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.

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Early season steeps. Tour Ronde playground

Winter 2014 has not seen a great start. Chamonix saw some snow in early November but we are still waiting for a top up. With the recent foehn winds and relatively high temperatures the snow line has been going up rather than down. That being said there is good skiing to be had. With the Aiguille du Midi set to remain closed until the 20th of December it requires a short trip through the tunnel to La Palud to ski off the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche.

Last Wednesday Jon Luckhurst and I hiked up and skied down the East face of the Tour Ronde. It was in excellent condition and only required a small down climb half way down the face to avoid some big rocks. We were treated to cold blower powder but it was a trade off with high winds and truly Baltic temperatures!

Knowing that the Gervasutti on the Tour Ronde was skied that day by the likes of Briggs, Grant and Kilian (who reportedly lapped it 3 times!) I was keen to go back and ski this classic steep in good condition, direct from the col and better than I skied it in the spring.

 

The Gervasutti Couloir

The Gervasutti Couloir

Tim Oliver and Sleigh were psyched to get ‘radical’ even if it meant braving more arctic temps and an early season 350m bootpack at 3500m.

 

Setting off from the Torino refuge we knew it was going to be busy. Seeing crowds of people heading towards the Tour Ronde and Cirque Maudit we were a little apprehensive of what we would find. Upon arriving at the bottom of the couloir we saw 7 people booting up it. After digging deep and catching up with them only 4 were going back down, the others either skiing the North Face, which was in excellent condition or traversing to the east face via the summit. After a short wait for Sleigh we started off. Two skiers had gone down quick and steady on what looked like good chalky snow. The other two side slipped all 350m of the couloir and were a constant annoyance with the never-ending lumpy sluff. After some fast combat skiing I managed to get ahead of these two and exit the couloir as fast as I could. Fighting hot aches in the shade I awaited the other two before we headed back to the Torino for a sandwich in the sun.

 

Overall the conditions are good up high. Not sure how tracked out the east face was but people were up, skiing and climbing everywhere. It looked more like a spring day off the midi rather than the start of December! The Vallee Blanche is in desperate need of some snow before the midi opens to avoid a long and nervous walk out.

Col du Miage

Once again early season snow has led me into the mountains in the pursuit of powder.  With the last two weekends spent riding piste in Verbier I was keen to get out and find some real skiing and fortunately so was Tim. This time last year Tom Grant and Ben Briggs went over to the Plan Glacier hut in search of good skiing on the Miage NF. With the snow line being so low and the thought of exploring a new area of the massif intriguing I once again found myself thumbing through countless guide books and topos looking for a good season starter.  Not wanting to start too big we thought the Col du Miage west couloirs could offer some steepish 40/45′ slopes with limited exposure.

After a couple of messages and a phone call later, Tim picked me up early on wednesday morning and we started the short drive to La Gruvaz car park, 1090m. Ben suggested driving to the Chalets du Miage with a 4×4 but limited to Tims Fiesta we opted to walk this hour or so track. Arriving at the Chalets we could see the snow cover on the couloirs.

We saw they were plastered in the white stuff. Skis on and we started skinning our way up through the trees towards the Plan Glacier hut, 2680m. The going was slow as we battled our way through dense vegetation and deep snow. It took us over 6 hours but we eventually made the hut just as the sun was setting. Exhausted. Eating food and sleeping was on the agenda.

A sunrise start at 8am we were greeted with deep turns straight out of the door. After 200m of powder we started the skin towards the Col. Making good time we changed to booting as it got too steep and we waded our way up the lower slopes.

Around half way up the main couloir we met our limit, one side Ice and the other firm neve. Not wanting to be heros on our first outing we decided to enjoy the lower half and make our way down. Rewarded with deep snow all the way down the face and beyond.

Once down off the glacier things started to get ropey. Skiing through rivers, over trees and everywhere in-between.  This is what early season skiing is all about and we loved every minute of it.

Getting back to our trainers we still had a 40 minute walk to Tims badly parked car before we could drive to the nearest establishment that was selling beer. Great to get out and enjoy the snow and Im truly  ready for another amazing winter. Thanks Timmy for the company and some quality pics!

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.