This March a team consisting of Officer Cadets Charles Woods-Stride, Chris Hancock, Oliver Greenburgh, Hattie Holliday, Ella Thurston and Charles Clack set out from Oxford on Exercise Blue Bivio. The expedition was an introduction to ski touring combined with a six day hut to hut traverse of the Albula Alps north of the Engadine valley in Switzerland. The expedition was organised by Ocdt Elliot Woods-Stride and our instructor for the week was Captain Tania Noakes, an experienced Military SML and Aspirant Guide.
On arrival we had a lot of work to do sorting equipment, making sure that it all fitted and worked properly. It also gave us a chance to recover from our long journey from the UK. The next day we set out to cover basic skills and get our ski-legs back in at the local Savognin ski area. Most of the morning we skied on piste but in the afternoon we embarked on a little off-piste training. A gentle introduction to the rest of the week! For many of us though, this was quite challenging and we knew we’d have to work hard to complete our six day tour.
The next day we travelled up the valley to Bivio and started on our first day tour. The valley was totally clagged in and initially we had practically no visibility. However, we carried on our planned route and were eventually rewarded with glorious sunshine as we emerged from the clouds which were hanging stationary in the valley. We summitted Piz Turba just before lunch. Which then gave plenty of time in the afternoon to tackle the very challenging snow conditions of descending the Septimer pass.
Our Expedition began before the sun had fully risen the next day. The forecast held true and the weather was fantastic allowing us to reach the first col mid-morning. After a short stint of downhill skiing, we began to climb the Piz d’Agnel. Despite the warm, tiring ascent, we were met with incredible views at the top as well as a clear view of the bad weather coming into the area, clouds pouring over the high mountains to the south. Skis off and crampons on, we descended the first part of the peak by foot, a new experience to many of the group. The afternoon was spent skiing down a glacier, another first for the group, which led us all the way to the Channa Jenatsch hut.
With poor weather incoming, Capt Noakes changed our planned itinerary and instead of staying another night we set off again early the next day. There was a short steep traverse which demanded use of our crampons and ice axes, before gaining a more open and gentle higher valley. We skirted Piz Lawenen and then began our days’ descent. Quite steep and challenging in places, again particularly because of the snow conditions. It took us in and around rock formations and down through the tree line to Preda, where we caught the train to nearby Filisur. This was an experience in itself as the train line descends 417m in 6.5km via a series of spirals and looped viaducts and tunnels which venture in and out of the mountainside. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it is a remarkably well preserved example of turn-of-the-century engineering. On arrival we headed to a nearby hotel for the night.
The following morning saw the team catch the train back to Bergün to use the towns’ only life to get us back to the snowline and on our way to the Kesch Hutte. We climbed a short ridge before dropping off the back of the ski area and a long exposed traverse eastwards towards the Kesch hut. Even at 10 in the morning the sun had rotted the final slope into bottomless sugar making the descent very challenging for the group. We had to work together tightly as a team in order to ensure we all made it down with our equipment and ourselves all intact.
The next day the bad weather that had been chasing us finally caught us up. Capt Noakes suggested a short circular trip up to a nearby peak as a substitute for being unable to climb Piz Kesch, the highest point in the Albula Alps. With incredibly poor visibility and Tania handed over navigation to various group members, the team had to rely on the GPS and their own mountain knowledge to reach the summit. Although shorter and less demanding than previous days, the challenge was more about keeping together and negotiating the snow and terrain to find a suitable route. On reaching the summit, we celebrated by taking full advantage of the powder snow with a particularly one-sided snow ball fight! The rest of the day consisted of carrying out avalanche drills and burying each-other’s transceivers in order to be found by other team members.
On Friday the weather dawned clear. The day started with fantastic skiing in fresh powder sparkling in the morning sun. No surprise that the team reached the bottom of the valley in great team spirit. Then we then began a 400m ascent up to Piz Grialetsch. The route became more technical as we passed over ridges and around a high glacial bowl before reaching the col leading to our final hut, the Grialetsch.
The final day of our tour began early as soon as the sun rose above the mountains, with bad weather again forecast for later in the afternoon. Conditions deteriorated quicker than expected and visibility was quite challenging. We wove in and out of the clouds until we gained the shoulder below our final peak, Piz Sarsura. Which we summited on foot as a group. Although the scenery was mostly obscured by the weather, moral was high, and the day had a very committing feel to it… but by now we felt ready for the challenge! The last descent also proved testing, as we skied down to the road at Zernez… including two river crossings!
In order to break the journey home to the UK we spent our final day of the expedition in Chamonix. We had the opportunity to have one more day on piste experiencing the slopes of Chamonix. Our hard work during a week of ski touring was very evident in the fact that every member of the group had improved both their ski technique and fitness. Our final evening saw the team head out for a celebratory meal and drinks before saying farewell to Tania.
Exercise Blue Bivio was a challenging, but richly rewarding experience which saw the development of not only our technical skills, but also our fitness and teamwork within the group. I would recommend anyone to take part in future expeditions of this type and I hope to be able to help organise something like this for Oxford UOTC’s in 2013.
OCdt. C. Clack