3066

For three days, friends Steeve Fleury and Léonard Berner headed into the mountains to hike, sleep in a tent, eat fondue, and do all that great stuff you do in the mountains… but with one notable difference. They also took complete foil setups too.

Words & Photos: Valentin Rey
Translation: Jo-Anne Jones Lütjens


It’s still dark. I don’t really know what time it is. The air is freezing, but I feel nice and warm in my sleeping bag. There’s a strange noise against my tent, like a crackle. It must be snowing. I think about Steeve, asleep under the stars on a few planks of wood and I wonder if he took refuge in Léonard’s tent. These thoughts cross my night-blurred mind and I fall straight back to sleep. A few minutes or hours later, I hear a zip. “Wake up! You can see the Grande Dent de Vesivi covered in snow!”. With my eyes still closed I open my tent and peak outside. I can’t see anything. The fog blurs my vision. Our shelter is covered in a thin layer of snow. I feel like I’m on the other side of the world, in a lunar atmosphere. Yesterday, a thousand meters below, we were in the sun, sharing the beautiful scenery with dozens of tourists.

Now, a thousand meters higher and one night later, we are alone. Silence, fog, rock, snow and the cold are our sole company. Jon Viey wakes up next to me with small sleepy eyes. He hardly slept. He wasn’t expecting such a cold night and he finds it difficult getting out of his sleeping bag, better adapted to a summer night than to a high-altitude camp. Foils, flippers, and neoprene wetsuits are scattered around and covered in snow. The weather should improve over the next few hours and during breakfast we wait for the sun to pierce the clouds and warm us.

Finally, after a coffee, cold gives way to heat. Peaks appear in the place of fog. We swap our polar jackets for our wetsuits. Some ten meters above us, inside a crater, our objective awaits us. The reason we carried our back packs and equipment for hours. Up there, the red mountain rock, broken by the melting ice, contrasts with the flat, emerald-green surface of the lake. It’s a perfect vision and our excitement resonates in the Swiss Alps.

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We are thrilled to find water. But our biggest uncertainty is the water level of mountain lakes after the warmest and driest summer ever recorded. Our second fear is not being able to find a suitable launch spot for our first pump. However, a few rocks stick out of the water to allow Steeve and Léonard to push off and glide above the water. Léo goes first. Steeve follows, and the magic happens. They slide silently over a flat lake. All is still, serene, apart from two bodies surfing in the middle of the water. At an altitude of nearly 2880 meters, they prove the scale of the surrounding magnificence. The lake, the crater, Val d’Hérens, Dent Blanche, the Alps, and the peaceful glide of two foils.

On our first lake yesterday morning we didn’t have this intimacy. A dozen tourists and hikers were staring at us. Here we dance unobserved. We do one run after the other without limits. At this altitude you become short of breath and pumping is very demanding. One minute of foiling is equivalent to a 400-meter sprint. With every fall we are reminded of the freezing water temperature, adding just a bit more fatigue to our already tired muscles from our 1000 meter hike the previous day, bearing our twenty kilo backpacks.

An hour of pumping is enough. The cold seeps through, making our starts more and more difficult and our glides more and more unsteady. We return to base camp to gather our strength. We cannot quit here. Above the pass, above the ice, other lakes await us. This time we travel lightly. We start our ascension on the ridge of the moraine. The landscape becomes increasingly lunar. There is only basalt rock and ice. The Aiguilles Rouges rise above us at close to 3500 meters. Having climbed, we now overlook the surrounding valleys. Peaks and glaciers extend into the distance.

After walking for an hour, we reach a plateau, the old impoundment area of the glacier. A small murky lake stretches out above the valley. We are tempted to foil but decide to focus on the small lakes behind the Vouasson glacier. We continue to climb to the pass. The last part is particularly steep. The damp rocky ground explains the story of the glaciers and their retreat, for those who can read rocks.

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A few meters higher we arrive at the pass and it’s majestic, almost mysterious. The back of the white glacier stretches out in front of us, immersed in a moving mist. We look towards the north side of the pass. It’s late and the climb took longer than expected. Crevasses obstruct our access to the lakes. We decide to be reasonable and stop our ascent here, at an altitude of 3300 meters, foils on our backs, ice under our feet. We cannot reach our objective.

We’ll just have to surf the small lake that we passed below. Our new mission is to descend and reach the lake before the sun disappears behind the mountain. Without delay we get to the lake. First, we notice that its level seems low. Second, there’s nowhere to start from. We build a launch ourselves. We carry heavy stones to the lake shore and cover them with sand to stabilize them. We slip into our wetsuits and mount our foils. We only have a few minutes until the shadow of the mountain reaches across the lake.

Once again, Léonard goes first. The stack of stones seems solid, and the water level is sufficient. The lake is small, turns are sharp. There’s only enough room for the two of us. A few rough falls show the lack of water in the lake. Again, runs follow one after the other. It looks as if the foils are licking the tongue of the glacier. Everything happens in complete silence; however, the excitement is tangible. This lake was not part of our plan but we’re in the moment and it’s surreal, perfect. Never could we have imagined all this. The sun disappears slowly behind the mountains, the air cools down and the water is smoking. We are euphoric… the spirit of the lake is awake. The turns cut through the lake and water vapor. A few minutes later we are in the shade, within the freezing cold end of day in the mountains, and our last turns mark the end of our adventure.

We make a quick descent and arrive at our next basecamp by night. Julien Christe joins us along the way for our last night and brings with him fresh breakfast for the next morning. We turn the raclette machine on and this last meal marks the end of our expedition. We fall asleep and the spirit of the lake appears in our dreams. One more night in the frost and we’re back to civilisation, our heads full of the beauty of the place, our eyes packed with souvenirs to last us a lifetime. Pumping at 3066 metres, at the foot of the glacier, making camp with friends. Pumpfoil has opened a whole new field for us to explore. Will we return and attempt to reach those hidden lakes? We don’t know yet, but one thing is sure: they will continue to make us dream.    

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