It’s been 3 years since I last saw Marty, when we climbed the north ridge of Pizzo Badile and the Mittelegi ridge on the Eiger. This time we met in Milano with new projects in Zermatt, and right after the airport we decided to stop to warm up our legs and arms on the Grignetta, a very nice mountain range very close to Lecco, above Lake Como. The Torre Felicita is a small tower, the approach is quick but the trail is very exposed towards the end, it’s an ideal climb if you’re short in time, or if you have few hours spare, like we did in the afternoon. The next day we did a longer climb as we headed to the Torri Magnaghi, we sweated like crazy on the approach and we got pretty hot at the start of the climb. We started with the “Anti Dorn” ridge, couple pitches steep and technical graded V. It was a beautiful day, once we got to the top of Grignetta we found some hikers up there, probably they wanted to escape to the killing heat down the valley. It was so hot on the way down that, as we jumped into the car heading north we had a break down the lake Como for a swim, so to refresh our bodies before driving to the Simplon pass for the overnight.
We got to Zermatt on a rainy morning, the peaks were getting plastered with a tiny bit of snow and it was pretty cold. Those were the days at the end of August when a big snowfall brought almost a foot of fresh snow in the Dolomites, but luckily not in the Alps as this would have meant “game over” for most of the big peaks. Our big goal in Zermatt was the traverse of the Obergabelhorn via the Arbengrat, supposed to be one of the most beautiful itinerary in the Valais and one of the mostbeautiful muntaineering journey in the Alps. The weather forecast was still promising a good weather window for the next days, very windy and cold at the beginning, so we gave couple days to the sun to warm up the rock and melt the tricky verglass covering the upper part of our route.
The Riffelhorn is the peak above Zermatt where to spend a nice day out climbing some great rock, many local guides take the clients training for the Matterhorn up on the normal route, but particularly along the “Egg”, a fun multi pitch climb on the south face, the last one of the wall exactly under the summit cross ( all the routes on the Rifflehorn are well marked by small metal plates at the start of the first pitch). Staring at the Matterhorn reflected on the Riffelsee is already worth the cost of the train ticket to Rotenboden, the approach to the “Egg” is not to be underestimated, there is a very exposed traverse in slight descent, protected by some bolts, overlooking the Grenzgletscher. The climb is very nice, protected with good bolts (careful with runouts), it’s not any harder than 4, and it’s a really good excercise to climb with mountain boots, just to get more confidence. As I said several times, the view from the top is gorgeous, all the peaks of Monte Rosa around, behind the 4000 meter peak of the Mischabel range, in the background to the north the glaciers of the Bernese Oberland.
So the time had come for our traverse of the Obergabelhorn via the Arbengrat, the following day we left Schwarzsee with our heavy backpacks and start walking towards the the Arbenbiwak. The approach takes all day, (5 hours with a normal pace) the trail starts downhill so you can enjoy the dramatic view of the north face of the Matterhorn. After leaving the comfortable path towards the Schonbielhutte, we followed a mule track for amwhile and then turned on a steep track up the moraine, very exposed at the top. You really feel the wilderness and severe environment once you go up there.
The last part of the approach to the Arbenbiwak has some some steel chains sections, in particular the last one is steep and very exposed. We were the first team to get up there. What can I say about the Arbenbiwak? Well, it’s a real gem. It’s really clean, there are 3 gas stoves, ceramic plates and glasses, even forks and knives. Outside there is a fountain where you can take some water to boil or to clean the dishes, even the toiltet has a water system … huge congratulations to the section of the Swiss Alpine Club of Zermatt for the care in maintaining this comfortable bivouac, and also to the alpinists using it. I don’t think we could have such a cute clean bivuoac like in Italy, take the example of the Capanna Carrell on the italian side of the Matterhorn, it’s just few kilometers far from there, but light years far compared to the comfort and especially the cleanliness that you find inside and outside the Arbenbiwak.
Outside the bivouac, a good track with some cairns show the way to the Arbengrat, a ridge I was going to climb and guide for my first time and that confirmed all the expectations. On our summit day, nobody was in a hurry to go out first in the dark of night, after a good breakfast we walked out with our headlamps on, we looked towards the Matterhorn where a lot of lights were flashing everywhere alon the Lion Ridge, while on the Swiss side the Hornli ridge was totally quite, above the hut the first teams were showing up on a single file ready to hit the first fixed ropes. Back again on the Obergabelhorn, we had not problem finding the ramp above the glacier that leads to the Arbengrat (a quick recon the afternoon before helps), this part of the the climb should not be underestimated, it’s pretty steep and exposed, with almost no spots for proper belaying. Once you reach the little notch on the ridge then the real climb begins, the route is pretty obvious, you find lots of crampons scratches helping you out. The rock is really good, few pitons and slings are usually in the right spots. It took us 4 hours to reach the top of the Obergabelhorn from the Arbenbiwak, as the guide book says, but there is no time to relax too much because the exposure of the normal route, our way down the mountain, is pretty scary and steep. There are few stanchions on top, anchors equipped with slings mostly all the way on the rocky section that are useful for abseiling, the conditions were excellent on the snowy part of the normal route, which is also very steep and exposed, you need to be very careful there while climbing down short roped. A series of fixed ropes help going across the Kluckerturm, the Grand Gendarm, followed by an easier stroll up the glacier to the top of Wellenkuppe where you can finally take a break and enjoy the stunning view.
There is still way to go from the Wellenkuppe. There’s a first section where you can downclimb or abseil, then a bit of short roping before the last rappels that bring your feet down to the Triftgletscher. The Rothornhutte is now pretty close, we took less than an hour to cross the glacier, crevassed in the middle, and reach the hut. The Rothorn hut is very popular despite the long approach from Zermatt (no lifts make your way up there easier), the normal route of the Zinalrothorn, and even better the Rothorngrat are two beautiful and classic climbs. The following day we set off at dawn to climb this 4000 meter peak, but our legs were still a bit tired from the long journey on the Obergabelhorn and the weather forecast didn’t look promising for the afternoon, so once we got at the Frühstückplatz before the snow arete we decided to bail.
It was however a fantastic mountaineering week, also because I managed to take Marty to see the Dolomites before he had to leave for the States.
More information about the Arbengrat …
The traverse of the Obergabelhorn via Arbengrat is one of the most beautiful mountaineering trip in the Alps. The technical difficulty doesn’t exceed the grade IV, but you must be aware you’re climbing on a very wild (and not tamed) environment. The topo and route details showed on the “Hochtouren Topoführer Walliser Alpen” guidebook by Topoverlag is correct and well detailed, even for the descent via the normal route that should not be underestimated. I recommend a 60meter rope especially for the way down, where those 10 meters of extra rope can be useful in the last steep part of the Obergabelhorn, if the face is icy it’s better to lower as much as possible where the slope gets less steep. As for technical equipment, few quickdraws, slings and a small rack of cams are more than enough. The Arbengrat ridge is slightly exposed to the southwest, so it gets dry pretty quickly.