Monte Rosa - A Love Affair

Monte Rosa

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

Monte Rosa and the Gressoney or Lys Valley has always had a special place in my heart.

As I have mentioned before childhood summer holidays were spent in Italy and frequently we would go to Pont-Saint-Martin, a small town minutes from our village, home to an eponymous Roman bridge and gateway to this valley that leads to Monte Rosa.

Mons Silvius was its latin name,
Monboso that which struck Da Vinci’s eye,
Mont Rose, the home of glaciers in patois Valdôtain,
Monte Rosa is home to the second highest peak in western Europe,
Monte Rosa was the first mountain I heard a family friend had climbed on,
Monte Rosa was that distant wedge of black rock and white lace, on day trips in the Valle di Gressoney,
Monte Rosa was the first mountain to see me stumble as my un-blunted crampons clumsily rasped at my gaiters, 
Monte Rosa was the first time I gripped onto my ice axe, unsure of exactly when to use it,
Monte Rosa was the first time I inched past a rope-tightening crevasse,
Monte Rosa is home to the first 4000m peak I climbed,
Monte Rosa is where I followed but felt like a leader,
Monte Rosa was, is and always will be.

Lys Valley

It was on a day trip to Gressoney St Jean that this first and longest lasting love affair began. Monte Rosa, second only to Mont Blanc in terms of height, the largest massif in the Alps; a range of white peaks and blue glaciers, standing like a huge dam of ice and rubble, perfectly framed at the end of the verdant “V” that is the Gressoney Valley. Its peaks; Castore, Polluce, Lyskamm, Gnifetti, Dufour, casting a shadow over Switzerland. Its glaciers, pouring life into the Italian fields, hurtling in milky torrents towards the dark valley floor, full of the melting winter. 

As a young boy perfection equalled attraction. Used to the more rugged and less picturesque Canavese; a landscape of vines and purposeful terrain, Gressoney seemed to fulfil some playful Alpine ideal. I saw what I wanted to see. I forgot the half built grey concrete buildings that I had passed on the way or the mangy cat that had taken an age to limp across the road in front of our car. I forgot too the stooping, black-clad and furry-faced old woman who had managed somehow to stare with a sort of absolute apathy, as we passed her by. I saw a village of tidy Swiss style buildings, steep roofs and stone tiles; their wooden balconies overflowing with perfectly gaudy geraniums, all against the backdrop of snow-clad peaks. The Reverend S. W. King describes Gressoney St Jean in 1858 as “a cluster of German houses round an Italian campanile and spire”. Of the valley he is struck by the “remarkable cleanliness and thriving appearance”. Earlier, in 1842, James Forbes writes how "clean and cheerful” this “flat and fertile” valley was. For me, visiting for the first time in the early 1980s it was equal to everything I expected. 

The first people to arrive and live high up (1200+m) in the valleys surrounding Monte Rosa were the Walsers. Their ancestors were Germans who left Vallaisian settlements and crossed the alpine passes in the 12th and 13th centuries. And so were born small communities like Gressoney, Niel, Issime and Alagna. Gressoney represents a colony of "Vallesani Allemanici” transplanted to the southern slopes of Monte Rosa. A map of 1242 mentions Allaman de Gressono as being a small community of shepherds - the name suggesting “Germans from Gressoney". In Alagna they also occupied herdsmen’s shelters however, as they colonised the upper reaches of the valleys they did so with little or no conflict with locals, despite preserving their German customs and traditions and never losing ties completely with their native land. With roots planted these opportunistic migrants became an industrious bunch of tradesmen, often farming land which, due to its difficulty had never and would never be used by others.

Jump forward 600 years and, by contrast with some other Alpine areas, these hardy people showed a keen interest in alpinism. On the 15th of August 1819 the Vincent Pyramid was climbed by the brothers Johann Nikolaus and Joseph Vincent, from whom it takes its name. It was the third of the mountain’s many 4000m summits to be climbed and little could they imagine that another 175 years later a gangly 19 year old Englishman could feel so utterly exhilarated at scaling what is, in the modern age of alpinism, a very ordinary peak. 

Arriving at the top. Pyramide Vincent (4215m).

Arriving at the top. Pyramide Vincent (4215m).

My heart beat faster with every crunching step

It was only the second summer of holidaying free from the yoke of parental control. It had taken 30 hours and 2 coaches to get from Lincoln to Turin and now, a few days later, I found myself balanced awkwardly on a patch of black rock, behind the Gnifetti Hut, stepping into crampons for the first time. This was it. My two companions would soon move ahead of me and step out onto the glacier.

My brother brought rope and a little experience of walking on glaciers to our party. I had been reading tales of mountaineering and had started doing a little rock climbing to avoid studying in my first year at University. My friend Paul had a flashy Gore-Tex jacket. 

This modest Vincent Pyramid (4215m) is most often climbed in conjunction another peak, but this was our first 4-thousander and we chose caution over valour. 

In the early morning darkness we walked amongst many of the other residents of the refuge, who busied themselves confidently preparing ropes and harnesses. The remoteness one craves from the world's wild places seems so far away when milling around these kind of mountain hostels. Angelo Mosso (Life of Man on the High Alps [1898]) describes two small bivouacs where the Capanna Giovanni Gnifetti now stands, with its 170+ beds.

To reach it there was much snow both in the 1880s when Mosso used it as a base for his scientific observations and in 1994 when we made the exhausting 1800m climb from Staffal, through meadows of annoying flies and over the mossy boulder strewn terrain to the snow line. That year the snow started at around 3000m, and the final gruelling trudge through the late afternoon slush, sun burning the backs of our legs, was a painful alpine baptism. I even recall a cheeky bergschrund, which was enough to worry the novice mountaineer, just before reaching the rocky outcrop upon which the hut was built. Now, from more recent images I have seen there appears to be precious little snow to be crossed to reach it. 

But back to my early morning in July 1994. In the midst of the chatter and clinking of climbing gear I wanted to look into peoples eyes to see if they were as nervous as I. But there was nothing to be seen beyond the beams of torches, flicking left and right. Dutifully and reverently we joined the queue to step off the rocks and onto the snow. Heading north-east up the glacier we were soon overtaking groups, probably in for a much longer day than us. The ground was crisp and hard and shards of the snowy crust chipped off by our crampons skated across the surface and down the mountain. My heart beat faster with every crunching step. 

As the sky faded towards sun rise, I noticed small clouds of spindrift encircle my boots, the gusts of wind occasionally picking up the rope and creating a kind of limp crescent I had only seen in the pages of a magazine

The earth suddenly fell away from us on all sides

Below the Balmenhorn we stepped off the main drag and climbed towards the summit slope of Vincent Pyramid . We were alone. Three men and rope. As the sun woke up, so did the mountain. I had gone to sleep in one world and the morning light now revealed I was in another. The dark shadows we had carefully skirted were now visible to me as crevasses. All of Monte Rosa’s peaks were coming alive, silhouettes became shapes which became these majestic masses of ice, snow and rock. 

There was little wind as we neared the summit. It was only a couple of hours since we had left the hut when the rope in front of me slackened because Matthew and Paul had stopped. The earth suddenly fell away from us on all sides. 

10 years earlier I had stared through child's eyes at the distant wedge of black rock and white lace at the valley’s end, that was Monte Rosa. I dreamt in abstract of what it might be like to be there. Now, perhaps in the same way that in 1778 Joseph Vincent’s father had stared down from Roccia Della Scoperta into what was rumoured to be a “Valle Perduta” (Lost Valley) but was in reality Switzerland; the high mountains were becoming a reality. No more the mythical kingdoms of dragons and demons. No more the preserve of sleep’s other kingdom.

Mrs Cole appears to relish the physical aspects...

Gladys Tour Round Monte Rosa

Only a year or so after this introduction to alpinism I came across a Lady’s Tour of Monte Rosa. My father, who was a book seller at the time, had bought it and hung onto it because of the 'local' interest. I knew little of early Alpine travel then and Mrs Henry Warwick Cole’s account, chronicling a series of excursions around the mountain between 1850 and 1858, struck a chord with me. Not only had I recently visited many of the places mentioned but also the endeavour of a Victorian lady challenging convention as well as her male counterparts was delightful to a potentially rebellious 19 year old.

At a time when such physical exertion as climbing a mountain was generally not something a woman would publicise Mrs Cole appears to relish the physical aspects and was not averse to an early alpine start.

“I feel certain that any lady, blessed with moderate health and activity who is capable of taking a little exercise ‘al fresco’ may accomplish the Tour of Monte Rosa with great delight”.

Whilst it is true that the majority of her travel was not done on foot, I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of her wilful enjoyment of the strains of mountaineering. Or indeed the goodwill of her husband in supporting such a contrary wife. She did of course publish A Lady’s Tour anonymously, but throughout the book she goes on to give advice on clothes, training and the kind of equipment a lady may wish to take with her on such an adventure. One feels a corner is being turned, when reading the pages of this and other tales of Victorian Lady travellers, although with hindsight, female emancipation was not as near as one might have imagined.

Her prose style is as modest as the lady herself, as she recounts the ups and downs of Alpine travel in middle of the nineteenth century. This is one of the first accounts by a female “alpinist” and I think we can justifiably describe her as such, despite her not competing with the leading male climbers of the day. She did ascend many of the minor peaks around Monte Rosa amongst them the Eggishorn about which she wrote:

"We were awakened by our alarum at a quarter to 4 a.m., had a hasty breakfast and left the hotel […] I shall never forget the beauty of that morning, from the moment when the first streak of dawn heralded the approach of the sun till he rose majestically above the horizon"

She goes on:

"At 6 a.m. I dismounted, for ‘Fritz’ could go no farther, and I accompanied the gentlemen on foot the rest of the way, which is excessively steep. The path winds upwards amongst large blocks of stone, which form a kind of staircase to the summit. This I reached at 6.55 a.m. without once requiring assistance. At the top Mr F._____, who was the first to arrive there, offered his hand to assist me up […] but I saucily declined the proffered help"

These are not the words of an ordinary Victorian woman. This is someone stubbornly relishing the bodily challenge of an ascent. It is immaterial how difficult it may or may not have been in the grand scheme of Victorian alpinism.

In actual fact A Lady’s Tour is much more than a simple tour of the massif from whence the book gets its title. Mrs Cole also made an attempt on La Grivola but her party was driven back by bad weather. She was not the first woman to have made these kind of “excursions” - she herself mentions the wife of The Reverend S.W. King (The Italian Valleys of the Pennine Alps [1858]) having made more progress on the same route but Cole, as the author, is among the first female protagonists in print.  

La Grivola, incidentally, was a mountain I heard much talk of as a youngster, perhaps because it is such a perfect image of a mountain; an almost perfect pyramid. Perhaps also because at the time it was spoken of as being accessible in summer to those with no experience of climbing with ice axe and crampons. From an early age I added it to a mental catalogue of high peaks I might ascend on coming of age. I never did climb it, although I did later make the trek up its higher neighbour Gran Paradiso, but Simon Pierse’s watercolour of it reminds me on a daily basis of fond memories of mountain dreaming. I will go back one day.

"My pulse thumping my temples ... I gasped as never before"

A couple of years after finding myself on a summit of Monte Rosa I was back in the Alps and climbed nearby Castore, which afforded equally glorious views, but was done against an absolutely ferocious wind. I snowboarded on it and hiked in the surrounding valleys but never climbed another peak on this favourite of mountains which has since lived on for me in the pages of the many books on my shelves.

It was with some delight that a few years ago I came across a book I had no idea existed. A slim volume from 1885, bound in quarter morocco with marbled boards. Casually leafing through it I came to the last page which resonated with me immediately.

"I felt my pulse thumping my temples and I gasped as never before. I made one last effort and, as I fell to the ground, we had reached the summit of Vincent Pyramid"

So wrote Angelo Mosso in Un Ascensione D’inverno al Monte Rosa, only ever published in Italian (I have translated the above phrase although there is a chapter on the trip in Life of Man on the High Alps). It seems the literature that I discover and that accompanies my journey through life and through the mountainous wilderness is intent on propagating my religious awe of Monte Rosa and in particular my first alpine climb. 

Book List

Angelo Mosso
Un Ascensione D’inverno al Monte Rosa - 1885

Other Resources

Online: I know the area quite well and although I have never done it, I feel I can recommend the Tour of Monte Rosa acomplished by Forbes, Mrs Cole... and indeed by many others in the subesequent decades. More recenlty Alex Roddie, writer and blogger, has also graced the internet with a series of trail blogs on the tour.

Guidebook: Tour of Monte Rosa; A Trekker's Guide by Hilary Sharp. Published by Cicerone Press