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
Highest Point: Pigne d'Arolla (3,796m)
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 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...?