Five thousand metres of vertical joy
At some point during each of my trips to the alps I have always found myself drawn to the Saastal valley. In contrast to the hussel and bussel of Chamonix and Zermatt, the Saastal valley is a serene, understated and beautiful location with plenty of magnificent mountains. It was actually the first place I ever came to learn the skills of alpinism and over the next few years I worked my way through most of the 4000m peaks in the area, climbing some of them up to four times! But two remained elusive: Rimpfishorn and Lenspitze.
Rimpfishorn is described by the guidebook as a consolation prize when snow conditions prevent ascents of the more technical peaks in the area. I therefor considered it something of a bad weather option and consequently a previous attempt on skis had resulted in a sorry retreat during a snowstorm. Various other planned attempts were all aborted before they even commenced and so sadly this mountain came to be in my head as one I needed to “get over and done with”! How wrong and disrespectful my attitude was to this stunning mountain that stands recognisable within any angled panorama of the range!
In the interest of both fitness and finances, I have become attracted to the notion of tackling peaks as day-trips from the car park. Lifts and huts have been replaced by stronger legs and a slightly better bank balance. And so, after a night at the carpark in Taschalp we set off at 4am towards the glacier to begin our ascent of Rimpfishorn. Soon the first morning light began to appear behind the Monta Rosa massif and Zermatt giants, a fiery red light creating an unbelievable silhouette of the range. A little after that, the first beams of sunshine touched down gently on the Matterhorn giving the summit ice fields a gentle orange glow. It was breathtaking.
After crossing endless crevasses, we ascended to the col, and then onto the main WSW ridge towards the summit. Recent snowfall meant we kept our crampons on for a mixed style ascent, moving together clipping a mixture of bolts, pegs and pieces from our own small rack. A final scramble saw us at the summit, where we exchanged photos with fellow mountaineers and enjoyed some of my last remaining Scottish oatcakes. Several hours later we were back at the car, brewing up tea and contemplating the sensibility of our plan for the following day. We were already quite tired but neither of us could resist the good weather forecast and the idea to see if our bodies could manage another huge, even bigger, day!
So after a long drive back around the valley and barely three hours of sleep in the back of my car, I was woken by my alarm at midnight. I switched on my phone, secretly hoping to find a message from Neil bailing on our ridiculous plan, but there wasn’t one, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to bail! So I got dressed, went to meet Neil, and we began the gruelling 1900m ascent to the Mischabelle hutte. I forgot there was no water for the entire ascent so felt very dehydrated arriving at the hut. I had decided to splurge and buy bottled water at the hut, but, it turned out that all the people staying there had long-since departed, the lights were off and the guardian was back in bed. I now had three slight concerns: 1) It seemed we were starting the route considerably later than everyone else – would the crevassed descent be dangerous in the afternoon? 2) I was going to have to drink the “non-drinking water” and had previous bad experience from this hut with a vomiting illness! 3) I was very tired!
We pushed on. As the ridge came into view, we could see the trail of headtorches, already more than halfway up towards the summit of Lenspitze. But somehow, we seemed to be revitalized, and we moved quickly and efficiently up towards them. We agreed to climb without a rope, until such a time as one of us felt uncomfortable soloing. Soon we were treated to another incredible sunrise. Every time I believe its the most beautiful sight ive ever witnessed and I vow never to take it for granted. Before long we passed several parties and with a final section of an icy slope, found ourselves on the summit of Lenspitze. This was my final 4000er in the Saastal area and it was so cool to look around knowing I had stood on every summit surrounding me.
There was still more fun to be had as we traversed a high rocky ridge to reach the summit of Nadelhorn. The rope remained in the rucksack for the whole ascent, save from three snowy slabs which we abseiled down. I will solo only well within my comfort zone and certainly not for any sort of adrenaline rush – it is purely for the joy and freedom of moving fast free and unencumbered in the mountains. This is my favourite feeling ever and fills me with pure happiness!
The descent was long, almost 3000m down to Saas Grund. It lived up to its reputation as a “guaranteed knee-wrecker” and I could feel my joints aching on the relentlessly steep path. Neil was on a lesser budget so opted to take the gondola from Hannig, kindly taking the heavier contents from my rucksack. I wasn’t in any hurry, the afternoon storm was showing no signs of developing and so I stopped several times on the grassy hillside to enjoy the view and relieve my aching knees.
I arrived back to the gentle buzz of Saas Grund. There were families out playing in the sunshine as I walked back across the grassy fields on the edge of town. Holidaymakers lined the cafes, reclining in their sheepskin lined chairs drinking expensive beers, their rucksacks set aside after a happy day out hiking. Later they will dine in a fancy restaurant and retire to their hotels, take a warm shower and sleep in their comfortable beds. Meanwhile I make a beeline for the water fountain, the cold fresh water refreshing my dry palate as much as any fine beer. Later I look forward to brewing a cup of tea on my camping stove, washing in glacial river and getting a good night’s sleep in the back of my car. I’m not even joking, I love this simplicity, I feel so free. But here we all are, worlds apart in many ways, yet united by a shared passion for just being in the mountains.