Saturday, 30 August 2014

Big Bruises on Aiguilles Rouges

So all had initially gone to plan... We had climbed the route called Manhattan (Kaboul) on Aiguilles Rouges, which was largely problem free, albeit with an awkward crux sequence. We had finished in good time so opted to continue up the 4c and 5b pitches to the summit of the Middle Bastion. This meant descending by foot rather than by abseil but we had plenty of time before the last cable car departed. We zigzagged down the scree slopes and circled beneath the cliffs towards our bags at the base of the route. And this is where it all went wrong...

Some photos from the climb first:

Wide bridging on the 6a crux pitch
Anna leading the penultimate pitch
Also some fantastic views as the clouds cleared in the afternoon

Loose rocks of all sizes littered the hillside. Anna's feet slipped and triggered a couple of large boulders in her vicinity to roll in her direction. Both rolled over her ankles and feet despite her best efforts to scamper out of the way. My first impression was that she had largely avoided contact but then it became immediately clear that all was not well as Anna couldn't really stand. Her left leg looked already very swollen and misshapen around her lower third of tibia, where her leg was soon maybe 50% bigger in girth than normal. It looked broken. What to do?...

Fortunately an trio of climbers from Geneva, who had climbed the same route as us, were descending a short distance behind and were on hand to help. One of them had a first aid kit and set about trying to splint Anna's leg. Then there was the immediate problem of how to get Anna down from the mountain. The hardest part would be descending the loose scree slopes to reach the path, which still lay a few hundred metres away. We at least had strength in numbers now. The tallest member of the other group and I then lifted Anna under the arms to standing. Fortunately she was able to weight bare through her right leg. Then we started down the slopes in clumsy, unsteady fashion. The others kindly carried our bags. Trying to carry Anna, whilst minding my step was no easy task. The difficulty lay not just with the unstable ground but also with it's undulating nature. It was very difficult to find a passage flat enough for three of us to walk side-by-side. On a couple of occasions my feet slid but I managed to keep control without dropping Anna. For Anna it was no easy ride either as she was using a lot of strength to hold the tension in her shoulders. We stopped so that she could let her arms recover then tried the crossed arms seat technique instead to attempt and make things easier for her. The higher centre of gravity made things too precarious on the loose scree slopes though and so we quickly reverted back. With a fair amount of tenacity we made it to the path.

We were still around 500m from the Index chairlift but at least we were on a relative highway now. Piggy-back seemed the most efficient form of transport. Anna was pretty easy to carry and so I managed it in one push, although the final uphill stretch was a bit of a workout for the thighs.

The attendant stopped the chairlift so that Anna could board. The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc was currently in progress with the course directly passing the Flégère cable car station. This meant that first aid assistance was in the fortunately in immediate vicinity. Soon a couple of medical students were eagerly on hand and only too happy to help with re-splinting Anna's leg, along with various other medical checks. They removed Anna's shoes and socks for an examination and they too thought the left leg was broken. Then appeared a doctor who also concluded the leg was likely broken. The consensus seemed fairly unanimous - that it was broken. Even to the point of asking Anna where she would prefer to have her leg reset. Locally or back in the UK? Locally Anna replied without hesitation. At least it looked to be in the lower third of the tibia rather than at the actual joint I thought. Our bags made a nice prop to maintain the leg in an elevated position for the current time. Incidentally her right foot, despite being able to hop down the scree slope, also wasn't feeling too good either.

Receiving first aid at the bottom of the Index chair lift

Despite the efforts of carrying Anna to within a few hundred metres of the Flégère cable car station a helicopter was summoned by the medical team. Having read 'Life and Limb' I naturally thought that Anna would be taken to the hospital in Chamonix. As it happened it no longer an A&E and so Anna would be flown to the hospital at Sallanches, further down the valley. In the meantime a foil blanket was located to keep Anna warm and Anna donned her buff like a bonnet to make herself look extra special. The student doctors suggested with a laugh that I take a photo and of course I obliged:

Keeping warm whilst waiting for the helicopter

We waited a short while before the sound of rota blades resonated from the valley. The helicopter set down out of sight just below the chair lift and soon a mountain rescue team appeared. Anna was strapped to a stretcher and whisked away with great efficiency, leaving just her backpack. Also her shoes and socks, as Anna had concluded that these would be unessential baggage, were her leg to be reset shortly after touchdown.

I took the last cable car down to the valley with Anna's belongings in hand. One of the lift attendants kindly offered me lift back into Chamonix. I then set about working out how I was going to get to Sallanches hospital. Or more to the point where was Sallanches? Jumping in a taxi and paying whatever the asking price looked the best option. I hadn't eaten much during the climb and I didn't expect much food to be available at a hospital on a Saturday night so first I needed some food, as well as get a quick wash. Then I needed to pack some things for Anna, based on the assumption that she would likely be admitted.

The phone rang as I was walking towards the train station to find a taxi. It was Anna. Contrary to expectations the x-rays had shown no fractures and she had been discharged. Also, the pain in her left leg had receded a little so that she was able weight-bare and walk at a snail's pace. She was planning to catch a train from the station down the road back to Chamonix via St Gervais. She of course had no footwear but the hospital had provided her with some blue foot covers so at least she wasn't completely barefoot. I looked at trying to meet her in St Gervais but quickly realised that she would have boarded her connecting train before I could get to St Gervais. It seemed the best thing was to just wait in Chamonix. In the meantime she would have to put-up with teenagers laughing at her foot covers on the train platform...

When the train pulled up at Chamonix I had the walking poles at the ready and a pair of shoes and socks to be returned. It was good to see Anna smiling and walking independently and because both her feet were feeling equally sore she was actually walking without a limp. Albeit very slowly like an old lady. Anyway, wine and fondue were calling us. We were flying home the following day so there was nothing more now to do than relax and applaud the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc runners courageous efforts towards the finish line.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Midi-Plan Traverse (AD)

I will admit that maybe I am not the best person to plan a 'gentle' day...

We had climbed the two previous days with no prior acclimatisation and Anna was feeling a little exhausted. The Midi-Plan Traverse sounded a steady day in principle, given that there would be little height gain or loss once we had climbed from the Cosmiques hut to the ridge descending from the Midi Station. Technical difficulties we anticipated would be low, plus I had traversed the first part of the ridge a couple of times before so had some beta to back this up. The routes was graded III for seriousness in the Damilano guide, indicating "a long route with a difficult descent. Maybe some objective dangers" but this I attributed to the length of the ridge, with limited options for making a quick escape in poor weather. The forecast looked no cause for concern though with only cloud expected in the afternoon. By this time I anticipated we largely have completed the route. We also planned to descend the Glacier d'Envers du Plan to the Requin Hut and then onto the Montenvers railway rather than backtrack all the way to the Midi Station, thereby reducing our time on the ridge. The Philippe Batoux book estimated 3:30 hours to the Aiguille du Plan and then a further 4 hours to reach Montenvers so with an early start we expected to be in Chamonix by the evening. At it happened it would not arrive in Chamonix until the third day...

The Traverse

We left the Cosmiques hut at 5am and shortly after were greeted by a fine sunrise. As with the previous two days the snow conditions were perfect although the temperatures were only just maintaining freezing now.

Early morning panorama

Our early start meant we were a significant way along the ridge by the time the first cable car arrived, although only one other party made tracks in our direction. We followed an existing trail which made going easy and where this became the steeper the snow became stepped. We moved together on a relatively short rope following the exposed ridge which rapidly dropped away on either side of us, intermittently stopping to admire the fantastic panorama. Grandes Jorasses looked magnificent.

View back to the Aiguille du Midi

Once at the Col du Plan we dropped the coils and moved together maintaining a handful of runners between us. We couldn't locate the abseil from the first rocky section on Rognan du Plan and so instead we skirted along the snow slopes on the Southern side. Here the snow was much softer and less stable... A sneak preview of what was to follow. Cloud thickened as we approached the top of Rognan du Plan, then unexpected snow began to blow in from the North. Visibility soon dropped to less than a rope length, and the wind picked up a little. Nothing of major concern though - it was just like a regular day out in Scotland now.

Climbing above the Col du Plan
Before the Rognan du Plan descent
Skirting the initial small abseil on Rognan du Plan 

Route finding down the south side of Rognan du Plan proved less than straight-forward. I started my abseil from the first collection of tat that presented on the ridge but 30m below I found no opportunity to continue. We made a 20m traverse further right to another assortment of hanging tat. Two further abseils down a steep corner system took us to the bottom (one more than expected overall). It didn't look attractive to try and retrace.

Descending from Rognan du Plan

The snow conditions on the South side were a marked contrast to what had largely gone previous. Firm neve had given way to soft, unstable snow that didn't lend well to moving together. On the plus side we were out of the wind. We made a belay of sorts. I then lead out right towards where the Col Supérieur du Plan would lie. It's exact location currently a mystery in the white-out. Carefully I kicked in steps whilst stabbing the soft snow slightly pointlessly with my axes for some sort of reassurance. I skirted beneath the compact granite that offered little in the way of runners.

At 55m I found a belay, after which it was Anna's turn to continue into the murk. I could see Anna's anxiety levels were creeping into the red and so we agreed to forego the summit and to head down as soon as possible from the col. I wasn't that bothered about continuing to the summit unless we were both happy to climb the final section and I certainly wasn't about to leave Anna sat in the snow waiting whilst I nipped up. The snow slope above the col would probably be easy but there was a short rocky section to the summit and no doubt the round trip would still take a reasonable time. The possibility of worsening weather was also playing at the back of my mind together with how far we currently now were from anywhere.

By now it was after 11am so we were way off track. Realistically we were aiming for the Requin hut rather than Montenvers, although we hadn't openly acknowledged this yet. We still hadn't found a trail leading down yet... maybe there wasn't a trail and we would need to navigate down in poor visibility.

With Anna's pitch completed there was still no indication as to where the descent route lay. The col felt close at hand though as the granite walls of Rognan du Plan were coming to an end. I nipped around a small rocky band and was delighted to see a clear trail in the trail heading straight down. What we didn't know was the the poor state of the glacier below...

Descent from Col Supérieur du Plan 

The steepness of the descent combined with the wet instability of the snow meant it was safer to face inward for the first few hundred metres. We crossed the bergschrund and dipped beneath the cloud of icy fog. The steepness eased up but soon the glacier became heavily crevassed. The trail weaved back and fourth in order to skirt each crevasse in turn. Without the trail we would have lost a lot of time navigating the maze. Then a crevasse that was partly filled-in necessitated us to enter it's jaws, descend a short way, and then leave it by similar means.

Just below the bergschrund

Entering the crevasse

Beyond the crevassed section the glacier steepened a little bit for 100m or so. The snow thinned out to expose hard ice littered with loose rock. Below this point the angle eased back, however between these two areas lay a short barrier of acutely broken ice. There looked to be no obvious way of avoiding the broken section and with the trail having dissolved with the snow the best thing seemed to be just to head straight down and work it out at closer quarters. Our crampon points superficially scratched the surface of the ice so we opted to abseil from a nearby boulder on the premise of saving time and avoiding the precarious descent.

I started my rappel descent. The broken section looked more unpleasant the closer I became. Fortunately towards the end of the abseil I spotted a better line of escape 30m to my true right. Here thin passage of snow skirted the adjacent granite walls to escape onto easy snow slopes beyond. I traversed in its direction but this left the rope kinking wildly at a couple of places above me where it hooked itself around the glacier debris. Anna did her best to straighten the rope on second but despite this the rope pinched itself behind a rock just below the abseil point. On the plus side our new point further right had a better coverage of snow above us so nipping up and freeing the rope and then descending proved an easy task. More time lost though...

The abseil

For the time being the way became much easier but ahead of us we could see the glacier once again dropped down more steeply out-of-sight in all directions towards the Glacier du Tacul , which still looked a long way below. We followed the trail across a broad snowfield to where it swung sharply left onto a more baron section. Here the snow thinned and the trail faded but judging by it's initial bearing I was pretty confident that the way off the glacier lay to its true left side. Straight down the middle towards the terminus I anticipated meeting seracs. We followed this leftward bearing towards the lateral portion. Here it became steeper, less continuous, and more precarious. Again we needed to uncoil the ropes in order to drop down a short icy step. Then to our relief we spotted a cairn on the lateral moraine ahead. We climb off the glacier and just beyond lay two more cairns. We felt overjoyed to finally be off the ice. It was now 3.30pm. The hillside was steep but clearly we had found the start of a trail that would lead us down to the Requin hut. A short way beyond we found the start of a sequence of thick ropes leading down the mountainside to an isolated smooth snowy glacier below...

Our cairn
...Note the steepness of the glacier behind us

We descended the ropes in sequence, hand over hand. The snow field below looked dirty and rotten and maybe a little mushy. Anna was first down the final rope. She stepped on the edge of the snow in just her boots, believing it soft enough not to warrant crampons. Next moment she was skating down the slope on her backside, with limbs flailing, in the direction of a nearby bergschrund, which she promptly swallowed her up head first. She dropped about 2 metres onto a ledge where she managed to claw enough of the ice with her fingertips to stop herself travelling another 6m further to its terminus.

Anna fell in here...

She hauled herself out and then sat in shock for about the next ten minutes. I did my best to comfort her by pointing out that it was at least a dead end so the worst case scenario would maybe have been just a few more bruises. Plus maybe falling in the hole was better than skating all the way down the glacier??

We crampon'ed up and descended the snow slope towards the right-hand side and back onto the moraine. The gradient eased up. We passed a couple of water pipes indicating the hut was close at hand. We joined a clear trail and then just beyond this sighted the huts at close quarters below.

A couple of men working on the exterior of the hut were the first that we met. The hut looked disconcertingly inactive but thankfully it was still open for business. But only just as the staff were in the throws of packing ahead of an early departure in the next few days. The main communal room was littered with belongings. The summer had been a bad one for business, due to the almost incessant rain, and with the glacier being in such a poor state they had not expected any more climbers to descend. In hindsight, knowing the condition of the glacier, we would have not descended.

Rain was due later in the evening and throughout the next day but we lost any urge to descend by foot all the way to Chamonix immediately. Instead we unpacked our bags, ordered some food and beer, and settled in...

Day 2

True to form, it rained through the night and into the following day with little let-up. The rain was too heavy to consider pushing on regardless. We hoped that maybe there was a chance to make a dash for it during the mid-afternoon when reportedly there would be a minor let-up but in reality this came too late and anyhow proved to be too brief. We passed the time reading and playing board games...

Day 3

When day 3 arrives you start to reflect that maybe the planned easy day had encountered complications...

Thankfully by the next morning the rain had passed and for the first time there were views of the surrounding peaks starting to emerge through the clouds. Finally it was time to make the descent to Montenvers. Navigating through the crevasses on the Glacier du Tacul was no easy task. The lady at the Requin Hut had advised us to stay left through the crevassed section. Maybe we had missed the point but this didn't look practical and so we zigzagged a tedious line through the higher middle portion of the glacier that felt a little futile at times. We needed to jump a couple of crevasses, which Anna was far from amused about. But once through the broken section things became much easier and the only real distractions were the wonderful views and periodic rockfall. The descent took far longer than expected due to the difficulties through the crevasses so we were very glad not to have tried the descent during later afternoon the previous day as would certainly have missed the last train. We stopped for an unsatisfactory ice cream at the Montenvers station then headed down. One things for sure was that we had earned a well-earned trip to the Micro Brasserie de Chamonix in the evening..

Descent from the Requin Hut
Dent du Geant
The Dru & Aiguille Verte
Descending the lower portion of the Glacier du Tacul

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Contamine-Mazeaud (AD+, 350m), Mont Blanc du Tacul

Contamine-Mazeaud was in really good condition. The extended period of poor weather through the majority of summer had brought a lot of snow to the high peaks but fortunately things had settled down prior to our trip. Now there there was an unusually large amount of snow for late August but an abundance of beautiful firm neve in wait. What's more the temperatures were holding well below freezing for the next few days. It meant harsh conditions for high rock routes but excellent conditions on moderately steep snow slopes.

The Tacul triangle in excellent condition

We initially moved together with 60m of rope trailing between us. Anna at the front crossed the bergschrund with ease and then continued without runners for maybe another 60 metres before the fear-o-metre tripped into the red. Herewith the snow was becoming more icy but inadequately so for ice screws so we descended down and left to some in-situ belay nearby tat.

Anna leading the initial snow slope

With one of us now secured to the mountain I took the lead with an assortment metal-wear clipped to my harness that would prove largely redundant during the climb. The climbing was steady but hard enough to warrant the belays. Every axe placement felt great although care was needed where a little more icy. The initial climbing on the second pitch from the initial belay was maybe the crux. It was steeper than the previous pitch but still easier than the sections on Chèré Couloir. The snow slopes funnelled gently into a narrower channel of steeper snow before the route opened out into much broader snowfield above, interspersed with isolated blocks of granite. From here the climbing became a little easier. I lead each pitch with little care for runners until maybe 50 metres had passed. Then came the challenge of finding some tat or a crack hidden beneath the snow where I could slot a cam. Sometimes we would need to move together a little distance but generally a belay appeared just when needed. Another British pair were matching us pitch-for-pitch so the chore of finding the next belay was also split depending on started up first.

Towards the top of the snowfield

Following the route to the top of the triangle looked a little discontinuous and contrived so we swung right towards the top of Chèré Couloir. After some moderate difficulties finding the couloir, followed by a stuck abseil rope (fortunately easy to retrieve), we were soon linking the abseils with ease. I knew from previously descending this way that it paid dividends to ignore many of the premature abseil points and aim for a full 60m each time. My previous descent this way it had been with a single rope and so had required a tedious ten abseils. Half ropes definitely hastened the progress. The crux pitches of Chèré Couloir were looking very easy compared to when I climbed it a few years previous with shallower channels of stepped-out ice markedly reducing their steepness.

Descending Chèré Couloir

Anna managed to find the bottom of the bergschrund toward the end of the final rappel. Then back to the Cosmiques Hut. Yes, the Cosmiques Hut! After many trips camping on the col below the hut I thought it was time I treated myself.

In the bergschrund

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Walk on the Wild Side (n6-), Skurvefjell

The guidebook described the Eastern part of Skurvefjell as 'løs' (loose) with 'dårlig sikkerhet' (poor protection). Still, this didn't seem to perturb us. Particularly given that our chosen route merited four stars in the local guidebook. It was presumably loose and a little bit dangerous in a 'fun' sort of way, like Wrecker's Slab for example... At nearly 300m height, the cliff certainly looked impressive and too good to resist.

The very pleasant walk-in
The first pitch gave an indication of what might follow. Compact rock with little in the way of natural protection. My first runner was maybe 12m above the ground. Where cracks existed they were nearly always associated with unstable rock. Already the climbing was feeling serious but after a couple more runners in succession I begun to feel happier. The first pitch weaved up and right and then back left so naturally I reduced the left rope runners as I approached the switchback. The first real alarm bell rang when I spotted a 30cm rock perched delicately over the pitch at half height from my belay. It hadn't affected me on lead but for Anna on second there was a chance that my left hand rope, which dropped more directly down to her to avoid rope drag, could ping the rock and dislodge it as she climbed from left to right beneath it. It was easy to overcome this risk by keeping the left rope slack. Fortunately it was visible from the belay but a warning of what was to follow...

Skurvefjell Vest (left) & Skurvefjell Øst (right)
An awkward, unproctectable short chimney followed... again feeling serious, particularly with so much rock still above us. The chimney also felt worrying hard for the grade, which didn't bode well for the crux in the upper half of the route. The climbing line traversed back right to follow a faint groove lace-able with good gear. Maybe nothing to fear after all...

That was until the third pitch when the climbing went from fairly solid but difficult to protect to loose and difficult to protect. Fortunately the climbing was easier but under the given conditions it didn't particularly feel that way. I mounted some rocky steps interspersed by grassy ledges, passing a stack of loose boulders to my right. Continuing up a grassy ramp with little sign of protection the main challenge proved was avoid slipping on the foliage beneath my ill-suited rock shoes. After climbing close to 60m with no adequate gear it was time to find a belay. Of course there wasn't one... Much hunting around followed before I settled for a couple of placements around a stack of blocks that optimistically looked as though they would stay put in the event of high loading.

More of the same for Anna and another 'optimistic' belay. The problem now was that the distinct crux pitch was to follow and I needed a stronger belay to heighten the head space. Plus it looked as though we needed to be further right beneath a faint groove from where the climbing from continue right. Hopefully in that direction there would be a better belay and less rope drag to follow. Delicately I traversed across in absence of runners, throwing loose rocks down the route as I went. This seemed preferable to potentially dislodging them whilst climbing and maybe losing balance. Fortunately the route weaved around enough to avoid the risk of rocks hitting the belays and needless to say there were no other climbers in the vicinity to concern ourselves with. After some patient searching I found an adequate belay of sorts and more ideally positioned for the climbing to follow.

The route
The crux pitch climbed the short groove and then traversed right beneath a shallow roof to a point where it could be breached. I found a strong nut placement in the initial groove, which helped with reassurance. Then some adequate cam placements at the back of the roof. I reached a ledge beneath where the roof needed to be breached and spent the next ten minutes fiddling with gear and stripping the loose rock from the cliff. With three runners in close proximity and the cliff tidied-up as best possible it was time to try to climb the thing. Cautiously I climbed the first few moves, testing each hold as I went but quickly got tired using this slow method and returned to the ledge. Climbing on loose rock was fine whilst the terrain was slightly slabby but now much more disconcerting with it becoming steeper. There was the need to climb quickly but this conflicted with the requirement to test every hold before committing. Second attempt I got higher but found only blank rock above me and no accommodation for runners. Again I backed-off to the ledge.

I followed the ledge further right to where the roof ended and a much larger roof commenced higher up. There looked a possible way through the roofs by climbing a slab beneath the large roof and then traversing back left to above the small roof. A large flake lay balanced at the top of the slab - too large to voluntarily displace. With a slightly dubious nut placed, I set about checking the rock to my left, where I would traverse in towards. It seemed largely stable but also fairly blank for the feet and not much to pull myself across with. At full reach I found a decent side-pull and mounted the exposed wall above the roof. tiptoeing across the small edges I found larger hand holds waiting and quickly the climbing became easier. The switchback through the roof had created too much rope drag but a good belay was at least at hand thanks to a solid over-head blue hex placement. Time to relax a little and take in the wonderful view of the Hemsedal valley below.

The remainder of the pitch was easy, skirting rightwards across slabby ground before climbing a short corner. There was little in the way of runners but at least a sound belay was waiting for me with a couple of cams at foot level.
Easier climbing on the upper pitches
Close to the top
Three pitches of easy climbing then followed, with the final two pitches weaving through a steeper final wall to follow weaknesses and avoid some seepage. It was 7pm by the time we reached the top. Looseness and lack of protection had significantly contributed to some slow climbing and overall the route probably deserves UK E1,5a due to both these factors. I would suggest the route warrants no starts rather than the full set awarded by the guidebook but that said, it did hold a certain character... at least for somebody prepared to sacrifice classic climbing for esoterica. It was certainly 'epic' and 'memorable', which is more than can be said for a lot of routes and no doubt it will stay in my mind after other so-called classic climbs have been forgotten. The scenery was also spectacular from our high vantage point. All things considered though, I won't be repeating it. But for anybody looking to attempt the route there has maybe not been a better time for a while... After personally stripping so many loose rocks from the route is is now VERY LOOSE as opposed to VERY VERY LOOSE!
Skurkefjell Øst