THE PLAN: A six day hut tour in the Swiss Valais from St Luc to Ferpecle. This is a spectacular corner of the Alps with highlights including an ascent of the Bishorn (4153m), and skiing below the Weisshorn and the Dent Blanche. I had done this tour the previous year in brilliant conditions and hoped for a repeat of the experience.
This was an Eagle Ski Club tour which I was leading.
THE OUTCOME: It did not go as planned. This is the tour report I wrote for the ESC yearbook 2011.
This was not the tour we might have hoped for. Less than 50% of a normal season of snowfall, no new snow of any note since new year, and a early, hot spring combined with a late Easter saw to that.
Things began to go wrong before we even arrived. With too little snow to try either of the two approaches I’d had in mind, the guardian of the Turtmannhütte advised us to ski in via St Niklaus. We would live to regret this!
With two members unable to join us at the last minute, we were a group of six slogging up from the cable car towards a distant snow line, already sweating in the heat. Once on the snow the heat intensified, taking its toll on the team. There were signs of spring slides everywhere and small slides were releasing spontaneously on the one steep slope we had to traverse. It took some searching to find the right col to cross and then the fun really began.
With no snow to allow us to ski off the col, we had to downclimb rock terraces which were either loose or polished. Tom took an unplanned slide while helping Steph and we got him back up with a rope. With the hours ticking away and mist and light snowfall coming in, we began to traverse a complex double-col. By the time we finally realised we were in the wrong valley, time was running out. Stefan J used his German to consult with the hut and we began to descend towards the main valley floor to skirt round to the hut.
In the most rotten snow I have ever met, the skis sunk in from tip to tail and then locked up as if in concrete. Any fall meant digging skis out by hand. Stefan J set off one spring slide and then surfed down a second one, staying on his feet. Darkness fell. Skis went onto packs. We kept going. We arrived at the hut at 01.00, after 14 hours on our feet.
Not surprisingly we took the next day off.
The following morning Tom and Steph decided to walk out, plagued by gear problems and injury. Now down to a small fast team of four we had a wonderful day climbing the Brunegghorn and then raced on up to the Tracuit Hut. The next day our luck held through the morning as we climbed up the Bishornm 4153m, and were rewarded with spectacular views in all directions. After the soft snow battle of the first day, we were surprised to find the snow hard, even icy, at higher altitude. Not quite spring snow but still allowing for a fun, fast descent.
We then headed on towards the Cabane d’Arpitettaz and bad luck struck again when the screw holding down the toe bail on one of Stefan J’s bindings sheared. He limped on to the hut using German ingenuity to strap his boot to the binding with rucksack straps but his tour was clearly over.
As bad weather moved in, we joined other groups in the huts in wondering whether anyone was prepared to try and navigate the infamous glacier du Moming in mist. I’d always had good visibility as mandatory for the highly crevassed glacier crossing. The next day we didn’t have it. We faced up to the long walk down to the valley floor.
With enthusiasm waning, we decided to move on to other things. Stefan J and I joined a friend in celebrating her birthday in a plush Swiss spa followed by a fancy Verbier restaurant. A bizarre end to a bizarre tour!
Tour leader: Cathy O’Dowd. Tour members: Stefan Parkins, Gethin Howells, Stefan Jachmich, Tom Hutton, Steph Duits.
Some photos from the tour