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……