In July 2017, our climbing and mountaineering plans suddenly changed when my girlfriend sprained her ankle at Sustenpass, and it was soon obvious that it would not get better in a matter of days. So, like in 2015, I chose to make an ascent where crevasses weren’t an issue – this time the Weissmies south-east ridge.
We drove to Saas Grund, and like in 2015, we stayed on the camping grounds of Hotel Étoile – great spot for a reasonable price, I highly recommend it. I tried to go to bed early but only managed to hit the sack after 11 PM, with the alarm set to 0:30 AM. However, having built our tent close to the toilets – and the hotel – there was some annoying fan going off every 30 seconds or so, successfully keeping me up, and though I reset my alarm to 1 AM, I still managed to get only about 15 minutes of sleep. Never mind, it was high time to get started, since the forecast promised some baphomrds (= bad, bad things) in the afternoon. According to the tourist signs, it was supposed to take me 3 hours and 20 minutes from Saas Almagell to the Almageller hut (which I knew I could do faster), and according to “The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes” guide, 7-8 hours from the hut to the summit (which I thought had to be a typing error). I wasn’t really hungry, so I only ate an apple with a piece of bread and drove our car to Saas Almagell, where I left it in the parking lot (5 CHF per day), downed one non-alcoholic beer for energy, and set off at 2:20 AM.
The route to the hut was quite pleasant and reasonably quick, though there were thunderstorms in the neighboring valleys and around Alphubel summit across the valley. I continued up, hoping these were just the usual early-morning storms that would disperse at dawn. At the Almagelleralp (hut, 2194 m), you have the option to go right, or left (a quicker option by 10 minutes, according to the signs), I chose to go left. I reached the Almagellerhütte (hut, 2894 m) shortly after 5 AM. There were already several parties by the Zwischbergen Pass (3268 m). I refilled my bottle about 50 meters above the hut – there is no readily available water above this point, save for a small glacier lake on the other side of the Zwischbergen Pass, but you would have to descent to it a bit.
The dawn was underway, and soon I turned my headlamp off. It started to get a bit windy and chilly near the pass with some clouds coming in from the east, so I put my jacket and pants on (I had walked in my T‑shirt and shorts up to this point). I went up a crumbly slab just below the pass, which proved to be a mistake, and I had to descend a bit back onto the right track – the track turns left before the crumbly slab becomes steep. When you reach the ridge, it is still a few dozen meters to the left (north) to the pass. The small glacier lake is about 50 meters below the pass on its east side, and it seemed easy to connect back to the ridge track further along the way without having to go back up the same path. Anyway, I got here at 6:30, and continued along the trodden path first a bit down some scree, and then up a few snowfields and some more scree. The snowfields were still frozen, and though I was using my ice axe at this point, the second snowfield was getting unpleasantly steep to walk on without crampons, so I had to chip some steps into it with my boots first. I chose to climb onto the ridge at this point – and it was a good decision, since the climbing proved to be pleasant, though maybe slower than a walk up the snowfields, had I put my crampons on. I wouldn’t recommend going up the snowfields for another reason as well – about an hour later, stones the size of a melon started to fall down the upper snowfield, as the sun started melting the snow. I joined the ridge just above one of the parties that started from the Almageller hut and continued at my pace up the ridge.
The weather seemed quite stable now – the storms in the neighboring valleys had stopped rumbling, and it was mostly sunny with a cloud coming over the ridge every now and then.
The ridge is quite wide and easy, and there is little exposition most of the way. But there are a few exposed places where you need to be absolutely confident climbing at II-III UIAA grade, if you’re climbing solo without protection. It is probably possible to climb around the one or two III UIAA spots, but the climbing was so enjoyable I chose the more interesting way rather than the easier terrain a few times.
The rock above 3600 m is just great – very few unstable rocks (but watch out for them anyway, there are some), and I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the climbing – compared to the neighboring Lagginhorn’s west-south-west ridge with mostly loose rocks and only one short II UIAA section.
But I did start to feel the altitude, having spent only two nights at 2000 m, so I had to slow down a bit to reduce the dizziness. Still, I felt perfectly safe and confident on the ridge, a pure joy with beautiful views of the four thousanders in the Mischabel group and the Monte Rosa massif – Dufourspitze, Nordend, Strahlhorn, Rimpfischhorn, Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Dom, Taschhorn, Lenzspitze, and Nadelhorn, with the clouds constantly covering and uncovering them.
The rocky part of the ridge ends at around 3900 m. I geared up and continued along the snowy ridge past a narrow rocky band to the top, meeting about three descending parties – incidentally, I think one of the descending climbers was the Swiss girl I met on Lagginhorn in 2015 – the one ascending late in the morning – this time she was in a team with another girl and obviously had set her alarm clock to a more appropriate hour 🙂 I wonder if she was a guide at this point, or if it was just a coincidence. The snowy ridge to the top is quite nice, but watch out for cornices, the trodden path was too close to the edge in some places – do not follow it blindly, this is where you can fall a few hundred meters to either side.
I reached the summit around 9:20 and spent about ten minutes there, alone. The clouds were still coming over the mountain, making for a nice atmosphere.
I went back along the snowy ridge to the foresummit, where I had some snack, filled one of my bottles with snow, and continued back down. On the way up, I thought I would have to rappel down a few sections, and thought I would get off the ridge midway down, to make the descent quicker. But surprisingly, I found it quite easy to climb down the harder sections, even though I was thirsty and had a headache. Though the snowfield on the left (eastern side) of the ridge looked tempting and there were even places where I could just climb down without rappelling, I chose to continue down the ridge as I was descending in quite a good pace, virtually the same as when I was ascending. Even though there wasn’t any rockfall on the snowfield at this time, it was a good call not to descend that way – when I later got off the ridge in the same part where I had climbed onto it in the morning, the snowfields proved to be quite unpleasant – mushy, unstable snow on a steep slope, crampons making zero difference – I chose to descend as much as I could down the scree field to a less steep part of the lower snowfield. One of two British guys, whom I had passed on the ridge shortly before this section, chose to slide down the snowfield, breaking with his ice axe – quite an elegant solution.
I reached the Zwischbergen Pass at 12:30 – so three hours up the ridge, three hours down the ridge. Though I was parched at this point, had no water, and the snow in one of my bottles had not melted much, I didn’t descend down to the small glacier lake, as I felt one more hour to the hut wouldn’t make any difference. And it didn’t – there was a short, windy shower, when I reached the pass, but it lasted only for about 15 minutes, and right after that
I came upon a stream from one of the snowfields. I took a short break, and continued down to the hut, where I bought a cup of tea – I wasn’t in the mood for any solid food but I was in the mood for some energy. The weather cleared, and I continued down to Almagelleralp (hut), taking pictures of the many beautiful flowering alpine plants. This slow descend proved to be a good strategy, as my left knee was quite OK after that (I had banged my left knee against a rock in a fall while climbing 2 years prior to that, and since this is my healthy, weight-bearing knee, it had hurt during lengthy descents ever since). The flip side was that the weather worsened once again when I was only at Almagelleralp, and I walked the remaining hour down to the valley in rain. I reached the parking lot at 5:20 PM, so it took me 7 hours up to the summit and 8 hours back down. People with healthy knees would probably make it back down in about 6 hours. On the other hand, if someone were to use protection on the ridge, it would slow them down a bit in both directions.
Needless to say, I slept for over 14 hours that night, fan or no fan.
Starting point: Saas Almagell, paid parking (5 CHF per day in 2017)
Time needed: The ascent to the Almagellerhütte 3 hours; from the hut to the start of the ridge near Zwischbergen Pass 1 hour; the ridge to the summit 3 hours (may take longer if using protection); roughly the same for the descent
Equipment needed: Ice axe, crampons, helmet, rope and some protection for descent during bad conditions or if you are not comfortable in a II UIAA terrain without protection (I think all the III UIAA places can be climbed around through easier terrain, I might have climbed down only one during the descent).
Dangers: In good weather very few, the rock in the steeper sections of the ridge is very good, there is no glacier on the approach. The only slightly dangerous place is the snowy/firn ridge near the summit – it is quite sharp, and the trodden path is sometimes too close to the edge of the steeper (north-east) face – do not follow it blindly! There is a several hundred meters drop to each side and the snow/firn can be easily stepped through! This final part of the ridge could also become quite dangerous if there is a lot of snow – it would basically become one big cornice on one side and an avalanche slide on the other. A larger amount of fresh snow on the firn underneath would also be very dangerous here.