If, like me, you’re one of those people who can’t sit still on holiday (or ever) then what you are about to read may appeal to your soul and even your bank account…
Equally, if you’re a total newbie to the mountain world, it’s likely to appeal as well…
As I sat at my desk in May, day dreaming about mountains – I know, nobody is surprised – I knew that this summer would be the summer I finally headed for the Alps to get some real alpine experience in.
Not only because I fell in love with them on a ski trip to Val d’Isere, but also because I knew that Chamonix was the mecca of the outdoor world and where better to hone my skills gained in the UK than surrounded by all the mountains I’ve dreamed of climbing…
1. It was 4 days (meaning I’d have a few days left in Chamonix afterwards to do my own thing)
2. There was a great mix of alpinism segments included.
I recently started climbing indoors and so the chance to get outside and climb in this amazing scenery appealed instantly. On top of that, adding ropework, crampon and axe practice on some of the world’s most famous glaciers?
Well, I’m a sucker for some ice and snow, what can I say?!
Day One – Learning The Ropes
We met our guide Philippe, were issued any kit we required (but if you have your own you can take it, I did) and headed off to Brevent.
We tied our very best figure of 8 knots, practiced coiling our ropes properly and moving roped together, a skill that is very important when travelling on glaciers.
The remainder of the morning was spent scrambling with, and I may be biased, some of the best views you could hope for…
Of course Kate being Kate managed to rappel in the most ridiculous way possible and ended up with a bloody elbow. Classic Jamieson behaviour, and not the last…
In the afternoon, we climbed.
Now this I was exceedingly nervous about. I’d only climbed 4 times before, indoors, and whilt I’ve done some scrambling before, the sight of the looming cliffs filled me with fear initially. I’ve no fear of heights, but I do have kit anxiety and trouble trusting rope to catch me, not to mention having someone I don’t know belay me.
My first climb?
I panicked, froze 3/4 of the way up and refused to move until Philippe asked if I would be
spending the night up there… Yep, that happened.
I eventually realised I just had to trust him (I mean he was the guide, so it was perfectly fine) and after lots of encouragement from him, I made it to the top, before coming down with minimal stress… I think it helps a lot to have someone climb with you who can give you that confidence and whilst that was obviously his job, I felt completely safe in his hands!
Day Two – Ice, Ice, Baby
This was it. Up on to an alpine glacier at Les Grands Montets to practice our crampon and axe technique, as well as moving together on ice. Those of you who have climbed on steep slopes in crampons will know that front pointing for a long period of time is not the most comfortable, and as we kept climbing up and up the glacier, our calf muscles were on fire.
“This is easy, you cannot get easier than this“, said Philippe as we all looked at each other in disbelief.
Eventually it got a little too steep and he went on ahead and set a rope to help us up. We traversed, practiced walking downhill (complete with squat jumps to make the point to keep our weight low on the steeper sections) and became professional ‘canards‘. I think I would have preferred more time up on the glacier as I was ropey (no pun intended) and only finally got the hang of it as we were about to finish! I slid on my bum at one point and dragged one of the guys down with me (sorry, Ben!)
Graceful as ever, Jamieson…
Day 3 – Dizzy Heights & Eagles
On the 3rd morning we were all set to head off to do some Via Ferrata. Unfortunately my body had other plans. Those of you who follow me on social media will know that the 5 weeks leading up to this holiday I was struck down by some kind of horrendous mystery illness which made me dizzy, sick, tired and generally not very well!
It was on this 3rd morning that it reared its ugly head again. A mix of heat and dehydration hit me and I saw 2 Bens and 2 Philippes – the path was moving before my eyes and I couldn’t see where I was going. I felt awful, knew there was a drop on one side and that I couldn’t go on, especially not to do the VF. Philippe walked me back to the lift and got me water, before heading back to join the group.
I’d like to share photos of the VF, but as I wasn’t well, I have none! I spent 2 hrs sat at Flegere, taking in the views and drinking about 3l of water, before starting to feel a little more human again.
At least the views were good…
In the afternoon we headed for the Albert 1er Refuge, our bed for the night and eventual set off point for the summit of Tete Blanche the next morning. We took a lift for the first part and then traversed the path around the side of the ridge line which gradually ascended.
Again, still feeling awful, I made a decision 3/4 of the way up that the summit in the morning would not happen. I got a bit teary, and Philippe said to see how I felt in the morning, but I knew I would not be well enough.
Day 4 – Disappointments & Debriefs
I knew when we woke up at 0400 that it wasn’t going to happen.
I felt dizzy still and despite taking 2 of my vertigo meds from the Dr, there was no change. I can’t say that I didn’t feel disappointed or very jealous as the other 8 members of the group set off for the summit, but I know that deep down it was the right decision. Not only would it have been unwise to climb when ill, but I would be roped to other people, and the risk of taking them down with me was too high if I keeled over again. I sat in the refuge for a few hours waiting for them to come back down, drinking copious amounts of tea and reading books about famous mountaineers and whilst I didn’t feel better, I hadn’t gotten any worse.
Everyone returned, they had summitted successfully and I realised that actually I had made the right choice. The mountain will be there next year.
In hindsight, possibly I should have cancelled the course, but I got so much out of it that I’m glad I didn’t. The chance to experience staying in an alpine refuge, meeting people and chatting to them about their plans that morning over tea and seeing those views meant that my ‘boring morning’ actually turned out to be super interesting.
In the afternoon, after everyone had eaten their lunch and rested, we headed down the mountainside and back to Chamonix for a debrief and parted ways!
- UCPA Hostel Accommodation, refuge accommodation and all meals.
- All technical equipment (crampons, boots, helmets, ice axe, harness, quick draws, ropes , rucksack) – You can bring your own kit if you have it, but there’s no discount for doing so. They will also need to check your harness is safe and appropriate.
- Lift passes
The course cost me £380 with all of the above, which I think we can all agree is great.
All of the UCPA Guides and Instructors are fully qualified under the French International Mountain Guide Scheme and speak enough English. I was in a group with one other English person and 7 French people. I definitely think we got the potted short explanation, but it was certainly enough to be safe and know what to do. Helps that I spoke some French, I think, but don’t let that put you off at all!The only criticism I have of the entire course is that it was advertised as a 1:5 guiding ratio, but it was actually 1:9.That being said I didn’t feel unsafe at any point and our guide, Philippe, was experienced, safe and generally brilliant. He kept up morale, he answered every question we had and you could tell he knew what he was talking about.
I can 100% recommend this course to anyone who wants something different from their summer holiday and I will definitely be going back on another UCPA course next summer. It was just the best experience (and I even improved my French!)C’était merveilleux.