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!

GetOutside and explore the Dales Way

Sometimes in life the best adventures are those you don’t choose for yourself. The Dales Way doesn’t involve bog trotting or peak bagging, but instead winds through picturesque valleys and villages following the rivers. It was a beautiful weekend; full of wildflower meadows, sheep and sunshine. Except for the day we got thoroughly soaked in a thunderstorm, but more about that later.

The suggestion for Sharon and I to do a long distance walk together was first uttered over beers at Christmas (were we drunk?) and despite the potential for it to be forgotten about after the hangovers had vanished we committed to completing the Dales Way – a route which could be done over a long weekend.

Covering 80-ish miles (that’s the official length!) the Dales Way passes through villages as it follows rivers from Ilkley to Windermere.

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From Dalesway.org

Day 1 – Ilkley to Kettlewell – 22 miles

It was a very early start to get to Ilkley – Sharon’s dog Ted was as excited to be on a train journey to Ilkley as he was about the long walk ahead. Sharon and I were excited too but also aware we’d set the challenge of a 22 mile hike to Kettlewell and it was a very hot day.

The route from Ilkley winds along the River Wharfe northwards, through little clusters of houses and cross under the busy A59 as it reaches Bolton Abbey. This 6 mile stretch felt harder than it should as Ted was busy keeping cool in the river and we were baking in the sunshine. So arriving at Bolton Abbey at lunchtime we decided ice creams were in order.

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Bolton Abbey is hardly a hidden delight as it is  popular tourist attraction, but its the first delight you pass through on the Dales Way. The grounds of the 12th Century Augustinian monastery are worth a visit in their own right but provide a spectacular back drop to the walk and the route winds through the grounds woodlands as it crosses the River Wharfe.

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Eventually we reached Burnsall, a usual stop over on the route but for us a quick stop before we carried on to the suspension bridge over the river at Hebden.

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The narrow suspension bridge across the River Wharfe at the tiny village of Hebden was built by the village blacksmith, William Bell in 1885, with 262 yards of redundant steel rope. It is quite narrow so you might have a tight squeeze if you’re carrying a very large rucksack!

From here our next big stopping point was Grassington – at which time it had also become late enough to justify a stop at a pub for food and drink. This was a great idea but did make it very difficult to start walking again to reach our final destination for the day at Kettlewell. It was tempting to keep drinking in the pub!

Out of Kettlewell the Dales Way heads on to the fells of Lea Green, past old hut circles and across the limestone pavements above Swinebar Scar. As we started to descend into Kettlewell the sun was setting across the River Wharfe, making for a magical finish to our walk for the day.

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Day 2 – Kettlewell to Gearstones – 16 miles

Our overnight stay at the Bluebell Inn had set us up for a day of walking, a good sleep and good food. It was such a good morning we didn’t start till 10.30am and following the river we meandered through wildflower fields towards Buckden, the sun was shining and Ted was having fun playing in the river.

Reaching Buckden it started to cloud over and as we joined the road at Hubberholme we could hear the thunder in the distance. By the time we got to Yockenthwaite it was already raining heavily. From there it rained on and off until the heavens opened at Beckermonds and we got totally soaked as we crossed the river and started to head along the road. With heads down we trudged along.

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The route to Oughtershaw was a plod along the road, but once there we started heading along a track past Nethergill and Swarthgill farms before heading out on to the fellside.

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Heading up to Cam Houses and onto the hill top to join the Pennine Way the rain started to come down heavily and we were totally soaked on the plod down the track to Gearstones.

This isn’t the most inspirational part of the route at the best of times, I’ve walked this previously when doing the Pennine Way and thought then it should only be tackled on a mountain bike. So to trudge down the hill in the heavy rain was a bit of a demoralising end to the day.

 We’d been unable to get accommodation locally so we were lucky to hide in the hostel out of the rain while our taxi arrived to take us to Hawes. There seems to only be two taxis locally, both very competitive with each other but thankfully one was happy to pick up two soaked women and a damp dog.

Carrying all our own kit and travelling light, we were very grateful that the White Hart Inn in Hawes let us dry our clothes in their drier.

Day 3 – Gearstones to Sedbergh – 16 miles

Thankfully the rain held off for the route out of Wharfedale and into Dentdale as we headed across the fields and down the road under the Dent Viaduct.

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This section of the route includes a lot of road walking on country lanes and so we were pleased to reach Ewegales and start to head through the wildflower meadows towards Dent. Late spring is definitely the best time to walk this section of the route to see field of Bistort, Eyebright, Buttercups, Yellow Rattle, Red clover and Meadowsweet.

The fields in Dentdale are not bounded by dry stones walls like elsewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, but by laid hedges creating habitats and making the valley look softer and much more picturesque.

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After food at Dent we continued down the valley along the river and on country roads, eventually heading over the hill towards Sedbergh. By now Ted had worked out how to tackle the ladder stiles too. His first was a bit of a panicked scramble, a bit like me when I’m rock climbing!

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Day 4 – Sedbergh to Burnside – 16 miles

Breakfast at the Wheelwright Cottage was an experience, sat with two ultra runners completing the route in 3 days we stuffed ourselves with a full English breakfast on fine china plates. Ted got leftovers too.

The route out of Sedbergh was a contrast to Dentdale – gone were the wildflower meadows as the path follows the river under viaducts and past farms.

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The viaducts in this area are part of the former Lune Valley railway and would make fantastic cycleways if there was money to invest in them.  The Lune viaduct is made of Penrith stone with a huge cast iron central arch which carried the track 100 feet above the river.

After a morning of drizzle the weather did as predicted and stopped at 2pm so we had a pleasant afternoon walk through fields, eventually crossing the M6 and into Cumbria.



We arrived in Burneside tired and pleased to be stopping at a pub for the night so we didn’t have to travel far for food, and the Jolly Angler certainly didn’t disappoint.

Day 5 – Burneside to Windermere – 10 miles

We’d planned to set off walking for 9am so that we wouldn’t have to rush our last day reaching Windermere station with plenty of time for the 3pm train we had booked.

However we both overslept and so had a mad dash out for breakfast and so we didn’t get going until 9.30am. Despite being tired we managed a decent pace to leave Burneside.

The route isn’t pretty as it heads out of Burneside around the back of the large Mill, but it eventually leaves town and heads through fields along the River Kent to Staveley.


This is an area of Cumbria I’ve never explored due to the lack of mountains and fells, but it is worth a walk through the farms and fields to see a quiet side of Cumbria without the crowds.


We had decided to branch off at the bridleway to finish at Windermere station making it easy for our journey home.

The Dales Way isn’t an adventure I would have chosen for myself, but was an opportunity for me to enjoy an adventure with a friend something I’ve not done often. What I learnt is that adventures don’t have to include mountains or extreme endurance to be achievements and the Dales Way is a fantastic route, accessible for all at whatever pace you wish to complete it.

Try Caving

I hate caving. I know hate is a strong word but having had a go I can honestly say, I hate caving. Wading around with wet feet inside cold wellies wearing a rubber boil-in-the-bag suit with a fibre pile onesie underneath so any physical exertion leads to being really sweaty. Having a mild panic attack in the dark, when the choice presented to you is to either wriggle through a tiny slot barely big enough to fit in or to slide down rock and somehow avoid landing in the pool of freezing water at the bottom. I feel a bit sick just thinking about it now. There’s always the choice to turn around but I’m not a quitter and like to push my boundaries of fear.

But I didn’t know any of this when I agreed to give it a go. I thought ‘It’s a bit like rock climbing, but underground’. Walking through passages marvelling at rock and fossils and wandering into huge caverns.
The reality is more like grovelling in the dark, wedging myself through rock and losing my dignity and nerve as I lower myself over the void to disappear into the abyss, dangling in free space.
The weekend was organised by Ben and Aly, both really experienced cavers and both in Mountain Rescue teams with experience in cave rescues, so if I was going to give it a go I was at least going out with experienced people. 

Learning rope access skills

We’d spent Saturday morning learning rope techniques to ascend and descend the ropes, get past knots in the rope (re-belays) and also passed clips where the rope has been anchored to the side to make the descent better (deviations). In Bradford Pothole Club’s hut, a couple of feet off the ground, it was easy and fun. I enjoy learning rope skills, and this didn’t feel like it was that different than the rope rescue skills we do in my Rescue team. This was going to be a piece of cake.
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Jess, Me and Aly rocking the onesies

On a hot sunny afternoon we then headed out to descend into Sell Gill, a cave system with all the rope work problems you could ever encounter. I didn’t have any problems getting down into the bottom of the cave. And yes, I had this look on my face all day.
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Just passed a deviation in the rope and continuing to head down

Later on, hauling myself back up the rope to get out I managed to jam my ascender (croll) at the top next to a knot. I was less than impressed with the ten minutes of wiggling it required to get it off. As you can imagine I was sweating in my rubber suit as I dangled, frustrated, trying to free myself. Ben at this point was being very reassuring with advice about how to free myself and was about to come and get me himself when I sorted it out. 
It wasn’t a horrible experience but Sell Gill isn’t the most attractive cave, as Ben pointed out its more of a training ground for learning the skills, so I was still wondering what the point of caving really is. Aly tried to explain that reaching the bottom of the cave is what cavers go underground for, but I’ll be honest I still didn’t understand.
I was even more confused to discover some of the club’s cavers had spent the day digging underground, to excavate new caves. I understand the desire to be the first to do something, even if it’s be in a cave, but really?! In the dark, cold and wet, digging dirt out of the ground.

Venturing into Alum Pot

I admit to being filled with a sense of dread after hearing two cavers spent Saturday night trapped underground nearby and had not been rescued till 5am. So I was a bit happier that Sunday’s trip out was to Alum Pot, a day lit shaft that descends 80m into the ground. At least I wasn’t going to spend all day in the dark I thought.

We initially headed upstream, wading through the river to reach Dr Bannister’s Handbasin, a huge underground pool. We had an awkward climb up a short waterfall to exit the last bit of the cave, awkward enough but much more so in wellies. 

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Once back out in the real world, we walked back down to the entrance to head downstream and into Alum Pot itself. The route down wasn’t too complicated and involved mostly walking through passage ways or around the edge of pools.

It was along this bit of the route that I was presented with the option of squeezing through a narrow crack to wriggle through, or sliding further down rock to avoid a pool. I can confess that watching Jess crawl through the gap and even thinking about having to follow her, made feel sick and teary. I opted for the slide down and managed to avoid the plunge pool.

From here we continued to ‘Dollytubs’, a roped descent down 15m to where we could see Alum Pot and daylight. Descending Dollytubs required a traverse along a ledge and to reclip the rope past a deviation as we descended. 

Even getting my descender (stop) onto the rope felt like a mental effort as I leaned over the drop. Ben did point out to me to just get my bum on the wall to balance, clearly logical thinking isn’t a skill of mine when I’m concentrating on not panicking! Despite always being clipped to a rope and therefore safe, I didn’t have faith in the gear, which is ridiculous I know. Clipped to a rope I wasn’t going to fall. So every time I had to faff with the stop I felt a bit uneasy. 

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Yes, I did shut my eyes to descend!

I was happy to get into Alum Pot and see daylight, and the descent down Greasy Slab was actually pleasant in the daylight. Alum Pot feels like another world when you look up to daylight, surrounded by leafy vegetation, moss and slime.

It was like being in Jurassic Park, another world that I wouldn’t ever see again and that hikers who pass by the surface never get to see. I knew I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there.

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Owen sat on ‘The Bridge’

The 45m descent down from below ‘The Bridge’ the large rock seen in the photo above, wasn’t really any more difficult that anything I’d done so far, only one deviation clip to get passed by unclipping and re-clipping.

Dangling in free space with daylight showing how far away the floor of the cave was, and the roaring sound of the waterfall pouring down made the whole thing feel a lot more scary. Plus having to sort out a deviation which was more than an arms length away and manage to re-clip it back on the rope without letting go of it was stressful.

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By the time I eventually got to the bottom of the rope I only had to walk along and do one more 20m descent down to reach the Sump, an underground pool and the end of the cave system. But on seeing the last rope descend down into the dark again and trying to sort out my rope whilst getting soaked under a waterfall I’d reached the edge of my mental strength.

Am I disappointed I didn’t see the Sump? As I sarcastically put to Ben as he tried to encourage me to continue, “its just a puddle”. Ok, I’m sure to cavers out there the Sump is something special and worth a visit, but I just didn’t care enough at that point to carry on. I was mentally wiped out. 

I’m still not disappointed either. I don’t have a great head for heights which is a problem with climbing at the best of time, but in dark and wet caves I’d found my limit. I felt bad for letting Ben down. For me it was a big enough achievement to have got to where it did. 

Hauling myself back up the 45m rope was challenging enough for me.

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Whilst I’m unlikely to ever go caving again, I would recommend a trip into Alum Pot if you can find someone to take you. Its not somewhere to go without experience – you need to be able to rig the ropes and understand ascending and descending safely. Being able to do that with Ben and Aly was great.

I was totally amazed and grateful for Aly’s calm and cool manner in dealing with me, being stubborn and sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot. She’s an amazing caver and clearly really good at coping with novices like me. She was also out in front the whole weekend rigging the ropes and taking responsibility for safety. Whilst I’m not sure caving would ever have been for me even if I’d started younger, I believe girls need more role models like Aly. I found her totally inspiring.

I’d also like to say a massive thanks to Ben for letting me tag along, for being a good teacher and being calm when teaching me skills, and giving me the opportunity to see the amazing world of Alum Pot. And for taking photos – without which I’d have manage to banish all memory of the day!

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.

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

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 leading Ozzimosis, WI4

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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Selfie at first belay!

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James passing by my belay

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Alex and James from second belay

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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Rjukan from above – Alex coming up to the belay

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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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Day 5 and 6 of the Winter ML… snowholing and navigation

Its 11am – I’ve already got frozen snot across my face and my buff has frozen with my breath. The goggles I loved earlier in the week have failed me and I feel like I’m in a white out as they’ve misted up.

It was windy and cold as we headed up onto the Cairngorm plateau on Thursday, in search of somewhere to spend the night. We spent most of the day leading each other on navigational legs, predominantly heading into the South-Easterly wind. It was a time for head down trudge and holding on tightly to the map. Having lost one person from the group at the start of the day due to fitness, the pace had suddenly quickened and as we had to start breaking trail through the deep wind slab it was a lot of effort to keep up a good pace to keep from being cold in the wind.

Looking for obscure contour features in these conditions was a test of endurance more than it was of ability.

As you can imagine I’ve never been so happy as when we reached our snow hole spot at Ciste Mhearad at 3pm. Especially when we found old snow holes which we could get away with extending. It still took 3 hours of digging before we could sit in relative comfort for an hour of melting enough snow to eat freeze-dried food before we headed out for night navigation practice.

Snowholing

The one thing I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading at the same time is snowholing on the expedition section of the Winter Mountain Leader training. My technique for digging leaves a lot to be desired (as had been confirmed earlier in the week), and I would have still been there at midnight if I had to dig one on my own. I’d rather walk off the hill in a blizzard than spend 3 hours or more digging into the hillside. I’d night nav any day but dig another snow hole? No way!

The trick to snowholing in comfort is a good bivvy bag, a thick thermarest and a good sleeping bag. I had none of these as I’d borrowed kit from Glenmore Lodge to save weight on my train journey, which meant I had a decent bivvy bag, but a thin sleeping bag and one of those thin foam mats you give Duke of Edinburgh groups with an apologetic face because you know they’re not going to keep out the cold. 

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I did however pack a second warm jacket and another hat so that I could sleep in relative comfort – when I did wake it was only because my leg had started to go dead lying on the hard ice. Oh and for a wee about 3am but there was no way I was going outside, so I crossed my legs till dawn.

Cooking in a snowhole is a case of high calorie/ low taste food – boil in the bag or freeze-dried and a lot of snacks. I’d usually try to drink a lot of fluid at night when out on trips when I know I’ll struggle to hydrate during the day, but faced with a trip out at night for a wee I limited the bedtime drinks.

Navigating at night

I was lucky to end up spending the evening with Nigel, Glenmore Lodge’s navigational guru who gave me and Jo plenty of top tips for navigating in horrendous wind using only contours. We both aced the challenging navigational features we had to find.

Nigel gave us a range of obscure features, some of which like Marquis Well where hard to distinguish in the frozen landscape. It was a great lesson in navigating just using contour features – using the shape of the landscape to identify your location.

From an obscure feature on Cairngorm summit I had to find the cairn and Jo had to find the weather station. So we wandered on a bearing in separate directions with a fair amount of praying to find the right spot. I’ve never been so happy to find a trig point at 9pm on a Thursday night in a 40 mph wind and a sideways blasting of snow.

Nigel’s top tip is ‘travel to unravel, move to prove’ – always check where you are by moving around and seeing what the landscape does.  He also recommends orienteering as a means of excelling in micro navigation, learning to read contours without using bearings and learning how to walk on a bearing without setting your compass (that one is really quick but seemed like magic in the dark and howling wind).

Jo and I got back to the snow hole about 10pm and both of us slept relatively well considering the cold (and urge to pee). Nevertheless I was pleased when morning came and I could head out into a calm morning. There’s nothing like a wild wee when you’re not worried about your bum freezing in the wind!

Navigating in the sunshine

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The trouble with it being a gorgeous morning was that our navigational challenges were going to have to be a lot more difficult, given that we had such good visibility. In the glorious sunshine we bagged Cairngorm summit for a second time.

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We then headed down into Coire Raibert to a couple of contour feature.

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It was then my turn to lead the group and of course my leg was a relentless ascent through wind slab, break trailing all the way up to Stob Coire an T-Schneachda summit. This was a brutal leg in the blazing sunshine with heavy packs so I was relieved to reach the top. Just look at the view!

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From here we bagged the summit of the peak otherwise known as 1141, before we descended down to the ski runs and the path back to the car park.

Debrief and reflection

After fueling up with my third cake of the day and a second hot chocolate, we each got a debrief for the week. I know my log book needs more work – but otherwise I just need to get out and get the required number of days in before I book the assessment.

Prior to assessment I need to do another 40 Quality Mountain days, but that doesn’t include days out leading groups or days which aren’t the definition of ‘Quality’ – long or complicated.  I also need to have done 10 grade 1 climbs to prove my confidence on steep ground – I don’t see this being an issue as I’m planning winter climbing trips.

I headed into the Winter Mountain Leader training being a bit non-committal about whether I’d do the assessment since at the moment it’s all for personal development. Despite a challenging week I’ve realised I have more confidence that I thought I did in winter and while I have a lot to do, I’m super keen to work towards the assessment in the next few years.

Here’s to more winter adventures!!!

Snow shelters and emergency rope work – Day 4 of the Winter ML

‘I think I’d rather carry on walking in horrendous weather than dig a snow shelter’ I complained as I lay on the floor trying to dig out the back of my shelter. When I then compared my rather snug hole to everyone else’s I realised digging isn’t my forte. They had all made theirs much larger and added a seat in the back. If I ever find myself benighted or in gale force winds I’m likely to die before I’ve dug a snow shelter suitable to save my life….

Testing the snow pack

Testing the snow pack is essential to do before you head up a slope steep as a person walking can affect 1 metre down in the snow pack.  Thankfully testing the snow is really easy.

Shuffle your feet along the slope aspect creating a trench (in deep snow you need to go over it a few times to make sure its a proper trench) and then take a few steps up and shuffle diagonally down to see if there is a break in the snow layers. If there’s a weak layer then it will create enough energy to break off.

This isn’t a great photo but at least you can see the depth of wind slab which can break away in this test, and give you an indication of the energy in the snow and potential avalanche risk. And this slope was less than 25 degrees. Typical avalanche terrain is on a 30-45 degrees slope. So don’t be complacent about less steep slopes not being risky.

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Emergency rope work

Thankfully emergency rope work at winter ML level isn’t a million miles away from the summer award. Classic abseils and confidence roping are still used. Phew.

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In a crossloaded but safe gully (we did a lot of trench tests to check!) we had plenty of wind slab to dig into for our snow shelters so it also meant it was perfect for another go at snow bollards and perfect for stomper belays which would have been impossible in the hard neve we had yesterday.

The stomper belay I think is my preferred belay technique for the speed of construction, although it requires really soft snow to create. Dig a shoe box sized trench about knee depth and stamp your axe down to the depth of the head. Around the shaft slip on a karabiner and then thread through the rope with the end for the person to be belayed coming out of the bottom of the karabiner. Stand on the axe head and belay by wrapping the rope around your back as demoed by Doug our instructor.

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Navigation

After a quick break we then had a navigation leg, which despite the 40 mph winds I was really happy doing; I love navigational challenges. I also love teaching others and sharing my love of finer map details.

So working in pairs to find a re-entrant over the other side of the hill, I was happy to let Kim have a go and give pointers and tips and not take over. Whilst Kim is happy with the rope work stuff she’s less confident at navigating, so giving her chance to test herself and help was more useful for her.

Once over the other side of the hill we found a huge cross loaded gully which was perfect for one last snow bollard. This one had to be huge if we were going to abseil off it and deep to get past the weak layers of wind slab and into stable snow. So we dug this one with shovels.

Kim was first to abseil down over the small cornice, and despite her first fear she got to the bottom ok. It was easy enough to abseil off with a classic abseil, although I managed to break the cornice off stepping over it – I’m clearly way heavier than Kim!

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8th Feb

Snow Bollards and belays, in the ice…. day 3 of the Winter ML

What did you do today?

I walked a few hours to dig some holes in the snow. Well actually it was rock solid neve that went down for half a metre and took forever to dig in. I felt like Popeye by the end of the day.

I can’t really complain, there had been a lot of snow fall over night so the walk into Coire an Lochan was fantastic. The visibility was pretty good and we could see up to Cairn Lochan and the Fiacaill ridge, though visibility eventually dropped as we got on to the edge of the ridge west of Coire an Lochan.

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The avalanche report had said that northerly slopes were most at risk so we stuck to the west edge of the ridge for our rope work exercise, despite other groups being much further into the back of the Coire. Yes they probably had much deeper wind slab to dig through – making it easier – but it was a much riskier place to be. Always be avalanche aware.

So after a quick demo by Phil our instructor we cracked on digging our snow/ice buckets for belaying.

This is where I have to say my digging is pathetic, I clearly need to spend more time on upper body work out if I’m ever going to excel at digging anything in solid neve. It’s like chipping away at concrete. All I could think is that I really hope we don’t have to dig snow holes later in the week in solid snow.

Snow buckets, buried axes and bollards

Snow buckets are needed for you to have a solid position to belay someone from – they need to be a semi-circle at least 1/2 metre deep, past the weak layer in the snow, and have a front wall which is strong enough to support your weight and rest your thighs against.

After we had dug buckets big enough for ourselves to sit in and at the correct angle (perpendicular to the slope) so we wouldn’t fly out, we then set up buried axe belays and then snow bollards.

To dig a buried axe belay you need to dig a slot along the fall line of the slope, which is long enough for the axe to sit in and deep enough to be below any weak layer in the snow pack. The axe then needs to be placed along the lower wall of the slot with pick buried completely in the snow face down. In my slot this took a lot of hitting to get it in to the ice.

Around the shaft of the axe you need to reverse clove hitch a sling which is then placed in a vertical slot running down the fall line with a karabiner at the bottom. The rope is then tied around your waist and clove hitched through the karabiner to secure you into your bucket seat, and then the other end tied to the person you’re going to belay.

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from Mountaineering.ie

Snow bollards aren’t that much different in the principle of how they work but are good to do when you need to abseil down and be able to pull your rope through without leaving an axe or any gear behind.

The size of the horseshoe bollard you create in the snow depends on the type of snow. In the rock hard neve we had it only needed to be the length of the axe as an arc. In really soft wind slab it needs to be the length of your arm plus your axe to make sure the snow has the strength to hold the weight of a person. Again it needs to be below the weak layer of snow. The arc needs to taper inwards so the rope doesn’t pull out with weight.

I failed to take a photo of the belay in the neve so here’s one from the day after which we created in wind slab to abseil over a cornice. Abseiling on a classic abseil around the body is the simplest way to use this. If you’re using it to belay from a bucket seat, tie on to one end of the rope from the bollard and clove hitch the other end to a karabiner on the rope around your waist.

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I felt like I was doing well, that all made sense and I remembered much of it from practice years ago. I feel like I’ve come a long way from someone who really struggled with the rope work bit of the summer ML.

Be Avalanche Aware

We had a detailed avalanche session in the evening. The Be Avalanche Aware principle is straight forward and as a process is a great way of forward planning and ensuring you’ve considered the risks before heading out.

Here’s a great link to find out more – Be Avalanche Aware and a great PDF leaflet. If you’re heading out always check the Avalanche report at SAIS.

While reading an avalanche report is something I would always do before heading out in the snow, reading the detailed snow profiles and understanding them is a whole other level. My unscientific mind needs a lot longer to digest the different ways avalanche prone snow forms, thankfully the SAIS website has loads of helpful guides and information. I feel like I need a field study guide to snow…. or an I-spy book….

7th Feb

Its a bit windy today…. day 2 of the Winter ML

What’s your favourite bit of kit for winter??

Tough question I know. I’ve been known to have a half hour discussion with a friend just about different crampons, and then we moved on to axes.

I love gear. Not in a ‘all the gear and no idea’ way. I don’t buy gear to look good. I like the technicality of different gear whether that’s climbing kit or waterproofs. But that’s not to say I don’t hoard gear too.

But in winter my favourite bit of kit has to be my rose-tinted goggles which add a veneer of sunshine to the worst weather, and despite my love of gear I only own one pair. (Well except for the glacier glasses that have goggle attachments…)

Anyway, goggles are fantastic, especially for someone who wears glasses and doesn’t get on with contact lenses. My glasses fog up on the most peaceful days if I make the mistake of tucking my chin into my coat to keep warm. So goggles are brilliant for keeping me from stumbling around like I’m in a white out all the time.

Today everyone had goggles on before we’d even left the car park. The forecast was for 30 mph winds with it getting up to 50-60 mph by the end of the day. But as we got to the ski centre car park it was clear that the gusts had arrived earlier in the day.
Walking in to Coire an Schneadcha was a challenge to stay vertical.

Teaching techniques for crampons

So it was in wind strong enough to blow us off our feet that we headed up into the Coire to a spot tucked away on the east side out of the avalanche risk, to practice teaching each other techniques for walking in crampons.

Cue bunny hopping and frog hopping as useful techniques for encouraging novice winter walkers to use their crampons properly to flat foot and front point. Imagine hopping like a frog and ribbeting as you front point in gale force wind and spin drift blows up your nose…

It was useful to remember that whilst I was (happy is the wrong word) tolerating the frozen snot and stumbling in the wind, novices would be really intimidated and out of their comfort zone so a bit of ridiculous hopping around is a good way to reduce fear and give confidence.

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Navigating in the wind

Nevertheless we eventually bailed out as the wind stopped gusting and became consistently 60 mph. We still had to practice navigating out though. Despite relatively good visibility it is important to not rely on visible features but focus on contours as the only reliable means to navigate. What is the ground telling you as you cross it? Are you going up, down, is it flat? Hard to say when you can’t stay upright.

Pacing, bearings and timing as all useful to get in more or less the right spot but reading contours is the only accurate way to know where you are….

I’m pretty nerdy about maps too so you can imagine how I feel about staring at contours….

6th Feb

Pretending there’s snow for Winter Mountain Leader training

I’d planned on doing my Winter ML last summer when I realised I had the ability and skills required. I knew my log book was a bit thin on days but I knew navigation wasn’t a problem and I was confident on snow and ice. So why wait?

There was an intimidating moment as we went round the table this morning at Glenmore Lodge, introducing ourselves. One Outward Bound instructor, 2 members of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, someone who has returned from working with British Antarctic Survey and someone who’d done the assessment before and left it too long to redo the bit they’d deferred on so having to do it all again (so basically adept at most of the syllabus).

And then there’s me. Someone who’s done a fair bit of personal winter walking, some winter scrambling and only uses her summer award about 6 times a year to either take Duke of Edinburgh groups out or lead challenge walks. Out of my depth doesn’t begin to describe how I felt!

Planning a route

We spent the morning discussing winter weather, looking at useful sources of information such as SAIS, MWIS and the Met office – websites I regularly use for planning winter activities. I was then introduced to a load more I’ve never used such as XCWeather and WindyTV. So here’s the avalanche forecast for today:

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Key learning point here is that the three things to consider for avalanche risk are:

  1. Aspect – which way does the slope face and is this considered a risk by the forecast?
  2. Angle – is it between 30 and 45 degrees (most likely to avalanche)?
  3. Altitude – is it high enough to be in the risk area deemed by the forecast?

So after looking at the area around Coire Laogh Mor area to the north of Cairngorm summit, considering the potential avalanche hazards and wind direction, we plotted a route around the coire to look at snow conditions.

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As we headed out of the door we collected avalanche kit – a probe, shovel and transceiver before heading out for a play in the grounds. I then had to embarrassingly admit I’d never used an avalanche transceiver before – why would I? I’ve never been into seriously avalanche prone areas, or to seriously high summits – oh hang on. Yes I have. And I’ve been to the Alps and walked alone in Scotland…. well that’s embarrassing. And scary I’d not considered it before…..

Whilst not in the Winter ML syllabus Glenmore Lodge consider it standard practice to make sure that everyone carries and can use an avalanche transceiver. So when we came to practicing with avalanche probes it made the theory much more understandable. (Note to self – get a transceiver!)

Navigating to find snow

We parked at the lower car park and took it in turns to contour around the hillside into Coire Laogh Mor, each being challenged to find an obscure contour line feature. As we ascended up the mountain to 800m it quickly became clear that the avalanche forecast might have been overly cautious. There was very little snow at 800m, we spent most of the morning bashing through heather. Which is at least physically challenging like wading through snow, although a lot less fun.

Key Learning points for navigation aren’t really that different from Summer ML navigation – the 5 D’s:

  1. Distance – how far do you need to travel?
  2. Direction – what’s the bearing?
  3. Description – do you go up, on the flat, or down?
  4. Dead end – at what point do you need to consider checking if you’re going wrong?
  5. Danger – avalanche awareness – are you walking into somewhere with more risk?

Learning to teach snow skills

When we eventually found snow, near the col into Coire na Ciste we practiced kicking and cutting steps and how you teach these skills to novices and give confidence. Imagination was needed here, as we stood on a piece of snow surrounded by heather.

Moving slightly higher we found a big enough patch to practice self belay techniques should you fall – grabbing the top and bottom of the axe to keep it in the ground. Again imagination was needed as the snow was too warm and sticky to slide far. It is interesting that this is a skill that is a quick way to stop yourself falling far, but something that is often left out of winter skills courses as people expect to learn how to ice axe arrest. Is it not more important to learn how to walk properly on the snow and ice and quickly self belay without having to arrest and potentially fail to stop yourself??

There’s some great videos on the MLTA website for how to properly ice axe arrest – check them out here. Top tips – make sure you’re properly over your axe when you come to a stop and make sure when you spin round you dig the axe in properly to spin so it doesn’t fly out of your hand (that one I speak from experience!)

After all that I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn if I expect to teach winter skills!!

Coming down off the hill we a herd of reindeer had come to greet us. It’s like a belated Christmas now!

5th Feb