I am often asked ‘When is the best time in the summer to climb in the Alps’?
This is a difficult question to answer as every alpine season has its own unique characteristics. The summers of 2014 and 2015 were extreme in different ways and helped illustrate the difficulties in answering this question.
The summer of 2014 was unsettled and bad weather and cold storms prevailed until early August. Some of the storms left 50 cms of fresh snow at 3000 m, leading at times to a high rick of avalanches and difficulties in travelling in the mountains. There were also very few days with good visibility and conditions to achieve high-level objectives.
However, the storms abated and by mid-August, there were fantastic snow conditions in the high mountains due to the previous cold snowy conditions. The temperatures remained cold throughout the summer meaning that snow conditions remained stable in the high mountains and the end of the summer 2014 had amazing snow conditions.
The conditions on the “classic” peaks (graded PD or less) were excellent as “soft” neve snow made travelling on what can be icy exposed slopes at the end of the season much safer and easier. Peaks such as Mont Blanc, Liskimm, Nadelhorn, Lagginhorn and the big north face routes on the Droites, Eiger, Grandes Jorrasses were all in exceptional condition, as too were the rocky peaks below 3800m such as Monte Viso, Salibitschen, Mont Blanc de Chelion, L’Eveque, Portjengrat.
The downside of these unusual conditions meant that the high alpine rock routes such as the Matterhorn, Eiger, Zinal Rothorn, Dent Blanche etc. were not really climbed at all in 2014. Even the Zermatt guides only made on a handful of ascents on the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn, as there was too much snow on the ridge for most of the season.
To summarise, the summer of 2014: bad weather and snowfall knocked out many opportunities in the early season, but led to some of the best snow conditions for a long time in late season. Classic routes in the high mountains were exceptional when the weather was good but the high technical peaks such as the Matterhorn and Eiger were rarely climbed.
In the summer of 2015 we were both blessed and cursed with the excellent sustained hot weather. Switzerland saw more than three weeks of temperatures up to 38 degrees in the valley. This was uncomfortable if you were in the city but led to very pleasant temperatures in the high mountains although snow conditions were very poor below 4000m.
We enjoyed reliable, good weather in which to do some amazing routes of all types throughout the season. The prolonged heat did mean that the permafrost was once again undermined and certain areas became dangerous due to rock fall. Notably the Gouter hut on Mont Blanc was closed for a few weeks as the rocky passage over the Grand Couloir and up to the Aig de Gouter was too dangerous to travel. However, the high rocky ridges were in fine condition and peaks such as the Dent Blanche, Zinal Rothorn, and the Eiger and Matterhorn had a very successful season and had a record number of ascents.
The excessive heat also melted much of the neve (snow left from the winter) revealing hard ice that is difficult to travel across. Some large crevasses were opening on the glaciers making some of them impassable. However, just was we thought that conditions would be unacceptably icy in the high mountains we had a snowstorm in mid-August and the conditions underfoot were transformed once again by the fresh snowfall. A crisp layer of neve snow cushioned the hard ice, which was perfect for climbing on.
After the snowstorm, the temperatures dropped and the rocks stopped falling. Routes such as the Gouter route on Mont Blanc were re-opened. So, you can see that the bad weather can also be a valuable asset in the mountains.
To summarise: the summer of 2015, we enjoyed exceptional weather and conditions in the high mountains for most of the summer. Some routes became too icy at times to comfortably climb and the rock fall danger on certain routes meant they remained unclimbed.
So to answer the question ‘When is the best time in the summer to climb in the Alps’? You can see from the last two seasons that nothing is certain but by being flexible in your objective, it is always possible to find safe, enjoyable and rewarding objectives. If one type of route is out of condition, we can always focus on other mountain objectives.
As a general rule of thumb for snow, routes and the Bernese Oberland mid-June to the end of July can give the best conditions as we benefit from the spring and winter snowfall. For the technical high routes, such as the Matterhorn, these are most often in condition from the end of July onwards, when the winter snow on these routes has melted.
One of the strengths of ISM is our location and being based in Leysin Switzerland, a village in the middle of the main Alpine region. Here we are lucky to have the Bernese Oberland, Swiss Valais, Mont Blanc Massif, Val d’Aosta and Gran Paradiso within a 2-hour drive. This gives plenty of flexibility in our choice of routes and we are able to find the best weather and conditions for your time with us. All our mountain guides are very experienced and understand the different characteristics of all these regions so are able to deliver a rewarding program whether in the summer alpine climbing, winter ice climbing and off-piste skiing or ski touring in the spring.
We are now looking forwards to beginning our winter programme. The conditions last winter were challenging especially when compared to the winters of 2014 and 2013 both of which gave record snowfall and cold temperatures. The snow came very late last winter (26th December) and the temperatures were very warm in general. This Boxing Day storm started the season off with a good metre of powder resulting in great skiing for the New Year holiday. Although the temperatures never got too cold ice formed in the high venues of Cogne, Arolla and Val de Bagnes. The ice conditions in Kandersteg despite a slow start but gave surprisingly stunning end of season conditions in late February.
The ski touring season last spring was very good delivering some great spring snow conditions and some very good powder – and we knew where to find it!
Snow is already falling in the Alps and skiing in the high mountain has started so we are hopeful for a great winter on the skis and ice.
We hope you can join us soon.
Terry Ralphs ISM Guide