In July 2006, Glenys, Craig and I drove from the UK to Switzerland to attempt climb the Weissmies, our first 4000 metre peak in the Alps. (View Location) Our experience to date had consisted of Glenys and I attending an Alpine climbing course and then spending nine months walking in Snowdonia with Craig. In the two short weeks in the Alps, we managed to climb three 4000 metre peaks - the Weissmies, the Nadlehorn and the Matterhorn.
16 July 2006 - Walking to the Almageller Hut
We had breakfast in our small hotel at half past seven and then loaded the car. I dropped Glenys and Craig off at the bus stop in Saas Grund and then parked our car next to the nearby cable car.
The bus dropped us in the middle of Saas Almagell in front of the supermarket. I had a moment of panic because everyone else stayed on the bus, but having checked my map, I decided that I was correct and we should head back to the edge of the village. We turned right off the road and walked across some scrub land, where I was relieved to see a yellow sign to the “Sac Hutte”.
The path goes up through the woods, which is pleasant being in shade, but fairly steep. We emerged into sunlight, crossed a wooden bridge and walked up the side of the river to a “hotel”. Avoiding the temptation to stop for a cold drink, we walked onward along the river until we came to a sign pointing us up to the Almageller Hut. After a stiff climb, we arrived at the hut at two o’clock.
We booked in, had a cake and a coke and then went for a rock climb on the Dri Hornli. I decided to attempt a 5b slab, which turned out to be a bit trickier than I thought - especially because I wasn’t carrying enough quick draws. I ended up having to down-climb and set up a dodgy belay. Glenys climbed most of the way up before I lowered her down. Craig had a tougher job because he had to climb up to a clip which was level with me and then had to down climb to a lower clip that I would be able to abseil to. He did well because the slab was a bit “thin” for holds. I lowered him to Glenys and abseiled down to them. Not a pleasant end to the climb.
We had dinner at half past five and then hung about reading until bed time at nine o’clock. We were the first in bed although tomorrow was planned to be an acclimatisation day. It was a typical Swiss hut with a two level sleeping room – like a giant bunk bed with eight or so mattresses set side by side on each level. We had disturbances with people coming in up to half past ten, when the final straw was some knob who started sorting out his rucksack including his rack and umpteen plastic bags – there’s nothing worse than rustling plastic bags when you’re trying to sleep.
17 July 2006 – Acclimatisation Day on the Dri Hornli
It was a restless night with the usual snoring – not me, of course! At four o’clock, most of our room mates were tramping about getting ready to climb the Weissmies. We dragged ourselves out of bed two and a half hours later and had breakfast at seven o’clock. There was another party of six who said that they were going to climb the Dri Hornli ridge, so we shelved our plan for a late start and rushed over there.
I had difficulty finding the start of the ridge climb, mostly because I was working from a mountaineering guidebook which is very terse in its description of a route – this route only merited three lines of text. I eventually found the starting point and five minutes later the group of six arrived.
We quickly put our harnesses on and I went over to the group and asked “Have you done this route before?” They pointed at a Swiss guide and said “He has”. I asked him where the route went and his answer was that “If you don’t know the route then you should follow us”. I laughed and asked if the route went to the right of a big block. He shrugged and said that he thought right of the block.
I set off climbing first. By the time that I had belayed and Glenys was climbing, there were 4 groups racing up the first pitch. The guide came up next to me while Craig was climbing and asked if I knew how to have both Glenys and Craig climbing and pointed to his “magic plate”. I pointed to my Reverso and said “Yes”. From then on I belayed both of them at the same time – it was much quicker.
We managed to stay in front all day, but we had to move fast. The climb was great fun and the rock was very good. We started at eight o’clock and stopped for lunch by the “Great Gendarme” at one o’clock. My mountaineering guide book said 3-4 hours – God knows how you could do climb at that speed if you were belaying each pitch. We bypassed the Great Gendarme and the abseil.
Once we’d climbed to the peak, it was just a walk and then a nasty scramble down a gully on screed. On the way back to the hut, we diverted to check out the path up to the Weissmies Ridge. We arrived back at four o’clock. It was a long, but enjoyable route with some nice climbing moves and few exposed sections.
We had dinner at half past five again and went to bed at half past eight. I was very worried about the next day. Would I be able to find the route? Would we cope with the altitude? I woke during the night to the sound of running water. I worried that the weather had turned bad because it was raining. It turned out that the water I heard was the stream outside the hut...
18 July 2006 – Ascent Day
We were woken up at four o'clock for our breakfast of jam, bread and cheese with hot chocolate. By the time that we'd sorted out our gear, it was half past four. We turned on our head torches and stepped out into the dark.
I started off far too quickly because I was nervous, so within five minutes we had to stop to let Glenys catch up. She normally walks methodically uphill and I'd set a mad pace. We stopped several times before tagging on behind a group going at a reasonable slow pace, which was much better than mine. It was a real grind up to the Zwischbergen pass and we arrived at the top just as the sun was rising in the valley on the other side of the pass. We had a fantastic view being higher than the clouds filling the valley below us.
We started to scramble up the rock ridge until we came to a small snow field. I decided that it would be more fun to go up the middle of the snow, but it turned out to be icy and very treacherous without crampons. We gave up and delicately traversed back to rock. Glenys wisely didn’t even try the snow.
There must have been about fifty people doing the route. It was very interesting to follow the guided parties. The guides have a very slow, mechanically efficient pace which I soon got the hang of. The route on the ridge is easy to follow and is a Grade 1 scramble. However, we found it increasingly difficult as we got higher.
By seven o'clock, my legs had turned to jelly and I was having grave doubts about my ability to do the Matterhorn. We each ate a tube of power gel - it has the taste and consistency of cold snot, but gave us a boost of energy. Glenys continued to struggle up and we had to keep stopping to wait for her. At one point, a family with three young teenagers passed me and asked if I was the son of the English lady. On answering yes, the father suggested politely that I wait for her…
We arrived at the snow line at half past eight where we needed to rope up and put on our crampons. We had a short break and some nutri-grain bars. Glenys took a photo of me and held her breath. She immediately became dizzy and nauseous. She went white and I thought that she was going to throw up. I had to help her put on her crampons because bending down was making her worse. She seemed to recover by the time we had put on harnesses, crampons and roped up. We obviously hadn't spent enough time acclimatising before attempting this peak.
The last section of the route was a fantastic walk along a narrow snow ridge, a quick scramble (in crampons) over a rocky peak and then a straight forward walk to the snowy peak. We were at 4012m - we made our first 4000m peak!! Despite our inadequate acclimatisation, we did the route in just under five hours. (The guide book time is 4½ - 5 hours).
It was a fantastic clear day with fabulous views, especially across to the Saas Fe valley where we could see our next objective - the Nadlehorn (4327m). We had a 5 minute rest and asked someone to take a summit picture of us.
There was a well defined path as we walked down the other side of the mountain, but it was very soft snow and difficult going. Walking down hill in crampons is very hard on the knees because you can never straighten your legs. The snow became softer as we got lower and eventually we were sliding 2-3 ft with every step, even with crampons on. The "normal" route is up this side of the mountain and we met several guided parties making their way up to the summit.
We reached a section where we had to pass through a spectacular ice fall area. At one point, we walked across a snow bridge over a crevasse and then had to climb down a small vertical wall - Glenys was not happy. Once through the ice falls there was more trudging down the snowy glacier and then onto the dry glacier at the bottom.
I had difficulty finding my way across the crevasses and lost the faint path made by previous climbers. We had to back up a couple of times retracing our steps. I found it very interesting how narrow the ice is between the crevasses. At one place we were walking on a 1 ft wide strip of ice between two deep crevasses.
At the edge of the glacier, we had some awkward downward scrambling in crampons before arriving at the level moraine and the start of a track leading up to the cable car. It was half past twelve and the whole route had taken us a total of eight hours.
We were all tired and hungry, so we took a break and ate a sandwich before packing our gear into our rucksacks. The short hill up to the cable car restaurant was hard work on our tired legs but we were soon settled down on the sun drenched patio having a and ice cold coke and a rosti – bliss.
We took the cable car down to Saas Grund and drove to Saas Fe, already planning to climb our next mountain - the Nadelhorn (4327m).