A little later than planned update on my Monte Rosa ‘Trek’ which did indeed contain a lot of trekking but so much more besides. Anyone who like me who underestimates the Alps simply because he has done a trek in the Himalaya’s would be wise to read this carefully!
This is long but there is so much left out, much of it emotional but I am sure you can read between these many lines!
The trip started by my driving down to Bossons near Chamonix to rendezvous with Kean at a camp site where we spent a couple of days acclimatising & drinking wine, priorities got a little confused, you understand. That said on Saturday I went for a hard 12 mile run up a 1,200 metre climb to the Refuge de Bel Lochat situated above 2,000m. Here sheltering from a cloud burst I met a lovely couple, Barbara & Ian, who were near the end of their TMB, they had not been blessed with good weather but were in good spirits, took my photo & were kind enough to e-mail it to Dorina who for some reason now has it as her screensaver.
Sunday came as did a pang for another run, this time a hard 8 miler with 1,000m of ascent up to Chalet des Pyramides airily situated with great views over the Bossons glacier. My enthusiasm for this run was later curtailed by the realisation that two hard runs back to back immediately before 6 days on Monte Rosa continually above 3,400 metres may not have been the wisest thing to do. Even Kean had more sense than that, probably because he drank less wine than me! The run was immediately followed by striking the tent & heading off for Zermatt where I arrived just in time for an Italian meal before finding a bar (theme developing) to watch Germany beat Argentina in some sporting event.
Monday was an early start to meet Kean & Tim at the train station at 07:30. From here a short walk with a lot of kit on my back (when will I learn to travel light) & plastic boots weighing my feet down led us to a long cable car ride up onto the Massif with clearing skies (the week before had been dreadful weather but luck was to be on our side for the next 6 days we were to be blessed with perfect weather & snow conditions).
Before I go any further I should make a very important point. I have gotten to know Tim Blakemore (our guide) during my 20 day Trek in Nepal where he got me to the summit of Island Peak (although I stayed on the fixed rope on the summit ridge this is where Alpine style first came into my periphery vision) & then again last year on Gran Paradiso & Mont Blanc. My trust in his ability was why I asked him to take me on this trip & it was soon clear that Kean understood that this trust was very well placed, Tim is the reason I can write this today.
However Tim soon surprised us by saying ‘change of plan we are not going to do the Breithorn, we will move onto Pollux instead’. Now I am not going to bore you with all the details of the next 6 days but it soon became clear that Day 1 on Pollux & Day 2 on Castor gave us the ideal preparation for the higher & harder challenges ahead. Pollux contained a steep snow gully, rocky fixed rope section & narrow summit ridge, Castor a steep glacier traverse, short section of front pointing & a long & steep sided summit ridge, which for some reason I actually quite enjoyed.
These preparations were to lead to Lyskamm (those who read my blog before this trip will understand that I was scared of this one & had actually suggested to Tim he would need to re-assess my ability before taking it on) on Day 3 via the Cresta Sella ridge, simply an awesome day with many self doubts. Kean did great but went more than a little quiet at times on the way up but on the summit ridge we worked really well together during the 1.5K descent to safety. Huge drops on either side sometimes as much as 5,000′ were to become our staple diet of fear.
Day 4 we agreed would be an easier day, great plan badly executed as I led us from the easiest summit of the week, Pyramide Vincent, to a secondary peak via a ridge from hell, I was now taking a serious mental battering.
Day 5 saw five more peaks conquered all with something to scare me before we arrived at the Margharita hut. Situated atop the Signalkuppe at over 4,500 metres this is the highest hut in the Alps, just how do they build something like that. A fabulous sunset with great views to the Matterhorn & tomorrow’s final challenges culminating in the Dufourspitze itself.
Before that final day a few words about the huts, their staff & our own hut culture. A trip like this would simply not be possible for most of us without the huts. We spent our first night at the Ayas Hut, second night at the Quintino Sella Hut, then 2 nights at the Mandova hut (particularly pleasant) before the Margharita itself. The staff were generally friendly & helpful, the guides met for half an hour each night to discuss routes & conditions in their ‘safety’ meetings, as for the food it was excellent given the logistical difficulties of supplies & cooking for a hundred or so in one sitting (Breakfasts though at best are basic). Arriving at the huts early each afternoon we soon figured out that an extra recovery meal upon arrival was a very wise investment for our tired bodies. Mixing with fellow Alpinists & friendly guides makes up for an hardships of the sleeping arrangements.
An early start on Day 6 at 5:15 got us out ahead of the pack & on our way to our last two summits. The descent down to the Dufourspitze’s South East Ridge was an achievement in itself but the exposure continued all the way to it’s summit. This traverse from hut to summit took an epic 3 hours & was followed by a controlled (by Tim) fixed rope lowering descent to relative safety. I cannot begin to express how relieved I was to reach the ‘solid’ glacier below albeit after my slipping & bringing Kean down with me thankfully on a gentle slope which only led to a minor slide & a less than artistic ice axe arrest, that technique really would have been catastrophic earlier in the trip.
A final route march out of over 6 hours past the odd menacing Serac in boots that had performed well on the serious stuff but were clearly far from ideal for normal walking let alone Kean’s & My final race up to the train station rounded off the biggest step up in mountaineering Alpine style that I have ever done. Back in Zermatt rain began to fall, just how lucky we were with that weather window.
We had climbed twelve 4,000 metre peaks in 6 days & no regrets not taking on Nordend, 13 would have been one too many first this battered mind.
So what would my advice be to any aspiring Alpinist to be: Prepare better than I did (I would need a clear month without races or other major distractions before taking on anything remotely similar in future). Make sure your guide is someone you already know if at all possible, when fear surrounds you & your breathing becomes erratic with tension a firm but friendly guiding hand is so important. Finally if you can share the experience with a mate who you can support & be supported by & then have the bonus of reminisces with for no doubt years to come is all the better still.
A footnote is that physically I recovered quickly even going for an ‘easy’ 10 miler the next day. Mentally however I was still feeling in a state of shock for almost a week afterwards & now 2 weeks on am still unable to comprehend the enormity & meaning of it all with clarity.