Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zermatt Climbing Trip Report ~ July 15-20, 2011

I just finished up a great week of climbing with Talley and his son John and wanted to post a trip report before I move onto our first Guided Mont Blanc Climbs of the season.  Talley and I completed the Haute Route Ski Tour this spring with Talley's wife Sarah, and during the tour we decided to visit Zermatt in the summer so that John could get some exposure to mountaineering. This trip is most similar to what we do when we run a Guided Matterhorn Climb, but for this program the Matterhorn was not on the agenda.

Downtown Zermatt, Switzerland
We met on the evening of July 14 in Zermatt, Switzerland.  Zermatt sits at the base of the Matterhorn and is at around 1600 m / 5,250'.  On the day arrived (July 13) there was a huge rain storm that was depositing snow up high.

Packing in the ski room of the Hotel Bahnhoff
We all stayed at a small hotel-hostel and used the ski room to pack for our ideal trip, which was to be a traverse of Monte Rosa starting at the Klein Matterhorn (3820m / 12,533'), and then climbing the Breithorn (4165m / 13,665'), Castor (4221m / 13,845'), Pollux (4091 / 13,423'), Lyskamm's "ice nose", the Pyramide Vincent (4125m / 13,534'), Ludwishohe (4342m / 14,246'), Zumsteinspitze (4563m / 14,971') , and finally the Dufourspitze (4634m / 15,204'), the highest of Monte Rosa's summits.  This is called the Spaghetti Traverse because you spend each night in an Italian Hut, with the usual progression being the Val d'Ayas Hut (3394m / 11,136'), the Quintino Sella Hut (3585m / 11,762'), The Citta' Di Mantova Hut (3470m / 11,385'), and finally the Margherita hut (4554m / 14,942').

Nothing but gray on the Klein Matterhorn webcam.
On the first morning we had a good forecast, but the webcam up at Klein Matterhorn did not look so good. We decided to head up hoping that the forecasted sun would soon arrive.

Talley and John in the tram from Zermatt to Trockner Steg
We boarded the tram at the far end of Zermatt and rode up to Furi (1867m / ), The Trockner Steg (2923m / ), and finally the Klein Matterhorn (3820m / 12,533').  On the way up the weather began to improve and was near perfect when we arrived at the top.

John and Talley with the Breithorn in the background.
The Breithorn is pretty low hanging fruit when approached from the Klein Matterhorn and is the most often climbed 4000 meter peak in the Zermatt area.  The local guides take lines of people up all-day long during the busy summer season.  This provided a good warm-up and an opportunity to acclimate.

Summit of the Breithorn!
We made good time and hit the main summit, which is the West summit and then descended the very narrow and exposed ridge that runs down to the col between the West and Central summits.  This provided good training for the climbs ahead, which would all require much careful cramponing and efficient climbing.

Monte Rosa and Lyskamm as seen from Breithorn
Given the excellent day we were able to see most of the peaks that we intended to climb over the next 5 days.  Of interest the climbers finger in the photo is just over the Central summit of the Breithorn.

Breithorn's Central Summit
As we descended to the col between the Breithorn's two main summits we go a glimpse of the Central summit, which we hoped to climb later in the week by the Breithorn Half-traverse route.  The sharp point in the center of the photograph and behind the Breithorn is the Dufourspitze, the highests of Monte Rosa's summits.

Castor's West, Northwest Flank
From the summit of the Breithorn we descended to the base of the SW ridge of Pollux, and then continued down to the Val d'Ayas hut, where we spent the first night.

John and John at the Val d'Ayas Hut
The Val d'Ayas is a really nice hut, but as this was our first night at altitude we needed to take it a bit easy as we would be sleeping at over 11,000'.  One reason you can push it a bit here is that if you are having a hard night, it is always possible to take a trail down from the hut to a lower hut or the towns below.

Talley and John at the Val d'Ayas Hut
In general the Italian Huts have really good food and this was no exception.  Warm beds, an espresso machine for the guide, and a very comfortable eating area made this one of our favorite huts of the tour.

JR doing the route plan for the Spaghetti Traverse
With a weather forecast that included the possibility of white out travel conditions I spent a good part of the afternoon putting together a solid route plan for the next few days.  As it turns out, this came in quite handy.

John and Talley on the SW ridge of Pollux
Up early the next morning, we climbed back up to the base of the SW ridge of Pollux and ascended that route to the summit.  John and Talley are unusually strong, so we were able to be the first on the route and have it entirely to ourselves until the descent. The climbing is not very technical, but is very exposed in spots and requires great care in foot placements.  The lower portion could be described as scrambling, with a steep section near the top where you climb aboput 40 meters of thick rope that has been fixed on the more difficult rock sections.  This is common in Europe and critical to accommodate the large numbers of climbers that attempt the most popular climbs.

John and Talley finishing the belayed climbing on Pollux.
At the top of the rock climbing section, which we did in 2, 20 meter pitches, there is a nice bolted anchor and great views down the steeper rock section.  We did this with our crampons on.

Talley and John at the top of the rock on Pollux
As you finish the rock climbing section, which comprises about 75% of the climb there is a statue of the Virgin Mary that looks out over Italy.  There is also a nice flat spot where we had a chance to grab a quick snack, take a drink of water, and switch back to short rope mode after belayed pitches below.

John and Talley on the summit of Pollux
We were on top with not a soul in sight and the weather was generally good with light winds and still plenty of sunshine.
WNW Flank of Castor
From the summit of Pollux we could also get a great view of our next objective, the West Northwest Flank of Castor.  While not a technical objective, this climb requires good snow conditions and very delicate cramponing near the top.  Things looked good and we were psyched!

If you look close you can see climbers on the summit of Castor.
The usual route moves in from the center and zig zags up the center of the face before moving left to gain the saddle to the looker's left of the summit.  For some reason people were traversing out right over the ice bulge above the bergschrund and then going up the West Ridge to the summit. 

John and Talley descending the snow ridge from the summit of Pollux.
We headed back down, did a bit of lowering and down climbing and eventually reached the base of the SW ridge again. 

Talley and John gaining the ridge on Castor.
As we moved over to Castor the clouds were building and we had to hustle.  Rather than follow the line others were taking to the climbers right, we moved left, did one 30 meter pitch of 45+ degree snow and ice and gained the North Ridge, which provided very excellent, albeit exposed climbing to the summit.

John and Talley on the summit of Castor
By the time we reached the summit it was looking like the inside of a ping pong ball and we took a few quick photos before beginning our descent of the Se ridge enroute to the Sella Hut, where we would spend the night.

View down SE ridge of Castor in the clouds
The SE ridge of Castor is relatively straight forward, but we still needed to take great care as the visibility was less than perfect and the exposure significant in spots.

Quintino Sella Hut in a whiteout
We made good time to the Sella Hut and arrived in such think fog that we were almost unable to see it until we were within less than 100 meters of the actual building.  In total it had taken about 7.5 hours for us to come over from the Val d'Ayas hut, so when we arrived we immediately tucked into pasta for lunch and then took a nap.

Lyskamm's Ice Nose as seen from Sella Hut
Our plan the next morning was to climb over Lyskamm's Ice nose enroute to the Citta Mantova Hut, but a storm raged all night and in the morning things looked too unstable for us to commit to the trip.  The current route ascends the finger of rock just left of center in the photo and then follows the rock to the top before you make one pitch of moderately steep ice to where the angle eases off.  You then traverse right and eventually do a series of lowers off the other side to a easy glacier.

Descending the rock ridge from the Sella Hut toward the Colle di Bettaforca.
One nice thing about the Spaghetti Tour is that you have the option of bailing at each hut and either hiking down and back up to reach the next hut, or descending all the way to the valley below and using taxis, buses, and trams to make your way around to Zermatt.  We opted to go down as the weather was once again looking to deteriorate and we did not want to sit a day at the hut.  The ridge descent was an unexpected and wonderful hike!

Climbing along the fixed route below the Sella Hut
The climb down took a bit longer than planned because the views were so stunning that we kept stopping to take photos and enjoy the scenery looking out into Italy.  The route is exposed, but very doable unroped and ended up being one of the odder highlights of the trip.

Talley on a high rock point on the descent from the Sella Hut.
We were followed down the route by an Italian climbing club from Bergamo.  As we eventually descended into the clouds we were able to keep tabs on where they were by the constant chatter and laughter of this group of happy Italians.

Talley and John high over Italy
The plan was to descend to a chairlift, take a taxi or bus back to Cervinia and then use the tram system to come up and over to Zermatt.  As expected the clouds below slowly rose, and the clounds behind us slowly descended and climbing shut down for the day.

John and Talley descending to Gressony
Eventually we hiked for a hour or more through a thick fog and reached a tram at 2729m / 8,954' that took us all the way down to the Italian town of Gressoney, which is a good two hours by car from Cervinia.

Once in Gressoney we hitched a ride with the Italians from Bergamo and stopped at a really beautiful hotel and called a cab.  I grabbed a card because the place was so nice that I hope to return some day and spend the night.  The woman at the front desk was very helpful in making the taxi arrangements.  If you are ever looking for a place in Gressoney check out the Hotel Dufour, a slice of Italian heaven!

JR indulged in a Cappauchino at the Hotel Dufour
Of interest the map for this area is the Alp Monte Rosa, which is a good map, but is inexplicably in  1:35000 scale, which makes it hard to pull UTM coordinates.  A better map is the Swiss 1:50000 Gressoney, which is a bit large for very precise navigation.  Most of the route is covered by the Swiss 1:25000 map, with the exception of Lyskamm's Ice Nose and the Sella and Mantova huts.

John and Talley at the Cervinia Guides' Hut
We took a taxi to Cervnia (160 Euro) and then things got weird.  The weather had really deteriorated so we took a series of trams up to the Testa Grigia and had planned to either hike down to the Theodul Hut or hike down the piste to the Trockner Steg.  As it was raining and very windy with no visibility we opted to stay at the Cervinia Guide's Hut, which only sleeps 36.  After a short afternoon nap I came down to find Cathy Cosley, an accomplished American guide also in the hut.  She had started the day at Trockner Steg and also ended up stuck here as you could not connect the trams between Zermatt and Cervinia due to the high winds and subsequent tram closures.  We had a nice reunion and enjoyed this wonderful, small hut.

Hiking up the piste to the Klein Matterhorn in early morning
The next morning we climbed the 340 meters up to the Klein Matterhorn with the intention of doing the Breithorn half-traverse and then descending to Zermatt.  The Matterhorn is the big peak in the background.

Climbers going to the central summit of the Breithon
Once up at the Klein Matterhorn we traversed out to the base of the Breithorn half-traverse and confirmed my suspicion that it was too iced up to climb.  At one point a local guide followed our track out and continued, which had some second guessing going on.  We also encountered some English climbers headed there.  Later in the day we heard that they all turned around when the route was deemed to icy, which made us feel better about backing off.  We opted to grab the central summit of the Breithorn as a consolation and then descended to Zermatt.

View of Central Summit of the Breithorn with Monte Rosa in background
John and Talley are super fit and so we decided to once again go back up to the main summit just for the exercise.  Talley even went for a 1000 meter trail run when we got back down to Zermatt in the afternoon!

Train to Gornergrat

The following morning we boarded the train to Gornergrat with plans to hike up to the new Monte Rosa hut to climb Monte Rosa via the normal route.

John and Talley at Rotenboden
We took the Gornergrat train to Rotenboden (2815m / 9,263') and got off near the Rifelhorn, made famous by Mark Twain in the 19th century.

The Rifelhorn, used to train climbers for the Matterhorn
We had hoped to climb the Rifelhorn, but once again opted to race the rain to the hut and started the hike in to the new Monte Rosa Hut, which took a leisurely three hours.

Breithorn from near Rotenboden
The views of the Breithorn from Rotenboden are spectacular!

Summer view of Schwartztour, a popular spring ski
I was also able to point out the Schwartztour, a glacier that we actually ski in the spring if we have the time at the end of our Haute Route ski tours.  In the summer this looks impossibly broken, but in the spring it provides a spectacular ski descent from the Klein Matterhorn all the way down to Zermatt.

On the trail to the Monte Rosa Hut
We set off on the long traversing trail that leads down to the glacier enroute to the Monte Rosa Hut.  When you get off at Rotenboden you are nearly at the same elevation as the Monte Rosa Hut, but the long gradual descent to the glacier and subsequent climb to the hut make for a decent half-day hike.

Lyskamm with medial moraines in foreground.
On the hike in you also get really impressive views of the North side of Lyskamm and the excellent climbing routes there.

Talley and John hiking to the Monte Rosa Hut

The first hour of hiking follows and excellent trail with a steep drop to the glacier and then eventually takes you down to a series of ladders and ropes leading to the ice.

Talley hiking across the "dry" ice on the Gornergletscher
Once down the ladders (photo further along) you gain the ice.  This can usually be done without crampons and follows a series of tripods and poles placed in the glacier to guide you across.  Part way across the traverse you cross over a medial moraine, which is a jumble of rock and ice.

John jumping a stream on the Gornergletscher
The glacier crossing itself is an interesting hike with glacial streams running along the surface that eventually disappear into hols in the ice, only to reemerge further down glacier.

Climbing the slabs below the Monte Rosa Hut
Once across the glacier, you climb the steep slabs that lead up to the Monte Rosa hut, with wooden boards and ropes to aid you on the more exposed or slippery spots.

Talley hiking to the Monte Rosa Hut with Grenzgletscher in the background.
As you hike up these slabs you can look up and see an old stone building, which is the bathroom from the old Monte Rosa Hut.  A new hut was built a few years back and the old hut was demolished with dynamite just a few days before we arrived.  I had stayed in the old hut many times over the past 20 years and while the new hut is amazing, it was a bit sad to see the old hut gone.

Dining area in the new Monte Rosa Hut
This was my first visit to the new Monte Rosa Hut and it was stunning!  I don't recall ever being in a hut that was so spectacular.  The woodwork is elaborately decorated, there is wi-fi, power to charge phones, and toilets with running water.  At one point we even considered spending a second night just to enjoy the comfort.

Talley and John enjoying a Spaghetti lunch at the Monte Rosa Hut
For lunch we indulged in the very unique European experience of a hot lunch, perfectly cooked.

Salad that came with our dinner.
We hit the sack early with plans to wake at 2 am and climb to the Dufourspitze.  This is a long route and will take most parties a good 12 hours roundtrip.

Snow at 3 am on the day of our Monte Rosa climb
We woke up at 2 am to find the snow storm that had started when we arrived at the hut in the afternoon had developed into a full blown storm and we started the waiting game.  By 7 am it was clear that we were not going to be able to climb the route, which requires visibility and we decided to wait a bit, go for a hike, and then return to Zermatt.

John and Talley leaving the hut in the morning.
We finally left the hut when the weather cleared around 9 am with plans to hike up a bit.  The summit was still obscured by clouds and while disappointed, we were happy with our decision not to climb.  We hiked up about an hour over snow covered rocks and encountered three climbers who had pressed on in the storm, only to turn at 3600 meters after falling into a crevasse.

Our high point on Monte Rosa
Once up to our highpoint at around 3000 meters we had a snack and enjoyed the views and snow once again rolled up the valley from below.

Massive boulders atop the medial moraine on the Gornergletscher
After our short hike up we began the hike back down to Rotenboden and the conclusion of our trip.

Talley and John climbing the ladders off the Gornergletscher
I included this photo of the ladders that go down to the Gornergletscher when the trail to Rotenboden ends.  The ladders were dry when we were there, but there are likely days when you would want to be roped up for this!

Thanks much to Talley and John for a great week!  John did a great job and should now feel like he has a feel for what climbing is all about.  If he is this strong, this young, I suspect he will be a force to be reckoned with when he is older.

If you would like beta for the Spaghetti Traverse, climbing in Zermatt, or climbing Monte Rosa, feel free to call our office at 509-548-5823. For more details on this trip visit our Zermatt Climbing Guides page.