It’s been a long time since I last posted on my blog, mainly because I’ve had very little of interest to write about. The last few months in particular have been taken up with work and getting my life in order. It’s been frustrating at times with much less free time than I’ve become accustomed to but I can now see that I’m nearing the end of this road and my time is beginning to become my own again. That said, I’ve had some great work following Christmas; multiple weeks based in Scotland running winter mountaineering courses on the East and West coast with evenings spent ski touring by head torch. I’ve been giving quite a few lectures for a mixture of audiences and alongside my good friend Steve Long we ran this year’s BMC Alpine Lecture series across England and Wales – these were skills based lectures but with an emphasis on them being inspirational as well as informative.
Gabby and I also survived a winter in the smallest cottage in Nant Peris without suffering from frostbite or hypothermia and we’re now buying our first house together in the comparatively Mediterranean town of Bethesda – this house even has insulation and running hot water so a bit of a step up in quality for us! More recently I’ve also been completing the final pre-requisites for my application to the British Mountain Guide scheme. Before last month I’d been accumulating my pre-requisites purely through going climbing and skiing on my own terms, but with only a few boxes left to fill in the application form I’ve taken a more targeted approach so that I can submit the form for this year’s deadline. This has meant a lot of ski touring and a very productive last month in the Alps.
Jamie and I arrived in the Alps to a sub-optimal weather forecast and after some deliberation decided to head ski touring south of Switzerland’s Rhone Valley on the Tour de Soleil. Unfortunately its name didn’t live up to the weather we skied into. On the second day of the tour our visibility was down to zero and we were skiing on compass bearings. On the third day not only was there no visibility but there was also a very high avalanche hazard on all aspects after nearly a metre of fresh snow. The avalanche hazard was so high that we couldn’t even ski down into the Rhone valley and instead had to descend via the opposite side of the mountain range leaving us with a very long commute back to the car via a bus journey and two trains!
After a fairly unsuccessful first tour we scanned the forecasts in search of the best weather in the Alps and the only area not being buried under inches of snow was the Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy. We spent six days skiing across the range from East to West starting from Valnontey and finishing in Valgrisenche. The highlights included a fantastic day heading up to the summit of Gran Paradiso itself as well as an incredible powder day as we descended to Valgrisenche. This was also one of the low points as when Jamie and I reached the final col ahead of all the other teams we were greeted by several teams of heli skiers who had just beaten us to the first tracks – we were well jel! I couldn’t recommend this ski tour enough and it was great to visit an area that otherwise I’d have been unlikely to explore.
Gabby took a week off work to join me out in the Alps and we did loads of ski touring together. Skiing with Gabby always reminds me of just how poor my technique is as she hurtles down past me on a pair of toy skimo racing skis. Fortunately I was well acclimatized though which brought our relative standards a little closer together. We had an aborted attempt to ski Mont Blanc where we got a few hundred metres above the Vallot hut before turning round due to strong cold winds. We then headed to the Pennine Alps with Ally Swinton. It was my second visit to the area but the first time I’ve had an explore of the hills and it’s a truly phenomenal mountain range. Our first day included the popular and possibly/definitely easiest 4000m peak in Europe the Breithorn with only a short climb up from the ski lift. From there we traversed round beyond Castor and Pollux via a very high level route. Unfortunately after a few days the weather started to move in and I began to suffer from a cold which had a pretty stark effect on me at this altitude!
After all that ski touring I’d finally managed to complete my hut to hut touring days for my guides application and had a few final days left to go climbing. I’d had one rather unfortunate attempt at climbing earlier that trip. Jamie and I skied the Vallee Blanche to the foot of the famous Supercouloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul. As we were climbing the foot of the first pitch we heard a scream and looked upwards to see an airborne climber spiralling off the first pitch, inverting and taking a very nasty fall. When he finally came to a stop he was upside down, unconscious and had blood leaking out of his helmet onto the ice beneath him. I headed up to help his partner out and we got a small ledge kicked out in the snow slope for the casualty who slowly regained consciousness. There wasn’t a huge amount we could do after that except wait for the chopper to come and pull him off the mountain. I hope he has a speedy recovery!
My next stop was for an ascent of the north face of the Eiger with Jerry Gore. Jerry is quite possibly the most (over!)enthusiastic climber you’ll ever meet. He’s in his mid fifties, is an ex-Royal Marine and a type 1-diabetic. The great thing about Jerry is that he doesn’t let diabetes get the better of him and lives a very full and dynamic life that would be the envy of many fit men (or women) in their twenties or thirties. He’s also extremely passionate about raising money for ‘Insulin for Life’, a charity that supports diabetes sufferers in third world countries who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the medicine they need to live. Jerry wanted to climb the Eiger for this charity as fast as he possibly could to help raise money for this charity – you can donate directly via this link.
Our first one day attempt ended in disaster. As we reached the first technical pitch of the face, the ‘Difficult Crack’ we got stuck in a queue of four teams. We spent two hours waiting for two particularly incompetent parties to climb this pitch and knowing we wouldn’t be able to overtake them for a couple more hours decided to head down for another go the following day. I’m not often critical of other climber’s decisions but it seems to be a more and more common phenomena to see alpinists trying to climb routes that are far outside their experience and ‘stretch’ zone. Famous and popular routes such as this seem to draw any alpinist with a Facebook account to them and I think people forget just how serious these things are. Without being melodramatic, inexperienced climbers can die on these routes and the rescue helicopter isn’t a taxi service. It goes without saying that a couple of hours after we’d descended from the face we noticed that both these teams were helicoptered off the face!
The following day the ascent went a lot more smoothly almost uninterrupted by other climbers due to an earlier start. The climb is a masterpiece in route finding with some tricky climbing in places. If it wasn’t for all its fixed protection I think it would receive a great deal fewer ascents, something to bear in mind when you consider it was first climbed in 1938. As I got back down to the station I received a text from Ally Swinton asking if I wanted to head up to the Dru the following day, instinctively I replied in the affirmative not really considering how impractical it was as most of my gear was in Samoens and we wouldn’t get down to Grindelwald until the following morning.
Ally and I just made the last lift up at Grandes Montets and headed down to the base of the Dru for a chilly night’s sleep. The Dru Couloir Direct has claimed classic status in the Alps recently as a modern test-piece mixed climb. It’s a route that I’ve always wanted to do and it didn’t disappoint one little bit. The climbing revolves around five steep icy gully pitches which are all relatively well protected. The climbing is on thin ice or narrow granite cracks and although never difficult all requires some care to climb. The final pitch climbs a technical slim gully before over a roof onto a shield of ice in a brilliant position. It’s up there with the best mixed climbs I’ve ever done and probably about Scottish grade VII rather than its mooted grade of VIII. I felt pretty knackered by the time I’d returned to the lift station and it was nice to see that the Swinton Duracell Bunny was also looking a bit tired! I headed home the following day and am now looking forward to getting back in shape for rock climbing after a month off.