Sunday, July 07, 2024

Oldest climb in the world.


Mont Aiguille

Mont Aiguille was fisrt climbed in 1425.  It had to wait 350 years until 1834 for its second ascent.  The mountain can arguably claim to be the birth place of mountaineering.

Peter Little were there for two reasons .  It is an absolutely fanatastic mountain to climb and secondly the weather in Chamonix was once again uncooperative.  It goes without saying that if you have come to Chamonix for a precious five day climbing holiday you do not want to spend two of them moping around in the rain.  You need to leave and head for the sunshine.

We set of from Chamonix and broke the journey in Grenoble where we climbed on the crag Saint Egreve.  A crag that is basically in the city suburbs.  Despite its quick access, since my last visit about five years ago, the crag had become very overgrown and involved a lot of unwanted bushwhacking both on the ascents and descents. 

Climbing was better than it looks..

 Yet it was a good place to have a shake-down day and a warm up for the next days climbing. We continued the journey down to Mont Aiguille passing through beautiful scenary while travelling on what is an incredible auto-route. We settled into our hotel   the friendly Hotel Au Gai Soleil which is at the foot of the mountain.  The day was finished with a big beer on the hotel terrace  in the evening sunshine.

The next day we managed to drive up a 4x4 track [We were in a Land Cruiser] and  which saved us half an hour.  We were walking by 8.00hrs.  The path follows a lot of long zig zag tracks up through some beautiful broad-leaf woodland for about an hour and a half until you reach the col de L'Aupet.  On the other side of the col we were greeted by a viciously cold wind and despite expending lots of energy it was nescessary to put more clothes on.  Half an hour later we reached the foot of the route.  There was just one other party at the start.

west face with the voie normal

The climb is quite straight forward and after the 1st hundred meters the climbing can be done moving together [essential if you are going to keep to time]. There are even fixed cables in places.  Despite being easy the route passes through some impressive rock architecture, before finishing up a steep gulley which has another cable running up it.  

spectacular rock architecture

Although the cable isn't much use as an aid as it doesnt actually follow the easiest line.  Then suddenly you pop out on the summit plateau and literally into another world - Its a big field, which in the 1950's it had a runway made out of wood on the top.  We dumped the rope and our helmets and strode through the grass and flowers to the true summit.  There was a Guide and his client just finishing a bottle of Champagne. They left as we arrived and we had our picnic all alone fiesting our eyes on the spectacular view.

Summit plaque

Inevitable Selfie

The descent follows a completely different route to the ascent.  It is technically much more difficult too.  Firstly it follows a steep couloir [ very loose and lots of stones]. At its end there are two rappels, the first is  about 25 meters, but exposed to stonewall and the second is about 45 meters.  It goes down into a deep dark chasm which is intimidating.  All went smoothly for us and we exited into the sunshine, picked up the path and headed back down to the car.  

Saying good bye to Mont Aiguille

The next day back in Chamonix, the weather had finally turned good and we profited by heading through the Mt Blanc tunnel, then up the Skyway cable car before making a traverse of the Aiguille du Toule which was in excellent condition.

Dent du Géant

Summit ridge of Aiguille du Toule

On the Friday the weather was still good and now the popular mountain areas were extremely busy.  Yet the South ridge of the Aiguille du Glieres offers  a brilliant solution to the crowded other routes.  It has intersest on snow and rock and you again finish on a deserted summit.

Peter following the south ridge

Near the summit

Picinic on the top with an acceptable backdrop.

On our final day the weather had once again turned.  Although first thing on the morning the weather appereared half decent, the actual forecast was for certain rain.  So what we decided to do was to venture out of the valley and attempt the spectacular Via Ferratta in Le Fayet.  To begin with all was good and we thought we were going to cheat the rain.  This particular Via Ferratta is quite difficult.  It is steep and where its not steep it is overhanging.  Added to which the weather forecast was correct.  We just managed to finish before the heavens opened.  We scuttled back to the car feeling somewhat pleased we had made the most of the day.

Via Ferratta 

Sunday, June 30, 2024

An Introduction to Alpine Mountaineering.

This is an account of how you can be productive and make huge progressions in mountaineering skills while naviagting some pretty miserable weather.

First time on crampons.

It was Kate and Zak's aim to gain as many alpine mountaineering skills as possible in a five day period.

On our first day we headed up to the Mer de Glace for a traditional "Ecole de Glace."  We went through all the essential skills of how to use crampons properly [ Its not intuitive] The use of the axe in its basic form all the way through to using an axe and a hammer for steep ice climbing. This day is incredibly useful because it is possible to learn so many fundamnetal skills- skills that are mission critical for all future mountaineering adventures.  All was good apart from the rain  which got heavier and heavier as the day progressed.  

The next day I was awoken by the clap of thunder and then heavy rain.  We decided to postpone the day.  As it turned out this was a good descision as else where in the alps, like Zermatt, there was major flooding and the town was cut off.

The day after was marginally better, so we decided to give it a go.  We headed up to La Flegere. Where as the first day, was all about ice, the aim of this day was all about how to deal with alpine rock climbing, while moving as efficiently and safely as possible [Speed is safety is often the said alpine mantra] 

Katie & Zak near the summit of Aiguille du Crochue.

 It seemed that we were the only people with this idea... Yet we made a traverse of the Aiguille Crochue [albeit in the mist] Nevertheless as we reached the summit the clouds parted and we were treated to stunning atmospheric views which made for some dramatic photographs. 

The mist clears !

Our timing proved to be impeccable, because just as we finished the difficulties, there was a giant clap of thunder and the heavens opened.  We trudged down the snow to Lac Blanc, before picking up the path back to La Flegere cable car station, which couldn't arrive soon enough.  We were soaked .

On our third day we awoke to more mist and a grey blanket of fog.  However the forecast was good above 3000meters, so we headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel and too the Sky way lift up into beautiful clear weather - at last.

The 'eggs' suspended above the mist in the Vallee Blanche.

The upside of all the bad weather meant that it had snowed which made everything look pristine.  Plus there were many routes which were in condition because they were still covered in snow, where as in previous years all the snow had gone, just leaving piles of unconsolidated rubble. 

summit ridge of aiguille du Toule

The summit

We traversed the Aiguille du Toule by climbing the west facing slope and descending the "voie normal."  The climb was in really good condition and gave us more of a chance to consolidate the skills of the previous two days.

On our fourth day, the weather was actually good.  We decided to go rock climbing.  More specifically multi pitch climbing followed by several linked abseils [rappells] to get back to the foot of the climb.  We did this by following the Tour du Mont Blanc path up towards Les Cheserys high above Argentiere. 

A big but well camouflaged Ibex

 It is hard to imagine a finer backdrop for a rock climb.

On our final day, we were once again comfronted by an indifferent forecast.  Heavy rain, wind and thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon.  We needed a good climb with fast access, lots of interesting challenges , beautiful views and solitude. 

Tricky snow traverse

 There is no climb better than the south ridge of Les Glieres above La Flegere.  It has everthing all neatly packaged into a good climb.

Katie - with Chamonix and Mt Blanc in the background.

So all in all with the contiuning mixed weather we had a productive and enjoyable time together.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

"Mayvember" The mountaineering season starts.


The north face of Aiguille de la Floria

Stuart Carder joined me for five days climbing with a list of goals.   The Forbes Arete on the Chardonet being the number one plan.  Yet even before he arrived the preceeding weather had already written this off.

The weather in the alps has been cold and wet for weeks, with never more that two consecutive days of good weather.  So we had to come up with a few new ideas. Below is what happened:

On our first day climbing together we took advantage of the large volume of snow and were able to climb the rarely in condition north face of La Floria high above La Flegere.  The route was in good condition because it was cold.  The climb to the top was interseting and enjoyable.  Yet we arrived on the summit to be engulfed in thick cloud.  Our goal was to traverse the mountain and descend down the south ridge.  This requires some tricky route finding.  It is even more difficult when you can't see your hand in front of your face.

Stuart arriving at Col Crochue

Looking back down the face to Col Crochue

Needless to say we made it back down and had a great day climbing completely on our own.

The forecast for the next day suggested that it was going to be the best weather day of the five days .
I picked Stuart up from his hotel at 7.00am and we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel and took the first lift of the morning on the skyway cable car.  We were not alone...
The cable car punched through the clouds and we arrived in the Vallee Blanche to a beautiful cold clear scene. 
La Vallee Blanche

 Again our plan was to use the unusual conditions to our advantage and head for the Tour Ronde.  This is a mountain which requires it to be cold and have plenty of snow inorder to glue all the rocks in place.

All was looking good, but on closer inspection the conditions looked suspect.  We decided to play it safe and not proceed.  Our default plan was to traverse the Aiguille Entreves, but to our horror when we looked at the ridge, it was mobbed.  Neither of us wanted to suffer that experience.

Crowds on Entreves

Fourtuantly there was a third option; again a route that is rarely in condition, but again with the strange weather we found  the climb  in excellnet condition:  The traverse of Aguille du Toule via its north face.  Admittedly it is not the longest route, but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in aesthetic's-Good safe climbing, beautiful views and the summit to ourselves while we munched our sandwiches.  

Aiguille du Toules,Dent du Géant to its left.

So that was the end of the good weather.  The next day it was grey, windy and raining.  We drove up to the Emosson Dam and headed out in the rain and battled our way to the summit of Le Bel Oiseau.
The final hour involved postholing through deep snow.  It had a Welsh or Scottish wibe, but nothing alpine.
Mind you it gave us a sense of satisfaction to have actually gone out and climbed a summit.
A wet car park Emosson Dam

Looking towards Lac Emossom

Yet the forecast for the next day was even worse.  Heavy snow above 3000 meters- driving rain lower down and in the valley.  We decided to bin the next day and reconvene the day after when there was due to be a considerable improvement in the weather.  
It was at this time that I had a eurica moment; If we have all this cold snowy weather, then lets not fight against it, but rather go with it.  Lets go ski mountaineering?  Stuart was a little sceptical at first, but it wasn't long before he bought into the idea.

Sunday was the polar opposite to Saturday weather wise.  Stuart and I drove around to the Col du Grand St Bernard where we were greeted by wonderful spring snow skiing conditions.  So much so that were not the only ones to have this brilliant idea of going skiing.  Most of the ski touring population of Italy had the same plan.  Due to the fact that the road had been only recently opened [by cutting huge swathes through the snow,] there was no where to park the car.  Eventually we had no option to park somewhere we didn't want to and walk down the road to the start of the skinning.
The road approach 

We climbed Mt Fourchon, where the surrounding views did not disappoint.  Plus the ski descent was excellent.
Stuart on summit of mt Fourchon

Les Grands Jorrasse& Mt Blanc to its left.

We finished the day with a Shandy on the terrace out side the wonderful Hotel Italia where only five weeks ago the hotel had been burried under 4 meters of snow.

On our final day together we decided to continue the skiing theme and head round to Glacier 3000 high above Les Diablerts.  Stuart and I were the only mountaineers in the cable car.  The rest were Indians dressed in ill fitting Gucci clobber.  Each and everyone of them looked ridiculous- no doubt these thoughts were reciprocal...
Anyway we headed of into the wilderness and they headed for the gift shop.  From the momment we left the top station  we didn't see anyone.  It was a wonderful experince to reach the summit of Les Diablerts where we could seemingly, almost, touch lake Geneva, then turn our backs and see the whole moutain range of Les Valais including the Matterhorn , Dent Blanche and the Grande Combin.
Stuart leaving the top cable car station

I forgot to mention there is a rockclimbing section!

The summit of Les Diablertets with Lac Leman in the background.

After our sandwiches we had a mellow ski down, followed by the reversing of the rocky ridge
Stuart battling steep soggy snow.

Followed by another ski down into the summer ski area [ closed] finishing with a climb back up to the lift station.

Friday, May 03, 2024

The last ski trip of the season.

 It was six years since Michael and Ian had triumphed on the Haute Route.  Thirty years since Michael and I first climbed Mt Blanc together.  This time they were back with a new friend Paul who in his 70th year was persuaded to have a go at ski touring.

The plan was to head up to the Gd St Bernard Monastery for two nights, then head over to the Bernese Oberland.  Yet not for the first time the weather didn't seem to know the plan and was uncooperative from the start.

Yet one of the many great things about going to the Monastery, is that not only is it a great trip to introduce people to ski touring, but because the terrain is non glaciated it can be done in [almost] any weather.  This was just as well because we left the parking area in sleet which was falling at  right angles to the vertical.

Yet as we ascended the sleet changed to snow and the wind was behind us.  It was quite hard work and we made use of the emergency shelters to get out of the bad weather where we could eat our sandwiches.  

Unsurprisingly we saw no one on our climb.  Once we arrived at the Monastery we had to dig the door out.  Stepping into the warmth and calm of the monastery was wonderful.  We went down into the ski room and peeled all our snow plastered gear. In fact there were quite a few other pairs of skis there too, it transpired that their owners had not bothered to venture outside, but instead wait out the bad weather.

The next day the weather was considerably less windy and while the visibility was far from perfect it was good enough for us to set off.  There was a lot of new snow.  We let another group go first and forge the track.  They were a group of 10 with 2 Guides.  They were meant to be on the Haute Route but had been forced to change their itinerary several times.

Our plan was to attempt Mt Fourchon the classic ski tour of the area.  We skied around the lake into Italy where the border post house  was completely buried, passed through the snowed in avalanche gallery and then stopped to put our skins on before starting the climb.  This is also what the other big group intended to do.  Meanwhile I noticed a loan skier attempting to cross above us in order to save himself about 30 meters of extra climbing.  I suggested to Michael, Paul and Ian that his route might not be the best choice in the conditions... Then right on cue the whole slope avalanched over a 100 meter wide crown wall.  Fortunately the victim stayed on the surface and was able to pick himself up and dust himself down, before scuttling off back the way he came, accompanied by jeers from the watching audience.  Jeering a man who had almost buried himself might seem a bit harsh, but he wasn't far off burying everyone else...

Not the clearest photo but you can glean the idea.

Anyway we continued sharing the trail breaking with the other big group.  The challange was as we climbed higher we found our selves in thick mist.  So thick that it was impossible to discern what was up and down. The only way to see, was keep throwing the ski pole out in front of me in order to gain some orientation.

In the end it was decided to stop because it was impossible to choose a safe line that wasn't avalanche prone.  The consolation prize was some good snow on the descent and when we popped out below the clouds the skiing was excellent. 

We headed back to the Monastery for a second night but not before stopping to marvel at the huge amounts of snow that had fallen through out the winter.

This is a 4 storey hotel.

The next day the forecast wasn't much better.  The dreaded foehn wind was reaking havoc across the region.  What's more it was bringing the gift of more Sahara sand and dumping it everywhere.

Sand is not good to ski on.

We did however manage to battle our way to the east col of the Barrasson where we were able to see all the way down the valley to the viaduct which is the opening shot of the Italain Job with the iconic Lamborghini Miura.
2 shots of the bridge featured in the  Italian Job  

An S on one side an I on the other.

By the time we skied back to the car the conditions were a bit grim.

Our original plan had been to travel to Grindlewald and then make a ski traverse of the Bernese Oberland.

Yet you didn't need to be the worlds greatest meteorologist to you know that this was not going to be possible.  So we returned to Chamonix to regroup.

The next day we headed to the Glacier 3000 ski area above Les Diablerets.  [Everything in Chamonix was shut because of the foehn wind].  We arrived to find that  this ski area was shut too.  Well for skiing anyway.  I managed to persuade the powers at be to let us up anyway because our plan was not to use the ski slifts but to ski tour up the peak of Les Diablerets the highest peak in the Canton of Vaud.

So far so good, then just as the lift was about to depart they announced that the wind was increasing and there was a good chance that they would close the lift system entirely.  Having run out of options we decided to go up anyway and see what was what.  This is when the adventure became memorable. 

Indeed the wind at the top made the idea of ski touring a joke.  Nevertheless there is a way of skiing all the way back down to the car park via a new tunnel if the piste is open. [And the tunnel. ] However the piste closed several weeks ago and the markers had been taken away for the summer.  We could see that there was enough snow to ski, but whether the tunnel was open was another question.  I made enquires at the top with the Guide who heads the ski patrol and he gave us permission to use the tunnel, providing we closed the door firmly afterwards!

We left the top station and skied down the piste.  This was not easy as the wind blew us back up the hill despite all four of us  adopting a schuss position.  Then suddenly we were in the lee of the slope and it seemed like another world.  We continued down to Le Diablerets Hut to find the guardian packing up and closing for the season, yet she sold us 4 cups of coffee, plus reassurred us that the mission critical tunnel was easy to find and obvious...

Well it wasn't obvious to us and we went zooming past it.  If we hadn't stopped to watch some ibex and an eagle and then check the map I would have comitted us to a long climb back up the slope.  As it was it took us about 10 minutes to retrace our steps.

The Black Wall.

The door opened and we were in.

At the other end it was quite an exit:

We skied down the slope until the snow ran out

Then through the crocuses back to the car.

On our fifth and final day we awoke to rain, but no wind.  Les Grands Montets was open [although it seemed it was  for our sole usage.] However fortune favours the brave and we got out of the gondala to fresh snow and decent visibility.  We skied until our legs were shot and that was how we finished the day and the season plus a memorable week to finish on...