Expedition is the ultimate Aiglon experience. We accompanied students up the mountain to find out just what it takes to complete a high ex.
There is a moment on every expedition when you realise it is going to demand your total commitment. For Ivan (Alpina, Year 10), that moment came last September, half way up one of the most challenging summits in the area. “There’s a bit where you need 100 per cent concentration,” he says. “You look down and you’re very high up and you have to feel confident. But that’s part of high ex – you are challenging yourself but your teachers and your classmates are supporting you, so you feel you can do it.”
THE PREPARATION Ivan, alongside his classmates, was taking part in an expedition on the Haute Cime, the highest peak of the Dents du Midi – a route up the mountain from La Barme, above Champéry, at 1,250 metres, with the aim of summiting Haute Cime at 3,257 metres. The expedition is not for the faint-hearted or the ill-prepared, and the trip was preceded by preparation and training. The first priority was, of course, safety – as Mrs Sarah Chapman, Expeditioner, explains. “We monitor the weather right up until we leave. We’ll contact local guides to hear about the conditions up on the mountain and on some expeditions we’ll even go up ourselves the day before,” she says. “This time we knew the snow level was at 2,000 metres, which meant the hut we’d be staying at would be just below it. We knew the temperatures were dropping during the night, but we’d make it to the Col de Susanfe, and there would be a possibility of the summit.” The day before the expedition, students and staff met to discuss the trip; and on the day itself, the group did a thorough kit check. “Sometimes the girls try to carry too much – speakers, too much wash kit,” says Mrs Chapman. “We’re quite strict about what they can take.” Then there was the psychological preparation, as Olivia (Exeter, Year 10) explains. “I wasn’t sure whether or not to go, because I was a bit scared,” she says. “But my friends told me if I didn’t go, I would regret it.” Rio (Le Cerf, Year 12) says she also had mixed feelings. “I wanted to get the same feeling I had last time I went,” she says. “I felt so proud to have made it, but, because I’d already done it, I knew how hard it would be.”
GETTING THERE The group drove up to the car park at La Barme, above Champéry, at about 1,250 metres. “We were talking about pop songs,” remembers Olivia. “We were talking A LOT!” “The excitement was building on the minibus,” agrees Emilio (St Louis, Year 11). “I was nervous because I look across at Les Dents du Midi every day but I’d never climbed a mountain before. There was suspense – would we make it to the top? And there was bonding. There were a few new students and we got to know each other. I felt more comfortable after that.” “At the car park we checked the kit again,” says Mrs Chapman. “We bring spare waterproofs because students do occasionally forget them! Not this time though. We gave out sandwiches for the next day and lots of energy bars.” On this trip, not having waterproofs would have been a disaster. “We started off in the rain and thick fog – and it got worse,” says Olivia. “It was pouring down. You could squeeze the water out of your gloves and it was freezing. But no one was complaining. If they felt down they were keeping it to themselves. I looked at my wet gloves, but I was determined to enjoy myself.”
UP THE MOUNTAIN “The walk starts with a gentle path zig-zagging through the woods,” Mrs Chapman says. “Then you come out above the tree line and there’s a little farm. It gets steep and you get to a rock band, a gorge. It looks like a sheer wall, with no way up or through. It’s a moment where students realise the expedition will demand commitment. There are metal hand lines and the students clip themselves on with carabinas.” After the rock band, the path becomes undulating and gradual. “It’s rocky and barren, like being on the moon,” says Mrs Chapman. Olivia adds: “We were on a creepy road, like out of The Hobbit, made of just flat grass and mud. Suddenly the teacher asks, ‘Did you see the flags?’ And we saw the flags and the hut was there!” The feeling of relief on reaching the hut, says Olivia, was palpable. “I took off my gloves and my fingertips were blue!” she says. “We put on slippers and dry clothes, drank tea and played cards and Scrabble.” The boys played Uno until dinner. “The food at La Cabane de Susanfe is very good,” Mrs Chapman says. “The students were amazed to get a three-course meal!” Vegetable soup with homemade bread and a chicken curry with rice was served, followed by dessert. “I ate three plates of everything,” says Ivan. During dinner, the fog suddenly lifted, revealing spectacular views. “The whole side of the mountain was pink!” Rio says. “The mountains were shining. Even though it was cold we stayed out until the sun went down.” “With the mountains all around you, you think of how small you are,” reflects Emilio. “Usually you’re so busy at school you’re consumed by it, but here it’s nature that’s more important.” After dinner, there was a little more card-playing, but everyone was tired and students headed off to a dormitory with two long rows of beds on each side, one above the other. “There were about 40 people sleeping in there,” says Emilio, “including people we didn’t know, so you had to be respectful and quiet.” And despite Olivia’s friend’s snoring, everyone slept well.
THE NEXT MORNING After an early breakfast of bread, jam and tea, the girls set off into the fog. “It got steeper and steeper,” says Olivia. “The teachers showed us how to dig out an area with your foot and then step on to that. We used ski poles for balance but sometimes had to use our hands. At one point, the sunshine was coming through the clouds and I turned round and there was this amazing view back down the mountains to a lake – it was like a scene from the Bible! There was a strong wind cutting my face and my skin was burning, but it was worth it.” At the Col de Susanfe, Mrs Chapman and guide Louise went ahead to recce the conditions. “Unfortunately the summit was still in fog,” Mrs Chapman says. “It was icy underfoot and we would have needed to put the girls on a rope and use crampons to go on. We took the decision that it was too dangerous, and that it wasn’t the time to be learning to use crampons.” The boys set off in sunshine but as they reached the Col, dark clouds rolled in and the same decision was taken. “I was a bit angry at first,” says Emilio. “I wanted to go on, but I understood. You can’t control the weather, and we had already achieved a lot.” “Students who’ve not been up ask about the summit,” says Mrs Chapman. “But once you’ve been up, you know it’s about the journey, about being there, not about getting to the top.”
COMING DOWN Coming down the mountain is often more challenging than going up, so both groups had to remain focused. “We decided to do a tour rather than go straight down,” says Mrs Chapman. “The path we took has a lot of interest – it’s shingly and slate at the top, there are bits you have to crouch like a cat to move along, there are rocky steps down the side of a waterfall down to the Salanfe dam.” “We wore harnesses on the rocky steps,” says Rio. “You can slip at any time. It was scary, but I enjoyed it.” “Coming down was harder because my legs were tired,” says Emilio. “I thought I was in good shape but it’s a lot of walking. The teachers kept us in good spirits, making jokes, and we all encouraged each other.” “I felt like I was on a survival channel,” says Olivia. “Like Bear Grylls.” The boys stopped at a hut by the dam for hot chocolate, sandwiches and a rest. “It started snowing when we were at the hut,” says Emilio. The girls were luckier with the weather. “It was sunny so we took off our waterproofs and fleeces,” remembers Olivia. “We were singing Adele, Someone Like You, at the tops of our voices.” Still, after eight hours walking, the sight of the minibus was a welcome one.
HOME, SAFE “Most of them slept on the minibus,” says Mrs Chapman. “It was certainly very quiet!” “When we got back, I crawled into bed and slept for two hours before dinner,” says Ivan. “I had a hot shower,” says Rio. “I felt really proud, because even though we didn’t make it to the summit, we did a good job. We were faster than the teachers thought we would be, and we saw beautiful views. I felt great.” “I want to teach the students to enjoy and love the mountains, to appreciate the freedom and beauty and fresh air. A classroom is controlled, but nature is uncontrollable and that’s difficult because we have to manage students’ expectations about getting to the top,” says Mrs Chapman. “Our students are so used to succeeding, I think it’s an important lesson to learn that sometimes you have to work hard, and you won’t always reach the top.” This wisdom has repercussions in other areas of life. “I feel like I got a sense of how much I can achieve,” says Emilio. Rio agrees: “I learned that if you feel you can’t do any more, well, you can. I kept going, and I’m really proud of that.”
From the Aiglon Magazine, Issue 9. Words: Megan Welford. Photography: Joe McGorty