Monday, August 29, 2016

40th Birthday celebration traverse of the Vallee Blanche.

In 2015 Ben Noakes and his wife Becca visited the Chamonix valley and went up the Aguille du Midi. It was at the top that Ben became determined that he wanted to cross the Vallee Blanche with his friends as part of a week long birthday party for a group of eight to ten people Ben contacted me and asked me if I could organise such a trip. I immediately said No.

I did however say that if the group reduced its size to six or less and we had a day of preparation then it might work. This is what happened.

So Ben Becca Karen and Mark and I took the Grands Montets cable car to the top and the team ventured onto the glacier. This was their first experince of wearing crampons carrying ice axes etc etc. We spent the morning learning the basics and gaining confidence. In the afternoon we descended onto the glacier des Rognons before climbing to the summit of Les Aiguille Grands Montets 3400meters.

Everyone was buoyed with confidence but there was the inevitable nerves as we walked out onto the arete du Aiguille du Midi the next morning.

Everyone was delighted to have conquered the descent of the ridge. The issue was the weather was looking far from perfect on the Italian side where there was huge cloud building and we weren't sure the "Eggs" would be working for the return journey. It was not an easy decision to make. Clearly it was left to me to make the call. Fortunatly I have a friend who works for the Aiguille du Midi and was able to get real time information on the weather and so I decided to go for it.

We enjoyed a memorable traverse through some jaw dropping glacial terrain.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

And Finally The Matterhorn 4478m

John Young joined me for ten days climbing. We had agreed that we would do whatever the conditions allowed, with no fixed goal. Always the best way to approach a climbing trip.

Our first five days climbing together were outstanding, despite not having a totally settled forecast. We did a lot of alpine rock climbs going up from the valley via cable car each day.

Monday 15th August we climbed the Eperon Sublime above La Flegere as our warm up climb.

On the Tuesday we choose to climb the classic Chapelle des Glieres , one of the best middle grade alpine rock climbs in the Chamonix valley if not the Alps. Certainly the Rasor pitch has iconic status:

Wednesday. We took a 7.30 am cable car to the top of les Grands Montets, then headed down the Pas de Chevere

and arrived at the foot of the Eperon Bayer.

The final few pitches are in a very unique position high above what was once the Mer de Glace.

Another world class alpine climb which pops out at the top of the Bochard ski lift. The only down side is a walk down the piste, which ever way you try to dress it up is unpleasant.

Thursday was a wash out . We managed to get one pitch climbed at Les Chesery before the rain came down.

Friday the good weather returned and we headed through the Mt Blanc tunnel and up into the Vallee Blanche to do the traverse of the Entreves another very photogenic climb in an outstanding setting.

The Saturday and the Sunday the weather was poor and so we decided to take a couple of days off. The forecast for the next week was as good as it gets!

This set up a interesting scenario. Whilst John has a very impressive Alpine Mountaineering portfolio there was one gaping hole in it. The Matterhorn. There was never going to be a better chance to fill this gap, because our previous week and been perfect preparation , we were strong , acclimatized and well rested. In addition the conditions on the Matterhorn were perfect.

So on Monday 22nd August we drove round to Tasch dumped the car and headed up to Schwarzsee for a spot of light lunch[well I did , John tucked into a dustbin lid sized Rosti and could hardly move afterwards] out side the restaurant we bumped into a friend and fellow Guide who was on his way down from failing to summit. He was not keen to talk because he was protecting his client from the obvious disappointment and was making excuses about it being too windy.This sort of news is never what you want when your going up for a big climb. Rather you want to hear stories of success, its always better for the moral.

Anyway despite the Rosti, we zoomed up to the Hornli Hut and settled in.

Tuesday morning 4.15am. We awoke had breakfast and then found our selves locked in the hut behind a huge queue of people . At 5.10 am the doors were opened and everyone spewed out in to what is the "Matterhorn circus."

Five minutes later we were at the foot of the first wall where we stood for another 20 minutes while people took it in turns to deal with the first fixed rope. Bizarrely this first fixed rope proved too much for some idiot , who I heard complaining to his Guide that he didn't think it was going to be like this! They gave up after 10 minutes.

Once John and I finally got going everyone had spread out and we were left in our own small head torch like world. I made a couple of minor route finding mistakes , but still we arrived at the Solway Hut [4000meters] in around two half hours, which considering the fucking about at the bottom I was very happy with and we were well on target.

Five ours from when we started we were on the summit.

Twenty years since John's previous attempt which was thwarted at the Solway Hut due to too much snow.

As the saying goes : "Going up is optional getting down is mandatory." And so the descent started . First the snow field , then the fixed ropes, then off with the crampons , then the steep climbing above the Solway hut

The minimun of rappells because they eat in to the time it takes to get down. Finally after 5 hours of descent we were back on flat ground. A quick drink at the Hornli Hut and then down for a big meal , excellent wine at the Schwarzsee Hotel.

Wednesday. After a leisurely breakfast we caught the lift back to Zermatt for another leisurely breakfast. John had always promised himself a painting of the Matterhorn if and when he climbed it. Happily the purchase could be made.
We then drove to Kandersteg where we checked into a very good hotel and eat very well.

Thursday we climbed the south face of the Gallihorn. This should have been a mellow day , but it wasn't. It was rather too hot and we were still recovering from the Matterhorn.
Still it was a brilliant climb.

After the climb we drove around to Rougement. This is a satellite of Gstaad where everyone seems to drive around in either an open top Rolls Royce showing off their Bottox injections, or the ostentatious equivalent. Any way we were there for the rock climbing.

Friday , we left our delightful hotel Les Communes and took the cable car out of the village. We climbed the quite superb Arete Pointu to cap an outstanding 10 days of unique and varied climbing.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Girls on Le Tour.

Millie and Honour are just at the right age to start alpine climbing with a night in a Mountain Refuge.

If you are lucky enough, a good age to start Alpine climbing is around 13 or 14 years old. Any earlier the lungs are not developed enough and there is a real risk of severe altitude sickness. There have been a lot of stories of kids climbing high mountains at young ages of which some make it. Its mostly got to do with their parents egos. Whats more there is no evidence that climbing big peaks as a small kid produces anything other than a disdain within them for future mountaineering.

Honour and Millie are best friends who were given the opportunity to have a go at Alpine climbing by Honour's Dad , Bill who tagged along.

It was my task to come up with a varied plan which would keep them entertained. I decided that we should start by walking up to a Mountain Refuge and doing some preliminary ice axe and crampon work on the way. I choose for us to go the the Albert 1er Refuge at the side of what was formerly [before global warming] the Le Tour Glacier.

The refuge was full , but unusually for a French Refuge, it was well organised, the welcome pleasant and the dinner was excellent.
Breakfast was at 4.30 and we were away for our climb at 5.30am. Our objective was the Tete Blanche. The conditions were perfect . There was a good freeze overnight , the snow was solid and the glacier was in very good condition.

For a first trip into the alpine mountains and to walk on the glacier it was hard to better, especially with the iconic Forbes arete on the Chardonnet as a back drop.

Next day we decided that the girls should get to grips with some classic Chamonix multi pitch rock climbs, so we headed up to Les Chesery high above Argentiere. We climbed three pitches of Voie Bleu before the girls decided they were tired from the previous 2 day efforts and they demanded ice cream.

On our 4th day we choose to do something easier and head to Les Bois to climb the beautiful Voie Caline where we finished by having a very good late lunch at the wonderful Mottets buvet .

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 .