Snowshoeing in the Cairngorms

After a day wading through deep soft powder snow in the Lairig Ghru and feeling like swimming was the only option to make any progress, I was incredibly excited to be offered a pair of snowshoes to borrow for the day.
I’d never snowshoed before, so the chance to have a go was very appealing, particularly if it meant that I could still get some winter mountain days completed without over exerting wading through snow on my own.
If you’ve never snowshoed I’d definitely recommend it.
You step into snowshoes in much the same way you do a pair of crampons, so you do need your boots to be B2 or B3 for them to have the rear gap for the clips. Beyond that they need no real experience to walk in them, just a gait like John Wayne. You do need to have a pair of walking poles to provide the momentum to move though!
Having snowshoes on as I left the car park at Glen Feshie meant that I made really quick progress up the forest track and out on the mountain. Not quite as quick as the smug cross-country skiers but much quicker than the wading i had done the day before.
I could have been in the Alps or Scandinavia the weather was fantastic, not at all like Scottish winter!
As I ascended Sron Na Gioath the benefits of the snowshoes became very clear. I was following the line of the skiers who had left the car park ahead of me, and while I was sinking slightly more into the snow that they were, I was not sinking anywhere near as much as the walkers footprints indicated the couple of walkers ahead of me were.
In fact I had a cheery smugness as I passed them near the top of the mountain, I wasn’t exactly bright and breezy but I was not as sweaty and wrecked like they were.
This also gave me a massive confidence boost. Having been up a few munros this winter with considerably fitter people than myself I had started to feel like winter mountaineering was out of my league, when actually I’ve just spent most of the winter so far wading in the snow.
From the summit ridge I headed to the munro top in the mist and continued across to follow the mountain tops back round to the woodland.

The trouble with New Year goals

I’m going to start by saying that I’m not rubbishing those of you who have set New Year goals. I’ve got some for 2018 too. But the trouble with goals is the pressure you put on yourself to achieve them.

Take my 2017 goals.

• Do winter ML training and also do 15 winter days for log book – ✔️

• Lead climb VD outdoors

• Try ice climbing ✔️

• Half marathon ✔️

• Climb 6b indoors by the end of the year and be able to lead 5s.

• Reach 60 parkruns

• Lead an Alpine route

• Try skiing ✔️

• Learn to ride a motorbike

Now the ticks hide the real story behind last year. I’d already committed to doing the winter ML training and where’s the stress in going on a training course? Getting 15 days for my log book became quite stressful as this winter started though. I found myself putting unnecessary pressure in myself to do routes and weirdly became quite nervous about navigating in white outs. No logical reason why, I love navigation challenges, and I had a blast in Storm Eleanor on a rescue team night nav training this week. The pressure to be out in Scottish winter became less fun though.

Lead climb VD and reach 6b and lead 5 sport climbs. Where do I start with that one? Climbing terrifies me. It’s the one thing I do that I really have to be in the right frame of mind for and I’ve learnt I have to be with the right type of people too. So last year wasn’t that successful for climbing. I had lots of incidents of crying seconding routes and only managed to lead 3 diffs. I did get up to leading 5s indoors but again it matters a lot who I’m with and I found myself having wobbles on 4s sometimes.

Ice climbing seemed an easy one to tick off, weird since rock climbing scares me. But it was a holiday with friends who knew it was my first time out so there was no pressure to perform at any level. As it was, I loved it.

I managed 2 half marathons and a 25km race, with mixed success. The trail races nearly killed me but the Great North Run felt like a blast. I’ve failed to get a proper training pattern though so I never reached 60 parkruns, although I did get to 50.

While I did have a fantastic Alpine trip and did some great AD routes I did not lead anything, again down to confidence and being with people more experienced than me.

Skiing was an easy tick at the end of the year and I lost interest in riding a motorbike.

So you see my dilemma?

The things I really care about succeeding at are the ones I fail to achieve. The goals I set to achieve them become my barriers, no matter how small they are.

So here’s the plan for 2018.

To be kind to myself.

• I want to lead 3 severe routes and 7 VDs.

But it’s ok if I cry. It’s ok to say no to a route. It’s ok to pick easy stuff too. It’s ok if I get to the end of the year and have only got part way to this too. I’m going to try to second more harder stuff too though.  I have a friend who would thing that’s a poor attitude to learning climbing and I should be sucking it up and getting stuck in. That approach didn’t make for happy climbing last year so I’m not doing that again.

• I want to run a marathon.

I might find this easier to do if I can find the time to train as I’m not the competitive person who needs to beat a certain time. Finishing is always my goal.

• I wanted to do my winter ML assessment in early 2019, but my recent winter experience had made me rethink this goal. I’m putting too much pressure on myself to perform, so instead I want to just get 20 winter days in and have fun. Then I’ll see what happens.

And that’s where I’m leaving it this year. I want to be kind to myself. Life isn’t about smashing out goals and punishing yourself for failures. I want to have fun in my adventures.

So if you have set goals for 2018, make sure you enjoy them. Don’t punish yourself for any set backs, just get outside and have fun.

The relationship of Fun/Fear

You’ve probably heard of type 2 fun – when fun challenges you and might scare you but otherwise leads to massive personal development.

I actually imagine fun to be a bubble that I’m in. Its a fairly massive bubble that most of the time I never notice the edges of where it becomes fear. As I’ve pushed myself to do harder and newer things the bubble has grown.

For example, I now love running in the dark on my own. I enjoy hiking long distances in the mountains far from civilisation and love being out in the cold Scottish winters with my face freezing. I love travelling alone to countries that don’t even share the same alphabet, let alone have English speakers.

I like to test the edges of the bubble to work out how far I can push it without popping it. For me this translates to sobbing pathetically or having to concentrate so hard I can hardly think straight and end up with a massive migraine.

There have been some surprises on this journey to stretch my bubble – for example I’ve never been great with heights so was surprised to find I loved paragliding.

I never expected to want to climb higher after reaching Kilimanjaro summit and to continue to want to push this limit in Nepal and Bolivia, going higher and more technical. And to wonder what else I could achieve too…

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I never thought I’d enter a 25km trail race after my first 10km only 2 years ago. While I was physically knackered at the end I was proud of my time, given the heavy rain and sliding around on the rocks and falling over in the mud. I certainly never thought after feeling broken at the end I would run another 2 half marathons in the same year and be considering a marathon.

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I still have a love/hate relationship with climbing due to harbouring a fear of falling. I really have to be in the right frame of mind and with the right people that I trust to feel confident. And even then I can still break out the disco legs and drop an f-bomb.

Trad lead climbing is still on the edge of what I’m happy with, I still shake with fear too much but its a fear I want to conquer. It’s on the right side of the edge of the bubble. I know if I conquer this fear there’s a whole world of challenges to complete.

There’s been few activities that I’ve tried and would never do again; things that were just too far the wrong side of the bubble for me. Caving is possibly one – I don’t enjoy abseiling at the best of times but in the dark and wet was possibly a step too far. Sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot wasn’t my finest hour, and I’m grateful to Ben and Aly for giving me the opportunity; but sometimes in life you find things that you just don’t have the stomach for.

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In striving to expand my bubble and I’m either going to run out of experiences to try, or keep finding myself shaking like a leaf wishing I was somewhere else. Thats the thing with the fun/fear relationship though, trying to find out which side of the bubble you’ll be is addictive.

Scrambling the Aonach Eagach Ridge

I’ve driven down the Glencoe valley numerous times and looked up at the jagged line of the Aonach Eagach ridge, impressed with the shape and both desperate and terrified at the prospect of scrambling the ridge.  I’ve wanted to tackle the ridge since I first visited North West Scotland aged 18, so when I was recently rained off a trip to scramble the Cullins I decided this was a perfect substitute.

I should caveat that as entertaining as the Aonach Eagach ridge is, if you’ve not yet completed routes such as Sharp Edge or Crib Goch then consider getting some serious grade 1 scrambles under your belt before you have a go at this. Its a serious undertaking, as nowhere along the route can you escape and some of the sections of scrambling are exposed and committing.

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First things first…

The first thing to note doing this ridge is that is essential to have a plan for transport between the start and finish as the last thing you want to do is end up walking back up the busy road for your car at the end of the day.

We had planned on hitchhiking – but a summer weekend is the moment to try this with traffic being too busy to stop. After 15 minutes of trying we were not getting anywhere; then two other hikers arrived with the same idea  – 4 of us had no chance of getting a lift. Thankfully they were off to do the ridge too so we decided to car share.

The car park at the start of the route is tiny and usually filled with tourists wanting to quickly photograph the mountains as they drive through the valley so I was lucky to squeeze my car into a spot.

Serious Scrambling

We set off from the car park at a slow pace; the path up to Am Bodach might be easy to follow but it’s quite steep. Initially the path is across a broad ridge and is easy to follow, but its not long before the scrambling starts and route finding is required.
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Scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge is really downclimbing, which requires good foot placements and a slow pace. The first of these sections comes after just leaving Am Bodach summit.

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I was surprised to find the scrambling isn’t relentless, there are sections of the route where you resume walking. It is apparent from the views though that you really can’t escape the ridge once on it and the scrambling varies from terraced ridges, knife edge aretes, greasy gullys and towering chimneys.
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Towards the end of the ridge are the Crazy Pinnacles, which we took by heading right and down climbing a fairly greasy gully. This is definitely not a route to do in the rain!

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Once off the Crazy Pinnacles and over Stob Coire Leith the serious scrambling ends. From here make sure you continue on to the large shelter and trig point at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.

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From here in good visibility its possible to see the path heading south west down to the Claichaig gully – do not take this as it is widely considered a dangerous descent route. Instead continue across heading north west towards the Pap of Glencoe. As you cross the broader peaty plateau you will pick up the descent path to take down to Glencoe and the valley.

We met a group of older men half way along the ridge who were definitely having trouble with the scrambling and taken 5 hours to get to the Pinnacles.  Later when we were in the pub with a whiskey they were only just off the hill (12 hours after starting) – a reminder not to under-estimate the ridge.

Mountaineering on Pointe Lachenal

The snow was like slush and the rock beneath like sand, not reassuring as I climbed the rockface trying to find a secure crack to stick my axe in, to pull me up.

There hadn’t been good conditions for alpine routes the week we were in Chamonix so being able to get onto anything felt like a bonus. The Pointe Lachenal Traverse is relatively easy to access via the Midi cable car and the snow arête descent. There was some trepidation as we headed up the cable car with the visibility being poor and it being considerable colder and windier than it had been for the last few days. At least it had stopped raining for long enough so we could get high.

Crossing the Glacier

I led the descent down the snow arête noting a lot more fresh snow than when we’d climbed a few days before on the Cosmiques Arete. As we descended down to the glacier the visibility dropped to about 100m, and at this point we were also breaking trail with the only other climbers already out heading for the Cosmiques.

It felt a lot like a wintery day in Scotland, minus the horizontal hail against my face.

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As we headed across the blank space, being mindful of the glacier beneath our feet, we met two young alpinists looking for a route. With no map and little concept of how far across the glacier they had to descend to get to their desired climb, we made sure they had at least a good photograph of our map before they headed off into the fog.

Ascending the ridge

At least the cloud lifted as we got near Pointe Lachenal so we had a good view of the snow conditions on the route. Bare ice in parts. Due to the strong wind that had accompanied the last few days snow and rain, and the extremely warm temperatures that had preceded that, the ascent onto the ridge had been completely scoured and had become ice with the constant freeze/thaw.

Whilst the ascent onto Pointe Lachenal isn’t difficult we had to ensure we were properly protected, so ice screws were deployed. This was the advantage of moving as a pair as we could do this with speed. Unfortunately at this point my partner lost his sunglasses which merry whizzed off down the ice into the abyss below. For once we then started praying the sun didn’t come out otherwise he would be quickly snowblind. We climbed the bulge of snow on the left of the image below, and the route continues right across over the first two rock points to descend the snow on the right.

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The ridge is fairly wide with only one awkward step round a rock before you reach the abseil point half way along the route.

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With the abseil complete it was a straightforward traverse of a snow slope to reach the crux of the route. Ah lovely, more rock climbing in crampons.

As it was, the crux wasn’t actually that complex but due to the poor snow conditions and the loose terrain on the chimneys meant that it took a long time for my partner to find a good line to take up the route.

Here’s Andy topping out behind me; our group of three friends had caught us up on the ascent of the crux.

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Andy’s exclamation that the crux was like a Scottish III maybe a IV made me pleased, yes I’d had a few moans en-route, but I got up it on second. (So fingers crossed for a good winter this year!)

The rest of the group were off to the Cosmiques hut to do the arete the following day. Having already done this a few days earlier, and my partner minus sunglasses at midday, we decided to head back.

Don’t underestimate yourself

If there’s one thing I learnt doing Alpine climbing is that I have to stop underestimating myself and have more confidence in my abilities.

Before we had left the Midi station that morning there was a lot of grumbling within our group and amongst other alpinists about the poor snow conditions and poor visibility. We had already seen two groups return from failing to get up Mont Blanc – poor snow conditions had led the Chamonix guides hut to recommend people did not try the mountain. We had certainly seen avalanches.

But I had felt confident in descending the snow arete and taking a look. Being in the blank fog didn’t faze me, I had a compass and was roped to someone I trusted if one of us was unfortunate enough to end up in a glacier. And I was confident enough to deal with it if it was him.

My last trip to the Alps led me to decide to do the Winter ML training, this trip has left me being confident to winter climb this season and consider other options too… watch this space!

Sport climbing in Chamonix – come rain or sunshine

“Pull me up!” I yelled as I clung on with my fingers jammed in a narrow crack of slimy wet rock and my huge mountaineering boots failing to balance on a tiny ledge bearly visible. I was sliding and failing to remain attached to the rock face.  ‘There’s a reason there’s only English climbers up here today’ I thought as it crossed my mind we hadn’t seen anyone else climbing all day.

Sliding on La Somone

It was more than disappointing when after only one day of Alpine climbing we ended up trapped in the valley by poor weather. Like good Brits who are used to torrential rain and getting soaked to the skin, we didn’t want a bit of rain to prevent us having a great holiday. So after a good soaking on the first wet day walking through the woodlands, we decided it wasn’t that wet really and headed out to Le Brevent to climb La Somone.

‘It will be like climbing in Wales’ we remarked as we got on the empty cable car. It was cold when we got off at the top of Le Brevent but not freezing so why not climb?!

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I’m not sure how we decided La Somone was a great route to climb, or how we found it in the mist. I’m also not sure why we hadn’t decided to stay in the Valley to climb something slightly less slimy. The thought did cross my mind that it might be a bit ridiculous when it started to snow as I stood at the bottom of the route belaying my partner.

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When it came for me to climb the third pitch – 4c – the ‘excellent flakes’ as described by the guidebook, were not really appealing for standing on in big mountaineering boots and especially not in the rain.

It wasn’t my finest hour wailing and sliding on the rock and ultimately requiring me to be hauled up. Perhaps I should have gone gear shopping in Chamonix?

Multipitch sport climbing on Vois Caline

After the slime fest the prospect of sport climbing in the valley sunshine the next day was very appealing. Especially since the route finished at a Buvette where we could get lunch.

Vois Caline is one of three long multi-pitch routes at Les Mottets crag and at 350m of 3c climbing it was a nice scrambly route compared to the day before and one I had no worries about doing in mountaineering boots.

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Ok the grade was easy, but I was still impressed with myself for leading three of the 5 pitches (my first ever sport climbing leads!) including one horribly damp slab traverse. There’s plenty of bolts on this route and since its a low grade its easy to move together. I really enjoyed this route which was a massive contrast to the day before!

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Causing a queue on the Cosmiques Arête 

“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.

Having Goals

I started the year with a goal to do harder Alpine routes, so when the KMC organised a trip to Chamonix it was a perfect opportunity to get high and tackle more complicated terrain. My ultimate goal requires me to have all the skills I need to no longer rely on anyone else.

I love being out the snow, be it the harshest winter in Scotland or Alpine days in the sunshine. I know though that these will always lead me to a moment where I’m muttering under my breathe, or worse swearing out loud.

But for all the complaining I know that I’m capable and just need to get on with it.

Tackling alpine ridges

The Cosmiques Arête is a 350 metre ridge of climbing and scrambling. The guidebook recommends around 4 hours, but you need to factor in the 1 hour of descending the snow arête from the Aguille de Midi station and crossing the glacier, and any potential queue you might encounter on this popular route.

I’ve previously only done Alpine routes which require basic winter skills, ability to walk in crampons and front point up snow slopes. But after a winter ice climbing in Norway I was ready for routes that were more challenging.

I was excited when I led us out of the Midi station and we descended the steep snow slope. Looking down on Chamonix from 3800m is always exciting. The route to the bottom of the ridge is relatively straightforward,  following the arête to its end near the Cosmiques hut.

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Much of the Cosmiques Arête is nothing more than a winter scramble. We had been unlucky to be tackling the route on Saturday and hadn’t been able to get on the first cable car, so our first challenge was to overtake as many of the groups as we could. Particularly the slower guided groups.

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Trying not to self sabotage

My worst trait when I’m out is self doubt. Can I really climb that route? Is my prussic really wrapped right for this abseil and will it hold me? What’s after that difficult bit and can I do it?

I find that questioning myself like this leads to a negative cycle of feeling like I can’t achieve something and lack of confidence in the skills I have. I’m not rubbish – I’ve been climbing for 2 years now and while I struggle with confidence and fear of leading, I’m perfectly capable of seconding VS routes when I put my mind to it. Even the odd HVS.

So when I arrived at the first abseil and muttered out loud that I needed my partner to check my abseil set up before he headed off, I immediately sabotaged myself. In giving a voice to my fears I made them real and also made him worry about my ability; which just made it worse. I hate people assuming I can’t do something; I hate being taken care of.

The first abseil was straight forward and despite swinging into a chimney I had no problems. But voicing my fears meant my partner insisted on abseiling the next pitch together, which didn’t impress me.

Dangling the Crux

From the bottom of the abseils we traversed round to reach the crux – an 8m slab with a thin diagonal crack, graded ay 4c. Should be easy enough, especially since there’s pre drilled pockets for crampons, and especially as someone had left a cam in the crack to pull on. But climbing a rock face in crampons at altitude was not going to go well for me. Was it lack of skills or confidence? Did I just sabotage myself as I’d said out loud that I thought I was going to struggle?

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just look at the guy on the face! Thats not how I did it!!

As I was dangling, struggling to get my crampon points to stay in the pockets and get my weak arms to pull me up the crack I discovered a general dislike of Alpine guides.

Yes I caused a queue. But then there was one there before we arrived.

Yes I complained and took ages. But there wasn’t any need for the French guides to be rude and abusive. (I’m generalising by saying French as the Italian guide directly behind me was encouraging and helpful).

It was also clear once I’d dragged my sorry self up the face that the guides were dragging their clients along with little regard for them and relying on other climbers to help the clients make certain moves over rocks. Their only concern was to get the route done as fast as possible, with some of the clients not even understanding to pull out gear from a route. I collected 2 cams and a sling as swag before the end of the route.

I know I’m generalising there, as we met some other guides I met during the course of the week who were amazing with their clients – but the ones I met on the Arête were not.

 

The final gully

 

The final section of the arête isn’t complicated at all, a scramble up a steep gully onto the top and up the ladder to the top of the cable car. However, the queue at the crux and it being midday meant that there was a hoard of climbers now headed up the route and guides dragging clients behind them. It made me think of the images of climbers queuing on Everest and how I never want to be in that sort of place. Its not what I want out of climbing routes.

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The joy of being fatigued at the end of completing any alpine route from the Midi is that if you look sufficiently knackered you can queue jump the hoards of tourists to get back down the cable car by looking a bit tired and smiling at the staff. I can easily adopt my best pathetic-tired face if it gets me to ice cream quicker!