As the traveller journeys up the valley of the Mattertal from the Rhone Valley towards Zermatt, he or she will become aware of a great peak adorned with permanent snow that stands like a white sentinel at the head of the valley, being in view for much of its length. Those not interested in such things should perhaps have gone to Benidorm instead but those who are will see that the approach to Zermatt is watched over not by the Matterhorn – which only comes into view at the head of the valley – but by the Breithorn.
The mountain is situated astride the Swiss-Italian frontier on the main ridge of the Pennine Alps between Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. At 4164m or 13662 feet it is of considerable height but is by no means the highest of the Zermatt area. The Breithorn’s chief claim to fame is that it is considered one of the easiest 4000 metre peaks in the Alps to climb due in no small part to the Klein Matterhorn cable car – Europe’s highest – which terminates nearby.
The difficulty is graded Alpine PD- (peu difficile) with the slight technical grade given apparently because of the ice slope just below the summit though in the perfect conditions I experienced there was nothing hard about it. Some hikers do make the ascent alone though it’s not advisable as there are crevasses in the glacier crossed en route to the peak.
On a cool bright morning in early summer I made the ascent with a guide from the Zermatt Alpin Center who run daily group trips to the summit – weather permitting that is and the adventure began with the gondola ride to over 3800m at the Klein Matterhorn station.
The view from Klein Matterhorn itself is well worth going up for though we were going still higher. It was below -5 C and yet the Sun was hot as we set off across the dazzling white snow of the Plateau Rosa. The day was one of exceptional clarity with mountains maybe 100 miles distant as crystal clear as those across the valley.
Moving in a line and roped together, we headed around to the left and across the snow towards a distant looking spot where the guide said we’d have a rest. I would have had one by now I think, but the pace though quick wasn’t actually too bad.
In a surprisingly short space of time we reached the rest spot where the tracks in the snow curved around more to the left. It had been fairly flat until now but ahead the slope rose up, steepening the higher you got. At this point we put on crampons and leaving our walking poles in a pile in the snow, set off again towards the peak. Italy was behind with its craggy mountains and deep valleys spread out below us. All around was the silent world of ice and snow stretching along the ridge towards Monte Rosa’s numerous summits.
The slope steepened as we progressed higher in long zig zags, firstly with the slope up to our right and facing the Klein Matterhorn, now below us and then with Italy to our right and Castor, Pollux and Monte Rosa in front. It was hard going, easier if you could keep a rhythm, but fun all the same. A final stop below the steepest part saw us almost level with the spiky peak of Pollux which is 4092m.
“Nearly up” I said, relieved, to the chap in front who confirmed with his GPS that we were at 4050m. Only 100m or so to go. On up the steepest part without difficulty, and we were above the cornice overhanging the northern cliffs you can see from below. Our guide made sure we took extra care here though you couldn’t really tell that we were above a 1000m drop as it was hidden by the slope. Not, on the whole, a particularly good place to fall though!
Breathlessly up a snowy cone, the top of the ridge to my left and then – the sharp white peaks of the Bernese Oberland stood in a line beyond the hazy depths of the Rhone Valley nearly 12000 feet below. Closer at hand were the dappled greens of Zermatt’s valley at our feet. The Matterhorn, unfamiliar from this angle, rose up to just above our level and back out across Italian airspace there stood 2 prominent white summits resembling icebergs floating on the lowland haze – Mont Blanc and the Gran Paradiso.
The ridge was narrow, but wide enough to walk along. To the south, the steep snow slope we’d just come up while to the north, a fearsome drop to the Monte Rosa Glacier. We took photos while our guide pointed out most of the peaks we could see. In the east the ridge dropped down and over the Breithorn’s subsidiary summits before rising again to Castor and Pollux then rising to the Himalayan looking Liskamm and Monte Rosa. Far to the east over the top of the Allalinhorn, could be seen the far off snows of Bernina on the eastern rim of Switzerland.
I borrowed an axe to scoop out a seat in the snow and had lunch at 4164 metres looking out across Italy. Our return was much faster and easier being downhill and we were soon back in a line quickly approaching the Klein Matterhorn station to the clicking of Japanese cameras. They’d been following our progress across the glacier as though watching the peloton finishing a stage in the Tour de France – all in all a good day out.
More hikes in Switzerland on my Alpine Trails blog