Timing is everything.
Alaska had been on my horizon all winter, an agreement between my partner Roeland and myself that we would share an adventure further afield on a big mountain in the Spring.
On my horizon but just slightly out of sight, as Alpine Arc and skiing across the Alps had dominated all my time both in organising the project and then in leading it. Roeland agreed to plan the project entirely, allowing me to just say yes.
So I said yes in 2014, several months before the start of a very busy winter and at the time I firmly meant it.
In April, after prolongued report writing closing down Exercise Alpine Arc, combined with a vague feeling that I just needed time sat under a tree (reading a book and listening to the wind blow softly through the branches above me...), I was not prepared for the physical and mental rigour demanded by a big trip to a cold snowy mountain. The timing, for me, was terrible.
Nevertheless Roeland and I travelled to Alaska with the hope of getting the weather and conditions which would allow us a shot at the famous South Ridge of Denali; the Cassin route.
That first week of acclimatising, dragging sleds across many kilometers of glacier, battling through wind and snow, digging in camps, building snow-block walls, shovelling out the tent, peeing into a bottle above my sleeping bag, emptying said pee-bottles, shitting into bags in a can and sleeping constrained within my sleeping bag in a frost lined tent... and I wasn't ready for it.
I wasn't in the right state of mind to have to put the effort in, and considerable effort was required; is required just to survive out on the glacier, let alone climb a 2500m technical climb to a summit over 6000m.
I felt guilty at having said yes to Roeland, to a project that I wasn't in the right state of mind for. I certainly wasn't the best climbing partner for him at the start and I was accutely aware that I had let him down.
The first week passed and we'd made good progress, established a camp at 14,000ft and reccing the fixed lines before a couple of bad weather days set in with 90kph winds and several feet of new snow. I spent the morning of my birthday wrapped in the cosy warmth of my sleeping bag listening to the wind howling outside the tent as Roeland galliantly did the first round of snow shovelling. Preventing us being entirely entombed in a snowdrift. Later I managed to rouse myself and take my turn... :)
After a few days settled in at 14 000ft and some days reading books, chatting and eating, whiling away the bad weather (and not hauling a heavy sled uphill on my bruised hips) I began to feel more content and happier to be there. Then finally we gained a break in the weather and the stunning scenery and sheer grandeur of the place began to take a hold... and I started to feel more motivated and better about being there and our chances of success on the mountain. Roeland never stopped believing that we could do it, and also that we could climb the route fast, in a single push. His faith and thorough planning helped me start to believe as well...
The satellite weather forecast that Roeland had arranged told us that we had four good days of weather coming up and then aother, bigger storm which would probably mean the end of our chances at climbing the Cassin ridge during the time we had available. It was now or never.
I was very sure that I wanted to have already summitted by the West Buttress route and stored the route on my GPS just in case we ended up having to come off the mountain from the summit in poor visibility after the route. This would also help our acclimatisation, which would be crutial in our plan to climb the route in one go. Clearly that meant that we'd have to be very careful how we used those four days! So we decided that the first day we would leave as much gear as possible, including the rope and go fast and light from 14,000ft to the summit and back in a day. Then we would be able to use the second good weather day to rest, eat and dry out any gear. The third day we could then use to approach the base of the climb down the West Rib and Seattle '72 cutoff, and the fourth day we would climb the Cassin.
A tight schedule but possible... so we decided to go for it.
Our first climb to the summit on the West Buttress went very smoothly. Most people on the route seemed to be waiting for the middle of the good weather window and so very few people summitted on the first day of this period- which meant we had the summit practically to ourselves. Sharing it with one other US Guide who had ascended on skis just after us. We were back in the 14,000ft camp for dinner that night, feeling a little tired but both having felt good at the summit with no acclimatisation problems.
Two Austrian aspirant Guides camped next to us had left that afternoon to walk into the Cassin and we knew that by the end of our "rest" day the next day they should come back from their own single-day push on the route and we'd be able to get lots of info about conditions from them.
A immensely enjoyable lie in the next day followed by a n easy day in the sunshine and relative warmth of a 14,000ft camp without wind followed. Finally at around 8pm the Austrians returned, tired but happy with a successful 20hr ascent of the Cassin under their belts. They reported a good track in place and several of the bivvi sites (at the base and at the end of the cowboy arete) already having been dug out by a team engaged on a four day ascent and currently at the cowboy arete camp.
This was great news and very reassuring. With good conditions and a track we were more confident that we could climb it relatively fast. My two remaining concerns then became how difficult the downclimb of the West Rib and Seattle '72 ramp would be and if the bad weather would come in early...
Midday on the third good weather day of our 4-day window, Sunday 3rd May, Roeland and I left 14,000ft camp with light(ish) sacks and a weather forecast that confirmed we had until 10am local time Tuesday 5th May to be down before another storm would hit the mountain.
In addition to our technical climbing gear we took sleeping bags and a sleeping mat each, 2x250g gas cannisters, an MSR reator stove and pan set, and 2 Dehydrated main meals each. No tent, no bivvibag... and a bigger sense of commitment than I've ever had on any of my big Alpine North Face routes in the Alps...
By 4.30pm we were relaxing in the sunshine on a bivii platform at the base of the Japanese couloir. Relaxing.... hmmm.....
The base doesn't go into the shade until about 9pm, when some of the sun's heat is blocked out by the West Rib, but the light remains. Roeland had planned to set off at midnight and sleep for a few hours at the base, but once I was there, at the base of such a famous route... I started to feel the nerves that so often accompany an endeavour where you are taking a calculated risk.
I have several very talented friends who have climbed the Cassin Ridge before and I knew that it had taken them several long days and bivouacs to complete the climb... here I was with Roeland daring to try to climb it in a day. I confess to feeling too nervous to sleep. I insisted we set off earlier... as soon as the couloir was properly in the shade... at 9pm.
In hindsight it would have been better to wait. Without sleep we effective strung two days together and hit a tiredness barrier later in the climb which was worse than just physical fatigue. We're both convinced now that a few hours sleep at the base would have made a huge difference to our speed in the latter stages of the climb.
At 9pm we set off... through the Japanese couloir with the technical crux of the climb and the only pitch of steep ice, past the Cassin ledge, the striking and memorable cowboy arete to our first pause in the small hours of the morning at the bivvi-site at the end of the arete. We both had something to eat and drink and a little chat, I put on another layer as the cold was beginning to slowly seep through to my core and my hands and feet were cold...then we set off again.
The first rock band... the second rock band... the promised good weather proved to be offset by a cold wind much stronger than forecast and we both felt the pressure to keep moving to keep warm...
Finally the sun hit the face late morning and we began to worry less about the cold. At the top of the difficulties the tiredness hit us and we both felt we needed to sleep a little before we continued. We made a platform and took two-hours to doze and melt more water before continuing onto the upper slopes. We began to slow down...
The climbing is nowhere very difficult, but it's serious terrain and often icy and exposed, particualry to the wind which was bitterly cold that day. It's the first time that I have been wearing all the clothes with nothing else in my rucksack and been unable to properly feel my feet... knowing surely that if the wind picks up any more or it gets any colder then I could very quickly be in serious trouble.
I felt.... committed. Out there... more than on any other climb I have completed. I had made a decision and there was only one sensible exit strategy now... and that was to keep climbing and be off the mountain before 10am on Tuesday the 5th May; before the bad weather returned.
The endless upper slopes drained both our energies but my drive to be off the mountain helped me set a steady pace for us both. Every now and then I would rest my head against the snow and accept that it was beginning to feel like I could fall asleep whilst climbing.... not an entirely advisable course of action on the summit slopes below Kalhitna horn. Finally I began to recognise the summit ridge we'd climbed much more easily only two-days before.... we were almost there!
Working together and keeping a steady pace we crested Kalhitna horn at 7.30pm on Monday 4th May. Tired.... empty... cold... probably a little dehydrated but immensely happy. We headed quickly down, having climbed the Cassin route in 22 1/2 hrs. Three hours later we were safely back in 14,000ft camp and ready for sleep.
We'd already decided that if everything went to plan we would break camp the next morning and try to use the small weather window to get back to the airstrip before the storm shut down movement on the mountain. This again turned out to be a wise move... although still tired from an intense four days of effort, we struck camp, returned to our skis at 11,000ft and skied out to the strip in deteriorating weather. It was snowing hard by the time we arrived at the strip on Tuesday 5th May at 9pm. We stowed our gear, pitched the tent and crashed into a deep and well-earned sleep.... whilst it snowed continuously for the next 48hrs. Perfect timing. :)
Roeland has compiled a great little video of our climb together in Alaska which can be seen HERE.
When the dust settled on my winter project of traversing the Alps on Skis I had been accutely aware that I might feel an empty space left by the completion of such an all-consuming adevnture. Thankfully I had already planned in a couple of ski-mountaineering races with friends to give me something exciting to focus on. They also helped break up the hours of report writing and computer work I would have to do to close the project Alpine Arc down. The two races were the Adamello Ski Raid and the Mezzalama, and they have helped give me ideas of how I'd like to spend next winter season... Thank you Rozzi Martin and Klaus Zweiker for a wonderful finish to the 2015 ski season.
After finally waxing up my skis for storage I was straight into work with the continuation of a project which started in 2014. I am worling with a group of ladies from the United Arab Emirates Military who are training towards trekking to Everest Base-camp in the spring of 2016.
Last year I went out to the UAE to for a selection week where we trekked through the desert and did a little rock climbing and abseiling. It was my first visit to the Middle East and I have to confess I have thoroughly enjoyed my contact with the country and with the ladies in the team. I've promised I'll try to learn a few more words of Arabic before we share our next adventure in October in Morocco.
This April and into the start of May I had organised a two-week trek along theda Cathar Trail in the Languedoc area of southern France to help develop the team's fitness and capacity for day on day walking. We followed the trail through some stunning sceanery, visiting castles along the way from Tuchan to Foix. Over the course of the 12 days we trekked over 168km with over 5000m of ascent and descent... and the team performed brilliantly and were rightly proud of their first ever walk longer than a day! The Cathar trail comes highly recommended and the final day's visit to the amazingly well restored castle at Carcassone brought a great couple of weeks to a fitting finale. I am certainly looking forward to teaming up with the whole team again for Morocco in October!
This winter I have been engaged in a very unique project. Something which has been dancing gently at the back of my mind for years an finally I was afforded the opportunity to make this dream real. It's one of the reason's I've been a little quiet on my personal blog. Such a project demands a great deal of time and effort both in the set-up and, of course, in the execution.
So what have I been doing? Well I have been skiing across the entire European Alps from Puchberg am Schneeberg in Austria (The first big mountain you reach when travelling west from Vienna) to Menton on the Mediteranean coast of France. It's been a wonderful adventure, shared with many friends both old and new. Of course it has been quite a difficult winter in some respects, early season there was very little snow and aftr months of detailed planning I have to confess I experienced a few fears over whether there would be enough snow to start this epic adventure. It turned out to be not such a bad winter for us after all, although conditions were at times delicate with the avalanche situation, we have had more than enough to complete the journey with very little "off skis" and a great deal of memorable descents (and ascents) along the way.
I can't even begin to think about writing about the whole journey here. Rather fortunately I shared the journey with three young gentlemen who have regularly updated a website blog at www.alpinearc2015.com . Sam Davies, Rupert Knight and Simon Prince formed a Support Team to follow the expedition as it progressed through the Alps and join the main ski team for on week in three. (The three of whom feature on the right mid-discussion concerning Expedition logistics!)
I have been very fortunate to share the organisation of this expedition with three such motivated and hard working guys whose company has been great fun along the way.
I organised and lead the expedition for the British Army and divided the journey into 11 stages designed to run sequentially through the winter from 10th January through to the 4th April 2015. The aim was that this would allow 6 British Army Regular or Reserve personnel to take part in an 8-day ski-touring journey which would form part of a much larger whole. In the end 58 people joined me along the way, and 10 fellow Mountain Guides from Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Holland worked with me on the project.
It has been the single biggest expedition I have organised and lead to date but it hasn't totally put me off doing equally ambitious projects in the future! I consider myself very lucky to have a Commanding Officer at Oxford University Officer's Training Corps who wholeheartedly supported the undertaking from the very start to it's challenging and rewarding conclusion- thank you Simon Mason! :) I have also been exceptionally lucky that General Sir George Norton took the decision to back me and the project after meeting with me and skiing with me for a day in December 2014. Without his support and endorsement many more doors would have been reulctant to open for me whilst setting the trip up.
I plan to spend some of the time this Spring writing about the journey and will no doubt publish a few articles in future, so will keep this post relatively brief. However I want every one out there who joined with me on one of the stages to know that they now form such a special part of one of the best adveentures I have ever undertaken. That I am immensely glad of their eneregy, enthusiasm, commitment to the project and for their good company along the way- hopefully many of you will be able to make the re-union dinner in the Summer in London. I certainly look forward to looking back together on some wonderful days- thank you! :)
September saw much more settled weather in the Alps and for me, again, a good mix of work and my own climbing. The first week in September I was working for "Into the Alps" the company run by my partern Roeland vanOss. A group of six Dutch guys, all friends had booked through Roeland with the hope of summiting Mont Blanc. Fortuneatly the weather really seemed to have settled down in our favour, and we enjoyed a great warm-up climb on the Weismeiss above Saas Grund before climbing the Gouter route for Mont Blanc. Conditions could not have been better for our group, and although the altitude still makes Mont Blanc a tough climb physically all six of the team made it successfully to the summit. It was a great last Mont Blanc climb of the summer season for both Roeland and myself, although Ben Bradford a friend of mine who worked with us that week still had two more summit planned for September!
I have a big project coming up this winter, a expedition which aims to ski traverse the European Alps in eleven 8 day stages. I've been working on it now for about 18months but this Autumn the planning has really ramped up. so September has seen more and more organisational work for me with respect to this great dream of mine. That said, in between the planning I've been able to get some great climbs done with good friends.
I managed a quick hit to the Dolomites and back to the Pala, where my friend Klaus and I climbed the famous Buhlriss above the Pradidali hut in the Pala. It's a great line and a complex mountain... I think I love the dolomites more and more each time I climb there. Although it isn't very difficult it's a real classic and I'd been eyeing it up since two previous work trips to the area.
At the end of Sepetmber I even managed to squeeze in one of my rare running races. Although I have always loved running and do a lot of long distance runs in the mountains around Chamonix, I've never really done that many running races... in fact 4 in total! This year I managed to secure a late entry into the Trail des Aiguilled Rouges, an event I love because of the stunning terrain it passes through and the fact that it starts about 200m from my front door at 4am in the morning. So not too much faff required and not my usual sleep in the car, followed by double expresso and croissant before setting off. Well my balance of training this summer has clearly paid off because I managed to come first old lady and third lady overall... descending has never been my strong point, so right up until the end I kept thinkingtg that I was joining to be overtaken and lose that podium finish! Thankfully I managed to keep my stiff little legs moving and fend the competitors off. Trouble is I then missed the podiul finish beacuse I had to rush to the airport for a week's trip back to the UK starting that evening!
My fellow competitors and friends Georgie Fitzgerlad and Mary Herbert picked the trophy up for me... a massive piece of rock mounted on a piece of wood. It is without doubt the biggest trophy I've ever won and I'm now using it as the 5kg weight during exercises in Niel's Ski-Fit video sessions.... perfect! :)
October has been a weight of planning towards Exercise alpine Arc 2015, the ski traverse which I am due to start in January. Logistics of the teams, adevrtising and filling the places, raising the money, liaisinh with the various international aspects, completing all the safety planning and briefing documents.... I'm running the expedition as a Military Exercise which means that there is a lot of paperwork which has to be prepared to gain authorisation for such an endeavour. I keep telling myself that all this planning work will be worth it in the end... it makes me smile thinking about this brilliant adventure which is about to come true for me... so close on the horizon! In fact I can't help smiling about it and it fires me up to plough through any obstacles that are going to appear.
Finally every now and then Roeland and I have managed to find a little time for ourself and we've been out and about in the mountains climbing... although it hasn't always been as quiet as we had hoped in this Autumns season. Word is out that the mixed routes are in prtty good condition. Any way, for this blog post I will leave you with a picture of Roeland and I having climbed the Colton-Macintyre on the Jorasse... finally after five walks into the face for various routes and five walks out I've managed to climb such a classic and beautiful line to the summit of the Jorasse. Thank you Roeland, for sharing such wonderful adventures in life with me! :) x
This last winter I feel I burnt the candle a little at boths ends. I guess what I mean by that is that I tried to squeeze just a little too much into too little time. It left me feeling a little frazzled at the end of the winter and when May finally arrived I was really looking forward to some summer sun. That isn't to say that I didn't have an immensely enjoyable winter; in fact in many respects I realised a good many personal dreams and made good progress with my work as a Mountain Guide. However the work-play balance wasn't quite right.
I made the decision in the Spring to get this balance better for the summer months and deliberately set aside time to climb for myself and spend time with friends. I also wanted to establish a good base of private clients in my Summer Guiding work, and so far the plan has blossomed into a very enjoyable and sustainable summer shared with friends, both clients and non-clients.
After my week with Jason and Nick around Zermatt working for Jagged Globe I was able to do some personal rock climbing around Chamonix with friends. Revisiting old classics that I've done many times before like Poem a Lou and Babylon on the Brevent and finally getting a chance to climb other lines like Premiere de Corvee in stolen moments with my other half, Roeland vanOss. Although the summer has proved to be very unsettled weather-wise, that isn't to say we haven't had some good, summery days. There just hasn't really been a long spell of settled warm weather with many stable days strung together.
Being able to spend some time out rock climbing for myself gradually started to see me back to good form, and starting to consider some of the projects I've been storing away in the back of my mind. I was determined to be able to fit some of these projects around the work I had scheduled and looking back now at the month of August I can see that I have found a much better balance than the winter- and I feel wholely envigorated and fired up with even more plans and ideas because of it.
I was able to share a very special few days with a remarkable young lady called Lea Adamson in late July and share with her her first Alpine summit- the grand Paradiso. She is a very good rock climber already at aged 15 and both fit and determined and passionate about all things mountaineering. A true pleasure to accompany her and her dad Andre for a few days and I am looking forward to sharing future summits with them next year and helping her become the independent and accomplished mountaineer that she has the potential to be.
Early August Roeland and I took five days off together and despite a very unsettled weather week we were still able to climb in and around the Chamonix massif, mostly day rock routes. Until I strained a finger on a relatively easy climb and decided to back off from harder sport climbing and focus more on the running and easy Alpine routes to let it have a chance to recover.
The middle of August I had a period of fairly intensive work, starting with a week with Gav Parker and Michelle Ward where we had aspirations to climb the Matterhorn. With this iconic mountain still locked in winter we decided to make the most of conditions and weather and head south to the Bernina range for Piz Palu, Piz Mortasch amongst others.
The traverse of Piz Palu is one of the best PD routes in the Alps in my opinion so it was a real pleasure to be able to share this amazing route with Gav and Michelle. They are both great company and we shared a fair bit of banter out on the mountain- even if they proved a little tricky to pin down in making firm decisions about route options!
Then fast on the heels of my time with Gav and Michelle I started an eight day period of work for Adventure Consultants with Josh and Louisa Wyatt. This was an alpine introductory course of five dasy based around the Orny and Trient huts in Switzerland and then a rest day before a summit attempt on Mont Blanc. Again I feel quite fortunately that Josh and Louisa proved to be excellent company for the week- keen to learn, open to instruction and learning new things and very easy going. Their flexibility and relaxed approach helped us make the most of a very unsettled week, and we completed ascents of the Aiguille du Tour, Petit Fourche and Tete Blanche before sadly having to renounce our attempt on Mont Blanc at the Dome du Gouter 4300m due to very high winds on the summit ridge of Mont Blanc.
Without those very fierce winds I am sure that they would have both made the summit and I sincerely hope that they decide to come back and give it another shot next summer- fingers crossed for a more stable weather pattern.
After two weeks of work I was ready to mave a day off and really looking forward to the 10 days I'd set aside to climb with one of my favourite climbing partners and good friends Joe Williams. Joe is a former student of mine who has become a close friend over the years and we have climbed a lot of cool routes together, including a very snowy ascent of the Comici route on the Cime Grande, a storm bound finish to Fil a Plomb above Chamonix and numerous routes from the "50 classic climbs of North America"... although I think I am on 22 whilst Joe has maybe 12? I think you need to strive to catch up Joe.... :)
We had planned six days in the Western Alps and then a visit to Innsbruck to see Joe's partner Solen perform in an Opera. Then we planned a final 3 days in the Eastern Alps and a 52km Running race to round off our time together- the Karwendlelauf, a famous race in the mountains above Innsbruck.
Thankfully some settled summer weather (albeit with cold temperatures and strong winds) finally arrived and we were able to have an immensely successfull and enjoyable period of climbing. Quality routes with no one else around shared with a close friend- it really doesn't get much better than that!
We climbed the Cresta Rey ridge on the Punta Cian from the Renzo Rivolta bivouac hut in the Valtournenche before heading over to Gressonney and traversing Liskamm... a mountain I've wanted to climb for ages but never really had the right opportunity.
Then we headed over to the Dom and decided to treat it as a training run since we'd heard the route was in super condition and it is generally quite objectively safe.
We made the round trip from the Randa to the summit in 5 hours up and 3 hours down and drove back to Chamonix feeling pretty well acclimatise and chuffed with ourselves! The following day looked like it would be our only good weather day before we had to drive to Austria so we teamed up with my partner Roeland vanOss and Tim for a two-team ascent of the Tournier spur on the Midi north face. A route which felt like it was snatched fromm the teeth of the oncoming weather since it started to snow when we were only a third of the way up the route!
To be fair, when the bad weather arrived and it was time to make the long drive to Austria I didn't really mind- we were both in need of a rest day... particularly since the 52km Karwendlelauf was starting to loom large on our mental horizons. An evening at the Opera follow... inspired and amazed at the strength and beauty in Solen's voice. She is simply amazing and I certainly hope that I get a chance to listen to her perform again in future! I'm pretty sure that she will be able to make an opera fan out of me single handedly.
With 3 days remaining before the race Joe and I had to decide where best to invest our climbing time. For me it really was a very simple choice. I've been staring at one particular route for several years now- it's the screen-saver on my computer... and has been since I did a 3-day solo run along the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites and was struck by the beauty of the line between sun and shade on a massive peak off in the distance. I took several photographs of the peak and researched what it was. It was the 1600m North Ridge of Mont Agner... the longest route in the Dolomites.
So Joe and I agreed on a plan. The weather looked feasible, if not totally perfect as a little rain was forecast on the day we needed to climb it. We prepped, we positioned, we stocked up on fine Italian food and wine... and then at 5.30am we attacked. The first third of the route is fairly vegetated... steep grassy rocks with lots of trees and scrubs... you have to climb fast through this though, knowing that 39 pitches stand between you and the summit. Amusing to see trees moving as if independent of any climber... until we found out later that Mont Agner has it's own resident BEAR.... Hmmmmm....
This is one absolutely amazing route and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend. The valley below the peak- the San Lorenzo valley is so steep it is like the limestone version of Yosemite. you have to crane your neck to see the sky... there are so many other really impressive peaks and routes here.
Not only that but it is QUIET! Joe and I were the only ones climbing the mountain that day on the north side. We were buzzed by Travis the wing suiter on the way down but that is the only other person we saw. We stood on the summit together with clouds rolling between the summits and beneath our feet at 6.30 and were at the very comfortable and well appointed bivouac hut part way down the descent route by 7pm. It had been an amazing final climb in a week of really cool routes and good company.... but boy were we tired! We laughed and joked that night over a stale sandwich that this probably wasn't the best race preparation. No "Tapering" for us... just well over 2000m and 10hours of continuous climbing, scrambling and walking. That night Joe was set up for some severe leg cramps in the cosy Italian sized bunks... but I fortunately found a deep and contented sleep.
Next day we headed out to the car via the Scarpa Refugio and a lovely encounter with the Guardian, a fellow-trail runner Aron Lazzaro. He inspired us with ski-mountaineering and running tales... and then told us that Mont Agner is only the second longest route in the Dolomites... that there is another route round the corner on Monte Schiara that is 200m longer. Damn- I get to change my screen-saver to an even more impressive face! :)
Finally the drive back to Innsbruck and the 6am start for the Karwendlelauf... but that is another story... and one I feel I should save for a future update!
So my first summer season as a fully qualified IFMGA Mountain Guide has proved to be one of unsettled weather and hence a lot of adjusting to the conditions. So far this summer I have had a variety of work in france, Switzerland and Italy, interspaced with time off to head into the hills cragging and to work on my next winter's adventure Exercise Alpine Arc 2015- the mission to ski the entire length of the Alps in one winter season!
Highlights of the summer so far have been several very rewarding ascents of the Grand Paradiso. Including an early season trip for Wilderness Scotland. A thoroughly enjoyable three days with Willie Munro culminating on the Jungfrau above Lauterbrunnen, and my first time up the Dufourspitze with the good company of budding Mountaineers Nic and Jason on a Jagged Globe Zermatt 4000'ers course. Although the weather has been very mixed in general we've had good, and quite snowy conditions. It has only really been one week where persistant poor weather throughout the entire week caused me to reschedule a few days private work and severely restricted what could be achieved by John and Louise Schwabe together with their two boys Benjamine and Oscar whilst we were at the Dix hut above Arolla.
I could totally empathise with Ben and Oscars desire to explore the big mountains, but sadly the weather wasn't on their side and I am looking forward to taking them on their first Alpine rock route later in the season... hopefully the sun will shine for us for our re-match!
Early summer saw a mix of Alpine work and personal climbing, the highlight of which was a great weeklong trip to the Wilderkaiser near Kufstein in Austria. I was invited over by a good friend who lives in Innsbruck and knows the area pretty well. He also speaks good German, which is just as well because the only available Guidebook to the area is in pretty dense and difficult to follow German- not all that helpfull to someone who only speaks French and English!
My experiences that week of having to totally rely on the interpretations of my friend in terms of route descriptions (in partiular the descent descriptions!) left me feeling pretty helpless and has fixed my resolve to learn German this Autumn in the down season. The above picture shows the Wilderkaiser as seen from the road to the south just outside GOING (Yes great village name) which is just next to the famous Stanglewirt hotel.
The Wilderkaiser is a really wonderfull mountain range just to the east of Kufstein and south of Munich. Although it takes about 8 hours of driving to reach it from Chamonix it proved to be worth every bit of the effort. The mountains aren't much higher than 2500m which means that it can be a good early or late season rock climbing venue when the higher Alps are snow bound. Left is Klaus on the Dulferstrasse on the East face of the Fleischbank.
I'd been invited over for six days of climbing and we were fortunate that the weather held out for almost all of that time. Since it's early season I didn't have fixed plans for anything super hard, just to enjoy some classics and get to know the area and get back into slick multi-pitch climbing mode. My climbing partner confessed to not having climbed regularly in several years, so it was in a fairly relaxed atmosphere with a focus on enjoyment that we tackled some of the peaks along this fine mountain chain.
We started with the Leuchsturn Old Southface route at grade V+/A0 which with a late start from the valley after sorting gear and pre-positioning cars ready for the end of the trip made for a late finish on the first day. Right is Klaus on the first pitches of the Leuchsturn warming up his bridging skills...
My highlight from that climb was the famous "Jungfrauschluckt" pitch, which my climbing partner described as "The vigin's tunnel" or something like that... what most amused me was his look of disbelief when faced with the smooth sided squeeze chimney and the flat denial that this could possibly be the right way. It seemed quite evident to me that this feature was the only pitch of the climb to warrent being individually named. "Jungfrauschluck"= Tight and narrow and difficult to get into...
I managed to convince my climbing partner that if he didn't like the look of it that it was "my cup of tea" and after stowing all the gear on a bandolier and trailing my rucksack I wriggled into it's depths... only to find that it very quickly widened out and got a lot easier. Left is me on the summit of the Fleischbank.
Next up was the Old West face (Gottner route) of the Karlspitze... which proved an enjoyable climb with a quick and easy rappel descent, even if the approach is a little insecure. From our base in the valley below the approached, though not long, certainly have to be called steep and the daily climbs were proving good preparation for my legs for a summer of Alpine work. We then turned our sights to longer routes and the Dulfer route on the Fleischbank (=Butchers bench) Ostwand. This proved to be my favourite day of the entire week with some memorable pitches and a fine summit... inclusing a nice evening relaxing with a few beers in the sunshine back in the valley! Below left is the Fleishbank East Face as seen from the Steinrinne and below right the summit of the Predigtstuhl Central summit.
Our final few days saw us transfer over to the elagantly positioned Stripsenjoch huette with the hope of doing a longer and more committing route on the Totenkirkle (=Church of death... nice names eh?). Sadly our final day didn't quite go to plan and we spent some time not really identifying the correct line for our Dulfer route on this peaks West face. Something didn't feel right and I felt we had lost too much time to complete such a long route before the afternoon thunderstorms... so we decided to retreat, both with some sadness and frustration but both determined to organise a rematch in future.
All in all it was a wonderfull week of great climbing and good company. It even inspired me to make the long drive back East the following weekend to solo the grade III ridge traverse on Ellmauer Halt 2344m called the Kopftorlgrat. Soloing isn't something I usually go in for but the ridge just looked so tempting and I couldn't resist. Although a long drive I had an immensely rewarding day in perfect solitude along that wonderfull ridge... and arrived at the summit and the normal route up the mountain with enough people streaming up the semi- via ferrata to break anyone's idyllic daydreams... oh well... perhaps I should have stayed longer on the ridge! :) One thing's certain, that I hope to have an opportunity to visit the Wilderkaiser again in the near future...
So I haven't updated my blog for a few months but this next week should see a concerted effort to put that right! There are a few events that I really should update so I will recap the highlights and then get on to what I'm up to this summer.
Over the winter I was lucky enought to share an amazing journey with two very impressive young ladies, who I'm fortunate to say are now friends. We completed a pretty intensive training package over the winter to get our team ready for the Swiss Patrouilles Des Galciers Competition.
I could write about it here but one of my team-mates- Rozzie Martin has already written some great stories about it, including here own blog which you can read here: ROZZI MARTIN'S BLOG.
And here is a short summary of just what an amzing journey the three of us shared this winter! In fact the best and most enjoyable work I did this winter to be sure. :)
Rozzie Martin writes:
"Last year, Captain Tania Noakes, The Oxford University Officer Training Corps Adventure Training Officer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide, approached several Officer Cadets with the idea of competing in the Patrouilles des Glaciers. The race is a demanding and challenging ski-mountaineering competition for three-member rope parties run by the Swiss Military. The course, which runs from Zermatt to Verbier, is comprised of 52km and a 4000-meter positive altitude difference. Renowned for being one of the toughest team events in the world, none of us really appreciated the gravity of what we’d signed up for, and never could have imagined the incredible journey that we were about to embark upon.
Over the course of the winter, Tania took us from ski mountaineering novices to 'ski-mo racers' in a series of five progressive training exercises. Highlights included an intense weekend of three races in three days based in Chamonix, the Sellaronda Marathon, a fantastic week of isolated hut-to-hut touring in Switzerland and a speedy ascent of the 4000m peak, Grand Paradiso in Italy (to name a few!). Having been awarded one entry for the race, Tania selected an all girls team made up of myself and Debbie Morgan. So on the eve of the 3rd May, it was with great excitement that the three of us found ourselves on the start line of the 2014 Patrouilles des Glaciers.
With motivational music blaring from the speakers, we tensely waited in the starting pen as the seconds counted down to our start at 23:15. The starting gun was followed by 10 minutes of running through the town centre past the buzz of crowds and cowbells, importantly remembering to pace ourselves knowing what lay ahead. We kept up a good fast-walking pace to the snow-line, where we quickly swapped our trainers for skiboots, put on skis, and bungeed up for the skin to the first of the five cols that lay ahead.
The race is not only extremely physically demanding but also technically challenging, particularly during the descent from the Tete Blanche where all teams are required to rope up whilst crossing the glacier. It can be difficult trying to maintain a constant speed in order to keep the rope the right distance between you. Most teams, including us, have a bungee attached, which keeps the rope off the ground and also allows a bit of slack before pulling your teammates over.
The Tête Blanche is the highest point of the course and has an altitude of 3650m. Fortunately, our previous weeks acclimatisation paid off whilst we witnessed other teams slowing down, and in some cases throwing up, as they gained height.The first few descents during the night involved a few powdery lumps and bumps but were generally enjoyable as we followed the string of cylumes descending into the darkness under head torch whilst trying to avoiding the sections of sparsely covered rocks!
We were pleased to make it to the half-way point, Arolla, in good time and enjoyed a short pause to rehydrate and refuel before the next stage.
Our departure from Arolla coincided with the start of the shorter course, and the slopes were flooded with several hundred more competitors, which then later led to a frustrating bottle-neck at the next col where we had to wait for about an hour. However, the sun was beginning to rise, and the rose tinted mountain tops were a welcome sight after the hours of racing in the dark.
Having lost time waiting on the Col de Reidmatten, we realised that we were now running dangerously close to the cutoff times. The next section of the course is a cruel gradual incline above the Lac des Dix. It was at this point that Tania said, “This is the part where you decide if you really want this.” We pushed forward on tired legs and were relieved to make the La Barma checkpoint with 25 minutes to spare. With one more big climb to go we pressed on over the slippery icy steps cut into the snow and were greeted at the top by the sound of cowbells and crowds cheering. Having reached the ridgeline an hour before the cut off. This was the first time we allowed ourselves to believe that we really were going to make it!
From this point, all that lay between us and the finish was a short climb and a long ski down through the slopes of Verbier. After more than 12 hours on the go, the exhaustion was taking its toll but the elation of approaching the finish line provided the final boost to push ourselves to the end. We crossed the finished line after a total of 14 hours and 21 minutes, feeling very emotional and immensely proud of the feat we’d achieved as a team and were delighted to discover that we had won first female military team!
We are hugely grateful to Oxford University Officer Training Corps for supporting and allowing us to take on this challenge, and also to those who have made this financially possible with their generous grants - The Army Mountaineering Association, The Ulysees Trust, The Eagle Ski Club, the Eastwood Family (British Exploring), South East Reserve Forces' and Cadets' Association and the Skiiers Trust for Great Britain. We are also immensely grateful to the Swiss Military, who organised this vast operation with flawless military precision. The opportunity to be able to be part of this world renowned event as an international military team was a real honour, and it was a great privilege to meet the PdG Commander; Col Max Contesse.
Most importantly however, Debbie and I are massively indebted to Tania, who right from the birth of the idea to crossing the finish line, has been an incredible inspiration. Her belief in us has given us the confidence to believe that anything is possible, and we look forward to many more adventures with her in the future!"
This year is the 100year anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1. As part of my ongoing work with Oxford University Officer's Training Corps I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to combine two personal interests of mine, ski-touring and military history.
When most British people think of WW1 they think of the Western Front with battles such as the Sommes and Ypres and the protracted and bloody trench warfare of Northern France and Flanders. The Eastern Front where Germany and Austro-Hungary fought the Russians and the Italian Front are largely forgotten. Out here in the Alps, throughout the Dolomites and the Adamello/Ortler mountain ranges evidence of the so called "White War" can still be found.
Together with one of my students at Oxford UOTC, Alastair Graves, we planned a ski touring itinerary which would allow us to stay as close as possible to the former front-line and visit some of the key historical sites, both high on the Adamello glacial plaeau and in the vallies east and west of the Passo del Tonale.
The front line itself exteded from the northerly shores of lake Guarda through the Passo del Tonale and on to the boarder with then nuetral Switzerland at the Stelviojoch.
The Stelviojoch itself saw little action in WW1 as both sides were concerned about shells landing across the border in Switzerland and causing a political incidnet. The southern side of the Stelviojoch drops in a series of imposing switchbacks to the valley floor which I remember descending at high speed on my touring bike whilst at University... at that time I was ignorant of the role this area played in history.
Having ski toured before in the Ortler with good friend Cath Howell-Walmsley I knew that several sections of the former frontline still had old installations and barbed-wire much in evidence and I thought that a journey along this historic front lien would inspire my students to learn more about this regions history. For readers interested in a great book about the Italian Front then I would recommend Mark Thompsons book "The White War: Life and death on the Italian front 1915-1919".
We started our tour by basing ourselves at Camping Presanella in one of the self catering apartments in the village of Temu.
Temu also hosts a good little museaum dedicated to the fighting of World War 1 and I would recommend a visit here is you have the time. Visits can be pre-arranged for an evening of your stay. After a day's warm-up piste skiing we had a three-day short tour south of Passo del Tonale planned with two nights at the hostoric Refuge Lobbia, also called Refugio Caduti del Adamello- which means Refuge of the fallen of the Adamello. It is situated where there used to be military instalations and barracks for the former frontline and as we were to discover, only a short tour away there is still a 149mm Cannon perched high on the Cresta Croce, the ridge to the south of the refuge.
The week's touring wasn't just a battle field tour, it was also designed to introduce the group of 8 students to ski-touring, some for the very first time. I was fortunate to have been able to forge links with the Alpini through General George Norton who has kindly agreed to be Patron of an expedition I am orgainsing to ski traverse the European Alps next year. So we we were joined by two alpini, Giovanni and Luca, who were able to add a much greater depth of knowledge concerning the various battles which took place in the region.
During our stay at the Refugio Lobbia we even summonned the motivation to make the long flat ski over to the distant Adamello peak, the highest in this region... a lot of almost flat skiing reminding us just how much of this vast glacier plateau is above 3000ms.
The final day of this three day trip proved to be well worth the effort though, a short ski out from the refuge allows a climb to a little col where you can climb on foot past the rusting bared wire of the frontline and stand ontop of the Cresta Croce ridge looking along the firing line of the Cannon which still stands there 100years after soldiers hauled it into position. It is a commanding position and testamont to just how difficult and exacting trying to survive here must have been for the soldiers on the frontline, let alone having to fight as well. After our visit to the Canon we traversed the Adamello glacier to the Piz Venezia and an amazing 2000m vertical drop back into Ponto di Legno... first on powder and then on perfect spring snow... one of the best descents of the winter for sure!
Next we advanced north from Passo del Tonale into the Ortler with an ascent of Palon de la Mare (Left) and Cevedale, both major peaks which stand on the former border of Italy and Austria and now lie entirely inmodern-day Italy (although with considerable autonomy!).
All in all this week of battle field ski-touring was a refreshing and intersting way of looking at this region with a new understanding of its chequered past. You peel away one layer of history just to find another.... It was a great pleasure to share this experience with two Alpini and some very entertaining students, who I hope will feel inspired to take their new found ski-touring skills to new places in the Alps in their future.
I’m so tired right now that it amazes me that I’m taking the time to update my blog… but I have evening commitments which mean I can’t crash just yet. It’s been a busy day and night starting this new adventure which is set to take centre stage in the Adamello and Ortler Alps in Italy. I have had an immensely enjoyable day skiing the pistes of Temu, Ponte di Legno and Passo di Tonale with eight young Officer Cadets from Oxford University OTC and Giovani and Luca, our two Alpini hosts. The group has already forged a great dynamic and we are looking forward to a rewarding week ahead of ski-touring and battlefield tours!
It has been a very fast turn-around for me from my last ski touring adventure; one shared with Andy Scott, Al Wurzer and Tom McFadden from Cananda and Richard Greenwood from London. We’ve had a week of mixed weather on the Skiers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt via Verbier.
It’s my ninth time on the Haute Route, and the weather forecast for the week suggested it had the potential to be the most challenging as well. With a little jiggery-pokery I was able to arrange that the group could start our tour together a day early and catch the last of the good weather before a fierce return to winter arrived.
We made the passage from Grand Montets to Champex in one long day, over the Col du Passon , across the Trient Glacier and down the Val D’Arpette in a single beautiful but tiring day. Straight out of the starting blocks it was a big ask from the group but a challenge they rose to successfully. With two days in hand we were then able to sit out the worst of the bad weather resting before continuing our journey from the Mont Fort a few days later.
It has certainly proved to be a challenging passage with some fiercely cold days but with good company and determination from the whole group we successfully skied into Zermatt yesterday with fantastic powder conditions from the Tete Blanche to the pistes at Furi… hang on a minute… did I just say Yesterday? Ah yes…. That’s why I’m so tired… a week of tough weather, a glorious finish yesterday before a five hour drive through the night to get here for breakfast and the start of my next ski-tour adventure… sometimes I have to laugh at myself for trying to pack too much in.
Tonight with kit brief done I’m catching up with my blog whilst the guys are cooking dinner, I’m giving a recap on the day’s avalanche skills training over dinner and then I’m going to have a well-earned and no doubt deep sleep! Looking back on this last week though it’s difficult not to smile; deep powder, gorgeous views, new friends, great guiding camaraderie, challenging decision making and a successful and safe outcome… early season on the Haute Route delivers again!