Alpine Trip to Arolla
13 Mar 2020 - Richard Horridge
This post is taken from a report I wrote for the Midland Association of Mountaineers (MAM) in March 2020
Myself, Jake Walters and Lottie May were extremely grateful for the opportunity to travel to Arolla, Switzerland for a three day course in alpinism with Andy Teasdale, British Mountain Guide, sponsored by the Midland Association of Mountaineers (MAM) in association with the University of Birmingham Mountaineering Club (UBMC). This trip report details the adventures that we had on this nine day excursion!
We set off from Birmingham early on Saturday 13th July, 2019, with the aim of catching the 12:25 ferry from Dover. Beforehand, we had packed the necessary equipment - walking ice axes, crampons, mountaineering boots, helmets and harnesses, along with quite a few layers of clothing and cooking equipment. We had hoped to be able to borrow some equipment from UBMC, such as ice screws and single ropes, but unfortunately this equipment had been checked out for a previous trip and hadn't been returned.
The ferry crossing was smooth and it was soon time to brave the French road system! I had never driven outside of the UK before so this was a new experience for me. We headed down the most direct route, taking the A26 past Reims and Troyes before heading down the A31 towards Dijon.
The first day of driving was extremely long and we eventually stopped in an Aire where, after playing a few rounds of cards, we had the interesting experience of trying to sleep three people in my car! It wasn't the most comfortable night's sleep of my life but it was well needed!
The next day, we set out to cross the border into Switzerland and it was mid morning as we arrived in Lausanne, on the shores of le Léman. It was a glorious day, and we stopped at the end of the lake in Vevey to look back down towards Genève before beginning our ascent into the Alps.
The view of le Léman from Vevey
A short drive later along the A9 and we were in Sion, capital of the canton of Valais. It was a very hot day and we were looking forward to gaining some altitude and cooling down a bit! It was also my first experience with Swiss hairpin bends! Needless to say, we arrived safely at the Arolla campsite, advertised as the highest in Europe at 1950m!
After a short wander around Arolla, we headed back down to Sion to get some fuel and see the sights.j
Lottie enjoying the scenery around the Pyramides d'Euseigne
We stopped off at the Pyramides d'Euseigne, a remarkable rock formation formed from the deterioration of glacial moraine. With our legs stretched after two days of travelling, it was time to do what all climbers do when they get somewhere new - go climbing! Just down the road from the campsite was a sport crag and it was fun to do a bit of sport climbing.
The view across Val d'Hérens to the east on the first day of the course
We were due to meet Andy on the next day so we got an early night and it was to our surprise when we awoke to fresh snowfall. Andy soon arrived and briefed us on what we'd be doing and what we should bring. We were to pack very light - we had to get used to wearing the same clothes for several days! As we were staying in huts, we had no need to bring much food or any bivouac equipment. After a short drive up the valley we set off into the winter wonderland!
Arriving at Pas de Chevres (2855m)
Our first destination was the Pas de Chevres at 2855m, where we could descend onto the Glacier de Cheilon via a series of precarious ladders. I was introduced very quickly to the challenge posed by altitude - I consider myself to be reasonably fit but I struggled to keep up with Jake, Lottie and Andy!
On the Glacier de Cheilon
We soon found ourselves confronted with a fast-flowing stream. Andy explained to us how dangerous these are - if we were to fall in it would be almost impossible to get a grip on the ice and we would be dragged a long way downstream! We crossed this stream with great care.
Not long afterwards we finally reached the Cabane des Dix hut where we were to spend the next two nights! This hut, like many others, is operated by the Swiss Alpine Club (CAS) and, for 70 CHF each, we got a bed, dinner and breakfast.
Inside the Cabane des Dix
Lottie relaxing outside the hut, with Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the background
Practicing glacier travel
Dinner in the Cabane des Dix!
After settling in, we went back outside with Andy to practice ropework. Travelling on glaciers is very dangerous, as there is always a risk of falling into a crevasse. To reduce the risk, we always travel in pairs or in a three and we keep a lot of rope between us (around nine arm-spans). This rope is not allowed to go slack - in the event that one of us falls and starts sliding, they would not be able to get a lot of momentum and their partner would (hopefully) be able to self-arrest.
Another technique we were taught was to tie two BFK (Big F***ing Knot) knots in the rope about one armspan from each person. The idea behind this is that if someone falls into a crevasse, the rope will make a groove in the ice which the knot will get stuck in, arresting their fall.
After an excellent dinner we went to bed. Alpinism demands early starts as the glacier melts as the day goes on, making everything much more difficult!
A fantastic view of Mont Blanc de Cheilon (3870m)
Short-roping up to the summit of La Luette (3548m)
The summit of La Luette (3548m), looking over to the Matterhorn (4478m)
Our goal for the second day was to summit La Luette (3548m), which would involve a section of steep glacier travel, a ridge walk and adjustment to a higher altitude.
We set off reasonable earlier, after a hearty breakfast which involved our first introduction to Marsh Tea - typically I would bring one bottle of water and a bottle of Marsh Tea up the mountain. It is meant to be helpful at altitude and to help with a number of illnesses!
We were treated to some fantastic views as we walked up, particularly of the distinctive peak of Mont Blanc de Cheilon. We soon found ourselves at the base of the Glacier de la Luette where we roped up as we had practiced. Our ascent involved making diagonal tracks up the glacier, ensuring that we kept the rope between us tight at all times. As the heavier person in the partnership, I stayed higher up - it would prove more costly to Lottie if I were lower down and fell, as I could drag her off her feet!
Along the way, we made detours to avoid obvious patches of crevasses. We aimed to keep to smooth sections of glacier, avoid obvious bumps where the ice could separate and form a crevasse.
Eventually we reached the ridge line and we changed to short ropes. All three of us roped together, which meant Andy was available to take pictures! The shorter rope meant that we could be prevented from falling, though we had to take care to move well together.
A short while later we reached the summit of our first Alp! The views were sensational, stretching over to Mont Blanc (4808m) in the west and the Matterhorn (4478m) in the east. I was beginning to feel the effects of altitude and was most grateful when we descended even only 100m from the ridge line.
Upon returning to the hut, we were treated to a helicopter delivery - it was quite a sight to see the helicopter take off and drop 200m out of sight over the edge of a cliff!
Preparing for our ascent of Pigne d'Arolla (3796m)
After another excellent dinner, it was time for our first proper alpine start - up at 4.30am for breakfast and to leave the hut for our final target peak, Pigne d'Arolla (3796m). We got to the base of the glacier as the sun was about to rise and prepared as quickly as we could for the ascent.
This was a long and arduous climb, albeit one punctuated with fantastic views! I would be lying if I said it wasn't a long, hard slog!
Walking up towards Pigne d'Arolla (3796m)
The view back to Arolla
I pushed on regardless and we finally reached the summit! I took in the views as best as I could but I was suffering with the effects of altitude worse than the others and I was grateful to descend down to a more manageable 3160m at the Cabane des Vignettes, where myself and Lottie had arranged to spend another night. We bade farewell to Andy and Jake and we were on our own.
The Cab des Vignettes
After a long afternoon (we had finished the day at 11am!) and another excellent dinner, we headed to bed. Our only plan for the fourth day was to head back down to Arolla - neither of us wanted to attempt another peak!
We packed up and set off as usual - it was strange to think that we were coming back down, as we had grown quite accustomed to life up in the mountains. Without Andy to guide us, we set off down the Glacier de Pièce and made it to the base without any mishaps.
Enjoying the sunshine!
After packing away our crampons and ice axes, we enjoyed a pleasant walk back to Arolla through alpine meadows. It was a great confidence booster to have been able to put the skills Andy taught us to the test and we felt capable of being truly independent!
After meeting up with Jake again we headed back to the sport crag for another spot of climbing. On the way back we spotted a couple of marmots and some rather less exciting cows.
With one full day left, we decided to try some Via Ferrata!
Via Ferrata in Evoléne
We rented lanyards in Evoléne and parked at the base of the route. The Evoléne Via Ferrata is not too long but has a section that is graded Très Difficile (TD) - as a group of experienced climbers we were undaunted and finished the route without issue.
Lac de Moiry
With plenty of time left in the day we decided to head to Grimetz in the neighbouring valley, where there was another Via Ferrata next to the Lac de Moiry reservoir. This route involved a precarious bridge traverse! Although we were protected by the lanyards the length of the falls involved was always a concern, though none of us had the opportunity to test them out! After a walk back down along the dam, we returned the lanyards and prepared for dinner!
I had been waxing lyrical about raclette for most of the trip and we had decided to have some on the last night in Switzerland. A quintessentially Swiss meal, we were pleased to discover that the nearby restaurant had the special machine for melting the cheese. While it was an expensive meal, we all felt it was worth it to experience the true taste of Switzerland!
Our final day in Switzerland dawned and we packed up the camp. There was one thing left for us to do in Valais - we hiked up to Lac Bleu, a popular local beauty spot named for the characteristic glacial lake colour. Needless to say, we went for a swim in the near-freezing water!
It was now time to begin the journey home and we set off down to the valley. We already knew we would have to break the journey and it was a nice day so we made a stop at the beach in Villeneuve, where we spent an enjoyable afternoon!
It was eventually time for the driving to properly begin. On Andy's advice, we headed back via a different route: leaving Switzerland via Basel. This involved a pleasant drive through northern Switzerland via Bern - it was nice to see a different part of the country and I had the opportunity to put my German to the test! We drove for a little while in France before stopping for the night at an aire in the Alsace region.
Jake in front of Strasbourg Cathedral
After a stormy night (at one point we had the sunroof open which resulted in a rude awakening!) we set off again aiming for Calais. We had quite a lot of time, so decided to stop off for a look around Strasbourg as we were nearby - it's a fascinating city and can definitely recommend a visit!
After passing Metz we spent a brief time in Luxembourg, where I took advantage of their low fuel prices! After a quick lunch in Belgium we were passing Bruxelles and heading for the coast. Unfortunately, being Sunday, the French shop opening hours scuppered my plans for filling the car with cheap plonk, so we made our way to the ferry terminal where we managed to catch an earlier ferry than planned, finally returning to Birmingham at around 11pm on Sunday 21st July 2019.
Overall the trip was a fantastic experience. On behalf of Jake and Lottie I would like to extend my gratitude to the MAM for their support. It was the first time climbing in the Alps for all of us and we learned a huge amount from Andy and each other. I, for one, will certainly be back and feel that I have the skills needed to travel safely around the mountains, book huts and organise accomodation and travel. I would like to finish by encouraging anyone who is interested to consider taking up the sport of mountaineering - it is a true adventure and, from my first time up Helvellyn in 2010 to my 2019 ascent of Pigne d'Arolla, has provided some of the richest experiences of my life.