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Neal Wardman: Glacier trekking

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Verbier instructor Neal Wardman tells us about his three day glacier trekking adventure across part of the famous Haute Route, a classic route that crosses the Alps between Zermatt, Verbier and Chamonix

DAY 1.

The first day started out a little misty and was slowed by numerous boulder fields over steep terrain. The group scrambled on for many hours until the Salienaz Glacier eventually came into view.

“How much further until we get to the hut?” was the next question. “Just another 2 hours” the guide replied. “JUST!” we all muttered under our breath.

Phew … after around 5 hours of hiking we eventually got to the Cabane Saleinaz at an altitude of 2691metres, exhausted but totally exhilarated with the days achievements. Large bowls of warm tea greeted us provided by the couple who run the cabane. They sat preparing the evening meal which everyone was really looking forward to. “Yoga anyone?” I suggested. “OK then” was the reply of five of us so we took off our shoes and socks liberating our hard working feet from the days walk.

The team enjoyed a hearty evening meal then retired to a decent sized bunk room, with two rows of bunk beds. As expected the night was interrupted from time to time by headtorch-lit toilet trips.

DAY 2.

Sunrises in the mountains are absolutely spectacular and the next morning didn’t fail to impress.

The next day was to offer cooler temperatures and the first glacier crossing -after some more rocks of course. Fuelled by a typical alpine breakfast of bread, cheese and muesli the team packed their gear back into our backpacks and set off for the next day of adventure.

After some more precarious rock hopping they could see the glacier that they were about to cross.

…everyone marched across the ice, sometimes stopping to admire the crystals that had formed in the rock over thousands or millions of years. A geologists dream.

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After successfully crossing the first glacier the group continued on snowy ground -familiar territory for ski instructors- and enjoyed lunch in the sun, pondering wishfully if the next accommodation would have showers to welcome them after another long day.

After lunch the ropes eventually came out and we were linked together in two groups with a guide leading each one. According to the guides it would be getting a little more dangerous so it was a good call from these experienced men of the mountains to rope up.

This part was a psychological test for many in the team.

We were told to put on our crampons and unleash our ice axes from their secure point on our backpacks. Now it was getting serious. All I could see was the small lake to the left of the ridge and a steep slope to the right. If we fell it could be serious. As we slowly and carefully made our way on to the ridge I could see the right drop.

Everyone made it unscathed and still roped up, made their way towards the Cabane de Trient.

They were welcomed by three delicious courses, served up by the two guides and a much appreciated dessert.

DAY 3. 

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The next morning the team gathered outside in the cold to pose for a group photo on their last day of the trip. They had one more glacier to cross before heading to Le Tour, their final destination.

The sun rose slowly over a peaceful moonscape of rock and ice. Once at the other side the Guide’s had a decision to make.

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To get down to the Le Tour glacier there was a very steep section of rock followed by solid ice. These conditions couldn’t have been predicted and the guides took the decision not to take us down the route as it would have taken too long to belay everyone down there. There was an air of disappointment but we trusted our guides.

The decision was made to reverse the route and the group carried on in glorious sunshine with temperatures to match. The high altitude and sun exposure proved challenging but the terrain flattened out a little, giving some respite.

The landscape was amazing with the snow glistening like diamonds in the clear air.

At the next glacier the crevasses grew in size. Small streams snaked their way through the ice, producing cracks which had to be carefully negotiated. Eventually they reached dry land again and the ropes and crampons could be packed away once again.

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The following descent flared up some sore knees but the beautiful scenery was enough to take their minds from the worse of it.

We meandered along the mountain side following the path that must have seen thousands of walking over hundreds of years. Some of the drops to the side were quite steep and had chains fastened to the rock for us to hold on to just for a bit of safety and peace of mind.

The last part of the journey was to be made by chairlift -a happy sight for sore knees. This took the team down to Champex Lac for a well deserved beer or two.

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Photo credits to Marco Shapiro and Neal Wardman.

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