Zermatt to Monta Rosa Hütte
Such foresight to have booked a night no less than four months in advance at the Monta Rosa Hütte, and to be greeted with warm and sunny weather felt a fair compensation for all the rained-out summer plans this year. You were really in luck. The adventure was to hike from Riffelberg and cross the Gorner/Grenx glacier to the Monta Rosa. Bags were packed, alarms set and resolve to forego another weekend sleep-in was steadied.
You took the 8:02am train from Zürich (later than planned) running the risk you'd not get a seat for the sake of a few extra precious minutes of sleep. It was a direct connection to Visp via Bern, and onward to Zermatt. This time entering Zermatt by train, as opposed to by car, was far more relaxing (and legal). The cog-train up Gornergrat clinked steadily onward as you laced up your boots, while so many Japanese tourists hung from the windows to photograph the mass of clouds surrounding Matterhorn. From Riffelberg you set off by foot.
The picturesque landscape, while beautiful, was less exciting on this (your third) visit. The paths were clear, trodden into the grassy slopes interdispersed with shiny rocks. Gornergrat's geology has a lot of Schist - a shimmering rock made of flat, elongated grains rock that when touched gives off a shining powdery grain. The rocks aren't unique, nor are the Scottish sheep with their funny black faces who trot around on them, but there are a lot of both along the ridge. The matterhorn region actually uses a sheep called Wolli as their mascot.
The trail passed Gonergart's south side, ascending and descending along its contours. Overall, the path was going down, but at over three thousand metes altitude it still felt like going up. The path wasn't especially wide or flat, and in places dangerously close to the cliff. The impressive view did well distracting you from your feet, making it all the more unsafe. The trail descended a fifteen meter metal ladder, crossed a river and met the glacier at a wobbly aluminium bridge balanced between the cliff and a mound of ice covered in sawdust (to slow melting). The team geared up and crossed onto the glacier.
The glacier at its edge was rough and sloping, but not at all unsafe. There were no gashes or hidden crevasses, and probably traversable in jogging shoes. Steffen took every chance to probe the many icy basins created in the shadows of the glacier's folds, while you wondered how he'd retrieve his pick axe if he lost it - they were quite deep holes. The path was marked by makeshift blue and white wooden tripods, weighted in place with hanging rocks. You all trundled along while admiring the surroundings, leading more than once to a lost footing or rolled ankle.
Half way across was a river of rubble transported from the mountain by the glacier's slow downhill flow. The boulders being carried required attention; you couldn't rely on anything being stable or slippery, and it was hard discerning ice from rocks. You continued without cramp-ons over the mucky, slushy terrain covering your boots in a fine grey mud. More than anything else, it was captivating; you both wanted and needed to pay attention to your surroundings lest you miss a pretty chunk of ice and slide off somewhere. The creeping ice seemed to grow like a plant, changing the landscape as it went. It didn't last too long and you were on the other side, back on clean glacier.
The latter part of the trail was more broken up by large crevices. There were many streams of melting ice flowing down and into deep holes. You left it to your imagination how deep they were; it was pitch black inside, even in full sunlight. Further on the trail headed up the cliff towards the Monta Rosa hut. Steeper parts were made friendlier with wooden planks bolted to the rocks as steps, while the rest was just a nice hike. Soon enough you arrived at the hut. Everyone immediately took off their boots, trading them for crocks (standard hut footwear). Based on the number pairs of hiking boots lined up outside to dry, the hut was at capacity. You dumped your gear in your room and ordered a panache in anticipation of dinner.
[The writing style of following passage may be a little fluffy, since I've been reading lots of classic books lately.]
The hut was new, tidy and covered in solar panels. It sat atop a rock plateau with a great view over the glaciers, Matterhorn (4478) and Liskamm (4527m). Inside, the hut had a spiral dome architecture. A wide staircase lined by angled windows coiled around the inner perimeter of the building with landings branching off at each floor to bedrooms and washrooms. The bedrooms contained several single and double bunk beds arranged in an open trapezoid shape, with wooden box shelves claiming all remaining space. The dining hall spanned 180° of the ground flow and was backed by kitchen areas and caretaker space. It was divided up by huge wooden beams arranged in all diagonal directions, both load-bearing and decorative, with curved carvings along their lengths. Behind each bench was plaque naming hut patrons who had donated towards its construction. The energy-efficient lighting against the yellow wood colours gave a warm glow to the whole dining hall, while laughs bounced loudly about the room. It was a jolly scene with so many mountaineers in muddy high-tour pants crammed into their booths sharing wine.
You did not belong to the crowd taking their breakfast at 2am, and departing to conquer any of the surrounding peaks. They were clearly people who hate sleeping and being comfortable/warm/safe in bed. You rose at about 7am for a relaxing breakfast of leftover toast crumbs, two slices of cheese (for everyone) and instant coffee. Considering how often the supply helicopter visits to deliver beer and wine, you'd think an extra loaf of bread wouldn't break the bank. The view of Matterhorn at sunrise - the tip glowing orange at first light - compensated many times over for a crummy breakfast.
There was no real rush to head down the mountain but you set a pace springing from boulder to wobbly boulder anyway. A soft wind was blowing up the mountain, keeping you wide awake in the frech morning air. A helicopter was making its way up the valley beside the Gorner ridge. It circled behind the hut and disappeared behind a hill. Another three helicopters made the rounds in the next hour, probably delivering supplier or collecting lost/lazy hikers.
With such an early start you took the track back over the glacier at a slow pace. It gave you time to peer into the holes, which were no longer filling with water; the rivers had frozen. Meike hoped to find a Bergkristal amongst the rubble, and after a short search you found a big rock with some attached. She broke it in half and stuffed it into her backpack.
The river or rubble had changed since the day before. One rock atop which Meike had sat had already toppled from its icy pedestal, while at regular intervals the sounds of bumps and cracks could be heard. The path was safe if you were careful. Everyone took their time, weary not to topple from the slippery edges.
Crossing again the Gorner glacier was a walk in the park. Everyone reattached their spikes but it was hardly necessary; it was just easier to wear them rather than carry them. After crossing the creaky bridge off the glacier, climbing up to the ladder and ascending it you found a nice comfortable rock upon which to sit and have lunch. Your home-made döner bread had moistened and fallen apart from the salad it no longer held, but still tasted good. Thinking back, the ladder seemed harder to climb up than it had going down - perhaps the though that your altitude was ever-increasing and not lessening gave you an uneasy feeling.
The path back beside Gornergrat was busier than the previous day. Everyone was bumping heads with the highly-motivated early morning hikers who didn't appreciate your presence on the path. They just power-hiked towards and sometimes through you, bumping the occasional shoulder or backpack. Rude buggers. Nearing civilisation you encountered a sea of Sunday-hikers with cameras, dogs and kids. It was another nice sunny day to be outside.
Back in Zermatt at the bottom of the hill the conductor showed positive delight in being permitted to use his ticket-clipping tool on your printed tickets. It seemed like a rarity for him in this digital age. You had an icecream near the station while waiting for the train. In the square affront the station waited many box-shaped electric village cars, each stationed to ferry tourists to their respective hotels. There were also two carriages pulled by horses. Each to their own fanciness...