More from this series • A journalist returns to the mountains after a near-death ski experience
Last Thursday afternoon I found myself descending the east side of the Grunhornlucke, a 3,270-metre mountain pass in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, on skis while tied to the end of a rope. Visibility had vanished at the top of the pass. In accordance with the protocols that had been drilled into me – glacier descent, bad visibility, rope up – we duly roped together.
It was horrible, a summation of the quip of the guide who taught me the technique a few weeks ago, that “skiing downhill while roped is better than dying by falling in a crevasse, but only marginally.” It was a white-out, with no sky-snow separation. As the first in the party I was meant to be navigating, but periodically the rope linking me to the man behind snapped tight, risking pulling both of us over. I willed for us to get out from under the cloud deck; eventually we did. But until visibility remerged, I needed something which has become crucial at this stage in the project: a sense of direction.
This is my final column on my attempt to master ski mountaineering, after I nearly died doing that activity in Russia in 2017. I am grateful to those who have followed along and been in touch. In many ways I am exhausted, battered by the mountains. My face is sun- and wind-burned; I periodically think that I am forgetting how to speak English; I miss my girlfriend in London. Much of me is ready to go home. But there is still a long way to go in this project, with its goal of a ski mountaineering race next year. And this winter there are still two specific objectives.
The focus of my course this week with Swiss mountaineering school Bergpunkt, over four stormy days in the Bernese Oberland, was learning to operate independently in the high mountains. This move toward autonomy has been what this whole project is about – from January onward. Yes, I hope there will be a race at the end. But more important to me is this idea of developing competency in one narrow human endeavour – uphill skiing – as a cipher for competence more generally.
This week we began at the Jungfraujoch, where a funicular railway burrows through the mountains to almost 3,500 m. At the top station we passed through a tunnel out on the Jungfraufirn glacier, which feeds into the Aletsch, Europe’s largest glacier.
Our guide was a young man called Christian Schranz. There are changing social currents in the corps d’elite that are alpine mountain guides. Traditionally this was dynastic work, passed from father to son, and usually combined with a manual trade such as carpentry. On previous courses I’d met a newer generation – university graduates passionate for the mountains. But Schranz was old school. His father was a guide; he also worked as a bricklayer. Rather than ja, the usual German affirmative, he often answered questions with jawohl, which has a military origin and can mean “yes sir” (“yes indeed” is another translation). Schranz carried a Bhend, an ice axe with a wooden shaft made by another dynasty in nearby Grindelwald. It had once been his father’s; now his name was engraved on the pick. Pouring over maps in huts, he brought out a Recta DP6, the classic matchbox-shaped Swiss army compass. “Schweizer Prazisionsinstrument,” he said proudly – Swiss precision instrument. You could say the same about Schranz himself.
We were at altitude; the huts we slept in were at 3,048 m and 2,850 m, and we were often higher. There was mist, driving snow. That first afternoon we crossed the Grunhornlucke and I had the aforementioned experience of disorientation. This area, with its large glaciers, seems more Arctic than Alpine and the remoteness is real. At the Finsteraarhornhutte, a mountain refuge, there was no cellphone signal. Digital tools – granular weather forecasts, twice-daily avalanche bulletins – were unavailable. We tuned in to a general national Swiss weather report on TV, which could still get a signal.
We had planned to climb Wysnollen, a 3,586-m summit, but the weather was poor in the morning. Instead we crossed back over the Grunhornlucke and shivered through crevasse-rescue drills. As so often this winter, the spectre of past disaster was near – the area saw fatal avalanche accidents in 2013 and 2019.
The next day the storm continued. The avalanche risk was elevated, and our route was an example of canny strategy by Schranz – we could shadow an exposed ridgeline that remained visible even through blowing snow. Barring one short steeper section, we remained largely below the 30-degree point at which avalanche became a real risk.
In a howling blizzard we cached our skis and ascended to the south summit of a mountain called the Kranzberg, at 3,666 m. There was powder on the way down. Mercifully, we did not have to descend roped together.
The final day we trekked up kilometres of glacier toward a pass called the Lotschenlucke, at one stage picking our way through crevasses that loomed out of the mist. There was another party going the same way, sometimes distant figures snatched through the storm, other times closer. At one stage, a woman in that group stopped to go to the toilet. Whether at the behest of their guide or her own decision she stayed roped up. I turned my head by chance to see a figure squatting in the snow, legs exposed, helmet on.
I have been struck this winter by the willingness of Swiss women to relieve themselves al fresco – a different attitude to the U.K., where the lack of indoor sanitation often, sadly, seems a barrier to women’s enjoyment of the outdoors. But here, in the blizzard, there still seemed something shocking, indecent almost, as though the rigours of the environment had turned us into a chain gang.
We made it to the pass, and again roped up for the zero-visibility glacier descent. My goggles iced up; the rope periodically pulled short. But we made it down into a tree-lined valley under a clearing sky.
There remain two things I want to do this winter. As my last guided ski tour, I’d like to do the Haute Route, the classic itinerary between Chamonix and Zermatt. The second, and perhaps more important objective, involving as it does the overcoming of both fear and dependency, is to do some independent ski mountaineering. With friends, not professional guides. There are logistical complexities to both aspirations, but I will report back in a finale to be published in May.
Simon Akam is a British journalist and author. His first book, The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, published in 2021, was a Times Literary Supplement book of the year and won the Templer First Book Prize. Simon can be found at @simonakam on Twitter, @simon.akam on Instagram.