The third in our series on how to climb classic 4,000ers. Mountain Guide Andy Perkins, offers his insider tips on how to climb the Breithorn, one of his favourite peaks, after just returning from a trip there.
As you approach Zermatt from the Rhone valley, an alluring wall of snow and rock topped by two shapely domes comes into view. This is the Breithorn. It has quality of climbing at a wide range of levels, quality of line, and a fraction of the stress and crowds of 'the mountain that must not be named'...
I’m going to single out three choices here: the 'Normal Route' (or south-south-west face), the east ridge of the central summit (more widely known as the 'Half Traverse of the Breithorn'), and the north face via the Triftjigrat. They offer some of the finest examples of alpinism at their respective grade and style.
The Normal Route (F/PD)
You see it all here: dog walkers, tourists in walking boots, parties without ropes in crevassed terrain, lycra clad ski mountaineering racers. But for all that, it’s a wonderful introduction to the high alpine environment and, for many, their first 4,000er.
Last week I was on the Normal Route with one of my longest standing clients, Darren, and his 13-year-old daughter Annabel, which was one of the most satisfying days of this season, and indeed of my career as a Mountain Guide.
Darren Sheppard at sunrise below the Triftjiplateau. Photo: Andy Perkins
We followed a combo that I often use: from the Kleine Matterhorn lift, a short stroll down the piste, rope up at the lowest point of the piste, then head across the flat and up towards the moderate snow slope. We went diagonally right to the col between the west and central summit, took in the latter with some impressive cornices keeping us off the highest point, before returning to the col. The fine snow arête led us to the west summit with great views of the east face of the Tobleronenhorn before a steady descent down the skiers right of the slope and back to the cable car.
The Half Traverse (AD- III)
This, in my opinion, is one of the finest routes of its grade in the Alps. It has steady snow, solid rock and humungous exposure. With the word 'half' in the title, you might think it’s short, but it actually gives a good day out on classic Valais ridge terrain. It’s not to be taken lightly – there have been fatal accidents and, once on it, you’re going forward or back. There’s no escape to left and just a massive drop to the right.
I usually leave early from the Ayas hut, and head via the Roccia Nera bivouac across to the bergschrund. Cross this and short rope to the col at 4,022m. After a short distance on ledges, a delicate downward traverse leads left and across a little couloir to a rocky rib. Going up this rib in a few short pitches gets you on to the ridge proper. From here it’s all plain sailing with a lovely slab pitch and then a steeper chimney to the final tower. There’s a sting in the tail with a weird move over a little tower before it finally relents and you’re on snow leading to the central summit.
Breithorn Half Traverse. Photo: Andy Perkins
The Triftjigrat (D-)
This is classic alpine snow climbing at the highest level of quality. I’ve only managed it once, but it was one of the best days out I’ve had with my long standing client Darren, and we’ve had a few belters in our 17 years of snow and ice in Scotland, Arctic Norway and the Alps in summer and winter.
It’s long at over 1,400m, so you’ll need to be fit and fast. After a 2am breakfast from the Gandegg, you drop down onto the Theodul glacier and head across under the imposing face. A steady snow slope leads you gradually up and left and you cut round onto the left side of the spur just before gaining the Triftjiplateau as the sun’s coming up. Traversing right across this, you reach a steep couloir coming down from the summit. Depending on conditions, you can either short rope or pitch this before more technical mixed terrain above. This eventually leads to the summit slopes of the western summit before an easy descent down the normal route and celebratory beers and burgers at The Brown Cow.
Andy Perkins on the Triftjigrat headwall. Photo: Darren Sheppard
When to go
Normal Route: I’d imagine this gets done all year round, as long as the lift system is running. I’ve skied it in April and throughout the summer it has teams on it. It will have avalanche potential in deep winter and after a stiff northeasterly storm cycle, but in that eventuality you should be skiing the fat pow-pow anyway.
The Half Traverse: Massive amounts of snow will make this a real chore, so best to leave it for a few days after a major storm. Generally it’s in condition from late June onwards, and if you want to start from the Ayas hut then the opening dates of this will have a bearing as well.
The Triftjigrat: good snow conditions are essential here. Our ascent took place in mid to late June, but climate change is bringing things progressively forward. Having said that, a good storm cycle in mid summer followed by a couple of consolidation days should see it coming in.
Approaching the summit of the Breithorn on skis in early May. Photo: Andy Perkins
What to take
Normal Route: a 30m glacier travel rope and crevasse rescue kit will be fine. No lids needed here. If anything falls on your head, you’ll need more than a helmet as it’ll be a helicopter or a plane.
The Half Traverse: I take a 50m rope and a few wires and slings for the route itself. Crevasse rescue kit is vital as some of the holes on the approach are huge.
The Triftjigrat: We used a single 60m rope to get longer pitches in. As well as few wires and slings, we supplemented the crevasse rescue kit with some extra ice screws so we could pitch between ice screw belays. We went in after quite a significant storm cycle and snowshoes proved useful crossing the Theodulgletscher.
Annabel and Darren Sheppard on the east ridge of the west summit. Photo: Andy Perkins
Skill level / who should hire a guide?
Normal Route: This is within the realm of most competent Scottish hill walkers, but in addition you should know how to rope up for glacier travel and short-roping on grade half snow. If you’re going to take the east ridge of the west summit, make sure your footwork is perfect, as any fall to the right will be very long indeed. Should you hire a guide? If you want an intro to alpine snow then the Breithorn is a good venue. You could do some crevasse rescue tricks on the way as well.
The Half Traverse: Classic AD ridge terrain like this needs good knowledge of when to short rope, long rope, short pitch or long pitch, if you’re going to do it in a good time. The climbing itself is around UK V Diff level at most, but with one weird move where you can use a point of aid if needed. If you’re happy with all that, then go autonomous.
The Triftjigrat: The climbing here is, for the most part, technically easier than the Half Traverse. It’s only in the summit rock band that things get a bit funky. Tactical route choice is tricky, and belays are hard to find, so a good apprenticeship in less committing positions will be wise before embarking on what is effectively a D version of a ‘grande course’. Choice of exactly when to do the route is where you will get your value out of a guide, but even with one you’ll need competence at Scottish 3. And some big legs and lungs.
Breithorn North Face. Photo: Andy Perkins
Planning and Logistics
The Normal Route is something that can be achieved in a day. For the others, some prior acclimatisation would be good. At least a night at around 2,500 to 2,700m would be my minimum before going to sleep in the Ayas.
The Kleine Matterhorn lift is the gateway to all three routes, and your exit afterwards unless you want to give extra work to your physio. You can also do the Normal Route from Cervinia: cheaper, better coffee and only a slight additional walk from the Theodulpass to the base of the slope.
The Half Traverse can be done in two days starting from Champoluc in the Val d’Ayas and staying at the Ayas hut. This valley is full of Italian charm and is a world away from the Disneyland on the Swiss side. For the Triftjigrat, you’ll need to bite the bullet and stay in the Gandegg Hut.
Guides' Apéro at the Ayas hut. Photo: Andy Perkins
Normal Route: you’ll see all sorts going on here. Do yourself a favour, and long-rope across the flats, probably without crampons, until the slope kicks. Then shorten it down, put spikes on and head up. On the final arête, have a few coils in your hand so if your mate falls into Suisse, you can jump into Italia.
Half Traverse: The Ayas hut gets very busy on Sundays and Mondays. If you can, avoid those days. Get an early start from the Ayas so you can beat the Zermatt guides doing it in a day from the first lift. Avoid it if it’s super windy or afternoon storms are in the forecast.
Triftjigrat: Take some extra bottles of mineral water with you as it’s only a short walk from the Trockener Steg lift station to the Gandegg and you can save a small amount of cash. Have a careful look at the approach the evening before from the Gandegg. Make sure you pick a period with good snow conditions. And the Mexican burger in The Brown Cow is a top tip for your afternoon rehydration session.
Andy Perkins is an IFMGA Mountain Guide and a member of both the French and British Mountain Guide Associations. He lives in Chamonix and works all over the world in rock boots, crampons and on skis: andypmountain.guide.com
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