A winter climb of Dufourspitze
The Dufourspitze (4634 m) is the highest mountain in Switzerland. The mountain is situated in the Wallis region in the south of the country. The summit is very close (a few hundred meters) from the Italian border. Dufourspitze is part of the large Monte Rosa massif and near a number of famous 4000m peaks like the Matterhorn (4478 m), Lyskamm (4527 m), Dent Blanche (4356 m), Zinalrothorn (4221 m), or the Weisshorn (4506 m).
Nadine, Wilfried and I had planned to climb Dufourspitze for a long time but we needed several things at once: stabile weather, good acclimatization to the high altitude, and reservations for the newly opened Monte Rosa hut (which are hard to come by in the high season). We also preferred a winter ascend with skies as this speeds up the descend considerably.
We left Zurich by train and in less than 3 hours we arrived in Zermatt. Thanks to the newly opened Lötschberg Base Tunnel this is actually faster than driving there by car. A short bus ride through the village and a longer ride by gondola through the ski area brought us to the Klein Matterhorn. Here we would spend the night at 3800 m to help us acclimatize. Now it seems like we cheated quite a lot by taking a gondola to that altitude but the plan was to descend the next day to 2500 m and ascend Dufourspitze from this more "honest" altitude.
The accomodation at the Klein Matterhorn is very nice and modern. After dinner we took the flight of stairs to the top of Klein Matterhorn and enjoyed the sun setting between Matterhorn and Dent D'Herens -- a spectacular sight!
Onto the Breithorn and through the seracs of the Schwärzegletscher
The next morning we got up at 6am, had breakfast, and were on our way by 7am. The main objective for the day was to descend to the Monte Rosa hut, stay there overnight, and attempt Dufourspitze the next day. To fill an otherwise pretty short day we wanted to climb Breithorn (4164 m) via one of the easiest ascends of any of the Alps' 4000m peaks.
We were on the top in 1,5 hours and had the summit to ourselves (which is rare) to enjoy the panorama. This was my third climb of Breithorn but the first time via the normal way. I had climbed it in 2009 with Moritz via the Triftjigrat ridge through the north face and later that year with Wilfried where we climbed the complete traverse from Roccia Nera.
A quick ski down brought us to where Nadine had been waiting. She didn't feel well, probably due to the altitude, and at this point chose to abort the trip and ski down through the ski area to Zermatt.
We continued by traversing along the southern slopes of Breithorn to get to Schwarztor pass which gives access to the south side of the massif and to Schwärzegletscher glacier. This glacier is quite broken up in parts and it was quite exciting to ski through the crevasses and seracs to arrive at Gornergletscher glacier. Here, we put o skins once again and skied up to the Monte Rosa hut.
The new Monte Rosa hut, opened two years ago, is an architectural marvel. Oddly shaped with lots of steel and glass and covered with solar panels the hut is claimed to be completely energy self-sufficient. We enjoyed our dinner and watched the sun setting spectacularly behind the Matterhorn. Then we went to bed.
We got up at very early, had breakfast, and when we took off from the hut it was still dark. The night was cold but we quickly got warm as the slopes toward Dufourspitze can be quite steep. At 4200 m the route splits. One option is to head left toward the Silbersattel saddle between Dufourspitze and Nordend and ascend Dufourspitze via a series of steep colours where fixed ropes have been installed. We chose the other -- on this day less popular -- option of heading toward the saddle at 4359 m and ascending the mountain via its long west ridge. There were only a few parties on the ridge as most people had chosen the other way.
The ridge starts off as a fairly steep snow ridge with a few rocky outcroppings and eventually turns into a rocky ridge which leads to the summit where we arrived just after noon. We enjoyed the fantastic views from the summit and took a good break to refuel for the long descend toward the saddle where we had left our skies.
The Long Way Home
We were slower on the descend of the ridge than on the ascend since we had gotten quite tired and the altitude was getting to us. Eventually we arrived at our skies and started to ski down over the glacier. The snow had turned soft in the midday sun which made the going tough. We arrived back at the hut just before 5pm and we were spent. We ate a quick soup and eventually started to head down. We had liked to spend another night at the hut but it was completely booked. Also, the normal winter ski descend to Zermatt was unpassable due to too much melted snow in a gorge. So we had to descend to the Gornergletscher and then ascend the moraine for over 300 m of elevation gain. Normally, this takes perhaps 4 hours. It took us twice that long and by 8pm or so, when the last train to the vallay was scheduled, we were still lugging our packs and skies up the moraine.
We arrived at the top around midnight. Since the last train had long departed the plan was to ski down to Zermatt by headlamp via the ski area (officially closed for grooming). The problem was that we were neither sure if there was enough snow to ski all the way to the village nor if we would find any accomodation in Zermatt after midnight...
Eventually we passed the Riffelberg hotel. The door was open, we managed to wake the guard, and were relieved when they were able to give us a room.
We enjoyed a great breakfast the next morning, took the Gornergratbahn down, then the train back to Zurich, took a shower and arrived at work at noon. Better late then never.
Great climb, great weather, mostly great conditions. However, we had underestimated the long descend which became quite memorable. Luckily, this is Switzerland so even if you are stuck at 3000 m in the middle of the night there might just be a hotel around the next corner!