Breithorn, 4165 m

Top of Breithorn Occidentale, 4165 m - the path is broad enough for 2 feet.

After the climbing in Chamonix, I spent some time at home with my family. Then, I went off to Switzerland to pursue some higher grounds, and took the train to Zermatt. My first target there was Breithorn. It's perfect for acclimatization because of its height (4164 or 4165 meters, depending on the source - and amount of snow) and the fact that it's not technically demanding. The lift goes all the way to the summer ski slopes, and from there it's just a few hours to the top of Eastern Breithorn, the highest point at the range, and back.

The North face of Breithorn

Since I was alone, I was ready to abort the attempt at any time it would become dangerous. But it turned out to be fully within my comfort zone, which is backed up by many years of mountaineering in similar environment. I did make the necessary risk management, the mountains need all the respect.

Warning sign - crevasses ahead.

The route goes around the glacier, avoiding any crevasses, and then zigzags up. As long as you have good alpine equipment such as boots, crampons, and an ice axe (and know how to use them, including self-arrest) then it's rather straight-forward. Being roped together, of course, is preferable safety-wise.

I used a technical axe, good for ice climbing and dry-tooling. It's just as good for self arrest, and since I'm not very tall it works very nicely for alpine walking.

The time needed to get to Klein Matterhorn by the lift system was longer than I thought, so the time was already 12 when I reached the summit. For the future, I will bear in mind that all equipment can be taken on and adjusted while on the lift. There is only one transfer between lift cabins, at Trockener Steg, so you can busy yourself with tying your shoes, adjusting the gear, repacking your daypack, or applying sunscreen during this long ride.

As I was closing in to the top, the wind became noticeable. The weather forecast was showing 20 km/h and a few clouds. However, it felt a bit above that already. I wooled up and continued.

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Windy weather! Turn on the sound to hear how bad it was.

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When I approached the summit, the wind picked up even more. As I made a place for myself on one of the slopes, I tried to find some lee from the wind - but without result. There's really not much place to sit on safely either, the top of the mountain is pretty exposed as they normally are - after all, this is a mountain summit and there is not much to protect it from the wind.

I made a snow anchor, turned my back to the cold wind, and started making lunch. My plan was to spend a few hours here to acclimatize. The more the better - but at least one hour.

Quick selfie upon arriving to the top

Trying to do anything in this wind was a major project, even putting on more clothes. If anything is removed from the daypack, it had to be thoroughly attached to my harness, so it would not be ripped away. I thought about a winter summit years ago, with a similar feeling, where I was almost forced to turn around because of the strong winds. This was not quite as bad, but enough to make me count minutes on the summit.

My lunch consisted of different varieties of Swiss cheese, some fruits and nuts. I made some tea, and also had coffee with fresh alpine milk that I had brought with me, a luxury - I prefer it to the powdered milk and decided to opt for some extra weight in exchange for the good taste. The hot drinks cooled down very quickly in the wind chill. A tea bag flew away right out of my cup.

Breithorn seen from Klein Matterhorn in the afternoon. The clouds may look cozy, but they come with wind and snow.

Clouds came and went, snow sprayed on. I did my best to stay warm without moving around the place which would be dangerous on a steep slippery slope. A couple of alpinists came and went. I thought of our endless acclimatization walks on Elbrus. We would lay on our backs, watching the sky, listening to Vysotsky. Or when the weather was cold and windy, we'd hide behind a snow wall, chatting away, checking on each other, and measuring our pulses with my phone.

I managed to spend almost two hours on the Breithorn Occidentale peak, before the windchill became too strong. Also, I was ready to answer the nature's call since a couple of hours back, so it was time to go.

View of Eastern Breithorn from the observation deck at Klein Matterhorn

The descent was uneventful. I hang around on the lookout platform of Klein Matterhorn, watching my picnic spot getting washed over by snow clouds from afar.

Thunderstorms rolling over the valley

I stayed here until the last lift to Zermatt, in order to squeeze out some last acclimatization. I think that the acclimatization effects from Chamonix had stayed, because I felt quite OK at the altitude. Possibly a bit light-headed, but really such a far cry from some of the people I've seen around here, resembling zombies. This might be a technically non-challenging four-thousander, but it's a four-thousander nonetheless.

The thunderstorms rolled in just as I was descending, and washed Zermatt clean and wet. I opted for a dorm bed instead of camping. Hotel Bahnhof had premium dorm beds, one of the best dorm rooms I've seen - the clever design makes for a lot of comfort and privacy. Also, they have a fully equipped industry-style kitchen, which makes householding easy and more affordable. Living and eating out in Zermatt is otherwise crazy expensive, even for someone who's been used to prices in Norway or Chamonix.

Ice sculptures created by the wind and the snow on the Normal route to Breithorn.

When making plans for the next day, I was a bit pensive about further acclimatization. Should I try to pitch a tent and spend the night near the glacier at 3800? Is it really allowed to wild camp at Breithorn or will I be faced with thousands of Swiss francs in fines? I tried to search for this information, but there were no clear rules, like for instance in Chamonix. On the other hand, there are a lot of people bivvying over the night near Cosmiques, despite the prohibition.

I know that it was possible to pitch tents at the glacier between Breithorn and Klein Matterhorn about ten years ago. But a lot may have changed. The hostel receptionist honestly did not know. I tried the internet, no result. The information I found on Hörnlihütte page only concerned Matterhorn area, as did the signs near the route to Hörnli Hut.

The definite camping prohibition on Hörnligrat - why not this clear elsewhere in the Swiss Alps?

The internet did not give any more info than the fact that wild camping seems to be forbidden in Switzerland. I asked a man who worked in the lift at Klein Matterhorn, and he said that as long as I don't pitch the tent inside of the lift station, then it's positively OK. However, I was still skeptical. If the gendarmes were to come and fine me plus send me down, what would they care about a poorly informed well-wisher at the lift? It would still be me paying the fine and not getting a good night's sleep.

Finally, I got the answer from the tourist office. It's forbidden to pitch tents near Breithorn. In fact, all wild camping is forbidden in the high Alps, anywhere. Bivvying on the glacier will result in fines. Nobody knew exactly how much fines, but the guesses ranged withing a few hundred Swiss francs.

I have a theory that the process may be like on Mont Blanc - if you're caught, you'll be transported down with a helicopter and that costs several thousand euro. So the fines are in that case not the lion part of it, it's the mandatory transportation down to the valley that will be the big cost. But there is no information available about that.

Breithorn as seen from the lift system.

There is an arranged camping ground in Zermatt quite near to the train station, with prices starting at 17 CHF per person. As thunderstorms raged in the valley and rain was pouring down, I decided not to risk getting my gear all wet, or risk bad sleep prior to the next stage of the adventure. I opted for a dorm bed, as mentioned previously. It is though a bit of a shame I did not get to try out my new tent, bought especially for acclimatization as my old one was destroyed in a storm on Kilimanjaro. On the other hand, I did not want to risk unnecessary trouble, so I did stick to the decision. The day after, more acclimatization would be made - see the next blog post.