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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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.

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.

Y Couloir, Aiguille d’Argentiere

This winter has made us look away from the norm. With the unstable snowpack and fresh snow falling on an irregular basis we have to consider alternatives. We went to have a look at the Y couloir on the Aiguille d’Argentiere which normally is a spring steep but we found it in condition mid February.

It was a scorching day and with the sun on your back things warm up very quickly. Plodding our way up the 500m+ reasonably narrow couloir we stopped when things started to get very loose and soft. Just after the split on the lookers right branch.

 

The snow was perfect spring corn on a firm base, and allowed for comfortable fast paced turns all the way down to the choke, which plays in your head the whole descent. Its a 20/30m ice and rock band that was definitely worth bringing two axes for on the way up.

A great ski and a classic line. Just need to go back and ski it from the top…

What to do?

Chamonix received snow in early November and with this excitement grew for the coming winter months. Unfortunately this snowfall did not carry on. With barely any resorts open and those that were offering very limited runs, many holiday makers did not get their White Christmas they so desperately wanted.

On Boxing day (26th) Pete and I headed up to GM with the intention of skiing Rectiligne and climbing back up Poubelles. I would normally not consider anything like this but I wanted a day in the mountains and there was not much else we could think of. Heading down the Pas du Chevre there must have been people wondering where we were going and why, as there was no chance of skiing out the bottom. Some nice snow greeted us down to the entrance. A small section of dry skiing and we were into a very firm narrow couloir. After 50/100m of skiing I caught my tips in crust and fell, managing to stop myself by punching through the hard crust before I hurtled down the ice. I was not keen to continue. Pete wanted to have a look further down. As he turned the small corner and disappeared out of sight I heard screams and scraping coming from below. At this point I became alert and started to take my skis off and put crampons on, If i was to go down any further it would be with skis on my back so I would not end up like Pete. Within a couple of seconds I heard he was OK. I then suggested climbing back out and he quickly agreed. When he came into sight I noticed he was only using one arm, he thought he had just torn a muscle. He was wrong. 3 screws and 20 staples, I cant believe he climbed out!  Unfortunately he missed out on the next days riding, and a few more. Get well soon.

 

The day after Boxing day it Dumped. I was working and it caused mayhem down the airport, I knew it would be worth the hassle as Sleigh had eyes on Courmayeur first thing on the Sunday. I wanted in. We headed through the tunnel and straight away knew it would be good. It was so deep in the trees on the Val Veny side. It felt like winter was here.

New Years eve we had a little tour above Flegere. Not much to report, just having fun in the sun with friends.

Last Friday Sleigh, Luke (Luke Jarmey Photography) and I headed up to ski the South Couloir of Aig de L`Amone. I had seen this before and never thought of skiing it. But with nothing else on the cards we thought it could be a good option and we also could have a look at the whole Argy basin and get a good idea of conditions. Still recovering from NYE we took our time on the long flat skin and after 100m up the couloir we turned around when encountering bad snow. Mixed conditions in a matter of meters, wind crust, ice, powder and so on. A nice day trip and I think it finally cleared the hangover.

I am yet to venture off the Midi this year so have no idea of the conditions. I know the Rond was skied but it took over 2 hours of route finding through the bossons glacier. Conditions up the Argetiere basin are getting better with some good cover on Col Tour Noir and Col d`Argentiere. I think another meter of snow is needed up high.

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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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.