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The Monte Rosa Puzzle: a Mountain or a Range?

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Monte Rosa, Italy
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Some names evoke unequivocal associations; you have no doubt what object the name identifies. Some names perplex and bemuse you to the end of time. These pleonasms may refer to a single object and to a group of things simultaneously. Take Monte Rosa for example or THE Monte Rosa. It used to refer both to a single peak in the Alps, which is the second highest in western Europe by the way, and to the Monte Rosa massif, located in the eastern part of the Pennine Alps, between Switzerland (Valais canton) and Italy (Piedmont and Aosta Valley).
The second baffling mount is Mont Blanc. The name ‘Mont Blanc’ follows Monte Rosa fashion; it refers to a peak (or two) and to a massif that straddles the French-Italian border, thus producing some more confusion as to what is the precise border between Italy and France. The Mont Blanc massif is composed of numerous peaks and spires, among which are Mont Blanc mount per se and Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. You can read about the notorious pillar here.

Monte Rosa the Mountain

Monte Rosa is towering in the background

Monte Rosa is towering in the background

Up to the 28th January 1863, Monte Rosa used to be a name of a huge ice-covered peak in the Alps. On that date, the Swiss Federal Council renamed the former
Höchste Spitze (The Highest Peak) into Dufourspitze (in German, the French name is Pointe Dufour, Italian name is Punta Dufour) in the honour of Guillaume-Henri Dufour (1878 – 1875), a Swiss army officer, engineer and famous topographer. Together with Henry Dunant he also founded the International Red Cross. Peak Dufourspitze rises to 4 634 m. above the sea level. Merely 80 meters away to the east stands another peak renamed in 2014 into Dunantspitze, it is only 2 meters lower than the highest summit. So, strictly speaking, currently, we cannot point our finger at Monte Rosa mountain, it is now a collective name for 22 peaks higher than 4.000 meters. PeakVisor app will tell you which is which.
Dufourspitze of the Monte Rosa is the most elevated point of Switzerland, although it is neither the most prominent (that would be Finsteraarhorn, the parent peak for Mönch and Jungfrau) nor the most isolated (that would be Piz Bernina which rendered its name to Bernina Express) Dufourspitze is 4 441 metres above Lake Maggiore, Switzerland’s lowest point.
We’ll speak about this ‘elevation vs. prominence vs. isolation vs. dominance’ battle in a separate article.

Monte Rosa the Massif

The Monte Rosa is in the middle, it is 170km away. It might look lower than the nearby mounts, but it is an optical illusion due to natural Earth's curvature.

The Monte Rosa is in the middle, it is 170km away. It might look lower than the nearby mounts, but it is an optical illusion due to natural Earth's curvature.

The six highest peaks are Dufourspitze (4 634m), Dunantspitze (4 632m), Grenzgipfel (4 618m), Nordend (4 609m), Zumsteinspitze (4 563m), and Signalkuppe (4 554m).
Basically, the group can be divided into three parts:
  1. The Four Primary Peaks of the region (from south to north): Signalkuppe (Punta Gnifetti), Zumsteinspitze, Dufourspitze, and Nordend.
  2. Grande Monte Rosa (Great Monte Rosa) which is constituted by the Great Ridge of Peaks, from the Theodulpass to the Monte Moro pass. It includes some other important peaks, Lyskamm East (4 527m) and West (4 481m), Parrotspitze (4 432m), Breithorn with several peaks, Castor and Pollux.
  3. Minor Ridges, perpendicular to the main one, and stretching to Switzerland in the north and Italy in the south. Important is the Cresta Indren with Balmenhorn (4 167m), Ludwigshohe (4341m, Italy) Pyramid Vincent (4 215m, Italy) and many other “3000” like Punta Indren (3 260m, Italy). On the Swiss side, there is the Grosser Findelngrat in Switzerland with its Stockhorn (3 532m).
As you can see, some mounts have double names, there is a nice article on double-naming policy in the Alps.

What’s in the Name?

The famous pinkish hues of the Monte Rosa at dawn

The famous pinkish hues of the Monte Rosa at dawn

Daydreamers would support a more romantic legend. Rosa means pink, at sunset the Monte Rosa massif seems to be of some pinkish or rosy hues when seen from afar.

However, a more down-to-earth interpretation is about a more likely tradition to attribute the name "Rosa" from the old Vallisian and Walser dialect "Roisa" to the notion "glacier". Also in Franco-Provencal “patois”, spoken in Valle D'Aosta, the name “Rosa” comes from that word next to “rouèse” and this ancient noun, with “rösa”, meaning “glacier
On old maps as late as 1740, the mountain was named Monte Bosa and even Monte Biosa by the inhabitants of Val Sesia. The name Mon Boso, which appears in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, very likely designated the same mountain. From Zermatt, the mountain was formerly known under the name Gornerhorn (in Walliser German, lit. Large/Strong Horn), yet nowadays, the massive goes under Monte Rosa name.

Climbing the Monte Rosa

Alpinism history of Monte Rosa begun in 1778, when seven Italian people from Gressoney went up from south side to discover the mythical lost valley: they believed that over the mountains and the ridges existed a paradise, with animals and fruit-threes. The highest point reached by the seven people (at about 4000 meters) was called "stone of the discovery”. 
The first successful climb to the highest summit was on August 01, 1855 from Zermatt by a party of eight climbers led by three guides: Matthäus and Johannes Zumtaugwald, Ulrich Lauener, Christopher and James Smyth, Charles Hudson, John Birkbeck and Edward Stephenson.
The first woman to conquer Monte Rosa was the notorious Lucy Walker in 1862. Nine years later, she was also the first female to climb Matterhorn.
The Monte Rosa on the right, Matterhorn on the left (the symbol of Swiss chocolate loves standing out)

The Monte Rosa on the right, Matterhorn on the left (the symbol of Swiss chocolate loves standing out)

The modern routes to climb the summit are not that many and quite challenging. You can either take the normal route that starts from the Monte Rosa Hut. It is mainly a glacier itinerary on the west slopes of the Monte Rosa (Monte Rosa Glacier), with the final rocky west ridge to the summit. Although the itinerary itself is not difficult, it requires physical endurance and a good acclimatization.

Admirable stamina and perseverance 

You can find other starting points for Monte Rosa mountaineering on the Monte Rosa Huts official site and choose the best to your liking, depending on what Monte Rosa peak you aspire to conquer. 
Should you wish to take a long and challenging route, there is the route off the Marinelli Hut (open as a bivouac). It follows the steep Marinelli couloir on the east face of Monte Rosa. It has to be ascended very early in the morning on cold days in order to decrease the risk of avalanches.

Monte Rosa Visibility

Madonna on the rocks, the left is in Louvre (painted in 1483-1486), the right one is in London (painted in 1495-1508), both have the Monte Rosa in the background

Madonna on the rocks, the left is in Louvre (painted in 1483-1486), the right one is in London (painted in 1495-1508), both have the Monte Rosa in the background

Monte Rosa could be seen from many places on the south side of the Alps and it had been mentioned in many travel diaries. At the end of the 15th century, some outlines of the mountain may possibly have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci into the background of the Madonna of the Rocks or other pictures. Yet, gone are the medieval times when you had no maps, let alone more complex digital devices. Today you can see the Monte Rosa through PeakVisor app lenses and now for sure what you see.
The Monte Rosa is always above the clouds

The Monte Rosa is always above the clouds

The height difference between the summit and the plains of northern Italy, from where Monte Rosa is well visible, reaches over 4,500 metres. Monte Rosa has a topographic prominence of 2 165m, the Great St. Bernard Pass being the lowest col between it and the culminating point of the Alps.

The Monte Rosa Huts

The landscape is ethereal, the Monte Rosa hut just adds some futuristic zest.

The landscape is ethereal, the Monte Rosa hut just adds some futuristic zest.

The massif can boast of high-tech and mountaineer-friendly huts. The namesake Monte Rosa Hut (2 883m) is situated on the Platte, a rocky island between the Gorner and Grenz glaciers. It is the only hut in this range owned by the Swiss Alpine Club. It first welcomed visitors in 1894, the final renovation of 2009 turned it into a five-storey crystal-shaped building that self-caters 90% of its power needs from the sun. Apart from providing accommodation, it is also a research lab.
All other huts are the property of the Italian Alpine Club. Among them is the highest residence in Europe – Regina Margherita Hut located at 4 559m a.s.l. on Signalkuppe. There is Marinelli Hut (3 036m) used for the ascent on the east face, Gnifetti Hut (3 647m), the Bivacco Citta di Gallarate (3 960m) near the summit of Jägerhorn and others. 
You can read about other mountain huts in Italy in our blog on the10 best mountain huts.
By the way, PeakVisor app works not only with mountains labeling, it also shows all the huts in the area, not only the most famous or top of the range. Give it a taste and your next outdoor experience will be even more satisfying.

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