Despite a weather forecast for high freezing levels, we decided to set off for the Vignettes Hut in the early afternoon. The walk in from Arolla, through fragrant pine forests and over alps of soft grass, served to remind me that this is how Alpine mountaineering ought to be enjoyed: on foot, from the valley, to gain a full appreciation of the objective and to fully earn one's success. This is how the Alps were first explored, and Arolla is still largely unspoiled by the mainstream of Alpine tourism.
Onto the glacier! The ascent of the Glacier de Piece proved to be a straightforward proposition, and we made rapid time along the easy stretches of moraine and dirty ice. Above, the huge seracs beneath the north face of Pigne d'Arolla occasionally calved icebergs onto the rocks below.
On the final section of glacier the altitude began to make itself felt, and the trudge up steep snow was tiring. We finally made it to the Vignettes hut just as dinner was being served.
This mountain inn is situated on a spur overlooking a vast sea of ice between Mont Collon, l'Eveque, and Pigne d'Arolla. Overnight a little cloud came in, leading to worries that it would not freeze, but at dawn it was obvious that the snow had refrozen wonderfully and conditions would be excellent. We joined a large team leaving the hut at 6am and dropped back onto the glacier.
Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the normal route up Pigne d'Arolla has changed considerably due to glacial retreat. Where a snowslope ought to have merged seamlessly with the glacier, now a huge ugly rock band prevented any hope of getting up that way--and above it, threatening seracs of black ice. We had no alternative but to return to the col, where a passing guide hailed us: 'The route to the Pigne is up that way!' He pointed up an ugly heap of moraine.
Up the moraine we went, annoyed at having lost thirty minutes. Nevertheless, soon we were able to step back onto the icecap that crowned the mountain, and were back on track.
The route proved to be an easy but tiring glacier, with one crevassed section but nothing to cause alarm. The altitude was really starting to have an impact on both of us now and the long trudge felt exhausting.
Despite the effort and heat of the ascent, the summit, when reached, was worth every step. The view showed almost every corner of the Alps, from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, and even the Oberland. The view directly down the north face towards Arolla was particularly striking.
After a pause for refreshment in the hut, we tackled the long descent back to base, and reached the village at a little after three o'clock. Behind us, our mountain was the highest point in a perfectly clear sky, and we reflected upon the satisfaction of climbing an Alpine peak from valley to summit entirely on foot. Most of all, it felt good to be back in the Alps climbing again; my last Alpine season was 2008.
Location:Despatches from the Alps