….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.

 

 

 

Maybe more

The battle continued, slabby rock under powder, no gear options and all the time swimming upstream.

Scottish Winter

Well? Where is it?

As May and Eiger adventure approaches we wanted to get some early 2017 winter climbing in so back in November I had booked the CIC (Charles Inglis Clarke) hut at the foot of the north face of Ben Nevis with the idea being to get a couple of days of proper Scottish done.

Fast forward to Friday and we were on the torturous slog up from the North face car park, our packs heavier than even usual winter due to food, sleeping bags and various other bits and bobs to see us through a couple of days under the mountains (..that would include Whisky ). My legs burning, heart pumping and breathing hard under my ropes, gear , axes, crampons and I’m sure the kitchen sink we hiked up and in, to finally arrive at the hut around 8.30pm .

In the dark, the path and world around us lit only by circles of light from our head torches, twinkles of light ever present as sleet and snow began to fall we walked up the hill, crossed the style, trotted along the mountain path , the tiny light from the CIC taunting and teasing us for what seems like hours.

We arrived, hot under our gear, soaked and weighed down but already the energy and excitement was in us – we were here to climb!

An evening of banter and a  dram, maybe more, with the other lads staying at the hut later we agreed given expected poor conditions we would hit Tower Ridge and use it as a gauge for what else might go. Off to bed on the bunks, alarms set for a very civilized 7am.

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Up and at em, get the porridge and coffee on, pull all the various bits of gear together and watch the conditions develop out the window. It was snowing.. a bit.. a little bit. Basically the rock was black, the snow was wet and winter was still a pipedream but as we do we headed out to see what was what and play it by ear.

We were here to get on the mountain so to the mountain we go!

The walk up towards Douglas Boulder told us what we feared already.. lots of unconsolidated snow, no ice and lots of rock. But hey that’s what mountaineering is all about – get on and do, and change the plan as needed .. until that point where you need to stick to the plan!

We passed Douglas gap on the right and started up broken and step terrain on the ridge itself. Scratch, hook, swim, scratch . Soloing around looking for a route that would take us up we had some fun, scraped about and all in all found it poor going but still good fun. Getting the crampons on and axes out always gets the blood going.

The battle continued, slabby rock under powder, no gear options and all the time swimming upstream. Finding hooks for axes, jamming crampons in slab grooves or into poor turf, the smell of points sparking on rock and the scraping of crampons and axes ever present to the ear –  it was great practice of course (given position, run out and lack of gear and to give it some perspective imagine a short grade  4+ type pitch). After exploring for a while we arrived on the ridge just above Douglas gap.

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Decision time.

Do we spend all day (maybe more) battling it , snow getting heavier, wind getting up or call it a day, move to find a suitable abseil anchor (by no means ever an easy cop out) and head down and back to the hut?

The votes were cast and the latter won, not of course entirely happily but when the plan is agreed we stick to it. Moving on “just a bot to see” can turn into a long day and a dark descent so sensible heads on we headed for the gap and the Chimney to rap down.

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Davy set up the tat and as we were about to head down another party were moving up the chimney so a long belay stand began. Patient of course but freezing by the time it came for me , last in line, to abb off.

Clip in, rope on, get in position, unclip, fingers almost numb with cold and set off down the steep and awkward chimney. Arriving at the bottom we made a second abseil due to the steep and unconsolidated gully below the chimney, quick rap here and gather up then ropes we made our way down. Snow deeper now, rocks hiding below to catch a crampon point and trip you at every option. But its Scottish Winter and we love it!

Back to the hut then, kettle on, gear set out to dry and decisions to be made.

But first new friends to greet.

The Rab creative team were in the hut having arrived later in the morning , 3 of their athletes on the face shooting a new film to showcase some interesting new gear. As we all chatted the unmissable sound of a chopper made an appearance. Low, near and circling – its never a good sign.

In the mountains it means one thing.

Rescue.

The collective hope that it was perhaps just training was quickly dashed when the door opened and a member of Lochaber MRT advised a party of 3 had been reported avalanched and asked us to make room, heat the hut and get hot water ready as they expected more team members and with hope the missing climbers to arrive soon.

Pots boiled, fire on, room cleared and space made the choppers an team members converged around the face until after some time the walking wounded began to arrive.

Thank goodness all 3 were walking, and talking but they were also bruised and broken. But alive, that’s all that matters.

Their eyes said it all.

That is a nightmare of mortal terror I never want to experience first hand. As blood was wiped away, back and shoulder injuries assessed and counselling of shock was underway no-one could help but be shaken by the sight. The MFRT amazing. Profesional , efficient, good natured throughout keeping spirits up before leading them off to the helicopter for an airlift out for hospital attention. and Perspective on life and climbing, the risks and the rewards, the decisions brought very quickly  into sharp focus.

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We had made good choices today . In the route, in our approach and in our decisions.

By now our plan had galvanized.

We’d be climbing nothing tomorrow so without getting in the way of medics tending the injured gents we assembled our gear and made off back down the path to the car – about a 90 minute hike with a plan to head to Glencoe, The Clachaig Inn and at least 1 beer.

Maybe 2. Maybe more.

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2 hours later we are in Boots Bar at the Clachaig, that hub of mountain culture and history in the shadow the the mighty Aonach Eagach and the atmosphere of Glencoe with social media pings and voicemails kindly  asking after our safety as already reports the avalanche was on the national news.

We met up the Rab crew (including the bear battler himself Greg Boswell) and other great friends, we talked as we always do about climbing, the mountains and of course the events today.

We laughed we shook hands and hugged and yes we had 1 beer.

ok 2.

Maybe more.

If you would like to support Lochaber Mountains Rescue their donation page is here.

 

Top Out, on tap 

A Scottish independent brewer with mountains of talent …

A Scottish independent ale brewer with mountains of talent !

Following on in a series of independent mountain related business (ok I’m stretching it a bit here ) McLovinMountains agreed to take one for the team.and try out some small batch ales from Edinburgh craft ale house – Top Out . I had the peasure of meeting them and sampling some of their brewed delights at a recent Urban Uprising event in  the Glasgow Climbing Academy.

Based in Edinburgh the bewery has been prioducing beers since 2013. In relation to their appropach here is what they say in their own words :

Inspired by brewers the world over, we aim to create the best beers we can imagine without compromise.

We have a growing stable of core beers and a steady stream of unusual, limited editions and enticing collaborations. Combining brewing influences from Germany, Scotland, Belgium and America with the worlds best ingredients we create great tasting, original craft beers.


Top put has a range made up of 7 “core” beers and 3 “limited editions” and blends Scottish and german brewing methods to provide a very tasy ale!

 

In their core range are

Simon Says-On, Staple, Pale Ale, Altbier, Schmankrel, South Face and the Cone with their Limited collection comprises Copperheid, Smoked Porter and gthe Winter Beer.

 

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All are big on flavour and punch,with particular stand outs – for me the AltBier is the best but the Smoked Porter is something else!

The Alt Bier (Alt meaning old ) is a 4.3% lager-ale , dark and hoppy and sporting Ben Wyvis on its label.

The Smoked Porter is a peaty, smoky monster at 5.6% but smooth and very tasty (The official tasting notes sugest turkish coffe sweetness) – I didnt know whether to drink it or chow down on it – very moreish!

Wrapping the delicious and intriguing flavours are the beautifully designed labels incorporating Orndance survey style maps of hils and mounatins close to the head brewers heart.

They provide a unique and attractive difference to the curent trend for weird and wonderful imagery and for anyone who loves hills and maps its an instant draw. The Staple for example shows the mighty Ben Macdui in the Scottish Cairngorms (see below for more info)


As mentioned each one is unique and offers a real bang for your buck in the flavour department. Im sure everyone will have a favourite and my suggestions is to try them all (although maybe not all in one sitting!).

Enjoy! And remember – help your local independent!

Top Out’s founder and head brewer Michael spent most of his free time in recent years in the mountains and on the crags.

As a keen mountaineer and fell runner he has visited most of Britain’s walking and climbing regions as well as having travelled further afield to pursue his hobby.

On weekends you’ll often find him running in the Pentland hills, only about a mile from the brewery, or going for a quick saunter up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

To sample for your self see http://topoutbrewery.com/where-to-buy.php

Follow them on Twitter @TopoutBrewery

For more information or to contact that – Top Out Brewery LLP, Unit 3, 6b Dryden Road, Loanhead, Edinburgh, EH20 9LZ, UK.

+44 (0) 131 440 0270 info@topoutbrewery.com