Monthly Archives: July 2013


The campsite near the Petit Clocher du Portalet. Photo- Calum Muskett
The campsite near the Petit Clocher du Portalet. Photo- Calum Muskett

I’ve been to the Alps every year since my first visit when I was fifteen. I love the variety of climbing, the generally hot weather and the fresh pain au chocolats in the mornings. A trip to the Alps generally makes a nice, if a tad expensive, summer holiday.

This year I’ve planned and saved up for six weeks of climbing in the Alps and I’ve got a list of objectives as long as my arm! The first ten days of the trip were planned to be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things; to get used to climbing on granite and get fully acclimatized before hopefully getting on some bigger routes in August.

I met up with Hazel Findlay and Pete Graham on my first day in Chamonix. The forecast wasn’t great with evening thunderstorms every day for the foreseeable future, so we decided to head over to Switzerland and climb on the Petit Clocher du Portalet.

Hazel Climbing the first tricky pitch of 'Ave Caesar'. Photo- Calum Muskett
Hazel Climbing the first tricky pitch of ‘Ave Caesar’. Photo- Calum Muskett

I’d never heard of the Petit Clocher before but Hazel assured me it was a very good cliff and she was keen to make a free ascent of ‘Ave Caesar’, a 7c she’d last tried several years earlier. We camped in a sheltered spot about forty minutes walk from the wall with a convenient overhang under which we were able to cook our food. The route itself exceeded my expectations of its quality. Splitter cracks and great quality granite made ‘Ave Caesar’ reminiscent of some Yosemite classics.

Hazel waltzed up the first tricky pitch, a lovely, long layback crack and we continued upwards, climbing parallel to a couple of teams of Italian climbers on the tough looking ‘Etat du Choc’. Fortunately for me Hazel also had the lead of the next pitch and first crux: a short and stern 7c finger crack. Hazel made quick work of this pitch whilst I was unceremoniously spat off just before reaching better jams. I gave the pitch a second go immediately after my first but was too pumped to give it a good effort. The following pitch, a 7c ringlock crack was my lead. Already pumped and tired my chances weren’t great, but the fact I didn’t know how to ringlock made things even trickier! After ‘ascending’ this pitch Hazel once again cruised it and we were soon on the top looking across at a very stormy sky. Hazel, who’s been reading about clouds on her kindle, told me that these were “bad clouds”.

The following day we returned to the Petit Clocher for a look at the ‘Darbellay Crack’, a stunning multi pitch crack climb with a crux of 8a. We worked the crux pitch fairly quickly but were both feeling a bit too knackered for a lead attempt. It’s one of the best pitches I’ve seen in the Alps and is certainly something worth returning for.

Having returned to the campsite in Argentiere I met up with Gabby to take her up her first alpine routes. Gabby is a self-proclaimed skier and runner but is a handy rock climber too so I thought where better to go for a first alpine rock route than the South Face of the Midi? We started up the classic ‘Rebuffat’ route, but being impatient and caught up in a long queue we traversed across and climbed the main pitches of the ‘Contamine’ route, another fantastic, albeit a little trickier, free climb. After a swift ascent of the south face we headed over to the Grand Capucin where we spent a chilly night on the glacier.

A german climber engaged with the difficulties of the lower cracks of the 'Contamine' route. Photo- Calum Muskett
A german climber engaged with the difficulties of the lower cracks of the ‘Contamine’ route. Photo- Calum Muskett

Our objective for the day was the ‘Bonnatti’ route up the east face of the Grand Capucin. Rather than head up the snow gully on the south side we headed straight up the east face to join the ‘Bonnatti’ after its traverse in. We were thankful to have done this as later that day, the gully which is notorious for rockfall anyway, started to rumble ominously and we witnessed a massive avalanche which just missed a couple of guided parties.

Gabby climbing at around half height on the Grand Capucin. Photo- Calum Muskett
Gabby climbing at around half height on the Grand Capucin. Photo- Calum Muskett

Our tent on the glacier beneath the Grand Capucin. Photo- Calum Muskett
Our tent on the glacier beneath the Grand Capucin. Photo- Calum Muskett

We made steady progress up the ‘Bonnatti’ which although great is a bit of a route finding extravaganza. Gabby, not used to wearing rock boots for such a long period started to suffer from blisters on her heels but was still keen to head on upwards and we finally reached the summit at around six in the evening. Fortunately there is now a new line of abseil anchors down ‘Elixir d’Astaroth’ which is well worth knowing for anybody keen to climb the Grand Capucin as it provides a quick and easy descent.

Next up I teamed up with ‘big’ Tim Neil and Keith Ball – two really experienced and super psyched climbers. We headed straight for the Grand Capucin once again and climbed ‘Directe des Capucines’, an amazing line of moderate difficulty up the East Face. This route surely supersedes the ‘Bonnatti Direct’ in terms of quality of climbing and its visual line. With the forecast still good we stayed up high and the following day climbed the outstanding ‘Ligne Blanche’ on the Chandelle du Tacul. This route is on some of the best rock found in the Alps and each pitch has fantastic and varied climbing. We just managed to make it down to Courmayer in time to miss a big thunderstorm.

Big Tim seconding the crux pitch of 'Ligne Blanche'. Photo- Calum Muskett
Big Tim seconding the crux pitch of ‘Ligne Blanche’. Photo- Calum Muskett

The Indian Face

Clogwyn Du'r Arddu. Photo- Calum Muskett
Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Photo- Calum Muskett

The chugging of the train beats a regular rhythm as I march up the Llanberis path for the third day in a row. Unencumbered from the usual burden of a heavy rucsac my pace is swift; or perhaps it just feels that way as my mind races ahead of myself to the lofty heights of Cloggy. As I approach the base of the cliff I notice that conditions are good, great in-fact and that today there can be no excuses, other than my own will power, as to whether or not I climb ‘The Indian Face’.

It had started two days earlier. I’d walked up to Cloggy in the late afternoon coming into view of the crag just as Caff reached the finishing holds. It was great to witness somebody leading the line, especially after Caff had only practised the route on abseil that morning. I was keen to take advantage of the chalked holds and attempt ‘Masters Wall’ on-sight. Caff, however, soon dissuaded me from that idea, telling me that ‘Masters…’ was a poor eliminate and not worth the while. Instead, just out of interest, I gave ‘The Indian Face’ a go, along with George Ullrich. We both on-sighted the route on top-rope and suddenly knew that the lead was on.

The climbing on ‘The Indian Face’ is fantastic. The handholds are surprisingly positive, though they are mainly side pulls, whilst the footholds are just poor enough to make the climbing feel that touch insecure, even after rehearsing the moves on a top-rope. The protection revolves around a cluster of poor small RPs which offer some psychological support but little else.

I returned the following morning, feeling well prepared mentally to go for the lead. The moves felt reasonable on a gri gri but I was really concerned about how humid everything felt. I felt like I could scrape through the moves on lead but this wasn’t a route to shake and slap my way up! Ray Wood, having checked his constant stream of twitter updates (!), confirmed that it was indeed humid but that Derek the weatherman was forecasting low dew points for the following day.

Perturbed but as motivated as ever I had one final day to attempt the line before three 12 hour shifts of work, a week of assessment and a six week trip to the Alps. I knew that the likelihood of returning for the line in the Autumn was very low which added a little more pressure.

Up on the cliff I was back on my abseil rope. The moves went well on a gri gri and I felt ready for the lead. But I had no belayer! I’d expected to lead the route the previous day on which I’d had the offer of a belay but I’d had no luck finding a belayer at last minute for this day. I was anxious to get on the lead whilst I was still prepared mentally but it seemed to be slipping away. Fortunately for me, Dan Parkes, who I’d met on the walk up for the first time, had just come down after climbing ‘Great Wall’ with his dad. I asked him if he’d be willing to give me a belay on ‘The Indian Face’. He very graciously accepted but after a moment’s thought nervously asked if I was after a lead belay. I left the choice open to Dan and thankfully he decided he was happy to belay me.

On the lead. Photo- Emma Twyford
On the lead. Photo- Emma Twyford

The lead itself went fairly smoothly. My plan was to lead the route quickly, before any fear or doubt could enter my head. I’d left the cluster of RPs in place; not feeling well enough prepared to place them on lead and with no time left practice there placements. There was one moment on lead, a couple of moves after the crux, where my fingers began to creep off a crimp and I was forced into making a hasty slap for the next positive side-pull; a moment that retrospectively sends shivers down my spine! It took me around seven minutes to reach the finishing jug, where you can finally fully appreciate the quality of the route and enjoy the easy climbing that leads up to the belay.

George leading 'The Indian Face'. Photo- Calum Muskett
George leading ‘The Indian Face’. Photo- Calum Muskett

Later that same day George made a very smooth ascent of the route and we all headed back down for a pizza and a pint in Llanberis where we met up with Caff and enjoyed the evening sunshine.

Thanks to Caff and George for the motivation to try the route and Dan for the impromptu belay!

The three ascentionists. Photo- Miles Hill
The three ascentionists. Photo- Miles Hill

The Rapid Rab Road Trip to Hoy

Climbers be warned! Photo- Calum Muskett
Climbers be warned! Photo- Calum Muskett

Short of time and short of sleep our final day on Hoy was always going to be a hectic affair. An early start saw Tom and I heading over to a gloomy looking Rora Head to prepare for the lead of our new line. As we abseiled in we could tell that conditions weren’t great. The spray from the waves and the lack of morning sunlight meant a thin film of grease lubricated some of the small holds on the final run out. We both top roped the pitch and brushed the holds as best we could before Ben Winston joined us and it was time to go big or go home.

Tom checking out the line of 'Dan Dare' prior to the first ascent. Photo- Calum Muskett
Tom checking out the line of ‘Dan Dare’ prior to the first ascent. Photo- Calum Muskett

Having travelled all the way up to Hoy there was no real option of backing down. Both Tom and I knew that it would be some time before another opportunity presented itself to return to Hoy so we abseiled down and psyched up, both of us having decided to lead the crux pitch. I headed up first, making the most of the reasonable rests and placing as much gear as possible. The first section of the pitch is quite steady. Reasonable pulls between slightly fragile sandstone ledges lead up to a compact wall of high quality sandstone. Once committed to this wall a confident approach is best suited. A long run out with strenuous climbing follows a line of crimps up to a rest beneath the crux section. From here a series of big pulls on reasonable holds lead to an enigmatic final reach up to a break, miles above the last piece of gear.

On the lead of the crux pitch on the first ascent of 'Dan Dare'. Photo- Ben Winston
On the lead of the crux pitch on the first ascent of ‘Dan Dare’. Photo- Ben Winston

Fortunately the lead went without incident and, having abseiled back down to remove the gear, it was Tom’s turn for the lead. Tom made steady progress up the lower wall before cruising the final crux section to reach the belay a very happy man. Realizing that time was now in short demand, should we want to make the 3 o’clock ferry off Hoy, I frantically seconded the first pitch and prepared immediately to lead us to the top. Having not inspected the top section of the cliff, I was surprised to find another top quality pitch, albeit at a more amenable level, but in keeping with the rest of the route. I topped out just as Ben was rushing back to the van telling us to hurry if we wanted to leave Hoy that day. Tom seconded rapidly and we were soon making a mad dash back to the car in time to reach the ferry a couple of minutes before its departure. ‘Dan Dare’, as we christened the new route, is a fantastic new addition to Hoy with some brilliant and varied climbing on good quality sandstone. We named the route after a terrible joke of Tom’s we were told as we travelled up north and we’ve given the route a grade of E7 6b.

Having caught the three o’clock ferry off Hoy and been inspired after watching Andy Murray win Wimbledon, we travelled back to the mainland and my thoughts returned to some unfinished business from the journey up to Hoy. We’d stopped off at a single pitch coastal venue next to a small hamlet called Mid-Clyth and I’d attempted a new route there on-sight. I was one move away from glory, but having snapped off a small hold and with no gear of worth, I decided to down climb back to the ground and leave the route for another day.

Climbing the Old man of Hoy was another highlight of the trip. Photo- Calum Muskett
Climbing the Old man of Hoy was another highlight of the trip. Photo- Calum Muskett

Abseil descent down the old man of Hoy. Photo- Calum Muskett
Abseil descent down the old man of Hoy. Photo- Calum Muskett

Despite the fact it was now 8.30pm I felt like this was an opportunity I couldn’t waste as we drove through the small hamlet on our journey home. After a quick top rope I made the first ascent of this compellingly bold arête. The sole protection for the route is two skyhooks and the climbing, although never desperate, is difficult enough to warrant the rather worrying grade of E7 6a.

As we cooked ourselves dinner in a picturesque harbor at 11pm that evening. we reflected on a fantastic days’ climbing and a memorable short trip to the far north of Scotland. Thanks to Tom and Ben for such a great trip and to Rab for getting us up there in the first place!

Tom catching the final rays of sunshine after a successful trip to Hoy. Photo- Calum Muskett
Tom catching the final rays of sunshine after a successful trip to Hoy. Photo- Calum Muskett

For those who couldn’t be bothered reading any of the above here’s a video of the trip put together by Ben Winston: