Strange Times

(by Kevin Byrne, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2003)
The snow might be disappearing from the Alps, but that didn’t stop IMC members having a great 2003 alpine season.

Strange Times indeed! For those lucky enough to have been there, last Winter gave some of the finest alpine skiing conditions in yonks. The majority of resorts had huge dumps of snow that lasted most of the season … though it did vary from area to area. “West was best; East had the least” if you’ll pardon the rhyme. We could be forgiven then for assuming the excellent winter conditions would lead to good summer snow and ice … with reassuring buildups, nevé on the faces, crevasses well covered – a welcome if temporary reprieve from the relentless decline in alpine glaciation that has been going on since Victorian times. Instead we’ve had the hottest, driest weather ever recorded right across Europe and the results have been little short of calamitous. Not just for climbing – agriculture, tourism, the health of the very old and the very young have all suffered severely. Power generation has been affected; productivity in business has fallen. The extreme heat has caused many deaths. Even the dear old Emerald Isle has had record land and sea temperatures, though not for very long of course.

The concerns of mountaineers are trivial by comparison with those of people earning their living from activities affected by extremes of weather. Our presence is fleeting and purely for recreation…and the choice of venue, route or timing can easily be altered. We don’t (yet?) have to live with the ‘exceptional’ conditions that in reality now seem to be the norm. “Seem” because there are still a few die-hards hoping that all the extremes of weather we’ve witnessed in the last decade will be explicable within the parameters of normal cycles. Dream on.

From June on when the Winter snows were quickly wiped from the steeper slopes in a flurry of avalanche activity, through July and August when temperatures rarely dropped to ‘normal’ levels, the popular alpine climbing venues served up some truly extraordinary conditions in the unprecedented rapid melt-down. No doubt there will be scientific analyses in due course and they may show a less extreme picture, but in the meantime the anecdotal evidence is almost unbelievable. Climbing Alpine 4,000’ers in T-shirts. The zero isotherm above 5,000 metres. North faces with no snow. The snow arête of the Frendo Spur in Chamonix melted. Guides refusing bookings for the standard routes on Mont Blanc from mid August on – effectively closing the routes. The Eiger’s White Spider gone. Yawning crevasses on all glaciers. Rockfalls of unprecedented ferocity on practically every route exposed to that danger. In contrast it is true the heat did give rise in some instances to excellent rockclimbing conditions where there is sound rock and no danger of rockfall. But that seems small compensation when the majority of climbers in the alps aspire to ascending at least some high level mixed routes.

Despite the unprecedented conditions and added dangers, the good news is that the Club’s level of alpine activity this year was at an all-time high. In the four weeks mid July to mid August at least 20 members were climbing in the Alps. Two groups, centred on the Zermatt and Arolla valleys accounted for the bulk of this number. Hugh Sharkey, Kevin Hutchinson, Niamh McGreen, Declan Cunningham, Peter Brown and Rob Shortt were active in Zermatt while Moira Creedon, Barry Browne, Eileen Murphy, Robert Madden, Antoinette Gough, Elaine Mullan, Ian McHardy and Kevin Byrne were climbing from the neighbouring valley of Arolla. James Aitken also joined this latter group for part of the time having earlier been climbing elsewhere in the alps. Some, like Síle Daly, Alan Pope and John Duignan, made their own arrangements while others joined the MCI meet in Austria’s Stubai Alps. A good healthy development for the Club.

Dent Blanche summit – Rob Madden

Tête de Valpelline – Moira and Antoinette

The Arolla trip was close to being a ‘normal’ club meet (question: what is ‘normal’ in relation to meets?) in that it was open to all-comers and everyone was not paired off and equipped with a list of objectives in advance. As with all meets, there was uncertainty right up to the end about the final number that would turn up. On reflection, unless the group is fairly large, having partnerships pretty much settled in advance and avoiding odd numbers probably allows for better exploitation of opportunities. That said, an alpine meet is something the Club should aspire to on an annual basis. The availability of first-hand accounts of routes from people you know and trust allows a more accurate assessment of whether a route is worthwhile or perhaps more importantly, whether you are up to it. Having so many participants certainly helped the Arolla contingent to organise very good accommodation in the Pension Lac Bleu where the owners (Mireille and Urbain Troukens) could not have been more friendly and helpful. This extended to keeping our dormitory accommodation for us while we were off in the hills – no charge if we were not there – and to loaning us a car for shopping and ferrying to the start of Hut walk-ins. Anyone thinking of a trip to Arolla could do a lot worse than stay at the Lac Bleu (which by the way has a bar attached … a minor detail!). Because it is located a few miles before Arolla village and away from the bigger centres of Les Haudères and Évolène a car would be very desirable. Otherwise the cost is not a lot more than camping … while the comfort level certainly is.

Tête Blanche Summit

Whatever about the structure, line-up and accommodation, it’s great to report that a veritable “gansy-load” of respectable peaks and routes were ascended by the Zermatt and Arolla groups, including the Zinal Rothorn, Thrifthorn, Rimpfischorn, Nadelhorn, Dent Blanche, L’Évêque, Pigne d’Arolla, Mont Blanc De Cheilon, Tête Blanche, Aiguille de la Tsa, Petit Dents de Veisivi etc etc. Rock routes, traverses – most options, with the possible exception of open face routes, were tackled. The conditions forced consideration of routes other than peak-bagging Voie-Normales but everyone seemed well satisfied with their personal tally. Some, like Antoinette Gough and Eileen Murphy, were experiencing their first Alpine season and tackling routes to AD level. Others like Rob Madden finally breached the 4,000m barrier having endured a week of poor conditions in June in Chamonix. Ian McHardy and Elaine Mullan sampled the esoteric pleasures of Italian Via Ferrata before joining the Arolla team. Meanwhile, Alan Pope and John Duignan, making individual arrangements, were fulfilling long-cherished ambitions to climb the Matterhorn and other ‘big-name’ hills. Alan, in the company of Calvin Torrans and some 90 other climbers, had the strange experience of being helicoptered off when a huge rockfall carried away part of the lower Hörnli Ridge route just as they were making their descent from the summit. Another direct effect of the exceptional heat.

The only bad news in a season that threatened so much was the unfortunate fall taken by Hugh McAlinden when climbing on the Aiguille du Moine with Síle Daly. The accident followed an abseil rope getting stuck though the precise circumstances are not known. Hugh is still recovering from complicated fractures of his ankle/lower leg. We wish him a speedy recovery.

A good season overall in the strange times we live in but undoubtedly one that will make all climbers pause to consider the attractiveness of the Alps for Summer climbing, particularly the classic mixed routes on the high mountains. ‘Experts’ are suggesting that about 40 metres of snow are now required to replace what disappeared in Summer 2003 and of course that presupposes we won’t get a repeat performance of the Great Melt.