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.

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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.

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

Shit Route

Since I made my way 2/3rds of the way up the Rebuffat-Terray route last week with Tom Grant I have been keen to get in some more mixed routes before the snow starts to fall and stick, and the approaches get longer; The Aiguille du Midi closes in the first week of November.

I had heard that a couple of my friends Alex and Ally had climbed Vent du Dragon on the north face of the Cosmiques Arete and after Tom had also climbed it last week and said it was in good condition I thought that could be my next objective.

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Vent du Dragon follows roughly the red line.

On Tuesday I bumped in to James Clapham, a very strong climber who took my up my first Alpine climb, Aiguille du tour-Table couloir, over a year ago. He mentioned that he is heading for work in Scotland on Saturday and was keen to get on one last route before he leaves.

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Pitch 3 of Vent du Dragon, perfect 75′ gully, Taken the day before. Climbers unknown.

Meeting at the Midi at 8:15 there was a lot of climbers who already had their helmets on and looked ready to go, this was a good sign that they were going to rap of the bridge and head to the same route we were going for.

We tried to be quick out of the bin and down the tunnel but despite our speed there were at least 6 teams ready to rap. Vent du Dragon was out of the question!

Climbing for me is fun, I don’t want to get involved with 12 or so people trying to get on the same route then having ice and spindrift hailing from above for the whole climb!

As I was up the Midi the day before scouting routes and checking conditions I suggested the ‘Shit Route’. I had heard about it before and had a good idea of the route; Emily had climbed it last month. It gets its name because the top pitch of ice is made from the overflow of the toilets, or so I’m told!

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The ‘Shit Route’ is the obvious gully starting up from the red arrow and finishing on the hanging ice.

There was only one team on the platform when we went to rap down the route and they took their time so we started rapping down the route. There are 2 50m rappels to the bottom of the 100m mixed gully. James did have to climb back up 10m after the first rap as the rope became stuck in a crack.

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After James had built a belay and I had joined him we started the climb. With the steep icy granite walls all around you get a true north face atmosphere.

James started up the first mixed pitch with no real difficulties.

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I then came up second, this was some of the hardest mixed climbing that I had done but I felt safe on top rope and really enjoyed the climbing.

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Meeting again at the belay there was only one pitch left to climb.

The next pitch was slightly harder with some difficult moves near the top, finishing on 15m of 85’ water ice which had a distinct smell of toilet water and cleaning products.

As James was nearing the top of the Ice he knocked down what he thought was either frozen turf, or a frozen turd. Whatever it was it hit me on the knee and drew blood through my soft-shell trousers. James then finished the ice and was onto the metal platform and started setting up a belay for me to second.

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I was quick seconding the first 20m then I hit the steep mixed ground before the ice which I found much harder than the lower section. I had one new pick on my Quarks, Snell had only one in stock and after reading my last blog my Dad decided that I could use some new ones for my birthday, I wish they had 2 in stock! Before you got on to the hanging ice there was an awkward step over some large rock bulges and you had to get some high axe holds over the ice and then pull yourself up and over, it was daunting and hard but I made it over without falling just breaking a big sweat.

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I was now on the 85’ ice and my calves were burning, James wanted me to stop for a photo and I gave him one second before moving again, so I could get off my front points and rest my legs. I was up on the Cosmiques ridge and into the sun and I could relax.

We were 2 hours on the climb plus 30 mins for the 2 rappels down. We were chuffed that we had managed to climb something even after our first choice was a no go. Finishing at midday you could still see many teams on the Vent du Dragon and I was glad not to be stuck in the thick of it on hat route with all those climbers.

Thanks to James for the climb and some photos and my Dad for the new pick(s)!

L’Aiguillette D’Argentiere

Having a morning off before work is always good, especially when the sun is out. Me and Stef headed up to the Aiguillette around 10:30am. Parking at the Tre-le-champ car park there is a 45/60 min approach to the crag. It was surprisingly quite even though there as a few people doing a zip line from the top ladders.

We opted to do the classic route on the monolith as Stef had not done it before, 4c. Then after that we did the first pitch of ‘La Fee des Druides’ a 3 pitch route, 5c.

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I had climbed a few routes here last summer so had a good idea of what to expect. The Classic route up and over the smaller monolith has a very exposed step over to the larger one, so even though it is a 4c, it is quite unnerving!

Stef came up second then we rappelled down towards the Le Tour side as its slightly overhanging and made for an easier descent. We took a single 70m rope and 10 quickdraws.

The view from the top.

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After this route we did the first pitch of the Druides, this rock is realy nice and not polished at all. There are some nice grippy small holds and some committing moves for a 5c. The first pitch is over 35m as we found out and when I was nearing the half rope length I had to come back down with a mallion in a bolt! You have to commit to the 3 pitches to avoid loosing gear, but we didn’t have enough rope for the rappels.

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The rock is all great apart from the overused classic routes but this crag is in an amazing location offering some tremendous views and fantastic photo opportunities. Here are a couple from last year!

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Aiguille d’Entreves, SW Ridge PD

Teaming up with a new climbing partner Fabio Mastroianni we headed across the panoramic to traverse the Entreves ridge on the Italian side of the Massive. I met Fabio driving him to and from the airport and then having bumped into him on the Tacul last week we thought it was best to go and do a nice easy route together before taking on anything serious. This route was perfect for Fabio as he was returning back to his homeland with some Italian drinks to finish!

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The traverse goes from right to left along the top of the ridge.

The route starts a mere 40-minute walk from the cable car station, this did mean it was very busy, sort of an Italian Cosmiques! The whole traverse is done in big boots but without crampons, as it is 100% rock. The route is graded PD and has a couple of tricky rock moves in the middle just below the first summit. With a couple of down climbs thrown in it is a good beginner alpine rock traverse and even though it was very crowded we both had a great day finished off with a beer and a grappa!

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Starting up the ridge.

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Just before the first down climb, Probably the most difficult section of the route.

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The first and hardest down climb.

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The ridge leading to the summit, you can see the crowds of people ahead!

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Stopping for some lunch after the summit, only a 20 min traverse from here to finish.

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Just relaxing in the sun!

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The view from the Torino enjoying a beer and Grappa!

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Going back across the Vallee Blanche towards the Midi at the end of a nice day in Italy!

Tour Ronde North Face 3792m

Another day up the mountains, this time with Alex. We were excited for a couple of days up high with the aim of completing 3 routes, This turned into one because of a few different reasons, but the one we completed was amazing.

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Starting up another last bin at the Midi we were aiming for the Perroux hut for another bivi, after helping some English 50 something year old put on his harness and crampons we escorted him down the arete and off to the Cosmiques refuge where he would await his guide, If we were not there who knows what would have happened to him. Before we settled in and started cooking some food we took time to fix the door on the small old hut, this meant digging out some ice, clearing the door way and salvaging some nails, we made that baby wind proof and were chuffed with our refurbishment’s so started cooking some ravioli and noodles, it was the first time I had used the hammer on my axe, not sure if that is its intended purpose!

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We were in bed early for a 3am wake up and out by 4am after some coffee, orange juice and a couple of cereal bars. Rapping in to the dark is good fun and we were on the move roped up just after 4.

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After a 1hour 15min approach we started heading up the snow slopes with only one team of two ahead who were pitching the north face, We caught them up before the ice and passed them soon after. The conditions were perfect, re-frozen snow at the bottom then neve all the way to nice ice in the middle with good neve on the upper snow field.

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We opted to take the left couloir with a longer ice section, this took us higher up the upper snow field and was great fun with a small rock and ice crux at the top. The sun started to come up as we were half way through the ice offering amazing sunrise views down the Vallee Blanche with the sun coming up behind the Dent de Geant.

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We were along side the other team at this point as they decided to get out onto the upper snow field as soon as they could, leaving us to have the whole left hand ice couloir to ourselves.

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After the tricky moves we were out onto the upper snow slope and heading towards the summit.

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After 2 hours of climbing we were on the summit and we sat and enjoyed the views for about 45 minutes whilst Alex looked for his sunglasses unsuccessfully.

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After borrowing some goggles from a German Guide we headed back down the East ridge with not enough time or the correct glasses to climb the Entreves traverse which is what we wanted to do after the Ronde. We then headed back to the Helbronner and came back to the Midi, we bailed on our plan to stay at the Torino hut and climb the Dent du Geant the next day as the weather did not look good in the afternoon and I could not afford to be stuck in Italy the following night!

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The next day me and Alex went to retrieve our sleeping bags from the Perroux and came back up the Cosmiques arete, we did the round trip Midi to Midi in just over a hour and had great fun in the sun wearing t-shirts!

A great few days in the mountains and I am really pleased to have climbed the North Face of the Tour Ronde, something I have wanted to do for a couple of years and my main objective for this summer.

Thanks to Alex.

Petit Aiguille Vert, Point Lachenal Traverse, Cosmiques Arete

I have had a busy couple of days in the mountains completing 3 routes in 26 hours, two of which were new to me and two of them I led the whole route.

It all started at 7:30 at Grand Montet lift meeting John Vincent with our skis to go and climb and ski Petit Aiguille Vert, I have looked at this route many times when skiing top ticket and never got round to climbing or skiing it. As it was the first of July we thought it would be a novelty to go ski off the lifts, and seeing that you can almost ski to the mid station we were both excited.

Petit Aiguille Vert

The route goes up the west ridge to the summit and is a good fun route. We didn’t take skins as it is an easy 30 minute walk to the start of the climbing. Our rack consisted of a sling which we used once, it is a very safe and easy route with lots of spines to use as runners.

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We were at the top within the hour and the views are amazing. There are a couple of  bolts for the rappel and you go down the opposite ridge you came up, with 3 rapps we were over the Bergschrund and back at our skis, we left them half way up as the snow was too hard to have any fun skiing!

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Once back at our skis we waited at the top station for Graham and when he arrived we headed down the front face on some very hard July snow. It did soften in places to some nice corn but it was like riding a big groomer and was good fun especially for the 1st of July!

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We were back home by 11am and I was already packing for my next route.

I was taking my Girlfriend Katariina on her first alpine adventure and we were aiming to do the Point Lachenal Traverse then sleeping up high then doing the Cosmiques arete first thing in the morning so we had it to ourselves.

We were on the Aiguille du Midi lift by 2pm and heading down to our bivi spot the Perroux hut.

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Katsu looking excited on the way to the bivi, with a heavy pack on, with lots of food and water and a sleeping bag.

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The hut is a lot nicer than sleeping in a tent and you have less weight to carry, to access it you can climb the very sketchy ladder or down climb from the cosmiques refuge. We also got there first so bagged the window beds with amazing views over the col du midi and all those in tents!

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We unpacked our overnight gear and got ready to take on that evenings route, The Point Lachenal Traverse, This is a nice easy route that can be done in less than 3 hours from hut to hut. We went light with only me having a pack on with both our gear in, so Katsu could enjoy here first alpine route with no extra weight.

Leaving the hut/shed was good fun with a 30m hanging rappel down to the snow bank.

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It is a short 30 minute approach to the route which was nice as we were heading towards it in the cool evening light at about 5pm, not often you start a route at this time but as we were close to the hut and it was a short one we could do it with plenty of day light to spare.

Point Lachenal traverse

The route starts up the left hand ridge and follows the ridge towards the Tacul Triangle, there is a snow ridge followed by a small scramble then a short 20m rappel before you cross the second snow ridge which was more exposed.

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On the first snow ridge up to the first scramble.

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Katsu on the first 20m rappel.

After the second exposed snow ridge you come to the best part of the route, the 45m steep chimny (4a). This was Katsu’s first experience of alpine mixed climbing and coming up second she nailed it, she seemed less phased than I did!

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You can pretty much pick any route you want as there were foot steps leading to it all, we chose one which looked challenging but also fun!

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Katsu coming up the mixed chimny.

After climbing the chimny you come to the final summit slopes and a short scramble to the summit.

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Katariina relaxing on the summit after completing her first alpine route, a nice downhill 30 minute walk back to the hut from here and a chance to eat some food!

Upon returning to the hut we could hear some voices and realised we were not going to have it to ourselves, just as we got there a couple of my friends poked their heads out and I was glad that I knew them as it is very cosy in there! With Alex and Francis in the hut it got very hot, even though it can sleep 8/12 people with just us 4 in I was down to my boxers with my sleeping bag half open, its not very often you can sleep like this at 3500m with a felt blanket as a doorway separating you from the alpine cold wind!

We had our ravioli and were in bed by 10:30 as those boys were up at 2:30 for their route. Waking at this time also gave me a chance to get some night time photos and make bringing my fairly heavy dslr up here worth it!

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Looking out of the hut door at Mont Blanc du Tacul and the mountaineers heading up for Mont Blanc at 2am.

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From the roof of the Hut looking across the Vallee Blanche towards the Grand Jorasses.

After seeing the boys off at 2am we went back to bed for a few hours and woke at 6:45am. With the Coffee brewing we got ready for our return to the AIguille du Midi top station via the Cosmiques Arete. I climbed this route for the first time last week with Owen so had a good idea of what was in store for us. We left the hut by 7:15 so that we had a good hour head start on anyone coming up from the valley.

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The Cosmiques route was very similar to lasts weeks with a few changes, snowfall over the weekend changed the route slightly.

After the initial snow and rock ridge we opted to down climb the first rappel as it was well filled in with snow, this took about the same time as if we had rapped but was good fun.

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Katsu down climbing the first rock step. At the second Gendarme we took a different route over one of the rock spines which had a couple of trickier rock moves in and was a nice variation of the traditional route.

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Approaching the final rock towards the viewing platform. There is a small 3m rock climb to get to some bolts for a nice belay up the south chimney.

As we were approaching the final chimney one person who was off first bin climbing solo was approaching us but this is the only time we saw anyone on the whole route. The final exit chimney is classic, not too hard but it feels very exposed as you look all the way down to the Cunningham Couloir. I flew up it with Katsu belaying and just below the top she started to follow for the easy first section before I reached the top bolts to set up a belay.

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Finally on to the viewing platform of the Aiguille du Midi and we were done, very tired, hot and hungry. Catching the cable car back to town Katsu was very happy with her first Alpine adventure and I was pleased that it went without any difficulties. A great 26 hours in the Mountains and a big thanks to John Vincent and Katariina Maatta.

Cosmiques Arête

After yesterdays big day I woke up pretty late so only had the afternoon for some climbing. It was still great weather up high so I teamed up with Owen to finally get round to climbing the Cosmiques Arete. This is a very popular route and is so easily accessible from the Aiguille du Midi lift.

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This route is a round trip from the Aiguille du midi, down the east ridge and back up the west ridge back to the top station. The guide book says allow 45mins for the approach and 2-3 hours climbing. we did the whole thing in 3 hours, which wasn’t that bad as we did meet a couple of teams, stopped for a sandwich and placed a lot of gear pitching a few of the sections.

The climb starts next to the Cosmiques refuge on the obvious rock and snow ridge leading back up to the Aiguille du Midi. The route was very well travelled so the path was easy to find.

IMG_0051Owen starting up the first snow and rock slopes from the Cosmiques refuge.

There was plenty of places to place gear on this initial slope, it is not essential but the snow was getting very soft by this time, 1:30pm, and we felt safer with some gear in.

IMG_0052There are some very exposed ridges and some great views on offer.

IMG_0055After the first small summit there is a small 20/30m rappel, there is a bolted belay so the rap is fine and quick to set up. It is awkward as there are a few steps on the rappel that you have to climb over with the rope still in your hand.

IMG_0330Following the obvious route you come back around onto the south face then start to climb again back up to the west ridge, this section is also exposed but once again you are rewarded with some great views back down the Chamonix valley and with Mont Blanc behind.

IMG_0057 The second rappel is a little trickier, you have to sit in a difficult position to set it up then squeeze yourself through this narrow hole to get down, a prussik is advisable, as you need two hands sometimes!

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Owen climbing up the first of the rock crux’s, there are some big foot holes, there are two bolts just above Owen and we set up a belay from here to pitch the next couple of moves.

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After a short very exposed traverse you reach the final chimney that leads you to the viewing platform of the Aiguille du Midi. This was the highlight of the climb, nice mixed climbing with plenty of places for gear. It is a challenge climbing with crampons on and is harder than rock boots, you have to rely on your points and trust they will hold!

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Looking back down the exit chimney at Owen, he was very hot at this point after deciding to put his down jacket on for some reason!

After climbing back up the ladder to the viewing platform you are done and can walk straight back to the lift que. A classic route that was great fun, will definitely be doing it again.