If you’ve ever done any exercise at high altitude, you’ll know that you get short of breath fairly quickly, and if you’re working out hard, nausea and vomiting can be fairly commonplace. There’s less oxygen up there for the available red blood cells to pick up, so there are two tactics to help with this:
- Use oxygen tanks, as many of the earlier expeditions to Everest did.
- Spend time at high altitude so the body starts to produce more red blood cells in order to adapt to the lower oxygen levels.
Funnily enough we’re not allowed to take oxygen tanks on the Patrouille des Glaciers race, so the only thing to do is take tactic 2: spend time at high altitude.
Now this may sound fairly easy (and usually it is) but this month we’ve had so much snow and bad weather it’s made getting up high very tricky. Thankfully I have the good fortune to have Yves Dubuisson as a team mate: Yves is 60 and has been a mountain guide for most of his adult life, so there’s not much you can teach him about how to stay safe in the potentially dangerous high mountain environment. Initially we um-ed and ah-ed about whether to set out on the 3 days we had planned to acclimatise, but after a few calls to the refuge wardens to check conditions up high, Yves said we were ok to go, so off we went.
On day 1 we skinned up from Arolla to the Cabane de Bertol, perched high up on a rocky ridge at 3311m. We went through some layers of cloud on the way up, and though it was overcast nearly all the way up, the visibility was better from around half way up. We were going gently, but even so were steaming past groups who were sweating along, doing a variation of the Haute Route. It made us realize just how fit we’ve got over the past months (plus of course we’re on much lighter kit than they are, which makes a huge difference going uphill).
Once at the Col de Bertol we had a bite to eat and then decided not to continue up to Tete Blanche. The weather had closed in and wallowing around in thick fog on a glacier with crevasses is never a very good idea. Better to be prudent and wait to see what the next day would bring.
We spent the afternoon in the refuge, where my buddy Olivier’s working for the Spring season. Olivier and I trained together from time to time in January-February, so it was good to see him again. The whole afternoon all we could see was thick white fog, but just after supper as the sun was going down the cloud dropped and the Matterhorn, Dent Blanche and Dent d’Herens reared majestically out of the mist with the last of the sun’s rays lighting them up pink. What a magical moment.
Day 2 was a big day. We headed up to Tete Blanche, getting stuck behind a very slow group for a while. Both Yves and I got too cold as we simply weren’t working hard enough, so had to stop and put more layers on. Around 20 minutes later we were able to pass the slow group and forge our own trail up through 30-40 cm of fresh snow, which warmed us up considerably! Up at the summit at 3700m we took in the view, chatted with some other tourers who were heading to Zermatt and then skied back down to Bertol roped up.
In the deep snow it was ‘interesting’ skiing roped as the depth of the snow kept changing, making keeping a regular pace very tricky. We got down onto the flatter section and then had to break trail for a good hour to get back to Bertol. We met another team heading in the same direction who had set off from Zermatt the night before. They’d left at midnight and had got really bogged down in all the deep fresh snow. Then they’d lost their way in the cloud and ended up doing about 1000m vertical more than they needed to. When we met them at 10.15 am they were totally bushed and ruing the fact that they’d set out at all: to have such a hard workout less than a week from the big event isn’t the best…
Once back at Bertol we headed down through nearly unskiable breakable crust. Probably the most difficult snow I’ve skied for a long time, particularly on tiny competition skis. We made it down safely though, had a bite to eat next to the slopes at Arolla and then headed on up to the Vignettes hut (3160m). The cloud started to come in, and as I know the way well Yves asked me to lead. I set a steady rhythm and before we knew it we were in thick cloud on the mid-glacier. Then just when we were feeling a bit too hot it started to snow heavily. The wind kicked in, the snow teamed down, and we were once again breaking trail in deep snow. We met another French guide with a group of 4 heading for the hut, but they were going slowly so Yves and I headed on up, laying the trail for them.
As we neared the Vignettes hut the snow got deeper and deeper, and as the slope got steeper we started to get concerned about slab avalanches. When the wind blows snow over a ridge, wind slab builds up quickly, and it’s very dangerous. We were particularly concerned that if we set off an avalanche, the group below would be hit. This left only one option: to continue up to the top of the ridge and then climb along the top of the ridge to get to the hut. The other guide agreed that this was the safest way, (though quite daunting as there’s a good drop on either side of the ridge, and the wind was howling over it).
We roped up once more, put all our layers on and then scrambled over the ridge. We were incredibly happy to get to the hut safely! We had got very cold in the last 20 minutes of climbing and it was oh so good to dry off and warm up in the hut.
After excellent food we had an early night: we’d climbed 2100m, descended 1800m and covered 25 km, much of which had been in deep snow, so we’d had a very good workout.
Day 3 dawned grey and snowy (again!) so we scrapped our plans to climb the Pigne d’Arolla, head over to the Cabane des Dix and then take the Pas de Chèvres back to Arolla. It wouldn’t be safe or enjoyable, and we were concerned about wind slab avalanches. So we headed on back down to Arolla in yet more deep fresh snow, and then headed up to the Pas de Chèvres for a bit of a workout.
We were both starting to feel the distance we’d done over the 3 days, so once at the top we decided to call it a day and head back home. It had been a fabulous 3 days: we’d done 4200m vertical at altitude, stayed safe and had lots of chuckles along the way. Excellent preparation for the big event, just a shame Jimmy wasn’t able to join us.