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
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.
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.
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.