American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Some Winter Climbs in the Alps

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  • Publication Year: 1934

Some Winter Climbs in the Alps

Walter A. Wood, Jr.

SOME forty years ago a strange race took place in the Bernese Oberland.1 A group of men gathered at Lauterbrunnen on a fine winter’s day. Half of them wore a comparatively unknown contraption called skis; the other half wore the more conventional snowshoes. The race course lay from Lauterbrunnen over the Wengern Alp to the Kleine Scheidegg and down to Grindelwald. The purpose of the race was to determine the value of skis relative to snowshoes over long distances. History does not relate whether skins were allowed skiers ; however, they won by a devastating margin.

Since that time a rapidly increasing number of enthusiasts have set out each winter to conquer the greater peaks of the Alps. The summits of the Bernina chain and those of the Bernese Oberland first attracted attention, they being more readily accessible in winter and better adapted to skiing than those of the Pennine chain ; also the major peaks were easier to subdue and offered less danger of avalanche.

Gradually certain facts became apparent. Climbers found that with skins attached to the bottoms of their skis they could climb as fast and with as little effort as in summer ; that the speed at which one could regain the hut or the valley compensated the shortness of the winter climbing day ; that under normal conditions the cold was not intense and that rock ridges were often in better condition than in the summer. Certainly one and all learned one great fact : that the cabanes were empty and that the hills were theirs! No longer was it necessary to follow in the footsteps of the caravanes of the summer months, or to be greeted on a summit by a scattering of tin cans or a swirl of trampled snow. The Alps had been rediscovered.

On a warm March day in 1926 we motored up the Rhone Valley from Vevey and that evening arrived at Stalden in the Vispthal. The following morning found us trudging up the rack and pinion railway towards Zermatt (the railway was not then running in winter) embarking on our first winter climb. The start was not auspicious. The day was as warm as an August one, a hot haze hung over the valley and gushing tributary streams added to the boiling waters of the Mattervisp. Heavy sacks and a warm day are known to be conducive to lassitude, we were easy victims, and stumbling into Randa over the first patches of snow we subsided onto a friendly bench and loudly demanded a horsedrawn conveyance to Zermatt. This fortunately was forthcoming and late in the afternoon we drove triumphantly into the Mecca of the Alps.

The next morning we put on our skis and with the kinks in our muscles somewhat smoothed out by the tramp up to Randa, set out up the Zmutt Valley to the Schönbühl Hut contemplating great deeds on the Dent Blanche. That evening we witnessed a spectacle I shall long remember. We had expected to find Maurice Crettex and his son Nestor at the hut but they had not arrived. At about 9 o’clock we went outside to look at the weather and happened to glance up at the Col d’Hèrens. There we saw what appeared to be a star twinkling on its very edge. Soon another “star” joined the first, and then another. They could only be the lanterns of Maurice and a party of climbers. Slowly the lights swung down the glacier weaving back and forth, then disappeared behind the black mass of the Stockje, to reappear after a time low down on the Tiefenmatten glacier whence shortly after they gained the hut.

The next day dawned cloudy but cold so we spent it skiing on the glacier and going over for what seemed the thousandth time our plans and equipment for the morrow’s climb.

We left the hut at 3 a.m. and on hard snow skied quickly up the left moraine of the Schönbühl glacier to the foot of the Wand- fluh rocks. Here we left the skis and set to work on the steep slope of snow covered rocks leading up to the ridge. The snow was deep and firm, but realizing what a few hours of hot March sun would do to it we hurried on and gained the ridge as the sun rose over Monte Rosa. Once on the broad back of the Wandfluh we tramped up towards the Grand Gendarme, but were soon reduced to chipping steps in the hard snow below the heavily corniced ridge. The instability of these cornices was firmly impressed upon us when, as we were nearing the foot of the Grand Gendarme, a section more than a hundred feet long suddenly came loose and roared down to the glacier.

A cold wind now set in and long cloud streamers appeared from the west. As long as we remained below the ridge we were protected, but such tactics entailed cutting steps across a wide and steep ice slope. We preferred the wind. So up we worked following the usual summer route past tower and cornice to the final stretch of ridge. Here we met the full blast of the wind. Clouds were rolling up from the valley and long snow streamers were being blown far out over the Viereselgrat. What remained of the ridge would cost us at least an hour and certainly frostbite, so sadly but no doubt wisely, we decided to turn back. Quickly we made our way down to the Wandfluh. Its eastern snow wall was still safe and we ploughed down it to the skis and were soon racing down the glacier under a gray afternoon sky, to arrive at the hut as the first flakes of snow began to fall. Such was our introduction to winter climbing.

The following day we skied merrily down the Zmutt glacier to the Staffel Alp, climbed slowly up to the Schwarzsee and in the early afternoon arrived at the Gandegg Hut on the edge of the Théodule glacier. The hut was in a terrible state ; a recent storm (or was it smugglers?) had forced a window and the kitchen lay deep in snow and ice. That night was the coldest I have experienced in the Alps; the thermometer went down to 29° below zero Centigrade or 20° below zero Fahrenheit.

The next morning we waited until the sun was well up and then put on our skis and proceeded up the Breithorn. The day was cloudless and there was no wind. The snow was untrampled and no evidence remained of the crowds who yearly climb this peak. Only the occasional roar of an avalanche broke the silence. In fact conditions approached perfection as closely as they ever do. This was the first of three occasions on which I recall enjoying as nearly perfect weather as possible for the summit siesta. Oddly enough all three were in winter. The second was on Mont Blanc, of which more later, and the last on Popocatepetl, though the ascent of the tropical “Popo" can hardly be termed a winter climb in the Alpine sense.

A finer high mountain for skiing than the Breithorn can scarcely be imagined. With the exception of the last short ice slope it can be climbed entirely on skis, and the descent to the Gandegg Hut and on the Zermatt constitutes one of the finest runs that is to be had in the Alps.

In 1926 the glaciers were in excellent shape and after a halt on the Breithorn plateau we sped round the amphitheater enclosing the upper snows of the Théodule glacier and straightened out into a bee line over gentle slopes and soon drew up in a swirl of snow before the hut. From the point where we put on our skis to the hut we had descended 800 meters in twenty-five minutes. The descent hence to Zermatt did not go so swiftly ; the hot midday sun had softened the snow, and it was a wet but happy group which late in the afternoon skied into Zermatt.

The winter of 1926-27 is best remembered for its heavy February snowfall and beautiful March. Two weeks of almost continuous fine weather had left the higher mountains in admirable condition. Neither Pierre Vittoz nor I had ever climbed Mont Blanc. The snow monotony of the usual route had never appealed to either of us, and when once in summer we had had a chance to climb it over its fine eastern ridge, the weather ordained otherwise. Now we saw a chance to accomplish this climb and accordingly we wired Maurice Crettex to meet us at Les Tines the following morning. Assembled there we walked and skied up to the new Requin Hut where our spirits were dampened by a gray sky and a sprinkling of snow. The next day was fine again, but we gave the sun and cold a chance to harden the new snow, and spent it going over on the map the route of our intended climb. This lay first up the ice-fall of the Glacier du Géant, then to the Col du Midi, and from there over the Mont Blanc de Tacul and the Mont Maudit to the slopes of the Mont Blanc above the Col de la Brenva. Decidedly it was long; 7.500 ft. to climb and descend and twelve miles of ice and snow to traverse. We planned an early start, and in keeping with this intent climbed out of the only snow-free window of the hut a half an hour after midnight.

The moon was rising behind the Périades as we made our way up through the ice-fall of the Glacier du Géant then well choked with firm snow, and it lighted our way across the frozen snow-swamp of La Bédière and up the gentle slopes of the Col du Midi. The latter was reached at four o’clock and we had planned to leave the skis there, but the slope above the bergschrund on the Mont Blanc du Tacul appeared to be passable with their aid, and after a short halt on the lower lip we turned to the work of the day. A great icicle formed the best bridge in sight, and to chipping small hand- and foot-holds up its twenty feet of instability Maurice now devoted his attention. It proved easier than it appeared and we were soon on skis again, zigzagging our way up the steep (for skis) slope and shortly after sunrise reached the ridge a short distance below the summit of the Mont Blanc du Tacul.

Across the shallow depression of the Col Maudit the east wall of the Mont Maudit rose in a 1,000 ft. of glittering ice, relieved only in two places by large crevasses, one across the lower break in slope, the other beneath the rocks of the upper north ridge. At the northern end of this ridge, just before it plunges steeply to the Glacier de Bossons, is a small snow col, the Col du Mont Maudit, and over this we planned to pass instead of actually gaining the summit of the Mont Maudit. So after planting our skis firmly and putting on crampons we followed a contour round until we reached a point below the first crevasse directly under the snow col. Fortunately a firm bridge in the form of the second icicle we had met that day spanned the gap just where it was needed and gave us no trouble. The slope above, on the other hand, proved to be the crux of the whole climb. After a few feet the good snow thinned out and we were reduced to hewing a ladder up an ice-slope 250 meters high. Three hours later we gathered under the second crevasse having averaged about 250 ft. an hour since embarking on the slope.

If nothing else, the mountain proved consistent, and graciously favored us with the only practical bridge a few yards to our left. However, instead of joining the two lips, the bridge was nearly horizontal, linking the lower lip to the vertical ice below the upper edge. It was obviously a large section of cornice fallen from the upper lip and wedged precariously. Now our leader was a man of no less than 100 kilos weight, and he had already carved a ladder in ice for three solid hours, so in order to give him some much needed rest and at the same time to give the frail structure a chance to survive, I was nominated to tackle the problem. At the further end of the bridge I received a pleasant surprise ; a natural step had formed in the ice and supplied a solid base of operations. Ten feet above was a narrow crack which widened out to a width of several inches at the upper lip. The problem was to reach this crack. The first three feet went well, but try as I would I could not cope with a slight green bulge which prevented me getting the point of an axe into the bottom of the crack. Maurice came promptly to the rescue, and with alarming speed crossed the bridge and lodged himself on the ice step. He was then in a position to give me a shoulder and allow me to get around the bulge and nick a few holds in the crack. Then jamming my axe and with the aid of a shove I managed to get well established and shortly after emerged onto the upper lip of the obstacle. A hundred feet above us was the col and we were soon gathered on it, sprawling in the warm sunlight.

Now, for the first time since leaving the hut, we could see the upper slopes of Mont Blanc. I remember feeling a distinct feeling of surprise and a sense of depression at the enormous scale of those final slopes. I rather think that I had expected to see the summit just around the corner (a picture fostered probably by several hours of hard work above 4,000 meters), in spite of the assurances of those who knew better that the last stretch from the Col de la Brenva to the summit would be the longest of the climb.

It was now past 11 o’clock and in order to complete the climb and return to the hut before nightfall we could delay no longer. Leaving all superfluous clothes and food, we ran down to the Col de la Brenva and prepared for some opposition from the Mur de la Côte ; but the mountain had still more pleasant surprises in store for us. A coating of firm hard snow covered the reputedly icy slope, and though our pace was slow we experienced no check. Eventually we gained and passed the Rochers Rouges and the Petits Mulets, the only rocks we set foot on all day, but of the last three hundred feet memory bears but little record ; a vague picture of the climbing irons of the man ahead moving rhythmically upward, then a feeling of relaxation as the slope lessened, became flat and dipped down.

To some people the view from Mont Blanc is unsatisfactory. To a great extent I believe this to be due to uninterrupted vision. No great peaks dominate one ; the eye travels out over seemingly infinite distances, and the mind is seized with a sense of monotony. Be that as it may, to us it was glorious. Not a breath of air stirred, not a cloud could we see. We lit cigarettes with unshielded matches and watched the flame burn unwaveringly ; cast our eyes down 12,000 ft. and watched the tedious gyrations of a miniature train making its ways up a nursery valley ; then all too soon vve picked up the coils of rope and set off down, down the slope.

The shadows were lengthening as we made our way down the ice ladder of the Mont Maudit, and the sun sank below the distant plains of France before we had reached the Col du Midi. Night rolled up from the valley with astonishing swiftness and caught us before we were well on our way to La Bédière. No moon aided us on our descent of the ice-fall of the Glacier du Géant, and each crevasse appeared to our tired eyes as a giant serpent stretched across our path, each tightening of the rope seemed an intentional slight from the man behind. Shortly after 9 o’clock we again climbed through the window and a brew of hot tea sent us quickly to bed.

Two weeks later the same party gathered at the Jungfraujoch. A heavy fall of new snow had been followed by four days of fine weather so we expected good skiing. A visit to the Mönch suggested itself so we skied up to the Ober Mönchjoch and continued on foot up the ridge to the summit where we basked under a warm sun for two hours. Ten minutes after regaining the skis we were again at the Joch. The next day we climbed the Jungfrau and had the pleasure of using the coal-scuttle steps of the preceding summer from the Rothalsattel to the top. Then we became lazy and let a beautiful morning go by. Shame finally drove us forth and we climbed the Mönch again and waited until a fiery sun dropped into the sea of clouds before turning down the ridge. Still the weather held fine so we sped down to the Concordia Hut, skied up to the Grünhornlücke and back to the hut again, enjoying two of the finest glacier runs I have ever experienced. The run from the Joch to the Concordia Hut is over five miles long and lies over gently sloping glacier ; after passing a few obvious crevasses below the Joch the entire run can be made “full out,” and may of course be extended on the Märjelensee and down to Fiesch.

From the Concordia we decided to finish our trip by crossing the Lötschenlücke and descending to Goppenstein. The pass was gained in under three hours and after lunching at the Egon von Steiger Hut we enjoyed a marvelous run down to the railroad. I cannot find adequate words amply to encourage a lover of mountains to visit the Aletsch basin during the winter or spring months. Almost all the tributary glaciers provide fine runs, and he will find, given normal weather conditions, the peaks, so overrun during the summer months, as he will want them.

At Christmas-time, 1932, I found myself again at Zermatt, irresistibly drawn back to this Mecca. A vague indescribable feeling told me that good weather was in store, and from the middle of December to the middle of January there were but two days when the sky was overcast. In fact, conditions were too good. The light snowfalls of the autumn had had but little effect on the glaciers which gaped wide and glistened in the sun. I had designs on the Lyskamm ; they had to be postponed in favor of a less glaciated peak. Choice finally rested on the Rimpfischhorn and Julen Simon and I skied up to the Fluh Alp on the afternoon after Christmas. The ensuing night was bitterly cold with the result that when we awoke we found that Simon’s watch, a coveted prize of the 1928 Olympic Games, had frozen and indicated a constant one-fifteen. How long this state had lasted we had no idea but we felt that, although there was no sign of the dawn, it must be getting late. Accordingly after a quick breakfast we set off on good snow towards the end of the long broad southwest ridge. For two hours we climbed over windblown snow slopes, aggravatingly interspersed with the barely protruding rocks of the summer talus, until we reached the ridge proper. Still the eastern sky betrayed no signs of the dawn, so planting the skis and putting on crampons we set off up the easy rocks to the first saddle of the ridge. From here on the light snowfalls and strong winds had played havoc with the glacier surface. No vestige of snow remained, save where in an irregular waving line the snow steps of the summer months were thrown into extraordinary relief, in some places as high as four inches above the surface of the ice. I had never before seen this formation, and it is conceivable that it is only visible during exceptionally dry winter months. The explanation appears simple. The snow in summer is packed down and frozen by party after party, then during a dry early winter the wind blows off the surrounding loosely packed snow, leaving the steps in relief.

As we made our way along and up this miniature wall the day at last proclaimed itself, and the east face of Monte Rosa seemed a wall of fire as we stopped for a second breakfast among the rocks at the upper end of the long glacier ridge. Above these rocks and beyond a shallow depression rose the final peak, and soon we were engaged in cutting up a steep couloir to the rocks of the south ridge. These were warm and solid and we fully enjoyed a half hour’s scramble to the highest point, there to spend an agreeable hour scanning the east face of Monte Rosa through field glasses. The descent to the skis was quickly done, but the evil wind-blown snow on the talus slopes cost us no little time and patience and not a few spills before the Flub Alp was reached.

Fine day after fine day followed until at last even the rocks of the Matterhorn lost their milky appearance and rose black and inviting. The weather was too cold to fulfill the appealing temptation, though given a warmer day the mountain could certainly have been climbed with no great difficulty. Finally we could stand it no longer and set forth to climb the Wellenkuppe which, I had heard, had not been climbed in winter.1

Those familiar with the Obergabelhorn-Rothorn chain no doubt recall the discomfort the long trudge from the Trift Hotel up the interminable moraine to the rocks of the Eseltschuggen. They will be pleased to know that in winter the slope between the old and the more recent moraine offers an easy, quick and altogether enjoyable way up this part of the climb.

We arrived at the Eseltschuggen at 8 o’clock and stopped there for a short time to profit by the first warm rays of the sun, and then continued over the almost level snowfield of the Trift glacier toward the Triftjoch before turning southwards up the slopes of the northwest face. These soon became too steep and the snow too hard to continue on skis, so we abandoned the latter and struck off diagonally towards the short snow arête at the foot of the east ridge. The bergschrund presented no difficulty and we soon reached the firm rocks above the snow arête. From here on to the summit the ridge was bone dry, the rock firm and easy but always interesting. I can recall no occasion in summer when rock climbing was more agreeable. A bare 4½ hours after leaving the Trift Hotel we climbed through a break in the cornice onto the summit. Twenty minutes on the hard wind-blown crest and we turned valleywards, and on regaining the skis raced down in swirls of fine powder snow to the hotel.

There is every reason to believe that winter climbing in the Alps at least, will become quite as popular as is climbing in summer. True, the number of practicable itineraries will be reduced. Because of the cold in the shade, northern approaches offer the most difficulty, and the snow-bound rocks of great faces are infinitely harder, though not necessarily objectively more dangerous than in summer. The great ridges will provide the surest and probably the most frequented avenues of approach. Contrary to general opinion, under average winter conditions they are almost if not entirely free from snow, and very rarely are their rocks ice-coated. This state of affairs exists because, above a certain altitude, the temperature does not rise above the freezing point, consequently there is no melting of the snow for refreezing into verglas. Secondly, dry snow has little opportunity to accumulate on or near a ridge ; it is almost immediately blown off.

The greatest danger confronting the winter climber, the avalanche, is not always to be found on the mountains themselves. It will be met with on the steep slopes rising from the valleys where the air is warmer. For this reason, the approach to the hut is often the most dangerous part of a winter climb and it should be planned and executed with the same caution as the major part of the expedition. No snow-covered slopes at however gentle an angle are entirely free from this danger, and in an effort to alleviate it in every way possible, maps have been published upon which are indicated the most likely places where they may be expected, and these should be obtained as a matter of course by anyone planning a winter climb, no matter how wide his experience or how good his knowledge of snow may be.

Those who harbor a love of the high hills, who revel in the delight of a long ski run and wish to rediscover the Alps for themselves, will not come away disappointed.

1 Marcel Kurz, Alpinisme Hivernale.

1 This seems scarcely possible, but up to the time of writing I have heard of no other winter ascent.

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