The Alpine Winter Journey

November 25, 2008

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I was spoilt the first time I went out to the Alps because unlike most normal people for some reason I chose to go out in winter.  Stepping down from the bus on January morning I was enveloped in the cold so profoundly deep it made my teeth hurt and want to dash back into the warmth of the overnight bus from Victoria.  The streets before me were covered in inches of gravel peppered ice, the air full of the sounds of clacking ski boots, clicking poles and revving snow ploughs.  I turned around and couldn’t believe what I saw above me was real: a string of mountains straight out of a child’s sketch pad, impossibly beautiful and steep, pure white and storm plastered.  Carrying huge sacks myself and my partner wandered through the streets drunk with the beauty of the place, past crowds of skiers, all wrapped up tightly against the biting cold, while we wore just our jeans, trainers and Buffalo tops.  We seemed to be the only climbers around – sticking out like frostbitten thumbs among the ‘beautiful people.  The best thing about winter climbing is that you can look down your noses as the hordes of skiers (there’s too busy looking down at the boarders – and visa versa).  As rescue choppers flew overhead, we saw the sun setting on the mighty west face of the Drus, and at that moment I knew that this was it, this was the centre of the climbing universe.  My very next thought as the sun disappeared and the thermometer dropped further was ‘Fuck how are we going to climb anything in this cold?’.

Fifteen winter seasons later and I often ask myself the same question – coming up as I did then with the only answer you can ‘I don’t know, but I’ve just got to because if I can I’ll have the mountains all to myself.  This is the main attraction of winter alpine climbing for me, in that it just so quiet, with the majority of people sticking to the pistes, bars and the low-level icefalls shat dot the Alps.  Once you get away from the tourists and skiers at the telephrique or train road-heads you invariably find yourself alone in the vast winter alpine landscape, with huts (well-unmanned winter rooms), glaciers and summits free of the usual summer crowds.  The only problem is that people aren’t there for a reason – you have to be self-reliant and have the right kit to survive in a very unforgiving and hostile environment.

How cold is it?  Well, last year I measured -28ºC at 2 am at the bottom of the North Face of the Droites, a cold so deep that exposed and unprotected skin will freeze (we had some weird Russian pig fat rubbed into our faces), and in such conditions, any thoughts of climbing are replaced with how to keep your feet from turning into dead meat.  Never the less even when you can’t climb you can still marvel at the sheer hostility of your surroundings – probably no different than an arctic adventurer or astronaut would view theirs.  Staying warm isn’t as hard as you’d think though, as the same clothing you’d use for a hard Scottish winter will suffice (add a medium-weight duvet to it), with the main gear you’ll need to focus on getting being plastic boots (the warmest you can get), and good quality mitts. Once you get acclimated to the cold, and learn how to look after your insulation (not sweating into it too much), and your digits, then you can survive quite easily.  Climbing and living in the mountains at this time of year is perfect training for future adventures, perhaps to the greater ranges, or to polar regions, plus it’s all virtually at your doorstep.

Getting around in the winter can prove tough, with snow sometimes metres deep, meaning either snowshoes or mountaineering skis (both of which you can hire).  The shelter can range from huts – which tend to be depressingly dark and cold in winter, to snow holes – probably the best option for long term use, as they can be warmer and more comfortable than tents or huts.

What do you climb?  Well on that first trip we didn’t climb anything, only managing a three day trip into the mountains on which we learnt many important lessons, including ‘never build a snow hole over a crevasse’, and ‘dry your socks and inner boots out in your sleeping bag’.  The most important thing we learnt though was how extreme the weather could be as our clothing froze solid along with our toes.  Never the less that first trip was one of my best because everything was bigger and more wonderful than it would ever be again, and we knew we were doing something special.  Up high you could easily believe you were up in the farthest reaches of Alaska, or some remote glacier in the Kumbu, that is until a rescue helicopter sped by on its way to pluck another unlucky skier off the Valle Blanche.  If you’re new to winter climbing, I’d probably pick some of the easier climbs to start off with in order to build up your winter alpine skills – with classic routes like the Petit Vert and Cosmiques Arete quickly magnified in scale once the temperature drops.  Like all mountain areas pay close attention to avalanche risk and crevasses (always stay roped up!).  Once you’ve got a bit of experience then you can move onto the harder day routes, and then the multi-day routes (be warned though – multi-day winter climbs are pretty harsh!).  For non-climbers who are confident a roped glacial travel, then expeditions to some of the remote huts and ski tours (with ski’s or snowshoes) are highly recommended.  If you want a guide then there are tons of British guides living in the alps these days, who can really help bypass some of the hurdles of the winter game.

Anyway, on that first trip we did manage to pass under the mighty Dru, a skyscraper of granite over a kilometre high that stood guard over the entrance to the mountains, and I remember wondering how anyone could possibly climb it at this time of year – or even in the summer for that matter.  Thirteen winters later I remembered those thoughts as I dragged myself up the last pitch of the Lafaille route on the Dru, said to be one of the hardest climbs in the Alps.  We’d spent 15 days on the face, dealing with both hard climbing and hard weather, and from my perch, I could see down to that bus stop I’d arrived at all those years ago, and marvelled at my own alpine journey from that day till this.