Saturday, 22 October 2011

Alpine Kit 2011-2012

Twelve months ago I wrote a post entitled Winter and Alpine Hillwalking and Mountaineering Kit. It proved to be one of the most popular posts on this journal of mine with in excess of 1600 views. I look back now at my choices then, largely informed by research rather than actual time on the ground, and conclude I was not far off when it comes to winter - for example, a Scottish Winter climb will involve much of the kit I analysed back then. Páramo remains my staple, and everything else is built around that. Yet, this is simply not the right selection for alpinism. The Classic Haute Route and, to a lesser extent, the Tour du Mont Blanc, taught me that. So I had to rethink early this year and, whilst in Zermatt, I sat poring over my kit selections in a bar nursing a cold beer, and considered carefully what kit had been effective and what had not. This post is the culmination of that process.

Normally, I write a Gear Debrief at the end of a trip. Not this time. Instead, I am going to approach it from a different angle. There has been quite a lot of debate about kit in outdoor blogs this year. Whether it affects our credibility and impartiality to accept freebies or jollies from companies like Gore and how kit reports/reviews/analysis should be drafted. I am not going to change my views on freebies (see my comments on Hendrik Morkel's Hiking in Finland on this post) nor am I going to change my analysis. If you like my online journal that's wonderful and it genuinely pleases me. Thank you for coming. If you don't there are some quality blogs out there that might be more to your taste - start with Hiking in Finland, Blogpackinglight and Summit and Valley and then move on from there. Check out my Resources links to the right.

So, after that, I would like to move onto the analysis of my Alpine Kit. The purpose of this post is to detail what I have settled on, and why, for anyone planning similar trips who feel they would benefit from my insights. It also invites those with their own experience to comment on selections. I like people commenting on my selections - it helps me refine my own choices.

Rucksack - Crux AK-37 and Osprey Mutant 38
In October last year, I was looking at the Osprey Mutant 38 but discounted it as a consequence of weight, opting instead for my OMM Villain MSC. At 1kg, the Villain seemed superficially attractive and I had always previously found it comfortable. Yet on this trek, I carried much more weight than I would normally when wild camping in the UK. Firstly, this was a 12 day traverse. That in itself requires more kit. Secondly, it was a traverse across high, glaciated alpine terrain. These two factors taken together meant my pack weight was, on approaches where my cold weather kit was stowed, around 7.3kg without food and water. In cold weather, it was that much lighter at 6.6kg. With crampons and ice-axe out, that would drop again to around 5kg. Of course, this is all illusory as I was either wearing or carrying that kit in my hands rather than in my pack so my body still needed to haul the weight. Additionally, the problem was that I did not account for the fact that I'd also be carrying, frequently, 2kg of rope. I'd also need to add, on occasion, around 1kg of water as we were not always able to find water en route. Usually, food would consist of chocolate bars as we'd normally be at huts for lunch so I'll add a few hundreds grams there at most. All this means, at worst, I was approaching 9kg on ascents. This was not something the OMM Villain carried well as the shoulder straps have padding which is too thin in the stitched area. It bit into my clavicle far too much and my bones became bruised early on. Also, the Villain's MSC compressor annoys me in the Alps. I want simple, as few straps as possible, and light. So, when Go Outdoors asked me to test some kit for them, we settled on the Mutant. Adam agreed and I await its arrival. I also liked the Crux AK-47 but the second thing I realised on the CHR is that 40+ litres is far too much. 37 is fine. Hence the Crux AK-37 arrived a few weeks back and I am very impressed. At 960g, it's the lightest alpine rucksack I could find. It is brutally simple and a favourite of the UK Climbing forum. It needs a rope strap at the top of the pack like the others in the range but I may well sew one of my own in. It seems a very comfortable carry but the back comes in one length and it is right on the cusp of being too small. This, again, is something Crux could easily look at for a 37 litre alpinist's pack. Two lengths would be better.

Technical Gear
Crampon choice has not altered and my crampons remain the Grivel G12 New-matic and, for alpinism, the Grivel Evo is my favoured ice-axe. The reason for that particular ice axe choice is covered in another post and my views on this remain unchanged. The Evo is robust, stable and efficient enough for alpine use and the rubber grip is, in my view, essential as I do not use a leash. The G12 crampons are great all rounders - solid, great points, not too heavy, easy to fit and tough.

Of course, my technical gear comprises more than just a piolet and crampons. My harness is the Black Diamond Couloir which I have found to be perfect for me. Unlike a proper climbing harness, it is not padded and would be very uncomfortable after a day of falls or climbing out of crevasses. Of course, I think I have made it plain that I don't intend falling frequently so comfort after a fall is not a primary consideration. Lightweight, strong and with enough loops for minimal gear, it packs down small and is easy to get on and off. I can wear it at the end of a day without feeling it. Those are primary considerations.

The Alpine Club recommend a number of items of technical gear for F and PD routes which, for 2011-2012, is my intended stage. So I'll carry two prusik loops, both 140cm from 6mm Beal Accessory cord. I also have two slings - a short and long one - both DMM dyneema. In addition, an 86g DMM Aero HMS crab, and two c.50g lightweight smaller crabs - the Black Diamond Vaporlock and the DMM Shadow. I also carry a 43g DMM Shadow Quick-draw. Everyone moving on glacial terrain should have an ice-screw and I carry a 16cm 145g Black Diamond Express screw. All of this is stored in an Alpkit stuff sack. Simple.

Shell Layer - OMM Cypher Smock and Golite Tumalo Storm Pants
I didn't use either of these on the CHR but at 455g for a complete, extremely breathable, very packable, comfortable and performance waterproof shell system, I am content with both. I have analysed each already in previous posts but the highlights are, in addition to the above, the ease of use - the Tumalo in particular are very easy to pull on over anything and can be worn comfortably on their own and breathe well enough when working hard. The Cypher is a great smock and I cannot see a much lighter, 3-layer eVent waterproof coming along. It breathes well, the thumb loops are great for wearing gloves over and the athletic fit is excellent. Both are easy choices at the present time.

Approach Layers - Icebreaker GT150 Velocity SS Crew and Arc'teryx Palisade Cropper
Whilst I like the Montane Bionic, I keep gravitating back to 100% merino wool. It's a comfort thing. Icebreaker's GT150 range is ultra lightweight, sleek merino, with lycra interwoven which keeps the fit athletic and makes drying swifter. I wash my base layer frequently in the alps, so quick-drying is essential. I also find that a full-length trouser simply does not permit airflow as much as a pair of shorts. That said, I don't really like shorts. Nigel Shepherd, the guide we used on the CHR and with whom we'll be climbing again in November and perhaps even in the alps next year, works with Salomon and Arc'teryx, and sported a nifty 3/4 length number on the CHR. I liked them and so got a pair. The Palisade Cropper arrived recently from Germany - the only place I could find them - and I have high hopes. Very light (256g), they are quick drying, light and stretchy TerraTex fabric (a blend of nylon and spandex). I like Arc'teryx - they are so often the founders of superb and innovative kit concepts and copied relentlessly - the only problem is they are, like Norrøna, eye-wateringly expensive. These cost €100. The proprietary TerraTex feels great - like stretchy crépe paper - with a fleece lining around the waist and wind-proof zips with vents. They come just below the knee and feel very good indeed - in a hot, balmy alpine ascent, they will be very nice to wear whilst keeping the sun off my legs, knees in particular, as much as possible. There was nothing at all wrong with the Terra pants which these will replace, although I confess to finding the waist uncomfortable - the Palisade series is far superior in that regard - I just don't need a full pant for approaches and valleys.

Altitude/Glacial Layers - Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants & Rab Vapour-Rise Smock
As soon as you set foot on a glacier, it feels like opening the door of a freezer. The temperature drops palpably and falling on a glacial is like falling on sharp, rugged glass. Long sleeves are essential, not least because the glacier reflects the sun as well so protection from UV is also desirable. In the Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants, I found a supremely comfortable, stretchy, durable, breathable and exceptional pant. Perhaps too many zips for my liking, but they vent well as a result so I am not complaining. I wore them high up, with nothing but X-Bionics boxers underneath and felt no cold at all, and I wore them low down as well when the heat did not cause me to sweat uncontrollably. They were excellent. I cannot speak as to the gaiters in-built because I always wore gaiters with them anyway.

The Rab Vapour-Rise has proved to be something of a gem. If I sweated profusely as a consequence of the effort of climbing in snow, the next day it was dry even if hung up in a damp room. I wore it against the skin alone, or on top of the Patagonia R1 hoody and it was excellent. Wind simply bleeds off it. The hood is good - functional and easy to adjust (it won't take a helmet though) and the water-resistant DWR finish means that snow is repelled sufficiently. This is not a waterproof, nor does it claim to be, but it does just about everything else. It's also very pleasant to wear. The deep zip is a two-way so I found I would often vent my manly chest to the elements on ascents. The pockets (three of them) are also vents.

Insulation and Hut wear - Patagonia R1 Hoody and Rab Generator Vest
The Patagonia R1 has been a favourite of mine this year - a classic, redesigned and re-released, it is excellent for wearing under a harness. I also use it as my primary top in huts. It dries quickly inside, especially after a sweaty day like the one we had on the Pigne and pretty quickly outside too. It is comfortable and the only gripe are the thumb loops which mean that the wrist area gets wet - either from wear or from snow - if you do not have gloves on. It's not a major issue for me. However, I also found that an express Primaloft One insulation layer would have been useful had the weather been worse. I do not need a full jacket, and I needed something big enough to go over the top of anything I was wearing - on a belay or when sitting on a summit or outside a hut. A vest/gilet was therefore the obvious option and down was clearly not going to work if the vest was to be outside everything else. The Rab Generator has been getting rave reviews for years, is lightweight and I find Rab kit to be exceptional quality - sam Haraldson once accused me of being a Rab Poster Child. He may be right but Rab seem to be in halcyon days right now, producing reams of top quality new kit. And 100g of Primaloft One beats the 60g in my Patagonia Nano Puff and it weighs almost the same at 260g.

Underwear - X-Bionics Trekking Shorts and M&S Cotton Boxers
I cannot fault the X-Bionics Trekking Shorts with one notable exception - they have a hole in them. Given the nature of the fabric, stitching is unlikely and so a patch will be necessary unless I just leave and see what happens. I am surprised and disappointed but they are so comfortable, easy to wash and dry overnight and so effective that I can live with this minor issue. Still - I wonder whether X-Bionics would say this is a one-off or whether others have had this problem. M&S Cotton boxers? Really? I sleep in them and frankly, sleeping in comfort is essential. So yes. Really. I haven't weighed them yet, though.

Gloves - Ninja ICE HPT gloves and Buffalo Mitts
Ron Walker put me onto the Ninja ICE HPT gloves which come from Canada and I looked at them in detail when looking at my CHR kit prior to the trek. They allow me significant freedom of movement and real world warmth in Scottish Winter cold, let alone alpine cold. They're very good. Buffalo mitts are stashed in a lid pocket for when we hit cols or summits and I need to get my hands warm but I am not using technical equipment so the Ninja gloves are stashed away. They're so light (50g) and versatile - warm when wet, quick drying and easy to pull on.

Boots and Gaiters - Scarpa Manta and Rab Latok Mid
The Manta was perfect. Sure, lots of people in the Alps have La Sportiva Nepal boots which are B3 boots, and the consummate choice for the mountaineer. And they look great - kinda sexy if you can say that about a mountaineering boot. But the Manta is just that little bit more flexible. Just that little bit more comfortable. And no one else wears them on the continent so I don't look like another guided mountain groupie. They were great on the CHR - comfortable, great on rock, solid in crampons, breathable, waterproof and frankly, exactly what I want. No questions, no answers. Just good.

I don't need a full length gaiter. They're heavy, stop my legs breathing sufficiently well and are unnecessary even in deep snow especially with the Schoeller fabric in the Liskamm pants. A mid gaiter is fine. So the Rab Latok Mid is on order and I'll post on them some other time. Essential points are adjustability, easy fitting in the morning and lightweight at 144g.

Other Equipment
Fraser put me onto the Petzl XP2 head torch - at 88g with batteries it is light but very powerful. It also has a red light function which does not ruin your night vision in a hut at night, nor does it disturb people if you absolutely have to get up to go to the loo - in the Bertol Hut, this is a genuine experience but you've already heard about that. I did not take my Suunto Vector, choosing instead to rely on the Garmin Foretrex 401. I think, in fact, from now on I'll take both as the Vector is more than simply useful on the hill - getting to and from the alps really does require a watch! The Foretrex is a pleasant thing to have and so much of it crosses over with the Vector that I should perhaps ditch it but it's light, the batteries are the same as the XP2 and knowing what the statistics are at the end of each day is something I enjoy. So it stays.

I also took my Amazon Kindle on the CHR and found that I did indeed use it a lot. I adore reading, and I wasn't sure I'd take to a Kindle but I have and in a big way. I carry more than 50 books and PDF files (manuals for various pieces of equipment as well as trip notes and so on) on it so it's a fantastically versatile item. At 240g, it's worth its weight. Literally. I don't take a cover - it is protected in my clothing dry bag.

I also take some McNett Tenacious Tape, and it stays in a Podsacs 2 litre dry bag with my passport, tickets and other paperwork. Two other Alpkit Airlok 13 litre dry bags keep my spare clothes and pretty much everything else I need, dry.

Personal Administration
I take a bottle of camp wash which will wash both me and my clothes. 100ml is more than enough between two of us for a week or for one of us for two weeks. A Lifeventure Microfibre Pack Towel (Large, 110 x 62, 138g) is a preference to the Sea to Summit Pack Towel which I find gets wet almost immediately and does not dry me at all. The slightly heavier towel is just more comfortable and more effective. Toothbrush and toothpaste completes the picture. Riemann Suncream is expensive but very effective in the mountains. Having used it for a month in total, I can say this - put it on and do nothing for 15 minutes (nothing sweaty anyway) and then off you go. It is waterproof, sweat-resistant and works ALL DAY without re-application. 100ml lasts two people two weeks. It is an oil rather than a cream so you do not get that white mess I associate with suncream. It's really very good indeed. I also carry a First Aid Kit which I have detailed in another post.

Sunglasses - Oakley Flak Jackets
Oakley Flak Jackets are great. I love the way they look and they work well. They mist up sometimes so I may well try a pair of glacier glasses (like the Julbo Explorer Chameleon) but for now, I am happy with them. I take the case they come in too, to protect them.

Camera Equipment - Lumix TZ10
I adore the Panasonic Lumix TZ10. I reviewed it some time ago and it has not disappointed me. I am moving towards extending the boundaries of my photography and I have just bought a Canon EOS 60D SLR with a Tamon 17-50mm SP wide angle lens. I won't take the SLR mountaineering, but as I learn to play with exposure and filters, the TZ10 will permit me some flexibility too. It takes superb pictures and I carry a spare battery in the Lowe Pro Apex AW20. I also carry a Joby Gorillapod which, apart form being so versatile, is the lightest tripod I could find. It all works together. I even dropped the camera into a river whilst it was in the Apex on the TMB - not a scratch or a drop entered the pouch. Great stuff.

So that's my alpine kit for the coming 12 months. Perhaps it will change after that, perhaps not. A lot will depend on what freebies I get...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Twitter - dragging me into 2011

Martin Rye once asked if Twitter was relevant. That was some time ago. I had no opinion either way except to say that I have always liked the concept of bringing people together - "man is a social animal" said both Aristotle and Spinoza, in different times and different ways. The outdoor blogging community is a strong one and populated largely by people of integrity and kindness. Their capacity for generosity and desire to help others knows few boundaries.

Following the advice of someone I trust, I jumped in. Should you care to, the Follow Me link can be found on the right.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 10-11: Cabane des Vignettes to the Schönbielhütte

The Dix Hut, the Vignettes Hut and the Schönbielhütte all have one thing in common - they are part of the Monte Rosa Section of the Club Alpin Suisse. Next year my intention is to summit some of the 4000m peaks in the Monte Rosa massif and so I will be within spitting distance of these huts again. I am beginning to feel a connection with the alps that is growing with each day I spend there. I love alpine huts too. It has crossed my mind to camp but it simply does not fit what I am trying to achieve: I enjoy the atmosphere of the hut in the afternoon after an early alpine start. I appreciate being among other alpinists recounting their own tales and being able to reflect on my own morning's climbing with a cool beer and the promise of a comfortable bed. Alpine huts are steeped in as much history as is alpine guiding. With the older ones, and even those that have been rebuilt on the sites of much older huts, there is something else in the atmosphere - the spirits of alpinists past who made these places their home. Simply being a small part of that is special.

Day Ten: The Vignettes Hut to the Bertol Hut
Ascent: 1,071m
Descent: 942m
Highest Point: Col de l'Eveque (3,382m)
Distance: 16km
Time: 8hr 13mins

It is to be yet another long day. We must leave the Vignettes Hut under cover of darkness, along with a horde of others, and head across the Glacier du Mont Collon towards the Col de l'Eveque. From there we descend the ugly, bitty Haute Glacier d'Arolla to a glacial runoff leading to the Plans de Bertol and then the almost 1,000m ascent to the Bertol Hut which spans a mere 2km. That is to say the ascent is pretty much straight up. And today, it's going to be warm. Perfect. I hope they have cold beer up there.

I descend the metal steps of the hut in the very early morning darkness, dodging a number of fellow alpinists also getting themselves ready for the day. Within seconds I am at the top of the snowy slope leading down to Arollla and I search out a place to put on my crampons. It leaves me smiling as I write this in the comfort of my home that even a delicate slip then would have left me careering down the mountainside with nothing to stop me but telekinesis, but I felt completely comfortable. Such is the melange of early morning sleepiness and the confidence of 9 days of alpine trekking. My crampons on, I tie onto the end of the rope whilst the others get themselves organised. It is something of a melee this morning - not quite the horror of the Albert 1er Hut, but busy nonetheless. Eventually, we are all ready and begin to move off. A short hop along the snow trench and then onto rocky moraine is followed by the tiny glacier of the previous day. Of course this time I am acutely aware of the precipitous drop and have to force myself into a relaxed frame of mind - otherwise, I doubt I'd have let my crampons remain in the Villain. As we stroll, think Sunday afternoon after a roast dinner, I gaze back at the Vignettes, watching as the rising sun casts a gentle halo around it. The sky begins to redden at the horizon, segueing into purple and then deep blue until the stars occupy a velvet sheet of black. Soon we are back on moraine and by the time we reach the Glacier du Mont Collon, there is enough light to stow head-torches. This time we split into two rope teams as we cross the flat and utterly straightforward Mont Collon glacier. In fact, the only engaging thing about this is the can of food from around 1940s that I stoop down to examine. We pass in the footsteps of Mont Collon itself and then begin the long, draining ascent to the Col de l'Eveque. In fact, it's around 160m of ascent but it feels like 1,600m. It's the snow that does it. By the time we have reached the col, my thighs are burning as if some kind soul has injected arsenic into my bloodstream. Yet the sun has painted the sky a bright, endless blue and frankly, it is impossible to feel anything other than joyous. We stop on the col to savour the views and ready ourselves for the descent onto the Haute Glacier d'Arolla.

Initially, the descent seems straightforward, but soon it becomes bitty and uncomfortable. The ice is impenetrable and unyielding, strafed with bulbous tiny nodules which make walking even with crampons tricky. Again, we find ourselves in territory requiring assiduous concentration. The only blessing is that the views down into the valley are sublime. I lean backwards, ensuring every crampon point digs into the ice - slamming my foot down when necessary, driving points in, willing them in. 

When I think that at the top of the Pigne I could see our route today, it seems so long that I find it hard to believe sometimes how much distance and ascent/descent we cover each day almost nonchalantly now. Yet I make sure that I stop often enough to enjoy the surroundings - after all, it is why I am here. We move quickly, of course, we always do in the alps but ignoring the vista is sacrilegious behaviour. I cannot do it. We have a break awaiting us at the Plans de Bertol and I look forward to our packed lunch from the Vignettes Hut - we paid enough for it (£13). It should include some Harrods caviar at that price.

Yet before we can eat, we need to ford the glacial runoff that runs, or should I say rages, through the valley. This should be simple but in fact it takes far longer than it should to find a part of the torrent that we can actually ford. There are comic photos I could share but not everyone would thank me. Discretion is the better part of valour. We reach our lunch spot - at the base of our stunningly sheer ascent - and settle down to the Vignettes' speciality. Sadly, their best amounts to dry, stale bread (which, I should mention, is a staple of Swiss alpine hut breakfasts), a hunk of fairly mundane cheese, some salami and an apple that has the firmness of an overripe peach. I eat what I can but in truth, it is profoundly unpalatable. I turn to snickers.

I could write myriad paragraphs on the ascent to the Bertol hut - not because it would be interesting to read - quite the reverse. As you wade through the seemingly endless morass of words, desperately hoping for the end to come and wondering why you were here at all, you would gain a sense, far more eloquently and directly, of the feelings I was experiencing as I clambered, staggered and stumbled to the base of the crags and the ladders leading to the hut. As the alpine heat seared the top layers of my skin from my head and upper body, and sweat poured onto the mountainside, I was fatalistic. The hut, perched atop a crag like the House of Usher, seemed to come no closer despite the toil and misery of the ascent. Each passing moment seemed to bring us no closer to our goal. It was tragic. In fact, in the photo above, it can be seen on the right hand side of the central, triangular peak.

The one saving grace is the view of the Pigne behind us. I admit to some satisfaction when I gaze over my shoulder at that majestic sentinel.

Eventually, we reach the bottom of the ladders and what seemed, from a distance, to be an easy stage suddenly becomes via ferrata territory. We clip in to steel cord running alongside the ladders, stage by stage, and begin to climb. It's not tough really, but at the end of a hard day in the intense heat of the high alps, legs are weary. Marvellous.

But the climb up the ladders is nothing to fret about. It requires some fancy footwork to get from one to another but in reality although they are exposed, they are stable. We clip in, climb, unclip and move to the next one, and repeat until we get to the top of the rock. Turning a corner, we reach a snow slope - it's a small, pink stretch of slushy stuff with pygmy steps carved in by previous ascents. No one puts on crampons because we are, of course, blasé by now. I steal a glance back and the drop makes me wonder if perhaps that is dangerous over-confidence. Short, ostensibly easy sections like this are what trip up alpinists - the harder parts we prepare assiduously for, but these tiny fragments disappear into the cracks between the crux sections. Complacency has no place in alpinism. I dig the fronts of my boots in hard, kicking the steps deeper. I move with rhythm and don't stop. Momentum is everything. Soon we reach the final ladder to the Bertol and ditch our kit and boots in favour of the ubiquitous CAS crocs.

The Bertol is a wonderful hut, if only for its location. At 3,311m, it's the highest hut on the CHR and getting supplies in is not easy. Hence a litre bottle of water costs £8. I jest not. We are too late for food and so must wait for dinner. We stroll around the place, drinking coke (no diet coke - that's the point, they say, you need the sugar) and enjoying the atmosphere. 

Day Eleven: The Bertol Hut to the Schönbielhütte
Ascent: 801m
Descent: 1,344m
Highest Point: Tête Blanche (3,707m)
Distance: 12km
Time: 7hr 23mins

"A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves."
--Marcel Proust

Weather. We'd had it our way throughout the trek but we'd known that a weather front was coming for us and this morning it arrived. Overnight, we'd known that we might have to spend a second day at the Bertol Hut if the weather was too bad to leave but three other guides had travelled up to the hut which gave us confidence. At around 4am, I experience the impossible to ignore urge to relieve myself. I make my way outside - the toilets are located along a metal grill shelf next to the hut, exposed and perhaps a hundred metres above the ground below - and within seconds, I am experiencing inclement alpine weather again. Snow dots my Vapour-Rise, shrugged on as I knew where it was hanging up, and my cotton boxers. The light from my head torch casts an eerie glimmer across the hut as I walk along the grating towards the 'toilet block'. Behind them are the urinals. Outside. In the snow. Bless. As I head back, I take a moment to pop across to the other side of the walkway to take a look at the Pigne. The weather over there is not quite as treacherous as here and I delight in the view of my favourite place on earth.

Within what feels like moments of getting back into bed, I hear our alarm going off. The other residents of our dortoir, an Austro-Germanic group also doing the Haute Route, but a a shortened version, are also getting up at the same time as us. Their guide Benedict is in discussion with Nigel and the other guides. The result involves getting back into bed until the weather clears - we hope for a break within an hour. We lie chatting, wondering what will happen. I pull out my Kindle and begin to read. Around 7am, Nigel pokes his head through the door and we are given the green light. We are practised now - getting our kit ready and getting out to the veranda to get roped up takes minutes. The descent from the hut involves yet more ladders, slick with wet snow, and then a narrow path which hugs the mountainside - chains are essential this time and the path just about takes a boot. We descend roped and have to work together seamlessly to reach the glacier. On go crampons and we begin. The Austro-German group is some way ahead, but they acknowledge we have been moving more quickly and that we will soon catch them up. It doesn't matter, the only thing we want to stay ahead of is the weather.

As we cut diagonally across the top of the Glacier du Mont Miné, the terrain is level and easy. The snow is thick and supports us, permitting crampons to bite in comfortably. It is pleasant walking. In the distance, however, we see the remnants of the overnight storm ahead of us in the form of misty, silken clouds. Yet behind us, deep into the Val d'Anniviers and towards the Lac de Moiry and the Cabane de Moiry, places I had been before, the inky pall is far more insidious - a malignant, coal-black nightmare and a reminder of what alpine weather is capable of. At the Albert 1er Hut on the first night, we had seen a storm across the valley towards Chamonix. That had stolen our breath in an icy vice. Now, exposed on the glacier, the storm seemingly only a few kilometres away, I am ever so slightly cautious.

I can see the Tête Blanche in the distance. That is the problem with high alpine routes - the summits can be so easily seen but the snow and glacial terrain puts them so much further in the distance than they are in reality because the landscape is such an energy-sapping endeavour. Yet, I focus on it and continue forward. Benedict and his group can be seen in the distance now, perhaps 500m ahead of us and we are slowly gaining on them with each passing moment. They stop for a break and we pass them - nods and schoolboy German greeted by the same and much better English. That's the thing about Europeans, they all seem to speak our language better than the vast majority of us speak any of theirs. We should be embarrassed.

The ascent of the Tête Blanche is nothing to waste words on except to say this - a snow plod may sound like a simple matter of one foot in front of the other, but do not under-estimate the sheer force of will required to keep going in deep snow. In addition to that, I am hauling the man behind me who is losing fitness fast. As I bleed energy into the snow, through gritted teeth dragging my own body and his, my own pack and his (overweight) 60 litre monster, I am at once frustrated and having murderous thoughts. I grumble in order to let out some of the frustration. Know who you're roped to, I said previously - let this be a lesson to you. We reach the summit and, for a period of perhaps fifteen minutes that we are there, it is swathed in cloud and we see nothing at all but the summit cairn and cross themselves. Eventually, Benedict's group arrive and we exchange congratulatory words. We then depart and, as we do so, taking altimeter readings for navigation, we drop out of the cloud. The view is, without a doubt, one of the most striking and vivid I have witnessed for a very long time. The Matterhorn, at once malevolent ogre and yet somehow regal, sits waiting for us overlooking the valley leading to Zermatt. The Stockji glacier, and the Stockji itself are on show, goading us to take them on. All framed by the same coal-black purgatory veiling the Val d'Anniviers. There is no escape it seems.

We press on, moved by this drama. The descent is classic deep snowdrift - all sinking and stumbling as we lean back to maintain balance when our boots and gaiters vanish into the snow. I look back at the Tête Blanche and, of course, it is bathed in sunshine. In fact, we feel the gentle warmth of the sun ourselves as the clouds part towards the bottom of the valley - a far cry from the feeling of less than half an hour before.

Soon we are on the Stockji Glacier, heavily crevassed with yawning, chasmic scars in the icy terrain - vast caverns within which ancient trolls and dragons might be found. The crevasses are not simply slits in the ice, but are more like huge caves, making us feel small and insignificant. It is a hugely technical endeavour as we carve a complicated, switchback route across the glacier, keeping the rope tight between us and varying pace to allow each of us to jump across the lesions on the ice.

There is a path of sorts, movement of others before us, and we follow it for a while, but it is difficult to see at times and we must make our own choices. After a while, we stop, having reached the edge of the glacier where it meets the Stockji itself - a moraine monster that we must climb and circumnavigate. We have to abseil down the edge of the glacier and onto rock. We sit by a pool and eat before what we know is going to be a difficult final stage to the day. We must head into the valley and traverse the broken landscape and ascend to the hut. Sounds simple but we are about to see the fractured alps at their most wrecked and ruptured.

The Stockji itself is a scrambling paradise and we are hands on almost all the way. We even have to use a rope (in-place already) to descend a 20m chimney. It is something of an impromptu playground and when we reach the end, we are disappointed by a ridge leading down simply but treacherously, on shifting ground, to a mass of boulders stretching for what seems like an interminable distance. It is fitting, in a vaguely depressing sense, that the final shinny should be across the decaying mountainside. I refuse to write about it except to say this - it took far longer than it should have done and extracted from me, literally, blood sweat and tears. The rest I consign to the dusty annals of my subconscious.

When we finally reach the Schönbielhütte, catching sight of it as we crest a final ridge, there is a sense of genuine achievement. This is not the end, Zermatt is three easy hours away, but the hard stuff is done. The worst I can do is stub my toe on a mushroom tomorrow. When we manage to haul arse onto the veranda of the Schönbielhütte, there is a genuine moment of emotional celebration - a handshake here, a hug there. We know we haven't quite finished but we feel like we should mark this moment nonetheless. It is going to come as little surprise that it is indeed marked - by several cold beers and a plate of rösti.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Classic Haute Route, Day 9: the Pigne d'Arolla

crux |krʌks|noun ( pl. cruxes or cruces |ˈkruːsiːz| ) (the crux)the decisive or most important point at issue: the crux of the matter is that attitudes have changed.
Crux, in mountaineering, has a particular meaning but in reality it is simply a term of art which has evolved within a discipline, but which actually still mirrors the original definition of the word. For "...most important" read "...most difficult". The next three days, for us, would all be crux days. Each had challenges and decisive points towards which we had been working over the months of preparation and the days of trekking that preceded our leaving the Dix Hut in the early hours of 30th September 2011.

The evening before, I stare at the ceiling of the small dortoir we have to ourselves for much of the night. I am in a corner, secluded and alone, but sleep does not come except in ragged bursts. Two things conspire to make my night a fitful, restless ordeal - the peculiar and disturbing phenomenon known as Cheyne Stokes breathing and the fall suffered by a guided group on the Serpentine yesterday, the precise route we intend to take. The former, a function of the altitude, means I wake up and almost have to concentrate on breathing - it does not come naturally as it has throughout my life. I awaken breathless and have to force myself to take deep, frayed pants like a demented labrador to calm my lungs. The first time it happened, at the Chanrion Hut, I was unnerved but now I just want to get back to sleep. The fall on the Serpentine is something different. Alpinism is not a carefree undertaking - it can be dangerous. This much I thought I understood but it’s not until it is presented to you in the crystal clear high definition of an accident on a route you are about to take, the day before you take it, that you really comprehend what the danger actually represents. And let’s be truthful here - this is a 'Facile' (F) route, not a PD or AD. Yet, still, a guided group fell 80m and suffered serious, but fortunately not fatal, injuries. It throws into stark relief the primary issue involved in responsible alpinism - know the people you are roped to. In the end, if one of you falls, you all fall. Nothing will stop you on a glacier so when you ask, as I once did, what you do in event of a fall - the answer is simple: don’t fall.

Day Nine: The Dix Hut to the Vignettes Hut
Ascent: 918m
Descent: 680m
Highest Point: Pigne d'Arolla (3,796m)
Distance: 8.3km
Time: 7hr 43mins 

I rise early. No surprises there. My sack is packed. The night before, I have packed and re-packed and everything is in order. My crampons are stowed at the top. My clothes, and harness, are folded and under my pillow. Everything I need is within easy reach for the morning and everything else is packed. I want no mistakes - I am completely focused. By 4.30am I am eating breakfast and by 5am and I am outside the Dix hut, in my harness and shrugging on my sack. The atmosphere is quiet, circumspect even. For the first part of the ascent, I have stowed my camera and GPS. Now is not the time for distractions - now is the time for assiduous, single-minded concentration.

The initial moments are spent in the early morning half-light, with head-torches, clambering over boulders onto the glacier. It is a short descent from the Dix hut down to the forked Glacier de Cheilon and the edginess is tangible. A barked rejoinder when one of us flashes another in the face with a head torch betrays the mood. We do not strap on crampons for some time - in fact, scrambling down from the Dix hut and then across the ground towards the glacier, I am assuming we’ll be reaching for our spikes quite soon. However, we are some way up the glacier before we stop and get out our crampons. We cross perhaps two or three hundred metres of ice with boots alone before stooping, shrugging off packs and rooting them out. We rope up quietly, checking and re-checking knots, straps and harnesses. I gaze up at the ascent ahead of us and run the permutations through in my head. In reality, good technique is all that is needed here - this is not a technical route - and I want to ensure that my technique is perfect. As we move off, I vary between American and French depending on the manner of the ascent and the steepness of the terrain. Every movement is calculated - every plunge of my axe considered. The weather is perfect - not a cloud in the sky and there is little in the way of wind. From time to time, I steel glances at the panorama surrounding us and, in truth, this is without any doubt the most thrilling, inspiring day I have spent in the mountains. It is a lengthy, sapping ascent, but I don’t really feel anything but excitement. I am, of course, nervous about the others I am roped up to, but I am certain each on of us appreciates what is at stake.

The glacier is deep in shade, and the morning is cool. The snow is compacted and icy - crampons go in relatively well, but concentration is key. There are moments where a stamp rather than a footfall is required to drive points into the ice and this alone sends a flutter of nerves through my thumping heart. Using my axe as a third point of contact - an impromptu tripod for optimum stability - I find my technique becomes quickly ingrained and I slip into a good rhythm. I allow myself glances back to the sawtooth horizon behind me, glazed crimson in the early sun's light. Mont Blanc de Cheilon stands to our right, resplendent, with grey slate rock to our left. We change direction frequently, carving deep switchbacks in the névé above the more compacted snow, but eventually, the steep ascent flattens out onto the feet of the Col de la Serpentine and, ahead of us, we see La Serpentine itself. There is only one route up for us - the same taken by the fated group a day or so before us. The rumour is that the blood of the fallen is on the snow but I do not see it. Others do, apparently - I am gratified to remain ignorant. The snow up the southern face of the Serpentine is in excellent condition and, in truth, good technique is easy. What was I worried about, I think to myself. However, Nigel employs moving protection, specifically a boot-axe belay. We ascend in sections - not quite pitches, but similar in principle - oscillating between front-kicking steps with the axe as a stake, and digging the crampons from the side in with the axe as a cane. This is the crux part of our day but it passes swiftly and without incident - as so often these parts do. We focus so hard, and think so clearly, that within what seems like scant minutes, the Serpentine flattens out onto the Col du Brenay and we are sitting at 3,635m with snickers and mars in our gloved hands, exchanging jokes. Relief is palpable. The vista is not lost on us - it is without doubt spectacular and beautiful - but the Pigne is our goal and we see the final route and it seems easy to me. I am keen to get going. 

In truth, the rest of the ascent is a snow plod with little in the way of technical challenge. Endurance is the game - a stubborn resolve and an unshakable desire to experience to hidden treasure of the vista that awaits us at the top of the Pigne. We are even permitted moments to digest the our surroundings as the terrain is so much more straightforward. After what seems an age, we reach the diminutive tabletop that is the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla. At 3,796m, I have never been higher on foot and to say I am enraptured is certainly a subtly understated deployment of the word. The panorama surrounding us is at once breathtaking, sublime and utterly inspiring. I drive my axe into the snow, pick first, attaching my pack to the adze by the haul loop. The drop to the north of the Pigne is a rocky and sheer one, and I really don't fancy watching my pack slide off the edge. I am too exhilarated to sit, so I turn on the spot to take in everything around me. I can see the Matterhorn's jagged silhouette in the distance, as well as the Dent Blanche and countless others. Mont Blanc de Cheilon seems now only a short hop away and, again, I resolve that one day I'll savour the Pigne from Mont Blanc de Cheilon's summit. I am again surprised by how far away the Matterhorn seems - we will be in its foothills within 48 hours.

Of course, we must too soon descend. We make our way down to the col directly beneath us, and then take a 90 degree turn to the left to descend the steep east face of the Pigne to the glacial terrain above the Vignettes Hut. We stop on the face to have lunch. I quickly dig a bucket seat in the snow (for comfort rather than stability), stow my pack on the adze of my axe and, devouring a poor sandwich which tastes splendid, seasoned as it is with such a perfect view, I am elated. I chat with those around me, revelling in the day's summit and looking forward as ever to a cold beer. Part of our route tomorrow is visible and I gaze down happily. I know the most popular route to the Pigne is up this east face and it is in such good condition, the snow compacted, firm and easily taking a crampon, that I can see why. It is a short hop down, in reality, and we move quickly leaning backwards and shifting weight so our crampons flat-foot.

The descent to the Vignettes Hut take us over more moraine and crampons are shoved away in favour of the grip of a boot.  There is a tiny glacier just below the hut itself which seems not to have a name. Had I known just how steep the slope was, falling dramatically away to the east, I might have had a rethink about ditching crampons but the flat apex to the glacier, leading then to the rock carapace of the approach to the hut, inspires confidence and I am content to rely on boots. The crevasses hide the reality of the drop and we are soon back on rock. In fact, the truth can only really be appreciated from the hut itself and it's with some raised eyebrows that we realise how precarious a situation a slip would cause. We scramble again for scant moments before exiting rock back onto snow and the Col de Vignettes leading down to Arolla. There is a thick trench in the snow and we move along it quickly, gazing down at the day-trippers coming up from Arolla. The hut stands proud in the distance and we reach it euphoric and sated. Again we gorge on rösti and swill beer and coke. I sit in the sun for hours with my Kindle and variously read and watch others approach the hut. It is problematic to place huts in an order of preference - most of the best have something special which is intangible and impossible to quantify. The Vignettes certainly features high on any list. It is beautiful. We have a hard day ahead of us tomorrow - the Bertol hut is the highest hut on the trek and a long way from the Vignettes hut - but how often have I ended a day with those words...?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 7-8: Cabane FXB Panossière to Cabane des Dix

Day Seven: The Panossière Hut to the Chanrion Hut
Ascent: 1,204m
Descent: 1,265m
Highest Point: Col Tsofeiret (2,837m)
Distance: 23.3km
Time: 7hr 23mins

I sleep fitfully. The room is occupied by others besides ourselves and they are noisy. This is the norm, of course - alpine huts are busy places. But we know that we have a long day ahead of us - not overly technical but the height gain and loss is likely to take its toll as is the distance involved. I could have done with a good night’s sleep, but it doesn’t come. Even earplugs, a perpetual night-time companion, make little difference. I wake and am agitated. I have packed the night before as usual but, inexplicably, unpack and pack again. For this reason perhaps, I do not notice that I leave my glasses, the rest of my contact lenses and my head torch on a table downstairs during breakfast. I do not pick them up when I head outside to make my final preparations before leaving. Were it not for the sharpest of observations from Alan, an experienced trekker, that someone had left items on a table in the main room, and my thankfully fleet-footed realisation as to what they might be, this would have been fatal. I run back, literally, embarrassed at my stupidity, to retrieve them. I rejoin, with some alacrity, my group. I am overcome with chagrin and the morning passes with continual inward chastisement. It is a schoolboy alpinism error. I appear to have learned nothing.

We are blessed that morning with an enchanting inversion across the valley as the sun rises. There is a halo crowning the mountains beneath the dark blue sky and, below, the shadows on the clouds give them spectacular definition. I should have been in a sanguine mood but my mistake has affected me more than it should have. I am a perfectionist and aspirant alpinist - this is hardly curriculum vitae material. Pressing on, we are faced with a fairly strenuous climb almost immediately up to the Col des Otannes but devour the ascent as if it were nothing. Soon, perspiring but content, we are at the top of the col and well within ourselves. This is a facet of a longer trek - there comes a point where the mileage and statistics simply don’t seem to matter much anymore. Beyond that point, it is simply a mental game of chess with your body - you begin to feel you can do more than you actually should.

At the top of the Col we know that, for much of the rest of the day, it will be descent. Steep and long, but on a path most of the way. Nigel has decided to dispense with the usual route and take a longer but more scenic path. Even if we had known how much longer, we would I suspect have chosen this route. It is beautiful.

It is also cold, this high up, and crystalline ice pencils intricate patterns on the meniscus of small pools gathered between rocks en route. The path is an easy one, and the views across the valley are spectacular in the now clear blue sky. As the sun begins to peek over the mountainside, we realise it will be a hot day. Reacting to weather is a useful alpine skill - I normally try to carry as little water as possible depending on the terrain. Glacial travel makes me thirsty, and water is scarce there, so I tend to carry more. On terrain like this, grassy, rocky, dusty terrain but punctuated with alpine tarns and rivers, I am content to carry less. I know I will be able to find water en route.

As the sun drifts higher in the sky we realise that layers need to be shed and short-sleeves are required. It is a feature of the alps that, out of the sun, the temperatures can be startlingly cold, regardless of the time of day and moving into the sun’s light increases the temperature palpably and instantly. I don sunglasses and we continue to descend. Each time we cross water, I fill a bottle and drink. Suddenly, without warning, the trail plummets rapidly in deep, jagged switchbacks. The dammed Lac du Mauvoisin is now almost completely visible and I gaze at its opposite side with some interest. There is clearly no path traversing the sheer mountainside - we will instead have our first use of a unique Swiss idiosyncrasy - the mountain tunnel. Criss-crossing the alps are a series of subterranean tunnel systems, some of them large enough take vehicles. Some begin at roadways and finish a short distance from huts - others are spoken of in hushed whispers and are national security issues. In essence, it is said it is possible to walk from one side of Switzerland to the other without ever seeing the light of day. My interest is perhaps readily understandable. Next to the dam are a number of small buildings. One of these is a hotel. It permits us a natural rest break.

Eventually, after what seems like an interminable business, the ground flattens out. The long thin grass, wet with early dew and moving gently in the wind, glistens as the sun catches it. We can see the Hôtel du Mauvoisin and head towards it. Seated on a pleasant veranda, we consume a delectable Tarte au Pommes and eagerly swill diet cokes. It is a welcome break for food, hydration and morning ablutions. Simple essential pleasures take on a unusual significance. There is a short ascent to the road and then we walk along the dam in brilliant sunshine. The Lac is a lustrous turquoise as a consequence of suspended-sediment from glacial meltwater. Waterfalls are ferocious cannonades, dumping huge volumes of run-off into the Lac from the mountainside. Soon, we reach the end of the dam and enter the first tunnel. It is a craggy passage hewn from the mountainside with what seems like it must be by hand tools over long, dark decades by indomitable colliers - it cannot be of course, but the shape of the walls is so random it feels like nothing any machine can have created. It is dark and wet inside and it feels like a dungeon. I experience a faint thrill of excitement at this novel terrain but soon we exit into bright sunshine. We find ourselves outside but heading to another, short tunnel which is then followed by another, open tunnel with a view along the lake itself - a rocky canopy, chiseled into the mountain. It also provides a welcome respite from the now searing alpine heat.

We exit the tunnels and being to ascend. We have another col to reach - Tsofeiret at 2,837m - and then a seemingly languid descent to the Chanrion Hut. Yet, I have learned alpine maps are liars and I am prepared for a more exacting approach to the hut. Just because. The ascent is hard in this heat and we stop to munch on sandwiches and hydrate again. In this heat, drinking frequently is essential. As we crest onto a plateau, we think the walk will level out which, for once, it does. For the next five or six kilometers, we walk in the broad basin of the mountains on an easy path. The col appears, as they so often do, abruptly, and I stare up at it. More ascent and, frankly, in this heat I would prefer a beer. We lumber up the path and gratefully soon reach the col. There is a small path leading downwards and yet more chains. They are not, in fact, necessary in all honesty as whilst the path is narrow and the drop from the side of it precipitous and considerable - engendering a feeling of genuine exposure - it is not difficult. The route to the hut seems an overly long one - perhaps it is our state of tiredness after a long day in the heat that does it but it seems an age before the Swiss flag of the hut, peaking above a drumlin. When I see it, I am rallied and move with purpose.

When we get to the hut, we pull off boots and leave them in the sun to dry - no boot, no matter what lining it is blessed with, no matter what magical fabrics it is constructed of, will be heavy and firm enough to permit C2 crampons and also breathe perfectly in the hot, dusty sunshine of a long summer alpine day. I drape my socks over the rock next to them and lie down to soak up the sun’s restorative energy. For long moments I am lost to the dream of staying here and not going home - of doing this forever. I refuse to believe that it is impossible and I believe, at that moment, as someone better than me has probably already said, there is no fate but that which we carve for ourselves. Eventually, I haul myself up to the dortoir - we are again lucky to have one to ourselves - and deposit my kit. The rest of the afternoon is spent on the grass outside the hut, drinking beer and in vigorous discussion. The rest of the hut’s customers for the evening are also out chatting themselves. It is hard not to listen in and compare kit with them. The mood is elevated and, as ever, the evening is an enjoyable one.

Day Eight: The Chanrion Hut to the Dix Hut
Ascent: 1,608m
Descent: 1,115m
Highest Point: Col du Mont Rouge (3,326m)
Distance: 10.3km
Time: 6hr 53mins 

Do not put faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.
--William W. Watt

Look at the mileage for today - I urge you. Look at the ascent and the descent. The time this day takes. Does it tell a story? I can tell you this, it does not. Not the right one, anyway. Today, we cross four cols. We ascend and descend four times. That, in itself, is arduous day. Yet, if I’ve said the terrain of the alps is a broken mess of decaying massifs engendering a rocky, scree-ridden nightmare, nowhere is this better evidenced than today. Statistics can be skewed in all manner of ways and often they only hint at the story to be told.

The approach back to the Col Tsofeiret is a reversal of the walk to the hut from it the previous afternoon. Of course, it is cooler in the morning and, despite the steep descent from the col yesterday, the ascent up that same path is strangely effortless. We turn north-east and head to the second col for the day - the Col de Lire Rose. Getting to it will be another drama - guileful terrain beset by scree and shifting sands, the Glacier du Brennay below us. A slope without much in the way of a path that continues for what seems like an eternity to the glacier below. It is slow progress, with little in the way of interest until we happen up five other dwellers of the alps - almost mythical denizens spoken of in hushed whispers and, when seen, the world seems to suddenly stop as observers drop all else just to record a glimpse. Five bouquetin des alpes (capra ibex), alpine elk with long, baleful horns, graze peaceful, undisturbed by our existence. They are aware of course, despite our stealthy approach, but carry on regardless. They move on in their own time and we watch, spellbound. It is only when they are off our path do we move on. Time, a constant taskmaster, demands it.

The col itself bestows splendid views back towards the massif surrounding the hut and the two glaciers beyond. As we turn to survey our intended path, we are given pause. Huge rocks and boulders, numbering in the thousands, have collapsed from the east side of the mountain and lie, unstable and dangerous, beneath us in the bowl of the valley. But we have to cross them - that's our only route. And when we do, above us, at any time, more may come down. This isn't drama, or hyperbole - it's a genuinely serious situation. So we need to cross swiftly - not easy given the boulders, some a metre across in diameter, are prone to move at the drop of a feather. We pull on gloves as the rock is almost serrated and razor-sharp. We inch across the mess, hearts beating a touch faster than can be explained by exertion. We can see, ahead of us, closing the circle around this huge basin, our next col.

Even after we have crossed that minefield, we are faced with even more scree, rock and shifting ground en route to the next col - the Col du Mont Rouge, well above 3,300m. As we begin to ascend, I glance back over my shoulder to the Col de Lire Rose and see that it is some way beneath us. We have ascended so much that in fact, our second col of the day behind us seems an almost insignificant dip on the horizon. I look up to the Col du Mont Rouge - it seems still so far away - and bow my head before plodding on.

At the col, the temperature drops sharply. The wind ravages us and I pull on another layer. The vista that greets us is one that lifts me. The Glacier du Gietro awaits us. I pull off my pack and step into my harness. Clipping carabiners and an ice-screw to the gear loops, I munch on yet another chocolate bar. I strap on crampons, pull on gloves and then grab my pack. We tie onto the rope again and move off. It is a wide, flat expanse and, apart from deep, gargantuan crevasses, leading it would seem to Jules Verne territory, there is little to concern us. La Ruinette and then Mont Blanc du Cheilon watch over us and the Col de Cheilon is perhaps half an hour away in the distance.

The descent from the col is, however, to prove slightly more uncompromising than the route to the col itself. What faces us is bullet-proof ice, with thick, black mud and rock strewn unhelpfully around the place. Some of the group descend awkwardly, slowly, lacking in confidence. Not all of them are practised crampon users and technique is by no means perfect, yet we make it off without incident. It is a short, unmemorable rocky path to the Dix Hut with this one exception - we have, throughout the entire approach to the hut, perfect views of the Pigne d’Arolla - a copybook perspective of the approach to the Pigne along the Serpentine, and of the forked Glacier de Cheilon beneath it. This is our day tomorrow and it will be immense for us. I spent each passing moment, lost in my own thoughts, appraising each potential line and considering the terrain. When we reach the hut, I am impressed. It is a cosy old hut inside and a table has been set aside for us. We consume rösti hungrily and in huge quantities. One of us then asks about tomorrow. It is then that I notice Nigel is ashen-faced. He tells us that a guided group of six fell off the Serpentine yesterday. They were roped together and they fell 80m. All of them survived but all of them are, today, in hospital. Nigel thinks poor technique was to blame. I immediately think back to the descent from the Col de Cheilon.

I sleep poorly that night.