Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Mixed weather for the start of the summer alpine mountaineering season.

Brett and Sacha only had four days. The first two days were forecast to be very good. The forecast for the final two days was anything but. So if we were going to make the most of the good weather we needed to hit the ground running. In addition we were still very early in the season and a lot of the necessary infrastructure such as cable cars , mountain huts etc were all closed. On our first day we drove up to the Emosson Dam . We parked the car and headed of up the Aiguille Van.2578m. Being early in the season meant that there was still a lot of snow around. More than I had ever encountered on this route. The path up to the start of the climbing was buried and it made finding the start far from simple. Nevertheless Brett and Sacha climbed quickly . So quickly ,that when we arrived at the col between the two summits of the Aiguille Van I suggested that we might push on to the higher and more spectacular Grands Perrons.2578m. The most remote and sought after summit in the area. On the Saturday the plan was to get the 1st cable car up from the Italian side and ride the Skyway lift in order that we might attempt La Tour Ronde.3793m. Yet as we approached the start of the route it became blindingly obvious that this wasn't going to happen. Even this early in the season the route had lost its snow cover and was now a death trap full of falling rocks. So we had to resort to Plan B. We climbed the north west face of the Aiguille de Toule. 3534m, arriving on the summit just in time to see absolutely nothing. On the Sunday it was lashing it down. I looked at the weather maps in an attempt to find us some good weather. Surprisingly I found some good weather in the last place I expected. The Grand St Bernard. Normally if you are looking for bad weather you can be sure to find it at the Grand St Bernard , but apparently not on the 4th of June. so that is where we headed and sure enough the weather was good. We climbed Mt Fourchon,2902m wishing we had skis with us as there was plenty of snow . We arrived on the summit just as the mist came in and once again we saw absolutely nothing. On the descent we made good use of the snow and practiced Ice axe arrests. An essential skill for any would be mountaineer. We practiced the entire set of scenarios , sliding feet first, head first , on your back head first. On the Monday it continued to rain in Chamonix. We decided on a technical day: Tricks of the trade -climbing up ropes using prussiks rope-man etc. In the afternoon it stopped raining so we went to the crag in Les Houches and completed some multiple Rappels and looked at what was necessary to do this safely in the Alps. Brett and Sacha finished up by leading some of the routes in their big alpine boots.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

A Scottish Climbing Road Trip

Thursday 18th May. I left Chamonix at 7.00hrs to fly Luton inorder to meet Nick Wilkinson and set off for Glencoe at 13hrs. We then got to know each other while sitting in a traffic jam on the M1 in torrential rain. We crawled past Birmingham and it stopped raining. Almost immediately we get stuck in another traffic jam on the M6 between Stoke and Knutsford. Eventually it cleared and we finally made it to our Air B&B in Glencoe at about 22.30hrs. Like so many of the very best trips they get off to a less than auspicious start. A long day. Friday 19th. We leave the Air B&B at 7.30 say good bye to our bemused host Ashley and head in the direction of the Great Ridge on Garbh Bhienn. The weather was looking good until we parked up. As we packed up our climbing gear it started to rain. We walked into the remote corrie with the clouds swirling around the top of the ridge and limiting our view. I tried to remember the way , but it was 30 years since I had last been here and my memory proved unreliable. As we stumbled about trying to find the best line the weather started to improve considerably and this is why we probably found the ridge. The climbing was excellent on good solid grippy gneiss. We summitted at about 14.00hrs. We then traversed the other summit of Garbh Bhienn before descending the very long broad ridge back to the car, where I jumped in the river in order to cool off. It had been a long hard but ultimately satisfying day. The question now was what to do tomorrow? A look at the weather forecast suggested that Fort William was not the place to be if climbing in the dry was to be the goal- yet Lochinver might well be. So we drove through Fort William and across the Great Glen and along the shores of Loch Ness. The immediate challenge was to find some where to stay. Nick phoned a friend for some info. Conveniently Nicks friend was a Hotel Inspector for the Highland and Islands tourist board. His suggestion was the Coul House in Contin. A beautiful country house set in its own impressive gardens. We managed to get a room and we arrived at 19.00 hrs for beer on the terrace over looking the long sweeping lawns. Saturday 20th. A very competent full Scottish breakfast,set us up for the drive to Lochinver. We were now on North Coast 500 road route - Fantastic roads that have been hijacked and branded as the ultimate road trip. [ Admittedly with some justification] We passed old classic cars , people on bikes, posers in Super cars, serious looking Germans on motor bikes and even some very determined character who was walking the route. Our climb for the day was to be the iconic Old Man of Stoer. The weather was perfect. We parked the car at the Stoer lighthouse and were greeted by the very enthusiastic proprietress of the tea shack who was full of use full information about the sea stack. The key information was that we would not need to swim to the stack because some climbers had just set up a Tyrolean rope and left it in place. Other information she shared with us was that there were killer whales in the area. Why this was deemed pertinent to an ascent of the Old Man remains a mystery unless they jumped out of the sea and snatched us from the Tyrolean rope. We walked across the headland to the Old Man of Stoer in about an hour. Once I had reminded myself where the descent went , we scrambled down to the foot of the Stack and the Tyrolean. I suppose we should have been grateful that someone had been kind enough to fix up and leave the rope in place, but it was a very stretchy rope attached by not the greatest anchors. Still it was better than swimming.
This was to be my first climb of the 2017 season. It was magnificent although I found it awkward. We climbed the Stoer in 4 pitches and the rappelled off in one long 50 meter length.
We then retraced our steps and arrived back at he car. Tucked under the rear wiper was a note and two chocolate bars from Leigh who run the Tea Caravan. Under the windscreen wiper was another note from Alan. Alan had been sitting on the promontory opposite the Stoer and had taken some photos of me and Nick while we climbed. He left his address so that we we could get in contact and get the photos. What next ? The forecast for tomorrow was poor. Scottish Poor , which generally means copious amounts of rain. Yet the forecast the day after suggested good weather, particularly good in the Orkneys. So we set off following the North 500 route. We passed the walker who was making steady progress. Yet due to the popularity of the route we couldn't find any where to stay. The default position was camping in Scourie. We eat in the excellent Scourie Hotel. During the night it rained. Sunday 21st. We burst out of our tents and made a run for breakfast at the Scourie Hotel through lashing rain. We then returned to pack up the tents and head north. We passed the walker... plus various classic cars that were having issues with the rain getting in their electrics. We drove North through thick mist where we saw very little. We stopped for a coffee at a road side cafe. The proprietor wasn't particularly happy with the economic boom of the North 500 . He grumbled that his septic tank couldn't cope with the increase in tourism. Next we tried to stop for a bite of lunch. The cafe car park was full of top end Porche GT3's. No tables in the cafe. I had thought the whole point of having one of these cars was that they were exclusive. Generally you don't pay upwards of £150k to find 3 of them in the same car park in the far north of Scotland. Anyway we arrived in a very wet Thurso at about 14.00 hrs. The issue was the ferry to Stromness wasn't untill 19.00hrs. What to do ? We parked up and I went to sleep in the car , Nick went for an explore . 10 minutes later he was back. Nick did then save the afternoon by finding the Tempest Cafe which was an oasis of pleasantness in what other wise is a somewhat underwhelming town. Great fish and chips on the Ferry and then a magical arrival in Stromness as the weather started to clear. Half an hours drive and we arrived at our apartment which we had pre booked via booking .com. The Ayres Hotel. 22.30 and the sun was only just setting over the Kirkwall harbour. Monday 22nd. A beautiful day. After another full Scottish breakfast we drove to the Houton Ferry terminal.
We were not in a particular hurry because we needed the Old man of Hoy to dry out after yesterdays torrential rain, plus with almost 24 hours day light we could choose the optimum weather conditions to attempt the climb. We parked a Ratwick Bay and took the steep climb over the headland towards the Old Man.
The weather was utterly beautiful. We scrambled down to the base of the route. There were a couple of climbers way ahead of us. They had left their Golden Retriever at the foot of the route. This was a good effort on the part of the dog because the scramble to the foot of the route is not without its "moments' We geared up and just as I started up the first pitch it started to rain. The Old Man is intimidating enough without rain to contend with.
I decided to gamble on it being a shower and set off up the 1st pitch. It stopped raining. The second pitch is the crux. A steep off width crack. This was my second climb of the year. The 3rd and 4th pitches are much more straight forward although the objective danger of being spewed on by nesting Fulmas is very real. The final pitch is as good a pitch as you will find anywhere in the world. Straight up a right angle corner and as you get to the top there is a split in the rock which allows you to see right through the Sea Stack and out to sea. Nick lead this final pitch.
We did not spend long on the summit because it was very windy and cold. Three rappels are necessary to get off the Stack. The last one being 60 meters. The majority of it being negotiated hanging like a spider. A descent that will last in the memory a very long time.
We retraced our steps back to the car at Ratwick Bay. It was then a 20 mile drive to the Stromabank Hotel. The only vehicle we passed was a farmer on his quad bike who, judging by his enthusiastic waving, passing a car was the high light of his day. The Hotel was wonderfully welcoming and we had an excellent meal and several celebratory beers. Tuesday 23rd. 6.00hrs Another full Scottish breakfast. [This was the best so far]. The reason for the early start was that we needed to get the ferry from Hoy back to mainland Orkney. Not many tourists , nor cars: We then took the 11.00am ferry back to mainland Scotland. The weather was still very wet on the West Coast but less wet on the East Coast. We identified another sea stack the Old Man of Wick. The guide book highly recommended it. The reality was different. The approach was through a housing estate which was like a scene from Trainspotting. Followed by a rappel over a crumbling zawn. The only anchor was 20 meters away and was a dubious fence post. Added to which it was on the far side of the path. Further it was starting to rain. In no way that I could see was this a good idea. We contented our selves with some photos and then drove south to Inverness through now driving rain.
We managed to hook up with my friend and fellow Mountain Guide Jonathan Preston , and he was very kind enough to put us up at his house. Wednesday 24th. The forecast for Logie Head near Cullen was perfect. We headed there and climbed on the sea cliffs watched by the locals.
We finished climbing around 15.30 and headed south down the A9. It started to rain. Our plan was to climb in Dunkeld the following day. We stayed in the Dunkeld House Hotel. A Hotel which was built to host weddings and its guests. It was set in beautiful grounds. Rock climbers were certainly not its core clientele. Thursday 25th. Our final full Scottish breakfast proved to be a bit too much. I found the climbing hard for its grade at Dunkeld. May be it was the breakfast or may be I was getting quite tired, or may be it was just too hot? Anyway it wrapped up an incredible trip, where apart from a few spots of rain we managed to not get wet once.