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.


  1. Maz, another great post. I look forward to next one.

  2. Hi Maz,
    I have read the adventure en block so far and have to tell you it's a great read.The pictures are stunning.You have certainly been lucky with the weather though.
    Isn't it a fantastic feeling when you reach a height and around you are snow covered peaks as far as the eye can see and turquoise lakes.
    Maz your writing is worthy of any magazine entry. Looking forward to the next batch. 

  3. great stuff.  loving the photos on these, 'man with harness' is a perfect, relaxed, capture. Re stats - even the numbers look horrible!  As you know, descents take their toll just as much and its cumulative too, day in, day out. 

  4. As someone who wears glasses I'm very happy to hear you didn't forget your glasses + contact lenses! That tunnel must have been a somewhat weird experience during a walk.

    I've enjoyed your posts and am looking forward to the next one.

  5. great post, the tunnels add another aspect to the walk and are intriguing.

  6. It really is a stunning route. Looking forward to the report on the Pigne as I've done it myself from the other side many years ago. Hearing about a serious fall must have really upped the tension and apprehension by an order of magnitude

  7. The fall the day before certainly affected the mood among the group.