Adventures must be done!

Eleven Peaks (4th - 9th August 2008)

This trip originated from having no other plans for a holiday this summer. Hanging out in my flat and browsing the alpine club magazine, I identified one guided trip that captured my attention: eleven 4000m peaks in five days, tramping from hut to hut, medium-hard difficulty, that seemed just about right.

Here's a spatial overview of the trip as it was finally put into action:

Note that by clicking on the image, you'll get a bigger version onto your screen.

Day 1:

We had stayed in Zermatt overnight and, having had a last civilized breakfast at the hotel, proceeded towards the cable car that would take us up to the Little Matterhorn. To me this felt like cheating, I'd have preferred to hike up, but then, this trip was not planned by myself.
It was considerably colder up here (3883m asl) and we put on beanies and gloves while roping up. There were 8 customers and 3 mountain guides, forming 3 teams comprising 3 or 4 persons respectively.
First peak of the day was the Breithorn (4164m), a very easy summit with just a few metres of a moderately narrow ridge line.

View from Breithorn, other teams are visible on the ridge that leads to the summit.

We descended from the Breithorn and started towards the Pollux by crossing the Verra glacier.

Short break en route towards Pollux (first peak on the left) (4091m)

During our short break I observed three mountaineers descending in the face that was turned towards us. To me this looked fairly steep and I thought that, yeah, going up might be ok, but down?
When I looked back I saw the group just rolling down as tangly mass and come to a rest at the foot of the slope. Nasty. Reckon they were about halfway down when they fell. Soon afterwards, the REGA rescue chopper was zooming towards the injured and gave them an airlift to the next hospital.
Well, things like that happen, especially when you walk where you probably shouldn't. In any case, I was concentrating a wee bit harder just to make sure ....
The ascent lead up a snowy couloir, followed by a rock climbing passage, fairly easy (at least for me, others were huffing and puffing and wondering where to put their feet). This brought us eventually to a foresummit from where a gentle ascent along a ridge led onwards to the peak.

At the start of the rock climbing section.

Descending from Pollux. I just loved the warm, grippy rock!

From the bottom of Pollux it was just another slog in the now slushy snow towards our hut: Rif Guide d'Ayas (3400m).

Pollux as seen from the hut.

I slept quite well despite the height, the only thing that really troubled me was the woolen blanket that had the unwelcome tendency to slide off towards the floor. I also positively cursed my sleeping bag liner, as it kept twisting itself around me till I was wrapped as tightly in it as a pupating caterpillar; probably the late revenge of the critters that had died for the production of my silk liner ....

Day 2:

We had a late-ish start, around 8, I had expected a far tougher program.
Breakfast was typical Italian, meaning the energy value of the bread matched its goodness in taste (with both parameters being infinitely small).
The weather was cold and windy with clouds hanging around the peaks.

Approaching Castor (4226m)

The first part of the ascent was easy zig-zaging up the snowy slope till we got to the bergschrund. Here our guide led up and set up a provisional belay on top.

Our guide Patrick climbs from the Bergschrund to the ridge.

Up on the ridge a gusty wind was blowing and the walk to the summit stretched my nerves quite a bit. The ridge was barely wide enough to place both feet next to each other and a drop of hundreds of metres loomed on both sides, thankfully partly hidden in the clouds. We walked on the short rope, our guide leading and us two customers tottering after him. I especially disliked the gusts of wind and was terribly pleased to reach the spacious summit (here the ridge was at least 2.5 metres wide and only moderately steep).

Our last team on the way to the summit, shame one cannot see how steep and gusty it really was ....

From the summit it was all ridge line down to the glacier, but both wind and narrowness were no longer as imminent dangers as before, thus this was as close to a pleasant stroll as it gets.
We got to the next hut around lunch time and spent the afternoon lazying around in the sun and trying out the local slackline.

The Rifugio Quintino Sella (3585m) with some tents on the foreground; some people rather enjoy their own confined space instead of cramming into the hut (quite understandable, really)

Clouds above a range to the South.

View from a cairn towards the route of the coming day.

The setting sun illuminates a cloud above the next ridge, forming a fiery dragon.

The sleeping quarters of the hut were designed in a peculiar way: there were seemingly separate compartments but all opened up into the same roof space. Lying on the top bunks, I had a clear view along the length of the hut. This necessitated the use of earplugs very much.
Just over in the next compartment a bunch of talkative Germans was noisily getting about their business, nonchalantly chatting among themselves, stating "Wir sind hier ja unter uns!" ("We're among ourselves here!"). I restrained myself of retorting a snide comment and just thought 'What a stupid bunch of people!' before fitting my plugs and dropping off into a solid sleep.

Day 3:

This morning we got up before dawn and were on our way across the Felik glacier when the eastern sky started to shift from dark to pale greyish-blue.
I felt a bit dizzy and kept sipping my sugary tea. This seemed to help and by the time that we stopped shortly off the start of the traverse up the flank of Il Naso (4215m) I was again in full control of my body.

The flank of Il Naso with some teams already traversing up.

The side of Il Naso was about 45 degrees in angle but the snow was of very good condition and a well defined trail already led up. I had been on much worse slopes of similar angle (Comparing it to climbing Taranaki with Chucky, where we almost snuffed it) and this time we were even roped up! Thus, it was just concentrating where to place the feet and being ready to plunge in my iceaxe in case the middle man of our team would slip.
In this fashion we made good progress and even overtook a few teams that kept pausing. The only odd thing I noted was that all of a sudden there were no other teams behind us. Then we got out of the shadow (it had been pretty cold) into brilliant sunshine. We had a short break to take in the new scenery the lay to the East, then we continued up to the summit along another ridge, but this was easy, as the sides were not that steep and the air was calm.

Another team behind us makes for the top of Il Naso along the good-natured ridge.

We descended a fair bit down to the Lis glacier and continued towards the Balmenhorn (4167m).

En route to the Balmenhorn.

Getting there was quite a slog and I would have preferred to walk a wee bit faster but being roped up prevented such escapades. The last few metres up the Horn led along a short via ferrata, the only imminent danger seemed to be the crampons of my team partner who climbed in front of me.
There was even a little hut perched below the summit, but what a crappy place, some senseless dude had indeed managed to walk up on the snow covered roof and use it as an outhouse! Phew, there is virtually no end to the stupidity of people!
If you ever thought that getting snow from the roof for a cuppa would be smart, hey, think again!!!
After some snacks and photos we continued towards the Pyramid Vincent (4215m), our third and last 4000m peak of the day. In the lowlands to the SE, awesome thunderstorm clouds started building up and we figured it was about time to bugger off.

A group of mountaineers approaches the Pyramid Vincent from the SE with towers of thunderstorm clouds rising quickly in the background.

Again, the snow proved to be slush and we were slipping and sliding towards the next hut: Rifugio Mantova (3400m).

We sat in front of the hut, enjoyed coffee and cake and started to wonder where team number 3 had gotten to. We had not spotted them since that traverse on the Il Naso flank. And we also discussed the fact that, while we were descending from the Naso summit, a rescue chopper had been flying around.
Some rumors started popping up, delivered by arriving groups. There was talk of one person being injured, others claimed they had come across a pool of blood and that a whole team had slipped and tumbled down the mountain side.
It was another three hours that team three arrived, all unhurt but rather tired and psychologically worn out.
It seemed that some climbers had taken an unusual route up to the Naso summit and dislodged at least one slab of rock. This had been taking up speed, turned up like a wheel and leaped down the slope. Our group described it like a big bird beating its wings, whoosh, whoosh, before you knew what happened, there was a cry from the group behind them and one woman had sunken down. Her knee had been hit by the rock. Fortunately, the team could hold her.
The mountain guide of our team came to help the other group. Their leader tried to call the chopper, but the cell phone would not work. They then dug out the radio our team had and they made the call. Simultaneously, and unknown to the afore mentioned two teams, another rock must have gotten a following group in such a way that all of them were dragged of the mountain face and fell down into a bergschrund. Other people seeing this called in the mountain rescue as well. One chopper came, but concentrated on the bergschrund victims while the injured woman was still on the mountain side, conscious and in terrible pain (the wound looked apparently downright nasty, glad I didn't have to see that). The Italians running the rescue had had language troubles in first place (only Italian) and consequently figured that both messages concerned the drop of the whole team.
By now, the situation on the mountain side was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. Sitting on a cold, 45 degree slope and waiting for a chopper was unnerving. The leader of the injured woman bade our team to wait till his partner would arrive with their second team. They never made it. In fact, they were right then being dragged out of the Bergschrund. Three seriously injured and one dead.
When it became clear that no chopper was to arrive, they tried to call the Swiss REGA, but they could not react instantly either, as they were just then rescuing some dudes from the Matterhorn.

REGA chopper (Eurocopter EC 145) with medic on the winch (Source:

When the REGA finally arrived, they surveyed the situation from the air, then flew off to prepare the medical team for a winch insertion. The dropped the team right on site, fully equipped with crampons, climbing gear and medical kit and they got to work quickly, fixing the patient on an air pumped stretcher. The doctor and the stretcher hanging in front of him were attached to the cable and the helo pulled them out. By now, a second chopper had arrived for the transport into the shock room in the Inselspital Bern. The stretcher was lowered next to the other helo, put inside and off it went.

Gruesome story. We started to analyse this, noting that it might have been us if we had had one more break. Just a minute or two can make a difference between life and death. Well, that realisation was not really uncommon to me, still, it makes you think about your options; could you have reacted at all? Death is always closer than most people realise. A good thing to remember.
Still, fact is, mountaineering accidents happening that close do get to you, way more than seeing yet another ambulance racing down the street in your home town.

The weather forecast indicated that a cold front would move in the next evening. The original plan had been to do a few peaks tomorrow and then stay in the Margherita hut (4456m). This seemed not wise, as we might get stuck up there due to heavy snowfall. Therefore, plans were changed and the wakeup time consequently set to half past three.

Day 4:

It was a short night but I was frankly keen to get up; it had been horribly warm and stifling in the sleeping quarters. We had plenty of time to breakfast and get ready, or at least it seemed that way to me, cause I reckon my military training and outdoor experience helped to get ready quickly.
We got moving under head torch, heading uphill in a steady pace, stars glittering overhead, but most of us mainly concentrated on the ground and tried to breath regularly as the pace was somewhat quick this early morning.

On the move towards the brightening horizon.

Watching dawn was just grand. An eerie blue light started to illuminate the highest peaks while the valleys were still dark.
Our first peak of the day was called Corno Nero (4215m). I put on my trusted Macpac jacket, right over my windstopper; the wind was very strong and cold with some snow drifting with it. From the top of Corno Nero, we observed the sun that had just appeared on the horizon, sending its beams across the cloud covered lowlands.

Sunrise as seen from Corno Nero.

First sun rays at the base of Corno Nero.

Movie of snow drift near Corno Nero.

The Ludwigshoehe (4341m) was another easy little summit, way surpassed by the following Parrotspitze (4436m) which sported a 500m long, quite narrow ridge that led to the summit. On the Southern side, the drop was vertical with a slight cornice that served well as a parapet. the Northern side was probably around 50 degrees for the top part but got vertical further down as well. Being up here and feeling rather safe was just AWESOME!

On the summit of the Parrot ridge looking South-East.

The Parrot ridge (Source: Barbara Fetz)

Our team on the Parrot ridge (Source: Barbara Fetz)

Snack break after descending from Parrot.

Snow patterns. The lower part of the Parrot ridge can be seen on the left side.

Patrick checking on his team.

The following route up towards the Zumsteinspitze (4563m) was a right slog, just walking a few steps a bit faster and one could feel the thin air right away.

En route to the Zumsteinspitze.

Getting to the top was stoking, we felt incredibly elated and drank in the scenery with great gulps of air. There wasn't much around that could obstruct the view apart from the Dufourspitze (4515m) right next to us.

The Margherita hut (4456m), highest serviced hut in the Alps (Source: Barbara Fetz).

The Liskamm (in the background), one of the grand traverses in the Alps.

The last summit was practically a visit of the Margherita hut as it sits on the highest point of the Signalkuppe. I had a coffee and felt extremely tired in the overheated common room, thus was glad to leave for the fresh air soon afterwards.
All that was left was a descent from our current altitude of 4456m down to the Monte Rosa hut (2795m), that took another few hours along the endless Grenzgletscher (Frontier Glacier) followed by some boulder hopping down to the hut and just arriving there with the first rain drops precipitating from the approaching cold front.

The Gorner glacier as seen from the Monte Rosa hut.

By now, 2800 metres felt like the lowlands to us (Despite the fact that the hut overlooked a glacier ....)!

Day 5:

The last day was mainly a stroll to the next train stop, first leading across the glacier, then along the valley on a rising path. The valley in front of us was dominated by the world famous Matterhorn, partly hidden in a cloud.

On the Gorner glacier with the northern side of the Liskamm in the background.

Tramping towards the Matterhorn.

Grazing sheep near the Riffelberg station.