Winter 2015/16: Looking Back

When the snow started to fall in November the anticipation grew for a great winter. People started brushing the cobwebs off their skis and heading up high to find good snow. The Helbronner was the place to search with the Aiguille du Midi being closed. There was some good skiing to be had but it was short lived. The temperatures rose leading up to Christmas and the snow ceased to fall. Most of the early snow melted away and Christmas came and went with no real precipitation. As the new year rolled in it brought with it some snow, a lot of snow. Powder was plentiful and there were too many deep days to count. Spending a lot of time in Italy dodging trees and the odd day up high in Chamonix it felt like winter was in full swing.

As with every year I like venturing into new corners of the Massif to find new lines that I have yet to ski. This is always condition dependant, but this year the conditions have led me to certain areas that I would have otherwise passed by without a thought.

Couloir Chevalier was the first line of 2016. I had been to the top of this a couple of years ago but had to turn around because of the poor build quality of La Sportiva ski boots. Returning to this line in good snow and with Mikko and the Finns was a great morning out and it felt good to get back on the steeps.

Chamonix TOPO

Chamonix TOPO

Table Couloir, Aiguille du Tour . This was my first alpine route and I have wanted to return for 4 years. Heading up there with Tim was great even though it is a long way away from the top of Col du Passon and was a real slog up with deep powder. It is a great small, steep line that rarely gets skied because its not that long and quite far away.

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Mont Oreb North Face was next. Skiing with Mikko and Jesper is great, they always have a plan B. After we were turned around at the midi with ideas about a nice little line we headed back to the cars and straight over to Buet. Smashing the climb up we were treated with powder down this steep and exposed face and a nice little ski back to the car.

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Tricot NE Couloir is located near Bionassay on the other side of Les Houches. This was a new area for me after only seeing this line once when I skied trapper last year. A beautiful little steep tucked away from the crowds of the Chamonix Valley.

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Dent du Geant South Face started what almost felt like spring. Corn decent down to the Italian valley below. Warm temperatures had transformed the snow and with little else to ski it felt right to tick this classic off the list. When the clouds came in it did make route finding difficult but with a big cliff below we knew traversing high was the only option.

the line. Teton Gravity

the line. Teton Gravity

Les Courtes NE Spur is one to return to. Although we made it 2/3rds of the way up we had to stop at the choke because there was too much powder pouring down the face. It made crossing the slough dangerous. Nevertheless we were rewarded with several hundred meters of deep cold snow on this classic steep north face.

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We skied from the circle

Mont Mallet West Couloir is a little known steep line tucked away below the Dent du Geants north face. Deciding to climb the line first we put ourselves in the firing line of some very big searches and in a wild and impressive little corner of the Massif. What Mikko considered as a training day was one of the highlights of my winter.

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The line (Photo- Lucapandolfi.com)

Col de la Aiguille Vert was my baptism into real ‘extreme’ skiing, my first 5.4. This rarely skied line is over 50′ for its entirety and you get a real feel  for its steepness when your standing at the top. Cold snow and good company made the day feel a little tamer than it should have been and it felt easier than some other less steep lines I have skied in bad snow. It goes to show that the snow quality is what can change a grade.

topo camp to camp

Camp to Camp Topo

Tour Ronde North Face is another classic alpine climb I have done that I had always wanted to return to with skis. This spring it happened and after flying up the Gervasutti in no time at all we were staring down the upper face in boot top cold powder. What a descent. Skiing above the mandatory raps your mind is telling you you can’t fall the whole time. Once off the rope on the lower section your mind eases and you know you have passed the exposure test.

Mont Blanc du Tacul South Face is about as technical a line as I have skied. Weaving in and out of couloirs and with a few abseils thrown in for good measure it made for a gripping descent. Add to that a 5.4 grade and some hard snow on the cruxes and you have the most challenging day on skis for me. When the face started to pour down on us in the lower section it started to get scary and we were glad to make it out safely. Possibly the last day on skis for me this year, I will have to see what the conditions are like when I return in June after  a couple of weeks back in the motherland.

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Photo – Tom Grant

Another great winter has past with some epic days and also some scary ones. It has been great to explore more areas close to home and to make the most of my skis from Voile, they have been everything I have wanted and more. This summer will be more about climbing and moving faster in the mountains and I’m glad to have Salomon onboard to help me achieve more of my dreams.

 

 

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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.

Mont Mallet West Couloir

Mont Mallet West couloir is tucked away on the north side of the Dent du Geant, along the ridge of the Periades. Normally you ski this line by climbing up the Breche Puiseux and climbing some mixed group to reach the shoulder of the Mallet. We decided to climb the line. This is not normally done because of the time spent exposed beneath the Noir seracs. We moved fast to minimise this exposure. First bin on weekend is now 7:30 and after Mikko exchanged multiple lift numbers we managed to get on the second bin and had our skins on by 8:30. I had skin malfunction within the hour and resorted to climbing with crampons.

The snow was very firm on the glacier and this did not slow us down. Upon arriving at the base of the couloir we started to get deeper with each step and soon we were wading up the couloir in nice powder snow. Ditching all our unnecessary gear at the bottom we made reasonable progress up the line sharing the trail breaking whenever I could. The sun had softened the harder sections of snow by the time we started skiing and it was good powder all the way down.

Somehow we made it to the train for 3:30 and I rushed to work at 4:40, ten minutes late. Very tired, and surprised to find good snow so long after the last snowfall.

Dent du Geant SF & Les Courtes NE Spur

A good couple of days spent in the mountains. Meeting Mikko at the lift for first bin we were already a couple of people short of our original 4 team so it meant more boot packing for the both of us. Heading over a very ominous looking bergschrund we started the boot pack up the NE Spur. Soon we were joined by Jose who came along with us and shared the effort. After being plastered by howling spindrift and heavy sluff for the most of the climb we came to the diagonal ramp about 2/3rds of the way up. Here the couloir narrows and the only way up was to climb through the heavy spindrift/ sluff that was puling down the face. We called it a day here. Strapped on our skis and enjoyed a great ski back down. At the bottom we crossed the bergschrund on a bridge that was not there 2 hours earlier when we started. Lots of moving snow!

The day after I was heading through the tunnel with Sleigh to search for some spring corn. I have admired the south face of the Dent du Geant for a couple of years now. Its a great looking hanging face that requires you to traverse to avoid the cliffs below. After a 2 hour mixed climb in the baking hot sun we reached the top of the line by 11:30. Starting off down the steepish couloir we found great spring powder that then turned into corn. Enjoying the descent we soon realised that we would have to start making the traverse to skiers right. Just as we started the traverse the thick cloud came in and we were in a white out.  Moving from ridge to ridge in the dense cloud was unnerving but we eventually found the exit ramp down to the Marbrees. Lots more spring skiing came after until we arrived back at the car. Great morning out.

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

Grepon: Mer de Glace 850m D, 5c

It had been a while since I had climbed with Ally and he was keen for something big in this never ending heatwave we have been suffering in. Grepon: Mer de Glace seemed like an obvious choice. A long rock route and after climbing the Frendo a couple of weeks ago, I felt comfortable moving quickly on grade 4/5 rock.

It was our first time in the Envers hut and after a 2:45 hour approach we went to scope out the start of the route so we could be quick to start in the dark the following morning. It was very warm in the refuge, sleeping with the window open and no blanket. Leaving at 4am we walked in and after starting up the wrong route (there were lots of bolts, so we knew we had gone wrong) we quickly joined the proper route and were climbing in t-shirts by 5 am, at 2500m, very warm!

We were quick moving together on the grade 3/4 ground and made the abseil within a couple of hours. Starting up the main ridge line to the summit we overtook another pair of climbers who had a little trouble route finding. After all the warnings in guide books, it wasn’t that difficult to find our way. We started up the ridge on grade 4/5 rock and by now the heat of the sun was hitting us hard. We took 1 litre of water each and just before the summit our water ran out. Leaving our sacks at the breche we started the summit block. The famous Knubel crack, the worlds first 5c. It was hard, Ally struggling for an hour and eventually giving up so we could make it down. I am suffering with a bruised rib and with the painkillers wearing off I didn’t fancy a go. Feeling very annoyed we didn’t summit, 5 meters from the top, we headed down the west face via a series of abseils, wrong abseils, climbing back up then finally finding the actual descent route to the col. Reaching the col with a couple hours until last lift we tried to make a quick descent. The deep sugary snow slowed us down, coupled with multiple big holes we reached the foot of the glacier at 6pm. No chance of last lift.

Ally sprinted off to try and make Montenvers last train at 6:30pm but he had no chance. I slowly plodded my way to Montenvers then descended the train tracks to town arriving at the closest beer dispensary at 8:30pm. 16.5 hours after leaving the refuge.

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.

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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Kuffner Arête, Mont Maudit 4465m

Kuffner Arête. (700m D, 4465m)

The Kuffner is a true classic of the Mont Blanc range and has been in my sights for a while now. This time it looked like everything was falling in to place and we would have some clear days in this wet alpine summer.

 

I have climbed with Nick and Tim before but they had never met. After introductions at the midi we all headed across the Panoramic towards Italy to start the 2 hour approach to the Fourche bivi. The location of the bivi has to be one of the best in the range. Perched high on a ridge overlooking the enormous south face of Mont Blanc and the Brenva glacier. We arrived at the bivi just after midday and settled in with card games and three middle aged Germans who were there for the Brenva Spur. Looking like we were going to have the hut to ourselves we got comfortable. Before long more and more people started arriving and by 7/8pm there was 16 people in this 12 person bivi. There was bodies and gear everywhere with people on the bench and table. I had a terrible night’s sleep only managing a couple of hours. The first people started to get up about 2am and then you could not escape the sound of crampons clinking and quiet chatting for the next two hours before we got out of our blankets and were heading out ourselves.

The Kuffner follows the obvious ridge up towards Mont Maudit and is generally a 50/60 degree snow slope with a few mixed and rock moves thrown in for good measure. Starting in the dark it was easy to route find as there was a good track and a dozen head torches ahead of us. It`s always a shock to the system when you wake up and straight away you are on an exposed ridge, it takes some time to rub the sleep out of my eyes.

We were making good progress, reaching the Pointe Androsasse around sunrise. It was at this point that I started to feel unwell. I haven`t really suffered with altitude before but this time it wasn`t going down well. I didn`t feel confident in my abilities and felt sick despite eating and drinking regularly. I didn`t want to slow the group down so with regular short breaks for more food and water we moved together until we reached the top of the ridge after 5 hours of climbing. As the morning unfolded at no point did I feel like my condition was improving. Not wanting to be a burden on the guys I pushed for the summit of Maudit hoping that I might feel better with a long rest and more food. This did not happen. Tim and Nick had not been up Mont Blanc before and they didn`t feel half as bad as me so they were keen to summit. About 50m below the summit of Maudit I threw in the towel, I was beat. I offered to descent on my own. I unclipped from the rope and started the 150m down climb down the north face of Maudit heading towards the Col where I roped up and descended with the Brenva guys from the Fourche, who took good care of me with tea and chocolate. I still felt bad the whole way down reaching the midi just before 2pm after topping out of the Kuffner 5 hours earlier. It was very hot, I had no water and I was tired. What a day. Hearing from Tim after I had gotten down, they had managed to reach the summit within a few hours of leaving me, and despite a cloudy summit shot they were heading back down via the three monts route. They were also tired but were happy that they had both finally made it up to the roof of Europe.