Thursday, June 24, 2021

Britain's finest climb: The Old Man of Hoy.

The BBC 1967 outside broadcast put the Old Man of Hoy on many climbers bucket list. Rather like the Falklands before the 1982 Falklands War,   most people in the UK did not know where Orkney was, let alone the remote island of Hoy. In those days Hoy had no electricity and no scheduled ferry. It was difficult to get to. For completely different reasons it proved difficult to get to once again. My journey started in Chamonix with a visit to the hospital for a PCR test. Next I drove to Calais where I had to prove I had already booked two further Covid tests in the UK on day 2 and day 8. This was followed by the idiotic Brexit passport stamp and then the questions about how much tobacco and alcohol I was carrying. [Anyone who thought Brexit was a good idea should get them selves down to a ferry port to see what a mess they have contributed to. I was the only car on the ferry.] I then drove to North Wales where I had to quarantine for 10 days. I stayed with my father who I hadn't seen for nearly two years. After which I was free to travel. I drove to Fort William where I met up with John Young and the long awaited adventure could finally start. Everything was falling into place - not least a stellar weather forecast. We started with a shakedown climb in Glen Nevis, a modest Severe named Flying Dutchman and then another route called Pinnacle ridge. Both climbs were midge free. [Just.]
Flying Dutchman Glen Nevis
The next day we left Fort William early and drove to Lochinver with the plan to climb the beautiful Old Man of Stoer. Despite the early start we arrived too late to comfortably attempt the route. Instead we contented our selves with a stroll over to have a look at the stack and ascertain if there was a fixed rope between the shore and the base of the stack. There was not, which meant one of us would have to swim. That someone would be me. Therefore I needed to pack my swimming trunks.
Old Man Of Store
We stayed at the wonderful Inverlodge Hotel. It is spectacularly situated above the beautiful fishing port of Lochinver and its dinning room commands a view overlooking the port and out to sea.
View from Inverlodge dinnng room
We were a little disappointed not to be able to make a full attack on the comprehensive breakfast menu, but judged we needed to get going. We arrived at the car park at the lighthouse to find two other teams with the same plan as us. I am always keen to have climbs to ourselves, but having others around meant I did not  have to swim to the base of the stack. Instead I asked one of the other party if they might swim over with our rope as well as theirs? They were more than keen believing this was an integral part of the expedition.
Young & Keen the rope swimmers
With the rope safely in place and tensioned up we made our way across to the base of the stack.
The Tyrolean
The weather was more Mediterranean than northern Atlantic and so we were content to wait behind the other climbers. The rock is hard sandstone , not unlike Peak district gritstone.
John on the final pitch
Once we arrived on the top a single 55 meter rappel put us back down at the start of the route.
We then reversed the tyrolean, collected our rope and strolled back to the car along the headland, returning mid afternoon to the hotel and later dinner. Our plan for the next day was to drive to Scrabster and take the ferry to Stromness. We were able to have a leisurely start, and this time take advantage of the considerable breakfast. Instead of taking the coast road - The North Coast 500 route which has become almost un navigable because of its popularity, we took a route through central Sutherland before joining the the coastal route. You could count the amount of cars we passed all day on one hand. With time to kill before the ferry we took a trip up to John O Groats , which is somewhat underwhelming.
Plus we discovered it is not the most northerly point on mainland Britain. Its Dunnet Head. So we went there as well.
The ferry ride out to Orkney is always fantastic, not least because you pass right by the Old Man of Hoy.
Arrival in Sromness port was beautiful and it was straight into the pub for Lobster and chips.
22hrs coming out of the Pub.
The next day was the real reason for the trip. It would prove to be a big day. We caught the 8.00hrs ferry to Hoy crossing the Scapa Flow in thick cold mist.
Houton ferry harbour
John had some how produced two flasks of coffee and sandwiches for our breakfast. The ferry takes about an hour because it is not direct but seems to visit lots of other places en route. We arrived in Lyness , still in thick fog. yet as we drove across the vast remoteness of Hoy Island the mist began to clear. The reason the mist had cleared was because of a very strong wind which would be our companion all day. We parked the car at Ratwick bay and headed off over the head land towards the Old Man of Hoy.
leaving Ratwick Bay
This took us about an hour. From the headland which over looks the Old Man we followed the steep and tricky path down to the foot of the route. There were 3 climbers ahead of us, well up the first pitch and so we thought we would in effect have the route to ourselves. We geared up and I headed off up the first pitch.
1st pitch
I immediately caught the party up. Their leader was having a lot of trouble climbing the crux pitch. I brought John up to the belay ledge. We had to share this ledge with the other climbers and a nesting Fulmar, which was decidedly  pissed off with us and gave us the full Old Man of Hoy vomiting experience. I have to say it wasn't great waiting on this ledge. I could deal with the Fulmar , but the wind was cold. Eventually the last climber set off. I waited a while longer in an attempt to give them a bit of space. Yet when I eventually set off I passed around the corner and into the crack, to find them stuck. Eventually they unstuck them selves. I arrived at the belay and a call on the radio and John could finally climb. He raced up the pitch and arrived before the other team had sorted them selves out and so the belay stance was a little cramped and John was obliged to sit in his harness suspended in space. At least we were now out of the wind. It was then that John produced a couple of very welcome Pork Pies.
John storming up the crux pitch
The next two pitches are straight forward apart from avoiding the Fulmars. At least the climbers in front of us took the full barrage of vomit, so when I passed they had expended all their "ammunition"
The final corner pitch is as good as VS climbing as you will find.
The final corner
I arrived on the top just as the team in front were setting up their ropes for the rappel. John arrived to join me on a very windy summit. Then John signed the "Visiters book" which lives under a slab of rock. Generally the names of the climbing team are entered, but probably over come by the magnitude of the situation he forgot about me. So anyone who looks in the book in the future will assume that John Young made a solo ascent.
John signing the visiters book
Climbing the Old Man of Hoy is one thing, but there is the challenge of getting off it, and this is where experience of alpine style climbing is invaluable if you are not going to get your ropes stuck. Needless to say the party in front of us got theirs repeatedly stuck. Fortunately for them they had us following and we could un hook their rope and continuously throw it down to them.
1 st rappel
We choose to keep each rappel short , thus reducing the danger of getting the ropes caught. The final rappel is however not short . It goes the full 60 meters to the beach  for 50 of those meters its free and utterly spectacular in a jaw dropping setting.
John launches off the final rappel
Once we were safely on the beach , we retrieved and coiled  the ropes and then headed back up to the top of the cliff and immediatly into a viscious gale.  The walk back across the headland was shattering, because we were continuiosly buffeted by the wind.  
Due to the hold ups on the route we had missed the last ferry back to Orkney. Any thought of camping was literally blown away - there was no way we wanted to erect a tent in this wind. We drove over to the Ratwick Bay Youth Hostel, but everything on Hoy was seemingly closed due to Covid.  There was however a sash window open and I squeezed my self through it only for it to drop shut behind me.  Then it refused to open leaving me trapped inside and John still on the out side. It was like a scene from the Chuckle Brothers.  After some not inconsiderable effort we tugged it open, I escaped and we both thought that may be it wasn't such a good to get caught for "breaking and entry."

At a bit of a loss to know what to do next, we drove around to the other Youth Hostel which was also closed.  We sat in the car which was being rocked by the incessant wind.  All I could think to do was crack open the beer that John had carefully packed.  John had a better idea  he noticed a sign for a number to call the hostel warden . Yes! He got us a result. 15 minutes later the warden turned up and opened the Hostel just for us.  It was spotless , we had hot showers , clean sheets, John had food for us , wine and a bottle of Talisker.  Everything was finally perfect.  The end of a big day.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Best Laid Plans..

 We had a plan .  The plan was to do the Bernese Haute route which starts in Diablerets and finishes in Kandersteg.  It was all looking good .  The forecast was good, the conditions were good , the huts were open, we had confirmed bookings.  Perfect.  

The Matterhorn.

Then as the date for departure grew nearer there were the first glimpses in the weather forecast that things were not going to be perfect.  Still doable, but  with suboptimal weather. As our departure date came nearer the weather forecast started to predict snow.  Then more snow and then show-stopping amounts of snow, mixed with very strong winds.  Non of this was ideal but it was due to fall before our trip.  Then the sun was meant to come out and settle the snow pack and all would be fine .  Except it wasn't. The updated forecast put the whole storm back a couple of days. 

When the storm hit, it was like a second winter .  We got a meter and half of snow in the garden in the space of a day.   In the whole of  February we had zero snow.

 I had to cancel the ski tour and let Mark, Rysto and Til know the bad but obvious news.

They were still keen to salvage something to break the monotony of a Covid winter, so agreed to rendezvous in Zermatt.  

Travelling from" no lifts open Chamonix " to Zermatt was like entering another world. Zermatt for all intents and purposes has pretended that Covid doesn't exist. The morals of this can and will be debated for a long time but ,  all the shops , hotels, restaurants were open  and critically so too are all the lifts.  

This combined with the massive dumps of snow of the previous few days, while bad for ski touring was now wonderful for lift based off piste-skiing.  Assuming you were careful.

On the Saturday we headed up the Klien Matterhorn lift system , which appears to be constantly undergoing a name change.  This year it's called the "Matterhorn Paradise."

Our first run was down the Furgggletscher, which had good soft fresh snow which was a delight to ski.

From there on we continued down before arriving above , what must be one of the most amazing ski routes in the world the "Chamois glacier cave."   Its a bit nervy,  but there is a tunnel right under the glacier which you can wiggle your way through.

The Chamois glacier cave

Then the tunnel becomes more challenging :

Then quite tight:

Before popping out at the other end.

We enjoyed exceptional off piste skiing for the rest of the day and were able to get a sense of where the skiing might be good and safe for our next day.  We enjoyed a social evening in  a real restaurant.

On the Sunday we took a helicopter from the base at Air Zermatt and were dropped at the Alphubeljoch. at 3836 meters.

We found good snow, all the way down to the car park in Tasch. A vertical drop of 2480 meters.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Covid February in the alps is not complete sob story

 With the start of February we still enjoyed perfect conditions until a weird phenomenon hit us one Saturday morning .  The whole of the alps were covered with Sahara sand.  This has happened before many times , but not at least in my life time in such a dramatic way.  It never really became light and made the sky look like something out of a nuclear disaster film.

The mountains were turned brown.  Fortunately it snowed and covered the sand up , but it did reveal itself again later when we suffered a thaw.

I continued to explore new areas which I had never skied before.  Some were close to home , for example I had never actually climbed to the top of the aiguille du Posettes from the Le Tour village.  This was a very good way to introduce two, of the few people, who could make it to Chamonix, to the benefits of ski touring. Albeit Matt and Paulo were coming from Monaco.

We made most of the ascent in thick mist but burst out at the top to reveal a satisfactory vista.  Yet like so much of ski touring the snow on the way down was far from flattering.

The French School holidays were now up on us .  Normally this means the UK half term too. But not this year.  Mind you considering the lifts were closed the town was still very busy. 

It is also interesting to note that despite there being no lifts open in Chamonix and therefore the only up hill mechanism the Compagnie du Mt Blanc was responsible for[ in lest us not forget is  one of the most important ski resorts in the world] was a 60 meter revolving mat. Le Tapis.  It was deemed in dire need of a service because it was potentially going to snap and should be shut down. The ski school were  incandescent about this and so a compromise was reached .  The new parts would be ordered and the tapis would continue to run.  If it did snap before the new parts arrived well sol be it.  Lets trust that  this laissez faire attitude isn't applied to the rest of the lift system when it eventually opens. At the time of writing it still hasn't snapped .*

  Andrea ended up with more work than anyone in the Seaton household working solidly day after day at the jardin enfant at the Savoie area near the center of the town.

It was interesting to see all the tourists in Chamonix with out the lifts open.  People seemed to be a lot more creative in the things they did, from simple tobogganing , to mountain biking on fat bikes.  There were certainly lots of families actually doing things together, as opposed to the traditional frenetic dash to dump  the kids at ski school so that the parents could 'escape' to ski on their own.

I had become so enamoured with Pointe d' Andey high above Bonneville that after another dump of snow I went back with Sophie and Andrea and we had the best skiing of the season right off its summit.

Other stand out trips were through to Switzerland. Namely the Tete Feret high above La Fouly on the border with Italy.

I went firstly with Christine Dennis and son Pierce and husband John.  The conditions were so good that I decided to return to the very same ski tour with Richard and Sam Lewis only a couple of days later.

Christine climbing up to the col with  the Sahara sand behind her

Sam & Richard Lewis.

My middle daughter Florence ended up" trapped" in Chamonix and unable to get back to University in the UK.  She decided to make the most of it by training for the next part of her ski instructors exam.  The dreaded Euro Test.  This is the ski race you must pass if you aim to teach skiing in Europe.  It is a timed Giant Slalom race. There are many countless arguments about the ability to race and the ability to teach, which will go on forever, but this is the situation and you have to pass this race if you hope to progress.  
Anyway Florence travelled to Alp d'Huez where there was just one race piste open.  She passed and can now continue to work her way through the scheme and join her big sister in the Chamonix ski school.

The tapis did snap break down .  Andrea said it was like teaching skiing in the 1900's.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Fabulous January for ski touring.

The Dru after the storm.

 The lifts are still closed in France and Italy.  But to paraphrase : Where there is a problem there is an opportunity. The combination of cold weather and a significant regular dumps of snow have produced exceptional conditions.  

Here is a quick summary of what you can do without a ski lift in January in a quick video from Florence.

While it is possible to go ski touring in the resorts, there is still something not quite right about skinning up under closed cable cars and chair lifts, which I am afraid is the case in the likes of Chamonix. It is of course better than nothing , but with a little exploration and creativity you can do much better than this. 

The area that has come into its own is the mountain range of the Aravis.  [This area best known for the   ski stations of La Clusaz and Le Grande Bournand]

The Aravis area has many many ski tours that go no where near the lift stations and they all start from the car park .  Most are interesting from the first step and don't require long approaches up pistes or tracks before you reach any interesting terrain.  What's more skiing down these sort of tracks at the end of the day  can be scary!

Two of the best ski tours we did were the" Pointe d'Andey" and the "Trou de la Mouche."

The first is the perfect ski tour to do attempt when the avalanche conditions are not good because the terrain is benign , yet provides for fabulous varied skiing , from open slopes to beautiful tree skiing.

Adjusting the skis before setting off from the road head

What's not to like?

The Madonna on the summit

View from the top towards Lac Leman

mother&daughter 1st ski tour together  Catherine & Jess.

Jess Lewis returns to the car .

The other great ski tour we did was the Trou de la Mouche.  This is one of the best know ski tours in the Aravis.  It involves climbing up to a col which has a unique feature - a great big hole in the cliff which the route passes through.

The conditions weren't great - there was a lot of wind and consequently a high avalanche risk but still Florence made the most of it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A birthday ski tour.


I was quite astonished to turn up a Plaine Joux ski station to find the police directing the traffic and making sure every car was parked carefully, in order to maximise the places. The weather was beautiful, the scene was completely perfect. There were people everywhere.  The one thing that was not right was that the lift system wasn't actually open..

This was clearly not an issue for everyone there.  In fact `I suspect that the fact that the lift was closed was part of the attraction.  There were people skinning up the pistes with their dogs [ something you aren't normally allowed to do]. 

There were people on snow shoes , there were people without snow shoes, there were  people dragging toboggans.

In addition  a constant stream of parapenters passing over head

There were even people there celebrating big birthdays .  This was us. Reuben decided that there could be no better way to spend a birthday than on a ski tour in jaw dropping surroundings.

Reuben enjoying his birthday ski tour.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

No Lifts No Problem

Setting off for the Mole
The lifts are still closed in France and Italy. In Switzeraland they are open. But for how long is a good question because "You reap what you sow." Covid is now running riot in Switzerland. From a skiing point of view the conditions are marvellous. It is cold and the snow is low and everything looks idyllic. The extra benefit of having snow in the valleys is that it makes ski touring wonderfully accessible from the car park. You can put the skins on and leave from the road without first starting a long approach hike with your skis strapped to your rucksack. Starting the tours by wondering up through beautiful woodland is a delight.
Sophie Seaton ski tours around St Gervais.
So far the standout ski tour this year was the ascent of Le Mole. Its a mountain that is perfectly formed and is in a wonderful position looking down on the town of Bonnville. Its a mountain I must have driven passed hundreds of times while driving along the Auto-Route Blanche. However although it is beautiful and spectacular it isn't very high :1863m. Consequently it doesn't come into skiing condition all that frequently. When it does, it becomes a highly prized objective. Catherine and her husband Richard met me at the designated RDV point, where we dumped a car because this would be the point we skied back to. We set off up a track that was well travelled, not just by skiers but by many people on snow shoes too.
After an hour or so we emerged into an Alpage. Where we stopped for some hot Ribena.
The route went up behind the chalet.
From here on up it was a question of finding our own line up the relatively steep slope to the summit ridge. Firstly you come across a cross which you would imagine would mark the summit , yet in actual fact a bench marks the top.
From the top it was skis on. At first it was a bit scratchy [and narrow]
Yet soon afterwards the skiing was fantastic.
A short skin up a bump lead to some even better skiing on the opposite side of the mountain which then thread its self through a narrow break in the forest before emerging onto a track which we followed back to the car we had pre dumped.  A brilliant day.