Balfrin Traverse: An entry level high alpine tour
Θ Point to Point
Saas Fee - Mischabel Hut- Hohbalm Glacier - Ulrichshorn - Riedd Glacier - Balfrin - Gross Bigerhorn -Bordier Hut - Gasenried
We'd heard about this tour back in 2003, when some guide friends used it as a training tour for clients aspiring for bigger climbs. We did it back then, and a few times since, usually with friends as an introduction to the Alps. Later, I realized it's the ideal big day to do fast & light. And while you can move quickly in places, I wouldn't exactly call it a "run," at least not until after the Bordier Hut when you finally hit dirt and make a run for the finish, desperate to call it a day. While not often so easy, but never very hard, it is guaranteed to tire you out.
Starting in Saas Fee, at 1550 meters, you literally go straight up to 3600 meters. There you step from rock to glacier for a flat traverse to just below the Windjoch. This little section of glacier needs to be taken seriously as I've seen it both a casual walk and a serious crevasse and bergschrund laced mess. For this, and the descent of the Ulrichshorn, we carried a small rope and crevasse rescue gear.
Once over the Windjoch, a short climb brings you to the summit of the Ulrichshorn (3924m). An ascent of the 4327-meter Nadelhorn is also possible from the Windjoch, which I have done quickly in perfect conditions. But, be prepared for a potentially icy last section on the northeast ridge normal route.
From the Ulrichshorn, a fast glacier descent brings you to a kilometer long flat snow slog to the base of the Balfrin, your next summit. Stay right on the ridge on a worn track of crampon scratches, sometimes in rubble, sometimes dirt, but most often decent rock. It looks bigger than it will feel.
After the Balfrin, it's mostly ridge cruising, trending downward, until the final summit of the Grosse Bigerhorn. From the summit, descend a worn trail and follow cairns to the left where the trail turns to talus, and finally a sharp drop to the Bordier Hut. Stop at the hut to eat and drink, everything!
After the hut, there is a short section of flat glacier to cross before hitting trail and a long, very long, descent to either Gasenried or Grächen, 1200 meters below. From these towns the PostAuto can be taken down to the Mattertal where the main train line can be reached.
While reatively easy, the Balfrin Traverse requires real mountain skills; glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and route finding. A solid and stable weather forecast is required so as not to be caught high in a thunderstorm or with no visiblity. It is a relatively slow traverse since you are above 3600 meters for almost 6 km, allow for more time than you think.
You can read another of our trip reports (done in the opposite direction) of the Balfrin Traverse on ALPSinsight.
Learn more about the skills necessary to run Way Ups with ALPSinsight's Education pages for Mountain Running and Mountain Sport Fitness.
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Start: 46.110470, 7.931976
Town: Saas Fee
- Go later in the summer to avoid wading through soft or deep snow.
- Carry enough water and food for a day at high elevation.
- Travel light, but with all the gear for glacier travel, including crampons and ice axe.
- Start early to avoid a very hot climb to the Mischabel Hut.
Saas Fee, far below, rapidly drops away on what is at first a great trail before turning into very steep rock protected with ladders, cables and rungs.
Climbing the increasingly steep glacier to the Windjoch, where crevasses lurk. Behind is the Lenspitze.
Climbing the ridge from the Windjoch to the Ulrichshorn. In the background is the Nadelhorn northeast ridge normal route.
On the Balfrin, rarely so clean as this section!
Don't count on finding water on the ridge, we got lucky.
Once past the Bordier Hut, and off the glacier, a very welcome trail awaits.
Finally, green grass and fast travel for the final stretch to Gasenried.
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Hey guys, another great trip 👌🏼 Just a question, i know you guys are traveling pretty much always in pairs etc. obviously prefect for glacier crossings.
I do alot of my runs/hikes alone and have only done a few “dry glaciers” late in the summer/autmun alone due to being a safer option alone.
Do you have any trails breaking the 3000 meter altitude mark which are “safe” to do alone.
Thanks for all the work and effort you guys put in reporting all the runs. I am a big fan.
Take it easy, stay safe keep running high,fast and light 🤙🏼
Hi Matthew, thank you for the nice words! The solo glacier thing is tough. I have done it, but only when I know the line and that things are going to be okay to be alone. For something like the Balfrin, I know it well, I have seen where the crevasses are, and then this year where there has been one, there was nothing, and in another spot where I have gone un-roped, a crevasse was just becoming visible, and actually quite dangerous. So to even suggest something is tough…. but, the Balmhorn has always been okay, and the Mettelhorn (coming to our site in the next days) has a small glacier with no issues. There are so many places that are okay, but less so on the good tours that get you to high places.
Did any of that make sense? 😉
Makes perfect sense thanks Dan 👍🏼
Friend of mine shared the link to the Mettelhorn post from you guys the other day 👍🏼 Is on the list along with many others. Look forward to reading the review.
Thanks for the super quick reply
Hi Matthew! Look for routes that don’t pass glaciers, like Weissmies via Almagellerhütte, Lagginhorn from Saas-Grund, Schönbielhorn from Zermatt, Gspaltenhorn from Griesalp, etc… of course, it depends on your ability, your solo climbing skills, etc…
Wish you a great summer
What pack did you use for this run? I am interested in getting either the Distance 8 or Distance 15. If the Distance 8 is large enough for days like this I would rather get that.
Hi Daniel, We took 15s for this run. I also prefer to carry less and use the 8L, it’s plenty capacity for most days. But with warm clothes and glacier gear the Distance 15 is the way to go.
What crampon did you use for this traverse ? I suppose microspikes aren’t enought for the steepest parts ?
We used the Kahtoola crampons and they were great, but I am sure Black Diamond’s new traction would work well. It’s only getting up and over the Ulrichshorn that I remember being an issue, and it depends on conditions.