Alpine highs pt.1: trading bicycle for Icicle

A year later than planned, perhaps* a decade later than ideal for a little boy who wanted to be a mountaineer, I finally got my introduction to the Alps and the tools of winter mountaineering. (*some say older, wiser and less likely to have a stupid ‘over-confidence of youth’ related death)

Indeed, in March I flew to Geneva, found my minibus company amongst the hoards of signs in arrivals, and was whisked to the nerve centre of european mountain activity: Chamonix. I lugged my bag around town to get my bearings, had a lovely basic lunch and smoked my pipe on a bench with a view: intermittent though it was through the shifting clouds, I was getting quite heady on the nicotine-fueled mountain air, and the whole mysterious peep-show of stunning geography was terribly compelling. I had been to the Himalaya before, but these mountains were closer, more jagged, and in every way more within reach…

At the appointed time I found the Icicle office to meet our course hosts for ‘Winter Alpine & Ice Intro‘ and the other five group members: an adventurous couple, some business men, and a young guy Mike who was to be my room mate and climbing partner later in the week. I say young, but Mike was a few years older than me, with everyone else more around 40. Admin, kit lists, accommodation then ice-breakers in the Munster bar.

As became standard practice for the rest of the week, our group headed out to dine together for relaxed and delicious meals in a variety of establishments. Salad, pizza, omelette, frogs legs, steak and a little of every dessert possible were all magnificent. Washed down with an obligatory pichet of vin rouge, one could not complain for the 20-25 euros that lightened the wallet. Ordinarily an over-the-top expense for me, it really was good value considering the quality of the experience: the prices were reasonable, the eating good, the ambiance just right, the company great, and I was on holiday. Retiring to our ski-pod dwellings of diminutive proportions (that appealed to my minimalist tendencies), I slumbered in an inferno awaiting the cold of the next 5 days.

The 8 o’clock breakfast was a decidedly non-alpine start, and dispelled any secret hankerings for a truly hard-core week: We were here to learn comfortably and safely, not push ourselves /get dragged around and be too exhausted to retain anything. Museli, toast, juice, coffee etc. Where are the croissants? That stuff doesn’t really sit with me, so I bought some butter, eggs and reduced-price frankfurters to cook up my own breakfasts. Yum. With a few chocolate raisins and mixed nuts to snack on, it keeps you going until the next delightful dinner. I digress once again into food…. off to the hills.

The first two days involved a mountain journey on snowshoes. Ferried through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy, we set off up the Val Ferrett, getting used to the gentle plastic clip-clap of our new underfoot appendages and the various ways it is possible to either trip-up yourself or ascend-up a snow slope. Some fared better than others and the pace should perhaps have been more controlled on account. We did have amazing hot chocolate, silently giggle at the old leathery, sunbathing skiers, and gaze in awe at the winter wonderland, the Grand Jorasses and Mont Blanc. The day was filled with excellent avalanche /snowpack awareness training and a very illustrative session of ARVA transceiver work that made us about 100x more effective by the end of it. We spent the night in the most welcoming Bonatti hut; having a warm shower, and as we were the only ones staying, served a ‘more simple dinner’ of four hand-crafted courses! On day two we followed the valley higher to a col then gained the summit of TĂȘte Entre Deux Sauts using our nifty new footwork. Coming down was endlessly fun: floating, glissading and slumping through the powder. As the day warmed, the snowpack turned more slushy so we descended through a forest where it would be more stable. We were less stable however, and I had to employ the ‘slide on your bum’ technique to keep up with our more fluid guide. Snow up your back is a refreshing payoff for this speed and demonstrates the wicking of a Rab Vapour-Rise top very well. Trying to feel the snow and refine technique we ploughed in line back to the rendezvous with our transport. We were a bit ahead of time, there was a cafe… you don’t want to know….

Wednesday dawned and we took the rack and gear train to Montnvers for a day on the Mer du Glace. After gaining such height in the train, we descended at first by cable car and then numerous steps to reach the ice, passing sobering signs that marked the previous levels of the glacier over the last 20 years. We swapped plastic for metal on our feet and practised taxing crampon techniques, then use of single classical axes, and finally twin ice tools on the blue glacial walls. To round the day off we worked on roped-up glacier walking (not so easy) and escaped the glacier basin via the iron ladders and rock ledges to catch the last train back to town. There were certainly aspects of this day that were challenging to learn, and as we made for the train I can also see how accessible and fun the Italian Via Ferrata must be. This was the last day in which we had one guide teaching the whole group; from now on there would be a guide for every pair, and the experience was to step up a gear…

* more photos on flickr

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