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Ascent to Fletschhorn-West Slope on 1993-08-21

Climber: Greg Slayden

Date:Saturday, August 21, 1993
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Ski Lift
Point Reached:Fletschhorn - West Slope
    Location:Switzerland
    Elevation:3550 m / 11647 ft
    Remaining Elevation:442 m / 1453 ft (28% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

I woke up after my night inside my car in a crowded Swiss campground and then drove up and down the main street of the hamlet of Saas-Grund to get some heat going and to try to get the incredible condensation off my car windows. I finally parked in the parking lot for the Hohsaas gondola ride, and got my pack and climbing gear ready for an assault on the Lagginhorn, at 4010 meters (13,156 feet) one of the 65 famous 4000 meter peaks of the Alps. Most of them are impossible to do as dayhikes, but the Lagginhorn had gondola access to high on its flanks, plus it was a mostly rock peak, so the hazards of soft, dangerous afternoon snow were avoidable even with a late start.

The gondola base station was mobbed, and I waited in a typically unruly European line and paid for a round-trip ticket to the Kreuzbonden gondola station for 21 SFr (US $14.50)--I could have gone to the top, but the savings in elevation gain were not much and it cost a lot more.

I rode up the Hohsaas gondola at about 7:30 AM, and was soon following faint paths upward towards the Weissmeis Hutte, and from there up towards the huge peaks towering overhead. It was a gorgeous, hot, sunny day, with not a cloud in the deep blue sky, and the views of the Mischabel Range across the Saas Valley were awesome beyond description. Following the instructions in my guidebook and decoding my large-scale map, I figured out which peak was the Lagginhorn, followed a path that crossed a brook and climbed through rocky moraine debris, and soon reached a glacier.

I was sort of lost here, and I hadn't seen too many people on the trail, but there was sort of a path across the glacier, and a peak rising above its cirque, so I put on my crampons and started across the icy, rock-strewn glacier surface. The going was tough, and got tougher once I started climbing the headwall of the cirque. It was a long, hard climb through areas of steep rock, steep snow, and mixed terrain, and my progress wasn't as fast as I would have liked.

I arrived at a nice small rocky ridge at the top of the headwall and took a nice rest here, studying the terrain ahead of me, and I now realized that I hadn't been climbing the Lagginhorn at all, but the Fletschhorn, its 3993 meter neighbor to the north. It's embarrassing to admit I had been on the wrong mountain, but, given the description in Goedeke's guidebook, my 1:100,000 scale map, and my status as a solo, non-German speaking climber, I feel it was an entirely honest mistake.

Anyway, I decided to go for the Fletschhorn, since I was now over halfway up it. However, above the small rocky ridge the route to the Fletschhorn's summit was mostly over huge open snowfields and bowls that were now broiling under the hot midday sun, and the snow was awfully soft. I passed a group of three climbers--a German man, his wife, and an old man--who gave me the usual what-the-hell-are-you-doing-up-here-solo stares as we exchanged pessimistic assessments of the snow quality on the route. Shortly after passing them, while probing with my ice axe, I was able to push its shaft all the way down up to its head into the snow in front of me. It was about 11 AM, I was alone, the snow was like warm butter, and I had no choice but to turn back. According to my altimeter and my map, I was at 11,647 feet, 1453 short of the summit.

I passed the three Germans and told them that it was too hot and late to safely continue, and when I reached the small rocky ridge I noticed that they had agreed with me and were coming down too. The wife and the old man (presumably her or her husband's father) arrived first, but the husband, third on their rope team, slipped while stepping from the snow down on to the rocks, fell over backwards, and accidentally stabbed his calf with the crampon on his other foot. Huge amounts of blood were streaming out of his wound on to his shredded longjohns.

The guy's wife and the old man tended to him immediately, and I offered what assistance I could--it turned out that I had a better first aid kit with me, including a huge ace bandage they used to wrap the guy's gaping wound. I also had lots more water with me, and I let the guy drink my spare quart to help with his blood loss. I found out that they had left the hut at 6 AM, while I had left the further-down gondola station at 8 AM and had caught up to them, meaning I was a much faster hiker, so I offered to go down for help and get a rescue helicopter. (The husband and wife spoke good English, by the way). All this helped me felt vindicated after the subtle, implied criticism of my solo climbing this group had thrown my way earlier.

However, the injured guy, after some food, water, and bandaging, wasn't interested in being evacuated--he insisted on walking down himself, despite his wife's protests. After a while I decided I had to go or else risk missing the gondola back down, and the wife made her husband go for a short walk on the snow near the rocks to prove he could walk, and he could, with a very slight limp. Eventually I left, and I said that I'd look back up on my way down, and if I saw someone with their arms upraised (the standard alpine distress signal), I'd request a helicopter when I got to the hut. As members of the Swiss Alpine Club, their dues included helicopter insurance.

I took off and cruised down the steep snow of the headwall, slowing down only slightly for the tricky downclimbing of the rotten rocky cliffs here and there. I went so fast that I couldn't even see the Germans behind me after a while, and by the time I was down on the glacier they were tiny, tiny dots far, far away and it was impossible to tell if one of them had their arms raised or not. There were three dots, though, and they were moving (if slowly), so I assumed everything was OK. I asked a guy I met down on the glacier if he had binoculars, but he didn't, and he assured me that the Germans were probably fine.

On the dusty hike down past glacial rubble I chatted with this guy a bit, and then I took a long rest at the Weissmeis hut--the views across to the Dom, Taschhorn, and other white pinnacles of the Mischabel was still beyond belief. From the hut it was an easy stroll back to the gondola terminal, and I was back at my car in Saas-Grund by 4 PM.

The Fletschhorn just misses the 4000-meter mark, but it is still an impressive summit, as seen here on the approach from Weissmies Hut (1993-08-21).
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1154 m / 3783 ft
    Distance:9.5 km / 5.9 mi
    Trailhead:Kreuzboden  2396 m / 7864 ft
    Grade/Class:1
    Quality:4 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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