I could tell the story from the trip about the Swiss barmaid hovering around outside my tent late one night asking for my tentmate and co-guide, Matt. Or the one about Matt and I racing our Swiss guide/hosts 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 which included teenagers, my non-alpinism-experienced wife, and a doctor who was even older than me. As one of the leaders, I was making every effort to look out for the group’s well-being, but various off-kilter “things” kept happening.
But I’m going to leave the details of those first two particular events up to the reader’s imagination, and tell the story about my wife, Lori; Doctor Bob; and Big Chris, when they were roped together as a team and crossing a Haute Route glacier en route to another summit.
When the event happened, we were up above the Swiss town of Arolla in a high mountain alpine world of peaks, spectacularly positioned and majestic huts, rocky ridges, and glaciers. We were filling our days with climbing various peaks and our nights in mountain huts. By spending our nights up in the mountains, we were able to get an early morning alpine start each day which, in turn, allowed us to travel on the snow earlier in the day while it was still more tightly frozen after the night’s colder temperatures. It’s a simple fact that during the summer months and when the sun is beating down on the snow, the surface conditions become more marginal, from a stability standpoint, as the day wears on. Thus, the necessary custom of alpine starts has become the norm.
Our summit goal for the day in question was the top of the Pigne d’Arolla. We had spent the previous night 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, with our experienced Swiss guide, Jean—leading the way with the first group.
Chris was leading his rope team, with Lori in the middle and Bob in the back. Matt was leading another rope team that was in front of them and I was leading the final one and bringing up the rear. The main reason for traveling out on a glacier in rope teams is to provide a measure of security for individuals as they are connected to other climbers who can hopefully hold or protect them from an always potential fall into one of the big cracks or holes that often occur in glaciers and are known as crevasses.
Early on, a solo Swiss climber who was headed the same way as us, asked if he could tie-in with his rope to one of our teams as a precaution. As fate of some sort would have it, he tied himself into the back of the Chris/Lori/Bob rope as we all moved out onto the snow. The day was particularly warm, gloriously clear, and the wind light—a great combination as far as our personal comfort was concerned, but not ideal for the snow conditions which would develop as the day progressed.
After about an hour of methodically snaking our way along a broad ridge, with the top of the Matterhorn visible in the far distance to our east and the Pigne overwhelming our view to the northwest, things became a bit chaotic. The Chris team began to lag a bit behind Matt’s group and their leader (Chris) decided to take a shortcut in order to catch up. The ridge top we were crossing looked benign enough, but as we later found out, there was a method to the route which Jean was following, which mostly had to do with avoiding crevasses hidden under the surface of the snow.
Chris is a 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 and yelling at each other as both Lori and Doctor Bob did their best just to stay on their feet and upright. After a few minutes of a sort of human sled-dogging, the rope team came to an abrupt stop when Dr. Bob stepped into a crevasse. He only went a few feet in, but it was plenty enough to slap everyone with the backhand of reality.
Bob had been on an Alaska glacier a few years before and had been witness to a similar “fall”, where the person had struggled to lift themselves out of the hole, only to go deeper in 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 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.
Meanwhile, the Swiss glacier traveler watched from the back, careful not to pull Bob off balance and ready to self-arrest if needed. After 15 minutes, the team was all back upright and on the move. After the Swiss man crossed over the now obvious crevasse, he casually sped up, walked right up to Bob, untied his rope from the team, and simply said “I’ll take my chances- alone.”
It’s interesting, how 25 years later, I can’t remember any 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. (or was it unravel?)