How to become an Alpine Mountaineer, Part 5; Am I an Alpinist yet?

The Glacier du Tour and Albert Premier Hut.

Until last week, I knew the principles of hut-based Alpine ascents, but I had no idea what it was actually like. And I knew I didn’t know.

I’ve read things about glacier travel. It’s a kinda scary prospect; everything I read talks about the worst case scenario; how to deal with something going actually properly wrong. It took a conscious effort on my part to get my head around the fact that I will hopefully never need to use those skills. Although they are important, glacier travel is not about understanding pulleys. For the most part, it is a walk. Just, a walk with an ever present risk of falling into a crevasse.

Knowing that didn’t really help stop me worrying. But, I knew that I had done everything reasonable to learn how to cross a glacier. I just had to go- even when going felt like stepping into the dark. Reading the guidebook descriptions to know where to go, and what that’s technically like, is one thing. Knowing what it’s like to be in that environment, with those ever present risks, at the time of day, and with an impending time deadline is something quite different.

Go and cross the glacier and climb the mountain, if the thing that holds you back is fear of the unknown. Go and take the other risk and do the other thing that scares you, just because it is unknown. There is no way to find out what it’s like without going and doing it.

My first alpine summit, involving staying in a refuge and getting an ‘Alpine start’ to avoid the glaciers being too hot. We climbed the Aiguille du Tour from the Albert Premier hut. It’s an incredibly popular peak, as it is one of the ‘easiest’ in the Chamonix valley that still has the sense of large Alpine climbing. We climbed the North as well as the South summit though, unlike the forty or so other people on the summit that morning.

4. Glacier travel is just walking, but with objective unpredictable risk. Pre-dawn crevasse photo.

I feel like those summits are two of my biggest achievements. It wasn’t as hard as I expected, nor did it push my limits. Instead, it was a realisation of everything I have learnt about mountains over the last five years, all falling into place. I discovered that all the hypothetical things about alpine mountaineering, that I thought I knew, I did know. I got a sense of what it actually means to be out there in that way, mainly a sense of what the risks actually feel like.

The takeaway lesson I think I took from this is that you don’t need to know everything to go and try it. I felt underprepared. But I wasn’t. It is important to distinguish not having done something, with not being prepared enough to do it. Most sources of advice and information are careful not to encourage people with insufficient skills, but that runs the risk of putting off those who are nervous, but capable. Many of my friends are as nervous about glaciers as I was. Many of them don’t want feel they can go onto one to ‘try it out’. I know I have a habit of overthinking things that I can do because I don’t know what they are like. So, here are the things that I would have liked to have known before I went- its no substitute for seeing it and feeling it, but I think it goes to show how much it is possible to pick up in a few busy, tense hours.

1. Leave especially early. Summit photo featuring all the people who got up later than us.

10 things I learnt in one morning on a glacier.

1. Leave especially early. We left the Albert Premier at 4.42am and were one of the first teams onto the glacier. This was a bit of a confidence boost- we definitely weren’t the worst on the mountain that day. It also meant we knew we had time to not be perfect and still get back in good time.

2. “Go and scout out the beginning of your route the night before.” I’d heard that before. We did. We did go and look in the direction of the path towards the glacier, it seemed fairly obviously marked by a large cairn. 4.42am though, these things look at little different; we went the wrong way five minutes out of the hut and wasted a bit of time getting back up to where we were meant to be. Next time, though, I’ll spend half an hour or so looking at the route before it gets dark. From the Albert Premier, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to walk all the way to the glacier and decide where we were going to cross it. It wasn’t a problem, I just felt like a bit of a goose because I should have listened to the advice I was given.

3. Good crampon technique helps. The first section of the Glacier du Tour, where we joined it was dry. It was just ice, with no snow on it. Climbing the steep sections of this was the first place where I was glad I was comfortable wearing crampons. There were later sections too where feeling comfortable moving steep ground in crampons put us ahead of other teams. My Scottish winter experience meant more than I thought it would.

4. Glacier travel is just walking, but with objective unpredictable risk. It’s just a long slog up a snow slope. The spice is thrown in by the breaks in the snow and glimpses of some dark abyss below. There is nothing you can do about crevasses though. Just don’t walk straight into it. Being roped together and being aware that both of you would rely on one ice axe arrest to stop you going straight down is the only thing you can do. That thought actually calmed me down; it’s not technical, or complicated. You just need to know what to do if.

5. Talk to your team when you’re on a glacier. Fraser seemed a very long way behind me, but I should have forced myself to shout back more often. Clear communication is important, so you both know when the riskiest moments are. Doing that you can know when to keep the rope at its tightest and be most alert in case you need to arrest. As with all falls, the less movement there is, the easier it will be to stop.

6. Fitness and acclimatisation make a massive difference. The faster you can walk up the snow slope, the more time you can make up. Time is always short in the Alps, particularly when it’s as warm and sunny as the few days before our trip. People throw around times and advice; generally, “try to be off the glacier by midday.” Ultimately though, there is no set time when weak snow-bridges over crevasses might start collapsing. The sooner you are done, the better. Everything is a little bit urgent.

7. Learn to climb efficiently before you go. I wasn’t any good at alpine rope-work and moving together a few months ago. The time it took to place protection was not worth the protection it gave at some points when we climbed the Aiguille du Belvedere. The first sport multipitch we climbed together took 2 hours. We can now climb it in 45 minutes. It didn’t take long to get the hang of, but I was really glad we weren’t faffing around on Aiguille du Tour at 7 am.

8. One of the biggest risks is other groups. Everything is falling apart and people will dislodge loose rocks and scree. You need to be aware of people above you and teams below you, particularly when things get steep. A simple snow traverse across the bottom of Aiguille du Tour was made more serious by the gullies running into it and teams moving across those higher up.

9. The second biggest risk is tripping or falling. Not just necessarily on the rock sections, but on steeper sections of glaciers where a slide could mean sliding straight into a crevasse or Bergshrund. Know how to ice axe arrest and make sure that is second nature. I appreciated all those descents I’ve made in Scotland in winter on my bum in an orange plastic survival bag with just an ice axe for control. It’s real practice and meant that the time Fraser needed it, it came to him without thought.

10. Always question if conditions are different to the guidebook. We followed the guidebook advice up the central gully (or couloir, if you’re feeling very French) to access the North Summit. But the guidebook was written about conditions where there was snow there. There wasn’t snow. It was a terrible route choice, but the guidebook said so and we trusted it much more than we should have done.

I am good enough, even if it scares me, and I’ve never done it before.
Go and cross the glacier and climb the mountain, if the thing that holds you back is fear of the unknown. Go and take the other risk and do the other thing that scares you, just because it is unknown. There is no way to find out what it’s like without going and doing it.
How it feels to finish.