Saturday, 26 July 2014

Alpine Adventures–Conville Course


This summer I travelled out to the French Alps for my first ever foray into the world of slightly higher altitude mountaineering. I was lucky enough to be able to take part in a Conville course. The Jonathon Conville Trust was set up in memory of the young mountaineer who it was named after, who died on the Matterhorn in 1979. They provide subsidised courses in the Alps, among other things, which are aimed at helping young mountaineers start their alpine career safely, with knowledge of techniques such as crevasse rescue and safe rope work over technical ground.

So I packed up my bags and headed out to Chamonix, to live off a diet of tinned food and cheese, and far too few showers, for my first alpine season.


On the first day of the course, after a quick briefing and kit check, we caught the Montenvers railway up onto the Mer de Glace, to practise crevasse rescue technique and roping up. The day started with the descent of over 250m ladders, to get us down to the level the glacier had retreated to. We watched with envy as groups of school kids marched out with us. Why didn’t my school do that! We were greeted at the bottom by the cool breeze off the glacier, and the smell of ice. Crevasse rescue turned out to be fairly fiddly and tiring work. We split into teams, three Convillers to a guide. Our guide taught us how to improve the system to make it efficient as possible, but I still reckon I’d have a hard time pulling someone out. As one of the lightest, it seems likely I’ll fall into the role of crevasse poodle (literally).


The second day we caught the amazing Midi lift (the third most visited tourist attraction in the world), up to the grand height of 3800m at the top of the Aiguille du Midi. We started by roping up in the famous ice cave entrance, and then slowly tiptoeing our way down the thoroughly exposed Midi arête. The day was spend applying the previous day’s learning, doing the first two points on Pointe Lachenale (one of them is definitely more of a bump), and slowly acclimatising to working at altitude.  

IMG_0793The third day we made our first attempt at a route, in the slightly lower Aiguilles Rouges. The three of us moved together, along the Traverse of the Crochues, a PD+ ridge, while our guide soloed alongside us, cajoling us along, so as not to turn the trip into a faffalanche. It turned out at the abseil that two of us had taken the motto ‘fast and light’ too far, and our guide was not impressed by the lack of belay plates, so we were plied with his and told to be snappy. Climbing in big boots turned out to be a lot of fun, and also surprisingly practical, in stark contrast to my pre-Alps practice in the gorge, which as by all accounts, traumatic. All in all, it was a fantastic route, covering lots of interesting ground, surrounded by amazing views of the Mont Blanc Massif. To top it all off, there was enough snow for a speedy descent, practising both our skiing, and more often than not, our bumsliding. 

Over the next few days I spent plenty of time watching the rain gush down the windows of the refuge, and studying various ambitious routes. When the sun was shining, I did manage to fit in the Cosmiques Arete, an exciting variation on Pointe Lachenal, some long mountain sport, an epic valley level ‘grade 3’ scramble, and some ice climbing on the Mer de Glace. I had a great time and I can’t wait to get out there next year.



More information about the Jonathon Conville Mountaineering Trust:

If you want to see how little it has changed, this is an article my friend wrote 11 years ago (Midnight Express has been a thing for that long, and you still can’t get it in every café in Wales?!!):


Rebecca Millington