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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Chamonix 2017

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.

 

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Smiling before I lost my dignity

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!

Ice Climbing in Rjukan

I never expected to love ice climbing. I also never expected to climb for 5 out of 6 days in Norway. I expected to find myself sight seeing and looking for a spa.

When I got the invite to go ice climbing in Rjukan, Norway from the Karabiner MC I genuinely though they were joking. To start with I’m not a full member yet. Then there’s the fact that any time I’ve been outdoor climbing with them it’s generally involved a lot of swearing, embarrassment and disco legs. And a few tears.

But I hate to pass up any opportunity – I live with the Fear Of Missing Out. What if I never get the chance again? What if passing on this opportunity prevents me from reaching my Big Goal?

So armed with borrowed climbing axes and an unusual sense of optimism I headed off to Norway with a group of climbers who were either very experience on ice, or really good rock climbers. I am neither. With years of winter mountaineering experience I do however have confidence in crampons so I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by gear and technique.

Rjukan is a fantastic place to go for a first trip water ice climbing – so if you can find some experienced friends willing to teach you, get yourself there. Only 3 hours drive from Oslo its really accessible and also a great venue for skiing, (which I can’t do either).

Krokan

The first day was at Krokan, the ice equivalent of Stanage – loads of short waterfalls of varying grades and a short walk from the road. Its a reliable venue for climbing in the valley due to its elevation. It is also as busy as Stanage so get there early, especially at the weekend.

I managed to top rope and second 4 routes at Krokan – with my first being a WI4 – Kjøkkentrappa. Steep sections but at no point did I feel terrified in the way I do on rock. In fact after a day climbing here I was really excited about the rest of the week.

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Andy leading Kjokkentrappa, WI4
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Elliott seconding Kjokkentrappa, WI4
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The team on Bullen, WI3
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Me seconding Bullen, WI3
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James seconding Unknown WI3

I had such a good time at Krokan and I was feeling really confident seconding some of the lower grades and so I was keen to led by the end of the week.

Ozzimosis

The following day we headed to Ozzimosis – a series of waterfalls hidden in the woods. Again another good spot with easy grades and more classic routes. I seconded another 4 routes and I even perfected my abseil techniques.

I hate abseiling but it’s an essential skill for water ice climbing as most waterfalls require an abseil off the top. By perfected I mean after 20 minutes of dangling on my own with Andy laughing from the bottom I managed to get the jammed prussik knot to move so I could descend.

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Stuart climbing Anakje, WI3
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Elliott on Anakje, WI3

Ozzimosis itself is a beast of a waterfall graded WI4 that I never got around to trying. Andy was leading the route, Steve was belaying to second it and I was going to top rope.

But as Andy was climbing he brought ice down on Steve’s arm, resulting in a lot of loud swearing a panicked rush from me to grab the rope from him while Andy made himself safe and a later trip to A&E to Steve – expensive but at least he was ok and back climbing later in the week.

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Andy and Steve on Ozzimosis, WI4
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Andy leading Ozzimosis, WI4
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Jared and Stuart on a WI4
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Moments before the ice fall, Andy and Steve on Ozzimosis

It wasn’t the only injury of the day as Stuart bashed himself in the face trying to get his axe out of the ice and Jared twisted his ankle coming off a route. At this point I was keeping a mental list of injury free climbers in our group.

Upper Gorge

After a day off from climbing to hiked up Gaustatoppen in gale force winds and sub arctic cold (that’s another story!) I headed to Upper Gorge with Elliott, Alex and James to climb Lettvann, my first multi pitch water ice route.

Upper Gorge is the next series of waterfalls down the valley from Krokan and has some fantastic multi pitch routes.

Lettvann is only graded WI2 and 3 pitches, which after two days climbing harder grades I felt confident was well within my ability.

I learnt an important point on Lettvann. Whilst it is graded WI2 and well within my comfort zone, being a slabby route it was much more punishing on my calves than some of the short steeper routes I’d been doing, due to the need to keep your front points in and your heels down.

It took most of the day to climb the 3 pitches of Lettvann, with us eventually topping out in the sunshine in the woods.

James was our injury of the climb as he was hit by falling ice, though he was ok. (So thats 4 out of 8 of us….)

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Lettvann WI2
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Alex and James at the first belay
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Selfie at first belay!
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James heading  up 
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James passing by my belay
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Alex leading
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Alex and James from second belay
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James heading into the sunshine
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Eliott heading back to the base of Lettvann

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Upper Gorge and the museum

Central Rjukan

The following day Elliot, Alex and I headed out early to do Fabrikfossen a 7 pitch route within walking distance from Rjukan town centre. The walk in to the waterfall isn’t fun; bashing through woodland to reach the bottom of the waterfall and it takes about a hour.

We started early to beat other teams but despite this we were climbing as a three and so were quickly overtaken by pairs climbing.

Fabrikfossen is a classic route to do but being in the shade all day it was really cold and being slow as a group of three I spent much of the time dancing on the belays in order to keep warm – despite having 5 layers of clothing on.

Due to the temperature dropping and the ice ‘dinner plating’ as it was being hit with axes we were also being pelted by frozen ice from the climbers above. Somewhere between being hit in the cheek and then on either wrist and then freezing while hanging about on belays I lost the love for climbing and we bailed out at pitch 3. Alex also got hit by a large ice block, hard enough to dent his helmet badly enough to finally make me realise ice climbing is actually pretty dangerous. (finally injury/ice smash tally  = 6 out of 8 of us)

Whilst disappointed with not completing the route, the abseiling back down  through the trees and then the walk back to the road took nearly 2 hours so we were glad not have finished the route in the dark.

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Rjukan as seen from belay 1 on Fabrikfossen
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Me and Elliott on the belay
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Rjukan from above – Alex coming up to the belay
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Alex leading a pitch
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Fabrikfossen above the houses of Rjukan at the end of the day

Back to Krokan

We finished the week with another day climbing at Krokan.

I had started the week wanting to lead a route. But after a week climbing I was pretty knackered and mentally drained so opted for pushing my grade on a top rope instead. So I was quite pleased to climb my first WI5 as my last route of the trip. Much more arm pumps by kinder to the calf muscles that the last 2 days.

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Via ferratas and a difference of opinion about the grades

Since the weather had become cloudy and threatened rain we couldn’t head back up on to the snow so a few of us headed down the valley to Passy to do the Via Ferrata called Curalla.

Graded in our Cicerone guide as VF2B and on UKclimbing as VF1B I was very confident about being able to manage this. I’d done harder grades in the Dolomites last year – or so I thought. However it seems the French have a different opinion about grades.

The route starts just outside Passy village and involves a 20 minute walk through the woodland to reach the crag.

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Its a great route, but unlike in the Dolomites where the via ferratas are rock climbs which are protected by a cable and with the occasional metal step to use, this is entirely on metalwear – steps, ladders and rope bridges.

Which ultimately means you can get some great exposure and disco legs! I mean why would you choose  to have a join in the middle of a wire bridge so you have to let go to move your karabiners along?! 

Why would you put a pin in preventing you from moving without reclipping, just at the point of a traverse when you’re holding your breath hoping there’s a metal step just left that you can’t quite see, somewhere below a handhold you can’t see either. 

Exposure and the fear of falling is the one reason I don’t climb harder than I do currently, and you can imagine there was a fair bit of swearing from me all the way along. Some of the pins were in very awkward places to re-clip!

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I don’t know how I didn’t drop my camera! We were all very grateful to get to the top and head back down for ice cream and beers. A fantastic route, but I think its at least a 2B grade!

Bivvying and the art of knowing when to change plans

I’ll admit to a great deal of procrastinating about heading out for an over night expedition. I love sleeping wild and love big adventures, but I also don’t like to put myself in situations where I can’t be self reliant and get myself out of a fix.

I don’t like having to rely on others and not to be in charge of my own decisions. I’ve been in situations before with gung-ho individuals who won’t admit their lack of knowledge or skills, which is a nightmare when you are far from safety.

So the thought of being out with two eager friends (though they do know what they are doing) felt like it had all the hallmarks of me being led up a mountain and having no say in decision making, easily done when you’re all roped together – you can hardly have an argument and stomp off to do your own thing.

As it was, that proved not to be the case and whilst I might have started out feeling like a tag along, in the end I was just as involved in navigation decisions.

We took the cable car from Le Tour at the end of the Chamonix valley to head up to the Refuge Albert 1er, knowing full well that it was already booked up and we would have to bivvy out. The walk is a two hour route that winds around the hillside from the Col de Balme and then ascends steeply to the refuge. It was a very hot day and it’s been a while since I’ve carried a full pack so I was definitely pleased to arrive and be able to get a cold drink and sit in the shade.

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We originally found a great platform to camp out on just above the hut, amidst other bivvying on the rocks and snow. But after scoping out the route for the following day, we changed our bivvy spot to be closer to the glacier and past all the rocks which would be hard work in the dark.

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Below you can see the route we will take in the early morning – diagonally across the snow below the peak of Aguille de Tour.

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So after much debate we settled for sleeping on the snow. It was a fantastic spot to bivvy, with impressive views of Aguille de Tour and Chardonnet but it was impossible to sleep. First the sun blinding off the snow and then later the full moon. It was also incredibly uncomfortable as I kept sliding down to ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag.

So with my sleeping bag pulled over my eyes I got a few hours sleep – although I did stick my head out for a few photos of the setting sun on Chardonnet.
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It was 2.30am when we set off across the glacier, with the intention of ascending Aguille de Tour, heading past it to cross a col and climb from the other side. After the decisions over route choice became a discussion, I had to admit my anxiety about not being in charge of my own destiny resurfaced. Thankfully I channelled it to problem solving and navigation – things that give me inner calm.

So after ensuring we were all confident we were heading the right way and just had to keep walking, we found the right col to go over.

Unfortunately we chose a gully too far left to try to climb which turned out to be full of loose rock; it was going to be slow progress. As it was, so much rock debris came down as our rope leader was ascending that it was clearly not a safe place to cross and we had chosen the wrong line. I had a near miss with a football sized rock, and so was grateful we chose to retreat.

This is the route we should have gone up, although by the time we’d retraced our step and worked this out the crack in the ice didn’t fill me with confidence. That said I was annoyed at a lost opportunity to have a go at a proper alpine peak.

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So after a debate we decided to head to nearby Tete Blanche, nowhere near technically difficult as it was merely a snow plod up to a scree summit. But, we did make it for sunrise over Switzerland and it was an amazing view and it is still 3429m high so worth the effort.

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The route was also a valuable learning experience. I learnt a valuable lesson to always trust my own decision making and navigation.I also learnt I need to get better at alpine climbing so I can lead.

I am also even more committed to my project and despite it being summer still, I have already got myself signed up for the Winter ML. A tangent from my project perhaps, but one which will at least commit me to a winter of fun in the snow. I love snow!

The Mer de Glace and the Vallee Blanche

It’s easy to dream big when you arrive in Chamonix. Everyone wants climb Mont Blanc – and plenty do without really being alpinists.

Whilst it was in the back of some minds for the end of the week, to start with we were all happy refreshing winter skills and teaching crevasse rescue techniques as we played on the Mer de Glacé. Important lesson of the day – ice screws are sharp and go through fingers as quick as ice. Ouch!

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The following day we headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to take the cable car up to Hellbronner- it’s changed so much since I was last there 4 years ago, but then so have I.

Back then I looked in awe at the alpinists heading out across the glacier, roped up for their adventures. Now I am one of them.

Despite the warning signs to be properly equipped there was plenty of people heading out from the cable car station across the snow in no more than regular summer hiking gear. Some even in trainers. I have to question the logic of people who would do that when they see lines of climbers heading out with harnesses, helmets, crampons and axes and roped together for safety. For as beautiful the Vallee Blanche plateau is, it is still a glacier with dangerous crevasses.

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We wanted a short but reasonably challenging route to start with and so we picked Petit Flambeau, a rocky pinnacle in the middle of the plateau with a snowy arete to ascend.

The ascent was from the North east side so we had to descend the glacier to ascend the steep but not technical route onto the ridge. The view was worth it. Having committed to my project I know I love the snow and love the physical exertion it requires, and despite by recent calf troubles I was pleased to get to the top with little aching.

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It’s a fantastic view to look back along the ridge with truely awesome mountains behind.

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Dolomites – Piz da Lech via ferrata

Knowing that Saturday was going to be wet we planned a great Friday for our final day in the Dolomites, heading to Corvara, a town recently expanded around the ski industry with shiny new ski lifts and outdoor shops and cafes catering for the Apre skier. It’s certainly a contrast to Cortina with its alpine war history, 1950s Winter Olympic legacy and 1960’s James Bond style ski lifts in Cortina. (See the Marino Bianchi route for an example!)

Having decided the Piz da Lech route in Corvara looked suitable challenging in the rockfax guide we headed up the two ski lifts to the bottom of the crag. (In particular the photo of the traverse across the rock face taken from the view of the cable looked impressive and had me simultaneously excited and crapping it!)

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The route is graded 3b so I knew it was going to be challenging in places and while the guidebook suggested 2 hours or so for the route it only took about an hour to the top of the crag. For much of the route it was not much harder than others we’d been on that week, with plenty of scrambly bits in between bits of climbing and walking.

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After the airy traverse, which wasn’t as scary as it looked, the most difficult bit was the two ladders nearer the top of the route, which didn’t even look that hard from the bottom.

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As I got to the top of the second ladder not having found this route that hard, my confidence disappeared. It wasn’t actually that difficult to step off the ladder, around the boulder over the airy drop below. However, my via ferrata lanyard was the elasticated type and was therefore just a little bit too short to get it over the cable bracket to allow me to continue up. So stepping out over the abyss below was more tricky with a shorter lanyard!

From there the route was scrambly and easier until we reached the top.

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The top of the via ferrata however isn’t the end of the route, as the path continues upwards to reach the top of the peak. Worth the slog up to reach the summit, over 3000m high – amazing views as the clouds parted revealing a canyon with an immense drop below. Breathtaking and not just because of the altitude!

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The route down is a path clearly marked and while it is straight forward there is one ladder to descend (though easy to do without a harness) and one section of cable, but again this is more because the scree path isn’t nice to descend rather than it being tricky.

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Here you can see the route drop off the top of the mountain down the right-side and swing left below the crag.

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Climbing amidst history on the Cinque Torri

Heading up the ski lift to the Cinque Torri, the group of more than 5 towers that lies on the south slopes of Falzarego Pass above Cortina, we were finally having a day of proper climbing and not via ferratas. A day without the safety of the cable on the rock.

Having me in toe (or is that tow?) we headed to Torre Terza to do an easy multi pitch up the route ‘via normale’ followed by one of the ‘school of rock’ sport routes. Whilst the multi pitch trad route had a great abseil off it was really a scramble route and not climbing, but as a group of three it did give us chance to watch and listen to the other climbers in this small arena, all shouting and swearing at one another as they climbed through the mist up the rock spires.

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Thankfully I didn’t get photos of myself dangling from rope (though there’s some of me out there somewhere from friends!). This is where I confess it was the first time I trusted a prussik knot as my safety to descend an abseil – it seems counter intuitive that a tiny bit of rope will really take my weight and act as a suitable brake. Yes, I was praying a little under my breath!

Even if you’re not a climber, Cinque Torri is worth visiting for the history of the First World War at the front line between Austrian and Italian armies which is now preserved as an open air museum.  Trenches still exist along the mountainside, from where at this high altitude you can see across the valley to the front line Italian hospital we saw the day before. The area is brought alive with information boards detailing the brutality and attrition of the period, both from the battles and also the exposure during the long cold winters in isolated remote areas. They also detail the generosity of the people of Cortina to both armies.

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Dolomites- Stepping up a grade on the Col dei Bos

Having survived my first Via Ferrata a couple of days previous but all of us keen to avoid having the mega long walk in we’d had on the Sorapiss, we decided to pick a route which had a short walk in for our next route.

The Col dei Bos route is east out of Cortina on the Falzarego pass and has only a 20 minute walk in from the road. It is grade 3b making it trickier than the previous route we’d done. Before we reached the rock face however, we arrived at the old Italian military hospital, our first indication on our trip that this whole area was on the front line of the Italian and Austrian battles in the First World War. The whole area is an impressive memorial to its history and its amazing how much is still standing.

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I have to be honest I did struggle to get up the first section of the via ferrata, let’s face it I’m not good at climbing and while I was struggling to pull myself up the crack on the rock, the via ferrata lanyard I had felt just a bit too short when clipped to the wire which was behind me. So as I climbed upwards the lanyard was pulling me back away from the rock; it was very unnerving.

Beyond this initial section, the route was more straightforward, and while there were sections of climbing there were enough breaks in between to make it manageable. Even for me! It’s a great route with enough tricky bits to be entertaining and fantastic views.

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You can take a man out of Yorkshire ….

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The via ferrata takes you to the col, the top of the mountain pass, where if the weather was clear we would have had an amazing view of the mountain range. As it was, it was cloudy, so we had a bite to eat and headed back down the horribly long scree slope next to the crag.

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Bivvying on the Sorapiss Circuit

Parking at Tre Croci just outside of Cortina, we set out with the intention of doing the Sorapiss circuit over two days, completing the three via ferratas en route and bivvying at one of the remote bivouacs half way.  This did however require us to carry all our own water as the last available water source was Rifugio Vandelli 2 hours walk in from the road.

Despite leaving before 9am it was already scorching hot as we walking through the scrub and woodland on the way to the Rifugio. The route (and heat) reminded me of walking on the final few days of the GR20 and there was more than a bit of relief from us all when we arrived at the Rifugio and were able to top up our water bottles for the rest of the hike – being pleasantly surprised to find this was also free.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/27743778@N05/21443550015

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Lake Sorapiss is a popular beauty spot with day walkers most of whom have no intention of heading off to attempt the via ferratas.

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But as we headed up the endless scree slope in the midday sun it became clear we were unlikely to make it either. Now, I happen to be good at putting my head down and just getting on with it despite the misery, but I wasn’t confident about a grade 3 Via Ferrata with depleted energy. So with a suggestion of finding somewhere to bivvy for the night below the crags I happily went along with my friends – who frankly are much better climbers than me, so if they didn’t want to continue then I was just going to go along with them.

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While we had a long afternoon of admiring the view – it was certainly worth it to bivvy out in such a beautiful location,  although the sound of rock and ice falling from the glacier above was a bit un-nerving in the middle of the night, as was the full moon passing overhead. And while it wasn’t the comfiest bivvy spot for three people to share, it was worth it for the sunrise.

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Via Ferratas in the Dolomites

I’ve said before that I’m not a good climber, but always keen to have a go at something new and not one to turn down a holiday, I jumped on the chance to have a go at via ferratas in the Dolomites when invited to Italy with friends.

So having arrived in Cortina and pitched my tent, we headed off to do an easy introduction to via ferratas on the Marino Bianchi route just east of Cortina. Graded a 2b, means it is easy and also close to civilisation – the route is very easy to access from the top of the ski lifts and the Refugio Lorenzi. For route description check out this link.

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Being Sunday it was quite busy on the route, including families with children who were doing a good job at making me look rubbish! The route is a traverse of the ridgeline to reach the top of Cima di Messo.

This photo I took later in the day looking back at the route – it makes it look impressive! All along the route there are fantastic views – there’s some sections of exposure but nothing too difficult making it a good route to learn how to use the via ferrata lanyards without too much effort climbing.

Just look at these views – I was in heaven!

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Once at the top of Cima di Messo the route doubles back to the refugio, although for a section diverts away from the way we came, to avoid the difficulty of two way traffic on the trickiest bit.

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Once back at the Refugio we continued briefly on to the Ivano Dibona route to check out the bridge which was in the film ‘Cliffhanger’. The route is also impressive to be able to see the first world war tunnels and old iron work still on the mountain. From here its then only a short walk to the 30m bridge.

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