Glaciers: classic & new stories
Glaciers are fascinating. It is tempting to call them ‘a frozen world’. However, glaciers are far from being frozen. Constantly evolving, sadly retracting year after year. We have had several big snowfalls this winter here in the Swiss alps. Our glaciers are showing a friendly face – that is, well covered crevasses - and allowing backcountry skiers to ‘safely’ travel on them.
Before jumping into some classic & new stories, I wanted to share a reflection related to the current pandemic situation. My impression is that, at some point down the road, we – simple humans – believed to be stronger than nature. If you have ever witnessed the swapping force of an avalanche, heard the furious noise of a hanging serac breaking, or looked into the blue depth of a crevasse… you know for certain how much we, simple humans, are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Glaciers are a constant reminder of our fragility.
The Aletsch glacier is a classic among alpinists and tourists alike. The former group is attracted by the many magnificent summits (Jungfrau, Mönsch, Finsteraarhorn…) accessible along the flat 21km of ‘glacier arms’. For the tourists, many of whom have not even step a foot on the snow in their entire life, riding the Jungfraubahn – the highest train of Europe built +100 years ago, is an experience topped by the breath-taking scenery at Jungfraujoch. Whether or not this experience is worth the exorbitant cost is for each person to decide!
If the ice giant were to melt, each citizen of the earth could be supplied with one litre of water a day for 3.5 years
I have very distinct memories from 3 backcountry skiing trips to Aletsch – the longest glacier in Europe, by the way!
In 2014, I was still a relatively unexperienced backcountry skier and a total newbie glacier alpinist! In such situations, the best option is to surround yourself by more skilled partners. Not only skilled in crevasse rescue techniques, but also in planning, group dynamics, route finding, etc. A team of 3 is usually a good number – I really like that number for decision making purposes: there is always a decision.
We were a group of three climbing Gross Grünhorn – a low difficulty but high exposure 4000m peak. When we transitioned from uphill skiing to mixed (rock & ice) climbing, the one of us, who turned out to be a reckless idiot, decided to just take off ahead of us; his decision put us at risk of falling rocks. Half way up the wall, he accidentally released a huge boulder. In those few seconds that seemed like a lifetime, I remembered some words of advice: ignore your instinct to hide & protect yourself, first look at the hazard and pick a strategy. I watched the boulder and decided 'luck' would be my strategy. Then it was time to protect myself. The rock hit the wall and then flew over us! Glaciers call for team work, not for reckless, fearless idiots.
Despite that dose of happy-ending drama, the most precious memory of this first scouting trip was the moment I got a glimpse of Finsteraarhorn. With 4274m, it is the highest mountain in the Berner Oberland region. A beautiful pyramid with sharp ridges on all faces. So unreachable to me at the time, so fascinating!
The week after this trip, I was having a coffee at the office and a little sugar bag with the Finsteraarhorn printed on it ‘smiled’ at me. What a coincidence! I hanged it in my cubicle and smiled back at it every day for 3 years.
As much as you never know when things will go south, executing the script to perfection also comes as a surprise, a bonus! Peter and I had met in 2015 through the Trail-maniacs community. We just clicked and have been sharing many adventures ever since. It was only natural that we attempted Finsteraarhorn together.
That opportunity materialized in April 2018. Everything went to perfection: we were the last party leaving the hut in the morning and the first one at the summit! We dealt with confidence and respect with the snow, altitude, lose rocks and the knife-sharp ridge.
Looking at the horizon from the summit and wondering which route we would take to exit the Aletsch glacier, one thing was for sure: I had to be home that night. The morning after I was supposed to fly to London to attend a leadership training.
Do you see that little col at the far end of the picture? It is called the Lötschenlücke. I never thought that would be our way out. It was an extremely hot day and all the other options were simply too exposed to wet avalanches. We pushed and pushed in that endless flat glacier. We ate snow, throw it inside the helmet, socks… one reaches a very primitive state in those situations ;-) Eventually we made it.
Twelve hours later a very diverse group of ‘leaders-in-the-making’ was breaking the ice talking about our weekends. It was a point of no return: should I or should I not reveal 'my true identity'? It turned out authenticity is a pillar of leadership.
Making it to the Aletsch requires a level of planning (hut & train reservations, gear & food packing, etc.) contrary to the nature of backcountry skiing. The weather doesn’t care if you booked a specific date with a friend you only see once a year; or if you flew from another country to meet Eiger face to face. Hence, the flexible lifestyle I have been sticking to this winter made it possible to answer a last-minute call from my friend Patricia (aka ‘Snow Oracle’).
I have never been a huge fan of huts: too noisy, too busy, too smelly! Since my T1D diagnosis, I had only been to unmanned huts where I cooked my own food and slept without worrying about alarms waking up everyone around me; moreover, these hut overnights happened when my diet was high carb, very unpredictable stuff! Spending a night in a hut in the middle of a glacier can be quite intimidating for someone living with type 1 diabetes. First, hypoglycaemia symptoms show up very late at altitude (see the experience I gathered over 3 weeks in Nepal). Second, should a rescue be required, no helicopter would fly me out in the middle of the night.
Are these objective risks associated to type 1 diabetes? Yes and no. We are back to the law of small numbers. Small amounts of carbohydrates > small amounts of insulin > small impact of mistakes. Let’s say I err my insulin calculation by 20%. The outcome grows as a snowball if I take 15 units of insulin instead of 5. Do the math yourself!
As I said, this was a last-minute trip. One evening I was packing for a 4-day stay in the comfort of a rental apartment… the next morning I was heading up to a glacier with a pack for the next 2 days. My pack has capacity for 23L which is very ‘minimalistic’ considering the ski, climbing, and glacier mandatory gear. I do give up comfort in the name of lightness! What to pack in terms of diabetes management and low-carb nutrition?
- Diabetes management: glucose meter with enough strips, regular/fiasp/lantus insulin pens, extra needles, sugar bags & dextrose tablets. I decided not to bring a glucagon shot. This is a personal decision and in no way a recommendation.
- Low-carb nutrition: I recommend to plan separately the hut & ‘moving’ food items. I had baked keto biscotti and lime pound cake the day before so I took a generous portion of each of these as ‘moving’ food. My hut strategy is built around the assumption that no low-carb food will be provided for dinner & breakfast, but having the option to get as much boiling water as needed. My basics: bouillon concentrate, ‘porridge’, cheese, dry meat, tea & coffee bags. I would even recommend an egg-based meal in a zip-locked plastic bag!
About 2h into the tour, my Dexcom sensor failed. Sensor error, replace. Replace with what? Honestly, it feels slightly liberating not to check that glucose value over and over again. However, I was deeply concerned about the night and only found relief in the fact that I had plenty of protein-rich food with me. Who needs those messy carbs anyway! I managed the night situation by setting 2 phone alarms: one around 5h after the last R insulin shot and another one a couple of hours later. It was a flat glucose line all day long, although I did treat a low around 3am – for which I had little awareness.
Managing a hut is a tough job. Scarce access to resources (many have to melt snow for water or get their provisions by helicopter!), picky guests, and a high volume of work all day long. I can’t expect or demand special treatments. However, hut guardians do care about their guests and always try their best to accommodate. I have generally found a lot of empathy, and this was the case at Konkordiahütte too. In fact, it was definitely above-average empathy! They cooked for me scrambled eggs and sausages for dinner (a total different menu to the standard one) and asked me over and over again whether I needed anything else. Lovely young team stirring the wheel up at 2850m!
All things considered, we could call it a prefect trip. We had amazing weather, a well-oiled women-dominated team!, and no type1 diabetes show. I needed ZERO grams of glucose to treat lows during exercise and about 4g at night! I did not need to run high values of glucose to avoid lows – as any traditional diabetes care team would insist on. Fat burning works like magic once properly adapted.
This last trip gave me so much confidence that I went for a 3-day trip just a week after. Another win! This time my sensor worked like a clock. I did have many unusual stubborn lows during the second day of backcountry skiing – our days were biiiiig plus a big change in insulin resistance linked to ‘that time of the month’. So at night, worried to potentially wake up my bunk bed neighbours with sensor alarms, I decided to use earplugs. This is absolutely not a best or recommended practice. I did it because I don’t move a finger while sleeping, and because the degree of confidence in my night glucose control is very high.
Glaciers are moving creatures and so are we! Over the last 7 years I have transitioned from skier to alpinist, from dreaming to doing, from glucose to fat burner. Loving the place I am at right now. Loving the movement to come!