Plodding Up The Breithorn

Aug 2004 - Adam Lovett and I failed to reach the summit.
Aug 2005 - Peter Harding and I separately reached the summit.
Plodders neck and neck. Unbearable tension.


Adam and I failed on our one attempt to get up the Breithorn for the usual (British) reasons - acclimatisation and timing. We hadn't made any special attempts to acclimatise, and we paid no particular attention to the timing of our outing.

cartina-e.jpeg Acclimatisation
We had been in Cervinia (1900m) for a couple of days and had walked up to about 3000m only once. We were both very fit: Adam is a triathlete; I run half-marathons and had cycled to Cervinia from Kingston upon Thames.

We took the ski-lift to Plateau Rosa at about noon and set out across the ski area in bright sunlight. We felt OK when walking across the glacier and up the snow-slope but we were going slowly, and we started to run out of steam on the (flat) path from Colle Breithorn to the snow slopes. At about 5.00pm we reached the 4000m region in a very weedy state. The summit was out of sight around the ridge, the path was steep, there was obviously a brisk wind on the summit slopes and we were both starting to get headaches. We dumped our sacks but didn't get much higher. We shambled down to the Rifugio Guide del Cervino at Plateau Rosa, arriving there about 7.30pm. I had horrible migraine-like symptons on the way but recovered after aspirin and a short sleep; Adam was OK on the walk but developed a severe headache in the Rifugio.

Two days later, we got up to Rifugio Carrel 3850m on Cervino SW Ridge without any altitude symptoms. We started walking from the ski-lift at Plan Maison, which gives a nice altitude boost and a very pleasant walk on pretty paths to Rifugio L'Orionde (ca 3000m). The ground thereafter is generally steeper than the Breithorn route; there was no snow-plodding; we had to scramble long rock sections with heavy sacks, and we climbed two fixed ropes. That's a hard day for me and IMHO for most casual (British, old, fat) mountaineers.

We did it fairly easily and had plenty of energy left when we eventually reached the hut (in darkness). We must have been better acclimatised than on the Breithorn and I think that we drank more water. Furthermore I knew every step of the way, which makes pace and timing much easier.

We went down next morning without a summit attempt because, surprisingly, we'd run out of time.

As seen from the ski-lift station: the route across the Plateau Rosa ski area to the Breithorn. You cannot see the Breithorn from here - it is not visible until you are close to Klein Matterhorn. Timing
The piste tunnel We left Campsite Glair late and arrived at Plateau Rosa via ski-lift at 1.30pm. The weather was excellent - bright sunshine, no cloud or wind and a settled outlook. We had a good map but still had route-finding problems.

You can't see the Breithorn from Plateau Rosa: you have to walk up the ski-pistes to a tunnel then follow a piste towards Klein Matterhorn (which you can see) for a few hundred metres before the Breithorn appears on your right. Even so you can't see the paths and are tempted to beeline across untrodden snow (crusty, deep and possibly crevassed) rather than patiently plodding on until a path towards the Breithorn appears.

The Breithorn gradually appears on the skyline as you go up the piste towards Klein Matterhorn. Stay on the piste until another piste comes down from Gobba di Rollin on the right. At the piste junction, take the footpath that other people have trodden towards the Breithorn - the untrodden snow is usually soft/crusty. Some unpleasant off-piste snow-bashing delayed and tired us before we even got to the plateau below the Breithorn. Still, we were on the obvious path and plodded towards the Breithorn, meeting a descending Spanish party at the start of the ascent. They warned us of crevasses near the path and politely didn't say that we were stupid to be going up so late in the day. If we could have been sure of ascending the 250 vertical meters from that point in an hour or so, we wouldn't have been stupid, we'd have been superb mountain athletes enjoying a stroll in beautiful surroundings with a modern hotel a stone's throw away. As it was, we just ground to a halt, had enough sense to recognise it and were lucky enough not to be caught by cloud, wind or snow.


We went up the Breithorn reasonably easily but not altogether smoothly - I ran out of steam on the plateau at about 3800m and got badly sunburned; Pete stormed up it but was snow-blind for two days.

Up to Centrale - Nearly as steep as it looks Acclimatisation
We had been in Cervinia (1900m) and Maen (1316m) for four days and had walked up to about 3000m once. We were both very fit: Pete is a cyclist and runner; I run marathons.

We took the ski-lift to Plan Maison and walked from there easily up to Rifugio Teodulo, where we spent the night. We hung around in the morning waiting for the mist to lift, then set out up the piste to Plateau Rosa. Pete was going well and I was hating every stride; I couldn't settle down or catch my breath.
The view westward from Centrale
After a break at Plateau Rosa I felt a bit better, and we went on to the Breithorn plateau in bright sunshine. The plateau was hot in the sunshine and I got no further than the Colle before giving up. Pete continued easily and reached the top without pausing, I believe. I trudged down to the ski-lift feeling washed out and weedy with developing sunburn.

The following day Pete had very bad conjunctivitis, presumably caused by glare on the Breithorn, and couldn't go out for two days. I, meanwhile, took the ski-lift to Plateau Rosa and plodded up to the Breithorn Centrale summit reasonably comfortably.

Altitude can affect anybody even altitudes as low as 2,500m (Plan Maison).
Everyone should know the signs and symptons of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and not hesitate to descend when performance drops badly. The usual advice about acclimatisation is, "Climb high, Sleep low," which undoubtedly works.
Place Altitude Oxygen Content
(% of sea-level)
Boiling Point of Water
Cervinia 2000m 79% 93°C
Plan Maison 2500m 74% 91°C
Breithorn 4100m 61% 87°C

If the Breithorn is to be the first outing of your trip, a sensible plan IMHO is to walk up to Rifugio Teodulo at Colle del Teodulo or Rifugio Guide del Cervino at Testa Grigia and do the Breithorn from there the following morning.
  • You can still suffer from altitude this way but at least you'll have time to amble.
  • If we hadn't been affected by altitude, we'd still have taken at least three hours from the ski-lift at Plateau Rosa to Breithorn summit, and about two hours back. Add at least an hour to these timings if starting from Teodulo.
  • Don't treat the trip as a lark - take a rope, iceaxe, crampons, map and compass, food, water and proper clothing. You won't need them unless you don't take them.
  • The last lift down to Cervinia leaves Plateau Rosa at about 4:00pm in the summer. Walking down to Cervinia takes about three hours from Plateau Rosa; the easy route is via Colle Teodulo IMHO.

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