Love at First Sight – Impressions of Arolla

(by Fran McGinnitty, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 1998)
Crisp, magical moments of early morning sunlight on virgin snow, and the bigness, ah the vastness of those mountains. It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined, and I fell in love at first sight.

It was challenging too, challenges were coming at me from all directions. Crampons, ice axe, roped up – "not too fast Fran, not too slow" – crevasses cracking my over-confident stride. But in the end our first peak, from the Vignettes Hut to L’Évêque (3716 m), felt very manageable, comforting even. Well it would have been very manageable if we’d hit the right peak, we did climb the right one but the left of the twin peaks was L’Évêque, Eoin discovered after the fact. (Fiona and I were prepared to argue otherwise, but no one believed us.) Our route home was punctuated by the thunder of avalanches. Avalanches I thought were rare and exotic? Apparently not.

Another day of snow followed, and snow was everywhere – filling my eyes with white brilliance, crunching in my ears, cold in my mouth as we drank the snow-flavoured water from the hut. We reached our second summit, the Pigne D’Arolla, (3796 m) at a respectable hour and smugly surveyed the scene on another sunny morning. Over a crevasse-ridden glacier to the Dix Hut, perched miraculously on a rock, we glimpse the magnificent, bold Mont Blanc de Cheillon (3870 m). We’d had two rewarding days but they were alpine walking. We wanted more. Our ambitions were mushrooming, tumbling over each other with excitement. Could we climb the Mont Blanc from the Dix Hut by the AD route? Did we dare?

What did AD mean?, I thought to myself. I’d looked at the charts but somehow I couldn’t feel the terror it would evoke in me, like I can with rock-climbing routes. We talked to Guides, looked at the forecast, I even chatted up a German group but they were even more clueless than we. We tossed back and forth between plans, all the time being watched and taunted by Mont Blanc through the window. We finally settled on the PD route up, and by God as I clung to that ice slab the next day, watching my soft soled boots wobble in my crampons, waiting for my calves to crack like nuts, I was glad, profoundly glad that we’d decided not to do the AD route. Alas the weather came in, visibility plummeted and we had to abort before the summit. I was slightly dismayed, but still, glad to be alive.

Our next big day was the Petit Dent de Veisivi and big the day was, all 18½ hours of it. I guess we just lacked that sense of urgency that seems so crucial in the Alps. Other mountaineers are swift and efficient, their possessions like their days, pared to a bare minimum. My possessions and my days by contrast are cluttered and chaotic, and that one was no exception. After a stiff walk up to the rock we climbed pitches which slowed us up, especially on a rope of three. Better and faster climbing alpine style – that’s what we were there for, after all, and it was easy, trustworthy rock. Up, and even more startling, down the five Dents we went, on excellent rock with thrilling exposure, (with more than the odd pause to savour the panoramas…). Our descent off the Dents was hampered by the rope-loving rock, greedily grabbing the abseil rope as we struggled to release it and beat the darkness. As darkness fell we found our swiftness. And deep in the tiredness of my body I sensed an inner glow, a satisfaction spreading out from my middle – this was the best climbing day of my life. Somehow fitting, I muse, on the fiftieth anniversary of the IMC, as the Petit Dent de Veisivi was the first Alpine Ascent of an "IMC-trained" team. Bill Carroll, Colm MacMahon, Liam Ó Réagáin and Joss Lynam climbed the route in August 1949. I wonder how long it took them?

Fran on the Petit Dent de Veisivi

I headed back to Berlin after barely a week, jealous of the others going to Zermatt, jealous of all those 4,000m peaks I was going to miss. But on the train I found myself chuckling in spite of myself. I’ll be back, I thought to myself, that was only the beginning. This love affair isn’t over.