This is the final instalment of a three-part series on Switzerland’s Highest Mountain – The Dom. Click any image in this post to see an enlargement.
- Part 1 introduced the mountain with Mountainscapes from nearly all sides.
- Part 2 followed my progress from booking a guide, to making the 5,000ft steep climb up to the hut and preparing for the summit.
- Click the links above to visit Parts 1 & 2 before reading on.
Update: the Dom Hut was closed for the 2012 Summer season as the hut is being rebuilt. It is due to re-open on 7 July 2013. Read the Press Release here.
Today we head to the Summit and back – a small matter of a further 5,400ft of ascent to the summit of the third highest mountain in the Alps.
But before we set off on our climb, a couple of points.
Wherever you go in the high mountains of Switzerland, and I suspect in all other areas of the Alps, you will from time to time come across inscriptions, plaques, memorials, and crucifixes. Most are in memory of someone who died at this spot. Or perhaps in some cases, that particular spot has been chosen by a family to commemorate a loved one for whom the mountains were special. Many summits in the Alps are also crowned with a Cross: The Matterhorn and the Dom for example. In the small chapel at Schwarzsee close to the path to the Matterhorn hut you will find this poignant painting by the celebrated Zermatt artist, Paul Sechaud.
On a completely different matter, this was the first major climb on which I used my new DX dSLR. I had yet to assess fully the accuracy of the camera’s metering in the type of bright environment found high on a snow-covered mountain. Knowing I would never be back there again I wanted to be certain I didn’t blow the highlights. So, for this summit climb I set the camera for matrix metering, set exposure compensation to -0.5EV, and elected to fire a set of three brackets set at -1.0EV, -0.5EV, and 0EV for every shot up high. Almost universally I found the -0.5EV shot to be the most accurately metered. I carried one lens: the Nikkor 16-85 Zoom with a polarizing filter fitted.
Back to Summit day, or more precisely the night before. The lights are out, we are all trying to settle, hoping to sleep. But there’s always one – half an hour after ‘lights out’ someone will still be rummaging in his rucsac, rustling bags, his head torch dizzily scanning the room. The snorers don’t hear him, they are already fast asleep, and there’s someone with a cough ready to chime in. And finally just as you think you’re about to doze off, either the man next to you rolls over to give you the full blast of his buffalo breath, or some idiot who had one too many beers for his bladder’s comfort stumbles towards the doorway, blindly, trying to do it quietly but unsurprisingly tripping over everything his feet find. The joys of hut life! Never expect to sleep – sleep is a bonus. Mainly you lie there thinking, rehearsing the day ahead. A mix of excitement tinged with apprehension.
Suddenly, a cacophony of alarms sound. It’s 2:15AM and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly everyone is wide awake. Ladies – if men want to get up, they really can do it in a hurry! Head torches blaze into life, someone finds the main light switch. Everyone is out of bed, the small space at the end of the line of mattresses is overwhelmed as the climbers on the top tier drop down from above into non-existent space. The best plan is to rescue your rucsac from the floor, and get it safely onto your bed space, gather your clothes (which have served as a pillow), get your climbing trousers and a base layer on, grab everything else and make a beeline for the door if you can. Escape to the main hut room and complete getting dressed there, pack up the rucsac, and return to fold blankets and check for any missing possessions when the melee has eased.
Then it’s time to struggle to eat breakfast – one of the hardest things for me at shortly after two in the morning. Cereals, hot water for tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. Tough dry Swiss bread, jams, and honey. Jürg is dressed and ready and between mouthfuls of indigestible bread and jam and mugs of hot chocolate, I’m getting harness and boots on and attaching crampons to the rucsac. Jürg goes ouside and comes back in: ‘It’s not cold, you won’t need a jacket’. A quick change of plan: I stuff the gore-tex alpine jacket into the rucsac just in case, switch to a soft shell midlayer and remember to transfer all the goodies – energy bars, sun block and lip salve to the new pockets. Woolly hat on, head torch on.
We head outside. It’s not cold at all. I don a pair of thin gloves, shoulder the rucsac, slot the ice axe between pack and back. Lock the walking poles to the right length. My eyes adjust to the dark – the sky is completely clear, a thin sliver of moon. Total darkness, no light pollution. Millions of stars: it’s the first extraordinary moment of the day.
It’s 0255 and we are off, the first party to leave the hut. Jürg has achieved his first objective – we are out in front. For 35mins we follow a rough moraine path until we reach the edge of the Festi glacier. Time to don crampons and rope up. This is initially a dry glacier – meaning there is no lying snow on the underlying ice, so all crevasses are clearly visible. Initially we climb steeply through a fractured area, crampons biting into the ice and occasionally scratching on rocky debris embedded in the glacier’s surface. Our route winds it’s way round and over crevasses as we pick our way up the left bank of the glacier. We are in a vast high wilderness of ice and rock and yet our visible world is confined to the pool of light thrown by our head torches. Higher up, the glacier becomes snow covered requiring greater care and after two hours of non-stop climbing we reach the foot of the rock step leading up to the Festijoch (a small col). It’s 0500.
Stretching behind us in the distance is a long line of specks of light of all the other parties following us up, bar one that has overtaken us. We’re making good time. The night sky is beginning to lighten as we remove our crampons to tackle the rock wall. It’s a steep climb on loose rock, there are fragments of a precarious grit covered path, fixed ropes protect short sections. This is not the sort of climb you would want to follow closely behind someone else with the potential to dislodge so much loose rock. It’s a potential bottleneck that we’ve avoided through an early start. By the time we crest the ridge dawn is well advanced – torches off, crampons back on. A brief pause for an energy bar and a drink.
Jürg says: ‘We’ll head up the Festigrat and come back down the North Flank. The ridge is steeper but more interesting and direct’. I’m happy with that. A round trip is more entertaining. In terms of difficulty the N Flank is rated PD, the Festigrat involves snow and ice up to 50° with occasional rocky sections and is graded slightly higher at PD+. Click here for a library picture of the North face of the Dom. The Rt skyline in the image, in sunlight, is the Festigrat,
Ahead of us the Festigrat soars steeply into the sky. One of the problems of a guided climb is that the guide is in charge. He sets the pace, he decides when to stop. There is reason in this – he knows how long a climb will take, he has a schedule to which he wishes to keep, and once in that climbing rhythm he does not want to break that rhythm every few minutes. But if one is a photographer one may wish to pause more often than the guide dictates.
Sunrise is approaching. The sky above is completely clear.
It’s a magical moment to watch that molten pink slide down the Matterhorn and spread to other peaks.
We pick up the rhythm again and grind out the height. Sustained steepness is relieved by easier angled sections. The rock sections promised in the guide book are all but absent. We have been in shade so far but above us the sun is hitting the ridge and it inches down towards us as we inch up and finally we reach brilliant sunlight.
My legs at times feel like lead as the gradient steepens and the air thins. We crest the final ridge at a saddle between the minor fore-summit and the main summit, where the route up the N Flank joins us and look up the final steep slope – not far to go.
They said this climb was a slog – they were right. It’s a summit hard won. But what a summit!
Finally we are there. That final magical moment. It’s 0850. Excluding brief stops we’ve taken just five and half hours for 5,400ft of ascent. Good guide book time.
We’re not the first on the summit, but ahead of the pack as long crocodiles of climbers are visible toiling up the vast North flank. Everyone has a camera out. ‘Will you take a picture for me?’
Cameras are passed back and forth. Some speak, others just sign and point. Everyone smiles, hands are shaken, people hug. Everyone’s happy.
And then we take a look around. Yesterday Jürg was here in cloud, today he says he has never been here on such a perfect morning. The sky high above is the deepest blue, no wind, puffy cumulus clouds are far away but will build during the morning. We are privileged to be here on such a majestic day.
Absolutely fantastic views in all directions. Down into Italy to the Grand Paradiso, westwards to Mont Blanc, north to the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, and far to the East towards the Piz Bernina in the Bernina Alps towards the Dolomites. Jürg points out the peaks I don’t recognise. The Bernina Alps are 100miles as the crow flies – a smudge on the furthest horizon.
I step out to the summit’s cross on a narrow snow covered arête.
Saas Fee is a tiny dot below us. Zermatt similarly (see earlier image) is miles away and far below us.
We linger for 40 minutes before we decide we really ought to start the descent.
We descend the North Flank rapidly – long loping strides, crampons biting into the snow. Its a huge expanse of snow that we cut across, northwards initially before the route swings back passing below a huge serac band.
The path seems far enough away from them but one knows that if one of them were to topple, debris would cross our route. I hurriedly grab an image and move on.
In 90mins we are back at the Festijoch. Crampons off for the descent of the rock step. Trickier in descent than ascent, but there is no-one near to dislodge rock.
A pause to re-fit crampons and then we set off back down the Festi glacier over ground that we climbed in the dark, unaware of our surroundings. That’s always a rather surreal experience.
Occasionally I glance back, looking up towards where I was just two hours ago.
Spotting the hut is a welcome sight. We step off the glacier, remove crampons and have the energy to tackle the last stretch at a fast pace. The descent has taken two and a half hours.
We order lunch – Rosti eggs and ham, and large beers. While the food is being prepared there’s time to strip off the climbing gear and boots. Let the feet breathe and get into shorts and T-shirt. The sky has clouded over, the best of the day is done.
Jürg leaves first. He’s heading back to Kandersteg to see his family for a few days well earned rest. It’s been a brilliant climb and he’s been a great companion as well as guide. We say our farewells.
I get ready to leave, put my socks back and boots back on, and go to pay the lunch bill only to discover that he has paid for us both. What a kind and generous guy.
Now all that remains is a further 5,000ft descent. It takes me another 2hrs 15mins. The heat of the valley is oppressive as I descend and by the time I reach Randa I‘m getting dehydrated. I plod to the station and discover I’ve missed a train by five minutes: a 55 minute wait until the next one. Thank God for a vending machine dispensing Coco-Cola at Randa station! Never did a can of Coke taste quite so good! Finally I’m back in Zermatt just before 6pm.
What a day, what a climb.
Three lengthy posts – I didn’t mean to write so much when I set out to tell the story of this climb, but the ink just flowed. What I hope I’ve achieved is to give you some idea of what it is like to climb a high Alpine mountain. It’s fifty years ago this summer since I first visited the Alps as a fifteen year old teenager – a week in Saas Fee, and a week in Zermatt – and climbed my first 4,000M peak with a guide. It was the beginning of a very long love affair with the mountains of the Alps that shows no signs of ending just yet.