There was a convivial atmosphere that evening in the Refuge du Promontoire, where everyone was gathered with the same purpose in mind:the Meije traverse, one of the great classic routes of the Alps. We got talking to a French alpinist, a man of about the same age as ourselves and we swapped yarns, as you do, about the routes we had done. With over twenty years of alpinism behind him, he had an impressive list of ascents to his credit. He declared himself impressed with our ascents too, but then he asked us where was our guide. When we explained that Irish climbers didn’t hire guides, he confessed that he had never climbed without one and had always used the same guide.
The following morning, as we geared up in the porch, I watched as this experienced alpinist stood with his arms hanging by his sides, while the guide checked that he had fitted his harness correctly, before tying him into the rope. No corners cut, no chance of familiarity breeding contempt there. As he was doing this, he explained to us that he allowed for a maximum of seventeen minutes between being called in the morning, breakfasting and heading out the door. Being first away meant he avoided being held up by slower parties on the route. A man that firmly believed in the maxim that speed is safety in the Alps.
Liam and I were hot on their heels when they set out but, in the darkness, they soon pulled away from us. We had a great and memorable outing, enjoying the route to the full. The following day we bumped into the pair of them in La Grave, where they were having a celebratory drink. They had completed the route in a very respectable time and were already plotting their next outing. Here was a guide that was a credit to his profession.
We were in Arolla at the end of our Alpine trip. That, coupled with a downturn in the weather, left us inclined to finish the holiday on a leisurely note. We settled for an ascent of La Luette, a shapely peak, with the possibility of a pleasant traverse. As we arrived on the summit, a guided party, consisting of a mother and her two pre-teen children, under the care of a middle-aged, rather grumpy guide, were preparing to descend down the narrow, easy-angled arete, which was the normal descent route.
Unusually, for a descent, he set off in the lead, setting a smart pace. The ridge was too narrow, and dropped away too sharply on either side, to allow any of the party bring the ice-axes into play. But the guide had a pair of trekking poles, which were fully extended and with these he was able to steady his progress as he moved briskly along.
Their progress was marked by cries of alarm from the children, as they stumbled along after him in an effort to keep up, and pleas from the mother for him to slow down as she too, tottered in his wake. Perhaps he felt that an ascent of La Luette was too easy for a guide of his caliber and was anxious to get it over with but, whatever the reason, he ignored their cries and pressed on regardless. We followed behind at a leisurely pace and lost sight of them when they passed over a bump on the ridge.
When we topped the bump we were met with an unedifying sight. One of the party, probably the mother, had fallen off the arete, dragging the children off, too. The children were cut and scratched and whimpering with fright, the mother sobbing. All three had dropped their axes, which were seen further down the slope. And the guide? He had been pulled off his feet and was lying athwart the arete on his stomach, his legs dangling on their side of the ridge, his head and arms on the other, as he struggled to prevent himself from being hauled off by the weight of his clients.
We left the guide to stew in his own juice and while Bob went to the assistance of the family, I kicked steps down to retrieve the axes. Then we ushered them back up on to the arete. Released from pressure, the guide had regained his feet. Then, without any apology to his clients or acknowledgement of our assistance, he set off again, once more at a smart pace. Fortunately, the ridge broadened and the angle eased a short distance further on. The mother dug her heels in and all three untied from the rope and continued to descend, safely, at their own pace.
Cramponing steadily up towards the Col de la Serpentine on a cold, still morning with crisp underfoot conditions, we spotted a party of three making rapid progress as they descended, with short swooping glissades, from the summit of La Serpentine to the col, where our routes joined. It was a guide and two, obviously experienced, clients. We fell in behind them as both parties started to ascend the steep, icy slope, en-route to the summit of Mt. Blanc de Cheilon. I noticed none of them were wearing crampons, although all three had them strapped to their rucksacks. As they moved, the guide, without any pause or interruption to their progress, was cutting, with smooth, glancing strokes, a succession of tiny nicks, no bigger than a thumb-nail, in the hard ice. Then, all three of them, each in turn, would kick into the nicks as they moved rapidly onward. So rapidly in fact, that, although we were wearing crampons, we could not keep up with them.
I was so impressed with the guide’s axe-work that, from then on, I took every opportunity, whether here at home , in Scotland or in the Alps, to indulge in bouts of step-cutting , working hard to develop something akin to his technique of cutting tiny steps without any slowing of pace or progress. This technique works well and often saved wear and tear on crampons while traversing Scottish ridges in winter, or mixed Alpine ridges in summer. It often saved time, too, for, in those days, prior to toe bails, quick-release bindings and step in crampons, fitting crampons on and taking them off could be time consuming.
But, apart from all of that, there is something satisfying about the physical effort involved, and the feel good factor that comes with a job being well done. Rather like that primitive, gratifying feeling one gets while splitting logs with a felling axe.
We were two-thirds of the way up our route on the Dibona, that imposing rock spire in the Massif des Ecrins, which has been described as a triangular granite spear . There was a single piton on our ledge so, leaving my wife belayed to this, I set off around the corner, moving up over steep rock on good holds. Suddenly, I was aware of raised voices below me and a heated argument taking place. When Lily joined me at the next belay she filled me in. Shortly after I had set off a guide had arrived on the scene and without as much as a by your leave, he had unclipped her krab from the peg and clipped his own in. Lily was horrified at this and objected strongly and though she had no French and he had no English, he got the message quickly enough, sheepishly unclipping and then clipping her back in.
This is an attitude one sometimes encounters in the Alps – some of the local guides regard the mountains as theirs and theirs alone and they can be quite arrogant about it. But this guy had learned his lesson and kept clear of us during the rest of the day.
Sitting in the comfortable carriage of the train carrying us smoothly, swiftly, towards Interlaken, it was easy to think that all was well with the world. But outside it was a different story. The wide expanse of the Thuner See was deserted and, where usually we would have expected to see a flotilla of pleasure craft on the lake, there were sheets of spray and wild waves driven before a gale force wind. When we arrived in the mountain village of Grindelwald It was unseasonably cold , so I decided to pay a visit to the guide’s bureau to check things out.
There was a small number of potential clients in the office and the guide was in a pleasant mood as he booked them in for various outings. But when it came to my turn and he discovered I was only looking for information, his smile vanished. He answered my queries testily. Conditions had been good, were good and would continue to be good. It was summer so, of course, everything was fine. What else did I expect. But I realised he was eyeing the potential customers in the queue behind me, so he wasn’t going to say anything that might put them off. In other words he was dishing me out alternative facts.
The following morning we set off for Kleine Scheidegge and the Monchjoch Hut. A few years earlier we had traveled this route in tee-shirts and sun hats but now we were wearing our rain jackets and gloves in an attempt to keep warm in the cold wind. Halfway up we encountered two English climbers coming down. They had spent the previous day cooped up in the hut because the winds were so strong the warden had locked the door of the hut and refused to allow anyone leave. They were miffed at this at first, but then news had come through on the radio of two climbers being blown off the Wetterhorn and falling to their death. So now they were bailing out. But we were heading up with the intention of staying up for a few days, so we soldiered on.
The hut was half-empty, always a sign of bad weather. We got talking to a Japanese climber and he was full of optimism. He had hired a guide to climb the Monch and the guide had assured him everything would be fine. Just before we drifted off to sleep the guide came into our dorm (the guides share a dorm of their own) and tapped his client on the shoulder. You better pay me now, he said, it will save time in the morning. His client paid him, then turned to me with a broad smile. You see, everything is going to be fine, he said. I was up at three a m, checking things out. The hut shook and rattled as it continued to be battered by storm force winds and outside a thick mist covered everything. So it was back to bed. At six-thirty the guide came in and roused his client, telling him it was too windy to do anything, and advising him to get dressed so that they could catch an early train back down. Disconsolate, our Japanese friend departed the hut a sadder, and poorer, man.
As for us, we held on, in the hope that the winds would eventually abate. The Monch wasn’t on our itinerary, as I had made a traverse of it before but, in the Alps, you have to be prepared to modify your plans. The ordinary route starts just behind the hut, is an amenable PD and takes just three hours up and half that again coming down. All of which made for an ideal acclimitisation outing. By eleven things had settled down enough to allow an ascent. We were joined by a Dutch guide and his two clients and we all summitted and returned to the hut in good order.
The following day we traversed the Gross Fiescherhorn, which we had all to ourselves and the day after that the Finnsteraarhorn. Eventually returning to Grindelwald via the Gross Grunhorn. In the Alps, it’s good to be your own boss.
To hire a guide for the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn costs an arm and a leg but, it has to be said, the guides earn their money. Some fifteen years ago I was back again on the ridge, after a gap of twenty-five years, this time with Sile. The Zmutt ridge was our original aim but the mountain was in bad condition, so we had to modify our ambitions. As it happened, we found ourselves hard on the heels of a guide with a young Japanese woman on his rope. He certainly earned his fees. Like many of those who attempt to climb the Matterhorn, she was a novice, with little or no climbing or Alpine experience and, given the short duration of her annual holidays, she had not had time to acclimatise.
The guide was young, fit as a fiddle and strong as an ox. He kept her on a short, tight rope and literally hauled her up the mountain. Whenever they arrived at one of the steeper sections he would count to three, then give a tremendous heave on the rope and she would shoot up, like a jack-in-the-box, often without actually putting a hand to rock. And throughout all of this he kept up a steady, unfaltering pace, which meant we were not held up at any stage of the ascent.
I was intrigued by the fact that he, like the other guides, wasn’t wearing a helmet and when I queried him on this he said this was because they knew where the best rock was and they made a policy of keeping to it. But this seems to me to be flawed reasoning. While he knew where the best rock lay, on any given day there would almost certainly be others on the mountain who didn’t and these parties would often make the mistake of trying to stay on the crest of the ridge, which was loose, unstable territory. And, like all those who summit early, he would have to pass below them, running the gauntlet while descending.
Sile and I had first-hand experience of this danger as we made our way down. We were passing below a slow-moving American party that had strayed off route, when they called out to us, requesting us to wait while they traversed some loose rock. We turned their request on its head, asking them to wait while we scuttled on down out of the line of fire. As we continued to descend we could hear the rattle and hum of falling rock to the rear. So, if you ever find yourself on the Hornli never mind what the guides do – you wear your helmet.