Monday, 25 August 2014

Finishing Up

Cam's injury would not allow him to continue climbing, and it was soon apparent that our plan to remain in Chamonix into September was no longer possible. In the meantime, Staples and I took advantage of a morning's good weather to get into the Aiguilles Rouge and climb the East Face of Le Brevent. From the valley the face looks sheer and incredibly imposing, but up close it's more broken and vegetated than you'd realise. Nonetheless, several routes have been equipped on it, the classic of which, and our target, was the Voie Frison-Roche. Somewhat ambitiously graded TD, it was a fully-equipped 5 pitch sport route. Staples was still feeling a bit sore in his rock shoes so I led the whole thing.

Waiting in line at the incredibly promising looking start of the Frison-Roche 

The first pitch had a briefly tricky slab, I lunged and over-extended through it in a display of dangling incompetence, then easier terrain led to a belay below the crux 6a(+) pitch. Every team I saw in front of us dogged it rather spectacularly, so I was somewhat apprehensive approaching what, from our stance, looked like a blank wall with bolts randomly drilled into it. But imagine my delight when I rounded a rib to find a proper hand-jamming corner crack awaiting me. I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck right in.


Still waiting...

It was awesome climbing. Bridging, arm wedging, a fingerlock, laybacking, everything you could possibly want. I climbed quickly and soon found myself at the anchor and bringing Staples up. He led through a pitch of scrambling to the base of a perfect open book corner that led to the summit of the mountain. Once more the climbing was spectacular, delicate and sustained, with a proper foot smearing layback sequence at the crux. A guy in front managed to lob off and there was blood everywhere, but a bit of claret just added to the atmosphere. Visibility had dropped, it was now snowing, and I was panicking we'd wasted so much time queuing we'd miss the last bin. Still, fantastic route. We legged it back to Planpraz with 20mins or so to spare.

Somewhere near the top of Le Brevent

After that we rested and sorted all the gear out, got hammered on Staples' last night, then saw him off in a fog of hungover self pity. For an alpine first-timer he'd done amazingly well. Cam and I didn't expect to stay much longer, but I still wanted to get into the mountains one last time. So on a cloudy but dry morning I got the bin up to the Midi and stomped across the Vallee Blanche towards the three summits of Pointes Lachenal. A route traversed them at about AD standard, one scrambly bit up a chimney to the last peak, and feeling good I jollied across in an hour or so.

Warmed up and confident, I walked over to the start of the Cosmiques Ridge of the Midi. It was harder than Pointes Lachenal and I felt somewhat apprehensive - but I knew I'd be annoyed with myself if I pussied out, so on I went, spinelessly giving in to my own peer pressure...

The Cosmiques Arete is the obvious left-hand ridge

The first half was piss easy, then I got stuck behind a slow guided party on a section that required abseiling. I waited, helped out when I could, then nipped past them at the base of the second abseil. From there on I managed to overtake everyone else no worries. The climbing was straightforward snow and mixed, occasional steps over blocks, but I knew the crux was waiting for me.

It was a steep slab with a flaky crack down the middle, and it might've been quite tough if someone hadn't drilled a series of perfect frontpoint slots all the way up it. I teetered my way up in seconds, vaguely amused by the whole thing. Finally the route swung round onto the north side of the peak, onto more exposed terrain above a disconcerting void, traversing narrow ledges past a short chimney that was the last real obstacle. A quick shimmy onto the crest of the ridge and I reached a wobbly ladder leading up to a viewing platform full of gawking tourists.

Aware of just how awesome I (probably) looked, I gibbered up the rickety bloody thing with all the nonchalance I could muster, saying something witty and understated like 'That was worse than the damn climb!" as I swung over the railing to the platform. Both routes combined had taken me a little over 3 hours. I suddenly saw an unnerving potential in my alpine soloing prospects, but that will be for another time. I made my way back down to Chamonix and told Cam I was happy to leave as soon as we could get ready. His accident aside it had been a fantastic and hugely successful trip.


The Vallee Blanche

The descent ridge from the Midi station

With the Chamonix peaks plastered in snow we forgot about rock climbing and dragged the ice tools out from the bottom of the boot. There was a three day weather window forecasted so we packed bivy kit and extra food and got the bin up to the Aiguille du Midi. From there we made our way towards the Triangle du Tacul.

Chere Couloir climbs the right-hand side of the central rock buttress

Both Cam and I had always wanted to do the Chere Couloir, and it looked in good nick, so we left our bags below the 'schrund and daggered up to the first belay. I led the first proper pitch of straightforward ice, then Cam shot up a quick mixed chimney to get a better belay below the steep bit. This next pitch was the crux of the route and Cam did a great job leading it. Although 85 degrees in places it took screws well and Staples and I both seconded it no worries.

Looking down from the second belay
Cam leading the crux pitch
Staples following the crux
The final hard pitch wasn't quite as sustained but still had a steep wall near the top, 80 degrees or Scottish IV maybe. I'm not amazing (ie I'm shite) at ice climbing, but I gave it a go anyway, and found it completely piss. It's all in the head (probably good conditions help as well...). My frontpoints felt solid wherever I kicked them, first time tool placements, I even started enjoying myself a bit. A final sprint up easy snow led to the belay at the end of the difficulties, and we abbed back down to the Vallee Blanche, very psyched for the next couple of days.

At the top of the hard climbing

A freezing bivy later, in my stripped out tent and three-season sleeping bags (apart from Staples, the bastard), and we were gearing up early to tackle the North Face of Tour Ronde - a relatively modest snow and ice climb up a 3700-odd meter peak on the other side of the glacier.

Our bivy on the Vallee Blanche

The 'schrund was a nightmare. An overhang of unconsolidated snow, footholds crumbling the moment you weighted them. It set the tone.

We moved together for a while but conditions were pretty bad, so we traversed over to a rock rib on the right-side of the snowfield and pitched our way up to the crux narrowing, Cam in front, Staples and I grovelling behind. Here the ice was actually pretty good, and we briefly hoped it would remain until the top of the face. But when we emerged to the final slopes it was into utter powdery toss once more. Moving together again, we thrashed our way upwards, kicking collapsing steps, comedy tool placements sliding in the mush before us. Eventually we gained the base of the summit block, looked at the direct finish, though 'sod that', and skulked round the back to find the easy scramble to the top.

On the summit of Tour Ronde

We were all tired after swimming up the face and just wanted to be down as quick as possible. Unfortunately, Cam suffered a slip during an abseil, and injured his ankle badly enough to require airlifting to hospital. He disappeared into the sky hanging from the mountain rescue helicopter, and Staples and I continued in a very slow fashion down the ridge. We were shaken up, we were exhausted. By the time we regained the glacier it was far too late to think about getting the bin back down, and the shelter had gone with Cam. So instead we trudged down the Vallee Blanche towards Montenvers, finally collapsing and bivying on choss in the region of the Envers Hut.

Looking down at the SE ridge, which Staples and I descended

The next day we descended the Mer de Glace and caught the train back to Cham to find Cam in crutches but still smiling at least. We drank much beer and tried to forget.

What next, then?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Misadventures in the Aiguilles

During a reasonable weather window we bivied a few days in the Chamonix Aiguilles, and managed some really adventurous climbing. Staples had hurt his ankle, so he opted to rest up while Cam and I did the mega classic Papillons Ridge of the Aiguille du Peigne. The hardest bits were VS or so, and the exposure was awesome. We got up pretty quick so we decided to continue up the normal route to the summit. Unfortunately our guidebook description wasn't very clear, and after moving together up some pretty steep terrain we ended up on the much harder South Ridge.

The climbing was sustained, and we knew there was a storm coming in some time in the afternoon, but we kept on going, knowing we were very close. Eventually, the top less than a rope-length away, we were shut down by an insanely steep wall. Apparently it went at A2 or something, god knows what free, but either way we weren't going any further. We began a series of 5 abseils off manky tat and old pegs to get off the summit pyramid, then shuffled back down the normal route to our tent. It was a bit disappointing to back off so close to the top, but ultimately a great day's climbing.

After waiting out the storm, reading and eating in the tent for a day, Cam and I got up super early to attempt the Cordier Pillar of the west face of the Grandes Charmoz. This epic 600m trad route was sustained at grade V rock, with a couple of VI cruxes - around HVS in UK terms.

We were both really apprehensive as we plodded up the sketchy Nantillons Glacier, the face looming over us. The second pitch was one of the hardest of the whole route, and it felt nails early in the morning with cold hands; I hung off old pegs and grovelled my way through a committing layback sequence to reach the belay. After that it never got much easier. We followed cracks and corners, split by decent ledges with fixed anchors of tat and pegs.

Next up was a sustained corner which i led in a huge 50m pitch. It looked mental from below but there were loads of small edges you could bridge off, hidden crimps and flatties that just about kept me going. The scale of the wall, the unrelenting steepness was incredible. We climbed on, following crack systems, until it all went wrong.

Above us was a mess of overhangs split by micro-seams, a series of corners all leading into dead ends. I thought we'd followed the route pretty well, there was tat and pegs everywhere, but there simply wasn't a way through that looked feasible - for us, anyway.

We tried the three options we could see. I climbed up, hard free moves, aiding off cams when it all got too much. Each time i was shut down and had to do exposed pendulum abseils to get to the next stance to try again. Eventually we threw in the towel and started abseiling off. I don't think we were that far below the big ledge system 2/3rds up the face. Had we reached it we would've had a clear run at the summit.

However, not long after we finished the last abseil and reached the Nantillons glacier, the weather came in, and in just a few hours the peaks were plastered in snow. We would've been caught out right in the middle of it had we not descended when we did.

We headed back down to Chamonix to regroup. I managed to send a 7a pitch at Les Gailands that i'd had a play on a few days ago. Once I figured out the hard sequence linking two pockets the rest of the route was pretty straightforward.

Now the mountains were covered in snow, and any rock climbing was out for a while, but maybe ice higher up would be coming into condition. We kept an eye on the forecast and waited...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Frendo Spur

The Frendo Spur from our bivy

When Cam, Staples and I arrived in Chamonix the weather was pretty unstable, so we spent a few days sport climbing and drinking whiskey, waiting for a good window to get on something big. We decided to have a go at the Frendo Spur of the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, a 1200m rock and ice route that we could climb in 2 days with a bivy near the top if we had to. It would be an insane thing for Staples to do as his first ever alpine route, but the forecast was good and we just couldn't resist it.

Just like a hut, only cold

So the evening before we got the bin up to the Plan D'l Aiguille and hiked up to the bottom of the face. We bivied on top of a flat boulder and spent a fun evening eating cold pasta and getting drizzled on. I slept fitfully, getting colder and colder as the night went on. Eventually, 4am came round, and we munched on some Cliff Bars and got going. A short trudge up a snowfield led us onto the spur, via an easy slanting ramp system. Soon the climbing got harder, maybe UK Severe standard, but we carried on moving together in big boots to save time. None of us wanted another freezing bivy on the mountain if we could do the whole route in a day.

Typical climbing on the spur
Lovely lovely choss
The first crux was a grovelly overhanging crack that I aided up as quick as possible. The plan was to play to our strengths, with me leading all the rock, and Cam leading the steep ice pitches at the top. Once established on the crest of the spur things were pretty steady, easy scrambling. Some awesome exposed shuffling on a proper alpine ridge led to the second crux, a tricky corner system. Off I led, finding things OK until a stupid move saw me wedged in a chimney with all my weight on my balls, screaming my tits off in agony. After scraping my way out, minus most of my sack, I hauled myself up on fixed gear to a belay.

Awesome exposure on the crest
Crossing the col before the second crux pitch
From here the climbing got really sustained. Never super hard, but it was constantly stressful smearing on small edges in mountain boots. We followed a shallow corner system, maybe HS in places, to another ledge below the final rock crux. It was basically an overhang formed by a fallen block and I aided the whole thing with a bit of a struggle. Cam and Staples took a far more sensible alternative route to the left, and finally we were at the top of the rock section.

Turd ledge below the snow arete
We had originally planned to bivy here but we were much earlier than expected and didn't fancy hanging around for hours and hours waiting for the next morning. So we carried on. Which was probably a good thing considering the whole ledge was strewn with turds and stank like an open sewer.

Moving together around the rognon
My job done, Cam took over the lead and we plodded up the easy but exposed snow arete towards a rock rognon. The angle steepened gradually to 55 degrees or so, but the snow was firm and well stepped-out, so we kept on moving together.

One of the steeper pitches just below the top

Finally the angle kicked up again, and Cam did a great job leading the last steep ice pitches, probably Scottish III or so. It took the odd screw in places and made for an awesome finish to the route. A last wallow up unconsolidated snow and we were on top.

On the Midi plateau
Job done!