Exercise Planner: “Antoine, are the guides concerned about the two deaths on the Matterhorn on 24 Jul?”
Antoine: “I was there ………! I watched the rock and them fall past me, still roped together. They were already dead as they fell out of sight!”
As the dust settled on the successes of the 2 R IRISH Jun 17 Mont Blanc expedition the vacuum was quickly filled with a longing to raise the bar for those at the ‘sharp end’ of the 2 R IRISH Barossa Mountaineering Club. The thought of committing to another drawn out planning process filled the exercise planner with anxiety. The challenge would need to be worth the labour of fund raising, satisfying the diplomatic bureaucracy, the never ending logistical and medical planning, pre training planning, High Risk and Remote presentation preparation, DDH, advertising and place loading, instructor acquisition (and ‘prima donna’ ego management), execution and post exercise wash up. Then a single picture posted on our French guide’s (Guillaume Thebaudin) Facebook page revealed our next endeavour. It was a celebratory photograph of him with a client having just climbed to the summit of The Matterhorn, Zermatt via the Hornli Ridge, statistically one of the deadliest mountains on the planet. A picture was circulated amongst the team who were energised at a glance and ‘the bar was set’. Guillaume was asked if he would join the team; he agreed. His comment relating to the challenge summed it up, “Mont Blanc is a hill with snow on it, The Matterhorn is a mountain!”
By October 2018 Ex SHAMROCK GLACIER August 2019 was already taking shape. As with previous years the exercise was to include two concurrently running programmes, one for the Summit Team to complete build up training, the other to deliver an introductory Alpine Mountaineering programme. Initially, the beginner programme was only going to include two days of alpine mountaineering however, as progress was made with the acquisition of UK military alpine instructors it was developed into a full alpine mountaineering serial. Appreciating the significant risk associated with The Matterhorn challenge, Adventurous Training Group (Army) (ATG(A)) were consulted, just to confirm if there would be any ‘red cards’. The response from Colonel Wilson, Comd ATG (A), was very positive and CO Joint Services Mountain Training Centre (JSMTC) Lt Col Husband suggested that the 2 R IRISH Summit Team attend the summer 19 JSMTC Alpine Concentration as part of the build-up training. Applications were made and places were confirmed. In addition, Major Bailey from Trails End Camp Adventurous Training Centre, Canada offered the release of WO1 Nathan Reeves, the most experienced mountaineer in the British Army, to support the exercise as a mountain guide. The summit Team composition was agreed and confirmed with Guillaume and the remaining eight places on the exercise for alpine novices started to fill from across the battalion. The exercise planner and exercise CQMS, CSgt Scott, conducted a recce to Chamonix in early April 2019 to finalise the plan.
Swiss Alps – Build Up Training
It was a long coach journey from Aldershot to Reapl, Switzerland throughout the night of 07 Jul 19. Slightly weary from the journey, the Summit Team settled into their Swiss Army Camp accommodation and collected their equipment from the loan stores. What lay ahead was 10 days of quality mountaineering under the instruction of some of the best mountaineers in the services. The JSMTC instructor pool for the concentration was a hybrid of very experienced military and civilian alpine mountaineering staff who had been pulled from across JSMTC for the two weeks. Initial training focused on revision of the basics then quickly progressed to climbing on challenging ridgelines including the well-known ‘Trotziggplanstock’ ridge, which is situated near the Susten Pass and nearly as hard to climb as it is to say (never mind spell). The training prepared the team well for every eventuality including crevasse rescue. During the training students are required to fall into the ice chasms as part of the recovery drills training; these are lifesaving skills that need to be learnt and practised regularly. Ice screws are fixed into the glacial ice to create the hoisting systems that can secure and recover a fallen mountaineer.
Evenings on the mountain were spent acclimatising in the various mountain huts that cater for the mountaineering community. Some of the huts are located on high, challenging ground only accessible to the more determined hill walker or mountaineer. Despite this, the food was to the highest standards and the staff were welcoming.
The Alpine Concentration was a most incredible period of training and by the end of it the Summit Team felt well prepared for the challenge that lay ahead.
EX SHAMROCK GLACIER 2019 – 2 R IRISH The Matterhorn Summit Expedition
By the second week of Aug 19 CSgt Scott had the Pantec loaded with all the expedition stores and Rangers’ personal kit. By late evening 13 Aug 19 wheels were turning towards the Liverpool ferry terminal. The ’Start Line’ had just been crossed! Nearly two years of planning had just been initiated as the truck pulled out of camp. There was still time for a final training serial as some of the Summit Team conduct night training deep in the Mournes countryside, climbing and descending fixed ropes by headtorch light, a necessary skill that would be required during the expedition.
The exercise leader adjusts his watch to local time while waiting for the air stewards to open the aircraft doors. With the flight into Geneva having arrived in good time the Summit Team will make good progress down the road towards Chamonix. LCpl Wright secures the keys of the Renault People Carrier and the team are on their way. SSgt White (RAPTC) has joined them having just flown in from Liverpool earlier that afternoon. He has been released from 1 R IRISH and brings a lot to the party as an Alpine Mountain Leader with previous JSMTC instructor experience.
Arriving at Mer de Glace camp site the team meet a very happy CSgt Scott and CSgt Ross. They have been busy erecting the base camp and are now enjoying the late evening Chamonix ambiance. After a fire safety and admin brief the team move their equipment into their tents and prepare for the next day’s activity on Glacier d’Argentiere.
The walk up onto the glacier is steep and made more demanding due to the increasing morning heat as the sun hits the Chamonix Valley. It is early afternoon before the team have donned crampons and get their first feet on the ice. They run through a revise of the basics, roping up and maintaining rope discipline, while crossing over the crevasses. This is a dry glacier (without snow hiding the dangers) so a crevasse fall is unlikely; still, there is no room for complacency. This first walk will also aid acclimatisation as the team are now at 2,500 m.
The next 2 days are spent on the Plan de l’Aiguille, high above Chamonix, climbing on the ridgelines of Gendarme du Peigne and Traverse des Petits Charmoz. This is an opportunity for the French guides to content themselves that the Summit Team are ready for the challenge of The Matterhorn. Antoine Lang is a quiet young French guide who had been chosen by Guillaume several months before, to work with the summit team, due to his experience on The Matterhorn. No one was to know at the time of his selection what he was destined to encounter on the mountain only weeks before the start of the R IRISH expedition. As the team followed the mountain track up to the start of the Gendarme du Peigne climb, the exercise planner asks him, “Antoine, are the guides concerned about the two deaths on the Matterhorn on 24 Jul?” After a pause Antoine stops in his tracks, his face loses all expression and then he relies, “I was there ………! I watched the rock and them fall past me, still roped together. They were already dead as they fell out of sight!”. The seriousness of the challenge was never more real than at this point! Antione is clearly still rattled by the whole experience, especially because one of the fallen climbers was an alpine guide. He had not broken any code of practice; the rock that both he and his Chilean client were anchored to simply crumbled, while they descended a fixed rope, just below the Solvay hut on their return leg, having summited an hour before. We changed the subject of conversation.
The climbing conditions are ideal this morning; despite the sunny, hot weather, most of the ridge is in the shade. The early morning start has enabled the route to be completed by early afternoon and this allows the team plenty of time to prepare for the next day’s activities.
Evening of Saturday 17 Aug 19 and the members of Group 2 arrive at the campsite. The exercise participants are now complete in Chamonix without a ‘hitch’. As they get issued their equipment, crampons are fitted to boots and ice axes are checked for size against the individuals. They all look forward to their first alpine experience on the ice slopes of Glacier d’Argentiere. Cpl Velda Wilson had joined the team as exercise chef. She quickly settled into the routine and remained ever flexible catering with the many pre-dawn alpine starts, performing her culinary art, producing excellent evening meals for the whole cohort in all weather conditions, always with a smile and a witty retort.
By mid-morning the young soldiers have travelled close to the glacier by gondola and are now enjoying their first experience walking on the ice wearing crampons. The crunch of the ice as the spikes take purchase is an alien feeling but very quickly they appreciate the control that this equipment affords, even on the steepest icy terrain. The ice tools and crampons are sharp so care needs to be taken, as a simple error could result in the receipt of nasty injury to themselves or their team mates. Group 2 are an impressive bunch and take to the training like ‘ducks to water’.
‘No Plan Survives Contact with Extreme Weather …….!’ Change to the Plan – The New Summit Challenge
The Summit Team have been tracking the short-term weather forecast, both in Zermatt and in the Chamonix Valley, which seems to be changing by the hour; things do not look good. Europe is about to be hit with a low pressure that is guaranteeing a prolonged period of inclement weather. This will bring rain to the low country and most certainly snow on higher ground above 3,500m. In addition, it will erode the time required for the team to adequately acclimatise for the challenge of The Matterhorn’s 4,478m summit.
Monday 19 Aug: The rain comes with a vengeance! The Summit Team’s two days of build-up training on the Vallée Blanche is cancelled. Strong winds and poor visibility mean that the high gondolas are closed so even making the height to acclimatise is a challenge.
Tuesday 20 Aug: It has rained all night. Tents are leaking, and the rain continues with greater force than the previous day. The Summit Team manage to take the gondola to the high station on the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m, where they spend time acclimatising from morning until the afternoon when the station undergoes an emergency evacuation, due to increasingly high winds and lightning strikes against the infrastructure. On returning to the now waterlogged campsite the team are surprised to be met by Guillaume the head French Guide. He is bringing the worst news. The weather has resulted in a heavy fall of snow on The Matterhorn. To compound the problem further, rain is forecast in Zermatt for the evening of Thu 22 Aug, which was to be the night before the Summit Climb, where the Summit Team were to stay in the Hornli Hut, the refuge that sits at the base of The Matterhorn’s Hornli Ridge. Guillaume is a straight talker and he puts it bluntly; the guides are refusing to go on The Matterhorn due to the conditions. Seven people have lost their lives already this year on this mountain including an alpine guide with his client, so Guillaume’s decision is accepted as final. The exercise leader breaks the news to the Summit Team. They probably knew the change was on the horizon but hearing it is gut wrenching. Over a year of planning, a year of training and mental preparation, ruined by this unfortunate weather misalignment.
What followed next was the inevitable Chinese parliament to find a suitable surrogate mountain to climb. Several options are put to the team but none of them adequately satisfy the itch for challenge. For a period, the conversation with the guides becomes quite heated. Then the nearly perfect alternative falls out from the debate, ‘Dent du Geant – The Giant’s Tooth’! This is a place you could easily kill yourselve! Perfect! Dent du Geant is one of the most iconic 4000 metre features in the French Alps. It is located right on the line but entirely inside the French border along the ridge that dominates Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley, Italy. This tower of Burgener Granite stands dominant at the top of Glacier du Geant and is one of the most classic routes in the area. It has a similar grade to The Matterhorn requiring a 1:1 guide to client ratio. It has more fixed ropes than The Matterhorn and most importantly it will be in condition to climb, as the weather in the Chamonix Valley is more favourable than Zermatt over the window for the ascent. Plans are quickly adjusted and authorised by ATG.
Ice Climbing on The Mer de Glace
Wednesday 21 Aug 19 – With the improving weather, Group 2 set off early morning to take the first train to Montenvers. The train trundles up through a heavy valley fog to reveal the most beautiful morning of clear blue skies and unbroken sunshine. Equipment is donned, ropes are secured, and the group find themselves facing the daunting challenge of descending the hundreds of metres of steel ladders that are fixed to the steep, polished granite walls of the Mer de Glace glacier. Once on the glacier the group make their way up through this hostile and unstable terrain until they arrive at the most incredible natural playground, dominated by ice walls that have been formed by thousands of years of water flow from the Arveyron River. Under the direction of Guillaume, Cpl Fraser and SSgt White, the Rangers conduct a fun filled ‘game of dare’ along the river’s icy banks, as they demonstrate their improving confidence, using their crampons and ice axes to great effect. This has been a most impressive group, who have jelled well during the first part of the exercise. The instructors set up ropes, fixing screw anchors deep into the ice, and the programme progresses to ice climbing on the glacier walls. This was an outstanding serial of training, which was new to all the Rangers. Not only did it demonstrate effective use of ice axes and crampons, it gave them such confidence in themselves as a consequence. The return journey was as enjoyable with the group climbing back out of the glacier bottom, up the ladders before taking the Mountenvers train journey back to Chamonix.
Ascent of Dent du Geant – 23 Aug 19
From the equipment room the Summit Team and guides make their way outside and up steel steps to the wooden patio area of the Torino Hut that sits just inside the Italian border at 3,375 metres. It is now 0430 a.m. The sky is clear, and the air is still; the fresh chill has brought the temperature down below freezing; the crunch of the fresh thick frost evident under foot. Frosty breaths are easily visible below head torches shining from helmets. Crampons are snapped into place, ropes are fixed and in pairs they start to make their way across the top of Glacier du Geant towards the objective. This is the second crossing of the glacier in 24 hours, having climbed L’Arete de Marbrée the previous day, a popular ridgeline in the Helbronner area. And because of this, despite the darkness outside of the headtorch beam everyone knows the danger that lies beneath. Every crevasse encounter is approached with trepidation; as you gingerly step over; the brief beam of light allows a glimpse of the dark blue abyss many metres below. The rope must be kept tight at all times! One wrong step could result in climber and guide hurtling into the unknown. The trail of headtorches in the dark sets the course towards the start point of the Dent du Geant climb.
Having broken clean from the glacier, movement was initially fast scrambling but slowed as the ground became progressively more technical. By first light all climbers were committed to the Dent du Geant granite tower that projected from the ridgeline, ‘straight up’! In addition to the R IRISH team, other climbers were also planning to summit around the same time so there was a likelihood that congestion could result during parts of the ascent. Thin fixed red and black ropes provided a level of protection on the first 20 metres although, due to their diameter, they were hard to pull on. Climbing was steady but slow. The fixed ropes changed to heavy white nylon ropes that were very weather beaten, with parts of the mantle outer becoming unfixed from the rest of the rope. This would result in the occasional slip to your grip. Eventually the team arrived in their 2-man teams at the final wall. This was a very imposing spectacle, white ropes lacing up into the distance to the narrow top of the aiguille, handrailing a very prominent fault-line in the rock. The remains of the previous thick hemp ropes could still be seen, final remnants of a previous era of mountaineering. The team made steady progress to the last pitch, which included an awkward traverse from the lesser summit to the main summit, where the iconic statue of ‘The Virgin Mary’ stands four foot tall.
After taking in the view of the Vallée Blanche as it progressed down into the Mer de Glace glacier, the team took the necessary photographs before commencing the long descent off the feature. The ideal escape from the summit is by using two x 50 metre ropes with two pairs working together. The first abseil was 25 metres. The challenge came with the second abseil, a 35m drop over an overhang into the unknown. Only experience would guide a team down this next stage, because directly below the first abseil at 35 metres is a poorly protected, sloping belay stance full of old tat, secured to rusting old pitons and a badly placed number 3 rock (put in by some unsuspecting climber in a desperate attempt to stay alive long enough to get to the lower belay point!) To make matters worse, the overhang prevents the climber from being able to reach the tat, so they would need to climb back up from the first point of contact with the rock, several metres below the stance. The secret was to abseil awkwardly to the left in order to pick up on the new belay stance that sits at the same level, nearly out of sight, 6 metres to the left. Too late when you discover this, hanging near the end of a rope with your harness cutting painfully into your groin, as was the experience suffered by one of the pairs, who had to dig deep into their hard-earned glossary of mountainology to affect their escape.
On completion of the decent the team made their way back across the glacier to the Torino Refuge and then back to Chamonix. This was an excellent day that did not over stretch the team members, giving great reassurance that, had The Matterhorn been in condition, there was every likelihood that they would have made it to the top and safely back down.
Ex SHAMROCK GLACIER Aug 19 lifted the bar again from Mont Blanc 2017. The team do not dwell on the missed challenge to summit The Matterhorn but rather, on what was achieved. 2019 has brought great opportunities for the rising mountaineering stars within the battalion, which is easy to see and measure. Therefore, this conclusion emphasises on the less obvious but very evident successes of the second wave. The team camaraderie witnessed within Group 2, our next generation of alpinists, was so impressive, measured in part by what they managed to complete during the exercise but also by their general desire to learn new skills and share them on. It remains our role to continue to ‘clear the way’ providing them with the opportunity to grow.