Ascent of Monte Rosa on 1993-08-14

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:2 Germans
Date:Saturday, August 14, 1993
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Monte Rosa
    Elevation:15203 ft / 4633 m

Ascent Trip Report

Friday, August 13:

I woke up in my car at the campground alongside the Rhone early, at 6 AM, and ate my breakfast with the coke I had left outside, which was nice and cold. After rearranging the junk in my car I drove out of the grassy field of the campground ENE of Bettmeralp and headed towards Visp, Switzerland.

My plan for today was to start my climb of the highest point in Switzerland, a peak on the Monte Rosa massif called the Dufourspitze. Despite not being nearly as famous as the neighboring Matterhorn, the Dufourspitze was, at 4634 meters (15,203 feet), quite a bit higher than the Matterhorn at 4478 meters (14,692 feet). Besides, I had heard that the Matterhorn was a very popular and crowded climb, and the huge numbers of people on the steep crumbly rock caused huge traffic jams and problems with rockfall.

The Dufourspitze was climbed from Zermatt by first taking the Gornegrat railway part of the way up, and then crossing over to the Monte Rosa Hutte, where the night was spent in preparation for an early start the next morning. Today I just wanted to get to the hut, and, having never stayed in a Swiss mountain hut before, get there early to make sure I got a bed and to see what the deal was.

So, at Visp I turned left towards Zermatt, on a road that climbed up an increasingly steep and narrow valley as far as Tasch, where the road ended. No cars were allowed to Zermatt, so I had to park in a huge outdoor lot in Tasch, get my pack together, and wait for a train to take me the five miles or so up to Zermatt. Halfway up on this train I got my fist view of the Matterhorn, out the train window--it was a crystal clear day, and the famous fang of a peak was just as I expected it to look.

In Zermatt I discovered that the Gornegrat railway station was across the street from the main Tasch station, so I quickly bought an expensive round-trip ticket to the Rotbonden station and was soon heading uphill in the cog railway train car full of tourists, many Japanese, who spent almost the entire trip making home videos of the Matterhorn, leaning out the window like crazy in their zeal to get the best shots. The train climbed up above Zermatt, through forest, and by 9:10 AM I got off at Rotbonden, nothing but a closed station building at timberline where trails started--there were no restaurants, souvenir stands, or anything else, so only climbers like me got off.

There was a station master there, and I asked him (in bad German) if I needed reservations for the Monte Rosa Hutte, and he said it shouldn't be a problem. I then went over behind the station building and changed from my jeans and t-shirt into my hiking clothing, then took some pictures of the dramatic mountain scenery, including one of the Matterhorn from a odd angle, before starting off down the well-signed path towards the Monte Rosa Hutte.

This path went down for a long time on a gradual route down to huge glaciers filling the valley below, providing a stunning view of Monte Rosa filling the sky behind the glaciers. The rocky pinnacle of the Dufourspitze was clearly visible crowing the huge snowy mass, and I wondered if I was up for what was certainly the most difficult peak I had ever attempted. I knew I couldn't afford the 600 SFr (US $415) for a guide, though, so I thought I'd give it my best shot anyway. The weather was certainly perfect at the moment, and I hoped it held. However, I was somewhat dismayed by the way the trail went down so much when I wanted to be going up, and my map showed me that the hut was actually lower than the train station I had just left, but sometimes distance is more important than elevation, and the hut was certainly a lot closer to the summit.

The path finally dropped me down at the edge of the Gornergletscher, and, without thinking, I stopped to strap on my crampons, like I always did when crossing glaciers. As I crossed it, though, following poles set in the ice to mark the route across, I noticed that no one else on the path had bothered with them, and, indeed, the surface of the glacier was very flat, with the few very obvious crevasses easily avoided. There was a band of rocks I had to cross that marked the boundary between two glaciers, and once my crampons were off for the rocks I left them off for the next glacier, the lower part of the Grenzgletscher.

The poles led across the glistening ice, marked with meltwater streams of various sizes, to a steep rock wall that marked the edge of Monte Rosa itself. There, a well-worn path led uphill steeply with switchbacks to the Monte Rosa Hutte, a large wooden cabin not unlike the A.M.C. huts in New Hampshire I knew so well. It was only 11:30 AM when I arrived, and a hot lunch of sausages was being served outside in the sun, and many hikers were eating or basking on the surrounding rocks.

I was told when I went to check in that the hut didn't open for accommodation until 4 PM. Dismayed, I had nothing to do but wait. I left my pack outside the hut, and then just hung out for 3 hours, wishing that I could at least nap in a bunk. I clambered about on the rocks nearby, went for a short hike to a nice viewpoint of the Dufourspitze, dozed in the sun, read my Alpine climbing guidebook, and otherwise amused myself in the vicinity of the hut, sad that it was way too late, especially on a bright sunny day, to make my attempt on the peak--I would be caught by darkness, and the snow would be too soft. No one at all anywhere was speaking English, so I couldn't really just butt into a conversation and maybe meet people, either. I did see the Switzerland Sri Chinmoy peace mountain plaque, out front near the hut.

At 4 PM I checked into the hut--the young woman behind the desk spoke English, and had even been to Philadelphia. I then proceeded to hang out for several more hours, utterly bored. The place was way to noisy to take a nap, and my bunkroom was a huge place with plywood shelves for bunks. Only while everyone was eating downstairs was I able to doze, and even then some noisy Italians--they were always the loudest and most talkative--prevented me from any real sleep. I ate my cold dinner, passing on the gross stew they prepared, and leafed through the logbook--I was only the fourth American to sign the book since the beginning of the season, and the only Anglophone that night among the 50 or so guests, as well as the only one not in a group. There were far more Japanese, including an old guy and two women going for the summit. I wished that my French or German was better so that I could maybe chat with someone, possibly even joining a group for the difficult climb ahead, but that never happened.

Finally the sun went down, and the increased afternoon and evening clouds didn't bother me, since that was standard in mountains worldwide. After more interminable hanging out, I finally went up to my bunk at about 9 PM, and lay there amidst all the hubbub around me until the lights were turned out at 10 PM. People were packed on to the plywood shelf bunks like sardines, and I had the pleasure of snoring Europeans on either side of me so close that if I turned over in my sleep I would hit one of them.

At least I learned a lot from my first night in an Alpine hut, the main lesson being that it was no good to show up too early. Other than that, I resolved to avoid them whenever possible.

Saturday, August 14:

I woke up at midnight to go to the bathroom (not that I was really that asleep anyway), glad to see stars glistening overhead--the weather was clear. After my journey to the outhouse I returned to try to doze in the hellish bunkroom of the Monte Rosa Hutte.

All of a sudden, at 2 AM, the lights were switched on in my bunkroom and everyone began to mill about. I was sort of awake anyway, since all the hubbub and snoring had never really stopped. I gathered my stuff together, went downstairs to the common room, and ate breakfast by myself, with almost no one else even in the room. I was running low on food, so couldn't eat all I wanted, but I figured it was still awfully early anyway.

After getting my pack together for my attempt on the Dufourspitze it seemed I was still the only one in the Monte Rosa Hutte who had his act together, which was bad, since I was sort of hoping to head out after a few other groups and follow them--I really didn't have much of an idea of the route in the dark. Finally, at about 2:30 AM I noticed that a couple had left, so I waited a few minutes and set off, taking the trail up along the crest of the moraine below the hut, following two headlamps ahead in the distance.

After a while the trail left the moraine crest and started ascending over jumbled, rocky terrain, following cairns which I had to pick out with my headlamp. I passed the couple in front of me, Italians with whom I could not converse, and kept plugging on into the pitch blackness, rockhopping towards dimly lit cairns ahead. I passed a tent pitched in the rocks by some smart people who had avoided the bustle of the hut, but after this I lost the way in the dark--I had to make my way up a steep rocky section, with a brook flowing down it in many channels, as I angled towards the Italian headlamps. However, the cairn placement was random, and it's hard to say who was really on the right path. I was never far from some kind of cairn. Below, I could make out more headlamps--others had set out for the summit, too.

After more uphill on the rocks, with no idea of what kind of progress I was making due to the darkness, the route seemed to end at a snowfield. The Italian couple had stopped here to put on their crampons and rope up, so I halted and carefully strapped my crampons onto my leather hiking boots, got out my ice axe, and started following the well-worn path in the snow up, ahead of the Italians. After a bit of easy uphill slogging in the dark the path brought me into a nasty area of crevasses. It was impossible to tell which way to go, since the path ended at each chasm, and in the darkness I couldn't see the lay of the land at all. After jumping a few crevasses I noticed the headlamps of the Italians up ahead of me, and, using them as a beacon, jumped a few more and was soon back on solid snow.

When I had set out it had been fairly clear, the stars still visible, but as I climbed upward I noticed it was getting pretty cloudy. Once through the crevasses I just kept plugging away uphill at a good, steady clip for a couple hours. The path in the snow was unmistakable, there were no more crevasses, I never caught up to the Italians again, and no one passed me. I could sort of see the snowy landscape I was ascending through, but had no idea how quickly I was approaching the Sattel, a key landmark where the ridge climb began. I stopped to rest now and again, more when the route climbed an especially steep pitch of snow.

Unfortunately, as it got lighter and lighter out, it also got cloudier and cloudier out, so that by the time I didn't need my headlamp anymore I was in the middle of a cloud and still unable to see just where I was. It wasn't raining or snowing, but it was windy and cold, and when I got to a steep section of snow I realized that I was basically in a white-out. I was concerned that the wind would obliterate the path in the snow, and I might not find my way down. So I stopped to rest--it was about 6:30 AM or so--and thought that this was not the right weather to be attempting a major alpine summit solo. After a long wait, hoping the weather would improve, I finally decided to turn back. My altimeter read 4200 meters.

After heading back down for a couple minutes, though, I met a rope team of four coming up. They were French, and I was able to speak to them in broken English. They were unsure about the weather, but while I was chatting the clouds began to clear a little bit--I could see down the steep snow slope a ways. Encouraged by this, and by the fact that I wasn't totally alone out on the mountain, I turned around and started back up. I was much faster than the French climbers, and I never saw them again after getting ahead.

I climbed up for another forty minutes or so, and after the steepest snow pitch yet I arrived at what was clearly the Sattel (saddle in English), 4359 meters. To my left the route along the ridge towards the summit began as a very steep and icy slope, which I didn't like the looks of, but more disconcerting was the way the weather had closed in again. I was in a white-out once more, so I took another long rest at the Sattel, waiting for it to clear. It looked like the clouds were trying to part on the other side of the Sattel, but never really did. Finally, after a long wait all alone, I again decided to turn back. There were three reasons: the weather, the steep ice (which I probed and didn't feel entirely safe on), and the fact that I was alone--the French climbers seemed to have turned back. I even took a picture of myself to mark my high point, even though the background to my hooded figure was completely white.

I started down, and after a few minutes I encountered another rope team coming up. This time it was three Germans, and as I chatted with the lead guy (his English was pretty good) the weather cleared fairly dramatically--I could see almost all the way down the enormous snowfield I had ascended. Again, I decided to turn around and continue my climb, since two of the problems that had made me turn back--the weather and my isolation--had lessened considerably.

The three Germans and I made the short climb up to the Sattel, and I chatted with the lead German--he was a short, powerfully built guy from eastern Germany with a black beard and wearing a bandana. His group was the one in the tent I had passed above the hut in the early morning. At the Sattel we rested, and it came out that one of the German guys was an utter novice mountaineer, and wasn't going any further. The lead guy (whose name I don't remember--I think it was Hans) and the other guy were keen to head up towards the summit, though, so I gladly accepted their invitation to go along the ridge with them. We didn't rope up, though--apparently the three of them were only roped up on the snowfield for the benefit of their novice friend.

Hans started off first, making his way up the step icy slope by digging the pick of his ice axe in and using its handle to pull himself up. "So that's how you do that", I said to myself, following him, front pointing with my crampons a bit, too. The weather was still less than ideal, with strong wind and the ridge largely cloud-covered, but I easily ascended the worst of the icy slope, bolstered in confidence by my new partners and the long rests I had just taken. After the first pitch a huge steep snowy crest was visible ahead, its left side cloud covered and its right actually in the sun a little bit. Here I was in my element, since I have always been good at slogging my way up steep snow slopes, and Hans and I began to leave the other German guy behind. I was psyched, since I thought that the top of this pitch was the summit.

Of course, it was nowhere near the top, and the difficulty was just beginning. Hans and I waited up for the other guy, and then we started making our way along a knife-edge ridge. At first it was a pretty easy snow crest, and we could actually see the sun off to the right where the cloud we were in ended. However, we soon came upon a section where the ridge was a jumbled crest of rocks, partly covered with light snow and with some entirely snowy sections. We had to carefully clamber over this blocky terrain, hampered by having to leave our crampons on--taking them on and off each time the terrain changed from snow to rock would have been impossible, due to the time the process took and the precariousness of the ridge.

After this difficult ridge section there was another snow climb along a very narrow and exposed snow crest--I was glad the clouds obscured to some extent just how far it was down. Then, another rocky section, this one much longer and harder, had to be negotiated. I was ahead of the two Germans at this point, since I was in a "zone" where I was so totally focused on getting to the summit that concerns like my fatigue, the altitude, the difficulty of the ridge, and my companions all faded from my mind. Getting good handholds with my wool-mittened hands, sending sparks flying by scraping my crampons on the rock, stashing my ice-axe in my pack, delicately working my way around rocky outcrops by climbing over, under, or around them, I soon saw a cross on a pinnacle ahead, with a nasty notch in the ridge the last obstacle. I shouted back to the Germans that I could see the top.

Lowering myself down gingerly, finding snow-filled clefts, gullies, and handholds, I reached the bottom of the notch, and, at the very last pitch to the summit, used some webbing left as a climbing aid to pull myself up to the top of the ledgy rock tower. I was standing alone at the summit of the Dufourspitze of Monte Rosa, 4634 meters (15,203 feet) above sea level, the highest point in all of Switzerland and second highest in the Alps. It was 10 AM.

The two German guys were back on the knob on the other side of the final notch, and, raising my arms like Rocky, I yelled some encouragement over to them. I sat down, took off my pack, and ate some candy bars while surveying my situation. The summit was right on the boundary of the clouded area, so it was sort of sunny, with limited views towards Italy, but none at all towards the way I had come up or of Switzerland and the Matterhorn. A small open frame cross and other artifacts littered the area, but I saw no logbook.

The Germans finally arrived, and we shook hands and offered congratulations all the way around. They complimented me on my climbing ability, little knowing the degree to which I was in over my head on the hardest peak I had ever climbed. We took each other's pictures, although the general lack of scenery among the clouds was not ideal for this. At times, when the swirling, wind driven clouds parted, I was able to make out the Signalkuppe with its hut crowning the summit and the glacier thousands of feet below to the south.

After resting some more, giving the German guys some of my candy bars, and savoring the moment, it was time to descend. The three of us stayed together for most of the trip back along the serrated ridge, first lowering ourselves down from the summit pinnacle with the fixed webbing, delicately crossing the notch, and clambering back over the blocky ridge. At a particularly tricky tower I had trouble finding the easiest way around, forgetting how I had turned it on the way over. I finally found the right way, trying not to think of how my life was literally hanging by the handholds my mittened right (never the left!) hand was finding on snow-dusted rock while my crampon-encumbered feet tried to find purchase, not having any idea how far I might fall since thick clouds obscured all below from my 15,000 foot perches. One of the German guys found another way over the tower, and once we had rejoined on its far side I joked that maybe they were premature in complimenting my climbing.

At the next section of ridge we encountered climbers coming the other way--the first others we had seen since leaving the Sattel. As always, passing each other was a tricky maneuver on the narrow ridge. At the other tricky section of ridge, after the intervening snow crest, we had to wait for more groups, including the Japanese climbers from the hut, to pass. Hans became impatient waiting, and took a harder route around them, and I was more than happy to follow him. Most of these other groups were roped up, but the three of us seemed to be fine free climbing around the slow bozos clogging up the ridge. As we climbed down I talked more to the German guys, peppering my conversation with occasional sentences in my bad German so they would realize that I was making some attempt to learn the language of where I was travelling.

Finally we reached the top of the last icy slope leading down to the Sattel, and here the third German guy, who had been left behind by his two buddies, was waiting. He had gotten bored and climbed up a little, but as I went on ahead down to the Sattel, I saw why he had been ditched--coming down, he was S-L-O-W--it was almost excruciating to watch him laboriously and cautiously make his way down. It was steep and icy, though, and even I had to take extra care, my ice axe always ready to arrest a fall.

The clouds had cleared even more now, and there were views down to the glacier to the south as I rested at the Sattel, but I was keen to get down off of the mountain. The Germans said they were going to rest a bit, and they had to wait for their friend still coming down, so we said goodbye--I said I might see them at the Monte Rosa Hutte or in Zermatt, and we wished each other luck. I then started motoring down the huge snowfield leading down easily from the Sattel. Sadly, I never saw those guys again.

As usual, I really cruised downhill on the snow. The clouds had lifted, and all I had to do was effortlessly plunge-step down the broad path leading downhill among the broad snow hillocks covering the massive northwest flank of Monte Rosa. I made excellent time, and by noon I was down into the last real obstacle to my retreat, the crevassed area in the lower reaches of the snow area. I could now see where I had to go, and I tried to stay on a main path, but there were still huge, ugly crevasses to be crossed, although they didn't seem too deep. However, careless due to my incredibly easy cruise down from the Sattel, I stepped on what looked like solid snow and instead found myself falling through a snow bridge into a narrow crevasse. Fortunately, I stopped myself with my arms, only falling in up to my waist, and was able to lift myself out onto solid snow.

I had scratched my hand on the snow a little, but the main damage from this mishap was psychological--I was very perturbed by how careless I had been at not checking the snow bridge more carefully (especially since the same thing had happened on the Grossglockner), and I was almost in a kind of shock. The only consolation was that the crevasse hadn't been too deep or wide, and I probably could have gotten out easily.

Shaken, I continued through the crevassed area, jumping a few chasms, and finally emerged on easy, gentle snow, which led me very easily to the bottom of the snowfield, which I reached by 12:30 PM. (My guidebook had said of the Monte Rosa climb that, due to sun-softening, it was best to be off the snow by 1 PM--maybe they should amend that to noon!) Here I took a long rest, removed my crampons for the first time since putting them on at the same place in the morning, and then started down the area of jumbled boulders towards the hut. It was easy going, since I could now see where I had to go, and I had always been a good rock-hopper. The route and cairns, though, were pretty random, and it was easy to see how I got lost in the dark in the morning. At one point, though, I accidentally dislodged a largish rockslide on a switchbacked section of path--luckily two climbers were well ahead of me at the time. I passed them a little later, then reached the dusty path atop the moraine that led me easily down to the Monte Rosa Hutte, where I arrived at 1:30 PM.

Here I rested a bit, and got the stuff I had left behind in a basket at the hut back into my pack, mainly my sleeping bag. While lounging around and repacking I saw the Italian couple from this morning, even though I hadn't seen them since they got ahead of me on the way up. I also looked for the logbook in the hut so I could record my success next to yesterday's entry, but I couldn't find it. I never considered staying another night--the place was too noisy and uncomfortable a place to sleep.

I then took off from the hut, following the well-worn trail down to the huge glaciers, passing many people struggling up the steep switchbacks with huge packs. I then crossed the glaciers, not bothering with crampons as I followed the poles marking the route across one big glacier, a band of rocks, and then another 95% crevasse-free expanse of crusted ice and flowing rivulets--the only obstacles were when the rivulets became rivers flowing over the ice, some of which required a flying leap to cross. I was becoming quite thirsty, since I was pretty much out of water and I hadn't bought any of the expensive bottled stuff at the hut, but at least I was in the homestretch.

Once the glaciers had been crossed, I had to deal with the long, gradual uphill to the Rotbonden train station. This was a heartbreaker, since I was very, very tired, it was now hot and sunny out, I was pretty much out of food and water, and it was longer than I remembered. The views of Monte Rosa, only its very summits still cloud-covered, were excellent, though, and I got a passing hiker to take a picture of me in front of the peak I had just climbed. A cheerful Englishman coming the other way, aiming for the summit the next day with a guide, congratulated me on my climb, saying it was a shame more Americans didn't go for the Dufourspitze instead of the overcrowded Matterhorn.

Haggard and winded, I arrived at the Rotbonden station, changed my pants behind the station building, and soon boarded the 4:20 PM train down for Zermatt--it was somewhat crowded, but I got a seat. It wasn't as clear as on my ride up, and the Matterhorn was mostly hidden by clouds, but that didn't stop the tourists on the train from obnoxiously leaning out the window to shoot videos.

When the train arrived in Zermatt my priority was to find lodging, eat dinner, and sleep, all as quickly as possible. I thought I'd head up to the youth hostel, since it was probably the only affordable place in this expensive Swiss tourist-trap town. However, after a long walk uphill, dodging tourists and hotel golf-carts (the only way to transport guests and luggage in this car-free town), then a long wait at the sign-in window of the hostel, I was told that they had no beds left. They suggested the Hotel Banhof, which I already knew of as the only other budget accommodation in town. It was right near the two train stations, so I walked all the way back the way I came up, and was relieved to find that they did have dorm bunks available.

They also had private double rooms for 60 SFr a night, but my haggard appearance and ice-axe on my pack (obviously I was a real climber) must have stirred up some sympathy, for the nice old lady who ran the place let me have a room to myself for 50 SFr (about $34.00), a good price for any Swiss single room, and just what I needed.

I stashed my pack in my ground floor room, noted that the shower downstairs was being used, so instead went out to the Zermatt McDonald's, where I ate a huge dinner of McNuggets and fries. Back at the hotel the shower was still being used, so I decided to crash out without showering. At 7:30 PM I drew the curtains in my room shut, undressed, happily crawled into the creaky old bed, and very promptly went to sleep for 13 straight uninterrupted hours.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:7515 ft / 2289 m
    Extra Gain:774 ft / 235 m
    Round-Trip Distance:14 mi / 22.5 km
    Route:West Ridge
    Trailhead:Rotenboden Rail Station  9236 ft / 2815 m
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Exposed Scramble, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Headlamp, Hut Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cool, Breezy, White-out
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

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Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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