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!

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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