The Blog

The Untold Tale of The Saanerslochgrat Expedition

In the vastness of Bernese Oberland, a great white-out falls. I push forward, over a high mound through knee-deep snow towards my ice cube for the evening. And to bed.

My snow boots crunch in the powder and I struggle to clear my throat through the wheeziness and coughing. I can feel my lungs working in full; they expand easily enough, but have difficulty relaxing, compressing that quick intake of Alpine air. It's like a brain freeze, but deep into my sides.

Such is the stifling cold that what emerges from my throat: the spit, air and gasps of an unfit explorer, is nothing but a mist by the time it passes my lips and exits my mouth.

The 3000m high mountain peaks that surround me in this part of the Swiss Alps: Saanerslochgrat, are now out of view entirely. Their jagged, dragon-teeth appearance hidden by nature's haze and dandruff. An evening fog means I can barely distinguish my mitted hand in front of my face.

Following my guide we trudge towards the igloo. My breathing continues to deepen until it eventually reaches a crescendo in the form of a splatter. It's rough but clears my throat, and allows me to breathe through my mouth and nostrils again.

I can feel the condensation on my beard and the falling snot from my dripping nose. I lick my lips to stop them cracking, but as soon as my tongue pokes through it becomes dry, like a frozen giblet. At any minute, I thought, I could catch the Black-Hairy-Tongue Disease.

They never tell you about the Black-Hairy-Tongue Disease. It's enough to frighten even the most steadfast polar navigator. You know when you leave a bag of carrots in the bottom draw of the fridge, but they're somewhere towards the back, and press against the frozen plastic, causing spiky icicles to form and consume the packaging? Well, it's like that, only you can't run your tongue under warm water to restore.

I manage to avoid such a dark tongue tragedy. That's not to say I wasn't close to turning into a Black-Mouthed monster, I was. Nature is never choosy. She's mean and random in her pickings of affliction, claiming tongues, fingers, toes and layers of skin from the nose. Hiking up to Saanerslochgrat I was lucky, but there was still the descent.

The igloo was highlighted by a noise at first; the soft, steady buzz of a small generator. The mist was pulled apart by the generated light, and a hazy apricot glow encapsulated the frozen dome.

Inside, a tunnel leads to the core of the frozen habitat. Branching off to the left are breakaway rooms. Raised platforms are covered in animal skins and sleeping bags. The rooms are larger than I'd expected, each one equipped with a glowing red bulb, but no heat is generated. A lie-in here and your eyeballs would freeze.

During the night, the cold grips my vitals and cracks my lips. Outside it's minus 12°.

I'm told that it's best to capitalise on every aspect of available warmth during the night: silk-lined sleeping bag, waterproof clothes, fleece-balaclava and skins, but once evening has passed, to rise and embrace; jog on the spot, star-jumps, press-ups and other morning glories that send blood to the necessary regions.

Through a backdoor dugout covered by a sheath of reindeer skin, is a small sauna-shed and Jacuzzi. I'm encouraged to partake and walk out, slowly, across the ice to the temptation of warmth.

I step out with more than an ounce of trepidation. My naked legs sting and my nipples transform into led pellets. Flick a nipple post-freeze, and the frigid pellet, like unboiled rice, would snap from your breast as if splitting a Twiglet.

The laces of my snow boots drag and sag in the snowy sludge (left wet, by morning they have frozen and are dipped into hot tea in order to regenerate).

The tip of my middle finger on my left-hand remains wet and the entire hand is left outside of my sleeping bag during night, minus its glove. All scout training and tutor advice is forgotten, and by morning, the tip of my unfortunate digit had hardened, claimed by the ice ghosts; splitting, stiffening, before eventually scabbing. Frostbite became my Alpine war wound.

Dipping my finger into a mug of hot tea and wrapping a plaster around seemed epic at the time. Is this what Scott went through? Plastered and gloved, the pain quickly subsides and later (within 6 weeks), the scab has fallen and the finger appears unaffected. If it wasn't for a photograph of a pink-tipped finger crinkled from damp, no one would be the wiser.

One of the greatest concerns is frostbite. Not nose, fingers or toes, these are avoidable by keeping dry and wrapped up. It's the men who need to take greater care to avoid gefrorene willy (frozen willy). It's something that should be avoidable, but you'd be surprised. The term Willy Warmer has never been more appropriate.

I hear tales of ice-poles and frozen milky-bars in pants; dicksickles and penis' in shock, blistered and blackened from exposure. As föhn winds rage and temperatures drop, penis' shrink and curl tighter against salopettes.

During the long expedition to the igloo, I had avoided several possible nasty afflictions, and a crusted finger-tip became my only affliction. Thus, I entered the company of Shackleton and Fiennes, returning home with snow-storm-stories and a brush with the ice ghosts.

There had been incline hiking through darkness and struggles through high snow and ice; a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold, and worst of all, all I had on my iPod was Lighthouse Family.

There had been a nasty stitch and what looked like old custard projecting from my mouth after each struggled cough in the Saanerslochgrat air. The wheezing, short-winded nature of my incline and a frozen tongue. But I triumphed against nature, and the ice ghosts will have to wait again to have another crack at me.