27/3/11 – When the guide starts whistling…

Most mountain guides I have skiied with are inscrutable, calm and quietly authoritative. On most tours I have done there have been moments of minor worry: once we were snowed in for a day with an inebriated hut guardian in the Bernese Oberland and another time, in Austria, we took several hours to descend just a few hundred yards on a glacier in terrible fog.

Italian mountain guide Michele Cucchi

Michele Cucchi and Marco Zaninetti, who are guiding us from Alagna to Zinal this week, are probably the best I have skiied with – both inspire utter confidence and are also thoroughly nice and helpful blokes. However, I learnt last year to detect when we are approaching or crossing challenging terrain, due to Michele’s habit of low whistling when danger is near. In spring 2010 in the Engadine, it was usually the crevasses or seracs of the Morteratsch glacier that prompted the whistle. This time, we’ve had several opportunities to hear it (though I emphasise that at all times we couldn’t have been in better hands). Here are our hairy moments from the past few days, in order of alarmingness:

Windblown slopes below the Matterhorn

1) Descending across the lower, north-facing slopes below the Matterhorn on our afternoon journey from Schwarzsee to the Schoenbielhuette. Here the snow was extremely unstable, even on seemingly innocuous slopes of less than 20 degrees. We had seen that slopes of a similar aspect and angle, at a similar altitude, had avalanched elsewhere locally, with huge windslabs (the biggest killer) coming off in the unlikeliest of places. Marco crossed each slope first, halting in a safe spot and communicating with Michele, who was at the back, via radio. Then we traversed one by one, some sinking scarily into the very variable track more than others, and some hearing whumps and crack noises as they crossed. It was a relief to get to a safer spot in the middle of the valley.

2) Climbing from the Schoenbielhuette up to the Col Durand, our route ascended a gulley below the Hohwang glacier. Marco was at the back with me after I’d stopped to spend a penny. The others were setting quite a pace and when we reached the gulley, he said: “Don’t stop here – go up quickly now, because of what’s above!” Above the gulley was an ice-fall and, a kilometre away and directly above us, seracs as big as houses were enjoying the morning sun. I hurried on up; at one point a stream gushed under the snow, which was barely a foot deep and had already borne the weight of six blokes. As I approached the top, something up above caught my eye: a massive serac breaking off and tumbling down. It stopped short of the ice-fall above us and all that came down to our level, channeled to where we had just been, were scattered bits of ice. But the sight of the falling serac, and a cloud of snow, was impressive and alarming – it made me move pretty swiftly.

Our ascent towards the Col Durand, with seracs always a threat from above

3) The last 100 or so metres of vertical to the Schoenbielhuette proved surprisingly exciting, as loose stones from a sun-drenched bit of moraine came tumbling down the slope were were ascending every now and then. Michele and Marco instructed us to hurry on up and watch the bank above us carefully. The afternoon snow, too, was pretty sinky, and we were happy when we arrived at the top.

4) The top of the Durand glacier, which leads down towards the Cabane du Mountet, looks steep on the map, but when we arrived there on day four, it proved even steeper, due to the receding glacier and low snowfall this year. Michele and Marco made a secure hold in the hard ice with an ice screw and lowered us down one by one as far as the bergschrund, which we then had to cross “quickly” to the safe ground below. This looked far worse than it was – in fact, the descent was an easy and very secure sideslip. Thank goodness, I thought, that we didn’t have to go up that way…

5) On our second day, skiing down from the Col de Lys – the highest point on our tour, at 4,260m – to the Monte Rosa Hut, we nearly saw Mike Crompton – our host and the boss of Zuba Ski – slip down a crevasse. As he passed a place where we were meant to be keeping up good speed, he slowed and started sinking as the snow covering a crevasse began to collapse. Some quick poling saved the day and those behind him took another route.

En route to the Monte Rosa Hut, via crevasses

6) I thought we might have found a body near the Col de Lys when a couple of us spotted what looked like a glove at the entrance to a crevasse, looking as though it could have come off as a person toppled down. Marco edged close to it and fished it out with his ski pole. It turned out just to be a cap. Phew!

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Filed under Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland

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