Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Thinking of climbing Mt Blanc this summer? Guided Ascents of Mt Blanc: What they Don't tell you.You need to know this.

Far too many people who want to climb Mont Blanc are still under the impression that climbing it is just a long walk up a “big hill.“ To quote the classic line from Gaston Rébuffat book “100 finest climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif. “ “requires the ability to walk in crampons.” This must go down as one of the all time understatements in mountaineering literature. The majority of people who sign up to a guided ascent of Mt Blanc do not understand that in less than optimum conditions it is incredibly dangerous. Or they use the defence mechanism “cognitive dissonance.” This where someone knows full well its dangerous but persuades them selves [and others] that accidents only happen to other people. Rébuffat’s book was published in 1973. Since then only Donald Trump has not seen the effect of global warming. In the height of the summer attempting to climb Mt Blanc is often just too dangerous to contemplate because perma frost which glues everything together has melted which causes huge stone fall and serac collapses. Below is a personal anecdote which demonstrates how serious the Chamonix Mountain Rescue take the issue. In September 2016 I was travelling up the Italian cable car the “Sky Way.” It leads up into the Vallee Blanche. The cable car was packed with members of the mountain rescue teams from Italy Switzerland and France. It was a training day where the rescue teams from three countries could share ideas , develop new rescue techniques and make sure they had a better understanding of how they might work better together. The teams loaded boxes of equipment , stretchers , ropes winches , ice screws , pulleys ,giant stakes , and loads of other stuff that I found fascinating. Everyone squashed into the cable car , rather like you get squashed into the London Tube at rush hour. I found my self next to Captain Patrice Ribbs, the chief of the Chamonix Mountain Rescue the Peloton Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne. [The PGHM] He is a fellow Mountain Guide [and I know him because we both had children at the same school in Chamonix.] Captain Ribbs started to explain a little more about what they were doing. I was particularly intrigued by the big pile of plastic boxes piled up in front of us . I asked him what was in the boxes? “Chain saws“ was his dead pan answer clearly enjoying the look of confusion on my face. He went on to explain that they were testing the relative efficiency of 2 stroke chain-saws and electric chain-saws. Apparently petrol chain saws don't work very well above 3000 meters and in confined areas they give off noxious fumes. They were going to be testing new Husqvarna lithium battery powered versions . Still I wasn't any wiser , I have had considerable experience of using chain saws , but there had always been a tree involved. As far as I was still aware there were no trees growing on glaciers. No, these chain saws were not for cutting down trees but were for slicing through avalanche debris. Specifically the avalanche debris which frequently devastates the path up Mt Blanc. The traverse of Mt Blanc from the col du Midi is very prone to avalanche and serac collapse [falling ice cliffs] Last summer alone two Mountain Guides who were colleagues of mine were killed , one by an avalanche and one by a serac collapse. On 12th July 2012 9 climbers were killed in one massive avalanche on the slopes of Mt Maudit as they attempted to climb Mt Blanc. The PGHM were tasked with trying to dig out the victims , they found that normal shovels were useless and they were forced to cut the snow and ice into blocks using chain saws in order to move it. It was while sectioning the ice debris into blocks that Captain Ribbs spotted a leg sticking out of the avalanche . He then saw that the leg was moving and called to his team mates to help him move the blocks frantically by hand. They found a woman , still alive and although she had considerable injuries these were not thought to be life threatening. Instead she was in a total state of shock. As she had laid trapped in the ice unable to move she saw the chain saw pass in front of her face over her chest over her arms over her neck not once but several times. It is now the advice of PGHM that everyone attempting Mt Blanc via the traverse of the 3 Mt Blancs should wear an avalanche transceiver. The primary use of the transceiver is to detect the victims body in as short a possible time , and here’s the point , so that the rescuers are in the danger zone for the shortest possible time. It is not to be used in the conventional manner which is to find someone quickly before they suffocate under the snow. Its sort of a deal: If you get hit by a serac and killed and your wearing an avalanche transceiver then the PGHM are more likely to return an entire corpse rather than one quartered by a Husqvarna. According to Captain Ribbs the woman he found made the very reasonable observation that making the choice between being buried alive or being cut to bits by a chain saw was not the experience she thought she had signed up to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ski traverse of the iconic col de la Grand Casse and unforgettable smell of ‘Eau de Drying Room pour Homme’

Charles Sherwood , Charles son Tim and Charles brother Simon arrived in Chamonix to be greeted by perfect weather. Charles has ski toured all over the Alps with me over the last 25 years. Simon and Tim had not. They were both good skiers but ski touring was new to them. The challenge was to find somewhere Charles had never been plus somewhere that was suitable for an introduction to the sport. We started with a familiarization day at Le Tour. Apparently according to Charles this was the first place Tim had ever skied, Tim reasonably couldn't remember. Either way it seemed like a suitable place to start his ski touring career. We skied off-piste so we could get use to the new skis and boots and then got to grips with the skins by making an ascent of the Tete de Balme, modest but ideal training. The tomb stone on the summit has an S on one side and a F on the other, hence the passport. The next day we drove around to the Vanoise, to the town of Pralognan. The plan was to take the two chair lifts out of the village and then follow the valley up to the Col de la Vanoise Refuge. Regular readers of the Blog will probably have an inkling "the plan' was about to go awry: The lifts had closed due to lack of the essential ingredient. The lift company had not thought it necessary to update their website with this somewhat critical information. No one skis [or for that matter does anything] in France to enjoy its customer care. There was still a cable car going up another hill but it wasn't in the direction we wanted, but it would at least gain us some height. We took it. At the top there was some snow . It gave us approximately 15 seconds skiing Before we were walking again: Not the start I would have wanted as the aim was to get the newbies enthusiastic about ski touring. They were however un phased and thought it was a beautiful walk [which I suppose it was.] Eventually after about 40 minutes we arrived at the snow line and could put our skis on our feet and skin up the beautiful wild remote valley.
After about two and a half hours we arrived at the Refuge;
The weather was turning. The next morning we awoke to crap weather. I decided that we should try and go out and do something although what exactly, I wasn't very sure. I looked out at a group who were already heading out. I was hardly rushing to follow them.
After breakfast we decided that we better go out and see if we could at least get some exercise. As we were putting our boots on the earlier group returned looking like something from Napolean's retreat from Moscow. Our plan was to go and see if we could climb the Pointe de la Réchasse. We headed out and as we dropped down from the col the weather did clear a little so we carried on.
With rather more use of the map and compass than I would have wanted I think we eventually arrived on the summit. A very respectable 3212 meters.
Then something very good happened. As we skied down we moved below the cloud base and we could see. What is more we found some very good fresh snow and some exceptional pitches of skiing all the way back to the Refuge.
Easter Monday 17th April dawned clear. However we set off before dawn because it was important to get away while everything was still frozen in place. So it was skiing with head torches.
We also got to see our summit of yesterday looking quite different:
Today was to be the traverse of the col de la Grande Casse, one of the alps best ski touring days. We skinned up the long glacier where eventually it becomes to steep to continue on skis and it is necessary to climb with the skis strapped to the rucksack. Eventually we arrived on the col where the views over to Tignes were breathtaking.
From this point it is skiing all the way until the snow runs out. The route takes a high traverse which it at its end becomes why a high traverse is so critical.
Turn left too soon and you will end up bouncing over and down some fairly hefty seracs. Possibly a mistake you might only ever make once. What followed was a good 1000 meters of vertical descent on perfect spring snow. Eventually the snow ran out and we had to walk for about an hour, but that was a small price to pay.
A few days later Simon sent an email which summed up what he thought of his introduction to ski touring here it is: Charles and Mark I am back home and have settled down after a couple of rushed business meetings. Now is the time to think and thank. What a special trip and experience. It is hard to find a way to express my gratitude without it just ending up as a list of superlatives. Yet again my big bro’ has introduced me to a new world, something completely different. And yet again, I have loved it. I was quite worried before the trip as to whether my tired ageing overweight body would be up to Charles’ idea of a break - i.e. extreme physical punishment. Of course, there were moments of hard work, but there were many more moments of quiet bliss. It seems surreal looking back. Particularly memorable moments: Day 1: We go under a piste rope and “Welcome to France”. Dinner with the delightful Seaton family with the energiser bunny that is Sophie beside me to laugh with (have I convinced her to help the cows by eating them?). Day 2: The chair lift does not work so we do that amazing walk across the slopes with skis on our backs, all with glorious views and sunshine. Night one amidst the unforgettable smell of ‘Eau de Drying Room pour Homme’, and endless alarms. Day 3: One of my favourites as we venture out in to what I call a storm, but to Mark is slightly overcast. I thought the white out was wonderful. There is a special beauty and comfort in being wrapped in that white blanket. And the hypnotic slush-slush motion of the skis. Day 4: Heading out of the refuge with torches on! My first time night skiing. That beautiful climb up to the col with the moon at our backs and the sun icing the top of the mountain range behind. Then arriving at the top in the expectation of a howling gale but finding only beautiful views. And let me not forget that I was the only one who did NOT FALL!! (although I made up for it the day earlier). I have never had such an enjoyable experience in one pair of underwear. Unforgettable, unforgettable. Thank you so much - both of you - for allowing me to have a glimpse of your world. Simon Simon M C Sherwood

Monday, April 10, 2017

Father & Sons High Level Route.

Arguably there can be no better way to spend quality time with your children than on a multi day ski tour. Especially when it all comes together with perfect weather and conditions on what is undoubtedly one of Switzerlands great ski tours. Clearly it requires a lot of planning to get everyone together even more so when there are two fathers and their adult children. Thursday 6th April Simon Allen and his two boys Christian and Alexander were joined by Mark Dravers and his son Chris. We met in Argentiere where everyone was kitted out with ski mountaineering boots , skis and all the other ski touring paraphernalia. We then "crowbarred" it all in the car and headed around to the col de Pillon. Our plan was to use the ascent of the mountain , Les Diableret as our warm up , training peak. The plan for the day almost got torpedoed before we started because as we ventured out of the lift system at the top the wind was blowing at over 100kph. Hardly the best introduction. Yet as we skied down and got into position the wind dropped and that was the last indifferent weather we were going to see for the next four days. After we climbed to the summit we then skied down to Les Diablert Hut in excellent snow. It is a fantastic Hut , good food, beer, showers and wifi. We were the only guests. Friday 7th April We took the first lift up with the workers to the summit of Glacier 3000 ski system and the had a magnificent ski down to the col de Sanetsch.
From the Col it is necessary to skin up the arete de L'Arpille. In places there was no snow so we had to strap the skis on the back of our rucksacks and walk up. This is a big day and it is important to keep moving quickly because a lot of the route traverses avalanche prone south facing slopes , some of which had already slipped. After the avalanche debris there is a long climb up to the col Pucel. From here , providing you get the line right, [which we did] you can ski all the way down to the Cabanne Audannes and a very welcome beer. Saturday 8th April We left the Audannes at about 7.00am and were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we looked back toward the cabanne.
The task for the day was to arrive at the Wildstrubel Hut. [The second time in a week for me!] The main challenge was dealing with the heat especially because the last two hours is a grueling climb which only gets more the difficult the hotter it gets. We arrived at the Wildstrubel Hut about 1.00am. There was no wind and it was extremely pleasant sitting on the terrace drinking beer watching the other parties who had set off later than us struggle up the final slopes. In the evening we joined in what seems to be a ritual of watching the sun set. Sunday 9th April We left the Wildstrubel Hut at about 7.00am. The goal was to traverse the Wildtrubel mountain and the ski out to the Gemmi Pass. We enjoyed solitude all the way to the summit. We then had world class spring skiing all the way to the lift station. "All" that was then left was the small matter of getting back to the car at Col de Pillons which was some considerable distance away.
It was hard to imagine how the trip could not have gone better.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Following the sun.

The request was an interesting ski tour which is challenging , but not too challenging with an overnight in a "nice" Mountain Hut. It is a "no brainer" at present. It is a very easy choice: the perfect over night ski tour is a night in the Wildstrubel Hut with a traverse of the Wildstrubel the following day. This is exactly what Catherine Lewis and her very good friend Henrietta Salvo did with me. We took the Funicular from Sierre to Crans Montana. We then rode the lift system to the summit of the Plans des Mortes Glacier and then skied off into thick impenetrable mist and high winds. This was not part of the plan but it is what it is- We battled our way to the Hut , where ,unsurprisingly we were the only guests. Yet our luck was to change . All along, the weather had been due to improve and improve it did. Early evening and late afternoon produced some stunning views from the balcony.
The following morning was perfect. Cold and clear with no wind and no one about. We left the hut at about 7.00am and were in position for more spectacular sunrises, before heading across the Plaine des Mortes glacier and up to the top of the Wildstrubel. We then skied down exceptional spring snow to the Gemi pass. We descended by cable car to Leukerbad and then to Leuk , caught the train back to Sierre and picked up the car. If there is a better on night two day ski tour show me it!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

6 days of exceptionally good ski touring.

The weather forecast was perfect. Clear skies meant we would get a strong overnight freeze. Bright sunny days would produce the optimum spring snow skiing conditions. Monday 27th March. John Young and I headed off up La Flegere. We skinned up the Col du Crochue. It was a bit weired because despite the weather being wonderful there was no one around. It is the sort of place that if you are on your own you have to ask the question what does everyone know that I don't? The answer soon became apparent - everyone was behind us; Next we skied down to the foot of the big gulley which leads up to the Glacier du Morte. We strapped our crampons on , stuck the skis on our ruck sacks and climbed up the couloir , which gets pretty steep at the top. The ski down was very good. Although the track through the forest back to Le Buet was "faster" [read icy] than we wanted. Tuesday 28th March. We got dropped at Le Tour by my new driving daughter Andrea. We headed up the lift and then skinned up and over the col just to the right of the Grandes Otanes. We couldnt believe the sight of the exceptional skiing which awaited us.
Again there was no one around - It was truely magnificent. Mind you there was a price to pay. Lower down there was the remains of some massive avalanche devastation the like s of which I had never seen before.It was tedious clambering through the hundreds of meters of smashed up trees.
. Eventually we did fight our way out and down to Trient village, where after getting lost several times, Andrea turned up to pick us up and drive us back to Chamonix in what she claims is now her Land Rover Defender. Wednesday 29th March. We drove around to Les Contamines , we used the lift system to catapult us on our way into the Beaufortain region where we skied around to above the lac de la Girotte. On the Thursday we decided to go on an overnight ski tour. We drove through to Sierre. We parked the car and took the Funcicular to Crans Montana. We then worked the lift system up to the Plaine des Mortes glacier from where we climbed the spectacular Rohrbachsteim 2950m After which we skied down to the Wildstrubel Hut- which at present I would have to rate as the best hut in the Alps that I have visited in terms of its welcome, food and general ambience. Friday morning we were a way by 7.00am just in time to arrive on the summit of the Wisshore 2948m to enjoy the sunrise over the Plaine Morte Glacier. From there we traversed the glacier before climbing up and on to the summit of the Wildstrubel 3244m. The ski down got better and better and the spring snow was very good all the way to the Gemmipass cable car. From here we descended by cable car to Leukerbad. After some lunch we took the bus to Leuk, then a train to Sierre where we picked up the car and drove back to Chamonix. Saturday was to be our final day. The weather was threatening to change. We headed to the summit of the Brevent and skied off behind the ridge making our way around to the Col du Brevent. The weather was cold and windy and the snow was not softening up. It wasbone shattering skiing and and had zero to recommend it. We decided to head back to La Flegere. This proved to be a good call. The wind dropped and the sun came out. We traversed around to Lac Blanc and the made our way over to the deep gorge which leads up to Col L'Encrenaz. Instead of climbing up the col we skied towards Col du Montets again enjoying good spring snow. Inevitably by the time we hit the road it was decidedly soggy and there was rather a lot of vegetation sticking up through the snow. All in all it was another excellent day. Andrea was there to pick us up in her Land Rover and rive us home.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Resort Skiing is not quite shot to bits : If you are flexible.

The best way to have good skiing is to have a good sense of what the weather is doing and then go where the snow is best on the day. On Wednesday 22nd March Fiona and Reuben and I drove to Verbier. It is about 40 mins drive to La Chable. We had good off piste skiing from the lift system , but at lunch we eat in probably the weirdest restaurant of the season. Weird because the owner is seemingly a friend of Sarah Ferguson and thinks that having a Fergie themed menu is a great idea...
On Thursday we awoke to a fresh snow fall and decided to head to Les Grands Montets. The morning was good and we managed to find a descent down the Retour Pendant where we made fresh tracks all the way. In the afternoon we took up our reservation for the top cable car. This proved not to be such a great idea , because as we skied down the glacier du Rognan, suddenly the weather changed . The wind picked up dramatically and reduced the visibility to zero. We had a minor epic getting down and back to Lognan.
On the Friday the dreaded foehn wind had kicked in. The weather in Chamonix was miserable. But not to worry we headed through the Mt Blanc tunnel and were greeted with fresh snow and very good tree skiing. On the Friday the weather was indifferent in Chamonix so we drove down to Combloux where the weather was glorious. Yet at the foot of the resort it was lacking the essential ingredient , instead it had been replaced by lots of mud. Yet high up everything was fine and we found some good spring snow skiing, yet aspect was everything: The wrong aspect and there was no snow whats so ever.

Ski Touring in the Vanoise

Bill Mills and Greg Knott have been ski touring with me for nine consecutive years and we needed new areas of the alps to explore, so I suggested the Vanoise. They flew in the Thursday night and I collected them from their hotel in Argentiere and we drove around to Pralognan which took about two and a bit hours. We dumped the car, bought a one way ticket on the lift system which catapulted us on our way. At the top of the lift we stuck our skins on and headed up this vast open valley toward the Refuge Col de Vanoise.
It was a beautiful afternoon and we arrived at the hut after about 2&1/2 hours. The refuge has excellent draft beer .
Saturday 18th March. We awoke to find the whole hut shaking with the wind. Soon the clouds came in and the options were limited. Yet we still managed to get out and do battle with the weather. We headed up to try and climb the Pointe de la Réchasse 3212m. The weather didn't improve it just got worse and so we turned around just before the summit. Re finding the Refuge was far from simple, but find it we did.
Sunday 19th March. The day started cloudy but the weather was forecast to improve. We set off for the col de la Grande Casse . If there is a better days ski touring then I'd like to see it: We skinned up the glacier de la Grande Casse
At the top of the col the view opened out and it was possible to look over to Tignes and far beyond.
It is important to start the long traverse by keeping high. This needs to be done for about 2km because when you have finished the traverse and you look back from where you started you immediately see why you needed to stay high.
After the traverse the ski down was very very good. Perfect slopes which seemingly went on and on.
Then the skiing wasn't quite so good because it was flat , hot muddy and knackering. Eventually we arrived in Champagny le Haut. We phoned for a taxi which took us back to the car at Pralognan. We spent the night in Brides les Bains. The next morning we drove to Mottarret just above Meribel. We parked the car and then got frustrated that the lift didn't actually open until 9.00am. We then rode the huge lift system through Val Thorens and eventually arrived at the col des Thornens. It was here we left the lift system and headed off up to the Col de Gébroulaz 3417m which is steep.
At the top were now in a position to ski the Gébroulaz Glacier. In the distance we could see Mt Blanc.
This was absolutely fantastic spring snow skiing. One of the great things about the descent is that we saw no one. Well apart from a weirdo in his swimming trunks walking across the glacier.