Thursday, 25 September 2014

Close to Cashing in My Air Miles on Esk Buttress

     I eagerly watched the weather forecasts develop through the week and the stable high pressure looked like it was hanging around into the next week. It had been dry for what seemed an age which means one thing, up to the mountain crags. Esther and I met up in Langdale and had a cracking day up on Pavey Ark, climbing the classic routes Astra and Cruel Sister. If you haven’t climbed up at Pavey yet, I highly recommend it as the rock is superb and the crag full of classic routes. On the way back to the car Esther asked where I was keen for tomorrow and only one route popped into my head; Central Pillar on Esk Buttress.
Esther on Astra, Pavey
     After camping at Cockley Beck we began the walk into Great Moss and the crag. I had wanted to climb Central Pillar for several years, through my time in the Lakes, when visiting friends up there, climbing trips on the mountain crags nearby, but for some reason it had never quite come together. The crag is stunning, huge clean buttresses of rock looking over Great Moss like a fortress at the head of the valley. I was pretty nervous as we walking in, the anticipation of climbing the route in good style, I knew at this point it would definitely be pushing me close to my limit. The crag grew and grew as we got closer until we were gearing up at the bottom with the crag rising above. 
Esk Buttress
     I was leading off, up the start of Bridges Route, a classic Hard Severe until reaching a pinnacle I was heading straight up the wall. I stood comfortably on the ledge looking up the wall for the crack line I was meant to be following which was little more than a few intermittent splits in the rock. For some reason I was worried about what lay ahead, but i managed to talk myself round and got on with it. The pitch pieced together, the holds appeared and the gear was plentiful. I reached the comfortable belay ledge, slipped my boots off and bought Esther up. 

     Esther led off up the slab, on quite a long pitch linking lots of features of rock. Up a slab, traverse to a ledge, breaking through some ledges and into a groove above to a comfy ledge above. Sounds easy when written down. The pitch was complex, I followed through the lower sections which climbed well with really nice moves. The groove proved problematic however, it seemed blank of both holds and gear, a top effort by Esther, who, at the belay had left a lonely zero cam some eight metres below here. I pressed and smeared my way up the insecure groove, cursed Esther for the small holds she had left chalk on. She could only remind me that her hands are smaller than mine and therefore the holds felt bigger and fine. I reached the belay and could see my next pitch ahead and simultaneously a lump appeared in my throat. 
Esther heading up Pitch 2 on Central Pillar
     Here is what Hard Rock has to say about this pitch: ‘The second man, belayed in this position is excellently placed to apprehend his leader’s fate. A slight traverse onto the wall, which tilts out above the groove below leads to a piton. Despite the situation’s unsuitability for such antics, a series of boulder problems ensues. A pull out onto a block is both insecure in itself and leaves doubts as to the block’s stability. After standing on the block a long grope upward to holds in a quartzite band in the only escape. The band is seized, pulled on to and traversed to a cool haven in Bower’s Route.’ Well I’m glad I hadn’t read that before climbing the route as I probably wouldn’t have done. 

     I thought the crux moves were the traverse across the ledge and the piton ledge above big enough to stand on. I was wrong. The traverse wasn’t too bad, just relied on balance as the wall above was pushing out. I was after some gear as I reached the ledge, but pulled up to find no piton, just the rusty remains of one, but a deep lock off enabled me to reach some cord around the block. I moved up both hands behind the block and reached up. The hold was not as positive as I’d hoped and the steepness of the wall was dwindling the energy in my arms, I couldn’t commit. I moved down to the ledge, no standing though as it was to small, feet below I shook one arm out at a time. This was not a good position for me, I don’t recover well on routes so couldn’t hang around too long. I pulled up to try again, no way could I make the move, back to the block, shake shake. I had to go now. 
Looking down to Great Moss from the top of Esk Buttress
     My memory is a bit hazy on this next section as I can’t quite remember how I managed to stay on. I reached up again with my left, right gripped this poor pinch crimp, again with my left, flatty. I was grasping, flatty again and stand on the block. I was looking at the air miles into the void below, at least it would be a clean fall I though. I grasped again, the holds had to improve otherwise I was off; jug. Yes. The right hand was a sloper jug with weight on my fingers, and I could guppy the left. Between my hands a small wire slot, number 2. I had to put it in with my left because of my feet, too much weight over my right. I don’t know what possessed me next as I stuck a heel hook out left near my head. What on earth! This took a lot of weight off my right hand and the wire was in. I pulled up onto the ledge and finally had weight on my feet. The holds were small again but I could stand as I traversed right to bridge a groove where I stood for a few minutes before moving up to the belay. I was so relieved, I was sure I was off. Esther came up, surprised that I had managed to stay on and lead us up the last pitch to the top of the crag. Sat on top with the sun beaming on us, I was so chuffed and I was pleased that it was a challenge, maybe a little close to going airborne, but I, we had done it. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Team Send of the Aiguille du Pouce

The Mont Blanc Massif from the Aiguille du Pouce
     I had never done any rock climbing on previous trips out to the Alps, mainly focussed on the snow routes to the summit. However Ben and Kirsty had hatched a plan on their five week road trip around the Alps and Dolomites. They had always wanted to climb the South Face of the Aiguille du Pouce, taking the Voie des dallas, a 350m route which weaves its way up the face. As neither Piers or I had done any climbing on rock in the Alps, we were a bit unsure as to the conversion of grades, thinking it might have been a bit out of our depth with several pitches of 5c and 5b. Ben said we’d be fine so we went along with it, easy enough for the lad who has onsighted E5 to say. 
The team camping up by the old Index lift
     We caught the last Index lift up and camped by the old lift station ready for an early start the following morning as Ben and Kirsty needed to be driving back that evening to catch their ferry the following day. A 5am start led us up a loose and ever steeping gully of scree and choss towards the col above where we first saw the Pouce. It looked huge, the route being 15 pitches and a long ridge traverse to regain the col on descent, but first we had to climb it. We descended over the col and into the corrie below with no axes and crampons required at the moment, we only had a couple of small snow patches to cross. We reached the bottom of the route and looked up, it was big, and very committing for us with our 50m single rope. I was nervous about what lay ahead, uncertainty at its difficulty and the amount of gear up there, the guide saying it was only partly equipped. 
Cold fingers and toes on the lower slabs
     Piers led off on the first pitch crossed a bold ledge and slab to reach the first belay. The rock was cold to the touch, and my feet felt numb in my rock shoes as I padded up the slab. It was 7:30am. Piers wasn’t to happy with the rock, we probably should have picked a shorter less committing route to acquaint ourselves with the rock and style of Chamonix climbing. The next few pitches were proving to be the crux pitches as I said I would lead through them. These pitches were bold as I lead off, the very occasionally bolt providing some protection up the compact rock. The crux pitches followed and provided some bold slab moves between poor pegs with very little weaknesses in the rock to place my own protection. We moved behind Kirsty and Ben up the route often a pitch behind meeting them at belays. 
Heading towards the sun several pitches up
     The pitches seemed to blur together, as I focussed on each pitch separately rather than the whole route. I often take this approach on multipitch routes, breaking it down and grind away at the route, rather than being distract by the top pitch when I am only one up. Pitch two, three, four and five were done, and after pitch six and seven  then meat of the route and hard pitches were complete. We moved around the face and into the sun at the beginning of pitch six and it was beating down onto my neck straightaway, as I heated up in my windshirt. These harder pitches followed some definite features, stiff thin cracks riddled by pegs and scars. As we moved onto the easier pitches above, we climbed rounded ribs and small corners which didn’t have much definition making route finding harder. 
Is there any gear this way?
Team on the summit of Aiguille du Pouce
     Up and up, pitch by pitch until we reached a the loose chimney of death as we named it. This jumble of huge boulders looked ready to topple at any moment and we hid round the corner as Ben and Kirsty climbed as quiet and controlled as possible not to dislodge anything down in our direction. Kirsty climbed out of view and sounded that she was away from the choss, it was my turn. I climbed as controlled as possible, bridging my way up through the jumble, weaving between the blocks until i was out of the danger zone, up towards the scrambling finish. As Piers appeared over the top of the blocks there was a sigh of relief from us all. Rock boots off, trainers on, with a short scramble to the summit. 
Making our way onto the ridge from the summit
Ben and Kirsty picking their way through the ridge

     From the summit, the guidebook suggested an hour and a half back to the Index lift. We got the coils on and started making our way along the ridge, which was very undulating, and cairns came and went. It became very time consuming, with lots of rock steps up and down and just took time as the rope was a necessity. We arrived back at the col after an hour and a half just on the ridge, and started battling our way down the gully towards the lift and our stashed gear. Back in time for a busy lift, tea and medals in the valley. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Disney climbing on the Dent du Geant

     I have wanted to climb the Dent du Geant since first seeing the spire of rock on my first trip to the Alps several years ago.We’d heard that the peak can get extremely busy and even queuing can take place as teams advance up the fixed ropes. We definitely didn’t want to get caught in a queue. Once again there was a forecast for strong winds but good weather for the day. We made an early start from the hut, leaving at 4:30am, with only one team ahead of us. The approach across the glacier was short and well tracked as we ascended a steep snow slope which led to a mixed slope with several short steps. 
Dent du Geant from the Torino Hut
     We left our crampons and axe at the base of the pillar, it was time to call on our rock climbing skills. The wind was strengthening, and this quickly chilled me to the bone as we slowed down to pitch a couple of sections. I was originally reluctant to don my down jacket knowing that I didn’t have any other additional warm clothing, but I was cold now in this wind and couldn’t stand for long. The warmth was instant, and spirits were immediately raised. We alternated leads on the lower section and were quickly passed by one team and continued to leapfrog their second as we continued. We quickly built a relationship with this pair as we shared belays with them, Paulo a guide from Courmayeur and Peter from Scotland. 
Pier on the lower section of fixed ropes
Joining the belay higher up the slabs
     The huge fixed ropes raised above us, guiding us up the upper slabs. I had never quite experienced mountaineering like this, yarding our way up the fixed ropes, clipping the odd piton as a runner, trying our best to keep up with Paulo who is a beast. The fixed ropes had been described to me by others as Disney climbing, how they would depict mountaineering in one of their animated films. I was toasty warm on the belays, and almost too hot whilst climbing, but I definitely wasn’t complaining. We swiftly ascended the ropes, almost forgetting that we were nearly at 4000m and I definitely hadn’t done this amount of arm training before the trip, it was definitely taking it out of me. 
Making progress up the Dent du Geant
The upper ridge section before the summit wall.
     The fixed ropes stopped, and it threw us a bit as we had to think again, our previous pitches becoming almost automatic. I had to climb on the rock as we climbed a ridge towards the final summit wall, the frost covered rock numbing my fingers as I placed protection for Piers across a traverse. Piers lead up the short summit wall as we met Paulo and Peter up there for summit photos. Then the weather changed.
Summit picture with the Madonna

Peter and Piers on an abseil belay
     We had seen the cloud approaching from the Aiguille u Midi and it started snowing. We coupled up with Paulo and Peter on the abseils back down to crampons below. We rolled down the abseils using our three ropes and three abseils later were back at our gear in a near blizzard. We kitted up again and said our goodbyes as we headed back through the whiteout towards the Torino Hut and our lift back to the Midi. Once again the Alps reminded us of what it is like to be in Scottish winter. 
Back through the snow to the Torino Refuge

Monday, 1 September 2014

Scottish Winter in the Alps - Aiguille du Chardonnet

     Piers and I trawled the guidebooks before heading out to Chamonix, looking for routes and peaks that took our fancy before arriving in the valley. I think every alpinist has a hit list of routes that they wish to climb. We were only out in Chamonix for 12 days so had to make the most of our time there, so after a quick first day up the Aiguille du Midi with some time on the glacier, a traverse of Pointe Lachenal and the Cosmiques Arete, we were booked into the Albert Premier Refuge above Le Tour. Our aim, the Forbes Arete on the Aiguille du Chardonnet. 
Aiguille du Chardonnet - Forbes Arete follows the left skyline
Eyeing up our objective
     It was a roasting day as we plodded up the path towards the refuge glad of trainers on our feet rather than our rigid mountain boots. The path to the hut is well travelled as it is situated on the edge of the Tour Glacier and no ice gear is needed and a round trip is a popular day walk with walkers. We used binoculars to eye up our route, which is visible from the hut, apprehensive of a windy forecast due the following day. 
Forcing a smile thinking 'Wheres the sun?'
     The alarm went at 2am, far too soon and we headed down to force some food and tea down before setting out into the night. We were the first team to set off, keen to make the most of a settled night before the wind strengthened at dawn. We glacier crossing was straightforward enough with plenty of tracks to follow we began to climb the steep initial snow slopes to reach the arete. Our visibility was dropping as we climbed higher into the clag above, hoping it would burn off as the sun rose. We continued up the snow bosse and the footprints began to disappear, it was 6am and our headtorches still led the way through the cloud. The sun must be here soon; that thought lasted a while. We climbed upwards to reach the arete to find a lot of soft powder snow. 

     The wind was whipping over from the West side of the arete as we made progress along the more sheltered East side. We kept hearing voices, unsure if they were following us or climbing up the popular Migot Spur on the face. Our speed slowed as we were making short pitches through soft snow which covered the rock and slid down the face below as we tried to stand upon it. We reached a few snow saddles and the soft snow had corniced in the small cols and felt very sketchy. 
Piers on the summit of the Aiguille du Chardonnet
Has to be a summit selfie!
     We had passed the guidebook time, which is not surprising considering the conditions we were facing, but we were hoping that we would reach the summit soon, how long could this arete continue. We cloud was still not lifting and we could see around 20 metres ahead, but the biggest problem was the temperature as we grew colder thanks to the wind chill and our decreasing speed.  We managed to relocate ourselves in the guidebook description as we reached a large gendarme, which was situated close to the summit, thanks to a short break in the cloud. I lead one more pitch and skirted around the bulk of rock and up to the summit, as the wind whipped the cloud around us and the sun was trying to break through. It was like Scottish winter!
Atmospheric gear sorting
      Descending the steep snow slopes wasn’t as bad as I was expecting by combining a mixture of sort abseils, daggering and facing out we made our way to the top of our abseils to reach the hanging glacier below. I was glad of a break in the cloud as we started this descent. Three abseils down a gully took us back onto the tracked hanging glacier below. The tracks crossed the bergschrund and  weaved through huge crevasses as we descended to the Tour glacier. I am incredibly intrigued by these glacial environments, looking down into crevasses as I pass them, and just looking at the huge crevices in awe of their formation. We reached the Tour glacier and headed back to the refuge for a quick refuel before continuing down to the valley, and the pizza shop in Argentiere.