Saturday, 28 March 2015

La Tour Ronde North Face (II D, 350m)

Two hours in bed, one hour playing cards.

That was the approximate ratio of events other than mealtimes, which formed our third category of activity for Friday.

We only knew one card game and even then we only half knew the rules, which at least meant we could alter them subtly with each game.

Friday morning's weather was quite frankly abysmal but at least the bunk beds in the Torino hut were comfortable. Very comfortable in fact.

Winds were expected to be high during Friday but optimistically we had hoped it would be less than forecast and allow a modest ascent of some sort. Plan A for the trip had been the Ginat on the North face of Les Droites. Reputedly in great condition but frustratingly without a weather window to make an attempt. Our only fine weather day had been during our first climb on Modica-Noury when we were not sufficiently acclimatised to try much beyond this. Currently the North Face of Aiguille de Toule was under consideration, a fifth of the height of les Droites and described as a 'good route for beginners'. Sadly the forecast was true to form. The volumes of horizontal snow blowing past our dorm window indicated no further investigation necessary. On the plus side the forecast for Saturday was looking better, having looked diabolical a few days ago. Consequently a restful day was in order whilst we waited for the storm to pass.

Our flights were scheduled for the Sunday morning from Geneva, making it was absolutely essential that we catch the last cable car to Courmayeur after any climbing on Saturday. A relatively conservative option was needed and so we elected to return to Tour Ronde to try the North Face. Over eight years after climbing the slightly harder North Couloir to the right. Alarms set for 5am.

Thankfully the wind had settled by the morning and we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise. What's more the aggressive Northerly winds the previous day looked to have scoured the North Face of Tour Ronde, stripping some of the loose snow and and improving conditions a little.

Sunrise over Tour Ronde (left) & the Mont Blanc massif
Rob beneath the North Face

We moved together over the entirety of the route with just one intermediate belay to switch leads. The lower slopes turned out still soft. Or more precisely consisting of a soft top layer of snow with a thin layer of neve underneath, under which was more soft snow. Consequently I needed to kick deep steps in order to feel secure, which proved time consuming but at least it was steady methodical progress. I clung to the right hand edge of the face, placing occasional rock protection. My hands immersed in the snow were becoming cold and after ten minutes of no feeling in my finger tips I stopped to generate some circulation. Rob's toes weren't faring much better.

View down to Rob near the start of the climb

Conditions improved in the ice couloir, where the route bottlenecked and steepened. The relentlessly slabbed angle strained my calves but otherwise felt steady. Some moderately brittle ice but this probably lay with the lack of features. I somehow missed the belay bolts and continued up a thin passage of ice to the left of the start of the upper face. With just two ice screws remaining I made a belay.

Rob continued up the final stretch of ice, exiting onto the upper via a cramped short corner. Then onto the left hand edge of the upper face, which was densely packed with firm neve. Consequently we moved at surprising pace compared to the lower slopes and soon enough were at the top of the face. Twenty minutes later we were both on the summit. Third time of asking for me, having descended by other routes the two previous occasions on the mountain.

Clouds had progressively been developing through the latter morning and within minutes of summiting we were immersed. Then the wind picked up. Without much time to linger we started our descent down the SE Ridge.

Final section of ice before the upper slope
Belay at the top of the North Face
Brief summit views before the clouds rolled in within minutes
The summit
Fortunately a pair of climbers had arrived just ahead of us, thereby making it a case of just following their footsteps in reverse. Soon we were leaving the ridge by a series of abseils until below the bergschrund. Then the cautious trudge amidst poor visibility across the snowfield between Tour Ronde and Aiguille de Toule taking care for hidden crevasses. Fortunately the cloud was thin at lower levels and so navigation back to the Torino hut was without dramas.

Descent into the murk

It rounded off what was actually quite a successful trip in light of the unsettled weather. We took most of the opportunities available to climb something.

Although it does mean another trip to try and climb Les Droites.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Rebuffat Gully (D+ / II, 4, 350m), La Tour Ronde

I simultaneously chopped at the snow with both axes like a preying mantis to bring it to my level. The soft snow was deep and needed partial clearance before I could advance my feet. Climbing the initial slope to the Rebuffat Gully of Tour Ronde was proving to be laborious task. The other parties below clearly seeing it better to wait and follow in line rather than burrow an alternate route.

The walls closed in and somehow I missed the belay bolts to my left, instead continuing up a short snowy step that lacked much substance to latch my axes onto, or to sink an ice screw.

Rebuffat Gully

Rebuffat Gully seemed a suitably modest objective to match the forecast, which had predicted light snow but it had looked to be our best opportunity amidst an otherwise unsettled week. As it happened the morning was proving to be a beautiful one with clear skies, little wind, and cloud still lurking in the valleys.

Descent from the Torino Hut
Aiguille Verte in a sea of cloud
Ready to climb!

The second pitch, which fell to Rob, was totally bare of ice. What it lacked in ice it made up with in powder, consequently making slow progress to clear and find hooks and gear placements. Made harder by our puny trad rack of 3 cams and a set of nuts. The climbing felt sustained Scottish tech 6, well constructed with often perfect hooks in the cracked left wall, and a good mixture of delicacy and beef. No doubt the ice would make the pitch easier but maybe less interesting.

The second pitch

The difficulties then eased up but there were another couple of icy streaks to keep things interesting for the next two pitches. And some impressive rock architecture overhead to admire. The ice was thin in places with granite exposed but what presented was sound and with and enough spots for adequate protection.

The fourth and final pitch before the abseils

Where the gully broadened and eased back we ab'ed off. The snow looked soft beyond and by this point the clouds had rolled in and shrouded everything. It didn't look much fun to continue the top and so we started the rappels. It made the route feel a little contrived with the abseils starting so low but the climbing to this point had at least been great.

With no visibility we followed the ski tracks back to the Torino Hut in a disorientated stated. Unexpectedly stumbling across a newly bashed section of piste in the final stretch to really throw us. Eventually we spotted a crane overhead, used to construct the new cable car to Courmayeur, and immediately we knew the hut was close at hand.

Abseiling into the gloom

Monday, 23 March 2015

Modica-Noury (TD+ / III 5+, 500m), Mont Blanc du Tacul

My Monday morning work alarm sounded beneath the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. I promptly switched it off and continued to gear up beneath Modica-Noury. Falling into a small crevasse a short time earlier whilst approaching from the Cosmiques refuge had probably been more of a wakeup call but with a tight rope between me and my partner Rob I had clambered out with relative ease. With so much drifted snow spotting all but the largest crevasses was impossible.

We had tried to climb Burnier-Vogler Gully the previous day but the expected 20km/h south-westerly winds had proved to be well in excess. We didn't even make it to the abseil point on the Cosmiques Ridge before signalling the retreat. Relentless spindrift over the North side didn't bode well and by this point much of it appeared to be plastering to my eyebrows as well. We beat a hasty retreat but only after butterfingers Rob let his belay jacket slip from his grasp whilst trying to don. Promptly it whipped over the North side of the ridge out of sight. Colour blue should anybody find it hanging in their back garden in Les Bossons. Later that evening we watched the spindrift pummel the NW slopes of the Tacul and in particular Chèré Couloir.

Rob leading the start of the Cosmiques Ridge the previous day

Fortunately Monday's weather was a complete contrast. Blue skies and no wind. The best day's weather that we would see during our trip. With so such snow having shifted to the Northerly aspects we were keen to avoid descending from the top of Tacul on foot and so chose Modica-Noury with its equipped abseil points.
The East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul
Gabarrou-Albinoni (l) and Modica-Noury (r) in fine condition

Having previously climbed Gabarrou-Albinoni (which shares the same start), and led the initial climbing up the wide couloir, I was more than happy to leave this donkey work to Rob second time around. We moved together in steady fashion to above where the couloir forked and the steep ice began.

Rob above the bergschrund

The first steep pitch proved exhilarating but the second pitch would only get better. Both a full 60m, gradually ramping up the higher we climbed, and always hemmed in by steep walls either side. Despite the steepness the climbing felt relatively easy due to the stepped nature of the ice from previous ascents. Not that this detracted. A solid base for the feet was never hard to find and consequently relieving the arms felt surprisingly easy for the steepness. Axe placements were also inevitably first time, needing minimal effort, and the same could be said for the screws. The hardest aspect was dealing with the cold. Towards the top of the crux pitch the fingers in one hand were numb, which made screw removal clumsy. The onset of hot aches of course followed. Rob made fine work of the steeper climbing, which largely fell to him. Then from below the final mixed section we began our rappels back to the glacier.

Rob leading the crux ice
Final section of steep ice

We passed only one other team during our descent but below the bergschrund lay swathes of skis. We had arrived first and would leave first but our slow trudge to the Midi station would be a walk of pain with so little acclimatisation. The last laugh certainly wasn't with us.

Gabarrou-Albinoni (l) and Modica-Noury (r) both looking fine
Abseiling the wide couloir
Ski city

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Hydalsfossen (WI4+), Hemsedal

The weather on Saturday morning was perfect. Cloudless blue skies, no winds and sub-freezing temperatures. Payback for the bad weather days.

With a trip to Chamonix commencing the following weekend this was certainly the last ice climb in Norway for this season and so it deserved a suitable finale to wrap-up what has personally been a great winter. Hydalsfossen had long been pencilled-in for March, when the moderately long approach would hopefully be easier. It looked a classic outing and similar in appearance to Hydnefossen, only milder in difficulty.

Magnus used cross-country skis for the approach, whereas I took snowshoes. Using nothing would have been perfectly adequate given the hardness of the snow. In such fine weather the approach was a joy. And again payback for all the trench digging though deep powder earlier in the season.

View towards Vavatn

We approached from the parking near Vavatn, over point 1256m to the top of the route, where the lake that forms Hydalsfossen was totally frozen. Time to leave the sun and descend beneath the North facing cliffs. Rather than abseil directly into the route it seemed perfectly feasible to just descend on foot a little further to the west. Such was the reliable firmness of the neve. At half height a tree persuaded us to make a quick rap to where the angle eased.

Close to the top of the waterfall

Abseiling into the route

First glimpse of Hydalsfossen really raised the excitement levels. It looked staggeringly impressive and in a wonderful remote setting hidden from the sun. Conditions looked excellent.


The snow beneath route needed caution. A thin than layer of windslab, anything up to 15cm, covered a hard layer of neve with little resistance between. Minimum risk though, given the firmness of the deeper layer, provided we skirted high beneath the cliffs where the slab had no weight.

Traversing to beneath the route

Much of the ice spanning the waterfall looked WI5 in difficulty, rising steeply without features, until the angle eased off near half height. A more undulating section of ice left of centre looked to be the obvious weakness and with a few more features to possibly mix the climbing up some more.

Magnus lead the first pitch, following a sustained slanting weakness up and left. Quickly he run into difficulties due to being unaccustomed with brittle ice, however lots of screws in close succession helped ease matters. 35m up he needed to make a belay. Then some minor stoppage to retrieve a dropped screw from some shallow windslab before my turn came.

Magnus leading the first pitch

Magnus at the first belay

The ice was certainly on the brittle side but no more so than that experienced in Oppdal and Alta this same winter. The slabby, consolidated nature of the ice meant a lack of natural features, and consequently some dinner plating. Generally better ice lay beneath though, so finding sound placements proved only a matter of patience. Not the horror show experienced on a couple of routes in Alta. At times my mono-points were also struggling to punch the ice cleanly but one benefit of dinner plating ice was that it at least left some positive foot holds behind. With attention to detail there were some strong first time axe placements to be found, particularly beneath the small, sporadic patches snow.

The sustained climbing continued on the second pitch up a series of short steep sections. Often the steeper sections would create more localised weaknesses for which to sink the axes. Then 30m into my pitch the angle eased back a little and the ice softened in equal measure to make for some very satisfying and efficient climbing. I could have finished the route with a little rope to spare, however it made sense to stop short of the top in order to leave plenty of rope to reach whatever belay point lay above the route.

Sadly Magnus had removed his GoPro helmet camera for the second pitch as his moaning during a period of intense hot aches midway up would have made for some compulsive viewing.

Me on the second pitch

We had expected the climb to need three pitches but in reality it was only around 100m rather than the 140m stated in the guidebook. Not that this detracted but in summary the fine weather, remote setting and spectacle of the route provided as many great memories as the actual climbing itself. Some of my best climbing has been in Hemsedal this winter so this was the perfect way to wrap-up the season. Also perfect final preparations for the Alps next week.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Vinstradalen, Oppdal

Passopp was too good to pass by. It looked in fine condition and not particularly intimidating for a WI5. We were making our first visit to Vinstradalen and there seemed little need to explore beyond the first handful of routes, given their close proximity and quality. Ice conditions, as with the previous day, would prove to be excellent.

The first pitch of Passopp was sustained, following a vague groove, with nothing overly steep. Plus the placements had been softened from previous ascents. Maybe closer to 4+. The second pitch, finishing up the top tier, was possibly harder than normal due to the right hand end not having formed. Instead the taller ice towards the centre offered the only passage and proved steep for the first few metres before it gradually eased back. Not much easier than the first pitch and probably Anna's hardest lead. Good effort. A really fine route.

Beneath Passopp (WI5)
First pitch of Passopp
Start of the second pitch

It didn't look as though we were going to top Passopp but neighbouring Skila (WI3+) looked potentially a fun outing. It aesthetically filled a narrow gorge and again proved easy for the grade in light of the short steps broken up with easy ground. The sun struck the ice at mid-height and made things all together feel like spring. Above the route the hillside was littered with fallen trees, loose ground, and exposed roots. What remained looked suspect and so we descended on Abalakovs. No more time for climbing but certainly somewhere I'll be returning to in order to explore a little further up the valley.

Skila (WI3+)
The initial step on Skila
Last step of ice before the top

Hillside above Skila - not ideal for abseils