The idea of climbing mountains is one that has formed organically in my mind over time. I’ve always been fit, passionate and determined; flitting between sports in my childhood and youth, from athletics, triathlon and cross country, to rowing and long-distance cycling. I found climbing at the beginning of the year and fell quite quickly in love. A new and challenging sport that meant I had to tackle both physical and mental obstacles. I was hooked. Yet in the last few years, for me, sport has become synonymous with exploration and adventure. With that in mind, a natural progression from climbing, for me, is of course into winter climbing and alpinism - my heart calls for adventure, mountains and alpine glows.
I knew barely nothing about mountain climbing until recently. To me, alpinists were a different breed of super human who could conquer extreme altitude and unpredictable, often dangerous conditions, with the fitness to be able to climb and hike for multiple hours on end. Yet knowing those facts doesn’t put me off, it makes me want to do it more. I love that feeling of exhaustion after a long day spent in the hills. I love the challenge. I hardly think I'm about to climb Everest or make any first ascents in my lifetime, but I want to push my physical and mental capacities to see what I can achieve in the mountains. And I want to document it all, through photographs and words, to bring it to life for other people, and to raise awareness of what the mountains can tell us about climate change and other environmental issues.
Here’s an insight into my first real mountaineering experience in Chamonix, September 2018.
One of the first things to consider before heading into the mountains was the glacier. It’s hard to convey the magnitude and intricacies of a glacier until you have stepped right onto one and felt its pulse beneath you. I’m speaking metaphorically here, of course a glacier isn’t actually alive. But in a way they seem to be so as you tread lightly between crevasses and over snow bridges, being careful not to stir the sleeping giant below you that could open and pull you under at any given moment. In a way, you must treat the glacier with the respect of a living being; these massive bodies of ice cover 10% of the earth’s land surface and demand all the attention they deserve, patterned with crevasses that appear like fractures in the ice, the result of the movement and stresses which form on the glacier.
Before our first escapade onto the glacier, I was bent with a crippling fear of these massive sheets of ice that I could see looming over the Chamonix Valley; what if I fall into a crevasse? What if Harvey falls into a crevasse and I can’t haul him out? What if I slide down an icy slope into an empty abyss? Both of us felt like we didn’t know enough about glaciers to travel safely onto one, so we spent an extra day on the ground practising hauling systems, and going over what we’d have to do in the case of a crevasse fall. I felt semi-confident by the time we made the three hour hike up to the La Tour glacier, but the underlying feeling when I arrived and saw the vast blanket of white and blue under a cloud covered sky was that I wanted to know more - not only about how to protect myself and my partner when walking on one, but about the science and history of glaciers; how they formed, how they survive, what impact climate change has on them. The glacier was hauntingly beautiful, and I was fascinated by it.
We arrived at the Albert Refuge in the late afternoon. The Refuge looks over the La Tour glacier and surrounding peaks, yet our climb for the following day was just visible looking in the other direction. We would have to cross the glacier to get there. That afternoon I put on my new set of Grivel crampons for the first time and stepped onto the glacier, amazed by how easily I could move on ice and snow wearing these enormous spikes on my boots. I was giddy with excitement… no more sliding down snow slopes on my bum like I’d done many times before. We practised placing ice screws, planting an ice axe, and explored the intricacies of the glacier. Now and again you hear the ice pop and crash loudly as the sheets move and glide together. It’s an eery sound - almost like the glacier is alive beneath you - and reminds you of their force and strength.
That night we set up our bivi bags just above the refuge, in a small outcrop protected by rocks. As the sun came and went between clouds at the crest of the highest peaks, sun-rays beamed through gaps in the sky and sent golden streaks onto the glacier. I cooked spaghetti with pesto, saucisson, fresh tomatoes, rocket and parmesan at dusk, and as soon as darkness fell, we got into our sleeping bags and bivi bags and watched the Milky Way appear in the sky. “Are you awake?”, I whispered to Harvey, my breath sending clouds of condensation into the air, “Yeah, it’s incredible.” he whispered back. The two of us lay there with our eyes wide open; in awe of nature, this alpine environment, and endlessly grateful for the fact we got to be here and witness the stars come alive above the mountains we would climb the next day.
Our alarms chime simultaneously at 4.30am, though I am quite sure that I am already awake. It is pitch black outside and bitingly cold, yet I prepared in advance and am already wearing what I will hike in that day - the best way to avoid having to peel off warm clothes and put on freezing cold ones in the morning is to sleep in them the night before. I have thermal leggings and hiking leggings topped with a pair of climbing trousers, and on top I am wearing two thermals, a thin insulating mid-layer and my Patagonia Micro Puff to keep me extra toasty. Adding on a woolly hat, buff, gloves and two pairs of socks beneath my mountain boots. After experiencing -20 degree temperatures in Nepal, I feel like I am prepared for anything. It feels practically tropical here - at probably around freezing - in comparison.
We sleepily walk over to the refuge for breakfast, alarmed by the warmth and noise and volume of people inside, we wished that we’d stayed out with the mountains to ourselves. By 6am we were on our way, hiking over the first rocky section before putting on our crampons for the first icy slope. We chose this part of the Chamonix Valley because we knew it was good for beginners, the result is that we are surrounded by multiple other groups which I don’t particularly like, but at last we feel safe with others around. Regardless of that, it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the mountains as the first signs of dawn hit the peaks in a soft pink glow. There can’t be anything more beautiful than mountains at sunrise. I fight the urge to keep stopping and getting my camera out, only capturing a couple of moments at dawn.
At the next break in the ice, we add harnesses loaded with crevasse rescue gear, ice axes and a rope between us as we enter the glacier. The ice sparkles like diamonds, and treading on the hard snow is much less scary than I thought - though at times we have to dart deep cracks in the glacier and my mind can’t help but imagine others forming suddenly right beneath my toes, sending me tumbling into a dark abyss. But the sight is breathtaking, so that’s what I focus on. As the sun starts hitting the snow ahead of us, we climb a steep slope, traverse an ice field and scramble up rocks to the summit of the Tete Blanche, looking out onto Switzerland for our second breakfast of Trek Bars and chocolate biscuits. Low clouds linger between rocky peaks, the sky a deep shade of blue and the snow the purest form of white.
The next section is probably the part I find scariest of the whole day. We descend from Tete Blanche and get our gear ready again, heading over to the base of the Petite Fourche which is our target for the day. An easy F+ route felt appropriate for my first mountaineering experience, the added elements of glacier, crampons and ice axe making everything new and meaning concentration and focus was essential. The slope up to the bottom of the scramble had to have been around 60-70 degrees, straight upwards on slippery snow. Having very limited experience of walking in crampons, I can’t deny that I was terrified. My heart beat fast beneath the 4 layers I was wearing, and my palms grew sweaty clinging firmly onto my ice axe. I knew what to do if I slipped - dig my toes into the snow and grip my axe firmly beneath my chest in the ‘self-arrest’ position. I knew what to do, but it didn’t make the idea of doing it any easier. But every step took us closer to the top of the slope, and I breathed a deep sign of relief on having arrived.
The final scramble to the summit felt easy, thanks to the experience I’d gained over the last couple of weeks. With the rope between us, we clambered over rocks and boulders and along a thin, exposed edge until the summit came into site. And, oh what a view. On this particular climb, the summit itself was less significant. It was the experience and getting there that mattered more to me. We sat and chatted to some friendly Brits, admired the magnitude and silence of the mountains around us, and dreamed of future alpine ascents.
The journey back to Chamonix was a slog, to say the least. Around 3 hours back to the refuge, and another 3 hours of brutal descent to reach the valley floor. Yet there was always something in the back of my mind, something that Harvey and I kept talking and thinking about. What is our impact having on the glacier? Those of us who are in the valley itself and walking in the mountains. We didn’t know for sure, but we felt like our presence couldn’t have been positive. Though our time in Chamonix was relatively low-impact (we took buses or walked everywhere, we lived in a van so used minimal water, we barely ever create food waste), we were still present in an environment dominated by nature. It disturbed us both. Harvey even noted how much the glacier had visibly receded since he visited 3 years before. Yet we are both passionate about spending time in nature, especially the mountains, and protecting them. It’s something I’ve had to think carefully about, and something that I am still assessing.
My first mountain experience left a few key thoughts in my mind. The first was that I wanted to be able to do more mountain summits, harder summits. The second was that I wished I’d captured more of the experience on my camera - but I know that that will come with time - as I get more confident climbing, I’ll be able to get my camera out a little more. And the third was that I wanted to know and understand the mountains more. I want to know what impact human activities have on mountains; to learn about receding glaciers and how climate change affects these alpine environments. I want to be in the mountains more, and learn more, and document more. So that’s my goal for the coming months. To grow fitter and stronger, to be able to climb harder and higher. To gain more confidence to be able to take photos enroute, and to read and research about climate change in the mountains. I think I’ve found a deep passion that I can’t wait to follow.
Understanding Glaciers & Climate Change
You’ve probably heard about glaciers being synonymous with climate change, but let me tell you why. Glaciers can be hundreds of thousands of years old, so they are excellent resources for assessing and documenting climate change. Earth’s rising temperatures have caused glaciers to recede at incredible rates. In fact, some glaciers have disappeared altogether in this century, with others not expected to survive the next few decades. Glaciers hold 75% of the earth’s fresh water, so their recension could have a disastrous affect on human life. Not only that, but melting glaciers are causing rising sea levels which could eliminate coastal communities and infrastructure.
So, what can we do? Reading about all the damaging affects of climate change on the earth isn’t enough, we have to act. I think the key is to make small, easy changes to your day to day routine to be more considerate of the environment. I wrote about 12 simple things you can do here, and I’ll continue sharing information on things I’ve learned and how we can all help. Below are some excellent resources I’ve found on environmental issues, receding glaciers and rising sea levels.