Spring marks the beginning of the classic ski touring season. The longer daylight hours are creeping back and the temperatures are rising. Often there are long periods of beautiful stable weather. After a winter with plenty of snowfall most glaciers across the Alps will have their crevasses well bridged. Though technically not difficult the North-East Arête of the Aleschhorn is a remote and strenuous undertaking. The route is conveniently split into a two-day expedition using a small bivouac hut before the summit day.
The Aletschhorn is a massive and shapely peak that dominates the southern flank of the Bernese Alps. It is the second highest peak in the range after the Finsteraarhorn. On the summit, high above the Rhone valley, it feels like being on the hinge of the Alps. To the south and west are the higher Pennine Alps regions and to the north and east the Bernese Oberland gives way to the long arc of mountains leading to Vienna. The Aletschhorn forms a broad pyramid extending three long ridges (W, SE and NE). Like many of the Oberland peaks it’s most impressive aspect is seen from north, especially when climbing the Grünhorn or Fiescherhorn. The northern flank of the mountain spreads like a pair of wings above the Grosser Aletschfirn. It forms an 800m high wall of seracs and steep snow slopes over 4km wide.
The more frequented summer route approaches from the south side of the mountain to Oberaletschütte before climbing the varied snow slopes and ridges to finish up on the rather loose rock of the South-West Arête. This route is equipped with regular belay stakes that can help provide a sure line of descent if overcome by poor weather.
For lovers of quiet routes and unguarded refuges however the North-East Arête is an excellent adventure to be had with modest difficulties. The expedition is long and wild any time of year, but is best recommended in spring on skis when the glacial approach will be safest.
The Bernese Alps are one of the most extensive high altitude regions of the Alps, and have the largest glaciated area in Europe. They are located in western Switzerland between Bern in the north and the Rhone Valley to the south. Though largely in the Bernese Oberland (‘Highland’) region of the canton of Bern, they spread into the cantons of Valais, Vaud and Fribourg. The highest peaks centre on the Aletsch Glacier and its tributaries, the largest in the Alps at 22km long and over 900m deep. This area has been protected as the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the first in the Alps to be awarded this in 2001. The abundance of steep, high and glaciated terrain means road and rail access is very limited. Approach from any access point, except the Jungfraujoch railway, involves a long march. This adds greatly to the wilderness experience of area, and completing a route can be even more rewarding than in more popular and busy areas. Among these mountains there are routes of all lengths and character – fine rock arêtes, mixed faces, snow climbs and ski touring peaks. Nevertheless none of the 4000m peaks in this region are particularly easy, despite providing some routes with modest grades. The long approaches combined with fickle weather patterns mean these mountains are relatively remote, challenging and serious undertakings that hint at the character of the Greater Ranges.
In ideal conditions you would find the complex and crevassed traverse of the Aletsch Glacier smoothed over with consolidated snow. This is most likely from March to May. Higher on the mountain solid névé will speed progress from the exposed Aletschjoch ridge (3623m) and on towards the summit. Most of the route approaching the Mittelaletsch bivouac hut (3013m) is on low angle terrain (i.e. low risk of triggering an avalanche) except the last 200m, which touch 30º. Nevertheless several passages are exposed to avalanche from the slopes above so timing is critical. The summit day is on a mixture of snow slopes to 45º with short yet exposed arêtes. The final summit ridge has mixed rock passages. On the descent the slopes back to the bivouac hut face south-east and heat up rapidly. An early start and steady progress is necessary.
From Fiesch the cable car up to Fiescheralp runs for much of the year and is very convenient for access. In winter or summer seasons the upper lifts can be used before traversing north over the Tälligrat to Märjela. If these are closed traverse north from Fiescheralp on a 4x4 track passing through the tunnel (1km long) at Obers Tälli under the Tälligrat. Several variations are possible to reach the bottom of the Mittelaletsch glacier valley: From Platta, where you approach the Aletsch glacier, either traverse WNW to the far bank and descend the edge of the glacier and the rock banks to the plateau at the base of the Mittelaletsch, or descend the Aletsch glacier towards the left bank and navigate complex pressure ridges back NW to the same point. Local guides may be able to advise on current conditions or a trip to the summit of Eggishorn lift system can offer a good view down onto the glacier. The Mittelaletsch glacier has now retreated significantly from this junction and you follow the moraines, ridges and gullies to reach its foot. From here one first glimpses the hexagonal hut on the broad slopes below the Dreieckhorn. In winter it is often better to pass to the left (W) of the seracs below the refuge and traverse across on the plateau at 3000m between these two prominent serac bands (5-8hrs). The hut is equipped with 13 bunks and blankets but when I visited there was little else so you need to bring a stove, gas and food which all adds to the payload and sense of adventure. Be sure to arrive early to enjoy the afternoon sun and dry your boots. The sun sets quite early as the Aletschhorn summit rises up to the west of the hut.
Gear : Glacier travel equipment, Crampons + 1 axe, 30m glacier rope.
On the summit day get up early to ensure the safest conditions on descent. Ascend slopes above the hut which steepen towards the Aletschjoch. The slopes below the col make great spring skiing on descent. Even when we climbed this in May there was a lot of fresh snow that made the ridge traverse delicate. The exposed but easy ridge leads to a flattening after pt.3718. In deep snow conditions it is worthwhile carrying skis to here then skinning the last slopes towards the summit. The upper slopes are still crevassed so may require the team to rope up. The pt. 4087 can be climbed directly or bypassed across its east ridge. From here traverse SW to the rocky North-West Ridge. A pleasant scramble leads to the summit cross (5-6hr).
Return by the same route to ski back to the Aletsch Glacier and on to Fiescheralp. Alternatives: a) Directly below the summit cross are the final slops of the South-West Ridge normal route. This could be descended to complete a traverse of the mountain). b) On returning Aletschjoch, if the snow conditions are still good, those with abundant energy can make an excellent traverse to the Konkordia Hut - follow the ridge east to the Dreieckhorn and descending by its North-East Ridge and East Flank (PD).
The interesting approach and excellent bivouac hut would make reaching the hut a worthwhile ski tour on its own. Taking the long tunnel under the Tälligrat provides a surprising start to the tour. It was dug in 1895 as an outflow to lower the level of the Märjelensee Lake that had been causing repeated flooding events below the Aletsch glacier when ice dams disintegrated. When we headed up to the Mittelaletsch in late May the winter snows on the Aletsch were already in rapid retreat. We made our way easily enough across slushy snow bridges to the western edge of the Aletsch glacier but then found the best option was unfortunately to scramble down amongst the grimy edge of the glacier in the sludge and gravel. The lower Mittelaletsch moraines had already melted out and in places grasses and alpine flowers were preparing for summer. It had however just re-snowed again a few days earlier so we skated around on moist rock and scree with our laden overnight rucksacks.
We overtook a couple of parties of other skiers on the way up to the hut and found they were the only others staying. It is a basic one room cabin built in a stunning location. Once the sun set we were treated to a clear sky full of stars which also helped the snowpack re-radiate the heat of the day and freeze well for the summit day.
We got up early and skinned most of the way to the Aletschjoch in the dark. The broad slopes catch a lot of sun and had formed a stiff icy crust after the previous day's warming. We skinned up with ski crampons until the final slopes to the ‘joch’. The first hint of light was appearing on the eastern horizon as we had a drink and put skis on our rucksacks. We cramponed up and the crusty snow alternately supported out weight for a few steps then collapsed unpredictably and plunged us to our knees. We caught the sunrise at the Aletschjoch as it rose over the Finsteraarhorn. The snow above looked wind crusty and firm. To avoid several ski to crampon transitions up the slopes and ridges above we left the skis at the col. The ridge from the joch is at a comfortable angle. It exposed enough that you are excitingly aware of the great drop down to the Aletsch glacier, but is not a nerve-wracking blade snow. Unfortunately the slopes above turned out to alternate between as hard crust and thigh deep powder in equal measure. These slopes leading to the final summit ridge absorbed a disproportionate amount of energy. In retrospect taking skis on and off up these sections would have been much quicker!
The final ridge provides spectacular views and gives a relatively commodious passage to the summit. On the descent we rambled down quickly to the skis at the joch by which time the sun had turned the crust into perfect corn snow on the steeper slopes. We passed by the hut to pick up gear and quickly on down to retrace our steps on the Aletsch glacier and so to the Konkordia hut and the next adventure.
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.