Today we wake to improving weather and leave the hut at 8 am. As yesterday, our objective is La Luette. This time, however, our route will require us to cross the Luette glacier.
We rope up and Ali leads the initial steep section up onto the glacier itself. We proceed with caution. Our knowledge of crevasses is purely theoretical – we have received instruction on crevasse rescue techniques but we are untested.
To give you, dear reader, some background – a glacier, as you’re probably aware, is a large, slow moving river of ice which is formed from compacted layers of snow. The lower layers deform under the pressure of the layers above, allowing the glacier as a whole to move slowly downhill like a viscous fluid. However, the upper layers are more brittle, and often form deep cracks known as crevasses as they move.
If I was to fall into a crevasse then Ali would have to stop my fall. Failing to do so would have dire consequences for us both as we are roped together. She has a nagging doubt as to whether she would be strong enough, should the worst happen.
Here is what Fred Mummery had to say about such situations over a hundred years ago:
“The main strength of the objection to two men climbing alone is, perhaps, to be found in the common belief that if one man falls into a crevasse, his companion will be unable to pull him out. With regard to this extremely unpleasant supposition, it may be pointed out that there is no particular reason for him to fall in. Why any one should wish to dangle on the rope, in a dark and chilly chasm, is one of those profound and inscrutable mysteries which may be regarded as past all finding out. It is, of course, a quite unnecessary incident.”
It could be noted that, despite his many climbs in the Alps and elsewhere, Fred never did fall in a crevasse during his lifetime – he was killed by an avalanche on Nanga Parbat a year later.
The problem is that crevasses are not always visible on the surface. They may be completely covered, but not necessarily filled, by fresh snowfall or drifts. This creates the illusion of an unbroken surface while hiding the opening under a layer of unknown thickness, possibly only centimetres thick.
And so it is, that Ali and I proceed cautiously across the glacier. We are looking intently for any tell-tale depressions that might indicate hidden crevasses.
A sense of Alpine scale – Ali and Lay crossing the Luette glacier (below left of centre – click to enlarge, then click Full Size). Photo courtesy of Stephen Whiting
Tags: Arolla · Crevasses
Back at the Dix, Rob Wills, a British IFMGA guide introduces himself to us in the boot room. Due to heavy snow conditions in Chamonix he has brought his clients over to Arolla in search of better conditions.
Rob is not just making polite conversation – as a professional guide he gathers as much information as possible in order to make informed decisions. Despite our admission that we are just novices, he is still keen for our first hand report on conditions higher up today. My spirits are lifted when he isn’t surprised at our lack of progress versus guidebook time today.
The Dix hut has a shower. A bit of a luxury for an Alpine hut I must say – trouble is that it is outside. Three sides of the ‘cubicle’ afford the occupant limited modesty as they are made from old wooden shipping pallets. The fourth side is open to the mountains – and just had, in my opinion, to be experienced.
Now I like a cold shower more than most, in fact I can’t stand really hot showers – Ali, on the other hand, seems to positively thrive in showers so hot that it would make a lobster scream. She was having none of this. Okay so I can see that it is fed directly from melt water off the Luette glacier and there is no hot tap to mix it with – but seriously, how cold can it be? After 30 seconds my limbs went numb.
Over dinner we discuss our plan for tomorrow – we quickly abandon the idea of an attempt at the much more serious summit of Pigne d’Arolla given the conditions. Instead we opt to tackle La Luette again by a more direct route. With the change in plans, the ever helpful Pierre offers to telephone the Vignettes hut, on our behalf, to cancel our booking there.
One thing we had learnt today is the awesome scale of the Alpine arena when compared to the UK hills – the Col de Cheilon looks close enough to touch from the Dix, but is in reality over 2km away.
We awake at 5:30am to the ominous rumble of thunder outside the hut – not a good omen to start the day. After a quick gear cluster faff I head downstairs to find Pierre, the hut guardien.
I eagerly state “La Luette!” in response to his enquiry as to our route for the day. Pierre pauses, presumably weighing the suggested proposal against his vast experience, local knowledge and the current weather conditions. “Okay, so you want to die today?” his laconic retort.
My protest falls on deaf ears and he sends me, deflated, back to bed but at least there is a ray of hope – “the weather may improve later this morning and Luette is not so far”, he says. Our initial plan was to summit La Luette today and then traverse the Pigne d’Arolla tomorrow on my birthday. Now things look doubtful.
We finally set off at 10:00 am, very late for an Alpine start, but at least the weather has cleared as Pierre had predicted. Our guidebook gives us cause to hope that Luette is still possible:
The normal route is a short excursion from the Dix hut and would make a good and uncomplicated first outing for Alpine novices. As it is possible to reach the summit in mid-summer without having to set foot on much serious snow, fitter parties based in Arolla could easily manage a round trip from the valley in a day.
Ali leads off and we follow a track in the snow towards the Col de Cheilon for a little over a kilometre before cutting up right over mixed scree and snow slopes towards the southern edge of the Luette glacier. The going is tough – The top layer of snow hasn’t frozen over night and in places we are post-holing up to our thighs and the wind is picking up strength again.
As we approach steeper ground we stop to rope up. The wind is fierce now, and in an instant I am lifted bodily off my feet by a gust, spun in mid air and thrown down on some rocks – my crampons slashing my expensive over trousers in the process.
We press onwards and upwards, and shortly before reaching the glacier we start to zig zag up to the crest of the south east ridge of La Luette. At around 3,300m we stop for lunch and perch on a large boulder below a loose scree slope.
Ali and I discuss options – it is clear that we are well behind guidebook time, perhaps understandably given the conditions, but none the less we are behind. We shouldn’t push our luck on our first Alpine excursion – continuing on and having an “epic” on our first outing would be bad form indeed – we decide to turn around now before the weather deteriorates still further.
Ali leads off – I have but a moment to absorb the amazing Alpine view, in a vain effort to etch it permanently in my memory, before the rope comes taught and we are descending fast. The words of that great Victorian mountaineer, Leslie Stephen, seem as true this day as when he wrote them in 1871:
“The mountains represent the indomitable force of nature to which we are forced to adapt ourselves, they speak to man of his little-ness and his ephemeral existence.”