….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.

 

 

 

Les Houches – A beginners guide to Skiing in the Alps

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of Mt Blanc from our balcony.

Now onto Skiing.

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

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

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

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On the said Dynastar 97’s

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breakfast , lunch and new friends.

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

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

 

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

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Sam with the indomitable Doctor Jackie

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

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

 

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Restaurant at Prarion, flatter light

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

 

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

#AllTheGearNoIdea 🙂

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Two very happy campers #AllTheGearNoIdea

 

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

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