Tuesday, January 03, 2023

All the way from America



Mt Blanc seen from Les Grands Montets

I first met Scott about 12 years ago. He was on a secondment from the US to Europe. Over several autumn  weekends he would escape to the Alps and we would embark on a variety of adventures from long multipitch rock climbs, alpine climbing, to ski touring and off piste skiing. 

We became good friends and he promised he would return with his family.  True to his word he eventually  did. On 27th December last year accompanigned by his wife, Steph and their three children, Laney Jake and Ellie, they arrived in Chamonix, or more specifically Vallorcine...

Scott & Steph were keen to give their children an "immersive French experience" and not stay in a "run of the mill" bland hotel. So they opted to stay in the "Hotel du Buet" in Le Buet.  This was just as well because every other hotel in the Chamonix area was booked out.  

Before I continue it needs to be said that the Hotel du Buet is situated in a beautiful area and the staff are very friendly and welcoming, yet it would be fair to say it is a little eccentric. Or as the French might say: "un peu spécial".

This eccentricity provided the Todd's with many stories which they were able to regale with some amusement which are woven into this account.

Anyway, pretty much up until a week before the Todd family arrived the skiing conditions were looking good. Plenty of snow and it was cold. But then it rained and rained... and rained. All the lower resorts such as Megeve were stripped of their snow. Parts of Chamonix lost lots of snow too. It was far from ideal. I started to get rather worried.

People naturally hire Guides when the conditions are good. Yet often when the conditions are sub-optimal, this is when a Guide can truly make a difference because their  experience of local [or not so local] conditions can make or break someone's holiday - especially when they have travelled half way around the world to get here.

An example of this was that the conditions were so fickle that two resorts only a couple of kilometers apart had markedly different snow packs, despite both having simlar south facing aspects. Le Brevent had terrible snow and closed pistes. Meanwhile La Flegere had excellent snow and all the lifts were operating.

Aiguille Verte seen from La Flégère.

Of course with limited options for skiers searching good conditions  La Flégère was mobbed - so having anticipated this the Todd's arrived by train  from Le Buet, thus missing the fight to find a parking space. We had a very good day with beautiful weather and some memorable descents. Plus being accompanied by a "Mountain Professional" meant they could use the priority line, which evidently meant maximising the skiing.

I enjoyed listening to the first story of their first night in the hotel. Fundamentally this involved them not actually receiving any dinner despite waiting in the dining room most of the evening.

Next - A lot of pondering over the weather forecasts suggested that the Foehn wind would blow in Chamonix. This generaly means it will be significantly colder in Courmayeur -Italy.  

We left early in the Land Rover [American's love original Defenders!] and drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel. I was given the previous night's update :  This time they had been fed, but not allowed to order pre dinner drinks and not given what they ordered but something entirely different.

Arriving in Courmayeur there were no queues [Americans do Lines] Excellent pistes, real Cappuccinos  and a world-class lunch at La Chaumière was as good a way as any to experience your first ever skiing in Italy.

Courmayeur pistes.

Next day we were back in Chamonix to ski in its iconic resort: Les Grands Montets. We  awoke to fresh snow. Not much, but it was enough to make it all really silky. The sun even appeared which allowed for some good photographs. The previous evening's installment story did not involve the Todd family directly but a poor fellow guest who was told he was not allowed, to not like,what he ordered for dinner.

We were joined for lunch by  the  ski school's only  Cambridge graduate, musician, Investment banker and Chamonix Ski Instructor all rolled into one person - Andrea.  Ellie and Andrea peeled off and skied together in the afternoon.  The rest of us skied Les Grands Montets off-piste  although the visibility disappeared.

My Swiss ski-spy Alison, provided me with real time intelligence on the state of the Verbier skiing which was excellent.  Critically so deep is her knowledge she promised me that Verbier would be quiet on New Year's Eve...

I trundled over the Col de Montets to pick everyone up at their hotel at 8.15.  I was greeted by a very scary Father Christmas effigy slumped in a chair in the Lobby. He looked remarkably like Father Christmas [American Santa] might look if he had died. We were a little delayed leaving because the toilet door [American bathroom] mysteriously locked Laney inside and no one could find her. She was eventually freed by her mother, the hotelier and a long screw driver.

Despite this forty minutes later we parked the Defender in Le Chable and rode the bubbles up through Verbier and straight on to the skiing pistes. Alison was right it was quiet [well not mobbed like Chamonix]  We then headed up through the lift system to the top of Mt Fort- the highest point in the huge "4 Vallée" system. The view from the viewing platform did not disappoint.

View from Summit of Mt Fort towards Lac Dix.


looking towards the Matterhorn.

The first part of the descent was a bit sketchy because it was carved out of a series of icy steps, pretending to be a piste. Everyone dealt with it admirably especially Ellie who's previous days ski lesson with Andrea had proved transformative.

Tricky start to Mt Fort descent


The skiing all day was excellent although it did seem at times that it was like April.  I dropped the Todd's back at the hotel.  They had made the descision that they were not going to eat at the hotel that night but try elsewhere.

The next time I saw them it was a new year.  They had indeed ventured into Chamonix, but were somewhat dismayed to discover that every restaurent that was prepared to feed them [early New Years eve] seemingly only offered a traditional French NewYears Eve set menu.  So if Octopus, Fois- Gras, Oysters were not your children's favourite food you were a bit stuffed.

On our final day we returned to Les Grands Montets.  The weather was beautiful, but the snow was anything but.  It had melted the previous day and re frozen during the night.  The pistes were like boiler plates and the off-piste was like rough  icing sugar.  I decided we should relocate to Le Tour where we were rewarded with some really exceptional skiing which proved to be a good way to end a great five days  skiing .


Jake avalanche transceiver training.



Off Piste Les Grands Montets


Final descent of the day from Le Tour.


Fabulous turns .





Saturday, December 03, 2022

Mark the Mountain Guide

 


The original Mark the Mountain book was published in 2008. It sold over 20,000 copies in the UK, US and France. It was decided it needed a revamp – a new look.  

Yet, at the risk of stating the obvious, children's books are all about the illustrations. We set out to find the best. To that end we scoured the earth with no success which left us despondent.  

Time passed by, then, out of nowhere my friend Vin called me : "I have found you an illustrator: a children's book illustrator with an impeccable portfolio of books and awards." 

Vin continued triumphantly: "What's more is she only lives a mile from you!" 

"Oh," I said non-comitally.This is because  I am generally of the view that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. 

Yet seemingly there are exceptions:

Brooke and I met at the "Petit Social" cafe bar in Les Praz a couple of days later for what would be over time the first of many coffees. [It is 30 seconds from Brooke's house and 10 minutes from mine!] Originally from Canada, Brooke is an accomplished climber and skier who had been living in Chamonix for over 10 years.  She saw this project as the opportunity to illustrate a story about the mountains. We agreed a schedule and she started with some very simple character sketches:


Then some action sketches:



From there we discussed colours, I had always been captivated by the iconic Samivel paintings and as Brooke continued to work away it was good that she has given a nod to these wonderful illustrations.

One of Samivel's famous paintings


Furthermore, Brooke drew heavily from her own experiences: anyone who is familiar with the Chamonix landscape will be able to see the Argentiere glacier. 


Once Brooke had finished all the paintings, she set about designing the actual book which was then sent to the printers.

The next stage was to launch the book. My daughter Andrea  was able to connect with the world famous mountaineer Catherine Destiville. She publishes mountaineering books through Les Editions du Mont Blanc. In France, the book is published under the title Marc le Guide de Montagne, available here.


Les Editions du Mont Blanc are now responsible for the distribution throughout the French speaking world. It was not lost on us that having France's most famous climber driving the book forward would be positive.

We have been asked to do a book signing on afternoon of the 23rd December at the central book shop in St Gervais.

For the UK market we created our own dedicated publishing company – Mark the Mountain Guide Ltd .

We set up the primary form of sales via our own website – www.markthemountainguide.com. Order online and the books are shipped with postage included overnight throughout the UK. 

In summary, we are extremely satisfied with what we have created.  We hope it goes some way to drive home the key message that enjoying physical activity and exposing children to gradual risks improves their happiness and self-confidence.  Furthermore, the power of walking and climbing has the ability to connect us to the mountains.  This is a book for anyone who loves the mountains and the outdoors.

Sophie Marmot & Sophie real life version on the right.


Happy Christmas 2023


 





Friday, November 04, 2022

A Reality Check: An Interview with Zeit on line.

 



At the back end of August the European Climate Agency asked me if I would be interviewed for the German News paper Zeit.  

The aim of the article was to get me to explain how the summer heat was effecting the mountains and the work of mountain professionals.

The original article can be found by following this link Zeit online

Other wise the English transcript is below:

Interviewer: Christian Spiller

30 August 2022


Zeit Online Mr Seaton, you have been working as a mountain guide in Chamonix for roughly 30 years. How did the mountains change in that time?


Seaton

It has been dramatic change, a change that you can see in front of your eyes. What we found is that this part of the Alps is heating up two or three times faster than other parts of the world. It's beyond bad. The situation has been terrible for years, but this summer has been apocalyptic. It has become too dangerous to hike on the glaciers, mountain huts have to remain closed and the impact on the mountain economy is having a huge impact on the region.


Zeit Online What are the main problems?


Seaton.

The main issue that we have is twofold. One, there's a dramatic disappearance of the glaciers, which you can almost see in real time. And then the other thing that is also probably more important is this problem with the permafrost disappearing. The permafrost is the glue that holds the mountains together. As a mountaineer, what you want is lots of snow and ice that glue the mountains together. If it is heating up, things get super serious, because you have rock falls everywhere. Only yesterday a mountain hut fell off the side of the mountain, because it wasn't attached to the ground anymore. When I lay on my bed in Chamonix at night, I can actually hear massive rockfalls from the mountains nearby. The biggest danger is in the higher mountains above 3000 meters. But we have also had rockfalls in the valley. Something that we've never seen before. 


Zeit Online How does that effect you as a mountain guide?


Seaton

What serious mountaineers coming to Chamonix want to do is to climb big, high mountains and the mountain they want to climb, more than any other mountain is Mont Blanc. Now, the issue is, if you want to be able to climb it safely, you have to have an overnight freeze. It's got to be cold. Its got to have frozen. Now, at the moment, the temperature at night is not going below zero, even at 4.500, 5000 meters, which is catastrophic. Now you can't justify going out to the mountains without a hard freeze because you have to walk on the glacier and you're going to sink in about your knees. Its not safe anymore. So that's one of the major challenges. 


Zeit online How do you deal with it?


Seaton

What I try to do is to steer my clients to other objectives, which is got to be the goal in the future, because, generally speaking, mountain guides, they are there to take people up certain mountains. But like a in a restaurant where the sommelier suggests a good wine we should suggest other mountains if Mont Blanc cant be climbed like right now. But the general population are just obsessed with numbers of heights. They want to climb the biggest, the highest. That's just not going to work. Because all you end up doing is just coping or dealing with other people's disappointment. 


Zeit online Is it true that if you still want to climb Mont Blanc, you have to put a deposit of €15,000, including 5000 for the funeral? 


Seaton

This is the mayor of St Gervais, he is a very good self publicist. He loves being at the forefront of of the news. There is some degree of sympathy with his idea, because the people who are turning up to climb Mont Blanc, some of them are just so totally under equipped that it is staggering. On Mont Blanc the police would stop and advise people on their equipment. But they had no right to say you cannot go. So the Mayor put a decree in place, which means the route is closed and now the police can actually physically stop people. 


Zeit online Are there some other ways to enjoy high mountains in times of climate change?


Seaton

Yes, we're going to have to de seasonalise. Traditionally the climbing season ran from mid-June until mid-September. But this year in the traditional time of July and August, it did not work. So we maybe do it in spring and fall. But that is a big challenge, because we are reliant on the infrastructure. The huts, the hotels the cable cars etc.


Zeit online At Marmolada in Italy there was a big, big accident this summer. 11 people were killed, and 13 had to be rescued from Matterhorn, too. How are you dealing with these risks? 


Seaton

I try to go to a different and safer area. There are some “red flags” that you've got to observe as you're out on the mountain. If you find water running down the cracks in between the rock thats a sign that its melting obviously. Sometimes you hear this grating sounds in the rock, which is sort of unnerving. And then sometimes you can hear rumbling noises, you know, like an upset stomach. These are clues, really. 


If you're talking about heat, for example, it does not only mean that the rocks are getting less solid. It also means that if you are if you're a climber or a trekker out in the mountains, you are more exposed to sun and higher temperatures. 


It is brutally hard work because of the heat. And it is always one of the reasons why we we try and set off for an early start and finish. That is the mantra. But, you know, sometimes if people get tired and they're slower and they get slower, you can just find yourself being fried alive by the weather and that is very, very hard. 


Zeit online So if you put all this together, there's one question appearing: Does climate change force us to have a different view on tourism and the mountains? 


Seaton

Well, there's two questions there, because the majority of people coming to Chamonix are not going anywhere near a mountain. Chamonix is a "shopping destination." This is a terrible, terrible, terrible form of tourism. The Aguille du Midi is one of the biggest generators of cash in France, and it just sucks people in to the town and there are  queues on the roads and this is just a catastrophe in my opinion on how to organize tourism. But Chamonix is also the world capital of mountaineering. Its, if you like the micro tourism that I am part of. And that definitely needs to have a mindset change. We as mountain guides got to take the responsibility of educating people that climbing mountains is not all about how high you've been. 


Zeit online How hard is that?


Seaton

Very. You know, people who have come here to climb Mont Blanc and they’ve been told they can't climb Mont Blanc, but are given another option to climb another mountain with nobody on it, with beautiful views, they say no, forfeit all the money and rather go home.


Zeit online What's your message to people who still doubt climate change?

 

Seaton

They need to come and see the Mer de Glacé in Chamonix. As you walk down to the glacier, there are plaques on the rock saying where the glacier was in each year. When they built the train to Mer de Glacé, you got off the train and the glacier was 20, 30 meters below you. It is now at least a 40 minutes walk down hill to the glacier. It's difficult to talk about it because it is quite upsetting and you feel totally powerless to do anything about it. 


Thursday, September 15, 2022

Not to be our day.


The guardian of the Aosta Refugio with his flagon of "falling down juice."


 The hut guardian was very keen to know what we thought of his penne-pasta and tomato sauce.  I thought this was a slightly  strange question because we were in Italy and this food is ubiquitous. Plus the tomatoes normally come out of a tin. 

 We said it was "very good," 

[It was very good]. The guardian grinned and said his father wouid be particularly  pleased to hear this because, it was he who had carried the fresh tomotoes for five hours up to the Refugio Aosta where we were staying .  The guardian explained that he had grown them in his garden.  It was like stepping into another world, where things had been done the same way for generations.

Approaching the Refugio Aosta.


There were four of us in the hut that night.  Me, Charles, the Guardian and the Guardians Dad.  Charles pointed out that even in the worlds finest hotels they do not have a 1:1 ratio of staff to guests.  Apparently the guardians plan was to close the refuge for the season the next morning but he had agreed to stay another night while we climbed the mountain, because we felt we would not be able to climb the route and descend to the valley all in the same day.

 The atstute reader might be asking the question:  Why with a perfect forecast were there not more people wanting to climb the Dent d'Herens, one of the alps great 4000meter peaks.  Why were there only two climbers in the hut?

The answer in part was because the summer had been so hot that the glaciers had been decimated and in most of the western alps the glaciers were left being extremely difficult to navigate.  I had however obtained what I thought was relatively up to date information from a colleague of mine who had climbed the same route a few weeks before hand.  Plus I reasoned we were quite an experinced team - Charles and I were celebrating our 30th anniversary , where we had climbed together at least once a year for thirty years. So although the climb might be more difficult than normal I reckoned we had the necessary ability to give it a go- plus it wasn't as if we didnt actually know each other.

Breakfast was at 3.30am.


DIY breakfast .



We were away by 4.00am [ish] To start the path unhelpfully descends quite a long way before threading its self through a jumble of boulders before climbing up a long rock moraine.  Late in the summer day- light takes its time to appear and it was therefore dificult to find the optimum path.

After what  felt like a long time [ may be an hour and a half ] we found ourselves walking on a glacier- not a white crisp version, but one that that had been reduced to black ice covered with ruble.  We continued upwards and as it steepened stopped to put our crampons etc on.  As we weaved our way around the crevasses the glacier got a lot steeper.  There was no snow anywhere just boiler plate hard glacier ice.  

A challange.

Although the ground ahead was steep, it did look that it was going to flatten out and therefore the crevasses would be easier to navigate.  We therefore continued upwards, yet just as we thought we had made a breakthrough in terms of route finding , we were confronted with another enormous crevasse.  Added to which as we climbed up, it became more difficult to retreat.  

In the end we had to admit that this was not to be our day for climbing the Dents d'Herens.  Immediately I turned my attention to how we were going to extract ourselves.  By now it was completely light and we could see, all too well, what we had already climbed up and now what we had to retreat back down.

Amazed we got this far!


The first thing we did was build a ice bollard anchor and made a rappel down to some more ameanable ground.

An ice bollard rappel.

Charles rappelling from the ice bollard.

We then carefully retraced our steps to where we could rejoin the moraine path and head back to the Refugio.  We had a coffee, updated the Guardian on the conditions and while we were saying our good byes he presented us with a half litre plastic lemonade bottle full of his home made Genepi!

Returning to the Refugio Aosta.

All in all an interesting experince, but not the one we had planned.



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

A well timed trip to the Dolomites



Punta Frida seen from Refugio Lavarado.


 John Young and I had our trip to the Dolomites in our diaries for well over a year .  It was just as well because any climbing high around Chamonix had been obliterrated by the heat wave, which has made mountaineering unjustifiably dangerous.

We drove to Cortina via Milan.  The roads were markedly quiet.  This was because evryone was in the Dolomites, as the 15th August is a bank holiday in Italy, so most people seemed to just tack on a further four days!

Fourtuantly John had booked us into the the very comfortable Villa Blu Hotel just on the outskirts of the town.  We made this our" base camp" for the first five nights.

The Hotel Villa Blu


This was John's first trip to the Dolomites and so we started on the relitively simple Via Del Guide on the Cinque Torri.  The approach is fast : You sit on a chair lift for about 10 minutes, then you walk to the foot of the route in about 15minutes.  Of course there is a price to pay in that there was the inevitable queue.  Luckly the two teams in front of us set of the wrong way and we were able to get in front and enjoy a good climb in beautiful weather and sublime scenary.  Once we were on the top of the tower we made three rappels and then went to look around the old 1st world war fortifications.


Climber on 1st pitch of Via del Guide

Having enjoyed a good introduction to Dolomitic climbing , the next day we headed for another of the Dolomites classics: The Comici Route on the South ridge of the Falzargo Towers.

The Falzargo Tower

Un ravelling the ropes at the start.


looking up the penultimate pitch.
Although it could have been very busy we only shared the climb with two other climbers, Erica and Unberto.  They proved to be  good company and we all met up for a celebratory beer afterwards.

During the next two days we had a bit of a weather hiatus.  We decided to sit it out, because the weather forecast going forward, promised to be marvellous.  We had a "council of war" and carved out a plan for our remaining time.  The plan worked perfectly. This is what we did:

On our next day of climbing we drove to lake Misurina, from where we walked up the beautiful valley to the foot of the Tour Wundt. The climb its self was another Dolomites classic with chimneys and cracks.
South Face of Tour Wundt





Beautiful approach walk to Tour Wundt

one of the chimney pitches.
The summit with the Tri Cima in the distance.

The Tour Wundt is one of those climbs where there is plenty to go wrong if you don't keep on top of it.  For example the rock is far from perfect and the protection is well spaced, plus the descent from the summit is complicated.  Yet all went perfectly for us.

The climb the next day a little less so.  Our friend of the other day, Unberto, had recommended a suposedly simple climb called  Del Tetto.

The crux. A hard move left into the sunshine



This is situated at the top of the Falzargo pass.  Somthing obviously got lost in translation because it was easy apart from a three meter section which was desperate.  This coupled with an inacurate route description made for a longer day than we wanted, especially because of instead of returning to our delightful hotel, we were booked into the Refugio Lavarado.

Anyway we made it. 
Refugio Lavarado
We were now in probably the most well known part of the Dolomites the Tri Cima Lavarado.  Our goal was to climb the Cima Grande via the Dibona North East Ridge.

Breakfast was a 6.00am and we were away soon after.  Twenty minutes later we turned a corner and were confronted by our objective:
Tri Cima

Our route followed the arête on the middle tower.

A further half hour and we were at the start of the route.  There was another pair Ditta and Lucas.  Ditta was an Austrian Aspriant Guide and Lucas was his friend and
 "dummy" client.
To begin with the rock was steep and cold.  It took a long time before we were in the sun.

John emerging out of the shadow.





Me on one of the many belays.

This was a truely magnificient climb, we lost count of how many pitches we did, but by the time we reached the finish we felt "well climbed."  
There was just the significant  matter of getting down.  This involves reversing the normal route by making a series of rappells interspersed with lots of down climbing. 
starting the long descent .


 Eventually the route splits and it is now possible to follow a new descent line that takes four 30 meter rapells which rather conviently dumps you about a 20 minute walk from the car park.  All in all we were on the go for about 10 hours.  Defiantly the crowning momment of our Dolomite trip.
The new descent drops you above the car park


We spent the night at the top of the Pordoi Pass in the Hotel Savoia. Tired but content , especially after a good meal and plenty of drinks.
The following morning we drove around to the Sella Pass and by some good fortune managed to find a parking slot.  Even though it was only 8.30am the place was heaving.  Our goal was to be the First Sella Tower via the Steiger route.  
The Sella Towers








Finishing up the final pitch

John topping out on our final Dolomite tower.



The three Sella Towers seen from the road.


This was a fine way to finish off climbing in the Dolomites. We departed via the Val Gardena and spent the night in the beautiful town of Brixen where we stayed in the Hotel Goldenes Roessi which is bang slap in the middle of the marvellous old town.

For our final climb we drove towards the world famous climbing area of Arco and climbed the 10 pitch route Amazzonia.  This was a significant change of scene.  Not least because it was hot.  Frankly too hot and I was relieved when we finally topped out and found some shade.
view from the climb Amazzonia

John above the Vineyards



John contemplating his next move.
Still the actual climbing was superb, with a bolt every two or three meters which was very pleasnat after some of the heart stopping run outs of the Dolomites.

Our final night before driving back to Chamonix was in the Pace Hotel in the center of Arco.  Again a beautiful location in the heart of   lively  old town.