Sunday 28 April 2013

Swiss Route, Les Courtes N Face

After talk of a good weather window arriving in the Alps it finally came on Tuesday, and was forecast to last about 3 days. As ever this season it was also bringing increasingly high temperatures with it, so if anything big was to get done, it seemed best to do it ASAP.

With that in mind I teamed up with Andy Houseman for a hit on the N face of Les Courtes off the first bin at Grand Montets. Figuring that Andy (sponsored alpinist and Piolet d'Or nominee) might be slightly quicker than me (ski bum and lover of good living), I borrowed a pair of 130cm approach skis from Ross Hewitt in an attempt to keep up, and inevitably had to put up with much ridiculing from everyone in the cable car!

My skis and Andy's skis. Mine were great anytime they were on my back, less so whenever they were on my feet.

Having just about survived the ski down to the Argentiere Glacier, we were soon skinning up to the Courtes in baking heat and with the route looking in great condition.

Looking up at Les Courtes N face.

And again, from just below the bergschrund.

Racking up. Andy skinned faster than me, but faffed hard at the bottom of the route, giving me time to take a breather before the slog up the lower snow slopes.

The bergschrund initially looked a bit spicy but actually was pretty straightforward where we crossed it (about 50 metres left of the bottom of the route). From there we did some pretty tough trail breaking through deep snow for the first 100 metres and then began simul-soloing up perfect, squeaky neve towards the steeper crux section. Like myself, Andy places a great deal of importance on the quality of chat/trash talking  during a route, so it was quite surreal to be soloing up ice whilst cracking jokes and telling tall tales! Climbing is supposed to be fun after all. 

A rare shot of me breaking trail for the Houseman greyhound! Photo Andy Houseman

Me on perfect neve on the way to the crux. Photo Andy Houseman

Once at the crux we roped up and moved together from there on. The crux is actually pretty fun climbing, with sections of ice up to about 80 degrees, and a couple of more technical moves where the ice has thinned out a bit near the end of the steep section.

Andy on the crux

Once above the crux there is one more short technical-ish section and then it is a long slog to the top up steep snow. I don't know exactly what time we started, but I think the route took us somewhere between 4.5 and 5 hours. No record breaker, but not disastrous considering we had skis and neither of us had done much climbing recently.

Looking across to the Aiguille du Chardonnay from the upper slopes

The contrast from cold, austere north face to baking sun was quite a shock when we finally topped out, and the views were just amazing, with seemingly every peak in the Massif visible. A quick bit of downclimbing soon led us to where we could put skis on, and from there it was a case of picking our way down a pretty dodgy feeling descent to the Talefre Glacier. 

Me on the summit ridge. Photo Andy Houseman.

Downclimbing to where we put skis on

Although Tuesday was forecast to be the coolest of the sunny days, the heat when we were skiing was unbelievable - it felt like one of those baking August days up the Midi where no amount of clothing or suncream seems to keep you protected - and it made it all feel pretty scary. With all the fresh snow coupled with the warmth, we had to really take our time on the descent, and we were both pretty relieved to reach the relative safety of the Talefre basin. 

Skiing from the Col des Droites with the Grand Jorasses on the left, and Mont Blanc on the right.

Unfortunately I had a pretty tough time skiing the 130cm skis through knee deep slush, so we pretty comfortably missed the last train down from Montenvers, but we managed to ski about half of the James Bond track, and got Andy into town only slightly late for his dinner at Munchies.

So, a pretty cool day all round - a big N face, an "exciting" ski descent, and plenty of banter. It was pretty impressive and inspiring watching Andy do his thing on a big route, and definitely made me realise just how big the step up is from competent alpinists like me and most of my climbing partners to people climbing massive routes in the Greater ranges. Thanks Andy for the lesson in how to climb fast, and for not complaining about waiting for me on the ski down (supposedly my strong point!) - I promise I'll take some bigger skis next time!!! 

Finally, a picture of what was waiting for me at home - thanks Sharon!

The foehn wind has now blown into Cham, and with people slowly starting to leave town it feels as if winter might just be over. That said, there is a lot of precipitation falling and I suspect the steep skiers will be getting pretty excited, but for now I am full.

The "Chamonix Winter 2013" screensaver on my laptop keeps flashing up amazing photos of memories which will last a lifetime, but my body aches and it feels like time to get a change of scene for a while. Cham is an amazing playground but it's sometimes hard to be here and not feel pressure to be doing something in the mountains, so I'm going to have a weekend of watching sport, eating, drinking and relaxing before heading back to UK for a week or so. 

Fear not though, the psyche is never away for long, and I'll be back here, revved up for summer (and with some very exciting news regarding next winter....) in no time.

Friday 26 April 2013

Video Blog 14

Thanks Toby and Rachel at Seven Twenty Productions!

Report over the weekend of the Courtes by the way!

Friday 19 April 2013

Video Blog & Argentiere Refuge cragging

With only one good day of weather left here in Cham, we were keen to make the most of it but avoid the avalanches crashing down everywhere. Rock climbing seemed a good idea, so "Rough" Pete, "Posh" Pete (all things are relative), Katie, Matt and I decided to go and check out the Argentiere Refuge hut crag. Matt, Peter and I had had a fairly unsuccesful attempt to climb there a couple of years back, but this time we had a bit more joy and climbed "Le Gateau de Riz".

As ever when climbing in hot weather and with good company, the whole affair was pretty relaxed and very enjoyable. The route was great, and featured plenty of easy climbing but also the odd tricky section. It's probably not quite as good as "Mort de Rire" on the nearby Genepi, but still a good route, and it seems to dry relatively quickly.

All Photos Peter Riley - 

2 cool cats on the first belay

Me high on the route. The summit is the tooth on the right.

Me reaching the summit

Unfortunately the abseils down don't lead you quite to the skis. Here Katie makes a dash for it through the snow in rockboots, but still ended up suffering the pain of frozen feet.

Unfortunately Posh Pete and Katie didn't find their route further along the crag dry, but still did the first couple of pitches of our route and then came down.

All in all a great day and a good way to end one of the biggest weather windows so far this winter.

Snow, snow, snow for the next few days - Result!

Whilst watching the rain/snow fall outside, here's the latest video blog from Seven Twenty Productions to keep the psyche up!

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Zermatt Ski Tour & Andy Murray

After praying for good weather for most of winter, my requests were finally granted with a big high pressure arriving over the Alps at the weekend. Unfortunately it brought with it unbelievably high temperatures (25 degrees in the Valley anyone? Plus a freezing level hovering at around 3000 - 3500 metres), so just about every climbing and skiing option in the high mountains was out. Typical! 

I actually missed the first day of good weather as I was down on the South Coast checking out Monaco and enjoyed a day at the Masters tennis event (darling), but I got the late flight back to Geneva and the next afternoon found myself at the top of the Klein Matterhorn lift in Zermatt. Quite the contrast!

Cheeky kid checking out my car at Casino Square. 

Andy Murray with Monaco behind.

With plenty of good weather forecast, Tom and I were keen to do a multi day ski tour, preferably taking in as many good summits as we could. We started out with the Breithorn and a night in the superb Guide d'Ayas hut - 

Heading down to the Guide d'Ayas Hut. 

Wine and aperitifs!!!

Skinning away from the hut in the morning

After that we crossed over two 4000ers (Castor and Pollux), and hoped to cross a few more but icy conditions sent us from the Quintino Sella Hut over to the Monte Rosa Hut and finally to the Stockhorn. We were looking at doing the Strahlhorn instead but it looked a mighty long way on a very hot day! 

Castor W face

Tom skiing the W face of Pollux

My turn - it felt pretty steep! Tom assured me afterwards that it just seemed steep due to the icy snow...

Me reaching the top of Castor and regretting acclimatising in Monaco!

Heading for the Monte Rosa Hut

I put this one on as it is about the only photo I have of Tom skiing badly. The snow was generally pretty terrible to be fair.

That's more like it!

The biggest, baddest and scariest seracs I have ever passed under.

Stunning ice formations on the way down to the Monte Rosa Hut.

Yet more seracs - there's no shortage of them up there!

Chips, kebab and coke in Zermatt. Surprisingly enough we didn't have to re-mortgage our houses to pay for it, which was a nice surprise in Switzerland!

Overall, a great tour which might not have had the best snow in the World but which featured great views, excellent huts and plenty of Tom banter.

Tomorrow (Thursday) is the last day of blue sky, so I'm going to drag my tired body up the Grand Montets in order to make the most of it, and then there is snow forecast for Friday and Saturday. As ever this winter, no-one really has the slightest clue what the weather will be doing, so just stay flexible and see what happens.

Friday 12 April 2013

Video Blog 12

Finally - some sun on the way, and a video blog with no talk of unsettled weather! I think the avalanche risk will be pretty high though so stay safe in the coming sunny days.

Thanks once again to Seven Twenty Productions

Saturday 6 April 2013

Video Blog, Courmayeur and Vallee Blanche

After a week of work, continued bad weather and various other bits, it feels as if I haven't done a huge amount of skiing recently. I have managed a great couple of days in Courmayeur and one of the all time good Vallee Blanche descents though, so I haven't exactly been deprived!

Moody views looking up to the south face of Mont Blanc

Sharon in Courmayeur, about to enter the horrific crust at the end of a run from the Arp

Fresh tracks down the Petit Envers

I never get bored of skiing in a place like this

Peter, me and Gary posing for the compulsory hero shot

Looks like there might be some sunshine on the way, but as ever this winter it remains tough to tell. Here's video blog 11 from Seven Twenty Productions to keep the psyche up while we hang on the forecast!