October in the Alps?

Johannes Badrutt founded the Kulm hotel in St Moritz in 1855*. His hotel was always full for the summer months. Frustratingly, Badrutt knew that there were equally good times of the year to visit St Moritz. Namely, the winter. He was having a hard time persuading his English clients who had only experience of British winters.

Cold crystal-clear days at the Kulm Hotel.
Kulm Hotel, c. 1890

After nearly 10 years of having his hotel empty during the most beautiful time of the year, he hit upon a plan. In 1864 he struck a bargain with a party of four Englishmen, the agreement being that if they were disappointed (by the winter weather), Badrutt would pay their return journey. Needless to say the rest is history and St Moritz is probably the most famous winter resort in the world.

Nowadays, persuading people to visit the Alps is not the problem.

The problem is trying to get them not to come all at the same time! For example, the mountain resorts can be packed with masses of tourists who are there to gawk at the mountains before heading for some “retail therapy” – Chamonix, but especially Zermatt, St Moritz, Cortina, Grindlewald have now become “shopping destinations.”

Worse still, some of the mountains have become ridiculously busy with continuous lines of “climbers” trudging up and down.

Then suddenly September arrives and everyone disappears and the valleys and the mountains become wildernesses again. By October the Alps become one of the most beautiful places on the planet: cold crystal-clear days, changing colours of the Larch Pines and a light dusting of snow create exquisite sights.

The astute reader will probably work out where this article is going:

I am a Mountain Guide who has lived in the Alps permanently for the last fifteen years. In that time I have acquired a sense of how mountain-life ebbs and flows. Inspired by what Badrutt achieved I decided I would try and get my clients to come mountaineering at this wonderful time of year.

I knew that the key to making this work was to adopt a flexible approach and make it clear to my clients that we would have no fixed objectives. For example it is not possible to climb the “Trophy Peaks” of the Matterhorn, Eiger and Mont Blanc because they are either plastered in too much snow or it is just too cold. Rather, we would adapt our plans to suit the conditions we found instead of having unreasonably rigid goals, which normally means battling against the prevailing conditions to no avail (never a good strategy).

My strategy worked! I found myself full for the entire month of October. For the most part big anticyclones came and lodged themselves over the Alps. These produced frosty mornings but once the sun arrived it was climbing in t-shirts. The people who came to climb with me varied from those who were keen hill walkers who wanted to progress to alpine mountaineering, through to keen climbers who wanted coaching in ice-climbing techniques in preparation for the Scottish winter climbing season.

We also climbed some fantastic mountains.

The one that sticks in my mind was Mont Blanc du Tacul (4200 meters). Truthfully, I had grown to hate this mountain in the summer because it is busy beyond belief due to its proximity to the Aiguille du Midi cable car and having the over-rated badge of a “Four-Thousander.” It becomes a trudge up a trench in the snow behind hundreds of people. In the 2004 summer, some huge crevasses opened up which became difficult to cross. Queues of up to three hours developed around these bottle-necks. When you eventually get to the top you are faced with a descent that is in direct sunshine. The snow turns to mush making the whole thing terrifying. “Who the Hell wants to be part of this?” I asked myself.

This October was different.

As we walked to the foot of the climb the weather was cold and clear. Our crampons bit into the snow as if they were sinking into cork. There was no one around. There was a faint track here and there but was not obvious where to go as we weaved our way through huge walls of ice, awe-struck by our surroundings. The giant crevasses that had barred progress in the summer had been partly filled in by some autumn snow. Climbing over these crevasses and finding our way up the huge face was absorbing and we were using a whole range of mountaineering skills. Our arrival on the summit not only gave us staggeringly clear views but the feeling that we were making the first ascent!

The descent was perfect too because at this time of the year the descent never gets the sun and the snow is to crampons as cork is to a drawing pin.

* “How the English made the Alps“, Jim Ring

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