Updated: Feb 25
I’m lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time in the Alps, through work in winter and then of my own choosing in summer. Convenience and existing connections have always lured me into the Chamonix valley. Now, this is no bad thing, it’s an incredible place to explore feeling dwarfed around giant peaks, however, the Alps is the highest and most extensive range entirely within Europe, so shouldn’t we see more of it?
With this in mind, Paul Lange, a good friend of mine and Chamonix local set off driving to Europe’s most Easterly region, Slovenia to begin a journey back climbing every Alpine country high point en route; The Alpine 7
Slovenia - Triglav, 2864m (PD)
Austria - Grossglockner, 3978m (PD)
Germany - Zugspitze, 2962m (Grade II+)
Liechtenstein - Vorder Grauspitz, 2599m (Class 4 ridge)
Switzerland - Dufourspitze, 4634m (PD+)
Italy & France - Monte Bianco or Mont Blanc, 4810m (PD)
These mountains aren’t incredibly technical on paper, however with potentially changeable weather conditions and some long approaches, would it be possible to ascend these six mountains in 7 countries and drive the 1000km between them, all in just one week? Up for giving it our best shot, we grabbed our kit and jumped in the car to head to Slovenia to find out.
Area: Expedition abroad: Alpine countries of Western Europe
Type: Challenge - one week
Distance: 10,000m+ ascent
Duration: 7 days of 10-16 hours per day
Route: Grid refs and location google maps
Time of year: July
Logistical recommendations: We primarily used Summitpost trip reports given how popular many of these routes are.
Triglav, 2864m (PD)
Arriving into Slovenia in perfect sunshine, we were really taken back by its picture-postcard beauty. Every direction showed rugged grey mountains standing tall out of rich Alpine meadows, as good as what we’d seen on Instagram or better. We grabbed a big lunch in the quiet village of Trenta at around 600m and began our 1500m ascent to the refuge, Koča na Doliču. The hanging valleys eventually came to an end and the winding path takes you up onto steeper, rockier terrain always surprising you with the next zigzag turn.
Calling on the drive over, we were kindly assured that although the refuge is full, they’d happily have us sleep in the communal area. Of course, we weren’t fussy, or in a position to be, and they delivered on their promise, providing us a hearty dinner and a mattress in the main room. The guys are incredibly friendly here, and given the number of moving parts on this expedition, we were extremely grateful for their hospitality. Already, we were glad to be out of the French Alps, where the refugees aren’t necessarily known for their amenability.
With a reasonable night's sleep, we were buzzing to get cracking and the 4.45am alarm doesn’t shake our enthusiasm. Looking up to the freshly covered snow-capped summit in the cold morning air, we’re reminded we’re heading onto a serious mountain environment despite the relatively modest summit height and our arguably bold choice to wear running shorts.
Confidently but carefully negotiating some of the slippery technical ground, aided with some fixed lines and make good time to the Summit where the views of this unique landscape sprawl for miles and miles. Standing atop our first peak, we were now on the clock with a big week ahead of us - we started a rapid descent all the way back to the car. Pleased with our progress and feeling the hot July sun, we couldn’t help but stop for a swim in the crystal-clear stream.
Grossglockner, 3978m (PD)
The 3-hour drive is pleasant enough as we climb higher into the Austrian National Park and before long we’re repacking into larger backpacks for Grossglockner that has considerably more objective danger, not least some permanent snow and ice cover. Although we had bagged our first peak, we were going to need to keep moving throughout the remainder of the afternoon and evening in order to be ready to go for this sizable summit tomorrow.
Feeling it in the legs a little, and looking to take it easy given the long week ahead, the path climbs steeply above the vivdly green mountain lakes. Reaching a ridge, the gradient eases somewhat as we make our way up this beautifully peaceful valley. My enthusiasm however is dampened somewhat by my poor judgement of breaking my new boots in, already resulting in some hefty heel blisters. Negotiating the local traffic, we reach the welcome site of our first refuge for the night, Salmhütte. Treated to easily one of the best meals we’ve ever had ina mountain hut, and some top-grade Austrian beer we head to bed well fed, and feeling accomplished.
Starting the day earlier once again, we’re soon greeted with unbelievably pink skies, making our way up the remainder of this relatively gentle valley until we hit the vertical ladders and some fixed lines. Topping out this impressive wall, we’re pleased to get first glimpse of true summit and get ready to put our crampons on.
Passing the highest mountain hut in Austria, our otherwise surprisingly quiet route is starting to get much busier, many climbers choosing to break the climb up into 2-3 days. A short section on compact and steep ice leads back into the rock field, where the number of groups starts to become a bit of an issue. There are quite a few bottlenecks with a few groups not looking as confident as they could over the exposed ridge line. We help where we can, but also need to retain a focus on our challenge which requires us to keep progress rapid.
We reach the summit, share a celebratory shot of Alpine spirit, and start rock sliding and jogging any sections we can, aware we still need to get all the way off the mountain and have a 4-hour drive to Bavaria.
Throughout the day, the blisters on my feet have been getting worse and taking my boots off, I’m weirdly slightly relieved to see my feet are in pieces and look as painful they’d felt. We’d managed two peaks so far and around 4000m ascent, if we had a chance of finishing this challenge, I needed to look after my feet very carefully from now on.
Zugspitze, 2962m (Grade II+)
After an emergency pitstop in Kitsbuhl, we make it to the hiking shop literally a 2 minutes before it closes and in an unusual stroke of luck, they had an unlimited supply of Compeed and one pair of Grandad hiking sandals in, that happened to be my size! I doused my fresh wounds in the most savage antiseptic spray, which much to Paul’s amusement felt like stabbing daggers into my feet.
Reaching the foot of Zugspitze late at night, we could find nowhere to eat and settled for a pot noodle in a field before sleeping in a field closeby to the car. Any negativity from the previous night soon evaporated as the warm sun lit up the impressive limestone Massif directly above us.
We were taken aback by the Bavarian beauty as we made our way through the mountain pine forest revealing even more impressive views of Lake Eibsee. Taking the Western route, we traversed the mountain under the impressive Tyrolean Zugspitze cable car near the Austrian border where the path steepens significantly passing the Wiener-Neustädter Hut.
After crossing a boulder field, you reach the more exposed scrambling sections with via ferrata and fixed ropes. This was a really enjoyable and relatively quiet way of finishing the 2200m ascent to the crowded Zugspitze summit. Wary of the extensive infrastructure on this mountain, we were pleasantly surprised how much we actually enjoyed it, and then to celebrate what better way than a litre of Hofbrauhaus and a cable car back down? Something my gammy feet very much appreciated.
Vorder Grauspitz, 2599m (Class 4 ridge)
Next up, the German speaking microstate of Liechtenstein - no exaggeration here, this tiny country is the fourth smallest in Europe and is more or less a town surrounded by mountains. Renowned for its tax efficiency, it’s rumoured to have more companies listed than the 38,000 residents. After a quick cruise around the capital to see the sights, we head into the mountains in search of our lowest peak of the trip.
Vorder Grauspitz makes up for the lack of height however by its tricky and remote access, and slightly awkward and technical ascent. We make a dent into the approach after Germany, choosing to camp out in the hills. Our early alarm falls on deaf ears this time, both agreeing in sleep-deprived mumbles that the rain is too heavy to leave just yet. Take 2: we slowly rise out of bed just as first light falls but are both a little lacklustre given the unfavorable conditions.
The weather does eventually start to lift just as our pathless ascent gains some more exposure and the clouds start to roll out. Gaining access from neighbouring peak, Hinter Grauspitz we carefully negotiate a knifelike ridge on wet rock to the summit. Our descent down towards our main Grauspitz goal was easily the most dangerous part of our week. It was clear this route was very rarely trodden and pulling large chunks of rock out while down climbing was extremely unnerving given the 1000+ foot drop either side of the ridge. Though we had a rope and harnesses, there was nothing solid enough to anchor on for a rappel so we just kept our cool and eventually made it onto the home straight for our fourth peak.
Above: The ridge we descended from Hinter Grauspitz to Vorder Grauspitz
Choosing the off-piste option for a descent, we find a pretty direct route out of a hanging valley and get back to the paths before too long with a strong sense of relief that despite being lower, Grauspitz proved to be pretty sketchy on the day. No time to pat ourselves on the back though, we needed to reach the train into the fully-pedestrianised Zeramtt, and last Gornergrat Railway on towards Monte Rosa.
Dufourspitze, 4634m (PD+)
After paying a truly eye-watering 109CHF for our lift tickets, we eventually got over it and were began to enjoy the free ascent provided by the incredibly picturesque mountain railway to 2800m. We had been nervously checking forecasts which looked at best mixed for the following day or two, however it was a pleasant evening over Zermatt, taking in views of one of our previous conquests, the iconic Matterhorn.
The approach to the Monte Rosa Hut is a serious undertaking in itself, following a path down towards a ladder network getting onto the truly vast Gorner glacier. As we began losing the light, it soon became clear the heavily crevassed glacier wasn’t overly waymarked leaving us to route find and navigate up to the shining beacon of Monte Rosa hut. Staying in contact with the refuge who had dinner waiting, we actually made very quick time on an approach that most groups allocate an entire day to.
Our egos are soon put back in line on arrival however, when the refuge guardian assures us that the conditions tomorrow will be too dangerous to climb in. Inevitably we were disappointed with the thought of our expedition being shut down when it has otherwise been going like clockwork. However, we both knew the likelihood of getting a perfect week of big mountain climbing in the Alps was slim. Ever the optimists though, we do set our painfully early alarms regardless and see what the day brings.
Making our way towards the upper slopes of the climb in pouring rain the dense cloud cover doesn’t appear to want to lift and even route finding proves extremely difficult. Navigating such a complex network of heavily crevassed glaciers these conditions didn’t feel like a safe option, and we had to make the difficult decision to call it. Returning back to the hut and drinking tea, we were perfectly content with our choices, and that we had done all we could to complete our expedition until it could have significantly risked our safety.
Drinking tea and browsing various weather forecasts in the impressive Monte Rosa hut, we conclude we have a better shot at Mont Blanc than we do here so resume our trip. We’d planned to meet Adventure Scottie who was coming back from Ironman Copenhagen and Emily Hunt to join forces for our last summit bid, Mont Blanc so decided to stick to the plan.
ITALY & FRANCE
Monte Bianco or Mont Blanc, 4810m (PD)
Our first big Alpine ascent was on Mont Blanc via the Trois Monts route back in 2016, and although it was a very successful trip, the cloud came in before we reached summit so heading up together again had a purpose to share a better summit view this time.
Despite the late notice, we managed to get ourselves booked into the Tête Rousse Hut. Taking the Mont Blanc Tramway to the Nid d'Aigle at just over 2300m, the conditions seemed to have settled and we got up to the refuge pretty quickly even with a relaxed picnic stop.
We tuck into a decent meal and a couple of beers outside looking out at surrounding peaks and the valleys below as they fill with cloud due to the cold air inversion. Having been up Mont Blanc a couple of times already and conditions looking promising, I’m enjoying feeling like we’re on the home straight after our big week! That said, starting our ascent from here and skipping out the conventional Goûter Hut does still make for quite a big day up here of around 1500m ascent.
Pleasantly surprised by our week long acclimatisation we’re feeling strong and the night time assault on the infamous Grand Couloir goes without a hitch, noticing more fixed lines than there once was. Despite a fresh dusting of snow, I almost manage to reach the 4000m mark in socks and sandals (explicitly not recommended but this provided some welcome respite for my still sore feet). Switching to boots and crampons as we hit the snow at the top of the Goûter, the skies start to fill with pinks and oranges and it starts to feel like you’re on the roof of the Alps.
We have a good food refuel just off the Dôme du Goûter Summit (4305m) and get stuck into the final ascent that takes you up to the meandering ridge to the top. Before too long, it’s smiles and celebrations all round. It was great to experience this special mountain again with Scottie, to share it for the first time with Emily and what a way to finish this non-stop but amazing week of exploring the Alps' highest.
We may not have achieved the goal we set out to, but I’m still proud of our achievements that week reaching the highest points of 6 out of 7 Alpine countries. Looking back now, this week has inspired me to attempt an even bigger challenge next summer, where my sights will be looking further than the Alps and for a whole load of country high points - watch this space! Oh, and I'm coming back for you Monte Rosa...
Expedition by Aaron Rolph & Paul Lange
Words by Aaron Rolph