American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Summer in Zermatt

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  • Publication Year: 1936

A Summer in Zermatt

Charles S. Houston

FOR some time Dr. Graham Brown had urged on me the delights of the Pennine Alps, and it was more than coincidence that brought us there together last summer. After a pleasant trip to London, we rattled all night over the lowlands of France to arrive at Brigue early on a hot July morning. The trip up to Zermatt, of which I had heard so much, was full of excitement for me ; the yawning chasm of the river, the overhanging instability above St. Niklaus, and finally the never-to-be-forgotten first view of the Matterhorn of which so many speak, all these made a full and vivid arrival for me.

Two days were spent in the village, while I was being educated to all the traditions and legends of the valley; then we met Alexander Graven, Doctor Brown’s guide for many years, and Theodore Biner and together left for the hills. Blessed with fine weather we made a short training trip across from the Schönbühlhütte to the Constantia Hut, returning by a traverse of the Rothorn the next day. Bad weather stole our hopes of continuing along the splendid Rothorngrat to the Trifthorn, and we scrambled down the Rothornjoch in clogging snow, followed down the interminable moraines, and finally reached Zermatt in a heavy rain late in the afternoon.

July 15th found us at the Bétempshütte with designs on the north face of the Lyskamm. Next morning saw the promises of the sunset fulfilled, and we were off to a perfect day, cold and clear with the rocks bare of snow. The north face gives interesting climbing, not difficult, but continuously varied. Five hours of actual climbing brought us to the lower west summit with the interesting corniced ridge ahead of us, the traverse of which took us under an hour. For another hour we lolled on the rocks below the summit with the great bulk of Monte Rosa before us until our watches urged us down the steep ridge to the Lysjoch and on over to the Gnifetti Hut for supper.

Clear weather and rather expensive hospitality sent us off at an early start next day, and we traversed several smaller summits of Monte Rosa back to the Bétempshütte. On July 18th we were again off early, with near-midnight shivers and backward looks to warm blankets. The perfection of the dawn from the Jägerjoch dispelled these treasons, but it was with distinct embarrassment that we looked down the steep rottenness to the Nordend Glacier. Our embarrassment was not mistaken, rocks were terribly loose and our language helped decide several wavering boulders to continue their course to the depths below. But in time an intricate route led us to the foot of the rotten face where we had a most uncomfortable scurry across, under the constant bombardment from the Nordend, to the Marinellirücken, over which we searched for an hour before finding the hut. We had found no former record of a crossing of the Jägerjoch by this route, nor do I feel there should be another.

Our weather had changed for the worse, and after two days of rain, hunger overcame our fear of the Italian police and we sneaked down to the Belvedere long enough to pick up supplies. Then amid woeful predictions of arrest we climbed to the old Weissthor and walked down to Zermatt. But immediately we returned the weather changed again; whereupon we took train and arrived in Macugnaga on July 22nd, legally this time, with passports stamped and with plenty of food. In passing we greeted our friends at the Belvedere and went on up to the Marinelli Hut for the night. A day later we started early for the Nordend, really the goal of our entire summer, by the Brioschi route. By four we had crossed the snow above the Marinellirücken and started on the steep granite above. Good steady climbing up the steepish slabs and broken rock brought us to a point level with the middle of the famous “Y” where we ate breakfast at eight with a grand view before us and the warm sun on our faces. (That warmth is the one compensation for the risks of climbing on an east face.) Seeing no need for the usual descent to the couloir on our left, we continued direct up steep ice and rock, bad rock now, but luckily still cemented by the cold of the night. There was a sharp ice ridge, cluttered now and then with a rock outcrop, then a steep snow slope leading to more rock, and then a great cluster of mammoth icicles to our right. Then after short spectacular work on rock we reached the plateau and a few minutes later were munching chocolate (English chocolate, hoarded from a long-ago trip to the Lake District) on the summit of the Nordend with all Italy below us.

The ascent had taken us eight hours odd, and we decided to try the descent of Ryan’s Rib to the Jägerjoch, which has been descended only a few times and never climbed. The other descents had taken over ten hours each, but with enough extra rope we hoped to make better time. Treacherous rocks covered with verglas forced us to abseil for the first 80 ft. below the plateau, and further steep rock brought us to an ice ridge where steps were cut. Again we roped in two long swings down very steep slabs to easier going where we were able to climb to the top of the first great step from which we abseiled free for some 50 ft. A long stretch of steep rock led to the great step, an overhang of some 400 ft., and here I was told to abseil down to find a platform for further descent. For 90 ft. I went down, spinning free, but saw no place to stop, whereupon shouts from above advised me to climb back up again. My emotions will be appreciated only by him who has climbed the thin rappel rope. After some futile struggles I was hauled ignominiously up, kicking furiously, stiff, tired, and very unhappy. Further investigation by the others disclosed an easier route to the left where two long rappels brought us to easier work on the last steep rocks. The Jägerjoch, which had for so long seemed impossibly far away, was reached after seven, but we had still the long march down through sticky snow to the Bétempshütte which took us till eleven. There we routed out the guardian and drank hot soup and toddy till our eyes closed completely. The combination of the two great routes makes a splendid trip, very long, and entirely dependent on perfect conditions on the rock. Ryan’s Rib, as can be seen, requires a long rappel rope, and, though we did not use any, a few pitons would be advisable. It is a magnificent rib, for the most part of good rock, steadily difficult, and very airy.

After several days of snow and bad weather we reached the Cabane Rossier in storm on July 29th, waited through another day of snow, and finally got away at five on the morning of July 31st for the Ferpécle ridge on the Dent Blanche. The interest of this very splendid ridge with its grand gendarme was somewhat marred by the bitterly cold wind pouring up from the north which made us glad indeed to greet the sun on the summit at 11.30. Our spirits were further cheered by breakfast on the sunny ice and the prospect of an ideal descent of the Viereselgrat. We found that unique and interesting ice wall in perfect shape and did not scorn the steps which some predecessors had left us. Much of the snow had left the ridge, increasing the interest of the fine gendarmes, especially of the Great Gendarme which is almost a peak in itself. This took us some little time, slowed as we were by the loose rock on its flanks, so that we did not reach the Col du Zinal until after four. Paying our respects to the beautiful Dent Blanche of which we had taken by far the most splendid routes, we hurried down to supper at the Schönbühl, with a long sleepy walk into the twinkling lights of Zermatt to climax a perfect day.

The next weeks saw a variety of adventures. To our regret we left Graven and Biner, and with Donald Brown and Arthur Emmons set out over the Théodule Pass and into the arms of the Italian police who whisked us down to Aosta on some technicality over our passports. Luckily we were able to see the humor in a very inconvenient delay, and when, a day or so later, we swam in the luxurious Lake Maggiore from Baveno (a town I would advise no climber to neglect, as the lake waters are guaranteed to remove any amount of grime, aches, or other ills), we blessed the over-efficient police. From here we were again drawn to the east face of Monte Rosa, spending two happy days scaling the huge boulders in the Pedriola Alp as we waited for settled weather. August 11th was clear, but Brown and Emmons had left by train, so Doctor Brown and I crossed over to Zermatt by the almost unknown Fillarjoch, between the Jägerhorn and the Gross Fillarhorn. A long scramble with one short passage of interest brought us to steep snow which led up to the actual rock face. At ten we entered a very steep couloir running up to the south but left it very soon when threatened by a nasty looking serac wall above. No other line offered save a direct ascent of the forbidding wall, and a way was made with some difficulty over smooth slabs. Without finding a single place where two could even stand together we worked up through varying rock for the better part of three hours until, at two in the afternoon, we reached a little platform near a waterfall. Food and rest were welcome as never before; we each relieved cramps with a solid bouillon cube, unappetizing but effective, took a few pictures, and clambered up the few remaining rope lengths to the top of the pass. Again a long and supremely happy walk took us down to Zermatt by moonlight, and when we tumbled into bed at eleven we realized a day well spent. Our route here was probably unique as there is little or no reason for the pass to be used in the trip from Italy to Zermatt. Few attempts have been made on the face of the Fillarhorn itself, and most of these have failed, while the only recorded passage of the col is that of Sir Martin Conway who seems to have found a good route up the couloir, today topped by seracs. I believe we chose the best way on the face; indeed in many places there was no choice, and the rock is solid enough for a rope of two, though we both agreed it would be very unwise for more to be on the face together.

This was to be our last climb together; the next days brought heavy rain and I was forced to leave on August 16th. I evidently missed my friends more than they regretted my absence, for a few days later Dr. Brown and Emmons climbed the Dufourspitze. This they claimed, in regrettably lazy manner, entitled them to a day or so in Baveno, and there in Roman luxury our mountaineering trip ended.

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