A Single Moment: Alpine Bivouac

This feature was first published in Sidetracked magazine, February 2018.

Suddenly I’m not sure I want to go through with this, but there’s no chance to go back now. Not unless I want to descend that ridge in the dark.

I’ve climbed to the summit of Stockhorn, a 3,532m peak high above Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. Behind, a long scrambly ridge leads over a nubbin of glacier and down through boiling clouds to a sunset so nuclear that it looks unreal. Those last rays etch luminous traces over the landscape on all sides, lending definition to the crevasses standing out like wrinkles on an elephant’s hide hundreds of metres below. Intimidating mountain fortresses rear up north and south. This place feels exposed, watched even – an eyrie chosen by the mountain gods as a haven, or perhaps a trap for the foolish. And I’ve chosen to sleep here.

It will be fine, I tell myself as I unroll my sleeping bag and watch the baffles expand. Unless there is a thunderstorm.

The idea sticks in my mind as I carry out camp chores. It’s been a decade since my last visit to Stockhorn’s summit and I’d forgotten how bleak it is. There’s no comfy moss or grass to bed down on; just piles of ice-smashed rocks, so raw I can smell the stone dust. I arrange my foam pad on the flattest rocks I can find and begin heating water for a bivouac cuppa. Already the light has gone and now the mountains around me take on the blue glow of another world. When the roar of my stove dies, the silence is so absolute I can feel the drumbeat of my own heart – until I begin to hear the mountain itself whispering and groaning beneath me. Or that’s what I tell myself the sound is.

I listen again as I put on my puffy jacket against the cold. My faffing and rustling drown out any noise until I’m snuggled in my sleeping bag, wondering if its -12°C rating will be enough to keep me warm. Above, I see the first stars poking through deepening cobalt, but there are clouds up there too – smudges massing around the Matterhorn’s spike and over beyond the Italian border.

I close my eyes and try to clear the worries from my mind. Then I hear it again: a drawn-out, whispering grumble. My eyelids flick open and I prop myself up on my elbows to scan Breithorn’s ridge where I’m convinced the storm will billow up to fill the sky with fury. Nothing. Now my mind plays through worst-case scenarios, drawing on previous experiences of thunderstorms at altitude. Christ, it’s bad enough in daylight; what will it be like after dark with a long ridge scramble between me and safety?

When the creaking murmur comes again, followed by a distant growl, I can feel it reverberating up through the ground and into my body. This time I relax. Just the music of the glaciers as they cool down after a warm day: crevasses contracting, séracs falling somewhere maybe. The mountain reminding me it’s alive. I’m above all that here in my lonely eyrie. I’m safe.

The landscape creeps into my dreams as I drift off. I’m a particle of ice on its centuries-long voyage from summit snowflake to river droplet far below. I’m a chamois darting from rock to rock high above all possible food sources, up here on the glacier for reasons beyond human understanding. I’m a raven floating on the wind, I’m—

BOOM! CRAAAACK!

Light tears through my eyelids and I wake gasping.

Images © Alex Roddie. All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.

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