Friday 12th September – Sunday 21st September 2008
It started off terribly! …but thankfully soon got better. The channel tunnel was closed due to a fire, but luckily we had already arranged to use the ferry. The drive down was fuelled by several cans of red-bull and we made good progress through constant rain to bivi down somewhere in rural France between Troyes and Dijon during the (very) early hours of Saturday morning. The rain continued through Saturday and we drove through the spray arriving in Saas Grund late on Saturday afternoon.
The grand plan was to spend several days on the Allalin Glacier at about 3300m below the Rimpfischhorn. This would give us plenty of time to acclimatise and pick off a few peaks before having a go at the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn later in the week…
On paper it looked like this…
Sat : Arrive Saas Grund
Sun : Set up camp on Allalin Glacier
Mon : Get as High as possible, maybe Fluchthorn (3795m)
Tue : Strahlhorn (4190m) or Rimpfischhorn (4199m)
Wed : Back to Saas Grund and rest
Thu : Walk to Hornli Hut and recce route
Fri : Matterhorn (4478m) Summit day
Sat : Alternative Summit day
Sun : Travel Home
Reality looked like this…
Saturday : We arrived in Saas Grund and proceeded to cook a fantastic chicken dinner using my "Cobb" Bar-B-Q …which is just fantastic !
Sunday : We were pretty tired after the drive down and the day dawned damp with low cloud and occasional drizzle. We faffed while sorting out gear and packing dried food ready for our high level camp. Speaking to another English couple it transpired that the telepherique to Felskinn (for the Britannia hut) had not run the previous day due to bad weather. Late in the afternoon we finally got going… We walked up to Saas Fee to find the telepherique closed. Time for Plan B !
We thought maybe the half way station would be a good objective and we could catch the first cable car the following morning. This was wildly optimistic with the massive packs we were carrying – about 32kg each. It also dawned on us that there was no running water at the halfway station. We got to around 2300m, turned around and ended up camping in the woods above Saas Fee.
Monday : Paul heard the cable car running. My glass was definitely half empty and I wouldn’t believe it until I finally saw it with my own eyes. By lunch time we had passed the Britannia hut and we roped together heading up the Allalin Glacier. The weather front had past and perfect weather arrived for most of the rest of the week. By late afternoon we were pitching up camp in the lee of a big boulder below the Rimpfischhorn at about the intended 3300m. Having carried a heavy load we were both pretty tired. The sun went down and the temperature plummeted.
Tuesday : We had a surprisingly good night. 4 season down bags are wonderful and we both stayed pretty toasty in Paul’s small 2 man tent – despite the condensation which fell as snow inside. We also took a "tarp" giving us extra shelter for cooking under. I was keen to do the North ridge of the Rimpfischhorn. Common sense (lack of acclimatisation) prevailed and we decided on the Strahlhorn normal route. This was a 7½ hour return trip to the summit and back to camp. We were both really pleased with this, going from sea level to ~4200m in only a few days. The last 100m or so were desperate in terms of effort. Every 10 paces I would stop and double up leaning on my walking pole gasping for breath. Eventually we got to the short summit ridge and moved across it carefully to the summit.
Wednesday : It took most of the day to break camp and get back down the glacier to the cable car station and then to Saas Fee where we stopped for a couple of beers. That evening we ate out in Saas Grund and easily polished off a 3 course meal.
Thursday : We were both pretty tired after 3 days "full on" and it seemed to take ages having breakfast, sorting gear for the Matterhorn and breaking camp. There had been a lot of rain through the night which continued into Thursday morning. It was early afternoon before we got to Täsch and the train for Zermatt. I wasn’t happy that we were running about 3 hours late. We decided to take a look around Zermatt, get ourselves booked into the Hornli hut for following day with a go at the summit on Saturday and spend the present night in the valley at the campsite in Täsch… However… having already checked the SAC website for the closing date of the Hornli hut we were surprised to be told by tourist information in Zermatt that it had actually closed the weekend before we arrived ! The mountain did indeed look very out of condition and was plastered in fresh snow. The guide’s bureau confirmed the hut was closed and that they had finished guiding the Matterhorn for this years season. That was enough information
for us to decide to modify our plans…
Friday : Again, probably due to accumulated fatigue we were late getting going and it was early afternoon before we caught the telepherique up to the Klein Matterhorn at 3883m. The plan was to trek over the Breithorn Pass and down to the Rossi e Volante Bivouac hut in Italy. We would then do the full traverse of all five summits and back to the cable car station on Saturday. We stepped out of the Klein Matterhorn cable car station into a whiteout …on a wet glacier… …not entirely the best of situations. There was unconsolidated snow cover of about 6 inches and we spent the next few hours walking on bearings and using waypoints on the GPS to navigate. We got over the Breithorn Pass and as the slope steepened and looked decidedly avalanche prone we started to think about the precarious nature of our situation… We eventually retraced our track and decided to hack out a snow ledge under a rock buttress where we settled down to spend the night.
The night started uncomfortably, we both had down sleeping bags but had sacrificed 2 bivi bags for a single bothy bag. The bothy bag was big enough for 4 people sitting up straight but not for 2 people lying down, especially when one of those is 6’4" tall ! The ledge we were on was pretty narrow and any sense of personal space was completely lost – which for a few hours became the source of much amusement.
After a couple of hours we eventually settled with the bothy bag over our feet and up to our waists and a space blanket preventing spindrift from falling on our faces. Around mid-night the wind dropped and the whiteout cleared. We spent the night occasionally peering at the stars. Dawn brought a magnificent sunrise…
Saturday : We’d lost the full traverse of the Breithorn but managed to bag the ‘easy’ West summit (4165m)
Plans always have to be flexible… OK, doing the Matterhorn would have been nice and if it wasn’t for the snowfall on Wed/Thu night I think we would have stood a good chance. The acclimatisation plan was excellent, worked really well and I look forward to more high altitude camping again in the future. It takes a lot of physical effort but the rewards can be fantastic. Making plans "on the fly" was great and I think we both learnt a lot with the 3 nights we spent camped at two locations – 3300m and 3800m. We bagged 2 >4000m peaks in a week, which by anyone’s standards is pretty good going…
Loads of better quality photos available HERE.