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Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)


Postby Riverman » Sat Jul 20, 2019 3:06 pm

Date walked: 12/07/2019

Distance: 70 km

Ascent: 4526m

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Every year since 2016 I’ve made it to the Alps in the summer, each time climbing with guides or on courses organised by the Belgian Alpine Club. This year I wanted to put to the test those skills I had learned on previous, supervised trips. Not long after a snowless ‘winter’ week in Scotland in February with the London Mountaineering Club I got in touch with fellow LMC member Jakub to see if he would be interested in joining me in Switzerland this summer. I also checked in with Lucian, fellow member of the Belgian Alpine Club, to see if he’d be up for joining us. Pretty soon we had our team of three and we made separate arrangements to reach Switzerland from our respective starting points: Brussels for me, London for Jakub and Gothenburg for Lucian.

The week before our arrival in Switzerland I was looking at the weather forecasts with trepidation. A heat wave was sweeping across Europe. Temperatures hit 37 degrees in Brussels. With freezing levels in the Alps around 4900m and no overnight freeze I could only imagine what this would be doing to the snow conditions. The heatwave was also forecast to break with a series of angry thunder storms just when we would be in the mountains….

Saturday 6 July - Brussels to Zinal

I arrived early at Gare du Midi and began my journey on the Thalys train to Paris where a cab would speed me and my kit bag from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. There I had enough time to grab a sandwich and snacks before climbing aboard the TGV to Lausanne. At Lausanne I switched to the third train of the day to carry me to Sierre. The journey along Lac Leman was stunning with high mountains gleaming in the distance. At Sierre I met Lucian while waiting for the bus that would carry us along the final leg of the journey to Zinal.

Sunday 7 July, Roc de la Vache, 12km // 960m ascent

Image
Val D'Anniviers (Besso at left, Pigne de la Le at right, Dent Blanche just right of centre)

To begin our acclimatisation Lucian and I chose a popular hike from Zinal to Roc de la Vache that would take us up to around 2600m above sea level. As we set out on the path around 9am the sun was already blazing hot and the air muggy. The ‘canicule’ that had begun a few days before was still in full effect. The path headed south along the banks of the Navisence stream before tacking north to climb steeply towards the inviting Lac d’Arpitetta. From there the path climbed more steeply again to bring us out onto a beautiful high meadow with stunning views in all directions. The magnificent north ridge of the Weisshorn dominated the view to the east and to the south west we could see the Pigne de la Le, our first mountaineering objective of the week. Beyond it the Grand Cornier and Dent Blanche loomed impressively. Lucian decided he would return to the valley by the same route to take a dip in the lake en route. I preferred to descend by a different route to make a circuit and avoid retracing steps.

Monday 8 July, Cabane de Moiry, 2.5km // 512m ascent

Image
Moiry glacier (Pointes de Mourti just right of centre)

Public transport in the Swiss Alps is excellent and we managed this whole week without a car. Early in the morning the Post Bus carried us from Zinal round to the left hand fork of the Val D’Anniviers. Dropping us at the end of the Moiry glacier we only had a short climb from the bus stop up to the hut. After lunch we hiked above the hut onto the snow to practice crevasse rescue drills and familiarise ourselves with the start of the route for the following day. That evening in the hut Jakub didn’t join us at dinner at first, apparently feeling quite ill. He'd hardly drunk all day so in all likelihood his malaise was attributable to dehydration and Lucian and I insisted he started to gulp down some of the hut’s expensive bottled water (10 francs a bottle!) Jakub had also arrived a day later than me and Lucian so had not had the benefit of the acclimatisation walk up to the Roc de la Vache. Turning in early after supper most of us were awoken around midnight by a particularly violent thunderstorm. The cacophony and light show really reminded me that being out in that kind of weather was simply not an option.

Image
On the way to the Moiry hut

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Pointes de Mourti above the Moiry glacier

Tuesday 9 July, Pigne de la Le (PD) 4.5km // 604m ascent

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Dawn light

Fortunately by dawn the weather had moved through and Jakub had recovered from his nausea of the previous night. After an early breakfast we set off on our route. We made fairly rapid progress at first but then slowed down on the slopes beneath the col. The ground here was still heavily snowed over but the snow was in really poor condition. Frequently sinking up to our knees (there had been no overnight freeze) reaching the col was more of a battle than it should have been.

Image
Approaching the col

At the col we roped up with Jakub (as the most experienced rock climber of the three) leading, me in the middle and Lucian at the other end of the rope. We made fairly efficient progress up the ridge, moving together and using direct belays around blocks and spikes to protect ourselves. The weather was clear but initially overcast so none of us was yet wearing sunglasses. As we made our way up the ridge I began to feel distinctly unwell. I’ve always been careful with my acclimatisation and never experienced any sort of altitude sickness before so I was surprised to feel so nauseous at such a moderate altitude. At a convenient point I popped an ibuprofen but also put my sunglasses on. The shades really, really helped and a stinking headache was almost instantly banished.

Image
Jakub on the ridge

Image
Lucian on the ridge

The PD rock ridge of Pigne de la Le was good fun: neither particularly difficult nor very exposed. Probably equivalent to a grade 1/2 scramble in the UK. At only one point on the route did we place our own protection, pitching a short, slightly more exposed section where a patch of rotten snow impeded smooth progress. Marks in the snow indicated that someone else had slipped on that very section and seemed to confirm our decision to place protection and move slowly at this point. Not long after this obstacle we were on the final section of the ridge and up onto the summit. Views were good but unfortunately low cloud obscured some of the famous nearby peaks. Over the course of the day we encountered a few other ropes but at no point did the route feel crowded.

Image
View towards the Obergabelhorn from near the summit, note soft snow

As we began our descent to the glacier we increased the distance between each of us for glacier travel. We were already an hour or so off the guidebook time and snow conditions on the descent over the glacier were extremely poor (not that they would have been much better even an hour or two earlier, with such warm overnight temperatures). Looking at my watch and feeling the soft snow underfoot I began to wonder whether our target for the next day (Pointes de Mourti) would still be viable. Pointes de Mourti is a mixed ridge also accessed from the Moiry hut but the base of the route is quite a bit further from the hut and a good chunk of the day, before and after the climb, would be spent on the glacier. In these conditions I didn’t fancy it.

Image
Descent

As it turned out, Lucian and Jakub were thinking along similar lines. We knew that on Thursday we would have a monster hike up to the Tracuit hut for the Bishorn (nearly 1600m ascent) so there seemed little point in busting a gut on Wednesday in sub-optimal conditions. Another factor influencing our decision not to go for the Pointes de Mourti on Wednesday was the fact that we would have needed to be back at the Moiry bus stop by 4pm for the last bus of the day without fail, lacking our own transportation. We didn’t need that sort of pressure and all were agreed that we would instead take Wednesday as a rest day.

Image
Dusk at the Moiry hut

Wednesday 10 July, descent to valley

We left the Moiry hut around 7am in light rain and cloud. We felt vindicated in our decision to skip the Pointes de Mourti. It wouldn’t have been fun to spend half a day on that rotten snow under grey skies and rain. The bus carried us back to Zinal.

Thursday 11 July, Tracuit hut, 15km // 1550m ascent

At an altitude of 3250m the Tracuit hut is a tough old slog from the valley involving about 1600m of vertical ascent. A little over half way up Jakub experienced a minor disaster with his boots. The sole of one had begun to detach itself pretty spectacularly. I was impressed by Jakub’s equanimity in the face of this apparent catastrophe. Calmly he sat down on a rock and retrieved gaffer tape and cable ties from the bottom of his sack and jury-rigged the sole back into place. We hoped the boots would make it through the following day. After 11 years of adventure this was perhaps a sign to think about a new pair!

Image
Zinalrothorn and Dent Blanche viewed on ascent to Tracuit

Friday 12 July, Bishorn (F), 23km, 900m ascent, 2480m descent

Image
Bishorn at left

Sometimes known in French as the “Quatre-mille des dames” the normal route on the Bishorn is among the most straightforward and least technical ways to a 4000m summit and, as such, is a popular objective for alpine novices. It was no surprise then that we set off in the dawn light in plenty of company. A clear path snaked its way across the Turtmann glacier. Winter snows still blanketed the glacier and only at a couple of points was the crevasse danger obvious. The glacier is heavily crevassed though and this is definitely a route to be enjoyed earlier in the season.

Image
Bishorn and Weisshorn

Image
Ascent

Weather conditions were excellent and significantly improved from earlier in the week. Temperatures had been dropping and the higher altitude meant that the snow was in a far better state than the slush covering the Moiry glacier a couple of days previously. In the breaking dawn we could appreciate fine views of Swiss giants like the Zinalrothorn and the Dent Blanche. Mont Blanc was also clearly visible over to the west.

Image
Weisshorn and Dent Blanche

Image
Descent

The only real difficulty on this sort of route is finding a steady pace that suits the whole rope. I was at the front and occasionally found myself moving too quickly for the other two, consciously having to moderate my pace at their instruction. The route is never particularly steep, except for a final short section of about 10m immediately below the summit. The summit itself is a fine vantage point from which to admire the north ridge of the Weisshorn. All three of us were seriously impressed but that kind of ridge remains beyond our technical ability for now. I was also stunned by the views of the north face of the Dent Blanche. I’d seen the mountain from the west before in 2016 and from this side it appeared even more impressive. It really is a mountain I one day would like to climb but in all likelihood that will be a goal that I would need the assistance of a guide to realise.

Image
Bishorn and Weisshorn

Turning from the summit all of us were conscious that these were the first steps of a painfully long, 2500m descent back to the valley. We were certainly relieved to break that journey at the hut where we paused for lunch before continuing on down to Zinal. Jakub’s boots had held up impressively! We wondered if he could credit a first ascent of the Bishorn in boots whose soles were fixed with cable ties and gaffer tape!

Image
Zinalrothorn, Besso, Dent Blanche

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Still a long way down

Throughout the week the three of us had worked well together as a team. I’d climbed twice before with Lucian on Belgian Alpine Club trips and spent a day walking with Jakub in Scotland last winter but we hadn’t been out as a three before this week (indeed Lucian and Jakub had not met one another before their arrival in Zinal). Our objectives were well matched to our experience and abilities. We remained well inside our comfort zone throughout the week which is undoubtedly the wisest tactic for a group climbing together for the first time. Our conservative approach paid off and we got to climb two nice, easy routes and enjoy some of the finest vistas in the Alps. I hope we’ll be able to climb together again next year, perhaps on more technical routes. I would certainly like to return to the Moiry hut and climb the Pointes de Mourti perhaps linking it with the rock scramble over to the Dent des Rosses.

Image
All 2500m of descent from Bishorn's summit to the valley visible at left

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Me and Lucian on the Bishorn

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Summit selfie!
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Riverman
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Re: Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Postby Pointless Parasite » Sun Jul 21, 2019 10:55 am

Nice report, congrats :clap:
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Re: Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Postby Alteknacker » Sun Jul 21, 2019 2:11 pm

Great report and pics. :thumbup: . Still hoping to get there at least once before I'm too old...
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Re: Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Postby past my sell by date » Sun Jul 21, 2019 6:24 pm

Nice report Riverman - Is the Bishorn your first 4000nder? and do you really need a helmet on it? :lol: :lol: - it's just something more to carry - and at 4000m that's important. You know that on the Matterhorn the guide tips your rucksack out onto the bed at the Hornli and he/she decides what you need. :lol: But on the Hornli a helmet is a MUST.
Sad that the night freeze no longer happens :( Up until 2003 I never thought about having an anorak in the Alps. any precipitation was always snow and a pertex windproof was all you needed, but then I was caught by a rain shower on the way up to the Aosta hut: arrived there to find a whole party on the "round the Matterhorn circuit" - all equally soaked :lol: :lol: :lol:
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Re: Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Postby Riverman » Mon Jul 22, 2019 1:53 pm

past my sell by date wrote:Nice report Riverman - Is the Bishorn your first 4000nder? and do you really need a helmet on it? :lol: :lol: - it's just something more to carry - and at 4000m that's important. You know that on the Matterhorn the guide tips your rucksack out onto the bed at the Hornli and he/she decides what you need. :lol: But on the Hornli a helmet is a MUST.
Sad that the night freeze no longer happens :( Up until 2003 I never thought about having an anorak in the Alps. any precipitation was always snow and a pertex windproof was all you needed, but then I was caught by a rain shower on the way up to the Aosta hut: arrived there to find a whole party on the "round the Matterhorn circuit" - all equally soaked :lol: :lol: :lol:


My first 4000er was Pyramide Vincent during a tour of the tops on the Monte Rosa in 2017. I never seem to be able to fit my helmet in my pack so on the walk in it just gets attached to the outside. Certainly no rockfall danger on a route like the Bishorn but I'd never want to be without my helmet in any situation involving the use of crampons/axe.

The warm conditions we experienced were unusual for this early in the season I think. Definitely influenced by the previous week's heatwave. That said, some of the stalwarts of the Belgian Alpine Club tell me that they reckon they had the best of the Valais 20+ years ago and that conditions today are just not the same. It's a real shame and the glacial retreat is so evident.

We caught a brief glimpse of the Matterhorn on the final day of our trip (I've also admired it from the Pigne d'Arolla and the Monte Rosa). The Dent Blanche is the mountain in this area that really captivates me though. One day perhaps....
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Re: Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Postby Riverman » Mon Jul 22, 2019 2:31 pm

Alteknacker wrote:Great report and pics. :thumbup: . Still hoping to get there at least once before I'm too old...


Go for it!
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Re: Swiss Alps - Bishorn (4153m) and Pigne de la Le (3396m)

Postby past my sell by date » Mon Jul 22, 2019 3:26 pm

Riverman wrote:
past my sell by date wrote:Nice report Riverman - Is the Bishorn your first 4000nder? and do you really need a helmet on it? :lol: :lol: - it's just something more to carry - and at 4000m that's important. You know that on the Matterhorn the guide tips your rucksack out onto the bed at the Hornli and he/she decides what you need. :lol: But on the Hornli a helmet is a MUST.
Sad that the night freeze no longer happens :( Up until 2003 I never thought about having an anorak in the Alps. any precipitation was always snow and a pertex windproof was all you needed, but then I was caught by a rain shower on the way up to the Aosta hut: arrived there to find a whole party on the "round the Matterhorn circuit" - all equally soaked :lol: :lol: :lol:


My first 4000er was Pyramide Vincent during a tour of the tops on the Monte Rosa in 2017. I never seem to be able to fit my helmet in my pack so on the walk in it just gets attached to the outside. Certainly no rockfall danger on a route like the Bishorn but I'd never want to be without my helmet in any situation involving the use of crampons/axe.

The warm conditions we experienced were unusual for this early in the season I think. Definitely influenced by the previous week's heatwave. That said, some of the stalwarts of the Belgian Alpine Club tell me that they reckon they had the best of the Valais 20+ years ago and that conditions today are just not the same. It's a real shame and the glacial retreat is so evident.

We caught a brief glimpse of the Matterhorn on the final day of our trip (I've also admired it from the Pigne d'Arolla and the Monte Rosa). The Dent Blanche is the mountain in this area that really captivates me though. One day perhaps....


i fear the Belgian Alpine Club are right - I did 43 peaks in 2000 and 2001 combined :D . But if we were coming back the same way we left stuff behind - first headtorches (which were quite heavy then), then poles, crampons, and iceaxes - as soon as we knew we would need them any more. Weight is really key at that altitude. The Dent Blanche (S ridge) is mostly an easy rock route - we moved together the whole way - and you start from a high hut (3500m+) you can leave all the snow stuff at the foot of the first pinnacle. It als has big metal stanchions so that you can ab down easily.
Best of luck
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