Climbing in the Swiss Alps: July 3-4, 2004

As Claire and I had hoped, having completed our section of the Haute Route without any weather delays, we had time to attempt some 4000m+ summits from Zermatt. However, the first poor weather forced us to take a very lazy rest day, which we found a little difficult, so the next day we were lined up for the first lift to Klein Matterhorn, whatever the weather.

We piled out of the lift at the top, strapped on the crampons, roped up and headed out towards Breithorn - the most accessible 4000m summit one could hope for - as demonstrated by the hoardes of other alpinists stringing out on their ropes towards it. Although not first to start, our altitude fitness from the Haute Route soon had us gaining ground, and overtaking most of the continental city folk here for the weekend, as we plodded steadily up to the top of Breithorn.

View from Breithorn

The wind that had prevented us the day before, was still strong enough to make the summits very chilly, although the views were still superb. With very narrow ridges, it wasn't long before we headed on to make room for others making their way up, treading carefully down before deciding to climb up the secondary Breithorn East summit. From there, we made our way down steep but crisp slopes and onto the route to d'Ayas Hut. We chose to follow the less well worn but higher footsteps across the Verra Grande Glacier, before eventually being able to descend to the hut.

View from d'Ayas Hut

Although it had been difficult to find a working phone number, we were glad we had booked this hut. While we practised rope techniques in the sunshine, a steady stream of Italians were climbing up from the villages miles below us, which soon made this by far the most crowded of the huts we had stayed in. Parmesan cheese and bread sticks were supplied in ample quantities, despite the logistical difficulties involved in running these huts.

d'Ayas Hut on the Italian side of the Alps

With a big final day planned, we were the first to rise and soon back out under torch and moon-light on the glacier we had descended the previous day. It was a long climb and quite surreal - concentrating on our breathing and footsteps, determinedly making slow but steady progress towards the base of Castor, with the moon and stars crystal clear in the mountain air above us. As we got closer, we could see a string of torchlights below us beginning their ascent from the hut. With twilight growing stronger, we began the climb up the steep WNW face, traversing left and right, marvelling at the changing light and view opening up around us.

At sunrise, the early start was well rewarded as soft red light caught the peaks around us, another magical moment but one for which the camera stayed firmly in the bag, as the time, effort and concentration were still required for the climb. Nearer the top, we stepped up and across the small bergschrund, then began the fairly exposed climb up the ridge to reach the summit.

From Castor at Sunrise

With an ice screw in place, we sat down to appreciate what we had achieved, managed a bite to eat and some photos to capture the view. However, it wasn't long before the bitterly cold morning had us mentally readjusting for the descent.

View from Castor

Further down, we passed the others from the hut and wondered how we they would co-ordinate time at the summit and passing arrangements between each different group on the narrow and exposed sections at the top.

Upon reaching the Zwillingsjoch (the saddle between Castor and Pollux), we stopped for a more relaxed break in sunshine and relative warmth, looked back to the summit of Castor and the rocky lower sections of Pollux ahead of us, which we felt we had plenty of time for. As the climbing changed from rock scrambling to crossing short snow sections, we removed and fitted crampons several times before reaching the section of fixed chain climbing. After a long wait in a short queue, we took our turn up the awkward climb, before getting back on the snow slopes to another impressive but again cold and windy summit. It also gave us a great view back to Castor.

View from Pollux

Getting up Pollux had been very time consuming and we were now wondering just exactly what time the last lift down to Zermatt was. With a moment to remind ourselves to take care on the descent, we began the route back down. Again we opted for caution over speed in choosing to fit crampons several times for short but tricky sections of snow. By the time we reached the base of Pollux, we knew had a tough time with no breaks ahead.

From Pollux looking back to Castor

The walk back seemed longer than we hoped we had remembered and whether it was the result of two days sunshine or a slightly different route, the crevasses seemed to slow us down more as well. Faster than we had moved at any time in the previous week, we slogged away back towards the Breithorn Plateau. As we reached the plateau, we knew we were going to be close, but the faster we walked the softer the snow seemed to be.

Finally, we could see tourists still on the viewing platform at the top of Klein Matterhorn, so as we arrived at the lift station completely exhausted we knew we would not need the contingency options we had been formulating in our minds. With a huge sense of relief, this was probably a good way to end, otherwise we would not have been so glad to be on the lift heading back down to Zermatt.