….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.

 

A mountain journey like no other.

Yet, I regards myself as a very lucky person, I have studied my demons, I’ve kept these ‘mental’ enemies close

A post from guest blogger Vicky Bikkerstaffe.

Thinking back, I don’t actually recognise the person that made the decision to get back out on the hill.  She was riddled with anxiety, lacked any personal confidence and lived an isolated life due to her mental health demons.  I’m still shocked she actually did anything about her wish to be more skilled in the outdoors.  She was badly equipped both practically and mentally.  However, what she did have where her memories of reaching mountain tops, taking in the views, the sense of achievement and the taste of a cheese butty at 1000m.

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My personal demons are Clinical Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) (info about these and many other MH issues are available on www.mind.org.uk).  These conditions suck the very life out of me every single day.  These demons are my constant companions, one has their infected claws deep inside me, the other spits their endless stream of venom into my mind.  The management of such conditions is a full time affair, ‘staying well’ requires an unbroken stream of time and energy to perform the tasks of daily life.  Yet, I regard myself as a very lucky person, I have studied my demons, I’ve kept these ‘mental’ enemies close, I’ve developed some useful strategies that allow me some respite from the endless chatter.

Doing this has stretched me as a person, I’m far more insightful and compassionate.  I’ve developed a determination and strength that Thor would be proud of.  I have a love of the great outdoors, simply being out in the hills and glens helps me to sustain the burden of my demons but I felt a need to explore this area of self-care.  So I decided I wanted to be more capable in this environment so I could take full advantage of this beautiful landscape we have in Scotland.

So it was time to take a leap of faith and find someone to help me.

I contacted Andy Mallinson (Mountain Summits, www.mountainsummits.co.uk) After explaining my needs and difficulties we arranged to meet for a day on the hill.  To put it bluntly, I was crapping myself.  Every ‘comfort zone’ was pushed and stretched.  The first day was spent rekindling the essential navigation skills but more importantly it was spent talking, relaxing, thinking and daydreaming.  A spark of confidence in my long forgotten abilities came out of nowhere, by the end of the day I felt calmer.  I enjoyed myself and had fun, a real novelty.
Now, if there is anyone who ‘lives’ the mountains, then its Andy.  He has an encyclopaedic mind, the teaching he presents is natural and straightforward and his enthusiasm for his ‘subject’ is deeply infectious.  Best of all, he’s a fellow Yorkshire ‘man’ (sorry, Yorkshire ‘person’ just doesn’t sound right)

I felt I could express what I aspired too.  I explained that I felt at peace within mother nature’s arms.  However, I wanted to acquire the skills needed to feel confident and competent in her arms when she’s unforgiving, mischievous and angry.

As a result of our discussions Andy created the Mountain Summits Mountain Development Program (MDP).

A 15-day plan covering: –

Mountain Skills navigation, maps, reading the environment, weather and camping skills.

Rock Skills ropes, belay, protection, climbing skills, single and multi-pitch climbs, seconding and leading climbs.

Winter Skills winter equipment, winter navigation, snow and avalanche awareness, winter and ice climbing

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Each of my 15 days ticked all the right boxes:-

Informative

Fun

Memorable

Inspiring

Supportive

Enlightening

Educational

Exhilarating

Overwhelming

Absorbing

Happy

Challenging

Powerful

Perplexing
During my 15 days I’ve been over hills, crags, Munro’s, and Corbetts. Through corries, glens highlands and lowlands.  I’ve been up and across ridges, buttresses, beinns, cairns, carns, stobs, arétes and drumlins.

I’ve climbed, scrambled, jumped, walked, shuffled, yomped crawled and I have loved every nanosecond of it!

Each day I completed created more enthusiasm and motivation for the next.  My personal confidence and sense of ‘self’ began to developed both on and off the hill and my general attitude to life started to relax and soften.

I have discovered that rock climbing to be the ultimate demon deterrent.  The concentration required for organising the ropes, the protection and completing each move of the climb reduces the demons’ venom to a drip.  I don’t think they have a defence for this total focus, enjoyment and peace. Don’t tell the demons I said this but I think they might actually be learning to enjoy the respite…shush!!

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I have learnt masses of essential awareness and knowledge.  Being organised for the outdoors is the number one.  Wild camping is faff free, mountains days are sorted the day before, the rucksack is always full of the necessities and all of this is second nature now.  I find navigation and map skills genuinely fascinating and I find expanding my knowledge of this endless subject a real pleasure.  I’m reading and learning about the mountain environment, weather and ecology and then utilising this knowledge to make the many decisions when immersed in the mountain ‘world’ I love so much.

Who knows where this will take me in the future?
Now that I’m in possession of this enhanced skill set I’ve found I am more relax on the hill.  My mind finds a calmer ‘plane’ to function on.  I feel ‘lighter’ and more balanced (ha maybe not!!)  I’m learning to use this steadier state to filter out some of the damaging thoughts I have allowing me to think clearer.

The bitter truth is that my demons will NEVER leave me, my bad days will always be soul destroying.  The venom in my mind and the infected claws will forever cause me pain that is truly unexplainable in strength.

Yet, NOW I stand taller on my good days.  The feeling of comfort and security while oot and aboot is fuelling my strength and determination and I have an increased sense of empowerment for the ‘fight’ and for my life in general.

Robert Bryne said “the purpose of life is a life of purpose”.  My purpose on this earth has eluded me for countless years but now, having gone through the MPD, I have a spark in my tummy that feels ‘bright’ with potential that’s motivating me to continue my ‘mountain’ life.

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I feel completely at home in the wild-ness of Scotland.

The overwhelming power of mother nature is a true life force to me and fuels me in many ways and I have no doubt that without this I would have to sacrifice myself to my demons.
And so… 11 months after starting the MDP I am a confident, competent and skilled mountaineer.  I completed day 15 of the program on Saturday 4th March in epic style.  I lead the first assent of a multi-pitch grade 2 winter/ice climb on Creag a Choire Dhirich with Andy Mallinson.  We agreed on the name ‘Mocking Grouse’.
My life long appreciation has, obviously, got to go to Andy Mallinson.  I have much to thank him for.  The mountain development program is Andy’s creation. Andy presents himself in a way that is professional, friendly and welcoming.  At first glance the content of the MDP could be said to be universal but it’s the way Andy presents the content that makes the program unique.  His ‘teaching’ ability is adaptive, flexible yet completely natural.  I rarely find learning easy yet I feel that Andy conveyed all the required knowledge in some sort of cognitive osmosis which has certainly worked for me. Anyone can be a mountain guide, not many can be a mountain professor!  Now that I know him a wee bit better I believe that Andy’s enthusiasm and love for the mountains is truly at his core and I would hazard a guess that without the hills he would soon falter.

Andy, aka Coach M, Obi Wan, you have been and continue to be a true inspiration to me, your Young Padawan.

 

Vicky Bickerstaffe lives in Perthshire, in Scotland and has done for the past 8 years or so since moving from her native Yorkshire.

With a background  in fitness and health Vicky is now working part time and studying Degree in Psychology and Mental Health and currently developing green therapy projects.

Vicky has been  living with mental health issues for 25 years.

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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