Ski Touring an Alps 4000 Meter Peak
The Bishorn is one of the Alps “easiest” 4000 meter peaks. However, this doesn’t make it easy. While it has no technical difficulties beyond walking, it does have the occasional crevasse, and the last 30 meters to the true summit can get icy. But what makes it “not easy” is that skiing the Bishorn is long. Very long.
If you decide to ski it, and this is really the way to do it, there are options. Our story started in the Val d’ Anniviers resort village of St. Luc. There, we rode the funicular to 2186 meters where we found ourselves surrounded by piste skiers on rapidly melting snow. At this point we could have ridden three ancient tow lifts to the top of the Bella Tola, or, being the stubborn uphill people that we are, opted to skin to the Pas du Boeuf at 2817 meters. As you leave the pistes behind and enter the lonely winter landscape of the Turtmanntal, this is where the trip really begins.
The Turtmanntal (Turtmann Valley) is one of many north-south dead end valleys in Switzerland’s Wallis Region. But unlike so many others, this one is mostly uninhabited and relatively wild. Towering over the southern end are the Barrhorn, Brunneghorn, and Bishorn. And here, the remote Turtmann Hut serves as basecamp for climbing or as a stop on what is Europe’s highest summit with a trail to the top, the Üssers Barrhorn. The Turtmann Hut was our destination, from which we’d ski the glaciers to the summit of the Bishorn the following day.
Alternatively, for a shorter route, some people climb to the Tracuit Hut, which we would pass on our climbing day. The hut sits at 3256 meters next to the glaciers flowing north from the Bishorn and can be reached much more directly from the town of Zinal. While more direct, it is a fairly uninteresting, and long, climb on west facing slopes. Typically done in spring, conditions at the bottom can be something less than enjoyable until consistent snow is reached. The Turtmann Hut option makes the tour a more complete, although very long, mountain experience.
From Pas du Boeuf, Janine, myself, Bruno Schaub, and Stefano Girolimetto began our descent into the Turtmanntal. Our line had us angle in as high as possible to the back of the valley until we finally hit bottom. From there we skinned 600 meters to the hut and enjoyed two hours of relaxation before a great dinner in an almost empty hut.
We started the next morning at 5 a.m. with ski crampons on for barely frozen snow, at 2500 meters! Gaining the glaciers to begin the ascent to the Tracuit can be confusing as the line requires you to go much further east than you feel is necessary, especially in the dark. Nevertheless, we followed moraines towards the Brunegghorn until they finally allowed us to drop off into the basin north of the glacier. From there we traversed onto the flat glacier along the base of the Stierberg until we came to a 200 meter descent to the start of the real climb along the base of the serac zone (see photo).
At this point, you put your head down and settle in for a very, very long skin to the Bishorn. Six kilometers and 1300 meters later, you arrive at the base of a short 30 meter step to the summit that requires skis off and possibly crampons. For us, the glacier was well covered but did have a few crevasses opening up and posing a slight threat for the descent.
The Bishorn summit has some of the best views in the Alps thanks to the massive northeast face of the Weisshorn (4506 meters) dominating your view south. For us, we were lucky to have perfect conditions with views as far as Mont Blanc clearly visible.
Basic math reveals that now it is time for a very long, continuous descent of 2478 meters. We skied a mix of wind buff and old powder all the way to the Tracuit Hut. And there, we stopped in awe of this new, modern, and very beautiful hut. Inside we met the very friendly hut keeper, Anne-Lise, who served up freshly baked apple tort and coffees for us to enjoy all alone in what is surely one of the world’s most spectacular dining rooms. Modern hut architecture allows for huge, south facing windows with plenty of solar gain. The Tracuit exemplifies this with the entire west side windows and solar panels.
After forcing ourselves to leave, we were back on skis for 1000 meters of perfect corn skiing until we hit the slush line where our descent became a mix of walking and connecting snow patches.
For late March, conditions were an interesting mix of great snow high and very little down low thanks to a dry year with unseasonably high temps. Later, we sat outside in the shade in Zinal, at 1700 meters, in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, at 6:30. This is not normal…
Overall, skiing the Bishorn is a great tour, and kind of feels like something you have to do in the Alps. True, it is very easy to ski this peak, but there is no way around the fact that it is a lot of distance and vertical to get it done. Our route was two days, 51 kilometers, and 3400 meters of total gain. The skinning is not steep, just long, which of course can make the entire effort feel bigger. From the Turtmann Hut, the route requires knowledge and glacier skills.
Interested in this ski tour? Check in with our friends at Bergpunkt.ch for tour dates and complete info.
By Dan Patitucci