Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Seven Climbs by Charles Sherwood

To mark the publication of his new book Charles Sherwood has written a short piece on 

How to Choose a Mountain Guide

I first met Mark Seaton in 1993.  We have climbed together, often two or three times a year, ever since – in ski boots, in mountaineering boots and crampons, and in rock shoes – from the Alps to Africa.  We have shared some unforgettable experiences from the Old Man of Hoy and a traverse of the Matterhorn to the North Face of the Eiger and a traverse of Mt. Kenya.

Mark has unquestionably been my ‘chief guide’ over those years, but I have used others too, especially in more distant parts.  So, how do you choose a guide?  I am assuming things like basic competence, evidenced by qualifications and experience.  But, what other factors should you take into account?

First, I would suggest, temperament.  When we met, Mark was a young guide with considerable ambition.  But that ambition included becoming an old guide.  With a lovely wife and three daughters, Mark had no plans to get killed – a fate that sadly befalls all too many guides.  I, on the other hand, have always been more from the ‘go for it, come what may’ school of outdoor adventure.  I too, however, have a wife (equally lovely) and three children and I did recognise that in a guide I needed an element of prudent caution.

Second, personality.  A climbing partnership is an intimate one.  The new fashion of ‘social distancing’ is not easy on a portaledge, or at a tight bivouac, or trapped in a refuge for days on end.  It is important you like each other!  In Mark’s case, his devotion to client service extends even to bedtime stories.  He is the author after all of the children’s series, Mark the Mountain Guide.

Third, type of climbing.  This is more relevant in North America, where guides tend to be much more specialised: backcountry skiing versus ice climbing versus rock climbing.  In Europe there is more of a tradition of multiple competence.  Nonetheless, even there, you want to be sure that you and your guide enjoy broadly the same kind of climbing.  If one of you wants to go cragging at the side of the road and the other is hell-bent on the North Face of the Aiguille Blanche, then it is not going to work.

Mark Seaton Traverse of the Gods NF Eiger photo Sherwood

Finally, there is an important element of geography in all this: do you go for a truly local guide or what I might call an expedition guide, i.e. a guide who climbs all over a region like the Alps and perhaps even further afield?  The local guide has attractions.  There is the cultural affinity and, of course, you will never get lost.  But there are downsides.  The local guide is unlikely to be excited about a route he or she is climbing for the fiftieth time.  This is often cited as a problem with those Zermatt guides that focus almost exclusively on the Matterhorn.  Some, at least, are rather disengaged, choosing to eat, sleep and socialise separately from their clients.  The alternative is to tie up with a guide who is as keen as you to explore new climbs and new countries.  This means getting lost – I guarantee it – but it also brings a shared excitement and even a shared sense of responsibility.  You are a team trying to crack this problem together.  Most of the more ambitious climbs that I have done with Mark have been of this kind: climbs such as the Nant Blanc Face on the Verte in France, the Comicci Route on the North Face of the Cima Grande in Italy, the Biancagrat on Piz Bernina in Switzerland, and the Pallavicini Couloir on the Grossglockner in Austria.  These routes have been as new to him as they were to me.  Somehow that makes for a different and rather more fraternal experience.  It is the kind of experience that turns a guide into a lifelong friend.

Be wary though, because this climbing thing comes with a health warning: it can prove addictive.  It was as I descended from the Eiger with Mark after four extraordinary days on the mountain that I set my heart on a project that was to take me a further decade: to find an Eiger on each continent, in short the finest seven climbs in the world.  This challenge would take me from the Alps on to the Himalaya, Yosemite, the Andes, Kenya, New Zealand and South Georgia.  It is described in my book, Seven Climbs.  It can be bought by clicking on the Amazon link of recommended  books at the side of this blog.

Charles Sherwood
C Sherwood in the White Spider. NF Eiger.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ski Season 2020 It was good while it lasted .

Catching it right. On the way down to Le Plan
The ski season was shaping up very nicely. A steady supply of unstable weather had provided regular top ups of snow through out February and March. This is not to say it was perfect because it was not. This was because there were  dramatic fluctuations in temperature resulting in some soakings.  There were several days when it was so wet getting on  a chair lift was exactly like being attacked by the riot-police with a water cannon.

Some days were better than others...

Yet there were many days when the powder skiing was as good as it gets .

Bill Wendin hits the sweet spot in the Youla Couloirs Courmayeur.
Brian Hunt's photo of me skiing down to Giettaz.
Each morning we knew if we were going to potentially get good powder skiing at around 5.30hrs when a giant Bernese Mountain Dog arrived in our bed.  Eddy had become very scarred of the avalanche control blasting and thought he would be a lot safer under our duvet.
It is always fantastic to wake up to a fresh dump of snow, sometimes it was necessary to get up an hour or so earlier in order to clear the snow  from the drive so we could get the car out.

All in all there had been a tremendous amount of snow fall through out the season.  Low down this had been affected by the unhelpful swings in temperature, yet high up the snow had accumulated significantly and the ski touring season was looking good because all the glaciers were well filled in.

Then it changed in ways it had never changed before.  Frankly I did not see it coming .  There were accounts of Coronvirus out breaks in Pietmont Italy.  I had a group booked to go ski touring in Gressoney which we cancelled , not for fear of becoming ill , but incase the Mt Blanc tunnel shut and we got stuck in Italy.  Yet we still had a few day trips through to Courmayeur and everything seemed fine.
Then events started to change - Italy went into total lock down, including all mountain based activities. But  life in France kept on as normal, the snow continued to fall, the skiing was good and everything was seemingly just fine, or so I  thought ...
Thought it was a storm clearing but it was a storm brewing

Then suddenly the lifts in Chamonix closed with no forewarning . Then, we Guides  were told  we would not be insured which is another way of saying you aren't allowed to work.   Then President Macron announced the total lock down.

It became  obligatory to down load and print off a


A form you had to fill in to leave the house.  To start with this meant you could still go cross-country skiing or biking or running, but no rock climbing or mountaineering. But the next day the cross-country skiing closed and then the regulations tightened and an up dated form had to be filled in , this time stating you could not venture more than a kilometer  from your house for a maximum of one hour and no cycling.  The reason being that falling off your bike could stress the hospitals unnecessarily. 

So there you have it.  Never in the history of skiing or mountaineering  has the season stopped so abruptly and so that seems to be the situation today in the Chamonix Valley.  Mind you events are moving so quickly anything could happen.

 Beer anyone?

Monday, February 10, 2020

Klosters delivers yet again.

I spent 17 consecutive years skiing in Klosters with the famous Flying Grannies. [The FG's] . I got to know the off piste runs very well .

Sadly the last time I skied with the group was 2008.  Since then they have either died or key bits of their bodies have broken.  Still they went on into their late 70's.
So I was very excited to return with Chris Dovell and Lia Heisters.  Yet like most of the best trips it got off to an inauspicious start.
We left Chamonix in the lashing rain and endured it for the entire  5 hour ,500 km journey.

On the Monday it was not actually raining but it was warm.  So warm that the avalanche risk was 4 out of 5.  [The Swiss virtually never post a risk 5 unless there is a threat to buildings and infrastructure.]  We contented our selves by skiing around the resort , which is colossal.  Then in the afternoon the temperature dropped dramatically and it began to snow.

Tuesday: Every lift  was more or less shut .  The only area that was open was called the Rinerhorn.  A good  off-piste area but quite an undertaking  to get there, especially when the railway had been closed by wind blown trees across the line.
It kept us entertained  until it closed around us because of the strong wind.  We returned to Klosters stopping for a sandwich in Davos.
 It was snowing hard. So much so if, Donald had still been in town he might have said

 "How can you have global warming if it's snowing like this ?"

Coffee and cake stop .  Davos.
It dumped all night and the same snow-plough spent its entire evening  out side my window making loud scrapping noises mixed with lots of beeping each time it reversed.

Wednesday, eventually morning arrived.  We now had plenty of snow.  In fact too much , because all the lifts were again closed. Yet at about 9.15 Klosters opened the Gotschna cable car to its middle station.
From the 17 years with the Flying Grannies I knew that in these snow conditions this is all you need for skiing heaven.  We were off for some world-class powder skiing through the trees.  Our first run was back  down under the line of the cable  car.  Absolute perfection.  Then the top section opened. We headed up but although it was [euphemistically] atmospheric it was too windy to get really good off-piste skiing so we instead skied down the Schwarzeealp all the way back into Klosters and got some sublime pitches through the trees.

 Next we went back up to the middle station and this time  cut out skiers left and skied the trees , ending up on the Klosters home run piste.  Here we put the skins on for about 10 minutes before attacking the meadows which head down to Sernus where we picked up the Post Bus back to Klosters, where we did a final lap from the Gotschna middle station.
Chris Dovell enjoying himself.
Thursday.  We now had marvellous snow and beautiful weather .  Every single turn was perfect.    Huge  descents from the top of the Weissfluhgipfel via the famous "Direttissima" run followed by powder pillows in the meadows. It was exceptional.
Lia Heisters putting in tracks in the early morning with the back drop of the Cassana

Perfect snow to ski
Friday .   Change of venue.  The other side of Klosters is home to Madrisa ski station.  It always took me a bit of negotiation to get the  FG's to ski there because  it was far too modern for them and it wasn't really Klosters.  [It opened in 1964]

Yet it has impressive skiing terrain.  Chris, Lia and I headed there and hit the sweet spot.  We skied line after line from the lift system and then in the afternoon headed down the long remote run to St Antonien.  Before we skied the run, I wanted to get the views of the local avalanche experts and dropped into the piste patrol office to see what they thought.  After all there were virtually  no tracks in the valley.

I had skied the route many times, the last time, rather poignantly, [although I didn't know it at the time]  was to be  the valedictory  run with the FG's before they signed off. - [Not a bad place to sign off either] Back again under different circumstances , the run was perfection.
The entry pitch into the St Antoien run.

Saturday. Inevitably the resort was busy.  Despite a sharpish start we were still in a queue for the Gotschana cable car.  But once we were through that we worked our way once again to the to off the Weissflugfel.  We dropped off the back and were instantly alone.

Klosters has a reputation as being a place for "posh wooley-heads" and royalty to hang out. But  the terrain we were in would have impressed anyone from the "extreme fat ski brigade."

We worked our way around and through the cliffs and eventually  found our selves once again on the   glorious north face of the "Direttissima"

Not sublime turns to start with , but in any other resort, after 3 days of sun they would have made your holiday.  Further down the skiing was once again perfection.  In the afternoon we skied the classic Gmeinboden off-piste run from the top of the Seetali drag lift.  Again only quite good at the top but flawless the lower we skied.

So may be the moral of the story is you need bad weather if you want good snow, yet Klosters delivered again.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Very Deep Snow

This person is actually standing up
We have had some good skiing in the low resorts while the higher resorts of Chamonix have been trashed by the wind or even shut.  Fiona , Reuben and I headed for St Gervais, where it was still very windy , but we did find some sheltered tree skiing which gave us wonderful powder.  In fact I had never seen it so windy in St Gervais

But there was a reward the next two days we spent in Combloux.  The conditions were absolutely perfect.  Clear skis and powder snow.  The ski down to Giettaz was magical.

Yet as is seemingly more the case each year the next day it rained and all the wonderful conditions were gone.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Excess Boys 2020.

22 years ago was the last time Kevin Tuck & I were last here.

They returned again...  Not quite so many of them this year as last - injuries, illness and accidents had unfortunately afflicted a lot of them in the preceding year.  Added to which at dinner in Argentiere Steve almost choked to death while trying to eat half a cow.  Luckily an overly enthusiastic nuclear  thwack between the shoulder blades did the trick.  Life carried on and more flagons of rouge were drunk.

True to form this was not the only incident of their trip.   Always in my attempt to be creative and think of new and unusual places to journey, I suggested we went on a massive tour of the St- Gervais, Megeve, Les Contamines ski area.

This is how it "worked":
 Everyone was squashed into the back of the Land Rover, a challenge in its self  [which becomes more of a challenge as every year passes,] We  then  drove to St - Gervais. After parking there was the spectacle of them all spilling out of the back.

Next we rode the lifts of the Telecabine du Bettex to the top of Mont d'Arbois. We then skied down the beautifully flattering green pistes to Megeve.  We then  worked our way over to Rochebrune.  The aim was to then carry on around in the direction of Cote 2000.  From the top of the telesiege des Jardins,  we skied off the back of the resort into a picture perfect scene straight out of a Samivel painting.

From there we put our skins on and climbed up to the La Croix de Pierre.  At the top we peeled the skins off and started the descent down to Hauteluce.  The skiing was difficult.  The snow was crusty, icy and in places  just horrible.  We did however eventually find a good pitch of skiing .

Next was a unique incident which was defiantly a first for me.  While skiing the final section down to the lift station it was necessary to negotiate a farm where I was attacked by a very pissed-off giant goose.
I did at least distract it long enough for the rest of the group to pass through the farm without further incident and we all reconvened at the Val Joly cable car.

The team were feeling well skied after this mega journey.  Fortunately all that remained was to ride the lift to the Col du Joly.  From there it was a mellow ski through the Les Contamines lift system to the bus stop.  Two buses then took us back to St Gervais to within a ten meter walk to the Land Rover.

The previous day did for Pete and Steve which left us James Adam and Kevin.  The weather was a 100% better than forecast and so we decided to do the Col Crochue / Col Berard Ski tour.

This is the  worlds most popular tour.  I have said it before and I'll say it again it :

 It's the sort of ski tour that no matter how bad you are at ski touring , it is certain that you will find some one worse than you.  And we did. [ More of this in a bit]

Having said that it is the most popular tour in the world because it is fantastic.  It has everything all neatly packaged  into one trip.

Kevin Tuck leads the way up the final slpoes of Col Crochue.

The building of the new Flegere lift has made the start to the day less stressful in terms of actually getting into position, but inevitably easy access means that many more people are being spewed in to the same  area.

Chris Boulton painting of the Col Crochue
 Once over the col everyone fanned out and set off for different objectives.  One guide even decided to split his group.  He set off up a different itinerary , the breche du Berard , while sending  a mother and daughter splinter group off one their own to the col du Berard , where we met them .  They were terrified and were totally out of their depth.  They however still were under the illusion that their guide was the best guide anyone could ever have, despite abandoning them with the instruction , all they had to do was ski down the valley keeping the river on their left.

My team were incredulous and even more so when the women continued to think they had employed such a wonderful guide.  It was pointed out to her that there are three rules of mountain guiding .

Never leave your clients on the mountain , 
Never leave your clients on the mountain, 
Never leave your clients on the mountain.

If this wasn't enough they were indifferent skiers who shouldn't have been there in the first place .

Needless to say we had no choice but to help them down.  Eventually more by luck than judgement the guide was reunited with them at the end of the valley and we were relieved of our responsibility and carried on down the route, stopping at the fairy-tale setting of the buvette at the  cascard  du Berard for a celebratory IPA beer, before skiing down to the train station and returning back to the Chamonix valley.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Skiing conditions are fantastic for the end of the year.

Florence gets good conditions on Les Grands Montets

It lashed it down for what seemed like weeks, then it snowed and everyone was happy.  Then along came the Foehn wind in its most aggressive and form.  It ripped up trees around Chamonix and even blew over the newly erected Christmas tree in the centre of town.  The temperatures were weirdly high.  I passed through Grenoble on my way back from Alp d'Huez and the car thermometer read a crazy 20c.  The meter of snow which had fallen in the garden had entirely gone.  Meteo France described it as "remarkable."  It might have been remarkable but it was also depressing.

The ski school and  the Chamonix resort were in full panic mode as Christmas and particularly New Year approached.  The ESF in Chamonix seemingly lost the plot and , sent out an order to all their ski instructors to head down to Les Plannards beginners area and help trample and pack down  what little snow they had so that they could stand a slim chance of having a patch of snow to work on.  The reason for doing this by foot and not by piste-basher was because there wasn't enough snow for it to move on without churning all the snow into mud.
Perfect Christmas Day conditions.

Yet at the 11 hour it snowed .  All was saved.  We got some brilliant off-piste skiing in Courmayeur and then the next day in heavy snow we enjoyed some even better off piste skiing in St Gervais.  Then the high pressure came along cloudless days freezing nights and perfect conditions in the Chamonix Valley and around.

Over 2 meters of snow on the roof in Courmayeur.
St Gervais powder skiing.