Sunday, 12 September 2010
I'll start with a confession: when I first started climbing I was scared of heights. Five or so years ago, the first time I got to the top of the 8-metre high Brixton wall, I could hardly look down; my heart was in my mouth. Many months later, the first time I soloed up the Brixton wall to put the ropes up (as that was the way back then) I was nearly overwhelmed with dizziness and panic.
Roll on five years. I'm leading my way up towards the summit on the north face of the Aguille de Vanoise. My last piece of gear (the trusty pink tricam) is 20 metres below me, with Katy belaying another 10 metres below that. 300 metres below her, the valley floor - with nothing but cold dry air in between. Another vertical kilometre down is the campsite where we started the day. Sea level, where I spend most of my life, is another 1500m lower down again.
My feet are precariously wedged into a shallow snowy groove in the middle of a steep snow-covered slab. My frozen hands gripped onto a little gubbin of nothing. I'm (absurdly) attempting to kick steps in the snow, but the snow is soggy and soft, and my slippery climbing shoes are wildly inappropriate for the wintry conditions. My feet slide downward as the snow compacts. I scrabble around in the slush for a gear placement, but there is nothing to be found and there is so much snow I don't even know where to look. My knees are developing Elvis tendencies, and I'm swearing out loud.
I curse, then breathe, then swing a foot high and left onto a dry section of slab, rockover onto it, then tiptoe up the remaining 5 metres of slab to the relative security of the rock spikes of the knife-like summit ridge. I clip a sling, curse again with relief, then breathe.
The heights have changed but the fear stays the same.
We based ourselves at Pralognan in the Vanoise Alps in France. I had never been to that region before but thought I'd scope it out for a bigger BCC trip in future. It was a good decision: the Vanoise is an amazing area, beautiful and wild. There are far fewer people than around other places places I've been in the Alps, especially once you're out of town. There are loads of good valley crags to choose from, but it seems the speciality of the region is towering rock spires high up in the mountains and large glacial alpine routes. Pralognan itself is a large village with two campsites, a fair few outdoor shops, a couple of small supermarkets, a few restaurants and bars, a cinema, and even an ice rink. It is nestled in a narrow valley, immediately beneath a set of massive rock faces... a stunning location.
Getting there was easy enough: Eurostar to Lille, TGV to Lyon, car rental and a 2.5 hour drive. Only problems were that Eurostar has a crazy new policy of not allowing ice axes on the train (so we had to rent them out there), and we went to about 10 shops before we found one that sold the right kind of gas for my stove.
Sunny but cold. We potter about town for a bit (it's a holiday after all) then go find the via ferrata, only a few minutes from the campsite. The route goes up the side of a massive waterfall, meaning you climb directly through the spray. High up the route crosses over the gorge above the waterfall, via three wires strung out across the gorge. They sway in the breeze as you inch your way along. Good fun in retrospect, but I'm happy that Katy didn't have her camera out to record the look of sheer terror on my face as I crossed.
In the afternoon we check out one of the crags, five minutes away from the campsite. Plenty of routes, all blocky and balancy, seemed like every move was either a bridge or a layback. No one else there. Nice.
A poor forecast, but accurate. We awaken to the sound of rain lashing at the tent, and a fresh layer of snow settled on the hills only a couple of hundred metres higher up. It's August bank holiday Monday, and we're freezing. It's quickly apparent that it's a bad day to climb, so we potter, drink coffee and head out for a walk. We make our way through a verdant green valley, surrounded by rock spires poking out of jagged ridges that disappear into a thick layer of cloud shrouding their summits. Before long we hit the snow line. There are marmots everywhere – Katy counts 30 over the course of the trip. It's beautiful, though somewhat bleak amid the darkening skies. Eventually we hit a milky white-blue-green lake surrounded by scree slopes. Menacing black clouds come streaming up the valley. It's time to turn around.
Better weather forecast, so we trust it and aim for an early start. Our aim for the day: the Aguille de Vanoise, a remarkable fin of rock rising hundreds of metres from the valley floor yet surrounded by even higher glacier-capped peaks. Traversing the arete of the Aguille de Vanoise involves following the narrow crest of the fin over rock spires and along knife-edge ridges, for hundreds and hundreds of metres. Yet it never gets beyond French grade 4, Alpine AD. A huge day out, but technically shouldn't be too challenging.
The walk-in takes two and a half hours steeply upwards into increasingly wintry terrain. Sun reflects off the snow. We stash some of our gear under a boulder then continue up an increasingly steep and nasty scree slope to the base of the climb. We are concerned by the amount of snow still lying on the ground, but the ridge crest itself looks clear so we go for it anyway. Route-finding is a little tricky, but we head up a series of corners, over spikes and platforms and along narrow necks of rock. It appears to last forever. We pitch the first few sections until we find a rhythm, then start moving together, placing slings and the odd bit of pro as we go.
I had been given the impression that the route would be bolted. I was very wrong. We encountered around 8 bolts within about 500m of climbing – often placed after the crux moves.
The exposure is massive. You're a long long way from solid ground, for a long long time.
A few hours in and it feels a bit much. I stop at a small ledge under a steep chimney. I'm light headed, dizzy almost, and feeling weak. The Fear is kicking in. I start thinking about escape routes, quick ways out. And then it occurs to me, I've forgotten a cardinal rule. We've been moving non-stop for over 5 hours, and I've hardly eaten anything. The fatigue, the light-headedness, the fluttering stomach – it isn't fear, it's hunger. I'm not proud to say it, but I opened up an energy gel. Fifteen minutes later, and all was right with the world.
After a steep few sections the climb becomes a long traverse on the sharp ridge. In some moments, you move hand over hand clutching the edge of the arete, feet balanced on small holds. At others, the top of the ridge forms a narrow walkway, to be stepped along carefully. There are sections of down-climbing, and sections of steep ascent. Just as we think we're making progress we catch a glimpse of further rock spires – there's more to the ridge than you realise.
Eventually we hit a deep notch in the ridge. After a difficult down climb and a delicate traverse along loose rock, the route swings on to the north face of the Aguille. It's covered in snow, several inches deep. Our rock shoes start to look like a rather poor idea. But I creep up the slab in one very long pitch, heart in my mouth, and hit the eastern summit. From there the climb turns into a narrow track along the crest. Then a descent on a grassy slope, hideous in its steepness, punctuated by sketchy downclimbs on steep wet slabs of rock.
At the bottom, just as I can almost breathe normally again, an extraordinary sight: five chamois just in front of us, remarkably unafraid of our presence. They graze, glance up, and keep grazing. Beautiful.
We've been moving non-stop for nearly 11 hours. We stay the night in the Refuge de la Col de Vanoise, thankfully close by. Nestled into a grassy plain surrounded by rock spires and ice, the refuge is justifiably popular with walkers but we seem to be the only climbers around. We shovel as many carbs into us as possible then collapse for an early night, exhausted.
I've made a mistake. I think I've blown it.
The plan for the day: Pointe de la Grande Gliere, a perfect triangular rocky spike of a mountain jutting out over the valley. I have difficulty understanding the route description with my limited French, and that worries me. But the guidebook seems to suggest you go around a lake, up and across a loose moraine, up a steep scree gulley to a col, up the crest of a ridge, across the top of a steep glacier to another col – and that's where the climbing begins, straight up the arete. We were in for a long day. An early start is necessary: by the afternoon the couloirs start throwing down big blocks of rock. On the Aguille de Vanoise the previous day we could hear a near continuous thunder of rockfall in the afternoon once the snow started melting – almost all of it coming from the direction of where we planned to climb. The refuge had several signs up on recommended start times for different routes, and for the Pointe de la Grande Gliere it's 4am. But it's just hit September and the sun doesn't rise as early as it once did, so we chance it and set the alarm for 5am instead. If we move fast, we should be ok.
I sit bolt upright. I've overslept. I look at my watch – 5:45am. I've never overslept while getting up so early... A swift handful of cereal and a cup of tea and we're out the door – but it's hitting quarter past six and the sun is coming up. Our planned route is swiftly becoming a bad idea.
We start anyway. 200 metres later we change our mind … my slow, caffeine-deprived brain wakes up to the fact that it will be nearly impossible to get back down before the rockfall starts. Instead, a new objective: the Point du Dard (3206m), a point of rock sticking up on the other side of a large glacier. While there's still risk from the glacier going soft in the sunshine, the route is far less steep and less prone to rockfall than our original objective.
The approach should be straightforward, but the freeze-thaw cycle of the previous day means that half the route up a series of rocky slabs is covered in black ice. I fall over twice, thankfully on gentle ground. There are a few hairy step ups, and a few moments crossing scree fields where I lose the line of cairns entirely.
Eventually we hit the edge of the glacier. We gear up, rope up and set off. 10 minutes later, I look down. The 'glacier' that I thought we were on is actually just a thin layer of snow, with rock beneath. We've been using Stephen's maps of the area, printed in 1980, which show the glacier projecting several hundred metres further than it does now. The glacier we're on is the largest in the Savoie, but I wonder what it will look like in 30 years time - if there is anything left of it at all. Scary stuff indeed, and a very different kind of fear than my more ephemeral fear of heights.
There's no one else around as we cross this icy desert. The glacier is fairly straightforward except for a few heavily-crevassed sections, where we weave a cautious track amongst the cracks. The ice makes noise, a deep gutteral groan, all quite freaky.
Before too long we're at the shallow ridge of the Pointe du Dard and it's an easy scramble to the summit. The day is completely clear and the views are amazing – including to a high snow-covered mountain to the north that I'm guessing is probably Mont Blanc.
We've done the peak quicker than we thought, so on the way back we veer off the glacier to another easy scrambling peak, the Pointe de la Rechasse (3212m). The Rechasse is a long narrow ridge separating the main glacier from the valley and the refuge below. We join the ridge at its halfway point, drop our bags, and do the pleasant scramble along the crest to the summit. There's a rather kitsch statue of the Virgin Mary at the top, and an extraordinary view over the Grand Casse and the rest of the Vanoise.
On the return, we decide to follow the ridge for its full length, as the guidebook suggests this should be an easy scramble. And an easy and pleasant scramble it is, until we reach the end of the ridge at a large promontory of rock. There's a drop of around 8 metres on all sides. Beyond us, another spike of rock but with a gap too large to jump and no obvious way down from that rock either. We examine our options. On two sides it's overhanging and impossible to descend. The third side is merely vertical, but shattered rock, snow and verglas abound and -with big boots and big packs and no way of belaying – attempting to down-climb would be irresponsibly dangerous. By this stage I'm willing to abandon some gear to abseil off if necessary – but the rock is completely shattered and very loose, and I can't find a single suitable anchor anywhere. We head back up the ridge, trying to search out any possible descents onto the glacier – but nothing doing. Eventually I find a promising series of sloping ledges, dangerously covered in gravel but this is at least frozen in place for now. A few delicate moves round a corner and then ... the ledges give out, still several metres off anything resembling solid ground. There's no way down.
We open another energy gel, the second in two days. Desperate times, desperate measures... In the end, there is no choice but to retrace our steps back to the col halfway up the ridge, adding at least an hour to an already-long day, and scramble down a scree slope onto the softening glacier. We head down the slabs – thankfully ice-free by now and eventually back to the refuge. We pause for a cup of tea and a breather, and then onto the knee-wrecking descent into the valley below. At last, we return to the village. We've been moving nearly non-stop for over 12 hours.
On a short trip, your ambitions are almost always greater than the time available. On this trip, we had only six days of climbing available to us, and even that was cut short by the weather. With the kind of ambition you only get from a recent arrival into an extraordinary landscape while your legs are still fresh, our original plan entailed doing the walk in to the Plan des Goulle refuge today with a view to climbing the steep ice couloirs of the Grand Bec (3398m) the following day. But after the ravages of two 11+ hour days in a row, my body just wasn't up for the job. I needed a rest day.
So we started the morning slowly, then ambled along to the local crag only five minutes from the campsite. With climbs of up to five pitches, beautifully solid un-polished rock, and no walk-in, the crag would be absolutely rammed with people if it were in the UK. As it was, we were the only ones there for most of the day. We started with a 4-pitch route up a set of slabby grooves and corners, no more than 4c according to the photocopied topo we got from the tourist office. Katy led first. Above a broad ledge I then started to lead up the second pitch. It was hard going – but I was still tired from the previous two days and had presumed I just hadn't got my climbing head together yet. Then I hit the crux, balancy, precarious and run-out. It was too much for me. I backed off back to the ledge. I looked at the guide and eventually realised I had been following the line of a 6b climb – the 4c route was up an easy chimney to my right. The rest of the route was rather pleasant by comparison, but very exposed – particularly tiptoeing up a slabby ramp to the top.
After the 4 pitch route, we took turns on a pleasant 5c singlepitch, then a two pitch route where Katy led a 5c pitch that must be the most hideously run-out and sketchy of the whole crag (everything else is almost grid-bolted). For the final climb of the day, we went up the four-pitch Arete – pleasant climbing punctuated in its second pitch by a wild traverse over the top of a high overhang, technically not too hard but with nothing but air beneath you. We topped out as the sun disappeared behind a mountain. 12 pitches isn't bad for a rest day.
Our final day of climbing and we aim to make it a big one. Our plan: the Grand Marchet, a vast face of rock that towers over the campsite. Most of it is steep, immensely long and rather hairy (the guidebook lists several 'abominable' routes), but the east ridge is a mere seven pitches long – mostly 4c-ish but with a 6a sting in the tail on the final pitch (there is apparently a 5c alternative but it's not shown in the guidebook topo and I'm not confident of finding it). I have to admit to being a little nervous. I've led 6a on well-bolted valley crags successfully albeit with some difficulty. 6a 6 pitches up, on a sparsely bolted mountain route, sounds like a different story. I don't sleep well.
We get up early. The walk in is stunning, through meadows and past cascading waterfalls, but it's also very steep and strenuous. An hour and a half we arrive in an incredible cirque of rock, gated by sheer rock towers. I'm already exhausted.
To get to the start of the climb we have to head up an extremely steep slope of earth and scree. It is nasty to the extreme. Every step causes new cascades of stones down the slope below; nothing is solid.
The route looks amazing if a little serious. But there's a problem: I can't find the start. The guidebook depicts a wide ledge to a grassy promontory, where the route starts next to a boulder. I can see the promontory and boulder, but there is no ledge, no clear way of getting there. There's a French pair climbing a harder route further up the slope, and one of them shouts to me. I don't entirely understand, but he seems to be indicating that the ledge has collapsed, and as a consequence the route now starts from a single bolt on the face above a steep drop, and goes up a wide groove piled up with loose rock before rejoining the main route on the arete. The new first pitch isn't bolted.
Moments later the second French climber takes a whipper of a fall and dislodges a toaster-sized rock that comes bouncing down the slope straight towards us. Katy and I dive in opposite directions to get out of its way and the stone thunders on past, eventually coming to a halt hundreds of metres below. We're unharmed, but needless to say a little freaked out.
I stare long and hard at the route. I had been a little concerned at the prospect of the last pitch, but now it's the first pitch that is concerning me most. It looks like dead easy climbing, but with so much loose rock it would be tricky to ascend without dislodging at least some of it. And the nature of the terrain means the belayer would have to anchor themselves to the bolt – so would be unable to dive out of the way in case of rockfall. Perhaps most seriously, once the first pitch is ascended, the climb would be rather dangerous to retreat from as the abseil would inevitably bring down large quantities of loose rock.
I stared at the climb for a long time, full of indecision. I felt slightly unwell from our rapid ascent. When writing about these things, the temptation is always to make the situation sound extreme – but in truth, I was just simply afraid. Afraid of falling, afraid of failing, afraid of catching a rock in the face and breaking my teeth, afraid of getting stuck on the route and getting caught in an afternoon storm, and just plain old afraid of the height and exposure and general seriousness of the situation.
So we backed off, before even clipping a single bolt. Then we started the long walk back into the valley, where we would spend the afternoon doing pleasant single-pitch sport climbing in the sunshine.
Sometimes there is immense value in confronting your fears, and pushing through them. There are times however when I think it's ok to let fear get the best of you, to trust your instincts, and to back off, regroup and start thinking again of the next climb.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
- Jonathan Gaventa, September 2010
Thursday, 14 January 2010
This wall has been built in some old grain silos in a somewhat run-down industrial area on the east side of Munich. Surrounded on all sides by techno and house clubs, it feels a bit more Berlin than Bavaria. After paying about 7 euros each, we also borrowed (and we didn't even have to take a test or sign a disclaimer) a 70 metre rope. This we had to do because the main climbs here are 30 metres! That's twice the height of the Westway or the Castle. Beautiful.
As you can see from the photo, the climbs are pure vertical, all the way to the top of the silo. There are 6 or 7 silos, that all start around 6 metres up from the main floor. They do have some smaller routes on this lower wall, but they are all very easy, and look kind of pointless next to the silo routes. To access the long routes in the central silos, you have to climb up a column and then tackle a small overhang, getting you nice and pumped before you attempt the next 24 metres. Being inside the silo is a strange feeling, as you find yourself psychologically torn between the vertigo of the sheer "rockface" and the claustrophobia of this massive chimney. However, both concerns soon give way to dealing with the fact that half way up you are completely pumped and the next clip-in looks miles away. Once at the top you then have the uneasy experience of being lowered 30 metres by your partner (don't attempt this after an argument). Despite all this, the moment your feet are on the floor you're dying to have another go, just as soon as your forearms chill out. Sick pythons are an inevitability.
Thalkirchen is more scenically placed on the fringe of a large sports complex in the south of Munich, a bit like Crystal Palace with less car crime. It's more upmarket than Heaven's Gate, though not quite as tall, but still about 20 metres. The first thing you notice, before even entering the building, are the outdoor routes, lots of them. As well as the outside of the building being covered in them, there were many more along large concrete walls on the other side of the building to that you see above. Unfortunately this visit was in winter, in Munich and I'm not Alex, so we stuck to the routes inside.
Thalkirchen is a reasonably new wall, and rather than adapt an old building or squeeze it into a sports centre, it's been purpose built for nothing but climbing. The picture above was taken from a staggered gallery just past reception, so that you can have a coffee and watch people climb without getting neck-ache. Above this gallery on the top floor is a bouldering room with a crazy grading and labeling system that I didn't understand.
Saturday, 24 October 2009
Eleven Brixton Climbers set off for the mighty Peak District on Sat 17th of October of 2009. Destination: Millstone Edge, the mighty capital of crack climbing! Millstone Edge is a disused quarry, where the quarryman's dynamite created one of the most astonishing climbing landscapes on grit. Smooth, vertical, straight walls interspersed with sharp corners and parallel running, splitter cracks. Millstone is not for the faint of heart, there are very few climbs below VS, and the climbs explode in glory from HVS upwards!
As soon as we arrived Eric and Jon took Lucy and Martina for an introduction to the delights of trad climbing. Alex went on an on-sight spree, taking out Bond Street (HVS 5a), Great Portland Street (HVS 5b) and Covent Garden (VS 5b). He also tackled Great North Road (HVS 5a), but had a minor fall, spoiling the on-sight attempt. In any case, all those three HVSs are stern tests, three start routes that are firmly consolidated in the Peak's top 50.
I concentrated my efforts on Embankment 4 (E1 5b). The Embankment wall in Millstone, takes its name from a similar, but clearly inferiour feature in London. I had climbed this route previously, although resting on gear. This time I was coming back for a clean, from the bottom-up, trad ascent. I went up slowly, taking several rests along the way and testing the patience of my belayer to the limit. The middle section is a fierce fingery crack with virtually no proper footholds. I managed to overcome it with trouble, and when I reached the upper stance, I felt hugely relieved. This is a 'large' ledge where you can place a half foot on it, and balance so you can take your hands off and rest. Next to the stance, the crack widens enough to accept a large cam. Placing it gave me reassuring satisfaction. It is one of those placements that you simply call "bomber!". Above the cam I placed an additional piece of gear, a chunky nut, snugly stuck into a narrowing of the crack. I looked up towards the final 5m of easier climbing (VS 4c), and then I looked down to the ground, 13m below. I knew I was safe, I could now fall from anywhere on the route, and it would be impossible to hit the ground. Little did I know that things would become nasty.
I started slowly but confidently upwards. The upper section, although easier, still felt hard on tired arms. I decided to run it out to the final stance just below the top. I reached the narrow stance and balanced on the tip of my right foot to have a rest. If you're tall enough, you can just reach the ledge and exit. If you're shorter, like me, you have to reach far to the left, where the ledge is lower, swing, and mantle shelf with no footholds. I tried this, but I was so pumped that I nearly botched it. So I swung back to the right and panicked. Very clumsily managed to put my right foot back on the stance, on a steep smear, and not onto the proper flat protruding micro ledge I had used before. I managed to keep my balance using my left hand, palms away, pushing my body towards the right. There I was, right hand in the air, left foot in the air. Breathing deeply to achieve self control. Waiting for my blood to clean my muscles, to regain the strength to pull up to the top.
As I calmed down, and regained my confidence, I shifted my body ever so slightly, so I could go for the mantle shelf. Unexpectedly, I was gone. The rock face a fast blur of green and red. Everything was lightning fast. When I came to a rest, I had my belayer, David, staring at me, face to face, both of us hanging in the air. I was upside down. I was barely 2m above the ground. I had missed a protruding ledge on the right. I looked up and the cam had held the fall. But the cam was very high up. I didn't understand how I had fallen so far down. Everybody rushed towards me. The gray nut above the cam failed. One of my harness's loops got stuck to something and broke, showering all the bits of gear on the ground. This probably caused my body to rotate 90deg to the left, and according to Alex, I fell on a lying like position for about half of the time, until my legs got caught on the tight rope below and I finished upside down. One of the cams hanging from my harness was smashed and rendered useless. A lower quickdraw suffered an upward force that bent its gate.
Being a scientist, I performed a postmortem examination of the fall. I careflully analysed a couple of pictures showing the climb from ukclimbing.com. Taking several measurements from the pictures, I conclude that I was standing 2.7m above the cam when my right foot slipped. I felt a total of ~11.5m. I am satisfied that I was not being reckless, and that the gear I placed held appropriately. I still do not understand why the overall length of the fall was so large. Needless to say, I did not lead any other routes that weekend. This is my 9th fall on trad gear, and by far, the longest and most dangerous one, specially considering how close I was to hit the ledge.
Shattered, we cleaned the route and moved onto the Key Hole area, where Eric was preparing to tackle Regent Street (E2 5c), considered the finest finger crack in the country! Eric took a large ensemble of micro cams and small nuts. The route is about 25m long, and a real hard man test of endurance and technique. Eric set off confidently, with yours truly as his belayer. The first crux is about 5m of the ground, where a small overhang has to be tackled pulling on finger locks. Eric did this in impressive fashion, and continued up the upper crack and the tricky slab traverse to the middle ledge. Above the ledge, the final upper crack, with no footholds to speak off, towering towards the sky. This crack is the second crux. Eric set himself onto it, going up with great technique and placing the small but bomber gear on the way. He reached the upper section of the crack, where he got really pumped and where progress became increasingly difficult. After a short but hard battle, the air claimed his body, and he flew for a couple of metres, the micro cam holding perfectly! This was the third fall of the day. All falls in perfect grade progression: Alex HVS 5a, Mario E1 5b and Eric E2 5c. Thanks God, nobody tried an E3 6a that day!
I lowered Eric off and it was the turn of our President, Jon Lee. He top roped the lower section, with good technique and smooth moves. Jon has had one of the most impressive improvements I have seen since he started climbing with us about 2 yrs ago. The only thing that spoiled his ascent, in my opinion, was that he was moaning all the way up, and constantly asking Eric "what do I do", and "this is mental" and "where do I put my foot" and blah, blah, blah. Mate, you're on a top rope, get a grip. You have the technique to do it without asking! Despite all the chit-chatting he reached the upper crux crack smoothly, but alas, was also defeated in the tough section. Finally, THE MASTER, Mumtaz, took centre stage and sailed up the route, showing us how to do it, without even breaking a sweat!
Brixton Climbers on Brixton Road (VDiff, far left) and Regent Street (5c E2, far right)
Other memorable ascents included Lucy and Martina on Brixton Road (VDiff) and Jonathan on Enbankment 2 (VS 4c), the latter, a peculiar climb involving two parallel cracks: the left crack being an off-with (i.e. too wide to jam, too narrow to be considered a chimney), and the left one finger thin. A tough test for a VS!
After such an exciting day, it was high time for the pub. Following what is now long established tradition, we headed to the Millstone Inn, to be delighted with delicious and hearty food, accompanied with some good old ale! What a day!
The night was spent in the Sheepshit Hotel (*****) in Stanage. A wonderful cave with all amenities included. A group of four rebels decided to be bold and slept in the North Lees Campsite, not too far away.
Stanage edge and the sheepshit hotel.
The next day was a fest of leading in Stanage Popular. Alex, without preamble, without even warming up, went straight for the ONE and ONLY, the mighty Flying Buttress Direct (HVS 5b). One of the most imposing flying roof climbs in The Peaks! It is such a legendary climb. One of those magnetic routes that attracts the crowds as mere mortals launch their bodies at it. Alex made very good progress up to the very lip of the overhang, where he spent a considerable amount of time in the sloth position, heel hooking with his right foot and hanging with both arms stretched, placing 3(4?) camming devices in the crack. Such an effort led to the unavoidable pump and a rest on gear. He then finished the route without further incident. Eric, Jon and Mumtaz all tried but none could do a clean ascent. Mumtaz found a considerably easier sequence of moves, which shows his great technique and experience. What a climb!
The one and only: Flying Buttress Direct (5b HVS)
Alex and Mumtaz spent the rest of the day soloing various VDiff routes. Stephen arrived from London and went onto a leading spree. Eric on-sighted Queensvile (HVS 5a), very though for a 5a in my opinion. Thin and technical moves all the way! Kate made a very confident ascent of Flying Buttress (HVD). I was just happy to be alive and enjoyed the top-roping!
Overall an amazing weekend. I vote in favour of Jon's motion of a "no falls" policy for the club. This seems to be very sensible. And as the great wise Brixton Climber used to say "BE BOLD BUT BE SAFE!".
Alex account of the falls:
Over the last two weekends I have witnessed two very serious falls - Chris and Mario - both times I had enough time, as they fell, to think quite a few thoughts. Both had gear rip and both nearly hit the ground. Here is my (un)dramatic version of events...
I watched Chris fall when I reached the top of an exposed Stanage cliff after seconding Eric. Having already climbed past Chris at the point where our two routes converged I thought it worth pausing to watch his attempt (number two) of the crux. He had already fallen once, when I was below him, where he 'tested' his cam placement which was in a shallow flaring pocket. We had agreed that I would climb ahead and as I did I noiticed the cam and passed him some encouraging comment like "That looks a bit shit, ooh - that'll be a big fall if it rips!" "Thanks a lot" was his reply...
From the saftey of the belay Eric and I tucked into some popcorn and settled in to watch the action directly below. Unaware of his audience Chris set about tackling the crux once more. I have a very bad memory for climbing moves and routes and I don't remember much about what this crux involved other than that you have to smear. I think it was a nice move but it definately involved balancy smearing. I watched Chris attempt it in a way that could not have been more strenuous and less unbalanced. I later found out this unconventional technique was due to artheritis in his toes which prevents him from smearing! I'm not sure what it was that gave out - his fingers or the friction from his shoes - but he fell. He scraped down the slab, past his trusty cam and over the edge of the arete. I saw the rope go taught as it tore the cam from the pocket then whip violently around when it released. Chris looked far away as he rapidly approached the ground before his second piece of protection stopped his freefall and shot him out of sight back round the arete less than a meter from the ground. I knew the ground was uneven round there and for a moment I was unable to resolve in my head whether or not he would be injured. All I now had to gage the seriousness of the incident was the reactions and body language of the people on the ground that I could see. I knew he was alright when the surge of concerned movement towards the scene quickly relaxed and dissipated. Chris later seemed suprisingly unconcerned.
Marios efforts were played out in the sheltered and awesome Millstone quarry. Mario has been banging on about Millstone ever since I've known him - "You've got to go there man! Every climb is 3 stars, perfect yamming cracks!" etc. I didn't expect much when I actually went there - it couldn't live up to all this hype - but I was really impressed with the place. It holds the kind of atmosphere that you have to respect and tells you the climbing will be great if you do. We all set about knocking off the classic routes.
I had a minor fall on Great North Road which had concerned me as I was not expecting it. No warning, no pump, no slipping - one minute I was on the next I was below my gear. I had scraped some skin off my little finger and left little deposits of blood and skin on each hold as I finished the route to mark the way for Mumtaz who was seconding. When we finished we arrived back at the base of the cliff just in time to watch a couple of locals climbing a hard route with a long runout diagonal finish which we had both contemplated doing. A few meters up and to the right of the finish of this climb was Mario battling his demons on the last moves of a climb he was set on conquering. I wasn't paying much attention to him as it seemed like he was finished and I was discussing with Mumtaz what would happen if you fell from the crux of the other climb. We recognised that the diagonal traverse from the last bit of gear would mean an almighty swing which would be quickly halted by a ledge of rock that jutted out near the base of the climb Mario was on (and far above). Cue Mario. He was very much in my visual field and the sudden movement drew my attention. As he fell my anxiety grew in proportion to his acceleration and his distance from the ledge at the base of the climb.
The first couple of meters I was just pleasantly interested to spectate. I expected him to come to a bouncy halt just below his first bit of protection. Pop. Pop. First and second bits of gear rip in rapid succession. From where I was standing I could see the whole cliff, top to bottom, and Mario in relation to it. He is now accelerating fast - and I'm waiting for the next piece to stop him - he has fallen half the height of the cliff but is still accelerating! I felt genuine concern at that moment as he had rotated ninety degrees and was falling horizontally at full speed presenting the side of his skull to the jutting ledge and he was not slowing down with very little time left. It looked for a moment serious - as in coma or death serious. I think the rope started slowing him when he was a distance above the ledge but with so much rope to stretch and with a lighter David belaying plus slack and knots there were quite a few meters of additional falling to be done before the fall was arrested two meters off the ground.
It took me one or two seconds to realise all was well and nothing could change that. I had a moment to look at the reactions of everyone else who was party to this short event and even to wonder whether I should be running towards him as one girl from another group instinctively was but I already knew there was no need. I declined Mario's offer to finish the route for him.
I didn't see Eric's fall or Jon's but Jon's description of his little finger popping back when he untied his shoelaces made me cringe.
A good time was had by all..
Mario's comments on Alex account
A couple of clarifying points. The first bit of gear that failed was a tricam I put inside a flaring, round pocket hole. I knew it was never going to hold even the smallest of falls. The second gear failure was the nut above the cam. Two more pieces of gear failed, but this were the first two nuts I placed on the route. I suspect my belayer was standing too far back, and when the rope became taught, it pulled the pieces of gear up and then out, 'unzipping' them (I think that's the technical term). Four pieces of gear remained on the route. That's why when you belay you should stay close to the rock, and keep the slack in the system to a minimum.
I fell with my head on the left side of the route. The ledges were on the right. I could have broken my legs, but not my head.
We all left gloomy London early Saturday morning. Stanage is so big, that it is divided into several sections, and has three car parks serving different parts of the crag. We headed for Stanage Plantation, home to such classics as The Unconquerables (E1 and HVS), Tower Face (HVS), Goliath's Groove (HVS), Archangel (E3), etc. This area alone has 600+ climbs including boulder problems (such as the famous Brad Pitt V10).
Alex went straight for a 'warm-up' route "Death and Night and Blood" (5b E1). The name says it all! A precarious and balancy arete not recommended for the short. I focused my attention on Tower Face, and led a variation called Tower Face and Chimney (VS 4c). Soon Steph and Mel followed me, Mel climbing the proper Tower Face route (HVS 5a), from which I had retreated earlier.
We then headed to Goliath's Groove (HVS 5a) one of Stanage's all time classics. A steep off-width groove leading to a superb finger crack above. After a gruesome battle with the bloody groove (the term bloody is literal here!), both I and Alistair led it. We have the wounds to prove it! I've lost a chunk from my left ankle and Alistair lost the skin on one of his hands!
The rest of the guys had gone to the farther western ends of the crag, Stanage High Nebb. Steph, Mel and I had a lovely walk from the Plantation to the High Nebb, taking photographs, chasing sheep (Steph has an obsession with Sheep) and watching the sun setting in the distance.
We arrived at High Nebb just in time to see Eric tackling the critical move of Impossible Slab (5c E3!!!!). Eric was balancing on a tiny, tiny edge. Above him, 3 metres of blank looking rock, below him, 2 metres to his last piece of protection! We all had our hearts in our mouths as we watched Eric decisively tackling the final moves, with a balancy elegance that only he can achieve. When he reached the safety of the upper ledge we all exploded in delight and loud applause. Well done Eric!
However the true bravery award should go to Chris Gribble. He tackled a VS climb at the top of his technical ability, giving it all. At the crux of the climb, he fell off and a precarious cam held his fall. Not content with this, Chris proceeded to try again. He soon found himself struggling at the crux, just to fall yet again. This time the camming device failed and was ripped out of the rock. He kept falling until a piece of gear further down stopped him. The carabiner that finally took the brute force of the fall was seriously deformed. I was not there to see it but every body said it was one of the most incredible falls ever!
Tired and happy after so much excitement in a single day we then headed for the Millstone Inn. There we delighted ourselves with the now legendary Millstone Fish and Chips. The fish fillet is so big that literally does not fit in the plate! We also had steak, scampi, lamb pot, etc. all washed down with some nice beer.
With our bellies full it was now time to go to bed, however, we still had an adventure left for the night: finding the bivy cave in Stanage Popular! It was very dark and it took us about 40 min to find the cave, just to realise that about 10 people were already in there! Most of the guys decided to set up their bivies under overhanging buttresses at the bottom of the crag. Eric, Alex, Mel, Steph and I decided to explore another smaller cave, rumoured to be used by sheep in the winter. This cave is accessible only from the top, so we had to solo on-sight a 10-metre high moderate climb with our rucksacks in the dark!
The cave turned out to be very spacious but full of sheep dung. That problem was easily solved using Eric's super sized tarpauling. In a few seconds the cave was transformed into a clean, cozy room were we spent a really comfy night. We all agreed at the morning that it was way better than sleeping in a tent in a camp site. We had breakfast in the cave's balcony, high up in the buttress and with breathtaking views over the Hope Valley. We greeted the park warden who was happy to see that we were clean and organized.
As we were getting ready to start another climbing session the weather became nasty. The winds were fast and cold, and the faintest of drizzles started to fall. The drizzle keep strengthening in the most subtle of ways, slowly dampening, then wetting, then drenching everything. Alex had the brilliant idea of leading an HS in the middle of the torrential drizzle. I had the even worse idea of offering him a belay! The weirdest thing was when Richard asked, actually begged me to second the route! Be my guest! I never felt so cold and miserable! Nobody else was climbing.
Sad and defeated we regrouped and decided to have a nice pub lunch in some nice picturesque village, and head back to London. We didn't know it but it was still going to be a long day...
We found a very nice pub close to Birchen Edge (you should always choose a pub close to some rocks!). While we were waiting for our food we had a pool competition where the girls, Mel and Steph, convincingly embarrassed us and showed us how to play the game. Our food was ready and we had such lovely things as braised pork belly and black pudding on a bed of spinach and mashed potatoes, sirloin steak with rocket salad and home made chips, and so on. All washed down with the customary local ales!
As we were finishing our meal the sky cleared up, and glorious sunshine broke through the pub window and onto our table. High up on the hill side, behind the trees silhouetted against the perfectly blue sky, was Birchen Edge. A mere 10min walk away. We obviously had no option but to go climbing!
A lovely afternoon of bouldering and easy soloing ensued. We played several games such as doing boulder problems with no hands. It was really impressive what Alex, Mel and Eric managed to do. We soloed some high but easy and freaky slabs. Eric and Alex soloed an overhanging HS crack (HS?, I'll promise to buy a pint of beer to whoever soloes on-sight that thing!). After several hours of relentless bouldering it was finally time to go home. However, on the way back, we realised that we had forgotten to have dessert, so back to the pub for some chocolate fudge and more beer! Alex and I also managed a quick darts competition.
It looked like the fun was never going to end, but in the end it did! Everybody into their cars and back to London, with big smiles in our faces after such an extraordinary weekend!
If you're reading this and you feel green with envy after having missed so much fun, don't worry, everything will be repeated again (in a different sort of way), next weekend: Millstone Edge! And check out the two ticks that are compulsory for all Brixton Climbers: Brixton Road (Vdiff) and Lambeth Chimney (HS), no kidding those are true climbs!
Monday, 6 July 2009
So technically it was more of a romantic week away than an official BCC expedition, but I'm so excited about the trip to the Cuillin on Skye that I've just returned from that I thought I'd write it up anyway ... hopefully as a way of inspiring the next trip up there!
The Cuillin Ridge is an amazing jagged arc of volcanic rock with 13 Munros and many more subsidiary summits. While there's no glaciers and the ridge never exceeds 1000m, it's still the closest thing to an Alpine experience you'll get in the UK. Much of the main ridge and many of the side ridges are knife-edged, and in many places there are sweeps of solid rock several hundred metres high. It's a desolate environment with a serious feel, but is incredibly beautiful. There is enough climbing, scrambling and walking there to last you for years.
Getting there is half the adventure. Neither Katy or I has a car, so we decided to do it all by public transport and our own two feet.
Day one: we leave London at lunchtime. Train to Glasgow, time for a quick pint, then train to Mallaig via Fort William. Extraordinary views of the hills and lochs from the train. Train full of drunk Scots. Arrive in Mallaig around midnight, check into hostel, sleep.
Day two: up early for the ferry across to Armadale on Skye. It's a beautiful clear morning, and we get good views over Blaven/Clach Glas as well as the main Cuillin ridge in the distance, and the hills of Knoydart closer by. Catch a bus straight from the ferry to Broadford, where we have time for a cooked breakfast in a caff before the same bus comes back and takes us on to Sligachan at the foot of the north end of the Cuillin. There's not much in Slig except a bus stop, a hotel/pub and a campsite, but we were determined to carry on to Glen Brittle – 8 miles by a rough track or 15 miles by road – for a bit more of a remote mountain feel. So we hitch it. The first car to stop is a Polish couple heading for the Talisker distillery. I was sorely tempted, but the mountains were calling so we turned the lift down. A few minutes later, got another lift with a friendly French couple all the way to the campsite, after only around half an hour of standing by the roadside.
The campsite is perfect. The only problem is deciding whether your tent should face out over the beach, or up into the Cuillin. (the other problem is that there's no pub and the tiny campsite shop doesn't sell beer, so it turned out to be a pretty dry week...)
It's early afternoon by the time we get there and the sun is out, so we decide to head straight for the hills. We start with a pleasant walk into Coire na Banachdich, then up a grade 3 scramble (described as 'serious and high in its grade' in the guidebook) up the Banachdich slabs, a sheet of perfect gabbro sweeping down from the col. Gabbro is, quite simply, wonderful. Everything sticks to it. You can walk up rock at improbable angles, often not even needing handholds. As it was, Katy and I were left wondering where the 'serious and sustained' bit was, as we topped out swiftly and without much difficulty. From there, over the three tops of Sgurr na Banachdich, a pleasantly airy grade 2 scramble and Katy's first Munro, then another grade 2 scramble down the Sgurr nan Gobhar ridge. So far, so good, but it then finished in a scree descent so unspeakably awful that I won't describe it any further.
Day three and we're feeling good. Weather is cool but sunny, so we decide to go for a big day on the rock. We head up into Coire Lagan – a basin with 300m high rock cliffs in every direction – to climb on the Cioch face on Sron na Ciche. The Cioch itself is a curious knob of rock jutting out of the middle of a 300m rockface, and the face is split into 3 levels by small ledges, enabling you to mix and match different routes. We opt to start with Cioch Direct, a classic of the area that was originally graded 'Exceptionally Severe' on its first ascent 100 years ago. These days its goes at Severe 4a, but I reckon that's a bit of a Skye sandbag. Much of the route goes up a basalt dyke forming a series of corners and chimneys. Unlike gabbro, which tends to be solid and super-grippy, basalt polishes easily is prone to fracture, making it a much more worrying proposition.
After a thrutchy polished start up a chimney, the first couple of pitches go pretty easily. Then 20 metres up the third pitch, bang – there's the crux. A steep and awkward chimney, with every hold seemingly as polished as the most popular routes on Portland. I go part the way up it, come down a bit and breathe, go up again, thrash about, then down climb once more and set up a very exposed belay point just to get my breath back. After bringing Katy up, I have the (not so) bright idea of finding a different way around and rejoining the route higher up. I set off on a delicate traverse left across a gabbro slab, make a tricky rockover back right, then- fekkin ell- I'm faced with a 6-metre high overhanging corner. It looks hard, definitely harder than the crux I was avoiding. Overhangs and rucksacks don't mix very well, I feel like I'm being pulled off the wall backwards. But I've committed – there's no way I can reverse the moves back down to the belay. The only way is up, so I launch myself at it, laybacking, jamming, bridging and grunting. I come close to falling, repeatedly, closer than I've been to falling on any multipitch I've done before, but keep on moving upwards. It's definitely harder than Severe, felt like VS with packs on, though it may well have been part of the line of the neighbouring HVS route. I slap for a ledge and eventually pull up into a niche and a belay, where I gasp for breath and belay Katy up to join me. I'm not surprised at all to hear curses shouted up when she gets to the corner, nor to hold a couple of falls, but to her credit she got on with it and finished the pitch. We breathe, drink some water, eat something sugary, and continue. For the final two pitches the route moves on to open gabbro slabs which are poorly protected but easy climbing, with the grade dropping back to S or V Diff.
So after 6 pitches and several hours, we've finished our first route of the day. But the route finishes on a narrow ledge in the middle of a massive rock face, so the only thing to do is to choose another route and keep going. We pop round the corner to Arrow Route, an immaculate 70m dimpled slab that goes at V Diff (see http://www.ukclimbing.com/images/dbpage.html?id=114404). It's got a reputation as one of the worst-protected and most exposed V Diffs in the country, and those of you I've climbed with before will know that I'm terrible at slabs. But it had to be done. The first pitch traversed up a vague crack line to the middle of the face, to an entirely inadequate belay ledge that you could only just about get two feet on. The second pitch is the crux, tiptoeing straight up the face with incredible exposure. But despite the reputation for poor gear, I managed to get 5 pieces in thanks to creative uses of a tricam and a miniature hex. A beautiful pitch, on wonderfully warm rock in the sun.
This route arrives at a grassy ledge just above the Cioch. Apparently it's possibly to scramble off into the gully from there, but we had a look and it appeared deathly wet and slippery. So the only thing to do is keep climbing. We sat in the sun for a bit, waiting for another party to move on, before setting off on Wallwork's Route (VD). Unlike the chimneys and corners of the first route or the slab of the second, this route has a totally different feel to it and takes a rising traverse on steep blocky gabbro above a massive drop. It's by far the most exposed V.Dif that I've done, as it involves repeated moves to blindly swing round blocks or rock over ledges above an overhang, with hundreds of metres of space directly beneath you. But the moves aren't too hard once you get your head into it. Three pitches later, the route swings back the other direction onto a 70 metre blank but easy angled slab. Katy leads the final pitch, our 12th of the day, and we top out on the summit exhausted but happy. We descend the Sgumain Stone Shoot (just as nasty as it sounds, an evil combination of loose scree and tricky down-scrambling) and eventually get back to the campsite at 11pm – a 13 hour day – but thankfully with enough light left in the evening sky to cook dinner without headtorches.
Accessing the inaccessible
Day four: feeling tired but buoyed by the previous day's adventures, we head back into the hills, this time to go up the Inaccessible Pinnacle, a strange fin of rock jutting out of Sgurr Dearg that is the most technically difficult munro in the country. We walk up to Loch Coire Lagan with the original idea of doing a long Diff straight up the side of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. However, once up there we spot another couple of climbers on the route and decide to the south buttress of Sgurr Dearg instead (a grade 3 scramble), for fear of getting stuck behind them. It turned out to be a wiser decision when we realised – an hour later, the climbers we saw dislodged a chunk of rock the size of a small fridge which sparked an avalanche of rock down the face. Had we started the route, we may well have been in its path.
The ascent of the In Pinn is only a moderate, but it's got a fierce reputation among hillwalkers as it's rather exposed with 70m drops both sides. So I wasn't best pleased when a rain shower broke out just as we were approaching it. Nor was I pleased by the rescue helicopter buzzing by at very close range as I was arriving at the first belay – the sound of those things freaks me out. But it was a pretty easy 2 pitch route, even in big boots in the rain, and we topped out swiftly then abseiled off the west end. Descent was to be via a path below the Bealach Coire na Banachdich, but I quickly lost it and we downclimbed the grade 3 slabs instead. All in all, a fun day out.
13k rest day
Day five: I unilaterally called a rest day. I was exhausted, particularly after leading 11 pitches on day 3. We hung around the beach, then walked out to the point at the end of Loch Brittle (13k in all, not bad for a rest day!), with beautiful views of the hills and the small islands (Eigg, Rhum and Canna) and Outer Hebrides. I might have seen a sea otter. At the end of the point there's some stunning gabbro seacliffs, around 8-10 metres high and with perfect rock. I'm keen to head back with a rope and my shoes for some 'new routing', as I didn't see a single mark of chalk or polish anywhere (though I'm sure some of the routes must have been done before).
A Difficult adventure
Day six: wake up feeling rested, despite the long walk, as I went a whole day without feeling like I was at risk of death. We head up to Window Buttress (diff), a 150m high ridge of blocky gabbro, so Katy can do some multipitch leading. It's sunny when we start the walk in, but a cold wind picks up and by the time we get to the base of the cliff it's chucking it down. Convinced it would clear quickly, Katy set off up the route anyway, leading confidently even on the wet rock. But by the time I reach the first belay ledge I'm soaked through and freezing. Katy leads again, the wind is howling, and the temperature can't have been more than a couple of degrees. It's much more difficult climbing in the wet, but Katy seems to be leading fine. As for me, I'm regretting wearing big boots and I can't feel my fingers. Despite full waterproofs and fleece, I'm shivering and miserable. At the second belay ledge we decide to bail out. We abseil back as far as the first ledge – then textbook disaster strikes. The rope jams as I try to pull it, and we're stuck 25 metres up a rock face with no rope and no way to get down. And it's still chucking it down and freezing cold. I was too cold to panic, so using the remaining rope slack I tied in and climbed back up towards the ledge to free the rope, placing gear as I went. Unfortunately the remaining rope wasn't long enough and I was stuck 5 metres below the ledge. However after a few pulls on the rope and a lot of rope stretch I managed to just about make it back to the ledge. At that point I discovered that the rope wasn't snagged on something after all; the wet, clingy rope just wouldn't pull over the rough gabbro. So there was no easy way of abbing down without risking getting the rope stuck again. I decided to do a tricky downclimb down the way I had just come up, then after rejoining Katy on the ledge I got her to lead the downclimb on the final pitch.
Having had enough adventures for one day, we trudged back to camp, packed up, and hit the road to get back to Sligachan. After 45 minutes of heavily-laden walking down an entirely empty road (in bright sunshine once again), an elderly Munroist stopped for us and kindly gave us a lift back to Slig. He was in pursuit of his last 20 or so Munros, and was mostly walking alone these days as his peers couldn't take the long days any more. Good luck to him!
Once the tents were up in Slig, the cold northerly wind that had been blowing all week suddenly stopped. Then the midges came out ... we wanted the cold wind back! We sloped off to the pub to avoid them.
The ground beneath her feet
Day seven: Last day in the hills. The route of choice this time is Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean – it's only a Mod, but it's a big long route with an Alpine feel (including some decidedly dodgy rock). It traverses a series of five ascending rock towers, split by gullies, on the way up to one of the northernmost Munros on the ridge. We were blessed by yet another beautiful clear day, and set off early. The first three pinnacles are mostly interesting scrambling, but from there it becomes more complicated and good routefinding is required. From the top of the third pinnacle, a rather unnerving abseil is required, followed by a downclimb to a gully. From there, you're committed. We moved together alpine-style up the next pinnacle (Knight's Peak), then descended the other side. Poor route finding on my part led us to a nasty-looking 8 metre open corner. Always the gentleman, I suggested that Katy went first. She geared up and traversed onto a small ledge above the corner – then suddenly the whole ledge collapsed beneath her feet and ricocheted down into the gully. Katy was -thankfully- roped up and managed to keep hold of the handholds in the fall, but a terrifying moment nonetheless. Another party then appeared behind us, and found an easy way to walk down on the right. We climbed down after them, and set off alpine style again up the final peak, arriving to incredible views of the whole ridge and pretty much the whole island and beyond. I picked out Ben Nevis in the distance, still covered in snow on the north face. We decided to take the West Ridge (moderate) in descent, then abseiled down Tooth Chimney (diff) as a friendly party ahead let us use their rope.
From the bealach we decided to go up for one last munro, and set off the normal route up Am Basteir, a grade 2 scramble with one notch of Severe downclimbing. This was swiftly overcome, then the summit, then the scree slopes and the long long walk out, and finally the pub. It was the end of our climbing, and of a spectacular week.
Day eight: early start in the Slig campsite. Pack up then catch a 7:30am bus to Armadale, then the ferry over to Mallaig. Katy has a few more days and is headed to Eigg via another ferry; I'm headed home. I get the train to Glasgow, another to London, the tube across town then another train to Peckham and arrive home around 11pm, feeling somewhat culture shocked by the Skye-London transition, somewhat fatigued from the journey, but very much alive.
14 June 2009
Thursday, 10 July 2008
When the avalanche hit, I was eating fried mushrooms and drinking strong coffee in a picturesque converted stable in the Cotswolds. My friends Kate and Jez had been married the previous night. The morning was spent among friends from undergraduate days, slowly recovering from the festivities, and telling anyone who would listen about my plans, excitement and apprehension about my first ever Alpine mountaineering trip. I was to leave the following day for the Ecrins massif in the southern French Alps, a mountain range characterised by jagged peaks up to 4000 metres, high mountain glaciers, huge granite rock walls and narrow Alpine valleys – and could think and talk of little else.
Meanwhile, my climbing partners were having a bad day on the hill. They had already gone out to the Alps; the wedding meant that I was to miss the first couple of days of climbing and would join the others out there. The plan was that the others – a mix of Brixton Climbers and their French friends from the Ardèche - would head out first, attempt a high mountain route and hopefully be ready to get back out for another route by the time I arrived on the Tuesday morning.
So while I was drinking English champagne and dancing to a ceilidh band, the others were setting off towards their bivi in the boulder field under the Sélé hut, at 2500m. While I was stumbling into bed in the early hours of the morning, they were just beginning their 4am 'Alpine start'. And by the time of my second cup of coffee, they would be in a difficult and dangerous retreat.
Point du Sélé
In clear early morning sunshine, two rope teams of 3 people each crossed over the moraine field and then up the steep slopes of the Glacier de Ailefroide, aiming for the Pointe du Sélé (3556m), a peak joining four steep rocky ridges rising out of the glaciers. Several of the experienced mountaineers in the group had been to the same area the previous year, and noted with some concern that there was not only much more snow than they remembered but also that it seemed far too soft: they sank with every step. An abnormal spring of heavy snows lasting well into June created unusual conditions on the mountains. Beautifully clear and warm weather may seem ideal for climbing, but – in retrospect - following so soon after the spring snows it signalled a rapid thaw, unstable slopes and risk of rockfall and avalanche.
On the upper slopes of the glacier, the two teams separated to attempt the summit by different ridges. The first team – Oskari, the Brixton-Finnish climber plus Patrice and Jean-Marie, two Ardeche Frenchmen – moved up their chosen ridge, only to be confronted with extremely loose and unstable rock. As they climbed, showers of stones ricocheted down the steep rock faces on either side of the ridge, dislodging large slabs of snow on the slopes below. Progress was slow. Eventually they made the difficult (but wise) decision that it was not safe to continue, and began the complex retreat from the ridge, through a mix of abseiling and down-climbing.
On the final abseil – just as Patrice, the final climber, was finishing his descent – they heard yet another thunder of rockfall, and looked up to see a 'microwave-sized' boulder (in Oskari's words) tumbling towards them. Oskari and Jean-Marie took shelter behind a large rock. Patrice managed to dive out of the way, the boulder missing him by only metres. The team hurried to retrieve the rope and get off the ridge. But as they pulled one end of the rope they were surprised to see two ropes falling towards them: the rockfall had completely severed one side of the rope, and cut halfway through the other. Luckily, this was the last abseil and Patrice was the last to come down, so they were able to descend safely – but everyone was shaken up by the close call.
On the other side of the mountain, the second rope team (Eric and Dominique, both French Brixton Climbers, and Ivan, a Frenchman from the Ardeche) were also having difficulties. As with the other ridge, there was considerable loose rock, making progress not only slow but also risky. The team downclimbed the ridge back on to the steep snowy slopes of the Glacier de Ailefroide. As the climbers descended on softening snow, still roped up against risk of crevasses, they heard a rumble behind them and a shout of 'Avalanche!' from Eric. Suddenly they were swept off their feet by a rush of snow and slid down the glacier for several hundred metres, desperately trying to stay on top of the snow. As they fell, Dominique and Ivan were knocked into each other; both suffered nasty cuts from each other's crampons. Dominique also badly sprained his ankle. Eric, further up the slope, managed to avoid tumbling into the other climbers, but at the end of the avalanche slide found himself entangled in the rope, half-buried in snow, and nearly unable to breathe. Unable to free himself, he decided to cut the rope – but his knife was out of reach somewhere in his rucksack. Luckily Dominique had kept his knife in his pocket and was able to cut the rope to let Eric breathe normally again.
At this point, they began the difficult process of getting off the mountain. While Eric was unharmed once freed from the rope, Ivan had crampon cuts on his chest and was bleeding; Dominique had cuts to his leg and could barely walk on his sprained ankle. In retrospect, calling out a mountain rescue helicopter could have been wise. Instead, they spent 6 hours hobbling down the trail (including descending the tricky 200m rock wall just below the Sélé hut) until they met Ros - another Brixton Climber who had stayed in the valley – who took them to the hospital in Briançon to be patched up. Ivan left the next day, vowing never to mountaineer again. Dominique was confined to crutches and stayed in Ros's rental apartment in Pelvoux for the remainder of the week. Yet he seemed incredibly unphased by the whole ordeal, frustrated only that his injuries kept him away from the hills.
Planning for the expedition started long ago – in practice from when Eric, Oskari and Patrice had returned from a trip last summer full of tales and incredible photos, but in essence from the first time I heard stories and saw pictures from the Alps. For any aspirant climber, the Alps loom large in the imagination: they present a beauty, a history, and above all else a sheer scale (and level of risk) that seems unfathomable in the UK - especially in comparison to the 8m high southern sandstone outcrops where I had cut my climbing teeth.
The preparations were continuous. Every climbing trip became an 'Alpine training' trip; every exertion just added to Alpine fitness. In April, we trekked up and down the slopes of the South Downs to get used to all the walk-ins – by chance on the one snowy day of the year. In May, Eric organised a crevasse rescue session, in the notoriously icy environs of Crystal Palace Park. In June, a scrambling trip to Glen Coe and Skye helped to accustom us to walking up steep hills and exposed ridges (the Aonach Eagach is a bit like an alpine ridge, only several times wider...).
We were to base ourselves in Ailefroide, a peaceful 1500m high village and campsite. It fulfilled every expectation: meadows brimming with wildflowers, clear icy-cold streams, sheer granite faces in every direction and spiky snow-covered peaks forming every skyline.
I stepped off the sleeper train in L'Argentiere la Besée knowing nothing of the problems my friends had faced on the mountains. The only indication that something was amiss was a cryptic text message from Eric asking me to bring my rope (they had lost 3 already). So my first sight of these beautiful and extraordinary hills was accompanied by a running commentary on the violence that they can wreak.
Understandably, the group's enthusiasm for high mountaineering routes had been replaced with a much more cautious and subdued approach, at least until snow conditions improved. With temperatures topping 30 degrees in the valleys every day, the spring snow cover was disappearing fast and we figured it would not be long until it stabilised.
We turned our attention to alternative pursuits. This wasn't difficult: Ailefroide has an incredible amount of rock climbing (from single pitch to 400m routes) within easy walk of the campsite, and there are several via ferratas near by. After setting up camp, we set off to do a via ferrata route in a neighbouring valley – a long slanting traverse of a sheer limestone cliff. While relatively safe and technically not too difficult, via ferrata can be a brilliant way of practising moving quickly over difficult ground and becoming accustomed to the exposure: you find yourself grasping iron rungs with nothing but hundreds of metres of air between you and the valley floor. The route was fun and reasonably straightforward, even after a night of patchy sleep on the overnight train. The only real difficulty was the heat: my two litres of water disappeared quickly and I sweated off sunscreen just as fast as I could apply it.
Campfire discussions that evening turned to rock climbing. I was tempted to launch straight in to one of the big multi-pitch classics of the area that rise up over the campsite. In one direction, the Fissure de Ailefroide (Dificile, English VS, 250 metres) is a traditionally-protected chimney that cleaves a massive granite face. In the other direction and in complete contrast, Palavar-les-Flots (D-/F5b obl, 400m) is a long bolted slabby ridge that extends for 12 pitches.
In the end, however, we decided to start with some practice on smaller routes, to get accustomed to the rock, the grading, and the bolt spacing (I'm far more accustomed to trad climbing than sport; following some one else's bolts rather than placing my own gear was rather unnerving). The events of the previous days had led to a strong sense of caution.
Feeling safe is dangerous
The next morning we set off for La Draye, also known as the Practice Slabs, a popular sport climbing spot located only a short walk from the campsite. Most of the routes are single pitch and there is little loose rock. With the exception of the odd long run-out between bolts, the area feels fairly safe. Nonetheless, I still backed off the first route I tried, unwilling to trust the friction of the unfamiliar rock and unaccustomed to blank but easy-angled slabs. Oskari set off to lead the route and retrieve my gear.
The feeling of safety disappeared suddenly. We heard a scream and then the horrible, unforgettable, sound of a body hitting rocks. A nearby French climber (not one of our group) had been dropped while lowering off. The rope was not long enough for the descent and did not have a knot in it; the belayer had been watching the climber rather than the rope; the end slipped through the belay device and the climber fell 4 metres, hitting his head on a boulder below. Like everyone else at the crag, he was not wearing a helmet.
It was a terrible scene. The climber was severely injured, in and out of consciousness, breathing shallowly and bleeding heavily. I gave my first aid kit (which seemed pathetically small and useless in this situation) to the other French climbers who attempted to limit the bleeding and keep him still. A helicopter was called. But then nothing. There was nothing more to do but stand and wait for help. It is difficult, excruciating, to be in a situation that is so palpably an emergency, but to be able to do nothing but wait. It seemed like hours, but in actuality was only around 30 minutes. Two sets of fire-fighters arrived, then finally the helicopter. After several sets of complicated aerial manoeuvres – as we clung to our bags against the wind and dust - they managed to evacuate him. We later learned that the climber had fractured skull and was in a critical condition in the Grenoble hospital. I hope he recovers - both for his own sake and that of his wife, who had been belaying him and was completely inconsolable, blaming only herself.
Games climbers play
When you witness a serious accident it is difficult to carry on as normal. Combined with the events of the previous days, I think witnessing the accident at La Draye made us all question why we climb and whether the inevitable risk that accompanies climbing (especially in the high mountains, but also on any crag) is worth it. None of us wanted another mountain epic, and we certainly didn't want another accident of any kind.
Climbing is a strange dialectical process of exposing yourself to risky environments then taking steps to mitigate and control those risks, through use of external equipment (i.e. ropes and protection), skill and judgement. It is a game in which winning means successfully getting out of the very same difficult situations that you put yourself in, and losing is unthinkable. Rock climbing is far from the only area of risk that we expose ourselves to in our lives – cycling in traffic and going out on a Friday night spring to mind as other lifestyle hazards – but it is certainly the one in which risk is most obvious, made painfully clear by gut fear of heights and exposure.
Yet you learn to manage the fear and to manage the risk. At certain moments of exposure high on a cliff face, my chest still tightens, my stomach still drops, my knees still uncontrollably disco, but these days I'm mostly able to laugh it off, double check my knots, grip the rock a bit tighter and carry on like normal. And after a while, climbing does feel like it's normal. You spend enough time above the ground that you trust your equipment, ability and judgement. You remain aware of risk, but it becomes more abstract, more statistical, more akin to cycling in a city or going out on a Friday night. Yes, accidents happen - climbers make mistakes; cyclists get knocked off; innocent bystanders get glassed outside pubs – but you don't expect to see it, or for these things to happen to those around you.
But the feelings of relative safety that result can themselves be dangerous. The good conditions of clear sunshine and calm winds can mask a dangerously unstable snowpack or rock ridge. The easygoing ambience of a single pitch sport crag can lead to simple precautions (like knotting the end of the rope or wearing a helmet) being forgotten or ignored.
For me, seeing the accident did little to change my perception of the probability of risk, as a basic awareness of the statistics of chance was already there. Yet it made the consequences of risks, and of making mistakes, so much more tangible and immediate. And that in turn made all of us not only more cautious in our approach but also more aware of others around us, checking every rope from the corners of our eyes. Climbing may be a type of game, as Lito Tejeda-Flores's famous essay put it, but it is an extremely serious one.
Back to basics
With these thoughts in mind, we decided to return the basics and go for a walk. Yet in the Alps even walking is far from a walk in the park. Our objective was the Glacier Blanc, a huge icy tongue extending down the valley from the Barre des Ecrins towards Pré de Madame Carle at the end of the road from Ailefroide. We wanted to check out conditions of the snow and ice and practice glacier skills, so an alpine start was called for. This meant that we had the trail mostly to ourselves, as we puffed up the switchbacks towards the Glacier Blanc hut at 2500m. I'm not sure if it was the lack of acclimatisation (48 hours earlier I had been below sea level on the Eurostar) or a general lack of fitness, but the going was tough.
As we rounded the corner after the final switchback, I caughtmy first sight of the stark face of the Glacier Blanc and the jagged peaks surrounding it. The glacier is a thing of extraordinary presence, with angry-looking deep luminous blue seracs protruding from the snow in strange, wonderful shapes. The glacier looks solid, somehow immutable despite a rush of meltwater forming cascades below. And yet it moves. With a warming climate, the glacier is retreating by 8 metres per year. Many predict that Alpine glaciers will be completely gone within my own lifetime – a terrifying prospect and a terrible act of violence to this awe-inspiring landscape.
After a brief stop at the hut (fresh coffee halfway up a mountain - incredible) we continued over rough ground and onto the glacier itself. The snow was surprisingly firm, and had been much consolidated after the solid sunshine and 30-degree temperatures of recent days. We continued up the glacier to around the 3000m point, crossing deep eerie crevasses on the way. From that position we are afforded a clear view of the Ecrins hut and the Barre de Ecrins and Dome de Niege Ecrins – the only two 4000m peak in the area. The Dome is supposed to be mostly a snow plod, but long scars of an avalanche crown across the upper slopes – visible even 2km away – reminded us that nothing can be taken for granted in the mountains.
On our return, we stopped to practice various snow belays and anchors and placing ice screws and abolokov threads – a useful refresher in snow and ice techniques. We arrive back at the car before lunch, having climbed and descended 1100m – a relatively short outing in alpine terms, but higher than Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England.
That evening we were treated to an incredible barbecue at the house of Vincent and Pascale, two friends of Eric who lived in Pelvoux village. Their house has a perfect view over Mont Pelvoux, and (in contrast to the British barbecue tradition of huddling round a damp fire with a few bland sausages) they produced course after course of incredible food. A better mood slowly returned.
Return to the mountains
Buoyed by the improving snow conditions and high spirits the previous evening, the next day Oskari, Jon, Alex and I decided to attempt a high mountain route. We decided on the Col du Sélé, a Facile route across the Glacier de Sélé to a col at 3283m, and possibly the Pointe des Bouefs Rouges (3516m, PD), at the end of a sharp ridge rising up from the col. We would set off for the bivi site near the Sélé hut that evening. Eric, the de facto leader of the expedition, was to leave that evening, along with Patrice, Jean-Marie and Derren (who had joined us briefly on route to Nice).
But first, one last expedition as a group. We went for a via ferrata towering high about the picturesque fortress town of Briançon. I had resolved to treat the route as a rock climb and not to use the metal rungs. This gave a wonderful couple of hours of smooth, flowing climbing at around English V.Diff to Severe. However, I made a strategic error of judgement: in my enthusiasm to treat it as a rock climb, I had worn climbing shoes and carried flip flops for the walk-in and descent rather than my cumbersome mountain boots. But the peak of the via ferrata was a good 700 metres vertical above the town, necessitating a rather inappropriate descent down a steep switchbacked rocky path in flip flops, kicking out rocks every few steps and cursing the whole way.
By the time we returned to camp, packed for the mountains, cooked dinner and said goodbye to our companions, it was already after 7pm. We had less than three hours of daylight left to climb up over 1000m to reach our bivi site high up the valley. Jon set a punishing pace at the head of the trail. Heavily laden with climbing and bivi gear and already tired from the day's via ferrata, the going felt tough. But after two hours of hard slog the reason for the pace soon became apparent: to reach the bivi site, we had to negotiate a steep snowfield then climb up a series of ledges on an imposing 200m rock face. The snowfield was a surprising challenge. The easy snow slopes that Oskari and Alex had travelled up earlier in the week had all but disappeared, leaving a steep, icy barrier to the first ledges of the climb. We considered putting on crampons or a rope; yet had we done so it surely would have got dark before we finished the rock face. Instead I took my ice axe from my bag and kicked steps up the icy névé, each kick only managing to create footholds a couple of centimetres deep. It was enough. Soon we were on the rock face, moving up a series of ledges and holding on to a fixed cable for safety. Eventually we topped out into a high boulder field, the sky draining pink above us. Within half an hour, we would be safely established in our sleeping bags and it would be dark.
Trust in gravel?
We rose at 4am, packed quickly and moved up the trail with headtorches blazing. By 5am, the first signs of dawn were spilling into the valley and we were roping up at the edge of the glacier. While the route was mostly a snow-plod, parts of the glacier are littered with seracs, dangerous-looking snow bridges and deep crevasses. However, routefinding was straightforward as many groups had gone before. The higher we travelled, the better the snow – a real relief and a stark contrast to conditions of earlier in the week. Moving together on the rope takes some getting used to – you can't start or stop too quickly - but after a while it was second nature, and I soon found myself walking a rope distance away from Oskari even when unroped. The glacier was steep and hard work, but not technical. Just over 2 hours later we were at the col, staring down onto the Glacier de la Pilatte on the other side. Skies were clear and the views were extraordinary, with spiky peaks and snowfields in every direction.
At this stage our team divided. Alex was recovering from shoulder surgery and could not climb on rock. Oskari and I decided to continue up the Bouefs Rouges ridge, while Jon would stay with Alex.
From a distance, the Bouefs Rouges looks like a classic Alpine ridge, dragon-backed, knife edged, and kinking slowly towards the summit. On closer examination, the whole ridge is a chossy and unstable pile of loose rock. As Oskari put it, on this ridge it isn't a question of if a hold is solid or not but rather a question of how much it moves. We travelled moving together, tenderly stepping over the worst of the loose stuff, and putting slings around any solid blocks we could find (all too few and far between). After traversing along the right flank of the ridge we moved up to its apex. The situation was incredible, with 100m drops down onto snowy glaciers on either side, but the rock in this section was little better and the climbing was slow. Every hold needed to be checked; every point of protection was suspect.
The ridge became a series of narrow pinnacles, as if it were a narrower and more exposed version of the Aonach Eagach. As I was lowering myself down from one of these, one of my handholds broke away and tumbled to the glacier below. I swung out onto a single arm (thankfully that hold held) and dangled momentarily before regaining the rock. I paused to breathe deeply: a fall while moving together would be very serious for both of us.
The pinnacles steepened and became more difficult. Eventually we came to the largest of the pinnacles. I started up a tricky move up its face, thought better of it, then reversed down to find an alternative route. None could be found. The move was perhaps no harder than English 4a or 4b, which I'd feel happy soloing on the ground, but I didn't feel comfortable committing to it while moving together with big boots and a pack in such an exposed situation. More importantly, I didn't want to down climb it on our way back from the summit! Oskari joined me at the base of the pinnacle. We looked for alternatives, and checked the clock. We had been on the ridge for two hours and were halfway to the top; the guidebook had indicated the summit should take an hour and a half from the col!
With a mantra of 'no more epics', we decided to turn back. Gaining the summit did not seem worth the risks presented by the loose rock or the prospect of returning across the glacier in the full heat of the afternoon.
The descent was harder than the climb, with more loose rock than ever. At one stage, an ice axe placement was needed as none of the rock around the ice patch was solid enough to hold on to. Another two hours, and we regained the col. After a quick energy gel, we were off across the glacier again, the softer snow of the daytime aiding the descent. The day was already hot; it is a bizarre feeling to be sweating profusely while standing on top of a kilometre long block of ice.
We regained the boulder field, collected our bivi kit and continued at pace down the trail. Eventually we arrived at the campsite, a full 2000m below the ridge, exhausted but safe and happy. Later we were to discover that the pinnacles on the ridge should have been avoidable by a lower ledge – but it no longer seemed important.
It often happens that you don't notice how tired you've become until you stop. We had a lethargic rest day, sleeping, eating and not even leaving camp until I dragged the others off to belay me up some easy slabs (to help me overcome my fear of slab climbing) early in the evening. Alex, Ros and Dominique went home by plane, train and automobile. Then we were three.
After the rest day, I became optimistic. We had two days left, stable weather and improving snow conditions – good omens for reaching a summit. I had spent much of the rest day reading up on route descriptions. Enthusiastically reading out a passage from the guide, I glanced up to notice a dead look on Jon's face. It was instantly clear he would not be doing another high mountain route. Both he and Oskari had been going hard longer than I had. Both had open wounds on their feet from all the walking (thankfully, I somehow emerged with skin intact). And besides, they had other, closer, steeper ambitions: the Palavar ridge, a 400m D- rock climbing route that towered up over the campsite.
The route is 12 pitches long. That's 10 pitches longer than anything that Jon had done before, and at roughly British VS grade it's much more sustained than any of the long multipitches that Oskari or I had previously attempted. We went for a reccie. Staring at the route from the bottom turned into climbing the first 3 pitches just to check it out. So far, so good, with adequate belay ledges and no major difficulties. We were in good spirits, with Jon keeping us entertained by making up new lyrics to the theme tune of Iron Man. As we scoped out the fourth pitch, we met a couple of Irish guys in descent – abbing off the way they had come after 6 pitches. They talked of sustained exposure, micro-ledges to belay from, and just general exhaustion. Perhaps it wouldn't be so easy after all. We abbed down after them, determined to complete the route the next day.
Another Alpine start. Things were looking good, although it was always going to be a long day: climbing as team of 3 is slow work. I led the first pitch, and the climbing felt smooth and swift. But as I was bringing the other two up, a minor misfortune once again struck. My digestive system was giving me trouble. I knew from past experience that I'd be ok within the hour, but I also knew that until that point a tiny belay ledge (on a popular route) was no place to be. I also knew that with another 11 pitches in front of us followed by a complicated descent, we didn't have time to spare. Reluctantly, and very frustrated, I had to descend, leaving Jon and Oskari to climb on without me. (Hours later, I was to watch them reach the top then abseil down a blank wall painfully slowly and eventually return to the campsite giddy from their endeavour).
Sure enough, an hour later I felt fine. With nothing else to do, I decided to walk into the mountains. Unencumbered by a heavy pack and now fully acclimatised to the altitude, I set a fast pace to work out my frustration. An hour and forty minutes later, I arrived at the Pelvoux hut (despite the trail marker advising an approach of 4 hours). I continued upwards towards the route to Mont Pelvoux over a short rocky face and then onto a hogsback of scree until I reached the edge of the Glacier de Sialouze at around 3000m.
I stopped. All was still, but for the occasional rattle of rockfall down narrow couloirs. In every direction were walls of rock and ice, jagged ridges and high peaks. It is an extraordinary landscape, one that fills you with awe in the old-fashion sense of amazement twinned with fear. I looked out onto the Glacier du Ailefroide, now disencumbered with the soft layer of snow that carried my friends down the mountain, and the Bouefs Rouges ridge out beyond the Sélé glacier, that gravity-defying pile of oversized gravel that somehow still stayed upright.
More rock echoed down the gullies, falling in microwave-sized chunks. I will admit a certain disappointment as I looked up towards the summit of Pelvoux and across to Pointe de Celse Niere: my time in the Alps was over without summitting anything. So many pages turned down in the guidebook, so few routes completed. Yet the disappointment was a fleeting one. I had come to the mountains to learn, to appreciate the landscape and conditions, to gain experience, to have some big mountain days and to return safely. Looking out on such an incredible jumble of rock, ice and sky, I was just happy to be there.
Summits are destinations rather than goals.
I have a habit of ending climbing trip reports with a list of lessons learned, so that I may remember them and others may learn them more easily. This time it's challenging, not for the absence of lessons but the surfeit of them. Some are obvious: tie a knot in the end of the rope or better yet into your belayer, make sure you know the length of the route and of your rope before you climb, wear a helmet, check conditions before setting off, keep a knife and first aid kit handy, and don't let feelings of safety let you forget to take the obvious precautions. But such procedural instructions can only ever be part of the story. I also learned that to be successful and safe in Alpine climbing you need a heavy dose of fitness, skill, judgement and luck. And fundamentally, whether on roadside crags or high peaks, the mountains can be admired, appreciated, respected – but never underestimated. As my brother put it to me, you can be a bold mountaineer or an old mountaineer, but seldom both.