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Climbing the Breithorn

An easy 4000 metre peak near Zermatt

sunny -5 °C

This must rank as one of my best days out in the mountains mainly thanks to the perfect conditions we enjoyed for the trip. The ascent of the Breithorn at 4164m or 13662 ft is just outside the normal remit for walking as it crosses a crevassed glacier and ascends a snow/ice slope normally requiring the use of crampons. For these reasons, you need to go with a guide (or as part of a rope team if experienced on glaciers) but its not difficult - just make sure of acclimatisation before going over 4000m.

In the predawn light of a June morning I made my way through Zermatt, following the river from my hotel. The streets were almost deserted at this hour and the thermometer read a cool 8 C under a clear sky. Crossing the bridge to walk up to the cable car station, I had a great view of the Matterhorn. Lit by the early morning sun, its pyramid, newly whitewashed by recent snow, rose into the blue far above the still sleeping village.

"Ah, here's my group" I thought as I saw a group of people, obviously climbers, milling around near the station entrance, comparing ice axes and other pieces of kit. It's always a little unnerving to join a group I've never met before as I more often than not, go walking alone but they seemed a decent bunch. Our guide from Zermatt Alpine centre was a cheerful chap and I was immediately befriended by 2 German doctors who had an interesting tale to tell.

They'd been mates at medical school and had gone off to practice as GP's in different parts of Germany. For anniversary presents their wives had let them both come down to Switzerland to climb mountains while they looked after the kids back home. I guess Jacqui had done the same for me. These 2 later invited me out to a bar to watch Germany v Argentina in the World Cup which beat staying at the hotel!

The cable car to Klein Matterhorn climbs the 2200m from Zermatt in 3 stages. Firstly over the pinewoods up to Furi, then a fast and steep ascent to sub arctic Trockener Steg, followed by a wonderful journey over the icefields to the cold thin air of the 3800m summit.

The view from Klein Matterhorn is well worth going up for though we were going still higher. It was below -5 C and yet the sun was hot as we set off across the dazzling white snow of the Plateau Rosa. The day was one of exceptional clarity with mountains maybe 100 miles distant as crystal clear as those across the valley.

Moving in a line and roped together, we headed around to the left and across the snow towards a distant looking spot where the guide said we'd have a rest. I would have had one by now I think, but the pace though quick wasn't actually too bad.

In a surprisingly short space of time we reached the rest spot where the tracks in the snow curved around more to the left. It had been fairly flat until now but ahead the slope rose up, steepening the higher you got. At this point we put on crampons and leaving our walking poles in a pile in the snow, set off again towards the peak. Italy was behind us with its craggy mountains and deep valleys spread out below us. All around was the silent world of ice and snow stretching along the ridge towards Monte Rosa's numerous summits.

The slope steepened as we progressed higher in long zig zags, firstly with the slope up to our right and facing the Klein Matterhorn, now below us and then with Italy to our right and Castor, Pollux and Monte Rosa in front. It was hard going, easier if you could keep a rhythm, but fun all the same.

A final stop below the steepest bit saw us almost level with the spiky peak of Pollux which is 4092m.
"Nearly up" I said, relieved, to the chap in front who confirmed with his GPS that we were at 4050m. Only 100m or so to go. On up the steepest part without difficulty, and we were above the cornice overhanging the northern cliffs you can see from below. Our guide made sure we took extra care here though you couldn't really tell that we were above a 1000m drop as it was hidden by the slope. Not, though, the best place to fall off!

Breathlessly up a snowy cone, the top of the ridge to my left and then - the sharp white peaks of the Bernese Oberland stood in a line beyond the hazy depths of the Rhone Valley 12000 feet below. Closer at hand were the dappled greens of Zermatt's valley at our feet. The Matterhorn, unfamiliar from this angle, rose up to just above our level and back out across Italian airspace there stood 2 prominent white summits resembling icebergs floating on the lowland haze - Mont Blanc and the Gran Paradiso.

The ridge was narrow, but wide enough to walk along. To the south, the steep snow slope we'd just come up while to the north, a fearsome drop to the Monte Rosa Glacier. We took photos while our guide pointed out most of the peaks we could see. In the east the ridge dropped down and over the Breithorn's subsidiary summits before rising again to Castor and Pollux before reaching the Himalayan looking Liskamm and Monte Rosa. Far to the east over the top of the Allalinhorn, could be seen the far off snows of Bernina on the eastern rim of Switzerland.

I borrowed an axe to scoop out a seat in the snow and had lunch at 4164m looking out across Italy. Our return was much faster and easier being downhill and we were soon back in a line quickly approaching the Klein Matterhorn station to the clicking of Japanese cameras. They'd been following our progress across the glacier like watching the peloton finishing a stage in the Tour de France. All in all what I'd call a good day out - Germany won the match by the way.

Pete Buckley June 2006

More photos of this trip can be seen here

Breithorn Summit

Breithorn Summit


Summit View

Summit View

Posted by PeteB 11:43 Archived in Switzerland Tagged mountains snow walking hiking foot

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