The Climber's Voice
My First Alpine Experience
Mike Collinson describes his first visit to the Alps.
It started as beer talk with a good friend after a freezing epic in the Cairngorms that went something like this.
Martin: “Do you fancy the Alps this summer?”
“Yeah, okay, do you think I’m good enough though?”
“Yeah, you will be okay.”
“Cool! But I want to do something that will challenge me.”
“Okay, great let’s go in July.”
And that was it, the start of my first Alpine mountaineering trip.
I had been climbing for about four years and was happy leading E1s on the quarried grit of Lancashire and had just completed my first Grade IV in the Cairngorms. Although we had had a battle against the high winds and temperatures down to -20, I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, albeit I had moaned all the way up and back down about the freezing conditions and the spindrift. Martin, my climbing partner, was a seasoned Alpinist and I knew I would be in safe hands. He had the experience while I had the eagerness to push myself within my new found activity.
A few weeks later Martin had come up with a plan. We would set up base in Courmayeur, and climb the Tour Ronde as an acclimatisation climb before heading off to climb The Kuffner Arête. My job was to get us there and back. So six months later, the car was packed and we started the drive down to Italy and before I knew it we were in the cable car heading up to the Torino Hut, our starting point for the hike in to the Tour Ronde. We exited to cloud, rain, mist and wind, whatever happened to bright blue skies and crisp cold air? An hour passed waiting, watching cold, wet, tired mountaineers returning from their own adventures before it was clear enough to head out. We had a quick gear check, donned crampons, roped up and set off. The cloud was low and visibility came and went and within 30 minutes we had wandered off course, a quick referral to the small A5 size map and we were back on track.
I have skied in the Alps many times so the size of these mountains was no surprise, but to actually walk over this terrain was tiring and slow going. By now the cloud had lifted and we were hiking in beautiful sunshine and we were the only team in this particular area. The solitude was amazing and the realisation of how small and insignificant we are on this planet was truly felt. As we rounded a large outcrop of rock we could see the glacier we had to cross and to one side the Tour Ronde loomed up into thick grey cloud, The Kuffner Arête was just visible but looked sinister and daunting with its own weather system hanging over it. The weather was changing constantly, one minute clear skies and sunshine, the next, grey threatening clouds. But one thing didn’t change, the grey clouds blowing off the top of the Tour Ronde.
After four hours of plodding along tied together, dodging crevasses, wondering what it would be like to fall into one, or even to have to rescue Martin from one we finally arrived at where we would make our camp. I was going to realise one of my many dreams, to sleep in a real snow hole under a million twinkling stars. Unfortunately the cloud cover meant we were the only stars out, and trying to dig a snow hole with our adzes was proving impossible. We must have had two, maybe three hours sleep, annoyingly interrupted by the bleeping of Martin’s alarm, I pretended to be asleep and didn’t move, then I realised that the penetrating wind had brought with it driving sleet and snow, all blowing straight into our shelter. The wall we had built to protect us the previous day, gone, melted in the night, the remains looked like icicles growing up from the ground, this wasn’t how my dream was in my head. As I continued to struggle to hear Martin’s mumblings I realised our mountain had gone, we could just make out its base in the 4am darkness, not even a silhouette or a single star could be seen, the cloud was low, the snow was falling, my morale had deserted me temporarily until I finally made out Martins words: “This is shit, let’s give it another hour.” By 8am the conditions hadn’t improved, to the south we could see blue skies and white fluffy clouds but where we had planned to go was dark, black and grim. I sat up and realised I was lying in about two inches of melted freezing water. I was cold, tired, hungry and most of all disappointed because we had decided to call off this particular trip and head back down to the warm sun in the Courmayeur valley.
We were aware that we had to check the weather, so a plan was hatched to spend the following day in Chamonix. The good news came and was that we had our weather window to tackle The Kuffner Arête. Wednesday and Thursday sunny with cloud moving in Thursday pm. This was it, our trip was pack on plan. We knew the walk in, as we had to pass our bivvy spot at the Tour Ronde before starting the climb up to the Bivvy de la Fourche, our first night’s rest point. There had been about one foot of fresh snow since our last excursion just two days ago which had transformed this magnificent area. We were soon down to our base layers with rolled sleeves as the sun shone down, heading into a vast amphitheatre. This place was truly amazing with views of snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see. The scenery and the total silence apart from the fresh snow crunching under our crampons created a magical feeling of completeness within me. I felt I was capable of anything.
Finally, we were racking up, and I was about to swing my axes for the first time into Alpine snow/ice. It had been hard to agree with Martin regarding what we should carry gear wise. So with just six nuts, two hexs, two cams, four ice screws and a selection of slings and quickdraws we plunged our axes into the steep snow slope and began climbing, roped together, Martin leading and me following with about 25m of rope between us, the rest tied off in coils around our chests. The going was good, feet kicking directly into the hard snow making perfect steps up the slope, plunging axe shafts deep for support. We were covering good ground and before I knew it we had gained the ridge, we had the best seats in the house within this natural amphitheatre, sitting on a knife edge ridge with hundreds of metres of drop on either side, but I felt no fear sat there absorbing the beauty of this vast wilderness. Now we had a short ridge traverse and mixed climb to reach the bivvy hut which I insisted on leading. This was what it was all about, mixed climbing in the sun with big, big drops either side of me, battling against this natural rock formation, threading the rope around these features to provide protection as we moved as a team. I down climbed the last 10m to the bivvy hut, with a massive feeling of joy, relief and happiness, and as a stupid grin spread across my face. I set up a belay and brought Martin to the safety of the metal shelf on which this garden shed was sat. We had completed our first day, and what a day it had been, near perfect conditions, blue skies and sun shining. More importantly this had been my first day of Alpine mountaineering.
We were at 3,737m and it was 4am, breakfast eaten and all geared up to start along The Kuffner Arête. As we left the hut it was surprisingly warm, the sky was a very deep blue colour and the stars just about visible in the lightening sky. I started leading the traverse, straight off the balcony onto the snow-covered rock. Both axes hooked over a large flake then a big leg swing to catch a crampon on the same flake before pulling, rocking up to safety. At my first attempt I missed and found myself hanging above nothing by my axes, I could feel the pain where I had caught my shin. I looked down onto nasty rocks just waiting to claim me, I can’t get this bit wrong. With the second attempt I made the move and we continued traversing the ridge.
As we progressed and it got lighter, we witnessed amazing views, the sun rising over the horizon and lighting up vast white mountains, dull peaks coming to life as the sun lit them. This was great, but I found myself getting hotter and hotter, the sweat running into my eyes and my legs becoming heavier and heavier, each step becoming more and more laboured. We were moving roped together with nothing to save us if we fell apart from our axes and each other. Axe in one hand, coils in the other our pace slowed as we gained more altitude. Martin had the fitness and experience and was pushing on lead, we could see bad weather moving in and at this pace we would be caught in it. We had to move faster.
By now I was burning up, sweating, shaking, a sick feeling growing in my stomach, I was feeling dizzy and my legs felt like I was wearing diving boots instead of mountaineering boots and crampons. I needed to drink something, take on fluids and try and eat. After one hard boiled sweet and a mouthful of water I was sick, bringing up the contents of breakfast, albeit a cereal bar and some chocolate. I realised I was in a bad way but didn’t know why. I needed to rest. We were at about 4,000m and if we carried on then there was no retreating until we hit the summit of Mount Maudit.
After a brief chat we agreed that we had to retreat and descend. We retraced our steps for about 50m to the top of a long gully which looked like a good descent route. We would alternate down climbing wherever possible and when I hit the rock band I would set up an abseil to cross the exposed rocks. Two hours later we finally crossed the bergschrund, which we both came close to disappearing down, and were back on the glacier coiling the rope for the long hike back. The weather had now engulfed our route and a part of me was glad we had retreated, otherwise we could have been in serious trouble. Even though we had failed in our attempt our spirits were sky high and we both had smiles permanently etched on our faces for the hike out.
The hike out turned into a plod, and took the last of my strength and energy. I have never been so pleased to see such an ugly concrete building in the middle of the mountains as I was to see the Torino Hut. As we arrived back onto the balcony, once again shrouded in mist, I had a massive feeling of achievement. This had been my first venture into Alpine climbing and it had simply been amazing. We made the final journey back to Courmayeur in the cable car which was full of tourists who had been taking in the views. As I unzipped my jacket and layers to cool off I realised there was a strange smell around us. We were getting some funny looks and it slowly dawned that it was us creating the smell, we stank. The trip ended sat in the sun with a couple of well-earned beers outside the cable car station stripped down to base layers and leggings. The altitude sickness was just a distant memory as there were so many highlights to the whole trip that it wasn’t important that we hadn’t made it to any of our planned summits. They will always be there for another time.
This article first appeared in Climber magazine