Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A resort with issues.

Economists will tell you "invest in the resort and the people will come." In Chamonix there seems to be the view: Don't Invest and the people will STILL come. People would joke about the "third world" lift system saying it just added to its charm.  



Some Background

 Then around the new millennium  someone within the Powers that Be had the bright idea that they should target a "better class of skier." But not  better skiers, just skiers with more money. It was theorised that people with more money generally only want to ski in the sunshine, so the logic was to reinvest in the lifts on the south side of the valley i.e.  Le Brevent and La Flegere. and  spruce up the center of Chamonix with some posh shops - hence the arrival of the Chanel Boutique- [which has now gone again.] So, firstly Flegere and Le Brevent were linked with a horizontal cable car thus creating a larger ski area . The Brevent /Plan Praz telecabine was rebuilt and a new Index cable car was installed. When it was pointed out that skiing on the south side meant the snow deteriorated quickly in the afternoon , the official thinking was wealthy skiers don't ski in the afternoon, they eat lunch. Yet the project was half baked because they never got the cafes and restaurants sorted out. The choice is laughable. At the top of la Flegere cable car there is a cafe called the Foehn. This is supposedly named after the Foehn wind, the same disastrous wind that frequently shuts the cable car leaving thousands of skiers trapped on the mountain very regularly. The decor inside The Foehn cafe gives a nod to the Eden Project with savanna grass like  carpet stuck on the walls and spot lights that hang down like triffids. It sells insipid coffee and car-wash sponges purporting to be  flavoured muffins at eye watering prices. In the same building down stairs there is a restaurant which provides DIY incinerators loosely based on table top barbecues.  These barbacues have a two stage job. Firstly they allow you to burn your own meat and cheese which creates a thick impenetrable stench.  The smoke then accomplishes the second job of completely blanking the jaw dropping view  through the un openable windows. Over on Le Brevent there is La Bergerie, which is okay, but only as long as you don't go  down stairs into the cafe where you will be treated as an inconvenient annoyance. The whole thing bumbled on for many years , then there were some big infrastructure warning signs that even a blind man galloping by on a horse would have seen.  

The Vallee Blanche Eggs


Firstly there was the high-season breaking down of the Eggs which traverse the Vallee Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi to Helbronner. Last year this made international news headlines. Many people went home with some memorable  stories. For example , being plucked by helicopter in vertiginous rescue would be up there with anyone's holiday memories. Meanwhile others were "lullabied" to sleep in the Eggs. If that wasn't fun enough, on their eventual "hatching"  the next morning they were  presented with a free voucher for another  complimentary trip. Yet it was arguably last winter which marked the start of the slippery slope.  During a winter storm the cable which suspends the Eggs snapped sending the Eggs to the glacier floor.  


The Aiguille du Midi Second section

Next there was the saga of the Aiguille du Midi damaged cable. This, don't forget is one of the biggest generators of cash in France and it is meant to be the 3rd most popular "natural" tourist attraction in the world after the Pyramids and the Niagara Falls.  Well the second stage broke down for the second time in six months. Firstly the tractor cable , which pulls the cable car up, was replaced. Soon it turned out to be rusty. Rumors flew about that this was because there had been corners cut in the sourcing of the cable. These were categorically denied. The new cable was defiantly sourced in Switzerland and this time the lorry transporting the bobbin did not get stuck under the railway bridge in Argentiere. The new cable was up and running by mid summer. It was during a routine check in mid July that a 60cm section was found to be damaged. Again rumors started flying - the most popular was that the permafrost had melted and the mountain had moved, causing the cable to be out of alignment. Whatever the real reason know one seems to know . What is agreed upon is that this won't be fixed until Christmas 2018 may be January 2019.


Le Brevent

Moving across the valley to the other side of Chamonix to the Brevent , while the Plan Praz telecabine is the bench mark of a modern unit, the same can not be said of the Plan Praz /Brevent cable car. Presently the cable on this also being changed.  It was at the point when they had completely dismantled it that the engineers had the eurika momment to experiment with  a new tractor cable.  Perhaps in the context it isn't surprising that they are struggling to get it up and running again?


La Flegere

Moving along the valley we arrive at La Flegere. Regular users will be accustomed to the depressing queues which go with trying to shoe-horn skiers into a cable car that is no longer fit for purpose. As already mentioned it closes regularly due to the Foehn wind , but in addition the motor regularly burns out .




Le Tour

 At the head of the valley in the village of Le Tour it is universally accepted that the telecabine is in dire need of a new one. It was 'old' 30 years ago. Now the pylons are unstable and again rumors suggest that even the people who work on the lifts are scared to travel in the bubbles because they are worried that they will spontaneously self detach . There was and is  a plan to rebuild the lift. It was to start from a slightly different place. A place that not everyone in the village could agree upon. There was a petition signed arguing that the new lifts departure point would disadvantage certain businesses.  The whole project stalled and consequently there has been little economic alternative other than to put a "sticking-plaster" on the current lift and hope it gets through the next winter season.

 Les Grands Montets

Moving back down the valley on the north side there is Les Grands Montets. This is considered by many to be " the jewel in the crown" of skiing in Chamonix. It has some of the best and steepest skiing terrain in the world. It is mythical. It was also the first resort in the valley to have "Ambassadors."

These brave people  are there to break the news to you that the whole Grands Montets experience is not going to be quite as good as you thought it was going to be. This is often because the queue is too long , or the lifts have broken down , or because the chief Pisteur detonated a preventive avalanche that  ploughed through the middle of the Plan Joran Restaurant.

This next season the Ambassadors are going to have even more to explain. The challenge will be to explain how the roof caught fire and destroyed the Lognan lift station, bringing down the cable and causing upwards of 40 million euros of rebuild.
How the roof did catch fire is a matter of conjecture . But it all seemingly stems from cost cutting: The building needed a new roof but it was judged that patching it up would be fine. So a local contractor was employed to use a flame thrower to melt and spread hot tar over the biggest holes. Only it went wrong.



Monday, October 01, 2018

September Solitude.

My favourite time to be climbing in the Alps is late Septemeber early October. Everyone has cleared off, it is cooler therefore less knackering , it is safer because the rocks are glued in place and the weather can be so clear and the views show off the autumn tinges at their very best. Fortunately for me, Reuben agreed with me about the benefits of Autumn climbing. We had a long standing arrangement to climb together at the end of September. We had no fixed agenda other than to do some interesting climbs and experience some real solitude. We started with the La via ferrata des Evettes high above La Flegere. It is an ideal "shake down" day and is good place to bank some early acclimatisation.
It was also a chance for Reuben to spend sometime with his grown-up daughter who he doesn't get to see that often. Emma was able to join us for our first two days together. On our second day we rode the Montenvers Railway up to what was was "formerly" the Mer de Glace and climbed on the impressive slabs
On our third day together we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel , rode the Skyway lift to Pointe Helbronner which over looks the Vallee Blanche and climbed the Aiguille du Marbree.
It was cold clear and it all felt wonderfully remote. On our fourth day we climbed above Argentiere on Les Chésérys cliffs. We climbed the immaculate, route the L'EMHM [The ecole militaire du Haute Montagne] no guesses for who originally put the route up. The penultimate pitch is very very good.
Our fifth day was probably the standout day. We left the Chamonix valley and drove around to the Col des Aravis. On a beautiful morning we headed up the tough steep unrelenting comb which leads to the start of the Arete Marion. This is a ridge which is in a wonderful position with views back to Mt Blanc and the surrounding area . We were watched from a far by two massive Eagles. They came so near that I was suspicious that they weren't actually real , but instead giant remote control toys.
The penultimate pitch is the one for the memory banks:
As we were climbing up we saw, below us, another team of two climbers. We joked that this was not what was meant to happen this week , the whole idea was to climb in complete solitude and we had failed . After the climb, as we walked down from the summit of the climb we could still see the climbers making what appeared to be unusually very slow progress they appeared to be just standing there. Yet the next thing I heard this almighty whooosh and two figures came flying down the comb , before deploying their parachutes. "Squirrel Suiters."
They made it down quicker than we did. On our final day we headed over to Switzerland. We drove up and through Verbier and then on and up the Savoleyres pistes system [ Land Rover Defender useful] and parked at the top. We then walked over to the Pierre Avoi, the giant pillar that can be seen from Martigny . We climbed the L'Arete. A route which is all about being in amazing situations . The only complaint was that it was too hot!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Lead Like a Guide

Chris Maxwell is a Senior Fellow who works at the Wharton Business school. It is one of the most renowned business schools in the world. It is within the University of Pennsylvania. Chris recently wrote a book entitled "Lead Like a Guide." The basic premise is that the best Guides demonstrate all the skills that are the skills needed to lead effectively in business . After interviewing an array of Guides from all over the world Chris distilled six key skills which the best Guides possess. These are , he argues the same six skills that business leaders should develop.
The Wharton Business school went on to develop an outdoor program for its MBA students. Unlike a lot of Outdoor Management based courses they were able to show transferable results from the out doors to the business environment. Chris was a Key Note speaker at the recent "Summit of Minds " conference held in Chamonix. It is an international meeting with 250 participants from 5 continents organised by Thierry Malleret, director of the Monthly Barometer and Blaise Agresti, Mountain Guide and director of Mountain-Path. - Sort of mini version of the World Economic Forum held in Davos. It was prior to the summit Chris Maxwell gave a short presentation to a small invited group of local Mountain Guides. The presentation was based on his book "Lead Like a Guide How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to be better leaders." It was empowering and fascinating stuff, not least because it shows that people are appreciating our skills as Guides out side of the mountains, as well as what it means to be a Guide in the modern constantly changing world.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Climbing Mont Blanc; A different Strategy?

The majority of people who have little mountaineering experience who dream of climbing Mt Blanc hire Mountain Guides. Although there are some slight variations most of these groups follow roughly the same template. Namely a three day two nights in mountain huts glacier expedition. The main goal is to acclimatise . This is mission critical. The perceived view is that once you have the acclimatisation it is important not to lose it by spending no more than a night in the valley before heading off to one of the Mt Blanc mountain huts , either the Tete Rousse, the Gouter or the Cosmiques hut depending on where you can get a reservation. This has been the standard practice for at least a generation and it still works well for most people. Yet certain mountaineers have begun to question if there is not another way. This premise starts with the view that rest and a good nights sleep is as important as acclimatisation when the "Big Picture" view is taken. For example someone new to mountaineering who has just "endured" two nights in mountain huts with poor sleep and big physical days needs a proper rest before going onto a challenge which more often than not is the most physically demanding thing they have ever done in their lives. Put simply the view that once you have acclimatised you need to stay high in order not to loose the acclimatisation is no longer sacrosanct. For example as Steve House the accomplished mountaineer and Guide notes in his book "Training for the Modern Alpinism" The super-rich Everest Oneabees are acclimatising on Everest and then chartering Helicopters back down to Katamandu for some R&R before flying back to Everest for the summit attempt. They are generally in a better shape than the people who stay at base camp. While this type of narcissistic "mountaineering" can be debated, the point is that quality rest at low altitude can be more beneficial that suffering at higher altitudes. [Of course there will always be people who can not acclimatise no matter what protocol they follow.] While it may be impractical for people with limited holiday time who are on a climbing course to adopt such a strategy, it is an interesting option for people who live and work [say around Geneva]. They can go on a three day climbing and acclimatisation trip , then go home, sleep in their own bed , rest , get on with their normal lives and then return the next week for the summit attempt. This is precisely what Catherine Lewis and I did and it worked like a dream:
For the first part of our trip we met at the road head at the end of the Lac de Moiry. Catherine brought her husband Richard along. This was their first climbing trip together [ever] and one of the very few times they had been away with out their children for a very long time. We packed up and headed up to the glacier for some ice axe and crampon revision work. We then continued up to the Cabane de Moiry. This is an ideally positioned hut because it is high at around 2800 meters [consequently perfect for acclimatisation] and it has a selection of peaks which are ideal for training, they are not too bigger days , so you don't end up exhausted and demoralised
AND the views of the surrounding peaks are as good as anywhere in the world. After our first night [where we had showers albeit cold showers] we headed out and climbed the Pointes de Mourti 3564m. It was absolutely perfect because it has some simple scrambling near the summit which is excellent practice for the climb up to the Gouter Hut on Mt Blanc.
We also had impressive glacier scenery to pass through.
We arrived back at the Hut for beers on the terrace. The Hut guardian had decided to round off the season by showing a series of esoteric mountain based films . After dinner we were treated to one about the great Walter Bonatti. On our third day together we climbed the north ridge of the Pigne de la Lé 3396m. A rocky scramble which took about two hours. From the summit we descended the glacier on the south side, made our way back to the Hut , collected the extra stuff we had left and descended to the car park. Thereby completing a wonderful three day trip . Catherine was adamant that this was a wonderful expedition in its own right. All was left was what is becoming a bit of a tradition: a swim in the Lake. Which by the way was all part of the Master Plan...
PART TWO. A key piece of this strategy is flexibility. Flexibility is the name of the game. It is a mind set. Without it, you might as well find yourself another pass time. You need flexibility so that you can have the optimum weather and conditions but equally so you can get a booking in the key Mt Blanc Huts. For example, instead of phoning the hut and asking for a specific night. The strategy was to ask "Have you any nights free in the next week?" This clearly took the guardian by surprise because instead of saying "No we are full" he said he would check and call me back! Which he did offering us the two beds we needed. It also goes with out saying that a team of two: 1 Guide - 1 client increases the flexibility [ not to mention safety ] of the whole project. Further more I got us a reservation in the Tete Rousse which meant we could spread the ascent over three days and dramatically reduce the effort needed the first day. Catherine drove up from just outside Geneva where she lives and we met at Bellvue cable car in Les Houches. We met at 10.00hrs. Because it was mid September it was quiet. It also made a difference that the Nid Aigle train had shut the previous day. We set off walking to the Tete Rousse Hut on a beautiful autumn day. Three hours later we were settled into our first beer.[Or I did]. I have spent more nights in the Tete Rousse than I care to remember , yet there was something different about this night. It was late in the season it was cold and clear therefore conditions were perfect. Perhaps because of this there was a relaxed atmosphere. More over there were a unique set of Guides in the hut that night. Stuart McAleese was just down from climbing Mt Blanc for the umpteen time this season - who gave us key information - it had been very cold. Next there was Blaise Agresti. The charismatic ex head of the PGHM Mountain Rescue, not just for Chamonix , but the whole of France. In my line of work a very important person. His client was a journalist for La Monde who was writing an article about Mt Blanc - although I never got to understand if he was there to say climbing Mt Blanc was a good or a bad thing. Next there was Thierry Renalt. Indisputably one of the best climbers France has ever produced. He has always been a brilliant Guide and once again he was here demonstrating just how good he is by having the patience of a saint to help an old guy reach the summit of Mt Blanc. Finally there was Sandy Allen. A mountaineering icon and fellow British Guide who was awarded the Piolet d'Or for his audacious ascent of Nanga Parbat. The plan was to leave the Tete-Rousse hut and climb the 1700 vertical meters to the summit of Mt Blanc the next day. The dilemma was whether to have the breakfast offered at 3.30hrs or 5.00hrs. The issue was that there was a spot of indifferent weather forecast for the middle of the day. An early start would potentially avoid this . The flip side was starting too early could mean that at its best we would summit in the dark OR it was just too cold to summit. The information from fellow Guides [Stuart] descending back to the hut was it was very cold. I choose the later breakfast. We left the Tete Rousse at 5.45 hrs. We climbed in parallel with Blaise and his journalist client. The journalist took photos of Catherine and I . We are now immortalised somewhere in the French media. Less than an hour and half we arrived at the old Gouter Hut. We stopped to strap on crampons over trousers and thicker gloves.
Next it was a plod up to the Dome de Gouter. There was a very good track and because of our later start we could see where we were going and enjoy the experience. We were motoring. We stopped at the summit of the Dome de Gouter to drink down some tea and munch on some snacks. Our next stop was at the Vallot Hut . 4300m. We put on our anoraks because the wind was building. We continued on.The whole nature of the climb changes here . We joined a narrow steep ridge, the famous Bosses Ridge ,which was buffeted by the wind . After all it is Europe's highest ridge. Catherine started to have her first doubts. I gave my standard MR Motivator response. "I have never failed above the Vallot Hut and I'm not going to fail now." The next time Catherine looked anxious we stopped to employ the secret "Wim Hof" breathing technique [ something that is set to potentially be a game changer in high altitude climbing] Then finally when people are running on empty and the summit is within touch , something that never fails: A hand full of force fed Gummy Bears. Miracle "food."
A few more steps and the summit was exclusively ours . It was 11.45am. A very respectable and impressive six hours for the ascent. An emotional hug , the summit to ourselves a few photos then an easy couple of hours back to the Gouter Hut and several celebratory beers .

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Mellow Mountaineering

Di, Martin and Clive joined me for four days. Di and Martin had visited Chamonix many many times for skiing , but not much in the summer. It was Clives first time . The remit was to go to some interesting areas and learn as much as possible On our first day we climbed the South Ridge of Les Glieres. It is hard to find a climb in the Chamonix valley with a better back drop.
The next day we headed up the Grands Montets and after having a comprehensive re-cap on all things ices-axes and crampons we put the skills to work by climbing the East Ridge of Les Grands Montets.
The forecast for the next day was for torrential rain. I decided that the best thing to do was to go for a long walk. I choose to drive around to the Emosson Dam and climb the peak Bel Oiseau. Yet it did not rain one drop and we enjoyed fantastic views and even finished up with a swim in the Lake.
Our final day was to be a good way to finish: We drove through the Mt Blanc Tunnel and rode the Skyway lift to the Helbronner summit. We then headed across the glacier to climb the impressive summit of the Aiguille du Marbree.
It was not until we were back at the bottom and congratulating ourselves on a great four days that we had the biggest scare of the week. As we got up from the table and swung our rucksacks onto our backs, Clive let out a bunch of expletives : Unbeknown to him a snake had crawled into his rucksack and as he walked off it crawled out of his pack and attempted to crawl onto his back. Some bezerk like movements threw the snake off and off it slunked.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Its called the "Weisshorn" for a Reason

Our goal for the end of our week together was to be the East Ridge of the Weisshorn. This was to be David Brooksbank's third attempt on the mountain with me. The previous two never even got anywhere near it. In fact last year we headed to the Dolomites due to bad weather. This year was to be different we had a good forecast, and the main pressure was securing a booking in the Weisshorn Hut. With the booking made , we started our climbing and acclimatization by heading around to the Moiry Hut. This is as near a perfect place to both acclimatize and climb some straight forward peaks with out becoming exhausted. We climbed the Pigne de Lé.3396m. David then "agreed " to join me for a swim in the beautiful Moiry Lake and he didn't even complain about having to share it with a few ice bergs.
We then headed back to Chamonix where it rained . Yet we still went rock climb high above Le Brevent and climbed [or swam up] the aptly named Mickey Mouse.
It was then off to the Weisshorn Hut.
The guide book describes the hut walk as "hideous." While it is long and steep [about 4 hours] it is anything but hideous. In fact it climbs up through a beautiful larch forest on a very well built path. What was hideous was that it started to rain , then the higher we ascended it started to snow, yet our optimism was not dented too much because the forecast for the next day was still good. The problem was that it just continued to snow harder and harder. We arrived at the wonderful Weisshorn Hut to be greeted by the Guardian with a warm Grog and to discover we were the only guests... The alarm went off at 3.00am. The sky was clear . The Guardian thought it was worth having an attempt, the bottom line would be to know how much snow had fallen on the rocks on the ridge. so working on the principle "you don't know until you try" We set off to try. We tried for about two and a half hours and then admitted defeat. There was just too much fresh snow.
It was a good job we stopped where we did because retreat proved to be far from simple. The Weisshorn was now very "weiss". The day was now beautiful
We retraced our steps and after stopping for a chat with the Guardian and his wife we headed off back down the path to Randa only stopping to cool the feet off in a welcome trough.
Back in Chamonix and for our final day together we headed up La Flegere and climbed the brilliant Point Gaspard
I think this is one of the best climbs in the Aiguille Rouge giving sustained wonderful climbing and it finishes on a good summit
I was quite tired afterwards. David apparently not so . He took himself off to play 18 holes of Golf.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A mix of big mountains and rock climbing

John Young joined me for his annual summer Alpine climbing fix. There was no plan other than to maintain maximum flexibility and go where the conditions and weather were good at the time. Yet on our first day together this back-fired as no sooner had we got off the Index chair lift at La Flegere it started to bucket it down. Not a great start. Nevertheless we did manage to salvage the day by rock climbing in St Gervais where it remained dry and we able to do some very enjoyable rock climbing which ultimately proved to be a very good preparation for what was to follow. The forecast suggested that the weather would gradually improve so we hatched a plan to go and explore the Zinal Valley and booked ourselves into the Moiry Hut. Although the weather was due to improve it was not doing that when we arrived at the road head. It was raining hard and thumping off the windscreen. We sat in the car waiting for it to stop,it was like sitting inside a drum. Yet it did stop [sort of] raining and then we headed up to the hut between bursts of rain.
The hut didn't provide the best nights sleep either of us have ever had. It is of a modern "eco" design which as far as I could ascertain meant it tries to store all the heat within. In other-words you cant open the windows and so you basically suffocate and stew in your bed. Morning couldn't come soon enough. Any way, the plan for us was the traverse of the Aiguilles de la Lé.
The guide book describes the route as a "minor classic"
A minor classic it may be but it seemed like a very big undertaking to us. A fabulous route where despite it being the height of the alpine climbing season , we saw no one. Aesthetics are everything . It was an exceptional day. Then it was back to Chamonix for some rock climbing close to the Brevent . We choose the very good 10 pitch route "Hotel Calafornia." [I'm not sure what the back story is to why the route has such a name.]
By the Friday the weather forecast was looking unsettled and so we decided to venture further afield for the day in an attempt to climb in better weather. We climbed the Arete Marion high above the Col des Aravis. We made the journey in a 39 year old MG Midget which didn't have a fully functioning roof.
The route was fantastic yet we were very lucky to finish the route before the heavens opened and we were subjected to a classic summer drenching on the way back down. We arrived at the col where we left the car soaked but contented. The no roof on the car issue meant it was important to drive home at speed so that he rain [in theory] passed over our heads. After a couple of days rest , we headed back to Switzerland , in fact back up the Zinal Valley but this time up to the Tracuit Hut. Our intention was to climb the Bishorn 4153 meters. The walk to the Tracuit Hut was knocked off in 3.15 minutes, which we were happy with because we had been expecting it to take upwards of 4 hours. This was another "eco" hut however this time the architect and clearly thought that it would be good if the occupants could at least breath. They had considerately designed it with opening windows. It was a pre-dawn start and there was no moon. Finding the route across the dry glacier was difficult because there was no track to follow. [Or at least no track I could find.] Once we got to the glacier snow , we stumbled across the track and progress was a lot more straight forward.
It was then back down the same way. At first the soft snow helped the descent, then the hard glacier ice took its toll on our knees , but this was nothing to the path below the hut . Its gradient was designed to torture the knees. It was steeply sloped but with no steps. This meant that our toes were constantly being rammed into the front of our boots. It was so tedious that the descent took exactly as long as yesterdays ascent. 3 hours 15 minutes. Highly unusual for a path which is meant to be simple. Not surprisingly after 2550 vertical meters of descent on a path which had been sculptured by a bunch of idiots the beer at least was well received. We decided we needed a "rest day" [well to rest the knees anyway] We elected to climb the iconic Frisson Roche route on the East face of Le Brevent. The route was named after Frison Roche the writer who's most famous book Premier Cordée is a classic of French Mountain Literature. He was also a Chamonix Mountain Guide. It is a truly great rock climb. So much to say that if you were only able to climb one rock climb in the Chamonix valley this might be the one.
On our final together day we tried La Flegere again this time the weather was good and because the Brevent Cable car was broken [again] there were lots of people all fighting to get up the lift. We decided to walk a little further than everyone else and were rewarded by finding the route on pointe Gaspard very quiet. An absolutely fantastic climb to finish with.
A complete photo record of the trip can be found by copying this link https://www.flickr.com/photos/114992191@N02/albums/72157698663239351/page1/