2019 Swiss Alps
AUGUST 3-25, 2019
A little Swiss castle that we quite literally ran in to on our run from Muttenz to Gempen when we were staying in Basel
I was lucky enough...
To marry a guy who has close family in Europe. This means every once in a while, we get to go visit them and play in the Alps! Our first trip over there happened just this past summer as a graduation trip for Dan. We spent the first bit visiting his family in the Netherlands and Germany, and then the last half was spent visiting family in Switzerland and running and playing in the mountains and cities there. Dan's family in Switzerland live in the city of Basel, which is very north, at the border of Germany and France. While it was so lovely there, and we really enjoyed exploring the city and the hills of Basel (see pic to the left!), we were excited to get out and just get eyes on the Alps. After spending time with family, we packed our backpack, booked our hostel, and hopped on a train down to Zermatt.
If you have ever climbed outside of your local crag or mountain range, you know that it can be HARD to get to know the area without exploring it with someone else who climbs there frequently. We found it hard even just going down to the Moab desert for the first time - we got totally humbled and it was a steep learning curve to figure out our way around down there, and we weren't expecting the Alps to be any easier. Especially with the cultural differences. We brought climbing gear to Europe with low expectations, knowing that if we even got to attempt anything it would be a plus. The trip was mostly about family anyway. But when you are that close to a world-renowned range like the Alps... It was hard not to plan things to do! We decided to take one checked bag stuffed full of climbing gear, and see what we could hop on.
Here is what we brought in that bag:
Two half ropes (two in case we wanted to do some rock climbing, one to use if we decided to do a glacier climb)
Rock climbing shoes
3-season mountaineering boots
Glacier harnesses (we didn't bring rock harnesses, because if we decided to do rock climbs, it was going to be longer, chill routes. We weren't banking on hang-dogging in our harnesses)
Quick draws, ATC's and rock anchors (we couldn't fit our trad gear, but there are some pretty developed areas over there and we figured we could do something fun with just a sport kit)
Pickets, pulleys, and gear for crevasse rescue
And that's all besides our standard travel gear! We had a 45L pack each that we used for the travel days of the trip, and we used these for our climbs.
Dan celebrating when we finally got our bag back that the airline LOST! Lucky for us, we weren't climbing until the end of our trip, so it got to us in time.
The view outside the window of our room in the hostel - no joke. It was amazing.
In Zermatt proper...
We had decided not to bring a tent, or sleep system, and depend on using our sleeping liners, Swiss huts, and the beds there for our sleep system. In Zermatt, we stayed at the Jugendherberge Zermatt (youth hostel). While we were, I suppose, considered young when we were there, to our knowledge there is no age restriction to stay here. It was a super hostel, with a complimentary breakfast bar, and the best part for us - it had lockers for you to keep your crap in while you went out climbing for a couple days. That was one piece of the puzzle that we hadn't figured out before we got there, and we were quite happy to find that our hostel had that option. In Zermatt, food was EXPENSIVE. Everything was I suppose, however we found this place that we absolutely loved called the North Wall bar. It was not quite as expensive, not quite as ostentatious as the rest of Zermatt felt, and we felt comfortable there. After a couple weeks of travelling, and being in cultures that, let's admit it - are way less casual than the pacific northwest - it was really nice to feel relaxed somewhere. The North Wall bar had that for us.
Okay, let's get to the climbing! With our week in Zermatt, Dan and I decided on two objectives. The first objective being Alphubel - one of the more lowkey 4,000m peaks in the valley, and the second objective being Dufoursptize, also known as Monte Rosa, the tallest peak in Switzerland. Both climbs were standard glacier climbs, so we wouldn't be putting our rock gear to use. Next time! One of the biggest hang-ups for us was trying to decipher and figure out how to research these climbs, and just what they meant by them being rated PD and PD+. Referencing our experience on Cascade volcanoes, we could try to decipher maybe what they meant, however we had never been in the Alps, and they seemed to be more steep and daunting. In this French Alpine scale, PD stands for Peu Difficile, or, less difficult with some technical climbing and complicated glaciers. Pretty vague still, but the only way we were going to figure out what they meant was to give it a shot.
Our attempt of Alphubel...
Started with a hike up to the Täschhütte, which included a steep trek up past Täschalp (where some take a taxi to) up to the hut, which was positioned calmly on a hillside at 2,700 m (8,800 ft). Starting in Täsch that morning, at 1,450 m (4,800 ft), it made our travelling legs happy to be able to stretch out and climb! We were made even happier by being able to get to the hut, sit and drink a beer with stunning views like the picture to the right shows. Our plan was to do the climb up Alphubel the following day, and with the approach only taking about 4 hours, we were able to spend the rest of the day at the hut going over maps, making plans, and eating and drinking good food. At the hut, we decided to pay for both room and board, which meant that we got breakfast and dinner with our room, and any extra food or drinks we had to pay for. Breakfast was served each morning around 3am, for climbers, or 6am for hikers, and at night you would simply tell the hut warden which time you were going to be up for.
While during the hike up we were happy and rearing to go, I had started feeling like I was coming down with a bad head-cold. We discussed our plans after dinner, but with my head pounding and sinuses feeling inflamed, I did not feel ready to tackle the 1,500 m (5,000 ft) climb up to Alphubel, where the summit stood at 4,206 m (13,704 ft). We decided it was best for us to opt to ditch this attempt in an effort to have a good go at Dufourspitze. The warden came around, and we told them that we were going to be up for the 6am breakfast, and went to bed.
Our post-approach beer at the Täschhütte. Spoiled with the view, the beer, and the cozy hut!
The stunning Monte Rosa Hütte. Such an awesome building in a wild location!
next up was Dufourspitze...
After our rest day in Zermatt, where I recovered well from my head-cold, and Daniel hiked for a long time to get some turns in, since he was doing TAY (turns all year). We took off up the Gornergrat to start walking from Rotenboden. There are two approach options to get up to the Monte Rosa Hut - the "Old Route" and the "Panoramatrail". Both are listed around 4 hours to complete, with the Panoramatrail listed as being a tad bit longer, and the Old Route listed as "not recommended". In researching this climb, it wasn't clear if the route had been washed out, simply eroded too much, or if something else had changed to the trail, but we had enough time in the day to happily decide on the Panoramatrail and we did really enjoy that route. With it being about 5.5 miles and 1,600 ft gain, it took us a leisurely 3 hours. Both approaches do include glacier travel, and crampons are required. Although the glacier route is well marked, (see the pole in the picture below), and the trail is marked with painted blue flags, you should still be aware of your navigation and keep your wits around the large, large crevasses during the approach.
The summit attempt for this climb had 5,500 ft of gain, and with Dufour standing at 14,800 ft, it really was no joke of a climb. The hut wardens had an earlier breakfast for us this time, and we woke up (along with a bunch of other climbers) at 2:30am and were out of the hut by 3am. We set off at a good clip, navigating the dry glaciers and moraines, and watched the beautiful sunrise with Matterhorn in the background. So incredible. We got about 800 feet from the summit, when slopes started steepening greatly, and we found ourselves below a steep ridge that traversed right over a giant bergshrund. Ah. This is what they mean when they rate Dufourspitze as PD+. It was something that I was just not comfortable doing with the little gear we had brought. We sat and discussed the route, and ultimately decided to descend there. We were bummed we weren't able to make the summit, but decided to come back with more solid crampons, and maybe an ice screw.
The "home" icon marks Basel, where we stayed with family, and the "mountain" icon marks Zermatt. Almost as far north and south as you can get!
Once we knew we were heading down, we braced ourselves for a long, long day. We had a lunch with family in Basel the day after, and while we could spend one more night up in the Monte Rosa Hut, we decided not to spend the money, and instead just make use of the great public transportation that Switzerland has. We made quick time down the mountain, gathered our stuff from the hut, and took off to the Gornergrat. The people we met at the hut thought we were NUTS for attempting that mountain AND not stopping at the hut for food or a nap! We said goodbye to them as they sipped their beers in the sun, and said goodbye to the awesome hut we had called home that night. All in all, we ended up attempting Dufor, descending back to Zermatt, and taking the train all the way back to Basel in about 20 hours. Not to shabby for no pre-booked rides and a last minute plan.
Back in Basel, we woke up the next morning in Ursi's guest room, groggy from the big day before. Lunch was at 11am with some of Daniel's Aunts and Uncles, and we had such a great time connecting with them, eating and drinking lots of good wine! We didn't end up finishing "lunch" until 4 or 5pm. It was a great way to spend a rest day. Ultimately we feel so lucky to have attempted these two beautiful peaks in the Alps, and count it as just two more great drops in our piggy bank of experience in the mountains.