Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Breaking trail up Mt Blanc with 50cm of fresh snow

The weather has been far from settled and coupled with lots of other issues it made for a challenging week which was only half successful. Dee Anand and David Folkman joined me for 6 days and below is the brief story of what happened.

After three days of training and acclimatisation in indifferent weather we headed up to the Tete Rousse hut and spent a pleasant afternoon relaxing and gaining more acclimatisation. Well it was pleasant for me and Dee but David had a bad night with the Shits. Non of us were sure why he was ill when weren't but we assumed that it would be some 24 hour bug that would go. So we decided to continue on with our plan, which was to head up to the brand spanking new Gouter Hut, where we planned to arrive early and rest up ready for our summit attempt the next day.

David struggled , but was determined to get to the Hut. He immediately went to bed and assumed with a bit of rest he would be fine. It started to snow big time. Dinner time came around and David was feeling worse and could not countenance eating. Hugely frustratingly he was not going to stand any chance of attempting Mt Blanc.

While we were dealing with David's illness , another group were dealing with one of their group who had broken his ankle. They had called a helicopter . I reasoned that David would be far better off if he could hitch a lift too so I asked the Hut Guardian if this would work. In principle the answer was yes. In practice it was a lot more problematical. Bad weather meant the helicopter could not fly.

David was going to have to endure a pretty miserable night. With nothing else to do I went to bed . No sooner had my head hit the pillow and the Guardian came into my dormitory to tell me that there was weather window and the PGHM helicopter would be here in 20 minutes. The Guardian was not sure if the helicopter could take one or two causalities because of the weight limit at such high altitude. I was asked to speak to the Police Mountain Rescue doctor at his base in Chamonix.

I explained what I believed to be David's symptoms and the doctor immediately triaged and decided that David was the priority and not the guy with the broken leg. It is not difficult to see that the guy with the broken leg was deeply unhappy about having his helicopter stolen from underneath him.

Both David and the other casualty were taken outside the hut to wait for the helicopter. It arrived in very dramatic style kicking up huge amounts of snow screening everything from sight. When it departed there was no one left on the ground and so we concluded that both casualties had gone. Indeed they had a mere 5 minutes later and they were at Sallanches Hospital.
Meanwhile Dee slept through all the commotion and was somewhat surprised when he woke up and couldn't find David. It was 2.00am and time for breakfast. 45 minutes later Dee and I set off . We were enveloped in thick cloud and there was deep snow. Critically there was no wind. At the Vallot hut 95%of the parties turned back. There was still no wind and I could see no reason to give up. The only difference was that there was us and one other party to break trail. We stuck at it and arrived at the summit of Mt Blanc at around 8.00am. We saw nothing!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Not this time for the Nose

Our attempt to climb the iconic Nose of El Captan did not get off to a good start. We left the campsite at 6:30 AM and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam. In front of us a car had hit a tree and landed on the roof blocking the road. No one was injured apart from the drivers pride. (The idiot had been texting at the time.)
It was not a good omen. We lost a good hour and in that time the heat in the valley had soared.

As the saying goes everything in America is big. The style of climbing in Yosemite is Called “Big Wall”. El Capatan is the best example of Big - it is over 3000 feet of vertical rock.

The climbing is completely different to climbing in Europe. The method is to pack everything into a bag and haul or winch it up after you. These bags are called Haul Bags or “Pigs” [because they can be a pig to move.]

There were three in our team me and my two great American friends Jeff & Faerthen. Jeff had made one of the very early ascents of the Nose 40 years ago. Jeff was returning for his anniversary climb and he had invited me along. It was to be my first experience of “Big Wall” climbing.

So we eventually parked the car and wrestled the Pig out of the car boot.[Or trunk as the Americans call it] It contained  36 liters of water, our climbing gear our ropes our sleeping bags our food, plus underneath we had attached a Portaledge. As it sounds it is a portable ledge which can be erected in minutes. When it is set up you can sleep on it.

All this weighed over 100 kg and it was left for me carry it to the foot of the climb. As approaches go it was not very far-about half a mile but still 100 kg is the most I had ever carried.

During the previous days we had fixed ropes to  the first 8 pitches to  the start of a feature know as the Stove Legs. These are giant cracks which could originally only be climbed by jamming sawn off stove legs into the cracks.  Fixing means we had left a giant 200 meter long rope in place so that we could climb the rope using special Jumars which clamp to the rope rather like cleats on a sail boats rigging.

Our plan was to climb the fixed ropes to our highpoint and then haul the pig. Jeff set off up the fixed-rope first. It was as he arrived at a small overhang that he called down to say that he had torn a muscle in his back and that he was in considerable pain. I jumared up the ropes to meet him. Jeff's face was glum . When he tried to sit in his harness he was in agony. We were going to have to descend and abandon our attempt.

Before we could get to grips with the disappointment (something that is part and parcel of mountaineering) we had the practicalities of getting our selves and the pig safely down.  It made sense to jettison the water in order to reduce the weight. This task was far more difficult than it sounds because I was suspended several hundred meters above the ground with nothing to stand upon. Eventually after some spectacular acrobatics   I eventually lowered the pig down to the ground to join the others. We were all disappointed but at least we were safe and sound and still in a position to try again sometime in the future.  And in addition we had not been eaten by Bears.