Sunday, July 02, 2017

Uninspiring and really dangerous alpine conditions.

Another unwelcome heat wave hit the western Alps. The result is that all the snow has been stripped from the glaciers [there wasn't much anyway] The snow that glued all the rocks in place has melted, resulting in massive stone-fall issues. For example , the Gouter route on Mt Blanc is closed for business on the advice of the Préfet de la Haute Savoie: We are into new territory in the sense of alpine conditions in late June. Over the last 10 years the Alps have seen conditions similar to the present ones , BUT they have tended to be at the end of the season. Not at the beginning of the season. Anyway you can charge on blindly with your fixed agenda , pretending that the above letter is just scaremongering , or you can adapt your climbing aspirations. So bearing all this in mind Steve Woollard and I choose to climb long rock climbs which were made of solid rock and objectively safe. On Monday 26th June we drove up to the Emosson Dam and climbed the superb 10 pitch route the Acqua Concert. Tuesday 27th. The weather forecast suggested that this would be our last good day of weather for the week. We headed around to Verbier , drove through the town and then up through the Savoleyres pistes finally parking the Land Rover Defender at 2370 meters. From there it was half an hours walk to the Pierre Avoi where we climbed L'Arete. Once we arrived at the top Steve said that he thought, situationaly , it was one of the best climbs he had ever done. [Steve had done a lot of climbing!]
Wednesday 28th . The weather forecast was correct it rained and we agreed to take the day off. Thursday 29th The forecast was poor for Chamonix the temperature had plummeted . We had a good look at all the forecasts and it seemed that there was a possibility of clear weather in the morning , but only south of Aosta. So I scooped Steve up at 6.45am and we drove down to Arnad. We were at the foot of the route ,the famous and sought after, Bucce d"Arnancia. All was good apart from the fact that it was running with streaks of water which made it much much harder than we would have wanted it to be. At least the water in the cracks was warm. We walked off the top of the crag and stopped in the mystical village of Machaby at the Fort for a cappuccino. This proved to be a minor mistake because we got caught in the afternoon thunderstorm. Friday 30th . The overnight storms had put down unseasonable snow on the peaks around Chamonix. We drove through to Switzerland this time heading down the Rhone valley to Lavey Les Bains. Here there is the little known , but utterly spectacular pillar de la Pissechevre. Eight pitches of steep atmospheric climbing which culminates with the intimidatingly steep final pitch.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Mixed weather for the start of the summer alpine mountaineering season.

Brett and Sacha only had four days. The first two days were forecast to be very good. The forecast for the final two days was anything but. So if we were going to make the most of the good weather we needed to hit the ground running. In addition we were still very early in the season and a lot of the necessary infrastructure such as cable cars , mountain huts etc were all closed. On our first day we drove up to the Emosson Dam . We parked the car and headed of up the Aiguille Van.2578m. Being early in the season meant that there was still a lot of snow around. More than I had ever encountered on this route. The path up to the start of the climbing was buried and it made finding the start far from simple. Nevertheless Brett and Sacha climbed quickly . So quickly ,that when we arrived at the col between the two summits of the Aiguille Van I suggested that we might push on to the higher and more spectacular Grands Perrons.2578m. The most remote and sought after summit in the area. On the Saturday the plan was to get the 1st cable car up from the Italian side and ride the Skyway lift in order that we might attempt La Tour Ronde.3793m. Yet as we approached the start of the route it became blindingly obvious that this wasn't going to happen. Even this early in the season the route had lost its snow cover and was now a death trap full of falling rocks. So we had to resort to Plan B. We climbed the north west face of the Aiguille de Toule. 3534m, arriving on the summit just in time to see absolutely nothing. On the Sunday it was lashing it down. I looked at the weather maps in an attempt to find us some good weather. Surprisingly I found some good weather in the last place I expected. The Grand St Bernard. Normally if you are looking for bad weather you can be sure to find it at the Grand St Bernard , but apparently not on the 4th of June. so that is where we headed and sure enough the weather was good. We climbed Mt Fourchon,2902m wishing we had skis with us as there was plenty of snow . We arrived on the summit just as the mist came in and once again we saw absolutely nothing. On the descent we made good use of the snow and practiced Ice axe arrests. An essential skill for any would be mountaineer. We practiced the entire set of scenarios , sliding feet first, head first , on your back head first. On the Monday it continued to rain in Chamonix. We decided on a technical day: Tricks of the trade -climbing up ropes using prussiks rope-man etc. In the afternoon it stopped raining so we went to the crag in Les Houches and completed some multiple Rappels and looked at what was necessary to do this safely in the Alps. Brett and Sacha finished up by leading some of the routes in their big alpine boots.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

A Scottish Climbing Road Trip

Thursday 18th May. I left Chamonix at 7.00hrs to fly Luton inorder to meet Nick Wilkinson and set off for Glencoe at 13hrs. We then got to know each other while sitting in a traffic jam on the M1 in torrential rain. We crawled past Birmingham and it stopped raining. Almost immediately we get stuck in another traffic jam on the M6 between Stoke and Knutsford. Eventually it cleared and we finally made it to our Air B&B in Glencoe at about 22.30hrs. Like so many of the very best trips they get off to a less than auspicious start. A long day. Friday 19th. We leave the Air B&B at 7.30 say good bye to our bemused host Ashley and head in the direction of the Great Ridge on Garbh Bhienn. The weather was looking good until we parked up. As we packed up our climbing gear it started to rain. We walked into the remote corrie with the clouds swirling around the top of the ridge and limiting our view. I tried to remember the way , but it was 30 years since I had last been here and my memory proved unreliable. As we stumbled about trying to find the best line the weather started to improve considerably and this is why we probably found the ridge. The climbing was excellent on good solid grippy gneiss. We summitted at about 14.00hrs. We then traversed the other summit of Garbh Bhienn before descending the very long broad ridge back to the car, where I jumped in the river in order to cool off. It had been a long hard but ultimately satisfying day. The question now was what to do tomorrow? A look at the weather forecast suggested that Fort William was not the place to be if climbing in the dry was to be the goal- yet Lochinver might well be. So we drove through Fort William and across the Great Glen and along the shores of Loch Ness. The immediate challenge was to find some where to stay. Nick phoned a friend for some info. Conveniently Nicks friend was a Hotel Inspector for the Highland and Islands tourist board. His suggestion was the Coul House in Contin. A beautiful country house set in its own impressive gardens. We managed to get a room and we arrived at 19.00 hrs for beer on the terrace over looking the long sweeping lawns. Saturday 20th. A very competent full Scottish breakfast,set us up for the drive to Lochinver. We were now on North Coast 500 road route - Fantastic roads that have been hijacked and branded as the ultimate road trip. [ Admittedly with some justification] We passed old classic cars , people on bikes, posers in Super cars, serious looking Germans on motor bikes and even some very determined character who was walking the route. Our climb for the day was to be the iconic Old Man of Stoer. The weather was perfect. We parked the car at the Stoer lighthouse and were greeted by the very enthusiastic proprietress of the tea shack who was full of use full information about the sea stack. The key information was that we would not need to swim to the stack because some climbers had just set up a Tyrolean rope and left it in place. Other information she shared with us was that there were killer whales in the area. Why this was deemed pertinent to an ascent of the Old Man remains a mystery unless they jumped out of the sea and snatched us from the Tyrolean rope. We walked across the headland to the Old Man of Stoer in about an hour. Once I had reminded myself where the descent went , we scrambled down to the foot of the Stack and the Tyrolean. I suppose we should have been grateful that someone had been kind enough to fix up and leave the rope in place, but it was a very stretchy rope attached by not the greatest anchors. Still it was better than swimming.
This was to be my first climb of the 2017 season. It was magnificent although I found it awkward. We climbed the Stoer in 4 pitches and the rappelled off in one long 50 meter length.
We then retraced our steps and arrived back at he car. Tucked under the rear wiper was a note and two chocolate bars from Leigh who run the Tea Caravan. Under the windscreen wiper was another note from Alan. Alan had been sitting on the promontory opposite the Stoer and had taken some photos of me and Nick while we climbed. He left his address so that we we could get in contact and get the photos. What next ? The forecast for tomorrow was poor. Scottish Poor , which generally means copious amounts of rain. Yet the forecast the day after suggested good weather, particularly good in the Orkneys. So we set off following the North 500 route. We passed the walker who was making steady progress. Yet due to the popularity of the route we couldn't find any where to stay. The default position was camping in Scourie. We eat in the excellent Scourie Hotel. During the night it rained. Sunday 21st. We burst out of our tents and made a run for breakfast at the Scourie Hotel through lashing rain. We then returned to pack up the tents and head north. We passed the walker... plus various classic cars that were having issues with the rain getting in their electrics. We drove North through thick mist where we saw very little. We stopped for a coffee at a road side cafe. The proprietor wasn't particularly happy with the economic boom of the North 500 . He grumbled that his septic tank couldn't cope with the increase in tourism. Next we tried to stop for a bite of lunch. The cafe car park was full of top end Porche GT3's. No tables in the cafe. I had thought the whole point of having one of these cars was that they were exclusive. Generally you don't pay upwards of £150k to find 3 of them in the same car park in the far north of Scotland. Anyway we arrived in a very wet Thurso at about 14.00 hrs. The issue was the ferry to Stromness wasn't untill 19.00hrs. What to do ? We parked up and I went to sleep in the car , Nick went for an explore . 10 minutes later he was back. Nick did then save the afternoon by finding the Tempest Cafe which was an oasis of pleasantness in what other wise is a somewhat underwhelming town. Great fish and chips on the Ferry and then a magical arrival in Stromness as the weather started to clear. Half an hours drive and we arrived at our apartment which we had pre booked via booking .com. The Ayres Hotel. 22.30 and the sun was only just setting over the Kirkwall harbour. Monday 22nd. A beautiful day. After another full Scottish breakfast we drove to the Houton Ferry terminal.
We were not in a particular hurry because we needed the Old man of Hoy to dry out after yesterdays torrential rain, plus with almost 24 hours day light we could choose the optimum weather conditions to attempt the climb. We parked a Ratwick Bay and took the steep climb over the headland towards the Old Man.
The weather was utterly beautiful. We scrambled down to the base of the route. There were a couple of climbers way ahead of us. They had left their Golden Retriever at the foot of the route. This was a good effort on the part of the dog because the scramble to the foot of the route is not without its "moments' We geared up and just as I started up the first pitch it started to rain. The Old Man is intimidating enough without rain to contend with.
I decided to gamble on it being a shower and set off up the 1st pitch. It stopped raining. The second pitch is the crux. A steep off width crack. This was my second climb of the year. The 3rd and 4th pitches are much more straight forward although the objective danger of being spewed on by nesting Fulmas is very real. The final pitch is as good a pitch as you will find anywhere in the world. Straight up a right angle corner and as you get to the top there is a split in the rock which allows you to see right through the Sea Stack and out to sea. Nick lead this final pitch.
We did not spend long on the summit because it was very windy and cold. Three rappels are necessary to get off the Stack. The last one being 60 meters. The majority of it being negotiated hanging like a spider. A descent that will last in the memory a very long time.
We retraced our steps back to the car at Ratwick Bay. It was then a 20 mile drive to the Stromabank Hotel. The only vehicle we passed was a farmer on his quad bike who, judging by his enthusiastic waving, passing a car was the high light of his day. The Hotel was wonderfully welcoming and we had an excellent meal and several celebratory beers. Tuesday 23rd. 6.00hrs Another full Scottish breakfast. [This was the best so far]. The reason for the early start was that we needed to get the ferry from Hoy back to mainland Orkney. Not many tourists , nor cars: We then took the 11.00am ferry back to mainland Scotland. The weather was still very wet on the West Coast but less wet on the East Coast. We identified another sea stack the Old Man of Wick. The guide book highly recommended it. The reality was different. The approach was through a housing estate which was like a scene from Trainspotting. Followed by a rappel over a crumbling zawn. The only anchor was 20 meters away and was a dubious fence post. Added to which it was on the far side of the path. Further it was starting to rain. In no way that I could see was this a good idea. We contented our selves with some photos and then drove south to Inverness through now driving rain.
We managed to hook up with my friend and fellow Mountain Guide Jonathan Preston , and he was very kind enough to put us up at his house. Wednesday 24th. The forecast for Logie Head near Cullen was perfect. We headed there and climbed on the sea cliffs watched by the locals.
We finished climbing around 15.30 and headed south down the A9. It started to rain. Our plan was to climb in Dunkeld the following day. We stayed in the Dunkeld House Hotel. A Hotel which was built to host weddings and its guests. It was set in beautiful grounds. Rock climbers were certainly not its core clientele. Thursday 25th. Our final full Scottish breakfast proved to be a bit too much. I found the climbing hard for its grade at Dunkeld. May be it was the breakfast or may be I was getting quite tired, or may be it was just too hot? Anyway it wrapped up an incredible trip, where apart from a few spots of rain we managed to not get wet once.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Thinking of climbing Mt Blanc this summer? Guided Ascents of Mt Blanc: What they Don't tell you.You need to know this.

Far too many people who want to climb Mont Blanc are still under the impression that climbing it is just a long walk up a “big hill.“ To quote the classic line from Gaston Rébuffat book “100 finest climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif. “ “requires the ability to walk in crampons.” This must go down as one of the all time understatements in mountaineering literature. The majority of people who sign up to a guided ascent of Mt Blanc do not understand that in less than optimum conditions it is incredibly dangerous. Or they use the defence mechanism “cognitive dissonance.” This where someone knows full well its dangerous but persuades them selves [and others] that accidents only happen to other people. Rébuffat’s book was published in 1973. Since then only Donald Trump has not seen the effect of global warming. In the height of the summer attempting to climb Mt Blanc is often just too dangerous to contemplate because perma frost which glues everything together has melted which causes huge stone fall and serac collapses. Below is a personal anecdote which demonstrates how serious the Chamonix Mountain Rescue take the issue. In September 2016 I was travelling up the Italian cable car the “Sky Way.” It leads up into the Vallee Blanche. The cable car was packed with members of the mountain rescue teams from Italy Switzerland and France. It was a training day where the rescue teams from three countries could share ideas , develop new rescue techniques and make sure they had a better understanding of how they might work better together. The teams loaded boxes of equipment , stretchers , ropes winches , ice screws , pulleys ,giant stakes , and loads of other stuff that I found fascinating. Everyone squashed into the cable car , rather like you get squashed into the London Tube at rush hour. I found my self next to Captain Patrice Ribbs, the chief of the Chamonix Mountain Rescue the Peloton Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne. [The PGHM] He is a fellow Mountain Guide [and I know him because we both had children at the same school in Chamonix.] Captain Ribbs started to explain a little more about what they were doing. I was particularly intrigued by the big pile of plastic boxes piled up in front of us . I asked him what was in the boxes? “Chain saws“ was his dead pan answer clearly enjoying the look of confusion on my face. He went on to explain that they were testing the relative efficiency of 2 stroke chain-saws and electric chain-saws. Apparently petrol chain saws don't work very well above 3000 meters and in confined areas they give off noxious fumes. They were going to be testing new Husqvarna lithium battery powered versions . Still I wasn't any wiser , I have had considerable experience of using chain saws , but there had always been a tree involved. As far as I was still aware there were no trees growing on glaciers. No, these chain saws were not for cutting down trees but were for slicing through avalanche debris. Specifically the avalanche debris which frequently devastates the path up Mt Blanc. The traverse of Mt Blanc from the col du Midi is very prone to avalanche and serac collapse [falling ice cliffs] Last summer alone two Mountain Guides who were colleagues of mine were killed , one by an avalanche and one by a serac collapse. On 12th July 2012 9 climbers were killed in one massive avalanche on the slopes of Mt Maudit as they attempted to climb Mt Blanc. The PGHM were tasked with trying to dig out the victims , they found that normal shovels were useless and they were forced to cut the snow and ice into blocks using chain saws in order to move it. It was while sectioning the ice debris into blocks that Captain Ribbs spotted a leg sticking out of the avalanche . He then saw that the leg was moving and called to his team mates to help him move the blocks frantically by hand. They found a woman , still alive and although she had considerable injuries these were not thought to be life threatening. Instead she was in a total state of shock. As she had laid trapped in the ice unable to move she saw the chain saw pass in front of her face over her chest over her arms over her neck not once but several times. It is now the advice of PGHM that everyone attempting Mt Blanc via the traverse of the 3 Mt Blancs should wear an avalanche transceiver. The primary use of the transceiver is to detect the victims body in as short a possible time , and here’s the point , so that the rescuers are in the danger zone for the shortest possible time. It is not to be used in the conventional manner which is to find someone quickly before they suffocate under the snow. Its sort of a deal: If you get hit by a serac and killed and your wearing an avalanche transceiver then the PGHM are more likely to return an entire corpse rather than one quartered by a Husqvarna. According to Captain Ribbs the woman he found made the very reasonable observation that making the choice between being buried alive or being cut to bits by a chain saw was not the experience she thought she had signed up to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ski traverse of the iconic col de la Grand Casse and unforgettable smell of ‘Eau de Drying Room pour Homme’

Charles Sherwood , Charles son Tim and Charles brother Simon arrived in Chamonix to be greeted by perfect weather. Charles has ski toured all over the Alps with me over the last 25 years. Simon and Tim had not. They were both good skiers but ski touring was new to them. The challenge was to find somewhere Charles had never been plus somewhere that was suitable for an introduction to the sport. We started with a familiarization day at Le Tour. Apparently according to Charles this was the first place Tim had ever skied, Tim reasonably couldn't remember. Either way it seemed like a suitable place to start his ski touring career. We skied off-piste so we could get use to the new skis and boots and then got to grips with the skins by making an ascent of the Tete de Balme, modest but ideal training. The tomb stone on the summit has an S on one side and a F on the other, hence the passport. The next day we drove around to the Vanoise, to the town of Pralognan. The plan was to take the two chair lifts out of the village and then follow the valley up to the Col de la Vanoise Refuge. Regular readers of the Blog will probably have an inkling "the plan' was about to go awry: The lifts had closed due to lack of the essential ingredient. The lift company had not thought it necessary to update their website with this somewhat critical information. No one skis [or for that matter does anything] in France to enjoy its customer care. There was still a cable car going up another hill but it wasn't in the direction we wanted, but it would at least gain us some height. We took it. At the top there was some snow . It gave us approximately 15 seconds skiing Before we were walking again: Not the start I would have wanted as the aim was to get the newbies enthusiastic about ski touring. They were however un phased and thought it was a beautiful walk [which I suppose it was.] Eventually after about 40 minutes we arrived at the snow line and could put our skis on our feet and skin up the beautiful wild remote valley.
After about two and a half hours we arrived at the Refuge;
The weather was turning. The next morning we awoke to crap weather. I decided that we should try and go out and do something although what exactly, I wasn't very sure. I looked out at a group who were already heading out. I was hardly rushing to follow them.
After breakfast we decided that we better go out and see if we could at least get some exercise. As we were putting our boots on the earlier group returned looking like something from Napolean's retreat from Moscow. Our plan was to go and see if we could climb the Pointe de la Réchasse. We headed out and as we dropped down from the col the weather did clear a little so we carried on.
With rather more use of the map and compass than I would have wanted I think we eventually arrived on the summit. A very respectable 3212 meters.
Then something very good happened. As we skied down we moved below the cloud base and we could see. What is more we found some very good fresh snow and some exceptional pitches of skiing all the way back to the Refuge.
Easter Monday 17th April dawned clear. However we set off before dawn because it was important to get away while everything was still frozen in place. So it was skiing with head torches.
We also got to see our summit of yesterday looking quite different:
Today was to be the traverse of the col de la Grande Casse, one of the alps best ski touring days. We skinned up the long glacier where eventually it becomes to steep to continue on skis and it is necessary to climb with the skis strapped to the rucksack. Eventually we arrived on the col where the views over to Tignes were breathtaking.
From this point it is skiing all the way until the snow runs out. The route takes a high traverse which it at its end becomes why a high traverse is so critical.
Turn left too soon and you will end up bouncing over and down some fairly hefty seracs. Possibly a mistake you might only ever make once. What followed was a good 1000 meters of vertical descent on perfect spring snow. Eventually the snow ran out and we had to walk for about an hour, but that was a small price to pay.
A few days later Simon sent an email which summed up what he thought of his introduction to ski touring here it is: Charles and Mark I am back home and have settled down after a couple of rushed business meetings. Now is the time to think and thank. What a special trip and experience. It is hard to find a way to express my gratitude without it just ending up as a list of superlatives. Yet again my big bro’ has introduced me to a new world, something completely different. And yet again, I have loved it. I was quite worried before the trip as to whether my tired ageing overweight body would be up to Charles’ idea of a break - i.e. extreme physical punishment. Of course, there were moments of hard work, but there were many more moments of quiet bliss. It seems surreal looking back. Particularly memorable moments: Day 1: We go under a piste rope and “Welcome to France”. Dinner with the delightful Seaton family with the energiser bunny that is Sophie beside me to laugh with (have I convinced her to help the cows by eating them?). Day 2: The chair lift does not work so we do that amazing walk across the slopes with skis on our backs, all with glorious views and sunshine. Night one amidst the unforgettable smell of ‘Eau de Drying Room pour Homme’, and endless alarms. Day 3: One of my favourites as we venture out in to what I call a storm, but to Mark is slightly overcast. I thought the white out was wonderful. There is a special beauty and comfort in being wrapped in that white blanket. And the hypnotic slush-slush motion of the skis. Day 4: Heading out of the refuge with torches on! My first time night skiing. That beautiful climb up to the col with the moon at our backs and the sun icing the top of the mountain range behind. Then arriving at the top in the expectation of a howling gale but finding only beautiful views. And let me not forget that I was the only one who did NOT FALL!! (although I made up for it the day earlier). I have never had such an enjoyable experience in one pair of underwear. Unforgettable, unforgettable. Thank you so much - both of you - for allowing me to have a glimpse of your world. Simon Simon M C Sherwood