view south from aguille d'argentiere
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Week Two: Arolla, Switzerland

   After being in Chamonix for a week I had arranged to meet up with some other friends - Dave, Colin and Iestyn - to visit Arolla in the Valais Alps of Switzerland. Arolla is what could be described as a typical Alpine village at the top of the western branch of the Val d'Herens. It is situated at around 2000m surrounded on three sides by snow, ice and rock peaks. We arrived late in the evening and, after several moves, found ourselves a pleasant plot on the friendly campsite below the village.
   Our first day here saw an easy start on the activity front. Despite the forecast being good for the day, we awoke to a very cold campsite and promptly put on down jackets. Because the valley is north facing with reasonably steep sides, the sun does not appear in the floor of the valley until around 10am meaning that clear nights were often below freezing resulting in a good frost for the morning. Once we had got going, we decided simply to walk to one of the cols on the west side of the valley to acquaint ourselves with the area. This involved almost 1000m of climbing, reversing a section of the Haute Route to the Pas de Chevres at 2855m. The route also forms part of the approach to the Dix hut in the next valley to the west. Despite a pleasant and straight forward walk to the col, the descent to the west is down steep rock walks involving two ladders. The views on the approach to the col and from the col itself were impressive and gave good inspections of the surrounding peaks including the Pigne d'Arolla, Mont Collon, Mont Blanc du Cheillon and the Aiguille de la Tsa. By this time the sun was extremely hot and we spent the whole day in shorts.

   We returned to the campsite for a relaxing evening trying to avoid getting on the wrong side of our neighbours by playing frisbee. The next plot on the site was to become a haven for bottles of wine and that night the Dutch girl occupying the space came and dined with us, supplying the drink. We had planned to climb the Aiguille de la Tsa (3668m) the following day, an imposing rock pinnacle on the skyline to the east of the valley and prepared ourselves for the early start.

   At 4am in the morning we were up (again it was cold) and we set off on the trek up to the beginning of the Aiguille. We had a brief stop at the Tsa hut halfway up - the alternative starting point for parties less optimistic than ourselves. The ascent then continued traversing back south across the remains of the Tsa Glacier to the foot of the south-west face of the Aiguille which we were planning to climb. We reached this point - after approximately 900m ascent from the valley - soon after 7am and considered ourselves to be on schedule for the 700m climb, graded D+ (climbing up to Severe). Our plan was to reach the summit by 2pm (allowing more than guidebook time) in order to make a short abseil descent onto the glacier to the east before the long glacier walk south, through a col and back down into the Arolla valley.
   Initially the climbing was very loose as we each soloed up to what we thought would be the base of the true face. I veered off back onto the glacier to the south (right) for a period, eventually putting crampons on as the angle steepened. We reached what we thought was going to be sounder rock at the beginning of what we assumed and took to be our first true pitch. Contrary to assumption (though later clarified by the guide) the rock continued to be very loose and, thinking the situation would improve, we set off up the climb. We quickly realised that the loose rock was continuing and, climbing as two pairs in close proximity, debris was frequently coming down at rather too close quarters for comfort. After three pitches of climbing, we reassessed the situation. By now it was late morning and we decided to reassess our situation. The sun had now come round far enough to be beating down on the south-west face we were climbing and, more alarmingly, enough to have warmed the surroundings such as to be causing significant rockfall in the gully immediately right of our route. This, and the integrity of the rock and therefore our gear, led us to the decision that a descent by abseil would be inappropriate and, looking up, we could see what we thought to be the Grande Gendarme which was around two thirds of the way up the face. This proved to be the crunch point in what was increasingly becoming an epic venture.

   We carried on climbing and reached what appeared from below to be the Grand Gendarme. The feature turned out to be nothing more than a large ledge leaving us significantly behind schedule for reaching the summit. Now over halfway up the Aiguille, the option of retreat would have brought about almost certain disaster (some of the rocks fallen from the gully on our right and now visible on the glacier below were at least the size of a beer barrel). The consensus was therefore to continue our ascent which we did after taking what turned out to be our first and only break on the entire climb. We had prepared some savoury rice in drinks containers as our primary source of food for the day and actually ate very little of it at this point. We quickly returned to the climbing, which went through phases of improved rock, and missed an ascent of the Grand Gendarme in order to save time. There were rocks being dislodged by us regularly anything up to the size of breeze blocks and at one point a key belay block, again about the size of a beer barrel, started to move. Our sling around it was rapidly slashed thereby preventing us from potentially being taken with the block should it begin descending the 400m drop to the easing ground below.

   Eventually we were climbing the final slabs to the summit of the pinnacle but decided that the priority was not making the top but enabling a safe escape onto the glacier on the opposite side of the needle. The guide indicated an abseil station a short scramble below the summit on the eastern side so we made two traversing pitches around the pinnacle in an attempt to find this safe anchor. The abseil point was not discovered but, in rapidly fading light, we managed to find enough gear and threads to set up what we hoped would be a safe anchor in the suspect rock. The 50m abseil was made to the waiting glacier below in the dark and we set off on the long walk back at 10pm at night.

   Our adventure had certainly been just that, and more (we ended up losing several slings and various other items of gear during the day), and we slowly made our way around the series of glaciers and back into the dormant valley below. We considered detouring to the nearby Bertol hut to resupply on water (having all run out of fluids well before reaching the top of the Aiguille) and maybe even to rest for the night. Our minds wanted to get us back to the safe refuge of the valley however, and this we reached at 3am the following morning! We were all glad to be back down to safety and, after 23 hours more or less continuous activity with very little food, collapsed into our waiting sleeping bags.

   The following day was obviously not going to be spent doing much. It was needed to contemplate and recover from our epic and we only ventured to Les Hauderes - the next village down the valley. This was even more of a classic settlement than Arolla in terms of its architecture; picturesque chalets were abundant with some dating back over 100 years. Unfortunately I left my camera back at the campsite so there are no pictures here. That evening we again received a bottle of wine from the resident on the adjacent plot. This time it was a middle-aged German on his way back to Portugal where he now lived. As well as the wine, he also offered us a half chicken cooked above an open fire together with some salad. He joined us to eat and we spent the evening thus sat around the fire we had got going.

   The next day we decided to try something a little more active and chose to venture up to another of the cols on the watershed. This time we headed north down the valley to climb to the Col de Tsarmine at 3051m. Our party was reduced to three soon after leaving the road and not long after that I found myself alone. We had once again encountered some loose rock and each went our independent ways about crossing it. I was intent on keeping to the path and decided to enjoy the day alone reflecting on recent events. By the time I reached the col, I considered climbing the Grand Dent de Veisivi just to the south and made it around a third of the way before retreating to the col due to a lack of both time and suitable equipment. Back at the col I met up with Dave and Colin who had just made it up by an alternative route to me. After a brief break I started to descend - again alone - aware of a potential incoming storm. Dave and Colin arrived back at the campsite some time after I did and their arrival coincided exactly with that of the storm. After a rapid moving of equipment, we were soon crammed inside a tent for the evening.

   Rain accompanied by lightning was still present when we awoke in the morning and we decided it not worth sticking around in the isolated valley with the forecast not indicating settled weather again within the next three days. Dave suggested visiting Locarno near the Italian border in southern Switzerland. It was apparently surrounded by a mass of sport climbing crags so we set off driving for several hours venturing across a high pass and briefly through Italy before arriving at our destination. Immediately we were encountered by a flash town complete with a wide range of boutiques - not too dissimilar we thought to Monte Carlo. After a lunch stop next to the lake - Lake Maggiore - together with a swim, we set about enquiring where the climbing was. Vague information eventually led us to a shop between the boutiques and wealthy retired folk which could sell us a guide. This indicated that one of the nearby valleys was the centre for climbers and we drove the short distance to check out the recommended campsite. We arrived at the entrance booth to Piccolo Paradiso and arranged to stay for three nights.

   On entering our temporary home, it was as though we had turned up at Glastonbury - or maybe even a WW2 concentration camp. Despite the possible idyllic setting next to a cascading river, the tents were crammed in to this central European holiday camp like sardines in a tin, and there was very little grass to be found on the dry, sandy ground. Eventually we managed to squeeze our three mountain tents in among the German, Swiss and Italian families and youths. To me, the site was a nightmare but we set about making the best of it and preparing for a few days climbing. Our first morning, we were woken by two Swiss men shouting in vague English. It turned out that we had apparently been making a lot of noise the previous night much to the disturbance of other residents. We were told to leave within the hour, collecting a refund for our unused nights on departure. None of us had any clear recollection of making loud noise but figured that our presence here was no longer welcome - perhaps because we were British. We packed and departed as requested and searched for other sites in the area. The few we found were of a character not too dissimilar to 'Piccolo Fascidiso' as we now referred to our unfriendly hosts of the previous night. The whole area in fact seemed rather unwelcome to our party and this was confirmed on entering a local cafe for breakfast. The owner and few customers there mid-morning all seemed to know each other and could easily have formed a local division of the mafia. The proprietor tried selling us pasta and other main course dishes when all we wanted was a coffee and croissant or other pastry. He did not seem to identify with our need and we simply made do with a coffee each.

   It had become evident that our presence in the area was not receiving pleasant hospitality and we discussed our next move. We concluded that a prompt escape back to known regions was called for and decided to return to the Chamonix valley where we could hopefully enjoy the rest of our trip, at least surrounded by a host of other Britons. Our trip to Locarno had certainly been an experience - and we hadn't even touched any rock which was what we had turned there for.

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