This is the Dave Butcher photo diary of a ski mountaineering trip to the Saas Fee area of Switzerland.
Black and white photography is used here to illustrate a 6 day ski mountaineering trip. Starting from Saas Fee in Switzerland we used a couple of mountain huts but the weather was poor and we finished the trip early. My diary / log is included here.
This trip was in the last week of April in 1998. For the second year running I arranged the ski trip with the same 4 friends. We had all met on various ski tours and decided to organise our own trips, rather than go on those offered by guides or tour operators. The previous year we discovered we all had a loathing for polenta, a corn-based vegetable commonly served in mountain huts in and near Italy, so we called ourselves the ‘No Polenta Club’ or NPC for short. I was keen to try my new touring skis in anger (I had already used them for a week of piste skiing at Val d’Isere a couple of weeks earlier). They were Salomon X-Mountain skis with Fritschi Diamir ski mountaineering bindings. Our mountain guides was once again Jon de Montjoye plus the aspirant guide Jim Blythe. We met up in Saas Fee with the plan to ski as many 4000 m peaks as was possible in 6 days, ending in Zermatt. We thought 4 or 5 may be possible.
We had a late start since the clouds were quite low. We took the lifts and then the funicular train inside the mountain to the Mittelallalin station (3454 m). We geared up inside the building because of the wild weather and left here at 10.15 am. It was a steady climb upwards and the weather slowly improved, the clouds rose above the peaks and we could see where we were going. There was a narrow snow bridge across the bergschrund to reach the upper slopes. We left skis below the summit and walked along the narrow ridge to the summit cross of Allalinhorn (4027 m). It was about 1 pm. I took a few black and white mountain landscape photos from the top despite the flat lighting, especially of Alphubel (4206 m) and Rimpfischhorn (4199 m) which were the closest peaks. We skied back down through the icefall to the tops of the ski pistes and reached the Langflue hut (2900 m) at 2.30 pm. We slept in the dormitory above the restaurant area.
The next day the weather was appalling. A complete white-out. We waited to see if it would clear but it didn’t so skiing up Alphubel was out of the question. The hut was closing because the ski area was closed for the day so we made our way across to the Britannia hut (3030 m). We left Langflue around 11 am and skied up to the Felskinn tunnel. After a snack lunch standing in the tunnel we made our way up to the skidoo track to Britannia by head torch since the tunnel was otherwise pitch black. We put our skis on inside and then made our way out into the storm. At about 2 pm we arrived at Britannia hut. It was very windy and snowing hard. Not many people in the hut though, they all had more sense!
was a little improved, but not enough to continue our planned itinerary. Instead we made for the closest peak to the Britannia hut, the Fluchthorn, to do a day trip. We left a bit after 8am and skied down for a few hundred yards and then put skins on. There was over a foot of fresh snow and we made it to the rocky top of the Fluchthorn (3790 m) by 12 pm. We came down through really steep deep snow at first then a good ski back to reach the hut about 1.30 pm. We had the route to ourselves. The 2 other groups in the hut both went to do the Strahlhorn but turned back at the Adler Pass because there was so much fresh snow.
We awoke to a day that was clear as a bell, we could see stars overhead. We left the hut just after 6 am and skinned up to reach the Adler Pass (3789 m) at 10 am. We had clear blue sky all day. I took lots of black and white landscape photos. The scenery was fantastic. The slopes just below the pass were steep sheet ice and they needed some care to side-step up to reach the level ground above. There was lots of snow on the col. From here we skied up the ridge to the Strahlhorn. Nearest the pass under the few inches of fresh snow was treacherous blue ice. It was very difficult doing kick turns going up (and even more difficult coming down). After this it was an easy skin to the top. Here we took off our skis, roped up and walked the narrow ridge to the summit of the Strahlhorn (4190 m) which we reached at 11.15 am. I took a few more black and white landscape photos from the top and we set off down at around 12 pm. We returned the same way but cut down into the corrie before reaching the Adler Pass. This didn’t avoid all the blue ice but it did give us an excellent ski down in pristine deep fresh snow. The ski down was fantastic and lasted about an hour and a half. Finally we skied down into a cloud bank near the hut and had about 30 minutes of uphill skiing to reach the Britannia hut again. We reached the hut about 2.30 pm.
The next day the weather was dreadful again and the ski area was shut once more. We decided to finish the trip 1 day early and just ski down to Saas Fee. We managed to find a way down to get very close to the village of Saas Fee before we needed to take our skis off and walk, even though the lower pistes were pretty much gone. We had a quick celebratory drink with Jim Blythe, who had now completed his UIAGM Mountain Guide qualification and then we were left to our own devices.
Mamiya 6 MF + 50 mm lens (wide-angle)
Ilford FP4 Plus 220