Alpine Introductions Course, Arolla Switzerland. Final Day, 1st July 2011

Sleeping in mountain huts is never easy. You hear every snore, moan, toss and turn of each person in there with you. Every sound is amplified too, as you are so far up in the mountains for there to be not even the slightest hint of any noise outside, and also you are cooked up together – in this case we are 9 people in a 8 x 10 foot bedroom.

And so here we are, the four of us who barely know each other, sleeping with another five people whom we have never met. Everyone snores. I snore too I am told :), but when you are listening to other people snore, that thought doesn’t help you at all. And so begins my final day up in the mountains!

I am also nervous. Looking out last evening at what faced us is a scary proposition. It is literally a case of fall and you will die. There is a 1,000m drop to the valley floor, and we must traverse across the top of it on ice. Being roped in helps hugely of course, but you don’t want to take three other people with you either. Worse still than being in fear of your own destiny is thinking that it may not even be in your own hands. If one of the others falls then that could take me down too. We have all heard the news this week on the Pic de Neige Cordier just over the border in France, where six climbers lost their lives in an apparent avalanche. They were all experienced, and just walking along roped up in two groups of three when tragedy struck.

So when I wake at 1am this morning, my heart is racing. I am at over 10,000 feet in the Alps, and this is the day I am looking forward to more than any other, and also the one I am dreading. I do not know if my increased heart rate (it feels about 120 to me) is due to the altitude or trepidation or both. I resolve try to get back to sleep, although I am not sure that I properly did.

And so 4am arrives. I feel shattered. Everyone in the dorm gets themselves ready and troops zombie-like to breakfast, which is the hut is 4.30am sharp. Just putting my contact lenses in at this time of day is hard enough, but with no mirror, and very dry air and eyes, I use up about three pairs before I am ready to see even slightly straight. By 5am everyone has crampons, helmets and full mountain gear on, and is roped up. It is -7 degrees C, and it is stunningly beautiful outside. It is only just light, the sun yet to climb over the 4,000m+ peaks that crowd the Italian border to our east.

I feel so tired that I am not ready to make a conscious decision that I want to do this or not, but decide that my desire to get to the top is the overarching thought. It is why I am here. The summit is everything, or thereabouts.

Here are the views at 5am as we step out of the door of the hut:

The view as day breaks from the hut looking back down the valley - the cloud level below us at about 2,500m.

After an initial traverse which is fairly scary, principally because there has been another serac fall in the night across our path, we set off for the ridge which will lead us up to the summit glacier.

The snow on the glacier is perfect for crampons. It is very cold and so the crampons bite perfectly, the snow and ice having frozen overnight. There are about four other groups going for the summit alongside us, and everyone is a fairly similar pace, crawling up the glacier like some bizarrely slow ant chain.

As the sun rises (or reaches us in any case) at about 6am we are making good progress, and for me I am just delighted that I am apparently not holding anyone up. The views meanwhile are utterly spectacular. Before long the Matterhorn, Breithorn, Monte Rosa, and Dent Blanche come into view, and we have a panorama of snowy 4,000m peaks, shining like lighthouses in a sea of tranquility, as the cloud level in the distance sits below each of them, and indeed of us. I think there are something like a hundred 4,000m peaks in the Alps, and it almost feels this morning like you could reach out and touch all of them.

The ascent begins and the sun finds its way onto us, as the mountains in the distance come into view

The trek up towards the summit of Pigne D'Arolla, looking back down as we take a breather.

I check my altimeter – we have reached 3,600m, only 200 or so vertical metres to go. I feel for the first time that I am going to make it, although our own summit is not yet in view. I am drinking copious amounts of fluid in the fiercely cold and dry air. I carried four litres with me, and ended up drinking it all. The amazing thing is the air. It is so crisp and clear. This is what it is all about. I am for one moment completely overwhelmed by it all, and feel a surge of emotion come over me. I now know that wild horses will not stop me getting to the top of this thing – I will be carried on adrenaline alone.

And then after another hour or so of very hard effort, there it is, the summit of the Pigne D’Arolla – I am almost there! The very top is all of a sudden incredibly windy, and really cold – it feels like 20 or more below. Reaching the summit at 3,800m I am utterly elated, I hug Andy and Kelly, and reach for my camera and take some shots of the view, which is out of this world:

Summit panorama shot, Pigne D'Arolla - 1st July 2011. Breathtaking.

In a moment of total emotion, I realise why I am here. The utter joy of a summit top is so many things, but it is the culmination and indeed conglomeration of so many emotions and tribulations which makes it such an event. The summit is always the climax, the achievement, a pinnacle in both physical and emotional senses. The Pigne D’Arolla does not disappoint at all. I have the (almost) same feeling of elation as I did when I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, but without the altitude difficulties, so it is just wonderful. I feel actually invincible, for just that brief moment in time. I lift my ice axe above my head and punch the air in delight.

The moment of unbridled happiness.

Andy, Kelly, myself and Tim - a moment to celebrate.

We did not linger on the summit much past taking a few photographs. It was too cold, and we need to get out of the wind. But what a fantastic (and that is an understatement) feeling it is.

We thus head down and make our way back down the glacier, and it is still just 7.45am.

At around 9am we pass the Vignettes hut again, and the view of it from the other direction is even more staggering. I wonder how these things are built in the first place, and am grateful that I had not realised just how precariously perched we were when I was lying in bed last night.

The Vignettes Hut, seemingly hanging from the side of the mountain (middle right of picture).

Another shot of the Vignettes Hut on our way down.

The rest of the descent down the mountain is fairly straightforward, if very tiring. Kelly in particular has ‘jelly legs’ but we are all feeling it. We ended up doing just under 800m of vertical ascent since this morning, all on crampons, and then 2km of vertical descent, about 1.2km on crampons.

The views of the summit on the way down make it look improbable that we were even there in the first place.

Looking back up to the Pigne D'Arolla from the glacier on the way down.

The views of Arolla coming down the mountain are quite beautiful – it really is a beautiful valley;

Arolla finally comes into view in the valley below.

We reach Arolla at 12.20, and stop for a well earned beer, and then have lunch in the only restaurant in town. Arolla has two shops, a post office, and three hotels. It is lovely though.

The garden of the Kurhaus Hotel in Arolla - the snowy summit of the Pigne D'Arolla in the distance.

After a much needed bath and a few hours shut-eye, we join Andy for our last dinner in Arolla, and we have Raclette, which is great. We are also joined the four other guys from the other Jagged Globe trip whom we shared the dorm with last night in the hut. They are staying at the Mont Collon for the night, and The Shining jokes come out once more. It is really strange if only because this is the first time in the week that there has been anyone in the hotel at all apart from us. It’s a shame for the hotel really, about which I should say more in a subsequent post, but it has all been fine, and better than that really, despite my initial reservations and recoil. The hospitality, food, and service have all been really excellent. The family who run the place simply could not do enough for you in any regard. I shall miss the place, I really will.

So tomorrow morning I will leave here by two bus, train, plane and finally car to get home. I will be sad to leave. The week has been everything I hoped it would be, and a whole lot more. To anyone considering going on this course I would just say “go” – you will learn so much; about the mountains, about alpinism, about technical glacier travel, and ultimately about yourself.

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