Updated: Mar 9
This post recounts my experiences in August / September 2017 during a visit to Switzerland and Northern Italy in which I undertook a memorable hike above Saas Fee, joined the KE trek Tour de Monte Rosa and concluded with my ascent of the Breithorn, my one and only 4000M summit.
As I alighted from the bus, even before I’d retrieved my luggage from the vehicle’s hold, I marvelled at the vast rock faces towering over the head of the valley. I will always remember the magnificent sight that greeted me on arrival at the bus terminal in Saas Fee. Satisfied that my decision to spend a couple of days in Saas Fee prior to joining the Tour de Monte Rosa trek at Saas Grund had been the right one I set about trying to find my hotel. Hotel Popcorn was close by and so having checked in I began to familiarise myself with the town.
Michabel Peaks towering above Saas Fee
My decision to base myself initially is Saas Fee wasthe result of research I had done before leaving the UK. This comprised principally of reviewing local maps and consulting the Cicerone books by Kev Reynolds, universally regarded as the guru of hiking in the Swiss Alps. I wholeheartedly recommend Kev Reynolds' books and particularly like his large volume entitled simply "The Swiss Alps".
It was a combination of reviewing the local hiking maps and reading Kev's descriptions of hikes that led t0 my choice of hike for the following day when I planned to take a cable car above Saas Fee and to hike to the Brittaniahutte which offers a spectacular view to the west. While enjoying a beer in the town I was able to clarify with the waitress that the best approach would be to take the Felskinn cable car and to hike to Brittaniahutte from there. Then retracing my steps back to the main trail I could follow the balcony trail around to the Platjen cable car and either take the cable car to Saas Fee or alternatively hike back. With my plans set for the next day I enjoyed a meal before returning to the hotel.
Dawn Arrives on Michabel Peaks
Britanniahutte & Platjen
Felskinn Cable Station to Brittaniahutte, Platjen and return to Saas Fe, 13.7KM
Ascent 268M, Descent 1407M, Max Elevation 3062M
The photo above of the fabulous view of the Michabel peaks just after dawn was taken from my hotel window. Having packed my rucksack the night before, I took a quick breakfast and headed directly to the Felskinn cable car. Within no time I arrived outside the cable car station at 2988M adjacent to the Chessjen glacier. I may have missed a sign post and surprisingly didn't initially find the correct path which began virtually at the cable car exit! After a short stretch along some natural fibre matting the path traversed an easy stretch of the glacier on level ground heading east towards Egginerjoch, the low pass between Felskinn and Brittaniahutte. I was now hiking on terra firma and the path continued without any major change in direction until it reached a clearly signposted junction marking the point at which the Brittaniahutte trail forked to the right.
The route from here is unremarkable with an obvious trail traversing easy ground. After a while the path skirts to the right of slightly higher ground as it approaches what is effectively the east end of the Chessjen glacier. The hut was now clearly visible in a small gap beyond the glacier between the Klein Allalin mini peak and the edge of the Hinter Allalin crags.
Saas Fee Hike Route
The route is viewable on the map in Outdooractive here - https://www.outdooractive.com/en/r/232806579?share=%7Ezrxlj4hx%244ossjwp9&utm_source=unknown&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=user-shared-social-content
I skirted around the meltwater and gained a little height so that I could cross the ice at a point where there was little gradient and this worked a treat. The route across the ice was clearly marked and in no time I was enjoying a cold beer on the warm terrace behind the hut facing south bathed in sunshine.
After an excellent rosti lunch and another beer I ventured to the top of Klein Allalin to admire the view. From the small peak there was a great view down to the hut with the crag of Hinter Allalin and the Michabel peaks behind.
Brittaniahutte & Hinter Allalin from Klein Allalin
I could easily have spent the afternoon admiring the views from Brittaniahutte. Lingering over a coffee I made the most of the fabulous view to the south west of the Allalinhorn and its neighbouring peaks. There was also a good view of Stausee Mattmark, the start point for the first stage of the Tour de Monte Rosa I would join a few days later (see left).
Strahlhorn (l), Rimpfischorn (c) and Allalinhorn (r) seen from Brittaniahutte
Retracing my steps from Britanniahutte I reached the trail junction encountered earlier and took the path to the right leading to Platjen. The photo below shows the trail to Platjen as it appeared on my approach to the trail junction and reveals how closely it hugs the mountain as it traverses the steep ground. For much of the route to Platjen it feels like an airy balcony affording striking views of the valley far below.
The trail to Platjen with Weissmies (4017M) in the background (r)
With the exception of one short stretch of chain assisted scrambling early on the trail to Platjen was well marked and relatively straightforward and afforded fine views to the valley . There were a few boulders to navigate for a short stretch before arriving at Platjen.
Short exposed section (chain assisted) Weissmies towers over Saas Almagell
As it was still quite early when I arrived at the Platjen lift and the weather was fine I decided to walk down the trail to Saas Fee, Stopping at my favourite bar for a beer I thanked the waitress for the helpful advice she had given me the day before.
Tour de Monte Rosa
Having taken the short bus ride from Saas Fee to Saas Grund I met up with my fellow trekkers at the appointed hotel the night before the start of the trek. The short briefing followed by dinner was a great opportunity to get to know everyone. As this was a 9 day trek with no transfer of luggage at any point it was going to be important to manage the inherent conflict between taking enough stuff and restricting the weight of the rucksack to the irreducible minimum. After dinner I took some time to check over the contents of my backpack to see if there were any improvements I could make. Another consideration for me was the fact that I was still carrying a plantar fasciitis injury that I had picked up wearing sandals over the summer and I did not want to exacerbate this.
Day 1 - Stausee Mattmark to Macugnaga, 14.8KM
Ascent 930M, Descent 1524M, Max Elevation 2881M
Today's hike was going to take us over the Monte Moro Pass into Italy. It began with a short bus ride from Saas Grund to the Stausee Mattmark reservoir from where we
hiked up to the pass. The air was incredibly still as we left the bus and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The water on the reservoir was like glass.
Reservoir Stausee Mattmark
The hike up to the pass began easily heading south on a gently rising gradient for just over a kilometre until a height of around 2300M when the gradient steepened considerably. From this point the ascent to the Monte Moro Pass (2853M) was arduous and a bit of a trudge, Views from the pass were limited by low cloud. At this point my plantar fasciitis began to play up and I took the opportunity of the short break to do some stretches to stretch the membrane running along the base of the foot. Although the stretches helped a little I had not long had my orthotics refurbished and so had not reaped the full benefit from this. A couple of trekking pals in the group expressed concern that I was limping in one foot so early on the trek. As it transpired the problem persisted for the entire trek and affected me most often by causing me to limp on descents. I found that the stretching of the membrane under the foot that naturally occurs with the effort required on steep ascents was quite helpful and less uncomfortable. I am pleased to report however, that although the condition caused some discomfort for me it never came close to threatening my continuation on the trek. In fact the pain disappeared not very long after I returned home from the trek. I would therefore encourage anyone afflicted with this problem with moderate pain who is considering doing a demanding trek to not be put off by it. They should of course consult their GP before joining the trek.
A little further along the ridge from the pass we crossed into Italy and encountered the impressive golden statue of Madonne della Neve (Madonna of the Snow), the work of sculptor Guiseppe Banda that was installed at a prominent point on the ridge in August 1966.
From the statue the path descends a little and soon arrives at Rifugio Oberto-Maroli which is shown in the photo below.
The view of Monte Rosa to the south west from the Rifugio is truly spectacular. Fortunately, the mist that had bedevilled views from the pass above had disappeared as the cloud over Monte Rosa was clearing providing a wonderful view of the second highest peak in the Alps.
Monte Rosa (4638M) seen on descent from Rifugio Oberto-Marolo
The descent to Valle Anzesca was initially very steep and it was difficult to keep eyes on the trail with such an amazing panorama in front of you. It was also challenging to get the best shot of the mountain with so much mist and cloud swirling round. After an hour or so the gradient of the descent eased into pleasant grassy slopes. This part of the hike was most enjoyable and it was a treat to forage for and enjoy bilberries in the warm sunshine.
We were soon looking down on the town of Macugnaga not far from our accommodation for the night. Within an hour we were down in the valley passing the picturesque churches in the town and heading for our small hotel and a well deserved beer!
Day 2 - Macugnaga to Rifugio Pastore, 21.9KM
Ascent 1179M, Descent 1146M, Max Elevation 2752M
The day began quite gently with a stroll along the road beside the Anza Torrent towards the lake at Quarazza. I was already feeling slight discomfort in my foot. After about a kilometre we left the road to join the trail heading south east toward the lake (Lago delle Fate) at Quarazza. The trail then ascended gently through woods along the Valle Quarazza towards La Piana where it swings east to ascend steeply above the woods.
Alpe Piana below Colle del Turlo
In less than a kilometre from La Piana we had gained 400M of ascent before the trail once again headed south at a more benign gradient without crossing too many contours. Just before the Bivouac Lanti the trail began to climb steeply and twist once again into the arduous final ascent to Colle del Turlo (2738M). I took some time a the col to stretch the membrane in my left foot in an attempt to ease the pain from the plantar fasciitis. A fellow trekker expressed sympathy and concern for my plight and I assured him that all would be well once we got moving again.
Swirling cloud on Col delle Turlo
The descent from the col was typically steep at first then easing a little but remaining quite steep all the way to Rifugio Pastore. About half way down it began to rain, light at first then becoming heavier. The last kilometre or so of the trail was through woodland which provided a little shelter from the increasing rain. It was a heavy downpour by the time we reached the large mountain hut. A crowd was milling around the entrance as a result of several parties arriving at once in an effort to beat the heavy rain and everyone was eager to get inside and dry off.
Day 3 - Rifugio Pastore to Rifugio Gabiet via Otro Valley and Col d'Olen, 12.65KM
Ascent 1141M; Descent 516M; Max Elevation 2887M
The view to the north of the massive face of Monte Rosa outside the Pastore hut is spectacular and delayed the majority of hikers for a few minutes to admire the view before commencing the day's journey.
After a short bus transfer to Alagna we trekked for a short distance along the wooded slope to the north of the Torrente Otro before a steep climb up to the beautiful meadows and hamlets of the Wallser farming communities that have existed here for centuries. The sun was already quite high as we gladly removed rucksacks and form an orderly queue inside a pretty chalet offering coffee and delicious apfel strudel.
The Wallser hamlet Follu en route to Passo Foric
With energy renewed from superb apfel strudel we began a series of steep ascents initially taking us to Passo Foric (2432M) before a more gradual rising traverse to the final ascent of the day up to Col d'Olen (2881M). It had been an arduous day but the view from Col d'Olen was fabulous and we were happy to linger there taking in the view knowing that a sustained descent would take us down to Rifugio Gabiet.
View from Col d'Olen
Day 4 - Rifugio Gabiet to Resy, 14.5KM
Ascent 722M; Descent 1386M; Max Elevation 1879M
After the demanding ascents of the previous day the predominantly downhill gradient today was a welcome change. The day began with a gentle amble following the route of a small stream down to Stafal where we arrived in good time for morning coffee. I once again took the opportunity of the break to flex the membrane under my left foot which was still causing me some discomfort, particularly on descents I had noticed. From that point of view this was not to be the best day for me!
The trail from Stafal ascended west through woods before emerging above the tree line in a gentle traverse south before heading west towards the Passo di Rothore at 2689M. From the pass we descended steadily before a lengthy traverse north towards Resy and our destination at Rifugio Ferraro which afforded a a lovely view down to the village of St Jacques in the Val de Veraz below. I could not get my boots off soon enough and transfer my orthotics into my lightweight shoes that I take with me on every trek. The gardien and his colleague were happy to keep serving us beers but the novelty of this began to wear off as the light began to fade rapidly with no sign of food being prepared or tables being laid. We were all becoming mighty hungry as 8pm approached and words had to be exchanged before things kicked into action to produce a passable spaghetti bolognese!
Day 5 - Resy to Rifugio del Teodulo; 15.9KM
Ascent 1139M; Descent 448M; Max Elevation 3310M
After a short descent to Val de Veraz the first, and longest, ascent of the day began heading north west to the north col on Cimes Blanches. Some of the views during this part of the day were stunning, in sharp contrast with what lay ahead on the other side of the col. From the valley we followed the trail alongside the Torrent de Courthard. This is a beautiful unspoilt area of the Alps with stunning views ahead to the high peaks of Castor and Pollux running off from Monte Rosa and then of the Breithorn, of which more later. These snow capped peaks at the head of the valley glistened in the early morning sunshine making a perfect subject to capture with a camera!
The trail became gradually steeper as we headed towards the snow capped peaks. After a couple of hours the trail veered rising in a series of zigzags up a pronounced bluff. As the trail ascended we gazed down on two stunning turquoise lakes, the Lacs d’Aventine, with the wonderful snow-capped peaks towering above them. This has to count as one of the most picturesque landscapes I have ever seen.
Lacs de l'Aventine, North Col de Cimes Blanches
As far as this day was concerned this superb landscape scene was as good as it got because as soon as we made the last few strides onto the col the scene that greeted us could not have been more different. Lying below in every direction was a grim concoction of ski infrastructure, eroded and scree strewn slopes with not a blade of vegetation to be seen anywhere. It was as if we had been transported to another world and everyone’s heart sank at the sight. This was the ski circus above Cervinia, one of the most popular ski resorts in Italy. An easy track aided our descent to a bowl below where a mountain restaurant formed the focal point for a number of ski lifts. Knowing that we had one final push to make for the ascent to the Teodulo Hut we needed no persuading to take a break at the restaurant and order some freshly cooked chips which made a pleasant change from the usual packed lunch fare. The packed lunches had all been fine but rather similar in content which is understandable given the remoteness of the huts that had provided them. And so a plate of chips and a beer made a welcome change, albeit in a distinctly uninspiring setting! Watered and fed we set off on what can only be described as an unrelenting trudge up the steep gradient to our destination. Meltwater was running heavily off the glaciers requiring some improvisation with finding a viable way round the gushing meltwater i.e. an option that did not involve wading thigh high through the water! It had been another longish day, and a day of stark contrasts and we were all relieved to arrive at the hut.
And what a great hut the Teodolu Hut is! Perched on the crest of the ridge with a restaurant boasting floor to ceiling windows looking out upon the majestic peak that is the Matterhorn. Add to that great cuisine, generous helpings and good draught beer and with its impressive altitude one could be forgiven for feeling a little closer to heaven!
Day 6 -Rifugio del Teodulo; to Trockener Steg via the Theodulgletscher 3.3KM
Ascent 14M; Descent 314M; Max Elevation 3310M
The unbroken view of the majestic symmetrical peak of the Matterhorn from the Teodulo Hut can only be described as spectacular. Wondering what kind of view would greet us many staying at the hut that night rose early the following morning to catch whatever nature was to offer at dawn. We were not disappointed. As far as the eye could see in the valley below lay a blanket of mist caused by a temperature inversion. It was like a layer of cotton wool blotting out any sign of what lay below which in many ways was a blessing.
Conversely, the cold air above the mist was crystal clear and the rays of the early morning sun cast a pale golden hue over the majestic Matterhorn. A few wispy clouds added to the drama of the scene. Wonderful!
The Matterhorn at Dawn from Rifugio Teodulo (3310M)
Excitement at the dawn surprise and breakfast over, there was not much to do for an hour or so while we waited for the arrival of the two Italian mountain guides who were booked to escort us across the Theodul Glacier to the Trockener Steg cable car. Eventually we espyed two ant-like figures descending alongside the glacier from the Kleine Matterhorn. They did not appear to be in any hurry but were making steady and assured progress – they had obviously done this before. Once the guides arrived the first challenge was to follow in their footsteps on the rocky descent from the hut to the edge of the glacier. This was more easily said than done as there was no obvious path and progress was very slow due to the steepness of the descent and the obstacles created by so many large boulders. On reaching the edge of the glacier we were split into two small groups and each group was tied in to a rope in a daisy chain. Crampons were not required and so we set off in single file tied in line to the guide at the head of the rope. Due to the summer temperature the ice was wet and therefore extremely slippery and I took a tumble a couple of times before I got into a rythmn with my fellow hikers. We paused a couple of times during the glacier traverse and took in the wonderful view of the Matterhorn.
Within no time we had reached Trockener Steg and our trek guide explained that anyone wanting to take the lift down to Zermatt, our destination for the day, was free to do so. As I had two very strong reasons for taking up this offer I left the others to buy my lift ticket having been given instructions on the hotel that we were booked into in Zermatt. In the process of buying my ticket and searching for the correct lift I had left my walking poles behind somewhere and when I returned to find them they had disappeared. In a way this was a blessing as the screw-adjust Lekis are renowned for wearing out at the connecting joints and I had experienced many snags with them on the trek. I therefore now had three good reasons for reaching Zermatt! What then, were the other two? First and foremost, given that there was no access to luggage on this trek I had a serious need to wash some underclothes to ensure I remained fragrant on the remainder of the hike! Secondly, and more seriously, I needed to find the Guides office in Zermatt and book myself onto a guided ascent of the Breithorn two days after the Tour de Monte Rosa ended. This would allow one full day for the transit back to Zermatt from Saas Grund. I had never before ascended a 4000M peak an d this was going to be my best opportunity for doing so and I was damn determined to do it!
On reaching the cable car station in Zermatt I began the pleasant walk through the town in search of the designated hotel. There were no issues checking in and in no time I had showered, changed and washed out some things, hung them to dry and set off in search of the guides office. When making the booking for the ascent of the Breithorn I was relieved to learn that my rather old leather hiking boots would work with the kind of crampons we would be issued with on the Breithorn ascent. My final task before downing a couple of well-earned beers was to buy some new hiking poles and as luck would have it I found a pair with the more reliable clasp fitting at the joints for a bargain sale price which I felt in Zermatt was a major achievement!
In due course the group assembled as agreed in a bar close to the hotel for pre-dinner drinks. Dinner was taken at a nearby restaurant specialising in local dishes and we were advised that there was a set menu for the three course dinner. On seeing the amazing salad bar that had been well stocked for the evening our guide kindly agreed with the head waitress that we could, if we wanted, substitute the set starter for a bowl of mixed salads from the salad bar. Now salad is not something that one comes across on an alpine trek normally, and even if you are not a big fan of salad, it is rather like missing bland bangers and mash while on a four month assignment in India, that is, that once you have been deprived of something for some time you really do miss it even if it is not one of your favourite foods. Add to that the fact that salads aid rehydration and it was not difficult to understand why everyone forfeited their starters and descended on the salad bar like a swarm of locusts. I made a note to return to the same restaurant when I was next in Zermatt.
Day 7 - Zermatt to Europahutte 16KM
Ascent 780M; Descent 344M; Max Elevation 2314
On reflection this was a rather easy and uneventful day. Having enjoyed a great breakfast at the hotel we set off along the valley trail from Zermatt to Randa where we would stop for “Kafee und Kuchen”. Zermatt has to be one of the most glitzy resorts in the Alps. Every other shop was a designer brand for jewellery or clothing it seemed as we descended through the town to the start of the trail. The trail and views from it are rather unremarkable and it was for the most part quite a wide track that was obviously intended for motorised traffic, not that we encountered any of this. The gradient is extremely benign and so it was a great opportunity to chat with fellow hikers on the trek. Within what seemed like no time we arrived at Randa and a perfect cafe on the trail to pause and enjoy coffee and cake.
The trail to the Europahutte was across the road from our pit stop and after initially walking through the old village of Randa with its ancient wooden storage buildings mounted on rock roundels that look a bit like millstones we were soon in the woods. The ascent through the woods was steep and after an hour or so we arrived at the brand new steel suspension bridge that has been built specifically for hikers making their way to the Eusropahutte. The weather was rapidly deteriorating and the mist was so thick that it was not possible to see the other end of the bridge!
494M Long Suspension Bridge
Charles Kuonen Bridge from Europahutte
We had been warned that a token would be given to each of us for the shower and this would enable us to take a 2 minute shower. On arrival at the hut therefore it was no surprise that everyone's first thought was to find the dormitory, claim a bunk and then acquire a shower token. Having received my token I asked one of the staff what I needed to pay for an additional token and was pleasantly surprised when I was instantly just given one.
During the course of the day with the steadily deteriorating weather our guide mentioned to us that it may be necessary to modify the planned itinerary in light of the worsening weather conditions. One of the highlights of the trek was to be the stage from the Europahutte along the famous Europaweg. However, the Europaweg trail had at different times been closed due to the occurance of major rockfalls. Our guide was concerned that with very wet weather forecast it would be unduly risky to stick to the planned itinerary. Thus as we assembled for drinks just before dinner Fran confirmed that she had decided that we would have to take an alternative route to Gratchen our next destination. Any disappointment that we may have felt soon evaporated when an American lady appeared in the dining room with a bloody knee and explained that she had taken a tumble on the Europaweg when she felt the entire ground beneath her shift while she was walking.
The staff at the hut were extremely friendly and kind. Amongst others, we had been looked after very well by two young Swiss girls whose names sadly I cannot recall. The trail to the hut through the woods had not been the easiest and we were amazed to learn after dinner, once their work was done, that they would be leaving to descend to the valley in the dark! It would have been lovely to be able to see the hut in good weather because I got the sense that it was perched on a lofty shelf almost like an eagle’s nest. Perhaps a good reason to revisit.
Day 8 - Europahutte to Grachen 20.1KM
Ascent 586M; Descent 1233M; Max Elevation 2405
Hearts sank around the breakfast table as we listened to the sound of torrential rain outside. It was clear that this was no passing shower and would most likely be set for much of the day. After breakfast there was not much else to do other than don rainwear, make sure rucksack contents were protected, stash the packed lunch somewhere it would remain dry and then head out down the trail back to Randa. We took a slightly different trail, avoiding the suspension bridge, but the entire descent was through woods and so it made precious little difference as there were no views of mountain scenery to be had on the entire descent. At one point I felt so down by the weather I suggested that it would be more pleasant walking along the roads to Gratchen. Understandably this did not go down well with Fran our guide and so I knuckled down feeling that Randa could not come soon enough and knowing that there was an excellent cafe there for a well deserved pit-stop. On reaching the cafe we all removed our rucksacks and left them on the covered terrace and dashed inside to the warm cafe where we raised spirits with more coffee and cake!
From Randa we followed a path alongside the Matter river as far as Herbriggen and then crossed the river to pick up the trail that would lead north and eventually take us to Gratchen. The alternative trail showed all the signs of being little used with many fallen trees straddling the path, moss on the rocks and in places it was quite indistinct. This I assumed was due to the fact that most hikers would rather enjoy the spectacular scenery offered by the Europaweg than walk extensively through the woods. At least the weather had eased considerably by this stage and the day remained largely dry from this point. Eventually the trail veered east for a spell along level ground and then emerging from the woodland the trail emerged into a clearing with woods to the east. From this point there was an easy hike to Grachen although my Planter Fasciitis was causing me to limp terribly on what to me seemed like a never ending descent to Gratchen.
The hotel in Grachen lived up to the excellent billing given by our guide. The food was outstanding and the breakfast was probably the best I have experienced on a trek. Everyone sensed that the wonderful time we had enjoyed on this fabulous trek was coming to its finale and so made the most of the great hospitality at the hotel staying up late into the evening enjoying themselves.
Day 9 - Grachen to Bus Stop on Zen Brigeltinen Strasse, 10KM
Ascent 275M; Descent936M; Max Elevation 2478
Our final day was billed to be reasonably strenuous with a steep ascent out of Grachen up to Hannigalp and so at the suggestion of our guide we opted to take the chairlift out of the valley which required a pleasant descent through the pretty village after breakfast. On arrival at the top of the chairlift we set off through the woods heading south. The weather was damp and a little misty and the presence of the normally shy ibex deer quietly grazing not more than 30 feet or so from the trail added to the atmosphere. The trail was clear and the level ground made for pleasant walking. In places the trail passed beneath the peaks of the Wannehorn, Stock and Seebodehorn although they could not be seen from the trail as it hugged so closely to the steep slope rising to the peaks on our right. Passing through rock arches and across exposed rudimentary narrow wooden bridges it paid to concentrate on foot placement. Everyone was enjoying the twists and turns of the trail as it continued to head south and hug the steep slope on which it runs. Occasionally the trail offered lovely views across to the hamlets on the alms on the slopes on the opposite side of Saas Tal, the broad direction of which our trail had followed high above.
Before we had taken a break for our packed lunch a turn of events resulted in a sudden change of plan for all of us. One of the members of our hiking group had apparently been sharing with one or two others in the group the fact that he was experiencing some discomfort in one of his legs over the last couple of days or so. Just as we reached a groove in the slope at a kink in the trail the hiker consulted the guide about the issue with his leg. Fran asked him to roll his trouser leg up and after a bit of a struggle he managed to do this to reveal a remarkably swollen lower leg. Coincidentally, we were at the last point at which an early descent from the trail could be made. The groove in the trail was the result of the Schweibbach stream descending north east at that point and an adjoining trail followed the course of the stream of the mountain down to Saas Tal. Fran immediately took the decision to descend from the trail at that point as swiftly as possible fearing that the issue in the leg of our fellow hiker was a clot in one of the blood vessels running through his leg i.e. deep vein thrombosis. On reaching the road we were instructed to hike south along the road to the next bus stop and take the bus back to Saas Grund while Fran arranged a taxi to take the afflicted hiker to an emergency unit at the nearest hospital.
The events leading to the curtailment of the hike, and natural concern for the hiker whose ailment had caused it, cast something of a cloud over the remainder of the day and the end of trek dinner. These are normally a cause for celebration and much joviality. On this occasion feelings around the dinner table were a mixture of relief that the hiker would be OK having been given the necessary injections to minimise any risk from the blood clot and at the same time of disappointment at not being able to complete the itinerary for what had up to this point been a wonderful trek. My own thoughts were beginning to turn with anticipation of the plans I had laid in Zermatt to make my first ascent of a 4000M peak, the Breithorn!
Kleine Matterhorn Cable Station to Breithorn Summit and Return, 4.7KM
Ascent 240M, Descent 240M, Max Elevation 4163M
I have loved the mountains ever since my first experience of them on family holidays in Zillertal, Austria when in my mid teens. When stationed in Germany my father took the opportunity to drive to the Tyrol for memorable summer holidays staying in friendly pension accommodation. I remember navigating while he drove and nearing our destination earnestly looking out of the window searching for the next “zimmer frei” sign without being so distracted by the towering, majestic peaks that I failed in my duty to find us a potential room for the night, or better still, much longer. I also remember, a couple of years later, returning to south east London from a similar holiday and thinking how boring and flat that part of England is, where the North Downs couldn’t possibly generate the same sense of excitement. The sense of wonder about the mountains has remained with me for the rest of my life and when not planning, enjoying or reflecting on a trek the outlet for my passion has been to enjoy the accounts of the adventures of mountaineers and climbers. For so many years I felt I needed to experience at least one adventure to the summit of a 4000M peak in The Alps. The Tour de Monte Rosa (TdMR) trek provided an obvious opportunity to do this given its proximity to the Breithorn, regarded as the easiest 4000M peak to access. This in large part is due to its position so close to the Kleine Matterhorn cable car station. Thus on the morning after the last night on the TdMR I took the train back to Zermatt. I planned to enjoy a lazy day and a well-earned rest in the town so that I was fresh for the Breithorn the following day. Rob, a fellow hiker from the TdMR, liked my idea of a guided ascent of the peak and had also booked himself onto the trip with the same guide as me while in Zermatt on the trek.
On arrival in Zermatt with my case and rucksack I noticed that my plantar fasciitis was giving me some gip once again and felt I could have done without the walk of a few hundred yards to my hotel. However, my spirits lifted when I discovered that the hotel was quite swish with an attractive entrance, lounge and dining room, perfect for the three nights I planned to stay. Having checked in I set about exploring the town for a few hours before the scheduled rendezvous with Rob who had decided to use the day by taking a bus to Saas Fe and the cable car to Felskinn to do the walk to Britanniahutte and then return to Zermatt. The weather was fine and I was optimistic about the Breithorn trip the following morning.
I awoke the next morning with a great sense of excitement followed by a feeling of deflation when I peered out of the window of my room to a view that seemed devoid of colour and fearing the possible impact on our plans of the low, heavy cloud.
Perfect Day for Breithorn Ascent - the Matterhorn from Zermatt
I gathered the sandwiches I had made for Rob and me that the guide office had said we would need for the trip, stuffed my rucksack and headed out of the hotel after an early breakfast to meet Rob at the cable car station where the guide would be picking us up. There were a few people mingling at the cable car and I guessed some of them would also be waiting for the guide. Rob arrived and together we speculated on the chances of the trip going ahead given the poor weather. Our spirits lifted somewhat when the guide arrived and confirmed that the trip was on. The guide distributed a pair of basic crampons to each of us to carry and briefly explained how they were put on. Knowing that we were going to make the summit I did not feel so bad about paying the 100 Swiss Francs for the lift!
As soon as we exited the cable car the guide instructed us to follow him onto the glacier and we walked with him for a few hundred yards until the initially descendung, then level, ice sheet began to rise gently towards the peak which was barely visible through the heavy mist. At this point we were instructed to put on the crampons we had been given and the guide then tied each of us into a daisy chain on the rope placing himself at the head of it. We then set off at quite a pace up the slope of the glacier which was initially gentle before getting progressively steeper. The guide had warned us not to tread on the rope with our crampons and to walk as if we had had an accident in our pants, or like John Wayne in a western, as this would minimise the risk of catching the rope with our feet.
I have to confess, I was finding the pace a little difficult. I was not used to crampons, I had to focus on not catching the rope, the ascent was becoming steeper and it was actually quite difficult to keep eyes open in the cloud of fine snow flakes swirling around my face. I had taken the precaution of following the advice given to me by more experienced hikers on the trek to avoid alcohol the day before attempting the climb and I seemed to be coping quite well with the altitude although I was puffing a little as we climbed. I remembered the advice to stay well hydrated but when I sucked on the tube to my bladder there was nothing. I initially thought the tube was disconnected but soon realised that the water in it was frozen! The guide was becoming frustrated by our pace and seemed to realise that I was the main culprit. I did whatever I could to match the required pace and Rob, behind me, gave me much encouragement. At one stage Rob confessed to me that one of his eyes had been tearing and was frozen closed! Somehow we managed to keep going without a pause for breath.
About an hour after we had set off from the lift station we halted in a huddle at what we were told by the guide was the summit. Visibility was down to a mere few yards and we could only take the guide’s word for it because as far as I was concerned we could have been anywhere! We all shook hands and took the guide’s congratulations and when prompted by him a few of us including Rob and me informed him that it was our first 4000M summit. The guide then asked who was the oldest person in the group and as no one would own up to this fact he asked a German member of the group his age, I presume because he thought he might be the oldest. The German said he was 58 to which I responded that I was 63 only to be trumped by another Brit who said he was 65. I asked the Brit if it was his first ascent to 4000M and he answered that it was his 19th time on Breithorn and that he’d also summited most of the others in the Alps including Mont Blanc four times! To say this took the wind out of my sails would be an understatement, but I was nevertheless very pleased for him because we chatted quite a bit afterwards and he seemed a genuinely nice guy.
I then assumed that we would be sitting down to eat the sandwiches we had all presumably got with us, but no, the guide simply instructed us to start walking back down in the reverse order. Thus Rob, who had been last on the rope was now leading the group down on the rope and the guide was at the rear. Once again the guide was not happy with our pace and began to call out to “go faster”. This was not easy for me, in fact I found descending more challenging than walking up. I was impressed that Rob somehow managed to lead us down given the issues he was encountering with his eyes. The guide once again barked “faster” as if we were a team of effing huskies on a sled and once again I sensed that he saw me as the main culprit which no doubt was the case. I would respond by quietly urging Rob to not go too quickly for fear that I might stumble and Rob was very sympathetic. About half way down to the start point while still on a reasonably steep gradient I spotted a large crack in the glacier just before us but on the downhill from us just to the right of our line of descent. At this precise point, while studiously watching the rope in front of me I saw one of Rob’s crampons catch the heel of the other causing him to instantly tumble over on his left side. Once back on his feet I mentioned the large fissure in the glacier to the right of us to which he responded “I know, that’s why I fell to my left!”. I’m glad to say that before what seemed like no time we were back at the Kleine Matterhorn, handing back our crampons to the guide and ambling into the cafe in search of hot drinks. I soon realised that I was nursing quite a bad headache which lasted about 4 hours no doubt the result of being at altitude. In some ways the event had been an anti-climax as it had not seemed that we had been on a 4000M summit, but it had been great fun, a memorable experience and I was glad to have done it. The ascent had been undertaken in heavy cloud, light snowfall and a temperature of -8 degrees. When Rob and I reflected on it we discussed plans for the next day. Rob was contemplating hiking to the Hornli Hut on the Matterhorn. I recall saying that even if the weather was perfect the next day I would not be forking out for another expensive lift ticket back to the Kleine Matterhorn. How wrong I was!
When I awoke the next morning and peered out of my window the view that greeted me could not have been more different from the morning before. With not a cloud in sight, Zermatt looked glorious in full saturated colour underneath a cloudless blue sky. I raced down to breakfast having instantly decided that I would once again be taking the very expensive lift up to the Kleine Matterhorn. This would be my best, and probably only, chance to capture with my camera some of what I had been unable to see the day before, and to see for myself what the summit of the peak we had ascended actually looked like.
The Matterhorn from Zermatt
The above photograph was taken on my walk up to the Kleine Matterhorn cable car station in Zermatt. How different it looked from the day before. I’m pleased to say that the return trip was well worth the cost of the lift ticket as the light was so clear I could barely bring myself to return to Zermatt. I spent several hours on the Kleine Matterhorn taking photos of the Breithorn and the Matterhorn in the opposite direction. From here the Breithorn looks particularly impressive as I hope the photos below illustrate. If you enlarge them you will see ant-like figures plodding towards the summit. It had been a fantastic trip!