Snowy mountains and a grumpy train guard competed for our attention as we disembarked from our train at Rotenboden station already 2819 metres above sea level. Our tickets were for another station further down the hill but the guard let us off with stern instructions to pay extra on the way back. Welcome to Switzerland! Back towards Zermatt we could see the Matterhorn (4478m) and the more rounded peaks of the Briethorn, Castor and Pollux. In front of us across the Gorner glacier Lyskamm (4527m) was a sparkling tower of shiny ice reflecting bright sunshine. To our left and totally upstaged the Monte Rosa massif sat like an inflated snow blob blocking the view into Italy.
A splendid morning for a wander up to Monte Rosa Hut (2759m) we thought. The hut perches on a rocky island called the Plattje between two glaciers. Used to NZ conditions we assumed the direct route down the worn track was the right route. After some interesting rock climbing amongst moraine debris we emerged a bit dirtier and wiser to haul ourselves up onto the dry glacier and head across to the foot of the rocky island. Here we slogged up the cliff to the main ridge making full use of the numerous ladders and ropes on the actual route. We were at Monte Rosa hut in time to enjoy a late lunch out on the main balcony.
The current hut, a massive five-story crystal shaped silver and white edifice dates back to 2009. It’s a triumph of architecture and engineering design. There are loads of floor to ceiling windows which serve to both let in all available light and to give full effect to the spectacular views – you feel like you’re outdoors only warmer! I thought from the postcards that the hut would be a real eye sore but once you are in the mountains it fits seamlessly into the alpine landscape.
The afternoon disappeared as we busied ourselves getting organised for our climb. The signs in the toilets warned that the water was not for drinking so we enquired in the kitchen. The hut might be 90% solar-powered but there is no such thing as free drinking water only commercial bottled stuff sparkling or still and sold to punters for a small fortune. Our bunk room was up six flights of stairs and shared with a party of Czech climbers who not only spoke Czech but German and English. They were used to climbing in expensive places like Switzerland and seasoned at finding ways to make their dollars stretch far enough for them to be able to drink plenty of beer. They kept us entertained with their funny stories and jokes about New Zealand being at the bottom of the world.
In the dining room we all enjoyed the catered dinner. The food did not match the views although it is hard to fault ice cream. The level of commercialisation even in this remote hut amused us. The place mats were advertisements for Coca Cola; the mugs were festooned with the Mammut rhino and logo. Climbers are allowed one litre per person of climber’s tea for free! We filled up our bottles after dinner although I did not end up drinking any of it.
On summit day we were up at 2am and out the door soon afterwards. Another lovely clear, mild day, as we joined the thin line of head torches heading up the hill. Not far above the hut we reached the permanent snow-line and donned our crampons and busted out our brand new bright green 20m rope. Ropes are a bargain in Switzerland. While the going was relatively easy different groups took turns leading the way as there was some step plugging and the altitude made the climb tiring. Surprisingly there were no mountain guides. Our acclimatization since reaching Zermatt had consisted of plodding up the Briethorn (4164m) after catching a couple of cable cars but we managed to keep up with everyone.
The long haul up the glacier to the saddle at the base of the west ridge is followed by a series of rocky knife-edge ridges where the climbing is a mix of snow and rock – pretty common in NZ. After the mixed stuff we moved onto some steeper snow slopes. We managed these okay and the views were getting better and better even as the air got thinner and thinner and my teeth started to chatter. At one stage DJ pointed out Monte Blanc poking out of the clouds to the west, not many peaks above us now.
We reached the rocky west ridge summit – 4634m at 9.40am about 6.5 hours after we started. Wearing big grins we quickly took a few snaps and checked out the view into Italy to the south. We knew a storm was forecast for later and clouds were already gathering. The descent was in some ways more tiring than the ascent as we had no appetite and we still needed to concentrate on correct foot placement. Luckily I could drink the sports drink we had picked up in Zermatt once my camelbak tube thawed out.
We picked our way back over the rocky ridgelines down onto the easier snow slopes of the glacier still bound together with our green Swiss rope which may be christened Rosa. We found out later that the rest of the climber’s abseiled off the summit of Rosa and headed back by an alternative route. There was some logic to this as I imagine in the peak season the route gets pretty congested and we may have done the same with a bit more preparation. But we were content to retreat the same way we came plus we were first back to the hut even with a detour to collect some free stream water.
In fact we were the only climbers to beat the thunder and rain. Despite the horrible weather and our exhausted state we decided to forgo a second night at the hut. After forcing down some lunch and encouraging the Czechs with their celebratory beers we packed our stuff for the three-hour slog to the station. We were keen for pizza in Zermatt in much the same way that the Czechs were looking forward to their grungy but cheap campsite in the bowels of Brig. As we tramped out no amount of tiredness, or rain pouring down our necks, wind whipping our cheeks or the thought that we could have halved our weight by leaving some of our spare gear in Zermatt detracted one bit from the buzz of a big day out in the hills.