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ALPINE AUTUMN


I picked my rucksack off the baggage carousel and discovered that I had a problem. The tent poles that had been tied to the outside weren't there any more (I never made that mistake again). I registered the loss with the airline baggage counter and left my details, not really expecting to see the poles again (I didn't, although the airline did eventually pay me for them). After a night staying with friends in Zurich the usual efficient Swiss trains took me to Täsch, where I had planned to camp. The notoriously grumpy (but actually ok) campsite warden showed me a barn where I could stay in my now tentless state. He normally let it to skint eastern Europeans and the deal was that I should share it with them should any turn up. Nobody did, perhaps not surprisingly as the new snow was down to almost valley level and the proper climbing season had obviously finished. The barn had a perfectly comfortable wooden floor and an overhung verandah to hang out on and brew tea – the warden asked that I didn't use a stove inside, which was fair enough.


Matterhorn

Some pointy hill or other 😁


In the morning it was raining, with cloud right down, and the usually packed campsite was almost deserted. I walked up the track to Zermatt and back, partly in the hope of buying new poles, but sadly Terra Nova hadn't made it to Switzerland and waiting for an exact fit seemed a good plan. The next day the sun came out and I could see why my friend had asked "did you bring skis?". On the sunny side of the valley the snow was melting fast though, giving me hope that a few sunny days would bring some peaks into condition. On later trips I would know better, once the first proper winter snows arrive, that's it for the season.


Matterhorn from Schwarzsee

The icon from Schwarzsee


Still it was a great day for a walk, and I headed up to a now snow free path that traverses the valley side at around 2500m. I had never been to the area before and it was a chance to get a feel for the place and enjoy the views of famous peaks. The Matterhorn dominated everything, and however many pictures you've seen of it the real thing is still gobsmacking in its improbability. The lovely weather tempted me to climb a snowed up rocky ridge called the Ritzengrat, which was looking very Scottish. The snow was both deep and soft though, and it was very hard work. The altitude didn't help either, finishing on a 3103m summit called the Unterrothorn. This was an anticlimax as it had a cableway from the valley and was busy. I rejected the idea of continuing to the Oberrrothorn due to lack of energy and scooted off down the other side to Fluealp and the tiny Stellisee. Good paths than led down to Zermatt.



Mischabel and Zermatt

Mischabel from above Zermatt,Unterrothorn far right, with the Ritzengrat left of it


I obviously needed to get fitter so another walking day was called for. The Matterhorn exerted its magnetism so this time I walked up to Schwarzsee below it and down via the Zmutt valley, with the views again being superb. I could quite get into this alpine walking game, I thought, but I had come to climb peaks if I could, and the only feasible big one was the Breithorn. Taking the cableway up to the Klein Matterhorn at 3883m made this a simple job, with the glacier uncrevassed and well frozen. The weather had clagged in so I didn't get a view but it did mean that I had the mountain to myself. Again it felt very Scottish, including walking on a bearing to get back to the cable station. I was back down in Zermatt sipping hot chocolate by late morning (tea in Swiss cafes is invariably revolting).


Breithorn from Schwarzsee

The Breithorn from Schwarzsee, Klein Matterhorn on the right


My diary entry for the next day consists of just two words, one of them swearing. I barely left the barn. The campsite warden, a retired guide, was friendlier now that I had proved I had some idea of what I was doing and I asked him what other big peaks might be feasible. He suggested I go round to the Saastal and do the Allalinhorn from the top of the railway at Mittel Allalin. My accommodation problem was solved when the campsite lady in Saas Grund said that I could sleep in the shack that she sold snacks from in the summer. Despite looking like a rabbit hutch this turned out to be a great place, with a wonderful view of the Mischabel range from its verandah. Sunrises were amazing!


Sunrise on the Mischabel from Saas Grund

Sunrise on the Mischabel from the 'rabbit hutch'


The weather had now improved again so the next morning I took up the Täsch warden's suggestion. This being Switzerland there was an early morning bus from the campsite that connected perfectly with the 6am train up to Mittel Allalin. Twenty minutes later this disgorged hordes of skiers and myself up at nearly 3500m and I trotted off across the snowslopes towards the notch of the Feejoch. Nobody followed me.


Allalinhorn from Mittelallalin

Allalinhorn from Mittel Allalin


The snow conditions were pretty good and although there were a few crevasses on the steeper slopes below the col they were obvious and easily avoided. From the Feejoch a broad shoulder led up to the Allalinhorn summit, a nice narrow ridge. Although it was quite cold there was almost no wind so I could comfortably hang around enjoying the view.


Monte Rosa and Rimpfischhorn from Allalinhorn

Monte Rosa and Rimpfischhorn from Allalinhorn


Just as I was leaving a very chatty German called Alex turned up, having caught a later train. "Ah, you live in Schottland? I have 63 bottles of whisky in my house in Mannheim". We walked down together blethering about Scotland, about which he was quite well informed, despite never having been there. He certainly knew much more about whisky than I did, and it seemed strange that he had never found his way across the North Sea. When we got down to Mittel Allalin going for a drink seemed the obvious thing to do, and we were joined by two of his friends. I had never consumed alcohol at altitude before and hadn't realised the effects of the combination. One pint was quite enough for me.


Allalinhorn summit

Alex arriving on the Allalinhorn summit


I had now run out of feasible big peaks, and the mid-sized rock peaks had a fair amount of snow on them too, so another walking day seemed a good plan. I went up above the village of Saas Almagell and followed a terrace path below the Egginer, with gorgeous views across to the Weissmies.


Lagginhorn and Weissmies

Lagginhorn and Weissmies from Egginer Terrasse, Trifthorn low down between them


The path went over a shoulder of the Mittaghorn to where a signpost pointed optimistically towards the glacier, labelled "Gemsweg". I couldn't resist the name and had plenty of time so followed its lead. It turned out to be a much rougher path which curved around scenically below the sweep of tumbling glaciers that footed the Mischabel before descending to the modern buildings of Saas Fee. A delightful path called the Kapellenweg then zigzagged down to Saas Grund, with lovely views of the Almagellerhorn. I even had time for a bit of bouldering at a minor bolted crag on the way down.


Almagellerhorn, Saastal

Almagellerhorn from Kapellenweg


Looking across the valley I had noticed that the perky rock spike of the Trifthorn didn't look too far above the snowline, with the top part of the route being a ridge, raising the possibility that the snow might have been hardened by the wind a bit. The weather was still lovely and it seemed like a fun objective for my last day in the area. A good path zigzagged up to the shoulder of the Weissflue at 2100m, but from then on I was off trail. The going was pretty easy though until I hit the snowline, where I found that, ridge or not, the snow was still deep and powdery. Underneath it were rock slabs, easy angled but hard to get a footing on when you couldn't see where you were treading. It was hard work but I eventually arrived on the summit of the Trifthorn, a splendid little spike.


Trifthorn and Weissmies

Trifthorn and Weissmies. I descended the face on the right


The ridge beyond was much narrower, and still covered in billows of snow. A half-hearted foray along it made it obvious that reaching the easy descent from the next col wasn't a goer. Descending the slabs I had come up was going to be pretty nasty too, and the steep snowslopes to the north were asking for avalanche trouble. My only choice was to go down the full-on cliff on the south side, where the sun had melted the snow to leave bare rock. This looked a highly unlikely route but the grain of the rock had produced a bunch of short slanting ramps which enabled me to zigzag round the steepest bits. It was one of those things where "the outcome remained in doubt until the very end" as the Victorians might have put it. Looking back up the face from the bottom I found it hard to believe that I had just come down it, but it was probably only around Diff.


Weissmies south face

Trifthorn south face, just after descending it


Descending the Steintälli cwm and the Almagellertal was gorgeous, with the birches glowing orange and snowy peaks all around, one of the highlights of the trip. It's as beautiful a spot as you could find anywhere in the Alps, but seems to have avoided becoming famous.


Mischabel from Steintälli, Almagellertal

Mischabel from Steintälli


The trip had a coda, as I went to see friends in Pfäffikon, near Zurich, and had a day with them walking up a local hill called the Etzel, with far too much food in the 'Beitz' on the summit. We then had a boat trip on the Zurich See, during which I was passed on to more friends who lived in Zurich itself. They both came from Canton Uri and were keen to show me their heartland. They took me up to the Grimsel Pass, a dramatic spot, and as the restaurant wasn't open yet Rüdi, a keen mountaineer, suggested a short walk. Annemarie gave him a look which I didn't understand at the time, but she didn't say anything and we ambled up a grassy bump, not bothering to change into boots and outdoor clothes. At the top Rüdi said that if we carried on to the next top we could see the Unteraargletscher. Annemarie gave him another look, but we duly wandered up a slightly rougher summit, from which we could indeed see the glacier. The view was pretty good, but Rüdi pointed out that from the next top we could have a view of the Lauteraarhorn and Finsteraarhorn. By now I was getting the idea but agreed anyway, and as a result we ended up on top of a very nice 2700m rock peak called the Klein Sidelhorn in jeans and trainers. The view was just as good as Rüdi had said, but descending the snow slopes on the other side in gutties was a test. Annemarie had seen it all before and presumably knew what was going to happen as soon as we left the car. It made a great finale to the holiday though!


SW from the Steintälli, Allalinhorn in the middle and Egginer the spike to its right


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