This is when we met “Bob”, our mythical 200kg friend. Expedition Skills Course

Expedition: Expedition Skills Course

Sarah McComas

Anything Exciting?

“Do anything exciting on holiday?” I was asked when I got back to work. My reply took quite some time!

No matter how many trips I do, I always give myself a scare when I see the size of my pack. This trip was no different. “How on earth am I going to carry that?” I wondered as I sent out some panicked texts to my travel buddies. It would seem that I wasn’t the only one doubting my strength, so I resolved to sort it out when I arrived in Luchon. After a particularly fraught trip to Gatwick, I met up with Gem, Nat and Stephen and off we flew to Toulouse. After a drive which included a confirmation of which is right and which is left, we arrived in Luchon to find a stack of pizzas and the rest of our group. The evening was taken up with a briefing and getting to know each other.

 

Monday morning brought a delicious breakfast followed by a supervised re-pack by Rolfe. Something was missing! Somehow, between eight clients, Rolfe and Ian – we only had one pack of mini cards. Not condusive for the games of shithead that accompany all 360 trips! We drove in convoy over the border and further into the mountains. Lunch in a car park, packs unloaded and snow shoes fitted. Then it was time for the fun to begin.

The snow was falling as we wound our way up the Nordic Skiing path. It was pleasantly firm and smooth, and only gently sloping, allowing us to get used to both our weighty packs and our new shoes. (Ryan fell over within minutes, I lasted about 10!) The snow eased as we reached a shelter where the terrain started to change. A “Freezer Issue” prompted Ian to stash his pack, shed his snowshoes and rush back down the mountain to drive to the nearest supermarket. We started heading up, through the trees, zigzagging back and forth then climbing more steeply up towards the Renclusa Refuge.  The snow was back, making viewing the refuge difficult, both a blessing and a curse. But we made it, and thanks to the Vignemale region being at serious risk of avalanche, we were instead in the Aneto region. This meant that the refuge had electricity, water – and a bar!

We got settled and got the water on to make tea (typically British!) Rolfe popped back down the mountain to meet up with Ian and we sat playing cards and Jenga. Dinner was then made, the shopping appeared, Stephen’s birthday was toasted and we settled down to the first of many games of shithead – thanks to cards found in the refuge!)

Tuesday brought clearer skies and the chance to marvel in our surroundings. Our first lesson was how to make, and then how to read a snow profile, followed by constructing snow anchors. Just when you thought you’d made a nice secure anchor, two more people would jump on the rope and try to dislodge you! This is when we met “Bob”, our mythical 200kg friend, who struggles up mountains, wears a 50kg pack and seems very accident prone! From anchors we moved on to self-arresting; how to stop ourselves from sliding down a mountainside, or how to stop ourselves from following “Bob” down a crevasse.

Having learnt how to stop the fall, we then learnt how to go about getting “Bob” up out of the crevasse. After lunch it was up to us to perform a self rescue from the crevasse, using prusik loops to shimmy up a rope. Next up was “How to build a snow hole”. We found a suitable snowdrift behind the refuge and were soon all at work digging three shelters. The right hand one was long and thin, the middle one would comfortably take 3 people, and the left hand one… had to go around a corner! (We found that we were on a deceptive slope and were soon trying to dig into the ground).

Wednesday morning brought the opportunity to practice some of the skills from the day before. Anchors, snow profiles and prusikking were all put to the test before we then moved on to learning about using Avalanche Transceivers. Having learnt the theory behind them, we then took turns in hiding/burying them and then trying to find them again. Thankfully, we were able to just bury the transceiver; they didn’t need a human attached in order to work! Another advantage of the Renclusa Refuge is the magnificent 40m frozen waterfall, pretty much on the doorstep. This gave us our perfect introduction to Ice Climbing.

Next to the waterfall was a steep ice gulley, perfect for abseiling and jumaring. These are all skills which are needed on expeditions such as Elbrus, Mera and Lobuche (all on my wish list). Far better to be learning these skills out here in a safe teaching environment, with lots of time and encouragement, and no summit dependant on scaling the next 40m. One member of the group succeeded in “making something relatively simple look remarkably difficult” (Rolfe’s words) but despite that we all climbed, abseiled and jumared up and down all afternoon. Sam decided to sleep in a snow hole, whilst the rest of us opted for our nice warm bunks inside. An early-ish night was had by all in preparation for the following day.

We were up early, wolfing down porridge and boiled eggs before donning our gear. Head torches and snowshoes on and out into the early morning light. We zigzagged up, following a path left by some skiers who departed just before us. Just below “The Keyhole” we swapped our snowshoes for crampons before negotiating around the frozen rocky outcrops. Standing in the Keyhole we got our first view of Aneto. We spread out to cross the traverse, and then as we approached to glacier we roped up. Spread out, but moving together. The knee deep snow really started to test us. One person would sink down to the thigh, the group would stop, they’d extract themselves and the group would start again. Then someone else would sink. This happened again, and again, and again. Where we had been 30 minutes ahead of schedule, we lost minutes, and then hours. But our perseverance paid off and we reached the final rise. A quick snack, then we started climbing again. With a strict 4pm turnaround we pushed on.

On many mountains I wonder why I chose a Friday morning saw us packing up, and heading down. It was another beautiful day and by the time we reached the Nordic ski path many of us had shed our jackets and were walking in base layers. Striding along, looking up at the beautiful mountains around us. Yesterday we looked down on them all. hobby that takes so much effort. Why not have a quiet hobby; like stamp collecting?! Well, stamp collecting wouldn’t give you the views that we got to enjoy whilst standing at the top of the Pyrenees in the late afternoon sun. In order to reach the true summit of Aneto you have to cross the Bridge of Mohammed. This was dangerously icy; the risk was not worth taking.  After a few quick photos we started down. Back across the glacier, through the deep snow (Rolfe tried to find another route and ended up waist deep), across the traverse and up to The Keyhole, all whilst watching a magnificent sunset that changed the colour of the mountains below us. We didn’t stick to the path on the way down, just took the most direct route. Much faster, except when you sank thigh deep – again! Back into the refuge after nearly 13 hours, tired but elated.

Friday morning saw us packing up, and heading down. It was another beautiful day and by the time we reached the Nordic ski path many of us had shed our jackets and were walking in base layers. Striding along, looking up at the beautiful mountains around us. Yesterday we looked down on them all.

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