Right at the start of our trip to the Alps in 2015 my girlfriend’s back refused to go any further up Rimpfischhorn, so after coming back down we decided to spend a few days climbing and wait for things to improve. After two days it became clear that it wouldn’t get any better, and since she wasn’t able to climb either, it was pointless to wait any longer. Luckily I knew there was one four-thousander that didn’t require crossing a glacier and was easy enough not to require belaying either. And luckily, my girlfriend has the same-size boots, so I didn’t have to worry about the fact that my right sole had decided to become independent and was now just barely hanging onto my boot.
Lagginhorn, with its 4010 m, is one of the lowest four-thousanders in the Alps. The standard route to the summit goes up the west-south-west ridge. You can either go up the ridge from its foot, or you can get on it midway up from the Lagginhorn Glacier, at c. 3500 m. As you can avoid any glaciers completely, my main worry was not to sprain my not entirely stable knee on the way down from the summit because of the many scree fields and loose slabs.
The suitable starting point is Saas Grund (around 1590 m). If you decide to make the trip with an overnight stay on the mountain, you can either use Weissmieshütte (hut, 2726 m) or you can bivouac at several places above the hut – there are both water and prepared sites for tent at the foot of the WSW ridge. There are also several good spots on the ridge itself, again with sites prepared for tents, up to 3200 m, but there is no water anywhere on the ridge nor are there any snowfields in this part of the ridge.
There are several possibilities of accommodation in Saas Grund. We chose a campsite right across the main street from the cable car station. Their standard price per person includes a ticket for the lift, which I didn’t want, and they offered me quite a decent price for the area (25 CHF for 2 people, a car, and a tent) and were absolutely OK with us leaving around 5 PM the next day.
I got up at 1 AM, and at 2:00 I set out from the cable car station and reached the hut at 4:25. There were already a few groups of people ahead of me on their way up the mountain. At the hut I made a mistake and went further up – there is a stream to the left of the hut when looking up the mountain and the easiest way to get to the foot of the WSW ridge is to cross the stream right at the hut – there is a small metal bridge there, a bit hidden, which I didn’t see in the dark. I continued up from the hut along the path that led up to the glacier and missed the path branching off it toward the foot of the WSW ridge, which would have been impassable anyway as there was too much water at the crossing. I realized this after a few minutes, when I was unnecessarily high for crossing the stream, descended toward it and crossed it without any problems. This is the last spot where you can refill your bottle, which I did and continued to the foot of the ridge where I climbed onto the right path that leads from the bridge. As the dawn had begun by now, it was quite easy to find a suitable point to start the ascent of the WSW ridge.
The ridge itself is very wide at its foot and is basically a scree field. The path is marked by cairns and is visible quite well. Even if you wander off it, you’ll be able to continue up without any problems. The only danger is to watch out for loose slabs – in most places you can’t fall off the ridge, but you can still take a fall or a slide of several meters, which can be just as inconvenient for a safe return. A helmet is a must – in this part of the ridge not because of a rock fall from above (which is the case in the upper part of the ridge), but for the simple fact that in the case of tripping, you can easily bust your head open in this terrain. The last suitable place for pitching a tent (no pun intended :-)) is roughly at 3200. From there on, the ridge gets more narrow. Still, there is almost no exposure anywhere. This middle part of the ridge is also much more entertaining, as it requires using your hands (an easy climbing of I UIAA). The way up is still marked by cairns and is well defined, with many possible variants. Just watch out for unstable slabs – there are quite a few, and at several points they could knock you off the ridge even though generally it is still almost impossible to fall off the ridge here. I met the first party here – the path from Lagginhorn Glacier joins the path on the ridge here. They were a bit surprised to see me in a T-shirt and shorts, but since I hadn’t gone up the glacier and had kept a good pace, I was warm.
I met a second group at around 3600 m, preparing to surmount a slab of II UIAA – there was a child in the party, so they were tying themselves to a rope. The slab is easy and wide without any feeling of exposure, though you can fall off it toward Fletschhorn Glacier if you climb it on the left side – which I did as it is the most obvious choice, with very good holds, and won’t even slow your pace. The climbing part of the slab is only about 5 meters, above it the inclination drops to the point that you can walk. After this slab comes a giant scree field with occasional easy climbing (I UIAA). A helmet is absolutely necessary here because of the rockfall from people above you. Up until the snowfields further up the ridge, the only way to fall off or get injured here is by rockfall. I met another group here, a Swiss guide with two clients. They courtly ignored my “Hello” though at least the guide definitely wasn’t mute, as he kept instructing his clients. Without flinching, they successfully ignored my presence and carried on at their pace with me behind them. After a few minutes I managed to climb around them and continued up.
Only a few minutes later, somewhere around 3800, I reached the first snowfield. It was a very hard firn when I got there (at about 7:30), almost ice. I put on crampons, took out the ice axe, and dressed up, as I finally cooled down when unpacking the necessary gear. The guide with his clients were quicker about it since they were dressed already and got ahead of me again. The snowfield, when icy, is indeed a place where you can fall off the ridge – it would be quite difficult to stop on the few meters before the drop to Fletschhorn Glacier. At least there were frozen, trodden-down steps from the previous day. I walked carefully, and above the field I caught up with the guide and his clients again, which I didn’t mind as the main thing here was to walk/climb carefully. The second snowfield, just meters above the first one, could be avoided for the most part on the scree to the right, but it seemed a better option to walk up the firn. It definitely was not the better option, as I found out – the firn was much steeper here without any steps, and the tourist crampons with my girlfriend’s boots were pulling my heels quite unpleasantly. I had to stomp the crampons in (though I had sharpened them) and had to use the front spikes at one point. However, the tourist ice axe blade’s wide tip, though sharpened as well, just chipped the ice, not even remotely sticking in. The only possible way to go up was the French style, i.e. sideways, feet inclined, using the ice axe shaft’s tip as a supporting point. I got on the scree again and after a few meters I entered the last snowfield. This one was less inclined with good steps, and after a few minutes I got to the last few meters of rock (I UIAA, maybe not even that) at the summit.
The Swiss guide with his clients sat about a meter below the summit in the east face without any belay, watching the clouds. I wondered what the guide would have done if one of his clients had fallen down. Not too hard to imagine – but that has been the case with all guides I have seen so far, the best example of which was a guide on Austrian Grossglockner dragging three very insecure clients basically on a leash on the summit ridge without any sort of belay – I doubt he would have had a chance to react and jump down the other side of the ridge if one of the clients had lost their “balance”.
I got to the summit at about 8:15, ate a bar and tried to take a photo of myself with the summit. After a few tries I asked one of the clients, sitting closest to me, if he could take a picture of me with the summit cross. He refused (probably not feeling overly secure) and referred me to his guide, who helped me out and took the picture. I thanked him, looked around one last time and went down.
The firn fields had somewhat softened by this point and getting down was easy. The guide with his two clients were descending above me. At one point, I heard a rock getting loose – I looked up, and sure enough, a rather large rock was tumbling right at me from one of the clients – who didn’t make a sound to warn me, nor did his guide. I had but time to duck behind a bigger boulder. The rock slammed into the boulder and stopped. A few minutes later, I appreciated having my helmet on, as I received a rather big hit right into the back of the helmet by a small rock, which I didn’t hear falling. Quite a punch. Again, it came from the same group, and again, absolutely no warning. I looked at them, expecting some sort of “my bad!”, but they carried on without any sort of regard for their surroundings. The helmet was OK, but had someone without a helmet (there were some people without helmets there) received this little present, I think it is safe to say they would have had a pretty big hole in their head. If they managed to stay on the mountain, that is. I’m not criticizing the fact that the group had dislodged some stones – I myself succeeded at that a few minutes later – I’m criticizing the fact that they didn’t warn anybody about the falling stones, which is selfish, irresponsible, and very dangerous.
I climbed down the II UIAA slab a bit further from the edge to avoid landing on Fletschhorn Glacier in case I slipped. Shortly after that I ran out of water, which was a bit uncomfortable, since the sun was now going at it with all its might and to reach any snowfields, I would have to divert quite a bit from the ridge. This was the first time I had used a tube mounted on my bottle in the backpack, and it proved to be a great and comfortable thing, but the downside was I hadn’t kept track of the amount of water left.
About two thirds down, past the turn-off to the glacier variant of the descent, I heard someone coming in the other direction along the ridge. A girl emerged from behind a rock and asked a few questions about the conditions and the time left to the top. Her climbing partner caught up with her, a bit winded, and they continued up the ridge. It was about 11:00 AM, so my guess is they got to the top around 1:00 PM, which weather-wise was OK that day, only no one on the upper part of the ridge got to enjoy the views at that point as the summit got drowned in a cloud around noon.
In the lower part of the ridge, I enjoyed two chamoises not even trying to pretend they would flee if I tried to get to them. They were probably laughing at the lame animal with two metal sticks for front legs and felt absolutely secure, though I went quite close past them.
I was back at the foot of the ridge at 13:20, took a few pictures of the colorful rock plants, refilled my bottle at the stream and went across the little metal bridge to Weissmiesshütte, where I met with my girlfriend and continued to Saas Grund. We came back to the campsite at 16:45 without any sort of hurry.
Starting point: Saas Grund (1559 m), camping grounds available
Elevation: Saas Grund – Weissmiesshütte 1127 m; Weissmiesshütte-Lagginhorn summit 1284 m; Saas Grund-Lagginhorn summit 2411 m
Time: Saas Grund – Weissmiesshütte 2.5 hours, Weissmiesshütte – Lagginhorn summit 4 hours (4-5 hours back down); Saas Grund-Lagginhorn summit-Saas Grund 14-15 hours
Difficulty: PD; in good conditions a very easy climb. !!This applies only if the rock is dry, without ice or snow (see “Dangers” below)!!
Dangers: Rockfall in the upper part of the ridge (helmet is absolutely necessary), snowfields in the upper part of the ridge can be tricky when icy; otherwise a very safe climb. According to the information from a Czech mountain guide Viktor Korizek here, the upper part of the ridge can become very dangerous when there is a lot of fresh snow (especially early in the summer), which becomes soft during the day and turns into a very unstable layer and any reasonable belaying is virtually impossible in such conditions. This is not very hard to imagine with the icy snowfields under such a layer, and there were fatal accidents in this part of the ridge in 2011 and 2012 for this very reason.