walkhighlands

Dufourspitze - climbing Switzerland's highest mountain

Date walked: 20/11/2023

Dufourspitze (4634 m) is the highest summit of Monte Rosa and is the highest point in Switzerland. Country high points tend to be horrifically over-popular, attracting people who clearly don't have the skills or fitness to climb them. Dufourspitze is a probable exception though. It's popular, but probably no more so than any of the other peaks in the area. Partly this is because the Matterhorn grabs all the attention, which is understandable :wink:

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Monte Rosa from the Spechorn. The four summits, barely distinguishable, from L to R: Signalkuppe, Zumsteinspitze, Dufourspitze (the dark rocky summit), Nordend


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Monte Rosa from Dom. Dufourspitze is the rocky summit. The pointed snow summit in front is Nordend, while the peak behind is Signalkuppe with the Margareta hut clearly visible.


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Monte Rosa from near Rotenboden. Nordend on the left, Dufouspitze on the right.


I'd had a good start to the summer, climbing many of the mountains on my wish list, including Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso and Piz Bernina. The one peak that had eluded me though was Dufourspitze. The weather was not great in August, with snow falling even on peaks below 2500 m and by the end of the month I thought I'd missed my chance. I finished my contract at CERN on the 31st of August and was feeling rather lost, even though I had a new job lined up in Lyon, starting later in the year. The following week, the weather looked really settled, with at least 6 or 7 days of blue skies and warm temperatures. While out hiking in the Swiss Jura I resolved to climb something big. One last 4000 m peak of the year. Dufourspitze was the obvious choice, but at over 4600 m, aclimitisation was a problem. I'd not been over 4000 m for about 10 weeks and the highest I'd been since then was Piz Ot at 3247 m. If I'd learned anything from Mont Blanc, it was the importance of aclimitisation.

The best option was to climb the Lagginhorn (4010 m). I climbed this solo last year and knew I was capable of it. I booked a night at the Weissmies hut on Tuesday night and e-mailed the local guides office in Zermatt asking about availability for the end of the week. They got back to me pretty quickly and by Monday afternoon I was all sorted: travel to Saas Grund on Tuesday, stay overnight at the Weissmies hut, climb the Lagginhorn on Wednesday, then go all the way back home to Geneva. On Thursday, get the train to Zermatt, take the cog railway to Rotenboden and walk to The Mont Rosa hut at 2882 m and meet my guide (Bertrand). On Friday, climb Dufourspitze, then return all the way back to Zermatt and spend one night in a hotel. An ambitious plan, for sure, but one with a huge reward if I succeeded.

Before reaching the Weissmies hut, I did a pre-aclimitisation climb of the Jeggihorn (3206 m). Most people climb this using the via ferrata route on the east side, but I didn't have the time so just climbed the 'hiking' route (a fun T4 scramble).

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Jeggihorn


The Jeggihorn provides an excellent viewpoint of the Lagginhorn. The standard route goes up the west ridge (the one that extends down to the moraine ridge in the bottom right hand corner)

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The Lagginhorn (4010 m)


The next day, I set off at 5 am. At this time of the year, it doesn't start to get light until about 6.30 am, so I had to find my way up the west ridge by head torch. It's not technically difficult (mostly grade I scrambling) but routefinding isn't easy, even in daylight. There are regular cairns, but these are difficult to see and there are a few 'bad' cairns that lead the wrong way.

Also climbing Lagginhorn from the Weissmies hut was the Scottish guide and author Bruce Goodlad, along with a couple of clients. I set off before them and didn't meet them again until I was halfway down. They were climbing in pitches, with Bruce going ahead and securing the rope before the others followed. For beginners, this is probably the best way of building confidence. It's slow, but there's less urgency on a non-glaciated route like Lagginhorn where there's no issue with snow bridges getting soft in the afternoon.

There was snow though, unlike the last time I was here. About halfway up, I stopped to gear up with crampons and an ice axe. Near the summit, the snow was quite hard and increased the sense of exposure. I inadvertently took a slightly different route to last time, and found myself on the permanent snow patch on the N shoulder. The summit was just a few metres up above, but the direct line looked a bit exposed. I contoured around and approached the summit from the west, reaching the top at about 8 am.

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On the shoulder below the summit of the Lagginhorn


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View from the summit of the Lagginhorn


Part 1 of my plan had gone perfectly. I returned home and had a good night's sleep before heading back to the mountains. Knowing that water costs a fortune in mountain huts, I bought a couple of litre bottles of Evian at the Coop in Visp for about 1.15 CHF each. I'd done the same thing for Lagginhorn, but the water at the Weissmies hut is drinkable anyway :roll:

From Rotenboden, there is an easy path that traverses under the ridge of the Gornergrat and leads to the edge of the upper part of the Gorner glacier (this would make a wonderful scenic hike for anyone not interested in reaching any summits). There are two routes to the Monte Rosa hut. The 'old' route descends down to lower part of the Gorner glacier via a series of ladders and exposed ledges, then climbs back up to the hut. The new 'Panoramaweg Monte-Rosa-Hütte' route contours around via the upper glacier and above the Gornersee lake.

The route starts with an easy walk up the glacier to about 2850 m before turning south. The route is marked by plastic poles impaled into rocks. These are quite widely spaced and some of them fall over, which makes routefinding quite challenging, even in perfect conditions. This would be a nightmare in a snowstorm.

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The edge of the upper Gorner glacier


After a while, the glacier starts to become increasingly crevassed. Without snow cover, these are easy to see and avoid.

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Start of the crevasses. Castor, Pollux and the Breithorn in the background.


But the crevasses continued to get bigger and bigger. Eventually I caught up with a couple of Swiss ladies who were struggling to cross one particularly nasty crevasse, which required a jump down onto a ledge. One of the ladies had made it, but the other was very hesitant. I crossed over myself, put in an ice screw into the opposite wall and attached a 180 cm sling to it, then handed the sling over to her using my pole. This gave her a bit of extra security in case she lost her balance after jumping onto the ledge. Thankfully she made it across safely and we completed the rest of the glacier section together before I left them to finish the remaining walk to the hut. Later, they bought me a beer as a reward for helping them 8)

The rest of the way to the hut involves plenty of scrambling, marked with fairly regular blue/white paint markers. The Swiss Alpine Club rates the Panoramaweg as a T4 hike, which I think is an underestimate. I would probably rate it as an F+ alpine tour.

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The crevasses get worse


The Monte Rosa hut is a real 5 star hut with it's modern pine interior and relatively spacious dorms. Some groups hire guides to take them to the hut without climbing any mountains. I can certainly see the appeal. The area feels very remote and is relatively untouched by the ski industry. The design of the hut itself will no doubt divide opinion, but it's remarkably difficult to see, even from nearby mountains like the Stockhorn.

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The Monte Rosa hut


Bertrand had been chatting with the other guides and was told conditions were perfect, with a highway (or "I-way" with a French accent) of snow on the final ridge. For dinner, I shared a table with a father and son from Scotland who had climbed Dufourspitze the same day but were taking at extra night in the hut instead of returning all the way back to Zermatt. They'd also had perfect conditions and were understandably elated. I think it was the son's first 4000 m peak. Quite some introduction 8)

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The dining room of the Monte Rosa hut


The next morning, we set off at just after 3.30 am, which meant we had about 3 hours of darkness left. The first section of the climb involves walking over slabs recently uncovered by the retreating glacier for about 1 km and 400 m height.

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Slabby ground above the Monte Rosa hut (photo taken the evening before)


We weren't the first group to leave, but by the time we reached the glacier we were ahead of everyone except for a solo Polish climber. The lower part of the glacier was relatively free of crevasses. There was one quite heavily crevassed section at around 3500 m, although these were all easy to see and the snow bridges were good. The remaining glacier climb up to about 4200 m was low-angled and rather dull.

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Sunrise. Soon, I would be above all but one of these peaks.


At about 4300 m, the route climbs steeply up onto the summit ridge:

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The summit ridge is divided into two sections. The first involves traversing a sub-summit at 4498 m. This involves easy grade 1 scrambling, but is quite exposed.

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Then, the 'highway' leads up to the main summit ridge. It's steep and exposed, but otherwise easy.

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The final section involves more scrambling. Again, it's mostly grade 1 stuff, but very exposed. Unfortunately I didn't take many photos of this section. It's certainly more difficult than it appears in the photos though. The worst bit is right before the summit, involving climbing a 10 m chimney. This would probably be UIAA III if climbed free, but there were some fixed ropes in place.

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We heard the Polish climber, who was just ahead of us, whooping with delight as he reached the top. A couple of minutes later, just before 8 am, we arrived at the small cross and various other 'artefacts' marking the highest point in Switzerland. The view East, over the rocky sub-summit of Dunantspitze (4631 m) and the sea of clouds below is something I'll never forget:

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Dunantspitze was named in 2014 in honour of the founder of the Red Cross. Previously it was simply Ostspitze, meaning 'east peak'. There is another minor sub-summit further along and out of view called Grenzgipfel (4617 m), which marks the border (grenz in German) with Italy and has the distinction of being the highest point of the Italian region of Piemonte.

To the South, the Margherita hut on the summit of Signalkuppe (4554 m) could be clearly seen. This is the highest building in Europe. I'd visited it in 2022 in a snow storm and was glad of the shelter. Shame about the lack of views though :(

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Looking south towards Zumsteinspitze and Signalkuppe


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Liskamm, with Gran Paradiso in the distance on the left and Mont Blanc on the right


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Looking West towards the Matterhorn, Dent Blache, Obergabelhorn and Zinalrothorn


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Nordend. Lagginhorn is seen behind the pointed summit. To the left, Strahlhorn, Allalinhorn, Rimpfischorn, Alphubel and Dom.


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The summit cross, which now includes a small Madonna in a plastic box.


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Dent Blache, Obergabelhorn, Zinalrothorn, Weisshorn, Bishorn. In the distance, you can just make out Les Diablerets, Wildhorn and Wildstrubel.


We descended the same way we came up, but in full daylight. The glacier plod is rather dull, although the views are spectacular. Dufourspitze is a popular ski tour in April and May. I can certainly see the appeal, but my skiing skills are nowhere near high enough :(

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The final section of the Monte Rosa glacier


We made it back to the hut just after 11 am. Neither myself nor Bertrand were planning on staying at the hut, so after a coffee and a chat with the Polish guy we started the walk back to Rotenboden. This time, we took the 'old' route, which descends right down before climbing back up. Bertrand needed to get back early to enquire about another potential tour, so we parted company at the Gornersee and he ran off.

The rest of the way back was pretty horrible. I lost the 'path' and was forced into a steep, muddy climb up the snout of the upper part of the Gorner glacier before finding the route again. Even if you stay on track, it's steep and very loose. The upper 'panorama' route is not easy but it's much better than the old route.

After a long rising traverse along an exposed ledge, the route crosses a bridge then climbs up a couple of ladders to reach the regular hiking path back to Rotenboden. Scary, but there's nothing you can do except focus on climbing.

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The toilets in Wetherspoons are getting more and more difficult to reach these days. For some, you now need a helmet and a via ferrata kit.


I was absolutely shattered and all I could think about was ice cream. Near Rotenboden I met the two Swiss ladies who I'd helped cross the glacier the previous day. They'd also had problems on the old route and were helped by the Scottish pair I'd met the previous night. I was practically crawling by the time I joined the crowds of tourists at the train station. Any vague thoughts of climbing the nearby Riffelhorn (2930 m) on the way back were abandoned. I just wanted to lie down.

I took the train back down to Zermatt and went straight to the Coop near the station for a Magnum before checking in at the 4* Hotel Aristella. I'd stayed there in 2017 when I climbed my first 4000 m peak and held fond memories of it. I later went to McDonalds and stuffed my face with the remains of a domestic chicken sandwiched between two pieces of bread. Good times.

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Pointless Parasite


User avatar
Location: Lyon
Occupation: I am a radiation physicist and epidemiologist, currently working for IARC (part of the WHO) in Lyon
Activity: Mountaineer
Mountain: Breithorn
Member: Österreich Alpenverein (Austrian alpine club), BMC, Swiss Alpine Club, Section Genevoise
Camera: Lumix LX15 or iPhone SE

Munros: 83
Tops: 33
Corbetts: 6
Fionas: 5
Donalds: 19+2
Wainwrights: 214
Hewitts: 130
Sub 2000: 8
Islands: 2



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Statistics

2023

Trips: 6
Hewitts: 7

2022

Trips: 3

2021

Trips: 4
Distance: 24 km
Ascent: 6097m

2020

Trips: 4
Distance: 27 km
Ascent: 2200m
Wainwrights 1

2019

Trips: 9
Distance: 127 km
Ascent: 1000m
Munros: 6
Hewitts: 14
Wainwrights 18

2018

Trips: 10
Distance: 80.3 km
Munros: 17
Fionas: 1
Hewitts: 15
Wainwrights 35

2017

Trips: 3
Distance: 52 km
Ascent: 1207m
Munros: 6
Hewitts: 11
Wainwrights 14


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