Patrick Tillard

On the edge

Patrick Tillard
On the edge

“Crampons on here. And Patrick, try not to slip on this section.” Kenton’s causal tone and wry grin make light of the severity of the thin, snowy ridge carving a wicked line towards the Weissmies peak in the heart of the Swiss Alps. It’s half a foot wide at most. Bloody terrifying to be totally honest. And keeping focus is easier said than done at an altitude of 4,000m – the silky air puts stamina under the pestle and makes the simple decidedly complicated. The ridge looks little different to a tightrope. Not even the endless massifs to my left and right, sprayed with the sun’s early golden glow, can distract me while edging towards the white, pristine plank.

Saying that, I am in very safe hands: Kenton Cool is Britain’s most decorated climbing guide and something of a celebrity in the mountains. This year he successfully summited Everest for an incredible 12th time; this effort bearing more personal significance than any other following the catastrophic earthquake in Nepal in 2015, which claimed the lives of over 8,000 people and reduced much of the country to rubble. He lost a number of close friends.

His competence at altitude is hugely reassuring – over the past two days I have put my trust firmly in his aptitude, and (at this very moment) the three metres of rope dangling between us. (It’s a far cry from the cosy Soho bar where, four months earlier, we had excitedly ignited the idea of this trip over a drink or three.) With our crampons fastened we push on slowly, Kenton’s spikes cutting a fresh trail in the soft, precarious powder. I place mine meticulously into the same grooves; my mind focusing on mastering the basics of balance, channelling my inner Philippe Petit.

The margins of error are tiny when climbing. One mistake, one misjudgement, one gulp of arrogance is all it takes to fail. Or worse – a wrong move here and it will be a fast, fatal journey to the bottom. Danger and risk are intrinsic to this sport; a sport that renders men and women mere ants among giants, totally at the mercy of elements well out of their control. But like a powerful drug, the sacrosanct feeling of success or indeed failure in the mountains is an unreachable itch that most climbers never shake.

“You leave knowing there is a chance that you might not come back,” admitted Kenton when we met in London earlier in the year. “That it could be your last climb. If you become complacent at altitude, the mountain is going to kill you. But when you get to the top, the whole world radiating beneath your feet, there’s this tsunami of emotion. I would defy anybody to witness some of the views I’ve seen and not come away feeling inspired.” I accepted the challenge…

It had been an early start for a basic hut breakfast of dry bread and aggressive black coffee – a taxing 3.45am to be precise. The aim was to reach the peak, or the ridge at least, to watch sunrise over the Pennine Alps. “It’ll be worth it,” Kenton assured as I threw my pack over my shoulders and stepped out into the bitter cold. A heavy fog was hugging the ground, reducing visibility to a few metres. 

For two hours we clambered up the steep, craggy mountainside by the light of head torches, a deafening silence broken only by the crunching of rocks under sleepy soles. We emerged from the haze as the first inky tendrils of morning teased the skyline – here, just shy of the saddle point, we got a glimpse of the summit, a black silhouette towering into the star-studded ether.

Several thousand metres below in the canton of Valais, two hours from Geneva, the municipality of Saas Grund was still sleeping. By day it is equally as somnolent, but charmingly so. Timber cabins sit on mushroom stilts, window sills are adorned with vibrant flowers, and the neck-bells of sheep herds resonate above the trickle of glacial streams and the splutter of tottering tractors scything tall summer grass. There is an intoxicating absence of urgency – such folly is left to those at higher climes. 

As the skiing masses flock to these slopes in winter, so too alpinists take advantage of Switzerland’s dramatic ranges in the warmer months – the country is home to more 4,000m peaks than any other in Europe, from leisurely strolls that wouldn’t strain your grandmother to torturous technical routes suited to only the most adept. Diversity is abundant.

Yesterday we had tackled the frozen northern bluff of the 4,200m Allalinhorn, hiking through serac blocks and setting three ice screw pitches to scrabble up the 50-degree face with two axes – a hard-and-fast initiation to ice climbing.

By contrast, this morning we’re on the 4,017m Weissmies – lesser in altitude but more physically demanding – featuring nervy scrambling and glacier traversing. (And a seriously antisocial roll call time.) There were anxious moments as cold fingers clawed longingly at uninspiring rock ledges and unstable feet searched frantically for safe holds, but with each successful haul the view got better, the summit got nearer, and the acute feeling of triumph and end to the pain drew closer. Until we negotiate the ridge, that is. (Never have more cautious steps been taken, as if a tipsy waiter carrying a tray of crystal-cut champagne flutes.)   

Safely across we make the final few strides to the top, where we rest, short of breath from the dearth of oxygen. In every direction, scarped snow-capped peaks puncture the cloud inversion, and way below the quiet valley towns are gradually waking up – it is not yet 9am. Up here, I appreciate the pull to these heights: the early starts; the stale bread; the willingness to pillage one’s senses in order to summit; and the somewhat selfish risk of being a mountaineer.

“You know, time is the most precious commodity we have,” says Kenton, flicking sweat from his forehead, “and the mountains allow you to escape all the crap. I can be physically exhausted when climbing, but mentally I’m never more alive.” 

Sat here, gasping for deep gulps of air, I get it. It all makes perfect sense. 

This article was published in the November issue of Escapism.