Friday, September 01, 2017

Completing The Iconic Swiss Trilogy: The Jungfrau 4158m

About eleven years ago Chris Dovell and I climbed the Eiger and the Monch but we failed to climb the Jungfrau due to high winds and bad weather and therefore the classic Bernese Trilogy. Chris then got distracted and went off to climb the "Seven Summits." So now having got this out of his system he returned with his wife, Lia ,to try the Jungfrau one more time. We left the Monchjoch Hut at about 4.00am and made our way down the glacier. This was all quite straight forward .Yet getting from the glacier and established on the buttress was far from straight forward. There was a steep 40 meter traverse on hard black ice. Lia was having issues with her crampons and we lost time. In addition the previous days weather had been extremely hot and we had not had a good solid freeze. Thus conditions were deteriorating and I could see that things were running away from us. At the col we elected to turn around for safety's sake. We decided that we would try again the next day. Lia was who was still recovering from a major knee injury felt she would leave Chris and I to try alone. We headed back to the Monchjoch Hut. The Hut could be an okay place apart from the fact that it is run by a man who is defiantly in the wrong job. The guardian is the most unwelcoming , unhelpful, mean spirited git I have had the misfortune to cross in a very long time. 3.30Am We choose to have an early a breakfast as we could so that we would have the maximum chance of it being cold. In addition the previous day we had sussed out the direct descent from the col. It is rarely feasible , but when conditions are good it cuts the time of the route by half. There were some big deep "tower block" swallowing crevasses to negotiate but we sped up the route taking of advantage of our earlier start and the better freeze. We arrived at yesterdays high point some two hours quicker . From here the route goes out onto a steep face which has metal posts in place to belay around. We motored up the final section. But contrived to arrive on the summit in thick mist at 9.00am. It was only on the way down that we got the view back.
We were back at the Jungfraujoch Station about 2 hours from leaving the summit.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Big Classic Alpine Climbing : East Ridge of Beitschhorn 3934m

The Alpine Club Guide book states
Beitschhorn Viewed from almost any angle it is a magnificent sight, standing proud of all the adjacent peaks. It has three principal ridges, each of which is quite narrow … None of the routes are easy
… The East ridge is probably the hardest of them . Naturally this is the route that John Young and I decided to attempt. Yet before the attempt there is the herculean task of actually getting to the hut: The walk in from the highest road point is a formidable five and half hours. The longest walk in in the western alps. Fortunately it is also the most beautiful once you have negotiated the 1600 meter long tunnel which is a "new" Bise a water irrigation system. The original was built in the 1400's and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The route passes through fabulous terrain , plus a sort of summer village come hippy retreat, before eventually arriving at the Baltschiederklause Hut. [Not before time.] Having invested all this effort in actually getting to the hut we felt we should perhaps climb another peak while we were there and so choose the west ridge of the Jagihorn. The ridge was good and quite hard, with some thought provoking rock climbing. The descent was relatively short although probably a little longer day than we would have wanted considering the task we had set for the next day. Just before dinner I was invited to "Cocktails" by the Guardian . It was a chance to meet other Guides. No one else was planning to climb the Beitschhorn the next day. The Guardian gave us the weather forecast. It was stellar. 21st August 3.00am Breakfast . Then we were off up the path following the reflective markers. These ran out just when they would have been really useful but we still randomly found the toe of the glacier. We trudged up the dry glacier and after about an hour we had a debate about where we should leave the glacier and start on the lower part of the ridge. The options looked difficult although in the end the correct choice was made and it was a lot less difficult than it looked. Once we were established on the ridge things went well. It is very long , mostly on good rock and the route finding is on the whole straight forward. If in doubt stick to the ridge. After about 7 hours since leaving the hut we arrived on the summit feeling we had made a good account of ourselves.
The plan was then to traverse the mountain and descend to the Beitschhorn Hut. This is where the plan went awry. The cloud behind John in the photo was not as benign as the forecast had predicted . Soon we were enveloped in thick mist. Then the wind got up. It then started to rain. John's glasses steamed up and he could see his feet. Then the wind started to really blow. We now couldn't see further than an out stretched hand and the only way we could communicate was to yell into each others ears. In addition this side of the mountain was plastered in thick unconsolidated snow where as the east ridge , our route of ascent was dry. So strong was the wind that we could not climb down the ridge for fear of being blown off. The whole outing was turning into a bit of a challenge. Eventually we got forced into descending a steep couloir on the north side of the mountain just in an attempt to get out of the wind. We were making very slow progress because John could not see through his misted up glasses. It was now raining hard and we were getting very cold . Again we were forced onto some more unpleasant loose ground . Eventually I spotted an escape route and a rappel point. We rappelled onto the glacier out out of the mist. We were feeling mightily relieved even though the glacier was soft and there were lots of holes to navigate around it was a thousand times better than what we had had to endure. Eventually at about 9.00 pm we arrived back at the Baltschiederklause Hut. Drenched through. The first thing we did was get the Guardian to call the Beitschhorn Hut to inform them we would not be coming. Then we both sat down while the Hut Staff prepared lots of food for us and some large beers. A big day. The next day we awoke to a leisurely breakfast. The main topic of conversation was how could the weather forecast be so wrong? A local Swiss Guide who had been on an adjacent mountain told me that when the storm came in he called Geneva Airport to ask them what was happening in real time. Apparently they denied there was any bad weather!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

First Time on Crampons

The brief was to find somewhere high and spectacular where someone who had no previous alpine mountaineering experience could spend a week in an incredible environment. This was a challenge I accepted with Bob & Annie Taylor. Saturday 5th August. We met at the sports shop , Stamos Sports in Argentiere where Bob and Annie were kitted out with alpine climbing boots, crampons etc. We then headed up Les Grands Montets cable car for an initiation day. Annie had never worn crampons and the whole climbing thing was new to her. Meanwhile Bob was coming back to alpine climbing after a 30 year break. He was shocked that his new boots weighed virtually nothing while his boots of 30 years ago were more like deep sea diving boots. A lot of kit has changed in the last 30 years. We spent the morning learning the fundamentals of proper safe crampon technique. In the afternoon descended onto the glacier des Rognans. In the last 30 years it is not only the equipment has changed but the flip side is that so have the glaciers . It is utterly shocking to see the devastation reaked by global warming. What should have been a simple walk down a steepish snow slope turned into a baptism by fire of negotiating very intimidating open crevasses. What is the start of the ski piste in winter had become a very serious descent in the summer: The three of us headed down the "ski piste" before steeping over some eye wateringly huge crevasses. Next we turned left and climbed up the aiguille de Grands Montets eventually following the rocky ridge to the top. Sunday 6th August. We drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel down past Aosta then took the turning to Gressoney. We dumped the car at the road head at Staffel ,jumped on the cable car which conveniently put us at just over 3000 meters. We then walked and scambled to the Refugio Mantova for our first night at a very respectable 3500m. The sunset and view of Mt Blanc some 70 km was impressive: Monday 7th August. We left the Mantova at about 7.30 am , threaded our way through the the glacial rocks and then headed up the glacier negotiating some very photogenic crevasses. We made very good progress and were very happy to pass the magic 4000 meter mark. We continued on and reached the summit of Vincent Piramid 4200meters. We walked back down to the Gnifeti Hut slightly higher than the previous night. We sat on the terrace and Annie had the inspired idea of opening a bottle of Prosecco. It was all very fine , my only issue was it was just too hot. Tuesday 8th. Being too hot was not the issue the next day. The weather was not good for much as it snowed all day, Yet for us it gave us valuable further acclimatization which was going to be all important for aim of staying in the Margherita Hut. Wednesday 9th. The day started bright. The over night snow made everything look beautiful. We were careful not to be away too early so that other teams could break trail. Although we couldn't really afford to relaxed because the forecast was for storms in the afternoon. We enjoyed a wonderful ascent to the Margherita Hut at 4554meters , the highest building in Western Europe. We arrived at the Margherita at about 11.30am. Just before the weather turned bad . It started to snow and then the hut was hit by lightening knocking out the power for a while. Lightening strikes on the hut are a big deal. Recently according to the Hut Guardian someone had been fatally hit by lightening while taking a photo out of the window during a lightening storm. Although not fatal someone had also been hit by lightening which came through the air vent in the squatter toilet. Thursday 10th August. The last time I awoke in the Margerherita hut had been the Friday 24th June. The morning the Old , the Poor and the Stupid killed off the next generations future by voting for Brexit. [Why wouldn't you want your children to have the opportunities that a European passport provides?] Unfortunately I will always have this association with the Margherita. However on this morning I had the more practical issue of how we were going to get down in what was 30cm fresh snow and zero visibility. There was only one other Guide and party in the Hut that night. A very personable and very competent Grindlewald Guide named Patrick. We agreed to team up and work together. We didn't see much for the first couple of hours but once we got back to the Gnifeti Hut we were just below the cloud base. We stopped at the Mantova Hut for a cappuccino before sauntering back to the top of the lift syatem ending very good week.

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.