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Phase Two of my 2010 challenges for ACE Africa is complete!  On 5th August 2010 I successfully crossed the ‘Haute Route’ – a high mountain walk from Chamonix to Zermatt across some of Europe’s most dramatic Alpine scenery. 

Our Team:  Jean-Marc Krattiger, Ben Iverson, Barbara Iverson, Major Jeremy Hay, Rupert Eastwood, Richard Swallow, Samantha Kite

Day 1 – Chamonix to Champex Lac
Day 2 – Mauvoisin to Cabane de Dix
Day 3 – Cabane de Dix to Cabane Bertol
Day 4 – Cabane Bertol to Schonbiel
Day 5 – Cabane Schonbiel to Zermatt

A big thank-you to Ben Iversen, who organised our trip and kindly let me join the team, who were all raising funds for The Princes Teaching Institute (‘PTI’). Our team met in Chamonix and started with a kit-check from our guide Jean-Marc Krattiger. 

Day 1  The following morning we set off on a gruelling 10 hour day which took us up over the Col de Balme from Argentièrre, with breathtaking views of Mont Blanc and spectacular alpine scenery all the way into Champex Lac in Switzerland. 

Day 2 was a wake-up call for the harsh terrain to come – it started with a metal ladder nailed into the rock – there were a few terrifying moments as we climbed up the steep cliff-face up from Mauvoisin. Our guide Jean-Marc was incredibly patient and huge thanks to him for putting up with me and not sending me packing on the first available rescue helicopter as I whimpered my way up! Once on the plateaux we roped up and then spent 4 hours criss-crossing the Gietroz glacier, putting our faith in our guide and our crampons trying to avoid the many crevasses.  Eventually we came off the ice and spent a further 2 hours crossing the endless moraine to the Cabane des Dix (2928m).  

Cabane des Dix turned out to be our favourite mountain hut – the ‘Guardian’ and his wife were incredibly hospitable and we all celebrated Swiss Independence Day singing songs and drinking Vin Chaud around a fire, watching the most amazing firework display.  After a hearty dinner and a relatively good nights sleep we set off at dawn. 

Day 3 comprised more ice, long stretches of moraine and boulders, and a series of long vertical ladders to take us over the Pas de Chevres.  An 800m hike down took us into Arolla for a quick lunch before ascending 1.2 vertical km up towards Mont Collon, with the moraine turning to steep snow and ice.  This long arduous climb culminated in our first sight of the Cabane Bertol – a rather terrifying ‘Mordor’ like high craggy rock with a metal hut perched precariously on the top.  Our relief at finally seeing our next pit-stop after another 9 hour day was short-lived when it emerged that the only way to actually reach the hut was to scale yet more highly dangerous looking ladders. 

The ladders were the easy bit, (despite feeling very unbalanced carrying your heavy back-pack) but having to move from one ladder to the next caused a heart-stopping moment as you edged your way gingerly around a tiny ledge with nothing but a flimsy metal rope as a lifeline between you and the 100 meter drop below.  It was pretty awful!  Against all odds we made it up to the hut, the relief only dampened by the grim prospect of having to repeat the whole process the next morning.

The Cabane Bertol definitely needs a health-warning.  All credit to the Swiss for actually building this extraordinary structure at 3,311 meters.  However, the loo was quite appalling and we were jammed into our room like sardines and not even the earplugs enabled much sleep.   

Day 4 We had known that the weather was due to come in the next day, and sure enough, as we made our way cautiously down the ladders onto the col, the clear sky started to give way to rolling black clouds.  There had been several other groups staying at Bertol, and apparently the guides had got together the night before to discuss the weather situation.  It had been agreed that we would go ahead and continue that day, but depart as a group for safety, and so as we stood on the moraine putting on our equipment, the other groups also started roping up and getting crampons on. As we set off the storm picked up.  We trudged up the steep ice towards the Tete Blanche, aborting the summit climb by just 50m at 3,650 meters when the blizzard kicked in.  We had all the right kit, but it was still absolutely freezing, and Barbara and I wondered whether we might actually get frost-bite in our finger-tips and whether it might be possible to land a chopper to rescue us (not a hope!)  At one point, the guides huddled together pouring over their GPS, compasses and maps to agree the best route over the glacier. 

We had every confidence in Jean-Marc, but there were some worrying moments!  We could hear water below the ice surface gushing down the steep slopes, and although you had to dig in with your crampons to try to get some purchase on the ice, you didn’t want to push too hard for fear of going through.  Unfortunately this did happen and my leg shot straight down a crevasse.  It happened so quickly there was little time to panic, and when Jean-Marc just calmly shouted back ‘well just pull yourself out!’, it was apparently not that big a deal – we were all roped up, so it was relatively safe, although as I looked down the 60 meter abyss that my leg was hovering over, I hoped that this would be my last encounter with a crevasse.  After 5 hours picking our way over the glacier with Jean-Marc leading us through the storm, trying to locate snow bridges around the crevasses, we eventually made it down onto the moraine. 

It had been quite an experience, and we were all relieved to be off the ice!  Relief was short-lived however, when Jean-Marc advised us to keep our harnesses on (generally a sign that scary rock-climbing was coming up).  In fact this actually turned out to be abseiling down a section of the cliff-face – a first for me, but actually great fun!  After a brief spell of relatively gentle terrain we then faced another huge steep slope of massive boulders that eventually gave way to loose shale. 

The Cabane Schonbiel (2694m) was our reward at the end of this long climb up.  By this time, the weather had improved, and as the sun came out we were rewarded with our first glimpse of the Matterhorn – Zermatt’s iconic and majestic mountain, and our goal for the week. The scenery was absolutely incredible, and what the Cabane Schonbiel lacked in facilities, it certainly made up for with its spectacular setting.   Jez had brought with him a Scooby Doo outfit, and it had become tradition to don his canine attire before arriving at each hut.  Word had clearly got out, and our fellow Haute-Routers got to know our group quite well, and as soon as they saw one of us arriving, they all started getting out their cameras to snap Scooby as he arrived at the hut!! 

Unfortunately we probably had our worst night sleep at Schonbiel – we were crammed 12 in a room and the snoring reached pneumatic levels, so in fact most of us were actually wide awake by the time the alarm went off at 5am. 

Day 5 was in fact an easy 3 hour walk down into Zermatt, where the boys then went on to climb the Breithorn, and Barbara and I decided to call it a day and headed down into town to get the train back home to Verbier for a much-needed bath! 

There are many different versions of the ‘Haute Route’ from Chamonix to Zermatt, and by the looks of the map, the route we took is probably one of the more challenging ones.  It was the most amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone who has a head for heights and can cope without washing facilities for a week!!  I am hoping that this challenge will be good training and stand me in good stead for completing Phase 3 of my Charity Challenge – Mount Kilimanjaro – just 5 weeks away now!

Again, a big thank-you to our fantastic guide Jean-Marc Krattiger and also to Ben Iversen and the PTI ‘Alpine Challenge’ team for allowing me to join them.  If you would like to find out more about the Prince Training Trust, check out their website at www.princes-ti.org.uk/  and support Ben and the team at  www.virginmoneygiving.com/PTIAlpinechallenge 

PLEASE SUPPORT ACE AFRICA – SPONSOR MY 2010 KILIMANJARO CHALLENGE!  Please, please sponsor me if you have not yet had a chance to.  I am raising funds for ACE Africa – www.ace-africa.org – a fantastic charity supporting orphans and vulnerable children in rural communities in East Africa who are suffering from the impact of HIV and AIDS.  You can sponsor me online at http://www.justgiving.com/SamKite.  Your support really will help transform the lives of many desperate children. 

Thank you very much for your support.

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