Mountaineering for Beginners | How to Swap the Stresses of the City for a Life in the Mountains
Could a climbing skills course - even one including a scary incident in a crevasse - actually help with the stresses of modern life?
Words by Abigail Butcher | Photography by Michel Moreau
“Gaaahhhh!" I squeak, trying not to panic as the soft snow beneath my feet gives way. I have fallen waist deep into a crevasse but thankfully the taut rope between our mountain guide, Michel “Mimi" Moreau, and I stopped me from falling further. Correct use of equipment turned what could have been a catastrophe into nothing more than a slight bit of hassle as Mimi calmly leant against the rope, stopping my fall and helping me ‘swim’ my way out.
"I enjoy being out of my comfort zone – I actively seek it – but this is pushing it."
It’s not a nice feeling holding yourself aloft by your elbows, legs waggling beneath you, finding zero footholds in a crevasse that extends who knows how deep into a glacier. I enjoy being out of my comfort zone – I actively seek it – but this is pushing it.
I’m on the Glacier du Tour in Chamonix, nearing the top of Tête Blanche on the border between Switzerland and France. We’d stayed the previous night in Refuge Albert 1er, rising at 03:45am to make the 700m ascent from refuge to summit in the early hours — supposedly before conditions softened as walking on hard-packed, frozen snow is easier and safer.
But yet again, conditions are not normal. This has been an unusually hot season and the mountains here — part of the Mont-Blanc Massif — look and feel as they would on a dry year in mid-August, says Mimi, not late June. He’s sad. The glaciers are disappearing before his very eyes.
The glacial river is raging and the snow soft, making the going really, really tough. Even worse, an overnight storm lingers, creating almost apocalyptic conditions for our ascent — howling winds that strengthened as we neared the 3,420m summit, along with driving snow/rain/hail that stung my face, cutting its way through my inefficient gloves and making me feel small and foolish against the elements.
I cursed myself for packing so hurriedly for this trip — in a 32 degrees heatwave at home, I’d forgotten how cold and unforgiving the mountains can be. I’d also chucked my waterproof trousers out of my backpack at the last minute to save weight, failure yet again to heed the golden rule of the mountain: be prepared, the weather can change at any moment. With all that I have done in my life thus far, I think, waggling in that crevasse, how could I have been so stupid?
"An overnight storm lingers, creating almost apocalyptic conditions for our ascent"
I’m on an introduction to mountaineering course with the UCPA, an organisation set up 50 years ago by the French government to teach its youth the skills needed for safe passage outdoors. Now a not-for-profit charity, the UCPA has centres across France — including Chamonix and nearby Argentiere — from which it offers subsidised courses across a range of outdoor activities from rock climbing to kite-surfing. They are now available to all — marketed to the UK and English-speaking world through the Chamonix-based British company Action Outdoors. They’re immense value — my four-day course cost just £381 including a guide, accommodation, all meals and hire of really decent equipment.
I’m the oldest in our group at 41, and the only English person —though this is good for improving my French and everyone else speaks brilliant English, including our guide Mimi. Joining me on the course are Florian and Julia, two air traffic controllers, Fanny and Aurélien, both nurses and also from Paris, as well as engineers Olivier, Marie and Guillaume. We are all like-minded people who enjoy the mountains and are hungry for more.
In the four days leading up to this ascent, Mimi had taught us a raft of mountaineering skills, first taking us up the Aiguille Rouge for lessons in how to stop yourself falling down a steep snowy slope (make like a spider) and how to rope 3m together to climb on rocky terrain (the premise being that if someone falls, you are ready to catch them by sending your weight the other way and arresting their fall). On the second day we went up on the Mer de Glace, to learn how and when to use an ice axe and crampons, how to rope 5m together to walk on a glacier, how to abseil out of crevasses and much more.
"We are all like-minded people who enjoy the mountains and are hungry for more."
I spend all winter skiing, and the past few seasons I’ve started to get seriously into ski touring. And I wanted to learn how to do this stuff properly. I’ve been given the kit to use before, but not learned how to use it properly nor what to do if the worst happens — for example falling into a crevasse — so I’ve lapped up every bit of the four-day crash course, even that crevasse moment (once I’d got out and my heart rate had returned to normal). It’s all part of the journey, right?
Six years ago, life was so different. I lived in London, commuting on my road bike seven traffic-sodden miles each day to work as a news editor on a weekly magazine. Slowly but surely a combination of deadlines, ill health, personal stress and growing depression, anxiety and insomnia broke me.
I’d grown up on a small farm and as a child virtually lived outdoors — being outside, and physically active, was all that I knew. Summer evenings were spent helping with the haymaking, winter would be herding sheep and we’d eat home-grown food fresh from the garden each and every day.
I didn’t realise how much living in the city was choking the life out of me until one day, signed off work for a month with acute stress, I spontaneously took a flight to Australia and found myself sitting on a beach in Noosa.
Four weeks spent sailing and diving in Australia turned into six months around the world — cattle ranching in Argentina, sailing in Uruguay, climbing mountains in New Zealand, diving in Thailand and Cambodia and a couple of months in India where I skied in Gulmarg, Kashmir, rode spirited Marwari horses in Rajasthan and finally achieved a headstand while on a yoga course in Kerala.
"I didn’t realise how much living in the city was choking the life out of me."
I racked up massive debts but in those six months reconnected with my physical self and the nature that I’d grown up with — a world away from deadlines and London. I revelled in a growing sense of peace that I hadn’t had since those teenage days sitting on a trailers full of hay they trundled over hot and dusty fields.
I returned to the UK, sold my house in London and bought a far cheaper one by the sea in Lymington, Hampshire, a lifestyle that would allow me to work as a freelance journalist with less financial strain — and continue to travel.
I had always been an avid skier — I’ve worked two winter seasons and my first job as a journalist was with Daily Mail Ski magazine (now Telegraph Ski & Board). That first winter I skied a few weeks rather than the usual ten days allowed by annual leave, and from there my love of the mountains and adventure just grew. Adrenalin, I found, replaced the need for anti-depressants that had been a large feature in my last few years of life in London. And when you’re physically tired, you don’t need sleeping pills.
"When you’re physically tired, you don’t need sleeping pills."
In the past few years I’ve taken up challenges that range from a sailing race across the Atlantic on a 50ft yacht to cycling up Independence Pass (3,687m) in Colorado twice in two days. I joined a mountaineering race in Aspen and competed in a quadrathlon in the snow in Norway — each time learning how hard I can push myself physically and mentally. And what it takes to recover.
In the past few years I’ve also been learning to ski tour — being in the mountains isn’t just about skiing down pristine slopes to me. I love skinning or climbing far away from other folk, pushing myself physically, drinking in the clear air and fuelling myself on the views. There’s nothing like standing on the summit of a mountain, wide empty powder bowl or steep, sharp couloir beneath you with all the time in the world. The pain involved in getting there is only temporary — hopefully.
Last summer, in an effort to crystallise all I have learnt so far on skis and give myself more options in the mountains, I took my level one and two IASI ski instructor exams. Ironing out bad habits and improving my technique gave me the skills to ski almost anything I want — and a thirst for more, so this summer, I started indoor climbing. Familiarity with a climbing harness, tying figure of eight knots and how to belay fellow climbers is an essential skill for the mountains and once I week I climb with friends at my local indoor wall. It stood me in good stead for Chamonix, for this mountaineering course where I learnt that ropes, and figure-of-eight knots can be lifesavers.
After a few years setting myself up as self-employed, I’ve dared once more to make a plan, and that is now to move to the French Alps where I can improve my language skills, continue my work as a journalist and continue to upskill and gain experience in the mountains. I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of what I need to know and it’s exciting — though daunting at the same time.
I can’t quite give up the home comforts yet though, after our night in the refuge and summit of Tete Blanche, I booked myself into a four-star Hotel l’Heliopic in Chamonix, which has an epic spa. I find cosying up in a soft and comfy bed after time in the sauna and swim in a pool — plus one or two beers — a pretty nice way to reward after time on the hill. It’s a nice image to keep in my mind when my fingers are freezing to the point of pain and I can’t walk one more step (we covered just over 13km in nine hours of walking).
Maybe that will change and I’ll one day dream about bivvying under a rock and making a brew on a campfire, but for now, it works for me.
Action Outdoors is the official UK partner to the UCPA, offering skiing, snowboarding and activity holidays across France. For more information visit action-outdoors.co.uk
For more information on Chamonix and what to do there, visit chamonix.com
Abi travelled to France on Brittany Ferries which offers six routes from the UK to France. Portsmouth-Caen crossings are available from £158 return for a car and two passengers. Visit brittany-ferries.co.uk