The team of ten Officer Cadets from the East Midlands Universities Officer Training Corps were en route to the Hohsaas lift, eagerly anticipating stepping onto an Alpine glacier for the first time clutching crampons and axes.
The team arrived only a day before in Saas-Grund after successful completion of the first challenge of the trip, the harrowing 20 hour minibus journey from Nottingham to the Mattertal valley in Switzerland. Admittedly not in Aosta in Italy as originally planned due to the unexpected closure of all the ski lifts and mountain huts, but arrived they had.
The Triftgletscher glacier certainly did not disappoint. Tension during the walk in. The avalanche defences had been recently destroyed by rock avalanches and we were attaching our crampons for the first time outside of the Cairngorms. Watching the team move onto the snow was like watching bambi on ice, but they quickly picked it up and soon were roping up and heading further up towards the crevasse fields. Here the team spent the remaining afternoon surrounded by the amazing vista that is the Swiss Alps practising crevasse rescues and learning of the various dangers of Alpine Mountaineering. As described by the instructors “another serious danger is the frequent rock falls and avalanches that befall the Alps” cue large rock fall 1000m to his right.
After another day of training the team were escaping the worst of the weather with their first via-ferratta in the beautiful Evolene valley. Following the EMUOTC adage “back yourself” the first route attempted was at the upper end of très difficile. This route was airy with many extensive overhanging sections taking the team a number of hours which pushed everyone to the very limits of their courage.
This proved to be the excellent adrenaline boost to propel the team onto their first 4000m peak the following day. The notoriously easy Breithorn, at 4165m was our first exposure to altitude on the expedition and everyone was aware of the toll it was taking on us, but luckily it was a perfect mountain day, with clear blue skies and glorious sunshine allowing us to see for miles around, with the instructors pointing out such iconic peaks as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. After a couple of hours snow plodding up the 35° slope suddenly we were at the top with the view opening up above us. At the same time we were confronted with a far steep and greater drop on the other side, and on top of this the wind. Being exposed on the top after the pleasant stroll up in the sun came as quite a shock, but we rallied ourselves to the summit for the traditional group photo with the unit flag proudly displayed.
Over the next 2 weeks we were to summit a number more peaks, firstly the Allalinhorn, the other popular beginner’s peak, followed quickly by the Weissmies which had us crossing the glacier we trained on, on our first day.
After another days via-ferratta on the Jegihorn (3206m) we were ready to up the ante a little and experience our first mixed climb along the Feejoch ridge to summit the Alphubel (4206m). The team revelled in the added challenge of a Difficult graded climb in crampons and an enviroment far less controlled than the via ferrattas. From the summit the team descended through the crevasses towards the Lang-Flu lift. From a novice perspective it’s fascinating observing the effects of crevasses which cannot be accurately mapped on route finding, with much too-ing and fro-ing needed to successfully and safely navigate through the white maze.
The final peak the team were to summit this exped was the largely rocky climb up the Lagginhorn which at 4010m was a very different mountain to those we had tackled previously. The majority of the ascent was scrambling on dry rock with only the last couple hundred meters requiring our crampons. This dry hot day lured us into the trap of climbing in T-shirts so minutes after we topped out onto the magnificently exposed alpine peak surrounded in all directions by a soft covering of clouds hundreds of meters below had us crowded together around the summits cross in the face of the most bitterly cold winds we experienced while in the Alps. It was however entirely worth the effort and brief discomfort.
This concluded our expedition, everyone came back happy and healthy having pushed themselves.
Joseph Robertson, Expedition Leader