IntroductionIn july 2011 the moment finally arrived when I could set off for my first mountaineering course. Finally, as I wanted to do this for some years but never had the opportunity to do so. But then now, I could finally set off for the Val d’Hérens, where our course would start. The week before I headed already for the Val d’Hérens, where I spent the week together with my family, with hiking and cycling, for fun as well as for a bit of acclimatization and training for the forthcoming week. With some interesting and beautiful hikes like to Bricola (2415m), Col de Torrent (2919m) or Pic d’Artsinol (2998m), as well as some cycling tours (like Sion-Evolène, Evolène-Arolla or Evolène-Ferpècle) this week came, rather quickly to and end.
At the end of this week some friends, with whom I would follow this mountaineering course, joined me from Belgium in Evolène. There we would spent one last night before heading towards Arolla for the start of our course. The day of their arrival was filled with a last check of our gear, drinking a bear on the terrace of our hotel, a little hike to see if our mountaineering shoes where allright, and, for a great start to a great week, a delicious local dish, ‘raclette à volonté’ (delicious, even though it took us more than two hours to get ten portions).
The next morning, still filled with the raclette of the evening before we took off for Arolla. This part of the trip looked like the most dangerous part of the whole week. Four persons, fully packed, in a (too) small Seat Ibiza, just when it started to rain like hell on the small and steep road towards Arolla. Not the most comfortable journey ever undertaken, but still really hilarious and great fun underway!
After half an hour we arrived in Arolla at the Hotel du Glacier, our meeting point with our two Belgian mountain guides/instructors and the rest of the group (nine persons in total) who would follow the same course. Around one clock, after a fruitless search for an umbrella (it was still raining badly) everyone was ready to start the 5h walk to the Cabane des Dix (where we would stay for the week). The prospect of a 5h walk in the pouring rain, with a heavy backpack wasn’t really the most appealing prospect ever, but still, we set off in a good mood, eager to start our mountaineering course.
After a long and strenuous hike we finally arrived at the Cabane des Dix, completely soaked. As one could expect, on this moment it stopped raining at last (some five hours late). After putting on dry clothes, enjoying the warmth and the cosiness of a traditional mountain hut and a good meal we soon forgot about our tiring hike and we could enjoy a great alpine sunset.
Our first mountaineering lessonsThe following day our first lessons began. How to use crampons and ice axe on flat till quite steep ice and snow. We learned what to do when we would fall on snow and ice (different stopping techniques), individual and when roped up, which was great fun. As gliding in the snow is always fun, certainly in summer. In between we also learned different alpine knots, how to secure and anchor our climbing partners and how to pull someone out of a crevasse. A rather technical day, but very interesting, and above all pleasant first day out in the high mountains.
The second day we had planned to climb La Luette (3548m), a rather easy mountain near the hut. Although not a long or heavy climb, we set out quite early (5 a.m.) as the weather forecasts weren’t very promising at all. We left the hut under a clear sky, but after the sun started to rise the weather started to turn round quite quickly. From the far distance a huge cold weather front came to our direction rather fast. Luckily we started early enough to get to the summit in time, enjoying some great views towards most of the Pennine Alps (with a dark and threatening sky fastly surrounding them). As bad weather was arriving we departed from the summit and got down as quickly as possible, in order to avoid snow, rain or even thunderstorm on the glacier of La Luette.
As we got back down before the weather really turned bad, we thought we had still time enough to do some further technical exercises on the glacier. How to rescue or evacuate someone out of a crevasse was thought to us. But the moment we started trying this ourselves it started to snow at last, thanks to which, wet and cold, we decided to stop and head back to the hut. When it snows it could be more pleasant to have a good, warm meal (a ‘croute au fromage’ or a ‘rösti’) in the hut, rather than doing some exercises outside when it snows rather badly. In about two hours some 20-25 cm of snow fell around the hut, and higher up the mountain, as we would experience later that week, it would be much more.
On this moment we were happy to have set off early. Being on a mountain in these conditions is rather dangerous. That this kind of weather could be dangerous when climbing we could see on that moment as another group was coming back from the Pigne d’Arolla (3790m) to the Cabane des Dix. We could see from the hut how they got lost in the snow on the glacier of the Pigne d’Arolla and how, unsuspectingly, they headed for some huge seracs and a great cliff. Normally ones keeps to the right of the glacier when descending from the Pigne, these people, however, were going right down the middle. Luckily for them they, just in time, became aware of there dangerous position, and they turned back. Nevertheless, it remained dangerous as they were now descending parallel with some huge crevasses, partially covered with snow. Shortly after, this group disappeared in the mist. Only many hours later they arrived, exhausted, but safe, at the hut.
In the meanwhile we, as we couldn’t do anything outside the hut, got some lessons about predicting the weather in the mountains (as far as possible of course) and some lessons on orientation. In the afternoon the sky suddenly cleared completely, and what alse was there to do than to go out and having a massive snowfight in the midst of summer! Simply Hilarious!
Unfortunately the weather got worse once again with still more snow falling. Fun for a moment, but soon this weather started to disrupt our programme quite badly. That evening our two guides, therefore, decided to cancel our planned climb of the Mont Blanc de Cheilon (to dangerous under these conditions), and for our other climbs, in the first place the Pigne d’Arolla, we had to wait and see.
The same evening our guides heard of some Dutch about a small and not to difficult rocky ridge at Pas de Chèvres. A ridge ideal for some rock climbing practice, not very high, not to difficult and not very far away. Under the current (and forecasted) weather conditions this seemed the most interesting thing to do.
Let the climbing beginThe next morning we set out for Pas de Chèvres to climb the ridge to the Pointe du Pas de Chèvres (2991m). One or two days before some Dutch climbed it in about one and a half hour in good conditions. The conditions on this moment, however, were far from good. The entire ridge was covered under a layer of snow and ice. Nevertheless, these conditions, although not good at all, offered some good chances to practice rock climbing with our crampons on, and to learn different ways of belaying and securing our climbing partners. Under normal conditions this wouldn’t be as necessary at all, but with all the ice and snow belaying each other was, certainly in the first part of the ridge, often needed. Only two hours later we reached the little summit. From the summit we, unfortunately, couldn’t see anything thanks to the snow and clouds we were in (unfortunately not the first and certainly not the last time we would find ourselves in this kind of weather).
While heading back we did one last exercise, making a rappel, which, off course, was great fun. In the end we got only back to the hut some seven or eight hours after we departed.
That evening our guides decided we could have a go on the Pigne d’Arolla the next day. If we would succeed we would be the first group to get to the summit in one or two days (which is rather exceptional on an often crowded summit as the Pigne d’Arolla). The previous day some Dutch wanted to climb it but in the end they cancelled their trip to the Pigne due to bad weather and lots of fresh snow.
The next morning we departed very early from the Cabane des Dix, eager to start climbing. We left under a clear sky, hopeful the weather would stay like that. Under normal conditions three hours approximately are needed to ascent the Pigne. However, only moments after we left the hut we realised we would need a lot more time. From the hut until the summit we (or better mainly our two guides) had to plow our way through ca. half a meter of fresh snow. Needless to say that this was a very strenuous activity. Progress was slow, and it was even slowed down further as the first part of the glacier (the Glacier de Tsena Refien) looked like a giant maze of crevasses partially covered with snow. In the morning this snow was still solid, so it didin’t caused much problems, but in the afternoon when we were going back the snow was softened and many of us, including myself, fell (although not very deep) through some of these weakened snowbrigdes into some –luckily- smaller crevasses.
Our progress was rather slow, but fortunately the weather was still rather good. When we arrived on the Col de la Serpentine (3547m) the sun even started to shine hard, making it suddenly not warm, but simply hot. This made us hopeful to get to the top in good weather. This hope, however, was quickly gone when the weather once again started to deteriorate fast. In about half an our the sun was completely gone and it started to snow lightly. As we were already on the Col du Brenay (3635m) this wasn’t really the time to turn round so we went on and after another hour we stood, at last, on the summit. By the time it was snowing hard, so we stayed on the summit for a few minutes, quickly ate something, and headed back down fast. Not really fast, due to the massive snowfall and the mist, but still as fast as we could. Only after the Col de la Serpentine it stopped more or less with snowing. Nevertheless, the danger of avalanches was already there. Specially on the steeper section down the Col de la Serpentine we had to be very carefull not to start any avalanches.
Only ten hours after we left the hut that morning we got back. Pretty much exhausted. But the gardien of the hut, rather impressed with our success due to the snow and weather, kindly offered us, as a kind of reward, a drink in the hut. Which, just as our dinner that evening, tasted just fantastic!
That day only one other group got to the summit, and for the next two or even three days no one else would go there from the Cabane des Dix. This made us even more happy with our ‘succes’!
This weather had one major advantage: there was almost nobody at the hut, so we had plenty of room, it was calm and it seemed we got even more food (which was always superb)! This was rather an exception as this hut is normally a very crowded one, specially in July. But we didn’t complain about that!
Climbing without guidesThe last day of our mountaineering course, we had to prepare, elaborate and, eventually, carry out the ascent of a certain mountain, in casu, the Mont Rouge du Giétro (3439m). Under normal conditions, we had to do this already with the ascent of the Pigne d’Arolla, but due to the bad conditions that day, our guides decided to postpone that to the last day.
Not really the biggest or well-known mountain in the world (actually nobody of us had ever heard of it), but it would prove to be a very nice climb, with many superb views towards some great mountains like the Mont Blanc de Cheilon, La Ruinette and the Grand Combin!
The evening before we had prepared our route, and the purpose for this trip was that each of our three ‘cordeés’ would, each in turn, lead the others towards the summit (and back down off course) of the Mont Rouge du Giétro. For this day we finally had a bit of luck with the weather. When going up via the Col de Cheilon it looked as if all of Wallis was covered with clouds, except a little bit between the Val des Dix and the Grand Combin. Finally some climbing in the sun! Climbing this small mountain was a very nice experience, it has a nice ridge leading to the summit, the views were staggering, the sun was shining, some superb company, just everything to make a climb (even though it was only a smaller one) as fantastic as it could be!
Eventually, we almost became used to it, the weather, once again, turned bad while we were heading back. On our way back we did some final excercises (more about anchoring and securing on snow and ice, other techniques to rescue someone out of a crevasse, and how to get yourself out of a crevasse (which, as there weren’t any crevasses to practise, we had to do on a little rock face.)).
Back at the hut the ‘gardien’ very kindly offered us once more a drink (it was clear he liked our company that week in his hut, just as we were happy to have a superb gardien like him! That evening, our last, he even opened one of his best bottle of wine for us!). Unfortunatly our mountaineering course came to an end that evening. It was simply a superb experience, we learned a lot (as we had two fantastic mountain guides/instructors with us who couldn’t be better!), made huge amounts of fun, and climbed, despite the bad weather and the winter conditions (it could easily be something like a winter climbing course), some nice mountains. Just a superb week we had!
The only thing we still had to do was packing and going back towards Arolla the following morning, which we did the same way as we began, in the rain and snow. Finally after some hours we arrived in Arolla, soaked, just as the way we started a week earlier. After a final dinner together most of us each went there way, and we, me and two friends, headed back to Belgium, dreaming about our next climbing trip.