Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Mountaineering summer like no other draws to a close.

Strange Times...

The dates have been in the diary well before the word Covid had been heard of. Now that Catherine Lewis and `I  were due to meet  the weather forecast was terrible. What were we going to do? Should we postpone?  This is not an unusual dilemma to have to deal with.  

As the date approached the weather forecast changed a bit- it improved and so we were able to start.  

Although Cathereine had climbed Mt Blanc with me a couple of years ago and we had skied toured a lot together she had never done any technical climbing and was keen to see what it was all about.

At this time of year most of the lifts are closed , but there are many options for some good climbing.  We headed to the Via Corda - a long yet simple climb which is ideal for getting to grips with the basic concepts of rock climbing.

Catherine climbing the Via Corda

Any plan these days tends to be the wrong plan - Any idea of climbing on the Italian side of Mt Blanc was kiboshed by the Italian quarantine regulations , which overnight brought in rules saying anyone travelling from France to Italy had to be in possession of certificate stating they didn't have Covid.

Instead we headed for Switzerland and climbed the Aiguille du Van , high above the Barrage d'Emosson.  

Aiguille du Van is on the left.

This is a dramatic looking peak, yet is relatively simple to climb.  Once on the summit the views are wonderful.

Mt Blanc 

The summit of the Aiguille du Van

On our third day together we were joined by Catherine's great friend Lucy Kate. 
Lucy-Kate & Catherine.

 The weather forecast was chalenging.  We needed something we could climb in any weather and therefore choose to return to the Barrage and this time climb the Bel-Oiseaux a mountain on the opposite side of the lake which is accessed by walking through a series of long dark damp  tunnels  - In the end we were lucky, we stayed dry and were treated to summit views.
Looking towards the Argentiere glacier.

Walking back down from theBel-Oiseaux.

We managed to get back down with only a few spots of rain, which was good considering the forecast had been a write-off just before we met.  Yet finally the weather did break and it snowed and rained hard that evening plastering the mountains white.
Aiguille Dru plastered in fresh snow.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Dolomites climbing trip report.

A Happy Local Tyrollean.

Hopefully in years to come it will be  difficult to imagine the complications involved in organising a climbing trip in Covid times.  With borders closed , then open then closed it is difficult to plan accordingly.

After much discussion Charles Sherwood and I eventually settled on Italy, a country that for the moment has a grip on the Virus and with no travel restrictions.

I met Charles at Venice airport and we headed for the Tyrol. A part of Italy where everyone speaks German and behaves as if they were Austrian.  It is a beautiful and sometimes confusing place to be.  We stayed in Val Gardena and used it as a base to climb on the Sella Towers and the surrounding area.

The Sella Towers.

We decided to kick off by attempting the traverse of the Sella Towers, ominously described as one of the most popular climbs in the Dolomites.  Further it was a Sunday.  We reasoned that Covid might make it less popular.  In fact what made it unpopular was the weather.  We set off in thick mist, yet as we climbed upward we broke through the mist and naturally felt a little smug.

Right place right time.

The actual route was challenging to follow.  I consulted the guide book for some advice.  It gave the most useless description I have ever seen.  It said " Just follow the crowds of climbers in front of you."

At the top of the second tower the route off was very difficult to find, no clues no bits of old tat, no pegs, pitons, nothing.  There was quite a lot of head scratching until eventually we found the line of rappel points and we scuttled off back to the valley, feeling well exercised.  Still it had been good and we had sussed out the line of descent for our attempt on the "Jewel in the Crown " of the Seller Towers the Vinatzer Route on the north face of the third tower.

The next day the forecast was a little "Iffy" so we contented ourselves with some sports climbing just below the sella Pass in the beautiful "City of the Rocks". This is a cluster of crags dotted about in the Larch Trees.

City of the Rocks.

The next day we climbed the Vinazter route.  We left the car at the col and arrived at the foot of the route at about 9.30am.  We were not the first, a German couple were just ahead of us.  The face is vast with few distinguishing features low down which gives the whole face an intimidating atmosphere.

Third Sella Tower with the Vinazter route going up the middle of it.

After about 5 pitches of steady , but poorly protected climbing we arrived at the Spiral Ledge.  Above this is the crux pitch, a finger crack followed by a stout overhang.

Me fighting my way up the crux pitch.[Photo Sherwood]

After the crux pitch there is still a considerable amount of climbing and often it is difficult to follow the best line.  On one occasion I had a look around a corner to see an unusual sight:  Suspended between the top of our tower and the second tower was a slack-line with someone walking across it.  Unfortunately I wasn't in a position to take a photo.
Me wondering which way to go.

I climbed up a strenuous chimney and all of a sudden found myself at the end of the difficulties.  Charles zoomed up to join me .
Charles Sherwood climbing the last pitch.

From the summit we could see the slack-line below us, but there was no one walking along it.
The Slack-line stretched between the 2nd&3rd Sella Towers.

Like the majority of Dolomitic mountains  the  descents are often quite complicated.  The Third Sella Tower was no exception. It involved lots of short rappels to land us on the Spiral- Ledge.  From there we walked down the ledge which is sort of like a giant Helter-Skelter, to then continue a series of rappels which eventually brought us back to the ground.
Me starting the last of the rappels.

Charles making the final rappel.

The next day we headed to the eastern part of the Dolomites.  We weaved our way around the Sella Ronda and stopped at the Cinque Torri for an afternoon of sports climbing.  This is an incredible area which is accessible via a chair lift. In fact if you were creating a perfect place to go rock climbing then this would be a good template.

Cinq Torri

After the climbing we passed through Cortina and found our selves a simple hotel to stay in on the shores of Lake Misurina. 

Tri Cima from Lake Misurina.

 Our objective for the next day was the uber classic Dulfour route on the west face of the Cima Grande.

We drove up the toll road to the huge car park underneath the south face of the Tri Cima and headed off up the scree towards the start of the climb.  Scrambling up scree slopes is never easy yet in under an hour we were near the start of the route.
The line of the route is spectacular, intimidating and on this day soaking wet.
The line of the Dulfour route.

We attempted the first two pitches and were caught up by a couple of German climbers.  Their enthusiasm was commendable, but this did't change the fact that the route was too wet to climb.  We all rappelled off together and retraced our steps back to the car.  It was still only mid day and so we used the rest of the day to relocate to a completely different climbing area. We drove to Arco and found a brilliant hotel [Hotel Pace] close to the centre of town.  

Arco is  wonderful with bars and restaurants, with lots of delicious food.  It also seemed to have the highest concentration of climbing shops of anywhere in the world.  Chamonix use to have a lot of climbing shops, but has few in comparison to Arco. 

We choose to climb a route called Amazzonia 5c as our introduction to the area.  The guide book gave it 5 stars. We both felt it was okay , but nothing exceptional and very unusually, it seemed to be under graded.
It was a little too easy.
Anyway it was good to get a sense of what the routes were like and from this we could choose a route a little more testing.
The rock climbing areas around Arco

Lago di Toblino seen from the descent path

The next day we set ourselves a bit more of a challenge and climbed the very long and sustained  "Amici del Sottobosco." 6a. This was a bolted route some 11 pitches long and gave some of the best climbing of the trip.

On our final day we climbed a much shorter, but very good "Follia d'Estate" 6a  on Monte Colt just out side the village of Arco and then some single pitch routes in the afternoon where Charles was determined to exhaust himself before returning to the UK.

Finally on our last day We  drove along the side of Lake Garda and eventually to Milan airport where I dropped Charles. 

I then drove back to Chamonix, where the next day the Italians shut the border between Italy and France.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Climbing Around Grimentz

 Parts of the the Zinal valley look like the Zermatt valley 200/300 years ago.  It is quaint and exactly how you might imagine a Swiss Valley to be like.

I met Mark Daniels in the 'chocolate box' setting fo Grimentz which was utterly beautiful. I had not climbed Mark for over ten years.  The last time we had been together we had climbed Mt Blanc. We were now here  to climb what ever the conditions allowed us to.  We had no fixed agenda.

On our 1st day together we choose to climb the short but very  spectacular  via Ferratta at the head of the Moiry Dam.  This was also a good opportunity to gain some acclimatisation and stretch the limbs.

The  exit from the Via feratta

On our second day we explored the  rock climbing on the local crags before walking up to the Moiry Refuge. This being 2020 and Covid Time, we were only eight in the Refuge. Wonderful for us but perhaps not great for the Guardians income stream. 

In the  morning we awoke to thick mist.  The sort of mist that is in fact almost rain.  We ate breakfast at 5.00am and the ventured out in the mirk.  Progress was slow because it was difficult to find the way -yet we did find the way although it was far from straight forward.  due too the thick mist I was reluctant to start trying to navigate across the crevasse ridden glacier.  We had a "council of war"  chose to change our objective and  to be relatively conservative and headed up to the north ridge of the Pigne de la Lé 3395m.  

This proved to be a good choice because we burst out of the cloud to be treated to spectacular views in all directions.  All in the same panorama you can see the big 4000meter peaks of the Valais, including the Weisshorn and the Matterhorn.

In fact the view from the summit must be one of the contenders for the best view in the Swiss Alps.  Added to which we had the whole place to ourselves. We saw no one all until we arrived back at the Refuge.  


Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Chamonix Classic Climbs .

 After our ascent of the Arete de Saille, we both felt "well climbed".  It  was a big day and we decided we needed a simpler day.  Yet when we met in the morning the rain was there to greet us and so like so often a another idea  needed  to be conjured up,  

John for all his previous mountaineering experience had never tried a Via Ferratta. Like many true mountaineers he was a bit ambivalent about them, but poor weather and limited options he concluded that this was a good as time as ever to commence.

We choose the Via Ferrtta in Le Fayet,  behind the Thermal Baths . It was recently built and it has a reputation for trapping the unprepared.  In fact when it was first built it was ill conceived and resulted in lots of rescues from people with failing arms.

Since then it has been reconfigured and split into three sections with the option to quit at three different points.

We set off up the first and supposedly easiest section and although it had stopped raining it  was oppressively  humid and it felt like some practical- joker had been just ahead of us coating the ladders with soap.    Yet John seemed to be powering his way up and after the spectacular Himalayan-Bridge there was the option to bail.  John was having non of it , he was keen to try the second part.  This starts  sedately and then becomes significantly harder [read over hanging ladders and bold traverses.]. 

I have, over quite a few years done many Via Ferrtta's and this was  the most difficult.  Spectacularly beautiful , but defiantly not for the non committed debutant.  We choose to retire for lunch at the end of the second section and leave the finale for another day.  Lunch, as it happened, was very competent in the grounds of the Thermal Park.

This Via Feratta is definitely not for the faint -hearted.

Like all our big two week trips together we like to work towards  an "End Game" - a mountain  of significance that we set as a potential goal.  This year I had identified the Weisshorn as that goal.  Yet when I went to make the reservation in the Weisshorn Hutte   it had just  closed for a rebuild.  Plan B. We looked at the possibility of climbing the Grande Casse the highest mountain in the Vanoise.  Yet the Refuge was having some sort of organisational crisis , not unrelated to Covid.  

Then we realised Chamonix was unusually quiet , the weather forecast was perfect and there were plenty of the classic climbs which John had so far not done.  We  had the  opportunity to climb them without being swarmed all over.

Our first of the classic Chamonix climbs was the traverse of the Clocher-Clochotons with its  iconic Tyrollean Traverse . First done in 1912 and it hasn't lost any of its magic.

The Tyrollean Traverse
The Iconic Tyrollean traverse.

The next day we climbed the traverse of the Aiguille Crochue - the weather forecast was indifferent , very misty and atmospheric - far too atmospheric for all continental parties and unsurprisingly the only other two groups were British.

Approaching the start of the climb to the ridge

Magnificent ridge scrambling
John on the ridge

John & I with photo taken by fellow BMG Guide Stuart Macdonald
John & I . photo taken by fellow BMG Guide Stuart Macdonald.

Still managed  a swim in Lac Blanc on the way down.

Swim in the Lac Blanc

Next day was our chance to go for the Cosmique Arête .  A climb that has become so popular that frankly it  is frequently  untenable because of the bottle-necks plus it has suffered some significant rock fall which made parts of the route dangerous.  Yet with Chamonix quiet this was our chance to climb what is undistubitably  one of the finest climbs of its type and grade in the Alps and probably the world.

Crux pitch not as hard as it looks.

Yet  confidence was a little dented because as we travelled up in the Cable car, I met my good friend Eric Cantelle who is the chief electrician for the Aiguille du Midi. It's his job to keep it running when  the weather gets bad.  He has access to weather forecasts that us mortals don't have, because knowing what the weather is going to do is critically important to keeping the biggest generator of cash in France functioning.  Eric said " You need to be quick the forecast for the afternoon is bad". 

The Cosmiques Arete.

We were not so much quick, as efficient, with only a couple of other parties we had a wonderful experience and what's more the bad weather never materialised .

John in the Exit Cracks

Next was another Chamonix classic : The papillons Arete .  We were away early and we had the whole route to ourselves again.  It was just perfect.  

First pitch. Brutal for a grade 4 pitch

Stunning climbing

Positions are breath taking .

Having said that it is a classic Chamonix grant climb with lots of skin shredding crack climbing rock.  We needed something a little less aggressive for the next day and we choose the Peroux route on the East Face of the L'Index.  Again immaculate climbing which we had to our selves , well at least until we reached the ridge and joined the normal route , where chaos ensued .  It is, I'm afraid, one of those climbs that no matter how bad you are at climbing you can be certain there is some one worse than you.  It was a jumble of ropes knots and people not sure how or where to rappel from.  Fortunately for John and `I we had two 60 meter ropes so we could by pass everyone and arrived directly at the foot of the route from where we went for a late lunch at the Castel Restaurant  in Les Praz.

East Face of L'Index

Our final day together was our hardest  rock climb of the trip.  The beautiful Acqua-Concert on the Aiguille du Van with the jaw dropping back drop of the Lac du Emosson.  This is a modern bolted route on perfect rock. 

The turquoise Lac Emmossen give the perfect back drop
Turquoise backdrop of Lac Emosson

 The climb finishes on the summit and then it's a simple scramble back down to the scene of the giant beer tankards.

Big routes need big beers
Big routes require big beers.