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!
Some races don’t go as planned. Sometime I perform better than anticipated… and on other days despite the best preparations something is missing. I’m not sure why but this year the Sellaronda ski marathon was such race for me. Despite the magic and beauty of the race course and despite the fact that I immensely enjoyed the event anyway I am left a little disappointed.
As I reflect now I suspect that had the race taken place when initially planned the satisfaction with my personal performance might have been different. As it was I felt I let my team-mate down and dragged tired and cramping limbs around a course I should have flown round. I’m still not entirely sure why and suspect I may just have to put it down as one of those things…
It was a fast course and records were broken, but even though my team-mate Klaus and I beat my time from last year I had been running on empty. Roeland thinks I’ve just been trying to cram in a bit too much and I suspect he may be right. After feeling really confident that I was racing well and some strong performances in cross country ski and single-vertical races I ended up feeling like the hand-brake in my team – sorry Klaus… hopefully if we ever race together again I’ll be stronger and be able to help you like you helped me.
And yet the sellaronda ski marathon was only the start of this week’s adventure, and thankfully the rest of the week went splendidly. It was the fourth training phase for my Patrouilles des Glacier team training. A further week of ski touring but this time with some glacier training and mountaineering thrown in. Debbie Morgan and Rosalind Martin joined me for a week traversing the mountains from Vrin above Ilanz to Andermatt in fantastic early spring conditions. It forms a section of the traverse of the Alpine Arc that I’ve wanted to recce for a while and although I slighted adapted it to take in Piz Medel along the way it proved to be an excellent five day tour, and no doubt one I’ll run again for guests. Reasonably accessible touring with no one else about, a mix of excellent winter rooms and manned huts, great descents and cool summits… this area delivers a lot and yet is hardly known amongst British ski-tourers. We made the passage from Vrin to the Terri Huette, then over Piz Vial to the Medelser Huette, then Piz Medel and on to the Capanna Bovarina in Ticino before heading over to the Maigels Huette and onto Andermatt. Thoroughly recommened as a tour even though part of me thinks I should keep this little gem a secret…. Shhhhhh…. Don’t tell anyone else… J
Thanks Debbie and Rozzie for a great week and for taking my mind off my reflections on the Sellaronda ski marathon… see you for the next phase in April in Chamonix!
The end of January saw a return of the PdG team for a first weekend of races. Here I was starting with a new concept as the guys and girls could only come out for a long weekend fitted around their studies at University. So I had decided to enter us all into "Three races in Three days", not with a concept of peaking in terms of performance but rather of showing that the body can still perform to a good level even when tired from previous races!
The whole team was excited (and perhaps a little daunted) by the prospect but 72hours was going to prove that all four of the team could rise to the challenge.
First up was a training skin up the skinning track at Les Houches and some transceiver revision training just to ensure that the squad's avalanche skills were current. Then it was back to the accommodation for an afternoon's rest before our first race of the weekend... the 700m Vertical skinning race to the Signal in Les Contamines. although this is a local race it has a lot of very fast ski-mo racers entering and was going to prove a baptism by fire!
These night events have such great atmosphere, small enough not be indimidating and yet still be competitive and challenging... and all that combined with a tombola of prizes and a meal at the end. Definitely something I could do more of! The whole team thoroughly enjoyed the event and it started genrating a real buz of excitement for the next challenge... saturday night's Tartines race at Les Marecottes.
A restfull morning on the Saturday consisted of about 2 hours of Skate-skiing for two of the squad who had never been on cross country skis before. Whilst the girls went off for a quick shake out on their skate skis the lads had an action packed and fast-track skate skiing lesson from me in preparation for their entry into an 18km Skate race in the Bornandine on sunday morning. I'm not sure at that stage whether they knew quite what they were in for on Sunday morning...
A leisurely lunch and then we were off again to get across the border into Switzerland for the Les Tartines race up at Marecottes. This really is an excellent course with 880m of ascent before a quick 200m descent to the finish and the restaurant where we would have our celebratory meal. This race is individual start against the clock, so none of the fast and furious fever of a massed start... and I have to say I prefer this way!
Again the whole team loved the event and performed brilliantly given the heavy equipment and lack of previous race experience. It proved to be a late finish and a ski down in a snowstorm in the dark to cathc the last train back to Finhaut and our car so that we could be ready for an early start the next day...
Because on sunday we were all entered into La Bornadine race a great Skate cross country skiing marathon in the Haute Savoie. 36km for the girls and myself and 18km for the boys (who had only had 2hrs of time on cross country skis the day before in their lives!)
Needless to say it was on tired legs we started the race and even more fatigued when we finished but the whole team was immensely proud and pleased with what they had achieved... 3 big races in 3 days... just proving how much more is inside all of us that we perhaps initally believe! Maybe next time the challenge will have to be even harder! Well done the PdG team and I look forward to our next adventure the Sellaronda ski marathon! :)
Over New Year I worked with another group of five students who have been selected to take part in a series of training events towards entering a team in the prestigious Patrouilles des Glacier in Switzerland in April 2014.
The race runs every 2 years and because it has its origins in a Military Ski Patrol race the Swiss Army continue to have a heavy involvement. In fact it is largely organised by the Swiss Army and many military teams continue to race alongside their civilian counterparts.
Every year it is organised the British Army is invited by the Swiss Army to enter 3 teams. This year Oxford UOTC applied for one of the entries and we have been awarded it!
Planning for the series of training events started many months ago, along with fund-raising applications and activities. The squad is being organised and lead by Rosalind Martin, who this year also happens to have taken on the leadership of the Oxford UOTC Ladies Nordic team.
The first of five training events was conducted over New Year and involved a ski-mountaineering training program designed to cover all the basics of ski-mountaineering that the race team will need. We started with a day’s skiing on piste at Le Tour with reasonable snow and visibility, but a fragile snow condition in terms of avalanches off-piste. The first day went well with four out of the five skiers proving strong piste skiing skills and the fifth proving an excellent attitude!
The second day we progressed onto our first tour and headed over to Switzerland and the Grand St Bernard pass. A stunning skin into the Monastery and an early lunch convinced the whole group of the merits of getting away from the busy pistes. After lunch we headed out to the Italian frontier for some avalanche training exercises including realistic probing and shovelling exercises.
Whilst starting our first transceiver search drill we were witness to the biggest skier triggered slab avalanche that I have witness in recent years which cut the track from the GSB pass to the Italian frontier. Fortunately no-one was buried and the skiers up high who has triggered it found and negotiated a safe line to the Monastery.
It emphasised the need to practice our transceiver skills and provided realistic evidence of how hard avalanche debris can set in a short period of time when we skinned back up to the Monastery!
The next ski touring days saw an ascent of the Col Argentine above the Argentiere Glacier and then a foray into Italy and an ascent of the Tete au deux Sauts above the Bonatti hut, both quiet and beautiful tours with few people (for Italy no-one else!) about.
The round up for the week was due to be an overnight trip into a winter refuge, and with the conditions turning more unsettled we headed South to the edge of the Queryas and skinned into the magical Refuge des Fonds des Neige in the Cervieres valley above Briancon. In past years they cut Cross country ski tracks up this valley but they local Mairie has decided it is too little frequented to bother until the school holidays in February… so it has reverted to an idyllic and little frequented ski-tourer’s secret.
That said, we met a young French couple in the winter room, who hopefully were not too disappointed to have 6 British skiers join them for the night. The winter room takes 9 and has good wood and gas stocked at 10E per person per night.
The snow-pack on the crests was thin in places and a lot of wind action and although we had picked a tour involving very mellow slopes we were witness to a lot of “whoomphing” where the snow-pack settled beneath us. Although illustrative to the group of a fragile layer within the snowpack it certainly didn’t encourage us to stray onto steeper or more wind-loaded slopes. That said… the snow was so good once off the crests that there was plenty of fun to be had even skiing the gentle slopes!
The next day we had a wonderful tour to finish on with an ascent of the Crete Dormilouse and then a descent back to the van at Cervieres. Not often you can ski to the car door in amazing snow… but our group certainly could at the finish of the tour.
A great start to the training program for the group, and four of the five students now go forward to the next stage which will be a training package in race technique based in Chamonix at the end of January. I look forward to seeing you all again soon!
Well it’s been a few months since I have updated my Blog, but it’s been a busy few months. Work started again in November and for me, early winter, this means coaching Cross Country skiing and Biathlon. This year I was asked to become a Trainer for BASI Nordic and attended the Trainers conference in Aviemore in October. Although the majority of instructors under the BASI system are Alpine instructors, the other disciplines of Telemark, Snowboard and Nordic are well represented and I was pleased to become part of the Training team.
My first course to run as an official BASI Trainer was out in Susjoen, Norway, working alongside established Trainer Ewen Martin running a Level 2 Instructor Teaching course. There were 12 students on the course and the majority had a good level of competitive race experience behind them, meaning that the Technical level was very good. In fact some of the course students were GB developmental squad skiers or currently in the GB Biathlon squad.
That week saw 11 new BASI Level 2 Nordic Instructors qualified, the majority of whom will be working with Army race team throughout the winter.
For two weeks in December it was back to the amazing cross country skiing resort of Bessans in the Haute Maurienne coaching my own team, Oxford University OTC. This year we have 4 returning skiers and 8 Novices to the sport of xc-skiing and Biathlon.
It’s a hectic program during these two weeks with a lot to learn. Not only do the students have to learn Classic and Skate skiing but they have to put it all together with precision rifle shooting, for Biathlon, and then do it all in an exhausting program of races in January. I have always believed that this is the best thing that the OTC offers in terms of encouraging teamwork, self-discipline, self-belief, physical fitness and mental robustness alongside sportsmanship. Every year the students who volunteer impress me with their levels of dedication and hard work, and this year is proving to be no different! I am writing this whilst at the races in Serre Chevalier in January and am so very proud of everything they have trained so hard to achieve… and are currently achieving!
The cross country tracks in Bessans are kept in immaculate condition by the grooming team there, and in a year with few XC-ski areas open early season it says a lot when I tell you that over 130km of tracks were open in Bessans by the second week of December. The staff there are always super helpful and friendly and this was our second year of what I hope will become a long-standing relationship. If you love Cross-country skiing and haven’t yet visited then you really ought to make the effort.
I was working with former GB Athlete and friend Emma Fowler for the training camp, along with two former students and current Nordic ski instructors in their own right, Kate Wray and James Smith. Kate and James both did very well at the GB championships last year and were selected for the GB Biathlon development squad.
They have now qualified as BASI Level 2 Nordic Instructors and I was very proud to be able to work with them together in Bessans. They both have a very bright future ahead as Nordic ski coaches. It’s always a pleasure to work with Emma, whose knowledge about Biathlon won from years of racing on the World Cup circuit adds a depth and precision to the Team’s training that we all value. Thanks again Emma… and I look forward to working with you next year!
The last few days of our stay there Emma and I organised a race for the students, including about 5km of Classic and about 6km of Skate. It’s a wonderful opportunity to feel the competitive spirit, even though some of our skiers had only a week on snow- EVER!
Looking back on our two weeks at Bessans, it’s clear to see that the groundwork we put in there is the bedrock of the results we are delivering here and now at the Army Divisional championships.
It's hard to believe that it's only a month since I wrote my last post. Then I was basking in the quiet glow of satisfaction having just qualified as a Mountain Guide. Autumn in Chamonix has seen a real mix of weather.... from a huge dump of snow that reached the valley floor in early October through to gloriously sunny and warm days only a week later. If anything the weathers been fairly unsettled and unpredictable. Not the most encouraging forecasts to commit yourself to big routes, and actually the high mountain ice routes haven't really been in great condition. Sure, folk have been up there and active... but conditions have been far from ideal. To a newly qualified Mountain Guide I'm finding out that this isn't perhaps too much of a bad thing. Passing those final tests and gaining my 'badge' may have brought one journey to a close... but this last month has proved another one has only just begun.
That journey is setting up a business and finding clients who want to employ me to guide them in the Mountains! I have a thousand and one ideas of amazing routes and journies to share with people... for me that's the easy part. The harder, much harder part is the concept of self-promotion and advertising... and that has never come easy to me. I guess for most people it isn't an easy concept to get your head around, even in a culture that promotes and idolises celebrity status.
What I've had to accept is that unless I get out there and spread the word then no-one will be aware of the amazing adventures they might be missing out on by not employing me to Guide them or teach them skiing... and no one will book! The work starts here to spread the word about what I'm doing or what adventures I'm planning for the future.
This week I've been working for BASI running a Nordic skiing refresher on rollerskis for 8 members at the Tudor Grange Cycle track in Sollihull. It was a great opportunity to meet up with old friends and forge new links within the Cross Country ski community and to show what a bright future BASI Nordic skiing has! Then I headed straight back to Oxford to meet the new members of the Oxford UOTC ski and Biathlon team and with the help of committed cross country ski coach Felicity Bertram we helped 6 of the team make their first steps on rollerskis! To round off a great week of 'off-snow' ski training I woke up this morning to find that thanks to the help of Katy Dartford the BMC have published an article I have written in the hope to encourage more women to consider Mountain Guiding as a profession. If you know anyone you think might be interested in some words of advise please share! BMC ARTICLE- LETTER TO ME by Tania Noakes
If you'd like to hear the song which inspired this click here: BRAD PAISLEY
On Saturday I travelled to Leysin to be presented with my IFMGA Guide badge and licence. I'm immensely pleased and proud to have achieved this goal and excited about future work possibilities! My last few years as an Aspirant Guide have confirmed my love of working as a Guide, both climbing and skiing, and the fact that I am fully qualified now allows me to start putting all those ideas for adventures into action! For the near future though it's off to Finale Ligure for some family time, Italian ice cream and coffee, sunshine and sport climbing... maybe I'll even get the chance to swim in the sea!
I write this having just got home to Chamonix after two and a half weeks down in the Italian Dolomites. It may seem hard to believe but I have to confess that I had almost forgotten how amazing the Dolomites are and I'm so pleased that this recent trip has re-ignited the fire! The last big trip that I made to this magical land of steep walls and sunlight was two years ago, running another Oxford UOTC trip taking students rock climbing and trekking. (Right: Mike and Dave on the summit of Torre Grande West Summit, Cinque Torre). We spent some of that trip down in the Pala Dolomites based around San Martino di Castrozza, and the remarkably solid, pale creamy rock, generously furnished with huge holds had been the highlight of our time in Italy. This year the lead student organising the expedition had been open to guidance to base the main part of our Dolomite trip in the Pala. (Below: James and Dave on the summit of Punta Fiames above Cortina).
The Pala is the second most significant mountain massif in the Dolomites and yet it is surprisingly little frequented by British climbers. It has a much more 'mountaineering' feel to it, and perhaps this is one of the reasons... although I have to say if it is, it's a misguided one! The routes often have long approaches which means it's probably better to stay at one of the very hospitable and well positioned refuges in the area, Treviso, Rosetta, Velo or Pradidali.
The routes have a feeling of commitment and can also have some quite complicated and serious descents. That said it is an excellent area for the mid-grade climber... and a real forging ground for novices to launch into bigger routes. (Right: Me, James and Ali on the summit of Cima Val di Roda).
Unusually for an OTC expedition we had quite a few well qualified and experienced instructors along with a few other instructors with a little less experience but no less enthusiasm for the mountains. This meant that I would often find myself Guiding two novices on a route and also mentoring one of the less experienced instructors as they themselved looked after anotehr novice climber. It made for a very sociable and richly rewarding team experinced... with lots of development for the climbing team at every level! I was working once again with Tarquin Shipley (Worked on our Ecrins expedition last year) and newcomer Gary Mason who has a passion for the Dolomites second to none... and rather un-inventively is nicknamed Dolomite-Gary.
(Above: The Pradidali hut and the positively gorgeous Cima Canali). After a days warm up on the Cinque Torre the instructional team headed to the four winds around Cortina in search of bigger and longer routes whilst the weather stayed warm and settled. I took Dave Liddard (One of our novice mountaineers) on a steep learning curve with an ascent of the Punta Fiames above Cortina on the classic South Face "Via Comune" a 15 pitch IV+ with an adventure approach and easy walk off.
(Left: Joe Fischer on the exposed abseils off the Campanile Pradidali). The Italian team we caught up with at the foot of the climb were totally impressed to learn this this was Daves' second ever multi-pitch route and he rapidly gained the nick-name "Brave Dave". James Smith and Mike Kent also joined us for this fantastic route as an independent rope team, with James proving a very capable and reliable instructor in his own right.
After regrouping that night in Cortina it was off to the Pala for the next week for the meat of the entire exped. (Below Right: James on the grade V pitches on the Soleder route on Cima Immik.)
The meteo unfortunately wasn't to prove as reliable and some unsettled rain and eventually snow encouraged the team to be flexible and resilient in order to get some of the bigger planned route done. A combination of a few days in the campsiet in Val Canali and four days staying at the delightfull Pradidali hut reaped considerable rewards in terms of pitches climbed and experienced gained... this was adventure training at it's purest!
We climbed the classic Weisner-Keis Route on the stunning Sasso D'Ortiga, the Campanile Pradidali by the Spigalo del Vecchio (complete with brass bell on the summit!) the Cima Val di Roda NW Face, Cima Immik by the SW Ridge Solleder route and to top it all off found the determination and resilience to scalee the Pala de San Martino "Gran Pilastre" route, SW Arete... and then face up to one of the most complicated and serious descents in the Dolomites. (Left Below: Ross White on the upper pitches of the Solleder route on Cima Immik).
Not bad for a weeks work when fresh snow might make for stunning photos but doesn't bode well for alpine rock climbing! The days were cold and even the light breeze made for properly testing climbing conditions so generally we tried to find souh facing routes, but even then it was never quite the balmy sunny rock of two years ago! ( Below Right: Joe Fischer having completed the five towers of descent from the Pala de San Martino... one of the trickiest descents in the dolomites!) That said all students rose to the occasion marvelously and can look back on the routes they achieved with justifiable pride... of course we left quite a few amazing routes to be done in the Pala in future. We spent a final few days in a very wintry Canazei further north where we met up again with the five members of the Trekking team. The trekking team had been shepperded by newly qualified ML(Summer) and final year student Antony Butler along a version of the Alta Via 1 with great success. It proved to be an emotional and enjoyable reunion and final meal. I was able to thank all the students, not just for their energy and hard work which had gone to make this expedition such a resounding success, but also as representatives of a wider body of students whom I have instructed over the years and who have helped me on my journey to becoming an IFMGA Mountain Guide.
(Left: Joe James and me on the summit of the Pala de San Martino.)
Without these students, many of whom have become good friends over the years it would have been a much less dynamic and vibrant journey... with far fewer amusing stories and memories stored away... and most importantly it would have been no where near as much fun! I sincerely hope that I can share some mountain magic with many more of them into the future! Thank you all so very much for helping me achieve one of my life goals. (Right: Alasdair Sherry lost in a sea of limestone on the Pordoispitze, Mariakante).
It was (as you can tell) an emotional farewell, as the instructors and students started their long drive back north to the UK, and this time I decided to take a little time for myself and not rush back to Chamonix. I spent the day recceing an area where I plan to run a ski tour next spring, and then looking round the beautiful city of Brixen. It was a lovely and immensely enjoyable finish to a great expedition to the Dolomites and as always I take away so many wonderfull memories that it's impossible not to start dreaming of the next Dolomites adevntures! (Above: A happy team after the Punta Fiames, James, Mike, Brave Dave and Me.)
It's been a long journey with plenty of ups and downs along the way but as I write this on a wet weather day in the Dolomites I can proudly announce I have completed my IFMGA Mountain Guides training and assessment. Thankfully, on reflection, there have been more positive experiences to negative ones and if there is one thing I remain sure of is that I love my work in the mountains!
Over the last few weeks I have been working on a few routes with my close friend Stuart Macdonald who as one of my Mentors through the Guides scheme has been immensely supportive and helpfull in helping me find good work and gain the right experience to pass my final exam. As ever... thank you so much Stu!
I spent a few days working alongside Stu with two clients Tim (Seen left) and Amy. Stu and Amy on the final summit slopes below right.
We climbed the North ridge of the Weismiess and the South ridge of the Lagginhorn, both good AD routes. Then I returned to Chamonix to rest a little time before my test. It's over a week away now but if I reflect on my test day I can't help but smile... it proved to be a great route on a beautifull day in the good company of BMG trainer and assessor Andy Teasdale. We did the SW ridge of the Douves Blanche from the valley, and although I have climbed it before about 3 years ago I haven't Guided it and we did a different variant start rather than the 'Integrale' which I'd done with friend Richard Bently a few years ago. (See Blog Post July 2010).
The ridge was clear of snow and in great conditions and it was nice to be able to just get on with Guiding the route without switching in and out of role with another candidate. With a reasonable competent client (I think I can call Andy Teasdale that...) we moved very efficiently and by 2pm were back at the Plan de Bertol and able to look back up at the ridge from below in admiration. It truly is a lovely route and one I'm sure I'd be delighted to Guide again in future. A true gem in the Arolla area! On the walk down from the Plan de Bertol Andy was able to debrief me on the day... and I'm sure you can imagine my happiness and relief when he congratulated me on a job well done and told me that I had passed. I almost hugged him on the spot. I had been so disappointed to be deferred at the end of last summer, with the prospect of not qualifying with my fellow Aspirants unless this test went well. Finally the pressure of assessment was off and I could start planning for the future. I think that Andy was probably just as pleased for me as I was and it was a great end to a very enjoyable day. I have really enjoyed working with Andy this summer, and although from now on I will no longer require supervision from a more experienced Guide, I hope to get the chance to work with him again.
I headed home to Chamonix that night with a real sense of satisfaction... and excited about where my journey would take me next. No opportunity for rest immediately afterwards though because full Guide Sandy Allen had contracted me to work with him on the Matterhorn the very next day! So with a quick turn around and small celebration at home with Roeland I was off to Zermatt to meet up with my client Mike Lean with whom I would climb the Hornli for the second time in as many weeks.
I'd been keen to work alongside Sandy all summer but dates just hadn't worked out, so was glad to have these few days with him, even though it came straight after passing my test. He is an experienced and very approachable Guide and has been nothing but encouraging since I met him earlier in the summer. He promised that Mike was a capable and very interesting gentlemen and he was totally spot on. Mike is a Professor of nutrition at Glasgow University and having google-stalked him the night before I also knew he was partly responsible for the development of the 'healthy pizza'. I was able to quizz him about this at dinner in the Hornli hut and ask whether these were good deep fried... Both him and his friend, Manfred who would be Guided by Sandy were excellent company and I enjoyed my time with them. Mike had even climbed with the Uncle of one of my students whilst he was at University.... small world!
With a steady pace we made good time up the route in cold conditions, and although we were somewhat delayed by teams returning from the summit we found solitude and splendid views on the top of the Matterhorn after 5 1/2hrs of climbing. It did take us somewhat longer on the descent I have to admit, where I found out that Mike is a very carefull downclimber and not a huge fan of being lowered... thankfully he was ever patient with my sense of urgency and although we didn't make the last lift to Zermatt, we did at least make it down to town before last light. Mike... I'm sure you'll read this... I hope you like the photo of you in the lee of the wind here just below the summit. Not a drop of Coca Cola has passed my lips since we parted... Good luck for your future alpine adventures!
So after considerable time spent scouring over weather forecasts trying to find the best places to climb in the alps during a week of very unsettled weather with Adrian Nelhams I had a little bit of time off. As luck would have it my time off also coincided with a return to beautifull sunny conditions, and as always with such moments, the idea of resting had to be put on the back burner.
One of many projects circling in my imagination for a few years now has been a sequence of ridges in the Arolla valley ranked in degrees of seriousness. The next one on the horizon for me was the complete traverse of the Aiguilles Rouges d'Arolla. Now I've heard quite varying reports of this ridge traverse, with some people suggesting that it is a ridge of truly epic-making potential and considerable lose rock... whilst other reports rate it as a wonderfull classic alpine adventure. I have known for a long time that I needed to find out where the truth lay. When I heard that British Guide Graham Frost had guided two friends, Matthew and Bill over it whilst working for Martin Moran... well I knew that the time had come to find out for sure!
With a brilliant email packed with information about the best line for the route from Graham and the knowledge that fellow British Aspirant Mike Brownlow might have time off and be open to such a suggestion I knew that a plan was definitely on the cards! After a little bit of convincing (Of which I believe I have to thank Mark Charlton for gentle encouragement) Mike was in on the plan, of a valley based 'day-hit' on this classic Valais adventure ridge traverse. The photo above shows Mike cruising up the somewhat borken climbing of the north summit. So how does the ridge rate? Well in my opinion it was excellent and I will certainly be guiding it in future for anyone who loves this kind of thing. And what is this kind of thing? Well to be sure there is some lose rock... the breche at the start of the traverse actually has a section of 'kitty-litter' like rock (well decomposed rock fragments) that give surprisingly good foot holds for such uninspiring material. Thankfully that was the last time we encournted this... well until the west-flanking descent of the latter section of the traverse.
For the most part the rock is good and the climbing no-wehere tricky, we never needed rock shoes and for the most part could move together... hence we made a fast ascent car to car of about 10hrs. The main section of ridge includes 15 pinnacles some of which are climbed, and most turned and this provides the most interesting climbing. After the south summit the route drops off onto the west flank to avoid the rotten rock of the final ridge section... that said the flank provides some alarming if easy down-scrambling where there is no obvious line but many seem to work until you pick up a better and more obvious track at the Col Ignes far below. Both Mike and I were very glad of Grahams notes for this section as it's not easy to believe that a sensible descent can easily be made of this rubble strewn face.
I have to say in reflection that I really liked this route and would recommend it to you! If you don't like lose rock and require all your mountain-climbing to be totally solid and secure then this probably isn't going to be your cup of tea... but lets be honest... the Alps has been formed by weathering processes which leaves a lot of ridges and mountains in a less than 'sanitised' state... so if you really want to climb some of the most inspiring routes of the Alps, dealing with a little lose rock is something you have to face up to. That said, the traverse of the Aiguilles rouges d'Arolla has some lose rock, but not really very much and this certainly didn't detract from the overall enjoyment. I'm pretty sure that Mike agreed with me about this... but he was glad it didn't turn into an epic and got back to the campsite in Evolene in time to rest, do some washing and prepare for work the next day.
I was lucky to be having a full day off the next day before a couple of days working on the Matterhorn with Stuart Macdonald. My client was to be the first man from the Faroe Islands to climb this iconic summit... a charming gentleman named Jakup. He had just finished a week with Mont Blanc Guides successfully climbing Mont Blanc and had spontaneously decided to try the Matterhorn since the weather and conditions were good and he was acclimatised. My friend Miles Bright put me in touch with him and it proved to be a fortuitous pairing as on thursday we successfully gained the summit after a slick and rapid 4 1/2hr ascent. Jakup proved to be pretty nimble on his feet but (and I feel sure that he won't mind me saying this...) fairly disappointingly inexperienced with any kind of ropework. That said he's a fast learner and by the time we regained the Hornli hut he was actually getting used to having a rope on and what various bits of climbing equipment were called. His quip later that "why bother learning rope systems on training climbs when you can learn on the Matterhorn" was fairly disturbing... but given how steady he was on his feet there was a certain reason to his arguement. He proved great company for the climb and as my first ever client on this coveted mountain we made a great team... here is a photo of us on completion of our mission.
With more good weather following this work and more time off I team up with friend and former student Toby Pitts-Tucker (in Chamonix for a few weeks with another good friend Joe Williams) for a Classic Aiguilles Rouges ridge traverse from the Aiguille Martin over the Aiguille de Perseverence and onto the Aiguille de Chamois and back... again a day hit from the Index lift above Chamonix. The guidebook rates it as a long day, but splitting the lead with Toby made for fast progress and we were back enjoying the tasty cakes at the Lac Blanc refuge for lunchtime... it made me think that perhaps we should have gone for a longer traverse... maybe even an integrale from yhe summit of the Brevent... has it been done? I'm sure it must have... but now I have another plan hatching away for the future....
A weak front passed over and gave a few days off for some valley cragging before Roeland and I finally got some time off at the same time... our first of the summer. Somehing I had been looking forward to for months! So what do a couple of Mountain Guides do when they have a holliday... well they go climbing of course!
Which route to choose always requires some negotiation between Roeland and myself... we both have to want to do it of course and when time is in short supply it has to be something both of us have had our eyes on for a while. This time we easily agreed on a route.
There is a face in the Ecrins with some striking pillers and ridges above the Vallon de Bonne Pierre above La Berard. You can made a lovely bivouac quite close to the face and the description promised to deliver 1000m of climbing on a great line. At TD+ it should have some interesting pitches and route finding to boot. We agreed... the Left Hand Central Piller of the N Face of the Dome des Ecrins... never heard of it?? Well I would love to be able to tell you it was amazing.... and everything about it screams out for it to BE amazing... but there is simply too much creaky and alarmingly lose rock. So I can't recommend it. In fact about two thirds of the way up Roeland and I (a little frazzled from so much sustained concentration in dealing with the looseness) agreed that it probably wasn't justifiable.
I'm partly writing this so that in future I remember that it was somewhat traumatic... as the line is so striking and inspiring that it is conceivable that in future I might forget just how bad it was...
It probably looks fine in all our pictures... don't be fooled! Even though I consider myself reasonable at dealing with less than solid rock... this was too far gone on the scale for me. If you choose to do the route knowing this... then at least forewarned might be forearmed and with your perspective set like this you might actually find it ok. The harder climbing (thankfully) was on sections of more solid rock... note that I say "more solid rock".
Enough said... it was good to be out climbing with Roeland again... but next time we might stick to solid Chamonix Granite...