Volume 45 Number 3 Article 6
Swiss Alps June 08
Late June saw me arrive in Arolla, a few valleys east of Chamonix in the Swiss Alps to do a week’s introductory course with Jagged Globe in Alpine mountaineering. Having done only abit of fell walking in the UK I was nervous on a number of fronts: was I fit enough? Would my knees bear up? Would my fear of heights be an issue? How would I cope with altitude? Arolla is at 2000m altitude being good for acclimatisation.
The first day was an easy day: a taxi ride up the hill, then an 1 ½ hours walk to the Ferpecle glacier to learn how to use crampons. Here we split into groups, 5 of us going with Caroline. On the glacier at 2700m we were all well aware of the altitude: a walk up a gentle incline seem to have us all puffing and panting, with the exception of Caroline. Halfway up the glacier we had a decent play with our crampons, Caroline showing us how to front-point up and down and use our crampons on different angled ice. Caroline also put a rope up a gentle pitch (all of 3m top to bottom) and we all had a go at a little bit of ice climbing.
The next day we met up for a leisurely coffee in Arolla’s main square before starting the walk up to the Aiguilles Rouge hut. At 2800m this would help with acclimatisation before attempting Pointe de Vouasson (3500m) the next day. An efficient start, leaving the hut at 5.45 the next morning soon saw us making good progress up the hill. 2/3s of the way up we got views of the Matterhorn a few valleys east. Roping up to go onto the glacier we climbed up onto the glacier with nice views of the top a few hundred meters above us.
At this point it started to go pear shaped for me. I had been carrying the rope up the hill, was carrying too much in my rucksack and being 5 to 10 kg overweight, broke through the crisp surface at every step while everyone else on my rope skipped daintily along the top. Add altitude and abit less fitness than some in the party and I was soon the problem child. Marty, the guide on the rope, tried a different, steeper route to the summit hoping for firmer conditions but to little avail. I had not as yet learnt to pace myself to keep a steady, even pace up, so was reduced to stopping to catch my breath every 40 yards or so.
On the upside, at one point as we inched our way to the summit we climbed along a ridge with a sheer drop going down about 1000m to one side: I thought about whether to get freaked out by this, but decided a) I didn’t have the energy and b) if I continued to count steps and focus in stepping in Marty’s footsteps I’d probably be fine. On a col below the summit we stopped to put a layer on and Marty warned us not to drop anything: on one side was the aforementioned 1000m drop, on the other a less steep drop onto the glacier we had just come up from: I had no intention of dropping anything either way. To spur us on, Marty, a Kiwi, reminded us of Hillary’s words on his return from summiting Everest: “We knocked the b*stard off”.
On the summit I was thrilled to have a breather and a snack, but was concerned about the way down: in caving at the halfway point (ie the bottom) you typically need at least as much energy to come out as you have used on the way in. I was now running on a quarter tank so the caving algorithm had me in trouble. At various points close to the summit I had considered turning back, but the desire to get to the top, together with the knowledge that turning back would present problems for my two rope buddies had kept me going. To my joy I discovered that the assistance of gravity going down worked wonders. We positively romped to the bottom of the glacier where we all took some time out to do a crevasse rescue. This was great fun, with lots in common with caving rescue practices, but lots very different too: views of the Matterhorn have been conspicuously absent in any cave rescue practices I’ve been on. Neither have I had to be so fastidious in respect to slapping on sun block.
On the way down Marty showed us how to do sitting glissades (aka arse-ading) which was great fun. Soon we were back at the hut for an hour’s break. A bowl of spaghetti Bolognese and a rest soon put me back on my feet. Mid afternoon saw us all down in Arolla none the worse for wear, bar a few sensitive knees from the ascent. I had come away with some anxieties having struggled at the top. The next day was a quasi rest day: staying in the valley, doing some rock climbing at a local crag and practicing our prusiking. This was great fun for me: a pleasant change from the Ogwen valley in rain and a genuinely easy day. The adrenalin moment of the day came when I was belaying Marty as he was leading a route. In the middle of explaining to the gathered watchers the fine art of leading a sport climb he suddenly launched himself in to flight to demonstrate the leader taking a fall. Generally speaking, when belaying I usually know when a fall is likely: my response may have included some colourful language!
Thursday saw us on our way to the Vignette hut at 3000m to climb the Pigne d’Arolla (3800m) the next day. The hike up was fine, but on the glacier, Marty, at the front of our rope explained that it was up to us to control the speed of the party: if we gave him slack rope he would speed up to keep the rope taut. The discipline of keeping the rope taut crossing a glacier is quite a change. Rumblings in the icefall on the other side of the valley highlighted to desirability of not walking underneath. Mid afternoon saw us up at the hut enjoying spectacular views of nearby peaks and icefalls.
4.15 saw me up, 15 minutes ahead of plan. We were leaving gear not needed for the summit at the col by the hut as the plan was to be back in Arolla for lunch and the guides reckoned that if we got into the hut after the summit they would never get us out again. This time I decided to leave everything bar some waterproofs and a few other things, so my rucksack was much lighter, but I was still nervous of the unknown ahead. Half an hour from the hut we had traversed round to the slopes we would climb to the top. The morning was well overcast, with none of the nearby peaks visible, but beyond that conditions were good.
Marty had to remind us 3 or 4 times that we should be controlling the pace: eventually the penny dropped and anytime I found myself short of breath I simply slowed down the rate of my steps. The fact that I step count helped this enormously so instead a “stop-go” pace I soon found that a steady of plot, with fluctuations varying from very slow to just plain slow, was doing very nicely getting us up the hill. In particular, taking this approach, I was suddenly no longer the problem child on the rope. As we got to the col below the summit the wind was fierce. Visibility was down to 5m and the mountain had a totally different feel to it. At one point Marty warned us to stay away from the edge on our left as it was corniced and a short step up a steeper incline saw us on the top just before 8. This time, thanks to Marty’s advice and lessons learnt I was well within my comfort zone.
A 15 minute stop for photos and congratulations all round and we were soon on the way down. A stop for a snack at the col, then it was hell for leather to get down for lunch. I was able to cross bridge over a raging torrent on which I had used the handrail on the way up without using the handrail: a small victory perhaps, but I was pleased with it. The moraine on the way down seemed endless, constantly jarring the knees, but before too long we were on the meadow below. Midday saw us gathering on the lawn outside the Kurhaus, chilling before lunch.
Having said all that, one of the highlights was the amazing variety of Alpine flowers. We caught these at their best. Had I been on my own I probably would have lost hours stopping and taking photos.
A cracking week. Let’s have some more.