Dufourspltze (Switzerland)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

Situated on the Swiss-Italian border, the Dufourspitze (15,200'1 is the high point of Switzerland and second only to France's Mont Blanc as the highest point in western Europe.

The rugged spire, the summit of the Monte Rose massif, lies the Penine Alps just south-east of Zermatt. Nearby, there are many other noteworthy peaks to be climbed, including the all too popular Matterhorn, the formidable Dent Blanche, the Wefsshorn and the twin peaks, Castor and Pollux.

While most visitors to Zermatt arrive by train (autos are verboten in the town), our band of eleven climbers, including Jim Scott, my two sons and myself, came by foot, It had taken us two days, hiking east from the French-speaking village of Arolla, via the Bertol Hut and the 12,215' Tete Blanche, to reach the German-speaking resort. Striding into the top of the elongated village on a fine July afternoon almost fourteen years ago, we emulated another traverse of the Alps--Hannibal (sans elephants)--by laying waste to the first sign of civilization we encountered--a gelata stand. We were so hungry, in fact, that we pillaged yet another gelata vendor at the bottom of the village, just in front of our accommodations for the evening, the Hotel Banhof, Zermatt's answer to Motel 6. Bedded down that night in the Banhof's super-cheap attic loft, after a long day and a big meal, another thrifty fellow-climber threatened to part my hair with his ice axe if I didn't turn over and stop my (alleged) snoring.

We left Zermatt early the following afternoon and rode the Gornergratt railroad to the Rotboden station, one stop below the upper terminus. Detraining there, we followed a footpath south across a saddle, and then made a long descending traverse to the Gorner glacier (8,715'). From there we crossed the crevasse-free glacier, unroped, heading for a moraine below and to the left of the Monte Rose Hut (9,170'), a stone building that was difficult to spot among all the other rocks. That night we had an early dinner and retired at eight p.m., while sun shafts were still streaming throughjagged peaks to the west.

At two a.m. the following morning, we arose and by three we were ready to begin our summit attempt. Using headlamp, we followed a footpath winding up an open valley behind the lateral moraine of the Grenz glacier, turned left at a group of large cairns, and then climbed mixed scree and snow beside the Monte Rose glacier. When first light appeared in the east, we were working up a well-defined snow trail, climbing to a snow spur on the right side of the Monte Rosa glacier. As the first rays of the sun hit the tops of the surrounding mountains, we were climbing east and southeast through a crevassed zone, then up a small valley (or cwm, if you're Welsh). About 6:30 a.m., we reached the bergschrund (approx. 14,250'), which, that summer, was easy to cross.

Next we ascended a steep snow slope until we came to the rocky summit ridge, which was packed with ice and snow. Because of the ice we didn't remove our crampons and thus we clattered over the ever-narrowing crest, where the exposure on either side wee truly awesome. If you fell one way, you were dead meat in Switzerland; if you fell the other way, you were chopped liver in Italy. It was about that point that our leader helpfully suggested that if any one member of our four-man rope teams should slip, the others in the team would do well to leap over the opposite aide to counter-balance the fall. Yeah, sure.

We gained the actual summit by descending a notch in the ridge, then climbing a steep chimney on the other side. since it took us six hours to climb the peak, and because we ware in no hurry to repeat the harrowing ridge, we sat an the top for almost an hour enjoying the wondrous alpine scenery.

On our way back to the Monte Rose hut, we discovered once again why Alpine climbs should be made in the early morning, i.e., we had to post-hole through the sun-softened snow, making our descent almost as strenuous as our ascent. The following day we hiked back to Zermatt, enjoying hillsides glowing with incredibly brilliant wild flowers and marvelous views of the Matterhorn.

In his book "Guide to the Worlds Mountains," Michael Kelsey states that it is possible to board an early morning Gornergratt train, "make the climb (of the Dufourspitze), and return to Zarmatt on the last train." Although he modifies this claim by stating, this would be a fast climb for the fittest climbers only, it must be noted that our group took forty-eight hours to do the climb. I like to think we took time to smell the edelweissl

THE MATTERHORN: A few personal observations

  • 1. The Matterhorn, even during prime summer months, is often unclimbable due to bad weather or unfavorable conditions. After a snowstorm, several days of waiting may be necessary before an attempt can be made on its summit. This is why our party didn't climb it during my first trip to Zermatt in 1980 (we climbed Monte Rose instead). Members of an unguided party who did attempt the Matterhorn during that same time all fell to their deaths. When we returned to climb the peak in 1989, we were delayed a full day due to a religious holiday--which fell on Aug. 14 that year--upon which the guides wouldn't climb.
  • 2. On good climbing days, the traffic up and down the Matterhorn is brutal, reminiscent of freeway gridlock. The guides insist that their clients be out of the Hornli Hut early to avoid congestion at the bottlenecks enroute. My guide was so insistent on a 4:30 a.m. start that he clipped me in end pulled me out the hut door even while I was still munching a piece of toast at the breakfast table. At one particular choke point on our descent, we literally climbed over a group of ascending climbers. We were, however, back at the Hornli Hut by 11:30 a.m.
  • 3. The guides are intolerant of unnecessary weight. All I wore on my climb was polypro underwear, a Gortex jacket and pants, boots (no crampons), a harness with a locking biner (no figure 8), light gloves and a hat. All I carried in my pack were two bottles of fruit juice, two candy bars and a camera.

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