Thursday, September 26, 2019

"Une Sortie Scolaire."

 Rocio Mountain Guide & Teacher prepares the top rope for the" ice climbing" session.
There are several schools based around the Lac Leman Arc which follow the British Independent Senior School system. [Public School] They all have tremendous outdoor programs for their children.  So much so that they employ Mountain Guides to run incredible mountain adventures.

Along with  four other Mountain Guides;  two Swiss Guides Bertrand and Christian  and my friend and fellow British Mountain Guide Jonny Baird  I was employed by L'Ecole Beau Soleil  to climb the Wildstrubel Mountain in the Bernese Oberland.  We also had in overall charge of us all Rocio Siemens who  is a Mountain Guide and teacher permanently employed by the school . Between us we were responsible for 18 children all roughly 16 and 17 years old.

We drove around to Leukerbad and took the cable car.  From there we walked in to the Lammeren Hutte.  In the afternoon we checked all the equipment and the children got the chance to test their crampons on the specially erected "ice climbing"  poles.

The next morning breakfast was at 6.00am.  The issue was that the weather was not being co- operative and it was evident that plan A - The Wildstrubel was no longer a sensible option.  We changed plan and made the Steghorn our objective.  Everyone set off at about 7.30 am and progress was steady.  Even when we got to the exposed scrambling where we split into climbing teams every thing passed off smoothly.
rocky scramble on the Steghorn.
The weather was quite windy. We all stopped for a bite to eat huddled behind a rock.  Next we moved onto the glacier and put on our crampons.  I suppose inevitably not everyone continued to be happy.  One of the group was struggling and so it was decided that they should descend with me. So we returned down the mountain  while the rest of the team climbed the Steghorn. After which everyone was reunited at the Hutte and after some food we all returned to the cable car station and descended back to the valley.

Screen shot of the map of the area . Red lines are ski touring routes.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The finest Granite climb in Europe?

The spectacular Dos d'Elephant
There is never much point trying to crow-bar a particular wish to climb an alpine route into an unfavorable conditions and a mixed weather forecast.  That is to say ,work with what you have.
Not for the first time, this is what happened to Charles Sherwood and myself.  All the routes we had outlined as possible goals, were either falling down [Walker Spur] Unapproachable because the glaciers were all tortured [Traverse des Drus] Or were ridge climbs covered in too much unconsolidated snow. [East ridge of D'Herens]

The later route  being a possibility, if, there was a stretch of good weather and the snow  burnt off with the sun, but at least in the short term that looked unlikely.  So we decided to head south for a few days to find some better weather.

We left Chamonix,  in the rain and headed for Orpierre where the weather was good.  We had a mix of sport climbing and climbed the classic La Diedre Sud on the  Quiquillion crag.
Orpierre in the afternoon sunlight
La Diedre Sud   Quiquillion crag.

 We reviewed the weather forecast, decided that there was no great improvement in the alps and headed further south.  Cassis and the Calanques.

L'arete de Marseille

We climbed the sensational L'arete de Marseille, on the Grande Candelle . although it is supposedly only 5 pitches long, the shear aura of the route and the fact that every pitch is uniquely special without doubt makes it a world class rock climb in a beautiful position made even more special by the fact we were all alone.
Start of the 2nd pitch .
Les Calanques

We then reviewed the weather forecast and this led us to go even further south: Corsica.  The beauty of the trip is that you board the ferry at 7.00 pm enjoy a perfectly competent dinner, go to bed and disembark at 7.00am the next morning .

Leaving Marseille looking towards Le Grande Candelle
 We were on the crag climbing at 9.00am, this time complaining about being too hot!  There was some good single pitch rock climbing on rough grippy granite followed by a swim in one of Corsica's idyllic canyon streams.
Great spot for a post climb swim.

Our goal for our Corscian trip was to sample some of its classic rock climbs .  We identified two very different style of routes, both in the Bavella region.  This meant getting in to position which meant undertaking a magnificent and  hair raising three hour drive,  [as the crow fly's about 15 km.]  We stayed in the beautiful village of Zonza which was below our objective for the next day.

L' Arete de Zonza. This was a  classic route in every sense of the word.  Not just was it "classic" in the sense it was beautiful, it was also classically  traditional in the sense there was very little fixed protection and route finding was demanding if not ultimately rewarding.
Searching for the rappel anchor with the Mediterranean in the back ground. 

The second route trumped the lot.  It soaks up superlatives like none other.  The Dos d'Elephant is the most sought after rock climb in Corsica, often described as the finest granite rock climb in France , if not Europe. This is no small claim and we thought we should see if it was true .  It is a giant slab climb on featureless rock with minimal protection.  When it was first climbed about 20 years ago the bolts were placed on the lead and not many bolts were placed. it must have been mind boggling serious.  Since then it has been retro bolted, but it is still very scary. Where it isn't so scary it is instead just very hard.  Added to which the On-line posts has helpful information like "you must be very comfortable climbing at the grade 6b+ " and you need to have new rubber on your climbing shoes" neither of which we completely qualified for.

Nevertheless the next morning after a viscous steep ascent  we had located the bottom of the route.  Some achievement in its own right. [Subsequently learnt that many of my friends had failed to locate the route!] Charles was keen to stamp his name on the climb too and wanted to lead some of the pitches.  I lead off on the first pitch.  By the time Charles reached the stance his enthusiasm to lead through had waned a little.  But always a man to stand by his word he launched himself at the second pitch with what looked like  impressive commitment, although later he admitted he wasn't quite so committed.  The third pitch was the technical crux pitch after which the rest of the climbs cruxes were in the head- long featureless slabby pitches with a bolt about  every 20 meters- so potential 40 meter screamers...

Head games .

The incredible slab pitches

 We were both delighted to have been able to climb this route.  We rappelled back down the line of climb and eventually rewarded  our selves with a plunge in the canyon at the bottom.

After our final night in Zonza we explored one of the sea cliffs called  Barbicaghja outside Ajeccio while waiting for the night boat back to Marseille.

Sea side cragging.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Weisshorn 4506meters. A dream fullfilled.

It took a long time.  It was now four years since David Brooksbank emailed me asking me whether he could climb the Weisshorn after a 40 year hiatus.  David climbed the Matterhorn with Ulrich Inderbinen in 1975.  Ulrich was born in 1900.  He worked as a Guide until he was 96. Ulrich is quite an act to follow.  The Weisshorn is sometimes referred to as the "thinking mans" Matterhorn. In many ways it is just as spectacular and a lot harder- a rather more sophisticated climbing goal than its rather Chavy neigbour.  I have even heard the Matterhorn described as a sort of pimped up Ford Escort to a Ferrari but maybe that's a bit of extreme.

I agreed to try to climb the mountain with David and it was clear from the very first steps he would be more than capable.  The trouble was always the weather.  On our first year together it snowed and we went nowhere near the Weisshorn but instead climbed a lot of mixed of alpine routes all over the alps.  The next year it snowed again and we just left and headed for the Dolomites where we had some fantastic climbing.  Last year we did actually get as far as the Weisshorn Hut to find ourselves to be the sole occupants.  This was because it snowed again obliterating our attempt which ended in knee deep snow.

So to 2019.  We were to try again.  Our strategy was to climb a preparatory route that was not only "interesting" but would  provide valuable acclimatisation.  We would then have an easier day so that we did not get too tired before the ascent.  In essence 3 days warm up and 3 days for the ascent and descent of the Weisshorn.  After all, the vertical ascent of the Weisshorn is greater than from Everest base camp to its summit.

We climbed the Arete de Saille on the Grand Muveran.

The arete.
 We stayed in the Cabane de Rambert.  We both agreed that if you wanted the perfect quintessential hut experience then this was it.  A quiet hut with just a few people , a good food and then a spectacular climb with no one else on it.

Crux Pitch.
On our third day we ventured into the Vallee Blanche in order to maintain the acclimatisation and to make sure all the ice related kit was working.  We climbed Point Lachenal.

The plan was going fine, then the weather played its part again.  We were forced to re book our night in the Weisshorn Hut and delay a day.  We went rock climbing above Brevent- that was  hardly a sob story.

The next day we drove around to Randa and made the long walk up to the Weisshorn Hut.  Meanwhile the weather forecast had changed again.  Our proposed summit day, the next day, was now showing a poor forecast. The other teams bailed. We found ourselves [once again] the only occupants of the Hut.  After a "Council of War"  David and I decided to sit it out at the Hut because the next few days promised stellar weather.  This had pro's and cons.  The main pro was that we would gain valuable acclimatisation and rest .  The cons were that David would have to change his flights and I would be climbing the Weisshorn on my 25th wedding anniversary. Dinner needed to be cancelled.

Our enforced rest day involved sitting around in the fog and the drizzle.  Then the water supply dried up.  Then the beer supply dried up.  The beer supply was bravely sorted by the arrival of a helicopter slaloming through a break in the clouds.

Fixing the Hut water supply was arguably marginally more important than the beer supply as no water would mean no food.  The way to fix the water supply was to hike up to the glacier and re plum the pipe into the glacier.  This is how I spent my afternoon.  I walked up the path behind the hut armed with a long wooden ice axe, not really knowing what to expect.  I followed the pipe to its end where I found it sticking up in the air.  It was an easy fix to dig a hole in the glacier and reposition the pipe so that the glacier stream could flow in to the end of the pipe.

I was not sure how successful this had been until I arrived back at the hut, but I guessed by the hugs and kisses I received from Jacqueline the Hut Guardian I'd fixed it.

There were a couple more moral boosting teams who arrived in the afternoon.  A local Swiss Guide and his client , plus a Polish Guide and a Ukrainian Aspirant Guide, the later was apparently being assessed for his Guides badge by the former.  How this was going to work was beyond me, because neither of them could speak each others language and the only mutual language they had was English, of which neither of them [as far as I ascertained] could speak that very well either.
Anyway three parties in total.

The alarm went off at 2.00am.  We were away just before 3.00am.  All the stars were out.  Not a breath of wind.  Was this to be our day?  Progress was smooth, steady and incident free.  We made it to the "Breakfast stop"  a place on the climb where we join the the true east ridge.

 The rock on the ridge now becomes solid and the climbing straightforward but  airy.  Firstly over the Lochmatter Tower and then over and around several other towers, before the rock ridge turns to a snow ridge.  Or in our case an icy snowy  ridge.

 The other parties elected to pitch climb the icy sections.  We choose to climb moving together.  We were able to do this because in the four years we had been climbing together I knew David would be just fine.  Inevitably by not pitching the climb we arrived on the summit first followed very closely by the Polish/Ukrainian team.

Summit with the Matterhorn in the background

There was now the issue of getting back down.  Maximum concentration is needed at every step.  The icy ridge was a bit softer on the way back which helped the crampons bite well.  But every step potentially could be your last.  The rocky ridge went well and I lowered David down off the towers then rappelled my self.  The big pain was the ground below the Breakfast Stop.  In the dark we had not appreciated what a pile of rubble it was.  And a constantly moving pile.  It was difficult to find the best path because there were so many false trails, it was uncomfortably hot and we were tired.  Eventually after stopping for a swim in a glacier pool we arrived back at the Hut after about 15 hours.  Too tired to contemplate the walk back to the valley we elected to stay the night.  My status as the Huts favorite Guide was still intact and we were treated to beer and an extra special private bedroom.
After a leisurely breakfast, good bye hugs from Jacqueline we departed for the valley.  We had finally made it.

Jacqueline waives us goodbye.