Wednesday 29th & Thursday 30th August 2018
A history lesson by way of background: 12 years ago, almost to the day, Mrs P and I came to Arolla in Switzerland. At the end of the Val d’Hérens. Arolla is popular with the English and cheapskates (in our case, one and the same thing both then and now).
At 1,998m Arolla allows access to the big, snowy mountains without the expense of Swiss cable cars.
Back in 2006, Mrs P (then Miss J) and I were at the tail end of a 2 month trip that had seen us spend 3 weeks traversing the Austrian Alps in the footsteps of Frank Smythe, and a further 3 weeks climbing around Arco on Lake Garda in Italy and we were on our way home.
I had met the then Miss J the previous year and had decided that I would propose to her at the end of our Austrian climbs on top of Austria’s highest peak, the Grossglockner. This was based on the premise that if she could stand 3 weeks of being literally attached (by rope for glacier travel) at the hip then the rest of our lives should be a doddle. However, fate and the weather were against my romantic plan and we, like Smythe, had to quit our traverse due to heavy snow. No Grossglockner.
I really wanted the proposal to take place on top of a snowy mountain and, with time running out, the Pigne d’Arolla, 3,796m which overlooks the town was my last chance.
We climbed to the improbably positioned Cabanne de Vignettes at 3,157m. Miss J is completely oblivious to my plans and my nerves.
On the way up I saw definite signs of bad weather to come. During the night there was a huge storm which, whilst it proved my amateur weather forecaster credentials did little to alleviate my fears. I crossed my fingers and went to bed. We woke in the morning to zero visibility. So much for crossed fingers. The forecast was poor. We had no alternative but to descend.
However, I still had a job to do. Should I propose in the not particularly nice and very unromantic Cabane des Vignette? No. I decided an opportunity would reveal itself. We set off from the hut in whiteout conditions. I’m so nervous I develop shingles.
A break in the weather. I can just about see Miss J at the other end of the rope. Between me and her yawns a huge crevasse. All else is a swirl of white. I find a relatively safe spot and bring her close enough to garble some drivel that bears no relation to the speech I had been planning for several weeks. Quick on the uptake Miss J spots the proposal and says, “Yes.” Her answer may have been dictated by her proximity to the large crevasse but she did stick to her promise even when away from imminent danger.
…History lesson ends
12 years later we are back. This time to climb the mountain we failed to climb all those years ago. You might call it unfinished business.
Things change not just in 12 years but from year to year. The conditions this year are very different from 2006.
This year, due to high temperatures, the lower glacier that you must climb to reach the hut is clear of snow except the weak and unreliable snow bridges over some but not all of the crevasses. Also, a rock fall some years ago destroyed part of the Cabane and the detritus from this fall is strewn down the glacier giving an indication of the power and fickleness of Mother Nature.
The hut has changed too. Running water and indoor toilets. Luxury! No drinking water though. This elixir of life must be purchased at the ‘flown in by helicopter‘ rate of 9 CHF (£7.16) for 1.5 litres. (The other elixir of life is only CHF 4. I take mine black with lots of sugar.) Their computer system also remembers me from our visit 12 years ago! No running water but great technology.
We pay the usual small fortune for the night plus dinner and breakfast of CHF 85 (£67.65) each for the privilege of sleeping on a bench on pillows and blankets that are not washed or changed all season (this is not an exaggeration). That said, best breakfast in the Alps. Bacon and scrambled egg. Result! Praise be those magnificent men in their flying machines.
04.50 alarm and first group away for the summit at 06.20.
3 weeks ago the climb to the summit had been an easy snow plod graded PD (Peu Difficile). This year’s high temperatures have melted all the snow off the steepest section of the glacier leaving only ice at about 50 degrees for about 80 metres. This leads to a tangle of open crevasses to negotiate before the relatively safe snow plod to the snowy summit. I was really hoping NOT to be first group away. No tracks to follow. grade; probably PD+.
Fortunately, close on our heels is a guide, Andy Owen, from Jagged Globe, and 4 clients. I have a cunning plan. We shall let them get ahead, then follow them up the tricky bit pretending like we knew the way all along.
Aside: It is ironic that Jagged Globe should be with us on the mountain as Mrs P and I met when I was working as assistant guide for Jagged Globe in Pakistan in 2005.
Anyway, the climb is superb, the conditions sublime. We summit, I check if Mrs P would still say, “Yes.” She would. Ahh!
I will allow the following photos to tell the story of a perfect climb.
Once below the Cabane we guess wildly where I might have popped the question.
It is a long day and a long way down. 10 hours and more than 1,600 metres of descent. That’s 5,250 feet in old money or 5.5 times the descent from Snowdon to the car park. 700 metres of this is on ice.
Appointment with history ends. However the Mr & Mrs P story continues.
Gandalf quote: “For even the wise cannot see all ends.”
Watch this space for less sloppy posts to come and don’t forget to like the blog so I know you are there. Feel free to comment. I always try to reply.