Sunday, 22 April 2012

Sidewinder (III), Coire an Lochain

Rush hour
We walked into Lochain today in light of the poor conditions in Coire an t'Sneachda yesterday. Despite the higher elevation conditions proved to be no better with the likes of Fallout Corner in summer condition. Fourth Man looked vaguely climbable however the traverse left out of Sidewinder proved impossible without frozen turf. We continued up Sidewinder instead, which proved no pushover in these conditions, and then bore right into the final gully of Western Route.

Summer conditions under snow

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Message (IV,6), Coire an t'Sneachda

A cold snap late in the season lured Kirill and me to Scotland for some winter climbing. With substantial snow earlier in the week, combined with prolonged cold temperatures since then, we felt encouraged to to make the long journey. I was in good form having recently returned from the Alps yet felt I had underachieved with my Scottish winter ascents this season (largely due to fickle weather and conditions) given the amount of training I have put in. 'Early season conditions' were being reported on reliable blogs with routes such as Hoarmaster and Fallout Corner having seen ascents earlier in the week. Blog activity had been suspiciously quiet since then but surely that was due to most the Scottish guides having wrapped their bookings up for the season after many weeks of unseasonably warm weather.

We walked into Coire an t'Sneachda, which seemed the obvious choice for these 'early season' conditions. Deep unconsolidated snow spanned the floor of the Coire with a freezing fog filling the air above. We headed towards Mess of Pottage. Only a short distance from the buttress were we able to see through the fog and witness the disappointingly black cliffs. If we were locals then we would probably have walked straight back out of the Coire  Having travelled the length of the country to be here we felt obliged to try our luck on something.

I led up the first pitch of The Message, wading through knee deep soft snow. Meanwhile avalanches funnelled down the cliffs immediately right of Kirill's belay. I spent most of my energy sweeping snow from my path in order to find axe placements and protection beneath. The heavy snow that followed the warm weather had affectively insulated the ground from the ambient temperatures and hence the turf was unfrozen and wet. I delicately hooked on the rock in order to avoid damage to the turf however my crampons inevitably raked it to a degree. We had planned to climb Pot of Gold, however I had accidentally continued up the second pitch of the Message, so we continued up this line.

Kirill strung the third and (crux) fourth pitch together, clipping various in-situ protection through the latter as though it were a sport route. The main corner was devoid of almost anything that could be described as 'winter conditions'. On the fifth pitch I headed right to finish the final pitch of  Pot of Gold for some extra spice. We unsurprisingly felt underwhelmed at the top of the route.

It appeared that we were the only people in the Coire today. It was still early in the afternoon and with the long daylight hours decided to head up to Fiacaill Buttress in the hope that the higher elevation would provide better conditions. We made an 'attempt' at Stirling Bomber, however Kirill could barely get off the ground without the assistance of frozen turf. Any enthusiasm still remaining quickly ebbed away and we made haste for Aviemore.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Frendo-Ravanel (TD / II 5, 500m), Aiguille Carrée

We had a classic mixed route all to ourselves today for a change. With a poor weather front imminent late in the day we were keen to get another route climbed prior. A local guide in the Refuge du Plan de l'Aiguille had recommended Frendo-Ravanel to us. Positioned close to the Grands Montets téléphérique station on Aiguille Carrée, it seemed an ideal choice of route for easy access and easy escape were the weather to change for the worse. And if the lift shut again then atleast we could walk down to the valley. We had spent last night on the floor of the Grands Montets téléphérique station, our sleep disturbed twice by prolonged machinery grating loudly in the room next to us.

Sunrise over Aiguille du Chardonnet
Approaching Frendo-Ravanel in the Argentière Basin
The bergschrund of Frendo-Ravanel was a monster. I led up a steep step of ice into a small cove in the bergschrund where I trapped myself under a shallow roof. Placing a couple of screws for reassurance I stood with my knees bent and spine arched backwards in order to overcome the overhung terrain and force my axes high. The snow conditions were poor but my placements good enough for me to stand up straight. Weight immediately transferred from my feet to wrists as I quickly searched amongst the soft snow for stable axe placements in order to move higher and overcome the bergschrund. I trusted my axes with the best placements I could find, moved my feet up and scrambled onto the easier slopes above. A quick romp up 50 degree slopes and I was at a belay and it was Mike's turn.

Mike climbing towards the bergschrund
Mike beneath the bergschrund
Mike led through some lean, delicate mixed ground before the terrrain became a bit easier. We moved together with the full rope length between us, intermittently placing ice screws. I managed to string three pitches together on the lead before lack of gear brought me to a belay adjacent to a slab. Usually the slab would be iced over but currently all that remained was a channel of intermittent ice choked in a wide crack to the right. Mike placed a cam in the crack, composed himself for a while and moved higher. Fighting with his left foot, which was scratching all over the slab trying to find any purchase, Mike frantically placed another cam higher in the crack where ice was absent. Soon he was out of my sight but the sound of scrataching continued with small blocks of ice intermittently spraying down the route. 'Safe'.

Easy ground before the crux
We were now into the main couloir and crux section of the climb. The direct finish followed a narrow streak of ice that looked 'Scottish' but doable. The ice was thin but it was hooked out so surely not too much trouble? I tapped and hooked my way up the flow, placing only a few screws where the ice would ungenerously allow, closing in on the top of the pitch that would offer up the grand finale. Another wide crack choked full of ice lay in waiting. An ice bulge granted me with the opportunity to place two ice screws a couple of body-lengths down and left from the crack. I swung my axe up and right into the iced crack, the steepness pushing my bodyweight away from the ice. What little ice there was fractured immediately away leaving my nearest axe placement now a foot higher than previous with this only being a short distance above the fracture site. One more attempt would be all that I would get. I tapped the tip of my axe into the ice more gently this time. Not daring to try and place the other axe in the ice in such close proximity I crossed my axe tips. For the first time on this trip I was gripped. I reckoned my odds to be 50/50 as to whether the ice would hold. I took one last glance at my screws below me and considered the potential fall if the ice broke off for the second time. The screws would hold but it would hurt! I released my front points from the ice and swung my bodyweight below my axes, arms locked out in a monkey hang, now fully committed to the ice crack. It held my weight. I used a blob of ice attached to the slab to my right to plant a front point. Lifting my crossed axe I gently tapped it into the ice a foot higher. The relief was apparent with every higher placement I found. Hard neve was gratefully received at the top of the crack and soon enough the belay. I was proud of my effort but hoped that I had left enough ice for my shorter partner to cope with.

Above the hard climbing - time to rap
Mike joined me at the belay. The hard climbing was over. It was mid-afternoon and our thoughts turned to catching the last cable car back to the valley. Clouds were rolling over the summits and there seemed little point in bashing up the remaining easy ground for no visibility on the ridge. The rappels swiftly began. Frendo-Ravanel had provided the ideal climax to a great Alps trip with plenty of remember. I was confident that we would be the last to climb the route this season though.

Mike abseiling down the crux pitch (slender ice on the right)

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Grands Montets Téléphérique Station Bivouac

Mike and me spent the night on the floor of the Grands Montets Téléphérique Station in preparation for our Frendo-Ravanel attempt next morning. We were treated to some spectacular views towards the Dru and Mont Blanc massif as the sunset. As darkness fell two lights illuminated from the North Couloir of the Dru. The climbers appeared to still be ascending despite the late hour. Late in the night they would arrive after completing the route. Twice in the night the staff started the station machinery for what seemed like an hour at a time. I would trade camping on the Col du Midi for the floor of the Grands Montets station any night though.

Sunset over the Mont Blanc and the Dru from the Grands Montets téléphérique station 
Sunset from the Grands Montets téléphérique station
Lights of Chamonix
View from my sleeping bag in the Grands Montets téléphérique station