The little fingers on both my hands had gone numb an hour ago, I tried to warm them up as we came over the final section of the summit ridge but it was too cold. As we stepped onto the summit of the Dufourspitze, the highest mountain in Switzerland at 4638m, I saw Sophie was shaking. We needed to get down fast.
Arriving in Zermatt
After a two day cycle into Zermatt via 4 of the most stunning alpine high passes and a rather wonderful night in a hotel in Andermatt, Sophie and I were on great form as we arrived at the next mountain in Alpine Coast to Coast.
I’ve never been to Zermatt before but had heard a lot of stories. Everyone speaks of the striking Matterhorn, the Toblerone mountain towering over the town.
We were there for another objective, to climb the fifth mountain in our challenge, the Dufourspitze. As the second highest mountain in the whole of the Alps, this was going to be a step up from the first 4 climbs.
When climbing over 4000m it is normal to acclimatise on some smaller peaks to help get your red blood cell count up and your body used to the thinner air. However, due to our summer in Chamonix and recent climbs, we felt confident that we would be ok up high.
An enforced rest day
Waking up the next day, I looked out the window and was greeted with a very bad sight; thick grey clouds were just above the roof tops and it was drizzling persistently. Hmm.
Taking this as a sign that we should rest up, we had a wonderful rest day, doing ‘normal’ things. Eating, drinking, shopping for souvenirs, writing postcards and just hanging out together.
Heading up to the hut
I was a little nervous when we left, the weather has been so variable all summer and we were heading up high. Both of us felt excited though and knew we were ready for what was coming up. We set off early with the aim of recce-ing the route that afternoon; this would provide us with a little altitude but also the chance to scope out the approach as we would be leaving at 2am, in the pitch black, and route finding can be notoriously complex.
The hut sits at 2805m with a train dropping us at the same height but, at just over 7.5km away, we would descend to 2500m and to a glacier then climb back up the other side. The weather was still overcast but dry with the Matterhorn shrouded in cloud across the valley, and we set off into one of the most amazing alpine amphitheatres I’ve witnessed. We live in Chamonix and the Mont Blanc Massif is stunning but the whole Monte Rosa chain took my breath away – here were 7 mountains all over 4000m, all towering above us.
We were very excited when we made it to the hut, a stunning piece of space-age enginnering, and, after a little lunch, we headed up on our recce. The route finding was easy enough with clear cairns the whole way but I knew it would be a different situation by head torch. Making it up to the glacier in 50 minutes was a good sign and we were able to see clear tracks in the snow marking the onward path for the morning.
We headed back down to the hut to have a nap, drink lots of water, and wait for dinner. The hut had filled up during our departure; by what we could work out, there were about 30 people going for the Dufourspitze with the 90 other people just coming up as part of a trekking excursion. After a rather disappointing dinner the Matterhorn finally came out across the valley and, following a few pictures, we headed to bed.
Climbing the Dufourspitze
My alarm went off at 1.40am and I was instantly awake; we were here, we were about to set off on our biggest climb of the challenge yet, and go higher than we’ve been for 4 years. Nervous chatter over breakfast gave way to gearing up and by 2.45am we headed out into the night. There were 5 or 6 parties ahead and we could see their lights dancing up the boulder field in front of us.
The recce the night before proved invaluable and we made it onto the glacier by 4am. It was cold. Really cold. We put on our crampons, roped up and prepared to head out onto the crevassed minefield.
We set off at a steady pace, the aim never to rush but move consistenly and smoothly. As we gained height, we started to overtake some of the people who had left earlier than us, and an hour and a half later we stopped for some food and water. Both of us were pretty cold by this point and so we put on every layer we had, warmed up our fingers in our armpits, and changed our gloves. We needed to keep moving and so set off again, a little faster trying to warm up.
We carried on making amazing time, feeling stronger every step, and, before we knew it, we were at the base of the West Ridge, the climb part of our day. This was a moderately steep snow ridge with mixed terrain on top. Though a large and serious mountain, it is a popular guided beginner choice and the steeper terrain started to slow the leading parties down. Sophie and I felt in our element and, not wanting to dawdle, we moved quickly past them and up onto the mixed ground of the final summit stage.
Up this high, the sun finally came out and provided us with a pinch of warmth and it was the most incredible feeling; the first ray of sunshine hitting our faces. I heard Sophie make a sound behind me and turning round I saw her bent double squeezing her hands between her legs. ‘I’ve got hot aches!’.
Hot aches are pretty terrible; normally reserved for winter ice climbing, they come about when your hands go numb and the blood starts coming back in. It burns. They are excruciting, and, what is worst, they keep going for about 3 minutes. We were just below the summit and so I held her hands tightly, encouraged her, saying we were nearly there.
At 8.20am, after only 5 and a half hours of climbing, we were on the summit. Our quick moving meant we made it there first and were lucky enough to have the summit to ourselves for a few minutes.Both of us were very cold and so after a few quick pictures, we started our descent.
Much to my disappointment, at this moment I made what could have been a big mistake. I nearly started back down the ascent route rather then the much easier descent path. Thankfully, an alarm bell went off in my head and a passing guide pointed us in the right direction. Getting my head in gear, we turned around and headed the correct way down.
The descent was very well equipped and, down climbing while holding onto fixed ropes, we made it off the ridge and back onto the relative safety of the glacier in an hour. Now in the sun, we were able to breath a sigh of relief. We had a long way still to go but we were on easy ground and knew we were safe with the sun starting to thaw our chilled bodies.
We screamed down the glacier, every step taking us lower, getting us warmer, and making us happier. We started talking away, then joking, and before we knew it we had made the edge of the glacier. We just had the boulder field to negotiate and we were back in the hut. We were safe and warming up.
Arriving in the hut 9 hours and 15 minutes after we left, we both slumped onto a seat and tried to let the morning sink in. It had been a straightforward climb from a technical perspective, we had not even noticed the altitude but the cold had been something else.
A turning point
As I sit here typing, the ends of my forth and fifth fingers are still a little numb which means I caught a bit of frost nip, nothing permanent but a clear warning that it could have been a lot worse.
I feel I’ve taken a number of lessons away from this day that will only make us better, stronger alpinists. After the climb, we were talking to a local guide who said this is the worst season in the 16 years she has been guiding and the route was in full winter conditions. A serious undertaking but our experience and strength brought us out on top.
The relief and satisfaction both Sophie and I feel after this climb have felt like a real turning point in the Alpine Coast to Coast. We have proven that Sophie is strong enough to cycle long distances, with steep cycle climbs, then climb large and committing mountains, still smiling at the end of it. It feels like we have broken the back of this challenge and both of us want to make sure we enjoy the rest as much as possible, without any pressure.
We still have the tallest mountain in Western Europe to attempt but we will play it safe, take our time, and we have the added bonus of a few friends wanting to come climb the Blanc with us.
At the end of stage 5, we are feeling stronger than ever, keen to pass through our home town and climb in our own backyard.