In 2011 we took our Red Devil for another spin around Europe. As was the custom, the exhaust pipe did not enjoy German motorways, and we entered Switzerland producing sounds right out of 1920s’ slapstick movies, similar to gunfire, whenever I changed gear. That proved to be a useful thing in the Alpine switchbacks – whenever an impatient driver drove too close behind us, a simple gear change and the sound it produced made them back off by 50 to 100 meters. After warming up on the Kandersteg via ferrata and spending the night in the Grimselpass, we continued toward Täsch with the intention of climbing/walking up the western standard route up Alphubel (PD, no rock) – according to the available information a less frequented one than the standard route from the east from Saas Fe. We arrived in Ottafe (c. 2150 m), a small village above Täsch, where I found out the middle muffler was hanging on a single rusty suspension – the pipe connecting it to the pipe leading from the engine was completely rotten off, hence the shooting sounds. I later secured it with a piece of wire so it wouldn’t fall off completely.
We left the car in the small “parking lot” (free parking) and set out toward Täschhütte (hut, c. 2700 m) and further above to Alphubelsee, a small lake, or a large puddle, c. 100 m below the foot of Alphubelgletscher (glacier). It is a perfect spot to spend the night if you are slightly acclimatized (c. 3150 m in elevation) – if not, there are suitable spots (with water) on a grassy terrain at 2800-2900 m, halfway between the hut and the lake, which might reduce the night-time headache a little bit. There is also another good spot right at the foot of the glacier at 3250 m with a smaller “lake”. It took us about 3 hours to get to Alphubelsee from Ottafe. There was one other guy at the lake, on his own.
In the morning, we slept in due to our sleep deficit, and set out in full light at 6 AM. There wasn’t much snow on the glacier in its lower part, but there were probably a few crevasses there, judging by the hollow sound of the firn – but it was hard to tell whether those were crevasses or just pockets of air above the terrain, as there was no way to tell how thick the glacier was. My guess is probably not too thick. In the upper part, the glacier was already covered with a nice layer of snow, and after a short steeper part we reached the Alphubeljoch (pass), a good spot for refreshment, about 2 hours from Alphubelsee.
The views from the saddle and especially from the upcoming ridge were truly magnificent – just masses of ice and snow all around as far as you could see – with views of Monte Rosa, Allalinhorn, Rimpfischhorn, Matterhorn, Weisshorn, and other four-thousanders. The sun was up and did such a good job on the ridge that I took of my jacket and went just in my T-shirt. And pants, obviously. There was a lot of snow that year, so the steepest part of the ridge, which might require belay when icy, presented no trouble at all. For tougher conditions, there are two metal rods for belay on the 50-m steep part, which is about 45° in inclination. At this point we heard a loud rumbling noise somewhere from the ridge below. We reached the summit plateau and arrived at the summit cross, drowned in snow up to the cross-beam, making the brass Jesus swim. It was 10:05, so it took us four hours from the lake, going at quite a slow pace.
We took a few pictures and went back down. The steep part was easy on the way down as well – I descended it face down, still using the ice axe just in a walking-cane manner. But two German-speaking guys coming from below made a full use of their climbing equipment, and the one on the lead was hammering away with his two climbing ice axes, standing on the front points of his crampons, shouting instructions at his partner, who was giving him belay. Well, why not.
When we got to the sharp part of the ridge below, we found out that the rumbling noise we heard on our way up was caused by a small avalanche that had fallen down from the ridge – separating just along the trampled-down path. The combination of the large amount of snow and the searing sun had dislodged the avalanche before 10 AM – luckily it was a smaller one, and it apparently didn’t hit any parties, as it didn’t cross any paths.
It took us 2.5 hours back down to Alphubelsee, so altogether less than 7 hours up and down from the lake. Due to some gastric bug we both experienced prior to our trip, we arrived at the lake quite exhausted and with quite a headache – the sun definitely helped that as well. Anyway, the route is a really easy one and quite a short one as well. If you are acclimatized, it is suitable as a single-day trip from Ottafe, taking around 12 hours at an average pace. This route from the west via south ridge is, in my opinion, safer than the standard route from the east – there aren’t that many crevasses (probably), and the fact that the lower half is in the shade during the morning can be a big advantage in snow conditions such as we experienced – avalanches might fall down the east face of the mountain, I would think. However, the route from the east goes up a different slope than the one where the avalanche fell down when we were there. Otherwise both routes should be of approximately the same difficulty, meaning easy snow plods. The route from Ottafe was also the route of the first ascent. The views from the south ridge are one of the best you will see in the area.
Starting point: Ottafe (2150 m), free parking; alternatively Täsch (c. 1450 m), paid parking
Elevation: Ottafe-Alphubelsee 1000 m, Alphubelsee-Alphubel summit 1050 m
Time: Ottafe-Alphubelsee c. 3 hours (2 hours back down), Alphubelsee-Alphubel summit c. 4 hours (2,5 hours back down), Ottafe-Alphubel summit-Ottafe c. 11-12 hours
Difficulty: PD, just snow; the summit ridge might be tricky in icy conditions, especially when there is little snow; in very warm conditions, there is a possibility of avalanches tearing from the ridge down the east face, especially when there is a lot of snow.
Dangers: objectively very few – see the point above; still, I would avoid a solo trip due to possible crevasses and no partner to jump down the other side of the ridge in case of an avalanche taking down the ridge path