Monday, 29 August 2011

Fun In The Alps (Now Proof Read!)

So what else did we get up to?

Amone Slab

The Amone Slab is in Switzerland on the other side of the Mont Blanc range from where were staying and a bit of a drive away but excited reading of the Chamonix Bible had convinced us that this was a route we just had to try. The slab is a 400m sheet of limestone promising delicate climbing on small holds, and fun with friction!

We were slightly confused as the bible described the route as "technical but not serious" yet at the same time suggested that there were 40m run-outs, and about 5 runners on the entire route. Now I know men where men back in the 50s but I struggle to think of a time when the possibility of an 80m whipper would be described as not serious.

The slab. Oh Yes! (c UKC)

Slightly worried we may be entering a world of pain we deployed our computer equipped beta monkeys back in the UK to tell us just what level of fear we were about to let ourselves in for. It turned out that the route had been re-bolted in the 90s and now the run-outs were an almost reasonable eight to ten meters; great!

The climbing was fantastic the slab is covered with edges, flakes, and ripples, and brilliant to pad up on the amazing friction. A couple of sections sounded a bit hollow but you can only expect that on mountain routes. 

The bolts did prove to be rather spaced, you could normally only see one ahead of you at any one time but once you arrived at it another would pop its head onto view usually between 8-15m away. I'm normally a nervous leader when far above gear out but here I felt secure and managed lead pitches of up to French 5c which really pleased me. I guess confidence was the key, I was really trusting my footwork for once and this gave my the security to push it. I can't remember finding exposed climbing as relaxing before. 

A true big wall feel (c UKC)

The crux was about 6a+ but not as steep as it looked from below, Dom lead it pretty confidently but then he can on-site 7b. In the upper section you weave in and out of a gully in the rock carved smooth by the power of the water that occasionally flows down the slab. This gives the climbing a great 3D quality you don't get on most slabs, and of course by now there is some spectacular big wall exposure to enjoy.

A word of warning do not climb the slab if rain is forecast, the upper section funnels water, rock and debris off the mountain turning the climb into a death trap. Care should also be taken in spring with melt water running off the high mountains and I would also strongly recommend lugging your trainers to the top as the decent I've loose and steep but protected with a chin most of the way.

Papillons Ridge

The forecast was rubbish with rain due in the afternoon so we had an idea to get up early and grab a shortish low level rock route, the Papillons Ridge on the Aiguille du Peigne. We caught the first bin up the Midi and got off at the Plan from which it was a short walk up to the start of the ridge. 

The climbing was great a mixture of flakes, slabs, corners all on solid felling granite. The were plenty of opportunities for runners so Dom and I moved together and soon overtook two parties ahead of us who were pitching the route. As we approached the crux I note an ominous looking amount of grey cloud at about our level moving up the valley. "Lets crack on Dom, wall of hate on the way!"

The flakes coming up to the start of the crux (c)

The crux was harder than expected probably about 5a (English) and felt quite exposed stepping from a letter box up under an overhanging gendarme and traversing above a huge drop into an easier flake system. I know this route may traditionally be done in big books but we were very glad of our stealth rubber climbing shoes here.

Just after we got through the crux the Wall of Hate hit us drenching the rock removing 90% of the friction. Fortunaly the fast progress we had made lower down ment were were nealy at the finish point for the route and the majority of the climbing left was fine on wet rock. The only headache was one tricky section, a slabby bit of grade V which Dom lead coolly and I yarded through on the gear having been unable to work any friction for my feet out of the rock.

The last section of grade V, this was treacherous in the wet. (c)

That was pretty much it, done by 10:30; we abbed off the route and made our way back to the cable car station in the rain to meet hordes of disappointed alpinists coming down from the top station their day washed out. In the bin on the way down I ran into one of the guides who had taught my ML course last November. It's a small world.

Chere Couloir

The Chere is a classic ice line that is easily reached from the Midi station and seamed like an excellent route to finish the season on. We grab the first bin, trot down the snow arete, and shoot across the Valee Blanch.  The route is on the Triangle du Tacul and is visible for pretty much the entire walk in.

We move together for the first three pitches as the ice gradually steepens to about 60 degrees. I'm in the lead for this and like on the Amone Slab am again pleased to find I can run it out a bit more than I have done in the past.

 The Midi From towards the top of the route. Note the avalanche debris that has come down close to the normal route on the Tacul. (c UKC)

We get into a bit of an argument with a French guide who had arrived at the foot of the route at the same time as us. He complains at us for disrespecting the guide by not waiting for him then decides we are being dangerous by moving together, then he calls me a load or rude names in french (including a whore I think). Then he somewhat undermines whatever case he may have had by climbing up and over another in situ party himself.

Anyway the climbing. The route is supposedly about 80 degrees max and probably Scottish 4 but it's August and  this late in the season the line is completely stepped out by hundreds of boot and axe placements. Most of pitch four is climbed by hooking my exes into existing placements and moving my feet between kicked ledges. Still it's really nice to get the axes swinging and has put me in a right psyche for winter.

 Pitch 4 (c UKC)

Then were done, we abb the route and trudge back up towards the Midi. Climbing up the snow arete the climber for a moment gets a taste of the celebrity lifestyle, the tourists ranged on the viewing platforms and in the departure cave point their cameras and shoot away. The Midi is strange like this climbers with their technical paraphernalia mix with tourists in shorts and flip flops. Trying to look as cool as possible in front of the myriad of lenses I pass through the gate and into the crowd the center of attention for those few minutes. Deep down we enjoy it.

Overall I'm please with how the trip has gone, I did not actually do any of the routes I had intended when I sat down and thought about the trip three months ago, but the routes I have done were a definite step up from what I had experienced previously. There is still much to do here.

The Chere is the thin line of white running up just left of the right edge of the Triangle du Tacul.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Joys of the Journey

Woods are scary, well sleeping in woods is scary if you have and overexcited imagination; thoughts of Hansel and Gretal, wolves, and the Blair Witch Project jump around in my subconscious. Staring up at the stars from the warm cocoon of my bivi bag the trees tower above me stark agains the night sky.

I'm not exactly sure where we are though. It's about ninety minutes since we got off the ferry and  we've driven well into northern France.  In an attempt to cut the cost we've taken the decision to follow the old D roads to Fontainblau rather than dash madly down the Peage's. By two in the morning and with close to 300miles from Leeds behind us sleep was calling relentlessly. Dom managed to locate a quite back road through a forest where we could pull off and bed down.

Not fancying a night squeezed between gear stick and steering wheel I spread out the bivi and bed down. Dom takes one look at the creatures of the night scurrying about the forest floor and jumps straight back in the car (this is a man who can lead E7!). The noise of crickets is astonishingly loud but eventually fades into the background along with the dull rumble of traffic on the nearby highway.

Then the screaming starts. Being shocked violently awake is disconcerting, sleep banished in an instant by a huge dump of fear and a clenching of the heart. Then I hear it again, a piercing shreak, disturbingly human followed later by a sinister answering cry. Even when logic re asserts itself (it's and owl..... probably) the noise is still disconcerting and however hard I try I can't push the sound into the background, sleep comes fitfully until tiredness battles my subconscious into submission.

Next morning and were on the road again more relaxed having had a good rest and able to look around for something other than a place to stop. It was the right decision to take the back roads it fits with the spirit of the journey being part of the adventure. The trip is made by the small encounters that you experiance en-route. A beautiful church, a pretty river crossing, that little bit of character with every turn of the road opening a new vista, every new village each subtly different but with it's own unique character. 

I also love the way the French have lined their roads with avenues of trees giving the road a bit of theater as you grandly process along. Then there is the way these old roads flow, taking the line of least resistance through the landscape moving with the dip and roll of the hills not carving blindly through them like a modern motorway where all you see are cuttings and embankments.

Then comes one of the most surreal driving expiraiances of my life, were pottering allong the cobbled streets of a small village and pass through what I take to be a ruin of an old town wall. Suddenly it appears I'm on the set of the Three Musketeers because we find ourselves on an avenue beside and ornamental lake across which is a magnificent chateau. I just bust out laughing. France is awesome!

Simply Stunning!

I've just discovered this guys work and am completely blown away. The color and movement he has managed to record is simply stunning. Inspiring!

The Arctic Light from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

The Mountain from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

The Aurora from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

It does appear everyone is rocking the Canon 5D MK II these days. If I don't eat for a few months perhaps I can afford one.

Mountain Movies

Some short videos I recorded whilst in France

Walking back across the Valee Blanch having climbed the Chere Coulior. The helecopter you can hear was resculing some climbers off the Cosmiques Arete.

Taken from the Midi Station looking down towards Chamonix roughly down the line of the cable car. Gives an idea of how steep the face is.

The spectacular view fram Lac Blanc, sorry about the wind noise.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Alpinism: Fear and Elation

"Everything is fucking MOVING!" my brain shouts at itself. This is the bit of alpinism I don't like, the feelings of vulnerability and nakedness. The deep unease of being somewhere really dangerous with no way to escape other than to carefully move through it. Myself and my climbing partner Dom are trying to climb the Table du Roc Ridge on the Aguille du Tour and have gone off route a bit, the couloir in which we find ourselves appears to be constructed of rock with the natural consistency of Wheatabix. 

Piles of shatters granite lie everywhere, boulders the size of cars to fine sands waiting for something to dislodge them, a settling, a minute thawing of the snow and ice as the sun rises over the horizon and its rays strike the upper sections of the couloir. Already I have heard a stone whistle past my head like a bullet. Looking up all I see is more of the same, any minute something could fall down and kill us.

Objective danger (factors which you can't really control) has always put me off alpinism. The fact that however good you are or how carefully you plan your days something outside your control can kill you. To die because at that point a serac decided to collapse, or a stone fly down the mountain seams so arbitrary, so pointless, and to me disturbing, it overshadows the great joys I get from being in the mountains.

The Table du Roc just below the apparent right (south) summit of the Tour. the true south summit is about 400m further along the ridge.

Generally routes with high objective danger are well known and quite obvious; you can minimize the risks by climbing them at the right time when the risk of stone fall is lessened by cold. Of course the best way is just avoid the routes altogether. The Gervasuti Couloir on the Tacul looks a fantastic route but I have no intention of spending hours with those seracs perched over my head. Ok so you can never eliminate objective danger but you can reduce it to a level where it is no longer a concern (I don't for example worry that when I walk in the woods a tree is going to fall on me but it could and does happen occasionally).

Mountains are dynamic entities alive with change. The spires and runnels which catch the eye and draw the foot are the result of wind and rain, ice and thaw shattering and sculpting the rock. You can't have the beauty without the detritus.

The Aguille du Chardonet cloked in evening cloud from above the Albert Premier Hut

I've digressed however; the start had been almost civilized a late-ish rise at 4.30 from the warmth and comfort of the Albert Premier refuge. The cloud which had clung to the peaks the previous evening had evaporated during the night leaving the mountains stark against a black sky. Across the Tour Glacier the magnificent shape of the Aiguille du Chardonet dominated the view. High on its ridges tiny pinpricks of light move in the dark, signs of life in this barren world from a party of four who had left at 2.00 to climb the Forbes Arete.

Our objective is more modest, the Aiguille du Tour it's spiky twin summits more austere and brutal looking than the glamorous Chardonet. Staring up you can just see the giant table of rock that gives our chosen route it's name. A breakfast bar for giants on the roof of the Alps.

A quick scramble over the moraines puts us down onto the quickly shrinking glacier now seemingly in full retreat in our warming world, freeing more and more rock from it's ices prison of millennia. All the glaciers in the range are much smaller than one hundred years ago and Dom has noticed changes in the past few years.

On the Glacier approaching the start of the route

In alpinism you do a lot of walking! It's a slow trudge up the frozen river of ice, crevasses stand out black and stark against the white. Thin slivers of nothingness over which I step unable to resist the urge to look down and peer in to the fathomless depths, voids like some terrestrial black hole.

We think we get to the start of the route, the guidebook had been singularly unhelpful on this point saying something like: "start at a couloir, climb to the ridge and then to the table". Moving together Dom leads the way up into the couloir I follow about 20m behind, joined by the rope but each in our own little world of concentration. Alpinism the ultimate team sport for individualists!

The climbing is easy but quite loose, and the anxiety begins to build. After about 150m the gully broadens into a small amphitheater and this is where I think we went wrong. I spot an easy looking gully out right Dom a slightly harder one left which leads to a bigger couloir above. We go left.

Une celebration du choss!

This is about where you came in. The next hour was deeply unpleasant as we picked our way through what can only be described a festival of choss, a celebration of shattered rock and creaky boulders. Dom climbs excellently knowing anything he knocks off is going to come straight down and hit me. I'm less successful, a badly place foot and the rock shifts then falls, there is silence for a second then two rocks are falling, then three. Within seconds  we can see a cascade of stone crashing down the route we've just taken. Dom and I watch silent until the sounds of the fall fade away "Shit I hope nobody is following us; actually, thank fuck there is nobody above us"

Not a happy place

It's with relief we reach the ridge, solid rock, sturdy and secure, the climbing and my mood changes as the views open up and the sun warms my body and lifts the nervous tension of the last few hours. Above is perched the table a massive slab of granite supported on a small pillar of rock, getting onto it is supposedly the crux of the route. A few minutes later following a bit of yarding up on in situ gear and a climbing move best described as the "fish out of water belly flop" I lie exhausted on top of the table.

Stood on the Table with the Chardonet in the back ground.

From now on it's a romp. Working our way along the ridge the climbing is superb, weaving in and out of the spikes and flakes of rock looping the rope this way and that way for protection. The moves are never hard and the rock is good; this is what I love best about alpinism the joy of movement through spectacular and beautiful terrain. I try to dawdle stopping to admire the contrast in colors white snow, brown rock and blue sky.

Far below is the green trench of the Chamonix valley it's floor hidden from view, beyond it the Aiguille Rouge mountains which tower over our campsite look small from out vantage point. 

A climber on the final section of the summit ridge 
with the green Chamonix valley far below to the left.

The south top of the Tour is a couple of small slabs of granite, Dom and I sit for a while  surrounded on all sides with spectacular views. This is the first time I've ever topped out in the Alps and seen the ground fall away on all sides. The experience of finishing on a proper summit just feels like a much more complete experience than the routes I've done before which finished at ill defined points with true summits towering above them.

From so high the other mountains take on a different appearance, across the glacier the Chardonet which still out-tops us by about 300m is no longer the towering peak it was from the hut. From here I can trace the ridge line that marks the watershed of the range snow falling one side destined to flow west the other side east entombed in a river of ice. I've always climbed for the views, the space, and the landscape rather than the gymnastic and technical difficulty. It's for minutes like this that I return again and again to the hills.

Sitting on the summit with the Aiguille du Argentier behind

Aiguille's Chardonet (centre) and the Argentier (left) above the Tour Glacier the long ridge descending left from the Chardonet is the classic Forbes Arete.

We drop off the back of the Tour, a short scramble down to the glacier perhaps one of the most frequented routes in the Alps. The snow is now soft and slushy in the sun; T-shirt weather at 3000m. The vast Plateau du Trident stretches out before us as parties of little black dots clustered at neat intervals apart move slowly over it's surface like ants, roped parties of climbers returning from today's objectives.

Were now in Switzerland, standing on the Trident a glacier that flows north east opposed to the west flowing Tour Glacier where we started this morning. We cross back into France by the Col Sup du Tour a short rocky step crossing the watershead of the range and the border between France and Switzerland. A well beaten trail through the snow leads down from the col and back to the moraine with the mountains towering above us once more. It's been a good day.

Descending down towards the Col sup du Tour for the crossing of the watershed

 Looking towards the Tete Blanche the snow slope on its north face is a great introduction to steepish neve.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Viva la France!

In the Alps for three weeks, back soon.
The Midi, and the Cosmiques Arete (c)