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!

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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