High and Mighty: Hanging tough on the Alpine peaks

On an alpine mountaineering course the dangers come thick and fast, says Simon Birch. Storm-force winds, crevasses wherever you turn - just make sure you've got enough rope to hang yourself from

It all happens so quickly. One minute I'm happily leading the way down the glacier with my guide, Marty Beare, a few metres behind me, then suddenly the ground gives way and I find myself falling into a cre-vasse, my legs thrashing wildly beneath me.

Fresh snow has covered any tell-tale signs of the lurking chasm and I've broken through the thin crust. I've only fallen up to my waist, and thanks to Marty's quick reflexes, and the fact that we are roped together, I'm actually quite safe.

The instant he saw me stumble he braced himself, and because the rope has sufficient slack, something he had demonstrated earlier that day, he is able to arrest my fall and ensure I am held at the very edge of the crevasse.

Once I pull myself out, Marty has a confession for me: "I'm actually quite pleased you fell in, as it shows that what we teach in theory really works in practice."

Having scrambled and walked over many of the higher bits of the UK, I had long set my sights on bigger things, which is why I signed up for a week-long introductory course to alpine mountaineering. My base is the minuscule mountain village of Arolla, 2,000 metres up in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Arolla has a long history of alpinism, and Brits have spent more than 100 years clambering up the mountains that loom over it.

In the creaking, 150-year-old Hotel du Mont Collon, my home for the next week, they proudly display a letter sent in 1889 from a plucky Miss Richardson from Ripon, who describes her successful first ascent of the intimidating north face of the nearby 3,877m Pigne d'Arolla. No Gore-Tex, no GPS - what a gal.

Modern clothing is very much in evidence when our three-strong group steps out on to the nearby Glacier de Ferpècle for our first lesson: crampon and ice-axe technique. "It's essential you know the right way to use these, as all the major Alpine peaks are surrounded by glaciers," explains Paul Farmer, the head guide with Jagged Globe, the Sheffield-based company who run courses in the region.

Over the next three hours we practise marching up, down and sideways on the ice. A great number of mountaineering accidents happen when people trip on their crampons, explains Paul. The next subject we must tackle is a climber's most important piece of equipment: the rope. The classroom this time is the Aiguilles Rouges hut which sits above the Arolla valley.

As the mist scuds past the window, Marty demonstrates the classic technique of "taking coils", winding a rope over his shoulder half-a-dozen times before tying a knot and securing the whole thing to his harness with a karabiner.

The idea is that your climbing partner does exactly the same with the free end of the rope and you then move together, the standard mountaineering method for climbing over dodgy ridges and glaciers. If one of you slips, the other can stop the fall.

Our introductory training complete, we are ready to tackle our first Alpine peak, the 3,489m Pointe de Vouasson, beginning well before dawn the following morning. Summer ascents demand these yawningly early starts, as you need enough time to reach the summit and return to the hut before the strengthening sun begins to soften the snow and make conditions underfoot unstable.

It is a magical time to be so high in the mountains, and we pause to watch the sun emerge from behind the unmistakable silhouette of the Matterhorn. At the edge of the glacier, we rope up and fit crampons. The climb to the Pointe de Vouasson, a classic beginner's peak rated facile - the easiest grade - is straightforward, involving little more than a plod through knee-deep fresh snow and a simple scramble along the summit's ridge.

As we reach the top of our first Alpine peak we are rewarded with a handshake from Paul and Marty and the most dramatic view, of huge Alpine summits in every direction. The sun is shining in a seemingly cloudless sky when Marty points to a stream of wispy clouds to the south.

"Sorry," he says, "but those clouds mean a front is on its way."

By the next morning the front has arrived. This is the föhn, the weather system which can sweep across the Alps bringing with it notoriously stormy weather. Lashings of rain in the valleys, snow higher up and low cloud which races furiously across the peaks.

When the rain does subside, we walk to the Cabane des Dix hut where we are to spend the night before attempting our second and final challenge of the week, the Pigne d'Arolla. Built on an isolated cliff like some impregnable medieval castle and surrounded by a sea of glaciers, the Cabane des Dix is regarded as one of the best huts in Switzerland.

The evening before the climb the wind picks up, howling incessantly. Inside the hut, its roar is drowned out by the cheery banter of more than 50 climbers from all over Europe. But with little sign of the wind abating, it is likely to be touch and go as to whether we will be climbing the next day.

At 5am, we get our answer. Paul strides into our dorm and delivers a sharp bark of an order: "Get up!" Our route up the Pigne is likely to prove somewhat easier than that taken by Miss Richardson over 100 years ago, taking us up the glacier which streams down the north-west flank of the mountain from the summit.

Like our first climb it is rated facile, yet as we begin climbing we soon realise it is going to be far more difficult - and exciting. With chunks of ice the size of houses seemingly suspended in mid-fall above the glacier, and sheer cliffs rising into the cloud all around us, this is adrenalin-pumping mountain territory the like of which I have never experienced before.

To add to the drama, as we thread our way up the steepening glacier we teeter across snow bridges, sections of ice no more than half a metre wide which span monstrous crevasses. Then, just as we reach the top of the glacier and think all the hard work is behind us, we climb up on to the Arctic-like summit plateau and are hit by storm-force winds which send the temperature plummeting.

With my head firmly down, I doggedly follow Marty's footsteps in the billowing spindrift for what seems an eternity. Finally we reach the summit, and again receive a congratulatory handshake from Marty and Paul, but our view this time consists of little more than swirling whiteout.

When visibility improves on the descent I eventually see the tiny speck that is Arolla way down in the valley below, and in what seems next to no time we are sat in the village square, toasting our success with beers in hand.

So what I had I learned? That while it was easily one of the greatest adventures I've ever had, it was also one of the toughest, the most exhausting activity I've ever undertaken.

And while alpine mountaineering can at times be dangerous and scary, the good news is that all the safety procedures you're taught really do work. You can be taught to survive on a glacier, even if the bottom falls out of your world.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Simon Birch travelled to Arolla by train. Fares from London to Paris on Eurostar start at £59 per person return; fares for onward travel to Sion in Switzerland start at £95 per person return. More information or for bookings: 0870 830 4862; raileurope.co.uk

FURTHER INFORMATION:

A six-day alpine mountaineering course with Jagged Globe based in Arolla starts at £795. Details: 0845 345 8848; jagged-globe.co.uk

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Arts and Entertainment
Pink Floyd on stage at Live 8 in 2005. From left to right: David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright
music New album The Endless River set to overtake boyband for most pre-ordered of all-time
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right