiling the ambiance. I checked out the nearby peaks for awhile, including the nearby inaccessible-looking Dent de Mezdi, then returned once again to the hut and down the ferrata walk-off, passing some backpackers terrified of the steep scree-trail.

Lauteraarhorn (12h40)

Lauteraarhorn from Unteraar Glacier


The Lauteraarhorn is one of the lesser 4000m peaks, barely exceeding the magic threshold and having just over 100m prominence above the lowpoint of the ridge connecting it to the nearby Schreckhorn. However, being an “amphitheater peak” surrounded by greater summits, it has one of my favorite summit views in the Alps so far, with the Schreckhorn and Finsteraarhorn looming nearby, the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger rising farther to the west, and the Unteraargletscher flowing back east. Like the Finsteraarhorn, it can be reached from near the Grimsel Pass, saving me some driving. The approach crosses the dam, then follows a trail through a tunnel and around the Grimselsee before ascending the Unteraar, Finsteraar, and Strahleg Glaciers. Most people spend a night at a small bivouac hut above the Strahleg Glacier, but that, of course, is not how I roll.

(Richard Goedeke, in his guidebook, amusingly remarks that “[u]p to 1976, an ascent still meant a voluntary bivouac had to be planned, but it should be remembered that in the days of the pioneers, this was the norm everywhere.” Elsewhere, he writes of the Marguerita Hut on the Signalkuppe that “this is a place in which one can take in the magic of a breathtaking evening at very high altitude and morning moods at leisure, without all the rigmarole and paraphernalia of bivouacing.” I wholeheartedly join him in his disdain for the barbaric practice of camping. I can only imagine his horror upon learning that it is popular in the United States to go on multi-day “voluntary bivouac” trips without climbing any peaks.)

I had spent most of the previous day sitting in the car, listening to the steady drizzle as I caught up on reading and writing. It was still raining as I tried to go to sleep, and I woke at 3:30 to a fog so dense that I could barely make the drive down to the Grimsel Hospiz. Fortunately this is a Swiss mountain road, so it is wide and has lane markers, unlike the Italian ones to which I have become accustomed. I had scouted out the start during a break in the rain the day before, so I knew which stairs to take down to the dam when I finally started out around 4:20. The tunnel was much easier by headlamp, and I knew to avoid the big puddle near the start.

Spot the hut

I cranked out the rolling hike around the lake by headlamp, then stupidly continued following the trail to the Lauteraar Hut. Why “stupidly,” you ask? Because, like many of the huts in the Bernese Alps, this one was built back when the glaciers were much larger, so it now sits hundreds of feet above the ice, or in this case, the morainal debris covering the ice. The rain and fog had soaked all of the vegetation, but the broad trail spared me a Cascades-style leg-washing as I switchbacked away from where I wanted to be and toward the hut. I took in a good sunrise view of the Lauteraarhorn, then wandered around in confusion for a bit before finding the path down to the ladders. This path was not wide enough to spare me a soaking, ensuring that I would pulverize my feet on the hike out. The ladders were all solid and orderly, not some Italian nightmare, but there were a lot of them, and they were all cold and wet.

Back down Finsteraar Glacier

Detour complete, I began hiking up the Unteraar Glacier, following a lattice of cairns, metal poles, and occasional bits of path. As soon as I reached the sun, I stopped to wring out my socks, hoping to spare my feet. The glacier is mostly rocks up to where the Finsteraar Glacier splits off, with a currently-dry stream-bed splitting it down the middle. The best path seems to stay on the right-hand side most of the way, then descends to the stream-bed, following it a bit before finally getting to the bare ice of the Finsteraar Glacier. The ice was all dirty or crunchy enough that I did not need crampons; indeed, unlike the Finsteraarhorn experience, most of my gear stayed in my pack this time.

Marker stick

Partway up the Finsteraar Glacier, I picked up a line of markers, blue and white wooden poles on tripods with rocks hanging beneath them. These led up the ice for awhile, then up the lateral moraine of the Strahleg Glacier and on to the hut, an unpleasant-looking little box high up on the cliff to the right. I had no use for that, so I traversed back onto the ice and continued up-glacier, looking for the prominent couloir leading to the southeast ridge.

Typical face climbing

Goedeke recommends getting up and down the couloir early, due to dangerous snow and cornices. Alternatively, one can just wait 20 years, and find that the couloir is mostly bare rock. It took me a few minutes to recognize the feature, but I soon found a left-trending ramp leading into it, and some boot-prints. Ex-couloirs are normally unpleasant, but this one was not bad at first. The upward-tilted rock layers had been planed off, creating sticky textured slabs that were easy walking. At the level of a small hanging glacier, I should have gone to the ridge at the far left. Instead, I stayed too far right, and ran into more typical ex-couloir conditions, with loose rock and a bit of fresh snow from the day before. I struggled up this, linking outcrops of more solid rock and trying to make my way left, and eventually got back on-route just below a col around 3900m.

Fun summit ridge

The rock quality immediately improved as the route turned to climb along rather than across its layers. It was fun climbing, a bit slabby but with plenty of positive edges, staying right along the sometimes-exposed ridge crest. Though there were patches of fresh snow, the rock was mostly dry, so I just shook my head when I saw fresh crampon tracks. Putting crampons on at the first sign of snow seems to be common practice here, possibly a holdover from decades past, when the peaks were colder and snowier.

Unteraar Glacier from Lauteraarhorn

One part of the ridge gave me some trouble, a pinnacle with an overhanging back side that I sketchily bypassed on the snowy and icy right-hand side on the way up. On the descent, I found some hidden footholds allowing me to stay on the crest. It was calm and sunny, just warm enough to climb in a t-shirt without gloves. I reached the summit 7h20 from the car, and spent about 20 minutes taking in the view and perusing the register, where I noted several parties traversing to or from the Schreckhorn. That ridge looked even more fearsome with a smattering of fresh snow, as did the Schreckhorn’s southwest face, falling 1500m to the Unteres Eismeer. To the south, the Finsteraarhorn’s huge north face rose from behind a lesser ridge. Back east, I could see the Finsteraar and Unteraar Glaciers’ junction, and the upper end of the Grimselsee.

Big moulin

I found the correct path down the face, with occasional cairns, bits of trail, and many crampon marks, so the descent was more pleasant than the climb. I took out my ice axe for all of two minutes to boot-ski a small snowfield, then got some water at the melt-stream below it. Thanks to fresh snow and clear skies, the glacier was flowing with many small streams, which flowed along the surface and merged until they disappeared into moulins.

Schreckhorn ridge

I met a group of three on the Finsteraar Glacier, headed up to sleep at the hut before climbing the next day. Their English was only a bit better than my German, so it was hard to communicate. They probably asked where I was coming from; I pointed and said “Lauteraarhorn” (“louder-ARE-horn”), and received blank stares in response. Eventually one of them said something like “looter-AIR-horn,” and I cringed in embarrassment, as German vowels remain a mystery to me. I managed to communicate that I had come from the Grimsel Hospiz that morning, which surprised them a bit, but what really had them shaking their heads was the fact that I was in running shoes, with no mountain boots. If they would only try it themselves, they would see how much better their lives could be. My feet were trashed enough as-is, and I can only imagine how much worse they would have felt hiking out in the full-shank Nepals the group’s leader was wearing.

The view of the hut perched far above the glacier, connected by the line of ladders, was jaw-dropping. Rather than make that detour again, I continued down the glacier. There were cairns here and there, but they did not indicate a trail, so I just made my way down miserable moraine to the glacier’s toe, then passed a poor stranded iceberg before rejoining the trail. My feet were feeling wrecked at this point, but I tried to make some speed for once, jogging some of the flat and downhill sections of the trail around the reservoir. The cascade feeding the lake was raging in the late afternoon, making for good photos for the day-hikers. I passed a woman leading an unhappy-looking greyhound up the metal grated stairs from the dam, reaching the car about 12h40 after starting. The forecast was perfect for the next day, and I should have done something, but my feet were feeling too thrashed, and my shoes were worn smooth and developing holes. Unfortunately, a maintenance day was required.

Finsteraarhorn (14h30)

Finsteraarhorn


The Finsteraarhorn is the highest peak in the Bernese Alps, which contain many of the range’s largest glaciers, including the Grosser Aletschgletcher, as well as the famous Eiger (one of a handful of Alpine peaks falling between 13,000 feet and 4000 meters). Unlike the Eiger and its neighbors, which can be easily reached by those willing to pay for the cable car from Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch, the Finsteraarhorn is a long glacier hike from any access point. I chose to come in from the high trailhead at Grimsel Pass, circling around the south side of the peak to reach the hut and standard route. This took about 14h30, about nine hours of which was spent on various glaciers. From the Oberaarsee, the route climbs the Oberaar Glacier to a glacier pass with a hut, then descends the Studer Glacier to its junction with the long Fiescher Glacier, finally climbing that to reach the hut.

Dawn on Oberaarjoch

I started out up the road to the Oberaar Reservoir at 4:30, jogging some flatter spots to hopefully cover as many miles as I could on decent snow. Reaching the dam, I realized that I could have paid 5 Francs to park at a large overnight lot nearby. I put away my headlamp on the way across the dam, then followed a clear trail along the reservoir toward the toe of the Oberaar Glacier. Something about glaciers’ shape often makes them appear shorter than they are, and this one was no exception: though it looks small, it rises nearly 3000 feet to the col, and takes just as long as one would expect to climb. Also, flowing eastward, its tongue is highly asymmetric, with the shaded southern side extending much lower than the northern one, mostly covered in talus.

Oberaarsee

I made my way up the rocky northern side for awhile then put on crampons to make my way up the bare ice, winding around and jumping over the exposed crevasses. There was still snow covering the glacier’s upper reaches, but fortunately there was a boot-pack drawing a safe line over and around the more hidden slots. I saw two people at the base of the path leading up to the small hut, but they did not seem talkative, so I continued over the other side, following another bootpack down the Studer Glacier. On the way down, I got a good view of the southeast, i.e. wrong, side of the Finsteraarhorn, and a sobering reminder of how far I had to go.

Wrong way down

This bootpack seemed to be contouring farther south than I would like, so I left it near where the glacier became bare to take a more direct line to the junction with the Fiescher Glacier. This turned out to be a mistake: the lower Studer Glacier branches around a rock island, and the right (north) branch is steeper and more broken, while the left is an easy walk. There were some hijinks required, including going in and out of the moat on the left, but I eventually got back on track.

Hiking up Fiesch

I saw a few boot-prints crossing the large rib of debris to the Fiescher Glacier, and was then back on bare ice for awhile, dodging the many crevasses and looking for an easy line up toward the hut. It is difficult to mark routes on glaciers, and boot-packs do not form on bare ice, so each person has to find his own way. In any case, I saw no other people after the Oberaarjoch Hut, a surprising change from the rest of my time in the Alps, and it felt particularly lonely on the big, quiet glaciers.

The hut

After endless glacier shenanigans, I spied the hut far up on the right bank. I had been planning to do another peak, and had forgotten to take photos of the guidebook, so I mistakenly thought that the route went up a glacier tongue from the Fiescher Glacier to the Hugisattel. Unlike on my map, this tongue does not connect to the main ice, and the route in fact climbs the rubble above the hut to reach it higher up. The weather was gray, but not truly threatening, and I had come a long ways, so I decided to try to figure something out for myself.

Helpful serac

I continued up-glacier, then turned up a side branch toward the saddle between the Agassizhorn and Finsteraarhorn, hoping to find boot-prints. I unfortunately did not, and as I got higher, the glacier became snow-covered and crevassed. I proceeded carefully, climbing the right side under some seracs, which had filled in or bridged a lot of the holes, but did not currently seem to be active. I eventually crossed a ‘schrund around 3750m, then hacked my way up a bit of bare ice to the awful rock of the ridge. I found a sling around a block, but this was clearly a seldom-visited spot.

Agassizhorn

The clouds had lowered by now, so I made my way up the ridge in mist, climbing class 3-4 garbage, staying close to the crest where it was a bit more solid. I was not looking forward to reversing this, and hoped that I would find a boot-pack on the correct route at the Hugisattel. I crossed one small snow-saddle, then, after passing a decent-sized toilet paper deposit (that’s a thing in the Alps, even in Switzerland), saw recent crampon tracks where I hoped to find them.

Summit view

The rock to the summit was actually decent, with plenty of crampon scratches and bits of trail here and there. I climbed as fast as my fatigue allowed, since the weather seemed to be worsening. Reaching the summit just as it started to graupel, I stuck around just long enough to put on my windbreaker and take a photo of the cross, then raced back down in full GTFO mode. I needed to get to that crampon track before it was buried.

Sketchy bridge

Back at the saddle, I swapped out my soaked fleece gloves for mitts, put on my crampons, and started jogging down the boot-pack while annoying ice pellets stung my eyes. It dodged a number of crevasses, crossed a narrow and sketchy ice-bridge, then disappeared on some bare ice as it seemed to traverse to the rock on the left. I followed where I thought it might lead, and soon found a pile of historic garbage (rusted cans and broken glass), and a decent trail leading down the scree. I continued on the trail for awhile, eventually losing it at a flat spot. I believe the route goes left onto another glacier, but I carefully made my way down some horrid talus, then slid down a scree-chute to more talus and snow below.

Returning to Fiesch Glacier

I passed just below the hut, and almost stopped in to check it out, but it looked like there might be no one home, and doing so would require going uphill. Instead, I stopped for a snack on the edge of the glacier, then began the long walk home. It had stopped precipitating, and the weather seemed to be either stable or slightly improving. Going up the Studer Glacier, I even caught glimpses of some summits to the west. I slogged past the hut, where two people watched me silently from the balcony, then continued down the Oberaar Glacier toward home.

I felt a few raindrops as I neared the reservoir, where I saw a young couple out with a baby, and a party of three other dayhikers. The rain picked up about halfway around the reservoir, so I put on my poncho, immediately tearing an ice-axe hole. This was the first time I had used both on a single outing, and I clearly should have thought more carefully about how they would interact. The rain continued as I crossed the dam, passed the Oberaar Berghaus, and started down the road to the pass. I hoped to get a ride with someone headed down, but the one car that passed did not slow down. Fortunately the rain had mostly stopped, so I could put away the poncho and jog back to the car. I had grown a bit complacent, and the Bernese Alps smacked me for it. I have a few more similar outings planned, which I will take more seriously.

Lots of these

PS — I saw dozens of shells embedded in the glacier, slightly smaller than my hand, which seem like they might have been fired at or by an airplane. Does anyone know what they are, or why they are all over a Swiss glacier? Does the Swiss Air Force practice by strafing the Bernese Alps?

Alagna area

Having driven all the way over to Alagna, I figured I might as well spend some time in the area, checking out some of its lesser peaks. Alagna and its neighboring villages are inhabited by the Walser people, who live in the high valleys of the area and (I believe) speak their own dialect of German. One unique and immediately noticeable bit of “Walserity” is the style of their houses, which have the slate roofs of the ones I saw on the Swiss side, but also outward-sloping wooden trellises supporting their eaves. I probably should have taken the time to visit the local Walser museum, but my time in the Alps grows short.

Cima Tagliaferro

I slept in after the Monte Rosa expedition, then did some writing and tooled around town for the rest of the morning, buying a few groceries and scoring free WiFi at the tourist information center. I was planning to take the day off completely, but started getting antsy around noon, so I decided to take an afternoon hike up Cima Tagliaferro (“iron-cutter,” I believe), a handsome and easy peak on the east side of the valley. It probably has an excellent view of Monte Rosa on a clear day, but those seem to be rare.

The trail up from above Alagna is nicely shaded, but it was still punishingly hot and humid as I climbed out of the valley past a number of traditional slate-roofed huts. The trail emerges from the trees a short hike below a popular-looking restaurant which is unfortunately in the middle of a cow pasture. Above, it deteriorates on its way to a pass, climbing through a mixture of greenery that I was once again reminded includes nettles.

From the first pass, an exposed trail climbs along the west side of the ridge, with a couple of fixed ropes, to the higher Passo del Gatto (Cat’s Pass), where it joins a supposedly less-exposed trail from Rima, a village in the next valley to the east. Above, it is a straightforward hike to the summit. I had passed several hikers on their way down, and met three climbers on the summit, who had just finished the north ridge, a moderate route I should probably have tried to scramble. I admired the mostly-cloudy views for awhile, then hiked back to the car, much more nettle-aware than on the way up.

Corno Bianco

Corno Bianco is the highest peak on the west side of the Valsesia. There is a sort-of trail up its south side, while its north ridge is (according to Summit Post) rated AD+ III+, the same as the Liongrat on the Matterhorn. It is actually nowhere near that hard, but was still a delightful ridge scramble with a few fifth class moves.

I hiked down through town at dawn, then wandered around a bit until I found trail number 3, which leads to both the south-side route and to the Passo Uomo Storto (Crippled Man Pass), the start of the north ridge. The ridge climbs a bit less than 500m in over a kilometer, so it is mostly not steep, and fortunately the less-steep parts are fast, rather than requiring intricate traversing. The rock is generally good, with stable talus on the flatter sections, and positive holds on the steeper steps. On the first part of ridge, the best route stays on or just right of the crest.

I was cruising along, surprised not to find any real difficulties, periodically checking my progress on my map since the clouds streaming off the east face obscured my view of the ridge ahead. I eventually reached a northern false summit, where the rock quality deteriorated, and from which I saw what looked like some tricky towers in the mist ahead. Surprisingly, they turned out to be no more than fourth class via blocky terrain on the left. I sat around on the summit for awhile, catching occasional glimpses of nearby terrain through the mist, then began finding my way down the trail.

Checking my map, I realized that “the trail” was actually leading to the next valley west, so I traversed east, partly trying to remember the route description from Summit Post, and partly taking the most natural line toward the trail at Laghi Tailly. I eventually picked out the markers for “trail” 3a, and followed these down toward the lakes. The route is blocked by a steep step at the end of a hanging valley. Here there was a 40-foot fixed cable hanging over a steeper part of the step, which would be difficult to descend hand-over-hand, and would not stop a fall using via ferrata gear. It seemed easier to downclimb the third class rock to its right.

Below, I descended some wretchedly slick grass to the lakes, where I picked up a gradually-appearing trail. This trail eventually became an old road, then rejoined my trail from the way up just above town. I stopped to wash my face and get a drink at one of the public fountains — a nice feature of many Alpine areas, especially prevalent in Italy — then hiked back up the road to the car. Alagna had been nice, but it was time to get back to business.

Monte Rosa (Piramide Vincent, Parrotspitze, Signalkuppe, Zumsteinspitze, Dufourspitze, 14h10)

Dufourspitze from Zumsteinspitze


The Monte Rosa massif includes many of the Alps’ highest peaks, including the second-highest, the Dufourspitze. I had written off climbing Monte Rosa, since it is buried behind the huts and cable cars of Zermatt. However, some of its subpeaks are normally approached from the Italian village of Alagna (1200m). These climbs are normally done with a fairly egregious cable car (3200m) and hut (3600m). However, they can also be done car-to-car, and I realized that I could not just reach the Dufourspitze, but also sweep up some of the lesser satellite peaks along the way. It would require 3500-4000m of elevation gain, similar to what I did for Mont Blanc, making it a tough but not ridiculous day.

Tram tower

It was absolutely bucketing rain as I drove west and north to Alagna, nearly overwhelming my wipers at full speed, but the next day’s forecast looked good, so I set my alarm for 3:00 AM and tried to get some sleep. I started hiking around 3:20 and, after a false start up the path to someone’s house, found the path to the Rusa district of Alagna and on up the ski area (trail number 205 or 5). I passed the usual ski area detritus on the way up — huts, snow-making machines, lift stations — but all were quiet in the dark. The sun rose near the upper lift stations, around 3000m, hitting the peaks intermittently through some scattered clouds above the valley.

Piramide Vincent

Above the lift stations, I followed a marked path with some hand-lines along a ridge to some ruined-looking building with a diesel motor inexplicably running inside. The faint path then continued across a mixture of talus and snow to join the boot-pack from the tram station. The glacier above was slushy in places, but mostly hard enough for crampons. I crunched my way across, passing two groups of four who I thought were descending early to the tram. Later, I realized that they were climbing Piramide Vincent by its southeast glacier, something I probably should have done.

Piramide Vincent ridge

Instead, I continued up the steps and hand-lines to the ridge on the glacier’s other side, from which I could see the two high huts. The Citta di Mantova hut is the usual solid stone structure, but the Gnifetti hut is a sprawling thing that looks more like a high-altitude shanty town, a sprawling structure with bits of wood and tin roof mixed in with the stone. I skipped both, following Piramide Vincent’s rocky southern ridge and the glacier to its left toward the summit. Given the previous day’s precipitation, this turned out to be a poor choice, since the talus was spotted with a mix of fresh snow, ice, and rime. It was awkward climbing, but I made it work, and beat the glacier-climbers to the summit. I was cold, and only stopped for a few seconds before descending the track on its northwest side.

Lyskamm from Piramide Vincent

Here I began to meet the hordes coming up from the hut. There had been maybe half a foot of fresh snow on the glacier the night before, but thankfully the trail crews had been out installing fresh boot-packs, so I had only to follow the right lines. I jogged down to the saddle, then traversed around and through some lesser summits, including one with a small hut and huge Christ statue on top. Past these, I followed a path up the Parrotspitze’s narrow north snow arete. The fresh snow and cool overnight temperatures made for perfect travel conditions, with no need for crampons until near the end of the traverse.

Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze, Signalkuppe

I continued on the path over the summit, passing more people in the next saddle before joining the main road to the Margherita hut on the Signalkuppe’s summit. At 4556m, this full-sized hut is the highest building in Europe, and seems to actually be used by people “climbing” the nearby peaks. I sat out of the wind to have part of a sandwich, decided that I did not need to go to the top floor of the hut to reach the summit, then returned to the saddle to the north, passing a dozen packs people had left there to summit the nearby Zumsteinspitze. There was some sort of bottleneck on the rocks just below the summit, but it had worked itself out by the time I reached it, carefully climbing a steep track for which I would use crampons on the way down.

Someone offered to take this…

There was a small crowd on the summit, with its fine views of the nearby Dufourspitze to one side, and Lyskamm’s impressive north face to the other. Clouds were rising off the Italian side of the peaks, obscuring the valleys to that side, but it was sunny on the Swiss side, and I could see the whole of the long Monte Rosa and Grenz Glaciers. Since there was no sign of the weather deteriorating, while everyone else returned toward the hut, I started off down the ridge toward the high point, following a much fainter track.

Ridge off Zumsteinspitze

About 50 yards down, I realized that it was stupid to descend this compacted snow arete without crampons, and awkwardly stopped to put them on. This snow descent was probably the day’s crux. The prevailing wind seems to be from the west (Swiss) side, creating hard-packed snow on that side, and corresponding cornices on the other. I passed a guide and two clients shortly below the summit, who were either scouting the route or retreating; beyond, I had only hints of an old boot-pack to follow. Most of it was a careful snow descent, playing a game of “cornice chicken” to stay on the softer, lower-angle snow near the crest. However, one short rock step gave me particular trouble. After some experiment, I eventually dealt with it via a bit of dry-tooling, sliding the pinky-rest into position on my ice axe, then wedging the pick in a slot to create a handhold in the right place.

Lyskamm from Dufourspitze

The south-facing climb up from the saddle was the only real rock scrambling I did the whole day. There was still some fresh snow hanging around, but it had melted off enough for climbing without crampons, and the underlying rock was fun and solid. I strayed right of the ridge on the way up, but would have had better climbing staying on the crest. Reaching what I thought was the summit, I was disappointed to learn that I was on the Dunantspitze, named for the founder of the Red Cross. It would take another ten minutes of careful traversing to reach the actual highpoint, a bit over an hour from the Zumsteinspitze, and nine from the car.

Nordend

I was surprised by the absence of a summit cross and presence of a register, though it was just a wad of wet paper. I took in the views, briefly contemplated traversing on to the Nordend, then sat down to eat the last of my food. Just as I was starting back, a helicopter came from the direction of the Margherita hut, along the ridge over the Zumsteinspitze, and flew slowly quite close to the summit. I made an obvious “I’m okay” wave, with one hand up and the other down, and received a response, so it seems like they were checking in on me.

Gnifetti shanties

It took about an hour to return to low-angle snow on the other side of the Zumsteinspitze, where I put away my crampons and turned off my brain for the day. The highway of a boot-pack back to the Gnifetti hut was finally starting to deteriorate, with occasional calf-deep postholes into the old underlying snow, but it was mostly easy going. There are several crevasses on the final descent to the hut, but the pack followed a safe path, and I did not see any ominous leg-sized holes like I did on Monte Cevedale. The lower glacier above the tram station was in wretched condition, with some of the bare ice turning to an unavoidable morass of ankle-deep slush. I wrung out my socks as best I could on the other side, then tenderized my feet on the 6000-foot hike down the ski area to the car. I was impressed by Lyskamm, a more impressive-looking peak than Monte Rosa, but would probably take the tram if I went back to do it. This is a once-a-year approach.

Three similar lists

By an interesting coincidence, there are almost the same numbers of Colorado 14ers (53), Canadian Rockies 11ers (50), and Alpine 13ers (58) — somewhere in the mid-50s, depending upon your definition. The Colorado 14ers are definitely the easiest list to complete, with very few requiring more than 4000 feet of elevation gain or any scrambling. Probably thousands of people have climbed them all. The other two lists are much more serious, with probably only a handful of people having completed either.

Having now climbed a good number of the other two lists, I have been debating with myself which would be harder for me to complete. The Canadian peaks are certainly wilder and harder to access; some like Clemenceau, I believe, cannot be done as dayhikes. On the other hand, access to the Alpine peaks is almost too easy, making all of them dayhikes from their huts. They are harder from the car, but probably still all doable in a day. None of them is very far from a road, though many rise 3000m or more above their trailheads, making for hard days. They are also more technical than the Canadian peaks, and while I think they are all within my ability by their easiest routes, I have not climbed enough of the hard ones to be sure. For example, I will probably not attempt the Aiguille Blanche near Chamonix, which sounds like it has a sketchy descent.

Some plots

I made a few plots comparing the lists. Apologies for the ugly format, but I don’t have my preferred plotting tools working on my computer right now. First up are some histograms of the prominence of all but the highest peak in each list. Prominence is the drop from a peak to the highest saddle connecting it to a higher peak, a measure of “independence.” Both the Alps and the Canadian Rockies’ most prominent peaks are significantly more independent than Colorado’s, because the Colorado peaks all lie on a high plateau. However, the Rockies 11ers are, on average, more independent than the Alps 13ers, reflecting the fact that many of the Alps’ high peaks are clustered in a few groups (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa).



Next are some altitude histograms. Colorado’s high peaks are all clustered within less than 500 feet of each other. This continues lower down, with over 600 peaks between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. Both the Alps’ and Canadian Rockies’ highest peaks, Mont Blanc and Mount Robson, are outliers. Both ranges also have much more variation among their highest peaks, with the Alps’ spread over 2700 feet, and the Rockies over 1900. I am not sure what this means.



Anyways, I had some time to kill today. Back to mountaineering-related programming activities tomorrow.

König-Spitze

Dawn on Forni Glacier


After a somewhat disappointing choss-hike, I looked around for something a bit more like mountaineering, and a route on the König-Spitze or Grand Zebrú seemed to fit the bill: from a relatively high trailhead above 2000m, it climbed a couloir on the peak’s southeast side to the glacier on its east face. With snow/ice supposedly up to 50 degrees, it sounded like a potentially fun big-boots route. Unfortunately, the SummitPost page I used for the route is 16 years old, and does not reflect current conditions. What I found instead was a scree-chute leading to a bare glacier with a chossy rock bypass. I made it work, but it was pretty wretched business.

I unhesitatingly paid the three euros to drive up to the parking area near the Forni refuge, arriving around dinner in torrential rain. The next day’s forecast was not great, but at least it wasn’t supposed to rain until the afternoon, so I settled in for the evening in my humid car. I started out by headlamp around 5:00, hiking a road to the upper refuge, at one point passing through a herd of cows. Ah, the Alpine experience…

Wonderful couloir

Beyond the refuge, I followed a faint trail and line of cairns toward the Grand Zebru Glacier, winding my way through endless moraine. The trail gradually faded out of existence, and I continued stumbling up more moraine and then rock-buried glacier to a point where there was enough exposed ice to put on crampons. I dodged a few obvious crevasses, then followed a bit of boot-pack to the glacier’s upper edge. There I saw what I had feared: the “45-50 degree snow couloir” was completely melted out, exposing a huge scree-pile with rotten rock to either side.

Gran Zebru Glacier

It was gray and chilly, and it even started to drizzle a bit; faced with a likely slog, I almost turned around, but managed to motivate myself to paw my way up the scree, then perform some careful chossineering on the rock to the right when I could. I eventually reached the east ridge, where I saw bare glacial ice on the northeast face, and a fixed rope leading up the rock to its left. I had brought the big boots, so put on crampons and started up the ice. However, with only one tool, it was not the most secure climbing, so I soon returned to the rock, finding a bit of hardware and a couple of fixed lines.

The rock was class 3 covered in rubble, neither especially difficult nor fun. Where the slope eased, I found the ruins of some wooden structure, perhaps from the Great War, then followed an old boot-pack back onto the snow. The final summit climb was on rotten rock covered with a bit of fresh snow. I was in a mixture of clouds and mild graupel at this point, basically just heading up the path of least resistance, following fixed gear where I found it.

Summit structure

There turned out to be another wooden structure on the summit, this one in better shape, but covered with “access denied!” signs. There was also a large summit cross with a register box. I signed in, then almost immediately headed down, since there was nothing to see. I took the rock route on the way down, freely using the hand-lines when available, then did some decent scree-skiing higher up. On the rock stretch from the lower structure to the top of the scree chute, I could not help knocking down all sorts of rocks, but I was confident that no one else would be out on the mountain today.

Probably the best part of the climb was scree-skiing down the chute on mostly perfect ankle-deep rubble. Emerging below the clouds, I was pleased to find that the rain was holding off, and I had a limited view across the valley to the large Forni Glacier. The hut was crowded when I passed, with many people having ridden up on mountain bikes. I passed a couple dozen more on the hike down the road, and found the parking lot completely full of day-hikers. Despite the forecast, it actually turned out to be a nice day, so I hung out for awhile, then tracked down some WiFi in town to figure out an easy outing nearby.

Cima di Piazzi

North glacier and NW ridge


Cima di Piazzi is a stylish-looking peak rising 2100m above the town of Isolaccia in the Valdidentro, its north face covered in glaciers. There are routes from all directions, with the easy standard route coming from the south. With limited information, I chose to approach the northeast ridge from the gondola parking lot in Isolaccia. This turned out be a pretty bad plan, since you can drive higher on a road out of Isolaccia, and the ridge is a long hike followed by some obnoxious choss. I found a shorter way down, though it was just as chossy, so I recommend using another route to the summit.

Long ridge…

I was woken by rain during the night, so I was in no rush to get started, getting a semi-alpine start with only a few minutes’ headlamp time. I located a likely trail using my Peakbagger map, and started up a steep dirt road past some houses, then up some ski slopes, passing under a gondola, then around some poma lifts higher up. This was not the most inspiring “climb,” but I hoped things would improve once I reached the ridge.

Old shrine

The peak finally came back into view at a shrine built in the 1600s, dedicated to a random Irish saint who supposedly granted women fertility, a belief apparently local to the Valdidentro. From there, I left the official trails to follow what I thought might be a goat or chamois trail along the gentle ridge. The trail saw a bit of human traffic, as evidenced by occasional cairns, but much more animal, with enough dung in some parts for it to smell like a barn. There was a bit of scrambling, but it was mostly an easy walk to the Corno de Colombano.

Frickin’ sheep, man

Descending to the the col on the other side, I finally saw what had made the trail: a herd of domestic sheep. They were lazing around the saddle until I passed by, then started to follow me a bit before giving up interest. This is where things got annoying. The rock is mostly garbage, either unstable talus, outward-sloping stuff with gravel on it, or rotten. The ridge also has a number of ups and downs, each different as to whether one should go around or over. The one highlight of this section was seeing a lone ibex, who watched me from a safe distance. I had seen them before below the Matterhorn, but those had remained silent. This majestic creature was more vocal, and it turns out that ibexes squeak like marmots. I never would have guessed.

Squeak!

The rest of the climb was fourth class in a few places, but mostly just annoying. However, it was uncrowded and nearly unmarked for a change: I saw no people or boot-prints, and only a single old sling. The summit had the standard cross, with a well-protected register attached, which I dutifully signed. The north glacier was too steep to descend with running shoe crampons, so my only option was to return down the ridge. I tried to cut off some distance by dropping north down a subsidiary ridge. It was more uber-choss, but at least it was short, and relatively easy going in the valley back to another road. From there, it was just a road-walk back to town.

Global warming strikes again

Europe is experiencing an historic heat wave, of which I was well aware while sitting comfortably on a 3400m summit in a t-shirt. This can be dismissed as just weather, not climate, but global warming is ever-present in the Alps, where you are constantly surrounded by rapidly-retreating and long-studied glaciers. Just today, Olivier Bonnet died when a rock broke under him on the Dent du Géant. As the article concludes, “because of global warming and the high temperatures of recent years, the mountain is drying up and is weakening.”

If you have some time, you should read this recent Times review of our sorry history of climate policy. I knew about some of the players, but did not realize how close we came to doing the right thing, or how richly John Sununu deserves a special place in hell. The takeaway is that we humans have known about the greenhouse effect since the 1950s, but have demonstrated fairly conclusively that we just don’t care enough about the future. Neither our political institutions nor, perhaps, our evolved psychology, is capable of addressing a long-term problem like climate change. I don’t think we will go extinct, as much as we may deserve it, but I’m sure glad I won’t be alive in another 100 years.

Monte Cevedale, Suldenspitze

Welcome to another edition of “hikes with spikes,” where Dr. Dirtbag shows what can be accomplished by hiking with crampons. Today, we will talk about Monte Cevedale, a glaciated peak near Sulden in the Ortler Alps. Like Ortles, it is very popular on a weekend. Unlike Ortles, it is dog-friendly rather than a friendly dog. Sulden is a nice place to stay, so I wanted to find an excuse to stay there without repeating any ground. Cevedale is normally approached from the other side, but there are a couple of feasible routes from Sulden: one goes over the Paso del Lago Gelado to the Longo/Cevedale glacier, while the other climbs the Solda Glacier to the usual hut. I went up the first, and down the second.

I once again got started just after 5:00, this time hiking the road on the left of the Solda River instead of the trail on the right. This road climbs acceptably steeply to a large refuge and gondola station, both silent as I passed. I followed the signs optimistically pointing to the Casati refuge. They are technically correct (the best kind!), in that the refuge is in that direction, but there is nothing like a trail leading there. There is a cairned path along the Solda Glacier’s left moraine, which fades as such things usually do.

My map showed a route onto the glacier, then back onto rock and up to the Paso del Lago Gelado. Given that it is an old map, and the glaciers are now much diminished, I thought I would be smart and keep on the rock to its left, avoiding awkward transitions on and off the ice. This turned out to be a terrible idea, as the ridge was a steep garbage-fest, while there appears to still be a path along the old route. It was slow going, but I made it work, eventually reaching the pass to find the remains of a hut destroyed in 1918 (bombs?), a memorial to that hut, and a banner celebrating the 120th anniversary of its construction. There was also a register, which I duly signed.

From the hut’s remains, I picked up a decent boot-pack up toward the Casati refuge, which for some reason has its own mini-refuge 100 yards uphill. The track started out across bare ice, then started playing with crevasses in ways that made no sense, with a couple of leg-sized holes in the snow. Not wanting to be a part of that, I took off on a shortcut across bare ice toward the lines of people making their way towards Cevedale. I skipped the hut, following a different boot-pack for awhile before making my way up to the one leading to the summit.

With maybe 100 people leaving from the same hut to climb the same peak that day, you would think that the boot-pack would be clear and safe. You would be wrong. The crevasses were usually obvious: white-brown patches of snow among the blue-gray ice, making for easy if circuitous route-finding. However crampon tracks don’t last on ice, so there were a variety of paths and more leg-shaped holes. Since only had one life in this platform-jumping game, I took my time here, patching together bare ice and solid boot-packs, trying to scope out snow bridges from the side, and making a few leaps.

Approaching the long ridge between Cevedale’s two summit, the trails converged, and I gradually caught a group of three with… a dog?! Yes, the three men were roped together with a happy and impatient mid-sized mutt, who seemed practiced at following boot-packs. I passed this group and several others on the well-beaten pack to the summit, cranking away in just a t-shirt. The summit was the usual incomprehensible foreign language chaos, also featuring a very Italian man in big boots, a harness… and short-shorts and wife beater. It wasn’t that warm, so I put on my layers and sat to the side in the lee of the summit to admire the views. The König-Spitze, Zebu, and Ortler rose rockily to one side, while numerous heavily-glaciated peaks rose to the other. Breaking the routine, I interacted with some of my fellow summiters to share picture-taking duties, watched the bad-ass dog summit, then took off back down the glacier.

I had planned to tag the Suldenspitze and return to Sulden via the pass, but there seemed to be people congregated at the end of the wrong boot-pack I had followed on the way up, so I headed over to investigate. I got a bit lazy, and was chastised by putting a leg through into the void, reminding me to pay more attention. The end of the boot-pack turned out to be another mind-boggling bit of WWI hardware: three large guns on the edge of the glacier. The heroic and clever Austrians (Tyrol is still basically Austria) had stolen them from the Italians, then dragged them up there using teams of 120 men. They had then lobbed 30-40kg shells up to 9.3km at various Italian supply routes. Airplanes and helicopters have made this all obsolete, but no less awesome.

I returned to the Casati hut, then continued on the tourist trail to the Suldenspitze, an unimpressive bump that does not even appear to be the highpoint of its ridge, but which has a cross. I was about to head back to the Cevedale Glacier when I saw a couple and their young daughter topping out on the Solda Glacier, implying that there was a fresh boot-pack on a moderate route. This looked much faster than going around to the pass, so I blew by them as they were unroping, setting a bad example for their daughter by jumping and sliding down the glacier unroped with no crampons.

I found extensive bare ice lower down, and put on the spikes, winding my way down through a mild crevasse-maze and some streams, aiming for a cluster of people roping up on the talus. I wrung out my socks next to them, then hiked back to the tram and down the road. It had been just over an 8-hour hike, a fun and reasonable day out in the hills.