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Climbers embark on icy path across Aletsch glacier

The Aletsch glacier was likened to a sea frozen in a storm


The group set out at dawn on the second leg of the expedition and chose the high route above the Aletsch Forest so as to enjoy the sunrise. They paused on several occasions to admire the chamois darting between the rocks on the slope below and a stone eagle flying overhead.

The Aletschhorn then came into view to the north, a peak first climbed by a Briton and his Swiss guides.

Bernhard Stucky recalled how the party had been forced to bivouac below the summit for longer than planned because the Swiss drank all the group's wine the night before the intended ascent and were too drunk to carry on as planned.

The surface of the Aletsch Glacier looked regular and smooth until the group reached its edge. It then resembled a sea frozen during a storm, as if the high waves had turned to ice before they could break.

Riding the waves

Johann Kaufmann said the group would "ride the crest of the biggest waves" to get across.

John Tyndall, the 19th- century scientist and climber, carried out research on the Aletsch Glacier to record its movements. "He considered the Aletsch Glacier to be almost his backyard," said Philip Martineau.

"He worked out glacier flow rates by putting a set of stakes across the ice and measuring the rate of movement over a period of two or three days. I think he measured 26 inches a day at the centre and considerably less at the edge."

The group divided into teams for the glacier traverse. Kaufmann was roped to Alison Henry, while Andreas Abegglen tied himself to Philip Martineau and Les Swindin, who brought up the rear.

Swindin, who has never before followed a guide on a mountain expedition, found himself in the unusual position of having to let someone else set the pace, as 19th-century British climbers would have done.

His costume and humble position at the back made him look at times like a frail elderly gentleman, stepping carefully across the ice, and not the finely-tuned athlete he still is at 63.

For much of the three-hour march up the glacier, the sound of boots crunching on the ice and guides cutting steps with ice-axes replaced conversation.

Despite her cumbersome skirt, Henry kept up with the others when making one of many leaps across crevasses.

"I've just about perfected a technique for hitching my skirt up with one hand, ice axe flailing in the other, when leaping over crevasses," Henry said.

"This method works well but results in a most unladylike exposure of my lace edged bloomers. Still, it keeps the guides amused," she added.

After two days of hiking, the party reached the Konkordia Hut to bring them within striking distance of their next challenge: the Jungfrau summit.


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