The Conville Trust are an amazing organisation that provide heavily subsidised training courses to British climbers and mountaineers under the age of 30 that want to progress into Alpine environments.
The Trust was set up after the death of mountaineer Jonathan Conville, in 1979 aged 27 on the Matterhorn. His family memorialised and celebrated his legacy through the creation of the Jonathan Conville Trust, whose aims are to;
"encourage and assist young people to train for and pursue their love of the outdoors in the spirit of adventure, which Jonathan embraced during his life. As long as there are mountains, there will be a place for the Trust."
Since then the Trust has provided opportunities to hundreds of young people every year, with a team of experienced and committed Guides instructing the essentials in Alpine Mountaineering. I was privileged to be a part of the course in June and was given the opportunity to learn the essentials of Alpinism that have laid the foundations for all of my future mountaineering adventures.
Over 3 days participants work with their instructor on a 1:3 ratio, which allows for in-depth, personalised skill development, within each small group. On arrival, groups are arranged based on current experience and then separate off with their assigned instructor to discuss packing for an Alpine day. I am always happy to be in mixed groups but it was great to be placed with 2 other strong women climbers for the duration of the course!
As this was my first experience of Alpinism I used my current knowledge of Scottish Winter Mountaineering to inform my day-bag packing. So, before our group check my bag contained the following:
6 carabiners, 3 prussiks, 3 120 slings, 2 ice screws
1 warm layer
Lots of food
1 litre of water
2 warm pairs of gloves
1 pair of tough bag mitts
Reduced med kit
Emergency Bivi bag
Silver foil blanket
It was +30º in the valley but I imagined it would get much colder as we headed out onto the Glacier. How wrong I was! After a demo from our instructor Simon and a discussion about what it meant to be Alpine Light I shed my down jacket, waterproofs, extra hat, spare gloves and a fair amount of my beloved food. In the Alps, if the forecast says it isn't going to rain in the mountains, then it probably won't. Coming from the UK, shedding my waterproofs from my bag was the hardest omission to make!
However, this season is unusually hot, which also brings instability. Mont Blanc was closed for guiding on the second day of our course, and many other routes rendered unsafe due to melting ice and rockfall. It highlights the importance of understanding local conditions and making use of the amazing resources in the valley such as the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix centre. There is a wealth of information here from recent route reports, forecasts, guidebooks and the extremely helpful and knowledgable staff who can assist you when planning potential mountaineering trips.
With our new improved super-light packs we set off to Mer De Glace for our first day of learning. As we walked towards the Glacier we got our first taste of just how busy the popular routes can get, with two large groups bustling for access to the many ladders down to the glacier. We took an alternative bolted route down that just picked up the last of the ladders.
I have never stood on a glacier before and the surface was surprising. With our crampons attached we started walking over a rocky surface layer before hitting the central ice that was satisfyingly crunchy as we progressed towards the other side. It was here that we began our main focus for the day, safe travel on steep ice with crampons. We explored a range of walking styles and techniques for ascending and descending steep terrain including side-stepping, front-pointing and assisted ascent and descent using our axes. I volunteered to lead a steeper section where I placed my first ice screw. Simon praised the Black Diamond Ice Screws and it was here that I saw why. I always imagined placing runners in ice would be quite strenuous and time-consuming work but once you get an initial bite they simply glide in with ease (of course dependant on the quality of the ice). Once up, I placed two more ice screws for our belay, with Rosa and Sophie following behind.
Our second major learning point was Crevasse Rescue. This was way more technical than any rope work I have done before, but as with most things, simple once you know it! We focused on using a Z hoist technique with two prussiks and spent considerable time discussing different scenarios and the importance of safely traveling to the edge of the fall to check your partner. Simon explained that a number of deaths occur when rescues are attempted without checking the edge and the victims neck is broken due to the hoist forcing them against overhanging ice. We also discussed distances between team members on wet glaciers (glaciers covered in snow). If there are only two members in a team then the distance between was a lot more than I expected - at least 10M. This gives time for a reaction if one member falls into a glacier and lessens the risk of being pulled in after them.
We used a buried axe for our anchor when consolidating our crevasse rescue skills on the wet glacier below Aiguille Du Midi and refined our ideas surrounding rescue in two's three's and with knots on the rope.
However, prevention is better than a cure and efficient and skilful movement to avoid potential hazards and accidents occupied the bulk of our learning. The Alps are a dangerous place and in a lot of scenarios very limited in terms of protection, except than through your own movement. "Don't fall off" becomes the main sticking point in these situations. Becoming efficient at moving together and making sound judgements about when to pitch a tricky section are essentials when becoming independent alpinists and we developed these skills through our traverses of Crochues and Arete Laurence.
I found that I have a healthy level of fear surrounding the mountains, and I feel comfortable managing that fear in relation to my skills, forecasts, known risks and preparation. However, the amount of other people on routes is something that I need to get used to. The Alps are so accessible making it rare to have a PD route to yourself and it is fairly normal for groups to overtake one-another. This takes quite a lot of getting used to and it will also take some practice building my confidence to say "no" when I deem it unsafe for a group to pass at a certain time. Traffic is just one justification for efficiency when en-route but predominantly, if at every pitch or change in terrain it takes you 10 minutes to sort yourselves out, this could easily add over an hour to your time and could mean the difference between catching the last lift down or finding yourself benighted.
Finally, we discussed guidebooks, huts and maps. There are so many guidebooks out there with routes for every potential desire. However, the new Rockfax is incredibly detailed and provides thorough descriptions, topos and photographs. I also bought Mountaineering in the Mont Blanc range and of course a 1:25 Mont Blanc Map.
After 3 days on the Conville Course I am full of inspiration and admiration for Alpinism and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate. The Conville Trust works in Partnership with the BMC and Plas Y Brenin. I stayed at the beautiful Camping du Glacier d'Argentiere with the majority of other Conville participants. As many stay on after their courses this is also a great place to come for consolidating skills and finding climbing partners.