The Shackleton Challenges team recently returned from a two-week stint in the home of mountaineering, Chamonix. Here, Director of Expeditions, Louis Rudd MBE reports on a successful Alpine Skills Challenge, where difficult weather was endured, new skills learned and new bonds forged.
ALPINE SKILLS CHALLENGE
This year's Alpine Skills challenge was a mountaineering adventure in the finest tradition!
The team arrived and after a short transfer to Chamonix enjoyed an al fresco dinner with stunning views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains.
The seven of us began with an adrenaline-fuelled first day of via ferrata at Les Evettes; vertical walls of rock were negotiated using a few metal staples, and some team spirit. The day included a Himalayan bridge across a ravine below and was a challenge for all. After coming off the via ferrata, there was more to come, with some rock climbing and abseiling at the local crag. All essential skills for our upcoming expedition at the end of the week. Overall, a high adrenaline day for the team. That evening we reflected over the day with a glass of wine and dinner in one of Chamonix’s many fine restaurants.
Day 2 was a stunning ride up the Montenvers mountain railway to the Mer de Glace glacier. Here we practiced walking on crampons on undulating terrain, roped-up glacier travel and use of the ice axe. Once we’d mastered these skills, we progressed to ice climbing and crevasse rescue. Every team member was lowered into a crevasse while the rest set up the systems for rescue, including placing ice screws into the ice as anchor points. It was another day of vertical adrenaline, and the team learnt a huge amount from our expert guides.
The next day should have been a full traverse of the Vallee Blanche, but the weather was against us with high winds closing the Aiguille du Midi lift. So, we headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the Italian side and caught the Skyway lift up from there to an altitude of 3,500m. This was valuable acclimatisation time for the team, and we spent the whole day practicing a range of glacier travel skills while taking in some stunning scenery of the Vallee Blanche. Another fine dinner followed once back down in Chamonix. The team retired to the bar to reflect on the week so far, and to compare notes about the next day; the attempt on the Gran Paradiso. This mountain is one of the largest freestanding mountains in Italy, and certainly looks imposing. It's over 4,000m, which is the height many consider to be an 'authentic' alpine mountain.
Day 4 saw us depart Chamonix and head through the tunnel to Italy and around to the base of Gran Paradiso. There then followed a steady 3-hour hike with all our gear up to the Chabod mountain hut - a very traditional alpine mountain hut with stunning views and great food. From here we could clearly see our route up the glacier and towards the summit. After a hearty dinner we retired early ready for summit day.
An alpine start is usually around 4am - certainly before dawn - in order to avoid soft snow bridges across the crevasses, and to minimise avalanche risk when the sun warms the snow and ice later in the afternoon. The team donned head torches and set off into the night. As the sun rose, we had reached the edge of the glacier, and donned crampons and roped up for the remaining ascent. There then followed several hours of delicate route finding through the labyrinth of crevasses and jumbled ice blocks towards our goal.
As we reached the last of the snow, and were approaching the rocky summit, the weather turned. The sky darkened, and the wind began to howl, bringing blizzard conditions in an instant. We gathered together to agree on a plan. Teams were turning back. We decided we wanted to try for the summit; with such a strong team we were in with a shout.
In challenging conditions, we scrambled along the rock and up towards the summit, eventually reaching the Madonna statue which sits right on the highest point. We’d done it!
After a quick photo - no time for celebrating, we dashed down, and eventually descended below the worst of the weather. Next was a stop in the hut again, to eat a huge meal of pasta, and then the final leg back to the valley floor.
A celebratory meal back in Chamonix included retellings of the days on the mountain, and everyone felt a massive sense of achievement, having all summited - and together as a team - in poor conditions.
Another epic Shackleton Alpine Challenge had been completed. Onwards!
The second week in Chamonix saw the team recce new routes for potential challenges to expand the Shackleton Challenges Alpine offering. Expeditions Manager, Wendy Searle here shares her thoughts on the week, which again offered variable weather conditions, challenging terrain and exposed summits.
ALPINE CHALLENGES RECCE
The Shackleton guides stayed in the Alps for another week after the Alpine Skills came to an end. The aim was to scout new challenges, recce new routes, and check out different mountain huts.
The week started well, with a ridge traverse starting at Flegere. The scramble across the Aguilles Crochues offered some amazing views of the valley, as well as some single pitch climbing and abseiling. The original plan was to complete the Monte Rosa traverse - taking in up to 10 4,000m peaks. But the weather didn't play ball, and the second day panned out as forecast, with thunder storms, rain and high winds. A good day to be in Chamonix drinking coffee, rather than out in the mountains. Sometimes the sensible call is the right one!
Instead, the plan was now to travel to Italy, and to the Gnifetti Hut; a large mountain hut clinging to the edge of the rock. We went up via the ski lifts a few thousand metres, and then across rocks and boulders to the start of the glacier. From there, we went to Vincent Pyramid, at 4,215m - quite a hike in one day straight from the valley floor! Sleeping at the hut was a little lower at 3,647m but was still a challenge!
The following day, we woke up (very) early, as is the Alpine way. As we sat eating breakfast, we could see teams who had set out even earlier than us, turning around and returning to the hut. The weather was howling - blizzard conditions and very cold. We opted to wait and hoped the conditions improved. Eventually we set off to low winds and beautiful sunshine. We achieved the summit of the Zumsteinspitz - at 4,563m it's the highest peak in the area, and the fifth highest in the Alps - before heading back to the hut.
Now we were able to enjoy the sunshine on the benches around the hut, and soak up the mountain hut atmosphere. Everyone is mountaineering. Everyone is there for adventure, and to head into the unknown. Whether that's unknown terrain for them, or unknown altitude, or physical endurance, they were all pushing their own personal limits.
The final day was from the hut back to the van and home to Chamonix. As we sat having a much more leisurely breakfast, I could see the lights of teams coming up from the valley below; steadily putting one foot in front of the other, roped together and heads down.
I went down knowing there was more to do in the Aosta Valley; including the highest permanent structure in Europe - the Margherita Hut - and numerous smaller 4,000m peaks, which looked inviting with their Madonna statues on top, surveying the scene of tiny climbers below.
Being in the mountains often leads to big thoughts; the awe-inspiring peaks - which have been there, solid and present, for so long we can hardly imagine it - drown out your everyday monologue and help you focus on what's important. Adventure takes us to a place where life is precious and death is close; and it is this feeling that I think brings people back over and over again, despite the hardships.