Switzerland’s Highest Mountain

In two weeks we shall be back in Zermatt, Switzerland and increasingly my mind is already heading out there. So it seems an appropriate time to post something that is both Swiss and connected with my love of mountains. Click on any image in this post to see an enlargement.

Today’s post is the first part of a three-part series on Switzerland’s highest mountain and will include images from my own ascent of it. Parts 2 and 3 will follow in the next two days.

Switzerland is home to the majority of the 4000m peaks in the European Alps: a range that stretches in a giant arc from Southern France, through Switzerland and Austria to the Dolomites of NE Italy and the Julian Alps of Slovenia. Altogether there are 76 major summits of over 4,000M in height in the Alps (if you accept Blodig’s original list). The highest of all being Mont Blanc (4807M) that lies on the French-Italian border.

The Monte Rosa Massif – Dufourspitze, centre top – click to enlarge

The highest summit in Switzerland is the Dufourspitze (4634M) – the highest summit of the huge Monte Rosa and the second highest of all the Alpine summits.

But Monte Rosa is not recognized as Switzerland’s highest mountain: A mountain called the Dom has that honour. Why, I hear you ask? And many of you may well say – ‘I’ve never heard of the Dom’. Let me explain this apparent contradiction.

Taschhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze as seen from Langfluh above Saas fee

Switzerland is known for many things: reliability, high quality service, hospitality, punctuality and precision. That preciseness extends to how the Swiss define their highest mountain. For a mountain to be known as Switzerland’s highest mountain the criterion used is that the mountain must be entirely within Switzerland’s borders. Monte Rosa straddles the Swiss/Italian border and therefore is disqualified! Switzerland’s highest mountain is therefore the Dom because it is entirely Swiss. It is also incidentally the third highest of all the major Alpine peaks if we ignore the subsidiary summits of Monte Rosa that happen to be higher.

The Long view – The Mischabel range – Dom centre peak – seen from Almagelleralp

By any measure the Dom is a big mountain: impressive and visually spectacular. It deserves more column inches in the Alpine literature than it gets, but maybe it loses out because the standard route up the mountain is a long slog without having any great aesthetic qualities.

Dom (Lt), Taschhorn (Rt) – from the Rothorn, Zermatt

All mountains show a different face to us depending on the viewpoint we select. Some aspects will be more attractive than others. From some points a mountain may look impossibly steep, from other angles it may appear easier than it actually is. The Dom is no exception as the images in this post will show.

The Mischabel Range (seen from Hohsaas above Saas Grund). From Lt – Taschhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze, Nadelhorn

The Dom is the central mountain of the Mischabel group of mountains in the Valais Canton. The Mischabel form part of the high ridge that separates the Mattertal (The Zermatt valley) from Saastal (the Saas Fee valley)

Saas Fee – bottom left behind the Pylon. Peaks from Lt – Alphubel, Taschhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze, Nadelhorn

Seen from Saas Fee, the Dom and its neighbours dominate the view  – together forming a stupendous backdrop to the village.

Taschhorn (Rt), Dom (to its Lt), seen down the Zermatt valley as a storm approaches

Seen from the Zermatt Valley, the Dom and its neighbours are positioned a few miles back down the valley and north of the village of Zermatt. But they still form a dramatic skyline although from this viewpoint the Dom appears shorter in height than its neighbour the Taschhorn – an optical illusion due to the Taschhorn being closer to Zermatt.

The normal lines of ascent – either via the long snow slopes of the North flank, or the NW ridge known as the Festigrat are not visible from any of the normal vantage points. So, click here to go to a view of the North side of the mountain. (The Festigrat is the sunlit Rt ridge line).

Taschhorn and Dom seen from near the summit of the Allalinhorn above Saas Fee – another aspect of the mountain is revealed

4 years ago this July, I had been retired for just over two weeks, my Nikon D80 (a retirement gift from grateful patients) was shiny and new, and I was just getting acquainted with it. My wife and I were in Zermatt for 2 weeks and climbing the Dom had been on my list of ambitions for many years.

During the first week I walked high to become acclimatised – including a walk to the summit of the Mettelhorn (a 5hr hike of 6000ft ascent from Zermatt), and a solo day climb on the Breithorn (one of the easiest 4000m peaks). To climb comfortably to the summit of the Dom – 4,545M or just over 14,900ft – without any acclimatisation to high altitude is asking for an unpleasant experience or worse.

And so, a week into our holiday, I felt fit, and started to study forecasts and plan for the two-day climb. The weather forecast was for dry, fine weather for the next few days. Now in my seventh decade I see no point in climbing high and seeing nothing when I get there – I climb for the views, the experience, and the opportunities for photography.

The circle of Saas Fee peaks as seen from Kreuzboden. From Lt: Allanlinhorn, Alphubel, Taschhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze, Nadelhorn

Importantly Charlotte (my wife) had given the climb her blessing, reassured that for this ascent I would be climbing with a Swiss Guide. Over the years she has got used to my absences to climb high mountains and knows that I am not a risk-taker and that I evaluate a climb carefully before committing to it. She takes a lot on trust, but being unaware of the details of a climb can be a two edged sword: ignorance can be bliss, but uncertainty can often be a potent catalyst for anxiety. And unrelated events were about to disturb that balance.

We were enjoying a quiet drink at the top end of the village when an Air Zermatt helicopter skimmed the roof tops, dropped into a field nearby, picked someone up and hurriedly took off. Helicopters do not normally over-fly the village, nor do they pick up casual passengers. We knew the signs: the rescue helicopter had been called out to go to someone’s aid.

The helicopter headed straight for the Matterhorn, eventually disappearing from sight. I had my 500mm Mirror Lens with me and set the camera up on a tripod and studied the sky. The mirror lens makes a good telescope – on a DX camera it equates to a 750mm lens. I spotted the helicopter hovering just over the summit of the Matterhorn.

A cropped frame though the Mirror Lens. A helicopter can be seen hovering above the Rt end of the Summit ridge. Two figures can be seen at the end of the summit ridge. Click image to enlarge

It hung there motionless. At times like these it’s not what’s said but what’s not said. Inevitably, I’m thinking dispassionately – what’s happened, how many are hurt, has there been a fatality? But I know my wife will be thinking: why does Andrew have to climb and expose himself to risk? Why can’t he just enjoy walking? So much is unspoken at times like these. We sat waiting for a while and then moved on. We heard the helicopter return but that was all we knew. By one of those strange coincidences of life I would know more three days later.

The Dom is not in itself a difficult climb but it’s long, high, and isolated. Definitely not a place to be caught out in bad weather. It also has the questionable privilege of involving the greatest height gain of any mountain in the Alps – 3160M. All major Alpine Peaks are two day climbs: a walk up to the hut on Day 1, and then on Day 2 the summit climb starting in the middle of the night, with a descent all the way back down to the starting point. Most hut climbs are made less arduous by the availability of uphill lifts – funicular railways, cable cars and gondolas, sometimes even chair lifts. Not so with the Dom. From the valley floor at Randa you walk every inch of 10,370ft to the summit and back down. That is a long haul.

The next day I visited the Alpine Center to book a guide. Every climbing centre in the Alps will have a Guides Bureau or something similar.

The Alpine Center, Zermatt

Here you will find knowledgeable staff who you can talk to about the climbing possibilities of the area, and through whom you can book a guide for a climb. Each climb will have a tariff, a brief description of its difficulty, and a published equipment list. And importantly this will be the best place for an up-to-date forecast for the next few days.

Click on the link that follows to move on to Part 2: Climbing the Dom – The Hut Climb.

NEWS: the Dom Hut was closed throughout the 2102 season for re-development. It is due to re-open on 7 July 2013. Read the Press Release here.

About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'.
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22 Responses to Switzerland’s Highest Mountain

  1. Majestic Andy. Not only the mountains but your images as well. The second image I absolutely love. Your composition and the way you’ve used the red benches/tables to lead the eye to the mountain is perfect.


    • LensScaper says:

      Thank you Edith. The second image was one of the first I took with an ultra wide lens: Tokina 11-16 (on a DX body). It was getting late in the afternoon and there was no-one drinking or eating. More to come tomorrow I hope.


  2. Some great pics there, Andy – You had great subject material, but you’ve certainly used it to advantage 🙂


  3. oneowner says:

    Thanks for this very knowledgeable post. Can’t wait for part 2. What a cliff hanger!!!


  4. How many impressive mountains. The mountains in Norway will be almost small compared with these. Interesting to learn what is a swizz mountain, and what is not. For us it is were the peak is that matters, not the rest of the mountain.. 😉 Good climb! I usually prefer to walk between mountains, looking at them, but I have tried som mountain views, and it is spetacular of course.


  5. So extraordinary photos Andy. I didn’t know the hole story abot Monte Rosa. That mountain is so high that I can see it from my place on clear days, and consider that I’m writing from east Milan. Have fun and bring your great photos, I cannot wait to see them! 🙂


    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks you Leo. I have been to the Monte Moro pass on the Italian border. From there you get a completely different view of Monte Rosa – it is a huge mountain. Do take another look tomorrow with summit views from the Dom


  6. smackedpentax says:

    excellent article – I really enjoyed reading it, and the photos are superb!


  7. seekraz says:

    Love those mountains, Andy…beautiful photographs.


  8. rigmover says:

    More stunning photo’s, and a great write up.


  9. linhartb says:

    Breathtaking photos! I love the Swiss Alps!


  10. We lived six years in Germany, and when our kids were young we took the long ride up the cable to the visitor center atop The Zugspitze. From there we could see four or five different countries. The Alps are just gorgeous, and I really enjoyed this post!


    • LensScaper says:

      Thank you, Bonnie. I’ve been skiing and walking and climbing in the Alps for 50 years now (I started young!). They are like a second home to me. We shall be back out there again in a few weeks.


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