Over the past 5 or so years of being involved on the peripheries of the outdoor community the whispers of ‘alpine routes’ have got louder and louder. The place most often associated with them has almost always been Chamonix. Famous (in my head) for steep skiing and Mont Blanc, Chamonix hadn’t really been on my radar as a summer destination. However, when the whispers of magical alpine days got so loud they could no longer be ignored it seemed the perfect destination for a weeks van trip to see what all the fuss was about.
I love the mountains more than any other environment but I am fairly averse to early starts – things that seem a badge of honor in the alpine world and have an absolute fear of falling in a crevasse and ending my days there. I tried to go with an open mind but there was no doubt that alpine style mountaineering was going to be close to the edge of my comfort zone.
Plas y Brenin offer an alpine essentials course which seemed to be the perfect intro into the alpine environment. Our guide for the three days was Richard from Mountain Adventure Guides. Having lived in the Chamonix valley for over 20 years I felt we were in safe hands. The course followed what I now understand to be a fairly standard step-wise approach to alpinism. On the first day we took the train to Montenvers to access the Mer de Glace. The ‘sea of ice’ is a dry glacier (in summer) accessed via a series of very long ladders and is a great environment to practice moving in crampons and ice climbing while surrounded by lofty peaks. Walking around on a glacier is like walking on a giant ice cube; a very surreal experience.
On the second day we were up and off up the cable cars to the Aiguille du Midi, the starts were getting earlier but by no means alpine. We arrived at the ‘top of Europe’ along with a lot of excited tourists but our destination was not the gift shop or viewing tower but the glacier below which is accessed via a steep, busy, snow arête. I have a healthy respect for steep snowy slopes and this was not my favourite bit of the trip. I’m not sure whether the cloudy day was better or worse as we couldn’t quite see the precipitous drop either side!
Once down onto the glacier we practiced walking roped up across the glacier and then over a rocky ridge route which ended on the balcony of the Refuge des Cosmiques, an alpine hut that is incredibly popular with climbers looking to take on some of the classic Chamonix routes. I have never been happier to be on solid ground as I had found the whole experience pretty terrifying, the constant exposure of precipitous drops had pushed me well out of my comfort zone.
After vowing on the second evening that the final day of guiding would be my grand finale, my swansong of alpine mountaineering the day dawned with crystal clear skies. We once again ascended to the Aiguille du Midi but this time took another lift across to Italy – the Helbronner. The descent from the cable car to the glacier was much more civilised than the arête and I was beginning to see what all the fuss was about. This was a stunning landscape that with a bit of training could be safely accessed and enjoyed.
The route chosen was a delight, like a good quality North Wales scramble but, (sorry Wales) in a much sunnier, snowier, bigger setting. I don’t quite know what made the difference but I had a great day. The drops no longer seemed quite so scary, we were moving well across the rock as a team and the weather was perfect.
The three days were somewhat of an emotional roller-coaster. I found the potential consequences of a slip on the routes truly terrifying and struggled at times to keep my (not really irrational) fear under control. I also bemoaned my lack of fitness as at altitude climbing steep snow slopes was painful and unenjoyable. However, the views, the tranquility and the absolute beauty of the area was unlike any other terrain I have come across and the rock was fantastic to climb on.
If nothing else the experience has dramatically increased my confidence in taking on scrambles and rock climbs in the UK although I suspect it has also ignited a wish to return to the alps and enjoy this paradise again.
Top tips for an enjoyable alpine day
- Invest in some category 4 sunglasses
- Take water in a Camelback – you don’t want to take your pack off on a steep ridge to have a drink
- Take easily accessible snacks as you’ll be eating on the move
- Down jackets while warm rip easily, if I went again I’d take my slightly hardier synthetic belay jacket
- Don’t take a bobble hat as it wont fit well under a helmet – save it for the valley