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Skiing the Haute Route

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John Henn skis the Haute Route

Easter Monday is a bank holiday I would normally have spent it at a point to point in Shropshire, historically in the rain more often than not, so why was I strapping on a pair of touring skis and sliding under the rope which marked the start of the unstable area of the glacier beyond Mont Blanc, with an army corporal forteen years younger and significantly stronger, called "Josh the ice king", and a guide "Giles the chamois".

Nine months earlier with the thrill of Heliskiing in Alanga still vivid in my mind, and the need for another challenge to concentrate on while my home life was a mess, I found "Icicle mountaineering". An English company who could take me on this "Blue Ribbon" ski touring trek. The Haute Route (high route) is a six day trip crossing between Chamonix and Zermatt via a series of passes and mountain peaks staying overnight in refuges. The distance is approximately 114 miles, probably nearer 40 as the eagle flies. To be honest your perception of distance is shot to ribbons, you can see the Mattahorn after day two if the weather is clear and it seems a very long way away. You are unlikely to see it again right up until the last Col at Tete Blanche 3710m and you look it straight in the eye.

My previous skiing companions had smiled pleasantly when I had suggested this trip and had politely declined the invitation, leaving a Swiss friend, extremely capable, to accompany me. He was later to pull out and so it was alone that I drove into Chamonix that Easter Sunday. That evening I was to meet our guide Giles and find out that of the five on the route the week before, two had been carted off the mountains, and of our group of four two had failed to turn up, having paid in full.

Equipment was distributed and we said goodnight to Giles, and our icicle representatives Kingsley and Sarah, (both of which were extremely competent mountaineers). Josh and I were staying in a small hotel with a slightly eccentric format due I think for demolition or refurbishment any day!

Day 1 arrived, it was to be an orientation day, with breakfast at the Icicle office and with the day's lunch and all the equipment we set off in Giles's Citroen up the valley to Argentière. I was hoping to do the trip with a 25 litre pack which was well fitted and light. This morning it was bursting at the seems. Tomorrow it would have to carry another four days of lunches plus some additional clothes, I'll worry about that tonight I thought.

We went up and up and up again, three cable cars, to the highest point of the Mont Blanc ski fields and at 3000+m we broke out of the cloud. This is big scenery with a capital B. I was optimistic and excited. So much kit but finally it was all in the correct place and off we went. Touring ski boots are much softer than regular technical ones they are light and soft soled for better grip on rock. I had found them hard to master when testing them out earlier in the season but had made an alteration in the UK and I was confident I had them sorted. What I hadn't been able to test them in was snow so deep you could hide a house in it, throw in a 45 degree slope and this was a baptism of fire.

Off piste we went, under the undulations were the crevasses of the Grande Montes Glacier. Giles stopped a lone skier ill equipped to be in this area. She explained that if she fell into a crevasse there was no one to help any way. When it was pointed out that a skier had fallen in a week earlier less than 50m from where we were now perched and hadn't lived to tell the tale, and that it might be Giles that would have to come a fetch her, she returned to the marked track rather chastened.

On the Glacier floor we looked at our first accent it was to be the Col de Chardonnay. This was to be a dry run as the snow beyond it was not stable enough for us to cross and so we would return via our starting point. Touring skis are fitted with light bindings which hinge at the front enabling you to lift you heel and "walk". There is also the need for a "skin" to be fitted to the bottom of the ski to give grip. They are of stretchy material, originally seal skin now synthetic that is bonded onto the base of the ski with glue that never sets. This means you can take them on and off as many times as you like. The ski then slides forward but not back.

Skins fitted we set off, all seemed pretty straight forward and then we started to climb. The kick turn was one thing I had not been able to practice. Giles demonstrated it with ease and explained the principle (the only time). The difficulty of this turn, apart from the up hill aspect, is that your heal is not attached so when the ski is lifted the tip stays in the snow. A kicking action lifts this, enabling you to swing the ski round. Problems occur if the ski doesn't make the full turn; you find yourself in a difficult position of relying on one ski to grip the surface, if it fails your problems really start to mount up. After I climbed out of my first hole further turns proved more successful, and we started to make progress up the Col. The sun was high in the sky when we reached the top, we were stripped almost completely all the ventilators open on the Arc'teryx trousers, the jacket had been discarded hours ago, and the water almost drained form the bag in the pack. Lunch was dried ham, cheese dried fruit and a chocolate bar (not forgetting a view of Mont Blanc I have framed in my office) it seemed to do the trick and I would later buy the same for the next five days.

The decent would prove just as challenging, my feet were moving about inside the boots far too much for my liking and I was having difficulty with terrain that would not usually cause me any concern. As we reached the head of the glacier and the surface was more ice than snow I was all over the place. My skis were as sharp as razors but still I was only just in control. As we returned to Argentière the snow was on a full melt program and we practically water skied to the car. At the finish I was all for colleting my regular boots from the resort of Les Gets an hour down the auto route, but Giles insisted I persevere with the original pair.

I had two other pressing problems, one was the lack of capacity of my ruck sack and the other was the skins that I had hired were straight from end to end and my skis were parabolic (wider at the ends than the middle). The problem here was that not all of my edges were covered with the skin, as the edge is where the main contact is, I was not getting as much grip with my skis as Josh and Giles were with theirs.

£100 would solve each problem and as I had a pair of ski crampons, (metal teeth that fitted under my boot for greater grip on steep faces) I opted to buy the larger pack. Food and clothes however small the quantity takes up space, and so I walked out of the store with a very new and very red ruck sack

Day 2, began with breakfast in the office at 7am and we were off to Verbier where we would have been if we had been able to cross from Chardonnay the day before. Three lifts later and we were at the top of the Mont Fort cable car, the sun was shining and the cold night had left the pistes rock hard. The route is usually open during the latter part of the season because the weather is more predictable and the snow is still stable. Much after 2pm though and it is time to be off the mountains as the heat from the sun makes the snow more unreliable. After about ten minutes of piste we came to the cut off. There should have been a sign suggesting that Health and Safety officers didn't operate beyond this point, as then followed one of those traversing paths with heavy ruts each one impossible to avoid, one or the other ski in the air at any one time all with 17 kilos on your back.

Finally a flat area was reached and skins attached the first climb of the day started quietly and at a steady pace. On and on and on it went, we were generating serious heat and when finally we arrived at the Col de Momin at 3003m a break was called. It was to be lunch but so brief as not to notice. Longer than five minutes and your body starts to cool too far, so we eat and drank quickly and were off again still heading up to Rosa Blanche at 3336m. The top of a mountain is a strange place. We spent a day going up until finally it runs out, we left our skis 10m from the summit and crawled to the top where a stylised cross clothed in coloured ribbon waited for us to say "hello". Up there with us was another party of three and we shared a piece of dry meat the other guide had carried up. Pleasantries passed in a number of languages then we descended from on high, skins off and it must surly be down hill all the way. I was not to be disappointed. This was one of the more memorable skiing moments. For 3 to 400m I skied in the driest of powder until abruptly it became hard and I was sliding on hard crust. Moment's later one ski penetrated the surface and I was left considering what happened to the lovely snow I was on before it was replaced with this paving slab stuff from the inside of my own personal crash site.
"Ah", says Giles "You make the classic mistake on this surface by putting all your weight on one ski". Thank you for that observation I thought considering if I should plunge my ski pole into the highly skilled skiing machine in front of me.

I should mention here the difference between guides and instructors. In the event of a catastrophe, fall down a crevasse, break something Giles would never let you down. He would build you a shelter and cross mountains on your behalf with nothing more to eat than a sweet rapper (having first given you the sweet) But expect him to beef up your failing moral when you are exhausted, forget it. During the whole experience not a word of encouragement passed his lips. While an instructor would have at least made you feel good, right up until the mountain swallowed you whole.

Eventually after another crossing of the Col des Roux at 2804m (we were still going down) our first refuge came into view in the valley, Prafleuri at 2624m was alone in the world, and what a welcome she gave us. Hot sweet flowery black tea was served to us on arrival and at 1.45pm day one was over. At least the life threatening bit was. The refuge was a surprisingly civilised affair, there was running water and toilets from the 21st century. Our experience in the Italian cabin the year before would have made the Romans turn in their graves. Sleeping was arranged in a number of dormitories with duvets lined up in rows of up to eight at a time. With no obvious heating and the need for ventilation, it was going to be an interesting night.

By 2pm we were settled in and Giles decided we should have an exercise in finding our buried comrades in the event of an avalanche. Transceivers were standard equipment for everyone out here, until now I hadn't had a lesson in how to use them so I was very happy to undertake the exercise. Putting those boots back on dampened the enthusiasm a little, but rather like anti locking brakes, you don't want the first time you experience them to be in the middle of a disaster, we went outside armed with the device and our spade. Giles buried a couple of units while we hid our faces and counted to twenty, "coming ready or not!" we almost shouted. In front of us was an expanse of white and from somewhere within came two bleeps, of course along with every one else's transceiver in the refuge. Given the technology of the time, with digital screens and precision plotting, this was like taking a step back to dead reckoning. The units are produced with an LED display which has three green lights and a red one, there is also a distance meter you can set from +30m to 1m. With the distance set to the maximum and the first green light on, you walk across. If more lights come on that is the direction you follow, but you must walk in all four directions to establish this. There may be more than one person buried, and if you don't follow the protocol and lose the signal, it is back to the proverbial square one. As the lights increase in number and you reduce the distance eventually you should be standing on the victim, here you dig. Seems pretty straight forward until suddenly the red light goes green in effect the buried victim has just upped and moved 3m. A number of factors are involved in the life expectancy of an avalanche victim, but one of them should not be the competence of the rescuer. Mostly it is carbon dioxide poisoning which kills people, so recovering them quickly is paramount. After the third or fourth time our hit rate was improving, but with the real thing there is no time for this, imagine if there were multiple victims Why, in 2005 there is no facility to scan the scene and pick up visual images is a mystery to me.

The refuges provide footwear for their visitors, and as you can imagine these become pretty unpleasant, some have been on site for years, so my one luxury for the whole trip was a pair of light fluffy slippers, fantastic, worth every bit of the litre of space and 50grams they weighed. Wearing them I padded around the hut for the remainder of the afternoon reading the "doctor's surgery" type literature that cluttered the communal area. More people arrived throughout the day until we were full, capacity was about 60. Dinner was a jolly affair with soup followed by some undisclosed meat product and pasta with a fruit salad to finish, the guides retired to the kitchen where they honourably helped with the drying up in exchange for a glass or two of some local antifreeze. It was all over by 7.30pm and most of the guests were asleep after further equipment checks an hour or so later. The night passed without event, and no-one woke up under the wrong duvet. By 6am the rooms were restored to their simple style and we were facing a breakfast of pre-mixed cereal, tea or coffee and bread. So hard was the bread that I finally understood why the locals dip it into their coffee. I cleaned my teeth and turned off the last tap I would see for four days.

Day three began with a short ski in the half light of dawn, what an image that was of the dead cold of the night slowly retreating while the sun touched the top of the mountains around us. Then it was back to the skins which we had tucked inside our jackets to keep them warm. As I sucked on my insulated water pipe it froze inside the mouth piece that was the end of that as it then promptly froze in the pipe as well. We climbed for almost an hour, after which we descended to traverse along the edge of the "Lac des Dix". At some 4km's it should have been a breeze but it turned out to be a hideous experience. Crossing the previous days now frozen avalanche debris was without question the hardest traverse of the trip. The snow, ice and rocks made a formidable obstacle and any lapse in concentration would be punished. 4km's later and my right hip ached like never before, such was the awkward position I had been holding. A break was called at the end of the lake after which we would ascend the "Pas du Chat" at 2372m.

This "step of the cat" follows the line of the descending river that feeds the reservoir. I it could have just as easily been a Chamois' step as the ascent was that steep. "The first turn is difficult", remarks Giles, it was all I wanted to hear and so we set off, it was as he would have expected, a messy start for me but the option of falling into a river thundering below was enough to see me through and we climbed for a further two hours until the next hut, Dix, at 2928m came into view. Not wishing us to have an easy finish we zig zagged the last 100m up a steep icy incline before arriving at the front door.

I guess the logic is that the cabins need to be up high to avoid them becoming buried in the heavy snow falls, it seemed to me each huts approach was a challenge of its own. The weather had deteriorated and I was very happy to be sitting at a table with my dried ham. By 2pm Giles was suggesting that we go out and climb a local land mark namely La Luette at 3369m, "under 500m" he said. I think he may have been out to impress an Italian lady we had met up with over lunch, because the snow was blowing hard into our faces as we set off for this invisible destination. After half an hour it dawned on me that he had meant 500 vertical meters! That could take up to one and a half hours to climb, given that we could not see anything and the likelihood was the visibility would not be any better on the top the whole exercise seemed a complete waist of time. Had there been a purpose to the exercise, fine, as it was we were just putting ourselves at risk for one person's benefit. As the supposed summit approached I decided enough, and waited while the others continued. Just in my site they reached the top and our new Italian friend found herself in a tricky situation which nearly cost her a ski. We returned to the hut almost blindly with the GPS device in Giles hand, not entirely amused.

Enough entertainment for one day we settled in for dinner, another soup meat pollenta mix with a single meringue for desert. The cabaret arrived in the form of the hut guardian who roamed amongst us waiving bottled water around his head and roaring in song, and above the noise in numerous languages, that this was for washing in, not drinking. The odds of one bottle between four of this cloudy water did not board well for the clean fingers required to handle my contact lenses in the morning. The facilities although pre Roman were in the same building this had its advantages i.e. no frost bite on your way to and from said block, but also disadvantages of lack of ventilation. There were sinks of a sort but no taps, these would only be refitted in the summer. We passed a good night this time in an elevated pigeon hole double bunk set in the wall, the sort that if you sit up in too quickly result in a knock out.

The day started well, fingers cleaned in the morning ration of hot water meant for tea, and a short ski took us to the bottom of the first climb to cross Pigne D'Arolla at 3790m the highest point of the trip. The night's snow had obscured the route and it was left to a guide, whose hand I would shake that night, to lead his group 50m ahead and roped up he went up the glacier. If for any reason he was not happy with the route he had taken he would back up and go again all this in 20cm of fresh snow. The three of us followed and our first col was achieved by 7.30am. A short break and off we were going again, the sun now strong on the mountain tops but still deathly cold on the ground. We crossed a plateau and came up upon another rise rather steeper than earlier. We were behind the lead group with the remaining fifty other adventurers strung out literally behind us. The face of the glacier became steeper and more uneven and one of the party in front had a problem with his skins, we collected "Vincent" up and continued in the steeper and deeper snow. As I made a turn inevitably the snow collapsed and I sank into the surface, probably too much weight on the one ski or not enough grip on the remaining one either way I was stuck and all but the most experienced decided now was the time to switch to crampons.

Wallowing about in the surface we took off our ruck sacks, then one ski, fitted a crampon, then the other ski, fitted the other crampon, then the skins had to come off and be stored, the skis attached to the pack and put back on our backs. The whole operation was done whilst still being tied to each other about 5m apart, and sinking further into the snow on a 50degree slope. This was testing, I thought, and we started to move on up the mountain. Vincent wasn't having a very good day and before we had move 10m his crampons had come off. I could see I was going to be in for a long wait and so dug my feet in hard for a better grip. I plunged one of my poles in the surface to help take some of the strain and it promptly punctured the surface and disappeared up to my glove. This is not good John Henn, I thought. Tentatively I retracted the pole and considered the black hole it revealed, wishing I hadn't kicked those feet of mine quite so hard a moment earlier. I turned to Josh and explained my problem; I had no idea where I was in relation to the crevasse. All up I weighed nearly 100kg's and what was under my chest was less than 20cm thick. Giles saw the problem with the crampons in a second he had fastened an ice screw into the surface and tied the rope off making us secure. Then with the agility of the mountain goat he obviously was in a passed life sprang down to Vincent. Cursing the Italian's incompetence at not fitting the crampons properly the first time, he sorted him out and enlightened me that I would only fall about 10m if the surface gave way and not to worry! Bull shit, not to worry, just sort out our friend and let me get off this bridge, I thought. Josh gave my hole a wide birth and we scrambled up the last 100m without any further incident, thankfully.

We arrived at the summit at around noon, it was overcast and the view up and down was obscured. I had experienced something like this at the edge of the Grand Canyon in November some 20+ years earlier, where the canyon its-self was full of cloud. Then I had arrived by car having taken a 500mile detour to see this wonder, and I was mightily unimpressed that she had a fur coat on. As then, now the cloud broke and revealed the scale of the view, our world truly is an amazing place. From up here it was all down hill to the next hut called Vignette at 3160m. The decent was filled with the usual array of obstacles including a traverse across near enough sheet ice, with a rock the size of Birmingham at the bottom, this had to be navigated around, and then a scramble followed of about 100m up to the hut, not long enough to fit the skins or too steep, but with the hut in site it presented no problem.

This hut has a well documented detached WC block. American guests a few days earlier had reportedly skied on from here for another couple of hours to Arolla rather than have to use it. The Vignette its-self is quite modern and well built, we opted for elevated bunks near a window, after the airless night before at Dix. The WC block was built at the end of a 50m snow covered path chipped out of the rock with a central section of galvanised grill where there would otherwise have been only air to walk on. A hand rail of four strands of wire was all that separated you from this mortal world in the event of a poorly placed foot. The two cubicles each contained a fabricated wooden box with a toilet seat positioned upon it. The view through the seat was one that would have impressed a gull colony, a 300m rock face covered in excrement. With a draft coming up the "toilet" strong enough to put up quite a barrier against anything passing the other way, this was a facility not to be messed with. In a gallant attempt to instil a little civilisation there was a small very brightly coloured yellow swing bin for any rogue tampon's that may be in the area.

Dinner was a bit thin and everyone left the table rather hungry, I was down 3 or 4 kg's by now and there was not much opportunity to put it back on here. However dinner was not a complete disaster, I had been turning my phone on and off through out the trip, so far there had been no signal. At around 8pm I turned it on again only this time it found Sunrise with one chip on the strength scale, (to this day I have no idea where this provider comes from), thrilled with the prospect of sending a message to the outside world, I started to punch keys, then to my surprise it rang. Magali was on the line and I think was as startled to hear me as I was to hear her.

I hadn't really known her when I signed up for this trip, and since we had met up again the need for the expedition was a little less apparent. She was in Bourge en Bresse and would join me in back in Chamonix at the end of the week. For the moment she was my contact point with the rest of the world; and had already fielded a call from my family in England who were convinced I would never be seen again. My moral was at a high as I approached day four.

I had paced my water intake knowing that going out to spend a penny would be certain death but at 1am in the morning I knew I was going to have to venture out. With careful precision I planned the event, first get out of the bunk without standing on anybody, second get dressed in enough cloths to sustain the trip, thirdly give up the comfortable slippers for the off road versions in the boot room. All was fine up until I discovered the popularity of size 42 had left the cupboard bare. Everything remaining was either too small or far too big. So with comfy slippers in place I took my first step out into the moonlight night. This was certain death I was all over the place having only taken a few paces, then I reached the hand rail and gained a little more stability. The temperature was around -15 and the path was frozen solid. With grim determination and great relief I made it. But this was only half of this mini expedition, now euphoric that the pressure was literally off, I steeled myself for the return trip. I was half way across before my slippered foot shot out from underneath me and one hand tightened it's already tight grip on the wire whilst the other plunged into the snow wall on my right side searching for something to hold. With my big toe clinging onto the extremity of the slipper I was able to recover my composure. What a way to go in this land of extremes. I stood up and looked around me for the first time since coming out onto the path it was 1.30am and all the stars of the northern hemisphere were visible, the mountains shone in the moon light, it was a significant moment and I told my-self so.

The Bertol hut at 3311m was our last night. Between us was an impassable ridge and so we began the long trek round. Up earlier than normal it was still dark when we left Vignette. We were going to descend from the front door, around the rock I likened to Birmingham, now just a faint silhouette, with only the light from our head torches! Below the rock there was nothing visible, just darkness and I knew form the approach the day before that we had to cling to the side in order not to slide away down the valley. So with no possibility to slow down and the twinkling lights of the advanced party, like fire flies in the distance, I set off. Do you know how many times you can swear without taking a breath? About 120m worth I think. Rounding the rock an with my heart rate at full throttle, we returned to a more modest pace and pushed on without the skins crossing a kilometre of shallow descending snow. Arriving at something of a traffic jam, we all formed an orderly cue. In front of us was another steep traverse, with almost as many rocks showing as snow through which we had to pass. Like lemmings we arrived at the head of the narrow gulley, wreckage over the next 75m suggested a 70% chance of making it through unscathed. The next man to go before me was carrying a fellow skier's pack, his friend had left something behind and had passed us returning to the hut, even the dark could not obscure the anger on his face. He made it over the lip and a further 20m before the additional weight and the uneven surface the rocks and the course he was steering tipped him over. He came to rest 15m down the slope, abandoned by the rest of us he began to climb back up I shot passed him in survival mode and was very grateful to come to rest where skins were being fitted a little further on.

For the next two hours we climbed steadily up to the Col de L'Evêque at 3160m. At the top we met a fellow English man who took a picture of the three of us and no sooner had we met than we parted company as the path split some going straight through to Zermatt (a longer day and only recommended if you were short of time, or a glutton for punishment), and the others, ourselves included, going via Bertol. Giles led the way onto the Arolla glacier and we skied for 4km's in deep dry snow albeit again rather shallow. Giles warned us that around the next climb we would see the Bertol hut but that it would take us a while to reach it, so we fitted the skins and started to climb. When it became steep I fitted the ski crampons on and when it became too steep with even them, off they all came. The crampons were fitted to the boots and off we went, eventually rounding the last corner the hut came into view. Just short of 1000 vertical meters and a long way away was the hut, right up there with the fairies like some Nazi HQ.

For this I had to call on my deepest reserves, for the next three hours I talked to my legs and encouraged them to keep moving. One ski sliding past the other, like a pair of racing canoes, it was relentless. I was counting up to one hundred in French, and dreaming of the trip to the Caribbean I was planning for July. Giles was stretching his lead with Josh between us, I knew if I kept my heart rate around 140 beats per minute I could keep going. A toast I decided was the answer; gin, tonic, your own yacht, the Caribbean, throw in a beautiful French girl with a heart of gold, this was worth persevering for. So it was that I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I arrived at the top where I was sure a cold beer would be waiting and we could all have a relaxing afternoon in the sunshine.

Where is that cool beer I thought as I arrived, this was all very confusing. I had run out of snow and yet the hut was still 70m above me, fortunately Giles popped into view. I was standing on a square meter of snow with a wall of rock in front of me. "Take you skis off here and stow them against the rock so they won't fall," he said. What I am standing up here on a ski length of mountain with steep sides all around and you want me to dismantle, I thought. There was little option but to obey, so I began carefully to dismantle myself. Everything taken care of I followed Giles as he disappeared around the rock face. A chain was pegged to the side of the face, and this was all that prevented us from dropping off the tiny ledge we clung to.

During this trip there was a unique feeling of freedom from the protocols of the lives we lead, most of the time we are unaware of the restrictions, until they are taken away. If you want to step off the edge of mountain there is very little to stop you. On this tiny ledge the feeling was very apparent, and the added bonus of the ruck sack made me hold onto the chain all the tighter. Rounding the buttress the fun was really going to start as the next obstacle was a 30m near vertical ladder stapled to the rock. I think Giles saw the expression on my face and volunteered to take the sack up for me, I gratefully handed it over. Normally ladders are fine with me and I have gone up a 35m mast before now, it was the nothing underneath which concentrated my muscles, and so up I went one rung at a time. To my astonishment some one decided to come down after I had started up and we passed with me swinging out to one side. Another short scramble with another chain and a galvanised stair case brought me to the Bertol Cabin. I found Josh who was nursing an aching head from the altitude, I think, and the three of us settled down for lunch, strain slowly turned to relief and we soaked up the view.

Around the cabin was attached a galvanised walk way, through which you could see every last detail of the descending rocks, Giles suggested we practice crevasse rescue by dangling one of us over the side of the railing. This was identified as a joke just before we told him what he could do with his exercise. The experience was very worth while, and I learnt just how you can recover someone with the aid of ropes and various pulley techniques. Through out the afternoon more people arrived. Two men had been dispatched to collect a couple of rubbish bags that had been dropped by the departing supply helicopter, I'm sure they were more careful with human cargo. Either way this was a two hour round trip and would not have made the pilot flavour of the month. Dinner was the best yet because for a change there was enough of it, fantastic potato gratin with cold recognisable meat. Desert was a let down with yet another dose of tinned fruit salad but the cylinder of pressurised cream and the squeeze bottles of sweet chocolate sauce made amends. There was light snow in the air as we went to bed and slept soundly until 5.15am when it was time to face the new day.

Giles was keen to be first out of the cabin, as there would be a traffic jam around the skis when we came to depart. With such a small area to start from it would be very slow, and so it was that I found myself leading out of the door at 6am. Today was the last, and tonight, what was left of me would sleep with the woman I love in my arms, and this staggering place would be a memory. But and it was a big but, between now and then was a 30m ladder with frozen snow all over it, Giles offered me a rope and I accepted graciously. I had not come this far to slip into the void that was below me in the dim light of the dawn. "Go down facing out" he said, as if it wasn't bad enough going down backwards but facing the abyss, was the worst. Down I went, stripping the ice off the sides of the ladder as I went. I wasn't hanging around and as I started to grapple with the frozen chain the rope went tight, I had got too far ahead of Giles. Finding our skis and after extracting them we were ready to escape, but not before staggering through the deep snow on the slope to avoid the immediate danger if someone fell on us from above. As we skied away I looked over my shoulder at the disappearing cabin and the trail of technique coloured humanity that was streaming from it, thankful to have escaped without incident.

Giles was happy, he was leading from the front and Zermatt was only six hours away. We trailed up a shallow incline it was very cold with the moisture freezing on our collars and shoulders as we moved through this deep freeze. Eventually a breeze picked up which began to increase until we were walking up into a strong wind with the surface snow suspended and biting our faces. The sky was pale blue above us as the sun slowly strengthened and with balaclava deployed on we went. I was imagining Scott and his companions, they were out for sixty days and were towing sledges into the bargain, we had nothing to complain about. A group of three other skiers came up along side us and decided that they should pass. Giles let them go into the swirling weather, they were too close together and were obviously not entirely sure how to cross the ridge. After twenty or so minutes their pride gave way to the potential problems which lay hidden ahead, and they stopped for a food break and let us resume the lead. The wind slipped away as we climbed and the summit of Tete Blanche came up at 3710m along with it was our first sight of the north face or the Mattahorn. Not at all the traditional Toblerone shape with the bent top, it was practically vertical, in the shade, and below us. Josh was able to take a picture looking back to Mont Blanc way behind us and it did seem incredible that we had passed over and round so many mountains.

The pictures taken and the skins packed away for the last time we began our final phase to the hazy valley below us. This should have been one of those legendry descents, it was not to be this mountain like all the others was not about to give us a free ride. The glacier was punctured with black holes which had previously been skied over. There was no way of knowing where the next hole would appear and we skied with out harnesses set for easy recovery in the event of one of us dropping out of site. Giles instructions were clear enough, stay to my left and don't stray more than 20m away form my tracks. We duly followed instructions, but my confidence was a little shaken when my eyes focused on a black gap in the surface about 1m wide directly in my path. In my efforts to avoid the obvious hole I fell in the heavy snow and felt myself sink just a little more than I expected. I wasn't about to explore what was or wasn't underneath me, and was soon up and off to rejoin Giles' tracks. Once off the glacier the skiing became slower and slower as the surface flattened out. Before long we were picking our way around the residue of the retreating glacier, body and snow temperature were heating up. Skis off, the last couple of kilometres were done of foot. What an anti climax this was to our extraordinary trip. We joined the piste in Zermatt and skied into the town along with designer dressed holiday makers. Walking through the streets the three of us felt like the real thing in this environment of fur coats and obvious wealth.

At the central square I found a table in a restaurant, Josh a trolley and Giles train tickets for the return to Tasch at the bottom of the valley. The waiter was one of those Swiss skilled in the art of extracting money with minimum input. But his attitude could not undermine our euphoria as we sat drinking those cold beers under the watchful gaze of the big mountain. There were clean white ceramic toilets in the basement, Josh reported and they were indeed as he said, fantastic. Time then to make some calls and Magali was first she was in Bourge en Bresse and would now set off to Chamonix. The second one was to my parents equally pleased to hear from me, the rest could wait. Later we met up with Kingsley and the van where my shoes were waiting for me, we had an emotional reunion! Then it was off back to bass and a new hotel with hot water and a lot of soap. The return trip took about four hours to cover what had taken us six days on foot.

Back in Chamonix I stripped off and abandoned my amazing cloths. There is no substitute for good kit, these layers were worth every penny now though they were consigned to the terrace and later to a black bag to be opened in England the following week. As I was exiting the bath the phone rang it was Magali she had come by car with her mum and dog to welcome me back and they were somewhere in the one way system of the town. I dressed and went out into the street to track them down. Mother and dog abandoned Magali was walking down the street towards me and through the people I caught her eye, then came a smile which melted the aching bones, there was no happier man on the planet.

I can hear the Caribbean calling.

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