Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Well that was fun.....

As part of my continuing mission to get photos around the Massif, I'd run into the problem of Mont Blanc's "wild side"; the Italian part of the range. After several days of hiking around the Val Ferret and Val Veny Valleys, I concluded that the only way of getting decent photos of some features was from the air. Not a chore by any means, but not cheap either.

Jack, Tom and Sharon joined me on Sunday and we went through the tunnel to Courmayeur where I realised a long held ambition (sorry, "did some work") by flying around the Mont Blanc Massif in a heli. We flew with GMH Helicopter services who were really helpful, tailored the flight to exactly what we wanted and were superb to deal with throughout. Before any allegations are made, they didn't offer me a discount to say that (!) but they deserve a pat on the back for doing such a good job.

Some of the shots are from Jack, Sharon and Tom but I had over 1100 photos to go through so who took what is tricky to figure out; apologies for the lack of photo credits.

Plotting. When paying by the minute, efficiency counts.

Pre-flight checks. Looked alright to me.

Headed for Mont Blanc.

All done at the Dômes de Miage. Trying to get the required shots while not hanging around too long was tricky but sitting in the open door of a helicopter, hovering above Mont Blanc is pretty cool whatever the situation.

The Dômes de Miage looking pretty dry.

The west face of Mont Blanc.

 Looking up at the Freney Pillars and the Innominata ridge.

Cool close up view of the Dent du Géant.

Grand Jorasses south face.

One last look before landing. 

So, an amazing experience but unfortunately one I might not be repeating anytime soon unless the lottery numbers come up. 

After a really long, hot summer the weather is a bit rough in Cham now but the sun looks set to reappear in a few days. As has been the case most of the season, I'd say that rock climbs, away from potential rockfall areas, would be the way to go when the good weather returns. The Envers des Aiguilles would be a good shout, as would the Aiguilles Rouges.

Hopefully autumn will begin to creep into the Valley soon and mountaineering conditions might begin to improve. In the meantime, get your rockboots out and enjoy some golden granite.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Conditions on the Verte, Jorasses, Courtes and others

I've been away for the past month or so (hence the silence on this blog) but now that I'm back I wanted to go up to the Couvercle hut and get some photos. A recent snowfall has made the mountains much whiter than they were in July but there is still a huge amount to go at if you choose your routes carefully.

Here are some of the shots I got, albeit in low resolution because the internet just about collapsed when I tried to stick the high res versions on.

Aiguille Verte, with the Moine Ridge looking a bit too snowy right now, and the Whymper couloir not looking snowy enough.

The Grand Jorasses north face. Hard to believe this was being climbing in rockboots 10 days ago!

The Grepon east face looking excellent.

La Nonne, above the Couvercle hut.

Les Courtes looking very dry.

Les Droites looking a bit better but still not in great condition.

Pointe Isabelle.

This summer has seen me climbing lots of classics and going around taking photos; you'd almost think I had a project on the go or something....

Stay tuned!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

More Classics - Chapelle de la Glière & Aiguille Purtscheller South Ridge

It's a hard life! With the heatwave continuing in Cham (and seemingly across the rest of Europe) I've been sticking with the enjoyable theme of ticking off Valley classics and trying not to get sunburnt.

First up was another day with Ed on the superb Chapelle de la Glière in the Aiguilles Rouges. I've done it a few times but I always forget how good the climbing and the situations are. There were a lot of teams going for it so there was something of a queue at the start but eventually everyone spread out and we were able to enjoy some peace for the second half of the route.

French guide and client on the "Razoir" section - perhaps the most famous and photographed pitch in Chamonix.

Ed's subtle marketing on show in the Flegere car park.

With work looming I only had one day left and fancied a hard day so that I could sit, graft away and stuff my face free of guilt. The Aiguille Purtscheller fit the bill nicely - a long approach and then a classic alpine ridge of golden granite leading to a great summit. We got the first lift up at Le Tour and made good time up to the hut and then over the Col Purtscheller to the route. 

Once climbing, the route is great but very traditional in nature, with lots of thrutching up chimneys and all the other carry-on that comes with climbing "old school" routes. The rock quality is good though and the descent is really easy so overall the Purtscheller got a big thumbs up from us. However, it is a long way to go in a day and we were glad of the bikes we'd stashed at the top of the Le Tour chairlift to get us down the final bit of descent. 

Unlike the descent from the Flegere last week (see below) the jeep tracks are quite smooth and easy at Le Tour but unfortunately my bike seems to only have the front brake working, which meant that I had to do the whole thing without a back brake. Needless to say this made crashing almost inevitable so I was pleased to escape with 3 small falls and a sore elbow. The bike didn't fare so well though; the heat from me gripping the brake burst the front tyre 50 metres from the car. Thanks for holding out so long tyre, it certainly beat walking.

Tom on the Purtsheller

Abbing off, with the Col Purtscheller below.

Tom biking home and heading for a burger and a beer. A stunning view to cap a great day.

The heatwave sweeping Europe is showing no sign of abating so choose your routes carefully, put plenty of suncream on and enjoy the views.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Voie des Dalles, Aiguille du Pouce

Having just had one super keen mate out from the UK (Ed, see below) another one arrived on Saturday in the form of Matt Groom. Needless to say, I took zero convincing to go out climbing on Sunday so we made plans to go to the Voie des Dalles on the Aiguille du Pouce. 

The 2 previous attempts by Matt and me to do a route (The Aiguilles Dorées (the route fell down, video here) and the Royal Traverse (the weatherman cocked up)) ended in failure so we weren't optimistic. Imagine our surprise, therefore, when everything went swimmingly on the Pouce.

All photos by Matt Groom, except the ones of him, obviously.

On the fairly safe assumption that we'd miss the last chairlift down from the Index, we stashed mountain bikes at the top of the Flegere lift in order to make the descent back to town easier. It was certainly quicker than walking but for 2 novice mountain bikers on knackered, 15 year old hardtail bikes, it didn't feel very easy!

Looking down on the initial section of the approach.

A French climber ahead of us. Having faffed about stashing our bikes, these guys got ahead of us on the approach but then they failed to locate the correct start of the route, meaning that we spent the day climbing alone. We spotted them retracing the approach route in the afternoon having realised too late that Les Anglaises had been right about where the route started after all. We tried not to be smug but didn't quite manage it. 

Me on the approach.

The approach wasn't actually as bad as everyone says it is but it does take a while. We had crampons with us and could just about have done without them until the last 5 metres to the route, which was bullet hard, 40 degree snow and would have been terrifying in just boots. 

Once on the route the climbing is superb but it is quite technical for the grade and doesn't follow obvious features so it is really tough to climb fast. On many of the routes in Cham, the line follows a feature and so route finding isn't an issue but on the Voie des Dalles you constantly need to think about the next few metres, and the bigger picture of where you are on the face. This, coupled with the slabby and occasionally bold climbing means that it's pretty hard to keep up a fast pace. However, with such good climbing and the World's best mountain view (in my humble opinion) behind you, taking your time doesn't feel like a chore. 

The climbing is interesting throughout and breathtakingly exposed in places. Many of the pitches are quite bold too so make sure you have a grade or 2 in hand, especially given that you'll need to carry your pack up the route. The top section is a bit loose and rubbish but it's a small price to pay for what precedes it. 

A few pitches up, enjoying the view.

Looking down the initial pitches.

Matt midway up the route.

Matt nearing the top of pitch 7 or 8, we'd sort of lost track by this stage.

Me posing on the summit. No amount of photoshopping made it look like I had anything resembling a sun tan so I gave up and accepted my paleness.

Quite the view from the summit. 

The descent was much looser and more involved than we expected and after a full day of walking and climbing under a hot sun, we were pretty over it by the end. I think my face says it all. 

One final look at the face.

Needless to say, we did miss the lift and were very glad of the bikes. 

The weather looks superb this week but very very hot so I'd be very wary of anything with the potential for rockfall right now. However, if you pick your routes right, summer should be off to a great start.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Climbing the Classics - Aiguillette de la Floria, Mani Puliti & Lépidoptères

It seems as if the weather has been ropey in Chamonix for weeks now so the fact that we've finally got some blue sky is very welcome. To celebrate the arrival of the sun, I've been out making the most of it and working through some of the classics of the Valley.

First up was a half day with John Vincent ticking off the south-west arete of the Aiguillette de la Floria, followed by "La Plage" on the same peak. The weather wasn't as good as forecast and we moved together for most of the day just to stay warm but given that it was tipping with rain at 9am, getting to the end of the day with the best part of 10 pitches of climbing in the bag felt like a good result.

John clinging on to winter with some ski-less skiing.

The Drus looking moody through the mist.

The next day was the first real "bluebird" that had been forecast for ages and with my mate Ed over from Lancashire, we shot up "Mani Puliti" just above the Index chairlift. I'd somehow never got round to doing the route before but it was superb, with good rock throughout and excellent views. 

Ed leading on Mani Puliti.

Friday saw Ed and me out again, this time on the slabs of the Aiguille du Peigne and specifically Lépidoptères, a low grade classic that leads onto the Papillons ridge. After a few shenanigans finding the right approach, we were soon underway and fired up the route in no time, leaving us plenty of opportunity to enjoy a leisurely lunch looking at the superb view.

Ed low down on Lépidoptères.

Some French climbers on an adjacent route being dwarfed by the Midi's north face.

Ed has now teamed up with other mates but he reckons he can convince me to get out climbing sometime next week instead of working. He's probably right but I'm going to try to be strong. In the meantime, make sure you give Ed a toot if you see him driving around the Valley in "The Munchkin Mobile". Ed's got a cool company called Mountain Munchkins and all I will say is that what his car-based marketing lacks in subtlety it makes up for in effectiveness! You won't miss him if you do see him. 

The weather now looks superb for this week and I'll likely be out making the most of it so stay tuned.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Aiguille de L'M North-northeast Ridge

It's been a busy few weeks here in Cham and I haven't been into the hills much, hence the lack of blogging. Yesterday I finally managed to get out because I had some photos I wanted to take of the Aiguille de L'M and Peter didn't take much convincing that we could combine this with actually climbing the thing.

The North-northeast ridge is something of a neglected classic that I remember was high on my tick list when I first came climbing here and yet I've never got round to doing it.

The sweaty slog up to the foot of the route was quite a re-introduction to summer alpinism for this year but I don't mind walking for a bit of solitude. Once on the route it was superb, with slabs, cracks and corners aplenty, all surrounded by stunning scenery.

Peter on one of the lower slab pitches.

On the famous off-width pitch. This got 4+ in the old guidebooks and was regularly led back in the day without cams and wearing old school mountaineering boots. The old Chamonix guides must have been beasts!

Nearing the top, with the summits of the Republique and Charmoz behind. 

Once on the summit we had a bite to eat, fed the birds and then headed back down to the Montenvers for a couple of beers. All in all, an excellent day and a Chamonix uber-classic in the bag.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Viking Skiing - The Troll Peninsula of Iceland

After a decent start to April, the ski season then seemed to splutter to an end in Chamonix, with very warm weather being followed by a few days of heavy rain, even at altitude. I've got no interest in skiing the north face of the Midi so even if good conditions returned high up for the steep skiers, my season looked like it was done by the last week in April.

However, Matt was keen for a final trip and after a bit of scouting around we found ridiculously cheap flights to Reykjavik and so got them booked, just a week before the departure date. It's not often that the combination of sufficient funds, time, suitable partners etc. all come together to allow a last minute trip to happen so we were both chuffed that it had worked out. There was the small issue of information, of which we had none, but we'd heard that the Troll Peninsula (on the north coast of the island) was a ski touring mecca so we just booked a hire car and figured we'd work it out when we got there.

To say that the Troll Peninsula delivered would be an understatement; the skiing is absolutely mind blowing. The terrain is undoubtedly the best I've ever seen for what I want to ski (anything fun looking and between 30 and 45 degrees) and the access is amazingly easy. We never got our hands on a guidebook or anything resembling a decent map, we just drove along the road each day and headed up whatever looked appealing. It would be no exaggeration to say that there are several hundred roadside couloirs and despite getting ropey weather (it was overcast until the last day) we did some fantastic skiing every day we were there. Perhaps the best thing about the Troll is that there is nobody there; it's not quiet, it's deserted. Until the last day, we saw no sign of skiers whatsoever and basically had the peaks to ourselves. There's a heli ski operation in the interior of the peninsula but we didn't see any sign of their presence. Overall, an amazing and all-too-short trip, we're already looking at dates for next year.

Anyway, enough chat, here's the photos. Click on any of them to see them full size. Thanks to Matt for the ones he provided.

The inevitable start to any trip with Matt

 First impressions of Iceland were good - this is a section of the main highway which circumnavigates the whole country. It's a bit late in the year for the stuff in the south of the island but I think that if you went in March, you could probably see a skiable couloir from just about any section of road in rural Iceland.

Looks like we're taking the coast road!

On our first night we stayed in a random hotel halfway between Reykjavik and Akureryi (Iceland's second biggest town and our base for the week) and I found this in the DVD collection. I was surprised it only got a "12" rating judging by the cover.

More views on the drive the next morning.

Our first glimpse of the snowy mountains.

The Troll Peninsula from Akureyri harbour.

After reaching Akureryi that morning, we went for a skin up through the ski area of Hlíðarfjall (which is now closed for the season) and up to the peak behind it called Hardarvarda. This pylon made for a cold but scenic drink spot.

Me skiing back to the car with "The Birmingham of Iceland" (Akureyri is Iceland's second city after all) below me.

The next day dawned murky but after a short drive we found this awesome looking tongue of snow between 2 peaks and so skinned up it to the ridgeline before skiing down in a mixture of powder and spring snow.

The first pitch of the ridgeline provided some brilliant powder. I'm still not sure this stacked image works but I like it anyway.

Matt lower down on the tongue of snow which led us back to the car. Skiing these amazing tongues was one of the highlights of the trip and every day finished with us skiing increasingly narrow strips of snow past grazing cattle and horses. We saw one tongue on the way back to Reykjavik that was about 2 km long and we almost decided to sack off our flight just to go and ski it!

Matt further down on the tongue.

Me enjoying a final few turns before the road.

On our third day we skied the couloir in the middle of this shot and it was as good as it looks.

Matt bootpacking.

Scouting out the next day's objective. We ended up skiing the couloir directly above the car's logo and also the one to the right of the photo, above the right hand door. A big day but so worth it.

Matt enjoying the right hand line.

Matt still enjoying it lower down. A better attempt at a stack photo, if I may say so myself.

Me reaching the top of the bootpack for the second time, ready for another line.

On the steeper, left hand line.

Matt was determined to find some 50 degree snow and get a photo of his inclinometer on it so that the cool cats of Cham would think we were hardcore. It took a bit of "persuasion" for the read-out to creep over 50 but we got it in the end.

Me on said steep section.

 Matt too.

Another view of our 2 runs.

The fifth day was fairly grim so we went for an explore to the north of the Peninsula. Just about visible on this shot if you click on it is the tiny town of Ólafsfjörður,
 which, much like Akureyri, has several hundred good ski touring options above it.

We had a quick ski on the way home before hitting the Akureryi nightlife - 


A standard Akureryi vehicle. I want one.

The final day was due to be sunny so we decided to ski the notoriously stunning Kaldbakur, a 1200 metre summit with views across the whole Peninsula. Our landlord (Benedikt, owner of the excellent Fannagil apartments) warned us that the peak was popular but assured us that the views were worth the crowds. He's obviously not skied in the Alps much because we didn't see a soul all day. 
Busy is clearly a relative term.

A pleasant parking spot.

An even better lunch spot.

Matt nearing the top.

Final steps.

Digging out the summit book.

Matt above where we dropped in. Quite a place!

Me dropping in, with Matt failing to figure out that his shadow was in the shot.

First turns.

Matt giving it beans a bit lower down.

Me doing much the same.

Mellow spring snow to finish.

Matt taking one last look at the view before we headed home.

What a trip, I'm going back next year. And the one after that. And the one after that too. And probably the next one as well.