Sunday, 2 March 2014

Third Time Lucky

Andy and I have got history with Unicorn. I did a lot of my early winter climbing in Stob Coire an Lochain and remember looking across to this big obvious corner, clearly the line of the crag, never thinking that I'd be good enough to have a crack at it. Several years later we went for our first attempt. We didn't get very far, but it only increased by desire to get on the route.

We had another rematch at the end of last year. Andy took a couple of falls on P1 and backed off. I wasn't feeling in great form but set off up it anyway. My very ambitious goal was to get up to the fixed gear so I could lower off & get our gear back. Because of my low expectations, I headed up without any food or, crucially, a head torch. By some miracle I managed to climb the first pitch (taking something like 3.5 hours on lead!) but by the time Andy had led the second, it was dark and we were both frozen and exhausted so we abbed off.

This unfinished business had been on my mind ever since. Thankfully Andy agreed to humour me one more time and come back for a rematch.

Here we go again


As we approached, I was feeling confident - The route looked in great condition, I'd led the first pitch before and had succeeded on some hard routes recently, so surely this time it would go.

An hour later, I was about 10m up the route and struggling. The route was every bit as hard and awkward as I remembered. The gear was OK, although I wasn't sure I wanted to test it. I committed to the crux, one pick in the crack, one on a tiny thin hook and a leg bar across the flare. Then, disaster! The axe in the crack ripped and I came tumbling down just as I had a couple of years previously. This was not the plan!

Andy seconding the horrendous flare
I lowered back to the ground to eat, drink and chill out for a minute. Suitably refreshed, I headed up again and this time, pulled through OK. However the section above proved to be a lot harder than I remembered. Where previously there was some useful ice, this time there was just crud. I teetered upwards, making slow but steady progress. My frozen hands and soaked gloves fumbled gear, dropping the small nuts, but I pressed on and made it to the stance. I eventually managed to contrive a belay with the remaining gear and brought Andy up.

Don't fall now!

Andy headed on up, linking P2 and P3 to bring us to the end of the main corner. From here, there are two options: head left into the final chimney of Tilt (as per the first winter ascent) or head right and up (as for the summer route). We chose the easier Tilt option and topped out with daylight to spare.

The end is in sight

I'm delighted to get the route done at last. It felt harder than any of the other VIIIs we've done this year, and miles harder than Centurion a couple of weeks before. I'm glad I don't need to do that first pitch again!

Centurion

Jim Higgins has retired from winter climbing, or so we all thought. So you can imagine my surprise when I got a text saying he fancied getting out for one day only, and was I up for Centurion?

I climbed this route in summer 5 or 6 years ago. Even back then, I remember thinking it would make an amazing winter climb. It was clearly out of my league at the time, but I've had the ambition to do it ever since. This was the first time that my abilities, climbing conditions, weather forecast and psyched partner had coincided so I jumped at the chance.

Jim on P1
And the didn't disappoint! Never desperate but constantly interesting, and what a line! Definitely one of the best winter routes I've ever done. If there was ever a route worth coming out of retirement for, it's this!

Me on the thin traverse on P3 (Photo - Jim Higgins)

Thursday, 27 February 2014

BMC Winter Meet

The BMC meet was definitely the highlight of my winter so far. Held up at Glenmore Lodge a couple of weeks ago (yes, I know, I've been a bit slow in writing about it), it brought together about 45 visiting climbers from 26 countries and a similar number of local hosts to experience Scottish winter.

Inevitably, the Scottish weather lived up to its reputation! The first day was particularly wild, and even Coire an t-Sneachda felt like quite an adventure!

A little different to Spanish climbing
  
I teamed up with Felix from Spain. To avoid the loaded approach slopes, we went up the Fiacail ridge then abseiled in to Fiacail buttress. The wind was so wild, just we ran up Invernookie and headed back to Glenmore.

The next day was forecast to be better in the west so Neyc Marcic and I hopped on the minibus to Glencoe. We did East Face Direct Direct ion Stob Coire nan Lochain. It's a deceptive route - it looks about grade IV from below, but very variable snow & ice conditions made it challenging and it warranted its VII,7 grade on the day. I led P1 & P2 in one long pitch and Neyc cruised the awkward top pitch in great style.


Neyc seconding the long first pitch of East Faced Direct Direct

Good Scottish conditions on the top pitch

The next day, Andy and I took our respective Slovenians to Beinn Eighe. This is one of my favourite mountains anywhere, and it didn't disappoint! Despite a strong wind on the walk-in, we were treated to shelter and great conditions in the coire - we even saw some sun! Neyc and I did The Sting on the Far East Wall, which is possibly the second ascent. After me enthusing about how positive and helpful quartzite is on the approach, the first two pitches turned out to be surprisingly bold and technical but after that, we were back to good, steep, positive hooking and torqueing up perfect rock.

Neyc starting up P1 of The Sting

Look - a view!
 We switched partners that night and for the rest of the week, I was paired up with a very strong Japanese climber named Kenro. He had had a bit of an epic on West Buttress Directissima the day before, so I took pity on him and suggested a shorter day. Auricle was a bit of a swim / wade in places but a good route all the same.

Kenro on the crux pitch of Auricle
The weather was terrible the next day, which I was secretly delighted about as it meant I could have a rest! The next and final day was forecast to be better the further north and west you went, to Kenro and I headed up to An Teallach along with Susan Jensen and partner. The weather was glorious on the walk-in, and hopefully restored Kenro's faith that it is sunny in Scotland occasionally!

A beautiful morning and a beautiful mountain
 We'd been planning to do Hayfork (three-start VI,7) but spotted a great-looking, obvious line on the side of Major Rib which wasn't in the guide so decided to have a go at that instead. It turned out to be a great and varied route. P1 followed a bold icy corner, P2 up thinly iced slabs and flakes, P3 (crux) up a steep corner past a roof and P4 up a chimney onto the crest of Minor Rib. We called the route Last Orders (which we had been afraid of missing back at Glenmore!) and there's a route description here for anyone who fancies repeating it.

Me on pitch 1 of Last Orders - photo Kenro Nakajima
Many thanks to Becky McGovern and Nick Colton the BMC for organising this fantastic event. I hope to see you all at the next one in two years' time!

Monday, 24 February 2014

Emptiness: Saas Fee Ice Climbing World Cup and West Central Gully

Two recent new experiences, both on Friday holidays from the 9-5 of office work, separated by two weeks. They both provided interesting and unique experiences for me, near typifying the spectrum of experiences available to people who like to use ice axes, although neither were exactly fun at the time. Classic examples of Type 2 fun! ;-)

Emptiness: Saas Fee Ice Climbing World Cup and West Central Gully (Beinn Eighe)

Emptiness.... the mind accustomed to experiences, strong and painful, now just devoid of emotion, no wait, disappointment. The end swallows me up before my time. But why? Hollow congratulations and pained smiles stain the crowd and my team mates. The first bitter taste of experience, all the sweeter with company. A freezing car park in southern Switzerland set amid beautiful and alluring peaks and faces, so this is high level competitive ice climbing? Safe, exceptionally hard, timed, yes timed, designed to separate and measure ability in a single effort, identical conditions for each competitor, sanitised and scrutinised, separating the starlets from the also–ran’s.

Sweat clings to my neck. Heavy pumped arms hang limply from my axe handles. Terror subsides, but unquestionably I can’t belay here and relinquish the fear, I have to carry on. I heave air into my lungs and check the view back down into the void. The rope hangs unblemished by gear or protection back down out of sight into the abyss. A spacious foothold provides sanctuary amid the vertical and overhanging ice. Another roof looms above me guarded by hanging ice daggers reminiscent of castle gates and an unwise path. But above I know I can climb. Another 15 metres of vertical ice show the path to safety, a bold path, but a test of the mind. The ice will be good, and gear will appear. A test of the mind. Hell The Fowler climbed this with straight shafts and balls the size of watermelon’s decades ago! Modern tools and occasional training, this should be easy.

Craning my neck upwards I survey the route, analysing the moves I know I won’t have a chance to try. Fellow competitors jostle for space, arms fly skyward as the moves are rehearsed. I scribble down a few notes and peer through binoculars at the tiny holds scattered across the wooden boards. Sequences are conjured up, clipping positions evaluated, all with best endeavours to commit to memory, while knowing the pressure and stress will empty my mind and simple tasks will become near impossible. Where will I fall? The oppressive Thunderdome awaits, but first the nervous tension of the isolation room, like the minutes immediately prior to that crucial exam that you haven’t fully prepared for….. except drawn out for hours, and just like the exam you can walk away at any time, only knowing that all those hours of focus and dedication are for nothing. You must stay and suffer.

The nest of optimistic gear looks pleasing on the eye. A solid tiny nut off to the side provides confidence. The world is a better place. My solitary blunt stubby screw still hangs from my harness after a few desperate attempts at placing from the most strenuous of positions in the void below. I am glad as I’m sure I will be able to place it on the ice above. All in the mind the optimist comforts.

I seek solace in a beer. I came I saw I conquered, ha as if! The optimist inside me measures and analyses the plus points in my performance, while the realist savours the taste of the cold beer and banter with friends and team mates. Food, wine, shared anecdotes and stories, the mind at peace in a familiar and happy place. Thoughts of competing drift back into the ether to be replaced by the sense of being part of something more. An experience not to be forgotten.

The nest of gear is long gone, hidden nearly twenty metres below by another roof, and the ice is poor. My stubby still hangs limply, apologetically from my harness. My axe planted to the shaft pulls an inch as I swing again to try and find a half decent placement in the steep snow ice, the good water-ice a distant memory. I can almost reach out and touch the crack. Protection at last, so close. My nerves and reserves depleted, replaced only by tension and fear, the volume turned up loud. I check the fall zone and hope I don’t reach Duncan, who I visualise happily chilling out on the expansive snow ledge in the void, oblivious to my terrifying position. The axe lands with a more reassuring thud and my heart slows. A few more moves and a satisfactory belay appears. I am near empty. Ecstatic but too tired for elation. The beast is tamed, just. Ferocious, demanding, questioning, the gully will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Pulling hard in Saas Fee (Credit Chris Prescott)

Starting up the crux pitch of WCG (Credit Duncan Hodgson)

Fully engaged in the crux (Credit Duncan Hodgson)

Duncan emerging from the void

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Season Opener!

With Christmas cheer in the air, and storms ripping across Scotland again, it feels like a fitting time to get some words down from the comfort of indoors! The winter season has started and as usual has appeared for a few days here and there, with occasional spells of settled weather between the storms! Neil and I have managed a few routes thus far (Magic Crack, The Secret, Apache and Tracheotomy) and I will let the pics do the talking. I have also snuck in a few pictures of some impressive ascents, Pete MacPherson and French Eric on Avenging Angel Direct and Harry Holmes and Helen Renard on Sioux Wall (both on Ben Nevis). Have a ho ho ho merry Christmas! Hope Santa is good to you! ;-) And that might just be some settled weather on the horizon.....mmmmmmm




Neil on the top pitch of magic Crack


Walking into Coire na Ciste on the Ben

The Secret, good line (the crack in the headwall)

Neil on P1


Trying to get started (with difficulty)



Neil getting stuck into Apache



Coire na Ciste - Wonderful playground



Neil and Eric below AAD

Eric on P2(?)

Harry on the crux pitch of Sioux Wall


Coire an Lochain looking wintry

The wade

Neil starting the groove of Tracheotomy

The ubiquitous looking down shot to prove it was white(!) and in nick.....

Nothing to ab off, a massive cornice and avalanche prone slopes, oh well, simultaneous abseil it is then!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Un-pisted Alpine: 3 Days of Steep Skiing


 Tap, tap, tap. I nervously tap my ski pole on the pavement. It is 7.55am and Ally should have been here ten minutes ago.
I’m sitting on the bench outside a café in the centre of Chamonix watching precious time slip by.  A tentative text message brings an explosive response, he is clearly not happy that he has slept in.
Depression deepens as the cloudless sky opens above me and the day’s adventure drifts off on a lazy current. A planned ski descent of the north east face of Les Courtes, a magnificent 1,100m high face towering over the expanse of the Argentiere glacier, is something I have dreamed of for years. It would have been the highlight of a long and varied winter rapidly turning to summer.
Thoughts of what the day would have brought fill my brain…. The mind bending exposure, variable snow conditions, steepness of the face and the fall…. What if I fell? Would I go all the way? Would the gapping bergschrund catch my fall? Would I still be conscious to know? Only one way to find out. I smile as passers-by come and go from my consciousness.
Just one more adventure, just one more, the greedy fingers of ambition prod my jaded brain. Another one stop bed for the night, another night of waking to questions, each time taking longer to answer before broken sleep is regained. Why does it have to always be one more I wonder.  Couldn’t I just be content for a while?
Fifteen minutes later the green van comes to a shuddering halt outside the café. “Your driving” came the shout as Ally dashed past into the Patisserie. I looked down at my unbuckled ski boots, then up again at the van…. “Really?”

“No, not this time!” Ally turned the van key repeatedly over and over again. Its 8.25am. The cable car opens in five minutes and we both know how quickly the queue would be filling up. A perfect blue ski forecast and a common knowledge in the valley that our chosen object was in good condition increased the tension another notch. Silently I thought back to the previous day. A great day of climbing and skiing the Col d’ Cristaux  with friends had quenched my thirst for a steep ski this trip, today was only a bonus for me, or at least in those tense moments was what I tried to justify to myself. How seldom do those days of trying to fulfil a dream come round, the painful weight of having the chance taken away by something outwith your control being hard to bare.

‘rrruurrrggghhh’ the van spluttered into life and all was not lost. Onward and fast. The cable car queue almost out of the door, but we are not giving up.
Midday. Sweat runs unabated from my forehead and saturated hair onto my forearms as I prop myself up on the steep slope. My lungs burn again. Sweat stings my eyes. My boots feel like concrete shackles. I know the mystical key awaits at the top, freeing me of the doubly heavy psychological weight, if I can only get there. We have been climbing rapidly up the face for almost an hour and a much fitter and fresher Ally shouts encouragement from above. I think he has a camera in his hand but I can’t be sure, the sweat stained lens blurring my vision. Got to carry on before my sweat soaked t-shirt cools me to a shiver. I share a few words in passing with an un-acclimatised Spaniard, copying my exhaustion from minutes earlier.
Climbing Les Courtes

We are being tormented by the sun but at least we have overtaken a few parties and more importantly no one has started descending above us, our most acute fear, being avalanched on or being hit by falling ice from skiers above, or simply the skiers! 

A short time later I heave myself onto a small stance at the col at the top of the face beside Ally who is now getting cold waiting for me in the chilling breeze at 3,800m. As we organise ourselves for the impending thrill of skiing the longest and steepest face either of us has been on, we watch others nervously slide down the very steep and hard packed top of the face. Their nerves and fears palpable.

View down the 50deg top section of the NE face of Les Courtes
We are ready and our time has come. Ally makes a few turns then cuts past a snowboarder looking dangerously out of her depth on the fifty degree slope, across to a more easterly aspect in the sunshine, in the hope of finding the soft spring snow we crave. I follow Ally then continue down past him revelling in the exposure of the face and the delightfully soft uniform snow under ski. Our prayers have been answered, timing ideal…. Late enough in the day for the sun to soften the snow….. early enough before the snow turns to porridge…. game on! Our confidence builds and our turns change from short controlled jump turns to carving wide fast turns. A shared sense of ecstasy at the magic of the situation fills the air, a dream in progress.
Ally ripping it up on the descent of Les Courtes

Courtes rainbow descent
Hours later, miles from the face, but only a few neurological pathways away from the day’s high, we float into the bar on the crest of a once a season wave, hero beers in the Micro Brasserie Chamonix and a chance to re-live the experience, only better the second time round!
An hour later we exchange goodbye’s before I head for the Swiss border and a pre-arranged ski date for the next day with an old friend. I know this trip will be worth it even if I don’t pull on a pair of ski boots.
My legs, body and mind wearily manage to negotiate the twisting mountain roads to Martigny and onwards by motorway to Bern, to be met with a BBQ, wine and good company. Only what I expected from a man who gives Senegalese fertility masks as wedding gifts!

Click. My dynafit bindings are locked in place. My boots will not release from my ski bindings. Should I have a big fall, my leg bones are more likely to break than my boots release from the bindings. A sobering thought but at this moment in time I am happy with my decision. I look up and survey the scene.
We hear the mechanical beast coming well before it cruises past, breaking the still air and billowing powdery snow off down the north face. The tourist helicopter circles us for a few minutes. Smiles and waves exchanged, eye contact made through two pairs of sunglasses and we pose for a few pictures, as if we could hide.
I contemplate how this chance encounter has come about. Money, fuel and a trained pilot taking them from the grassy pastures to the snowy heights. A rapid and comfortable journey into a world of huge glaciers, sheer faces and history, so much history. In an instant the pilot wheels off down the south face towards the Konkordia hut and the air stills.

The Monch and Jungfrau fill my view along with the vast Bernese Oberland vista, but all I can do is try and find the missing step in my pre-ski routine. Boots in ski mode – check. All buckles done up tight – check. Are they properly tight – check. I have eaten what food my churning stomach will allow, water bottle near emptied after 5 hours of climbing 1,800m to this spot  – check. Rucksack on and clips done up, ice axe available at the side of the pack – check. Helmet and sunglasses on – check. There is nothing left and I have been through my list twice. Am I trying to delay the inevitable? I savour the incredible view, the feeling of nervous energy, and lungs sucking in enough oxygen, for now. I realise there is nothing more, all that is left is to start the descent.
A few more photos to preserve the moment a little longer. We exchange a few words and mirrored grins which transcend simple words, culture, history and body language. Simply we are skiers, about to indulge in a shared dream.
Dreams bring comfort and safety to the experiences we crave, bursting to escape the confines of the cranium, except without the consequences of reality. Consequences, consequences…… without consequences, the experiences we crave end hollow and empty, unfulfilling. Consequences.  I am standing on top of the Eiger.
Climbing the West face of the Eiger
  
Top of the Eiger
 

The Eiger. This is a ‘climbers’ mountain not a ‘skiers’ mountain surely. What am I doing here? Trying to fulfil a dream? Have I been sucked into this on a wave of massive enthusiasm of my Swiss friend Christian, who being Swiss is by default a far better skier than I, a mere Scot!
Thoughts of childhood games of dodging and jumping rocks at Glenshee, skidding down icy moguls on the fearsome Tiger slope and grit-blasting’s in the teeth of a Glas Maol banshee. I know all these experiences have come in useful. I wonder at the old adage of ‘if you can ski in Scotland, you can ski anywhere’.
One major difference between climbing and skiing, that had become abundantly clear to me in the preceding few days is that often, while climbing, you have a number of metres or pitches to get the blood flowing, to warm up, prior to attempting a crux section. Skiing on the other hand, the crux is often the first turn, often attacking the steepest most exposed slope, theoretically the most serious and difficult section, where you only have one chance to get it right. No second chance. No rope to catch the fall.
The final concave summit slope we had cramponed up earlier shows us the way. Forty five degrees steep, icy, not much more than a ski length wide, with the appalling drop down the massive north face to the right and a rock face to the left, the way is crystal clear, the focus unerring, the implications of failure open and honest.
Start of the Eiger descent
The edges of my skis bite into the firm snow and ice as I control a sideslip between jump turns. Another turn and we can aim down the west face and away from the lour of the drop to our right. Aggressive but controlled turns down the steep couloir bring familiarity and rhythm, while sharks prowl the edge of the couloir waiting to ambush any naïve turns.
The face fans out below us, the snow no longer the hard compact surface we climbed in the morning shadows, but transform to soft spring snow glistening in the warm afternoon sun. Freed of the rocky confides of the snaking couloir, we open up and relax more and more into each turn, revelling in the acres of space and multitude of potential lines. Speed increases, blood courses’ through the veins, and we carve long turns down the face. Ecstasy reigns.
Best un-pisted run in the Alps?
A few careful turns and controlled slide slips take’s us over blue ice and hidden danger, allowing us to negotiate the slope around and below the huge serac halfway down the face. Climbing up directly under the towering unstable face hours earlier had us on edge, but at least then it had been in the shade. A few nervous glances back up behind us as we hurriedly descended and traversed out of the crosshairs. The gods had spared us.
They may have spared us a crushing end, but they were not finished with us just yet. A final obstacle lay ahead the like of which I had never seen, nor would wish on anyone. A veritable ploughed field of snow melt trenches and natural moguls, interspersed with microwave sized blocks of ice, evidence of the unstable wall hundreds of metres behind us.
Below the Eiger serac
The field eventually succumbed to a variety of ungainly techniques, embarrassing stuck tips and flailing poles, a far cry from earlier feelings of invincibility and limitless energy.
Cruising down to Eigerglescher
One very happy swiss dude below the West Face
 Forty five minutes of picking our way down the face ended where it started, at a train station, Eigergletscher. Onwards and downwards we cruise to Kleine Scheidegg, our numbers swell as we join up with a Grindelwald guide and his client for the day who have been for a relaxed morning walk up the Monch. A day at the office for the guide, a great day for the client, and the culmination of his long term dream, for now.
The Kleine Scheidegg beer slips down my throat in the warm sunshine. The noise and hussle an unwelcome destraction from the perfect relaxation. We share hero beers with our new Swiss friends and chat about steep ice lines and fearsome ski descents, all visible from our platform view.
My gaze drifts across from the west face to the expanse of north face, another day, another dream. My eyes link the features and history up the face….. The Rote Flue, the Ice Fields, the Ice Hose, the White Spider, Hinterstoisser, Corti, Heckmair, legends. My childhood fear and fascination of mountaineering literature stares me in the face, and I can’t look away. Friend’s stories and anecdotes of their Eigerwand experiences punctuate the features. The quintessential alpine experience, but I know that today is not that day.

Eiger!
I contemplate the days ahead and the deteriorating weather forecast. Three days of special skiing, mountaineering and shared experiences with good friends, this feels like the right way to end the winter, on a high, a mountain of my dreams. 
“You learned to ski in Scotland? But there are no ski resorts in Scotland!” The client’s teased remark drags me away. I grin, and encourage him to try it out sometime.



Climbing to the Col d'Cristaux

Another view of the Col d Cristaux climbing and ski line


More Eiger ski.....

Ally pre-ski..... maybe even pre-espresso!

Ally above the Courtes bergshraund