When the first team to conquer Mount Everest were looking for somewhere to train, you would imagine somewhere exotic with challenging and alien terrain much like the Himalayas. Instead they chose the slightly less glamorous option of Snowdonia National Park. Although our accommodation in the drill hall of a 3 ROYAL WELSH TA Centre built in the mid 1980’s was not quite steeped in as much history as the hotel at Pen-Y-Gwryd, which was used by Hillary and his team, the mountains were much the same for us as they had been for them. So with all the excitement that comes naturally with the opportunity to spend a few days in the Welsh Mountains the preparatory training for 4 MERCIAN expedition to the Alps began with the most quintessential of British mountain routes, The Ranger’s Track to the summit of Snowdon. As we settled into the fog-shrouded cafe at the summit for a half deserved, but nevertheless necessary ‘Welsh’ Pasty, no one expected the 4000 plus metre peaks the Alps had to offer would go any different.
A nice weekend off to forget all the important lessons of Snowdonia served well before the journey out to Turin the following Monday. The flight was made even more comfortable by a certain NCO using his initiative and ransacking the BA Executive Lounge for all its free crisps and nibbles and making it onto the plane with an entire rucksack filled with Mini Cheddars and Jaffa Cakes. After an otherwise uneventful journey we arrived at our home for the majority of the 10 days spent in the Alps, a camp in Courmayeur used by the Italian Alpini’s, who despite their fearsome reputation for alpine warfare throughout the early 20th century seem to have mellowed somewhat and now seem to spend most of their time guarding the gate in their particularly stylish blue tracksuits.
When the first morning arrived and it was finally time to meet the Alpinis who would be acting as our guides and instructors for the duration, and get out for a morning on the hills. Reports of large quantities of fresh snow on the summit of Mont Blanc and a high avalanche risk put a slight dampener on the first day, but we set off for some acclimatisation training on the lower slopes of the Mont Blanc Bowl. As it turned out ‘lower’ is a subjective term, and by the time we got off the cable car and stepped onto the glacier we were already at 3500m. After a couple of hours in rope teams of 4 moving along the glacier everyone was finally starting to get a handle on the art of walking in crampons, surprisingly difficult judging by the number of ripped trousers. Our second day on the mountain ran in more or less the same format, getting the cable car up and this time spending a bit longer on the glacier with stop for lunch and a particularly slick demonstration by our Alpini guides of how to perform a crevasse rescue.
The night brought yet more fresh snow onto the mountains so in a slight change of plans the next day we descended back down the valley from camp for a spot of rock climbing. The lovely weather down in the valley masked the slightly more treacherous conditions higher on the mountains. However, the range of routes on offer presented a good learning opportunity for those who had never climbed before and a bit of a challenge for some of the more experienced climbers. It also presented an opportunity for any members of the team with slight misgivings about spending time dangling off a rope to quickly get over their fear of heights, something they would need to do in preparation for later in the expedition!
After three days in the mountains the time came for our first summit attempt. The target was finally settled and Monte Rosa at 4610m was decided to be the first of our two day excursions. The first day was unsettlingly relaxed, after a two hour drive to the village at the base of the mountain we found ourselves settling down for a lovely bowl of classic Italian pasta. Our ascent began with a very bumpy journey up what in winter would have been the ski slopes in two Land Rovers that were clearly not having the easiest of lives, and then a cable car hop up to about 3000m. The walk from there to the mountain hut provided a chance for everyone to remember how to walk on snow again and before long we found ourselves at the ‘hut’ which as it turned out was more like a mountain hotel complete with restaurant and a veranda with sun lounges. Before long it was time for dinner and yet another bowl of Italy’s finest. Day two of the ascent came far too early, up at four, quick breakfast and out of the door by five. Just over 1100m of ascent awaited us and as usual the Alpini guides were unforgiving with their pace providing a rude wake up for those who’d managed to get their boots and crampons on without really waking up. The first couple of hours of the ascent were a strange experience with the crisp coldness of the snow and the darkness of the mountain with only the odd string of head torch lights illuminating the snow further up off in the mountain.
Thankfully, the sun finally rose and as it warmed up and we neared the summit we could see the scenery around us and just how far we had come. At the summit a smaller and slightly less flash mountain hut awaited us, but after a couple of cups of hot tea and a couple of Mercian Eagle stickers left inside we were recovered enough to appreciate.
The view, looking down on the cloud lying below us with just a few peaks showing such as the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc poking through. Job done, all that remained was the long walk down as the snow slowly turned to soft and slushy, but it was made all the better (or worse) in the knowledge that it would soon be followed by the inevitable… pasta.
Monte Rosa conquered, a day off was earned. A trip through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the town of Chamonix followed, with all its outdoor shops offering unnecessary quantities of mountaineering kit and restaurants offering a thankfully different type of cuisine. However, the talk over lunch was eager for the next mountain, and it would not be a long wait.
Gran Paradiso stands at 4061m about sea level, and although lower than Monte Rosa it presented just as much, if not more, of a challenge. As before the first day took the form of a walk up to the hut and an afternoon spent preparing for the challenge to come. The 4am start was less grating this time and the walk began by ascending up a steep bank of rock left along the side of a glacier that had long since retreated. As the sun came up we reached a much more technical part of the route, with a 200m traverse across a cliff face with the glacier falling down in the valley far beneath us. After this we were greeted by more snow and after a long trudge up the hill we were in sight of the summit. With the summit standing on a small rocky outcrop on the top of the mountain it involved a brief scramble to get onto, but in order to reach the very top it was necessary to traverse across a short ledge. This wouldn’t have presented much of a challenge normally, but the fact that off this ledge was at least a 500m drop added a bit of extra excitement. On the route down we dropped back down the glacier towards the hut and as we made it back to the Alpini camp in Courmayeur morale was high in the knowledge that over the course of our time in the Alps the expedition had achieved two impressive 4000m peaks.