Lessons Learned – Part 2

So to follow on from my penultimate post regarding lessons learned, I thought I would carry on in a separate post due to my getting carried away writing far too many words in the previous one about my camera :).

So my second take away from my week in Arolla is a pretty simple one, and that is:

You really must train beforehand, and train hard.

No-one to my knowledge ever came down from a 20,000 foot mountain saying it was too easy. I have heard of plenty of (the likes of) marathon runners who have ‘failed’ trying to summit Kilimanjaro as they ended up fatigued or getting AMS. Bizarre almost, but true. And I don’t mean the word ‘failure’ here in its literal sense I should say. No-one, and I mean no-one, fails when trying to summit a mountain. The mountain either lets them get up there, or it doesn’t, and that’s how I believe it is.

As an adjunct here, the fantastic Alan Arnette blog on his Seven Summits for Alzheimer’s mission (http://www.alanarnette.com/), saw him recently have to abort his attempt on Denali. The group sat for a week at high camp at about 17,000 feet whilst being buffeted by snow and high winds, and eventually had to say “we have to go down, not up”. They had precious little left in the way of supplies, and the season was coming to a close, and to go further would have been to risk lives. They came down. Good for them. Failure? No way ever!

The debate on Alan’s blog afterwards centred around people saying “sorry to hear about your failure Alan” which is about the most insulting and ignorant thing I have ever heard. Do these people know what Denali is like? I mean, I don’t, but I am sure as heck that I respect it, and know and understand that to even try to attempt a mountain inside the Arctic circle at the north end of Alaska at temperatures up to -40 degrees (Fahrenheit or Centigrade, take your pick) is an outrageous thing to do in the first place. And as the brilliant mountaineer Ed Viesturs wrote in his outstanding book “No Shortcuts to The Top” (Ed is one of just a handful of people on earth who have climbed all 14 of the world’s >8,000m summits), “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory”. Enough said.

Anyway, getting away from my digression, in my case on this recent trip, I thought before I went that I was in reasonably good shape. I had recently (in the previous three weeks) completed a 90 mile cycling sportive, and had trained for that with about 400 miles cycling in the four weeks leading up to it. I had also been spinning and done a few other gym sessions at least once a a week. It wasn’t however enough, not for me. I ended up struggling up some of the strenuous climbs to the point of considering turning back, and to have to think that way for me, is indeed close the the aforementioned ‘f’ word.

The other thing about fitness is that cycling (and spinning classes, tough though they can be) is not at all like being in the mountains. Cycling certainly gives you good aerobic fitness and stamina, and some decent leg strength, but it is way different really, and misses out on two things.

One is upper body and also core strength. In Switzerland I was carrying a 25/30lb pack every day, and not being used to it, it made my shoulders ache after four, five and six hours. As a result of my shoulders aching, the rest of me found it harder to compensate, and more effort was put in by my legs to keep me going. My legs always felt fine in themsleves, but I found my heart rate was up to the max, probably at 90% or so for some considerable time, and that isn’t really sustainable for me, especially as I am no spring chicken anymore.

The other thing is that in terms of training for mountains, is that there is simply nothing that helps you prepare for them as well as mountains themselves. The ‘art form’ that is walking (steeply) uphill with a weighty pack on your back for hours on end is the best way by far of aiming to do just the same thing. Everything is exacerbated by altitude too when you are up there, and so if you are used to just doing it ad nauseam, then your body just does it, simple as that. It is the same with many things…

Take step training for example. I am (now) using a Stair Climbing trainer like the one pictured below:

When I first got on this thing, five minutes was horrible. It has a heart rate monitor too, and if you push yourself, then when you are at about 10 minutes of hard graft your heart gets to pretty high levels. Mine for example was getting to about 155 or so. I have now however been using it about three times a week for a month since I got back from Switzerland. Now after 30 minutes on there (which I couldn’t have even managed previously) my heart rate is at about 120, and it stays pretty constant for the last half of the time that I am on the machine.

So, to conclude, you have to do mountain training to not just ‘succeed’, but to be able to even attempt, let alone enjoy, your mountains. I should know this by now, and of course I do, but I really need to practice what I preach a whole lot better than I do.

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.

Alpine Introductions Course, Arolla. Day Six, 30th June 2011

Day Six began in rather slow fashion, as today would be the day we went up to the Mountain hut at Vignettes (3,140m) ready for the summit attempt of Pigne D’Arolla (c. 3,900m) early the following day. We therefore effectively had a lie in, as we did not need to leave the hotel until 9.30am.

Just packing for this journey was difficult however, as the weather had turned against us and it had rained all night. It was due to be cold overnight also, certainly below zero, and therefore we needed wet weather gear, a lot of layers and warm clothes, as well as crampons, ice-axe, harness, helmet etc., and then plenty of water (I took four litres) and snacks etc for the two day trip. My rucksack, despite me depserately wanting to travel as light as I could for this one, was absolutely bursting at the seams.

We set off from Arolla (2005m) right on time and began the ascent through woods and alpine pasture – it was quite serene:

A calm and gentle start at the bottom of the valley.....

....before stopping for a breather on the way up.

The walk from there got tough as the path wended its way up the mountain, and steadily approached the glacier up towards the Vignettes Hut. The weather began to get steadily warmer, and I began shedding layers and drinking copiously as the sweat began to pour. All week I have been the weakest climbing uphill of the four of us, and this began to show again as I lagged probably 40m behind at times. I began to wonder if I had it in me to get up the glacier, particularly as we would be roped in – there would be no room lagging behind then.

The walk was great however, and began to open up views of the glacier:

The Piece glacier comes into view

Some of the rocks on the path on the way up were steep, necessitating handily placed ladders screwed into place to get up them:

On the trek up to the glacier, ladders lead the way.

And the mountain itself, which still seemed impossibly high from even where we were.

The top of the Pigne D'Arolla is up there somewhere - looks like mountain madness has gotten hold of me though!

We eventually got to the Pièce glacier at about noon. I seriously thought about telling Andy that I would stand down if he asked me to. I knew his answer would be something along the lines of “well it is up to you”, and so that made my mind up – I was going on. I hadn’t come here to quit anything – I was here to climb mountains!

The walk up the glacier was unmercilessly hard and slow, basically because it was now very hot and sunny, making the effort of climbing in crampons very hot work with all that weight on your back, but moreover because the snow on top of the glacier was melting. This meant that every footstep sunk into the snow, up to your knees at times, and on the steep sections this was really tough.

View from the start of the glacier towards the Vignettes hut, which is over the ridge at the top.

I was happy overall in that I struggled no more than the others, but the walk seemed to take forever. We reached the hut at about 3.30pm, having spent about 3 hours on the glacier, and six hours in total, to get to the hut. It just never seemed to get any nearer. I have almost never been so glad to get anywhere, ever.

The hut in sight at last - so near and yet so far.....

The hut itself was perched improbably on a ledge facing a number of peaks, in an absolutely breathtaking position, and not one for vertigo sufferers:

The top of the Cabane de Vignettes, at 3,150m

Don't drop your crisps over the edge of the balcony whatever you do 🙂

And here is a panorama shot from the door of the hut:

The hut is a step above the Aguilles Rouges we stayed in earlier in the week. It accommodates 120 people and the facilities are second to none. The bathroom and eating facilities were superb. We had a dormitory which slept 10, and we shared it with another Jagged Globe group who were doing the Haute Route (a seven day trek from Chamonix to Zermatt, using huts all the way along). Probably around 30 or so people were staying in the hut altogether.

Our dormitory for the night, quite cosy really.

After a very pleasant beer on the balcony bar, you could walk up to the summit just above the hut and see the route for the following day. It looked really intimidating. I was not sure at all whether I was up for it, and shared this with Kelly. She said that she hated the thought of crevasses, which bother me less, so it just shows you how we are all wired differently.

A view of the route for Friday........

Looking at the massive drop from the terrace bar, all of a sudden there was a huge avalanche/serac fall. It is the first time I have heard and seen an avalanche, and the noise is deafening, even from some distance away. Strictly speaking this was not an avalanche, it was actually serac fall. A serac is a large chunk of glacial ice, and in this case it was huge, and incredibly powerful as it cascaded and broke on its way down the sheer face of Mont Collon. Seeing this sort of thing puts life in perspective, and you realise that if one of these things fell whilst you were underneath it, you would have no chance of survival.

Mont Collon (far left) - moments later the seracs at the top would come tumbling down.

As the sun began to set, the temperature outside plummetted. We were at 3,188m (10,490 feet), and the forecast was for -7 degrees overnight. Time to head into the warmth of the hut!

So after a great dinner of minestrone soup, pasta with pork and ratatouille, and then chocolate eclairs (washed down with a few glasses of red wine for good measure – we made three bottles disappear this time :)) it was off to bed. I think we made it until 9pm until we retired.

4am would arrive way way too early tomorrow for our summit push, but the forecast was at least for clear (and cold, which is good) weather…..I lay there very determined now, despite my anxieties, that I could make it. I would at least try – this was what I had come for – it was my day of days. Come on!!

Alpine Introductions Course – Arolla 07/07/11 – Day Five

Today I was really really not looking forward to in the slightest. It was a rock climbing day. The reason I wasn’t looking forward to it is simple – fear. I am not at all great with heights, I just get nervous, and the thought of hanging on by your fingernails on some vertical cliff face is my idea of hell. Similarly, the thought of edging yourself backwards to walk down several hundred feet of rock, hanging by a thread, with your back facing the ground (or abseiling, to give it its proper name), is just terrifying, pure and simple.

I woke up at 3am initially, and was instantly wide awake. Should I just back out of today’s events? I don’t need to do them, as the chances of me wanting or needing to climb vertical rock-faces again have to be fairly slim don’t they? Or maybe they aren’t. Who knows. I didn’t want to just be a chicken though, and I am after all paying good money for someone to teach me these things. But then again why put yourself in danger? I know that ropes are there to hold you etc., but what if I slip and fall? I am not quite ready to die yet. These thoughts consumed me for about an hour, but I eventually got back to a troubled sleep and got up finally at about 6.30.

Sitting at breakfast, the talk was of Friday’s ascent of Pigne D’Arolla. Everyone’s legs were sore from yesterday’s summit of Pointe de Vouasson, and looking at Pigne D’Arolla through the window of the hotel, it really does look a formidable beast. It stands at about 3,900 metres, and is apparently quite a step-up in difficulty from what we just achieved. Talk was of (half in jest, but with a very serious undertone) of ‘getting injured’ to get out of the ascent.

Pigne D'Arolla from the hotel (the snow capped one) - it's a long way up......

This provided a bit of a nice distraction for me, and I didn’t let on that today, not tomorrow, was my terror day. I decided I would get ready, go down to the crag, and see how I felt.

So all of a sudden, here I am at a rock face which literally goes straight up, and to me looks as smooth as a baby’s backside. I am wearing a climbing harness, a helmet, and rock shoes, which feel like my feet are in a vice. The perspiration is coming out of me so hard and fast I may well have been standing under a shower. I am however going to go for it.

We take it in turns to climb up the ‘crag’. We are very much split in two in terms of ability/fear factor. Tim whooshes up the face almost as fast as Andy the instructor. He has done this before, and is clearly a natural. Kelly too, does great. She has experience too, and makes it look easy.

Kelly hurtling up the rock face

Andreas is clearly in my camp however. He gets about half way, but is clearly far from happy, and comes back down. Strangely his ‘failure’ spurs me on, and I decide that I am going to try to get further than he did. I can’t, of course. I get probably a third of the way up and can hardly breathe. I am wrapping myself to the face of the rock face like it is the only thing on earth that can save my life, which in fact it is. I have to get down, and am belayed back to safety. I probably went no more than 25 feet.

Me, in a state of semi-paralysis on the rock face.

My feet and wobbly legs back on terra firma, I let on to Andy and the others that I was thinking about not even making it out of bed today because of how scary it was to me. I perhaps expected (or just needed more like) a bit of stroking at that point, a sort of “well at least you tried”, but that was never going to happen, and why the hell should it. Good for Andy, actually.

Then Andy roped another route up the crag, and this time Andreas got up to the top. I decided that I could do the same, probably, and so set off after he got down. This time I did it too, it was a bit slow going, but I punched the air in delight when I got to the top. I was amazed and delighted.

Better progress this time......

After we had finished climbing we went back to the top of the crag by a slightly easier means and abseiled back down again. This time, although I was extremely wary at the top, I was much more relaxed on the actual descent. I am not going to be rushing back to climbing or abseiling, it is just beyond my comfort zone, but I was so glad in the end of the experience.

And abseiling back down again.

Can I breathe yet??

In the afternoon we did some simulated crevasse self-rescue techniques, and I also got some jumar and fixed line training from Andy. The weather changed considerably for the worse, and so we did some of the crevasse rescue dangling from the fire escape steps at the hotel!

The crevasse self-rescue techniques involve French prussiks, English prussiks, and hauling yourself up a rope using a larks-footed sling on your foot. Sounds complicated? Actually it isn’t, and I really enjoyed doing it, and got a lot out of it. Here is a picture of Kelly deploying it before the rains came in:

Crevasse 'self-rescue' training techniques

Me tieing a prussik knot before attempting the same exercise

The fixed line training showed me basically how fiddly and awkward this can be. Considering this took place in the ‘warmth’ of a Swiss Hotel car park, then I can imagine that up a Himalayan peak at 6,000m with your faculties only half with you, and minus-something temperatures, that it will be a whole different ball game. I made a note to myself to get some practice just clipping in and out when I get back home, so that it gets to become second nature. I might rig me a rope and a couple of simulated anchor points up my stairs at home even !

So tomorrow we set off for the Pigne D’Arolla. It is a two day trek, and with the exception of Kilimanjaro, will be the highest I have ever been. The conditions will be against us, as the snow is soft and wet on the glacier apparently – about the worst we could have, and rain is forecast too. I may be ready, and I may not be – this week has been tougher than I expected, and the next two days will be the toughest of them all. I’ll be giving it my best shot….,,,

Alpine Introductions Course, Arolla – Day Four – 28/06/11

Perched up at more than 9,000 feet in the Swiss Alps, I was awoken in the Aiguilles Rouge Hut by our climbing instructor, Andy, around 4.45am. I slept badly, tossing and turning for most of the night, and so breakfast was not really going to go down well at that time. I knew I had to eat however, as we were about to burn a whole host of calories ascending the glacier.

Following a hearty Swiss breakfast of muesli and cheese and the like, we set off at around 5.35am. We would walk for about an hour up a steep and rocky ridge to around 3,100m before getting to ‘crampon point’, where we would no longer be able to travel up the glacier without ropes, ice-axes and crampons. The Pointe de Vouasson, its summit just under 3,500m, lay in wait for us.

5.30am - we set off up the rocky pass, the sun just appearing above us.....

As we set off the sun was yet to hit us, blocked out by all manner of peaks that slowly came in to view. The views were nothing short of superb. Before long we had a stunning view of the Matterhorn, all 4,478 majestic metres of her. Then other peaks such was the Dent Blanche (4,356m) came into view, and many other 4,000m + beauties, that Andy would stop and point out to us, but whose names for now I cannot recall, but will do so and fill in here at later date.

'Crampon Point', at about 7am - The Matterhorn in the far distance over my left shoulder.

By the time the crampons and axes came out the sun was on us already, at about 7am. The snow on the glacier was really hard work though – the weather being so warm meant that the snow on top was wet and soft, and sometimes you would sink down to your knees and find it hard to get out.

I struggled quite frankly, and found it exhausting. I am conceding 20 odd years in age to each of my fellow course members, and so I was undoubtedly the slowest of the group. With ‘normal’ trekking you can stop and take a rest, but when you are roped up on a glacier, you either have to keep going, or ask everyone to stop with you. I did so probably six times on the way to the summit, and it made me feel bad and frustrated, and sorry for them that they had to stop for me.

Stopping for a breather climbing up the glacier.

We reached the summit eventually just before 9am. The summit is a very small rocky outcrop at about 3,500m. It was my first Alpine summit. Andy shook out hands and congratulated us, which was really nice. The summit gave me a bit of vertigo as the drops were precipitous on all sides. But what views!

My altimeter worked! This is the summit, Mont Blanc in the far distance.

Andy told us that Point de Vouasson has one of the best views of all Alpine peaks, as much as anything because it is unobscured by other tall peaks around it. With clear and cloudless skies we had views all the way over the Bernese Oberland to The Eiger, stunning views of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa to Italy, and then to our west, Western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, stood defiant, her saddled top betraying both the majesty and the difficulty of her steeply sensational beauty.

One of the best things of all about this peak was that we weere literally the only people on the mountain that day – we did not see another soul going up or coming down, and that is priceless. We could also only see mountains, and snow-capped ones at that, in every direction, as far as the eye could see.

I made it! My very first Alpine summit 🙂

Panorama shot with Tim at the summit - glorious views all around

View from the summit showing our 'virgin' tracks up the glacier - we were literally the only people on the whole mountain that day

We stayed for around 20 minutes at the summit, dealt with a small injury of mine where I had stabbed my left leg near to the knee with my right crampon, courtesy of some very soft snow on the way up, and began our descent. I led this time, much more comfortable in this direction, though it was still hard going due to the soft snow.

About half way down, we reached a precipice with a small lake around 200 feet below. As we approached, Andy told me to just carry on straight over the edge. I turned round, assuming he was joking (Andy likes his jokes, believe me!) and said that I didn’t think so. He said “no, go for it”, and I realised that he wasn’t joking at all. This was to be our crevasse rescue training! I therefore carried on until the edge gave way, and I plummeted about 15 feet down the face of the wall. I screamed I have to say – it is the most unnatural thing in the world to do, and if the rope had not held me I would be dead, simple as that. Here is a photo of me hanging there, clinging on grimly:

My view looking up - I thought I was going to hang there forever.....

.....whilst the others secured the rope from above in the snow before hauling me to safety.

The drop below me is about 100 feet to a frozen lake. I was literally clinging with all I had.

The rescue took about 20 minutes or so, and I have never been so relieved in my life to be off the rope and standing up again. We then took turns at practicing with each of us falling over the edge and pulling the other ones up, apart from Kelly who refused to go over the edge. I don’t blame her. In fact I ‘had the chance’ to have another go, and I politely refused – once was enough for me.

Following this we returned all the way to 2,850 metres and the sanctity of the hut. It was so nice to get the mountain boots and crampons off (we carried approach shoes with us and waked down in those). We lunched at the hut (if you ever go, take a wheelbarrow of cash with you – the service and food is great, but 8 quid for a bottle of water is a lot of money, although I do appreciate that they have to bring everything up in a helicopter).

We set off back down the mountain at around 1.30 – it seemed already a long day from 4.45am. The descent from there back to Arolla was around 2 hours – by the time we got back it was really hot. We were all very glad to get clean (my shower felt fantastic) and just to chill for the evening.

We start to reach civilsation (well some cows anyway) towards the valley back down to Arolla

View towards Mont Collon as we get closer to Arolla

Back to Arolla itself, which is very pretty - it even has two shops!

Tomorrow we will be climbing and abseiling in some tough place down the valley. This will be the day that I dread. Vertical rock faces upwards or downwards are almost too scary for me to think about. I’d rather be thrown into a crevasse…..

Alpine Introduction Course Arolla – Day 3, 27/06/2011

And so day two of the course proper began quite gently really, which in fact straight after breakfast manifested itself in the garden of the hotel, learning various rope skills with Andy our instructor.

Armed with a host of carabiners, slings, ropes and various other strange looking devices, oh yes and also the stump of a tree, we practiced all sorts of things which we would later put into practice either on the glacier, or otherwise climbing somewhere. It was a bit safer to teach us in the garden, Andy reckoned, and this is an introductory course after all.

Learning how to secure things properly whilst on 'dry' land 🙂

The training was great. Andy is a great and very patient teacher, and he needs it with people like me! Before you can learn to do anything there are so many knots that you need, and so when asked to do a clove hitch I just look blankly and said ‘help’! I am glad to say that I can now do this, helped by a strange arm-crossing movement which at least means I can remember it. I can also do Italian hitches, double-threaded figure of eights (used when you are at the end, as opposed to the middle, of a rope), and various other useful ones. I hope to be able to remember them all under pressure.

I also now know what a prussic rope is for! This great revelation will come in very handy in so many situations, but I can now tie a prussic knot (French and English varieties, if you please) and use one. I can also differentiate between different types of carabiners, know how the loading works, when to use each kind etc. Before I went on this course, I have to say that I could tie a reef knot, and that that was probably it, so the learning curve was certainly steep, but thankfully never insurmoutable.

So armed with all sorts of new knowledge, we set out for our hut in the afternoon, armed with crampons, ice-axes, various ropes and harnesses etc, to climb our first Alpine peak.

On our way through the meadows for our first peak....

The walk was tough, made tougher by the very hot weather. The weather forecast I looked at last week showed temperatures in Arolla at around about the freezing mark. This week it has been around 25C here every day. We climbed out of Arolla, at 2000m, up to our base for the evening, the Aiguilles Rouge hut. The hut is at 2,850m, and the walk took around 3 and a half hours. On our way up we stopped in a few snowy spots to learn how to make anchors using ice-axes, and we would get to put this into use in anger the following day.

Practicing ice-axe crevasse rescue techniques in the snow

The views on the way up of the surrounding mountains were absolutely stunning. We had great views of Mont Collon (3,637m, Pigne D’Arolla (3,796m, our destination for Friday apparently), and so many other glorious as yet unidentified peaks. Here are some views:

View back down the valley from about 2,700m on way to Aiguilles Hut

The path towards the hut.....

And the hut finally comes into view........

The hut was a typical Alpine hut, small dormitory bedrooms, a communal eating area, and no facilities to speak of, or not inside anyway. To clean your teeth or get water (although undrinkable) you had to walk down to a tap outside. To go to the toilet you had to walk about 25 vertical metres down a sharp hill to a ‘drop-off’ toilet – memories of Kilimanjaro came flooding back to me.

The Aiguilles Rouges Hut, at about 2.850m, our home for the night.....

...and the view of the hut from the other side.....

....and the 'drop-off' toilets - definitely a precarious place to perch.

Dinner was great. Loads of soup, a big hearty roast beef dinner, and custard pudding to finish with. A few glasses of wine seemed a good idea, which Kelly, Andreas and I quaffed. Andy said he had never seen anyone come to a hut and drink two bottles of wine. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I thought we were being quite reserved 🙂

We were all in bed at around 9.30, as we would need to be ready to go at 5 the next morning. The dormitory was comfortable (we had a place for the four of us to ourselves) but sleep was very hard to come by for me – Kelly said she struggled badly too. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe the thought of getting up at 4am, maybe the trepidation/excitement of scaling your first ever Alpine peak.

Pointe de Vouassan would be our destination in the morning. I was quite nervous – how would I fare at 3,500m on crampons?

Alpine Introductions Course – Day Two 26/06/11

So day two began with me tossing and turning at about 6am. I woke up before my roommate Tim, and tried to tiptoe to the bathroom, but the hotel has the creakiest floors the world has ever seen, and I might as well have been operating a pneumatic drill. Following that I changed the contents of my rucksack about 29 times before making my way to breakfast, which was surprisingly good. We are still the only three (including the other course member Andreas) people staying in the hotel, and no word yet from Kelly apparently.

We meet our instructor Andy at about 8.30, and are taken to the boot room to choose ice-axes, helmets, crampon-friendly boots and crampons, and are soon on our way to our the next valley to the west, which will be the site of our glacier training. The car journey takes about half an hour, and it is the most glorious day imaginable, cloudless and windless, and hot, even here at 2,005m.

We commence our trek and I am laden down with the heaviest rucksack I think I have ever carried. I have about four hats, a helmet, an ice axe, crampons, two sets of heavy duty waterproofs, fleece, Primaloft jacket, four litres (yes really) of water, a camera that I wish I hadn’t bought, and all manner of suntan lotions, gloves, gaiters, and other stuff that just shouldn’t have been there. I think I even had two torches – why?

Anyway, after about half an hour of steep-ish and sweaty (temperature down in the valley today was 32C, I have no idea how warm it was for us) walking, I managed to fall over three times in succession trying to get up the same step, and fell backwards each time. My rucksack was just too heavy for me, and I am not used to anything like that weight – it must have been easily 40lbs or more.

Walking towards my first glacier experience....

When we finally got to the glacier it was time to put all of the kit on. It was incredible how dramatically the temperature dropped. I went from sweating in just a T shirt, to having three layers on including a fleece, Primaloft jacket, and two pairs of gloves and still being cold. The wind flow apparently drops down the glacier in the mornings towards the valley floor, and it is one big glacier – as seen below:

Stepping onto the glacier for the first time, the crevasses are daunting.

We practiced all sorts of glacier travel, and it was fantastic, I loved it. It is very scary for the first time just hanging from a steep ice wall on a glacier supported by only the two front tips of your crampons and the tip of an ice-axe, but like all things you gain confidence from experience and practice.

My first test of digging crampons into an ice wall

We travelled a fair way up the glacier, learning about crevasses and how to avoid them, and then roping up for my first time ever. Learning just the knots to tie into was new to me – you use a double-threaded figure of eight, or something like that, if you are at the start or end of the line. We were out for about 7 hours all told, and I loved it.

We returned back to the hotel for a well-earned beer at about 5, to find that Kelly, presumed missing from last night, had arrived finally! She had been held up flying from Tenerife via London, and had got to the hotel at about 2pm. It was good to meet her, and we all laughed about the place looking like something out of The Shining again.

So tomorrow we are to do some climbing here in Arolla, which I am looking forward to a lot. Then we will trek to a mountain hut tomorrow afternoon and stay the night ready for an early morning ascent of a mountain called Pointe de Vouasson (3,390m) early on Tuesday. That is even more exciting – the peaks round here are spectacularly beautiful, and other than cable-car assisted ones, this will be my first ever peak in Switzerland. Happy days……

Alpine Introduction Course – Day One, 25th June 2011

On the 25th June to 2nd July I went on an Alpine Introduction Course run by Jagged Globe. I did so as a precursor, and in fact a prerequisite, to my Island Peak expedition this coming October. I did the course as a single traveller. More information on the course, by way of link to Jagged Globe’s website, is contained in the link below. I should point out that I have no connection or affiliation to Jagged Globe whatsoever. Any and all comments are extremely welcome at any time.


Day One:

So day one is arrival/transfer day, and what a long one it is. To get to Arolla from where I live involves a one hour drive to the airport, a flight to Switzerland (Geneva), a train journey to Sion, and then two bus journies, one to a place called Les Haudères, and then a bus from there to Arolla. It will take about 10 hours from leaving the house altogether.

I think if was contemplating this trip in most countries other than Switzerland I would have been concerned about getting there, especially weighed down with about 70lbs of luggage (I’ve never been able to pack efficiently and this trip is no exception). As it is, although it is a pretty long day (up at 4.45am on a Saturday is not my way to start a ‘holiday’ believe me), I am not concerned. Switzerland is not Switzerland for nothing, and everything runs like, erm, clockwork, pun very much intended.

Landing in Geneva at around 10am after a very uneventful flight from Heathrow, I purchase my train and bus ticket, and after reeling somewhat at the cost (£140 or thereabouts), I am at least on my way. The train journey is pure delight. I have various books to read, but they do not even make it out of my rucksack as I simply cannot take my eyes off the scenery. Every time I come to Switzerland I seem to forget (even if it just three months since I was last here) how stunningly beautiful it is. The train wends its way along the shores of Lac Leman, past Lausanne and Montreux, with views as beautiful as anywhere I have ever travelled. The sun glimmers off the lake like millions of stars, the northern Alps rising spikily and stunningly over at the other shore. I could ride that train every day of my life and never tire.

View from the train - stunning all the way through Switzerland

The train takes me after about two hours to a place called Sion (where I cannot get the tune from Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon out of my head :)), from where I must make the rest of my journey by bus up into the Alps.

I then had two hours to kill in Sion before catching the bus (I chose to catch an earlier flight just to make sure I didn’t miss the one bus a day) and so after a quick walk around town for some lunch and a beer, was on my way again.

The road leading out of Sion...

The journey up to Arolla is incredible. As twisty and as precipitous as any mountain road I have ever been on. It took about an hour and a quarter from Sion, going from around 500m to 2,005 m in elevation. The temperature also dropped incredibly. In Sion it was a 27C, in Arolla just 6C.

A view of one of the Alpine villages en route.......

.....and then the snowy peaks come into view

There was a stop half way in a place called Evolene, where the snows became apparent higher up. I expected to be sharing the ride with other people on the course, but there was just me and a young Australian couple making their second trip to Arolla.

And so eventually I arrive in Arolla, the only person remaining on the bus. I had seen a picture and a couple of online reviews of the Hotel Mont Collon, but seriously, nothing could have prepared me for this place. Words like ‘crumbling’, ‘decrepid’, ‘falling apart’, all describe my first impressions. I knew that it wasn’t going to be exactly sumptuous, and I’d like to be kind and describe it as ‘functional’, but that would be overgenerous on my first viewing. the setting is spectacular however:

The Outlook Hotel, I mean Hotel Mont Collon 🙂

There are probably 60/70 rooms in the hotel, and it probably was a good hotel ‘back in the day’ – trouble is that back in the day was probably the 1880s. I need to look up in fact when the hotel was built, as I am sure it must hark back to the early days of alpinism.

The weird thing after I arrive is that I am clearly the only person in the hotel, apart from the lady at the reception and her dog, which just happens to be bigger than me, although on the face of it is very placid with it. We have been told that we will be sharing rooms, and so a big influx of people must be expected from somewhere?

The rooms are clean, and for what we will be doing this week, absolutely fine. It starts to grow on me in fact.

Room 32 at the Mont Collon, my home for the next week.

Eventually 7pm comes around, the scheduled meeting time to have dinner and meet up with Jagged Globe staff. I go to the bar/restaurant and am the only person there. Like really the only person – no staff, no nothing. Having read some reviews online before I arrived out here about this place being like The Outlook Hotel from the Shining, I am thinking there is something wrong. All I need is for two girls on tricycles to come squeaking down the corridor and say ‘red rum’, and I would have run out of the door faster than Usain Bolt and never looked back.

Eventually a guy comes down the stairs (and he doesn’t look like Jack Nicholson, and so I breathe a sigh of relief), and says he is Andy from Jagged Globe. A really great guy, from The Lake District, a career climber. We are then joined by Andreas, originally from Germany, now living in Brussels, and then ultimately by Tim, a student at Southampton University who is from Bournemouth. Oh yes, and some staff 🙂 We were supposed to have been four people on the course, but the fourth member, Kelly, does not arrive, and we don’t know why. Oh and it turns out that Andy has done Island Peak before! He says he will do some fixed line stuff with me this week, so bringing my ascender stuff with me is not in vain.

Dinner is actually great, four courses, and very filling. We eat rabbit, and it is very tasty. We are however the only people in the hotel, three people for seventy rooms. Such a shame, it really is. Andy takes us through a bit of what we an expect for the week. Tomorrow we will be on the glacier, and doing crampon and ice axe stuff. Sounds good, and I can’t wait to get out there. We start at 8.

Bring it on…….

Holding On – Jo Gambi

I had to post a quick link to a book, called Holding On. I have to say that it is without doubt on of the best books of any description that I have ever read.

As I may have mentioned previously, I have bought a few (well about twenty actually :)) books on various Everest and other Seven Summits expeditions, to try to satisfy my appetite for all things Himalayan etc. The thing which characterises many of these books is that they they are generally written by people who a.) clearly never intended to write a book in the first place, b.) have egos bigger than some of the mountains they climb, and c.) obviously aren’t the most enthralling of authors in the first place, and I am being kind. Take ‘The Climb’ by Anatoli Boukreev for example. It’s subject is the 1996 Everest disaster, and whilst the subject matter enthrals me, it is without doubt one of the most dull books I have ever read. It’s writer, whilst undoubtedly one of the most outstanding climbers on the planet, and also undoubtedly a hero in many respects, should really have stuck to the knitting in my opinion.

There are many more of that ilk, but this one, Holding On, is absolutely special in every respect. It is about husband and wife team, Jo and Rob Gambi, and their adventures in (successfully) attempting the Seven Summits and the two Poles. Their story is quite remarkable insofar as it is one inspired by, and in many ways driven out of, Rob’s two near fatal bouts of cancer.

One of the best books I ever read...

Jo and Rob obviously love each other more than life itself too, and so the book could have been a.) badly written, b.) overly labouring of Rob’s obviously horrendous experiences, and c.) a lovey dovey love-in, and less about the overall experiences they faced. Not only is it none of the above, it is quite simply brilliant in every respect. It does what a truly great book should: it gets you really involved with the characters in the book, even (and in fact especially) the bit part players; it keeps you turning the pages wanting more; it plays on your emotions such that you smile when the characters are happy and you want to share their tears when they are sad. Most of all, it actually crosses genres – many of these books about mountains are great if you are into climbing, because you have a thirst for knowledge on the subject matter. But this book is about so much more. It is about life, vitality, desire, emotions, hunger, compassion. It also entertains, and it educates on so many levels.

Jo and Rob Gambi have a website that I have just come across, and it seems that they have some very good news on there to share with the world too:


I’ll be taking a few more books with me into the Alps tomorrow incidentally. I have to just choose between the other nineteen or so that I have, and hope that I get close to enjoying any of them as much as this one. I won’t, I know that for sure. Priceless, and thoroughly recommended – go and buy it, I’d say!

Switzerland gets closer….

One of the slightly frustrating things about doing the jaunts that I am doing is just how much kit you need for each one. The even more frustrating thing is that the gear almost never overlaps, and so you end up having to buy new stuff almost each and every time. Take boots for example – I have a very good pair of Meindl Burma Pro which I took to Kilimanjaro, and they are totally outstanding. When I go to Switzerland in two weeks time however they will be redundant, as I need to have “B2” (i.e ones which take a particular type of crampon) boots. When I go to Island Peak later in the year I then need “B3” boots, and so will have to go shopping once more. This all adds up when B2 and B3 boots are upwards of £300 a pair.

I realised today that as I have effectively only one weekend to go before my Swiss trip that I had better get my shopping list taken care of. I have just had a busy week where I was in Dallas on business, and then tried to get prepared yesterday for next weekend’s cycling ‘sportive’ – a 129 mile timed ride through Hampshire and Wiltshire called the ‘Magnificat’, with about 2,000 people taking part I believe. I therefore cycled about 60 miles or so to get the legs back in trim.

So today armed with the Jagged Globe “things you must take with you” list (I ignored the “nice to have’s”) I went off to various outdoor places and emptied my wallet in most of them. I had to get ‘mountaineering trousers, Schoeller or equivalent”, a ‘prussik rope’, some glacier glasses, some short gaiters, a crampon bag, climbing gloves, and all manner of other things that I have just never had need nor use of before. With some of the more technical stuff (ice axe, helmet, crampons, long rope, belay equipment) I get to hire those whilst out there, otherwise it would have been an even more horribly expensive day.

Each of these things took time to buy. When you are as naiive as I am, and you walk into a shop asking for prussik, you had better hope that the person you are asking knows what they are doing, as I couldn’t have explained or clarified for them if they had asked me one single question further! As it turns out I still got mightily confused however – my equipment list for example went on to (thankfully) elaborate “3m of 6mm soft cord” next to the word “prussik”, and so I thought I would be ok. The guy who helped me however said “are you sure? That’s way too long for prussik – don’t you want two lengths of 1.5m?” How the heck was I supposed to know?!! I came away with one length of 3m, and he helpfully showed me how to tie a prussik knot. I suppose I can chop this length in two if I need to shorten it right?

When I finally got home I laid all of my stuff out, and am just wondering how on earth I am going to be able to even lug all of this stuff over to Switzerland with me. What with two rucksacks, approach shoes, warm jackets, fleeces, harnesses and all of this lot, I have no idea whether there will be room for my dancing shoes on this trip at all! Maybe the world will be a better place if I leave them at home anyway, and I am sure that the mountain huts in which we will stay will just be places for sleeping anyway, and maybe even the odd beer or two at the end of a long hard days climbing. Oh heck, now I will have to find some room for that somehow:)