Sunday, 19 April 2009

Mountains High

Ascent to the Col Chardonnay seen through serac on the Argentiere Glacier

It was every bit as intimidating as I had feared; 15 months since I had even stood on skis, over 3000 metres of un-acclimatised altitude, a rucksack on my back to unbalance me and a glaciated slope immediately in front of me. As the guide book says, “standing on top of the Grand Montets can be an unnerving start to the Haute Route for some“.

Three of us – aka myself and 2 of the Run Like a Girl team were to spend seven days skiing the route from Chamonix (Argentiere) actually to Zermatt. The descent to the Argentiere glacier was accomplished on my part with minimal style but no wipe-outs and we began the long skinning ascent to the Col de Chardonnay. After a winter of high snowfall, temperatures had soared in the past two weeks and, in the frosty early morning, the slope was icy making for very tentative skinning. Seeing Alex make a minor slip I opted for the security of crampons for the steep lower section – a choice I felt was vindicated on hearing of someone slipping over 100metres whilst ascending on the true right bank of the lower glacier. Most who know me well will be aware that I took a terrifying fall some 150 metres down a gully in Chamonix two years earlier and was lucky to get away with broken ribs and a bloodied nose – I have no wish to push my luck on that score again.

Despite the high snowfall the East side of the Col seemed scoured clear of snow compared to how Karen and Alex had seen it before so we had to conduct a relatively delicate abseil and down-climb. By this time some cloud was coming in on the Foehn and visibility was dramatically reduced. We worked our way down the glacier and started looking for our first night destination – the Saleina Hut. After eyeing up every large rock on the opposing bank we finally spied the hut roof – both further and higher than we had hoped. By the time we finally arrived at the hut I was fatigued and in agony with my feet – simply very unused to ski boots and with exquisite pain on the outside edge of each foot. Still, we were the only guests at the hut for the night and a large meal with wine awaited.

Sunshine on the ascent to Valsorey Hut

Most on the Haute Route opt to stay at the Trient Hut, descent to Champex and then take public transport to Bourg in order to continue the journey. We had all agreed that a higher level option, avoiding such valley transport, seemed much more in keeping with what we wanted to attempt and the “Alpine” variant of the Haute Route offers just that. Day Two provided some good challenges which I still felt barely competent for – three cols, glaciated terrain, some skinnable, some requiring crampons and visibility that came and went with strong gusty wind and spindrift made it a day where we had to work together. Descending to La Fouly we encountered a range of snow conditions from icy through breakable to deep slush – the early start meant that we were in the village for mid-afternoon and time to enjoy hot chocolate and some great Pear/Apple tart.

The next day involved a little of the TMB in reverse – up the Ferret valley but then veering leftwards and steeply uphill to the Fenetre de Ferret – we had to ski over the debris of many full depth avalanches. The steeper slopes were very unnerving – cracked and seeming on the verge of collapse. At one point, cramponing up the turf seemed the safer option to anything on skis so we learnt that in ski mountaineering there is no single “right” way – you assess the conditions, do whatever seems safest and best and be prepared to turn around where necessary. White out conditions greeted us on the Fenetre and anyone following out tracks in good visibility would have wondered why we had so tentatively side slipped a great slope. Now we were in Bourg and back on the trail of the many – the previous 2 days we had only seen people from a distance on their own, different routes but it had ensured that we gained out own confidence, working together as a team and I now did feel that I belonged in these hills with kit that I knew how to use.

Full-on sun joined us for the long climb to the Valsorey Hut and the scenery was simply stunning – skinning a 750 metre climb in just a thin thermal with the sun beating down suddenly became a very relaxing and enjoyable exercise – hot and sweaty though. There was just one worry – above the hut stood a 600 metre slope which we would have to ascent to the Plateau de Couloir the next morning. The guidebook describes this as a key point of the route and from the hut it looked scarily steep. Turned out it’s bark was far worse than the bite though and with crisp snow perfectly taking the bite of lightweight crampons it was an exhilarating start to the day; a day which just grew better and better as we crossed the second col and faced a huge descent on perfect spring snow down to the Chanrion Hut – we had even managed to get to the front of the group and took “first tracks”.

New tracks, sunshine, great views - this is what it's about!

Day six was to include the ascent of the Pigne D’Arolla – a fine viewpoint of the Pennine Alps. A big climb of almost 1500 metres through some spectacular glacial terrain took us to this easy skiing summit although the fierce wind on the summit made the changeover from uphill – skinning – mode to downhill ski mode a challenge. The flat light also made the steep descent to the Vignettes hut a challenge but, once again, we were in the hut early enough for a mid afternoon Chocolate and Cake fest. The meteo revealed a problem though – the final day through to Zermatt is high (over 3000m) and glaciated so a forecast of 40cm of snow, 60km per hour wind and whiteout conditions could only mean one thing if it was real – we would have to bail out and drop down to the safety of the valley at Arolla. Breakfast was scheduled for 5.30am but the hut warden – peeking out into the maelstrom at that early hour effectively made the decision for us and postponed to the leisurely hour of 7am, knowing that the haute route was for no-one that day.

Once the gamesmanship of who would lead the way down had been sorted, around 80 people made their meandering way down to the valley – in around 15 minutes we went from wild high mountain terrain with horizontal snow to the relative calm of the valley. For u s it was a curtailed end to the full Haute route – simply meaning that next year we will have to start with the climb up to the Vignettes hut before making the traverse to Zermatt, Saas Fee beyond and then some of the many Pennine 4000m peaks. Ski-mountaineering is a challenging but addictive pastime which the Europeans have turned into a high art form with the quality of the huts and their food and wine. Oh – and as an ultra-runner I stand in awe that people have covered the whole distance, even running in ski boots from Chamonix town hall to the ski start in Argentiere in under 24 hours.

.....and the next chapter in life’s little adventure starts next week with a flight to California and, in 2 weeks my first 100km race of the season over there – the Miwok 100.

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