Category Archives: Skiing

Planning for the Future

Ally Swinton heading along the ridge from the summit of Castor in the Pennine Alps. Photo - Calum Muskett

Ally Swinton heading along the ridge from the summit of Castor in the Pennine Alps. Photo – Calum Muskett

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 ploughing through deep powder whilst navigating on a compass. Photo - Calum Muskett

Jamie ploughing through deep powder whilst navigating on a compass. Photo – Calum Muskett

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!

Two small skiers in the amazing landscape of the Gran Paradiso National Park. Photo - Calum Muskett

Two small skiers in the amazing landscape of the Gran Paradiso National Park. Photo – Calum Muskett


The summit of Gran Paradiso

The summit of Gran Paradiso

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.

Heading up Mont Blanc via the Gouter route. Photo - Calum Muskett

Heading up Mont Blanc via the Gouter route. Photo – Calum Muskett


Gabby skinning up Mont Blanc with Aiguille du Midi in the background. Photo - Calum Muskett

Gabby skinning up Mont Blanc with Aiguille du Midi in the background. Photo – Calum Muskett

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!

Gabby skiing down the Breithorn. Photo - Calum Muskett

Gabby skiing down the Breithorn. Photo – Calum Muskett


Skiing in the Pennine Alps. Photo - Calum Muskett

Skiing in the Pennine Alps. Photo – Calum Muskett

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!

Climbers on the second ice field. Photo - Calum Muskett

Climbers on the second ice field. Photo – Calum Muskett

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.

Heading up the second pitch of the Direct version of the Dru Couloir. Photo - Ally Swinton

Heading up the second pitch of the Direct version of the Dru Couloir. Photo – Ally Swinton


Ally Swinton having just climbed the final difficult pitch of the Dru Couloir Direct. Photo - Calum Muskett

Ally Swinton having just climbed the final difficult pitch of the Dru Couloir Direct. Photo – Calum Muskett


Heading up the final section of the Dru Couloir. Photo - calum Muskett

Heading up the final section of the Dru Couloir. Photo – calum Muskett

Another Brush with Bad Weather

Blair skinning up Aonach Mor. Photo - Calum Muskett

Blair skinning up Aonach Mor. Photo – Calum Muskett

Having returned from Patagonia I felt like a bit of respite from bad weather was needed – unfortunately though, I was heading straight up to Scotland. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent parts of very sunny summer holidays in Scotland in the past I have only ever experienced heavy rain and snow in the winter time and spent a considerable amount of time shivering in howling winds. Several months ago I booked onto my winter mountain leader assessment with Plas y Brenin who are based up in Alltshellach during their winter season. For this reason I decided to travel up five days early and get up into the hills prior to my assessment.

Blair digging an avalanche pit to check out the snow pack. Photo - Calum Muskett

Blair digging an avalanche pit to check out the snow pack. Photo – Calum Muskett


Making tea Scottish style. Photo - Calum Muskett

Making tea Scottish style. Photo – Calum Muskett

The one positive part of the bad weather was that the snow was brilliant for skiing on. Great soft powder on top of a good base level of snow meant that all the rocks were covered and conditions were prime for ski touring. On my first day out I headed into the Grey Corries from just above Spean Bridge for an excellent ski tour but one that was also marred by bad weather. I learnt that skiing in a whiteout is difficult and that navigating whilst skiing in a whiteout is even more difficult. I had another couple of days on my skis and then headed out with Dr Snow (aka Blair Fyffe) to learn a little bit more about avalanches.

Blair works for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) and heads out most days to check out snow conditions and give an avalanche forecast for Lochaber or Glen Coe. It was interesting looking at what information Blair used to help him understand the avalanche risks, especially given that this winter the quantity of snow that has accumulated above 700 metres is outrageous. The CIC hut on Ben Nevis is virtually buried!

After a few days of playing about in the bad weather I started my assessment with Plas y Brenin. It’s funny doing an assessment or training with PYB as I know most of the instructors so well. I worked for the domestic team of PYB at Capel Curig for almost five years whilst at school as well as for a while afterwards and often go out climbing with the instructors and guides who live nearby. The good thing with courses delivered by PYB is that you’ll always get up to date instruction and carefully considered feedback delivered by some very enthusiastic climbers or paddlers.

The first couple of days look at the more technical components of the winter mountain leader award such as the teaching of simple and safe winter hill walking skills as well as looking at how to self arrest and emergency ropework to get out of sticky situations. The final three days of the assessment comprises of a three day expedition which involves lots of navigation and a couple of nights in a snow-hole.

A rare break in the clouds on Stob Coire nan Lochan. Photo - Calum Muskett

A rare break in the clouds on Stob Coire nan Lochan. Photo – Calum Muskett


Building the perfect snowman - an important element of the winter mountain leader syllabus. Photo - Calum Muskett

Building the perfect snowman – an important element of the winter mountain leader syllabus. Photo – Calum Muskett

The first part of the assessment went very smoothly, some poor weather but nothing out of the ordinary for Scotland at this time of year. On the third day we headed into the hills above Bridge of Orchy and dug a fairly large snow-hole which we were quite happy to spend plenty of time in. Unfortunatley by this point the weather had begun to worsen, it was beginning to blizzard outside and snow was being blown into our hole. Our night navigation exercise was cut short after the situation got a little too ‘real’ to be much fun and when we got back to the snow hole the entrance had to be completely dug out. My alarm was set for every couple of hours and we had a rota set up so that somebody would wake up and dig snow out of the entrance. Unfortunately it had been snowing more than we’d expected and there was eventually somebody out digging every 45 minutes and even between those intervals we were being sealed in by the snow. At 3.30am a large cornice began to build up over the entrance of our hole and the ceiling of our hole seemed to be a few inches lower, presumably because of the extra weight above. We evacuated our snow-hole and headed down to the train station at Bridge of Orchy for a couple of hours kip.

The snow-hole. Photo - Calum Muskett

The snow-hole. Photo – Calum Muskett

After another bleary eyed day of navigating and hill walking we were back at Alltshellach for our final course de-brief. We’d both passed our assessment which meant that our horrendous night in a snow-hole wasn’t a total waste of time and I can now try and avoid any more bad weather at home until Spring brings with it some sunshine!

2013

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!

January

Andy Turner ice climbing in Setesdal. Photo- Calum Muskett

Andy Turner ice climbing in Setesdal. Photo- Calum Muskett

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!

February

Mina climbing 'La Cara Que No Miente' 8a+ in Siurana. Photo- Calum Muskett

Mina climbing ‘La Cara Que No Miente’ 8a+ in Siurana. Photo- Calum Muskett

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.

March

Skiing down the Vallee Blanche. Photo- Calum Muskett

Skiing down the Vallee Blanche. Photo- Calum Muskett

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

Skiing in the Carneddau. Photo- Jamie Holding

Skiing in the Carneddau. Photo- Jamie Holding

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!

May

Climbing 'Daisy World' E7 6c. Photo- Ed Booth

Climbing ‘Daisy World’ E7 6c. Photo- Ed Booth

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.

June

George Ullrich on-sighting  'Authentic Desire' E7 6b, on Cloggy. Photo- Calum Muskett

George Ullrich on-sighting ‘Authentic Desire’ E7 6b, on Cloggy. Photo- Calum Muskett

More time spent climbing in the mountains climbing with James Mchaffie and co and the first trips up to Cloggy.

July

George Ullrich leading the 'Indian Face' E9 6c. Photo- Calum Muskett

George Ullrich leading the ‘Indian Face’ E9 6c. Photo- Calum Muskett

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

Leading the crux pitch of 'Paciencia' 8a, on the North Face of the Eiger. Photo- Alexandre Buisse

Leading the crux pitch of ‘Paciencia’ 8a, on the North Face of the Eiger. Photo- Alexandre Buisse

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.

September

Dave Macleod on the crux pitch of 'Bellavista' 8c on Cima Ovest. Photo- Calum Muskett

Dave Macleod on the crux pitch of ‘Bellavista’ 8c on Cima Ovest. Photo- Calum Muskett

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!

October

Twid walking down the Bader valley in Patagonia. Photo- Calum Muskett

Twid walking down the Bader valley in Patagonia. Photo- Calum Muskett

I became an MIA at the beginning of the month and then headed out to a very windy Torres del Paine in Patagonia!

November

Twid hanging out on the lower slabs of 'Wall of Paine'. Photo- Calum Muskett

Twid hanging out on the lower slabs of ‘Wall of Paine’. Photo- Calum Muskett

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

Cerro Torre. Photo- Tim Neil

Cerro Torre. Photo- Tim Neil

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!

Riding the planks

Francis Blunt shredding in the Aiguille Rouge. Photo- Calum Muskett

Francis Blunt shredding in the Aiguille Rouge. Photo- Calum Muskett

I’ve wanted to learn to ski for years now, having always been a fan of the world cup ski events that were once broadcast on the welsh TV channel S4C in the early hours of Sunday mornings. I guess I’d never really had the opportunity of a ski trip when I was younger and in the last few years I’ve been so keen to go climbing that I’ve never put money aside for a ski trip.

This winter, however, I finally committed to spending a month in the Alps with sights firmly set on skiing and alpine climbing. Alpine ambitions fell at the wayside, along with sustained periods of good weather, whilst skiing opportunities grew and grew as the snow moved in and the ‘pow’ arrived.

It’s been a long while since I learnt a new sport and I’d forgotten the enjoyment, frustration and satisfaction that comes with it. My first few days (well the whole month really) were mainly spent on my backside, cursing the schools of little ski ninjas who seemed to be able to come out of nowhere and trip you over. Soon enough I developed a dodgy, kamikaze ski style (straight lines) and I felt confident enough on my second day to attempt to ski down the Argentiere glacier. So I departed early from Argentiere with Ben Alsford and skinned up to and along the glacier before beginning my descent, much to his amusement and the horror of other skiers who undoubtedly expected me to plummet into a crevasse!

Ben Alsford laughing after seeing me fall over... again! Photo- Calum Muskett

Ben Alsford laughing after seeing me fall over… again! Photo- Calum Muskett

Feeling embarrassed and dejected I tried to keep a low profile only for Leanne Callaghan to find me and talk me into taking part in a ski mountaineering race. Obviously I’ve got ‘gullible’ written all over my forehead and I naively agreed that it would be a fun event to take part in. The race was two weeks away; plenty of time, I thought, to convert running fitness into skiing prowess.

It wasn’t just riding two planks of wood that I had to learn though; skiing seems to have its own vocabulary. I felt a little like Johnny Utah in Point Break trying to fit in with the cool kids, erm, bra. From pow pow and freshies to steeps and gnar: I’m not really sure where I stand with all this, climbers obviously aren’t cool at all!

Team RAF: Andy, Dyl and Joey joined me out in Les Houches and Andy kindly made me feel better about my skiing by falling over just as much. We had some good days out touring with descents of the awesome Vallee Blanche as well as over the Aiguille Rouge and different cols above the Argentiere glacier.

The Vallee Blanche. Photo- Calum Muskett

The Vallee Blanche. Photo- Calum Muskett


Andy and Dyl taking things seriously! Photo- Calum Muskett

Andy and Dyl taking things seriously! Photo- Calum Muskett

After team RAF left I joined team skimo (ski mountaineers, if you, like me, have no idea what abbreviations stand for).Team skimo comprised of Jon, Ben, Ben and Misha- a rather fit bunch of ski Jedi’s. I tagged along with their plan for a tour up a Swiss peak called Le Genepi. The sun was baking hot as we slogged up towards the summit and when we got there I realised that a 45° slope is steeper than a green run on the piste. Quaking in my bright orange boots I decided to get some photo’s of the other guys descending first and with terror in my eyes followed them down with little grace or style. On the descent I managed to snap an already dud ski in some deep powder and got a very tired left leg as I balanced my way down to the car!

Ben Tibbetts descending Le Genepi. Photo- Calum Muskett

Ben Tibbetts descending Le Genepi. Photo- Calum Muskett


Ben Bardsley descending Le Genepi. Photo- Calum Muskett

Ben Bardsley descending Le Genepi. Photo- Calum Muskett

The race day soon caught up with us and having been prepped by Jon I felt ready to give the race a crack. The start of the race was quite exciting as a flock of skis and poles got thrown around and having made a bit of a sprint to get into a reasonable position I promptly fell over on a suspiciously flat stretch of snow and got overtaken by everybody again. If I’m honest I found the race slightly frustrating- it’s similar to a triathlon but more things can go wrong! My kick-turns were pretty sloppy and my uphill technique went to pot whenever the slope went beyond a certain angle. Having borrowed Jon’s tiny race skis I found the descents desperate and when I finished the race I looked a little bit like the abominable snowman having stacked it on multiple occasions! Jon won the men’s race to become the British champion and Gabby took the honours in the women’s race.

I returned from the Alps a few days ago to a very wintery North Wales. I had an awesome ski in the Carneddau mountains but have since knocked a big chunk of ice into my face whilst ice climbing- my verdict is that skiing is more enjoyable than winter climbing!

Jamie Holding enjoying the snow in the Carneddau. Photo- Calum Muskett

Jamie Holding enjoying the snow in the Carneddau. Photo- Calum Muskett


Enjoying the steep descent from Carnedd Llywelyn. Photo- Jamie Holding

Enjoying the steep descent from Carnedd Llywelyn. Photo- Jamie Holding