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.


  1. The real deal.  These photos are amazing, what a place, especially the Stockji.  That's one happy man on the ladder there ;)

  2. Yes, I was rather enjoying myself there. Thanks David - glad you've enjoyed the series.

  3. Great photos Maz. V jealous

  4. The Alps threw you a weather curve-ball on the final (nearly) day. Still the photos are great especially the Matterhorn as I've never seen it from there. Sometimes those days when the weather throws up some clouds and storms gioves you a whole different perspective. Love the ladders, cracking photos of you on them - in your element there.

    I've also wanted to head to the peaks in the Monte Rosa Massif. Other than the main summits, Dufourspitze and Nordend, they are pretty straightforward although very high. A good read for the 4000m peaks is Will Mclewins "In Monte Viso's Horizon". He's a serious mountaineer (first british man to climb all the recognised 4000m peaks) but it's a great read about one mans thoughts and approach to alpine mountaineering

    We had a crack at Dufourspitze back in the 90's. I had to give up at around 4400m with altitude sickness and my wife and my mate tried to go further but the final narrow and exposed ridge forced them back as my wife has limited experience.

  5. I like a bit of weather so it actually enhanced the trip. In reality it was easy stuff - fog and wind and not much more when we were actually out there. The first night, across the Chamonix valley by Le Brévent (as far as I can make out) there was a thunderstorm complete with lightning. Being in that would have been really serious - everything we got was Hollywood by comparison. Dufourspitze and Nordend are the tough ones, along with some of Liskamm, but the others are easy 4000ers to summit. Give up at 4,400m? That's miserable.

    Andy, I'm in North Wales 28th-30th November doing grade 2-3 scrambling - don't know how much time we'll have but if we have time, I'd like to meet for a beer. If not, we'll arrange something else. My email, so you have it, is 34winchester at googlemail dot com.

  6. wonderful adventure.. I've really enjoyed that. Fabulous pics once again. Appreciate the time and effort that has gone into writing it up. 

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. I am thrilled everyone enjoyed the series so much - it means a lot to me. It was a great trek and writing it up has sorted a few things out for me too. So thanks again.

  8. Thanks. Easy to take good photos in the alps ;-)

  9. Blood and effort put into that epic.  The worry you had at times and the sheer scale and danger of the moving landscape captured well.  Enjoyed that.