Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ultra Peaks - not always the highest but always the most spectacular.

Stephen Kellock had come all the way from Canada to climb with me and discover what the Alps were supposedly all about. We had climbed a variety of routes around Chamonix and we were building towards the end of the week. I was keen to finish with a spectacular flourish. Unfortunately the weather was not co operating. In fact in mid July it snowed down to 1800 meters -tree level and therefore torpedoed our chances of getting really high. Luckily I have a bunch of alternatives for these situations :

As you drive down the Auto Route Blanche from Chamonix towards Geneva straight in front of you will see a huge barrier of mountains collectively know as the Aravis. The center piece is the spectacular Pointe Percee.2750m If your not sure where it is ,a huge brown tourist sign at the side of the motorway signifies when to look out of the car window.
Quite a few spectacular peaks which are judged on their looks rather than their height have been grouped under the rather unfortunate name of "Ultra Prominent Peaks." Or even worse just Ultras..

Putting this aside whether you like the tittle Ultras or not, I have always thought what it looks like is a far better reason to climb a peak than its arbitrary actual height. All this tends to do is lead you to some horrendously crowded summits. The antithesis of why we climb mountains and may be why your reading this Blog?

Point Percee means in French the pierced point because in its north ridge, the Arete Doigt , is a naturally formed hole. So that is where Stephen and I headed. We drove from Chamonix past Sallanches left the motorway at Cluses and headed up the road to the Col de le Colombiere which had just been treated to a velvet layer of tarmac in preparation for the Tour de France.

We drove through Grand Bornand and then headed up to the Col des Annes where we we due to dump the car, before heading up to the Refuge. What I had overlooked was that it was 14 July - Bastille day - French national holiday . The car park and approach roads were rammed with cars seemingly abandoned as if a nuclear war had just happened . We were in a car fit for the job and managed to find a slot on a hillside that resulted in the car being parked vertically balanced on its rear door.

Next we negotiated the series of electric cattle fences and headed of up to the Gramusset Refuge , leaving the crowds behind us. This was to be Stephens first experience of an Alpine Hut. It was to be both good and bad. Bad because it was a national holiday and therefore the hut was full to the rafters. Literally -

To reach our beds some bravery was needed to negotiate the ladder to our sleeping platform, which was sandwiched 20cm under the roof.

The upside was it was the real deal. A great atmosphere , good food and wine , magnificent situation and some unique washing facilities:

Especially for Stephen 6.30am breakfast could not come around fast enough. Apparently the knock out sleeping pill I had so generously given him did not work. [mine worked fine.]

Breakfast is never the reason to visit a French Mountain Hut and we were away by 7.30am. The weather was clear , but it was windy and bitterly cold. Our approach was across a snow field and we needed to put on crampons to negotiate the bullet hard neve snow:

Nevertheless in an hour we were at the foot of the very impressive Arete Doigt. A doigt is a finger and there is a tower that from a distance resembles a digit. Fortunately the wind had dropped and we were able to enjoy the first few pitches. After about five pitches we arrived at the start of the crux , the iconic "Rasor." This is a series of pitches that follow a rocky limestone knife edge ridge. An unforgettable climb in a remarkable situation . It is not difficult but it is intimidating.

After the "Rasor" pitches you have a choice of continuing up the ridge directly or going up a gully on the north face. The direct route requires rock boots and full on rock climbing ability, neither of which we had and so we elected to take the gully because this makes the overall difficulty of the route more homogeneous. Yet even so it is not entirely straight forward because the rock was chocked with ice and there is little protection. It is necessary to proceed with caution. After about an hour of doing just that [proceeding with caution] we popped out just below the summit. A couple of minutes later we were on top and treated to a spectacular view of entire Mont Blanc range.

Monday, July 04, 2016

No better experince as a Dad than to climb with your children.

The chance to be in the mountains and share experiences with your kids is one of the best things in the world. The trouble is the older they get the more difficult it is to organise, especially when your girls are in their 20's .

Peter Collins is particularly good at getting his daughters Lucy and Alice to come mountaineering with him. Certainly better than last year when he only managed to get Alice to climb because Lucy somehow contrived to twist her ankle the night before we were due to start.

We had three days together. We did the traverse of Aguille Marbree:

The next day in different weather we traversed the Crochue ridge above Flegere

On our third day we went rock climbing at Les Cheserys above Argentiere. We started by climbing the famous,spectacular yet easy Aiguilette d'Argentiere.

We finished by climbing the classic voie Bleue. I climbed with Alice and Pete led up behind me and climbed with Lucy.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

How to become a very good mountaineer :Quickly.

Sacha Kamp and Brett Ansley turned up with the brief that they wanted to learn the key skills of mountaineering. They were both fit and strong but had no alpine mountaineering experience.

We started on the Mer de Glace in order to show them how to use an ice axe and crampons properly. The next day I showed them the principle of moving quickly and efficiently along an alpine ridge. We did the traverse of the Crochue high above La Flegere

On the Wednesday we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel and took the Sky way lift [which we shared with a wedding party] and did the traverse of the Aiguille du Marbree.

Thursday the weather was indifferent and it was difficult to know what was the best choice of route. Fortunately there is just the route for the these sort of days : The South Ridge of Les Glieres. It is a great rocky scramble leading to the summit of Les Glieres just behind the famous Index climb at Flegere.

The weather forecast for our final day together was very good and I was keen to choose a route which would challenge Sacha and Brett and allow them to put all the skills they acquired into practice. I choose the traverse of the Entreves. So it was back through the Mt Blanc tunnel [no wedding party this time]. The Entreves is not for the faint hearted , there is a lot of exposure , even for seasoned mountaineers and its not with out its "moments." Neither Sacha nor Brett were phased by the climb. On the contrary they were so quick and efficient that from the start of the climb to the end of the difficulties took just one hour. I was amazed. Fast learners.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Magnificient week with an utterly depressing last day

David Folkman and Dee Anand joined me for an expedition to the Monte Rosa massif high above Gressoney/ Alagna just up from the Aosta valley.

On the Monday we drove from Chamonix to Gressoney. We left the car and rode the lift system to Punta Indren and then walked across the very snowy glacier to the Mantova Hut.

Tuesday the weather was indifferent - windy cloudy but warm which meant the snow did not freeze over night. Despite this we battled our way to the summit of Vincent Pyramid 4200m before turning tail and retreating to a wonderful welcome at the Gniffetti Hut. Amazing food, beer, wine super fast wifi and showers all at 3600 meters above sea level.

It was so good we decided to spend an extra night here and use it as a base from which to climb a few more mountains the next day.

So on the Wednesday with brilliant weather we climbed Ludwigshohe 4341m Coro Nero 4321m.

On the Thursday we headed up to the Margherita Hut - the highest building in western Europe at 4554meters above sea level.

As we took in the sunset from the hut , little did we realize that this was to be the sun setting on the UK's membership of the European union.

We awoke to the devastating news that Britain had done the political equivalent off cutting its nose of to spite its face. David Dee and I were in a state of shock. The other continental teams of climbers were like wise. They offered condolences to us as if someone had been killed. Never had I had breakfast in a mountain hut which such a sombre mood.

After breakfast we set off down the mountain back to Gressoney. By the time we drove all the way to our lowest point at Pont St Martin in the Aosta Valley we had descended over 4 vertical kilometers.

Inevitably with constant communications and access to the media via our I Phones it was clear that the UK was in melt down.
The larger ramifications should have been obvious to even a blind man galloping by on a horse, slightly less obvious are the ramifications for British Mountain Guides working in the Alps:

British Mountain Guides came her in good faith under the free movement of labour. As Guides we were at the forefront of this concept. Something that is now not open to our children. In addition because I have been in living in France for 25 years I became disenfranchised after 15 years and was therefore ineligible to vote on something so critical to my future and my families future.

Further if we follow this to its inevitable conclusion it will probably mean the break up of the UK. From a Mountain Guides perspective this will mean the end of the British Mountain Guides Association which will be forced to split into an English & Welsh association with Scotland forming it own association. This will destroy the brand and sponsors will abandon it. The BMG has amongst its members some of the best mountaineers in the world. It is as the forefront of developing "best practice" within the field of teaching mountaineering. The BMG celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. It is sickening to think all this work will be torpedoed.

Even by the time we arrived back in Chamonix the insidious comments were starting from EU Guides. The very next day I was on the hill . While strapping my crampons on a Guide strolled over to me and said:

"Oh are you still here? Shouldn't you be only climbing on Ben Nevis now?"

The parallels with the neanderthal comments directed at for example Polish people in the UK are terrifyingly obvious .

Monday, June 20, 2016

Car Crash of a weather forecast

The first casualty of the war is the plan. The plan being to climb Mont Blanc. Masses of snow , high avalanche risk and as crap a weather forecast that is possible to imagine. I met David Ford with considerable trepidation yet over a beer I broke the news to him that we needed a plan B. David was pretty sanguine [which a key component of being an Alpinist.]
Together we carved out a plan . The first thing was to escape the bad weather.
On The Monday we drove to Grenoble and David embarked on his first multi pitch rock climb the fantastic Eperon des Gosses Mythiques AD+

After this we headed further south with the intention of climbing the uber classic Mont Aiguille.

On the Tuesday we set off in the drizzle . Unsurprisingly despite being on one of the most sought after ascents in France we passed no one all day although we did see someone extracting them selves from a previous days epic- if you look carefully you will see someone strung out on a rappel rope at 7.30am


We made the summit after negotiating some tricky climbing

which was more akin to the North face of the Eiger than the Vercors. The descent did provide us with some atmospheric moments as we descended into the final spectacular chasm:

So thus far David had had an unusual but solid introduction to mountaineering , but reasonably he was still keen to strap on a pair of crampons so we headed back to Chamonix for a day on the Mer de Glace.

Learning how to be safe on a pair of crampons- a skill which an an alarming amount of people overlook.

On the Thursday it chucked it down. We covered some basic rope work and crevasse rescue scenarios and then we gave up for the day.

The Friday was frustrating - we headed up La Flegere and we were confronted with an a ludicrous amount of snow which made getting around virtually impossible. We used the day well constructing snow belays. An essential skill which is often put off because it can always be covered when the weather is bad.. So it was perfect.

Saturday was stellar. We drove through the Mt Blanc Tunnel rode the weirdly named Sky Way Cable car and then made a traverse of the Aiguille Marbree. A mountain that benefits from having loads of snow on it because all the loose rocks are well glued together by the snow.

Considering the forecast at the beginning of the week I think we did rather well. As always it helps to have a big picture mentality if you want to make the most of your time in the alps.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Mont Aiguille: Climbed by some Yokel in 1492. How hard can it be?

Mont Aiguille , seen from the wonderful RN75 Grenoble to Sisteron road is spectacular. In fact it looks formidable from every aspect. It really is the stand out mountain of the Vercors region or for that matter anywhere in France. It was first climbed in 1492 by Antoine de Ville on the order of King Charles VIII. This was undoubtedly a herculean effort which at least in Europe is seen as the birth of mountaineering/ alpinism, yet the sport did not spontaneously take off because it took nearly 350 years for Jean Liotard to psyche himself up or its second ascent. Still how hard could it be ? Reuben and I were about to find out.

We drove down from Grenoble and did not immediately see the Mont Aiguille because the the weather and the forecast were decidedly indifferent. We pulled into the village of Chichilianne which is at the foot of the mountain.

It was not difficult to find the hotel as it was the only building not inhabited by cows. It had seen better days. Probably in the 1950's. Retrieving our bags from the car was unpleasant in the heavy rain but negotiating the hotel's demonic pet wolf was ,at best, inconvenient. On the other hand dinner was surprisingly good and our optimism improved the more flaggons of rouge we consumed.

During the night it continued to rain , then the bedroom shutters started banging in the wind. The scene was garnished with flashes of forked lightening. At breakfast at least it had stopped raining. We set off up the hill on a path which wondered through some beautiful broad leaf forest. There was nothing wrong with the path apart from its gradient. Its angle was so low that the switch backs through the forest went on and on with no seemingly determinable height gain.
Yet eventually and with relief We arrived at the Col de L'Aupet 1672m after an hour and half. It was now just a question of leaving the main path and hacking up the scree to the start of the route.

I had made some assumptions based on what I had read about Mont Aiguille. I had read that the ascent is incredibly popular [some would say too popular with lots of overcrowding] Yet Reuben and [Adams Family who run the hotel] were the only people I'd seen in the last 12 hours. Secondly the description in the French Alpine Guide book suggests the climbing and critically the route finding is simple. Further the guide book gives the route the grading of PD. Peu Difficile [little difficulty.]

So how hard could it be? Well finding the start of the route was proving neigh on near impossible, there was no path, no sign, no clue. Added to which there was a gale blowing and it was now spotting with rain. Fortunately apparently out of no where the Chasseurs Alpins conveniently turned up. [Otherwise known as French elite Mountain troops.] Their commanding officer showed us where the route started. Which even with hind sight was NOT blindingly obvious.

Once we were established on the climb things were much better although there is no way in hell it could or should be described as a scramble, rather it is a spectacularly exposed rock climb:

The climbing is varied and in places follows some fixed cables, ridges , slabs in fact the whole gambit of alpine style rock climbing.

Finally the route follows a wet , stepped chimney which has a big thick cable running its entire length which is there to grab hold off. In the event of a summer storm it would very quickly become a waterfall. At the top of the chimney it is a relief that the ground opens out into another world:


You could be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in the Dales. All that was missing were sheep and a bloke with a cap,checked shirt and a Quad bike.

It took about 15 minutes to walk the length of the 'field' to where the true summit lies. Once you look over the edge of the field your immediately reminded your not in Yorkshire and secondly you are treated to a 1000meters vertical drop [3000ft for the imperial measurement readers of this blog] Squirrel Suiter's paradise:

Now the one thing that the guide book was adamant about was that the line of descent is not the line of ascent. Rather you follow a long steep gulley which ultimately ends with two intimidating 45 meter abseils. The start of the descent is marked by a plaque commemorating the 500th anniversary of the audacious 1st ascent :

We followed the long descent couloir [which still had a lot of snow in it] and eventually found the departure of the first abseil. This was straight forward but needed care not to dislodge the many loose stones. The guide book was categorical about the the final abseil stating that it went over a cave and therefore into space. It remained in space for the next 40 meters . What the guide book neglected to say was that the abseil deposited you in a giant chasm with no obvious exit [ well not obvious to me as I hung like a spider.] Eventually after some Shenanigans [using my Iphone as a torch while holding it in my mouth] I did find the exit out of the cave system and then shouted to Reuben to come down. We climbed out of the cave and into a beautiful spring afternoon, from where we rejoined the path and headed back down through the forest.
Simple really [NOT.]

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Weather! Sounding like a stuck needle in a Vinyl Disc?

It started badly - I made the call to Chris. I said the weather forecast looked like anything to do with skiing was going to be a bad idea. Or at the very least hut to hut ski touring wasn't going to happen.
Yet after nearly 18 years of climbing and skiing with Chris I knew that he is a very determined character. He took the view that whatever we did on skis would be an adventure. [Definition of an adventure is arguably something where the outcome is uncertain] So on that note we carved out a plan day by day.

Now Chris may have climbed 6 of the "7 Summits" including Everest , but until Tuesday 26th April 2016 he hadn't climbed Punte Crocce in the teeth of an Italian storm. Nor had he enjoyed the early stages of hypothermia while eating a sandwich in a wind swept ruined Napoleonic Fort.

Day 2 . An equally bad forecast , but with some new snow , high winds and significant avalanche risk. There was a need to be creative. We took a chance and headed to Liddes in the Valais , more famous as an International Cow Fighting venue than as a skiing destination. [I kid you not.]
Liddes is a "ski resort." The sort of resort that when you phone them up to ask what time they open , their response is what time can you be there? Well on this occasion, when we arrived it had shut up shop for the season. We abandoned the car , stuck on our skins and set off up the hill. This proved to be an inspired choice - we skinned up through a wilderness and after a pretty strenuous 3 hours arrived on top of the extraordinary Tour Bavon2476 meters.

The descent was pure 'Oligarch skiing' [Derived from the fact that Russians allegedly hire the slopes of Courchevel for their private pathetic use]
The difference was we had to walk for our turns.

Then astonishingly we had a forecast with two consecutive days of good clear weather. A phenomena I'd not actually seen in the last month - although high winds were forecast high up in the mountains around Chamonix. Therefore we fixed our target on a ski ascent not in the Chamonix area; but on Mt Velan 3740m.
The approach to the hut is as beautiful as any I know. It follows alpages,streams and mellow terrain. Yet to be clear- We did have to walk for about an hour before we could put the skis on and skin up to the hut.

We were treated to a beautiful sunset:

Breakfast at 5.30am and Chris and I were away by 6.30am and headed up to the crux of the whole climb namely negotiating the chains that lead to the col Gouille 3150meters. [1st photo on the blog] On its other side it was necessary to crampon down a very steep slope which sometimes its better to rappel. Depending [as a Guide] on who you are with...
From where we put our skis back on we arrived at the summit in just over 4 hours.

The view from the summit towards Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn was particularly impressive:

We then skied off the summit on slopes which were seemingly designed for skiing , not too steep , just the perfect pitch turn after turn.

On the ski route back the ski route passes off the end of the glacier and you don't go via the hut. It gave a ski of 1450 vertical meters before we ran out of snow and then had to walk back to the car.

Day 5 Our final day together The weather forecast was for it to deteriorate at 12.00am big time. The solution was to get up early! We parked the car at the Col des Montets and skinned up to the Col d"Encrenaz. [All usable lifts had closed for the season}

So off we set at 6.45 am

After 3.30 hours and a height gain of nearly 1200meters we were at the the col. So far we were ahead of the forecast bad weather.

From the col all that remained was to ski wonderful untracked snow to Le Buet

Then when we got down- it rained. A good five days of skiing considering my pessimism at the beginning. Plus we didn't need to use one ski lift all week.