Like comedy, timing is everything in skiing and mountaineering. Do your best jokes too early, and the audience will be walking out halfway through. Leave too much of a gap before delivering the punchline, and people are left hanging, feeling dumb or patronised or both.
In the mountains too, there’s a right time for everything and either too early or too late, too fast or slow, can mean the difference between a good day and a bad one, a delight and a disaster. I was reminded of this earlier this spring in the ski season, but it’s taken another trip, this time in the early summer, to put it all into a coherent blog post.
Luckily for us, in the mountains it’s more often a question of hours or days, whereas in comedy it’s minutes or even seconds. Nevertheless, the instance back in the spring very much concerned minutes. I was ski touring in the Ecrins with a team who are referred to as the Premier Crew, partly because they can pretty much go anywhere and do anything, but also because they are partial to the odd drop of premier cru as well. The weather was extremely warm and we had witnessed some big wet slab avalanches and point release sluffs releasing from midday onwards.
We skinned a tidy 1200m up to the Col de la Casse Déserte and crossed onto a south facing slope that, by 11am had turned to unpleasant waterlogged snow, known as soupe in French and porridge in English. We traversed carefully to the delightfully hospitable Adele Planchard hut and spent the afternoon recuperating. The following day, I was determined we would ski down the valley by 10.30 at the latest after having summitted the Grand Ruine. However, a light breeze sprang up that morning and despite the temperatures being exactly the same, the snow was obstinately hard and scrapey, even at 10.30. At 10.45, it started to turn to spring and we had the most sublime ski down to the Refuge de l’Alpe d’Arene where, by midday people were sunbathing in shorts on the terrace. So the window was minutes wide yet shifted by an hour just with a light breeze.
Just recently in mid June, timing became the essence of success in a summer alpine context.
Darren and I have climbed together for many years, principally on snow and ice. The weather at the start of the week was warm and unstable and we had a 2 day window on the Wednesday and Thursday where it looked like we might get a couple of routes in. Walking in from the Jungfraujoch to the Mönchsjoch hut on the Tuesday afternoon, the snow was slushy and the cloud was down. Overnight it cleared and Wednesday dawned cool and clear. We were up and down the Mönch by 9.30 am and I was left agonising for the afternoon as to whether we should have bagged the Jungfrau while the weather lasted. But I felt it needed a day of consolidation to firm up the summit slopes so we rested up and kept our fingers crossed that the bad weather forecast for non the next day wouldn’t come in early.
A 3 am breakfast followed, and we were on top by 7 am as the first clouds started to roll in. ( As an aside, Ueli Steck was starting his 4000m Munro epic that day by climbing the Nollen Spur on the Mönch followed by the Jungfrau, so we can justly claim to have put in the track for the Swiss Machine ). The snow was perfect – hard and crunchy in the morning and not quite too soft for the final slopes of the descent back to the glacier. In this second case both days and hours played a crucial part in producing an enjoyable and safely managed day.
So take care with your timings and remember:
“You can never save time –you either use it usefully, or waste it. ”