It’s difficult to draw much of a coherent blog post out of the last couple of months as they’ve been full of travel, work and climbing. My poor Citroen C1 has been running me to opposite ends of the country on regular intervals but still seems to be going strong despite the length of time it has spent on the M6. I’ve been working in Inverness for quite a few weeks this year and in the evenings have been getting out and experiencing some of the local climbing for the first time. ‘Local’ is a term I’d use quite loosely as you do need to drive about 30 minutes to get to the nearest crag and over an hour for many of the better venues but there is some great climbing to be found with the likes of the Camel, Moy and Duntelchaig being a relatively short drive after work. It’s not exactly North Wales convenience climbing, but good if you’re still motivated to get out after work.
The best of the bunch is Creag Dubh near Newtonmore. This crag is unhelpfully referred to as Creag Death by many of the locals which seems to scare most climbers away despite the quality of climbing there. Creag Dubh has to be one of Scotland’s best roadside crags; it has fantastic climbing and doesn’t seem to be too bold despite its reputation. You have got to be keen to climb at Creag Dubh when you finish work at 5 in Inverness but it always feels worthwhile in retrospect.
Sam was looking fairly sceptical on our first visit as I promised him the rain would stop by the time we got to Newtonmore and he must have been cursing my optimism as we walked up to the crag in the drizzle but miraculously the Sprawl Wall was just about steep enough to stay dry in the rain. I started up Cubby’s tricky E7 wall climb ‘Yes Yes’ in a light drizzle, convinced it would soon stop raining, and by the time I’d clipped the bendy peg having done the crux it started to absolutely chuck it down – enough for my chalk bag to start filling with water! With a final long 5c move to the ledge I was unsure whether I would be able to top out into what was now a mini waterfall and rather than risk falling onto the tatty peg I decided to run away and descend in more control. I returned a couple of days later with Ross to finish it off in much better conditions and we followed this up with an ascent of ‘The Meejies’ which is by far the hardest E5 I’ve climbed in Scotland and nearly as tough as ‘Yes Yes’!
One of the highpoints of working up there was also taking my army group up the Old Man of Stoer. It can be surprisingly unusual to get a highly motivated group of squaddies on foundation courses, sometimes it feels like you’re going through the motions a bit with teaching but when you do get a good group for ten days you can achieve some really memorable things. None of the five guys had done much more than an abseil before coming on the course and to finish off with all five getting up the Old Man of Stoer was a fantastic achievement – especially considering it was a fairly cold day.
More recently I also enjoyed a nice short holiday in Scotland with Gabby around Skye and Glencoe. It was Gabby’s first time in both areas and despite low expectations with the weather we had a really good time scrambling around the Cuillin and climbing on the Etive Slabs. I managed to make what was probably the second ascent of Dave Macleod’s ‘The Gathering’ on the spectacular Cioch in Coire Laggan. This spectacular route is an out and out classic, perhaps more E7 than E8 but with delicate, technical and exposed climbing. The Gabbro is unbelievably rough though and with the high humidity that day I was lucky to have enough skin left on my fingers to repeat the route before we continued up Sgurr Alasdair and along the ridge itself.
I also caught up with Dave Macleod and we spent one afternoon repeating the decidedly bold ‘Death Pirate’ E6/7 6b at Neist Point in cold and windy weather. An amazing arête which was only disappointing due to me dropping a rock shoe 100m into the Atlantic from the top.
In June I headed to the Alps with Emma Twyford on a Rab photoshoot. Emma took to the granite climbing surprisingly well and after her first day was already looking strong on the technical routes around the Cosmiques Arete. Our aim had been to attempt the ‘Voie Petit’ but this turned out to be logistically challenging proposition with a camera crew and not too much time, so after climbing up to the crux pitch we changed plans and the ‘Voie Petit’ will have to wait for another year.
Back home I’ve been enjoying some time off and trying to make the most of any opportunities to get out climbing. I’ve been climbing some of the more esoteric routes that North Wales has to offer and also climbed a couple of new routes. The first of which was a three pitch new route on the slate which I first attempted with Mark Dicken and Steve Long. The first couple of pitches are adventurous but ‘so so’ in quality with climbing up to about E4. The final pitch looked deceptively easy through a roof with good holds.
As is often the way with on-sight new routing I had a hard time on this easy looking pitch! I committed to a gently leaning groove that turned out to be off-balance, tricky and very run-out, to get to a good rest before the roof. Above I could reach some good holds and see a good wire placement but placing the gear was extremely difficult and after a while I decided to leave the route for a cooler day. Returning the following evening with Gabby, I abseiled down the pitch to see what size of wire would fit the slot and climbed it next go at E7 6b. It’s called ‘Burning Bush’ and around 7a+/b in a wild position at the top of Twll Mawr.
Finally I also got round to climbing a new route/link up on Clogwyn y Tarw that I’d noticed ages ago. This links the start of an E2 called ‘Trouble with Lichen’ into the top arête of ‘Rare Lichen’ to produce a nice soft touch E8 link without the bold crux of Rare Lichen. The gear is pretty good and the new section of climbing is relatively easy but does have a nice ramp leading to the brilliant upper arête. I think it should be a relatively popular route for the grade as it’s fast drying, safe(ish) and has a short approach – time will tell! It’s called ‘Day of the Triffids’ in keeping with the John Wyndham book ‘Trouble with Lichen’ that it starts up.
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.
As the year draws to an end it’s nice to take a look back at what I’ve been up to. 2014 has been a year of travel for me with plenty of work filling the gaps in between. The year started in Patagonia and since then I’ve spent plenty of time in Scotland and Western Europe. So much travel and work has meant that my climbing has taken a bit of a hit in terms of performance, with long periods of doing little to nothing in the way of climbing and training. The plan for next year is to do more rock climbing whilst trying to keep in better shape when I’m working away from home. I’ve got some exciting expeditions in the pipeline for 2015 and will be spending a lot of the next few months in Scotland so have my fingers crossed for nice weather and good conditions! Below is my 2014 in pictures:
Whilst checking my facebook feed in Yosemite I couldn’t help but notice that all my friends in Chamonix seemed to be running laps on the Grandes Jorasses in what some described as “the best condition I’ve ever seen it in”. Now I’m not one inclined to jealousy but I was jealous; FOMO (fear of missing out) had kicked in and I wanted to join in on the fun! Fortunately for me Tom Livingstone had been trying to persuade me to go to the Alps and with one week free I decided to commit, flying out to Geneva the day after my return from Yosemite.
“Only Brits climb in the Alps in October.” – Dave Rudkin
Although not entirely true, this comment by my friend Dave is not meant as a compliment to Brits. What it really means is that Brits are the only people stupid enough to climb in the Alps when nearly all the cable cars and trains are closed. I couldn’t have planned to come out to the Alps when more of the cable cars were closed. This means long walks from the valley – very long walks. Although I’m not alien to the idea of long approaches to alpine routes I really didn’t want my climbing trip to turn into a Duke of Edinburgh walking expedition.
The forecasts were looking promising when we arrived in Chamonix. There were about five days of reasonable weather forecast and most importantly there was no precipitation due. The winds were forecast to be a little on the strong side and all the locals were warning us about the dreaded foehn winds – they had such a bad reputation you’d have thought they were strong enough to strip the skin from a person rather than the snow from a rock face!
Although the weather wasn’t optimal, we hadn’t come to Chamonix to sit in Elevation shooting the shit, so made the grim hike up to the foot of the Grandes Jorasses on the first day of good weather we had. We felt like we’d pulled it out of the bag. Conditions were perfect. We were bivied 50m from the base of the ‘Desmaison-Gousseault’ and the winds were having negligible effect on the north face. We zipped ourselves up for a good night’s sleep and awoke at 5am to spindrift avalanches coming down the face – it had been snowing heavily for the last four hours and we could barely see the base of our route.
We were left with no choice but to descend back to Chamonix feeling tired and annoyed. To make things worse we saw that our only other chance of climbing in the mountains would be if we headed for the hills again the following day with tired legs. We came to Chamonix intending to try one of three routes. Two of these were on the Grandes Jorasses and I didn’t fancy walking back to the base of the same mountain – as they say, variety is key.
Instead we headed up to the foot of the Aiguille Sans Nom next to the Dru; our goal, to climb the ‘Gabarrou-Silvy’, a classic mixed test piece which goes free at M8+ in winter conditions. We were also joined this time round by Jon Bracey a mountain guide based in Les Houches. I’d heard a bit about how fit Jon was after Gabby had talked about his impressive performances in the ski mountaineering races when he participated a few years earlier. It was great to have him on the team and would make for a sociable ascent.
Once again, the approach to the bivi was a painful state of the affairs with already aching muscles from the previous days walking. Once there we were treated to a particularly pleasant sunset and even had some running water to fill our bottles from as well as a sheltered flat area to put our mats down. I managed to persuade the team that there would be no need for an alpine start (I hate early starts) and that 8am would be a pleasant hour to wake up and approach the foot of the route.
The hour came, as usual, unpleasantly earlier than expected as I felt like I was beginning to finally shed the lingering jetlag from my recent trip to America. We walked to the base of the route and Tom got us started up the first three mixed pitches to the foot of the harder climbing which was a good warm up for what was to come.
I was the only member of the team with a pair or rock shoes and having heard of an earlier ascent using mixed tactics of rock shoes and ice axes it seemed only logical that we should also attempt the route in this highly unusual manner. Unfortunately, it was chuffing cold to be wearing rock shoes!
Having cut myself a ledge in the snow at the foot of the first difficult mixed corner I made the transition from warm mountain boots to freezing rock shoes. I then proceeded to batter the hell out of the cruddy ice in the corner crack so that I could get a good torque with my ice axe and set off up the strenuous pitch. Although strange, I adapted to this new style fairly quickly and on reaching the belay pulled my boots off as quickly as possible – I had a very sharp feeling of hot aches for the next five minutes in my toes whilst they began to thaw out in my warm socks!
I still haven’t worked out whether I pulled the long or the short straw by taking my rock boots up to the route. Having the boots meant that it made sense for me to lead every pitch whilst slowly losing sensation in my toes and getting very pumped, but it did mean that I managed a free ascent and Tom and Jon kindly pulled my rucksack up for me. The climbing was very sustained in difficulty and I only took my gloves off for a short 4m pendulum traverse which would only go free to some technical smearing moves whilst pulling on small crimps.
I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the first day but really happy to have free climbed everything up to the mid height snow slopes. All the mixed climbing had inflamed an infection in the knuckle of my ring finger and I had a great big pussy growth sprouting out from it which was beginning to make it difficult to grip my axe.
Despite the good forecast it proceeded to snow for around twelve hours overnight and into the following morning. Fortunately Jon is made from sterner stuff than us youths and led us up the snow slopes to the base of the icy couloirs in the headwall. Spindrift was pouring down at regular intervals and visibility was down to around 50m. We made the decision to give the headwall a crack despite the conditions and fortunately the weather improved almost immediately. Several hundred metres of very good ice climbing led us to the summit ridge line, just as my calves began to fail me from all the front pointing on ice. The final section to the summit of the Aiguille Verte was particularly painful for me as I’d had too little to eat or drink and I was hitting the wall quickly. Jon and Tom dragged me upwards and a couple of energy gels and some water were enough to revive me enough for the very long descent down the Whymper couloir to the Mer de Glace and thereafter Chamonix.
It was my first visit to Chamonix in October and it’s nice to appreciate the area and the mountains at a quieter time of year when the temperatures are a little less scorching. That said – I am a fan of cable cars and there convenience so might check when the seasonal closures are next time!
One thousand miles of driving in a Citroen C1 is enough to leave anybody’s ears ringing. With an engine that sounds like it has several bee hives powering it and absolutely no air conditioning, the car is made more for fuel efficiency than comfort. Despite its compact size, and various other inconveniences, this car was to be our base for the forthcoming five weeks whilst we travelled to some of the best alpine climbing areas Europe has to offer.
For the first part of the road trip I’d be travelling with Welsh ex-pat Wiz Fineron. Wiz and I went to the same school together when we were both in our early teens before Wiz moved out to New Zealand aged thirteen. In the intervening six years Wiz has gone from strength to strength climbing 8c+ routes and 8B boulder problems with seemingly little effort. He’s currently travelling the world, living, in his own words, the ‘dirtbag’ climbing lifestyle, and whilst he was in Europe it seemed like a good opportunity to hook up for a road trip.
Having travelled and climbed in many of the more popular alpine areas over the previous five summers I felt that this year it would be nice to expand my repertoire and visit some new places. The Ratikön held our primary objective for the trip and after a short stop in France we headed across Switzerland and up into the mountains. It was night time when we made our final approach to the Ratikön and neither of our guidebooks made the slightest mention of the road that would lead us to our base camp. For most people, 7km of driving on a dirt track may sound like fun, a welcome respite after hours on the motorway, but in my Citroen C1 – the Corgi of the car world, I began to shudder at every bump or rock that I saw. After 6.5km of driving and only grounding out on several occasions I thought the lion’s share of the driving was behind us; unfortunately that was when we reached the crux.
A short and uneven steepening of the road marked the beginning of our plight and several attempts at upward progress saw the C1 rapidly retreating to the flat area at the farm building. We knocked on the door of the farm and discovered it would cost us 10CHF if we parked here each night. That was the extra spur of motivation we needed. Wiz got out along with a few heavy bags and the throttle went down. The C1 raced its way up the steep gravel track sliding left and right with wheel spin before finally overcoming the steep section and thereafter the parking area. It felt like a miracle that we’d made it up here with an intact car and we knew we wouldn’t be descending for a while!
We had one route on our agenda for the Ratikön, the classic multi-pitch test piece ‘Silbergeier’ which is renowned for its bold and difficult wall climbing. I’d read about Silbergeier in a magazine soon after starting climbing and had of course seen the classic poster of Pietro del Prà standing, one-footed, on a small edge in the middle of an otherwise blank rock face. It seemed like the perfect goal for this trip not only for me but it would also play to Wiz’s strengths as a first big multi pitch route.
After a heavy rainfall during the night we awoke to blistering heat and our first views of the Ratikön massif. We had the range to ourselves and after a slow start and a heavy breakfast packed our bags and headed up into the mountains. The climbing in the Ratikön lies on the Swiss side of a knife edge ridge which marks the border between Austria and Switzerland. The final approach up the scree is steep and frustrating until you find a good route and this is followed by a further 200m of scrambling up low angled limestone and grass slopes, all of which provide a good cardio vascular warm up for the first 8b pitch.
Your first attempt at Silbergeier is certainly the most memorable. When none of the holds are chalked up and the bolts look particularly distant it takes some will power to commit to hard climbing – well that, or a younger, stronger and fitter climber to send up first! After Wiz led the first 8b pitch we were all set for one of the ‘easiest’ pitches of the route, a 7c+ which I graciously offered to take the lead of. Unfortunately my plan backfired. Not only was this pitch desperate for the grade, but the bolts were spaced for maximum excitement and on the final moves of the pitch, miles to the side of the last bolt and having climbed myself into a knot, I made a leap for the belay seat hanging just above me!
After another tough pitch, followed by a short, run out 7a+ you finally reach the first comfortable belay where you have room to sit down and stretch out in a weather proof cave. We would be spending a lot of time here over the next week and a half as we waited for the weather to improve. Above us lay the final two pitches: the crux 8b+ which tic tacs its way up on small crimps and underclings followed by a tricky 7c+ which boils down to two powerful moves an inconvenient distance away from the last bolt. The route finishes on the jaggedy summit ridge of the Kirchlispitzen and it’s a great feeling ending at the top of something unlike many modern multi pitch routes. From the summit a series of abseils lead you back down to your bags and thereafter the path.
What can be more stereotypically Swiss than the gonging of Cow bells? It’s a sound I have grown accustomed to over previous visits to Switzerland and I even find there effect quite calming. We’d been camping in the Ratikön for about four days when the herd moved in. The smell of pastures new must indeed be strong to be able to draw an excess of 50 cattle alongside our tents at two in the morning. It was like being camped in the central reservation of a motorway!
With diminished sleep we returned to the route several times over the following week to try pitches and get used to the climbing style. Strong Finnish boulderer Nalle Hukkataival was also trying Silbergeier and was making the climbing look relatively easy after a few attempts. He was also staying in the hut which meant he was up and out considerably earlier than a teenager and myself.
One morning we reached the base of the route to find Nalle trying the crux pitch we’d planned to climb that day. Rather than wasting the day we climbed Hannibals Alptraum, an old school classic which was the pre-cursor to Silbergeier. Despite feeling considerably easier than Silbergeier it had some very chunky climbing thrown in on smooth walls that are desperate to on-sight. The bolts are placed at sporting intervals and the moves to reach them are generally very sketchy! On the final pitch we once again endured a hail and a hasty retreat was made back down having not quite repeated this amazing route.
As we tried Silbergeier more I began to realise it would not happen for me on this trip. Although fit enough that I could have red-pointed the individual pitches I was lacking the fitness to free the entire route in a day. It was a real disappointment but I was heartened to know that with a bit of extra fitness I know that Silbergeier is a possibility for the future. For Wiz it was a different story though and we headed back up for him to give the red point a shot.
Conditions were cold and crisp when we arrived at the foot of the climb and Wiz shot up the first 8b pitch without a warm up. Following with cold hands I could barely believe that he could feel his fingers on the small crimps. On the third pitch clouds began to roll upwards and embroil us in thick clag and Wiz had to climb the final few moves in a rain shower. We hid in the cave whilst it bucketed down for over an hour – Wiz sitting Monk like in the haul bag to keep warm, myself shivering but reading a book that I’d thrown in anticipating the change in weather. After a couple of hours the rock was once again dry enough to climb and we continued upwards. The 8b+ pitch was barely dry and Wiz cruised upwards until hit by another fleeting rain shower on the bold final traverse. Unfazed, Wiz gripped harder reaching the next belay and shortly after climbed a very wet final pitch in impressive style. I’ve never seen such a smooth ascent of so difficult a climb in such poor weather!
Having spent so long climbing and sleeping in miserably cold and wet weather we wanted a change of scene and felt like Chamonix was the next logical place to visit to end Wiz’s trip on a high. He’d never worn crampons before or walked on a glacier so found the whole experience quite different. It was also a good opportunity for the wily older climber to get his own back and take Wiz on a roof crack when he’d never climbed a jamming crack in his life. Ma Dalton on the South face of the Midi is a classic and rarely repeated route that has a Yosemite style roof crack on one of its pitches. Unfortunately it’s rather difficult and having underestimated its difficulty my poorly made jamming gloves soon slid off my hands and thereafter my hands from the crack. Hyperventilating somewhat I returned to the belay for another go and we continued upwards with slightly less difficulty after the awkward roof crack.
Wiz headed bouldering to South Africa the following day to go bouldering, perhaps a wise change of scene considering the continuing terrible forecast. The same day I picked Dan Mcmanus up from the airport – a man who is always up for an adventure and an adventure we soon enough had.
Above Sixt in the Aiguille Rouge is a little known and rarely attempted limestone face called the Paroi d’Anterne on the Fiz. I’d heard rumours of the quality of climbing up here but had yet to meet a climber that had experienced it first hand. On our way to the Ratikön Wiz and I decided we would first hone our skills at multi pitch climbing on the amazing sounding Djinn Fiz, a 15 pitch 7c. Unfortunately we underestimated not only the approach bur also the afternoon thunderstorms and after a few amazing and exceedingly technical pitches we descended before possible electrocution.
I was very impressed by this wall though, which is reminiscent of the South face of the Marmolada in the Dolomites. About a mile in length, it only has six routes ascending its flanks and they are all difficult propositions. Feeling confident after my time sliding off crimps in the Ratikön I sold Dan the idea that we should try the hardest route on the face, ‘Les Yeux dans le Bleu’, a 16 pitch 7c+. This time I didn’t make the same mistakes of underestimating the approach or the weather forecast but unfortunately I made the major blooper of expecting the climbing to be reasonable in difficulty. We hadn’t noticed how sustained the climbing was and despite somehow clinging to the crimps and on-sighting the crux 7c and 7c+ pitches we burnt out big time above as 7b pitch followed 7b. A bold 7a+ pitch was the final straw for me and with elbows above my ears and looking as if I was trying to mantel each hold I finally fell off utterly wasted.
Dan was in a similar state of turmoil and despite putting in so much effort we couldn’t face any more climbing on such tired arms – a rapid descent was made. We both agreed that this was one of the best and most difficult walls we had ever tried and the climbing style really doesn’t lend itself to on-sight climbing. To add insult to injury, when we got back to our bags at the foot of the route, we chased off a couple of Marmots and found that they had been eating our bags! There were gaping holes all over them and much of the padding had been thoroughly chewed.
We returned to Chamonix that evening to do a little comfort eating with friends at a pizzeria near the centre. After an enjoyable meal I thought I’d treat myself to desert and thought I’d ordered myself a cake – when an espresso turned up I nearly cried. That was the low point of the trip.
Back to the high mountains we headed, this time to what I considered to be the safe bet of the Grand Capucin which I’ve climbed five times before. After wading through the recent snowfall to its base Dan realised he’d left his rock boots at the tent and hence another day was lost.
After more dismal weather we decided to give the mountains one last go and approached the south face of Aiguille du Fou. It’s a classic alpine wall that I’d been dreaming of climbing for years. I knew that the approach gully required an early start to ensure all the detritus was frozen in place so Dan and I set off suitably early to facilitate success. After climbing a couple of hundred metres up the gully the sun hit the ridge line above and chunks of ice began showering down upon us. As the chunks got bigger we started to feel like targets at a firing range. Clearly we weren’t early enough and once again retreat was made. We were done with the Alps and its crappy weather and conditions!
When bad weather hits the Alps you are inevitably forced southwards to drier and sunnier climates. The Verdon was our final destination and finally it seemed we had struck lucky. Despite the time of year, conditions were perfect for climbing in the gorge – it was overcast and windy. We also met up with some friends for sociable camp scenes and got thrashed by the locals at table football every evening at the local bar.
Dan and I decided to go for El Topo, an amazing looking 8a big wall in the gorge to the left of the classic chimney line La Demande. After checking out the final few crux pitches we felt well prepared and even quite optimistic about going for a one day free ascent. After a rest day, we awoke to glorious weather and made an early start from the bottom of the gorge. The entire route was in the sun and the forgiving breeze of the previous days had disappeared. To cut a long story short, two gingers, climbing in the sun, in the Verdon, in the middle of summer was a bad idea. After six pitches 6a felt like the living end of difficulty and our feet and hands had were throbbing and swelling with the heat. We abseiled to the ground and made the walk of shame out of the bottom of the gorge, treating ourselves to ice cream to help cheer us up.
Sometimes, weather and conditions just get in the way of climbing, as do high ambitions. After five weeks spent in the Alps and Verdon I could count my list of successful climbs on a single hand. We were on such a losing streak that we expected something to go wrong every time we went climbing and that mentality isn’t useful for making upward progress. On the bright side the C1 had made it through the trip and what’s more I’d only had a single flat tyre. Maybe the weather will be better next summer? Maybe I should just take up bouldering?
Looking back over two months spent in Patagonia I realise that I haven’t covered as much ground as I might usually on a long climbing trip. In fact, most of the ground I did cover was probably between the cafes and restaurants in El Chalten. I didn’t make it up any major Patagonian summits, didn’t repeat a single route in the area and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on two fairly significant first ascents. Yet, despite receiving a good kicking from the Patagonian weather, I still had a great time and would return at the drop of a hat given the opportunity.
Patagonia is a truly wonderful area. Around the mountains of Fitzroy and Paine is some of the best trekking I’ve ever come across. Old woodlands, bright blue lakes as well as a wild and remote feel despite their relative popularity. The wildlife is also unique and fascinating – Pink Flamingos, Skunks, Condors, Guanacos and Woodpeckers. For climbers, these are all packed into the approach to some of the best alpine climbing on the planet. Despite the popularity of this area amongst alpinists there is still so much yet to be done. Some summits remain unclimbed, many rock faces await first ascents and hundreds of brilliant routes are still waiting to be free climbed.
Our recent trip ended in slight disappointment. After another long approach and careful preparations for climbing, the weather decided that it didn’t want to follow the forecast. A heavy snowfall lasted until late morning and spindrift was pouring down our objective for the day – a second attempt at the unclimbed icy gully system on the East face of the Mermoz. All we could do was turn round and soak up the Patagonian environment one last time before our long journey home.
We didn’t get the chance to try the Compressor Route up Cerro Torre, or to complete a second new mixed route, but we now know the potential of the area and that, given a little bit of good weather, the rewards you can take home could be huge. Patagonia I’ll be back – but next time, please can I have a little more sunshine!
After consuming many steaks, waffles, brownies and pancakes, Windguru, our weather forecasting website, showed signs of a weather window opening up. El Chalten suddenly turns into a bustling town when the forecast improves. The shops are full of climbers purchasing chocolates and biscuits and people suddenly have another subject to discuss other than how bad the weather is: where are you heading over the next few days?
Dave and I decided that the East face of Poincenot looked like it had some good objectives. Good rock climbs that awaited free ascents and also potential for variations or new routes to their sides. We also had a backup plan of several mixed routes, existing and new, in case the temperature was a bit low on the nearby Mermoz. So far it seems that the most flexible plans will be the ones that have the highest success rate and being prepared for several eventualities might mean carrying more equipment but will also increase your odds of getting up something.
Our approach was in full view of Poincenot and Fitzroy and provided a stunning outlook despite the fact we could see just how far we had to walk. The trail is also popular amongst walkers and justifiably so as the old woodlands and lakes are lovely to walk through and alongside. We were heading towards the high camp of Paso Superior but when we reached the glacier in the early afternoon it was covered in small, slushy avalanches and we decided to make the longer walk in early the following morning. We also met some climbers descending from Paso Superior and they told us that the current conditions were good if you liked either freezing rock or slushy ice climbing in strong winds. Not what we had hoped for!
After a brief breakfast we were away at 3.30am and making the long slog up to Paso Superior. It was a sweaty walk with heavy bags and I felt like I was in the worst physical condition I’d been in for the whole trip. Once we reached Paso Superior we were treated to a stunning sunrise but clouds quickly shrouded the East face of Poincenot destroying our hopes of free climbing. We headed over to the Mermoz and climbed up to a long steep gully line that Dave had spotted as being unclimbed in the guidebook. The gully had an almost continuous line of ice down it and looked like an amazing proposition.
Dave got us underway and unfortunately for me the second pitch was a steep wide corner crack with very little for your feet. A gave the pitch a go, heaving away on tin opener hook placements, but was soon spat off taking a short fall. Feeling exhausted and unlikely to make a clean ascent, I handed the lead over to Dave who made steady progress upwards and reached easier ground and the next belay.
Despite its modest appearance the following pitch was a scary grovel over an ice bulge on disintegrating ice followed by a thin slab and paved the way to a continuous thin ice runnel no wider than half a foot in places. The climbing remained sustained, with strenuous bulges to overcome every so often, but it was absolutely fantastic. We couldn’t believe our luck at finding another awesome new route to try. We were both knackered though, even starting to fall asleep on some of the belays until our energy gels perked us up. Dave knocked a big piece of ice into his face whilst leading one pitch and he then had the misfortune of looking up when I knocked one down on the following pitch.
By mid-afternoon the route was back in the shade and the ice was hardening up again. Dave set off on a clearly desperate but well protected crack and continued up to a steep wall above. After several attempts Dave lowered back down to the belay, not keen to go for the lead without spectres or ice screws to protect him. Both feeling exhausted we decided to descend. When we reached the glacier below we realised just how close we were to easier ground – maybe only twenty metres. If we’re granted another good spell of weather we’re hoping to give the route another shot but given the fact I’m now in bed with a cold, I’m hoping that won’t be for another few days!
Dave and I arrived in Patagonia on the first of January looking forward to climbing some of the best granite towers on the planet. When we arrived in El Chalten though we learnt that the weather over the preceding month had been terrible; very little had been climbed and resident Patagonian alpinists were saying the mountains were looking the whitest they’d ever seen them.
Unfortunately, this is bad news for us. Our hopes are to climb the Compressor Route (or South-East Ridge) of Cerro Torre free and on the two occasions we’ve seen the summit the route looks like it’s plastered with snow. In fact, whilst bouldering a few days ago, we bumped into David Lama, the first and only free ascentionist of the Compressor Route who told us “not to bother this season”. This, alongside the negative mood of many climbers in town, is what we’d feared and hoped would not happen. Apparently El Ninõ is in a different place to usual this year and that Patagonia is caught between two weather fronts. This could be true, or it might be the case that after two irregularly good summer seasons the weather has returned to its ‘full on’ normality. Despite all this, the weather in Patagonia is so unpredictable that the Compressor Route may yet come into condition. All it needs is a few days of sunshine to shed its snow…
Fortunately El Chalten is a really nice place to spend time. The pace of life is about as laid back as the internet connection here (I’ll leave you to guess…) and there are plenty of nice cafes and restaurants to enjoy, ‘La Chocolateria’ and ‘La Waffleria’ being my favourite haunts. There’s also some great bouldering, reasonable sport climbing and plenty of trails to go running along.
After about eight days of ‘relaxed living’ windguru gave us a promising weather window and after studying the guidebook we came up with a number of plans ranging from summer lines to mixed routes. We decided to head round the back of the range to the high camp of Piedra Negra which gives access to the back of Fitzroy Guillaumet and Poincenot leaving us with plenty of options.
We ended up finding a bivi spot just beneath Piedra Negra under a boulder and below the snow line. It was blowing a hooly, trekkers were turning back from the Col due to deep snow and we had almost given up hope of climbing the following day. We woke up at a relaxed hour (there’s 18 hours of daylight here in the summer) to blue skies and no wind so began the long slog up to the col. We were intending to climb on the Mermoz and attempt either ‘Vol de Nuit’ or a new line further right but after digging an avalanche pit decided that walking down the loaded slopes would be a bad idea. Instead we looked straight above us and on the right hand side of Guillaumet was an impressive wall with rimed up cracks all over and solid granite. We knew no information about this section of wall having left the guidebook behind but we suspected it was unclimbed.
After a short and very easy intro pitch we arrived at a thin runnel of snow and ice leading up a corner. Dave took the lead and despite its modest appearance it felt pretty thin near the top, torquing in a parallel sided crack. The following pitch was thin and sustained starting up twin cracks before a thin traverse left to an awkward section of groove. I felt pretty chuffed when I got to the top of this having not pulled on an ice axe since last winter. After another couple of great, sustained pitches, we arrived at what we expected to be easy ground, only for Dave to go round the corner and discover that the route wasn’t yet in the bag.
Dave headed upwards out of sight and I patiently paid out rope expecting this pitch to take a while but before long, I was following Dave up an amazing pitch. Consecutive moves on stein pulls (wedging the axes in upside down) followed by pulling over onto a thin ice covered slab which only just had enough ice on it to make it possible.
We were very fortunate to have found such a great line. It could easily have been too difficult, or a bit of a pushover, but what we found felt like the right level of difficulty and length for the day. It would be a classic in Chamonix! Altogether the route weighed in at Scottish grade VIII 8 (technical grades: 3, 6, 8, 7, 8, 8). There’s no mention of the route in the relatively new comprehensive guide so we’re assuming we made a first ascent, or at least a first winter conditions ascent.
Hopefully the next weather window will bring as good a route!
2013 has been a great year for me. Lots of travelling, stacks of climbing and amazing weather (with one notable exception!). Rather than writing an account of all the best moments I’ve selected a photo from each month and added a sentence or two with each one as an explanation. Enjoy!
I spent the New Year and the first part of January in the Setesdal Valley of Norway; a spectacular ice climbing area although a bit on the warm side whilst we were there!
After a great sport climbing trip to Siurana in Spain I headed back to North Wales feeling fit and enjoyed some great days out on the sea cliffs of Gogarth.
I spent the whole of March in Chamonix learning to ski and made my first, aborted attempt to climb a very snowy North Face of the Eiger.
April was an amazing month. The weather and conditions were just incredible! On one day I went skiing down Glyder Fach at first light, climbed an E6 at Gogarth, did some instructing in the afternoon and then ice climbed by head torch in the evening!
With the continuing good weather I spent loads of time trad climbing in the mountains of North Wales and climbed a bunch of routes I’d been hoping to try for a long time.
More time spent climbing in the mountains climbing with James Mchaffie and co and the first trips up to Cloggy.
After a great quick trip to Hoy in Scotland I returned home and jumped on the send train for an ascent of the ‘Indian Face’.
August was spent in the Alps. After some fun climbing around Chamonix I met up with Dave Macleod and we climbed ‘Paciencia’ on the North Face of the Eiger – a fantastic route and a great experience.
After our short lived attempt on ‘Bellavista’ at the end of August Dave returned to finish it off in September. Unfortunately I just had lots of work to do!
I became an MIA at the beginning of the month and then headed out to a very windy Torres del Paine in Patagonia!
Our trip to Patagonia was thwarted by bad weather but we had a good crack and got to the top of the wall of the south face of the South Tower of Paine.
December isn’t over yet! I’m off to Scotland next week and then to Patagonia with Dave Macleod on the 31st to attempt to make a free ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre – really looking forward to this one!
I’ve also made a couple of changes with my sponsors this month. Having been sponsored by DMM for four years it’s with a heavy heart that I say thanks for all the help and goodbye. I’m now joining the Black Diamond team and am really looking forward to working with such a well respected company that have such a great product range. I’m also very happy to be combining two of my great passions – climbing and eating, with my other new sponsor Clif Bar. Hopefully my sweet tooth won’t lead me down the path of obesity! On top of this I’m also really happy to be joining Shauna Coxsey, Fran Brown, Molly Thompson-Smith, Hazel Findlay, Steve Mcclure and James Mchaffie as a BMC Ambassador. The BMC have done a huge amount of work in Britain helping access to the hills and climbing areas as well as improving access to the sport; it’ll be great to support them through 2014.
Here’s to hoping next year will be just as good as this one!
Back in June this year, Jerry Gore got in touch asking me whether I’d be interested in an expedition to Patagonia to attempt the first ascent of the unclimbed south face of the South Tower of Paine. Patagonia is a place I’ve always wanted to visit and there was no way I could turn down such a great opportunity. I booked flights soon after and eagerly anticipated the date of departure.
The team for the expedition comprised of myself, Mike ‘Twid’ Turner, Jerry Gore and French camera man Raphael Jochaud. After a long journey we finally arrived in Torres del Paine national park only we were one French man short! We made the pleasant trek into the impressive Bader Valley accompanied by Mules carrying a month’s worth of cereal bars and noodles and set up base camp. The following day Raphael joined us and the team was ready to move up the valley.
Setting up advanced base camp was fairly involved in 60mph winds. After digging up some walls of snow against an overhung boulder we thought we’d created a fairly sheltered spot to put up a tent. I started putting the tent up from the inside and was soon waiting for Twid and Jerry to tie it down, when an almighty gust came, lifting the tent up, with me inside, and blowing it over into the boulder field. Now lying on my back, I hung on to a boulder with one hand and the tent for dear life with the other, until the wind abated enough to flip the tent back into its alcove. We hastily weighed the tent down with bags and rocks and were soon brewing up inside the meek fabric shelter.
After a few days of ferrying gear up to advanced base camp in exceptionally strong winds, we were ready to start climbing. I set off with Twid up the slabby apron which skirts the base of the wall. The temperatures were sub-zero and snow covered all the holds but we both knew it would be much easier and faster to free climb the lower slabs. I teetered onto a small ledge and donned tight fitting rock shoes before climbing the relatively easy but bold first pitch. As I arrived at the belay I realised that I had very little sensation left in any of my toes and when I took the rock boots off the blood rushed back in giving me some horrendous pins and needles. After another pitch we reached the ridgeline and over the other side was the impressive Central Tower of Paine towering over the glacier below.
Unfortunately the poor weather returned and progress over the following week was very slow in the cold winds and occasional wintery showers. Twid pulled out a couple of impressive leads on harder aid pitches and I ardently donned my rock boots as often as possible, although much of the time my fingertips were just too cold to grip the granite edges for long.
After days of slow progress in bad weather, through the area of the poorest quality granite, Raphael and I were finally greeted with a nice, if a little chilly day. We made good progress managing several pitches with a mixture of free and aid climbing and finally reached the intriguing black line of rock that is evident in the pictures of the face. The black rock is actually a band of diorite, or something similar, and is really loose.
At this point we had about seven days left of our expedition and we were pretty close to the summit with only a few pitches left and then a scramble to the summit. Unfortunately in Patagonia though, nothing is a foregone conclusion! We encountered a week of awful weather, with winds constantly ranging between 60 and 100mph. We tried to climb every day and quite literally inched our way up the wall. On our final day of climbing we had only two short vertical pitches left as well as perhaps 150m of scrambling and after battling poor conditions we were finally stopped by strong winds and blustery snow showers as we reached the top of the wall proper. In those conditions it felt a little unjustifiable to continue upwards and descending was difficult enough. After a very long abseil descent we finally reached the small patch of glacier below and in the short distance between the wall and the boulder field we actually walked into a white out as the weather worsened.
We’d failed to reach the summit but had a great adventure climbing the wall. During our 18 days up at ABC we had only two days of good weather and temperatures were consistently sub-zero. The route would certainly go free in better weather and as it stands our ascent had aid climbing up to around A3+ in difficulty and 6c+ in free climbing although one pitch was managed with several rests at about 7b+. Torres del Paine and in particular the Bader valley are places I’d love to go back to as the climbing potential out there is unbelievable and throughout our whole time in the area we were the only climbers in the national park! Thanks to the guys for a great trip and I’m already getting excited about heading back out to Patagonia in January with sights set on Cerro Torre…