I’ve just spent the last few weeks mountaineering in Germany, Switzerland and France. This is a photo-diary of my trip.
Because my climbing partner, Wolfgang, couldn’t make it for a few days time, I initially spent a few days on my own in the German Alpine village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Here I climbed the spectacular Alpspitze, sometimes called the Matterhorn of Germany, part of the Wettersteingebirge massif, where last year I had climbed Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze (2964m). This was a straightforward rock-scramble via ferrata (a system for securing oneself to a fixed metal cable).
Once Wolfgang arrived we drove to Saas Fee (1600m), Switzerland, which lies in the valley right next to the Monte Rosa massif. From Saas Fee we hiked up to the Britannia Hut at roughly 3000m, where we spent the night to acclimatize. The next morning we set up the Allalinhorn, my first 4000m peak. The route began by crossing a glacier and then followed a long ridge, leading up to two pitches of easy rock climbing below the summit. We descended on the other side of the mountain, down to the Allalinhorn ski slopes, where we took the cable car back to Saas Fee village.
Summit of the Allalinhorn
The next climb was the Weissmies, on the opposite side of the valley to the Allalinhorn. We hiked up to the Hochsaas Hut at 3100m, where we spent the night before making our attempt. This route was very heavily glaciated and began by crossing a highly crevassed glacier. Once across the glacier and jumping over a large crevasse, the remainder of the route followed the ridge line leading to the summit.
Summit of the Weissmies
The next day we had initially intended to climb the Dufour Peak, the highest mountain in Switzerland, but had to make a change of plan since the huts on the Italian side of the range, which we needed to make use of, had already closed for the season. So, instead we opted for the Lagginhorn, which is right next to the Weissmies where we had climbed previously. This meant that we had walked all the way down from the hut and back up again for nothing. After overnighting at the the slightly lower Weissmies Hut (approx. 2800m), we set off on our ascent. The route initally crossed a small glacier, with the rest of the route being a simple, albeit extended rock-scramble to the summit. We ended up not having to use the rope or any technical equipment at all, which I was not particularly impressed about, since I was the one carrying it. If you’re looking for a 4000m alpine peak that can be soloed or done without mountaineering experience, this is your mountain. To our delight, we discovered a very novel way of returning to the village below, that is simultaneously much easier than going by foot, and does not carry with it the ‘sissy’ stigma of catching a ski lift down. Introducing… monster mountain bikes – beefed up mountain bikes with foot wide wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, and front suspension. These are mean-arse machines and go over absolutely anything. Big rock on the road? Go over it. Cow? Go over it. These things are mean… and saved us a few hours of blister-making hiking back to the village.
Summit of the Lagginhorn
Monster bikes! Hell yeah! Designed for a rapid descent.
Mt. Blanc (4810m) and Dome de Gouter (4304m)
At this stage Wolfgang had to head off (some people have to work you see), so I headed to the nearby French village of Chamonix, with the intention of climbing Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. The standard route up Mont Blanc is technically very straightforward and relatively hazard free, so, in the absence of a partner, I headed off with the intention of soloing the route. On the afternoon I arrived in Chamonix I immediately made a start towards the Gouter Hut, where the standard route follows. First I walked along the valley to the nearby French village of Les Houches, from where I headed up the side of the valley an bivouacked in the forest at 1600m. The next morning I continued up the side of the valley to the upper tramway station at Nid d’Aigle (approx. 2300m). Normally people catch the alpine tram to this point, but they’re sissies, not to mention it’s much better for acclimatization to walk in. From Nid d’Aigle it’s roughly another couple of hours to the Tete Rousse hut at 3100m. From here there’s a sharp rock-scramble ascent to the Gouter Hut at 3800m, which takes another 1.5 hours or so.
Hiking up from Nid d’Aigle to Gouter Hut
The rock buttress leading up to Gouter Hut
At the start of this ascent is the most dangerous part of the entire climb – crossing the couloir, a very active rockfall, where debris is constantly falling from hundreds of metres above. Many people have been injured and killed at this point, and one lucky chap had a close miss with several bowling ball sized rocks 10m in front of me. Here there’s only one strategy – wait until things appear calm, then run like a crazy bastard. After ascending the rock buttress on the other side of the couloir, I finally reached Gouter Hut.
I wasn’t sure whether they would have space for me. Usually because Mont Blanc is such a popular climb, one has to make bookings several months in advance. However, it was towards the end of the climbing season and thankfully there was just enough space for me. The first night, the hut, which has a capacity of about 150 people or so, was absolutely packed. Breakfast is served at 3am, to allow a start on Mont Blanc between 3:30 and 4am. However, the next morning weather conditions were miserable and climbing was a no-go. At this point the vast of majority of the teams cleared out, leaving the hut almost empty.
Among those remaining in the hut was a solo British climber, also Peter, and we agreed to team up together. To avoid the boredom of insanity-inducing hut confinement we decided to do a little outing. At the lower Tete Rousse Hut is a box where departing climbers can deposit excess food. We decided to make a mission of descending the 800m to Tete Rousse to raid the food box, and boy was it worthwhile. About four hours later we returned to Gouter Hut with half a dozen boiled lollies and a few packets of instant noodles.
The next day weather conditions were equally diabolical and climbing was definitely off. At this stage all the other groups had abandoned the hut. The wardens of the hut happened to be going on a little mission that day. They were heading up to the higher Vallot Hut (approx. 4300m) to pick up some stranded climbers. They were doing this, despite the whiteout, by periodically placing bright marker flags to enable back-tracking. We decided to take advantage of the flags to enable us to head further up and familiarize ourselves with the route.
The forecast for the next day was positive. However, because the weather had been so unpredictable we wanted to make the earliest possible start so as to maximize use of any weather window that arose. At 2:30am the next day we headed off for our summit attempt. Being so early, this made us the lead team, giving us the delightful job of breaking trail, which was extremely strenuous in the thick snow that had fallen over the previous couple of days. The forecast turned out to be somewhat incorrect, with gale-force winds and whiteout ensuing. Additionally, the strong winds acting on the fresh snow had created a snow-pack with high slab-avalanche risk. We made it as far as the ridge on Dome de Gouter (4300m), at which point we were exposed to winds so strong that we couldn’t stand up and visibility was down to a few metres. At this stage we turned back since progress was both impossible and dangerous. On the way down we passed several other groups, who we advised to return given the conditions higher up. Nonetheless they all continued to find out for themselves. Not surprisingly, within a few hours all teams had returned to the hut, looking rather shell-shocked. The forecast for the next few days was very bad so at this stage we decided to return to Chamonix to chill out. We were well and truly sick of days confined to empty mountain huts.
After spending a couple of days relaxing in Chamonix, news came that weather conditions were stabilizing and would be suitable for climbing Mont Blanc. So, Peter and I decided to head back up to the hut for another shot. After reaching Tete Rousse Hut we enquired about Gouter Hut, only to discover that it was completely packed to the brim because of the weather forecast. This ruled out heading up higher and we were forced to spend the night 800m lower at the Tete Rousse. Unfortunately, this meant almost doubling the vertical ascent on the following day as well as having to get up 1.5 hours earlier in order to catch the crowd leaving Gouter.
Sunset from Tete Rousse Hut (3100m)
The next day we got up at 1:15am for breakfast and made a 2am start for Gouter Hut, where we arrived at 3:30am and had a short rest. We were quite slow on the way up to Gouter, in large part because I had been suffering some kind of stomach bug or food poisoning for the last couple of days, probably which I had picked up in the hut on the previous attempt. By the time we made a start from Gouter we were relatively late and basically at the back of the pack. The stream of dozens of headlamps curving up the mountain could be seen trailing off into the distance – the infamous Mont Blanc superhighway (in high climbing season it’s not uncommon for a few hundred people to climb Mont Blanc on any given day). Because Peter and I had spent so much time already at altitude, we were very well acclimatized and were moving very fast compared to the other groups. By the time we reached the col between Dome de Gouter and Mont Blanc we had overtaken all but two groups, putting us near the front of the pack. Shortly after Vallot hut, an emergency shelter at 4300m, we were breaking trail. The weather was perfect, with brilliant visibility and low winds. However, because it was still night time, it was incredibly cold – my fingers and toes were quite displeased. From here the route followed the remaining several hundred vertical metres up a narrow ridge-line to the summit. From about 4500m altitude became a significant physical drain and our pace slowed markedly. At about 7am we rose up the final ridge to the summit, just in time for sunrise over Switzerland. The view from Mont Blanc is truly mind-blowing, especially at sunrise. On one side of the ridge is Italy, on the other is France. Towards the sun is Switzerland, with the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa clearly visible. In the other direction the sun casts a perfect pyramid shadow of Mont Blanc across the Earth. After a while on the summit the crowds started appearing and we made tracks.
Sunrise on Mont Blanc – Italy to the right, France to the left, Switzerland straight ahead.
Summit of Mont Blanc
Shadow of Mont Blanc cast over France at sunrise
The hoards following the infamous Mont Blanc superhighway
The col between Mont Blanc and Dome de Gouter at about 4200m
Having a rest on Dome de Gouter at about 4300m