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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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.

Aiguille du Tour 3542m

Wet again. This summer we have seen our fair share of bad weather. I try to make the most of every sunny day but this week we only had one good day and that was spent up Aiguille du Tour. Sam and I had spent all of Wednesday in the Perroux bivi waiting for a break in the clouds to climb a mixed route on the Tacul. After a few hours playing cards and having a little kip it never came, we went back to town to watch some Jazz aiming to get on something the next day as the weather was set to improve. He went rock climbing and I had a nice 8am wake up and a bus ride up Le Tour. I`ve had the idea of alpine running since watching Killians Summits of my life. Not being a keen runner or fit enough to tackle something big I set my eyes on Aig. du Tour. If you get the Le Tour chairlift up you only have 1350m of vertical to gain the summit. This ground consists of smooth alpine trails that lead to just above the Albert 1er refuge then there is over 700m of snow plod and a small rock scramble to reach the top.

Running with big boots, crampons and trousers in my bag it added a bit of weight but changing at the snow line meant I had an empty pack for the second leg. The snow was firm even at 10am and I tried to cover ground quickly stopping on occaison to catch my breath. I made the summit by midday after 3 hours. This wasn`t the fastest time I am sure but it was a good starting point. After a quick bite to eat I set off on the descent leaving my crampons in my bag so I could move quickly. Changing back to trainers again at the hut I ran back to the chair in 1 hour 20minutes from the summit, giving a total time of 4h 20m with 1350m+ ascent and roughly 14KM distance.

I would like to thank Latitude60s for providing me with some high quality Merino apparel. I have used their baselayers, boxers and beanie on several climbs in the past few weeks. Ranging from a 2 day climb on the Fredo Spur where temperatures went from high 20`s in the day to around 0 in the night. Long runs like Aiguille du tour and the VKM and also just day to day activities. I have had trouble in the past finding a base layer that works well and doesnt smell after the day is out.  The 100% New Zealand Merino feels great and works really well at keeping you cool when you need it and getting rid of any moisture. Not washing the garments for several days also gave me the opportunity to see if they start to smell and I was surprised by the outcome. Normally wearing a helly hansen synthetic layer I would stink beyond belief after a big day up the hill and I found that the merino only had a hint after 5/6 days of warm weather activities. These garments will be great on expedition in Krygyzstan, where there is no washing machine! Latitude60s products are 100% New Zealand Merino wool and 100% New Zealand made.

Check out their great products at Latitude60s.com

Frendo Spur, Aiguille du Midi 3842m

Climbing on the Aiguille du Midi is ideal. To climb a small or big, alpine or rock route then get the cable car back to town has major advantages. Given that they say the majority of accidents happen on descent you are completely taking this out of the equation. I have climbed one route previously on the Midi North Face, The Eugster diagonal couloir last June with Emily. This was a long climb but with no real difficulties. Returning to the foot of this 1200m high wall of rock, snow and ice I was ready for another go. Teaming up with Nick after our recent success on the Migot Spur, Aig. du Chardonnet, we opted to climb in a true alpine style. Over two days with our bivi gear on our backs. You can climb this route in one day but it was long enough over two and having the upper 80 degree ice in cold morning condition was much better that the scorching afternoon sun. So here we go, The Frendo Spur

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Leaving the station at Plan d`aiguille around 10am we started the 1.5 hour walk up the moraines to the foot of the Spur. Moving together for the first hour we covered much of the grade III and IV ground before changing to rock boots and pitching the first grade V crux, the Rateau de Chèvre. This was straight forward and involved a small traverse along a narrow ledge, normally easy but with heavy packs on you had to keep your ballance. After this there was more grade IV rock which we moved together on again. Just as we set off Nick rested his hand on a fridge sized rock that must have been resting on grit on a slab, it came shooting past me before exploding below me, thankfully missing me and the rope. A couple more hours moving together and stopping for a coffee break and some fruit cake on the way and we were over the exposed col and onto the second Grade V crux. This steep corner was very exposed but offered great protection with large cracks and big flakes. It then mellowed to grade IV and was one of the best pitches of rock I have climbed.

We were getting tired and knew there was not far to go. Avoiding the new crux (fallen block) we pushed hard to get up to the proposed bivi site. Moving quickly so I could take my rock boots off and eat food I was placing little gear but the rock was solid and not too hard. The time was just after 8pm when we arrived at the top of the rock spur, and we quickly found the perfect bivi. A 2 meter wide ledge on the north face with a drop of several hundred meters overlooking Chamonix. Food, water, Port and Bed. We were tired, we had been on the move for over ten hours and were glad to take a rest.

5am came quickly after a(nother) rubbish nights sleep at altitude. I was eager to get going but Nick was not. I had to re-heat his coffee by the time he traversed the bivi ledge to meet me. After the slowest wake up call we were on the snow slopes with crampons and axes just before 7am, Tired and wanting to get on with it. The snow was firm and the sun was rising. The arete that leads up from the rock was the most exposed I have felt. Almost on all fours I lead the way up bfore Nick swung back into the lead for the 80 degree ice. Craving a cafe Bluebird sausage sandwich we powered on up the arete and got the cable car back down. Following our route up the face while going down the cable car you get a true sense of the scale of the North Face and we were overjoyed at our achievement. It was the biggest route both of us had climbed and we were glad we worked well together, First the Migot Spur now the Frendo Spur, whats next? Maybe the Tournette Spur!

You can read what Nick had to say about the climb HERE!

Midi-Plan Traverse, 3673m

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Traversing the Chamonix Aiguilles is a very big and committing route, to go as far as the Aiguille du Plan however is a classic and relatively easy half day climb. The Midi-Plan traverse is a classic AD route that requires a good head for exposure and some rock skills. You spend the day along a knife edge ridge with a 1500m north face drop on one side and the Vallee Blanche the other. Traversing some delicate slopes with little or no protection, a couple of abseils and some grade IV rock moves in crampons thrown in for good measure. Annie joined me for this perfect day up high. The weekend before saw bad weather hitting Chamonix and there was a lot of new snow up high. With good weather on the tuesday I knew there would be a track in and with cold overnight temps this would re-freeze and make our day more enjoyable. Leaving the ice tunnel about 7:40am we were making quick progress along the ridge, over taking a few guided groups. Meeting one team at the two abseils we soon passed these on our push to the summit of the Plan where we arrived just two hours after setting off. The Aiguille du Plan is a proper summit. Standing on a block the size of a dinner table overlooking Chamonix you get a true sense of exposure and a great 360 degree view of the Mont Blanc Massif.

On the return journey to the Midi you have to re-climb what was abseiled on the approach. Some awkward grade IV rock with a small section of snow inbetween. It was really good fun and easy to protect. Downclimbing the exposed snow slopes was a little tricky even with firm snow, maybe its easy for others. I hate downclimbing! After this you are back on the ridge by Col du Plan and have a couple of hours slog back to the Midi. I was suffering from a twisted ankle from the weekends football and Annie had only been back in Cham for a few days and had not been up high. We were slow! Taking just under 4 hours from the Plan back to the Midi, twice as long as the first half. The snow stayed firm in the roaring midday sun even though the temps must have been in the teens up high. This route definitely lives up to its reputaton as a must do climb and I can highly recommend it.

Contamine-Mazeaud, Triangle du Tacul

Relatively straight forward and easy climbing can be found just 30 minutes from the Aiguille du Midi. The Triangle du Tacul offers many routes of differing grades and can be found in good condition all year round. Last year I climbed the Chere Couloir and the Contmine-Grissole so the next obvious route was the Contamine-Mazeaud.

Mostly a 60 degree snow slope this route offers varied climbing with great views back towards the Aig. du Midi and looking down the Vallee Blanche. Failing to climb this route on Friday due to high winds I went back up yesterday with Tim and we were quick down the arete, reaching the bottom of the route by 8am. After pitching the first 70/80 degree ice pitches we moved together until we hit the easy mixed ground so we could change the lead. Reaching the summit of the triangle in under 4 hours we then abseiled down 120meters onto the Tacul north face and then walked the normal route back to the Midi, Taking just over 6 hours from bin to bin.

The climbing was superb with good ice and firm snow up the central slope which made trail breaking a joy. These quick routes are great for days where the weather is deteriorating in the afternoon. Get there quick while the boot pack is still in.

Migot Spur, Aiguille du Chardonnet 3824m

Aiguille du Chardonnet is one of the most aesthetically pleasing peaks in the Mont Blanc range. It is also one that neither Nick nor I had set foot on. There are many routes up its north face with the Migot Spur being the most classic option. This is what I had my eyes set on. We arrived at Le Tour about 15:30 on friday afternoon and as I set off on the cable car Nick started the grueling 3 hour trek straight up to the Albert 1er refuge. I took the rope as I only had about 500m vertical and just over a hour of walking in front of me. When we arrived at the refuge it was clear that the builders who are working on the new summer refuge didn’t want climbers waking them up at 3am so after some food we set off onto the cloudy glacier to find a bivi spot closer to the start of the route. We found a small outcrop of rocks about 45 mins walk from the refuge and set up camp there. Awaking at 3am to clouds we had a little doze until I shot up at 4am with stars lighting up the sky. Shaking Nick up we had a quick coffee and we on our way at 4:30am.

We arrived at the Bergschrund just before 6am and this gave us 6 hours before the storm was forecast to roll in. We had to get a move on. The initial mixed ground was easy to cover and we made fast work of the first snow arete. Hitting some deep slushy snow before the steeper mixed ground this did take its toll on Nick and added some more time on the accent. We took the left hand route below the serac as there was a nice streak of ice. This was a relief after the soft snow and we had no problems flying up the 70/80′ ice gully. A brief period was spend climbing under the serac but it was still cold and didn’t have much sun hitting it so we avoided any potential problems. We had made the upper snow field before 9am so we were on target for a 10am summit. This last snow slope seemed to go on forever. I led it with fast 10m bursts followed by a few minutes of heavy breathing and swearing. We were so close. The wind was picking up and the clouds coming in so we dug deep and continued on to the summit ridge. A few meters of rock and we were there. Another great summit to add to the list.

 

We spent a few minutes celebrating on the summit before making a speedy scramble along the highly exposed ridge in gale force winds to find the decent route. I came across a couloir with foot steps in and went for it. Quickly finding some tat we started rappelling. We ended up not on the right descent route but going down a climbing route. After 6 30m abseils on some dodgy gear, one piton I pulled out before hammering it back in solid, we could see the normal descent route. To get to it involved crossing a 10m wide icy couloir and by this point it was blowing a gale and snowing quite heavily. We wanted to get down. Nick led across on belay and then I seconded. It felt like winter with the blizzard and it made finding the cairns tricky. A 20 second window allowed me to spot the next ab station and I went for it. Communicating with Nick at this point was hopeless. He could not see me and I could barely hear myself let alone him over 30meters away. With a few big tugs on the rope he came down to me and we could make the last 4 30m raps. With the gale still blowing the sun came back out and we finally made it on to the glacier. There were 2 more 30m raps to get over the schrund and we then ran down to our bivi to get out of the wind and rest for ten minutes.

Packing up our gear we had just over one hour to get to the Le Tour mid station to make our descent easier. Nick took the heavy wet rope for the first half then I had it to the lift. My feet were in agony from the 2000m descent and I was happy to get on the lift, Nick was also as he had no lift pass but the Lifty saw the exhausted look on his face and let him on for free. We had been on the go for over 12 hours and climbing for 10. We wanted nothing more than a feast as we had only had coffee and a couple of chocolate bars all day. Straight to the shops for pizza and milkshakes. What a day, it was so close to becoming an epic but with the correct decision making we made it down safely. This was my second time climbing with Nick and I think we make a good team. I hope to get back into the mountains with him soon.

Here is a quick video I made of the route.

Arête des Papillons, Aiguille du Peigne

This classic granite ridge seamed with clean cut cracks offers great climbing in exceptional surroundings. Situated at the base of the Aiguille du Peigne it covers over 250m of vertical height with the grades topping out at 5c+. I very rarely climb rock as I am bored with the valley crags and have little experience with alpine trad. Teaming up with Emily in preparation for our Krygyzstan trip we started early at the Midi so that we would have plenty of time before the afternoon showers and cloud rolled in. With its close proximity to the mid station we were at the base of the route within the hour and started up the easier lower climbing before hitting the first small wall where we roped up. The route follows a series of 4 towers with their being a difficulty on every one but the first. Within 15m minutes of climbing the route the clouds came in and we could feel a few drops of rain. We waited it out on a small ledge for 30 mins hoping that it would stop so we could continue, as we were close to the point of no return. The sun came back out and we carried on up the ridge climbing mostly 4c. Over the 1st tower and onto some harder pitches. There was a very exposed step across onto the first 5b slab and it was a shock for me. Glad Emily led the entire route as I had difficulties climbing the 5b and 5c+ let alone placing gear as I went. Over the 2nd tower we could sit in the sun for a little and enjoy the views, before tackling the crux wall. Emily started up the cracked slabs before coming to the hard move. Placing a cam high up in a crack before moving around a corner it created a lot of rope drag that left her, and me, not feeling confident. She would ask for slack and no matter how much I would pay out she would still be pulling on the rope. Fair play to her she made it up and over and was glad to find some bolts. Now it was my turn. As she started pulling in the excess rope I started coiling it up as with the drag it was taking a long time. For the first half of the pitch I did have a lot of slack but the climbing was relatively easy so no bother. I did wait when it came to the overhanging slabs so she could keep the rope tight. Even though I pulled on an in-situ sling it was still one of the hardest pitches of climbing I had done. Exposed and awkward with a slack rope! On to the 4th tower. Just as Emily was half way up the 5c slab it started to rain. I was next. With this tricky slab that required a lot of smearing I had a nightmare. It was very greasy and wet and my hands were freezing with no chalk left in my bag. Probably some of the worst climbing I have done. We were glad to get this last slab out of the way as it led to a small traverse and we were at the raps. One 30m rap brought you to the exit couloir that was fairly dry, maybe 20m of snow to downclimb. Back to the midi for about 3:30 and we were happy. Slabs, cracks and smiles.

 

Summer is here.

Going back to Wales at the end of May I knew that it would mean the end of another winter skiing. Seeing what I was missing on the internet was annoying but finishing on the Col du Plan NF was an amazing end to a exceptional winter.

Upon my return to Chamonix I was keen to start my training for an expedition to the Tien Shan mountains in Krygyzstan in September with Emily, Dave and a few others. When asked to join I was nervous as I have never done anything like this, but knowing that it could be the adventure of a lifetime and a chance to climb some previously unclimbed 5000m+ peaks and routes I could not say no.  Flights have been booked and I have started to put in the work to make it a succesful trip.

With some great weather and equally good conditions it has been easy to get up high and get some easy routes in such as Point Lachenal traverse and Cosmiques arete. These are quick and in close proximity to the Midi and they can both be done in a little over two hours. Great to get something done in the morning before most people are out of bed. I am planning more big routes for this summer and a lot of training. Keep checking back for more condition updates and trip reports.