Alpine X: A human-powered attempt to climb and ski the ten highest peaks in the Alps sponsored by Olivier Meylan
A human-powered attempt to climb and ski the ten highest peaks in the Alps sponsored by Olivier Meylan.
Written By Olivier Meylan ambassador Aaron Rolph.
Having recently made the full-time move to Chamonix to focus on my skiing and biking, I couldn't wait to have lift-access big mountain skiing back on the cards post-covid. Possibly as much a victim of high expectations as climate change, the winter never really delivered. It was the driest winter record for over 30 years so despite all my good intentions, a lot of the steep and exciting objectives were left untouched.
Moving into Spring touring season then, we were ready to make up for lost time. My good friend Jess and I had cooked up a plan to attempt to climb and ski the ten highest peaks in the Alps back-to-back cycling between them, making for a totally human-powered and therefore a genuinely climate-conscious adventure.
Starting in the iconic Swiss town of Zermatt, under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn, we head up some neighbouring 4000m peaks which should be relatively straightforward. Touring up the popular peak of the Breithorn (4,164 m) and over the snow-clad arête goes off without a hitch, but on the ski down it soon becomes apparent that there are many open crevasses to avoid.
With Castor (4,223 m) now in view, the entire west face has been wind-scoured of snow leaving behind only blue ice. The Guardian warns us no one has been over the peak yet this season, but we set alarms for 4am to see what’s what. The normal route proves very challenging, but after crossing a deep crevasse into the rocks, we’re able to follow the ridgeline to the summit.
After walking a final icey plank, we’re pleased to be over and one step closer to some of the highest peaks in the Alps and now have some acclimatisation under our belts.
The following days we’re regularly flirting with a ridgeline that separates Italy and Switzerland, generally opting for Italian refuges for their great food and welcoming hospitality. Although the pasta didn’t disappoint, the Aosta valley had an exceptionally poor winter meaning there are huge wide open crevasses all over the glaciers and moving between peaks is proving dangerous and complicated. On one occasion, while descending on skis, I find myself dangling
over a vast airy chasm, having broken through a weak crevasse bridge.
Climbing Lyskamm Orientale (4527m) we eventually manage to circumnavigate a huge crevasse that proves totally impassable, before following the knife-like ridge towards the top. As the soft snow starts to fall away on one side, I have almost no way of knowing where the safe ground actually is and make
the first difficult decision of the trip. A fall here would be undoubtedly be fatal and despite a big effort, only 200m below the summit, we couldn’t continue safely, shouting to Jess “I’m too young to die”, only partially joking of course.
After a massive push the following day, we successfully summit the neighbouring peaks of Zumsteinspitze (4573m) and Signakuppe (4554m). The former involved yet another section of exposed and corniced ridgeline, albeit shorter than the previous. With a cool head, Jess managed to lead us through the mixed-rock and ice until we were enjoying spectacular views of
the entire Monte Rosa massif. Shortly after, we take the slog up to Signakuppe, which having spent much of the day over 4000m is hurting the head as much as the lungs. Clipping in however, we have an amazing ski down through beautifully soft light powder all the way to the iconic Monte Rosa hut. Although not steep or overly technical, this descent is surrounded by some of the most dramatic terrain and landscapes the Alps has to offer and it’s a fitting reward
after a big double summit push.
Much to our surprise, we’re entirely alone in the ever-popular 120-bed Monte Rosa hut, no doubt a symptom of how challenging the season was proving. The forecast was at best “mixed” so after a rest day with heavy snow fall, we leave for our next objective Dufourspitze (4,634 m),
the second highest peak in the Alps. The morning is clagged-in with dense, heavy cloud rolling through. Much of our ascent is spent in a white-out with only brief glimpses of the surrounding landscape. Progress however is solid most the morning until we hit the upper, steeper slopes which are icey meaning digging our crampons into the firm ground is soon becomes tiring. After
Jess briefly loses her footing taking a small fall, we agree to place more ice screws to keep ourselves safe but this would inevitably slow us down. After navigating through numerous ice ramps and sections of exposed rock bands covered in deep snow, we come to the realisaton that we may not have enough time in the day to reach this high summit. All alone on this moody
day, it’s now 5pm and with the snowfall due to get only heavier and night time a few hours away, we reluctantly agree to turn back in the interest of safety. Another difficult decision with the summit only a stone’s throw away, but the light is already fading fast and we’re back in a white-out; we focus on getting off this mountain as quickly and safely as possible. After a very
long downclimb and abseil over the worst sections of ice, we clip our skis on and ski down in complete darkness, only made possible with our headtorches. 18 hours later, we return to safety disappointed to have been so very close but extremely relieved to be back in the warm and in one piece.
The following days tease us with solid forecasts which disappear into thin air. We endure rain, hail, relentless heavy snowfall and after an unsuccessful attempt on the Dom (4504m), we decide it’s time to head to the Mont Blanc area where the forecast looks more favorable. Packing the bikes up again, we carry our skis, boots and mountaineering kit for the 200km cycle back home to Chamonix. Despite the chunky weight, almost 40kg in total, the new mode of
transport makes for a welcome change. Rolling back into our home town feels different, this is our home turf and the familiarity definitely builds our confidence. Before you know it we’re backup onto our next peak - Mont Blanc.
With the refuge on the normal ski route fully booked, we opt to make an attempt on the 3 mont route, which as we understand it it, was yet to be skied this season. Thankfully, we come across another local team looking to make an attempt on the same day, meaning the breaking trail could be a shared pursuit. For one of the few times on this trip, things just go to plan. It’s clear snow conditions have been better over here and the few more complicated sections of crevasse
crossings or ice are taken in our stride. Although the grind over the three peaks is always longer than you think, we feel strong all the way to 4810m. Jess and I take our final steps touring together, which of course feel significant after the never-ending hurdles on this trip. Putting in turns through deep cold powder on the highest peak in the Alps certainly provided some
consolation for this big adventure not all going to plan, but this journey is not yet complete.
In the end we successfully climbed and skied a total of 12 x 4000m peaks including three of our Alpine 10, but our biggest achievement was probably coming back safely and without incident. This project however is far from finished, and when conditions do come good, we’ll be waiting.