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:)

A little climbing in Switzerland anyone?

Well what would you say to that? In June, with ice-axes, and crampons on glaciers, and scaling big peaks of 14,000 feet with ropes and harnesses and stuff? I’d say you’re mad, if you asked me to do it. Completely barking in fact. So why the heck have I just paid over £1,000 to do exactly that? Let me unwind a bit here……

OK, so three days ago (or was it two?). I think I decided that I wanted to go to Everest Base Camp. In fact I did decide just that. But then I decided that just getting to EBC wasn’t going to be enough, and so I had to ‘throw another mountain in there somewhere’, as you do:) That’s what got me to thinking of either Island Peak, or Mera Peak (see last blog post for details). And I got to those two because of all the trekking companies that I have googled, those two trips just appeal the most. Both are higher than Kili, both get me views of the highest mountains on the planet, and both let me climb to a summit. I get that incredible, outstanding rush of adrenalin, achievement, satisfaction, happiness, that getting to the top of a mountain gives you, or gives me at any rate.

I have looked at four different companies to get me there, and all seem great. They are, in no particular order; Safejourneys, Jagged Globe, Exodus, and Responsible Travel. Each has a tweak or a twist to this and that, but pretty much any of them will get me to where (I think) I want to go, and at the time I want to do it, which is in the next available weather window (i.e when the monsoon passes) which is October/November time this year. I have emailed or spoken to each, and they have been very responsive and helpful. In each case one thing is apparent – Island Peak is not for the novice. It is classified as PD+ in mountaineering parlance, and needs the use of jumars, abseil devices, ice axes and crampons. These are beyond me altogether right now. Not wanting to be beaten however, I thought therefore that I would ask if there was a way that I could take a crash course or something like that. And lo and behold there is…..

Which brings me back to Switzerland. I was told by one of the aforementioned companies (in fact it was Jagged Globe, they have been great), that if I was to take their Alpine Introduction course in Switzerland, that they would let me go and climb Island Peak with them. And before you get cynical here, and think “they’re just trying to make extra money out of people”, actually that’s not the way it happened, so I should explain that differently. I, in fact, asked all the questions here, and asked their permission, as opposed to the other way round.

In any case, the course in Switzerland looks great. I get to learn, and that is great for me. I love to be educated – that is a great thrill in itself. When googling various things about Everest the other day (I have turned into a sad geek here already I know) I came across this great quote from Sherpa Tenzing (as in the Sherpa Tenzing, the first man up Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary), which goes like this: “To travel, to experience and learn, that is to live….“. I love that, I really do. So the course itself covers things as follows, amongst others:

– Glacier travel.
– Crevasse rescue.
– Route finding and navigation.
– Roping-up and short roping techniques.
– Appropriate ice axe and crampon technique.
– Movement on Alpine terrain (rock, snow and ice).
– Belaying and protection.
– Mountaineering on routes graded Alpine F to PD.

I get to climb a few 4,000m peaks along the way apparently (sounds easier said than done of you ask me), and in 8 days I hope to learn a lot. They have also said that if I want to ‘take my fixed-line equipment with me’ (oh yeah, I’ll just grab it out of my drawer I said) then they will teach me those techniques whilst there too. You see, they don’t do fixed line stuff in the Alps, apparently. My God I have so much to learn, and so much to buy!

So anyway, the point of this is that I am booked! 18th of June it is, off to Arolla in Switzerland. Exciting, it is 🙂 I should get all of the details in the mail tomorrow.

Meantime I have a 60 mile bike ride coming up in four days time to distract me, which I am really looking forward to. It is my first ever ‘Sportive’, and I want to go and raise a few quid for Breast Cancer, which is the main charity for the ride, which is ‘The Classic Oxfordshire’. It’s all go, it really is………….