Period : Feasible year round. Often best in May-June
It is definitely not peak season for Alpine mountaineering. It is cold, slow and challenging climbing in winter… perfect time to have a bit of an adventure. As we saw last month, with a judicious choice of route we can still get out on the highest peaks in the depths of winter. The Breithorn has an excellent route running along the full length of its 2.5km ridge, conveniently accessed from the Klein Matterhorn lift from Zermatt.
Diego Cairns approaching the summit of Breithorn East. Breithornzwillinge East beyond.
The southern skyline of the Zermatt valley is one of the highest ridges in Europe. For over 10km between Monte Rosa and the Breithorn, passing over Liskamm, Castor and Pollux, it only drops below 4000m in two places. The Breithorn, or ‘broad peak’ forms the western part of this ridge, which is also the Swiss-Italian border. Further to the west again it drops to the Theodulpass and rises back up to the shapely Matterhorn. This western flank has been draped with the infrastructure of the Breuil-Cervinia and Zermatt ski areas. However these in turn provide very convenient access for alpinists.
Despite being at 3295m the Theodulpass was historically a significant trade route between the Aosta and Valais regions and items have been found dating back to 4000 B.C. The north face of the Breithorn, easily seen from most vantage points above Zermatt, presents an imposing maze of steep crevassed glaciers, rock bands and seracs. There are a selection of climbs here and under good snow/ice conditions the Triftjigrat and Younggrat are classic routes weaving devious lines and avoiding the objective serac dangers. These are both harder than the traverse but are to be recommended for fit and competent parties. The southern flanks support a broad glacial plateau of Grande Verra before the terrain drops more abruptly into the Val d’Ayas in Aosta, Italy. Though it is crevassed in places the plateau allows easy access to the ridge at both ends.
The Breithorn traverse is a classic mountaineering route and justifiably popular. It is long and technical but not too sustained. It also offers several escape options and detours along the way. The route offers steep snow and ice slopes, rock climbing, short ice gullies, mixed climbing and lots of exposed corniced ridge. To complete the full traverse will require the use of the full repertoire of alpine techniques – pitched climbing, simul climbing and short roping, and potentially the odd abseil or lower.
Most Zermatt guided teams opt for the shorter ‘half-traverse’ as it can be comfortably completed in a day trip from Zermatt. The full traverse is to be recommended if you have time as the scale and variety of terrain offer an even more rewarding experience. The greater traverse, starting from Monte Rosa and crossing Liskamm, Castor and Pollux before reaching the Breithorn, is an exceptional outing requiring stable conditions and a sturdy physique.
Jonathan Preston and Jos Burkill on the final gendarme of Breithorn Central
Though many high mountain routes are best approached with skis in winter, the approach to Breithorn ridge is relatively short, and skis would be cumbersome if carried along the full length of the ridge. After fresh snow the route could not be recommended as it traverses steep avalanche prone slopes, and the approach would be purgatory (without skis).
Like many classic peaks the Breithorn is often busy in the summer months. The ‘normal’ ascent route to the west and highest summit follows homogenous snow slopes on the southern flank. It is one of the most accessible routes to an Alpine 4000m peak and also provides the descent route for the traverse. Along the Breithorn ridge are 5 summits on the UIAA 4000m list – Roccia Nera (4075m), Breithornzwillinge East (4106m), Breithorn East (4139m), Breithorn Central (4159m) and the principal summit – Breithorn West (4164m). The naming and heights of these varies on the Swiss and Italian maps (below I use the Swiss references).
Jonathan Preston and Jos Burkill pausing on Breithornzwillinge East.
Though the mountain is most conveniently accessed via Zermatt, it is also relatively simple to reach via Cervinia and its lift system. Though the terrain, flora and fauna to the north and south of the watershed are broadly similar, the culture of German speaking Switzerland and of Northern Italy are worlds apart. In my experience some of the stereotypes hold true. If you like efficient transport, excellent weather forecasts and avalanche bulletins, manicured towns and extortionate lift prices then head to Zermatt. If you like friendly service, great food, coffee and long lazy afternoons then head to Italy.
Both Zermatt and Cervinia are very well equipped for all sorts of tourism. They nevertheless follow seasonal fluctuations. Though the Zermatt Klein Matterhorn lift runs most of the year round it is unique in that respect, and most huts and other infrastructure will be closed outside the appropriate summer or winter season for hiking/alpinism or winter skiing. Both Cervinia and Zermatt are two of the most reliable ski resorts on the Alps and have longer seasons than elsewhere. Indeed Zermatt has professional ski teams from throughout Europe who come to race train through the summer months on the glacial pistes.
The Breithorn North Face from the Hörnlihütte
The Valais Alps receive less precipitation than the northerly and westerly massifs. Nevertheless the Breithorn – Monte Rosa ridge catches most of the available weather. The approach route can often be shrouded in mist and low cloud making navigation through the glacial terrain tricky. The ridge is also very exposed and is best enjoyed without the torments of violent wind. The route is truly mixed, having alternate passages on snow and rock and sometimes even ice. It is one of the few routes that can be recommended year round, though its character changes considerably. In high summer the ridge will often have a track in the snow and patches of glacial ice appear. The rock buttresses of Breithorn Central are climbed directly and provide the crux of the route. In winter and spring the ridge it a very different proposition. Though it is more strenuous it remains about the same level of difficulty. It develops considerable cornices, sometimes traversing one side then the other. These require careful management and rope work. Some of the rock is bypassed to one side or another on snow slopes or gullies and at times short rock chimneys can become choked with ice. A very early start is recommended to avoid traversing the delicate snow crest of Breithorn Central in soft and dangerous condition.
There are several options for mountain accommodation. For the full traverse the closest accommodation is the C.A.I. Bivouac Rossi e Volante, a small unstaffed metal hut with easy access in an outstanding location. It has space for 12 and is situated just under the eastern summit of Roccia Nera at 3787m. It has mattresses and blankets but little else. A few hundred metres below it is the Rifugio Guide della Val d'Ayas (3420m) that is guarded seasonally. Other options include the bunk accommodation that is available at the Klein Matterhorn lift station itself, or the guarded Rifugio Guide del Cervino at Testa Grigia, the summit of the Cervinia lift system.
The route varies depending on condition and under heavy snow some of the abseil stations can be hard to find. It can be traversed W-E, but in this direction the excellent climbing on Breithorn Central becomes awkward down climbing or abseils.
From the Klein Matterhorn station head SE then E to pass pt.3824m. Continue E to c.3700m and contour ESE under the rocky knoll where the Bivouac Rossi e Volante is found. Ascend to the hut via the eastern slopes and spend the afternoon drinking tea and in the sun. The following morning head NNE up steepening snow slopes to reach the ridge. These can often be wind scoured and icy. Head E to reach the summit of Roccia Nera. Double back on yourself and head NW to follow the beautiful corniced snow ridge then final rocks to peak 4106m (Breithornzwillinge East). From this summit down climb a few metres to a small saddle above a south facing gully/ramp which can be down climbed. Though this is not the standard route it can be the least complicated proposition. However if there is too little snow continue along the ridgeline to then down climb steeply or abseil 25m. Further down climbing gives access to the snowy saddle. Either way rejoin the ridgeline and follow this with short rock steps to 4139m (Breithorn East). From the summit continue NW and down climb (or abseil 20m from a block, often hidden under snow in winter) to find a south-facing ramp. This abseil station is hidden from view. From here down climb or abseil 20m to snow slopes and follow these up to the saddle at 4022m.
The central summit is attained by climbing three rock buttresses. From the foot of the first steep buttress it is usually passed by traversing under the south side and climbing a couloir on the left to regain the ridge. In dry conditions however it is more fun to climb the slab then arête on excellent rock with bolt runners at IV+. From the ridgeline the second buttress is climbed by a wide easy crack, III to ledges. Follow the south facing slopes above to regain the crest. Follow the fine mixed ridge to reach the last buttress. Climb this directly on the ridge, or more easily on the south face. A final chimney, which can be choked with ice in winter, leads to the horizontal ridge. Follow the ridge over a jammed block to a final 4m rock tooth in a spectacular position. Climb over this (III+) and follow the delicate corniced ridge for 400m over the Breithorn Central summit to col 4076m. Climb the final easy snow ridge to meet the hordes on the Breithorn West summit.
Jonathan Preston and Jos Burkill on Breithornzwillinge East. Zermatt valley in the clouds below.
Jonathan Preston and Jos Burkill traversing col 4022m from Breithorn East to Breithorn Central. The Matterhorn can be seen in the background.
The ‘half-traverse’ can be accessed by climbing the south facing glacial slopes then directly or diagonally up to the central saddle at 4022m. The second half of the route is then followed from the rock buttresses of the Central Breithorn.
The descent is by the easy snow slopes of the south flank of the Breithorn West. Follow the ridge west from the summit until it steepens a little then traverse back S and descend the face diagonally back to the plateau and the Klein Matterhorn lift station.
Diego Cairns near the summit of Breithorn East.
Tomas Mueller on the top of the first rock buttress of Breithorn Central.
Diego Cairns on Roccia Nera at daybreak
Ben Tibbetts is an adventure photographer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, France. He is working on a book of the finest routes in the Alps, available in 2017
Ben will be guiding, climbing and photographing the remaining routes for his book on the 4000m peaks over the next year.
Routes on his list vary from PD snow climbs through classic alpine ridges to harder gullies and face routes. If you are interested in being guided on some of these adventures, (with the possibility of appearing in the book!) then get in touch with Ben to discuss availability (though he is away until late April working in Greenland!) - firstname.lastname@example.org or see his guiding website www.bentibbettsguiding.com for more information.