Monday, June 04, 2018

North Face of the Hochfeiler 3509m

What were once classic snow and ice routes which were traditionally climbed in the summer are now routes that can only feasibly be climbed in the spring because it is just too hot in the summer. Recently there has been a new guide book published dedicated to the alps classic snow and ice routes in which it recommends that they are attempted in the spring. In many cases the book also suggests skis are useful for the approach and the descent , at the time of year when the routes will be in condition. With this in mind Charles Sherwood and I headed for Austria to attempt a couple of Austria's famous ice climbs. We decided to start with the north face of the Hochfeiler, the classic route of the Zillertal alps. With the car loaded up with every conceivable bit of kit from skis to full bivouac equipment we left Chamonix and headed through the Mt Blanc tunnel aiming to circumnavigate the alps by passing south of them. It was only when we saw the signs for the outskirts of Venice that we clocked we had missed the turning for Verona and the Brenner Pass. Eventually we got back on track and found our way in to the remote Val di Vizze where you are actually in Italy , but everything is Austrian in out look. All the people are much more comfortable speaking German than Italian and the whole area is rather confusing. Fundamentally the area is the South Tyrol and independent area inside Italy. They do seem to have some issues which they are not shy at voicing:
It being May and therefore out of season , everything was looking ominously shut and so it was with some relief that we found a delightful hotel that was open and they could feed us. We stayed at the Pfitscherhof Albergo [or Gasthof].
Once we were checked in we decided we should do some preliminary scouting of the road to the head of the valley. We duly drove up the road which suddenly turned from tarmac to dirt. Eventually at about an altitude of 2000 meters it was blocked by snow. The up shot of this was that I was required to make a "three-point turn" on a crumbling narrow track which would have been an ideal platform to execute a BASE Jump into the void below. Nevertheless our pre dinner excursion had revealed the sign to the bivouac hut - a easy two and a half hours walk. Something to look forward tomorrow.
We decided to take skis because after all we could easily lug them up to the hut because it was only 2 hours 10 minutes. After walking for 2 hours 10 minutes there was no sign of the hut. It was only after about fives hours that we collapsed outside the "Gunther Messner Biwak Hut."
Still we were here now and the bivouac hut was clean and would be very comfortable for the two of us. We sat around , drank some tea and soaked up the beautiful surroundings. By bed time there were about 20 people attempting to squeeze into the seven free beds. Needless to say some of the people slept outside. Fortunately breakfast was at 3.00am and we were a way soon after. At least our decision to bring skis was not as strange as we had feared the previous day when we were stomping through cow- packs. All the local teams were on skis [apart from a sad snow boarder]. We put the skis on about 100 meters from the Hut and climbed up to the col which is also the Austrian border. We then had to strap the skis on our rucksacks put crampons on and then loose all the height we had just gained as we descended a steep gulley. At its foot we then reverted back to skinning . This was laborious as we had to negotiate a couple of kilometers of frozen avalanche debris. Then over another tricky col.
Not before time we arrived at the foot of the face. It had taken four hours. We once again strapped the skis to our rucksacks and fixed crampons on, roped up and started the climb up the north face. I have to say this was the easiest north face I think I have ever climbed. It was in perfect condition and the groups in front of us had provided a stair case of bucket steps. We climbed the actual face in about an hour. Fifteen minutes later after climbing a delightful summit ridge we were on the summit of the Hochfeiler. The weather and view was very good. In front of us on the opposite side of the valley was the peak called the Gross Moseler. I first climbed this when I was 16. At 17 I climbed its north face. An Ice climb that is no longer exists. I peered down the normal route . The skiing looked fantastic. Perfect spring snow. The only slight glitch was the 50/55 degree slope which gave assess to the fantastic skiing. Although intimidating the run out looked survivable and so we elected to ski it.
The skis had undoubtedly been useful for the ascent , but the descent looked mouth watering. The guide book suggested that with enough snow it was possible to ski down to around 2000m. Giving only an hours walk to the road head. There was enough snow and the spring snow gave us perfect, skiing. Yet it would have helped if I had read the next paragraph more carefully , because the guide book went on to say that if you choose this option you will end up at the foot of an impassible gorge. [Why mention it as an option when it is anything but?] The only escape will be to walk back up the hill side to find the path. This proved to be an unwelcome 300m slog , especially up near vertical grass and searing heat all while carrying skis. Yet we did reach the path. By the time we got back to the car we had been on the go for 12 hours. We returned to the delightful Pfitscherhof Gastof where the beer was very welcome and we could discuss the next part of our Austrian Odyssey.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Winter Round Up

This last winter sort of swamped me and it became difficult to Guide, to be continually clearing snow and be thinking about writing a Blog. If all the precipitation had actually fallen as snow , it is reasonable to think that we would be still clearing it now. In fact it is still necessary to climb over mountains of old avalanche debris on the daily dog walk. Instead we had massive fluctuations of temperature where we would get huge dumps of snow followed the next day by torrential rain. In late February Catherine Lewis , Lucy-Kate Hunt and Bella Noakes and I went to Arolla . This coincided with a plunge in the temperature . It dropped to an astonishing -30c. Yet the weather was perfect and the whole scene was magical. They made a short video which encapsulates the trip. In March the weather was always unstable. This gave great snow , but it was unpredictable and there was was plenty of re-planning because of the inherent danger of choosing the wrong avalanche fraught destination. My second trip of the year to the Gd St Bernard Monastery was an example of this constant change of plan, although we usually had great skiing outcome.
The theme of unstable weather with lots of snow continued through March. A few trips where we had intended to go hut to hut ski touring had to be rearranged, with day tours and off piste skiing. There were days of perfect blues skies and then the next day skiing in the trees. One particularly special day was when Sophie joined the team of Peter and Glen for a day in La Thuile.
There were classic day tours in the Aiguille Rouge. Perhaps the stand out day was the traverse from La Flegere to Plateau d"Assey which I made with John Young on his yearly skiing week with me.
Over Easter Charles, Tabatha and Tim Sherwood and I headed to the Vanoise in order to attempt the Tour de Vanoise. We should have known something was not quite right when we were able to park the car right outside the lift office, in Brides Les Bains. Despite it was a beautiful mild day in Brides , in Val Thorens it was blowing over a 100kph. Although we went to have a look it was very apparent that we were not going to be able to go with plan A. The wind was indeed awful. Plan B involved driving around to Pralognan and ascending the very long way up to the Roche de la Peche Refuge, which is more like a hotel than a refuge. We spent two nights there and by way of a big consolation we were rewarded with some world class skiing. But we had to earn it ! .
Next trip with Reuben and Fiona Berg was four days of off piste skiing . The weather was again all over the place, generally lots of snow in Italy and poor foehn weather in Chamonix. We had two snowy days in Courmayeur and one in La Thuile. Not sure what I would do without the Mt Blanc tunnels quick access to reliable powder snow.
The rest of April was taken up with two Chamonix - Zermatt High Level Routes. The first was with Michael Ian and Grant. Michael was a returning client, whom I climbed and skied with over 25 years ago. We set off in fairly horrible weather and it continued like that for most of the trip. The first day was completed in zero visibility and some very difficult navigating on the Le Tour glacier. We had one particularly brutal day form the Dix Hut to the Nacamuli Hut in zero visibility high winds and no track. We were on our own breaking trail in knee deep snow for 90% of the day. This big push did allow us to get into position for the final section into Zermatt and take advantage of the small weather window and ski all the way into Zermatt just as the weather completely broke.
After the interlude of Musilac music festival coming to Chamonix, [which although deemed a success by the town did have the effect of clogging the whole of Chamonix up for nearly a week] I headed off on another Haute Route , this time with Matt Rob and Chris. This time we set off in glorious sun shine. This had the effect of frying everyone as the heat was intense.
The team got to the Albert 1er Hut and claimed it was the hardest hottest thing that had ever done in their lives. Matt wasnt helped by having a stinking cold. They did concede after a few reviving beers that the sun set from the hut was a good as view as you will ever see :
The weather continued to be good , especially from the Mont Fort to the Prafleuri Hut.
Yet the forecast was not good. On our penultimate day we climbed the Pigne d'Arolla and by the time we got to the summit the cloud had rolled in and the wind had picked up. The forecast was poor. We decided to ski down to Arolla to finish in the village. This involved skiing through the difficult steep section section above the Vignettes. It is very helpful to have good visibility. Although this was a sensible decision , at the time we did not know quite how sensible this was. A few hours later the area witnessed one of its worse catastrophes in living memory when two groups got caught in a terrible storm. The lead Guide fell over the cliff and was killed. The groups were unable to navigate to the Vignettes hut. Trapped and pinned down by the weather and only ten minutes from safety of the Hut seven of them died of cold. At the time we knew nothing off this tragedy and we only learned of it the day after. May arrived and with all the ski lifts closed , but still stacks of snow around Peter Folkman and I headed to the Gd St Bernard Monastery for a final ski tour of the season. The weather was fantastic. There was hardly anyone around and the sense of solitude made for a great experience

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Returning from the Dark Side

Sacha Kamp "was" a snow boarder and I very good one at that . After all he had lived in Chamonix and spent a lot of time in the mountains. He had even bought a split-board and done lots of touring on his split-board . May be this is where he saw the inherent problem with the split-board , there is no doubt that converting it from up hill mode to surf mode , is in less than perfect weather rather like pulling your own teeth out. So Sacha decided he should ditch his board and come ski touring. Sacha is an extraordinarily fast learner. We started our four days together at Le Tour , where the snow was fantastic. I showed Sacha how best to ski off-piste which he understood immediately and then we were off ! We skied over to Switzerland and were able to take in the fabulous views up the Rhone valley and also see what progress they were making in clearing the land slide on the Col Forclaz. The answer is Fuck All.
On the Sunday we headed off up to the Col Crochue. The conditions were so good that it was possible to skin all the way up to the col, where normally it is necessary to boot pack up the final section with the skis strapped on your rucksack. On the far side the snow was excellent.
We decided that the classic Col Berard part of the tour was not going to exercise us enough and so we elected to pass by the Breche du Berard.
This proved to be a good choice because we only saw two other people. On the Monday we headed to Combloux where we climbed the Petit Croisse Baulet. Unfortunately this was not for the view. Yet the quality of the snow on the descent down to Giettaz was very good . The forecast was better than it had been predicted to be and so at the last moment we decided to head into the Vallee Blanche. The intention was to skin up to the Italian side and ski the combe de la Vierge. Yet the cloud was billowing up and over from Italy . Plus it was very windy and the snow was very difficult to ski because it had an unmanageable wind crust. All in all we decided to content ourselves with a straight run down the route.
Finally the Mer de Glace gave us some unique entertainment by skiing down the central crevasse which in the summer takes the main river which dives into the glacier at the famous hole called the "Moulins." [Mill]

Monday, February 05, 2018

Bad snow good snow

It doesn't really matter if you have a base of 10 meters of snow or a base of 1 meter of snow if its all rock hard and icy. Your going to get fairly indifferent off-piste skiing conditions. Well we had loads of snow and at the beginning of the week and it was all bullet hard. Fiona and Reuben and I headed for Les Contamines where the weather was beautiful although there was evidence of some significant avalanches on the south facing slopes. The snow had subsequently frozen leaving a surface less than great for skiing on.
Wednesday we skied at Le Tour . The skiing was good , but still the snow was hard packed. Thursday everything changed - It snowed heavily all day. When its snowing you need trees so that you have definition. Chamonix doesn't have any decent off-piste tree skiing so we headed for St Gervais which does. The skiing was wonderfully varied with the obligatory stream to negotiate and some thigh deep powder. Lunch was good too. There are so many great place to eat in St Gervais.
On the Friday . Everything came together. We were blessed with a cold clear day fresh snow and no wind . We skied at Flegere and had one of those good as it gets days .

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Excess Boys 2018

Each year they come back and there is always the discussion of how long we have actually been skiing together. It seems that the core group have been back for 27 years which is a scarily long time. Mind you there are always new recruits to the group. This year the Excess Boys turned up with another candidate. A rather secretive chap who never revealed his real name. He clearly had had an interesting life. I learned that he had been the body double for Pierce Brosnan in the iconic bungee jump off the Emosson Dam in the James Bond film "Golden Eye," [not the actual jump but the Computer Generated Images, because he was the same height as Pierce.] Currently employed by the London Metropolitan Police he had recently been moved to a desk job in preparation for his imminent retirement from the Elite Police Sniper Team. This, I was told, is part of the dedicated hostage & siege unit which deals with Kidnappings and hostage taking. I learnt that the team deal with over 300 incidents a year and have the availability of six helicopters to rush them about London. It is truly quite remarkable the different people I meet through my job as a Mountain Guide. Off course the rest of the group was made up of more ordinary individuals , Chris, James, Adam, Kevin , Steve and Pete. We headed up to Le Tour , where the skiing was very good.
I also judged it was important to give everyone a recap on the use of avalanche transceivers, because even ex members of the Royal Marine Commandos sometimes need a recap. We manged to find a beautiful place to practice searching for buried transceivers. We even had the back drop of the famous Dam which you can just see in the background.
Such was the snow depth this season , we were able to ski in areas we had never previously visited and we got into some spectacular situations.
All in all the scene was very special
On the Sunday we all met at Les Grande Montets cable car station . I say all, yet we were a man down . Our James Bond extra, Police Sniper , ex mountain warfare Commando felt that the proposed days itinerary skiing amongst the seracs and crevasses of the Argentiere glacier was all a bit ordinary. Instead he decided he would be better off honing his telemark skiing technique on his own. The rest of the group may not have his killer instincts but they are as tough as nails; Faced with a queue for the top cable car at Les Grands Montets they elected to skin up instead of waiting in line with the rest of the world. This is either crazy or wonderful depending on your point of view. Their effort was rewarded because the snow conditions were such that we were able to make a high traverse through the seracs on the glacier des Rognons. If there is a more spectacular place to ski , then I haven't seen it.
The run then finishes with a ski under the North Face of Les Doites before skiing down onto the Argentiere glacier.
We then had a bit of a fail. I suggested we skin up the glacier to where there was a sunny spot for a picnic lunch. The only issue was the sun kept moving faster than we could skin. Eventually we just gave up and eat our lunch on the sunless glacier. But it was probably a small price to pay for an excellent day out.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Skiing in the Dolomites

Possibly the last time there was such a massive avalanche risk , the internet didn't really exist. Therefore I had never seen a forecast like the one in the above picture. The northern alps were pretty much in total avalanche lock down , schools were closed. At the top of the Chamonix valley people were blocked in their houses in Montroc and Le tour for several days. Fortunately I had a long term commitment in the Dolomites which happily coincided with this chaos. Instead I headed off to the Dolomites with Francis Bridgeman. The plan was to meet up with Francis extended family. Down there it was the complete polar-opposite to the northern alps. The Dolomites had loads of cold fresh snow. At night the temperature was -15c. By contrast the temperature in Chamonix was +5c. We were staying Val Gardena in an apartment opposite the World Cup Down Hill in the village of St Christina. On our first day we decided to start by doing the famous Sella Ronda tour which seemed like a good way off sussing where the best skiing might be. This wasn't great , because the weather was very windy and the visibility wasn't great. Further still the Sella Ronda tour was packed. Nevertheless we did find some areas which had fantastic tree skiing with huge potential for the following days. Basically the conclusion I came to was that the skiing is good as long as you stay away from the Sella Ronda circus. At the beginning of the week we skied from the resort of Plan de Gralba. This is truly when we realized we had hit the off piste skiing jack pot. The first clue was when people kept on stopping us and asking us why are skis were so different? No one skis off-piste. There are just acres and acres of un tracked snow in plain sight.
Plus the general scenery makes it a worthy recipient of UNESCO world heritage status.
Later in the week we decided to explore further a field and headed over to the Cinque Torri area above Cortina. This is an area I had climbed at a lot but never skied.
As we arrived we were disappointed to see that the area had suffered a hammering by the wind. But after a bit of scouting we found some breath taking good descents.
When we returned to the car park we then saw how the Italian Tax Man works . He drives into the car park and looks around for the Lamborghini's, Maserati's etc . Traces the number plates to the owners. Then he waits by the car to ask the driver how he can afford a quarter of a million euro car when he has an annual income of around 30,000 euros? If the answers in not satisfactory the Tax Man impounds the car.