“I can’t work out if this was a good idea or a bad one..” said Matt. Tomorrow the Cabane des Dix, high in the mountains above Arolla would have a full staff, prepared food, and be a hive of activity as a key stop on the Haute Route, a classic alpine ski tour. Tonight, however, we were tucked away in the winter room, burning wood to stay warm, heating boil in the bag meals, and we are completely alone.
My first multi-day ski tour
“Let’s get out on a multi-day tour, go stay in a hut?” suggested Heather, “I’ve always wanted to climb the Pigne d’Arolla. It was the first major mountain I had heard a friend climbed and I’ve never even seen it.” I was keen to get out of town for a few days and was feeling in need of some time to think – nothing does that better for me than climbing a mountain. Two of Heather’s friends, Matt and Johnny were to join us and, like that, a plan was in place.
The route we had chosen had a short approach day, gaining just over 1000m from the town of Arolla up to the Cabane des Dix at 2928m leaving just over 850m to climb the next day up to the summit of the Pigne d’Arolla at 3796m.
In the European Alps we are very fortunate to have a spectacular mountain hut system – all the way across the alps are everything from bivouac shelters little more than garden sheds to giant, environmentally friendly refuges in the mountains. This comprehensive system opens up huge swathes of the mountains to those not inclined to carry tents, sleeping bags, and more on routes.
Though I am a big fan of a bivvy or two when necessary, give me a roof over my head any day. We planned on keeping it all cheap by staying in the winter room which is un-manned meaning we needed to carry our own food and stoves in – a small price to pay for peace and quiet.
Beautiful high pressure
This winter has been simply stunning. A healthy mix of unstable poor weather laying down tonnes of snow paired with long, stable high pressure windows with clear blue skies and low wind. The current high pressure swooped in and we jumped on the opportunity for some stunning skiing and touring.
Setting off on an unusually long drag lift, it wasn’t too long before we had our skins on our skis and we were setting out off the beaten track and into the big mountains. The peace and calm you feel when you leave the resorts is magical and we all slipped into our own worlds as we made our way up to the first climb of the trip. Catching up with a few snowshoe walkers as we reached the col, we were greeted by stunning views as we looked down the other side into the next valley, where we were heading.
Brand new cast iron ladders, fixed to the steep and bare walls below got us to the top of a steep slope where we got to do the only bit of downhill skiing for the day – we had better make the most of it! Thankfully it was good, very good, and, quickly reattaching our skins, we all set off with a smile on our faces.
A short ski and bootpack up to the hut got us there in time for lunch and we sat out in the sun, without a cloud in the sky, and not a soul for miles. The others were keen for more that day but I was really looking forward to some time alone and so volunteered to stay behind, get a fire going, and melt snow so that we would have water to drink and make dinner.
As I settled into my chores, the others headed off up to check out their peak for the afternoon. The peace and quiet was just what I had been hoping for; time alone with my thoughts, time to process everything, and time to just be without any pressure or expectations.
Coming up to the winter hut while the mountains were quiet was definitely the right decision.
By the time I had melted two giant pans of snow the others were back and we set to work making dinner and preparing for the next day. Our route was pretty obvious but we still made careful checks on both the map and the guidebook before heading to bed at an entirely unreasonable 8.30pm.
Climbing the Pigne d’Arolla
I slept like a log and, before I knew it , my alarm was going off and it was time to get going. A highly nutritious bowl of noodle soup and garlic sausage was quickly consumed and by 7.30am we were out the door and on our way.
I truly love being in the mountains at dawn and this morning did not disappoint. With the sun creeping round the lofty summits above us, we set off at a steady pace and weaved our way up the broken and open glacier. The climb up from the hut is a gently 850m climb with a guide book time of 4-5 hours. Never too steep, the first half of the was was very straightforward with us making it far up the glacier before roping up to cross a snow bridge became a wise idea.
Continuing roped up, the climb rose gently before it was time to take of our skies, strap on our crampons, and climb a short but steep ice slope that took us onto the final summit slopes.
Naturally pairing up, I set off, side-by-side with Heather giving us a very sociable and pleasant final 150m vertical to climb. Chatting away, before we knew it we were there, 3798m, the summit of the Pigne d’Arolla and my first proper ski mountaineering outing!
Standing on the summit, it dawned on me..I don’t know how long it has been that I’ve stood on a summit not just climbed a route..?
Over the last few years I have been climbing a huge amount getting out onto mountains on steep and technical routes. What I hadn’t realised was that I hadn’t stood on an actual summit for at least a year. Routes often end on a ridge line or halfway up a mountain and, with the route being the objective, I had decided against continuing up to the summit.
I had missed that feeling of standing on the top and look back from where I had come.
A speedy descent
Basking in the midday sun and the warm glow of satisfaction of having made it to the top, we all sat back, ate a little, and took it all in. With 360 degree views of the Western Alps we were treated by the glorious Dent Blanche and Matterhorn, almost within reaching distance. Further afield, we could see back to our home and the south face of Mont Blanc towering in the distance behind the massive Grand Combin.
Though glorious and sun-soaked, it didn’t take long for us to get cold. Now for the fun part!
There had been high winds the previous few days so we were all a little apprehensive of the descent. Hard, wind-packed snow is quite tough to ski and the first vertical few hundred metres were certainly hard work. As we continued down, the sun softened snow became easier and the skiing more enjoyable.
As we made it lower down the mountain, the snow just got better and better with it saving the best until last. For the final 400m vertical we were treated to impeccable fresh powder, fresh tracks, and weaving through trees.
What had taken us nearly 7 hours to climb over two days took us just 40 minutes to descend. I think I’ve seen the light – why would you ever walk down a mountain again?!