My late father was a keen mountaineer. The picture at the start of this blog post, taken in 1982, is of him with two of his climbing friends (Geoff and Nevin). My father is on the left as you look at the picture. It’s little surprise that I choose to spend part of the summer as well as the winter in the mountains. Preferably the Swiss Mountains.
Feeding the Rat
I have always struggled to understand my friends who seek action and adventure in their lives. Then I read ‘Feeding the Rat’ by A. Alvarez. Don’t be fooled by the title. It’s about mountaineering. All of a sudden I understood my ‘crazy’ friends that much better and realised I’m probably not much different.
In the book, about climber Mo Anthoine, the author describes “Feeding the Rat ” as ‘the need to get out, to test yourself, to flush out the system, and, above all, to have some fun’. I couldn’t agree more. The need for adventure is explained perfectly in my opinion, if a little confusing at first read.
‘The rat is you, it’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that’s smashing, that is. Then the rat’s had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It’s a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute, just for your own peace of mind. And even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can’t think of anything sadder than that’.
I guess that last bit is what my ski instructor training is all about; knowing who I am and what I am capable of. Learning new skills and competencies that make a person able to engage with the world’s environment in different ways is something that I value and respect most highly.
Back to the rat. Every now and again the rat starts gnawing … gets hungrier and hungrier. It gradually gnaws away at one’s soul if left unfed for too long. The only way I can halt it is to ‘feed’ it by going to the mountains. Preferably the Swiss Alps. The majestic mountains and snow capped peaks leave my rat very full. Just how I like it.
Life is not at all complete without a mountain. They make me feel more fulfilled and life more complete even for weeks after, but sometimes that fulfilled feeling quickly wears off. So the conclusion is to keep feeding the rat and bask in the respite and completeness that comes in the between times. Until the next time.
Saas-Fee is a picturesque car free village in the Swiss Canton of Valais and lies in the Saas Valley along with the villages of Saas Balen, Saas Grund and Saas Almagell. Surrounded by 16 peaks of 4000 metres in height, or greater, it is known as the ‘pearl of the Alps’. The scenery is certainly stunning. It was local priest Johann Josef who introduced tourism to Saas-Fee in the mid 18th Century and a statue of him stands in the middle of the village. It was only in 1951 that a road to Saas-Fee was built. Prior to that, guests had to travel by mule. Throughout Saas-Fee there are quaint little wooden ‘houses’ on stilts. Known as ‘raccards’ they were traditionally built for crop storage with the stilts designed to help keep the crops away from rodents. Just because it is car free doesn’t mean you don’t still need your wits about you. Electric powered buggies trundle the streets silently creeping up on you or rounding a corner when you least expect it.
Normally when I travel in Switzerland it’s either independently or with the Ski Company. If I have wanted to use a travel company it’s been Swiss Travel that I’ve used. This time was different. I was a client of Inghams Travel. Inghams, in my opinion, do things properly. You get real paper tickets and a luggage label arrive in the post two weeks before you travel. When you arrive at your destination airport there is an Inghams representative waiting to greet you and show you where to go. Then, when you arrive at your resort there is an actual, real life, human resort manager based there and not just someone at the end of a UK phone number. Our resort manager was a man, easy to get on with, a lot of fun and great company. He made a great resort manager.
The fact that I was used to independent travel did show and at one point the resort manager jokingly suggested I might like to wear his spare Inghams badge. I tried to shut up a bit after this but undoubtedly failed.
A long time ago I did want to be an Inghams representative; I wanted to be one of their ski reps. The ‘dream’ was to rep in the winter and work as a nurse in the summer. It never happened. Maybe one day …
I based myself in the Park Hotel run by Patrick and Jutta Bumann-Rossi. Sat in a quiet, yet central location it was the perfect base for the week. It is also a hotel used by BASI in November of each year for ski instructor exams. Consequently, Patrick knows the same BASI people that I know. All the rooms are named after the local mountains. My room was ‘Weissmeis’ which unsurprisingly had a view of the Weissmeis from it.
I know people who don’t bother to acclimatise. They just roll with the headache, nausea and dizziness. I have to confess I am just as guilty. The main reason for me not acclimatising are time constraints and a low enough altitude to avoid altitude problems.
My visits to the Alps always come with a time constraint attached. There isn’t the option to spend days acclimatising. I also know that in the past I have been alright up to a height of 3450 metres above sea level. Anything more than that and I’m likely to start becoming a bit breathless although I have managed higher at 3650 metres above sea level but this is not guaranteed. When I went to Glacier 3000 last December skiing at a height of 3000 m was a struggle. I got breathless really easily. When I skied at Plaine Morte in March at a height of 3200 m I was absolutely fine. So why the difference ? Well … they were different trips and different places for a start. On my trip to Glacier 3000 in December I was battling out of control arthritis and was anaemic. By the time I went to Plaine Morte in March my arthritis was starting to be under control and thanks to a course of iron tablets I had a really high haemoglobin level.
Although I don’t acclimatise once I arrive in the mountains I did at least do some prep before flying out to Saas-Fee. One of the places I wanted to go was Mittelallalin at a height of 3500 m. I don’t like Diamox so put together my own pre-travel acclimatisation plan. The month before flying out to Saas-Fee I started taking cod liver oil capsules, vitamins and iron tablets. The idea behind this was to ‘boost’ myself prior to arriving. In particular the iron tablets would boost my haemoglobin level increasing my bodies oxygen carrying capacity. I also make sure I carry items in my backpack when I’m up a mountain as high as 3500 m. Rehydration salts, prednisolone, ibuprofen, anti-sickness tablets, plenty of fluids to drink and a mat to sit on all get taken out with me.
To me, there are three sorts of risk taker. There are those that at the first sign of risk avoid it all together without so much as a second thought as to how to work it out, manage it and proceed. Then there are those that will measure, understand, learn and develop so as not to get rid of the risk but to manage it and engage with it safely. Finally, there are the nutters, who will just give it a go without thinking and can’t be arsed to bother about being safe. To the onlooker the difference between the three can be a little blurred. Sometimes it’s not always possible to tell what type of risk taker someone is. That’s something for the individual risk taker to know. I can be either of the first two. Generally I’m the second category but if I think something is too risky I won’t do it. Complete avoidance of risk is a terrible thing stunting a persons development of capabilities but as I’ve got older my body doesn’t bounce back off the ground quite as well as it used to.
The Allalinhorn is one of 86 mountains in Switzerland that are 4000 m in height or heigher. The route starts from the Mittelallalin (3450m). It’s a T4 Alpine Route, unmarked and is prohibited unless you are either experienced or with a mountain guide. I went with experience having already previously done a route from the Jungfraujoch across the Aletsch Glacier to the Monchjoch Hutt which at 3650 m is the highest occupied hut owned by the Swiss Alpine Club. The following year I did a trekking route along the Aletsch Glacier from Brig – Blatten – Belalp – Riederalp via the hanging suspension bridge – Bettmeralp – Marlejensee – Fiescheralp – Fiesch.
Along the Allalinhorn route you pass multiple crevasses. Somewhat intimidating they are also spectacular. Only once do you actually have to cross over a crevasse. Conditions for the route can vary, as with any high mountain route. I chose to do it in July following a particularly hot spell of weather. All around were little avalanches coming down but far enough away not to cause a problem. Even so the sound of them kept me a little on edge. I had kept an eye on the slope stability in the preceding days, had checked the avalanche warnings and risk level. Crampons, climbing harness and hiking pole are all advised. I also took an iceaxe.
From the summit you get a truly amazing view over the Saas Valley, Zermatt area, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and so many other 4000 m peaks I couldn’t count them all.
The route I did is one of the most ascended routes on a 4000 m peak in the Alps. The other is the Breithorn. Although graded a T4 Alpine Route it is a F+ graded mountaineering route. The close proximity and height of the Mittelallalin starting point means you only have about 500m of real ascent. I thought I might have had some effect from the altitude. After all, it’s almost 13,000 feet. There was no headache, no nausea, no dizziness, no breathlessness. The only thing I did notice was that the tips of my fingers were a little cyanosed but then I have Raynauds and had opted to wear thermal fingerless gloves for greater dexterity so my fingers were never going to be a normal pink colour.
Whilst writing this blog post my brain has just gone ‘wonder if a ski descent of that might be possible?’. NO brain !! Absolutely not !! That’s the ‘nutter’ risk category. Besides which I don’t like off-piste. Not happening.