….of Monch, mice and men

As we broke trail we could hear and see small avalanches all around the face and surrounding gullies.. yeah we needed a new plan!

A good lesson to learn is that plans are only good until you try and implement them. Staying flexible, spotting the need to change and being able to pivot your plan quickly, effectively and without the restrictions of “but” is the nirvana of agility but harder to do in reality.

Our plan for the Jungfrau region in Switzerland alpine Bernese Oberland had been , when hatched way back in Oct 2016 for us to summit the Eiger. Me via a the Mittellegi Ridge , but for 2 of the team (Davy and Steve) to tackle a harder line towards the North face.

From the outset there was a flaw in the plan… timing..

May is neither Winter when rock is cold and icy but more solid, less likely to avalanche you or shower rocks upon your head , or Summer when a lot of the route is dry rock without the added complications snow can bring. But May had been chosen and so AirBnB was scoured, families agreements were sought for a “pass” and flights booked.

We set off Saturday May 6th, a flight from Glasgow to London, then onto Zurich before 3 trains and a total of 16hrs travelling from urbanity to Alpine splendour… only slightly blighted by rain and low cloud meaning we couldn’t actually see the mountain we aimed to climb despite having lodging basically at the foot of it in the small yet busy town of Grindelwald.

Steve Wakeford (director, filmmaker and “star” of Magnetic Mountains) had agreed to join us to make 2 teams of 2, and had travelled overland by van from Chamonix. Seeing a chance to spend some valuable down time also away from the film his family (Menna and Fi) joined  us for a few days.

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The Eiger Nordwand .. hiding. Grindlewald below. (Photo my own)

By the time we arrived Steve and I had already switched our original plan to the Monch (4107m) – based on the obvious buildup of snow remaining on the  ridge, plastered in  white right up to and beyond the Mittellegi hut. So on Sunday we headed up the Jungfraujoch railway to Eigergletcher (Eiger Glacier) station for a reconnoitre at the Nollen route, on the NW of the mountain.

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Heading for a look at the Nollen route  (Photo by Alan McIntosh)

This 1440m route offered a long day of  steep snow and ice climbing, preceded by a rock ascent up to the hut.  No easy day out and despite my increased physical preparedness over the previous weeks I was aware it would be a challenge but an exceptional route and very attractive for it. A hike in deep snow to overlook the route however made it clear we would need alternative plans. The lower sections, which we had hoped would be clear and  slabby rock were covered in loose snow. As we broke trail we could hear and see small avalanches all around the face and surrounding gullies.. yeah we needed a new plan!

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Steve overlooking the original route from Eigergletcher (photo my own)

While we planned, Davy and Steve Dunne were also checking out their proposed routes and had headed up to the lower slopes of the Eiger for a look-see. Trying to find a route on the Eiger normally would be hard, in thick mist and snow its becomes almost impossible. Battling snowy rock, spin-drift, rain, hail and low blinding cloud they decided finally to retreat – a sensible decision – but not after tucking into some grub to help the push!

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Steve Dunne “enjoying” the weather on the Eiger (Photo by Davy Wright)

Back at our chalet we had maps and guidebooks out on the kitchen table, 3D views of the region on Google earth to play with, and after also consulting a local guide it was decided to take the more regular SE ridge on the Monch from the Moenchsjoch hut. This was to be a less “spectacular” route than the Nollen but still me first 4000’er and still a superb mountain.

This is where the flexible bit has to come in.

It’s a balance as much as a battle. Of head over heart and head has to win.

There is no point sticking doggedly to a plan just for its own sake. The conditions clearly were unfavourable, we wouldn’t have been able to make the route  except by sheer battling hour after hour and in all likely hood it would have got dangerous. “Spectacular” is one thing. Coming back is another.

The best laid plans…..

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Planning .. planning…planning (Photo my own)

Finally a weather window!

New plan set we headed up the famous Jungfrau railway, past Kleine Schiedegg feeling the deep and heavy history of the place, memories from every Eiger tale I’d read, every documentary I’d watched (even the ones with Clint Eastwood #EigerSanction ) flowing into my mind. Then it’s up past the Stollenloch window and finally to the Jungfraujoch and the battle through the throngs of tourists out onto the glacier to set off up to the hut.

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The weather breaks and the Eiger is revealed, NF on the right. (Photo my own). Too much snow for the route we planned originally.

Arriving at the hut you settle into the business of.. well… chilling. It’s an art just sitting around; head sore, willing your body to acclimatise while trying not to get bored.  For Steve Dune though an upset stomach and growing illness was beginning to creep in.. He may be a machine when it comes to fitness and strong as the proverbial ox but he’s still human and bacteria is like Superman.. only one can be the winner.

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Steve Wakeford and the art of Hut Chilling (photo my own)

The best laid plans….

As the sun began to set it was time to eat so out came the stoves, snow being melted for water and our very kindly provided) FirePot meals slowly rehydrating to give us much-needed calories as well as it has to be said a lot of flavour for something you boil in the bag!

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Prepping dinner. (Photo by Steve Wakeford) (Provison for our climb were kindly provided by OutdoorFood)

Then it’s time to prep for a swift morning exit –  putting only the absolutely necessary  kit in your pack, everything else in a box to leave at the hut .. every 100g saved is a god send in time and effort at 4000m and the to bed.  I’d already invested in the lighest 19g biners had packed my light shell, brought only 1 technical axe and ditched almost al my rack leaving only the kit I absolutely needed . Light is right as they say!

Bed of course being a pallet in a dorm – comfortable yes, but inevitably sleep is never perfect with people coming, going (to the outside toilet requires putting clothes back on) and of course the snoring! (remember your earplugs folks).

Alarm gets you up at 4am for a 5am start. Pulling gear on, harness legs twisted, climbing gear clinking, rucksack opened, closed, opened again .. fuzzy head not helping one bit, boiling more snow and water for food (any meal at 4am is hard but you need to eat for energy) and heading out the door into the moonlight.

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Alan heading out of the hut  (Photo by Steve Wakeford)

Sadly at this point Steve Dunne made the only sensible but very difficult  call that his worsening illness from the previous 2 days meant he simply couldn’t join us so it was a team of 3 that headed out and toward the base of the route, just a hint of sun behind the jagged horizon, the moon bright and high lighting our path.

From here we started up the route , Steve Wakeford taking first lead, swinging with Davy Wright . As I was in the middle of the rope I was resigned to following and aiming mostly just to keep up and climb well. I was envious of not being able to lead but was in a luxurious position to enjoy the route.

As we reached the first good belay stance the sun lit up the East side of the face , warming us a little and certainly opening up a stunning scene for us to climb in.  The alpine light is unique. So bright it burns but clean and pure, energizing like no other. Its at times like these that you remember why you train hard, travel far and push your self so far.

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Davy Wright leading off (Photo by Steve Wakeford)

Up we went , the ridge first of all fairly wide, a few scrambling point on the rocky outcrops and bands then up and up eventually onto the narrow snow ridge that led to the summit. One or two scrambling and rock moves needed to make it fun but nothing difficult.

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Alan heading up the ridge (Photo by Steve Wakeford)

We reached the summit in a little over three hours, legs and lungs naging at points in the rarefied air, taking our time on the final very narrow sections, watching kicked snow spin and speed down the face back to the glacier far below, acutely aware that concentration was key, tripping could be disastrous but exhilarated at the situation.

Short video of the approach ridge (slightly distorted by GoPro)

The feeling of that exposure, in that surrounding and at that height is a rare one… it’s what attracts us back again and again, the tiredness and trepidation soon forgotten once back at the base.

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Alan on the summit approach (Photo by Steve Wakeford)

Summit!

A short steep and narrow section of what looks ;ike a cornice, precariously hanging in space and we are there.

We hug we cheer we bump fists, grins as wide as the horizon , camera’s out and GoPro’s running !

My first 4000m summit in the bag! And an amazing team of friends to do it with!

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The team at the summit (L-R Davy, Alan, Steve W) (Photo by Davy Wright)

And all too soon it’s time to get back down though – so carefully , carefully off we go.. reversing our route.. taking the steep down steps with care, the route almost as long in descent until finally we abseil a jumble of steep rock then downclimb steep snow ramp to arrive suddenly back on more expansive terra firma.

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Alan (L) and Davy (R) prepare to abseil (Photo by Steve Wakeford)

While for Davy and I it was time to grab our hut gear and march out to meet up with Steve Dunne, our other Steve (Wakeford) grabbed his ski’s and (incredibly) set off on a 52Km ski & skin odyssey back down to a neighbouring valley to meet Menna and head home. #kudos #Machine

Once reunited, for us it was down on the train, a stop at Kleine Scheidegg for coffee and LOTS of water , tales of mountains interjected with awestruck gazing at the Eiger Nordwand (North face) .. still looming indomitably above us. Enticing Steve and Davy to climb… and they will return to do so I know.

For us now after reaching the valley is was about beer and whisky! ….and a reflection on plans. All 3 of us had come out to “get something done ” and that we had.

Whether  hiking, running, reconnoitering, mapping, planning or climbing – all of it is part of the adventure and doing it together, with all the banter and beers that come with it is what mattered.

We went as friends, we climbed as friends and we came home as friends – that is goal no 1, 2 and 3 in my book!

And the lesson reinforced?

Stay loose, make a plan.. but be ready to change it!

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Photo credits mainly to Steve Wakeford, Steve enjoying his Firepot meal and Summit team credit to Davy Wright, GoPro footage , the above relaxed rucksack and photo’s around Eigergletcher by myself.

 

 

 

Around Glenshee

after a nice relaxing night, the shackles of the city well and truly shuffled off we hit the hay planning a nice civilised 9am kickoff.

A tour of 4 munros, from Glenshee as an “active rest” day ahead of the upcoming Swiss Alps climbing trip.

Munro’s “bagged” Carn an Tuirc, Cairn of Claise, Glas Maol & Creag Leacach

Total Distance 19.2Km

With 2 weeks to go until we head off to Grindlewald and alpine adventure around the Eiger and Monch range I took up the offer of a cottage rented out by a friend  just south of  Glenshee, on the edge of the Cairngorms.

A chance to get away from the city, have some us time and also get in some new hills was just too good to pass up – so after work we jumped in the car and headed north from Glasgow, to the very small village of Enochdhu about 2 hours north (unless of course.. like us, you miss a turning and end up in the Spittal of Glenshee lol and then it’s more like 3 hours..).

We arrive, just as the light starts to fade, that beautiful low lying, clean spring sun cutting through the trees now blooming along the winding roads , already feeling the release that only the mountains and wilderness can give you.

We drop our bags and bones into comfy seats and grab a glass of wine.

McLovinMountains.com regular guest mountain guide, Andy Mallinson, and his better half Liz were our very welcoming hosts and as we planned the next day we had a great nattter about anything and everything . For Andy it was a rare weekend off and a chance just to get out on the hills with friends and enjoy a walk.

The cottage itself (River Cottage) is beautiful and I highly recommend a stay if you can get a booking , a full review will be on the blog ASAP.

Anyway after a nice relaxing night, the shackles of the city well and truly shuffled off we hit the hay planning a nice civilised 9am kickoff.

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That morning we headed into Glenshee, dropped Andy;s car off, drive mine a couple of miles further and started to head up the hill. Our plan was the 4 munro’s of Carn an Tuirc, Cairn of Claise, Glas Maol & Creag Leacach all linked with a fairly easy undulating plateau taking the full round back to Andy’s car to 12 miles/19km.

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I’ll let the pictures do the talking but its a beautiful walk, amazing views and frankly a pretty easy way to bag 4 Munros’ (it felt like cheating). Although relatively long its not steep at any point and with the 3 of us cheating away and setting a fair pace we were done and back to the car in a little over 6 and half hours, including stops for a bite to eat out the biting arctic wind in the shelter cairns on 2 of the summits.

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It was a great way to get out, see the hills , get great exercise but still somehow felt rested and recovered after a week of work and heavy gym training.

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Arriving back at the car we had a sneak look at the newly under development interpretation area being installed including  a beautifully designed arching wooden bench that seems to mimic the line of the mountains, contour lined designed walkway and plinths ready to take viewing information. Looking down Glenshee it will be stunning once finished.

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From there it was  as top at the local community shop for coffee and cake , and to pick up a nice whisky and local gin for that evening spent in the company of Liz and her other guest Ben, a walker from Germany who was doing the Cateran trail.

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Thanks again to Andy and Liz and as I sit here with 1 week to go to the alps I thank you , dear reader for staying with me on the journey and I look forward to sharing our Alpine Exploits to come!

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In the life zone

This land unchanged for millennia, carved over eons of ice, rain and wind. The deer and birds running and flying paths led by their ancestors for time untold.

For high altitude (and armchair) mountaineers its common to hear about the death zone, that area above 8000m where due to a number of complex physiological reasons you are effectively dying. Your body degrading every minute, at the tissue level.

The drive to go higher, push harder, suffer more, be more gnarly and generally prove your one tough mother is common in mountaineers and adventurers.

In recent times I’ve been a fully paid up subscriber to this “suffer” club (not the over 8000m club yet! ). Loving coming back after a tough day, where we went higher or pushed harder, hiked longer  or climber something more tricky. Even if I actually found it really tough , afterwards that was a badge of honour.

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My preparation, training , diet and psychology of “being ready” can  also be completely unforgiving. Beating myself up for missing a hill day, doing something “mundane” meaning I didn’t get a full on gym session in, being “weak” and letting my diet slip… all of it an excuse to use a mental baseball bat on myself – beating myself until I’m (metaphorically) bruised and bleeding  .. and of course that blood gets on others .

Those around you are dragged into the fugue, the stress and the frustrated sniping. Totally unfair but at the time, you just cant see past your own “failures” and its only right to be cantankerous. Their patience amazes me, especially my long suffering and awesome wife Sam. Allowing me the freedom to head off on adventures with friends, climbing with me when she can, always keen to try new things ,  but also making sure we have a beautiful home and a life that is comfortable and fun, beyond the summits I continually seek.

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For those able to stand outside it or in those rare moments of personal clarity this of course is also recognised as a path to a death zone of sorts. Ok… so you’re not about to actually die from cold, altitude, hypoxia, HAPE, HACE, hunger, fatigue or any other number of high altitude afflictions but certainly its unhealthy.. and continue it for long enough and your health is going south – physical and mental (as well as I believe, spiritual).

So it’s with 4 weeks out from a big alpine adventure coming up that I was crashing headlong, ice axe in hand, eyes wild and heart racing  into this emotional death zone. The house move of which I talk about a lot has become crushingly time consuming (for the right reasons I know…), business travel has killed my training and diet and I’m feeling way off track in all my prep. Fear of difficulty or failure is rising, with it anger and frustration and opportunities self flagellation increase.

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Then, listening to the calming voice of some very bright souls around me , reading about alpine heroics with the honesty and vulnerability of those who have done much more incredible things than me , I grab a hold of myself, get the gym back in check, start running, lock the diet in and all of a sudden I’m descending back to a safe haven .

But there is more to adventure than gym life so of course I get an overdue hill day in with Sam. We head out , taking advantage of what looks like a great little weekend weather window, and arrive in Glencoe ready to head up Buachaille Etive Beag. Out the car, on the path and heading up, breeze keeping us cool a move quick and start to ascend. we chat as we always do and as we pass others, stop to shoot the shit, a common collective of outdoor loving folks – knowing we are the luckiest people in the world to have all of this available, any time we want it.

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Up we go feeling fitter than in ages, to the bealach then head for the summit, wind picking up now , along the summit ridge to the summit cairn. Fast and comfortable, often tired  legs carrying me better than in ages. I make myself stop to just drink it in.

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The view as always are breathtaking, remembering you are 1km up and on a rocky mountain ridge miles from the nearest town, the world spread out below you, people in towns driving, shopping, eating, stressing, commuting, arguing, hustling, bustling and everyone of them oblivious to the “life zone”.

 

This sacred space where it’s just us, the mountain, the valley below, the sky above. This land unchanged for millennia, carved over eons of ice, rain and wind. The deer and birds running and flying paths led by their ancestors for time untold.

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You see, when you are stressing about this weeks gym session or that meal you shouldn’t have eaten or if one more run is needed the life zone doesn’t even blink an eye, or furrow a brow. It carries on, inviting you to a different way of “being” but at the same time oblivious to your troubles, to your struggles and striving.  It continues to sail its voyage through time,  and will do for eons to come. You are insignificant in this enormity, but also welcome anytime. A beautiful paradox.

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Yes, I need to train and prepare, get fit for the mountain, skilled in climbing, healthy and fit and ready but I need to remember that’s not the goal of the endeavor, its only part of the journey.

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Life is in our homes and in the mountains, with people we love. In terms of the mountains I need to be prepared to get there – yes but I have to remember beating myself up along the way takes you further from that which we are actually seeking – The life Zone.

 

Getting the blues

All of it supporting the motto I live and coach by which is “you have to leave your comfort zone , because outside of it is where the magic happens”.

You might remember, if you follow my blog that Sam (Mrs McLovinMountains) and I recently learned to ski and had headed out a month or so ago to Les houches nr. Chamonix for a few days  of slipping and sliding.

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We headed back this week after the lack of Scottish winter climbing or skiing options drove me back to the web and Air BnB in desperation and desire get back on it.

This time we left the comfortable familiarity if Les Houches to join friends Menna and Steve in the more extensive slopes of Contamines. With many more runs, longer pistes and steeper, more challenging blues we certainly had to “face the fear and do it anyway” .

Tough? yes, scary ? At times hell yeah but overall  fun , exciting and it certainly pushed our skills up !

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Followed by a days incredible and invigorating climbing on Cosmiques aréte (see  “Friends in high places“) then a day back in Les Houches bombing around easy greens at speed and the more pedestrian and shorter blues with ease it turned out to be a great example of Type 2 fun.. the type that can be scary at the time but afterwards you look back on as awesome and rewarding. (As opposed to type 1 – simple.pleasures like sex, good food or the cinema or the terror and never doing it again of Type 3)

One fundamental lesson that climbing and mountaineering have taught me is to progress, to really grow – to live really you need to do things that stress you (just a little), frighten you (just a little) and challenge your norms, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual.

If you have ever learned to drive you will know that feeling. In the beginning its all new and scary but son it becomes the new normal. We don’t learn and grow as people by repeating the things we already know and are utterly confident and comfortable with – or we’d all still be wearing nappies, eating rusk and living with our parents.

I don’t expect to be on the reds any time too soon, but I know I will at some point and  the smiles say it all.

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All of it supporting the motto I live (and coach) by which is “you have to leave your comfort zone , because outside of it is where the magic happens“.

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Already I feel my motivation for climbing, training & challenging myself returning. Trepidation about the Mitt ridge has turned to excitement, planning now taking over in my mind rather than doubt.

Onward and upwards , the pendulum back squarely where it belongs.

Friends in high places

Sitting in the sun – still in big boots, climbing gear and shades, sipping coffee at a cafe in the main street among the tourist is something you only really get to enjoy in Chamonix

 

After a superb week recently in Chamonix Les Houches “perfecting” our new ski skills (see Les Houches. – A beginners. guide to skiing in the Alps) we had returned to work and the house renovations back in Scotland with a serious pang of sadness which of course is not unusual when leaving an incredible and exciting place like the Alps.

Within 2 weeks I was back on line and we had booked a long weekend to return this time to continue our skiing improvement but also, importantly for me to try and get a climb in with my planned partner for the Mitellegi Ridge, Steve Wakeford.

Steve had, I’m very glad to say, agreed to join us to form 2 teams of 2 for the route on the Eiger meaning Steve Dunne and Davy could be more flexible on their route plans as they have another objective in mind (more of that to come) and that I had a strong climbing partner, who is also someone I could enjoy the time with as well (not always an easy combination to find).

You may recognise Steve’s name if you are aware (and if not, why the hell not??) of the upcoming film Magnetic Mountains which at the same time  manages to centre around Steve’s climbing accident in the alps his road to recovery, the subject of risk and the questions of why we do it and is also – beautifully – shot/ produced by Steve and his partner and producer/film maker/climber and super mum Menna Pritchard.

Steve and Menna are quite simply an awesome duo! Lovely, friendly, driven, considered and just downright good fun (as well as incredible parents to the mighty little pocket rocket Fi!)  and with them having just returned from a  business trip to Oz we were keen to hook up, go climbing and just hang out. You may also remember from previous blogs that it was Steve and Menna who first got Sam and I onto ski’s and they made sure to check on our progress and give us some more valuable “coaching” – spending a day in Contamines showing us some more fun and challenging Blue runs and getting our skills up even more!

 

Anyway enough of all that , onto the climbing!

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The first snow ramp

Cosmiques Aréte is a classic alpine route, rated at a relatively easy AD grade its a must for all budding alpinists and a route that had so far escaped me so when Steve suggested it I was in! Conscious that Steve would naturally want to find out if I knew one end of a crampon from another I will admit i was keen to impress. I needn’t have worried.

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Are there any better views?

Not only was the climbing well within my capability, the situation and exposure stunning but Steve was the coolest guy on a route ever. Recognising I was yet to acclimatize he didn’t rush but we moved efficiently him leading the route he had climbed once before, overtaking 1 team and catching a second (who seemed to be climbing, pitch style with two ropes.. hence taking an age 😦 )

At no point did i feel anything but enjoyment , no pressure and hopefully showed that I could at least be trusted to belay safely 😀

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The crux slab, its a lot easier that it looks

After leaving the midi station via the steep snow aréte (overtaking the skiers heading down to Vallee Blanche ) and around the base of the aguille on your right hand, the route starts with a scramble up some snow and broken ground before  the first of 2 abseils. After dropping down and moving around the side of the ridge on the right , great exposure here, you reach the first steep gully before continuing to overcome some slabby rocks, another drop down and narrow exposed snow traverse brings  you to the 8m crux slab before  a turn on the left to finally at the slightly awkward exit chimney (some clever axe positioning means solid movement to get you started left )  – up and it leads to the final narrow snow ridge and off up the ladder to the midi terrace.

All in all the route offers a great mix of climbing and some incredible situations.

After a few short hours of breathtaking views and good fun climbing we popped out of the last chimney and onto the exit ridge to see Sam and Menna waiting for us at the Midi terrace, together with some surprised looking tourists, amazed and slightly bemused to see these two guys climbing up the rickety steel ladder and over the barrier, off the mountain. No autograph requests but certainly a few snaps being taken 😉

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The iconic pillar on the Cosmiques ridge
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Standard “summit” pose , taken by Sam on the terrace

Here’s a short vid of the first sections, coming down the Midi snow aréte and onto the start of the route

Now it was down to Cham and for a coffee (ok ….and some cake) and to meet up with another friend based there, Charley Radcliffe who had just returned from what looked like an incredible off piste ski trip to Bulgaria.

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Steve taking it all in on the final ridge

Sitting in the sun – still in big boots, climbing gear and shades, sipping coffee at a cafe in the main street among the tourist is something you only really get to enjoy in Chamonix – truly the home of all thing mountain sports. We caught up, hearing stories of deep powder and cool fun, discussing a new coffee brewing team who had set up in Cham (it needs a good coffee place!) and peoples plans for the year before parting ways (me heading off to buy new gloves after losing one en route) agreeing to see Steve and Menna for dinner later that evening.

Be the end of the night we were all talking ten to the dozen, beer and curry going down well and plans well under way for the route in May. Steve inquisitive as always, taking a real interest in everyone and continuing to impress in me just how solid a guy he is, and positive climbing partner he will be.

An incredible day, with incredible people who get to live high in the mountains while we have to wrap up our transient days in the alps , jump back on a plane and head back to the 9 to 5 – but having friends in high places helps me feel constantly connected to the mountains and having such good friends in high places leaves me feeling very blessed indeed. The pendulum is in a good place.

And yes Steve, I am hitting the gym and working on my crevasse rescue skills dude 😉 Don’t worry!

Magnetic Mountains will preview later this year and I encourage everyone of you get on board, it will be a truly unique film in many ways. I personally can’t wait to see it!

For more information on Cosmiques Aréte and other classic alpine routes i recommend you check out Rockfax (you may even see a pic of Sam and I in it, not to mention Steve on the front cover on the Cosmiques)

And finally, just for a little fun, see if you can spot me on this last section of the climb, just before the exit Chimney, let me know in the comments box if you find wally 😉

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Cascade Lillaz – 2nd time lucky! 

we chanced our luck and James and I headed back to see if Lillaz was in and were rewarded with what I can only describe as the most amazing water ice , multi pitch cascade climbing I have even experienced.

Last year when out in Chamonix with James Thacker, we had hit Cogne in the Aosta valley hoping to climb some great ice straight from the car park (or just about) at the 5 pitch, frozen waterfall of cascade Lillaz.

Sadly conditions didn’t meet our hopes and its was much more water and slush than ice so instead we had headed up for a few pitches of Lillaz gully .. much more of a Scottish walk in .. see Cogne Ice. No walk ins?

With us back in Les Houches for a weeks skiing this year, we chanced our luck and James and I headed back to see if Lillaz was in and were rewarded with what I can only describe as the most amazing water ice , multi pitch cascade climbing I have even experienced.

Pitch one instantly reminded me ice is king and that I was out of practice .. my swings were loose and sloppy, dinner plates all around , gripping hard , getting tired. It was a good wake up call !

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Cascade Lillaz in all its beautful glory!

By pitch 2 though I was much more in my stride. Technique back in, relaxed , good feet , hips in, resting arms and climbing well . Working much more fluidly and efficiantly, choosing axe placements more, swicthig axes as needed and just enjoying being in the moment – definitely more grin than grimace 🙂

We flowed well up the remaining pitches, some great steep, more vert columns , some wet and softer sections , some bullet hard ones.. everything you want !!

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After topping out and rapping back to a walk off point we had plenty of energy left in the tank (whhc isnt always the case so demosnatrted how stoked I was)  so James suggested we have a crack at a narrow,  steep variation off to the right of pitch 2 (I think?) . It was super steep, more waterfall than wall but there was no questions of of both having a bash.. even if it might need to be a careful one.

Time for some fun !

James led off and as I belayed it was clear this would be no cakewalk. Tubes of ice mean sensitive feet work, rock offering some options for feet and once he got the top belay I got ready.

Looking up it was steep, very steep and with no obvious line of weakness.

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Variation route , WI 4+ ?

Getting started was tricky, once established there was some drop knee onto rock needed and some careful axe and foot work,  a few good hooks if you could find them . At one point I was effectively laybacking , holding a tube of ice , axe buried above me trying to get a good footing and take a screw out the ice!

Topped out and James lowered me off. Maybe only 10m at about WI4+ but it had packed a lot of fun into a small package !

Off down the short path , a great italian coffee in the new cafe at thecar park  and then off back to Cham.

We got a lot out a short day and I loved every minute of it. Cheers again James!

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Les Houches – A beginners guide to Skiing in the Alps

after snow ploughing for what felt like a mile we arrived at a very steep (for a newbie) run out which saw us de-ski and walk the last 100 yards! #LessonLearned

 

We were brand new to skiing, having spent only a few hours under the help of  very lovely friends, recently moved to Les Houches – Menna and Steve (see A winter Week in the Alps) plus 3 or 4 lessons indoors at the excellent Snow factor facility in Glasgow under the expert tutelage of ex freestyle pro Mark.

Our aim was to head out there, find out what’s what,  just gain experience, try a few things out – get to Blue if ready – all with a big focus on fun !

We grabbed a great low cost Jet2 flight from Glasgow to the main Chamonix access airport Geneva, met our transfer bus (Alpybus) and an hour and a half later we were in Les Houches Mairie only a couple of short bus stops from Prarion ski lift.

As before we used Air B&B and found a great room in  Mairie Les Houches above Restaurant Chevanne, self catering , bog room, plenty of storage for gear and a balcony with a fantastic view of the Mt Blanc massif. I can highly recommend it and the host Mary (tell her Alan sent you ).

It has a Carrefour (think Tesco local but with quality meats, cheese and patisserie)  across the road to buy breakfast or lunch items, beer , water etc , 2 or 3 small local restaurants and a lovely little fresh basked pizza take out just up the street, tourist information, patisserie and importantly, bus stops (Chamonix 01, 16 & night bus).

It’s a quiet place great for chilling and undisturbed nights sleep to recover, but for bigger nights out or more variety, as well as the experiences always on offer head into Cham and get the night bus back (or a taxi for later partying).

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View of Mt Blanc from our balcony.

Now onto Skiing.

In Les Houches there are two main lifts/piste areas – Bellevue + Prarion.

Coming from Chamonix /Les Houches direction you arrive at Bellevue first , and it was here we had arranged ski hire but Prarion is the main area and a couple of minutes further by bus. This link takes you two a great piste map for both however I recommend the very impressive  FatMap app.There are also ski hire shops here , as there are around all the lift areas.. the ski infrastructure for those new to it is amazing – everything you need to hand and very helpful and used to beginners as well as experts.

In advance we had rented Ski’s and poles online from Sport2000, taking out own boots, helmet and goggles and for 6 days it was €64 each for what looked like almost brand new Dynastar 97’s, for a beginner – get beginner ski’s – better ones will do nothing for you as you are turning at lower speeds and will most probably be on pistes not the extended mountain. We turned up, the owner checked our weight and boots and set up the ski’s and off we went.

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On the said Dynastar 97’s

A daily ski pass runs at around €43 so multi day buying offers good savings. We opted for a 6 day pass at €215 saving us €25. You just buy at the ski lift itself , same price as online. This pass gives access to both the Bellevue & Prarion lifts , keep your receipt in case you lose it !

Bellevue has a great big, long, wide beginners green area, perfect for getting the absolute basics locked in if you don’t mind the slightly repetitive slow ski down, slow poma up. If you are an absolute newbie though its ideal as there are no corners, steep sections or even too many other skiers to worry about.

 

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Top Tip : Once after 2 hours you think you’ve mastered this level and decide to head onto Prarion for a much wider range of options I suggest you take the ski lift down the hill, jump the quick (2 minutes) bus (or walk) to Prarion and head up by lift.. instead of thinking the pretty benign looking connecting Blue run between them is “probably very doable”.. its wasn’t ! It was bloody terrifying!!.. after snow ploughing for what felt like a mile we arrived at a very steep (for a newbie) run out which saw us de-ski and walk the last 100 yards! #LessonLearned

So now we arrive at Prarion where the real fun begins and where we spent the remainder of our week, typically heading up the lift at around 9.30 and back down around 3.30 or 4.

At 1,900m the top station opens up into a wide easy, Green area for beginners flanked on the left by an easy Blue area with slightly tighter turns, undulating runs and a few steep sections to help you gain confidence as you prepare to take the next step onto the official Blues like La Cha and Abbaye.

Our week started with beautiful blue skies , almost no wind and actually very few people so its was like paradise as slowly built our skills, gaining speed, turning with more control, turning faster lines. Watching the kids at 3 and 4 learn is amazing, their confidence high they are soon whizzing by you with ease!

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There are of course places to rest and eat on the piste itself  . There is the large restaurant/Bar /Hotel at the top of Prarion, easy to access and with a large option of food and drink however the prices match the beauty of the views and scale of whats on offer.. think €25 for a simple pasta and slice of pizza, €10 for 2 coffees etc.

The better option for us was to head back down to the bottom at lunch, head into the patisserie and enjoy soup or a roll an a nice coffee at a  fraction of the costs. Your lift pass offers unlimited runs up and down so take advantage!

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Breakfast , lunch and new friends.

La Cha Restaurant, nestled between the trees below the top station and accessed by the Blue run by the same name is an alpine experience all of its own. Skiers sipping Vin Chaud, hot chocolate with rum or eating delicious lunches before heading back out  – its so clear that off piste relaxation is just as important a part of the experience as on and its not a chore we struggled to embrace !

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True ski eats at la Cha, half way down the Blue run of the same name

 

As I mention it,  La Cha (the restaurant) is half way down a  blue run of the same name (although also via Abbaye which is a bit easier), so we had to bite the bullet and, with the great and friendly “coaching” from a lovely lady we met over breakfast  – Doctor Jackie, we headed down, steeper and faster terrain through narrower pistes which were a departure from the serenity of the beginner area but easily tackled if you control your speed with turns or if needed the odd snow plough.

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Sam with the indomitable Doctor Jackie

The feeling of progression to “real skiing” is awesome and for any readers that know me you know I need to challenge myself and do more all the time so making it to Blue was both exhilarating but also in a way a relief that ” we can do it”. Feeling much more confident I go into tighter turning, better control but also enjoying a bit more speed that before.

As the week progressed I took a day out for a trip to Cogne to climb at Cascade Lillaz , for more on that look out for my next post and then returned with Sam to have 2 final days on the slopes. The weeks weather degraded a little, more wind, more cloud so with it less sun. The effect this has is to flatten the light – meaning its a lot harder to pick out the terrain, its contours etc so you need to be able to ski with more awareness an react to unexpected changed underfoot but the fun is by no mean any less!

 

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Restaurant at Prarion, flatter light

Coming to the end of the week we had time to reflect. This has been one of the most fun weeks holiday for some time – often we climb, hike and generally push ourselves hard , being excited and enjoying it and recharging in some ways but not truly relaxing. While skiing is a sport there is a great sense of fun and the aprés activity is all part of it. No pressure, no stress and it was with real sadness that we took out final run down the piste before getting the teleferique back down to the valley, proud at what we had achieved and smiling broadly at the weeks memories and escapades!

 

Oh and big lesson – no matter how well you ski, look good doing it!

#AllTheGearNoIdea 🙂

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Two very happy campers #AllTheGearNoIdea

 

For information on all aspects of Chamonix valley and its varied activity opportunities as well as weather and lift reports see Chamonix.net

The local Tourist information offer bus timetables or they can be downloaded here  – for Les Houches ski are its the Chamonix 01, 16 and at night the bus Nuit