At 63, British climber Les Swindin may know the Alps better than anyone else: he has climbed all of the 4,000-metre peaks at least once, a rare achievement even among dedicated alpinists.This content was published on August 16, 2001 - 07:59
While hiking a trail high above the resort of Zermatt in canton Valais, his calm reaction to a sudden rockslide in the distance displays the experience that has seen him through more than three decades of climbing in the Alps.
Luckily, the stretch is free of hikers, and no one is endangered. But the hurtling rock reminds him of an earlier close call in the Mont Blanc range, as he descended from a summit.
As his party eased down the steep, snow-covered slope "I fortuitously turned round at the moment a massive block of rock fell from the ridge above," he recalled.
"We dashed for shelter but were unable to find a decent place to hide so I stood myself on an open snow slope watching these boulders bound down towards me. It was possible to see the trajectory of these boulders and decide whether I was going to dodge left or right. It was frightening for a few minutes."
There were, of course, other harrowing moments over his long, still-active climbing career. Swindin, a former industrial chemist and teacher, and a member of Britain's famed Alpine Club, has visited the Swiss Alps since his teens, and began climbing in the 1960s. He didn't intend to scale every 4,000-metre peak - about 50 in all - until he realized how near he was to the goal sought by many climbers but attained by few.
He paused along the "Europaweg" hiking trail to survey the vista high above Zermatt and Grächen - the towering peaks and valley floor - and to reflect on what draws him back to the Alps, time after time: "It's the wonderful situations you encounter en route, it's also the physical challenge.
"It's a bit presumptuous to say man versus mountain, but yes, there's that aspect as well I suppose. There's always an element of danger and I think that makes life a bit more exciting."
He remembered a dangerous climb during which he and his partner were caught in a snowstorm as they approached the summit of the Aiguille Blanche. "We escaped to a sort of ledge and bivouacked for the night, which we had to spend pushing snow off the sack we were sheltering in."
"Fortunately it stopped at nine o'clock the following morning. And we really just had to get ourselves off the mountain somehow. But that took about a day and a half just to descend, so it was quite an experience."
He became only the third British climber to ascend all the high Swiss peaks. His experience and knowledge of the Alps played a major role when he was chosen as general editor of the British Alpine Club guidebooks. He is author of the editions on the eastern half of canton Valais and the Bernese Oberland.
On this day, because weather conditions ruled out a scramble to the summit, Swindin made do with the Europaweg hike. Although the trail poses a challenge for a person in good physical condition, it's a mere stroll for the Briton.
The laws of gravity didn't seem to apply as he quickly hiked the 1,600-metre route, clad in a t-shirt, short pants and running shoes. His wiry frame helped him tackle the boulder-strewn slope with the greatest of ease.
The attraction of the Europaweg for Swindin is the view of snow-capped peaks. With his trained eye, he can pinpoint details of the landscape. "If you look up at the southeast face of the Weisshorn there, you can see how uncompromising the terrain is," he said.
Clouds scud away from the top of the Zinal Rothorn to the right of the Weisshorn, as Swindin describes the routes to its summit in clinical detail; "You can approach two of the ridges of the Zinal Rothorn from the Zermatt side. In fact, the usual base is the Rothorn Hut high above the Zermatt valley. The north ridge has to be approached from the Zinal valley, from the west of the mountain."
In many ways, Swindin is a throwback to the British climbers of the 19th century, when spending a "season in the Alps" was de rigueur. The Himalayas and other distant ranges have rarely tempted him.
"I always felt that a month's visit to the Himalayas," he observed, "where you spent maybe two or three days on the mountain you'd chosen to climb was not what I was looking for."
by Dale Bechtel
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