Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 5-6: Bourg St Pierre to the Cabane FXB Panossière

New beginnings. Solace. A swindle.

Staying in a hotel, or gîte, in the middle of a long trek makes perfect, practical sense. We had access to kit bags and therefore an evening in normal clothes. We could ditch kit we didn't need and get new kit if we wanted. We could have rested base layers and replaced them with fresh ones. We could retire items we now knew we wouldn't use and pick up anything we'd forgotten or realised we would need. In short - it felt like cheating. So I didn't do it. My kit bag stayed shut, I didn't ditch anything and the only thing I picked up were a few new batteries, which I could have bought in the shop downstairs anyway. As I said in a previous post, the cold beer and hot shower were both welcome, but anything other than that felt wrong. Nice, helpful, but wrong. Perhaps I'm short-sighted, or unrealistic, but I wanted to do this traverse with the kit I had on my back. So I did.


Day Five: Bourg St Pierre to the Brunet Hut
Ascent: 1,483m
Descent: 1,063m
Highest Point: Col de Lâne (3,033m)
Distance: 15.3km
Time: 7hr 41mins

The morning begins with a sedate stroll up an easy path. We gain height steadily, easily and without feeling much in the way of inertia. Crossing a seething, violent surge of water, the path suddenly drifts into non-existence replaced instead with grass punctuated by rocky detritus deposited by the mountains. It is as if the river is a palisade between the pastoral valley below and the unyielding, exigent mountains above, and the bridge simultaneously both a passage and warning. We press on, our destination the Col de Lâne just above 3,000m. We know the ground leading up the col will be poor and the route will not be an easy one - another example of the fragmenting, decaying state of the ancient rock above us. As we climb, we are able to gaze back into the valley at the dammed Lac des Toules and not the for the first time we are aware of the dark, tumultuous clouds heading our way. The wind has already picked up - we hope, as we have done so far, we will be able to stay ahead of the weather and it will hit after we've reached the relative sanctuary of the hut.






Each step carries us upwards and we maintain our slow, deliberate pace revelling in the beautiful unfolding vista. The wind begins to grow ever more fierce threatening a crescendo at the col. It is not long before we have reached a small depression in the land, and taken refuge from the turbulence, the col ahead of us and plainly visible in what seems to me to be too far in the distance to genuinely consider taking it on today. Except, it is not the only col. There are three and we are not sure which of the three is actually the Col de Lâne. It is a sublimely surreal Houdini moment - a street magician's trick - under which cup do we find the real col? Whichever, we think darkly to ourselves, the approach to each is as unforgiving as anything I could imagine which would not require ropes and protection. None of us seemed enamoured with the prospect of selecting the wrong approach. We sit and eat, taking on precious calories and hydration. In the lee of the wind, I consider where I am and what I am doing here. My working life seems so far away - a distant and pastel phantom, otherworldly and disconnected from me. I know, somewhere in the cobwebbed depths of my mind, that I'll have to go back but for now I can ignore that future and concentrate on a different one.







Eventually, we rise and begin to move again. We scramble across slate and boulder, picking lines through the morass of scree and granite. Often is it easy, B2 boots blessed with a stiffness that permits fast movement across the sharp, steepled rock. Just as often, the ground is a loose, shifting nightmare - each step attenuates energy as we struggle to maintain footing. Hands shoot out to steady feet and nerves as the ground gets steeper. Sweat pours off me despite my layering being virtually perfect - I am wearing a short-sleeved merino wool top alone. It is pure exertion and come the apex of the col, I am grateful for a break. Another of those blue alpine signs appears - dire warnings "particularly dangerous path", "mountaineering equipment essential" and "only for experienced hikers without vertigo" resonate in my psyche - the ground from here on in is going to be tougher than that which we've just traversed. I am intrigued. Honest.




Yet the view from the col is breathtaking. We stop for a moment to enjoy the overpowering sense of freedom and to admire the visceral majesty of the high-level alps. The grey, stony ground below us gives the area a lunar appeal. But we have more to do. We cannot descend here - there is no route down - we need to ascend another 30m or so and down the other side of a rocky scramble. I inhale deeply, and not really because I require oxygen. In a script, the line would say 'gasp'. It must be done, so I get on with it. Hands, feet, elbows - anything will do. I tighten the straps on my pack - I want it tight and unshifting. The ground, however, is anything but unshifting and it takes far longer than it ought to, to reach the summit of this unnamed, unsung and undesired peak. We are at 3,054m and it means so little - we want off this ridiculous craggy tosh - but in order to do so, we'll need some guts.




Below us, another group is donning harnesses and roping up. I find it hard to understand what may have spooked them - I envisage a path, a blue one perhaps, but a path nonetheless. I am not wrong, of course - there is a path. It simply requires a vertical descent on bolts fixed into the rock - ladder rungs spaced apart for giants. The gap between each seems unconscionable. A chain is bolted into the rock leading downwards, disappearing behind a vicious crag. The drop is a sheer one, hundreds of metres onto loose scree and crap. The exposure is disconcerting and committing. Even Nigel utters some choice profanity. We descend individually - the chain a pointless affectation it is so loose. Several of the bolted rungs are themselves unsteady, geriatric charades. I can see the whiteness of my knuckles as I move from one to the other - it is a curious gratification this, it's fun I'll appreciate later. When I have a beer in my hand and feet on terrra firma instead of rusting iron.





We clear the 'ladders' without incident and begin to traverse a rocky ridge line to the apex of the path. Frequent blue and white reminders of the seriousness of the exposure are dotted along the path - they can be seen from some distance - never far from our reckoning. Besides us are small tarns of the strangest, almost radioactive colour - yellows and greens that would be alien to an artist's easel. At the culmination of the ridge is the ubiquitous alpine signpost - I almost smile. We begin to descend - it is long but easy now. A grassy heaven by comparison to ridgeline. By the time the Brunet hut finally comes into view, I am spent. There are jubilant cries - this is a hut for the discerning alpinist - it even has hot showers (€6 for 6 minutes - I weep as I pay, but split the time with my friend to get back at them - 3 minutes each is more than enough) and good food. The wine is, however, somewhat expensive (€35 a bottle). We drop packs, stow boots and pull on hut shoes before heading inside and ordering coke and cake. Beers will come afterwards. And a bloody good sleep.







Day Six: The Brunet Hut to the FXB Panossière Hut
Ascent: 914m
Descent: 347m
Highest Point: Col des Avouillons (2,649m)
Distance: 8.5km
Time: 4hr 29mins

This is supposed to be our 'rest day' - a short, undemanding day after which we will reach the Panossière hut with sufficient time to laze about, recovering for the crux days ahead. I am unpersuaded. There is no such thing as a rest day on this trek. And after two long days covering something approaching 37km, nearly 3,000m of ascent and roughly 2,400m of descent on steep, difficult ground, a rest day is something that might well appear to be welcome - yet I am not feeling the pinch. In fact, I feel good. The muscles in my legs are loose and warm and my lungs feel huge. I know the hardest part of the traverse is yet to come and a rest day - or rather a short day - makes sense. I just don't feel I need it.


The cool morning brings with it a pristine dusting of snow. We are not very high - Brunet is just 2103m above sea level which is by no means a record for us on this high-level traverse - but the snow line is pretty low. I won't be digging into my pack for crampons, but it's beautiful nonetheless. I have slept well as we benefit from a dortoir to ourselves. I shrug my pack out on the patio area and cross to the tiny tarn to enjoy the surroundings. Although the clouds are still in evidence, the sun looks to be ready to burn them away. There are two routes to Panossière and we have elected the blue route. It would be wrong to say we will, in time, regret this decision, but our 'rest day' is about to turn into anything but.






We start quickly, buoyed by a restful night and a pleasant, if expensive, hut. We move across the simple ground with practised efficiency and eat up the first couple of kilometres with almost contemptuous ease. The sky is the cool blue of a fresh new morning and a gentle mist drifts along the mountainside. We traverse the valley wall along a flat path and the mood is again buoyant. The conversation flows like last night's beer and we fairly run along. We soon reach a bridge cutting across the deep chasm at the bottom of which a river thunders down the valley towards Verbier. We cross the bridge and back again for nothing more than the thrill of it - giddy schoolchildren playing truant rather than serious mountaineers. We are under no pressure of time today. In the distance, an ever-present companion, is the Petit Combin - initially obscured by cloud apart from its summit, but as the morning wears on, the cloud dissipates and the poorly-named giant is revealed in all its splendour. The views across the Val de Bagnes, the mountains swathed in cloud, are wonderful.







As we round an abrupt dog-leg crag, we come upon another bridge - a diminutive undertaking this one, with the river but a few metres below it. As we cross, we begin to see the ascent to the Col des Avouillons. As with most things on this trek, it would appear to be at the toes of the Gods and will be made all the more arduous by the wet snow underfoot, slathering rocks and boulders with a thin sheen of greasy-slick treachery. As we begin to ascend, it quickly becomes clear that purchase on the mud and rock beneath the snow is almost impossible - even when placing feet flat on the ground to get as much grip as possible. Often, I shift to the grassy banks of the path, but there is a drop beyond these - a short, but not insignificant declivity onto menacing boulders below. It makes the going involved and hairy - each step, yet again, a carefully placed process - and hands become necessary as the ascent becomes steadily steeper, the levels out, only to become steeper again. Taunting us is the ubiquitous signpost to mark the col. It never seems to get closer each time I look up.





Of course, we eventually crest the top of the col following a short, bitter scramble and when we do the sight to greet us is simply awe-inspiring. The Panossière glacier, framed by Grand Tavé, Becca de la Lia, Tournelon Blanc and, at the southern end of the glacier, the glacier du Grand Combin and the Grand Combin itself. On the other side of the glacier, a speck on a ridge above a moraine, the FXB Panossière hut can be seen. I am conscious I am staring - and not moving - others behind nudge me and I move quickly to a perch to shrug off my pack, dig out a snickers, and savour every morsel - both of the view and the nutty chocolate in equal measure. I could not tell you which delights me more.





The descent is steep and exposed but relatively easy. The path is narrow but the sun has hit this side of the mountain so there is little in the way of snow or ice. It is at the bottom that we will realise just how much dross a glacier deposits as it carves a path through the mountainside - none of it stable. We reach the moraine and begin to understand the true nature of what we need to do. It is an exposed ridge, initially, which then leads to a sheer, vicious descent on grey, shifting mud. Each step digs deep and the ground falls away beneath a boot, sending rocks careering down the slope. No amount of care or circumspection rescues this situation and we know that as the slope gives way, we risk sliding not only down the keen, baleful rocks on the moraine but, if not checked, onto the glacier too. Given the slope of the glacier, that would be fatal. Again, each step is measured caution, riding the slide if it happens, curbing where possible. Mud cakes our boots, our gaiters and, truth be known, backsides. Yet, eventually, we find the snow covered glacier and, for perhaps the first time, I feel safer here than on the grey mud of the moraine. We don't put on crampons - the ground is relatively flat as easy - in fact, I doubt I will ever cross a glacier as easy as this one. Tripod poles, striped blue and white, stand sentinel across the glacier, marking the path. Some have fallen and we stop to pick them up from time to time to maintain the marking of the path. The sun is high in the sky now and we begin to see the beauty of the Glacier du Grand Combin and the Grand Combin itself. As the western buttress of the Panossière glacier begins to come into view - the Maisons Blanches, the Combin de Boveire, the Combin de Corbassière and the Petit Combin - we realise we are surrounded. We walk in the shadow of Methuselah and it is awe-inspiring.






We carefully pick our way around crevasses and glacial rivers, but in truth, it is simple stuff. We are relaxed and enjoying ourselves. We eventually reach the edge of the glacier and find ourselves on yet more shifting, grey glacial moraine. However, the hut is well within view and a perfunctory ascent leads to an easy path up to the front door. It's a modern hut and as we're unpacking we are looking forward to good food and perhaps, just perhaps, a cold beer.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 3-4: The Cabane d'Orny to Bourg St Pierre

It would be three days until we would take out crampons and ice-axe again. A large part of me felt real regret - I was here to savour the high, glaciated alpine environment and fully 72 hours would pass before I'd have the opportunity to do that. Yet, trekking in the Alps, as opposed to day assaults on alpine summits, necessitates dropping down into the valleys and then ascending again. Repeatedly. This we were about to realise - the Classic Haute Route is a strenuous trek, not really because of the ice and snow, not really because of the miles, and not really because of the ascent and descent. It's strenuous for all those reasons and because the alps are falling apart. The mountains are dumping huge swathes of rock and scree on the slopes of its summits and high places such that moving across alpine terrain involves picking routes across an interminable chaos of rocky detritus which literally bleeds energy. I was once told that trekking in the Alps would not give me much in the way of experience for Mountain Leader - the paths are "wide and well marked", as if the UK was so much harder. Having spent nearly a month in total trekking in the Alps I feel qualified to comment on how short-sighted that statement is. There is nothing easy about the trekking in the Alps and even the red routes in Switzerland (as opposed to the "dangerous Alpine routes" marked in blue) are not unexacting simplicity. Navigation is still important as paths are often difficult to find as a consequence of seasonal rockfall (the path markings literally disappear as the rocks they are on do the same). Paths can be wide tracks, yes, but they are also non-existent on loose, scree-ridden boulder fields and moraines which make the summit of Scafell Pike look like a patio. Navigating in hill fog in the UK is a challenge, yes, but the Alps are immense, more visceral and to underestimate even the ordinary, unglaciated parts is foolish.



Day Three: Orny Hut (CAS) to La Fouly
Ascent: 425m
Descent: 1,541m
Highest Point: 2,831m Orny Hut (CAS)
Distance: 18.1km
Time: 6hr 37mins

Today, we leave the Orny hut and descend to Fouly. I found Fouly to be an unappealing place when I was there on the TMB but it was then shrouded in a thick fog that reduced visibility to mere metres - mountains? Where, I asked. Fouly a centre of Swiss mountaineering? I was unconvinced. Additionally, I abhor descent - not that I find it harder than ascending but I shudder at each passing metre of height gain I have lost. Yet I know that the Hotel des Glaciers in Fouly has cold beer and good food and we'll reach there by lunchtime. This, I confess with some chagrin, keeps my enthusiasm bubbling. We awake to a resplendent sunrise and immediately congregate outside to marvel at the silhouette of mountains beneath a sky painted deep, rich hues of orange and gold. We eat breakfast - a simple affair of (so often stale) bread and jam, coffee, orange juice and muesli before heading outside to pack our remaining gear in the eerie mountain half-light.




We begin our descent and a cheery, buoyant mood has set in. We are all anticipating a long, hard day of course - knee-jarring tortuous hours as we begin a day every bit as arduous as the hardest days on the TMB. There will be many more like that - in fact the hardest days on the TMB are akin to the easiest on the CHR. I am grateful for my preparation. Perhaps it is the fact that there will be nothing technical about the day to come - a mountain stroll where brains can be relaxed and rested. Or perhaps it is the clear, crisp sunshine. We chatter as we walk, getting to know each other better and I discover I am not the only one looking forward to a cold beer.



The path, although steep, is a good one for much of the descent. It twists and turns through craggy outcrops, but it is not long we before we are accompanied by grass and flora. It is a surreal sight from the rock and ice of the last two days. Footwork is sublimely facile. It is easy to become complacent and, if I knew what was to come over the coming days, I might have been less carefree.




Yet, this high, there is always something to grab my attention. At 2,823m, the Portalet is reminiscent of El Capitan. The Petit Clocher or Clock Tower as it is also known, dominates the skyline from the Orny Hut and the South-East face is 600m high, 300m of which is completely vertical. Like the Eiger in Grindelwald, binoculars are often employed at the Orny hut to observe those risking their futures on this monster. It is a big rock climber's playground. To me, it is a beautiful, imposing and ancient obelisk. As the sun daubs the face with further lashings of its warm, golden oils I am beguiled. I am no Kirkpatrick but, for a moment, I am in the desert of temptation. I absent-mindedly fondle the carabiner hanging from a loop on my pack, my mind whirling considering the possibilities. I have no doubt, had my (long-suffering) hillwalking companion seen me just then, I have visions of him throwing himself off the mountain in exasperation. The alps does that to you - it makes you want more. Eventually, I move on.




We meet forest and I'm thankful for the shade it provides. Even in the early morning, the sun warms us and the descent, however pleasant and perhaps even meandering, is work. Each step is a travesty for the knees. Poles are for wimps I convince myself, eyeing them jealously. I cannot get on with poles - I can see the benefits, nay the faultless logic to be applied, but they and I are on separate sides of the outdoor playground - never the twain shall meet. Yet on long, hard (usually alpine) descents, I toy with the idea of trying them again. I can live with the praying mantis spidery tip-tap ungainliness of them, but co-ordinating my body with them is to me like patting your head and rubbing your stomach whilst solving quadratic equations. I hear talk about titanium knee replacements and smile. Must look into that.




We take a break at a small alpine hut, devouring the ever present chocolate, revelling in the sugar coursing through our veins. A water trough stands nearby but glacial suspended particles have a deleterious effect on filters, slowing them down dramatically and we are cautious about what, and where, we drink. Nothing stops us from tearing off tops in some maniacal parody of the Fully Monty and pouring cool, fresh mountain water all over ourselves. It's a comic moment but entirely in keeping with the jovial mood of the day.


Fouly is at least a few hours away but there are parts of any trek that do not deserve words. It is a straightforward plod among lush Swiss pastoral fields - in fact, after a short time, we find ourselves on what I felt was the most pedestrian and tedious leg of the TMB - this time in reverse. Yet a moment's pause here is worthwhile - whether it was being on familiar ground, of just simply it was my time, this is where my mountain legs kicked in. A simple burst of energy it is not - it's something more than that. I feel energised and this feeling, despite many days of arduous toil, does not leave. As I sit and write this, I wonder if it's still in fact there. It's mental, emotional and physical all at once - an acceptance by the body of a task way beyond a simple day walk and a change in gearing. I move on ahead, alone this time, the guide and rest of the group now hundreds of metres behind. I am in a groove and happy with my own thoughts. 




Yet the TMB does not permit such luxuries. It is London-Underground-station-in-rush-hour busy - thronging with other thru-hikers. As I move - perhaps it is the ice-axe that does it - I am stopped and asked where I have come from. I explain and more advice is sought. Having done this already, I give it freely. I am then joined by others who walk with me asking about what we are doing and about the TMB. I feel I should talk to them, but really I want to be alone making progress. It does not sour the mood however and in the end I realise the group is being guided by a trainee who does not really know what he is doing. He asked advice and again I give it freely. Eventually, the move off and I wait for my own group. We rest together but quickly I am off again with one of my own group this time, Simon. We talk, sharing each other's lives. He is in his fifties and divorced as well as retired. His time is his own and he has made myriad plans. He takes his Mountain Leader assessment this year and, by the end of the trek I am convinced he will pass easily. He is an affable, sensible, natural leader. When no one will take the ropes, he always volunteers to take one. He leads, usually because he has such a strong walking style. He is easy to speak to and never condescending. He leads DofE groups and I imagine they are grateful for his easy style. Simon and I pull into Fouly ahead of everyone else by a good fifteen minutes and he disappears into the store to grab cold water and iced-tea. It is nectar. Each drop in my throat has the restorative effect of the elixir of life. We have walked for long, hard hours and I crave a beer, rösti and an afternoon getting to know my guide and companions. It is not long in coming. In the valley of the shadow the of the giants surrounding us, I learn much more about Nigel Shepherd than I thought possible. He is open and engaging - a climber of the old school and a man who kick-started a modern way of thinking years ago. I commend his clarity of thought and no-nonsense style. Last week, he sent me a book on rope work. He'd signed the front because it was his book - he authored it. The BMC carry it in their shop and Ron Walker, my winter mountaineering course instructor, has several copies too. I am in the presence of greatness, it seems. In fact, it lends the trek something extra and unexpected. There is much to learn and Nigel is keen to teach.


Good.



Day Four: La Fouly to Bourg St Pierre
Ascent: 1,445m
Descent: 1,307m
Highest Point: Pointe des Gros Six (2,873m)
Distance: 20.5km
Time: 9hr 09mins

Bourg St Pierre is owed money. Lots of it. By France. They don't appear to have been paying and it is something still remembered by the denizens of this tiny alpine village even now. Napoleon rested his 40,000 strong army here in 1800 en route to catch the Austrians by surprise in Italy. Hannibal came through here too. As did the Romans. That's the thing with the Alps - these antediluvian monsters are steeped in history because they have been here for millennia and will still be here long after we have ruined the planet and our light has been extinguished. To me, it was the next stop on our trek and the beginning of the next phase which would lead us away from civilisation completely and into the mountains properly. It was the last chance for a shower and to ditch unwanted items of kit. In short, once we reached Bourg St Pierre, we'd get a good nights sleep, and the real CHR would begin.




We leave Fouly early as usual as we have a long day ahead of us. I realise as I write that, this is nothing new. Each and every day, with the exception of the short descent into Zermatt at the end, is a long one. A short walk to the edge of town and we begin, almost immediately, to ascend. The Pointe des Gros Six, at 2,873m, is by no means the highest summit on the trek, but it is nearly 1,300m above us and the hovers next to the Col du Névé de la Rousse over which we must go to descend into the valley in which Bourg St Pierre is to be found - the Val d'Entremont.




The ground is easy going - the path is narrow but defined. We proceed slowly, deliberately. Each step is a small but essential cog in the process. Moving fast and light in the Alps is imperative, but ascents are unhurried and steady to conserve energy - a nine hour day cannot be rushed. We keep tight as a group now, moving seamlessly together. From time to time we stop to drink - the water is potable at this altitude. It is a fresh day - cloudy but the sun peaks through from time to time. The wind picks up the higher we get and soon it is time to don an extra layer. Eventually, I can see the grass receding above us and the rock and scree becoming more predominant. We pause at a shepherd's hut, set our packs down and take on some much needed calories. Despite a copious breakfast, we all find hunger biting before long on a steep, wind-blasted ascent.






It is not long before we can see the Col du Névé de la Rousse and we push on across the bouldery, scree-ridden ground to the pass ahead of us. It is adorned, as usual, with the ubiquitous Swiss signpost, yet this one is blue. This is something I've not seen before. And all of the path markings are equally blue as well. I paid it little heed at the time, something I'll come to re-think in time but now, I am blissfully unaware. The wind is fierce now and I can hardly hear what anyone is saying. The views down into the valley below are breathtaking but we have more climbing to do - the Pointe des Gros Six looms above us - a rocky, scree-besieged nightmare. We tread carefully, each step a deeply considered and tentative edging into the darkness of the unknown. Hands, elbows, knees - all utilised to keep as much contact with the mountain as possible. The wind remains a problem - without it, this would be challenging, but with it we are beyond cautious.







Eventually, we crest the last cadre of boulders and the summit - a long, flat granite expanse - is visible by virtue of a small cairn atop a bedlam of slate. We celebrate and ditch our packs to tuck into provisions bought in Fouly - salami, brioche, cheese and cake. All washed down with more iced tea. It is a banquet. In the distance, I can pick out the Grand Combin and the Petit Combin. I am aware we will be in the shadow of both in the days to come and this fills me with genuine satisfaction.





We descend into the valley, passing twin lakes - one the Gouille du Dragon - and a small alpage before picking up an easy path winding slowly down the Combe des Planards to the impossibly turquoise reservoir below. The descent soon becomes overlong and tedious, with at least one of the group lagging behind, tired and lacklustre. The sun is high in the sky now and we are overheating. Hydrating repeatedly, we relish the prospect of a hot shower and a good dinner. As the reservoir looms ever closer, we take a path which showcases the front of the dam in all its glory - Swiss engineering is not limited to watches. We segue from road into forest and the descent seems never to end. Looking back, it is not the longest descent I've done in a single day but it feels like it. Eventually, we spy the bridge crossing the river next to us and cross greedily. There is a final climb up to the road and immediately, without a warning, we are in Bourg St Pierre. It is a small, unassuming place without much to commend it. We find our hotel, on the main road, and head up to our rooms. Laying on my bed, garbed in as much salty sweat as technical fabric, I relish my aching limbs. The pain feels good, in truth, and it is more than a few moments before I kick off my boots and revel in the scalding water on my taut muscles. There is a cold beer waiting for me downstairs, I know, and a map to be pored over. Only 36 hours until I am on snow and ice again.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 1-2: Chamonix to the Cabane d'Orny

"All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small."
Lao Tzu


Changes in the life paths we take can be characterised as beginning with small but pivotal moments dotted in a morass of banality. Recognising those moments when they arrive takes, it appears to me, more luck than judgment. Evolution does not occur overnight - it takes thought, planning, preparation and starting small - or put another way, said Lao Tzu, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The photograph below was taken on 29th August 2010 at 13.03hrs. I was perched on a rocky outcrop at 2,700m, the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc, gazing at this scene with something approaching pure joy, and munching lazily on a truly wonderful sandwich made by a somewhat grumpy Swiss Gîte owner from Champex. The photograph shows the Glacier du Trient and I was sat just above the Fenêtre d'Arpette. Behind the glacier, the Aiguilles du Midi, du Pissoir and du Tour can be seen. It was at this moment that my life changed. Not a fundamental volte face, more a subtle shift in the hierarchy of Important Things. I resolved then, without much deliberation or hesitation, that it would not be long before I was on that glacier instead of staring up at it.




On 23rd August 2011, at 09.37hrs, almost exactly a year later, I was on the Glacier du Trient and by 10.00hrs, I was passing within five hundred metres of my perch above the Fenêtre the year before. It was a moment, at the start of our trek, that I well appreciated and which gave me no small satisfaction. It followed the birth of my son, months of preparation in the gym, the conclusion of matters at work that I wanted well to see the back of and led me into a new personal era - it was a moment, although fleeting and ephemeral, which sent shockwaves of revelation through my psyche. Crossroads are rare and travelling the correct path is rarely easy but sometimes a little courage and determination reaps great rewards. Sometimes, despite the naysayers, it's ok to dream.


The story does not, however, begin on the Glacier du Trient. The story worth telling (that is to say ignoring the hours, weeks and months in the gym, the nights spent poring over kit lists and the packing of cavernous kit bags the evening before) begins in Argentiére, Chamonix, France on 21st August 2011. As usual, we set foot off the plane in Geneva and take a bus transfer to our hotel - Le Dahu, in Argentiére. It is here we will meet our Guide and the rest of our group before, the next day, ascending to the Albert 1er Hut on the Glacier du Tour. I've waxed lyrical already on my reasons for being guided, but I intend to post at some length on the history and philosophy of Mountain Guides in the Alps and my feelings on the subject so I'll not divert your attention away from the trek by dealing with that here. Suffice to say, it is not the last time I'll be guided in the Alps and my respect and admiration for Alpine Guides is significant.


In the hotel, we laid out our kit on the beds and made final selections, placing unwanted items in our kit bags. The weather was warm and sunny - a bountiful gift which would continue right to the end of our trek. Never has there been an Alpine adventure blessed with more sunshine. Lady Luck smiled on us for two solid weeks, barring one short incident. I was keen to keep my rucksack as light as possible - I knew we'd be carrying rope between us as well, and I did not want to be making technical and tiring ascents with a heavy pack. Ultralight philosophy works equally well in the Alps as it does elsewhere.


We met Nigel Shepherd, our IFMGA Guide, that night as well as the other members of our small team. We numbered seven in total - some with trekking experience, some with Alpine experience, some with Himalayan experience. All with enthusiasm and resolve. After a pleasant dinner, we retired to bed. As was the way with the trek to come, an early start was essential.


Day One: Argentiére to Albert 1er Hut (CAF)
Ascent: 675m
Descent: 27m
Highest Point: 2,702m Albert 1er Hut (CAF)
Distance: 4.1km
Time: 1hr 47mins


We take the cable car up to the Col de Balme in the warm, sharp early morning sun. I had been here before, on the TMB last year, but there was a lot more snow then - partnered with a bitter, frigid arctic wind slashing at my cheeks. Today, it is a balmy, clear day and I have the rope. It is an easy ascent and I am moving quickly, without hindrance despite the additional encumbrance. I feel good and thankful for my preparation. We stop from time to time to capture the images swirling around us but in reality, our priority is to get to the hut, grab a bed and head for the Glacier du Tour for crampon and rope work. We had the afternoon to get re-acquainted with our heavy metal and we all want as much time on the glacier as possible.






The approach to the glacier, and onto the moraine leading to the Albert 1er hut, is a craggy but straightforward path with chains sporadically punctuating the hillside. To the right, off the path a matter of metres, is the heavily crevassed snout of the Glacier du Tour. Above, before the stark drop into the snout, lies the upper part of the glacier on which we would be practising our crampon work and crevasse rescue that afternoon and, tomorrow, making our way to our first summit - the Tête Blanche at 3,421m. We stumble across rocky, bouldery bedlam (which, unbeknownst to us, is to characterise the coming two weeks of trekking), picking as solid a line as we are able to. So much of the mountainside in the Alps is loose scree and bouldery danger that the energy and stamina required to traverse a hillside compares little to the UK. 'Gnarly' is a word I hate. However, it fits like a glove.




It is not long that we negotiate the sharp ridge of the moraine beside the glacier before we come upon another steep ascent. The hut appears out of nowhere and we rejoice. We're hungry, despite a good breakfast, and we do not quite have our mountain legs yet. Just under 2 hours of steady ascent has taken its toll and we look forward to dumping our gear, eating and getting ready for some glacier work. Ascent in the Alps is a different proposition to the UK. 1200-1300m in the UK takes in the largest mountain. The same distance in the Alps, at least on the Haute Route, is a mundane daily essential. On our 'rest day' we climbed 1000m.


I wish I could say that the Albert 1er hut was a joy but the single tea bag for 3 litres of water gives you a sense of the attitude of the staff. We devoured a huge omelette with all the trimmings, but even that was served with a dismissive curl of the lips. I don't expect silver service in an alpine hut, but a smile seems feasible. Dinner is in two sittings, it is so busy, but there is nowhere to sit afterwards. It's a manic place with little in the way of solitude and peace. So many groups depart from here each day that finding kit in the morning is a mêlée. Sleep comes only to those who are extremely tired or, as I did, remember to bring earplugs. I found a quite corner in the dortoir and managed to snatch a good night's sleep before our 5am way-up call the next day.


The afternoon was spent on the glacier, roped up, crampons on, tying knots and falling down crevasses. We drill in ice screws, front-point into the bulletproof ice, all the while placing faith in the French and the Americans, driving our crampon points in with determined precision. By 5pm, we are back in the hut, excitement tinged with apprehension. Tomorrow, it begins...







Day Two: Albert 1er Hut (CAF) to the Orny Hut (CAS)
Ascent: 1192m
Descent: 806m
Highest Point: 3,421m Tête Blanche
Distance: 11.6km
Time: 7hr 31mins

We awake at the same time as the rest of our dortoir - somewhere around 5am. Our sacks are packed from the night before, with our clothes for the day shoved under a pillow for easy access. Harnesses go on, crabs clipped in, and the rope again finds its way onto my pack - but only for a short distance this time. As I move around in the darkness outside, head torch strobes slashing the dark, early morning air, I am keen to ensure no mistakes. I am a perfectionist - more out of a desire to avoid embarrassment than anything else - so I place my feet with care on the rock. It will be cold on the glacier - something we experienced yesterday - a palpable drop in temperature when setting foot onto the cool, ancient ice. Like opening the door of a freezer. Yet, I know we have a mountain to ascend today - at 3,421m, the Tête Blanche will be the highest I have ever been on foot. It will be a salutary moment I know for I live for summits. Not so much a tick, as a vista. The views make me feel alive - nothing worthwhile is easy - my father drummed that into me from a young age and I shall tell my son the same. A free lunch tastes nowhere near as good as one hard earned.


We scramble down sandy, brown rock for about half an hour in the half-light perhaps even more cautious than usual. This is the beginning of things and no one wants to look foolish. As the light improves, the sun still dipped well below the mountains, a polarised crimson hue veils everything in sight. Chardonnet, or more properly the Aiguille du Chardonnet, at 3,353m stands resplendent and majestic overlooking the glacier. It is a constant companion for much of the morning and I find it hard to tear my eyes away from this regal figure. We stoop, ditch our packs and begin to strap on crampons and retrieve ice-axes. The glacier is bullet-hard and it takes some force of will to trust in my crampons despite yesterday's preparations. I gaze down to the hut, and the complex, crevasse ridden mess next to it - ice-axes arrest is pointless here. The answer is a simple one: don't slip.




As the glacier is not wet - that is to say, there is no snow which might disguise crevasses - we are not roped up. We progress slowly - after all, it is still early both in the morning and in the trek itself. Mountain legs are a day away at least. Focus on each step, I tell myself - everything counts here. I listen to the rhythmic crunch of crampon into ice accompanying each footfall. The sound brings me solace - a sensation of perceived composure. 




We are not alone - many groups accompany us towards the various cols and aiguilles that comprise the head of the Glacier du Tour. Specks in the distance lend scale and perspective. We cross the glacier, heading for the base of the Col Superior du Tour. We do not intend to ascend the Col (at 3,288m) - instead we will traverse its base and head for the Tête Blanche whereupon we will rope down off the edge between the Tête Blanche and the Petite Fourche. If our rope is long enough - we only have two 30m half ropes.







As we pass under the gaping maw of the Col Superior du Tour, it looks steep and long. I am immediately thankful we are going nowhere near it. It's not even a Scottish Winter Grade I, not even a couloir or gully, but it looks like a slog. Instead we continue on and, within what seems a blissfully short time, we find ourselves ascending the Tête Blanche. Nothing is easy in snow and crampons and I recall now that the ascent took some little time. Snow has a way of sucking the vigour from the marrow of your bones and my muscles begin to burn. Yet that pain has paled into a distant, poorly recalled memory alongside the moment we reached the rocky outcrop of the summit. Again ditching packs, we scramble up to the top, another 50m, thrilled at what awaits us.









There is nothing that moves me quite like an alpine peak. The views in Scotland and the UK national parks are one thing but seeing into infinity on a clear day at 3,421m is unlike anything I have experienced. It was to get even better on this trek but, at that moment, I am smitten; speechless to describe to the sublime snowscape around me. The wind is minimal and the sun, although not yet high in the sky, bathes everything in an intense, crisp radiance. I chew on a snickers and tug down some water. I am engulfed in a bewildering, awesome world that is alien to me. I suspect I cannot stop smiling. Soon we have to move again - alpinism is all about time-keeping as the conditions degrade over the course of the day. We descend to our packs, strap on crampons and head for the snow-cliff face. Nigel has a back-up plan but tells us only now what it is - if we do not have enough rope to descend here, we will need to go back to the Col Superior du Tour, ascend there and come down the other side to the Trient Glacier. I am, of course, not surprised by this - as we passed the Col Superior du Tour, a small part of me just knew I'd be back here having to trudge up it.


As if by design, no safe protection can be found, no ice-screw will be left, the rope is not long enough - it all means a kilometre back to the Col Superior du Tour and that exhausting toil. I lead this time at the front of the rope and we descend quickly and without fuss. Ditching a layer for the ascent, we set off. I cross-over-step, French technique being my preference on a steep gradient, and make good, if arduous, progress. At the top, I gaze down wistfully at the sweat I have left in the snow. At least my crampon-work has improved - every moment on difficult terrain is a lesson learned.




We scramble, crampons on, still roped, over the rocky carapace of the mountain and emerge the other side for another snickers break, greedily gulping down hydration. The sun is hot on our faces as we find a rocky perch on which to rest. It is a simple descent from here to the Trient glacier and then another snowy trek to Orny. I pass the the Aiguilles du Midi, du Pissoir and du Tour before moving under the Trient Hut. It is not far to the Fenêtre d'Arpette, I know, and a smile crosses my face. I am at the back of the rope-team, so know one sees and it is a private moment of pride and satisfaction - an indulgence I feel I've earned.


Before long, we reach the edge of the Trient glacier and take off our crampons. It is a rocky path that leads to the Orny hut but we are hungry now and we move quickly and with practised steps. Soon we spy the glacial lake that sits just before the hut and within seconds, the Orny hut itself is visible. I take a moment to enjoy the sight of my bed for the night before we descend to the hut. On the baked rock outside, as the midday sun sears our brows, we lie for a moment, catching our breath. Nigel sorts out our beds and we move inside for the first of many forays into a staple of Swiss mountain diets - rösti, fried eggs, bacon and cheese. We sort out kit and then sit and chat happily, discussing the day's events and the trek to come. I read voraciously. After dinner, I am 'invited' to help wash up. It is an honour, in fact, and afterwards we share an apricot schnapps with the hut guardian. It's a magical, tiny moment - one which caps the day. We retire to bed early - a big descent ahead of us tomorrow.