The Wet Welsh Summer

Wales is renowned for being wet. What did you think keeps the hills so green! I think the trick is to not let the rain get to you and to get out and make the most of the day reglardless of what the elements might throw at you. With this being said I have been back in Wales for a few weeks now and have only got up on the mountains a handful of times.

After running the marathon earlier in the summer I have been trying to keep up my running fitness along with combining running with scrambling to keeping my alpine agility skills. North Wales and Snowdonia is a great environment for practicing the art of alpine running. With narrow ridges like Crib Goch and more technical fast scramble found on Tryfan there is plenty of choice for all weather. Returning to Llanrug alone in mid July I had a week before my girlfriend arrived so I was determined to get some long solo days out in the mountains. My friend and ski/climbing partner Ally Hurst introduced me to the Snowdon Horseshoe in May and ever since has been reminding me that it can be done in under 2 hours. This is my goal for the summer. SO far I have had 3 attempts but all have been in wet weather. The first one being just under 3 hours then bringing it down to 2h20m. I am waiting for a nice dry few days and some fresh legs to go for my sub 2 hour attempt. I will keep you updated when this happens!

North Wales is also renowned for its amazing quality rock climbing. I have not climbed outdoors in Wales before as I only developed an interest in climbing when I spent my first summer in Chamonix 4 years ago. My friend and Trainee guide Dave Searle is also spending the summer in Wales in preparation for his first guides scheme test in September and has been showing me and my girlfriend around and teaching me how British people climb, without the need of fixed anchors and bolts!

With the weather being rubbish most days in the LLanberis pass Dave took me out to the well know climbing mecca of Gogarth on Anglesey. Arriving to the top of the sea cliffs with 40mph winds tearing over the top was not the most welcoming but regardless of the conditions we were ready to climb some rock. The thought of abseiling into routes never crosses my mind when climbing in Chamonix as you usually abseil off after climbing something so it is usually the last thing in my mind. I am not a great fan of Abseiling at the best of times, let alone when you are going backwards off a blind cliff, towards the sea, with a 40mph wind whipping the rope around. Safely down at the belay with the strong waves crashing meters below we started up the face. The rock was superb and the climbing varied and nothing like I have climbed in the Alps. I was lost in the moment and completely forgot about the sea below. I was loving it!

Moving around to the Gogarth crag after this I was excited to get another route in. Escaping the wind my nerves calmed and I started to enjoy myself even more.

I am yet to lead my first Welsh climb but when the next sunny window arrives I will be straight out of the door with either my rack ready to get on some rock or my trainers to get a sub 2 hour horseshoe. The summer is far from over!…

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Tour Ronde North Face

After a week away in Corsica I was keen to get straight back out into the mountains. Seeing that Pete and Grant had skied the Tour Ronde North Face the day I arrived back and reported great snow I knew it was the time to go and bag this classic I had admired for years. The Tour Ronde is the first mountain I set my eyes on climbing on a summer trip to Chamonix 5 summers ago. When I climbed its north face for the first time in 2013 I was over the moon and have dreamt ever since of skiing it. I had already skied its east face, south face and the Gervasutti Couloir so the only face left was the North!

Heading towards it that morning with the intention of going solo I managed to convince my friend Ally Hurst to leave his group of four heading to the Diable and join me for some great snow. After he saw the face it didn’t take much convincing. We nervously crossed the big schrund on the Gerva and he stormed up the 350m couloir in 35 minutes. I was just behind with a chest infection, coughing my guts up in a time of 50 mins. Arriving back into the sun we took a look down the face. It still looked great, only 2 tracks and lots of good fresh snow to the sides. It was go time.

Dropping straight in and making controlled turns in the great snow felt amazing and I was so happy and content skiing this big and exposed face. Arriving at the abseil after 10 or 15 minutes we clipped in. Knowing that the exposed top face was the only thing playing in the back of our minds. Once on to the lower face after abseiling our worries were behind us and we could ski care free down and over the schrund. Arriving back at Montenvers just after 1pm we both had grins from ear to ear.

Col de l’Aiguille Verte

When Dave suggested this line I instantly became nervous. Even though I knew it was in good condition I had never skied anything this steep or this big before. With a toponeige grade of 5.4/5.5 E3 it is at the very upper end of skiable slopes. Known as one of the steepest sustained ice faces in the Alps it is not to be underestimated. I knew my ability could allow me to make turns on 50/55 degree slopes for short sections, usually cruxes on easier routes. This face would require me to make these controlled turns for over 700m of descent.

We could see tracks coming from the top and they looked good. With no signs of big sloughs coming down we headed up with light bags after stashing our gear just over the bergschrund. There was some evidence of a bootpack still there but we (Dave) mostly had to make a new one. Half way up the slope we were joined by a lone Frenchman Boris, who accompanied us to the top and enjoyed the descent with us. Near the top you make a traverse to the right and into the sun. Reaching the col my nerves were peaking and I knew what I had to do to get back down safely.

The first 100m was east facing and had a slight sun crust but still skied well. After the traverse back to the shady face the snow improved and so did the skiing. Making powder turns on 50+ degree slopes was a great feeling. Being in control and at the same time feeling madly out of control due to the location of the skiing, surrounded by towering faces and steep ice slopes.

Once we jumped the schrund it all sank in. A big fist bump and pat on the back and you could see our smiles from Argentiere. A short trip to retrieve our gear then a fun and fast descent to Argentiere and a quick drive to work. It is amazing how good snow can turn even the steepest line in to a fun day out, I have skied the cosmiques on crusty ice and I felt a lot more gripped! Thanks Dave for the fun day and for suggesting this truly superb line.

Aiguilles Crochues Traverse – East Couloir

Its been over three months since my last post as I have been working away from Chamonix for the inter season. Arriving back at the start of December I had high hopes for a snow filled winter with heavy snowfall in the valley just days before my arrival.  Two weeks back in the valley and we have been exploring all options for something worth skiing.  This winter I will be an ambassador for Voile Skis. Voilé make great back country skis and snowboards made in Salt Lake City, Utah. Light and solid they will fit right into my style of big mountain ski touring in the Mont Blanc Massif.

Grand Montets has been fun cruising the pistes and there has also been some powder on the backside. But with rocks starting to emerge I have been forced to look elsewhere. Hotel face and a trip to Bel Oiseau near Emosson Dam have proved fruitful and it was fun exploring a new area.

Today me and Ally Hurst headed up Flegere to climb the Aiguille Crochues Traverse. A great summer climb that can be done in trainers was a fun challenge in deep cold powder. Our initial plan was to ski the Col du Card back to the Flegere ski area. Just after reaching the summit we noticed a great looking couloir heading back to the Floria bowl. Chocked full of cold powder we decided to give it a go and hope that it didn’t cliff out. After a few hundred meters of great snow we only had the long descent back to the lift in heavy wet snow. Not that much fun on 160cm rando planks!

 

Pyramide du Tacul East Ridge 250m, 5a, D-

With the relentless baking sun beating down on the glaciers it has become the norm this summer to avoid snow routes. I had not been on the Pyramide before and hearing great things about its east ridge I headed up with Grant for his first Alpine adventure.

Knowing the crux of the day would be finding a good point to get off the glacier and onto the rock we headed up first bin to maximise our time. The glacier has opened up some big holes around the base of the climb and the start looks alot different from the topo i was working from taken just two years ago by Jon Griffith.

We made it onto the rock after a couple of dead ends in the endless crevasses and started up the rock, moving together about 08:30.

The rock is superb and the route finding pretty straight forward, following the odd stuck piece of gear and countless belays. The sun was hot and we were moving fast, just next two another British team of two.

Grant moved quick considering he forgot his rock shoes on his first rock climb off the midi, slabs in Scarpa Nepals are not great at the best of times. After 4 hours of amazing cracks, flakes and slab we hit the top. Rapping straight off the summit down the south face we had one rope jam, that came free after some loud cursing, then made quick work getting back to the Panoramic on the Italian side by 4pm. The traverse was made scary by some very wide, very thin melting snow bridges. Not for the faint of heart. Greeted by some Germans in the small bubbles who offered us some much needed water. A great day up high, and nice to escape the crowds of the high street.

Made it to the panoramic

Made it to the panoramic

Goulotte Profit / Perroux III 4, M5 & Contamine Grisolle (variante Champion du Monde)

Returning to Chamonix after a big storm that saw snow falling on the valley floor I knew that some of the mixed routes on the Cosmiques ridge would be in condition. Spring and autumn are the best times to get on these climbs and after bad weather they are usually at their best. Getting to an empty first bin we knew it would be quiet on the route. I have seen the bridge in autumn and it’s usually a fistfight to get to the abseil point first so you have no one climbing above you. This was not the case on this beautiful calm sunny day.

Our aim was the Profit Perroux and before we set off down the multiple abseils we had a quick look at the whole route from the midi viewing platform, it looked really good.

On our way down the couloir we saw a couple of groups skiing the Glacier Ronde in powder. The climbing was steep and sustained but with bomber ice we saw no real difficulties. We had one group of two who were climbing behind us and only catching us on the belays, as the second was about to climb. They were happy to also have the route crowd free given the amazing conditions.

The triangle du Tacul is in good condition for mixed climbing. Tim Oliver and myself went up yesterday for a variation of the Contamine-Grisolle. There was no wind and the sun was scorching which would explain my sun burnt neck today. We moved together for the whole route and encountered some tricky sections of thin ice and tricky, yet fun, mixed steps. Climbing with skis on your back is a little more engaging and sometimes you can knock yourself off balance when they collide with a rock, but it does however mean that the Tacul north face descent can be done in very little time and making powder turn in late May is always a privilege.

Mont Blanc via the classic Grand Mullets route

With the high pressure settling the snow pack and transforming the slopes into perfect corn I thought it would be a great time to accomplish one of my long term goals of skiing Mont Blanc from the summit. I have been on the ‘Roof of Europe’ twice before and both times suffered greatly on the descent. Almost 4000m of knee slamming agony on hot sunny days feeling very tired after an alpine start. Tim Oliver is usually keen for most things mountain based so after a very quick phone call he was on board and had booked us two spaces at the Grand Mullets for the Sunday night. At only 12.50euro for a bed with an alpine club membership you can afford to splash out on some nice food to build up some reserves for the long morning to come. Pasta, cheese, chorizo, snickers the list went on… Carrying up about 2kg of food and Port was worth it when you know you don’t have to lug it up the next morning.

Thinking of a more interesting route to the refuge we decided to ski Couloir Cosmiques to reach the Bossons Glacier, this turned out to be a bad idea. After the two 30m raps we encountered hard snow, some of the hardest I’ve come across! After 50/100m of back straining side slipping we decided to change to crampons and down climb. Front pointing down 400m of a beautiful moderate ski descent takes its toll on your psych for the day ahead. Skiing the lower 400m to the glacier went much smoother and we were soon skinning along the Bossons Glacier en route to the hut. Passing a guide who told us to follow the signs we reached the refuge in the evening light around 4:30pm. Meeting a Ally Swinton and a couple of his friends we settled in for the evening and enjoyed the surroundings.

The guardians are very nice at the Grand Mullets, offering water for boiling and generally being very hospitable. After a large quantity of pasta, cheese and a glass of port we started to wind down for the night. The Guardians generously gave Tim and I a rice pudding despite us not eating their dinner, a small token of appreciation for the port we gave them. We retired to the room around 20:30 and the lights went off. 30 minutes later I shot up, gasping for air with a funny feeling in my guts. Quickly on with the slippers and I’m darting down the stairs. Before I reach the door I throw up all of the pasta in the doorway and over the railings. Walking back in after a minute cursing I approach the guardians with the bad news. They offered to help clean but I couldn’t let them it was not the prettiest sight. Afterwards they offered me a coke to settle my stomach and I went to bed around 22:30 dreading how I would feel when we rise 5 hours later.

3:30am comes around in what felt like 10 minutes, I didn’t feel that bad except I was starving and very dehydrated. Eating a few snickers and drinking a litre of water we pushed on regardless. 4:40am and we were off on the skin track.

When you are in the big mountains in the dark you feel very small. With freight train rumbles passing close by the sound of falling seracs chills you to the bone. Pushing on almost seems stupid but we do it anyway. The skin track takes you on a wild tour through towering seracs and bottomless crevasses until you reach the Grand Plateau. From here you can see the Vallot and you know the summit is in sight. Tim kept telling me that I looked rough and my inner Welshman wanted to push on despite feeling like I should be in a warm bed 3000m meters below.  Having done the Bosses ridge a few years prior I knew what was in store. Skis on our back and the long monotonous slog continued. 6 hours after leaving the refuge and despite having an empty stomach we were on the summit. 6 of us in total with hand shakes and high fives flying around. A mouthful of sweets and we started the descent down the North East ridge heading towards the north face. Every turn was a struggle, lacking oxygen and energy, but I persevered. The North face is a crevasse and serac mine field, luckily we were following some faint tracks so route finding was not an issue.

One hour of tiring skiing passed and we were back at the refuge. A quick stop to pick up some gear we left behind and we wanted to get back to mid station and return to the valley, where beer is on tap and the burgers were on the grill.

Sitting in Cham sud you get a very surreal feeling looking back up at Mont Blanc, it was hard to imagine that only 3 hours ago we were suffering on its summit. Content, relaxed and exhausted we hd done what we set out to achieve despite the obstacles that lay in our way. What an end to another great season.

Couloir Angelique, Les Courtes South Face

I first met Jesper at the bottom of the West Couloir last spring and have been in similar circles for the last year. Watching him make big descents with the likes of Mikko and Ben I have always been excited to see what he has been up to. When he asked me to go and ski Couloir Angelique I couldn’t say no. Knowing that it would be a big day out I tried to pack light and think strong. Starting early from GM top bin we headed straight up the NNE face of Les Courtes. After 1130m of ascent, 800m being a boot pack, we were at the top of the Couloir at 13:00. The climb was on my mind the whole way up, as if conditions were not looking good in the Angelique I knew we would be down climbing the NNE. Hearing about a fatality on this face last week I was focused on reaching the top and optimistic for good conditions. Making the first small rap conditions were a little icy as the sun was hiding behind some thick clouds. Jesper made a few turns and reported not great snow. Not wanting to make my first turns on 50′ ice I made another small rap and then started skiing.

The snow was less than ideal as it saw no sun all day. It was firm but grippy and as we got lower the snow softened and we could make some nice turns. Im not sure if it was the situation I was in, Skiing a big 5.3 E3, or the fact I was beasted from the boot pack, but I found myself constantly puffing and panting the whole way down. I was gripped. The skiing consists of 200m 50′ then 600m of 45′. The couloir ranges between 5 and 30m in width. Nearing the bottom of the couloir I felt relieved, I had completed what I set out to do, after bailing on a few big lines this year due to less than average conditions it was nice to get out and accomplish something new. It was my first time in the Talefre basin and it is epic. A long slushy descent to the James Bond track. Not the best for getting down but as Jespers ski pass is somewhere on the NNE face of Les Courtes it was the only way down, and I couldn’t leave him to do it on his own!

All in all a great big day out. Traversing Les Courtes and enjoying a big ski line. Thanks to Jesper for the invite. Lets see what the rest of the spring brings.

Y Couloir and GM ridge M4 climb.

With unfinished business on the Aiguille d’Argentiere I headed up the Milieu alone to onsight the Y. Perfect corn awaited me and I had a truly amazing solo descent.

 

With the sun going away on Sunday it was time to get back on the tools. Heading up to a M4 climb on the GM ridge North Face with Tim Oliver around midday on Sunday we started the very thin climb with two parties ahead. Catching up with the slower pair at the crux we had a small wait to regain strength which was desperately needed given the tricky moves in difficult thin conditions. An awesome day out and some superb climbing.

 

 

 

 

Kyrgyzstan Expedition 2014

When I was invited on the Navlikin Expedition I first asked myself, “Where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?”, I had heard of Kazakstan, so assumed it was near there; Somewhere past the middle east near China. After a quick Google I found out I was not far wrong. Even though I read about Emilys trip there last year it never occurred to me to look where it was.  I started wondering if I was ready to go half way around the world just to climb. It seemed a bit much. I love climbing but the furthest I normally go is a ten minute walk to the Aiguille du Midi or on occasion a short drive up the valley to Le Tour. More questions popped into my head. Am I willing to risk the possibility of great suffering for the reward of climbing? Not having been involved in any true ‘epics’ in the massif the last two summers (not counting one short heli ride!) I have not had my ‘suffering in a bivi tent in a blizzard at 4000m’ experience. There is also no safety net; I would have to climb well within my ability so that I could ensure my safe return. This was fine by me; I just had to look what was possible before leaving. With lots of pictures available and Google earth this is not that hard to do. Scoping out possible summits and routes before we departed seemed like the best way to maximize our climbing time out there, without having to do lots of reccies.

We had intended to ‘col hop’ when we got to the glacier. Our intended glacier looked too crevassed and open to efficiently get near our planned peak. The adjacent Kotur Glacier was the exact opposite. Flat and gentle with only a few visible crevasses. We would base at its foot, and slowly make our way up 10km of scree and ice and pop over to the top of the Navlikin. Well, that was the plan. When we initially got dropped off we could not believe how close we were to the glacier. The ‘tank’ had done its job and our driver Sergey was regarded as a legend.

We had suspected that we would have a couple of days load carrying all of our gear and supplies (for the 20 day stay) across 10 to 20km of uneven ground before we reached camp 1. Having completely taken this out of the equation we were all in high spirits. Knowing that we were not doing this we stayed at this camp (4100m, est) so that we could acclimatise. These few days also consisted of carrying loads up to camp 2, Roughly 4280m on a small moraine strip on the west bank of the Kotur Glacier. During this time several team members, myself included, battled with a serious case of ‘the shits’. Not the best thing to have at nearly 4000m with no toilet for a couple hundred miles.

Our first climb was Obzhorny 5156m. This peak had been climbed numerous times but the aim of our climb was to acclimatise. We chose a simple route up a 40’ snow slope and along a 2 KM ridge to the summit, crossing over another peak about 4800m. Going along with Sam, James and Dave we took just over 7 hours, and despite high winds on the approach to the summit, we had perfect weather.

For me my trip was successful after this mornings climbing. I wanted to climb a peak over 5000m and return unscathed, these were my objectives. We had a mix of weather over the next few days; it would snow a foot with high winds and then be bluebird for a couple of days . With most of the approaches being up 40’ snow slopes the combination of new snow and wind meant that there could be a high avalanche risk, we would normally wait a day or two for the mountains to shed and snow stabilise. But after waiting it would normally snow again. Receiving weather updates via sat phone we had a rough idea what was going to happen but it didn’t always match up. Our second outing came after a week or so at camp 2. Me, Dave, Sam and James headed up to the glacier to ‘Dead bird Col’ (named shortly after finding a sparrow sized bird frozen with its wings extended, I guess it got too cold mid flight).

Dave and Sam had their eyes on a mixed route on the north face of Letevit, and James and I were going to climb Pik Pyramida on the Kyrgy/China border. At just over 5100m it would be our second over 5000m and a great addition to our climbing list. After a 6 hour slog up the glacier in sometimes knee deep powder, we reached the Col, exhausted, we set up camp on the Navlikin side and we were getting closer to our planned objective of Pik 5611. After a stormy night and a couple of hours sleep we woke to clouds and snow. James and I only brought one nights worth of food as we planned to return to base the following day. Dave and Sam were getting settled for a few days to attempt the buttress in good weather. With no clearing on the horizon James and I headed back to base about 10am, another 4 hours of trail breaking down the glacier in a whiteout. Finding many big crevasses on the way and becoming very tired. An unsuccessful outing involving a lot of suffering. Dave and Sam returned the next day, also exhausted. We saw them after we returned from an attempt on what we aptly named Pik Tonic, named due to its locality to Pik Jjin. We didn’t make the summit of the possibly unclimbed peak but we did climb a subsidiary peak on its approach, which we named Pik Lemon, it stands roughly about 4957m. This would be our last time with crampons on.

 

I have learnt many lessons from this trip and have had the chance to experience a new style of climbing in a distant country. I cannot thank Emily enough for organising  this expedition and all other team member for making it an unforgettable experience. Cora, Dave Searle, Emma, James, Libby, Sam and Simon. Many thanks also go out to Latitude60s for the excellent Merino gear they provided me with and also to Rab and Mountain Hardwear for the tents they provided us for the expedition, allowing us to get a good nights sleep away from the elements and sub-zero temperatures.

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