Wednesday 31 August 2011

Salbitschijen W Ridge

With the good weather continuing over the Alps, Tom and I were keen to make the most of it and decided to head over the to Salbit area in Switzerland. This area is surprisingly unknown, although those in the know absolutely rave about it, and in particular the Salbitschijen (2,981m), which whilst modest in height is bristling with long ridges and immaculate granite faces

Once we arrived at the Salbit hut it was pretty easy to see what all the fuss is about. The mountains are low enough to be warm well into October, there are no glaciers so approaches are easy, and there is enough climbing to last a long, long time, all within easy reach of the hut.

Approaching the Salbitschijen, with the classic South Ridge forming the left skyline. The West ridge is behind this.

Without doubt the most sought after route on the mountain is the West Ridge (6a/A0, ED, 1000m), which is frankly a beast of a route. Although there is "only" 1000m of technical climbing (!), the route takes in 5 towers before finally reaching the summit, each of which requires abseils to get off. This makes the whole route a much bigger proposition than a face route of the same length as you have to also take into account the amount of time required to move from tower to tower whilst also climbing 35 pitches (of which about 12 would be HVS - E1, and another 10 would be VS). It seems worth it though, as it is an incredible route, described on one website as "...the most beautiful, longest and hardest ridge rock climb in the whole Alps. 35 pitches on 5 towers of perfect granite". 

Despite the clear length and difficulty of the route, we were confident that we could do the route in a day, and so carried on past the Salbit Hut and up to the Bivi hut which is literally 40 metres from the start of the West ridge. Although a great spot, there is no water at the bivi hut, so we carried up 6 litres each, which felt tough! The bivi hut is amazing, with really comfy beds and nice fleece blankets, and couldn't really be any closer to the ridge.

The newly installed bridge that leads to the bivi hut

Sunset from the hut

Looking up at the ridge from the hut. 

The next morning saw us climbing by 6.30 and making good time through the first pitch (thought to be the hardest on the whole route, but which fell to "combined tactics" - it was too early for free climbing ethics). On the second pitch however, I ran it out about 15 metres, clipped a bolt and then carried on legging it upwards, only to suddenly find myself airborne. I'm not quite sure what happened but I was climbing a layback that would be about english VS, didn't place my foot carefully enough and promptly fell off. I managed to shred a load of skin off the tops of the fingers on my right hand, bruise my backside and scrape both elbows pretty thoroughly, but was otherwise ok. I quickly got back on and finished the pitch and eventually managed to stop the bleeding out of my fingers with a bit of sock and a load of climbing tape. Lesson learned though - respect the climbing even if it is well within your grade. I paid the price for my mistake for the rest of the route when Tom got to lead anything that looked like you might need to crimp, and I had to second as best I could, mainly with one hand and sometimes with 2, which resulted in plenty of yelps whenever I caught my bad hand. I did manage to lead some of the more juggy, steep pitches though, so all was not lost for me, and Tom was chuffed to bits with getting to choose his leads! "This incredible layback pitch on perfect granite looks like it will definitely require some crimping, I better lead it." 

Anyway, the rest of the first tower went smoothly but the second was a bit of a nightmare. We got down to the bottom of it (tower 2) only to realise that our guidebook was still on top of the first tower, and then we got lost on probably the easiest bit of route finding on the whole ridge, and lost over an hour as a result. We also got a rope completely stuck when abbing off tower 2, so the whole thing was a bit of a nightmare! By this stage we knew that the chances of doing the ridge in a day were virtually gone, but pushed on to see what would happen, as the climbing and the rock is of such incredibly quality that we were having too much fun just to give up.

Looking up at Tower 2. The route takes the obvious splitter crack just right of the left hand arete.

The third and fourth towers both went well but by the time we got to the foot of the fifth tower it was gone 7pm, but we decided that we'd both rather sit out a cold night and finish the route than to bail. As it turned out we found an awesome bivi site under a massive boulder, and even found a space blanket under a rock - result! We also had the Jetboil with us from our night in the bivi hut, and there was a snow patch nearby so we were able to melt snow and keep hydrated. All in all, it was about as civilised as unplanned bivis go, and we managed to get a bit of sleep even without sleeping bags, before getting up at 5am to melt snow and get away at first light.

Sunset from the bivi

7 am plus rock climbing = cold hands. Not a bad view though.

The higher we climbed the more relieved we were that we had stopped where we did as there were no sites as good as the one we'd found, and none with space blankets included! The route finding on the final 2 towers was not that easy and took quite a bit of faffing with short abseils and awkward traverses, so we would never have made the summit in daylight anyway. The quality of the climbing gets even better towards the end, and the final pitches to the summit are incredible. The 6a/A0 pitch is amazing in the top half but bold, as layback moves up the Arete lead you ever further from the bolts in an incredible position. The final tough pitch (the last pitch of 5c) is up the Arete, no matter how much I wanted it not to be, and is equally amazing but a bit gripping after a long route! Luckily there is only one spicy move, but it felt tough enough at the time with only a cam behind a wobbly flake between me and a factor 2 fall. 

Tom leading on tower 5.

Self portrait near the summit with the W ridge behind.

Tom high on the 6a/A0 pitch.

The final pitch to the very top of the mountain is basically an easy solo (graded 4+ but with only a single peg after 2 metres serving as the only runner in 15 metres), and then the summit is amazing. About a metre square, with views of all the 3 classic ridges of the mountain and huge drops all around, it is definitely how a summit should be. 

Looking down the West Ridge from the summit.

Tired but happy on top.

Ab off the summit

After snapping a few shots we quickly abbed off the top and then walked down to the hut, scoffed a load of soup and sausage, and then carried on down to the car and a 3 hour drive back to Cham.

The South ridge seen from the Salbit hut

Amazing views across to the Finsteraarhorn on the drive back to Cham

Despite a grim night for both of us and a smashed hand for me, we both agreed that the ridge was the best rock climb either of us had ever done. Perfect granite, an incredible line, consistent and sustained climbing, and an amazing summit. I cannot recommend this route highly enough, but if you are going for the onsight in a day, you better be quick!

I took my headcam on the route so there is a video on the way, including onboard footage of my fall....!

Saturday 27 August 2011

La Meije Traverse, Massif des Ecrins

I’ve been meaning to get down to the Ecrins all summer, and so when Matt suggested a spontaneous trip straight from the Vanoise, I didn’t take much convincing. Like all climbers in the Alps, we’d both always wanted to climb the Meije so we decided against acclimatising and got straight on it. Approaching the Promontoire Refuge from La Berarde took nearly 4 sweaty hours, but it could have been much quicker had we not taken numerous 20 minute swimming breaks on the way up.

La Meije from the walk in. The route takes the prominent red rock pillar down and left of the rectangular snow patch (the Glacier Carree) and then crosses the snow and climbs the highest summit in the photo before traversing all the summits to the right.

The hut is pretty spectacular, poised right underneath the Promontoire ridge and S face of the Meije. It is also pretty small so it feels much nicer than being in one of the huge huts in the more accessible parts of the Alps.

View from the hut heli deck.

Looking up at the route from the start point

With Tuesday being the first day forecast to be clear of thunderstorms, the hut was surprisingly quiet, and there was only us and 2 other parties going for the traverse. The other teams got away at 4.30, and we were 15 minutes behind (you can’t rush these things!) but we never saw them again as one of them was a Guide who clearly knew the route like the back of his hand, and the other team followed him shamelessly!

Matt's dress sense is best viewed in the dark.

At the Dalles Castelnau

Matt just below the Carree Glacier.

The route finding is actually ok on the lower ridge, you just climb the crest until it steepens dramatically and then traverse left into a big couloir which leads you up the Dalles Castelnau area. From there it becomes slightly harder as you have a big rightwards traverse followed by one straight back left. We started looking for the traverse back left too early, so just remember to keep traversing right until you can almost touch the water streaks coming down from the Carree Glacier and you’ll see the ledge system leading back left. Once back on the main ridge you follow the crest, taking the easiest line up to the Carree Glacier.

Exiting the Carree 

Looking up at the final summit ridge. We climbed up the deep groove on the right and then drifted back left before heading back right for the final steep wall. Its all pretty steady really so just follow your nose.

Matt on the final summit ridge

The Carree is given 30 minutes to an hour in the guidebook but I’m not quite sure how it would take that long as we were up it in 15 minutes of plodding. From there it is just a case of scrambling up very easy terrain to the ridge crest just below the summit and then there is 15 very exposed metres to the top. The summit is amazing – just views everywhere, and a nice little statue of Jesus to pose with! 

Giving Jesus a peck on the summit!

And a piece of cake!

Looking along the traverse from the top of the Grand Pic

To get down you go to a block with loads of abseil tat around it in the direction of the rest of the Meije ridge and then downclimb about 5 metres to a bolted abseil point, and then 3 abs get you down.

The ridge line from there is easy to follow and straightforward enough that you can safely move together the whole way, apart from a section below the first point which is a 70 degree ice gully, thankfully equipped with a metal cable to pull on. There were some sections where the cable disappeared though, which made for some fairly spicy climbing with a ski touring axe and bendy B2 boots. The ridge is spectacularly exposed and in an amazing situation, so the easy climbing is great as it allows you to take it all in without too much stress.

 Typically exposed climbing just below the Grand Pic

The icy section - character building with bendy boots and a lightweight ski touring axe.

Matt downclimbing on easy but exposed ground.

Looking back to the Grand Pic from near the end.

Matt on the final snowy traverse to the Doigt de Dieu. 

We made good progress along the ridge and were soon on top of the Doigt de Dieu, which marks the end of the Meije peaks. The descent from there down to the Aigle hut is simple enough but with hindsight I would downclimb most of it as we abbed too much and got the ropes caught a couple of times.

The traverse seen from the descent

From the Aigle it is then a simple (!) case of walking for 3 hours down to La Grave and then hitching back to La Berarde, which was frankly epic. We luckily got picked up for the final leg to La Berarde at after 10pm, and with hindsight I would stay in La Grave instead of risking not getting picked up and ending up in the middle of nowhere for the night. After a very comfortable night in the van we had a much needed coffee and then headed home to Cham via a swim in the lake at Passy.

Both of us agreed that the traverse was absolutely superb and despite the enourmous walk down to La Grave, it was one of the best days we had had all year. The climbing is easy, the route finding is not too bad, and the situation incredible. The guidebook time is 10 – 12 hours and this seems about right. We were unacclimatised and came in at 10.5 hours by just keeping up a steady, unspectacular pace and keeping hydrated and well fed.

Gloves vs. Meije - no contest.

What a route. 

Thursday 25 August 2011

Aiguille de la Vanoise & Mont du Fu

Despite the good weather in Cham, I am still not conviced that the forecasts are reliable, and the conditions as stable as everyone is saying. With this in mind, Emma, Matt and I bailed down to the Vanoise for the weekend and left the crowds behind. I’d never been climbing in the Vanoise before and I was really impressed by what we found, save for the monster walk ins! Looking for some good mountaineering objectives and some research into possible ski lines, we teamed up with Will Eaton, all round good guy and a former Brit turned Vanoise local.

Another rough night in the Vanoise with Will

 The first day we went in to do the traverse of the Aiguille de la Vanoise, above Pralagnon, and had a fantastic day. Passing under the north face of the peak was pretty impressive, and Will pointed out some amazing looking 300 metre rock routes which climb it, so Matt and I are keen on a return before summer is out. The traverse itself is amazing – perfect views, easy route finding, bags of exposure and easy scrambling.

Will, Emma and random German tourist below the Grande Casse.

Will low on the route with the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise below.

Will a bit higher, above the north face.

Matt on the final summit ridge

Will on the final section to the summit

Looking down the North face

Me, Emma, Matt and Will on the summit, with the Grande Casse behind.

The descent of the West ridge consists of some tricky down climbing (albeit bolt protected) but there is an abseil descent down the south face which starts just by a cairn 50 metres west of the main summit. I think 2 or 3 x 50 metre abs would have you down on the path. Despite the long walk in and out it was great to be out on such a superb route and have it to ourselves, and even better to walk out with no-one else in sight. Big thanks must go here to Matt, who carried 4 beers all day so that we could enjoy them whilst having a swim in a river on the descent!

The next day we went for the Arete Blanche on Mont du Fu, above St. Jean de Belleville in the Val Thorens valley and again had a great day. The route is slightly better known now having appeared in the “6a Max” guidebook, but was still deserted. The climbing is slightly trickier than on the Aiguille de la Vanoise, but most of the difficulty is concentrated into 2 sections of about 50 metres, which were the only bits where we used the rope. The one quibble with the route is that it is escapable virtually the whole way along, and the fact that it is a guided classic means that it is fairly vigorously bolted, but it is fun and in an amazing place so it is hard to whinge. One top tip would be to drive up the dirt track to Gollettes, which we didn’t do in case the road was impassable (Our local guide, Will, hadn’t been up there and didn’t know how “off road” it was). We chose to walk from La Sauce and ended up doing much more than we needed to.

Mont du Fu. The Arete Blanche is the ridge line climbing up from the left.

Emma at the start of the route proper

Matt soloing a "lovely" little variation

Thanks to Will for the guiding and hospitality, and here’s to a winter of skiing all those 1st descents we scoped out!

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Aiguille Verte 4. Charlie 0.

After a summer of solid rain, the good weather had to arrive at some stage and it finally did so in the middle of August. This should explain the fact that the blog has been fairly quiet since then! The list of ideas was long and time short, so I have been getting stuck in and getting into the hills.

The views from the Couvercle are heard to beat

First on the list was to finally get on top of the Verte via a decent route. With Peter’s time in Cham running out we headed up to the Couvercle Hut hoping to do the Moine Ridge, graded AD but known to be long and serious. The hut guardian suggested a midnight start but that seemed far too keen, although 2.30 felt pretty grim all the same. The walk in took about 2 hours (but could be much longer if the glacier was more open) and the initial ramp was climbed quickly so we found ourselves hitting the ridge at daybreak. The route finding is not particularly obvious but just following the line of least resistance seemed to work fine, and we were making guidebook time despite the route being covered in snow.

Me low down on the ridge. "I thought this was supposed to be a rock climb!"

Sunrise views

Things took a turn for the worse when the sun hit us, and it got incredibly hot, even as we approached 4000 metres. Looking up we saw snow covered slopes which ought to have been rock, and knowing we had to descend the same way, we decided to bail. The whole ridge is downclimbed save for 3 or 4 short abs, and the thought of climbing down through ever softening slushy snow on slabs was not particularly appealing, especially with Peter leaving Cham the next morning and so keen to avoid an epic.

After all the sun we’ve had now the route would be in much better nick, and much safer to descend in the midday heat, so I may be back for a second go. One word of warning though – descending the Moine takes as long as climbing it so although it is safe (when dry), it is long and not obvious where to go, so allow plenty of time if descending.

Looking across to a surprisingly snowy Whymper Couloir - bit hot for my liking though. 

So the Verte remains unclimbed by me after 4 attempts – I might have to resort to plodding up the Whymper just to get it done!