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….,,,

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:)