I could tell the story from my first Alps trip about the Swiss barmaid hovering around outside of my tent late one night asking for my tentmate, Matt. Or the one about Matt and I racing our Swiss guides back down from the top of the Argentine Miroir (a famous rock climb) to a nearby café where our group was waiting. Both occurred amid an adventure trip that the two of us were leading. It was made up of people of varying ages, including teenagers, a doctor who was even older than me, and my non-alpinism-experienced wife, Lori.
I’ll leave the details of those two events up to the reader’s imagination and, instead, tell the one about Lori, Doctor Bob, and Big Chris crossing a glacier.
We were up above the Swiss town of Arolla in a high mountain alpine world of mountain summits, spectacularly positioned and majestic huts, and glaciers when the event happened. Our days were filled with climbing peaks, and our nights spent enjoying the comforts and perks of various mountain huts. By spending our nights up in the mountains, we could get an early morning alpine start each day, which allowed us to travel on the snow while it was still more tightly frozen after the night’s colder temperatures. During the summer, with higher temps and more intense sun, the snow surface conditions become more marginal, from a stability standpoint, as the day wears on. Thus, the necessary custom of early morning, or “alpine starts” has become the norm.
Our summit goal for the day in question was the top of a mountain called the Pigne d’Arolla. We spent the night before the climb at the Vignettes Hut and hoped to reach the peak by late that morning and be down to our next hut by early afternoon. Things went smoothly enough as we roped up and moved out onto the glacier. We had four rope teams of 3 climbers each, with our experienced Swiss guide, Jean, leading the way with the first group.
One of the rope teams was led by Chris, with Lori in the middle, and Bob at the back. The main reason for traveling out on a glacier in rope teams is to provide a measure of security for the various individuals. Each person is connected to one or more others by way of a climbing rope. If one of them were to go into one of the glacier cracks known as a crevasse, the other(s) would, hopefully, provide an anchor and hold, or “arrest” the fall.
Early on during our peak ascent, a solo Swiss climber headed the same way as us, asked if he could tie-in with his rope to one of our teams as a precaution. Of course, we said yes. As fate of some sort would have it, he tied himself into the back of the Chris, Lori, Bob rope. The day was gloriously clear, and the wind light, a great combination as far as personal comfort was concerned. But it was not ideal for the snow conditions which we were confident would deteriorate quickly as the day progressed.
After about an hour of methodically snaking our way along a broad ridge, things became chaotic. The Chris team began to lag behind Matt’s group and decided to take a short-cut to catch up. The ridge top we were crossing looked benign enough. Still, as we later found out, there was a method to the route that Jean had been following, which mostly had to do with avoiding crevasses hidden under the snow’s surface.
Chris is a physically powerful person or at least more-so than Lori. In addition to taking a more direct route, he picked up the pace a bit more than Lori or Bob were prepared for, and there was a significant amount of long-distance group banter as both Lori and Doctor Bob did their best to stay upright. After a few minutes of a sort of human dog-sledding, it all came to an abrupt stop when Bob stepped into a crevasse. He only went a few feet in, but it was plenty enough to slap everyone with reality’s backhand.
Bob had been on an Alaskan glacier with us a few years before and witnessed a similar situation where the person who fell in had struggled to lift himself out of the hole, only to go deeper into it before finally being pulled out. Needless to say, he didn’t want to follow suit. And so, with Lori down in a sort of self-arrest position with her ice axe planted in the snow and Chris anchoring it all at the far end, Bob slowly and carefully worked his way up out of the crack and back onto solid snow. And he did so despite the persistent and loud verbal input he got from the others.
Meanwhile, the Swiss glacier traveler watched from the back, careful not to pull Bob off balance and ready to self-arrest. After 15 minutes, the team was all upright and back on the move. As soon as they started moving, the Swiss man crossed over the now visible crevasse, casually sped up, and walked right up to Bob. He untied his rope from the team and then simply said, “Thank you, but I’ll take my chances and go solo.”
It’s interesting how 25 years later, I can’t remember any of the summit details from those days of climbing in the Alps. But I’ll never forget watching the events of that day on the glacier unfold.