Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Twelve Days in Saas Fee Switzerland

Friday Sept 14th;

Neat and tidy graveyard in Saas Grund

Heading to the hut
I am off again on my travels. This time I am going with Petra Tolarova to the Swiss Alps. I have never been climbing with Petra before but I have been to two marathons with her so I know she will be fit enough. Our flight is at 06.50 and despite staying at Ambrose Flynn's home in Dublin we only just caught our flight due to a combination of a tardy start and a busy airport. Still we were off and a timely arrival in Geneva and the excellent Swiss transport system saw us pitching our tents in Saas Grund at 2pm. A very rapid sorting of gear and we were off on the trek to the Almagellar Hut. Saas Grund is at a respectable 1560meters but the hut is at 2894mtrs so we had no time to waste if we were to reach the hut before dark. The weather was lovely and set fair for the next four days so we were really looking forward to our adventure. The one thing that is always a shock is the weight of the bag. As we were staying for two nights in the hut we had a change of clothes, extra food for lunches and some sundries in the bag. Still we were fresh and strong and the relatively gentle gradient of the path meant we made good progress.

Playful kid
Just reached the hut as the gloom gathered
As we gradually gained height the majesty of our surroundings were fully revealed to us. The Saastal is a valley in the Valais Alps whose east side is bounded by the mighty Weissmies, Lagginhorn and Fletchehorn and the western side by the Alalinhorn, Alphabuel and mighty Mischabel range. It is stunning and as we rose higher we were constantly looking back across the valley to the glorious peaks soaring to the sky. We climbed fairly steeply along a river and eventually came to a more level section that opened out to a wide valley. From here we walked past the Almagellaralp Hut where we were delighted to see some goat kids frolicking about. It would have been nice to linger a while but time was pressing and we continued on. Soon we reached the steeper back wall of this section of the valley and the path zig zagged up. Progress was slow but steady and by now the heavy bags were taking their toll. The light was fading and the temperature was dropping by the time we eventually arrived at the hut. It was great to eventually drop the bag and the warmth of the hut was matched only by the warmth of the staff who greeted us and got us settled. The first part of the trip had been achieved. Soon after we were tucking in to a fine dinner and were quickly to bed.

A morning companion
Heading for the Sonnighorn
Starting out over broken rocks.
Saturday 15th;

We had a nice leisurely start to the day, as first of all, it was needed after the little sleep we had had due to all the travel etc and secondly today's target was the Sonnighorn. At 3487 mtrs it seemed the right height for an acclimatisation day and the guide book time was four hours to the summit so it seemed the right length as well. All this and the fact that there was no major glacier crossing required meant it was almost seven am before we rose. We originally hadn't intended having breakfast but the late start and the reasonable spread that was on offer meant we stayed for muesli followed by coffee , bread and cheese. We exited the hut to a beautiful clear morning. The view west down the Almagellartal valley and beyond to the mighty Mischabel range glowing in the morning sun was an inspiration. A light breeze meant that there was a nip in the air ( well it was at 2894mtrs after all) and we didn't delay in getting going.

There was a rough track heading south that initially contoured around the moraines and screes left behind from the dying Rotblatt Glacier. As we progressed further the track disappeared to be replaced by paint markings on the low rock bands that crossed our route. This made the going slower than expected as even though we were traversing more or less horizontally under the very impressive Portjengrat, we had to constantly clamber over these rocky obstacles. It was a bit like travelling on the Beara Peninsula without the bog. It was as we crossed there rock bands that I saw for the first time how Petra was able (or not) to cope with rough ground. It was immediately clear that she was struggling. Easy little scrambles where I didn't even need to use my hands presented Petra with major problems.  Progress slowed  but eventually we arrived at the small glacier that leads to the Sonnigpass and the base of the north northeast ridge which was to be our route. Even though there were no crevasses on the dry glacier I took this opportunity to don our crampons ( for the practice really) and get roped up and ready for the climb. The short little crossing on the ice gave Petra the chance to get the feel of the crampons but once we arrived at the rocks at the base of the route we took them off and started up.

The ridge itself was pretty straightforward  and only involved occasional use of the hands to steady oneself on loose rock etc. It also stayed quite broad initially until after a while we came to the first of the obstacles, a sudden drop of six or seven metres that requires a bit of back climbing. Petra to her credit doesn't lack in courage and set off down it once she was held secure on the rope. It took a while but she managed it and we were off again. Soon we came to the crux of the route a "gendarme" at point 3332mtrs. This presented a more formidable barrier with a steep drop of about twenty metres. It looked worse than it was as there were many ledges and hand holds on the way down. Again Petra got down it and I followed but by now it was clear to me that we were taking a long long time and ahead the going didn't look like getting much easier. We continued for perhaps another 150mtrs before I decided to call a halt to our progress and return. We were already over five hours to this point and I judged that we were the most of another hour from the summit at our current pace. The return along the ridge was uneventful.

Looking back up the "Gendarme"
The Rimpfischhorn and Allalinhorn
 Eventually we arrived back at the glacier and I again took the opportunity to show Petra some techniques on how to use the crampons and ice axe. I was weary by now and after a little while we started back for the hut. Again the rock bands were proving an obstacle and nearly 10 hours had passed by the time we wearily tramped back into the hut. I must confess that I felt a crushing disappointment. The hut was very busy and we had to wait for the second round of dinner service. This gave us more time to rest and me time to think. The weather for the following day was set fair so I decided that we would try the south southeast ridge of the Weissmies 4023mtrs. This I felt may be doable but if it proved too much we could always return the way we came. So with a plan settled and a five am breakfast in the offing we retired early to bed again.

Sunday 16th;

Dawn from the pass
First rays of sun
The ridge aglow
Early to bed and early to rise. We were up and queueing for our morning repast at 5am. There was a controlled urgency in the hut as the vast majority of the 120 who had stayed the night readied for the off. As is usual some were really good and managed to steal a march on the throngs and make a quick exit. As you might expect "we" were less organised and were among the last to start our hike at nearly 6am. I set off in the dark and soon managed to lose the trail. As if to prove that most people are sheep, the four or five groups that left immediately after us all faithfully followed me and also lost the path. It didn't really matter however as there were no obstacles in our way and we were able to contour up and find the proper path soon enough. As we neared the Zruischbergerenpass the dawn arrived so that torches were no longer required. Eventually we arrived at the pass and we were greeted by the most magical view over the north of Italy which was blanketed in cloud with our peaks soaring above. It was lovely and well worth resting a while and drinking in the view. Earlier in the season the normal way up is to stay to the right/east of the ridge and climb a snowfield as far as you can before joining the ridge and continuing to the shoulder short of the summit. Now that wasn't an option so we decided to stay on the crest of the ridge the whole way.

Monte Rosa and the Allalinhorn in the morning glow
More interesting upper sections

Narrow final section

The ridge was initially quite easy, very gradually gaining height and offering lots of options to ensure steady progress. It was quite busy and people could be seen strung out its entire length. As you get higher the interest improves and several little rock steps present themselves. Some queuing occurred here which gave us ample time to rest as the bags we carried now contained our spare clothes etc. The weather was perfect. Clear sunny skies and no wind. Still we made progress and I was content to continue to the summit as the day was so perfect. I had also asked someone familiar with the route down to Hohsaas, how long it took etc, and having been assured that it only took about two hours in descent I was confident we would make the lift easily. So on and up we went and eventually reached the snowy shoulder at 3972mtrs. Here we paused to put on our crampons and get out our ice axes. I managed to snag my crampons with my first couple of steps and fell flat on my face. Of course, I did it on purpose just to show her what could happen…no honest… really I did.


The next couple of hundred meter section is an almost level snow slope, broad and easy. Then a steep stony path up a rocky section is followed by a pleasantly narrow snow ridge, only a hundred or so meters long, to the summit. This came as a bit of a shock to Petra but she stepped bravely forward and soon we were there. There were perhaps another twenty people there but the broad expanse meant there was plenty of room for everybody and we dropped our bags and relaxed for a good while. As you would expect the views are tremendous. To the north the Lagginhorn was splendid with the giants of the Bernese Oberlandand beyond. To the east there remained a sea of cloud covering the north of Italy and to the west the Mischabel Range constantly drew the eye. Unbelievably even here at over 4000mtrs there was no cold and it was easy to rest and bask in the pleasant sunshine.

Glorious glacial scenery

However all good things must come to an end and eventually we set off down the easy snow slopes on our descent. Initially the route goes west southwest and bar a couple of little icy sections the going was easy. A lovely firm track was in place which turned in a northwestern direction just short of point 3813mtrs. The going easy and the gradient was gentle. The glacier was in great condition for this time of year with a good covering of snow and firm neve underfoot. It wasn’t until we reached the 3500meter contour that we came to the first interesting bit. Here there was a short steep section where the steps were far apart and very little snow covered the ice. As if that wasn’t enough this led directly down to a sizable crevasse which was turned at the right. Petra found this quite harrowing but to be fair it had my full attention as well. Still with care we got past it and thereafter things were again quite straightforward. Soon enough we were on the dry section near the track to the lift station at Hohsaas. Here we took off all the gear and even though we were tired we were very happy to arrive at the station at 15.45. Well in time to catch the lift to the valley floor. It had been evident for some time that I was badly in need of a shower and the excellent ones at the campsite were gratefully used shortly thereafter. While not perfect, it was nonetheless a superb beginning to the trip. I believe we got the maximum out of it.

The steep section of descent

Easy way down

Monday 17Th;

Sculpture in Saas Fee

Way to go
Enjoying the view
Impressive Egginer and Allalinhorn
Today the weather was once again set fair. I felt that a less demanding day was not a bad idea so I suggested we climb the Mittaghorn at 3143mtrs. This is an imposing rocky outlier on the western side of the valley that soars above Saas Fee.Its was a non-technical outing which, coupled with a lift to Plattjen at 2570mtrs meant there was only 600mtrs of climbing to do. A late start followed a leisurely breakfast and we caught the lift at about eleven thirty and were hiking before noon. It was a delight to have such light packs and we made rapid progress. Initially we followed the trail that heads towards the Britannia hut before a steep trail turns to the right and wends and winds its way up the steep mountainside. Such was our speed that we were standing at the summit cross a mere 95 minutes after leaving the lift. This was a wonderful eerie. The views yet again were superb in all directions. Across the valley we regarded the Weissmies and reveled in our summit success of the previous day. Near at hand the Allalinhorn and Alphubel looked wonderful and held the promise of future outings. We lingered here for nearly an hour as we had no pressing need to go down.

As we went down Petra wished to extend the outing and once we consulted the map we saw that long descent to Saas Almagell could be done and this she opted to do. I chose to return to the valley via the lift as my knees were giving me a little trouble and I didn’t want to exacerbate any injuries that may be after occurring. A leisurely stroll around Saas Fee followed and a relaxing remainder to the day. Later in the campsite we decided to do the Allalinhorn the following morning as bad weather was forecast for the afternoon. We resolved to catch the first lift at 7am so after getting out packs sorted for the morning another early night followed.

Tuesday 18th;

Towards the Allalinhorn

Leaving the Ski chaos behind
We were up in the dark and had a quick breakfast and down in Saas Grund to catch the bus to Saas Fee. Amazingly in Switzerland all transport links tie in nicely together. We arrived in the village and had ample time to stroll down to the lift station. Wow, there was quite the crowd gathered already and we settled into the queue to wait for the station to open. It was mostly skiers waiting and there seemed to be a selection of Ski teams from around Europe. Soon enough we were off (thankfully the climbers were allowed on the lift first) on the first  of three sections of ascent. The last section is by a train which travels through a tunnel which goes from Felskinn at 2989mtrs to Mittel Allalin at a lofty 3457mtrs. We were here at 07.45 and we set about immediately to roping up and donning crampons etc.

The first thing that we had to avoid was the throngs of skiers that were by now whizzing down the pistes. I am not familiar with skiing at all and it was quite the revelation just how fast some were going. still we were soon past that mania and we started up the good track in the snow. It promised to be a short outing with less than 600mtrs of climbing and an overall rating of Facile. This is one of the easiest and therefore most popular 4000mtr peaks in the Alps. The ease of access to the gentle slopes ensures that on any good weather day there are sure to be lots of parties out. Today was no exception and we were part of a procession of people heading up. Solitude wasn't to be found but then it wasn't expected. Still the outing had the undoubted feel and beauty of the high mountains and I was enjoying the outing immensely. After a while we reached the Feejoch and we had our first views of the stunning mountain scenery to the west. The giants of the Monte Rosa massif and the Matterhorn were resplendent and further west again Mont Blanc stood proud. The lenticular cloud that is famous as a harbringer of bad weather hovered over it's summit. But it was the stunning sight of the nearby Rimpfischhorn and Stralhorn that most impressed me. Again they spoke of great outings in the future. We lingered for a while and then set off for the summit, now a mere 200 mtrs above.
Towards the summit


Across to the Matterhorn with Mont Blanc beyond

The Strahlhorn and Rimpfischhorn with Monte Rosa between.

Starting down
The route heads in an easterly direction and the same gentle gradient is mantained throughout. Sterner variations are possible but today was more of a continueing training exercise so we stayed on the easy route. The summit is gained by crossing just under the summit ridge and approaching it from the east. A short little stony section and we were there. This is not a place where one finds peace and quiet but the celebratory athmosphere is a bit infectious and the delight of the many non mountaineers upon reaching such a spot is a joy to behold. There was a queue for the coveted photo opp at the summit cross but we missed our spot and I wasn't really of a mind to rejoin the queue. I must admit to being programmed-wired if you will to worrying when I'm on the mountain. Before I go up I worry about getting to the top and when I'm on top I worry about getting back down. Petra didn't have a care in the world and why should she but I was still keen to get a move on. We were still almost an hour on the top.  We were back at the lift before lunch and we enjoyed the various sections of descent. The forecast bad weather duely arrived that evening and was set to stay for the following day as well. We decided to do the Via Ferrata on the Mittaghorn the next day if the weather permitted.

Wednesday 19th;

As predicted there was some rain about today. It sometimes threathened to clear up but never managed it. We still felt that doing the Via Ferrata would be a good idea so we set off the Saas Fee and hired the kit. We caught the lift to Masuela at 2572 mtrs and traversed across to the northwest ridge of the Mittaghorn. We were in the cloud as we started up but there was no rain. It wasn't a great route to be honest with fairly lenghty horisontal sections that gave the outing a fractured feel. Petra was understandably careful. This was ok on the lower stretches but as we gained height and the weather took a turn for the worse it made things a bit uncomfortable. It was snowing and the metalurgy was icing up which led to cold hands etc. 

Thursday 20th;

Abseiling with aplomb
Delightful subsidary hut
The bad weather of the previous day had given way to blue skies once again. We had intended to do another iron way that led from near the campsite up to Saas Fee through a gorge. Unfortunately it was closed for some reason so we opted to walk up instead.  As the day was young we decided to do some ropework at a crag we passed on the way up and maybe head up to the Weissmies Hut that afternoon. So we set off back.

Nice view from our kitchen
The ropework went very well and soon she was abseiling down the rock with aplomb and ascending the rope using prussics at her ease. Our mood now matched the weather and we loaded up our bags and walked down to the village and caught the lift up to Hohsaas and walked down to the Weissmies Hut at 2726 mtrs. We carried up our own food and so only had to pay for our accommodation. You wouldn't know it by the way we were welcomed by the delightful "Gardienne" Lucy who made us feel right at home and was eager to chat about Ireland. The hut wasn't too busy yet she professed herself delighted that there were 38 booked for this evening. Normally she gets about thirty she said. We went outside to cook for ourselves in the chilly evening but the lack of warmth was more than compensated for by the stunning vista of the Mischabel Range across the valley. Lucy came out and told us that there was no need to be outside but we were nearly finished anyway and the next thing she arrived with a desert each for us. As I said she was lovely. We retired into the warmth after dinner and we enjoyed a couple of drinks before bed. The target for the next day was the Fletchhorn. At 3993mtrs it falls just short of the sought after 4000mtr mark but it would be folly to think less of it for that. We had a couple of options when deciding which route to take to the summit. It was a considerable undertaking so we opted for an early breakfast and to be gone from the hut by 6am.

Friday 21st;

Morning glory

Looking up to the Gendarme
Not the most pleasant stuff to climb
The Fletchhorn, there for another day.
We were indeed on our way by 6am and enjoying a clear crisp morning. The route initially climbed the crest of the moraine and followed the track to the base of the normal route to the Lagginhorn. Just below point 2926mtrs the route dropped left and crossed the rubble strewn Talligletcher. It was now bright and we were able to see our way ahead. It didn’t look too inviting. Earlier in the season there is a snow slope that allows easy access to the shoulder of the Gruebug Glacier. Now this was bare ice and presented a more formidable barrier. The other option is to climb a rubble and scree slope that rises steeply at first and then goes diagonally to the right up a broad couloir. This was not a lot of fun and meant we had to pick and choose our way carefully as you never knew what was going to move. Still we managed it and arrived in good time at the crest of the ridge that marks the end of the impressive Jegigrat.

 Here we faced the first obstacle of the day. A fairly small “Gendarme” was immediately in the way. There was a sling to be seen at its top but it was obviously used in the return and useless to us now. The south side was hopeless and the north side involved an exposed traverse with a rock step beyond. I didn’t feel confident that Petra could handle it so I choose to go down. It was disappointing but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. If it wasn’t a lot of fun climbing up the choss it was less appealing going down. Still we managed it quite well and returned to the hut for a bite of lunch. We were back in the valley by lunchtime. Petra feeling the need to make the most of the fine day went for a sizeable hike around the Mattmark Reservoir at the valley’s end beyond Almageller. I must be getting old as I lazed about at the campsite for the rest of the day.


Saturday 22nd;

Across to Saas Fee with its unsightly car park

The bad weather had returned again and cloud hung low in the valley. We decided to do a hike from the campsite that zig zagged its way up the Thriftgratji on the East side of the valley. We passed some impressive walls constructed I presume to deflect avalanches to safer channels. Further up the path traversed through some impressive steel avalanche defenses. From here the trail wound its way pleasantly to the lift at Kreuxboden. It passed a pleasant few hours and at least gave us something to do.

Impressive avalanche defences

Sunday 23rd;


Steep but well equipped
The Dom and Lenzspitze
After the easy few days we had had prior to this I felt that a more challenging outing was required. In an ideal world we would have gone to the high mountains again but I reasoned that we had had quite a bit of snow over the previous few days and it would have made glacier travel considerably more hazardous. So I choose instead a climb up to the Mischabel Hut which is situated on a rocky ridge that descends from the Lenzspitze. At an altitude of 3340mtrs this would mean a height gain of 1800mtrs and should afford us close up views of the giants above. The weather was again fine and we opted to do the climb in our trail shoes. It was pleasantly warm and so we took the opportunity to refill our water bottles in Saas Fee. The trail proper starts from the church in the village and the climbing starts immediately. Initially you climb through a small wooded section then cross a river and continue up a broad spur towards Schonegge. The guidebook states that the gradient is relentless but the switchbacks make the going fairly easy. Soon we were at a crossroads at 2419mtrs where a traverse to the lift station at Hannig is possible. Our objective could be seen way above just jutting out from the ridge. It looked steep and no obvious easy route was to be seen from here.
Further up the trail passed around under the Distelhorn. From here there was a wilder feel and look to the mountains. A noisy collection of Alpine Choughs serenaded us with their raucous chorus. Onwards we climbed until we eventually came to the beginning of an equipped trail that enabled progress up the steep and exposed ground that led to the crest of the ridge coming down from the hut at Oberes 2806mtrs. The hut still looked a long way off but we were making good time and enjoying ourselves. We met first an older couple who had turned back who informed us that it was very steep. Then a couple of young guys came back towards us and informed us that where the route passed to the shady side of the ridge it was too icy. We opted to continue anyway and see for ourselves. We soon came to a short section with a little ice and snow on the trail but it was well protected by steel ropes and as far as I could see the way above  seemed to stick to the crest or sunny side. We continued on quite easily and the interest was maintained for the rest of the climb. It was a little bit like a Via Ferrata without the harness. Eventually we reached the hut and rested a good while and enjoyed lunch.
Down to the valley

It had a nice high feel about it.

Back to Hannig
I wasn't dissappointed with the views. The Taschhorn, Dom and Lenzspitze soared above and really merited the name of the range Mischabel =pitchfork. The main hut was closed for the season but the winter hut was open so we went in for a look around. We met a Dutch couple who had intended to climb the impressive looking north face of the Lenzspitze but found the approach and lower stretches too plastered in soft powder snow. They had then intended doing the Nadlegrat but met some Italian climbers who told them that one of their number had had to be airlifted from the mountain after falling into a crevasse. They decided to abandon their plans and returned to the hut. It vindicated for me my decision to stay away from the high mountains after the fresh snow. We eventually started our descent which went very smoothly . When we came to the junction lower down we opted to go to Hannig and get the lift down. It had only taken us seven hours and was a very enjoyable outing.

Monday 24th;

The schitzophrenic weather pattern resumed today and rain and low cloud were back. We intended climbing the Jegihorn 3206mtrs today but a forgotten map and no path where we thought it would be meant we only did a short hike back down to Saas Grund from the lift at Kreunsboden. An altogether unsatisfactory day.

Tuesday 25th;

The Jegihorn
Today was our final chance to get out and about. After the dissappointment of the previous day we went again on the lift to Hohsaas and walked down to the start of the route on the Jegihorn. This had to be the first time I started a climb higher than the actual summit I was aiming for. It was a lovely morning with only a little chill in the gentle breeze. We soon arrived at the start of the trail and started up. As is usual the trail switchbacked up the steep ground and higher up offered some scrambling opportunities. As we neared the shoulder of the west ridge the wind was much stiffer. From here it was easy scrambling over broken rocks to the summit. We had it to ourselves but the Via Ferrata on the Jegigrat which eventually finishes at the summit was very busy and loads of people could be seen making their way up and along it. We didn't stay long and opted to descend to the shoulder where we could have our lunch out of the wind. This was very pleasant and we decided to forgo the trail back down and opted instead to descend in a direct line towards Kreunsboden. This was a really long ridge almost completely over boulders and seemed to take an internamably long time. Still it was interesting and we were happy with our day by the time we eventually got back to the lift. We drank in the wonderful views for a final time before heading back to the valley to begin our preperations for our departure.

Crowds on the Via Ferrata
Scrambling options
So that was that. The return the following day went seamlessly thanks to the flawless Swiss transport system. I must confess to having felt that I had missed out on an opportunity on this trip. It wasn't Petra's fault. She was the one with no experience and I really should have found out more about her abilities before I agreed to go with her to the Alps. She tried her best.  Still perhaps I will get another chance to visit this beautiful area and sample the delights of its mountains once more. Onwards to the next adventure.
Easy ridge to the summit

Maybe next year

A bit of weather across the valley

Glorious final view



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