Schwartztor / Porta Nera

High on the Schwärzegletscher, with Monte Rosa creating a dramatic backdrop. Photo: Nigel Shepherd

Through The Black Door

The Schwartztor translates from German as the Black Door – not a particularly attractive name for a ski run and much less so for one of the finest off piste runs in Europe! Always better to mention it by its Italian name of Porta Nera which somehow has more appeal particularly when spoken with a strong Italian accent and much gesticulating.

The Porta Nera is a col between the long ridge of the Breithorn and the elegant peak of Pollux. On the Breithorn side the cliffs are steep and imposing  – and black, from whence the col gets its name. The ski descent goes down the Schwartzgletscher, onto the Gornergletscher and finally passing through a narrow gorge down into Zermatt.

The Up

There are a few ways you can reach the start of the run.  Probably the most popular is from the top of the Kleine Matterhorn lift out of Zermatt at 3883mts. From there you have a flat trek across the Breithorn plateau either on skins or if you have the energy, by skating and pushing. A short section of downhill (in Italy) leaves you with an 800metre uphill walk on skins or as some skiers from Zermatt choose to do, a long, tedious and most unpleasant sidestep. You can also access the run by helicopter from Italy where you are dropped at the col between Pollux and Castor and traverse around into the Schwartztor.

The Down

It begins innocuously enough with a traverse from the col at 3731mts heading northeast for a bit before plunging northwards through complex glacier terrain with gigantic crevasses, each one big enough to swallow numerous Swiss chalets. In the middle of the main run is an interesting passage through some ice cliffs where you teeter on the edge of yawning chasms gasping with incredulity at the majestic scenery all topped off with a stunning view of the Matterhorn in the distance.  Once through the narrows the terrain opens up to wide sweeping fields at a perfect angle to relax a little – but not totally for there are always big crevasses that must be avoided. Finally an almighty schuss takes you out onto the very flat Gornergletscher.

The Way Out

If time allows head out into the middle of the glacier where there is nearly always a rabbit run of swoops and bends and dips and hollows in and out of curving ice formations and not so threatening crevasses. Beyond lies the snout of the Gornergletscher. Once a fearsome place to exit involving knotted ropes, mattresses and dodgy cables above rocky drops, the glacier has retreated almost 200mts in the last six years and now you just ski through the river gorge, hemmed in by cliffs and confronted with icy pools that are best avoided.  In fact this part of the journey has become much easier in recent years after  ‘Zermatt folk’ decided to blow up a very large boulder that blocked the through route!   Beyond is all mellow and after a short hike you find yourself whizzing along a narrow trail before finally being hurled out on to the luxurious pistes of Zermatt and a welcome beer stop in Furi.

The Ins & Outs

If your trip began in Gressoney, Alagna or Champoluc and you arrived at the top of the Porta Nera by helicopter you’ll need to get back up to the Kleine Matterhorn to descend the Cima Bianci to Champoluc or to hike out across the Breithorn Plateau and ski down the incredible Glacier di Verra taking the route known affectionately, but slightly tongue in cheek,  by local Italian guides as the ‘Via Yugoslvie’ – both routes finish at the Blonde Ladies Bar in St Jacques for a late lunch before a manic ski home again.   If you’re lucky enough to ever do both these in the same day and find fresh un-tracked powder it will the ski day of your life…. Guaranteed.

The Guide & Author

Nigel Shepherd has been a fully qualified Mountain Guide for 33 years and spends each winter exploring great places to ski both in Europe and other snowy mountains around the world…. It’s not a job he’s going to give up very easily.

(He’s not a bad photographer, either – Ed)