Tour of Monte Rosa day 8

09/09/2015 
This is part of a series of blog posts live from the Tour of Monte Rosa, a 100-mile backpacking route in the Alps.

The Tour of Monte Rosa trail blog series
Day 1: Zermatt to Täschalp
Day 2: Europaweg stage 1
Day 3: Europaweg stage 2 and the Grächenwald
Day 4: the Balfrin Höhenweg
Day 5: the Monte Moro pass and the Vallee Quarazza
Day 6: Colle del Turlo and Alagna Valsesia
Day 7: the Alencoll and a night above 3,000m
Day 8: the ascent of Testa Grigia
Day 9: the Theodul Glacier and return to Zermatt

Location: the Grand Lac beneath the Col Nord des Cimes Blanches, 2,800m. Trail mile 85.

Mileage: 13

I woke full of excitement this morning, eager to climb Testa Grigia, but at first I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I’d heard hail on the metal roof of the hut overnight, and the hill fog hadn’t lifted. Worse – when I fired my headtorch beam out of the window, I could see snow on the rocks.

I had breakfast and got my gear ready, keeping half an eye on the window to see if the clouds would break. When I opened the door and went outside, the cold was intense – well below freezing, and the ground seemed to be glazed with slick ice in addition to the little drifts of fresh snow behind every rock. My immediate thought was that Testa Grigia would simply be too dangerous in the conditions. Disappointed, I went back into the hut.

But something made me turn and look back just before I closed the door. When I did, I saw the clouds suddenly lift, revealing a dawn-lit temperature inversion of unbelievable beauty.

The morning sun glowed rosy over a sea of clouds, rippling and billowing a mile beneath me. Familiar peaks shone like sentinels on the horizon: Mont Blanc, the Grand Combin, the Ecrins. When I looked along the ridge to Testa Grigia I could see that the west face of the mountain was indeed dusted with new snow, but the sun already starting to burn off the snow and ice on the east side and the south ridge, where the route of ascent goes.

I knew I had to try. Promising myself I would turn back the moment I came across a pitch too icy to climb safely without crampons, I set off along the ridge.

And you know what? It was absolutely fine. Even so early in the morning, the sun made quick work of the snow it touched, and I hardly had to step on snow at all on the way up. The air temperature was, however, very cold and I climbed in my insulated jacket and gloves.

While planning this trip I’d read about the feared ‘bad step’ on Testa Grigia’s south ridge, and I wondered when I’d come across it. The ascent mainly stuck to the ridge itself or just on the right-hand side on the way up, overcoming short easy rock steps until a narrowing – for a while it’s almost as if you’re walking along the top of a church roof. The bad step lies at the end of this flat gangway.

Instantly I was reminded of the Mantrap on the North East Buttress of Ben Nevis. It has that fierce, jutting appearance, throwing down a challenge that cannot be ignored. In the case of Testa Grigia’s Mantrap it literally cannot be circumvented; it’s the only way up. The pitch is about three metres high and consists of a vertical step, split down the middle by a broad crack.


The pitch is equipped with a fixed chain. In the circumstances I had no quibbles using it, and with a quick haul on the chain, a high step and a squeeze, I was over the pitch. It’s a lot easier than it looks – and a lot easier than Ben Nevis’s Mantrap!

After that, more steep scrambling, equipped with cables, led to a summit with the obligatory statue of the Virgin Mary. There was also a bell, which I rang and heard the chime echo off all the mountains around me.


The vista was quite simply stupendous. I’m tempted to say it’s the best view I have ever seen from a mountain in my life. The temperature inversion continued to boil below, clouds occasionally rising up and spilling over this ridge or that; but the real star of the show was the Great Chain itself, the mighty range of high mountains I’ve been circumnavigating for over a week now. From the Matterhorn to the left, I counted off the familiar peaks: Klein Matterhorn, Breithorn, Roccia Nera, Pollux, Castor, Lyskamm, and the summits of the Monte Rosa massif. I’d never seen all of these mountains from this side before and there was a sense of completion in that view. I’ve seen them so many times from the north, and climbed many of the peaks themselves, but now I have seen them from the best possible Italian viewpoint as well.

I spent half an hour on that summit, taking photos and waving at my Brocken spectre projected on the mists far below. It wasn’t long enough, but the trail was calling, and I had a long way to descend.


After picking up the rest of my gear from the hut, and changing back into shorts and baselayer, I started down towards the Pentecoll once more. I wanted to make the descent to Champoluc as quickly as possible, and more or less ran down most of the way. It’s a beautiful section of trail and it feels far more wild and pastoral than some of the other Italian areas I’ve passed through.

I didn’t stop at Champoluc. Once again I’d timed my visit with the shops being shut, so I kept on going, climbing up through the forest towards the next – and final – pass.

Again I’d planned an alternative route to avoid some road walking, and again the Italian maps failed to deliver. A crucial path marked on the map did not exist, which led to an hour and a half of bushwhacking up 50-degree juniper and boulders. That annoying incident aside, the rest of the ascent up to the Cols des Cimes Blanches was a pleasure – a gentle climb for once, and the rounded postglacial cirque reminded me strongly of the Scottish hills.

I’ve found somewhere to camp beside the Grand Lac at 2,800m. Tomorrow I cross the Col Nord des Cimes Blanches, then the Theodulpass back into Switzerland. This wonderful trail is nearly at an end.

The Tour of Monte Rosa trail blog series
Day 1: Zermatt to Täschalp
Day 2: Europaweg stage 1
Day 3: Europaweg stage 2 and the Grächenwald
Day 4: the Balfrin Höhenweg
Day 5: the Monte Moro pass and the Vallee Quarazza
Day 6: Colle del Turlo and Alagna Valsesia
Day 7: the Alencoll and a night above 3,000m
Day 8: the ascent of Testa Grigia
Day 9: the Theodul Glacier and return to Zermatt

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