This route doesn’t seem to have an official name, but we’ve long called it the Balfrin Traverse. It was recommended to us way back in 2003 by the guiding couple extraordinaire, Cosley Houston. It is the perfect Alps alpine traverse introduction combining different skills for going into the big mountains, but without difficulty, technical skills, or many objective hazards. It is simply a long(ish) high tour requiring endurance and glacier travel. The beauty of it is also that there are two huts to use in any combination, and at the end of the traverse is an optional ascent of the Nadelhorn’s (4327 meters) normal route, the Northeast Ridge (PD).
The tour starts in either Grächen, or Gasenried, above Switzerland’s Mattertal, home to the Matterhorn. Here, on the west side of the ridge running north south and separating the Zermatt and Saas Fee valleys you’ll start walking in a lush larch forest, gain 1200 meters, and cross a glacier (crevasse free) on your way to the Bordier Hut. Most parties will opt to stay at the Bordier for an early start of the traverse, and the first peak, the Gross Bigerhorn (3626 meters). As the route to the Bigerhorn is mostly on talus, it is easy to get off route. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the way the night before, and take note that luminescent markings have been added on the route, a strong headlamp should help you find each one along the way as the next mark is always visible. Swiss quality…
Ideally, you reach the Gross Bigerhorn just before sunrise as you’ll be in position for the first rays of sun to hit – it’s a special place to be thanks to the height and the glaciers dropping away below on the east side. You’ll also have a big view of the 4506 meter Weisshorn, one of the Alps most perfect, massive pyramids. This is also the start of the ridge.
From the Gross Bigerhorn you’ll head south for the Balfrin on flat snow, easy rock, and even a trail at times. But mostly right on the ridge top. From the Balfrin summit, you’ll descend somewhat steeply towards the Riedpass. Here, you can continue on the ridge, or drop off west earlier and descend talus and scree to the head of the Riedgletscher. Once on the glacier, you’ll head straight for the Ulrichshorn on fairly flat glacier terrain.
At 3925 meters, the Ulrichshorn is the highpoint of the traverse unless you also include the Nadelhorn in your tour. From the flat glacier you’ll climb increasingly steep snow on the northeast side of the summit dome. Here, pay attention as the day’s first crevasses are looming. The summit of the Ulrichshorn is an uninteresting dome but serves as a good vantage point to consider the Nadelhorn’s northeast ridge normal route, a long, direct, low angle ridge to the summit. I did this once and found it certainly adds to the endurance requirements if you plan to also descend all the way to Saas Fee.
No matter what you choose, this is also the starting point of your descent, from the Windjoch, just below the summit of the Ulrichshorn. And here is where you will most certainly rope up. Descending to the Hohbalmgetscher almost always includes crossing a sizeable bergschrund and several crevasses. Then, the descent of the glacier to the Mischabel Hut includes several surprise crevasses. I’ve found that until you are 100% certain you are off the glacier, take this one seriously.
The Mischabel Hut sits just off the glacier in an incredible position, and here you can stay if you’ve had enough, especially if you added the Nadelhorn to your itinerary. The descent from the Mischabel Hut to Saas Fee is without a doubt one of the least fun trails in the Alps as it is steep, and sustained – for 1500 meters! Tough choice… get it done on tired legs, or deal with it in the morning. Saas Fee awaits, and there are several good pizzerias there…
Once in Saas Fee, buses run down valley to connect with the SBB train line at Stalden.
By Dan Patitucci