Thursday, 30 August 2012

Off to Iceland with a bike, camera, and a notebook but no computer....Back soon.

In Praise of the Easy Way

Last week I made an amazing discovery; fear does not need to be a part of mountaineering. This road to Damascus like revelation was catalysed by the fact that my normal climbing partner has gone AWOL to Thailand on honeymoon.

When Dom and I climb together I always end up expanding the upper limit of my comfort zone rather more than I had intended. As someone who could win a gold medal for enthusiasm he frequently sandbags his partners into some form of harrowing experience; how else do I explain the appearance in my log book of the Orion Face surrounded by a mass of steady grade threes?

So with Dom no doubt trying to convince his good wife Katherine that what she REALLY wants to do on honeymoon is explore Thailand's climbing scene I made my way to Switzerland to meet a mutual friend of ours Andy whom I know has a deep empathy for my situation having been on the receiving end of a number of sandbaggings himself.

The view from near the top of the Hohass lift

To celebrate the fact we don't have to do anything hard we decide to spend the week emulating our forefathers from the nineteenth century and collect a few 4000m peaks by the classic "Grand Courses" of there early ascents. 

There are limits to this historical emulation, we will not be resorting to hiring guides, cutting steps, clothing ourselves in tweed, or heaven forbid walking in to the climbs as begets the style of the Victorian mountaineer. Had Wymper had access to the Hohass cable car I'm, sure he would have made use of it in any attempt to climb the Weissmies, the mountain we have set todays sights on.

The free cable cars currently running in Saas Grund meant we had popped up the previous evening to have a look at the route and trace the inevitable motorway or snow trench that leads up the mountain by it's most popular route the north west flank onto the south west ridge. Its a reasonable nice looking line, across the glacier before climbing onto the shoulder of the mountain and following the ridge to the summit.

The normal route crosses the glacier before climbing onto the shoulder and then following the skyline to the summit. The track is just about visible.

Climbers in amongst the avalanche debris, we steered clear of this keeping low till well past it then climbing the edge of the glacier.

Having caught the first bin out the valley were on the glacier in about ten minutes weaving our way in and out of the crevasses which this late in the season are relatively easy to see and avoid. We take a big round the fans of avalanche debris recently fallen from the seracs which tower above the start of the route and sneak up the side of the glacier and on to the shoulder. This passage is easy but with a nice dab of exposure as you cross the steep face to the base of the shoulder with the slope dropping steeply away towards ice cliffs on your right.

Hers a short steep ice step provides a few minutes of interest and active deployment of the axe in anger. In fresh conditions the step would prove a bit tricky at PD but the passage of hundreds of boots has smashed a pretty good staircase through it. Now all it manages to do is create an obvious bottleneck which we fortunately avoid having powered past everyone else on the climb up from the glacier.

The path between the shoulder and the glacier, BIG drop to the left!

High on the final summit ridge

Above this the route runs up to join the south west ridge and is a nice non threatening snow walk. The trail leads away ahead of us flowing easily over the terrain weaving about to trace the easiest line; occasionally blobs of colour in little groups of two and three brake the monotony of white as groups of climbers plod towards the great white cone ahead and above.

I'm feeling really strong and acclimatised having been above 3500m the last four days running and we make really good time to the summit arriving a little after 2.5hr from leaving the lift. The top is really exposed to the wind and bitterly cold; todays weather is a little more mixed than earlier in the week when we had cold but quite still conditions on the summit of the Allinhorn. Amazingly considering the huge number of groups (20+) we passed during the climb we have the summit almost to ourselves just a one other couple arrive almost at the same time as us up the SSE ridge. 

For me one of the main joys of mountaineering are the summit moments; standing high above your surroundings and taking in a truly spectacular view on the world. From here the panorama is pretty spectacular even if the brilliant blue sky of earlier in the week is now flecked with high white cloud. Towards Italy a cloud inversion fills the valley hiding everything from view. In spite of the view we don't linger long in the bitter wind, turning for home back the way we came.

Ninety minutes later I'm sat on the sun terrace of the Hohass restaurant beer in hand and soup and pretzl ready to go as we watch a steady stream of climbers move down the mountain to join us, yep I can get used to this

The very top of the SSE ridge

Job half done, now for the beer.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

One Small Step...

"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges, it's in the nature of his deep inner soul. We're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream." 

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

I wrote this blog over a year ago trying to explain why I'm convinced landing on the moon was our greatest achievement as a species. Although it does not reference Apollo 11 directly  I still feel it sums up why Armstrong's "small step" the culmination of the work of 100,000+ men and women, marked a time when mankind was truly audacious in its outlook, and dared to dream the impossible.


It’s 1967 and three men sit reclined on their backs squeezed in to a tiny cabin; a cone three meters high by four meters wide crammed with dials and switches. They are perched on top of the most complex and powerful machine mankind has ever created, the Saturn V Moon rocket. Below them are thousands of tonnes of kerosene, liquid oxygen, and liquid hydrogen. Their nearest fellow humans are 1.5 miles away inside concrete blockhouses and behind steel blast walls,  the men's destination is a little further away however, 250,000 miles further; the crew of Apollo 8 are about to hitch a ride to the moon.

Apollo 8 is rolled out of the vehicle assembly building

The Saturn V is an amazing machine, a true wonder of the world, a demonstration of both high technology and pure brute power. It’s very easy to play the numbers game with this monster but I can’t resist; 110m tall and weighing over 3000 tonnes, at launch the five F1 engines burned 15 tonnes or 12,700 litres of fuel a second delivering 7,600,000 pounds of thrust. The turbopumps which delivered the fuel to the combustion chamber had the same horsepower as six diesel train engines (55,000 horsepower).

The F1 engines of the first stage

The Saturn V is the icon but it is is the Apollo programme itself that I find particularly inspiring. I know it was a deeply political programme driven by the need to beat the USSR at the height of the Cold War. I know the cost of $170 billion dollars in today's money was questionable with many arguing the money could have been better spent. In my opinion it was worth it, as a species we have an insatiable desire to push our limits right across the field of human creativity from maths to music, to explore and expand every corner of what we are. With the Apollo program we stopped walking as a species and began to run.

I find the energy and speed of the programme fascinating, the Saturn V had flown unmanned twice before the Apollo 8 mission but on the second flight (Apollo 6) serious problems had arisen with the rocket. Yet on the very next flight they made the decision to launch the rocket with a crew; but not only that, to launch the rocket manned and send it to orbit round the Moon. 

Jettisoning a stage separator high above the Earth

Some may see the audacity of this decision as arrogant but I disagree, the arrogance had been taken out of the program forever following the death of three crew in the Apollo 1 fire. I  see in this decision the confidence that comes from the total commitment of the tens of thousands involved, the care to get everything right every time. The kind of commitment that comes when the task is truly inspirational.

For me the crux of the program was not even the moon landing itself but a few minutes when Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon. To orbit the moon the spacecraft would have to traverse it's dark side. The Earth disappeared below the lunar horizon, and the radio went dead, the men of Apollo 8 became more isolated than anyone else in history completely cut off from home, the first humans to see with there own eyes the dark site of the moon.

One of the Earthrise photos taken by the crew of Apolo 8. The photo should actually be rotated anticlockwise by 90 degrees as that was the orientation seen from the spacecraft.

Nobody had really realized the significance of what would happen next, the event overlooked by the technical minutia of the mission. Slowly a small disk of blue and white began to rise over the barren dull grey surface of the moon shining brilliantly with reflected sunlight amid the absolute blackness of space. The crew of Apollo 8 saw the Earth rise over the horizon of another world.

The Earth was small, tiny, you could cover it with your thumb. The mission plan sort of went out the window, with the crew glued to the small windows of the capsule. This image, small and grainy is my favourite photograph it effects me like nothing else I have ever seen. It’s primeval, I well up with emotion every time I see it (I can feel a tear in my eye just thinking about it now). It is quite simply the most beautiful thing I will ever see; it sums up everything we have achieved since our ancestors dragged themselves onto dry land from the seas. It also highlights all we have, our planet beautiful, fragile, and delicate. It's no wonder the image is often credited with kick starting environmental awareness.

This is newsreel footage of the launch of Apollo 4 the first use of the Saturn V. The TV booth 3.5 miles from the launch site partly collapsed such was the power of the rocket.

In my opinion the Apollo programme is our greatest achievement as a species. It’s about more than the three men who made each flight, it’s about the hundreds of support staff on Earth, the tens of thousand, perhaps hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, and designers who believed a dream. Most of all it’s about us as a species reaching for the very edge of the envelope.

There are many things I would love to have see have seen, times and events in history that I would love to have experienced. To see Earthrise, to have stood in awe as a Saturn V roared into the sky would have been life changing experiences. Feeling the energy, the excitement, the power and the beauty, but most of all to see us as a species reaching for the impossible. Be inspired by what we can do if we set our minds to it.

The whole Earth photograph taken by the crew of Apollo 17

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Making the Most of a Free Lunch - Alpendurst

There is no such thing as a free lunch so the saying goes; well that's not quite true, I can normally induce people to feed me by looking wistfully at kitchen cupboards but generally you don't get something for nothing. It's equally true that any alpine trip especially one to the traditional Brit base of Chamonix is alway hobbled by the exorbitant cost of the bins up the mountains; a trip up the Midi normally knocks a considerable dent in the finances of any would be alpinist.

True we could do it the old fashioned way and WALK into the climbs but really the reason Cham is so popular with Brits is that is has such a brilliant lift network, the thought of having to slog 1500m up to the start of the real climbing is enough to bring many of us out in cold sweat " You want me to climb Ben Nevis to get to the route?!"

The Jägihorn looking rather small from the top of the Hohass cable car;
 the route runs up the left third of the face.

So when a rumour that the the Swiss of all people; famous for living in one of the most expensive countries on earth were giving away free lift passes in Saas Valley this summers alpine destination was pretty much nailed on.

For every night you stay in the Saas Valley you get a Burgerpass which gives you free use of all the lifts and buses but sadly not any free burgers. For the aspiring alpinist the Sass is also surrounded by fourteen 4000m peaks may at the easy end of the difficulty scale and with uplift to 3000m or higher; decision made were going somewhere new.

My the Swiss are efficient!

In preparation for going high later in the week James, Andy, and I decided to get a big rock route done on one of the lower peaks. The route we had selected was Alpendurst on the Jägihorn which is fourteen pitches and approximately 350m long topping out at about 3200m. More importantly it's graded about F4 and really well bolted with traditional Swiss efficiency giving the route a really nice non threatening feel and removing the possibility of us sandbagging ourselves at the start of the trip.

Catching the first bin up out of Sass Grund leaves a shortish if steep walk in to the base of the crag which launches upward in a mass of golden yellow brown slabs. Once on the route the climbing is never hard but the moves are really enjoyable and the line appears to flow naturally between the bolts which are easy to follow.

Looking down the route from about pitch 9.

The climbing is mostly slabby but there is some chimney work and a bit of monkeying around with flakes. In order to minimise the amount of faff climbing as a three we block lead four pitch sections of the route giving each a good section of the climb to get our teeth in to. 

The rock feels really compact and solid and radiate a lovely warmth in the sun; were soon flying up the route enjoying every pitch and the ever increasing exposure. Lunch is taken about pitch 9 on a huge belay ledge with fantastic views out over the white dome of the Weissmies which looks amazing and the Lagginhorn which looks like a tottering pile of choss! A this point Sundays objective pretty much selects itself.


The last few pitches run through slightly steeper territory and leads to a rather stressful switch of leads on a painfully small belay for three; the climb also become a bit of an exercise in suffering as we have all brought excessively tight climbing (and now very smelly) shoes for the grade and look enviously on a a German pair who move past us in their stealth rubber trainers, the way forward on this kind of jaunt. 

A hugh pile of choss aka the Lagginhorn

The summit of the Jägihorn is a terrific viewpoint especially across to the high peaks of the Michabel chain on the far side of the valley including tomorrows target the Allinhorn, but conscious of a rocky decent and the looming cut off time of the last bin back to the valley the summit moment is a little rushed.

The decent is very much a scramble down steep bouldery terrain and worth the weight of bringing a pair of trainers on the climb for. We get in about 45 min before the last car departs from the valley before inflicting eau du climber on two unfortunate tourists who must have regretted jumping into the same car as us!

The Michabel chain taken from Hohass rather than the Jägihorn. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Alpine Images

Currently enjoying a few days climbing in the Alps, my legs less so! Blogging day tomorrow?