The Finest Routes in the Alps Rimpfischhorn (4199m), North Ridge, 600m, AD, III All photos, drawings and text by Ben Tibbetts in association with
Material: Crampons, Axe, 40m rope, glacier travel gear, slings, nuts and a couple of cams.
The serrated 'stickleback' profile of the Rimpfischhorn's North Ridge makes it an easily recognisable landmark. It is located on the watershed between the Zermatt's Mattertal valley and Saastal. The Allalinpass at its northern end is the lowest major pass between the two valley systems. It is nevertheless one of the more remote peaks in the region as none of the vast web of lift access points has yet stretched towards it. This can make it a great choice in high season when other routes are often busy. A long approach over a spread of complex glaciers deters all but the most ardent of alpinists.
The views across to the Saas and Zermatt peaks are exquisite and it is well worth getting onto the ridge at sunrise to see the palette of colours shift across the landscape. As all the difficulties of the route are packed onto the rock ridge between the Great Gendarme and the summit there is ample time to pause and get a fill of the views. From many aspects the rock quality looks terrible, and indeed is on many parts of this peak.- the east face is a tottering mass of loose banded rock. Nevertheless on the North Ridge that runs between the Great Gendarme and the summit the rock is good on all the technical sections. There is great climbing to be had traversing the ridge in either direction though I prefer north to south as you gain the ridge crest and the panoramic views more rapidly via the northern snowy flanks.
Rimpfischhorn seen from the Matterhorn.
On a sunny afternoon in early august we packed our bags in a hurry on the baking tarmac of the Saas Fee car park. With such a lot of ground to cover for this route anything non-essential was jettisoned to save weight and we dashed to get the last lift up to Plattjen. We hiked along the impeccably maintained rocky trail that traverses high above the Almagell valley. From the natural balcony views opened across to the Weissmeis and up the valley to the reservoir and the boiling clouds spilling over the Italian border. Having set off late much of the trail was in the refreshing shade of the adjacent peaks. For a brief spell thunderous looking clouds let go of some moisture then evaporated, clinging only to the highest peaks. After an hour or so we met the trail coming over from the Felskinn lift, crossed the small remaining glacier patch and arrived at the Britannia Hütte in time for dinner. The hut was spacious, clean and smart, though a little lacking in the character of some of the smaller Swiss huts. We ate dinner and went straight to bed.
Valentine Fabre on the path from Plattjen.
The Britannia Hut.
After a short sleep we were up, breakfasted and out the door at 2am. As we were the only ones leaving early the guardian left the buffet breakfast out for us. It was clear outside and the sky full of stars, the moon rising in the east. We scampered down onto the glacier and tried hard to follow the paint markings and cairns however soon lost the trail amongst a sea of rocks in the glacial moraine. We continued along a vague ridge and then dropped down in amongst some deep crevassing to find a way onto the Allalin Glacier. (There is a more recent path just to the north of pt 3150m). We roped up and hopped in amongst the crevasses trying to find a way out of the maze and onto the plateau above. The snow was all but gone and the glacier was dry and gritty making travel fast.
Further on we made significant detours back and forth through a maze of wide parallel crevasses and then about 3200m hit the snowline. At lower elevations the air wasn't freezing but the snow was thankfully still crisp from re-radiation. Though we followed the remnants of an old track I still put my foot into a couple of hidden crevasses. A meandering line took us up onto the Allalinpass. There was a brisk cool wind coming from the west once we were over the pass and we stopped to put on jackets on before the final steepening to the ridge. Here we picked up a recent path coming in from the west as the routes were forced together around a crevasse high up on the slope. Steepening slopes on crisp snow took us towards the north summit of the Rimpfischhorn, the 'Great Gendarme'.
We arrived on the ridge around 6:20 as the sun's first rays pulled over the Italian border to our left. Off to our right the sun crept down the Matterhorn, all the while gaining warmth and intensity. I spent quite some time shooting images of the changing light whilst Valentine sheltered out of the wind below the ridge. We shortened the rope between us and moved off up the blocky ridge. It soon steepened up with a few fun slabby moves to the summit of the Great Gendarme. For the first time we got a good view of the route ahead along the toothy ridgeline all the way to the summit cross only 600m away. The south side of the Gendarme drops away steeply and we descended with two 20m rappels.
Valentien Fabre on the approach to the Great Gendarme.
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Valentine Fabre on the slabs of the Great Gendarme.
By the time we were established on the ridge below the Gendarme the sun's warmth was starting to combat the frigid breeze. The ridge drops steeply to the east but to the west forms blocky slabs and provides excellent exposed scrambling. We worked our way along at a steady pace, hands still gloved and the rock chilly. For a while the ridge broke down into a loose crumbling path but soon the rock quality increased again and short climbing sections provided interesting moves. The rock is a complex gneiss and the variety of slabs, blocks and ramps give a steady rhythm to the ridge. Fortunately any of the more delicate moves are found on the best sections of rock. We paused below an overhang on the east side and far below us could see a pair of climbers just arriving at the Adlerpass with the long sweeping snow slopes up to the Strahlhorn still ahead of them – peaceful or dispiriting depending on your state of mind.
Valentine Fabre on the Great Gendarme.
Round the corner the ridge dropped down in a series of short steps. Though relatively simple some of the moves were hard to see from above and had excellent exposure on both sides. A final steepening brought us up to the summit ridge and on to the cross. The view throughout the length of the ridge is outstanding, but here the whole southern vista opens up with long uninterrupted horizons from the Matterhorn through to Monta Rosa, the Strahlhorn and down away to the Italian plains. Though it was only 10am we had a quick snack and carried on. There didn't seem any urgency to the day but the longer we waited there the warmer the snow would be on the return.
We following the ridge onwards to where it terminates abruptly and then followed the track down right onto the steep slabs of the normal route. At a vague col the easiest line traversed left into a gulley and then finally down onto the broad snow slopes below. On the way down we met a few young novice German climbers who had just climbed the normal route and were jubilant. We were likewise moving with that quiet euphoria that you can get after finishing a good route and getting back onto safer ground. The snow was already thawing on the surface so we chatted for just a few minutes and started down the crevassed slopes to traverse back round to the Allalinpass.
The day was warming rapidly and to the west clouds were beginning to crowd over the ridges of the Dent Blanche and the Weisshorn. In an hour we got over the pass and onto glacial slopes that had been warming since the morning. With long wallowing steps we slid down through the deeply cooked snow, occasionally plunging to the knee into small crevasses. Before long we were across the last of the soft snowy crevasse bridges and onto the firm ice lower down. We moved faster as the clouds behind us built higher and higher into the sky. The great yawning parallel crevasses seemed much more menacing by daylight as we could see right into the depths and some of the necessary leaps were a little unnerving.
The long moraines of loose boulders back across to the Hohlaub Glacier sucked any remaining energy out of us. On the last pull up to the ridge to the hut the clouds became even thicker again until the summits were engulfed and the sky took on a sinister purple haze. Though it was still sunny overhead the first peals of thunder crashed over the mountains behind us as we arrived at the hut. We gathered our belongings and pressed on down the snow slopes and across towards the Felskinn lift as the first spatters of rain began to fall.
Valentine Fabre on the Rimpfischhorn North Ridge
The rock is formed of slabby gneiss dipping to the west. Though it would still be fun with patches of névé this would increase the difficulties significantly. Mid-summer under dry conditions will provide the easiest passage.
Though equally possible from Tasch or Berghaus Flue it is quickest from the Britannia hut. Drop down SW onto the Hohlaub Glacier. Cross this to the moraine and find the best passage up west to pick up a path heading up a rocky valley to a col at pt. 3108. Head S and join the Allalin Glacier and find a way through crevassed ground up to the Allalinpass (3557m). Head S up steepening snow and ice slope to just before the Great Gendarme then scramble on rock to its summit (4-5 hrs).
From the summit of the Great Gendarme find rappel anchors on the south side. Make 2 x 20m rappels to the ridge below (the Great Gendarme can be avoided by an unpleasant traverse on the east side). Continue along the ridge on rock of increasing quality over a multitude of minor gendarmes. Most difficulties are passed directly on the ridgeline or slightly to the west side. After a traversing a distinct knife blade of clean slabby rock pass briefly onto the east side and continue by a ledge under the overhanging ridgeline. Back on the ridgeline a series of short steep steps descend to the final col. On the last ascent a few steeper moves (III) lead to the summit ridge and cross. (3hrs)
The route can be traversed in the opposite direction. Difficulties are similar and the Great Gendarme can be climbed directly at IV, or by cracks on the west side at III+
The WSW ridge is the 'normal' ascent route and provides a fun scramble and great rock in all the right places. In descent continue south from the summit to lower top before an abrupt drop. Turn right down the west facing slabby arête. Follow this exposed but easy terrain down, via crampon worn rock, past two metal 't' stakes. Do not follow the couloirs straight down as these become loose. At a wide flattening in this ridge break left (south) into lower angle terrain and traverse into a west-facing gulley. Descend this to the Rimpfischsattel. From here follow the glacier north passing under the rocks and western flanks of the Rimpfischhorn and round to the Allalinpass. Return by the approach route.
Strahlhorn and Rimpfischhorn from the Allalinhorn.
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.