Monday, January 15, 2018

A night in the Grand St Bernard Monastery

I left Chamonix at 9.00am with the intention of meeting Laura and Marco on the road to Gd St Bernard at about 10.00am. I drove up to the Swiss/French boarder at Chatelard and the conversation with the Garde-Frontier Officer went something like this:
Officer - "Where are you going?"
Me - "Gd St Bernard Monastery."
Officer- "The col is closed."
Me - "I know , Im going to go on skis"
Officer - "The col is closed"
Me - " I know, Im a Mountain Guide and I am going to go on skis"
Officer - "The col is closed."
The conclusion, I was rapidly coming to, was that I was speaking to a fucking idiot. Then the Officer smirked and decided to be a little less monosyllabic and said the Col du Forclaz was closed by a massive rock fall , which had just happened at 6.00am. [This is the final col on the road between Chamonix and Martigny.]
There was no practical way by road, so I dumped the car and took the train to Martigny which I would concede is more ecological but I am going to need incentivizing a little more than paying 40chf for the train. Basically 1chf/minute. Still needs must. Marco and Laura picked me up at Martigny station and we drove to the road head at the now defunct Super St Bernard Ski station. We stuck our skins on and headed up the track. The weather was beautiful , but like so often in this area it was windy and cold. We stopped for a picnic lunch in one of the emergency shelters.
After our picnic the temperature had dropped further and I was struggling to keep warm despite skinning up hill. Yet when we arrived at Monastery and went slightly over the col there was suddenly no wind and beautiful snow.
We headed off above the Monastery so that we might get the chance to ski the great snow.
The snow did not disappoint.
We enjoyed a very relaxed evening consuming some of the local Pinot Noir. The next day we headed out and skied across the border and into Italy. Our goal for the day was to climb Mt Fouchon. The conditions were good ,
bordering on excellent. We made the summit in about two and half hours. We then skied back more or less the same way. The snow was very good and the quality of the skiing was as good as I have had in this area. We passed the Monastery and then skied back to the car where Marco and Laura stuck me back on the train to France.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Skiing Conditions were perfect then along came the dreaded Foehn wind

Towards the end of 2016 the skiing conditions low down in the classic resorts of Megeve were perfect. On 29th December , as they have done for the 10 years Stephen Yeates and Steve Trantum joined me. It was wonderfully cold and crisp -15c. The snow was light and fluffy and it hadn't been destroyed by the wind , [which was the case in the higher resorts.] We skied in St Gervais.
Then the weather changed. Overnight there was a 20c increase. The temperature shot up and it rained. Once the rain stopped the clouds parted and it froze hard. This had the effect of creating a crust. A crust which was akin to skiing through broken paving slabs. In places it was horrendous because it was impossible to stay on the surface and you would break through and the crust would then cut into your shins. Despite this we did manage to climb to the top of le Petit Croisse Baulet high above Combloux where the view didn't disappoint.
Happy New Year 2018. On New Years Eve it snowed and got cold again. On News Years Day I was joined by Peter Whelan, for what turned out to be the "Perfect Storm of conditions. It set us up with fabulous skiing. Firstly not being hung over is good , although not as important as 30 cm of cold snow overnight. New years day is always quiet. Once we were up on the slopes the lift from the bottom broke down effectively meaning we were in our own private ski resort with all the lifts running and 30 cm of powder. The skiing in the comb Lachanel was sublime. The photo might encapsulate the saying "Life is timing?"
The day was so good that I persuaded Peter that he should delay going back to the UK. We skied in Courmayeur in conditions which were only quite good , relative to New Years Day. AND THAT WAS THAT. Next day it rained and rained and rained All the snow was trashed , the foehn kicked in , there was flooding in Chamonix and the roads were grid locked and the avalanche risk shot up to maximum 5. Even walking the dog became a potentially deadly experience
All skiing pretty much stopped , what was open wasn't really worth doing - it was like going through the motions . The Foehn continued to strip all the snow in Chamonix , not unlike last year. The only chance in these conditions is to go through the Mt Blanc tunnel and ski in Courmayeur. Charles Sherwood and I left Chamonix with an air temperature of 10c. Through the tunnel it was 0c. In just 12 km, Plus it was snowing. The skiing was okay , nothing exceptional but a thousand times better than anything in France. Mind you I have often wondered why the track down the Val Veni is not an official piste. The answer awaited us at the end of the day: A massive avalanche blocked the route and took quite a while to negotiate.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Wonderful pre Christmas skiing conditions.

Above are two photos of exactly the same place, the buvet at the Le Buet cascade. One is taken on Christmas day 2016 and one taken on Christmas Eve 2017 as we skied past. The skiing pre Christmas this year has been the best in years . The coverage being so good that it allowed me to ski descent routes I had never previously done, like Trappe Gulley. This starts at the Trappe Chair lift at La Flegere and ends up by the river Arve above Les Tines. This was a rare chance to ski with my eldest daughter Andrea who was fresh back from winning the 2017 Varsity ski race in Tignes.
Needless to say there were a few navigational challenges and cliffs to slalom around
The conditions were so good that our family friends Jeff & Faerthen flew all the way from California to take advantage of the conditions. Again the skiing at La Flegere did not disappoint.
On Christmas Eve,my middle daughter Florence joined us on her first proper ski tour and we headed up to the col du Beaugeant, high above La Flegere. The big challenge with this was the heat - It was so warm that the climbing up was sapping our energy. Added to which the col has some climbing at the top and then a long rappel on the north side
After the rappel it was skiing all the way. Even with the snow at the top being somewhat cruddy this caused Florence zero issues;
Christmas Day. After last years no snow we were determined to try and ski as a family on Christmas Day.
We skied at Les Grands Montets which was great apart from the snow which was bone hard. The wind had stripped the cover and conditions were shockingly poor, [at least in my opinion ] yet it didn't stop the girls racing down to a delicious Christmas lunch at the Cremerie.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Guru. The Master. The Maestro

I recently returned from a British Mountain Guides training course which really did strip everything back to basics. It started by reviewing how to walk up and down hill... Or for that matter walk anywhere. Have you considered if you walk with your feet closer together you go further because each stride length will be fractionally longer? The course venue was to be in the famous climbing town of Finale Borgio, about 35mins drive west of Genoa Italy and about four hours south of Chamonix. It was to be run by the man who single handily invented the concept of climbing coaching. Paolo Caruso. Paolo is very famous in the Italian climbing community and has become renowned for his teaching methods and results. Paolo has systematically broken down all the climbing ,ice climbing and skiing movements into quantifiable blocks. His system is known as the "Caruso Method." The course can be distilled down to
"how to change or move from one most advantageous position to another. At this point , the importance of the study of progression become evident" from Mountaineering on snow and Ice by Paolo Caruso
The course convened as most things do in Italy with a Cappuccino in the exquisite cafe in an equally exquisite hill top village of Verrazzi. Apart from the group of British Guides , we had invited a couple off local Italian Guides to join us too. Sergio and Giovanni. Mountain Guides are notorious for being unable to organize themselves when the group consists entirely of Guides, yet the first potential hiccup was brilliantly anticipated by getting Cain Olsen to co ordinate the whole trip. Cain is a member of the BMG and the Italian Guides and lives in Finale. He is a bilingual Guide. Why do we need a bilingual Guide? Because unbeknown to the rest of us, Paolo did not feel confident enough to deliver the course in English. [The reader would probably identify this is a key problem.] So the course kicked off with an explanation of what pricked Paolo's interest in developing his Methodology. He explained that when he first went climbing , he was told he was quite good. Yet when he asked how he could improve , he was told : By doing lots of climbing and gaining experience. The problem is that gaining experience can be a hard lesson in our sport. There is a logic still very prevalent today in that the only way to learn is from your mistakes, but and it is a big BUT in climbing sometimes the lesson can get you killed. According to Paolo no one seemingly wanted to teach him the basic movement skills which are the building blocks with which to progress.
We started like most of the best climbing courses I have ever been on , in the car park. Paolo produced a bag off wooden blocks and got us to walk on them. Easy at first but with the series of sequencing he introduced it became difficult in the sense that you were required to think.
Next we headed up to the crag. What a setting high up on the cliffs which looked out over the Mediterranean sea. Yet instead off climbing Paolo discussed how we should teach people to make big step ups in a way so as to reduce the stress on the knees and be as atomically efficient as possible. This was a revelation.
We gradually moved on to actually rock climbing. Paolo's aim was to pass on four key base positions from which all climbing movements commence. Day Two We reconvened in another beautiful location the restaurant / Hotel : Agriturismo I Lamöi. We did some recapping on the previous days points. Next Paolo introduced the concept of homoloteral movement and cross movement progression. What this means is that if you are walking with trekking poles, you should move your right foot and left arm. Not your right arm and right foot,[homolateral] because you are less stable and prone to "barn dooring." The same would go for ice climbing. Obvious ,but weirdly very difficult to relearn how to walk. [Imagine how a baby crawls? It learns to cross crawl otherwise it fall flat on its face.] We then headed up to our own private crag [which was owned by the Cafe.] Paulo devised a series of exercises which were designed to put his theory into practice. He did this by sticking masking tape on the holds he wanted us to use. Blue tape for the feet white tape for the hands.
Suffice it to say it is difficult to explain in the written form in a way that would not bore you senseless, but it is my aim to incorporate what I learned into my own Guiding bag of skills. My big regret is that no one told me any this when I started climbing 40 years ago.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Alpine climbing season ends for 2017

David Ford managed to carve out three days to come and join me and climb in the Chamonix area. In my view early October can be one of the best times to be here. It is much quieter, colder, which makes it safer because the mountains are less likely to fall apart and the autumn colours add a layer of beauty to the alpine scene. There is a price to pay in that a lot of the infrastructure is also closed interms of cables cars and mountain huts and therefore the choice of where to climb is more limited. Yet with local knowledge and a certain flexibility there are many places to go climbing which are magnificent. 4th October With a stellar forecast we set off for Switzerland and drove up to the Emosson Dam . We climbed the Aiguille Van. This is an excellent straight forward climb which has a variety of scrambling and finishes on a very prominent summit with views in a 360 degree vista.
5th October. The Cosmiques Arete. Of its type , it is one of the best routes in the alps , if not the world. Fast access via the Aiguille du Midi whips you up to 3842m in no time at all. Again the problem in the summer is that the route has become untenable for the reasons just mentioned. It is a product of its own successes and there are many hours of queuing which no matter how good a climb it is , the esthetics are destroyed.
We walked onto the cable car and we were the only climbers among the tourists. At the top we gearered up , and headed down the ridge we were alone. It was all going perfectly until we caught up what appeared to be an entire battalion of the French Alpine army. Just our luck to have chosen the same day as them to do this iconic climb.
I did however manage to persuade the officers in charge of each group [ fellow Mountain Guides ] that David and I could pass and overtake them . So despite the climb being busy we were not hindered and we could enjoy the perfect conditions and weather.
6th October. Well although I keep claiming the weather always is best in October , this particular day wasn't one of them. At least in the morning. Nevertheless the afternoon was good and we enjoyed some excellent rock climbing at the ever reliable Les Gaillands crag .

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Retun to the Dolomites

The plan David Brooksbank and I had agreed to was to climb the Weisshorn. This had been the previous years plan too. The problem is "Weiss" in German means white. The guide book states that an ascent is a considerable undertaking when the ridge is covered in snow. It follows that the best conditions are when the Weisshorn is not white [which is not often.] Just prior to David's arrival the Weisshorn was in good climbing condition- not white. But the week before his arrival the mountain resorted to its default setting. Partly because it was late in the season and partly because there had been so much snow , the guardian packed his bags and headed down to the valley. In fact not only was the Weisshorn covered in snow but it became very apparent that most of the big mountains in the western alps were out of condition, plus the weather forecast was only good for the next two days, then it was due to be horrible. We decided to make the most of the two days of good weather and started by rock climbing on the glaciated slabs above the Mer de Glace. A more spectacular place to go rock climbing is hard to find . Beautiful autumn sunshine and not a soul in sight. Friday 22nd September. The idea for the day was to climb the east ridge of the Aiguille Van high above the Emosson Dam. It was a beautiful day and ideal for giving the MG Midget a run out. We made it up to the parking without incident [highly unusual for a nearly 40 year old car built by British Leyland] The problem was that the approach to the climb was plastered in snow and the higher we got the more snow. It became obvious we should employ the "discretion is better part of valour" dictum and bail back to the car. So this proved even more so that we needed to go somewhere else. Somwhere far a way. We headed for Cortina d'Amprezzo in the heart of the Dolomites. We stayed at the Albergo La Locanda del Cantoniere. This is an excellent location with very good food and wine . Yet not all was good because it is run by a women, who on a good day views her clientele as something that gets in the way of her daily routine. At best she is barely civil. Sunday 24th September. We awoke to the sound of lashing rain, which was on the verge of sleet. So much for driving 700 km to find better weather. We decided to venture out anyway. We reckoned we could at least try and climb a simple Via Ferrata in the rain. [David had never climbed one before.] We headed to the Cinque Torre area . As we drove up the road the rain turned to snow. by the time we arrived at the foot of the Via ferrata Averau we were in full winter scene. Nevertheless we climbed the via ferrata and made it to the summit of Torre Averau. All in all we felt quite a sense of achievement.
Dinner that evening was excellent , but Signorina just couldn't help herself, and announced very rudely she was suddenly closing the hotel the next day and we were not welcome any longer. Monday 25th. What a difference a day makes. Beautiful weather. We climbed the uber classic Torre Di Falzarego. It was only near the top that we were joined by a local Guide and his client whose route joined ours. After the climb we had to find somewhere to stay . We found a very good functional Hotel at lake Misurina : The Hotel Lavaredo. Tuesday 26th We walked up to the Rifugio Fonda-Savio Hutte. The welcome from Maria couldn't have been more diametrically opposed to that of two nights ago. We then walked the 15 minutes to the foot of Torre Wundt. We climbed the route in complete solitude. Quite fantastic. We returned to the hut and enjoyed a pleasant evening where the host didn't shout at us either.
Wednesday 27th. The morning was bright and clear, yet it was cold. We were in no particular hurry and were quite keen for the temperature to climb. Further , on the north facing approach slopes there was plenty of icy snow. The path from the Hut to the bottom of the wonderfully named Torre El Gobbo took about 40 mins. The climb was completely clear of snow apart from the final few meters to the summit block.
There was no wind and therefore despite it being cold we were fine. The two Rappells from the summit arent for the feint hearted.
From the foot of the climb we walked back to the car. We drove to Cortina where we enjoyed a beer in the square while enjoying a warm beautiful autumn afternoon. We stayed in the excellent Montana Hotel , bang slap in the center of the town opposite the Church. [David was relieved to learn that they shut the bells down at night.] Thursday 28th. We headed up the Falzarego pass to the Cinque Torre. This had been our intended destination when we first arrived in the Dolomites. Then we had ended up floundering around in the rain and snow, but not today , it was jaw droppingly beautiful, quiet and the perfect setting for us to attempt our last climb of the trip. We climbed the class via Guido 1V.
In the afternoon we drove back to Chamonix and arrived at 7.30pm.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Climbing in contrasting regions of Italy

The weather around Chamonix had been unsettled , plus the backstory of conditions being shot to bits due to the heat wave of June, Charles Sherwood and I decided to head to the Dolomites. We had not been there together since 2011 when we managed to climb the Comici route on the North Face of the Cima Grande. One of the 6 classic alpine north faces . The weather in the Dolomites was also unsettled but I felt that if we choose slightly less ambitious routes we could get a lot of climbing under our belts. Monday 4th September . We drove from Chamonix to Cortina in about 7 hours. We stayed in the in the Hotel de la Poste bang slap in the center of the town. Tuesday 5th September. The Hotel thought itself as quite posh. So much so that at breakfast the Maître d'hôtel took issue with me turning up to breakfast in flip-flops. I was quite indignant. Especially when a bunch of middle America Americans turned up for breakfast making me look the height of sophistication. Anyway the weather forecast wasn't particularly good so Charles and I choose a climb that was straight forward with bad weather escape options yet it was indisputably a Dolomitic classic . Torre Di Falzarego 2500m first climbed by non other than Emilio Comici the original superstar of Dolomitic climbing was to be our choice. It is a brilliant rock climb but it is one of those routes that falls into the category of a climb which states . "No matter how badly you are climbing it is certain that there will be someone worse than you." It was busy. Wednesday 6th. Again the forecast was not good enough to attempt a route of massive commitment. We headed up to the Rifugio Fonda-Savio Hutte. We were greeted by women dressed in "Heidi kit." Plus they were all speaking German not Italian.Still a grudge toward the First world war which tore the region apart. After an indifferent cappuccino [ clearly not made by a true Italian] we headed out and climbed the Torre Wundt 2517 via the south face IV. The actual climbing wasn't the best but the arrival on the summit was impressive. We munched our picnic while having a debate as how to actually get off the top because it wasn't totally obvious. Five rappels later we were back on the path and moments later drinking beer back at the "Hutte." Thursday 7th. A rather late Hut breakfast at 7,30 and we were away.
We climbed the superbly named Il Gobbo 2560m. The smallest of the trio towers that also include Torre Leo and Torre del Diavolo. This was not our original plan. We climbed the wrong tower. Hind sight is a wonderful thing , but peering up at the towers through the mist it wasn't "blinding obvious which one was which. Yet it was fantastic in its own right and whats more it set up the possibility of climbing all three famous towers. Il Leo , Il Gobbo and Diavolo. We decided to stay with the Heidi women another night and try again the next day. Friday 8th. This was to be the climb of the week: Torre Del Diavolo. The Devils Tower. Immortalized by Hans Dulfer and his crazy step from Torre Leo to actually make the 1st ascent of Torre Diavolo. Our plan [which was yesterdays plan] was to do follow this iconic climb. The weather wasn't ideal , it was very cold and we suffered from numb fingers . It wasn't until I launched my self onto the 3rd pitch of Torre Leo that we ended up in the sun. The pitch is utterly spectacular and one of the best pitches I have climbed in a long while. It finished on the summit of Torre Leo. Now was the challenge of the step over to the Torre Diavolo. I climbed down to attempt to make the stemming move. It was very clear, pretty quickly that it wasn't going to happen. At least until I grew new legs. I gave up and climbed back up to Charles to have a rethink. I then rappelled off the top of the tower and jumped across the gap and lunged for for what I hoped was a good hold. Charles shouted a congratulatory well done. This was my que to find out that the hold wasn't fit for purpose and consequently for me to go spinning into the Void between the two towers. I tried again after giving myself an "I can do this" pep talk. I also suggested that Charles save the congratulations until I was at the belay and tied in. 2nd time lucky. I Climbed up to the anchor sorted the ropes and set myself up to help Charles across.
Next was a steep loose pitch. Followed by another steep loose pitch which gently overhung but ultimately ended on the summit of the Devils Tower. The descent route wasn't blindingly obvious. The obvious rappel point was apparently there as some sort of cruel joke. Fortunately we employed the "measure twice cut once" technique and double checked. Two 50 meter rappels put us at the foot of the route. An hour and a bit later we were back at the car. We headed up the Passo Falzarego and stayed in the Albergo La Locanda del Cantoniere. This was an excellent location other than it was run by a Schizophrenic nutcase. [Update in the next Blog...]
Saturday 9th. Weather was indifferent so we climbed some single pitch bolted climbs at Cinque Torre, then in the afternoon headed for the Messner Museum. It is quirky. For starters it is made as difficult to get to as possibly any museum in the world. Firstly it involves driving up this endless alpine pass where at the top you dump the car and then have the option of taking a shuttle bus/ taxi, up to the actual museum which is an old Fort. Anybody who doesn't opt to take the shuttle bus is in for a mind numbing walk up a track for at least 2 hours. ( Thank god we took the bus.] Basically the museum is a very inaccessible art gallery. Interesting, BUT, neither Charles nor I would be rushing back anytime soon.
We drove to Belluno for no particular reason other than it was on the way and looked interesting. We found a hotel which was a wedding venue extraordinaire because of its beautiful situation. Although perhaps not the night we choose to be there because there were now biblical quantities of rain. Sunday 10th Finale Liguria here we come. Five hours after leaving Belluno we were climbing in Finale complaining about being too hot. Sunday 11th There was the inevitable thrashing around in the trees trying to follow the instructions in the guide book on how to locate the crag but eventually we did. The climbing grades are quite stiff! We stayed in the ultimate B&B , with a world class view. We then eat dinner in the village below which was so beautiful it was like something out of a film set. Monday 13th After an impressive breakfast on the terrace presented by our host Kostas we went climbing on the crag nearest to the B&B. We returned late afternoon then in the evening walked up to the church on the hill. Conveniently the church also doubles as a restaurant with a view. In fact if there is a restaurant with a better view show me it.
Tuesday 14th Charles had to fly home. We drove from to Finale to Geneva airport in 4 hours.