Climbers prefer either a beautiful line or an inspiring overall objective. You don’t always get both. In the case of the 4357 meter Dent Blanche, you get a perfect combination of a classic ridge climb on a stunning big mountain, with solid rock. As far as moderate classic routes on the 4000 meter peaks of the Swiss Alps go, this is one of the best.
Together with my great friend, and mountain guide extraordinaire, Simon Duverney, we chose to do the mountain’s classic south ridge. Because the south ridge gets first light and the Matterhorn sits directly behind it, I wanted to shoot this route. Simon’s goal was to get to know it for future guiding trips. Plus, we’d both heard it was fantastic.
The trip starts from the somewhat remote, yet idyllic Val d’Herens. This French speaking dead end valley is access to some popular peaks of the Alps, including the Pigne d’Arolla, and of course Dent Blanche. What everyone seems to know it for is as a bailout point from the winter Haute Route ski tour. If bad weather strikes, at either the Cabane des Dix or Cabane des Vignette, many a skier descends in retreat to the end of the Val d’Herens and the tiny village of Arolla. For many people, the drive out of the valley, with all its preserved farm houses and ancient villages, includes a promise to return. At least this was the case for me.
Hiking in to the Cabane de la Dent Blanche, aka the Cabane Rossier, makes one thing very clear, the glaciers are disappearing. The extremely high average temperatures of the summer of 2017 combined with a very low snow winter has had devastating effects. As we walked along the Glacier de Ferpècle it was obvious that new islands of rock were showing on the increasingly shrinking, and very dry, glacier. Upon arrival to the hut, the debris zone beneath the hut is getting larger due to the receding small glacier the hut sits above. After climbing Dent Blanche, our intention was to use a traverse route from the Dent Blanche Hut to access the Bivouac de la Dent Blanche further north, and to then climb the Grand Cornier. While walking in we spoke with a local guide who said the route no longer goes. At the hut we double checked with the warden and had it confirmed, “Forget it!” The reason was obvious. The glaciers had receded too much, leaving behind horrific rock fall and loose zones of rubble. We hit pause on that decision.
First, we had Dent Blanche to climb. With our bellies full we set the alarm for 4:15. In darkness, we found the route literally starts behind the hut where a trail quickly leads to some easy scrambling to gain a flat plateau. Here, crampons go on for a short snow (in our case, ice) ridge that leads to the real start of the south ridge. It should be noted that when we did the route it was bone dry. For us, it was a pleasant climb on perfect, dry rock. Having snow cover the route would make all the difference between what we experienced and what you might find.
The first part of the ridge is mostly walking or easy scrambling, and nowhere is the route difficult to find. Basically, follow the path of least resistance right on the ridge, or if dry, follow the trail of crampon scratches. The Grand Gendarme, at 4100 meters, is when the business comes. Here you have two options, stay on the ridge and climb the tower directly (4a in the book which seemed about right, but airy and exposed), or move to the climber’s left and follow lower angled, easier terrain. Given our dry conditions, we opted to climb the tower and found it very good. The climbing is well protected, steep, and on solid, perfect rock.
Once above the Grand Gendarme, the climbing is superb and remains sustained through some steep sections of bolted, and easily protected (long slings and/or friends) good rock. Finally, this steeper section gives way to easier ground until the summit.
In descent, the same route is followed and either down climbed, or by combining abseils (on existing anchors) with down climbing.
For us, both fast climbers, we took just over 3 hours to the summit and 2 hours down. But we had few parties to pass and are both very accustomed to ridge climbing. The Walliser Alpen guidebook says 4-5 hours in ascent and 4 hours in descent. The south ridge is rated AD, or German ZS/4a. Total vertical from the hut is 860 meters.
Once back at the hut, we devoured a still hot apricot tort before launching out on the long march down, down, down. Overall, this is an absolute great trip to a huge mountain with a remote feeling. In fact the approach, as it passes through alpine terrain, has an air of the Himalaya. From the moment you leave your car this trip is worthy. Go see for yourself.
By Dan Patitucci
Interested in climbing the Dent Blanche with a UIAGM Mountain Guide? Check in with Simon Duverney.