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…….