Dufourspitz West Ridge

Alpine summer 2016: the top 3 routes

It’s been an “interesting” summer. Bucket loads of snow in the late spring and early summer has kept the glaciers in good condition. Even now, in mid September, the high mountains have generally been in very good condition apart from the obvious stonefall risk on the Grand Couloir of the Gouter route on Mont Blanc.

Over a beer in a hut last week, a colleague asked me – “So what have your top guiding routes been this season then?” It’s a good question that set me thinking. Oddly, big snow routes have been few and far between, perhaps due to another warm summer. Early September, incidentally, was the warmest on record in Switzerland since 1911. But the classic ridges and high alpine rock have been magnificent, with the good snow cover making access and descent simple.

So here they are – the top three for summer 2016. Three very different routes but with one thing in common: after 15 years of guiding, it was my first time to do them. Ah – the joys of discovering new gems.

 

Aiguille d’Orny – the classic south ridge (300m, 5a)

I’ve been to the welcoming Orny hut many times for Mont Blanc acclimatisation and on summer Haute Routes. But this year was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to go there to rock climb. As Raymond, the hut guardian said, “You’ll be back”, and he was right. So good, I’ve done this classic 3 times this season.

The classic south ridge of the Orny. Photo: Kolin Powick, Black Diamond
The classic south ridge of the Orny.
Photo: Kolin Powick, Black Diamond

A short approach walk of just 30-45 minutes (always a winner!) gets you to the start. Originally a trad route, it’s now been reequipped and the way up the initial rounded buttress is easy enough to follow, though I managed to “stray” onto a more challenging 6a variation on one occasion.

Just before the summit tower, there’s a great spot for a snack break. You’ll often have to wait there in any case as the ridge is a classic and the top crux pitches can be a bit of a bottleneck. The descent from the summit needs at least one 60m rope and twin 50’s will make it even more straightforward. In early season, the descent back to the hut will be on snow and you’ll need an axe and crampons. A rösti to celebrate before walking back to the lift at Breya is obligatory. Bon appétit!

 

The Traverse of the Perrons ( PD, 7 hours )

The jagged skyline of the Perrons beckons every time I drive over the Col des Montets in the direction of Vallorcine. Until the publication of the new Aiguilles Rouges guidebook, it was relatively little known compared to the busy areas of the Index and the Brevent. And yet you can drive to 1900m at the Emosson dam before setting off. You’ll need an early start as it’s a long day, and a good stable forecast is mandatory as once you’re committed, it would be hard if not impossible to escape sideways off this vertiginous ridge in a wild setting.

Looking back along the Perrons
Looking back along the Perrons

Nowhere is it desperately difficult, but it keeps going with interest along the full length, and you’ll need to be slick with all the alpine ropework and manoeuvres: short roping, downclimbing, abseiling and the transitions between them. No wonder it’s a firm favourite with training and tests for mountain guides!

 

Dufourspitz West Ridge (PD+, 7 hours )

Normal routes up the second highest mountains of a massif are often way more interesting than the top spots, and the alpine chain is no exception. The Dufourspitz is a long way from anywhere, so you’ll need to be fit and get a super early start from the Monte Rosa hut. Dawn over the western end of the alpine chain provides a great light show. And shortly after that, you’ll be at the Silbersattel and getting stuck into the main section of climbing. It feels way more committing than anything on the easy routes of Mont Blanc. Scrambling along a mix of snow arêtes and rocky ridges, the West ridge is classic alpine terrain.

Dawn on the Dufourspitz

In previous years, there’s been a fixed rope off the back to ease traffic congestion and speed up the descent. However, a rock fall has taken this out, so you’ll need to allow plenty of time to get back along the ridge and then scoot down to the Monte Rosa hut. I’d advise two consecutive nights in this hut, as it’s a long way on tired legs back to the Rotenboden train station.

 

See you next summer

I’ll be back in the hills next summer. But before that, an autumn of cragging and a winter of fluffiness awaits. Bring it on!