September 2, 2011 9:50 pm

Mountains ... with the FT

The lure of the Alps proves irresistible for the travel writer, who overcomes his fears to scale Switzerland’s high peaks

Ten summers ago, I gave up Alpinism. I was on a mountain called the Tour Ronde near Mont Blanc, trying to ascend a sharp ridge of rock, with a 1,000ft drop to my right and a 2,000ft drop to my left. Behind me, urging me on in increasingly ripe language, was my climbing partner Toby. Toby was a captain in the British army and a man who had twice come top of the SAS physical selection test: fear was not an emotion in his repertoire. And behind Toby was a queue of impatient Swiss and French climbers, to whom the ridge offered no more of an obstacle than a stretch of city pavement.

My body was willing but my mind was not. After a minute or two of indecision I retreated to safety, the Swiss and French climbers flowed past, and Toby and I descended the mountain in silence. I concluded that I wasn’t psychologically robust enough for alpinism, and decided to concentrate on Scottish mountains instead.

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But as anyone who has spent time in the mountains will know, high peaks cast a spell that is not easily broken. And this summer, I travelled to the Swiss Alps for another week of climbing. My aims were to regain my Alpine confidence (successful) and to avoid hazards (less successful).

With me was my good friend Jon Miceler, who directs eastern Himalayan operations for the World Wide Fund for Nature, and has spent years exploring the landscapes at the tri-junction of China, Burma and India. He is an accomplished mountaineer and rock climber, who put up new routes on the rock spires of Colorado and the great gripless faces of Yosemite. Like all long-lived mountaineers, Jon is extremely risk-averse. Experienced and prudent, he was the ideal climbing partner for my return to the Alps.

We spent three days on 3,000m mountains close to the Italian border. On one of these days we traversed rocky bluffs to reach a glaciated and pathless cirque, then scrambled up a ridge to an eagle’s-nest summit. The next day we drove north-east into the Engadine region near Davos and walked to the Grialetschhütte, one of the 150 or so high-altitude huts maintained by the Swiss Alpine Club. The hut is located far up a valley, with three big mountains to the south-east: Piz Grialetsch, Piz Vadret and Piz Sarsura. Our plan was to climb Sarsura (3,172m). By Alpine standards, it is absurdly easy: you approach across moraine, then traverse a series of non-complex glaciers, which lead up to a tolerably angled summit ridge. All of which suited me perfectly.

Robert Macfarlane on the Swiss Alps

Robert Macfarlane: 'High peaks cast a spell that is not easily broken'

We left early the next morning for the summit of Sarsura, climbing up and across grey moraine. The sky was a cloudless blue. Two big raptors sailed high overhead on the look-out for breakfast; marmots piped their alarm whistles and trundled back to their burrows. A huge male chamois stood on a hillock, backlit and splendid, watching us as we traversed his kingdom.

We reached the first of the ice fields, skittering and stone-hopping across it. The ice was rock-hard underfoot, pure white in colour and strewn with boulders fallen from the crags above. Huge meltwater streams had carved flume-like runnels into its surface. Where the glacier steepened, we put on helmets and crampons and got out our ice axes. What we failed to do, however, was observe the first rule of glacier travel: always rope up. All glaciers are riven by crevasses – the fissures that open in the ice and which have eaten up so many climbers over the centuries. But our glacier seemed as harmless as a glacier can be, with no visible crevasses. Five hundred yards or so into the crossing I turned to Jon. “I don’t think we’ll need a rope at all on this,” I said. “Agreed,” he replied. “Proceed.” I took three more paces, stepped on a patch of grey-white ice and – whump! – the world gave way beneath me.

The bad news: I had fallen through a brittle snow bridge into a hidden crevasse. The good news: I had wedged at chest height. Further bad news: I could feel my feet dangling in open space. I lunged about with my ice axe, trying to find an anchor point but only managing to punch away more of the snow bridge. Behind me, on safe ground, Jon was bent over with laughter. “The timing,” he said, “the comic timing of it…!” I suggested to him that he might wish to help me exit the crevasse. But by the time he reached me I had dragged myself out. I lay on the ice, relishing its solidity and trying to reduce my heart rate. “You’d have been fine,” said Jon reassuringly. “I’d have got you out. It might have taken a few hours, but I’d have got you out.”

We roped up and proceeded cautiously over the broad hump of the main ice field until at last we were beneath the rocky summit cone. Here we unroped and took off our crampons. This final ascent was “chossy”, as mountaineers say, indicating unpleasantly loose rock. Wary of stone fall, we moved away from the easier line at the foot of the cliffs and out on to the steepest slopes, where tens of thousands of granite slabs lay piled upon one another.

Robert Macfarlane on the Swiss Alps

Ascending such a slope is a high-risk game of balance, counterbalance and cantilever. You need to be sure that each foot placement won’t cause slabs higher up to slide down and crunch an ankle or shin. It is like navigating a hillside strewn with mantraps, and I was relieved to reach the summit ridge and find it broadening away to the true top.

Jon and I lounged happily on the summit, soaking up the hot sun and the view. To our south were the Alpine giants of the region: Piz Bernina, with its legendarily sharp north ridge, and the great triple-buttressed snow dome of Piz Palü.

In a tin box on the cairn I found two books. One was a Gipfelbüch, a “summit-book”, in which previous ascensionists had scribbled their names. The other held the words and music to hundreds of Alpine songs. It seemed so very … Swiss: a resource for those who might wish to mark their summit with a burst of barbershop. Jon and I did not sing, and we also manfully resisted any allusions to The Sound of Music.

Keen to avoid descending the slope of mantraps, we balanced our way along a remnant cornice to a big snow patch, down which we glissaded using our feet as stubby skis and our ice axes for braking and steering. We got back to the hut seven hours after leaving it, slightly silly from altitude and sun, slightly bloody from minor falls on the ice, and very content.

We left the hut the next morning, walking out along a curving valley filled with granite boulders and juniper bushes, from which arose the scent of gin. Near the end of the valley we passed a vast boulder on which, by geological chance, pale veins of rock had formed a long-legged human figure. It looked like one of Giacometti’s walkers, striding back up the valley towards the peaks.

Robert Macfarlane is author of ‘Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination’ (Granta) and ‘The Wild Places’ (Granta)

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