The 2008 BMC Alpine Walking Course

Posted by Andrew Entwistle on 10/03/2009
Photo: Michael Caine.

Andrew Entwistle introduces four stories from the 2008 BMC Alpine Walking course to get you inspired for this year's meet.

The Alpine Walking Course was one of four specialist courses by BMC and Alpine Guides and based in Arolla village at the head of a narrow valley easily reached by bus from Sion in the Rhône Valley. Our leader was International Mountain Leader Vicci Chelton, who introduced us to Planning, Navigation, Route Finding, Alpine Hut Networks, Alpine Weather, Hazard Awareness and Safety. Four of us enrolled and we tell our stories below.

Anne. "I used to do lots of climbing and walking in mountains, then took a break while studying for a second degree and making a big career change. Early in 2008 I realised I was missing the exhilarating scenery, the fresh air and the sense of well-being which comes from travelling high. I had booked a place trekking in Peru for 4 days ending at the famous Machu Picchu. Would I be fit enough? How would I cope with the altitude (highest point is 4215 metres)? I have always cycled to work (8 miles each way) and skied every Christmas; I started running again and walking to work with a heavy rucksack.

I joined the BMC for the insurance and then noticed ‘Alpine Walking Holiday, places still available’ advertised in the on-line newsletter. Sounded like fun and good training for Peru. I am so glad I did. Five days of walking up to around 3000 metres, in excellent company with a brilliant leader Vicci. We learned how to watch the weather and read the clouds, how to pace ourselves and estimate walk times, and with 2 botanists (our leader and Andrew, one of the walkers) we learned to name some of those amazing alpine plants – not just the vibrant blue gentians and furry edelweiss but Grass of Parnassus and Alpine Aster. The campsite at Arolla was good with hot showers and small food store selling fresh bread delivered every morning (order it the night before)."

Andrew. "My long distance walking in the Pyrenees and Alpes Maritimes, often solo, includes natural history. I wanted to compare my strengths and weaknesses with professional standards. All the BMC groups met at the Arolla campsite on the Sunday for pre-course discussions and equipment checks. During the week we practised navigation, route finding and timing and compared experiences. The 1:25000 maps were easier for me than the 1:50000s, which were too ‘busy’. Flowers were surprisingly abundant e.g. the Pra Gra meadow above Arolla with its masses of vanilla orchid (Nigritella nigra), Gentians and the moon fern Botrychium lunaria, an early stage in fern evolution.

During the week we noticed the change from lush meadows in the valleys to unstable soils and reduced ground cover higher up giving opportunities for such gems as Ranunculus glacialis, Linaria alpina and Silene acaulis. Fortunately botanising dovetailed seamlessly with the course tutoring, all of us sharing our different experiences. Information on cloud formation and weather was new and bound to be valuable for planning and safety. My highlight of the week was a two-day trek. First objective was Col Riedmatten - little more than a 2-metre cleft in the ridge. Once past the initial unstable rocks the alternating boulder fields and occasional unstable stretch to the refuge were rich in Campanula and Gentiana and many other species.

What did I learn? To make sure that contact information for emergency services and refuges is up to date, best checked in refuges and hotels; Naismeth’s formula of 4 km/hour + 10 min for each 100m height gain; use of the compass roamer to calculate distance and the value of an altimeter as an additional check on position."

Geoffrey. "I often walk in the Pyrenees, French Alps and the Mercantour with Andrew, twin brother, and wanted to learn more about route finding and safety. My eyesight is not too good so map and compass reading can be problematical. Day 1, Monday took us to the Pra Gra (2479m) and Tête du Tronc (2549m). Then up past glacial lakes, at one place the path being protected by chains, to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges (2810m) for coffee. Next, over the col and steeply down to the idyllic Lac Bleu and the Arolla Valley and a long trudge to camp. Tuesday, we walked south along the Arolla valley, glaciated in the upper reaches, then east steeply up to Plans de Berthol with its stone cabane.

Here, our leader Vicci quizzed us about safety and what to do in an emergency, and we practised using a ‘bothy survival bag’. Back at Arolla we planned a 2-day trek and decided on Le Chargeur refuge in the Val de Dix. Starting with a long easy walk SW, we climbed steeply to the Col Riedmatten with fearsome views to the Val des Dix. The first 50 meters down were steep and unstable and not for the fainthearted. Nearby we could see ladders, the only method of descent from the neighbouring Pas de Chèvres. Down at last to the Lac des Dix, a reservoir for hydroelectric power, the path was level to Refuge Le Chargeur, originally accommodation for construction workers but now mainly for winter sports and with hotel standards to match.

The weather looked bad and the original plan to Cabane de Prafleuri (2624m) seemed over ambitious. Therefore we took the postbus down the valley and walked over to St Martin along wooded tracks. From here another postbus took us to the ‘Swiss-pretty’ village of Evolène from where Vicci drove us back to camp. Friday, our last day, we drove to La Forclaz and walked to the refuge along a steep but easy path, popular with families, and with plenty of flowers for Andrew.

Am I a safer walker? I think so, practice with timing, navigation, altimeter use, weather and safety is sure to prove valuable. "

Jojo. "My boyfriend climbs but I have no intention of doing so – I have never been tempted by dangling on a rope, looking down at hard bumpy rocks that would hurt if you landed on them. It’s not that I don’t like mountains, I do, I LOVE them, but prefer to be close to a pair of solid walking boots. So when the BMC told members about a walking course said climbing boyfriend suggested I might like to accompany him.

Boyfriend joined me up as a BMC member and booked me onto the course before I could blink or think. About the journey there in his VW the least said the better. We arrived at the beautiful campsite in Arolla and were directed by the very friendly Swiss patron to pitch our tent on a lovely plateau at the top of the site. Over a cup of tea, I looked forward to meeting my fellow walkers the next day, worried a little that at 44 I would surely be the oldest and least fit member of the course.

On the Sunday I wandered down to the BMC tent and met Vicci, our course leader and the others. I was amazed to find an incredibly tall and beautiful girl surrounded by identical twin gentlemen of a certain age and another equally tall lady who reminded me of a favourite aunt – not what I was expecting at all.

By the end of the first walk I had fallen completely in love with the amazing scenery, the meticulous planning done by Vicci to ensure that we all got the best out of our experience, and with my fellow walkers who were incredibly interesting and utterly charming. As the week progressed, we learned so much about navigation, weather, plants, animals and each other - a memorable and very enjoyable week. Well done to the BMC and Vicci and thank you to my new chums. I shall certainly look forward to the chance of joining climbing boyfriend on his next BMC trip away. I’m not quite so sure he’s looking forward to it!"

Vicci. "I live in the French Alps and have worked as an IML in Spain, Corsica and France and really enjoy long distance walking in the Alps. My aim for the week was to teach new skills and build on previous knowledge. The group, from diverse backgrounds, all had experience of mountain walking, some in the Alps. All wanted to gain confidence to be independent and adventurous.

Switzerland has a network of long-distance paths, some continuing to Italy and France that pass through steep sided valleys and high limestone plateaux, always with breathtaking scenery. Whilst well marked, paths can be challenging with large height gains and losses, difficult navigation in bad weather, and steep and narrow sections protected by chains or ladders. Some refuges are reached only over glaciers but we didn’t attempt these.

The hut system allows for multi-day trips with minimum kit, always making sure you have emergency rations and bad weather gear. Meals are usually available at refuges but it is advisable to double check when confirming reservations. Some long-distance paths are very busy e.g. the low level Chamonix-Zermatt path but there are plenty of quieter routes.

The course started with two day walks to evaluate fitness, get used to the scale of the mountains, practise route-finding and map reading, compass and altimeter use and emergency procedures. This was followed by a two-day trek over Col Riedmatten to Refuge Le Chargeur, a long strenuous walk where a light rucksack was a definite advantage. This route, as with the others, had an amazing variety of flowers, truly stunning to see.

Looking back, the group bonded quickly and was keen to learn and share their skills and experiences. By the end of the week I felt that all were better placed to tackle what the Alps has to offer. I’m already looking forward to 2009 to help others to enjoy this fantastic experience. "

Thanks to Vicci Chelton, Geoffrey Entwistle, Anne Taylor and Jojo Szota

Sign up for the 2009 Alpine Meet here



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