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Saastal Glaciers TH

Our tour of Monte Rosa

Having completed the Tour of Mont Blanc in 2015 and the (Reverse) Haute Route from Zermatt to Chamonix in 2017, Annalisa and Stefano Mejetta decided it was finally time to hike the Tour of Monte Rosa.

On 1 September at 9am we are in front of Alagna church, where our journey starts. The morning is sunny and cool, and we decide to reach the Passo dei Salati through the Otro Valley, which in our opinion is more attractive than the Olen one. We reach Passo Foric, and from here we walk down into the upper section of the Olen Valley. After taking some pictures of a young ibex, we climb up to the Passo dei Salati. The last part of the climb is a little strenuous, but now we are at Passo dei Salati and we have only to go down to Gabiet. From here, we should have a view of Pyramid Vincent and Lyskamm, of Rifugio Mantova and Rifugio Gnifetti, but everything is hidden by the clouds.

We spend the night in the delightful Albergo del Ponte, 15 minutes’ walk from the Lago Gabiet, and the next day we are ready to reach Champoluc. Outside our accommodation we are distracted by a group of ibex with their cubs and we miss the right path! No matter; we go down along the ski slope to Gressoney Staffal, where we seem to be the only tourists, and then climb up to Sant’Anna. Along the path, we have a stunning view of the Lys Valley, and we glimpse among the clouds some of the most famous peaks of Monte Rosa, including the south face of the Lyskamm.

From Sant’Anna, you can choose to head to Champoluc Saint Jacques through the Rothorn Pass or through the Colle di Bettaforca. The first option is the most panoramic, but the weather is not so good, so we decide on the second: the path is large and safe.

From the Colle we have an astonishing view of the summits of the upper Ayas Valley, among which are Pointe Sud and Bec Carrè, two of the Cime Bianche (white summits). The weather seems to get better but the first part of the descent from Bettaforca is not marvellous: it’s a wide track following a ski slope, among lifts, and we encounter some working bulldozers. We believe that this is the worst part of the entire TMR: you have a stunning view in front of you, but the place you are walking in is entropized; if the weather is good, Rothorn Pass would be the best choice.

This feeling does not last for long and we go on to the cosy village of Saint Jacques, where we spend the night.

The third stage should be one of the most panoramic (and longest) of the Tour, from Saint Jacques to Cervinia, through the Colle Superiore delle Cime Bianche. I hope the weather will be better than the previous days. My hopes are satisfied: there are no clouds and the sky is blue! Today, we’ll walk through the Vallone del Courthoud or Vallone delle Cime Bianche, which has become famous recently because of a cable car that will connect ski facilities in Zermatt to Gressoney and Alagna. This will offer new work opportunities in the Val d’Aosta, but on the other hand the Vallone del Courthoud is one of the last wild areas left in the region.

Ventina Lakes
Ventina Lakes

After an initial steep uphill, we reach the Aventine Combe (the eastern side of the Vallone) and we immediately see the difference between here and the ski area we went through yesterday. We follow a grassy banked stream, between cotton flowers, with stunning views everywhere: on the right the Ventina Glacier with the yellow Bivacco Città di Mariano, ahead on the left the limestone cliffs of the Cime Bianche, and in front of us the summit of Cervino (Matterhorn), whose mythical shape will be with us for the next few days.

A short but steep uphill leads us to another grassy plateau, with cows and horses, under the Rollin Glacier, and again the environment changes: we walk among boulders under the Cime Bianche and then we finally reach the Ventina Lakes. Climbing to the Colle Superiore, the view of these two green-blue lakes and of the light-blue Rollin Lake, under the Rollin Glacier, is astonishing! This is one of the best days of the Tour! Just a last uphill and we reach the Colle, where we are in front of more breathtaking scenery. We immediately recognise the majestic Cervino, with Dent d’Herent and the Grandes Murailles of the Valtournanche Valley.

The official TMR makes you go down to the lower station of Plateau Rosa cable car and then you turn right towards the Theodulpass. Our destination is Cervinia, so we go down on the left of the amazing Lago Goillet along the ski slopes and reach the village, full of summer skiers.

On Wednesday we must reach Rifugio Teodulo, at the Colle Teodulo, a historical pass between Cervinia and Zermatt. The stage is not too long and we don’t want to arrive too early, so we decide to make a detour to the little church Chiesetta degli Alpini, where a holy Mass was celebrated by Pope Giovanni Paolo II, who once said Matterhorn is the most beautiful cathedral in the world. The view of the south face is stunning! We take a little break and then go on towards the Teodulo. We are rewarded with the number of peaks we can see. Behind, the Grandes Murailles over the Valtournanche Valley and, closer, Cime Bianche Lake, Goillet Lake and other minor lakes; on the left the Furggen Ridge; on the right Klein Matterhorn, Breithorn, Testa Grigia (the horn over Plateau Rosa) and our destination, Rifugio Teodulo.

It’s a historic spot and there’s a stunning panorama, but we are also frightened by the view of the Theodul Glacier: it is in pitiful condition, grey and full of crevasses. We are happy that we’ll have a guide to bring us down along it tomorrow.

The next day we are ready and excited to go down along the Oberer Theodulegletscher: we are escorted by Lucio, the manager of the hut and an Alpine Guide, who, after roping us up and giving us mini-crampons, brings us down to Trockener Steg. We cannot admire the view because of the fog but we are distracted by the chat with Lucio, by his super-obedient avalanche dog, and by the runners of the Ultra Trail of Monte Rosa, climbing up the glacier in shorts (and skirts!) and running shoes. Approaching Trockener Steg, we see how much the glacier has receded in the past few years. At Trockener we say goodbye to Lucio and go on to Zermatt.

We had planned to stay one full day in Zermatt to do some local hikes, but the weather is so rainy that we leave our hotel only to have lunch and to give the village a quick glance.

We cannot see Matterhorn, even when we leave Zermatt to reach Randa along the valley path: the morning is wet and cloudy but luckily it doesn’t rain. We have decided to stop in Randa to walk on the Europabrucke, the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge. We came here 2 years ago, walking the Haute Route, and we know the uphill is very demanding but worth it. Because of the clouds we can only glimpse on our left the Mattertal glaciers, but it’s exciting walking on this 494m-long bridge, 85m over the ravine. We reach Europahutte for a hot tea, and we go on down to the small village of Randa.

On Sunday we move from Randa to St. Niklaus and then we climb up to Grachen. In the evening, when the weather clears, we can see it is surrounded by a lot of stunning peaks, first among them Weisshorn.

The next stage is one of the most spectacular. It is a balcony path that links Grachen with Saas-Fee, following the so-called Hohenweg (High Trail), staying around the 2100-2200m level, on the left side of Saastal. Someone said that it’s a demanding path because of a few tricky and slightly exposed passages, and I’m a little afraid. Actually, it is not that hard and you are helped by a metal rope in the worst parts.

Saastal Glaciers
Saastal Glaciers

We start from Grachen village on a sunny, cool morning and climb up to Hannigalp, from where we have an astonishing last view of Mattertal glaciers, and the summit of Matterhorn appears. From here, the path continues, rounded by forests, bilberry bushes and junipers. Because of the fog we can only glimpse the peaks of Bernese Oberland at our shoulders and the majestic Saastal Glaciers on our left. But we are more than rewarded by the number of wild animals we see: from a chamois with its puppy, to an old ibex and a lot of young ibex with their cubs. We have never seen so many animals in one day, and they go on grazing unperturbed by our passage.

The terrain is varied, with the majestic Balfrin Glacier on the right. After passing through two metal tunnels to pass under a stream, we go down to Saas Fee. I’ve never been here before and I’m astonished by the glaciers surrounding this delightful village, less chic and full of tourists than Zermatt.

We planned to stay in Saas Fee for two nights, so on Tuesday we have a free day to explore the surroundings. There are so many paths starting from this valley! I’ve never been here before and I want to do a one-day hike surrounded by these summits. Unfortunately, the weather is terrible: it’s cold and cloudy and we can’t see anything. The hotel gives us a wonderful gift: a pass to use lifts and valley buses, so we decide to use them to reach the 3000m elevated cable car station of Felskinn. But, as we expect, we’re not over the clouds but in the clouds. And it’s freezing!

We use the rest of the day to stroll around the village, have an afternoon break with delicious sweets, and to do shopping: we buy mini-crampons!

The next day, the sun is back and we can see the number of snowy summits surrounding the village. But we don’t have much time to admire them, we must move to Monte Moro. We go slowly down to Saas Almagell, walking through forest where we glimpse a roe deer, and then we follow the valley climbing to Mattmark Lake. We walk the trail along the east shore and from here we can already see in the distance the Madonna delle Nevi (Madonna of the Snow), a golden statue guarding the Monte Moro Pass.

Madonna delle Nevi
Madonna delle Nevi

That is our day’s aim and it seems so far and out of reach: it appears to be over an impassable rocky wall, covered with snow. We arrive at the southern end of the lake and from here the landscape changes again: the path climbs up between pastures and boulders, in sight of the large Seewjinen Glacier, until the rocky plateau of Talliboden. Here the final climb to the Monte Moro begins: the trail is rocky, not difficult, but it’s covered by snow and we are grateful for our crampons!

We reach the Monte Moro, with its golden Madonna. We have Italy in front of us and Switzerland behind, on one side the Saas Valley and on the other the next days’ stages. Above all, we have in front of us the majestic east face of Monte Rosa. With some difficulties (from me) we go down through a series of metal steps on rocky slabs, we take off our crampons and… we are at the Oberto Maroli Hut. I think it’s the hut with the best view I ever seen! Besides, there are only other two guests and so we have a room to ourselves. Dinner is delicious and from the dining room we have an incredible view of the eastern face of Monte Rosa in the sunset light: we’ll never forget these images.

At breakfast we have the surprise of an ibex family very close to the hut terrace, two adults and two cubs: they are so cute! A perfect way to begin the day. Today, we have only to go down to Macugnaga, where we’ll be guests of our friends, Sonia and Aldo. It’s only few kilometres, and downhill, and the path continues through a beautiful forest and brings us to Macugnaga-Staffa.

We decide to take advantage of the fantastic hospitality of Sonia and Aldo (and of the good weather) and stay in Macugnaga for two nights: we’ll come back to Alagna on Saturday and we take a break from the Tour. But it’s not a rest day: the weather is too sunny and the place too astonishing. We take our friends’ advice and we head to Rifugio Zamboni Zappa in Alpe Pedriola. If you visit Macugnaga, you can’t miss this hike (if you’re too tired a chairlift shortens the path): it’s a dream place. After an uphill in the forest, we cross the Belvedere Glacier moraine and then we see the hut: it’s surrounded by meadows crossed by a creek, and the view of the east face is breathtaking.

We are very close to moraines, seracs and glaciers (among which South Locce Glacier, Nordend Glacier and Monte Rosa Glacier), and to the mythic Canalone Marinelli. It’s the longest ski route in the Alps, a dream for ski-mountaineers and freeriders. Stefano, who has skied down it twice, is never tired of taking pictures of it!

We walk along the left side of Locce Lake and we climb a little grassy summit: from here we can see also what is left of the so-called Lago Effimero (Ephemeral Lake), which has almost disappeared. We are sad to leave this heaven, but it’s time to go down. Another wonderful day has passed, and after a nice dinner with our Macugnaga friends, we go to bed, happy for what we have seen, but sad because only one stage is left.

The last stage will bring us back to Alagna, passing through the Colle del Turlo, a pass used already in medieval times. The path is very good, following a beautiful military mule-track, and very long, but we’re not too afraid because we’ve walked it in the past, and because the warm weather has probably melted the snow.

We reach Quarazza, with its lake, and then Alpe Piana; from here the path becomes more interesting and steeper, until the Bivacco Lanti. After a little break here we go on: the path is still long! A series of bends on the paved mule track brings us to the Colle, a narrow saddle surrounded by rocks: the peaks surrounding us are now hidden by clouds but we don’t care, we are too moved: it’s a symbol that we have completed the Tour. And it’s also a little strange to be in a well-known place after days exploring new mountains and villages. We know that the path is still long, but we are not in a hurry: we take a break to eat something and to chat with a couple of guys who are very curious about our walking holiday. But the weather is getting worse and cooler, and it’s time to go down.

The path is less good than the uphill one, following near to the Acqua Bianca (White Water) stream, that produces an impressive waterfall. When we go beyond the summer grazing meadows of Alpe Faller, we know that the clouds hide a majestic view of the Monte Rosa, where we could glimpse the Capanna Regina Margherita hut. In front of us we can see where our journey began two weeks ago. It’s a little late, so we pass on a break at the Rifugio Pastore with its delicious cakes. We decide to avoid the more direct but steeper path, choosing the paved and more gently descending one; then we follow the road that goes to the village of Alagna, and we reach the church, from where our adventure started.

So, we hiked the three most important multi-day tours in the Alps. It's impossible to say which is the best or the hardest… it depends on many factors, including the weather. I think the steepest ascents are on the Swiss passes of the Haute Route, but you are rewarded by stunning views. I found the Monte Rosa Tour stages longer than the others, but you have more opportunities to use lifts or buses to shorten or avoid some of them. Someone told us TMR is wilder than TMB… I don't know if it's true: in some places we were this year you cannot avoid lifts and ski slopes, but there were much fewer people than on the Tour of Mont Blanc. In any case, on each of these three tours you are surrounded by nature and breathtaking peaks, so we think all three are unmissable if you love hiking and the mountains.