Zermatt’s Breithorn is the easiest 4000-meter peak in Switzerland, thanks to the Kleinmatter-horn lift station at 3820m. The normal route is popular and crowded. Our chosen route, the north face, is now not often done—but it has a venerable pre-ski lift history.
From Gandegg hut (red square, 3030m) descend and cross both the Theodul and the Triftji glaciers (lowest point: 2800m). Climb steep mixed snow/ice along the curve of the Triftji ridge and then under the corniced top of Breit-horn’s north face, to emerge on the summit ridge just below the west summit (4164m). Descend the Rosa glacier and loop around to the lift station (3820m).
The red dots (this photo from the web) trace the route from the point where it leaves the glacier and begins to ascend the snow fields, to the high point on the summit ridge of Breithorn–a total climb of some 1350 meters. Of course, the last section of the tour is invisible behind the mountain.
The day before. the point where it leaves the glacier and begins to ascend the snow fields, to the high point on the summit ridge of Breithorn–a total climb of some 1350 meters. Of course, the last section of the tour is invisible behind the mountain. We experience a bit of a runaround with equipment rentals for this tour. Our trusty Zurbriggen Sport in Saas Grund does not have the right size ice axes (Eisgeräte—not the same as a Pickel!) for wimpy little M. So we have to stop in Zermatt near the Bahnhof to rent the rest of the stuff.
This day, J gets the credit for any and all climbing. He hikes up 1200 meters from Furi lift station to Gandegg- hütte at 3030. Here he is at Furi, as M sends him off. Note the Matterhorn behind him, in very typical cloud cover.
He reports later that the hike up is much prettier than it looks from the ski lift, with meadows and ever-changing terrain.
We’ll have to come back to do this as a day hike.…
M, with her pre-tour nerves, takes the energy conservation route. First, a Rösti lunch at a sunny outdoor Furi café. Then she rides the lift to Trockener Steg (2939m), packing extra stuff of Jeff’s so he can move fast. (This tour requires helmets, 2 ice axes each, a walking stick, and crampons–not to mention the usual harnesses and warm clothing and heavy liquids.) Gandegghütte is a 20 minute hike from the lift station. M snaps this shot en route, as Breithorn’s summit emerges into view.
Gandegg hut (3030m) feels suprisingly remote from the crowds at Trockener Steg, thanks to a rock outcropping that blocks views to the destroyed terrain of the ski area. The hut has a fantastic view of tomorrow’s tour.
(Photo from the web)
At the hut M gets restless waiting for J to arrive, so she walks down the trail for 45 mins back toward Zermatt. She encounters two crazy mountain bikers on their way up. Their plan is to make a quick stop at the hut, continue to Theodulpass, and descend the ski slopes to Cervinia (Italy) before sundown!
We meet up, and return to the hut in pleasant sunshine. Now the program is to hang out at a picnic bench, waiting for our guides to show. Here is M posing in front of the western end of Breithorn. Where we are, it’s 16 or 17 degrees C, but 1000m higher it’s clearly a lot cooler.
An SMS from Rütschi Pollinger tells us the guides are on their way, and not 5 minutes later they trot into view, yakking away. This is our first tour with Richard Lehner (left), but he comes with good references, as the brother of a close friend of Ugi Zumtaugwald. Rütschi (right) on the other hand, has led us on climbs since 2002, and knows our skills—and foibles—inside out.
The hut is rustic inside and tonight it is not too full, which always improves the atmosphere.
J and M are happy to get their own private room (!), with two bunkbeds and wobbly little wooden bedside cabinets. –Plus windows with a postcard view of Breithorn, Lyskamm and Monte Rosa.
Here’s Tuftern, our intrepid mascot, making sure the bunk is occupied.
Together we check out the beginning of the very steep track from the hut down to the Theodulgletscher, which we will need to cross tomorrow morning to begin the tour. The initial drop of 150 meters looks fit for only Gems.
The hut has an indoor WC, and the place is immaculate. Still, the old outhouse has its charms…
Before dinner, we snap this shot of tomorrow’s route, both the glaciers we have to cross and the climb to the Breithorn summit ridge.
After dinner we aren’t the only ones to break out the camera and capture sundown. The peaks include some of our favorites: Zinalrothorn (4221), with its angled spike of a summit….
… and the majestic Weisshorn (4505), with its ‘grand gendarme’ (4331) on the north ridge peaking out from behind. (NB—the right-hand ridge in this photo is the normal route, which we climbed with Ugi in 2006.)
We are the first to leave the hut. Also, as we hear from our guides, the first party to do this tour in the 2008 season! There were definitely no tracks to follow.
Today marks one day past the full moon, which is a great assist to our headlamps in the initial two hours of the tour. Not that you can tell in this photo!
Still before dawn we cross from the Theodul to the Triftji glacier by descending a very steep chute of rocks and slick ice. We have to back down in sections, using our crampon toe points and our ice axes. The large rock slabs as well as the small pieces are very unstable, on their bed of ice and trickling water. Near the bottom of the chute, M loses her footing and knocks a big rock loose. It tumbles and slides down a couple of meters, coming to rest on J's foot! Luckily, he can extract himself and there are no injuries.After we leave the glacier comes an endless section of tacking back and forth up a slope of hardened snow, walking on one edge of our boot soles (and crampons) and then on the other to counter the steepness. This gait is the ultimate discomfort for folks with weak arches (ahem, M). A ridge of brown rock—the best name our guides come up with—is to our left. After some 300 meters of ascent, we finally take a break near the top of this snowfield, sitting on top of a giant boulder. We no longer need headlamps as we set off again, following the curve of the Triftjigrat. It is pure relief to be finished with the tacking on hard snow.
Here’s a view of the ‘brown rock ridge’ from the middle of the long slope of hard snow.
The rest of the tour is true ‘mixed conditions’—compacted snow alternates with bands of very loose rock and with slopes of deep, soft snow that tends to slide away underfoot. (Later, we look up the tour in our guidebook and are gratified to read “sustained slopes of 55 degrees or more”.)
This photo (from the web) shows the relentless incline of the upper Triftjigrat, with a familiar landmark—Matterhorn—in the background.
The last two hours we are virtually scaling the north face of Breithorn. Sometimes we zigzag around or over the rock outcroppings, to take advantage of the holds, and sometimes we ‘do the fly’ straight up a snow face, kicking our toeholds in as deep as possible, and swinging those ice axes in rhythm. Here’s a shot snapped by Richard as we catch our breath. The tracks above us are made by rocks or ice chunks rolling down.
More than once, J experiences the blood pounding in his ears and neck, as he goes to the max on these steep ascents. Through it all, he keeps snapping photos. Here is M on a steep section with soft snow, and the giant crevasses of the Triftji glacier far below.
Except for one windy knob about an hour from the summit (call it “Eisbiele”?) where we take a quick break, the whole climb is brutally steep. Here is a view off the edge of the Biele… The snow pack you see here is some 15 meters high.
… and J on the Biele, with Weisshorn in the distance, right behind his head.
We are more than two-thirds done with the tour when we encounter the widest, deepest Bergschrund crevasse we have ever had to cross. Here the slope is very steep and the thick layer of ice and snow has simply cracked open.
Crossing a Bergschrund requires an enormous step up, with or without a snow bridge. In our case, the bridge is very narrow, and the snow looks extremely rotten. After we are safely across, J asks Richard how many more people will be able to cross before it gives way. R replies, “Oh, maybe two or three.” (!!!)
Since about half-way up, a strong wind has been our constant companion. On sections where there is a lot of new snow, the blasts whip and swirl the snow around our faces, and we can watch our footholds fill with the blowing white stuff.
The worst thing is the sense of “two steps forward, one step back”, as we struggle to make foot holds in the deep and powdery snow.
The final steep, steep push is a guessing game for Jeff. Richard provideshimnocluewhether it willtakeanotherhour, or another 10 minutes, beforewereachthesummitridge. M is luckier: Rütschispeculatesaloud at a criticalpointthat it will be just another 15 minutes or so…
Here is a final view back down Triftjigrat, near the very top end of the steep climb and just before we break through to the Breithorn summit ridge.
This view shows the notch on the corniced ridge where we ’break through’, coming from the steep north face below (red arrow from lower left).
Rütschi lets out a gleeful whoop as he reaches the ridge track, and M makes it a double. J and Richard arrive 30 seconds later, and there are kisses all around. The sunlight, the views and the wide open spaces are exhilarating.
(People on the ridge track provide scale in this shot.)
Several climbers who had arrived there via the normal route are totally surprised by our appearance ’out of nowhere’.
The wind is strong on the ridge, so we don’t stay long. (photo from the web)
We adopt a near-reckless pace to escape the wind and take our break on a flatter part of the Rosa glacier, stepping repeatedly out of the track to bypass people descending the normal route.
(photo from the web)
Here is one very satisfied and proud climber, at our break spot on the slopes of the Rosa glacier. It’s sunny and pleasant, so we take our time. Parties of climbers, all sizes and shapes, trudge past us on their way up or down the normal route. We join our guides in greeting them.
Our ascent was done in record time, one of the reasons for Rütschi’s summit whoop.
M can finally eat again, and she tucks in. spot on the slopes of the Rosa glacier. It’s sunny and pleasant, so we take our time. Parties of climbers, all sizes and shapes, trudge past us on their way up or down the normal route. We join our guides in greeting them.
(In this shot we are sitting on a relatively flat surface. It’s amazing how your perspective changes.)
We take the lift down at 10:30, along with the first early-bird tourists who have already checked Kleinmatterhorn off their list. Snapping pictures through the gondola’s plexiglass, we catch a great shot of the Bergschrund we had to cross just hours earlier (arrow).
We hang out in Zermatt another hour or so, enjoy lunch with our guides, and then head back to the Saas valley.
This shot is taken from Home Sweet Home, with the familiar view of the V from our kitchen window in Almagell.
Route and altitudes: From Gandegghütte (3030m) descend 230m to low point on Triftjigletscher at 2800m. Climb 1350m from there to Breithorn ridge, just below the west summit (4164m). Descend to Rosa glacier and then cross back up to Kleinmatterhorn lift station at 3820m.
Climb from the hut to summit took 5 hours 20 mins (3:45-8:55).
Descent from Breithorn to lift station at Kleinmatterhorn took a bit over 1 hour.
Estimated horizontal distance of ascent, 5.7 km.
Estimated horizontal distance of descent, 3.5 km.
Rütschi and Richard were VERY pleased with our RT total time: 6 hours 30 mins.