“We’ll just go slow, no mad stuff,” says Billy as he invites me to join another epic ski mountaineering session. 48 hours later, within 5 minutes of starting I’m already in the red zone as my skins slip backwards on the icy groomed piste which we have to climb to get to the start of the trail! I zigzag backwards and forwards across the steep section in an attempt to get the skins to bite, all the time using way more upper body strength than normal to stop me slipping downhill. By the time I get the the top of the steep section I’m already bushed, but Billy and Alex are 30m ahead and I have a chase on barely before we’ve started! Their skins had bitten ok on the hard snow so they’d been able to go straight up. Today was obviously going to be a very good workout!
We’d left home at 4am to travel over to Arolla, with the Pigne d’Arolla our target for the day. It had snowed the day before and temperatures had plummeted, so we were looking forward to some good conditions. There was also a window in the bad weather, with another front due to come in during the day, so we were keen to be off the summit before the weather closed in. The Pigne d’Arolla is 3796m high, looming way up above the village of Arolla, which is a shade under 2000m altitude. It’s a good workout, and ideal for our preparation for the Patrouille des Glaciers as there are some steep sections, more level sections, varied snow conditions, and it’s at high altitude.
After the challenge of getting up the piste we then had the challenge of finding the route. It was dark, it had snowed, and it was a year since Billy had been up it. We found our way ok, and ploughing through the fresh snow made for tough going. I’d been forging the trail, but as dawn arrived, without my glasses on I found it really hard to see the route in the twilight, so Billy took over as the trail blazer. This was a good move for Alex and I as he is so fast, at least ploughing through fresh snow slowed him down a little! It was still tough going though, and I started to wonder if I’d be able to keep the pace up to the top.
We reached the flatter part of the glacier where the going was a little bit easier, then on up to the Vignettes hut. The snow was getting deeper and deeper, which boded very well for our return.
Up at the Vignettes hut (3160m) we stopped for a quick bite to eat and a drink. The only problem was it was so cold our bottles had started to freeze. I’d put mine inside my jacket against my body about an hour earlier hoping this would defrost it, but it hadn’t worked. It was a very cold morning! The views were amazing from the Vignettes hut, though we could see high cloud coming in from the north, and the wind picking up on the ridge above us. 5 minutes later we were on the go again, now getting into the high mountain.
The route got harder and harder as the altitude started to bite, and the wind kicked in ferociously against us. There was only one group of skiers who had overnighted at the Vignettes and then headed on up the Pigne ahead of us, but the wind had quickly covered their tracks so it was back to breaking trail again.
From 3400m I started to feel the altitude. It was the first time I’d been this high since the summer, and we were going at a fair pace too. Billy started to pull away from Alex and I, though only by a couple of hundred metres (I’m used to seeing his head torch way off in the distance, so this was progress!) and the wind bit ever harder. Our faces and lips were frozen and I started to get a headache purely from the biting cold. I had a thick hat on plus a soft-shell hood over that and still the wind was biting through. Brrr!
We caught the group who’d left the hut ahead of us just before the summit, and finally stood on what feels like the top of the world to take in the view 3 hours 6 minutes after leaving the car. It was so cold we didn’t hang around long: a quick photo, on with warm layers, fresh gloves and off with the skins so we could start what would be an epic descent.
At the top the snow was totally windblown, with some pure glacier ice showing in places. It was tricky to ski, but 250 m vertical further down we were out of the worst of the wind and into beautiful powder. The turns went on and on and on, seemingly endlessly, and it was mainly thigh burn which caused us to stop for a breather. The powder was nearly knee deep in places, and I was amazed at how well my tiny competition rando skis handled it: Movement Fish X skis are incredible, they really have no right to be as good as they are given their feather weight and tiny dimensions. I’ve been extremely impressed by these little beauties.
The powder finally gave way to junk snow on the lower slopes and before we knew it we were back on the piste and down to the bottom.
We did the round trip of 16.3 km and 1800 m vertical climbed (plus 1800 m descended) in 4 hours 11 minutes, which was good going, particularly given the conditions. The route is about 40% that of the Patrouille des Glaciers, so it gave me a good benchmark of how we’re likely to be feeling by the time we get to the halfway point at Arolla (very tired!)
We worked very well together as a team, particularly given that this was our first outing all together, so maybe we’ll enter a competition next winter. We’d be a good cordée (team of three for travelling over glaciers).
Huge thanks to Billy for yet another epic training session!