Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ultra Peaks - not always the highest but always the most spectacular.

Stephen Kellock had come all the way from Canada to climb with me and discover what the Alps were supposedly all about. We had climbed a variety of routes around Chamonix and we were building towards the end of the week. I was keen to finish with a spectacular flourish. Unfortunately the weather was not co operating. In fact in mid July it snowed down to 1800 meters -tree level and therefore torpedoed our chances of getting really high. Luckily I have a bunch of alternatives for these situations :

As you drive down the Auto Route Blanche from Chamonix towards Geneva straight in front of you will see a huge barrier of mountains collectively know as the Aravis. The center piece is the spectacular Pointe Percee.2750m If your not sure where it is ,a huge brown tourist sign at the side of the motorway signifies when to look out of the car window.
Quite a few spectacular peaks which are judged on their looks rather than their height have been grouped under the rather unfortunate name of "Ultra Prominent Peaks." Or even worse just Ultras..

Putting this aside whether you like the tittle Ultras or not, I have always thought what it looks like is a far better reason to climb a peak than its arbitrary actual height. All this tends to do is lead you to some horrendously crowded summits. The antithesis of why we climb mountains and may be why your reading this Blog?

Point Percee means in French the pierced point because in its north ridge, the Arete Doigt , is a naturally formed hole. So that is where Stephen and I headed. We drove from Chamonix past Sallanches left the motorway at Cluses and headed up the road to the Col de le Colombiere which had just been treated to a velvet layer of tarmac in preparation for the Tour de France.

We drove through Grand Bornand and then headed up to the Col des Annes where we we due to dump the car, before heading up to the Refuge. What I had overlooked was that it was 14 July - Bastille day - French national holiday . The car park and approach roads were rammed with cars seemingly abandoned as if a nuclear war had just happened . We were in a car fit for the job and managed to find a slot on a hillside that resulted in the car being parked vertically balanced on its rear door.

Next we negotiated the series of electric cattle fences and headed of up to the Gramusset Refuge , leaving the crowds behind us. This was to be Stephens first experience of an Alpine Hut. It was to be both good and bad. Bad because it was a national holiday and therefore the hut was full to the rafters. Literally -

To reach our beds some bravery was needed to negotiate the ladder to our sleeping platform, which was sandwiched 20cm under the roof.

The upside was it was the real deal. A great atmosphere , good food and wine , magnificent situation and some unique washing facilities:

Especially for Stephen 6.30am breakfast could not come around fast enough. Apparently the knock out sleeping pill I had so generously given him did not work. [mine worked fine.]

Breakfast is never the reason to visit a French Mountain Hut and we were away by 7.30am. The weather was clear , but it was windy and bitterly cold. Our approach was across a snow field and we needed to put on crampons to negotiate the bullet hard neve snow:

Nevertheless in an hour we were at the foot of the very impressive Arete Doigt. A doigt is a finger and there is a tower that from a distance resembles a digit. Fortunately the wind had dropped and we were able to enjoy the first few pitches. After about five pitches we arrived at the start of the crux , the iconic "Rasor." This is a series of pitches that follow a rocky limestone knife edge ridge. An unforgettable climb in a remarkable situation . It is not difficult but it is intimidating.

After the "Rasor" pitches you have a choice of continuing up the ridge directly or going up a gully on the north face. The direct route requires rock boots and full on rock climbing ability, neither of which we had and so we elected to take the gully because this makes the overall difficulty of the route more homogeneous. Yet even so it is not entirely straight forward because the rock was chocked with ice and there is little protection. It is necessary to proceed with caution. After about an hour of doing just that [proceeding with caution] we popped out just below the summit. A couple of minutes later we were on top and treated to a spectacular view of entire Mont Blanc range.

Monday, July 04, 2016

No better experince as a Dad than to climb with your children.

The chance to be in the mountains and share experiences with your kids is one of the best things in the world. The trouble is the older they get the more difficult it is to organise, especially when your girls are in their 20's .

Peter Collins is particularly good at getting his daughters Lucy and Alice to come mountaineering with him. Certainly better than last year when he only managed to get Alice to climb because Lucy somehow contrived to twist her ankle the night before we were due to start.

We had three days together. We did the traverse of Aguille Marbree:

The next day in different weather we traversed the Crochue ridge above Flegere

On our third day we went rock climbing at Les Cheserys above Argentiere. We started by climbing the famous,spectacular yet easy Aiguilette d'Argentiere.

We finished by climbing the classic voie Bleue. I climbed with Alice and Pete led up behind me and climbed with Lucy.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

How to become a very good mountaineer :Quickly.

Sacha Kamp and Brett Ansley turned up with the brief that they wanted to learn the key skills of mountaineering. They were both fit and strong but had no alpine mountaineering experience.

We started on the Mer de Glace in order to show them how to use an ice axe and crampons properly. The next day I showed them the principle of moving quickly and efficiently along an alpine ridge. We did the traverse of the Crochue high above La Flegere

On the Wednesday we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel and took the Sky way lift [which we shared with a wedding party] and did the traverse of the Aiguille du Marbree.

Thursday the weather was indifferent and it was difficult to know what was the best choice of route. Fortunately there is just the route for the these sort of days : The South Ridge of Les Glieres. It is a great rocky scramble leading to the summit of Les Glieres just behind the famous Index climb at Flegere.

The weather forecast for our final day together was very good and I was keen to choose a route which would challenge Sacha and Brett and allow them to put all the skills they acquired into practice. I choose the traverse of the Entreves. So it was back through the Mt Blanc tunnel [no wedding party this time]. The Entreves is not for the faint hearted , there is a lot of exposure , even for seasoned mountaineers and its not with out its "moments." Neither Sacha nor Brett were phased by the climb. On the contrary they were so quick and efficient that from the start of the climb to the end of the difficulties took just one hour. I was amazed. Fast learners.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Magnificient week with an utterly depressing last day

David Folkman and Dee Anand joined me for an expedition to the Monte Rosa massif high above Gressoney/ Alagna just up from the Aosta valley.

On the Monday we drove from Chamonix to Gressoney. We left the car and rode the lift system to Punta Indren and then walked across the very snowy glacier to the Mantova Hut.

Tuesday the weather was indifferent - windy cloudy but warm which meant the snow did not freeze over night. Despite this we battled our way to the summit of Vincent Pyramid 4200m before turning tail and retreating to a wonderful welcome at the Gniffetti Hut. Amazing food, beer, wine super fast wifi and showers all at 3600 meters above sea level.

It was so good we decided to spend an extra night here and use it as a base from which to climb a few more mountains the next day.

So on the Wednesday with brilliant weather we climbed Ludwigshohe 4341m Coro Nero 4321m.

On the Thursday we headed up to the Margherita Hut - the highest building in western Europe at 4554meters above sea level.

As we took in the sunset from the hut , little did we realize that this was to be the sun setting on the UK's membership of the European union.

We awoke to the devastating news that Britain had done the political equivalent off cutting its nose of to spite its face. David Dee and I were in a state of shock. The other continental teams of climbers were like wise. They offered condolences to us as if someone had been killed. Never had I had breakfast in a mountain hut which such a sombre mood.

After breakfast we set off down the mountain back to Gressoney. By the time we drove all the way to our lowest point at Pont St Martin in the Aosta Valley we had descended over 4 vertical kilometers.

Inevitably with constant communications and access to the media via our I Phones it was clear that the UK was in melt down.
The larger ramifications should have been obvious to even a blind man galloping by on a horse, slightly less obvious are the ramifications for British Mountain Guides working in the Alps:

British Mountain Guides came her in good faith under the free movement of labour. As Guides we were at the forefront of this concept. Something that is now not open to our children. In addition because I have been in living in France for 25 years I became disenfranchised after 15 years and was therefore ineligible to vote on something so critical to my future and my families future.

Further if we follow this to its inevitable conclusion it will probably mean the break up of the UK. From a Mountain Guides perspective this will mean the end of the British Mountain Guides Association which will be forced to split into an English & Welsh association with Scotland forming it own association. This will destroy the brand and sponsors will abandon it. The BMG has amongst its members some of the best mountaineers in the world. It is as the forefront of developing "best practice" within the field of teaching mountaineering. The BMG celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. It is sickening to think all this work will be torpedoed.

Even by the time we arrived back in Chamonix the insidious comments were starting from EU Guides. The very next day I was on the hill . While strapping my crampons on a Guide strolled over to me and said:

"Oh are you still here? Shouldn't you be only climbing on Ben Nevis now?"

The parallels with the neanderthal comments directed at for example Polish people in the UK are terrifyingly obvious .