Sunday, November 26, 2023

My first ever November ski tour.


Gd St Bernard Monastery.

Its not even December yet and the snow is plentiful- above 1800 meters.  A short  weather window materialised and Harvey and I took the opportunity to visit the Gd St Bernard Monastery.

We drove  from Chamonix around to the parking at the now sadly defunct Super Grand St Bernard ski station and left the car at the road head.  I sort of assumed that in late November, we would be alone.  But this was wrong - I reckon there were over 70 cars already parked.

We put the skins on and headed up the snow covered road.  Instead of going directly to the Monastery we headed up a parallel valley, the Combe de Barasson and then up to the Swiss Italian border at the west col.

Despite the beautiful view we didn't hang around because there was a bitter wind.

Harvey at the col with Mt Blanc in the background.

We then skied back down to rejoin the main path at the entry into La Combe des Morts and then headed up to the Monastery. We arrived at about 3.30pm - at this time of year the days are short.

Despite all the cars at the car park, there were actually only 6 people staying the night.  Dinner was excellent and very socialble with interesting conversation.

The next morning dawned bright. I have been lucky enough to visit the Monastery may times over the last 25 years- but I have never seen it look better than this.

Looking out or the Monastery window 8.00am

But it was windy...At first I just assumed it was at the col, but I was wrong.  The wind proved to be quite challanging all day.

Harvey Sturgess on his 1st Alpine peak

We eventually managed to battle our way to the summit of Mt Fourchon where surprisingly  the wind seemed to be a little less strong.  

The ski down was fine.  Not great because the wind had compacted the snow but the snow cover was extraordinary.

Heading back up the road.

Monday, November 13, 2023

A suprising early start to the Skiing season. November 12.


La Flegere.

The weather had been shocking. Torrential rain, rivers bursting their banks, mud slides.  But above 1800meters it has snowed.  Not just a sprinkling that barely covers the rocks, but meters and meters of untracked white stuff. Not unsurprisingly the avalanche risk was high.  

These conditions are ideal for refreshing snow-science skills because there is lots to see and learn. Plus there is no better time to review avalanche transceiver protocols for the forth coming season.  Mind you the slight snag was that there was only one lift open- The gondola at La Flegere.  Once you were at the mid station it was a question of using skins because all the chair lifts were not open.

Harvey and I were not alone.  It was a Sunday and the first day in a while that had been half reasonable.

It was crazily busy as we walked up the main piste.  Nevertheless there was so much snow that there was plenty for everyone.  We found a quiet sheltered area and did some avalanche transciever training.  Then we dug a huge snow pit and looked at the different layers and made some asseessments of how stable the snow pack was.

Harvey Stugess 

The ski back down was wonderful and I didnt touch one rock - remarkable for November.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Aiguille du Midi Ridge: Beware it's not always straight forward.


The entry into the Vallée Blanche.

Despite having lived in Geneva for the past fifteen years and despite having climbed Mt Blanc with me in 2016, plus numerous ski mountaineering excusions Catherine had never actually set foot in the Vallée Blanche.

Last week that was all about to change as we entered out of the Aiguille du Midi  ice cave and onto the ridge which leads onto the glacier and then the Vallée Blanche.

There is always a wow factor at this point- It is one of the wonders of the world, yet today there was an unexpected frisson of excitement:  No one had been down the ridge since the previous storm and it was knife edge like and corniced.   Fifty meters further all the snow had been scoured by the wind and we were left with smooth boiler plate ice which just laughed at our crampons attempt to grip it.  We really, really had to concentrate and work very hard to avoid a slip which would't have stopped until Chamonix high street.

The arete du Aiguille du Midi

It was a salient reminder that climbing up and down this ridge hundreds and hundreds of times over 40 years, counts for nothing.  But knowing your clients and the clients knowing the Guide does count for something.

Of course it was worth it - we had the whole place to our selves.  We headed over to the Point Lachaneal.  At first the wind-blown snow supported our weight and we could just skip along.  Yet inevitably the snow changed- it no longer supported our weight and each step meant I crashed through the crust past my knee.

Clearly the solitude is marvellous- but having no one-else around to forge a track is the price you pay.

The summit is a great view point.  To the east you can see the Matterhorn. To the south , the Grand Paradiso.  Behind you have the mighty face of Mt Blanc du Tacul. To the north the Aguille du Midi from which we came.

Aguille du Midi

Point Lachaneal.

We returned the way we had come.  Still we saw no one.  It was odd to retrace our steps and still see our earlier foot prints.  Fourtunatley the ridge had no new surprises.  We seemingly delighted some tourists who were waiting for us at the top. We were the only Alpinists that day.  We had a novelty value.  One of them even "air-dropped" a photo of Catherine and me :

Catherine&Me heading over to point Lachanel 

The next day again  we did something else Catherine had never done before we went rock climbing.  At this time of year Les Chéserys above Argentiere is perfect because it is bathed in Autumn sunshine.

We started with the Voie Jaune 4b. A classic climb and the perfect introuduction to multi pitch climbing.

Followed by a multiple rappel

Next we headed over to the famous Aiguillette d'Argentiere 4b 

This climb is the classic of the area.  Not difficult but clearly quite exposed...

If there is a better place to start your rockclimbing - show me it!

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

What to do with an unsettled forecast.

 The rough plan for the week was to spend as much time at altitude as possible  so that Charles would be well acclimatized for his forthcoming trip to the Himalayas.  Yet not for the first time the weather forecast had other ideas.  It was mixed without a period of two consecutive settled days, which makes planning for  climbing big mountains difficult.

We decided that the Gd St Bernard Col would be a good place to go.  Thanks to the recently published guide book- Entremont Escalade there is a wealth of fine rock climbing.  Plus there are good hotels which are at an altitutude of 2400 meters.  Which means that if the weather improved we would have all ready aquired some acclimatisation.

We drove over the col du Gd St Bernard, but road over the pass was closed for some resurfacing work.  We had to drive through the tunnel and approach from the Italain side which added an unwanted 40 minutes.  It started to rain.  Rather bullishly we set off for our climb anyway. The Grande Chenalette. 5b.  It stopped raining and the sun came out.  All was good.  Then the sun went away the dark clouds rolled in and it started to hail.  Hail is better than rain because it just bounces of you without soaking you.  Well upto a point... It wasnˋt much later that it looked like snow.  Fortunately near the top of the ridge we found a cave to see out the worst of the storm. 

Weather looks better than it actually was!
Charles on summit ridge.

We finished the climb on wet rock, but it  wasn't too difficult.  This was followed by a walk off [again in the rain]. Back to the col and then a kilometer drive to Italy where we checked into the delightful Hotel Italia .

The next day it was raining so we escaped it bt driving all the way down to Aosta where we found a dry crag with some excellent single pitch rock climbing near a village called Fenis.  [It has a sign-post that is always having the F changed to a P  by someone who thinks this is hilarious - which it probably was the first time.]

 We spent a good portion of the day there until the rain caught up with us again, so we retreated to the center of Aosta for some cappuccinos, before returning to the Hotel Italia.

On our third day the weather was good.  We climbed the route Zucchero on the east ridge of the Pain de Sucre. 5b. It is the undoubted classic of the area. Never difficult but it’s long. We shared the route with a Swiss Guide and his client plus three female members of the Italian Alpine Military brigade who were climbing the route in full combat gear including leather army boots.

Knife edge summit of Pain du Sucre.

The Pain du Sucre is a fine summit.  2900m.  The descent is a contrast to the line of ascent, because it is a walk off, albeit a tricky one to find the best line and avoid all the loose rocks and scree.  Yet all in all it was just over an hour back to the car park- so pleasantly quick.

Another night at the Col, but this time in Switzerland at the Auberge du Gd StBernard, where we enjoyed an excellent beef fondue.

On our fourth day it was again raining.  We had aquired a lot of solid acclimatisation, but the weather was not allowing us to exploit it.  The road was now open so we headed back towards Bourg St Pierre.  Fingers crossed that lower down the valley  we would find something to climb.  We did!  The Entremont Escalade guide book saved us and we climbed the immaculate route called *Sisyphus heureux TD 6a+ on the Trappiste cliff.  [ We did have to wait a while for it to dry out.]

Charles leading the first pitch.

On our 6th day together, now back in Chamonix again the weather forecast was not looking good.  Okay in the morning but the decidedly indifferent for the afternoon.  

We decided to try the spectacular route called La Piste Oubliee 6b+ on the Brevent.  Our insurance was to climb the route using double ropes in case we needed to escape, if the rain came  faster than forecast.

The route gave five pitches of magnificient steep technical  climbing which had to be read carefully.  The climbing was totally engrossing so much so that I forgot to take any photos of the climb.  

We were lucky with the weather because just as we finished it started to rain again...  But what a route to finish on.

* Le Mythe de Sisyphe par Albert Camus.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

A suggestion for Mellow Alpine Mountaineering

If you are looking for all the componenets of an alpine climbing experinece, yet without the really long approaches and knackering descents, then look no further than the climbs above the Cabane Moiry.  It is situated at the end of the long Zinal valley above the quintissential alpine village of Grimentz.

Reuben and I left the car at the high car park above the Lac de Moiry. When you start walking you are already at an altitude 2342meters.  The hut walk takes an easy hour and half.  It is at 2826meters.

The hut is very popular with walkers, especially American walkers who all seem to be in possesion of an american guide book.  This guide book tells them that they are on the famous Haute Route.  I have never had the heart to tell them that the guide book is wrong.  

The hut is very comfortable, with running water, showers and draft beer.  The dormitories are small with just 4 beds.

The next morning Reuben and I were the only climbers to leave the hut.  We started walking around 7.00am.  Our goal was the south ridge of the Pigne de la Le.  This is an easy scramble up a rocky ridge. [Easy as long as you stay on the route!]. It leads to a the summit in about two hours.  

The view from the top is simply marvellous.  Everywhere you look you are treated to a view of the Swiss mighty 4000er peaks - The Weisshorn, the ZinalRotehorn the OberGabelhorn the Dent Blanche the Dent d'Herens and of course the Matterhorn.  Plus the Grand Cornier which just misses the 4000meter mark.

The Matterhorn with the Grand Cournier to its right.

We stopped on the top for about half an hour soaking up our surroundings and the solitude.  Eventually we were joined by a couple who had left from their camp a van thus skipping the hut.

The descent was straight forward then slightly less so when we hit the glacier, because it was devoid of snow, meaning it was hard grey ice. Yet we were still back at the hut just before mid day.  

We decided to spend the night in the old part of Grimnetz at the delightful Hotel du Moiry where we had an excellent beef fondue on the hotel  veranda.

The next morning we returned to the Lac du Moiry where we climbed the Via Ferrata de Moiry.

Reuben on the steep lower section

Lac de Moiry.

So if you want to keep mountaineering into your mid seventies and beyond this type of trip is perfect!

Friday, September 08, 2023

Final Mt Blanc . No better way to sign off.

Father & Daughter on the summit of Mt Blanc.

Generally its not the actual climbing of Mt Blanc that is the challange, rather its getting the reservations for the mountain huts when you want them is the difficult thing. We had made the bookings in March inorder to have beds in the Tete Rousse and Gouter Huts in September.  Always a gamble, because you never know what the weather will be like, nor the state of the Gouter couloir... 

Plus this was to be a very special attempt on Mt Blanc.  I was going to be climbing  it with my youngest daughter Sophie.  Success would mean I would have climbed the mountain over twenty five years with all three daughters and my wife.

We even made the bookings before Sophie decicided to spend 3 weeks descending the Colorardo river in a  vintage wooden boat. The only way she could do the trip down the Colorado and attempt Mt Blanc   meant we were suddenly on a self imposed tight schedule - she arrived back in Chamonix, spent a night at home and then we were off.  Hardly text book preparation.  At least the weather forecast was good.

We arrived at the Bellvue cable car, to discover that it had broken down. Again a stressful challange to be overcome that has nothing to do with mountaineering.  Without the cable car we would not make the connection with the train which  takes you to the Nid Aigle, [if you have a booking in the hut.] Otherwise the train stops at the station before.  Missing the train would add an  extra 3 hours to our hut walk.  Something most unwelcome especially with such a demanding next day.

The solution was to take another lift - Prarion - then walk down to Col du Voza station where we could hopefully join the train.  All the chopping and changing did actually work, but left me feeling flustered  before we started.

I was relieved to actually start walking and finally on our way. We were politely stopped by the "Brigade Blanche" who check that you have a hut booking.  They tick your names off on a list which they carry.  Two hours later we were at the Tete Rousse Hut acclimatising and drinking beer.

Conditions were perfect and as we looked up the Gouter Couloir it looked nice a quiet. 

Looking up the Gouter Couloir from the Tete Rousse Hut.

We sat down for  dinner at 6.30pm  and were in bed for about 8.30pm.  We awoke at 4.30am, ate breakfast at 5.00am and were away soon after.

We headed out of the hut and  over to  the rocky ground which was devoid of snow at this time of year.  This makes staying on the exact best line more difficult.

headlights on the Gouter ridge.

Nevertheless by adopting a slow yet steady pace by sunrise we had passed the earlier groups and found ourselves, more or less  in solitude. 

Looking back down the route of ascent.

We arrived at the old Gouter hut in about 2 hours.  I calculated that I had spent over 250 nights in it over the last 30 years.

Sophie at the entrance to the old Gouter Refuge.

Here we stopped to put our crampons on.  Next we traversed over to the new Gouter Refuge where we quickly went into the boot-room to dump stuff we didn't need for the summit. [Helmets, headlamps, toiletries etc]

The track to the Dome de Gouter was in perfect condition, with a gentle zig- zag ascent where we could keep a steady pace.  The route skirts around the summit of the Dome du Gouter before gently descending, thus giving us a chance to have a rest without actually stopping.  Yet just before we started the climb up to the Vallot Hut we did stop for a drink and a Mars bar, because it was sheltered. We had noticed there was a lot of snow blowing off the Bosses Ridge - suggesting it was windy.

Fortunately when we passed by the Vallot Hut and started to climb the Bosses Ridge, the wind had dropped.  For the first time ever, here, the main challange was  overheating. It was wearily hot.

More often than not, on the highest most exposed ridge in western europe, your wearing every item of clothing you have, while wishing you had more. This time  our duvet jackets and mittens stayed in our packs.

The Bosses Ridge.

Just before the final summit ridge we stopped again, this time to swallow some Gummy Bears.  These sweets are better than drugs and never fail to power people to the top.

Almost there.

We raced up the final section and were on the top- pretty much after leaving the Tete Rousse hut 6 hours ago.  Big hugs and kisses on the summit, with one or two tears shed too.  There was a Mountain Guide from Annecy who made it his mission to take lots of photos of Sophie and I.

Then a quick call to Mum just to let her know we had made it.  She had been tracking us through the powerful binoculars we have at home.

Sophie was carrying a small rubber duck which went  down the Grand Canyon.  Less than a week later she took the same duck to the summit of Mt Blanc.

Sophie & her mascot.

We stayed on the summit for about ten minutes before returning the way we came.  

Looking down towards the two Bosses which give the ridge its name.

Back at the Vallot hut we eat the rest of our food and Sophie finished her water, then finished mine.  It was then back to the Gouter Hut.

Gouter Hut 

Sophie immediatly raced up the stairs and spent €9.00 on a bottle of water, but declined a celebratory beer.

The next morning we left the hut at about 6.00am 

Chamonix seen from Aiguille du Gouter

We were keen to cross the Gouter Couloir before it warmed up.  In the event it was in perfect condition.

Looking towards the Tete Rousse Hut.

We stopped for breakfast at the Tete Rousse hut before making our way down the track back to the Nid- Aigle railway station.  There was no train so we ran down the railway line to the station below where we did pick up a train.

The train took us to Col de Voza, where we were met by a couple of 4/4 trucks which whisked us back up to the Prarion lift station and all was good.

Sophie happy to be on the train.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Opposite Crazy Weather

Cabane Moiry 2826m

Four days before this photo was taken the temperature was recorded at 35c.  Mark Daniels and I arrived at the Moiry Hut to be greeted by a wintry seen which left us somewhat flummoxed.
We asked the Hut Guardian for recommendations as to what might be feasible the next day.  He just shugged his shoulders and said he didnt know- not exactly helpful.

Mind you the scene from the Hut was undeinably beautiful .
Looking down toward Lac du Moiry 

So Mark and I agreed we would have breakfast at 6.00am and see if we could climb the Pointes du Morti.

The next morning the weather was beautiful calm and still. We were the only people at breakfast.  We headed out and up the track behind the hut, commenting that it was good that someone else had made the path through the snow.  This was because overnight the snow had frozen and formed a crust.  It soon became apparent that going anywhere other than where the track went was going to be impossible.
Fortunately there was a track up to the summit of Les Bouqutins 3469.  So that is where we went.  Tottaly beautiful and the views from its summit were of the mighty 4000ers that surround Zermatt.

Mighty Weisshorn seen from summit of Les Bouquetins.

full set of photos can be found here

Monday, August 28, 2023

Crazy Temperatures

Gd St Bernard Monastery

The trip report.

There is a new rock climbing guide book to the Grand St Bernard Col area with a selection of marvellous new routes of all grades.  "Entremont Escalade." It is highly recommended.

 John Young and I drove around to the col, leaving high season Chamonix behind.  

The first climb we did was on Le Petit Cervin.  Two minutes from the car park.  A really good first climb.  

Le Petit Cervin

We then stayed the night at the Hotel Italia. A traditional establishment which has been run by the same family since it was opened in the 1930's. 

Hotel Italia shrouded in fog.

After dinner there was a fire work display just over the border at the Hospice.  Despite the mist swooping over the col, the firework-dischargers insisted in contiuning as arranged, despite no one being able to see any fireworks.  It was all rather underwhelming.

The next day we set about climbing the East Ridge of the Pain Sucre by the aptly named route Le Zucchero [ Italian for Sugar]. This is a 15 pitch route which reaches its finale by climbing a razor edge to the summit of the fore- mentioned mountain. 

John on final pitch of Zucchero

 After climbing the route we walked off the back of the mountain and back to the car  We spent a second night at the Col du St Bernard.  This time staying in Switzerland at the Auberge du Gd St Bernard.

On our third day we walked from the col for about an hour and climbed another modern classic: The Grande Chenalette.  A route on perfect rock which is in wild surroundings and again finishes with a sharp arête.

Final pitch of Grande Chenalette.

It was then back to Chamonix for a night, before heading through the Mt Blanc tunnel and around to the quiet Valpeline valley.  It was a bit puzzling why there were so many diggers/roadworks/ traffic lights on the route.  It was not until the hut guardian told us the valley had been cut off for several days after a flash flood and corresponding devastating land slide. Amazingly no one was injured.  

We arrived at the Refugio Crete Seche.  It had everything a good hut should have and was hosted by the utterly delightful Sophie.

Our plan was to go from the refugio upto the little known, but spectacular, bivouc Pasqualetti which is situated on a very difficult to reach ridge.

Unfourtunately for John and I, it not only proved difficult but ultimately impossible.  During the week the tempertaure and climbed and climbed, meaning that transfering from the glacier to the ridge resembled a suicide mission because rocks kept cascading down the face.  We retreated werily back to the Refugio Crete Seche.

Terrible conditions on the glacier

The next day we returned to Chamonix - but not before finding the road out of the Valpeline valley was closed again - but only for an hour while the clean up from the landslide continued.

road closed

After a couple of days rest, we reconvened for some futher adventures.  Although the weather forecast was  perfect, in many ways it was not perfect - it was just too hot.  It meant routes that are effected by potential melting permafrost need to be avoided, plus glacier approachs are unfeesable if there is no overnight freeze- which there wasn't.

In these conditions the rock climbs in the Aiguille Rouge are perfect.  We climbed the immaculate route Kabul on the Petit Floria.  One of the best climbs in the area which doesn't see much traffic.  This will have a lot to do with the heinious approach up endless steep rubble.  You really have to earn your right to climb it.

Petit Floria

Next day we started with a spot of cragging on our our local crag behind our house.  We then drove around to the Col des Annes high above Grand Bornand.  Our plan was to climb the famous route  Voie du Trou on Pointe Percée.  The car thermometer read 33c. We got out of the car and were met with a wall of heat.  This was at 1721 meters.  

Setting off in blistering heat

I was keen to see what the new hut was like - since the last time I had been here, the old one had been demolished and a new modern one had been built.  Frankly we struggled walking to the hut in the heat.  

What should have been a relief when we got there, was instead a nightmare wall of flies.   Maybe it was the unpresentended high temperatures that had caused the infestation, but it would rank as one of the worst if not worst hut experinces I have ever had.

Night mare fly infested hut.

So the next morning it was with extreme relief to get out and start walking up the mountain.  Yet even at 6.30am you didnt need anything more than a T-Shirt.

The route Le Voie du Trou is superb.  It is about 9 pitches until you reach the Trou.  The trou [or hole] gives the mountain its name Pointe Percée.  

John on the stunning Voie du Trou

Once you arrive on the ridge, you are not only treated to views of Sallanches and Mt Blanc in the distance, but you get to climb the spectacular Le Rasoir.  

The Hole

Through the Trou

Although we had had the route to ourselves just after Le Rasoir pitch various climbs congregate.  It was here we met the people we are shared our fly infetsed dinner the night before : Non other than officers of the Foreign Legion.

Le doigt in the background.

Not really wishing to be in a queue with them, we elected to find another route to the really fine summit.

John & I on the summit

It was then back down the normal route which is a waymarked scramble, but not without consequence for the unwary.  We dashed into the hut to collect our extra stuff which was superferlous for the climb, then repacked and left as fast as possible.  The walk down was hard work- the heat now over powering.

tricky walking on the "limestone pavements "

Very hot final stretch back to Col des Annes

For our final day together we wanted something that was less demanding.  We headed for the nearest route from the top of the Index chair lift - Mani Puliti.  All was going well until finally the weather changed an hour or two ahead of schedule and just at the last pitch we got drenched.  Climbing the last pitch was akin to climbing a waterfall.  At least it was warm rain... plus finally a change in the weather which was most welcome.