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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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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Tour du Mont Blanc – 2012 – Les Contamines to Chamonix

Our final two days walking on the Tour du Mont Blanc was some of the hardest with steep ascents in hot temperatures.

Day 9 – Les Contamines to Les Houches – 8 hours 45

Total distance 19.5km ascent 1225m descent 1505m

Today felt like a brutal walk, a bloody steep ascent in scorching weather. Being stung by a horsefly and then zapped by an electric fence; my knees ached and I hadn’t eaten enough chocolate the day before. It was hell. And then someone said that we were on a harder variant path…

It was a steep walk through woodland from our campsite at Les Contamines to Auberge du Truc, but there was an amazing view once there.

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Whilst it would have been easy to moan about why we had taken the harder variant path, and not stuck to the main TMB which followed the side of the hill around through Bionnassay village, this route enabled us to have a fantastic view of the Bionnassay glacier and cross a rope bridge to reach the Col de Voza.

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Day 10 – Les Houches to Plan Praz (over Le Brevent) 6 hours 30

Total distance – 9.5km ascent 1515m descent 465m

I set off a bit giddy that this was our final day and I had a day of lying in my tent a bit later than normal, eating ice cream and riding the cable car up to the Aiguelle di Midi to look forward to.

The giddiness soon wore off when the long slog through the woodland began. Today was a day of climbing a mountain, Le Brevent, and there would be no relenting in the uphill slog to the top. I didn’t stop to take photos until the refuge Bellachat. Sections up to the refuge were narrow with cable rails for the rocks sections.

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The refuge had taken us 3 hours to reach, and though it was less than 400m in altitude and 2km from the summit, a rest was needed.

Though the path onto Le Brevent summit was more rocky it wasn’t as steep and had amazing views across the valley. I have to admit to being elated to have reached Le Brevent and know it was all downhill to the end, but also bitterly disappointed it was so busy with tourists who had cheated and caught the cable car up. Its like slogging up Snowdon to be confronted with a load of people who’ve caught the train up. 388 D12 route to Le Brevent 390 D12 route to Le Brevent 394 D12 looking back down route 396 D12 view to chamonix

The route back down to Plan Praz, were we had started our adventure, didn’t take long, especially since much of the route was still covered in snow and it was easier to slide down than walk.

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We arrived at Plan Praz and caught the cable car down for ice cream in Chamonix. Mmmm

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The following day I splurged and went both paragliding and up the cable car to the Aguille di Midi. Expensive but worth every penny to see real mountaineers having adventures on Mont Blanc. Maybe next time.

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Tour du Mont Blanc- 2012 – Courmayeur to Les Contamines

Over the next two days we would leave the Italian side of Mont Blanc and return to France. Goodbye gelato, hello pastries.

Day 7 – Val Veni to Les Chapieux 6 hours 50

Total distance 20.5km ascent 945m descent 640m

Those of you studying the Cicerone guide as you read this, you will spot that we didn’t walk from Courmayeur, where we had previously finished. With limited time to complete the route, and having chosen to camp in the valleys and not stay at the refuges we had no choice to but skip part of today’s walk. Catching the bus as far as it would go, up the Val Veni. This still left us with a long walk, but at least cut out a steep ascent.

It did mean that we weren’t on the TMB main route until we reached refugio Elizabetta, so we followed route 12 and then 13 to reach it. This by the way is a gorgeous valley to walk up and whilst I usually go high wherever possible, I don’t think I would have traded these views.

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The route up to the Col de la Seigne still had a significant amount of snow and ice, so even though it wasn’t particularly steep it was slower walking. Once at the Col the view back down into Italy is stunning; although the view onwards to France is a bit limited by the broad col summit.

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The route downhill to France and the refugio de Mottets was a nice walk, but then followed by another road walk to our rough camp in the village of Les Chapieux.

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Day 8 – Les Chapieux to Les Contamines – 6 hour 50

Total distance 16.5km ascent 930m descent 1315m

It was raining heavily as we set out from our campsite in the village, heading through farms for the Refuge du Bonhomme. The weather was so horrendous I didn’t take any pictures until I reached the refuge and the top of the pass, it was a morning of having my head down and trudging through the wind and rain. Despite the mist the refuge was easy to find. It doesn’t mark the top of the pass though, so we had to trudge on and as the rain finally relented so the camera came out.

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Eventually, as we headed downwards, out of the cloud, and through the high alpine valley, we reached the refuge de la Balme where we could thaw out with coffees. 331 D9 view down from Col bonhomme 330 D9 view down from Col bonhomme332 D9 view down from Col bonhomme 334 D9 down to refuge la BalmeFrom here the route was a gentle downhill following the river through woodland and a gorge to the campsite at Les Contamines. Les Contamines is a short bus ride to St Gervais which it is definitely worth a visit if you require pastries!

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Tour du Mont Blanc – 2012 – Champex to Courmayeur

The next three days of the Tour du Mont Blanc would take us from the pristine Alpine villages of Switzerland, over the Grand Col de Ferret the highest point of the TMB route, and into Italy – from the home of fantastic cheese and chocolate to the home of fantastic gelato and … chocolate.

Day 4 – Champex to La Fouly – 5 hours 50

Total distance 14.6km ascent 555m descent 440m

Today’s walk would take us through some gorgeous quiet villages as we headed for the end of the valley and our last campsite in Switzerland. It was a cooler day and having a relatively flat route it was also more relaxed.

The start of the walk from Champex takes you through the Santier de Champignons – route of the mushrooms; evident by the trees carved on the woodland trails.

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When we reached the road at Issert (and stopped for a hot chocolate) it had begun raining, making the walk through the villages to Praz de Fort less interesting. If your following the cicerone guide on the clockwise route this would be your first days walk, which is described as “a charming pastoral valley whose timber chalets and haybarns recall a long-lost era…” I’m afraid for us it was waterproofs on, head down.

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Once we reached Praz de Fort we followed the route along the river to our campsite at La Fouly. Initially a nice track it become a slow gradual ascent, and as a track it wasn’t a particularly lovely route to follow, it became a slog. So it was a surprise to find a huge campsite at La Fouly.

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Day 5 – La Fouly to Planpincieux 8 hours 10

Total distance 21km ascent 930m descent 940m

Like gluttons for punishment we started the day by veering off the main TMB route to take the steeper variant route, which would allow us to climber quicker up the pass and also have a more scenic view through the spring alpine meadows. Nevertheless it was a grateful surprise to find the refuge at La Peule.

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After drinks at La Peule we continued on upwards to the Grand Col de Ferret, where the top of the pass was still covered in snow, making the walking slower. The view down into the Val Ferret and Italy was worth the effort though.

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At 2537m the Grand Col de Ferret marks the high point on the TMB. After admiring the massive view of the valley below, it occurred to us that our campsite at Planpincieux was down there somewhere and we still had a long way to go. The route down the valley was long and steep initially so it was good to know a hot chocolate stop at Refugio Elena was half way down, although we could see the refuge long before we got there. The hot chocolate was like mud and worth it.

From the refugio it was another two hour walk down the track where, passing the refuge Val Ferret we left the TMB main route and followed a path down to the road to the campsite at Planpincieux which, on tarmac, was hard on the feet.

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Day 6 – Planpincieux to Courmayeur 5 hours 20

Total distance 13km, ascent 625m descent 865m

Having complained the day before about walking down the road and the fact the summer bus service started that morning, we decided it would be stupid to do the road section again, just to reach the TMB path. So we caught the bus up the valley to the route.

From La Vechy we ascended up a path to pick up the TMB at the Refugio Bonatti – where I can confirm the best hot chocolate in the world is served. Like thick mud. Mmmm

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From the refugio Bonatti we headed onwards towards the refugio Bertone; as there was still a lot of snow melting on the high ridge, the rivers we crossed en route were still in spate and required good balance and acceptance that feet were going to get wet.

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From Refugio Bertone we headed downhill in to Courmayeur town centre. This section was very busy with families headed upwards. Thankfully we had quite a wait for the bus back up to our camp at Planpincieux so we had time for gelato and a trip up the cable car to admire Mont Blanc up close.

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