Two hundred years ago this December a huge part of the Weisshorn glacier in Switzerland crashed down several thousand feet to the valley below.
At 6am on December 27th 1819 the villagers of Randa, near Zermatt, were awoken as millions of tonnes of snow and ice swept away boulders, rocks, gravel and mature larch trees. Though the debris missed the village the force of the slide created a blast of air that moved entire buildings and their contents, burying 12 people, all but two of whom escaped with their lives.
Eyewitnesses described the noise of the falling mass as the loudest thunder and said a bright flash accompanied the slide before darkness once again enveloped the village.
First light revealed the utter devastation of the avalanche that have covered an area of pasture 2,400ft by 1,000ft by 150ft high.
It was not the first avalanche to bring disaster to Randa. In 1636 the village was destroyed by a similar avalanche when 36 people were killed. It is said that that occasion saw a much greater chunk of the flacier fall from the slopes of the mountain, at 14,783ft the 5th highest in the Alps.
Two other less serious falls happened in 1736 and 1786 but not precisely in the same place. This time only a small part of the glacier fell down.
Could a similar disaster happen again? With climate change and the nature of the Alps being constantly on the move it is possible. Earlier this month it was reported that part of a glacier on the Mont Blanc Massif, just 40 miles away as the crow flies, was on the brink of collapse.
I don’t have local figures but a look at the recent climatology in London shows that anomalies during the past couple of years – warmer than average summers and low rainfall – have been similar to what happened in 1819.
Of course the difference between now and 1819 is that we have early warning systems in place that can help prevent loss of human life in the event of a catastrophic avalanche.
Four months on from an amazing ski tour I was back in the Swiss Alps in August, this time for a week of mountaineering and rock climbing.
The (mostly) white wonderland of April had transformed into the deep green of summer in the valley, the temperature on my arrival in Visp was a hot 30C. Waiting patiently was my guide, Davide, and we were soon on our way to the cooler climes of Saas Grund, little sister to Saas Fee – though with scenery as, if not more, spectacular.
Day 1: Jagihorn from Hohsaas hut
Mountain sickness saw me abandon any attempt of climbing the Weissmeis. Though sleeping at the the Hohsaas hut was intended to help me acclimatize to the altitude I think the 3,100m elevation was simply too much for my system to handle. It is hard to put into words the symptoms; imagine your worst-ever hangover and multiply it by five.
Anyone can get sudden altitude sickness, even top athletes. After an awful night I was ready to descend back to Saas Grund but was soon sent back to bed with a painkiller. Two hours later I was just about fit to set off and was soon descending down the valley to climb the 3,200m Jegihorn in the far distance. I felt a pang of disappointment as I glanced over my shoulder at the magnificent Weissmeis; the purpose of the week was to get as much glacier mountaineering as possible.
As we traversed over the scree and across gurgling streams however, the beauty made me forget my disappointment. The sheer magnificence of the Jegihorn soon became apparent, too. It reminded me of Tryfan in Snowdonia, only this was three times the size.
The route up soon forked – it was either the ‘easy’ way up or via ferrata, a series of steep drop offs, grab handles, steps and precarious looking ladders allowing access up sheer cliffs. After a couple of hours progress to the peak proper becomes a choice of climbing down and up or this suspension bridge that is like something out of the film Cliffhanger.
After the bridge it is a further scramble up steep ledges and narrow gullies for the remaining couple of hundred metres to the summit.
With every summit comes a descent, the part I always find the hardest because of the strain on the knees. But the trek back to the bottom of the Hohsaas cableway presented plenty of scenery.
Climbing further into the cloud the silence was suddenly broken by what sounded like thunder. I soon realised that this distinctive noise echoing around the surrounding peaks was an avalanche that wasn’t that far away.
My guide, Davide, seemed unconcerned and as we closed in on the summit of the Daubenhorn, 1,500m above Leukerbad, the cloud started to thin. Two French tourers above us had roped up and were nearing the top as we stepped out of our skis and carefully continued on to the peak.
Just as I was edging close to a huge cornice Davide advised me that it would be a good idea to stop as should it have given way there would be little between me and a 1,500m plunge down a cliff through the mist into Leukerbad. Heights don’t usually phase me but there was something about peering down into that foggy abyss that felt even more un-nerving.
My four-day tour of Valais and Bernese Oberland started just over 24 hours previously at the Gemmi pass, 2,350m up. My first tracks were an icy traverse to the bottom of a wide snowfield; lack of experience on super light touring skis was evident as I wobbled all over the place on the bullet-hard early morning ice.
Crossing the high valley floor the early morning chill soon disappeared as the sun edged higher. My poor, laboured technique, together with my body being used to life at sea level, made the ascent a real slog.
As the angle of the path grew steeper I soon discovered another alpine touring tool to make life easier: ski crampons.
We advanced higher and I was mystified by Davide’s lack of thirst as I polished off the recommended 1.5L of water for a day’s tour before we made it to the foot of the Wildstrubel glacer; I was not in a good way.
I soon forgot my predicament as I rounded a ridge and got my first glimpse of a glacier. About two thirds the way up the 3,200m Wildstrubel, however, mild altitude sickness started to kick in – the final 100m were a real effort. Advancing over the crest it was blowing a hoolie – Davide managed to capture the customary shot with Mont Blanc standing proud in the distance. The queasiness I felt below the summit was replaced by sheer elation of climbing a peak over 3,000m for the first time.
As we began our descent I was all over the place, my usual neat and tidy skiing style severely hampered by sheer exhaustion and pain in my feet.
It was a combination of downhill and skinning before we reached the Lammeurenhutte at 2,500m, the elation of this establishment appearing mirage-like over the brow of a hill was enough to spur me on to the finish.
The bright skies and good vis of earlier had now been replaced by thickening cloud and light snow. No matter. I collapsed onto a bench outside and watched as other tourers arrive and nonchalantly take off their skis and disappear inside. I’m left looking at my destroyed feet, the sorest they’ve ever been with a large blister on the inside of both heels.
Davide reappeared with some hut slippers, basically moulded ‘Crocs’, which are provided for tourers who refrain from carrying the extra weight of footwear.
After taking all the equipment inside we were showed to our ‘rooms’. Davide, as a guide, was allowed to stay free in the guides’ room while I’m shown to a bunkroom made up of beds with three mattresses side by side on two levels.
I fled to the dining room which was the only common area in the building. Davide was already seated with two large beers. We chatted about the day and possibilities for the Monday. There were a couple of hours to kill before dinner, like many huts a single sitting, which I spent coming to terms with my altitude discomfort.
An early night followed after a wholesome meal of lentil loaf and vegetables. There’s not much to do after dinner except read and, because everyone is exhausted from touring, the dining room empties well before the 10pm lights out. Despite my exhaustion it was a fairly restless sleep, no doubt caused by the altitude.
After a hearty breakfast we were back in our skis and descended 400m to the valley floor, over icy terrain, some of which passed some incredibly steep sections.
In milky, warm sunshine we began our ascent of the 2,950m Daubenhorn. The sun was taking its toll on south-facing slopes across the valley, whole sections of the pack started to rip away from the surface. After the bright start the weather started to close to close in again. And I had my first experience of being close to an avalanche.
Though the customary summit photo was shrouded in cloud the weather changed again for our descent – my ski legs finally seemed to be coming back but before I knew it we were back on the valley floor for the hour or so walk back to the top of the cable car that we last saw 24hrs previously.
Two German guys I met in the hut the previous night were waiting – they told me they’d abandoned efforts to climb Wildstrubel because of poor weather and seem impressed when I told them we’d bagged that and the Daubenhorn in reasonable weather.
On disembarking the cable car it was evident that summer was fast approaching in the low valley – cascades of water could be seen running off the horseshoe of sheer cliffs, triggering mesmerising avalanches. I stared in wonder but the locals seemed to just take it in their stride: “Summer is coming!” said one.
Driving back from Leukerbad we began to discuss what the options would be for my final two days. One was to get the 4.30pm cable car from Saas Fee for another night in a hut. Another was to take the Jungfrau railway up to the summit to spend a night there. But both these options looked less attractive than a return to Chalet Isabel and a hot shower!
We settled on a very early start for Tuesday for a tour of the mountains above the Simplon Pass. I enjoyed a couple of hours of late afternoon sunshine on the terrace before dinner which, as the previous night, was a delicious three-course affair. Being alone I felt compelled to utter the usual: “Is there anything I can do?” despite the fact I’d paid for half board; I’ve never been one to lord it over others.
We discussed local politics, flora and fauna as well as the Davide’s wife Jennifer’s ties to the area and how they stretch back generations.
As with previous nights I retired to bed early as we had to be up at 4.30am for the 50 minute journey to Simplon. I told them not to bother with the cooked eggs and to go for the lightest of breakfasts as my stomach really can’t take the numerous hairpin bends at that time of the day.
We started off in pitch dark – I did my best to keep the conversation flowing at this ungodly hour. I noticed Davide listened intently to a news bulletin at the top of the hour – the announcer saying that extreme heat was expected: never good for avalanches.
After twisting our way upwards toward the pass we emerged from the tunnel and were suddenly confronted by a deer that seemed to jump out of nowhere from the side of the road. Davide managed to slam on the brakes; to swerve would have sent us careering into the path of the huge artic.
We were both now wide awake and within minutes were pulling into the car park of the hugely imposing Simplon Hospiz. Built in 1801 under decree by Napoleon this establishment, run by priests, has provided shelter and refreshment for tired souls who are halfway across the Alps for over 200 years.
We weren’t there for the hospitality, however, and Davide was quickly ushering me toward the side of the building where the path starts toward the Breithorn which, literally, translates as ‘wide mountain’. Desperate for the loo, however, I fled toward the hospiz for a toilet stop. I go inside and despite seeing corridors of rooms there is not a soul around. The deathly silence is quite unnerving and I am reminded of that scene in the horror film The Shining.
After leaving as quickly as possible we were soon back in bindings and skinning toward the Hübschhorn, a majestic ice-encrusted peak in front of the Breithorn. It was barely light and the first rays of sunshine were just beginning to strike peaks across the valley above Leuker. It was incredibly quiet, about half a dozen tourers had beaten us to it and were making speedy progress. Across the valley I could see one of the ski areas of the Bernese Oberland.
A couple of miles in the terrain began to steepen markedly; my progress became erratic and Davide called a halt to enable us to attach our ski crampons. As I fished about in my rucksack Davide rebuked: “This stuff should be on the top so it is easy to grab!” Second nature to seasoned tourers, I beat myself up about making such an elementary mistake. I never ‘gave it back’ to Davide as it is the safety of a client that is paramount: “If you go over here it is all the way down to the bottom.” I peered down the slope that was littered with huge chunks of snow from earlier avalanches. We pressed on and a sense of relief was evident once we cleared the avalanche zone. I was once more able to relax and take in the surroundings. As we reached a rocky outcrop a ptarmigan-like bird appeared but scarpered too quickly for a photo.
We pushed on. By now I could feel my heels starting to rub again. Every time I saw a likely stopping place it was to no avail. We stopped briefly for a drink and snack but there is no time on these hikes to really kick back. Davide let it be known that he was worried about the time we were taking and that we might not reach the summit; I think the earlier news bulletin about possible record hot weather was playing on his mind.
We left hastily, I said I was willing to walk faster, not giving too much away that my heels were feeling sore again. With about 300m still to go Davide could see I was dropping back off the pace again. He offered to take some of the weight out of my pack – the water alone probably weighed a kilo or so.
For a brief moment I felt like somebody was lifting me up the mountain – though it was only a kilo the altitude has an exponential effect. Within 30 minutes, however, I was struggling again, and Davide, without argument, took my entire backpack. I’d usually protest but such was the pain in my heels I didn’t argue. To add insult to injury soon after I noticed a spaniel-type dog running upward in front of me, his master clad in lycra and pushing toward the summit using extra long sticks.
If anything seeing this guy virtually running toward the summit helped take my mind off my blistered heels.
We made it to the col de Briethorn, about 100m below the summit. “There is not much more to see at the top,” said Davide, as I stared at Italy in the distance in the valley below.
After a few pictures we adjusted our skis for the downhill leg. For the first time since my arrival I felt like I was getting my ski legs though such is the light weight of touring skis that it feels impossible to ‘feel’ as good as you can on normal downhill skis, the added weight making you more stable.
In virtually no time we were back to the avalanche zone. The smooth terrain with still powdery pockets of snow becoming full of lumps and bumps, the remains of previous falls from above thawed then frozen in time.
We were soon back at the steep section which by now was in full sun. “In 45-50 minutes this will avalanche!” said Davide, confidently. We saw another tourer making his way upward: “You just cannot tell some people” Davide said, annoyed.
We inched our way across the slope, gingerly making our way upward. Though it was only just gone 11am the heat of the sun was powerful and I could feel beads of sweat running down inside of my merino wool top, it was also partly nerves.
Once we cleared the slope we settled on a rocky outcrop and ate our lunch. An Italian skier was there chatting to Davide about his climb.
From here it was just another couple of hundred metres down to the hospiz which loomed in the valley below. Big, sweeping turns were the order of the day, the crusty snow of this morning now very soft and forgiving. At the end of big ski runs you normally have a bit of time to relax but such was the state of the snow I found that I needed to concentrate to make sure I didn’t do the customary splayed herringbone faceplant.
Back in the car park we discovered it was summer, a few people milling around in shorts and T-shirts. A French couple in a campervan saw us and began walking toward us armed with touring maps. Davide, ever the mine of information, was happy to oblige with advice on where to go.
“Shall we go for a beer?” With that we were soon driving to the pass cafe, the kind of place that gets full up with bikers in summer. On this day there were just a couple of tables of people enjoying beers and the customary bratwurst and frites. I marvelled at the wall of snow piled up by the side of the road – it was that time in the year when you can see the depth of each snowfall.
What seemed a deserted mountain pass at dawn was now the busy trunk road; roadtrain trucks from all over Europe crossed back and forth. Davide said it was one of the most intensely maintained roads in the world – being above 2,000m snowploughs are utilised almost 24 hours a day during winter storms.
This was probably my favourite day out of the four. The area has unlimited possibilities and everything feels so close to nature, and so far away from it all. As we finished our beers I asked Davide what he thought of the UK’s current political predicament: “Brexit? What is Brexit?” was his bewildered reply.
Though I’d visited Zermatt a couple of times before they were both flying visits and was keen to return with someone who knew the area inside out. And though my final peak, another mountain call the Breithorn, was by far the highest at 4,164m we were able to get a lift all the way up to the Klein Matterhorn at 3,883m.
Though the lift took a huge amount of leg work out of reaching a peak of the same height there was still much left to do technically to get to the summit. And though the weather was perfect with just a bit of a cross breeze it was still an unforgiving environment; you had to keep your wits at all times, especially when you began to cross part of the glacier that is sheet ice, the result of countless freeze-thaw cycles.
And though the final ascent was under 400m the added altitude made a huge difference on speed of progress, a question of small movements and keeping to a rhythm.
Being more accessible there were far more people around than previous days, most taking advantage of the incredible weather.
We were able to spend longer on the summit this time, being much earlier in the day avalanches are much less of a risk. The view from the crest of the ridge was breathtaking, you could see for miles down into the green valleys below.
Our descent was rapid, catching the snow at just the right time. We were more than ready for lunch. After four of the hardest days skiing of my life I took my time over lunch on a sunny terrace but it wasn’t long before we were back in our skis. It felt strange to be skiing a piste for the first time after being in the mountains for nearly a week.
I was keen to get a good look around the area and, with empty, end-of-season, pistes we were able to cover a lot, taking in the glacier slopes on the Klein Matterhorn side before moving over to the even quieter Stockhorn/Gornergrat which has a very charming old railway that’s full of tourists.