31 August 2010

Matterhorn Circuit, August 2010

I travelled with Exodus on their trip ‘The Matterhorn Circuit’ with long time mountain companion Richard Pratt and a friend from previous Jagged Globe exploits, Ian Jameson. 
Altogether there were 11 walkers, led by guide Sean, an excellent team, who, happily, saw the funny side of a couple of epics along the way. Well done all!

The Matterhorn viewed on the final approach to Cervinia

In the Trip Notes it states that this route is suitable only for experienced mountain walkers. Too right.
This was as strenuous a trek as I’ve done in a long time, and the knees certainly complained by the time we reached our final destination. Thank goodness for my local osteopath!
We had a couple of ‘statisticians’ with us. I’m glad I had not seen the data before we committed to the trip! Total map distance ~70 miles. Total ascent 7,654m (25,112’), total descent 11,316m (37,125’): 58 hours of walking in 7 days.
This is a hard trek. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security from the first three days. Most of the second half of the trek is in challenging high mountain environments, requiring stamina, a little courage, and absolutely no vertigo. In bad weather this trip is not recommended at all.

Day 1

A relatively easy day, crossing the Augstbordpass at 2885m, with the initial ascent assisted by the small bubble lift from St Niklaus to Jungen, high above Mattertal. Good views in clear weather to the Dom and the Weissmeiss (climbed back in 2004) to the east of Mattertal, and south to Weisshorn and Bishorn.

View into Mattertal from Jungen
The Dom
Mountain goats

The route takes you up through woods, then a traverse across open fell before crossing schist and gneiss boulders, with a final steep pull up on to the pass. The subsequent descent starts steeply, but turns into a well graded descent all the way down to the tiny hamlet of Gruben in the peaceful environs of Turtmanntal. Nice little hotel, the Schwarzhorn, with friendly service.

View west from Augstbordpass
Day 2

Starting from Gruben at 1818m, our objective today was to cross the lonely Forcletta Pass at 2874m into the Val de Zinal. Starting south along the valley, we then climbed steeply up through woods before taking a long traversing path across high alpine pastures. 

View to Forcletta Pass from the Augstbordpass
Approaching the top of the Forcletta Pass
Forcletta Pass 2874m
Occasionally distracted by the odd marmot, we eventually reached the pass on a steep scree path, with some residual patches of snow present from recent bad weather. The descent to Zinal is a long drop, over 1300m, so we were very relieved to finally reach this attractive (but rapidly developing) small alpine resort.

The long descent into the Val de Zinal
Day 3

A two pass day beckons! Once again helped by a cable car start, from Zinal at 1675m up to 2438m, then across high alpine pastures to the Col de Sorebois at 2835m. Fine views from here, with the high peaks of Dent d’ Hérens, Tete Blanche and Mt Brulé to the south and views down to the brilliantly turquoise waters of Lac de Moiry, behind an enormous dam at 2249m.

Lac de Moiry from the Col de Sorebois 2835m
View to Col du Torrent above Lac de Moiry
It’s a steep descent to the reservoir, a long walk across the dam itself, and then on to the unrelenting climb to the second pass of the day, passing Lac des Autannes to the Col du Torrent at 2916m. Fine views from here, with the Pigne d’Arolla (climbed back in 2003 whilst on the Haute Route), Dent Blanche and Grand Combin emerging through the cloud.
The descent to Les Hauderes was steep, long and tiring, the day finishing with a Post Bus hop up to the famous mountaineering village of Arolla.

Dam wall containing the Lac de Moiry
Lac des Autannes from the Col du Torrent
On the Col du Torrent 2916m
Another LONG descent, this time into Les Hauderes, below Arolla
Day 4 

Route from Arolla southwards, the Haut Glacier d'Arolla is just right of centre in the bottom half of the image
A short lift up the road to the start of the trail into the higher reaches of the Val d’Arolla. Today accompanied by a Swiss mountain guide in readiness for a glacier crossing, we headed up the valley before pulling steeply up to the hanging valley containing the Haut Glacier d’Arolla. 

View towards the Cabane de Vignettes above the Arolla Valley
Steep terrain to access the haut Glacier d'Arolla
Approaching the Haut Glacier d'Arolla
Looking back to Pigne d'Arolla, climbed back in 2003
A beautifully clear day, we were quickly up on to the moraine and then on to the glacier itself, no crampons required because of the easy gradient and the stones and grit embedded in the glacier’s surface, affording good traction for all. We had to leap a couple of larger crevasses before climbing more moraine to reach the steeper upper section of the glacier to attain Col Collon at 3082m.

On the Haut Glacier d'Arolla
Crevasses on the Haut Glacier d'Arolla
Crevasse hopping!

Lunch at the top, with fine high mountain views all around, before descending into Italy and a stop at the attractively situated Rifugio Nacamuli at 2818m. From here we took a much steeper descent into the long Comba d’Oren, our passage assisted by sections of metal steps and chains. Eventually we reached the beautiful Lago di Place Moulin, again with startling turquoise colouration, with a final, painful, descent through the woods to our dormitory accommodation at Prarayer, the busiest spot yet, full of happy but very noisy Italian walkers and mountaineers.

Slightly steeper ground on the final approach to Col Collon
Col Collon 3082m
Stumpy at Col Collon
Descent from Col Collon towards Rifugio Nacamuli
'Room with a view', Rifugio Nacamuli
Looking back up the descent route from Col Collon, view from Rif. Nacamuli
View back up the Comba d'Oren
Final section of a long day! Above the Lago di Place Moulin
Day 5

An easy start down to the lake through nice woodland in the cool morning air. But we quickly turned south eastwards into a rugged valley nestling under the Pointes des Fontanelles, and then north east into the hanging valley leading to the wild pass of the Col de Valconera at 3072m. This was the hardest walking yet, crossing boulder fields, old snow banks and then finally up very steep and unstable scree. Unpleasant in places, but height quickly gained. Great views back to the Col Collon to the north west and forward to the glacial Cignana lakes.

Hostel at Prarayer
Rough ground climbing up to Col de Valconera
View back to Col Collon from ascent route to Col de Valconera
Looking back on the final scree slopes up to Col de Valconera
View southwest from Col de Valconera 3072m
View forward from Col de Valconera to the Cignana Lakes
Tricky descent from Col de Valconera
The descent from here was also a challenge, using fixed ropes to climb down below the headwall and further assisted by our guide’s rope down alongside a steep slope of hard nevé. A good challenge, but glad to get down it without mishap, and then steep unstable scree before better defined paths to another finely situated hut, the Rifugio Perucca-Vuillermoz at 2909m. From here, a superb path zigzagged down very steeply, passing a large waterfall, before reaching a long traversing path to the gentler slopes around Lago de Tsignanax at 2157m.

Where's Hayden? Colin & Richard missing their usual climbing buddy on the way to Cervinia
Final pass before turning north into Cervinia
Our descent before the final pass...up and down, up and down...
The final descent of the day took us northwards on a splendid high level traverse, with the ‘big reveal’ to the south face of the Matterhorn, with the ski town of Cervinia nestling underneath, after about 20 minutes. A great view, and one which helped us take our mind off the rest of the very long descent on very tired legs. We finally pulled into Cervinia ten and half hours after our early start. A full-on day!

The Matterhorn towering above Cervinia

Final approach to Cervinia
Day 6

A claggy day, with clouds shrouding the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains. We took the lift system up through Plan Maison (2548m) and on to Testa Grigia at 3479m, overlooking the Theodulpass 3301m, which is usually crossed on foot in better weather.
The paths at the top hut were icy, and this proved to be an omen for what was to unfold in the next couple of hours. The next stage of our journey was to descend the ‘easy’ glacier slopes down to Trockener Steg on the Swiss side at 2939m. The slopes are pisted for skiing, but there are crevasses present, so some care is required. Accordingly, we were to be accompanied by an Italian mountain guide, Nikolai from Cervinia, who duly roped us up using a simple waist loop without harness before we set off down a slope which never really exceeded 5-8 degrees.

Glaciers above Cervinia, en route to Testa Grigia
Starting off on our ill-fated trek down the glacier from Testa Grigia
However, it quickly became apparent that our esteemed guide had misread the glacier conditions. Overnight rain had frozen on the surface and the usual melt of the top layer had not occurred, so we were quickly in dire straits, slipping down sheet ice, often pulling each other over, and we were soon bruised and soaking wet. The situation was compounded by increasingly strong gusts of wind, which literally blew us over, and we soon had all the makings of a minor crisis on our hands. Coincidentally, this slope would have been a piece of cake with crampons, but our Italian guide had got this completely wrong.
Eventually, we were assisted by another guide, who fixed rope to the edge of the glacier, enabling our group to shuffle over to the side of a rock buttress. This enabled us to warm members of our team who were getting cold, before establishing our plan to continue descending (as going back up the icy slope wasn't really an option), but this time on a slightly less icy route. The next hour or so was unpleasant, with many further slips and the overwhelming feeling of instability…I hate the feeling when you’ve lost control in the mountains…

Our glacier journey, centre picture
Injuries sustained on the glacier descent...should never have happened!
Let me say, however, that the Exodus leader, Sean, was excellent. Unfortunately, with the appointment of a high mountain guide for this section, he had to defer to the authority of the Italian guide, and was powerless to influence the events that ensued once we were on the glacier.
We finally reached Trockener Steg after 2.5 hours (covering just 2.2km), enabling us to change out of sodden clothes, get a warming drink, before setting off down to Zermatt on the lifts via the Fürgg and Fùri stations.
A long, boozy lunch was then enjoyed by all (me especially ;))!

Day 7

Although drizzly to start, we soon climbed out of the cloud which had settled over Zermatt overnight, and climbing steeply up through pretty alpine pastures we soon reached the chalet at Tufteren, with great views back to Matterhorn, Breithorn and, as we got a little higher up, Castor and Pollux, part of the fine set of mountains rising up to Dufourspitze.

Matterhorn in early morning cloud, on the approach to the Europaweg
Matterhorn from Tufteren
Zermatt from the Europaweg
On the Europaweg, view north to Randa
Retaining walls on the Europaweg, to prevent further rock slides
The path eventually led us on to the Europaweg, a path from Grächen, at the northern end of Mattertal, to Zermatt, affording great views across to the Obergabelhorn, Zinalrothorn and the Weisshorn, and maintaining an average elevation of around 2200m, albeit with many ups and downs along the way. The path is often narrow, exposed in places (though frequently protected by fixed ropes) and takes you into wild side valleys with some exciting crossings of vast boulder fields and precipitous river channels. Great walking, but concentration needed in places! Before our final 600m descent through the woods back to Randa, we also had the fun experience of crossing a newly constructed 250m long suspension bridge, crossing a gigantic couloir, Wildikin, which is subject to continuous rockfall.

Views along the Europaweg
A great day’s walking, but somewhat harder than most of us had been expecting for the final day.
Last night enjoyed in the Hotel la Reservé, St Niklaus.