PrefaceThis summer I was the recipient of a fantastic piece of luck in being offered a place on a generously subsidised Alpine skills course run by Plas y Brenin (a prestigious Welsh outdoor centre) on behalf of the Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust (of course I accepted the offer). Jonathan Conville was a promising young Alpinist whose life was cut short in a climbing accident on the north face of the Matterhorn in the winter of 1979. He was 27 years old. The trust was established by members of his family to promote and teach, predominantly young people, safe and enjoyable mountaineering practices by absorbing some of the costs of skills courses that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for many people.
This trip report contains only a handful of the photos I took on the trip so I've posted an album containing the rest here:
Jonathan Conville Alpine Skills Course 30th July - 1st August 2008
Escaping WalesAs always my journey began with the usual protracted escape from darkest Wales to that cornerstone of civilisation, the international airport. After negotiating the UK’s somewhat convoluted public transport system for what seemed like far longer than necessary I finally arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to be greeted by the dim melancholy of the night shift. I hate airports, they’re soulless structures at the best of times, but when devoid of the crowds that usually fill their shops and lounges they are even worse.
The night was spent battling my mounting boredom, drinking bad coffee, reading every single word in the National Geographic I’d bought earlier (I now have a fairly comprehensive knowledge on Persian history and the bush meat trade in Equatorial Guinea) and watching the seconds tick slowly by on the terminal’s clock. Despite the night on I was excited, this would be my first proper trip to the Alps. To be fair this wasn’t going to be my first trip; while at university I’d visited the Ötztal Alps to study glacial and periglacial process, and last year I visited Valais with the intention of climbing something big and easy. As some of you may already know, my holiday last year didn’t go as planned as during my first couple of nights in Geneva I caught a stomach bug and ended up spending the entire holiday stuck on a campsite in Zermatt. This year would be different as I would be attending an alpine skills course – it was time to learn how to do things properly.
Morning arrived and after ditching my bags and making my way through airport security (complete with retinal scan and X-rayed sandals) it was time to kick my feet up and relax. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan, as it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t just really tired, but that I also felt unwell. This was shortly confirmed by an impromptu trip to the toilets to throw up. My heart sank and I feared that in some unbelievably bad piece of luck that my second consecutive alpine trip would be spoiled by sickness, and that for a second year in a row I would miss the chance to climb outside the UK. There was no turning back now though, I was already sitting in the departure lounge and my plane awaited my boarding.
The journey from London to Chamonix was actually pretty good although my time in Geneva was unexpectedly extended by an absent ticket vendor (you may be able to set your watch by Swiss trains, but you can’t by their buses). By early afternoon I had reached my ultimate destination, the Les Cholets campsite near Argentiere. I quickly pitched my tent, hopped into my sleeping bag and tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. This was Sunday, my course didn’t start until Wednesday, so for the next couple of days I took it easy, tried to shake off whatever illness had afflicted me this time, and generally just pottered around the Chamonix Valley doing the tourist thing.
The day before the course I still didn’t feel well, but decided that however I felt the next day I would get on that mountain regardless (whatever mountain that might be, the course itinerary was pretty vague on the matter). I remembered reading that John Tyndall suffered from abdominal problems throughout his alpine career; it was time to quit being such a wuss; if I still felt bad I’d just have to suffer too. That night as I lay in my tent, my illness, all my anxieties and perceived inadequacies manifested themselves as shadowy apparitions and danced around my bed mocking me. If God exists, I thought, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like me.
An Introductuion to the Alps
The guides who were to instruct us introduced themselves as Phil, a tall Mancunian who worked for Plas y Brenin; and Dave, a Glaswegian guide now living with his family in Chamonix. After answering to a register of sorts, almost straight away Phil looked at me and said,
“You look like s**t Dan, heavy night was it?”
“Err… no” I replied slowly, slightly embarrassed at being singled out “I’ve been ill”
My voice sounded coarser than usual.
“Are you okay now?”
“Yes… really I’m fine”
“Well you’re not going to be in my group, I don’t want to catch anything”
Great, I thought, only ten minutes in and I’m already being victimised. My slight feeling of inadequacy returned, snapping at me heels like one of those horrible little dogs. As it turns out I ended up in Phil’s group anyway. After a quick introduction and an outline of the day’s events, we headed for the cable car station and the Aiguille du Grands Montets.
On leaving the cable car station we were greeted with a breathtaking panorama encompassing a substantial portion of the Mont Blanc Range; to our left the Aiguille du Chardonnet and the Aiguille du Argentiere stood tall on the far side of the glacier, immediately before us our view was dominated by the Petite Aiguille Vert and the Aiguille du Dru, and to our right were the ever eye-catching peaks of the Aiguille du Midi, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Blanc herself. As we descended to the col below us I wondered how different this would to what I had experienced in Scotland; as it turns out the differences are few, but significant.
It became apparent very quickly that standing there in my numerous baselayers, fleecy midlayers and hardshell jacket, that I was thoroughly overdressed for the conditions. I had come prepared for Scottish winter conditions, but was now sweating profusely under my mountain of clothes. Basking in the morning sunlight, at an altitude exceeding anything the UK has to offer, I suddenly realised how truly horrible Scottish winters are. This was the first major difference that I came across. The second was more subtle. In Scotland one generally carries their ice axe with the adze facing forward, so as to make getting into a self arrest position a much easier task. In the Alps, we were told, you carry your ice axe pick forward as, if you slip, there will be very little opportunity to self arrest anyway, and that having the pick forward would help in climbing steeper ground. I’m still not sure I like the idea.
The techniques employed when moving with crampons appeared to be exactly the same as the ones I was already used to using back in the UK, and I found myself quite happy to stroll up and down the ice while those who lacked any winter experience found their feet. Although this was going over familiar ground I was happy to do so, as I can in no way claim to have mastered the art of good crampon work (as the holes in my overtrousers will attest to). The latter part of the morning was spent learning the correct placement of ice screws and the creation of anchor points on ice, new ground for me and very insightful. This was followed by a quick lunch and the opportunity to grab some photos.
After lunch it was time put into practice what we had learned earlier that morning, so we roped up and prepared ourselves for a route on the Aiguille du Grands Montets. Luck of the draw had it that I would lead our little group onto the glacier, I was glad of this opportunity. It wasn’t the first time I had set foot on a glacier, my first experience being back in the days when I was a Geography undergrad on our big field trip the Alps. Now, as we descended the slope onto the Glacier des Rognons dressed in all the paraphernalia of the mountaineer, that first encounter seemed somewhat cathartic and ill advised, as 20 or so overexcited students ran slid and jumped over the lower parts of the Rofenkarferner with little regard for safety – no axe, no crampons, no helmet, no rope. Some people didn’t even have proper boots. But I digress…
Aside from the addition of a bergschund and any number of crevasses, this didn’t seem a million miles away from what I’d experienced in Scotland… although the weather was about as un-Scottish as you could get. Unfortunately, and a little ironically given my last sentence, it was the weather that would dictate the course of the rest of our day’s activities, as around halfway up the steep northern face of the Aiguille du Grands Montets, a low rumble announced the arrival of an afternoon thunderstorm. We picked up the pace, moving as swiftly as we possibly could, thick heavy rain drops chasing us along the final few feet. We topped out onto the viewing platform of the cable car station; normally this would be packed with tourists but today it was deserted, with most people making the eminently sensible decision not to stand on a wet metal grill, at 3000+ metres in the face of an approaching thunderstorm. We quickly removed our crampons and followed suit. The storm signalled the end of our time on the mountain, and after a quick lesson in glacier rescue (minus the glacier) we headed back to the campsite. I felt elated and thoroughly looked forward to the following day. Best of all, I didn’t feel like throwing up.
A Day on the GlacierOur plans for the next day were to head for the Refuge Albert Premier, spend the night there, and summit the Aiguille du Tour the day after. Unfortunately when Phil and Dave arrived in the morning they had some bad news; the weather wasn’t looking good and that another thunderstorm was forecast for the time we were meant to be on the summit. Dave estimated that we had a 40% chance of success; we decided to play the odds and go for it anyway.
The journey to the Refuge Albert Premier begins, first with a cable car ride, followed by a chairlift to an altitude of over 2000 metres. From here the path meanders gradually around the mountainside to the Glacier du Tour, with views of the Aiguilles des Rouges and Mont Blanc providing the perfect backdrop. On reaching the glacier, the path turns towards the north east and follows the lateral moraine up the edge of the glacier to the hut. The Refuge Albert Premier is named after Albert I of Belgium who reigned from 1909 to 1934. During the First World War he resisted the advance of the German army long enough to allow Britain and France to mobilise and prepare for the battle of Marne, and is widely quoted to have responded Germany’s desire to move through his country with “I rule a nation, not a road!” During the war Albert chose to serve with his troops on the field, enduring many of the hardships faced by soldiers engaged in trench warfare. He led his army in both the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of Yser, and by the end of the war was in command of Army Group Flanders which consisted of Belgian, French and British Divisions. On entering Brussels at the end of the war he was greeted as a hero by the city’s inhabitants. Albert was also an able climber, and it was this passion that led to his unfortunate death in a climbing accident at Marche-les-Dames in the Ardennes region of Belgium near Namur in 1934. He was 58 years old at the time. The original building, which was a wooden chalet style hut, was opened by King Albert in 1930, and the present hut was built and completed 25 years after his death in 1959. His photograph hangs on the wall in the hut’s dining room.
We dumped our excess kit in the refuge and headed out onto the glacier to put the rescue techniques we had learned on a warm grassy bank the day before into practice. This basically involved each ‘student’ being dumped in a crevasse and then hauled out on a hastily constructed pulley system. Some members proved harder to extract than others. The afternoon offered us our first opportunity to see what we were to climb the next day, and amidst the summits of the northern Mont Blanc Range, we planned the following day’s route. The rest of the day was spent relaxing at the refuge, talking nonsense and watching the sun slowly sink over the Glacier du Tour.
The SummitThe next day the pre-dawn sky was lit by the distant flash of lightning, and luckily that’s where it remained. Dave increased our chances of reaching the summit to 60% and we set forth into the dull morning light. We had delayed our start by an hour in order allow us to more accurately assess the development of the storm, and it was getting quite light by the time we reached the point where our trail met the glacier. The sun was still obscured beyond the horizon and the surrounding mountains and a warm violet glow lit the valley. As we roped up my excitement grew, despite being awake far earlier than I would normally deem civilised, I felt alive. As we set out towards our first objective, Col Superieur du Tour, a gentle breeze drifted across the glacier ensuring that even when we were working our hardest, we never felt too warm. We reached the col in good time, experiencing no difficulties, and stopping only briefly to take on water and marvel at the view.
The apex of the col is capped by a band of course dark orangey rock which effectively separates the Glacier du Tour from the Plateau du Trient on the other side. We crossed the rock, crampons still on feet, but axes placed securely between back and backpack. On the other side we were greeted with sunlight, the smooth glacier ice of the Plateau and a view comprehending a considerable part of Switzerland which unfolded towards the horizon before us. From here the trail took us around the rocky spires of the Tour Peaksto the eastern face of the Aiguille du Tour where we were presented with a rocky summit block and a medium sized bergschund to negotiate. By this time however, it had become apparent that all was not well in our party. At the end of thr rope Andy had begun to struggle. Out of breath and pulling on the rope, he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace. Phil, noticing he was under strain and ordered a halt, we settled down at the foot of the mountain#s southern ridge.
“Are you alright?”
“I feel dizzy” Andy gasped through short but heavy breaths “but I’ll be alright in a minute… I just need to rest a little”
He sat down heavily, drawing in more deep breaths.
“You’re dizzy?” Phil paused for a second “sorry Andy, you’ll have to stay here”
Andy nodded and with nothing further said he untied himself from the end of the rope and I coiled the excess around my body. Then with a few barked instructions from Phil, Tom and I started to climb the final rocky steps to the summit of the Aiguille du Tour. The climbing was easier than I expected and reminded me of past days back in Wales, the red rock reminding me very much of Crib Goch. No protection was placed, Phil informing us that if we fell here, we deserved to die. I think he might have had a point. Dave’s team had set off a few moments before us, so we followed them in a broad arc around the eastern side of the mountain to its northern ridge before quickly shinning our way up the final few feet to the top.
From the brow of the Aiguille du Tour we were granted with a view that surpasses all known superlatives; laid out before us were the greatest mountain ranges of three nations, to the south-west the snow capped peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif dominated the scenery, their summits shrouded in blueish-grey cloud, to their left the prominent and silhouetted form of Gran Paradiso rose sharply above the Italian plains, and further along the shadowy outlines of Monte Rosa and the mountains of the Valais grazed the eastern horizon. Peaks and pinnacles and snow clad summits rose from the glacier, above us and below us, their deep orange hue starkly contrasting the luminescent silver glow of the ice that enveloped them. Of all the spectacles that greeted us from the mountain’s summit, those which filled me with the most joy and wonder were the numerous glaciers and ice caps which clung to the mountain sides and inversely shaped and moulded the landscape in their own image.
We departed the summit after what, to me, seemed like a criminally short period of time, and descended the ridge to meet Andy who, after taking an aspirin and resting up, was feeling a whole lot better. He rejoined the end of the rope and led the way over the bergschund and back down the mountainside. We retrod our initial approach back to the Refuge, our arrival there effectively marking the end of the course. As we walked back down the lateral moraine to the top of the chairlift, I took one last look over my shoulder, and out of the corner of my eye caught one final glimpse of the Aiguille du Chardonnet. I promised myself that I would be back again next year, this time though, I’d make damn sure I was the picture of perfect health.
AcknowledgmentsI would obviously like to extend my thanks to the Jonathan Conville Trust for running the course, and also to the two guides/instructors Phil and Dave who were able to dispense zen-like mountain wisdom and complete nonsense in equal measure. I would also like to thank everyone who attended the course with me - Andy, Tom, Che, Janet and John – the experience wouldn't have been the same without you.
Finally I would like to offer my apologies to Eleanor and Paul who's wedding I missed to attend the course – I'm really sorry guys, I wish you all the luck in the world!
LinksJonathan Conville Memorial Trust
Plas y Brenin
British Mountaineering Council
Mountaineering Council of Scotland
Trip report by Che Gannarelli