Fedaia Pass

Fedaia Pass lies immediately north of the Marmolada, the Dolomites’ highest peak. It is home to the unusual Lago di Fedaia, a reservoir with dams at both ends. It is also swarming with tourists, who eat at a few restaurants near the larger dam, and ride a ridiculous old “stand in a basket” ski lift to another restaurant half-way up the long-suffering Marmolada.

Marmolada (Ferrata Eterna Brigata)

Marmolada is famous for long, hard routes on its sheer south face; the north face is an easy glacier climb, and the west ridge is an historic via ferrata. The peak was a battlefield during the World War I, and the west ridge ferrata was originally used to reach bunkers and artillery high on the peak. Most of the hardware has been upgraded in the century since, but you can still see the bunkers, and traces of the original ferrata. The opposing Austrians dug and inhabited a network of tunnels in the now much-diminished glacier on the face, which did not even last through the war, since of course glaciers move.

As suggested by Mountain Project, I went up the ferrata and down the glacier, taking five hours and change car-to-car. There are several trails leading to the top of the lift, and I followed the one starting at the large camping/parking area above the restaurants. Higher up, the trail was worse than the surrounding limestone slabs, so I took those instead. From the top of the lift, spotty cairns and bits of trail make a descending traverse to the base of the route. I started out staying too high, probably headed for a buttress on the north ridge, then descended some sketchy gravel-over-slabs to get back on-route.

I could have gone around the bottom of a small glacier, but I had my ice axe and crampons, so I instead followed the diagonal boot-pack up to the start of the cables. At the sign warning that this was a “difficult ferrata,” I put away the spiky things and got to work. A via ferrata (or kletterstieg) has two things: a cable attached to posts, and (usually) some metal hardware driven into the rock. I believe the idea is that you wear a harness with two short leashes with carabiners, used to attach yourself to the cable. You then climb the rock (and optional hardware), moving the leashes past the posts one at a time. If you fall, you will slide back down the cable to the nearest post. In practice, people just yank on the cable, in part because the limestone nearby becomes incredibly polished. I have not seen someone fall on a ferrata, but I imagine the results would be painful but not fatal, and probably not require a rescue.

I didn’t have the gear, so I just scrambled the thing. I was somewhat ambivalent about how to treat the cable. It is a less-than-ideal handhold, especially without gloves, so I ended up avoiding it when I could, but was not at all reluctant to grab it when it was useful. The climb remained fun, but it was more like playing on a jungle gym than mountaineering. I had gotten an “Italian alpine” start around 6:00 to hopefully beat the crowds and the rocks they could rain down upon me, and it seemed to have worked. I was well ahead of two other groups starting the route, and quickly left them behind since I did not have to clip things. However, I was surprised to meet a German couple descending. I had forgotten that there is a hut on the summit, where they had spent the night.

I climbed up various giant staples and metal bars for awhile, alternating with stretches of actual rock, then made a long scree-traverse to the summit, finally passing the hut’s apparent compost pile on my way to the cross. There were already a fair number of German-speakers at the top, who had come up the Glacier, including two young girls taking pictures hanging from the arms of the cross. I didn’t say anything, other than motioning that they should try some pull-ups.

It was early, so I hung around awhile longer, then descended the upper glacier in just shoes. I scrambled down an easy rock rib (more cables), then put on crampons to descend the main glacier. This was actually somewhat of a pain, with patches of bare glacial ice, small crevasses to be hopped, and a slushy surface making my crampons less solid. Near the bottom of the ice, I finally began running into the teeming hordes on their way up, who had possibly waited for the first lift. Mountaineering is sure different here than in the “real Alps”…

<4h>Via della Trincee (ferrata)

It was not even noon, so I needed something else to do. Another WWI-related ferrata on the other side of the lake had caught my attention for a couple of reasons: first, the rock was volcanic rather than the Dolomites’ usual limestone; second, it involved tunnels created during the war. I adjusted the contents of my pack, then walked across the dam to make the climb up the hot, south-facing hillside. I passed a handful of people on the trail, then a large herd of sheep, accompanied by a shepherd and two sheepdogs. There were considerably more people on the ridge, since it can be reached by a gondola from the other side.

I could see a steady stream of people on the first part of the ferrata, so I did not need the occasional signs painted on rocks. I was pleased to find myself the only climber at the base of the route, which starts up a steep face of dark, cobbled volcanic rock, with only a single metal step. I got maybe 10-15 feet up before getting stuck, unable to find a comfortable move up the polished face. I might have been able to go hand-over-hand up the cable, but probably not without gloves. I backed off and sat a minute, deciding what to do next.

There were several faint trails along the southern base of the cliffs, and I contoured along one of these, then climbed back up some class 3-4 terrain that, with very little route-finding, joined the ferrata after its initial climb, right before a rickety bridge. Oddly, the rest of the route was much more thoroughly equipped and easier than the first, easily-avoided pitch. In particular, two sets of continuous rungs have been added to a 40-foot pillar standing to one side of the crest, likely a modern addition.

I found a few tunnels after the pillar, but they were disappointingly shallow, leading to what I think were artillery windows looking north. The crest is long, but fortunately there were long, fast stretches of walking on a path through grass. I passed dozens of people, none of whom seemed to give me a dirty look for not having the proper gear. Finally, near the eastern end of the rocky ridge, I went through some significant tunnels. The first, maybe 50-100 yards long, passed from one side of the ridge to the other, through some living or storage quarters. The final one was more like a quarter-mile long, with multiple branching passages and painted arrows showing the path. It had a couple sets of steps, and connected troop quarters with more artillery windows.

Emerging from the other side, I realized I was at the end of the route. A short trail leads to the top of yet another ski lift, or a road switch-backing down to the eastern dam of Lago di Fedaia. I crossed to the south side, then walked the crowded pedestrian road back to my car, passing 20 or so young people swimming in the lake. Put together, the two outings made for a fairly full day.

Piz Bernina

Piz Bernina is an outlier, far east of the other Alpine 4000m peaks, which can be approached from either Switzerland or Italy. I chose the Italian side, both because I was tired of dirtbagging in Switzerland, and because there is a remarkably high trailhead at 2000m. This is reached by a crazy road from Sondrio in the Adda River valley. It starts out as a normal Italian mountain road, with no center line and just enough room for two cars to pass each other. Past the village of Franscia, it takes things to the next level, with pavement sometimes wide enough for two Euro-sized cars to pass, and sometimes not, with the driver left to guess. There are a couple of telling road signs: “15 hairpins over the next 4 kilometers” and “8 tunnels ahead.” The tunnels are glorious, unlit things with bare stone walls and cobbled floors, again only sometimes wide enough for two-way traffic. At the top, I found a huge parking area with a few fire pits and picnic tables, and a couple of dozen folks car-camping. It felt good to be back among my people.

With such a high trailhead, just over 2000m below the summit, I got a lazy start around 5:45, crossing the dam creating the Lago di Alpe Gera, then following the trail to a large hut just above. The hut may mostly be used by day-trippers, because it was utterly quiet when I passed. I noted the sign describing the depressing retreat of the region’s glaciers, then followed a path to the Marinelli Hut. This turned out to be a slightly indirect route to the summit, and far less interesting than the direct route up the big, dry Felleria Glacier to Marinelli Pass.

The trail was surprisingly faint, though I had no trouble following the many painted rocks. At a col, I had to put on crampons to descend a small, shaded glacier, then re-climbed another faint trail through the talus to the Marinelli Hut. I saw some people moving around inside, but did not pause to investigate before climbing to rejoin the correct route at the West Marinelli Pass.

From there, the route crosses the large, flat, dry Scerscen Glacier to its northern arm. This part of the Alps seems to have many high, broad, flat glaciers, with few feeder streams or valley tongues. I hopped my way through a dry crevasse maze, then picked up a solid boot-pack as the glacier acquired surface snow in the shade and higher elevation of the arm leading to the Marco e Rosa hut at the Crast’ Aguzza. This hut, at a ridiculous 3600m on a 4050m peak, makes the summit climb ridiculously short — less than an hour if you scramble it.

It looks manageable to stay on the glacier all the way to the ridge and hut, but there is a rock route bypassing some crevasses partway up. This being Italy, that rock route involves gonzo hardware. While there were not as many ridiculous things as on the Matterhorn’s Liongrat, the initial… via garbaggio?… was pretty extreme. It starts with some rebar covered in ice, then a series of twisted ladders attached to the rock in various ways, sometimes hooked over rebar, sometimes tied to other ladders with old climbing rope, left to swing free. It is not reassuring to see the holes and bent remains of previous versions of this horror. Even in running shoe crampons, the snow would probably have been less sketchy. Above that, the route to the hut is a sort of class 3-4 via ferrata.

I saw a few people as I passed the hut, then some more descending as I headed toward the peak on nicely firm snow. It was a beautiful day, with the night cold enough to have frozen the snow, but the day warm enough that I stayed in just a t-shirt the whole time. There was a bit of delicate maneuvering to get past some slush-over-ice to the rock, then some easy rock scrambling.

Then things got obnoxious as the climbers were all concentrated onto the narrow summit ridge. The route’s crux is probably a pitch or so of class 4-5 just after where the ridge first narrows. I reached this just as the bulk of the hut-climbers were descending, and was confronted with people rappeling and being lowered on several ropes, from various pieces of fixed hardware. I dodged my way through, either on the very polished “easy” rock, or on some less-polished but steeper stuff to the left, being very careful not to knock anything down. The others were generally well-behaved, but it is hard not to cause rockfall when rappeling in crampons.

Above, I passed a guy taking a nap until the traffic died down, then worked around a few more groups on the ridge to the summit. It was a bit chilly in the wind, but wonderfully warm on the south side, with comfortable places to sit. Wanting to wait for traffic to die down, I ate the rest of my food, then watched some groups threading through the crevasses to nearby Pic Zupo and Pic Palu, and admired the long Tschierva and Morteratsch Glaciers to either side flowing north.

Eventually, thinking about the softening snow, I retraced my steps. It turns out that I was a bit too early, and had to fight my way through some seriously obnoxious traffic on the crux. There were once again guides lowering clients, groups rappeling, and a few others waiting around for things to die down. Fortunately I managed to hit a break in traffic on the rock below the hut, where there was a lot of rockfall potential. I took the glacier route on the way back, which was a bit faster and much more interesting, and was back at the car by mid-afternoon. The outing had taken longer than I expected — the approach is not just a straight-up climb out of a valley — but it was still a comfortable day, leaving me with enough time to drive over the Stelvio Pass to camp on the other side.


Climbers on standard route

The Weissmies is an easy 4000m peak across the Saas valley from the Dom. The current normal route is a glacier climb from the west, aided by a tram from Saas Grund. Before the tram, the normal route was the easy south ridge, a class 3 climb from Saas Almagell with almost no snow travel. This route requires a fair amount of elevation gain — about 2300m — though less than the routes I had done the previous two days, and it was about right for me in my tired state, taking six casual hours and change round-trip.

Climber approaching hut

I slept unmolested in the affordable (only $5!) Saas Almagell car park, and took off around 5:45. I was not sure what to expect of the route snow-wise, so I took my ice axe but left my crampons behind. This turned out to be the right choice, as there was a solid boot-pack on the small mandatory snow traverse on the summit ridge, and I could boot-ski the snowfield next to the ridge on the way down. I made my way through a bit of a trail maze to the Saas Almagellalp restaurant, then took one of two trails up to the climbers’ hut. I saw a man ahead of me, and slowly made up ground, catching him just below the hut. He asked me what route I was doing, and mentioned that he was taking another way up, planning to descend the south ridge. He had trekking poles and light boots, but did not seem to be carrying an ice axe, and seemed to know what he was doing.

Ridge from Pass

I passed a woman in approach shoes above the hut, who I assumed was doing the south ridge like me, but who was apparently just out for a hike. The trail continues past the hut, to the Zwischbergenpass, one of two high passes in the area leading east to Italy. From there, the route follows the obvious south talus-ridge. Lower down, it is just a boulder-hop, though it steepens toward the summit. I found some class 4 steps, but I could probably have avoided them and kept everything class 3, with most just a class 2 walk. Near the top, I passed a couple of guides with their clients, out for a roped hike. Watching them made me want to slap my forehead, because I could not imagine a scenario in which having the rope on would make a difference. Tripping in talus can definitely hurt, but it seems impossible to fall in a way that a rope could catch. It would have taken a running jump to actually fall off the ridge in a way that the rope might help.

Monte Rosa and reservoir

The final couple hundred yards follow a gentle snow bulge to a rock summit, which is slightly shorter than a nearby snow crest. I passed some people on the rock to tag the true summit, watched some people below on the west glacier route, then returned to the rocks to get out of the wind and eat my sandwich. It was cool in the breeze, but otherwise a clear and pleasant day, with excellent views of the higher peaks from Monte Rosa to the Dom.

Lunch done, I retraced my steps, passing another roped party on the ridge, then dismounting to plunge-step and boot-ski down the snow-slope to the east. There was quite a crowd at the hut, but I passed without stopping. I would have run most of the descent if I were fresh, but I was tired and had nothing to do the rest of the day, so I settled for a brisk walk, returning to town just after noon. The Saas Almagell tourist bureau did not seem to have WiFi, so rather than hang around, I got the heck out of Switzerland via the Simplon Pass. I will be back for the Bernese Alps, but I needed a break from the buttoned-up, stressful country.

Lenzspitze, Nadelhorn

Lenzspitze and Nadelhorn

The Nadelhorn is the highest of a line of peaks extending north of the Dom, ending in one of several Breithorns. It is most easily climbed from Saas-Fee, in the next valley east from Zermatt, where a trail leads to the Mischabel Hut, and an easy glacier walk leads to just below the summit. The Lenzspitze is a satellite peak south of the Nadelhorn, connected by a narrow rock ridge. The loop up Lenzspitze’s northeast ridge, across to Nadelhorn, and down the standard route, turned out to be a surprisingly fun day of scrambling, probably the best I have had so far in the Alps. The rock is mostly good, and the layers are angled so that most of the climbing is on positive holds, including some steep sections much easier than they appear.

Sunrise on Allalinhorn

I was tired, but managed to scrape myself out of the car by 4:45, and not to get lost on my way through the now-quiet tourist town of Saas Fee, eventually picking up the line of trail signs directing me to the Mischabel Hut. The trail switchbacks efficiently up the lower slope, then continues straight up a rock rib to the hut, with the help of many metal steps and hand-lines, and a metal ladder. Most of it looks unnecessary, as the surrounding rock is probably class 3, but I suppose the hardware makes it possible for guides to reach the hut without short-roping. On the way up, I watched the sun rise on the Alphubel and Allalinhorn, including the small year-round glacier ski area on the latter.

This way to the hut

I passed two guys dressed as trail runners talking on the hut deck, and they followed me as I continued up and slightly left, following the rock ridge toward the Lenzspitze. The ridge started out as talus, gradually narrowing, steepening, and turning more solid above a bump with some random hardware on it. I pushed myself to stay ahead of the trail runners, unsure how far they planned to go. They seemed to continue past the bump, though I did not see them higher on the ridge.

Spike on the ridge

The bedding of the rock on both the Lenzspitze and Nadelhorn slants up to the south, so when climbing the east-northeast ridge of the Lenzspitze, the best route stays close to the crest, with good positive holds. The left side is usually too steep to be useful, while the right is usually chossy and slabby. There are three steeper steps in the ridge, which look intimidating, but are easier than they appear, with positive holds all over. It was the best rock scrambling I have done since arriving in Europe, and I had a great time romping up moderate rock with good position, and great views of the Alphubel, Täschhorn, and Dom to the south.

Lenzspitze ridge

I passed a roped group at the base of the short snow arete just below the summit, and pulled out my axe before carefully making my way up the boot-pack without crampons. I shared the small, rocky summit with a quiet French couple, eating half my cheese sandwich and watching people going up and down the standard route on the Dom’s northwest face. There were two parties already partway to the Nadelhorn, whom I would overtake on the way. The couple and I left at the same time, but they were descending to the west somehow; they had rock and ice gear with them, so I should have asked how they climbed the peak.

Ridge to Nadelhorn

The traverse went quickly, once again staying on the crest on positive holds. There were a few towers, the back sides of which were slabby in this direction, that were probably the crux, some of which had big anchor bolts on top. I passed one party near the start, and the other toward the end, moving as quickly as I could given my fatigue from the previous day. I reached the Nadelhorn’s summit cross panting, but energized after having spent the morning on good rock for a change.

Bernese Alps

I probably should have continued to tag the rest of the ridge through the Durrenhorn, but I was tired and out of food at the Nadelhorn. Instead, I followed the well-trod boot-pack of the standard route, rejoining the rock ridge just above the hut. I wrung my socks out on the deck, then skipped down the ridge, happy not to be in boots, passing a couple dozen climbers on the way to the hut, and day-hikers lower down.

Saas Fee was fully terrible when I returned, hot and swarming with tourists. Having gone through town in the dark, I got lost for a little while trying to find the car park — embarrassing! I changed at the car, then grabbed my laptop and headed back into town in search of WiFi and power. The tourist information center had both, but was closed for lunch when I arrived. I sat outside for awhile, listening to (I think) some British Orthodox Jews talking in a mixture of English and Yiddish. This was not the first time I had seen them: while I saw none in the Matter valley, I saw several Orthodox men and families in the Saas valley. Maybe there is a small community in one of the towns.

Täsch-Dom traverse

Taschhorn and Dom from below Nadelhorn

The Täsch-Dom traverse is a classic moderate Alpine route. The normal version starts with a hike up to the high Mischabeljoch hut the day before, then climbs the Täschhorn’s south ridge, continues to the Dom, then descends the standard northwest glacier route. For various reasons, I did something slightly different: I started from the car-park in Randa, climbed to the Kin Hut, then ascended the Kin Glacier and northwest face of the Täschhorn to join the normal route. This was a fairly brutal day, with around 3300m gain and terrain requiring big boots. However, it is a good route for day-hiking, since the key snow climb is west-facing, and if you are forced to bail at or before the Täschhorn, you will have just climbed a route that would be hard to find on the descent.

Dawn across the way

I emerged from the car park at 3:30 and headed up through the village of Randa, following the signs and the map on my phone through a few roads and a maze of trails leading to various places in the hills. My guidebook described a route leading from the Dom Hut to the Täschhorn’s northwest face, but it sounded complicated and dubious (“descend slabs to the glacier” is never good to see), so I headed for the Kin Hut, below the toe of the Kin Glacier. The light was on when I got there just before dawn, but I saw no climbers or guardian at the little-used hut on the way to nowhere.

Kin Glacier toward face

I continued on a rapidly-fading trail toward the foot of the glacier, eventually turning left up the moraine to get around some slabs and onto the snow and ice. I saw a single down-boot-pack on the snow, but no tracks from the past couple of days. After mounting the glacier on the left, I crossed to the right on a flat plain of bare ice to avoid the worst of an icefall. It was less broken on the right, but still a bit steep, requiring a mantel and almost causing me to take out my other tool.

Above, I crossed back left on another mostly-bare plain, picking up the bootpack again as it dodged a few crevasses on its way up the lefthand side to another plain. Here the tracks faded as they crossed a snowier part of the glacier with some partly-hidden crevasses. I continued with some trepidation, probing at some spots that looked suspicious, but did not have any issues. I was not sure whether to continue up-glacier, or dismount onto a rock rib on its south side, but the boot-pack reappeared in an ascending traverse to the bottom end of the rib, so I did that.

Face with parties descending

I climbed up some mildly annoying rock on the rib, while plotting a route on the face ahead. It looked like the general idea would be to start left, then work right under some seracs before following below the right-hand ridge to the summit. The clouds descended as I climbed the rib, limiting my view of the face, and holding out the prospect of a tricky blind climb. Fortunately, I had seen what I thought were a couple of parties on the face earlier, who proved to be descending after climbing the standard south ridge. They seemed to have found the descent route without any backtracking, so they were either lucky or guides. They seemed a bit skeptical of my plan to traverse the Dom, but did not try to discourage me.

I followed the boot-pack as it went right below the serac, then wandered through some other obstacles higher up. At one point it climbed an icy bulge, and I could see where they had dug holes for sitting body-belays. I probably could have done it with one tool, but I had brought the other, so I took it out and got in a few good sticks on this pitch.

Across face toward Dom

Higher up, the clouds got thicker and the snow deteriorated, with a breakable crust and sugar covering the underlying ice. This was slow and not always confidence-inspiring, and it seemed to take forever to climb the last few hundred feet to the summit. I saw magnificent expanses of light gray in all directions, fresh crampon marks from the groups I had met, and a summit cross with a disturbing Jesus. I suppose I would look like that if I were being crucified, but I am not used to mountain crosses being inhabited, and the version of Jesus I have seen in churches usually looks more sorrowful than agonized.

Painful à cheval

I was tempted to bail, but it wasn’t cold or precipitating, and I could see well enough to avoid cornices and do local route-finding, so I had no real reason not to continue. I oriented myself using the compass on my phone, then started down the kilometer-long ridge to the Dom. The descent to the Domjoch was intricate in places, with slightly less than 500 meters taking me almost an hour. It could have taken much longer, but fortunately there were some sections where I could either traverse on snow to the left, or hand-traverse with my crampons in the snow and hands on the rock. There was fresh snow on both sides of the ridge, mainly on the left, so it made sense to tackle the whole thing in gloves and crampons, occasionally pulling out my ice axe. The crux was an uncomfortable à cheval down a steep knife-edge where I didn’t trust the snow bypass. It began clearing partway down, and I caught glimpses of the Kin Glacier to the west, the rocky east face descending toward Saas Fee, and even, for a few seconds, the summit of the Täschhorn behind me.

View back up narrow ridge

At the Domjoch, I stuffed a bit of snow in my water bladder, then took off my crampons, figuring that I would gain more time than I would lose climbing the south-facing ridge in just boots. This was the right move: while I lost some time routing around or carefully dealing with the patches of fresh snow, I could move much more quickly along flat or talus-y sections of the ridge. The route generally stayed on or right of the ridge. If I strayed too far right, I ran into fifth class climbing on chossy rock, but staying right on the crest would force me to deal with too many small gendarmes. The final obstacle was an ascending ridge through some uber-choss to a notch just southeast of the summit. From there, a steep climb on some slightly less-bad rock and a quick ridge scramble got me to the summit, with its own tortured Jesus and a welcome boot-pack.

Dom cross

I finished my food, then got about 50 feet without crampons before deciding that was a bad idea. Mistake corrected, I continued down the well-beaten track, dodging a few crevasses before heading far right to get around what turned out to be a huge serac. It was partly clearing by now, and hot on the glacier, so the snow was unpleasantly soft on the long walk. Fortunately the big serac was quiet, since it seemed capable of reaching the bootpack.

Bad place to play

The pack crosses a ridge south at the Festijoch, then descends the choss on the other side to the Festi Glacier, which it follows to its toe above the hut. I finally ran into other people here, one pair slowly downclimbing the choss, and a large group playing around with ropes right in the rockfall zone. I climbed around the pair, then skated past the group, which had organized itself into two rope teams of 4-5 for the long snow-walk.

The Dom Hut is much larger and better-used than the Kin Hut, and I saw a few people hanging around outside, and a dozen pairs of boots drying out back. It was still a long walk to the car, all of it on terrain that makes me hate boots. Thinking about it, I realized that to descend comfortably and quickly, I use my ankles a lot, either toe-striking to absorb impact, or angling my foot to land on rocks in particular ways. I cannot do this at all in boots, so I just feel like I am about to damage my knees all the time. I will definitely carry some kind of trail runners next time, even if I start out in boots.

Crossing bridge

The people I met on the way down were mostly uncommunicative, though two members of a Swiss group I met just below the hut gave me dirty looks for no apparent reason. A fair number of tourists go up to the Dom Hut, and many more go up to lower huts, follow the Europaweg trail, or climb up to see the suspension bridge. I had seen signs for it on the way up, and took a slight detour on the way down to cross it. It was a trip, with wrist-thick cables suspending the deck, and hand-rails and fencing on either side to contain the humans. Heavy though it was, it swayed unpredictably under the influence of the people crossing it. I briefly experimented with skipping across, and realized that if I skipped or jumped at the right rate, I could really scare some people.

That was the end of fun for the day. The rest was a slog back to the car park, reaching the car around 12h15 after starting. It had taken me 6h50 to summit the Täschhorn, and 1h50-2h for the traverse. I would normally take the next day off after such an outing, but time is money in this part of Switzerland, so I was determined to climb what I intended to climb as quickly as possible.


Upper ridge

While there are a few inspired names for Alpine peaks, like the Ailefroide (“Coldwing”), most are sadly uncreative. In French-speaking areas, you see various “Dents” and “Aiguilles” (“teeth” and “needles”); in German-speaking ones, all you get are “Horns” (“horns”). I went from climbing the White Tooth yesterday, to climbing the White Horn today; while they are only a few miles apart, they are separated by a linguistic divide between the provinces of Valais and Visp. I had lately gotten spoiled by high trailheads, so it was rough going back to 3000m+ days climbing the high 4000m peaks from the relatively low Mattertal.

Monte Rosa

Unlike seemingly most of rural Europe, the Mattertal is extremely dirtbag-hostile, but thanks to a tip from Ted, I knew how to find some free parking, conveniently located near a trailhead for the Weisshorn. I set my alarm for a punishing 4:00, then tried to get some sleep. I was off by headlamp by 4:30, wasting only a few minutes finding the trail to the Weisshorn hut. The valley’s trails are clear and well-signed, but since “trailhead parking” is not a thing, it is not always clear where to begin.

Alpenglow on Dom

From there, I ground out 1500 meters of climb on an efficiently steep trail, following the nice signs that give time estimates, but never distances. This was also true in Chamonix, so in each place I try to come up with an appropriate scaling factor. In this case, the “4 hour” climb to the hut took about 2.5 hours. It was once again non-threateningly cloudy in the morning, so even after I put away the headlamp, the scenery was only so-so. The exception was some great alpenglow on the Dom and Monte Rosa, caused by light reflected off surrounding clouds.

Quiet hut

Not wanting another Swiss scolding like the one I got the previous day for taking water from a campground without asking, I motored right by the hut, continuing on a trail and then a clear but lightly-used boot-pack. the pack led straight to a right-trending choss-ledge cutting through a cliff band, with some wet slabs at its base. Not liking the look of it, I wasted a few minutes trying to climb the drier rock to its right, then made a few delicate moves across the slabs, which were stickier than they looked.

Gendarme on ridge

Fainter now, the cairned trail continued toward the Weisshorn’s east ridge. Fortunately, if you take the right path, most of the terrain up to about 3850m is no harder than class 2, making the first 2400m pass more quickly than I expected. Beyond there, the ridge narrows and flattens, and the climbing becomes fun class 3-4 on solid rock. This is a good, clean ridge, with the best route usually along the crest, even going over the gendarmes.

Starting snow climb

I was finally emerging from the clouds, and could see a party of two ahead of me ascending the upper snow ridge, which accounts for much of the final 500m of elevation gain. I also saw several parties on the summit ridge of the Bishorn, just to the north. The snow was already starting to decay as I climbed the ridge, turning to breakable crust over calf-deep slush, so it was slow going grinding out the final climb. I probably should have started a bit earlier, since I knew I would be finishing on east-facing snow.

East from summit

I met the party ahead of me as they were roping down the summit rocks, the probable guide lowering his client down class 4 terrain while wearing crampons. I climbed onto the rocks in my own spikes, then stashed them at the first flat place to scramble another few minutes to the summit cross, this one bearing a disturbingly misshapen Jesus.

Matterhorn, Dent Blanche, and other horns

I took the time to eat my cheese sandwich and admire the tops of some 4000m peaks, similar to the day before, but was concerned enough about the deteriorating snow not to linger too long. The pair ahead of me had put in some steps while postholing their way down, but they were already unreliable and collapsing, so I had to be extra-careful, sometimes downclimbing facing in. I had expected to catch them on the snow, but Euros seem shockingly good at going down snow, facing out on slopes where I would face in, so I did not catch them until ten minutes onto the rock ridge, where their boots and short-roping were no match for me in trail runners.

Not drinking from that…

I re-entered the clouds on the narrow part of the ridge, but fortunately there were enough bits of trail and cairns to follow as it widened, sparing me having to look at my map until I got below the clouds and could orient myself by landmarks below. I stopped outside the hut to wring out my socks, but saw neither other climbers nor the guardian. I did, however, meet a dozen or so climbers hiking up the trail below, aiming to summit on what turned out to be a bluebird day. The forecasts I have looked at here — ECMWF, Meteoblue, and whatever the tourist information people use — have been surprisingly bad. It is supposed to be partly cloudy now, but I can see only 2-3 small wisps of cloud from Zermatt. The round trip took about 9h40, surprisingly little time for 3100m of elevation gain. This gave me time to walk into Tasch for perishables and internet, and probably to turn around and do something else the next day, but I decided to take a tourist day instead.

Dent Blanche

Dent Blanche

The Dent Blanche is a high 4000m peak near the Matterhorn and Dent d’Hérens, reached most easily from the Val d’Hérens in Switzerland. After a couple of days off in Chamonix, I drove the passes back over to Switzerland, then followed the Rhone Valley a short distance before winding back up to almost 2000m at Le Ferpècle, where I found a nice spot to camp at the semi-official parking lot. The transition from France to Switzerland was gentle, since this part speaks French and is not obscenely touristy.

Head-on-stake trail marker

I got started a bit after 5:00, putting in a small amount of headlamp time on the long hike up to the high hut at 3500m. It had rained for the whole drive from France, and it was cloudy, so I had a wet, foot-soaking, and generally demoralizing hike. I could see bits of the large Ferpècle Glacier peeking out in the clear spots, but mostly just saw grass, then moraine, then some wretchedly soft snow just below the hut. The route was marked with some cairns, but also tripods holding rocks, which reminded me of something you would see (only with human heads) Colonel Kurtz’s camp in Apocalypse Now. The previous day’s rain had been snow from maybe 3400m up, so there was fresh snow in the boot-pack to the hut, and the promise of more on the route, which would no doubt complicate things.

Approaching upper ridge

I passed the quiet hut without looking in, only to have the hut-keeper come out and ask a polite version of “what the hell are you doing?” She made me promise to check in on the way down, then let me get back to doing ill-advised things like soloing a clouded in peak in fresh snow.

Matterhorn and Dent d’Hérens above the clouds

There was a guide/client group ahead of me, so I followed their tracks up the boot-pack to the snow saddle at the base of the south ridge. Here I gained the easy, boulder-y lower ridge, and made good time, glad to be on terrain that did not constantly re-soak my feet. The east side of the ridge was snow-free and mostly dry, while the west side still held a thin coating of last night’s slush. As I climbed above 3900m, I was pleased to finally emerge above the clouds. Cloud-cover extended at that level in all directions, simplifying the range by hiding all but the 4000m peaks. I could see the Matterhorn and Dent d’Hérens nearby, with the Zermatt peaks a bit farther away, and the Mont Blanc massif in the distance to the other side.

Grand Gendarme

I continued to follow the boot-pack, not needing crampons for the lower snow traverses, then transitioned to rock as I made my way up toward the Grand Gendarme, one of several obstructions on the ridge. The route around traversed some slabby ground on the left side before climbing a steep snow-slope back to the ridge. I finally put on crampons here, both for the rock traverse and for the snow afterward. This became unpleasantly icy higher up, and I had to be super-cautious with my running shoe crampons.

Looking down upper ridge

There are three lesser gendarmes between that one and the summit. The first two are passed on the right, so the dry rock presented no problems. The last is passed on the left, and while I managed to do it without crampons, that was probably a bad idea, sketching across some snowy ground and up a chimney with patches of ice. Above, more easy snow led to the summit. It was sunny and calm, so I spent plenty of time admiring what I could see of the surrounding peaks before retracing my steps.

Upper Matterhorn

As usual, I used the crampons more on the way down, putting them on for the summit snow ridge, then leaving them on for the highest gendarme bypass. I had a bit of route-finding difficulty and, when I figured it out, wondered how I had gotten up in just running shoes. The snow downclimb above the Grand Gendarme was also a bit sketch, but the rest of the ridge went easily.

I checked in as promised with the hut guardian, then passed the guided pair descending just below the hut, and several more teams ascending for a summit the next day. The clouds were starting to break up, so I got a much better view of the large Ferpècle Glacier, and its neighbor the Mont Miné, which probably met in the valley below a century ago. There were many more cars parked along the road when I got back, with lots of day-hikers coming up to look at the glacier from near an abandoned hotel and some old stone buildings. I passed several on the way down, then drove around to the dreaded Matter valley.

Dent d’Hérens

Dent d’Hérens

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.

The old larch

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.

Bouquetins and Tsa de Tsan Glacier

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.

Grandes Murailles 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.

Climbers on west ridge

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 ridge to summit

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.

Climbers descending upper snowfield

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.

Monte Cervino (Italian Ridge, AD+)

Italian Ridge at left

Better known as the Matterhorn, this famous peak has two close and near-equal-height summits, one each in Switzerland and Italy. Whymper’s famous and catastrophic ascent was made from the Swiss side, up the Hornli Ridge, and that remains the most popular route. The Italian route, up the Lion Ridge, is slightly harder and less crowded, though it still sees quite a bit of traffic. The route would actually be quite a bit harder, but as far as I can tell, the Italians saw the Swiss making money guiding tourists up their ridge (1200€ a head these days) and decided that they wanted a piece of the action. Thanks to dozens of fixed ropes and chains, and a super-sketchy rope ladder passing an overhang, the Italian Ridge is now suitable for clients.

Ibexes on approach

After getting a proper alpine start for the south-facing Jorasses route, I got a lazier start for the Matterhorn, leaving the large parking lot in Breuil-Cervino around 5:30. I did not expect it to be a long day, I was concerned about rime from the previous day’s high clouds, and the ridge is mostly west-facing, so it receives little morning sun. There is a dirt road all the way to the Aosta hut, but there are also more direct trails, including both social ones and the official trail number 13. I was not really going for speed, but put in a decent effort on the hike past the now-quiet hut.

Monsieur Carrel

Above, I followed a cairned trail for awhile, then wasted 20 minutes on a stupid detour across a snowfield, thanks to inattention and not remembering the guidebook description well enough. I realized my mistake, then returned to the leftward cleft through a cliff band, where I found the boot-pack again. Beyond that, I found bits of trail and crampon marks as I climbed a mix of slabs and talus, then regained the boot-pack on the snowfield below Lion Point. The helpful crowds had made nice stairs, and a perilously narrow walkway with a very bad runout, around the southern side, so I was fine continuing with an ice axe and no crampons on my nearly-dead trail runners.

Sketchy “chimney” below hut

Most hut approaches are nontechnical, even if it is necessary to add hand-lines or blast steps. The approach to the Carrel hut, at 3829 meters, is another story. After following fixed ropes up some slabs, I was confronted with a vertical face called the “Whymper Chimney.” There was nothing chimney-like about it; rather, it was a 30-foot face with a hand crack and some extremely polished feet. There was a fat rope anchored to the top and to a few bolts along the way, plus a couple of cord loops to pull on or use as stirrups. I prefer not to use fixed gear when I can avoid it, partly for style, and partly because it feels sketchy, but climbing the face was definitely beyond my abilities. I made it about half-way up the rope before chickening out, then carefully descended and rested my forearms.

Defeated before even reaching the hut?! Not if I can help it! The left side was hopeless, but it looked like there might be easier ground around to the right, which consists of various slabs and talus slopes of different steepnesses. I retreated down one of the ropes, then made my way to the most promising of these, which was topped by a chimney and chockstone that looked possible, or at least secure. My persistence paid off, and after some stemming, chimneying, and groveling, I topped out over the chockstone onto another talus ramp. This ramp led under the south side of the hut and up to the deck; unfortunately people often pee of this deck, and while I did not suffer a direct hit, I had a strong desire to wash my hands.

More fixed ropes

Back on-route, the fixed gear went next-level, with probably a couple dozen fixed ropes between hut and summit, along with other random bits of aid. I had gotten into the European mood by now, happily standing or pulling on whatever sketchy horrors had been installed. On the one hand, they made the climbing easier; on the other, they concentrated the climbers on one path, and the nearby rock was incredibly polished by crampons and boots, making all the holds less secure. I am not sure whether or not I could have climbed the route in its original condition.

Flat step along ridge

I passed a couple guided groups on the south side of the ridge, getting a surprisingly late start, then returned to the ridge via a steep pitch to climb on or left of the crest, eventually moving to consistent snow. I somewhat sketchily avoided crampons for awhile, but after getting a good look at the route ahead, I saw that it was mostly snow, and stopped at a flat section of ridge to put on the spikes.

Sketchy self-releasing rap device

The crowds began to become a problem here, as I had to climb through rope teams both ascending and descending (I was apparently the only solo climber). The flat stretch of ridge ended with a downclimb to a notch containing a twisted little gendarme. It looked fragile, but other people had clearly used it, so I stemmed off it to get into the gap, then continued up snow and ice on the other side. Above, I passed a pair of Frenchman rappeling using a crazy-looking device from Beal to do full-length rappels on a single strand. It looked like a short piece of rope with two pieces of flat webbing braided around it, tied to the anchor on one end and the rope on the other. After rapping on the single strand, the climbers released this device by yanking their rope a dozen times, slowly unraveling the braid. This seems like a terrible idea, but… I guess it works?

Totally bomber…

The ridge turns to rock and steepens to a final headwall below the summit. I took off my crampons, then fought my way through more parties toward the crux, working around ice and snow where possible, and cautiously sketching my way across a few patches. The crux Jordan Ladder, installed to overcome a slightly overhanging step, is the absolute pinnacle of Euro-sketch: a 20-foot rope ladder with 1×1-inch wooden rungs. The ropes are partly iced over, and almost everyone climbs the wooden rungs in crampons. Some of the upper rungs had metal shields duct-taped to them to lengthen their lives. I cautiously and unhappily made my way up this horror-show, moving both feet up a rung, then wrapping an elbow around one rope to spare my grip.

Swiss summit from Italian

Above, it was mostly easy rock and a boot-pack to the Italian summit, where I found two groups of two hanging around the cross. It had taken me about 5.5 hours from car to summit, which I thought was a good time given my detour lower down and unfamiliarity with the route. However, I was nowhere near Killian Jornet, who climbed it town-to-town in about three hours. Just like on Mont Blanc, I can understand his rate of ascent, but it is absolutely incomprehensible how he manages it over complicated technical terrain. At my best a few years ago, I was maybe 20% slower than Killian on the Grand Teton. However, on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, I could probably do no better than twice his time.

Climbers traversing toward Swiss summit

One of the pairs at the summit left soon after I arrived, but I spent a good 10-20 minutes talking to a young Austrian couple, who were friendly and spoke excellent English. An annoying tourist helicopter kept buzzing the summit, so after jokingly suggesting we moon it, I was egged on to actually do so on one of its closer passes. I hope the tourists enjoyed the view of my pasty buttocks. It was warm and almost wind-free, and tempting to hang around longer, but I still had the descent to deal with, and hoped to get in another peak in the next day’s good weather. I said goodbye, then crossed the perfect snow arete to the Swiss summit on an excellent boot-pack. The Italian summit at least had a few rocks on which to stand or sit, but the Swiss one was just snow, so after taking pictures of Zermatt, Monte Rosa, and (maybe) the Grosser Aletschgletcher far to the north, I crossed back over the Italian summit and headed down.

Looking down from upper headwall

Above the ladder, I passed a young guide and client, who noted my footwear and helpfully warned me to be careful of the wet rock on the descent. I thanked him, then made my careful, crampon-less way down past the evil Jordan Ladder. On the steep section below, there was a bit of a shit-show, with two teams sharing their ropes to rappel, another team of three, and a party of two climbing up. I waited, climbed through when I could, and eventually extracted myself from the tangle. As usual, I used my crampons more going down than up, keeping them on from below the ladder to where the route drops off the south side of the ridge above the hut. Though I do not enjoy it, I am getting better at using them on rock.

Monte Rosa

After some minor route-finding trouble, I reached the hut again, and was about to pass by silently when a young woman sitting on the deck greeted me in what sounded like American English. She and her boyfriend turned out to be from Slovakia, but she had clearly had an American teacher, and spoke excellent and only slightly accented English. Since the weather was perfect and it was only early afternoon, I hung out for the better part of an hour talking to the couple. Though they had done a lot of hiking in the Tatras, and trad climbing near Bratislava, they had done relatively little mountaineering in the Alps. They had previously done the Breithorn from Breuil-Cervino (using a tram), and were spending the day acclimatizing at the hut before hopefully climbing the next day. (As it turned out, it snowed that night, ruining their summit bid.)

I was reluctant to leave, partly because it would be hot down in the valley, and partly because I did not want to climb down the rope or the pee-slope. I finally left, descending some semi-sketchy slabs to the top of the rope and, after psyching myself up for a bit, committing to the thing. I used one foot-loop at the top, then descended it like I was rappeling, leaning back on the rope to keep my feet stuck to the rock rather than using the meager footholds. Down was definitely easier than up, and I made it to the bottom with forearms only slightly tired.

I passed more climbers above and below the narrow snow traverse, then boot-skied a bit and jog-walked the trail back to town in no particular hurry, reaching the car a bit less than 12 hours after starting. I took off my soaked shoes, had a snack, then drove down the Cervino valley, back through Aosta, and up the Bionaz valley to sleep at my next trailhead.

Death in the Afternoon

Rest in peace

Ernest Hemingway said that “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Presumably, what elevates them from games to sports is the possibility of death. Though I do not plan to do any motor racing or bullfighting on this trip, I will be doing much more mountaineering, often with many others doing the same nearby. I suppose it is inevitable that I will witness the ugly consequences.

Hanging out at a stance below the Jordan Ladder while waiting for some people to finish rappeling, I heard a loud sound on the south face. Another climber nearby shouted something, and I leaned out a bit to look. Maybe a thousand feet below, I saw two climbers, roped together and bouncing out of control down a snowfield, having already fallen probably 1000 feet from the ridge above me. The sound was surprisingly loud for only 300-400 pounds of matter; it seemed much louder than a similar amount of rockfall. As in the past, I was verbally reduced to irrelevant cursing, but utterly attuned to the details of events that took place over a couple of seconds. Before the climbers disappeared off the snowfield into the void below, I noted the color of their packs and clothes, and tried to see the color of their rope, to tell whether it was the couple I had just met on the summit. Later I found out that it was, two twenty-somethings from Austria.

The other climbers around suggested calling 911 (112 in Europe), but apparently none spoke Italian, so I pulled out my phone and, with a crappy signal, made the call. The operator spoke some English, and apparently transferred me to mountain rescue, but they couldn’t understand me with the weak signal, and hung up. More dazed than scared, I made my way carefully down the rock to a low-angle section where I tried calling again 10-15 minutes later with a better signal. Apparently someone else had already called by then, and the mountain rescue person told me that they were sending a helicopter. “They usually end up at the bottom,” he chillingly remarked before encouraging me to be careful on the way down. So I did, moving slowly down the ridge as the helicopter came and went to the snowfield at the base of the south face, eventually finding the bodies and departing for good.

I lived to climb another day, while they did not, and there is no lesson to be learned beyond the obvious one that death is real and close in the mountains. They had experience and all the proper gear, and were moving roped as one is supposed to. I was in worn-out trail runners, downclimbing unroped. So it goes.

Grandes Jorasses (10h)

Pic Walker from Pic Whymper

Though not as tall as Mont Blanc, the Grandes Jorasses are a better-looking mountain. The Jorasses are a sharp east-west ridge, with the north face falling 4000 feet to the Mer de Glace, and the south face falling 8500 feet in only 2.5 miles to the town of Planpincieux in a chaotic mix of glaciers and ribs. Real Men climb routes on the north face, including the late Ueli Steck’s famous sub-two-hour solo of the Colton-MacIntyre mixed route.

My initial plan, perhaps a bit too bold, was to do the Grandes Jorasses at the end of the Roquefort-Jorasses traverse, a classic Alpine outing that normally involves trams, huts, and multiple days. Unfortunately, a combination of weather and Italy got in the way of that: one of the things I did to kill time on Monday was to talk to the guy in the guides’ office, who informed me that the trail to the Torino hut was closed, for reasons he could not explain in English. The tram, of course, was working perfectly, but I wasn’t about to spend 30 Euros for that, plus whatever it would cost to stay in the hut. Maybe I could have just blasted up the trail at night without seeing anyone, and I was really just looking for an excuse to scale back my plans. I settled for the standard route instead, which was still a fairly challenging big-boots day, but at only ten hours car-to-car, hardly epic. Still, the summit view was awesome, and the rock was solid and fun.

Refuge along route

I set out through town toward the hut at 4:30, which felt early enough given the previous night’s precipitation and what seemed to be partly-cloudy skies. The trailhead can be tricky to find, so I had fortunately scouted it the previous evening. Once out of town, I had no trouble following the path, even without the yellow dots, as it climbed increasingly steeply toward the refuge. Along the way, it crosses a glacial stream on a metal bridge, then surmounts a cliff band via a ladder, before finally climbing the crag holding the hut with the help of some fat, bolted ropes.

The hut was quiet as I passed, and I found no fresh boot-prints in the snow above. Apparently the forecast had discouraged people, and I would have the mountain to myself. Fortunately there was an old boot-pack up the Planpincieux Glacier, because the face is confusing at best, and clouds were hanging over the upper mountain. I followed this path to the base of the Rocher de Reposoir, then scrambled up into the clouds.

Rocher de Reposoir

This rock ridge is fairly wide, with multiple paths possible, and various debris testifying to climbers’ frustration. Climbing into the clouds, I had some trouble picking the easiest route, but managed to find something no harder than low fifth class without much backtracking. While there is loose talus lying around, the underlying rock is solid, well-featured granite, making for fun scrambling.

Traverse to Rocher

Eventually, I reached a point where the Rocher merges back into the upper Grandes Jorasses Glacier. Here the route traverses a steep, debris-menaced arm of the glacier to reach the southwest ridge of Point Whymper, a sub-summit just west of the true one. There was a boot-pack in places, but this part of the glacier is more scoured, without enough surface snow in places for boots to leave a mark. The snow was actually a mess, with various surface stuff in different depths over a base of glacial ice. I was glad I had boots and front-points for this part, and an ice tool instead of a mountaineering axe. I followed bits of boot-pack through the fall zone, over a bridge across a bergschrund, then up some steep ice/névé to a steep gully leading up onto the ridge. Those 200 yards were the only time I used my crampons.

Random solar panel

The standard route ascends the ridge a short ways, then crosses onto the upper Jorasses Glacier and does… something. The old boot-pack had been filled in by the last night’s snow, and I was still in the clouds, so that seemed like a bad idea. An alternative route up the ridge to Point Whymper, staying on rock, seemed better given the conditions. I followed a line generally right of the ridge, which in retrospect was a bit harder than staying closer to the crest. It was a mix of class 3-5 terrain, mostly on good rock with lots of positive edges; while I have not done both, I would recommend this route over the standard glacier/snow plod, at least on the way up. Along the way, I passed a big yellow-and-black sign, and several solar panels with no obvious purpose.

Mont Blanc

I had resigned myself to a cloudy summit like the Barre des Écrins, but 20 meters from the top, the clouds began to thin, and I summited to amazing views of the rest of the high Mont Blanc massif. To one side, Mont Blanc stood above the clouds, while its aiguilles went in and out of view. To the other, the slightly higher Walker summit of the Jorasses streamed clouds from its south face, while much of the steep north face, including the Walker Spur, was cloud-free. I could see all the way down the north face to the Mer de Glace, and sometimes almost to Montenvers.

Upper Walker Spur

Because it was rock instead of snow, I hung out on Pic Whymper for awhile before heading over to tag the summit. This looked easy, but was a bit more involved than expected, with a weird crevasse going right across the ridge. I kicked up the summit snow in just boots, then spent a few minutes checking out the surroundings, including the sheer Hirondelles Ridge descent to the east. I had hoped it would clear enough to descend the standard snow route, but it remained cloudy, and the previous day’s snow had mostly obliterated the boot-pack. Rather than worry about getting lost inside a ping-pong ball, I returned to Pic Whymper and retraced my route.

Top of Rocher

It began to clear a bit as I neared the traverse to the Rocher de Reposoir, so I could finally see a bit more of the terrain I had climbed. However, the upper mountain remained cloaked in cloud for the rest of the descent. I passed the hut, finding the guardian outside to be neither busy nor friendly, then clomped back to the trailhead. It was a short hike, but I was reminded why I prefer trail runners, and amazed that the man I met on Gran Paradiso had managed to descend so quickly in the exact same boots.

Since it had only taken me 10 hours, I had enough time to take advantage of the good weather and do something the next day. Thinking about it, I remembered that the Matterhorn has an Italian trailhead that is both high, and not in Zermatt. I got some internet in the library, groceries in Morgex, then headed back through Aosta and on to the next. While groceries and gas in Italy are cheaper than France, Courmayeur seems less attractive than Chamonix, catering more to rich sight-seers than athletes. Walking through the pedestrian downtown, I saw sporting goods places, but also a jewelry shop and some realtors showcasing multi-million-euro homes. I can’t say I will miss the place.