The Dent d’Hérens is a fine-looking triangular peak next door to the Matterhorn. It is lower and somewhat less dramatic, but also far less crowded, somewhat easier, and made of better rock. It can be reached from a large reservoir at the head of the Bionaz Valley, an area of northwest Italy that seems to be at least partly French-speaking (many place names are French). The area seems to be popular among day-hikers, who walk the dirt road to a hostel and restaurant at the head of the lake, and backpackers, who use the relatively high trailhead to access a network of trails and huts along the Italian-Swiss border.
It rained overnight, and I was tired, so I got an anti-alpine start around 6:30 from the last free parking. I passed through the pay spaces, then walked and jogged the rolling dirt road along the silt-blue reservoir. I passed through the silent pseudo-village of Prarayer, then followed the signs toward the Aosta hut. The trail follows the Buthier de Valpelline to its sources in the Grandes Murailles and Tsa de Tsan Glaciers, crossing on a couple of bridges before climbing above a narrow section. Just past the bridges, I passed a large larch with a sign in front of it saying it was over 500 years old.
The valley flattens out around 2200 meters, giving me plenty of time to look at the Bouquetins rising above the Tsa de Tsan Glacier. I passed a couple of parties headed down, then crossed the stream a final time to climb a steep trail up the moraine before the Aosta hut. The hut is located well away from the route, so I merely checked it out from a distance as I continued east toward the glacier.
I found a small but clear boot-pack just where I expected it, and followed it up a snow-slope, then around a few crevasses on the broad, flat middle portion of the Grandes Murailles Glacier. The route gains the Dent d’Hérens’ west ridge at a saddle, then follows it for awhile to get around the steep part of the upper Tieffmatten Glacier on its northwest face. Getting up on the ridge involves climbing some horrible dirt and choss, aided by a bolted chain. After the Matterhorn experience, I did not hesitate before hauling myself up the chain, raining death below me and hoping that none of the early summiters was descending.
Once on the ridge, I was surprised to find decent rock and some non-trivial climbing. The rock alternated between some golden granite-like stuff and something gray, slightly chossier stuff, slanted down and to the left. The right side of the ridge was often sheer, so the route stayed either on the outward-sloping rock on the left, or on the ridge crest itself. I passed a couple of parties descending on the ridge, a father-son team and a pair of young men, all probably Swiss.
Looking up the peak, I could see that a couple more parties were descending the snowfield, and also that clouds were gathering. It was nothing serious, but my late start seemed likely to cost me the summit view. Once off the ridge, I put on crampons and motored up the boot-pack, watching the other parties take a more direct line to my right. The clouds were just above me when I reached the final rock scramble, a mostly class 3 affair with a bit of class 4. I stashed my crampons, then carefully avoided the snow and bits of verglas as I wandered toward the summit ridge, following a line of large metal anchor points.
After a final scramble along the narrow summit ridge and a short snow arete, I reached the summit, where there was nothing to see. There was a strong cell signal, though, so I spent a couple minutes sending an email before heading down. The clouds were still just on the summit, so I had a clear view of my route down the snow, and all the way down to the Lago di Place Moulin (how’s that for a hybrid Italian-French name?). I plunge-stepped quickly down the snow, then down-scrambled the ridge, passing the two young men, one of whom asked if I was going for the speed record. Not hardly!
I timed it just right to descend the chain without either braining anyone or being brained, then slid past a couple more parties on my way down the glacier. I wrung out my socks and switched into shorts at the bottom of the snow, then began the leisurely hike-jog back to the car. I passed the hut-keeper and his dog, headed back up from a visit to town, and he remarked that he had seen me headed up in the morning, and was surprised by my speed. Below, I met a few more climbers coming up to the hut, then masses of day-hikers as I approached Prarayer. I passed a couple dozen people on my way back around the lake, then all at once, at the parking lot, a loud organized group of backpacking kids carrying antiquated camping gear. One of them was even documenting the event with a drone — ugh! It was early enough to do another peak the next day, but I was tired, and the forecast was not great, so I drove down to town for a few supplies, then back up the Col du Grand Saint Bernard, a truly impressive climb following an old Roman route, to find a cool place to sleep.