….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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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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Hunting winter in Scotland!

After scratching about, the last bit of gear seeming VERY far away and below me, feeling the exposure to my core I capitulated

For us winter climbing junkies its been a difficult, frustrating at times,  often disappointing season with more sun and rain than snow and ice.

Even in the usual haunts on Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms and high in Stob Coire nan Locahan in Glencoe conditions have been very “lean” ( although as I write this there is a hint, of a promise, of a suggestion of an improvement…)

Mountaineering though is not about waiting for perfect conditions, so with the Mittellegi Ridge on the Eiger not that far ahead we made sure to get out regardless. And off hunting winter we went.

Davy Wright and I headed to Stob Caoire nan Lochan, recent Facebook picture suggesting there was going to be little snow around it still seemed a good , quick bet  – and even if not great it would at least get us  a good steep long walk-in and support our physical readiness.

Dorsal Aréte (II/III) was the agreed target so off we headed on Sunday at 6.30am to get an early start up the hill. Dragging yourself out of a warm bed on  Sunday morning at 5.50 am is never easy but once up, momentum tends to take over and if you have prepared before hand you drive through the shower, getting dressed, breakfast, food packing and gear loading in one automatic flowing motion.

Davy put the foot down and we were in Glencoe by 8am. The hunt was on!

The rain was coming down hard and the walk-in was frankly a grim slog but up we headed ,2 hours of steep, damp, hot work up 800m to arrive at the lochan, situated at the base of the high black rocked amphitheatre of cliffs that make up the face.

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Davy with the the route behind, Dorsal is middle, back set buttress flanked by gully’s

There was some snow, not much.. and a lot of  rock confirming this was going to be a lean day and might actually make for either fun or awful climbing. Only one way to find out.

It was also obvious that great minds think alike and anyone around  had the same thought  -meaning  4 teams had set their sights on the same route –  so time to hustle and get up the queue!

We arrived at the base of the buttress just behind the first team of guide and client so finding a starting belay was the first challenge. By the time we had, the 2 other teams were now also with us making for a very sociable start but potential for some “interesting” rope work on the route to come as we all battled (very amiably)  for room on the route and anchors at the belays!

Off we headed, taking a more direct left line on the aréte to avoid crossing the first team and the going was fun, so snow and mixed rock, fast moving meaning we were arriving at the next belay around the same time as the first team. Plenty of chat en route and as we continued we regularly met/crossed/avoided other teams.

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Lots of rock and loose snow making going more interesting 

After more waiting than climbing, fingers sore and numb at times, feet kept alive only by regular belay stance dancing we made our way, swing lead fashion (taking turns to lead) to the crux point – the shark fin from which the route takes its name.

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Quick belay selfie as Davy sets up the next belay

On my previous outing snow had banked this out so much that I’m sure I pretty much walked up this “bad step” but today it was all rock, exposed, narrow, with a high step, one side all slab and seemingly little to get your axe into…. gulp! (In this condition is where it gains a potential III grade if not avoided on the left)

After scratching about, the last bit of gear seeming VERY far away and below me, feeling the exposure to my core I capitulated , backed off, moved aside and set up a belay to allow Davy , who I feel is a stronger/braver climber to take the lead.

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Lean and fun mixed and snow climbing

This frustrates me greatly and I already know how I could have made the move but at the time I hit a wall… The fear of falling and lack of seeing how to make it go (on lead) just paralysed me.  As second even it was a committing move – but went OK , as lead it seemed terrifying.. now?.. I’d do it  – and that is hard to reconcile when sitting at home afterwards – all part of the never ending head game i go through.

Once past the fin we sumitted, Davy bringing me up, sitting in a bucket belay, spin drift whipping across him and the summit, half buried in snow!

Aha! we found winter!

Time to pack fast and get down fast.

Descending by Broad Gully (the fastest way if safe) we  trudged with cold, wet tired legs back down the hill to arrive back at the car for 5pm.

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Looking back up Broad Gully, Dorsal Arete on right

Did we truly hunt down and bag  winter? I don’t think so, but  just enough winter for us to have a day on the hill.

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Davy exiting the bottom of Broad Gully to the Lochan

A good fun day, maybe not “ideal” conditions – but for us every day climbing is a good day!

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Looking to the 3 sisters and the snowy Stob Coire nan Lochan

 

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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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.

 

Bivvi under the stars

What better way to get a mini adventure out of 24 hours!

It may surprise a few readers that I have never actually wild camped or bivvi’d before now.

With our Eiger Mittellegi ridge  adventure planned for May training is now well under way on a a number of areas like fitness, rope work, knowledge and also experience.. the one thing you cant read about or buy!

To get the experience ball rolling , and address the post Christmas/house move fitness hurdle Davy Wright and I planned a night of bivvng and then a day of climbing on and around Ben Nevis’ North face. It is winter after all and the routes will be in awesome condition right? No.

With VERY unseasonable high temperatures for January (11° C anyone!) The Ben along with most of the other central and west highlands had shed its first winter coat and rock was the order of the day.

Decisions to be made then. While rock is fun we decided with a Bivvi as part of the plan to opt instead for the Carn mor Dearg (CMD) arete with a night on the lower slopes of the CMD.

So arrived in Fort William about 6, grabbed a quick dinner then headed up to the North Car park for the slog up to the Ben (I’m sure it gets longer every time I do it) . Packed and dressed for winter , our packs weighing what felt like a small child we (well I) huffed and puffed our way up the hill, stripped down to baselayers until we found the expected small level plateau at about 500m.

This is Scotland, January, at 8pm and its 9 degrees!

For me it was also a great chance to test some gear – look out for the gear test reports  VERY soon.

We set up , bedded down and then tried to got some kip before waking at around 6am to start the days walking.

For anyone who’s not done it before a bivvi is a a unique experience. I have to admit i was  a little unsure of how I would feel being “exposed” to the elements (and creepy crawlies) .. would I get wet, would I freeze etc.

The reality is amazing!

The bag itself felt solid and together with the Thermarest and new down bag , on soft ground, made for a pretty comfy night. 

Lying looking up in the near pitch dark seeing then ocean of stars (between clouds) was truly amazing. I gazed at them for an age and before I know it nodded off – relishing how good it was to be truly away from it all on a Friday night rather than in the pub or feet up in front of the TV as has been my recent activity …

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After an early rise setting off to CMD summit and the ridge – note the bare Ben ! 

 

Yes.. you wake up now and then.. slide about 6 feet downhill and lose hats, torches and 1 elusive glove in the bag and yes going for a pee requires some effort and is bloody cold but I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the outdoors and a little bit of adventure!

Awake at 6.30.. up and about to get warm then back into the bag to get some grub to fuel the day.davy being the true outdoor fanatic he is has pre prepared porridge midge in these extra tough zip lock bags that you can pour boiling water straight into. 

Brew on, porridge made and belgian chocolate brownie going down well we were good to head off.

As the sun came up we were treated to one of the most stunning cloud inversions I have ever seen . Simply couldn’t stop looking at it but the hill beckons so off we head.

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We finished off the day with a walk along the CMD Arete – a big day and with a cheeky steep 200m ascent to finish you off up to the Ben summit plateau.

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Davy Wright on the ridge.

 

What better way to get a mini adventure out of 24 hours!