TWO:15
OUT OF ROUTINE

4,000 A day on Allalinhorn

Dr. Christian Detrois, Nestle

It is 3.45 in the morning. The alarm is ringing. At last. Being at 3,000m (9,842ft), altitude and sharing a dormitory with 10 mountaineers does not make for restful sleep. The night began long before I was tired. The air is thin and the sleep restless. I have been waiting for the alarm since 2.00am. But finally, we’re off: Get dressed, pack rucksack, eat breakfast, tie laces on my boots and then out into the fresh air.

Dr. Christian Detrois 
leads the Sustainability and Novel Packaging Team at the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland. Before moving to this position in 2012, he worked for Nestlé Waters at the Product Technology Centre in Vittel, France, where he was responsible for global Packaging Development for Nestlé Waters. He is mechanical Engineer and holds a PhD in plastics processing from the Aachen University of Technology (RWTH Aachen) and spent 6 years with the German machine manufacturer Krones AG leading their “PET Technology Centre” before joining Nestlé.

It’s still dark outside, so we use our headtorches and, like a living chain of fairy lights, we start to tackle the short descent to the glacier terminus. We are calm, concentrated and eager for what lies ahead. There is a flurry of snow in the dense fog, although it is still only the end of August. Fortunately, finding our way isn’t too difficult as there are other rope teams also on the glacier.

There are 10 of us from the touring ski club here on this climb. We even go trekking in the mountains regularly in the summer – without our skis, of course. On this early morning, we attach crampons to our shoes and split into 3 rope teams. We slowly begin to traverse the Hohlaub glacier, right alongside some wide crevasses that we will have to either cross or go around at some point. The slope along the glacier is gentle, just right to warm you up in the cold without breaking too much of a sweat. However, that quickly changes as we start to climb the Hohlaub ridge. We start our ascent with a relatively slow-paced zig-zag pattern up a snow flank on our crampons, followed by a one-hour climb across the rocks.

At about 3,400m (11,154ft), it’s back to the snow. It’s starting to get lighter so we no longer need our headtorches. It’s time to assess the weather again: Will the fog ease? Or should we turn back? The weather report promised good visibility until 11.00am. It gets brighter with every metre we progress until the sun’s disk is suddenly visible through the clouds. The sky directly above us is starting to change from grey to blue. Our fight through the dark and foggy cloud is over! The bright blue sky over the sea of clouds and glistening white snow rewards us for being optimistic enough to set off in spite of the fog. We all breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice in the sun as we take the first photos. Here we also allow ourselves a short rest and a snack before heading on.

We quickly make it to the 4,000m (13,123ft) mark, where the last hurdle to reach the summit is waiting for us: A short, not-too-tricky rock climb, not even long enough for us to bother taking off our crampons. During our ascent, I could see other rope teams overcome this obstacle without any problems, which led me to hope that we would not have to wait here. I was wrong: The two rope teams ahead of us are inexperienced and are finding it difficult to make it swiftly up the face of the mountain. We have to wait a full hour for the track to become free. We are getting cold in spite of the sun and, furthermore, a high layer of cloud is approaching and has already started to obstruct our view. The mood has become tense and swear words can be heard from time to time. We continue climbing through the fog and at 11.00am we finally reach the summit of the Allalinhorn (4,027m (13,212ft)). For two members of our group, it is the first 4,000m (13,123ft) ascent. The Allalinhorn is my third 4,000m after the Weissmies (4,017m (13,179ft)) and the Dent du Géant – “the Tooth of the Giant” (4,013m (13,166ft)).

The ice axes are waiting for the next day on the Turino shelter high above Courmayeur.

The traditional summit photo is quickly taken and we swiftly begin our descent in the direction of the top station of Saas Fee before the weather takes a turn for the worse. Every one of us notices the change in atmosphere: After the challenging, but pleasantly relaxed ascent, we make towards the shorter descent route. This is, however, more touristy and is often clogged with traffic as it is much a quicker path to the summit. Mountain guides haul up to 20 tourist at a time up to the peak for their “first 4,000m.” For us, this means we have to wait again. Finally, we go from giant glacier crevasses to a well-earned beer at the top station, followed by a trip with the “metro” and cable car back to the valley. It’s still summer there. We take one last grateful look back towards the summit, still covered by the clouds, that granted us access this morning.

Between the ascent to Allalinhorn’s summit and to that of Dent du Géant, the climb to Allalinhorn’s was the easier of the mountain tours I have done this summer. It was the weather conditions that gave today’s climb its special charm, the icing on the cake, so to say. Once again, I pause for a moment to realize how lucky I am to live so close to the mountains and to be able to take such trips on weekends. I have even learned how to appreciate it in winter. Two years ago, I bought myself a pair of Alpine touring skis and started exploring the snowy mountain peaks in Valais with a friend away from expensive and crowded ski stations. Next May, I am planning on fulfilling one of my dreams: to climb to the summit of the Grand Combin de Grafeneire (4,314m (14,154ft)) and ski down. I wanted to climb it this year but the weather, avalanche and snow conditions were only ever good when I didn’t have any time to spare. But as we say here is Switzerland: The mountains aren’t going anywhere!