Breithorn 4,164 m, Breithorn Central (Mittelgipfel) 4,160 m and Gobba di Rollin 3,899 m
After being stymied on Allalinhorn from crevasses, I was hoping to find better success out of Zermatt, the climbing hub of the major Swiss summits, which would hopefully translate into better defined routes even in this horrible spring. I arrived in Zermatt directly from Saas Fee, and stayed in the Bahnhof Hotel, pretty nice budget accommodations that seems to cater to climbers in particular. Zermatt is way more touristy then even Saas Fee with a souvenir shop on every corner and Matterhorn paraphernalia everywhere you looked.
Unfortunately, the Matterhorn remained behind clouds, and I had yet to see the beautiful mountain. I stopped by the Zermatt Alpin Center to ask about local conditions, and the closed sign on the door told the story- conditions were so bad, the main guiding office in town was closed until the following week.
The next morning I took one of the earlier cars up to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise to Klein Matterhorn. In a perfect world with perfect conditions, I would have climbed the Breithorn that day, and if the route looked good, Castor the next morning. But when I arrived at Trockner Steg, one station below Glacier Paradise, they reported that the upper cable car was out of service, and it would be some time before it was up and running again. I was sleeping in the dorms in Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, so I had no choice but to wait, and watched multiple large tourist groups come up to the station, learn about the technical difficulties, then go back down to Zermatt. I spent my time taking pictures through occasional holes in the clouds of the north face of Breithorn all the way to Monta Rosa, and wishing for the Matterhorn to clear.
It wasn’t until almost 2PM when the cablecar was back up and running, and I headed directly to the restaurant to check into the dorms. The set up was quite interesting, tucked above the restaurant and looking like a bit of a work in progress, the dorms let climbers stay while everyone, including the staff, takes the cablecar back down to Zermatt.
I had a lot of time to kill and went to the viewing deck at the top of Klein Matterhorn to assess the conditions on Breithorn. It looked like I could see tracks in the snow- a good sign. I then met a team of Spanish climbers who said they had climbed it the day before- more good signs. That team had attempted Castor and Pollux that morning and found deep snow and most of the crevasses hidden- not a good sign.
So it was looking like it would be Breithorn or bust. I made dinner in the little convection oven provided to people staying in the dorm and decided to step outside one last time before heading to bed. As I opened the locked door from the dorm, I was surprised to find to young German climbers who had been trying to reach the bivouac site below Roccia Nera, but became socked in by the persistent clouds and light snow that had been falling most of the evening. They abandoned their attempt and planned to spend a cold night huddled in the entrance-way to the Klein Matterhorn cablecar. Imagine their surprise when I told them there were extra beds, a warm shower and small kitchen with coffee just upstairs. I brought up the two luckiest climbers in Switzerland, briefly introduced them to the handful of other climbers there, then went off to bed.
I of course slept horribly at the high altitude, and woke up at 4:30 for breakfast and to organize my gear for the summit attempt. As dawn began to break, there were whispy clouds around the nearby summits but it seemed still and relatively clear. The two young Germans came out shortly before I was leaving, and planned to head to the Breithorn as well. I told them I’d break the trail, and walked out of the Klein Matterhorn out in a crisp, windless morning with freshly fallen snow.
Considering the conditions I had been dealing with, I couldn’t ask for much better. I followed the ski tracts south until reaching the lowest point between Klein Matternhorn and Gobba di Rollin, then cut west up to Breithorn saddle. I aimed slightly for the vague ridgeline heading up from the saddle to the summit. Any track I may have seen yesterday were lost from the fresh snow, and I picked a line and started switching back and forth up the slope.
About 1/3 of the way up, I spotted the two German climbers reaching the saddle, moving much faster than I with skis. I angled myself towards the southwest shoulder of the Breithorn to avoid some rocks and a probable small bergshrund. The two Germans passed me about 100 meters below the summit, and I reached the top a few minutes after them, just as the clouds began to lift from the Matterhorn for the first time all trip.
Now I know that the Breithorn is arguably the easiest 4000 meter peak in the Alps, but considering the difficulties I had been having with conditions, it really was a special moment. The clouds were just below the mountain tops, and I had incredible 360 views of the eastern Breithorn summits, Pollux and Castor to the East, North to Matterhorn and Weisshorn, Northeast to Dom and Allalinhorn and South across Italy.
I exchanged photos with the two Germans and they skied down, back to the plateau in just a few minutes. I had hoped to climbed the Breithorn’s Central summit as well via a direct traverse over, but one look at the ridge and the answer was clear- hell no. The ridge was heavily, heavily corniced with a good 10 feet of overhang, and a crevasse even fracturing the ridgeline near the saddle between the two summits.
So I dropped off Breithorn back the way I came, following the same tracks across the glacier. The loose, fresh snow was beginning to consolidate as the temperatures warmed, and I found descending to be going well- so well in fact, that I started to think I could traverse across the Breithorn’s south face directly to the saddle, bypassing the sketchiest sections of the ridgeline. It was worth a shot. I cut across a high angled section just below the rocks, and spotted what looked like some crusted tracks across the snow. I reached the tracks and found they went directly to the saddle I was headed. Perhaps someone had been that way days before? At the saddle, there were a few small crevasses, not too hidden from the high winds blowing through, and I headed steeply up towards the Central summit, giving the cornice a wide berth.
From the saddle it took less then 30 minutes, and as I hit the summit, a light snow began to fall. I took a closer look at the tracks I had been following, and was shocked and mildly horrified to find these were not crusted over footprints, but the edge of the bergshrund where the glacier pulled away from the summit ice. It was extremely thin, now more then a few centimeters across, but I did not find comfort in the fact that I had been walking on top of it for about 1km. Now realizing these weren’t tracks, I was a bit proud to think I may have been the first one to climb the Central summit for the year (probably untrue, but let me have my moment).
The views from the Central summit were similar to the higher main summit, although it did have a nice view of the half traverse of the eastern peaks. The snow started to increase, and I dropped off the central summit and back to the plateau. I wanted to round out the morning by an easy slog up to the top of Gobba di Rollin, just under 4000m, and the top of the highest ski lift in the Alps. I walked leisurely across the glacier, the summit well in sight with the ski lift at the top, and no risk of crevasses or avalanche.
The visibility dropped further as I hit the summit, and I took a picture of the sign designating the border between Italy and Switzerland, as well as the Matterhorn in the distance, then followed the ski lines back to the Klein Matterhorn for my ride back into Zermatt with a long drive to Chamonix in the afternoon….