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Ice and a slice
Monday November 17, 2008 - Email this article to a friend

James Cove picks up an ice axe for the first time praying for a slice of luck.

As we picked our way through the crevasses high up on the Allalin glacier in Saas Fee there was only one thought in my mind.

“What the hell am I doing here?”

ice_void_400Ahead of me was my guide Gabriel Voide and on either side seemingly bottomless crevasses.  I was roped up to him, but at that precise moment I could think of better places to be; like on a good solid piste to start with.

Gabriel peered into a couple of gaping crevasses, shook his head and marched on. Suddenly he found a spot he liked the look of, drove 3 ice screws into place to secure the belay and then indicated for me to abseil down.

As I leant back I couldn’t help thinking that once down there was only one way out. Up.

What happened if I couldn’t do it?


I took a deep breath and committed myself. Fortunately there was a large ledge about 20 meters down which I couldn’t see from the top and as I gazed around my fear vanished and I was struck by how beautiful it was inside a crevasse.

ice_in_crevace_400The ice was dozens of different colours and textures and it was so still, silent and peaceful. It was magical.

I gripped my ice axes and sunk the first one in and pulled myself up. It took a good grip and before I knew it I was half way out.

Both the axes and the crampons on my boots got a good hold and felt very solid. All you really do is wack the axe in and then push up with your feet and pull up with your arms.  It was quite tiring but surprisingly easy.

Clearly there are many different levels so long routes and difficult terrain require enormous skill, but for a novice on an easy pitch with a guide it really isn’t that hard.

Having Gabriel at the top keeping the rope tight and advising me where to plant the axe helped and soon I was out.


Gabriel seemed pleased with my progress and asked if I wanted to take a look in an ice cave. 

ice_climb_out_400Before I knew it I was abseiling down a narrow crevasse and when I reached the bottom it opened up into an ice cave. It was stunningly beautiful and I could see deep into parts of the glacier and even hear a stream running inside it. 

The Allalin glacier moves about 50 meters a year so the ice is constantly changing with crevasses opening and closing.

It’s a living, moving body of ice.  Getting out was slightly more tricky as I couldn’t swing the ice axes well in the tight chimney, but they held well and soon I was out again, grinning from ear to ear. 

After the cave I then tackled a longer and steeper pitch with a slight overhang. 

ice_me_400 This required several rests on the way up, but with Gabriel securing the rope and shouting words of encouragement I managed it.


Ice climbing is becoming increasingly popular. You need a moderate level of fitness and some climbing experience, whether on walls or rocks, is useful but not essential.

If you hire a qualified guide he will assess your ability and only take you to places within your limits.

For people who work out in the mountains this winter and want to do something different from skiing and boarding I can thoroughly recommend giving ice climbing a go.

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