What doesn’t kill you …

It’s been a few months now since I returned from my last trip to the mountains and I’m still digesting all the events that took place. Ultimately, we failed to achieve what we set out to do. But was the trip a failure? That is a very subjective question.

Back in October 2014 Wilki and I launched our speedwings from the top of the Aiguille du Midi’s North Face having made a swift ascent of a TD mixed route up the iconic dark wall of ice and rock. The flight down got us back to Chamonix less than ten minutes after leaving the summit ridge.  During the flight- whilst descending at a rate of 1200ft every minute- my mind was racing as I considered more serious routes that could become our next ‘speedwing alpinism’ objective.

This last March we returned to the Alps to take the concept to the next level with two main aims: firstly, we wanted to fly off the top of more technical routes, in the ED range; and secondly we wanted to use the wings to cover more ground than we could possibly manage on foot; flying from the summit of one mountain to the base of another, and then climbing a second route before flying off its summit.

The beautiful Argentiere Valley
Wilki and I were joined on the trip by my brother Niall and Murray Smith (Muzz) who would be climbing as a pair; and climber/film maker Dan Habershon-Butcher and his incredibly capable partner Nida.  Together we hauled sledges heavily laden with all our climbing, flying, skiing and filming equipment up the Argentiere Glacier to the refuge situated halfway along the valley. From there we were well positioned to access the steep north faces of the Verte, the Droites, the Courtes, the Triolet and various other lesser peaks, as well as the southern slopes of the Chardonet and the Argentiere.  My idea in basing ourselves here rather than down in Chamonix was that we would be much better positioned to make the most of any short weather windows that we were offered, even a window as short as an hour would give us enough time to get out for a ski and short flight.
——————-Sledging  Negotiating the cliffs  

——————-Niall and Wilki hauling  Dan and Nida hauling
Each evening in the hut we eagerly awaited the arrival of a new weather forecast and each evening we would sit- slightly deflated but always upbeat- rearranging our plans to try and make the most of what we were being dealt. By and large the weather was by no means awful; it just wasn’t conducive to ‘speedwing alpinism’, or any climbing for that matter. The few parties that did venture out to attempt climbs invariably came back disappointed, and one or two narrowly avoided disaster when they got caught in avalanches. Impatience can be lethal in the mountains.

We kept ourselves busy from day to day with some fun skiing and a few flights down the valley’s south facing slopes. One of the highlights of the trip was watching Dan and Nida making their first ever speedwing flights, both were naturals. I remember being very aware of a number of different emotions vying for dominance within me; a responsible and caring side of my personality watched with great concern as each of them sped into the distance; overriding that, was a mischievous child lusting after a moment of schadenfreude, which in the end was delivered as Dan flew at high speed into a thick bank of fog. Our laughter would probably have just about been audible to him as his world turned totally white and he crashed into a drift of powder!
——————The team on a recce of the Aiguille Verte approach  The team skiing  Finn with the Droites and Coutes in the background
——————-The team  Niall above the Argentiere glacier
——————-Finn (orange canopy) and Muzz (blue and green canopy)  Niall flying
——————-Nida preparing for her 1st flight  Dan's 1st flight
As the days slipped away and our return date loomed ever closer my plans became progressively more and more ambitious as I rearranged and expanded missions to fit all of my main aims into the few days we had left. Eventually, still empty handed, it came down to the final day of the trip and our last chance to get something of serious magnitude ticked off. The weather finally seemed to be playing ball and we formulated an ambitious but achievable plan which, if we succeeded, would make all the weeks of waiting worthwhile. Wilki and I were going to climb ‘Late to say I’m sorry’ on the North Face of the Grand Rocheuse- an ED route- then fly off the summit of the neighbouring Aiguille Verte to the base of the Courtes where we would then ascend its North Face via the Swiss route. Niall and Muzz meanwhile were going to climb the Couturier Couloir to the summit of the Verte and attempt to launch from the same spot as us. Dan and Nida very kindly volunteered to film from the valley bottom.

At 2am Niall, Muzz, Wilki and I set off skiing across the glacier to a spot where we left our skis and took only what we’d need on the climb. From here we wished each other the best of luck and set off separately, Wilki and I feeling very aware that we needed to be moving fast to remain on schedule. I remember feeling an intense pang of emotion as we parted ways knowing that if anything happened to my brother there’d be nothing that I could do.
——————-Wilki in the alpenglow  Finn approaching the base of the more technical pitches
Wilki and I moved fast as we simul-climbed up the lower ice fields. For hours on end the sound of my own heavy breathing and the small circle of torch light in front of me were the extent of my awareness.  We reached the bottom of the real difficulties just after the sun hit the face and a beautiful pink alpenglow dripped down the wall to our stance. From here we could see the majority of our route; an impossibly thin thread of ice weaving its way up through the vertical cliffs of the Grand Rocheuse. We climbed quickly and efficiently alternating leads up the relentlessly steep ice and rock with only one moment of serious drama when the 6 inch wide ice feature I was climbing ripped off the rock taking me with it. After falling 8 metres I was finally caught by a stubby ice screw that I had placed as an afterthought.  Had I not placed it the fall would have been closer to 30 metres. By early afternoon we were on easier ground and once again simul-climbing at a good albeit somewhat laboured pace as we were now above 4000m.
——————-Wilki on the 2nd steep pitch  Finn climbing the narrow ice feature which proved too brittle
—————— Finn on the thin ice seam that leads up to the crux of the route - a tenuous dry tooling traverse  Finn preparing himself for the 3rd steep ice pitch  dsf
——————-Wilki on the 4th ice pitch  Wilki at the beginning of the awkward ridge leading up to the Grand Rocheuse
Teetering along the knife edge summit ridge of the Aiguille Verte we had a good view of the Couturier Couloir which Niall and Muzz were climbing. Based on the speed they’d been climbing at earlier in the day we anticipated they would now be nearing the top of the route. My heart rate noticeably sped up as we scanned the route and saw no sign of either of them. Had they retreated? Had they been swept off the face by a serac fall? They certainly hadn’t topped out already as we could see that the summit was still pristine and untrodden. I tried to stop worrying about them and hoped that for whatever reason they’d made a safe retreat back down the couloir.
The Grand Rocheuse on the left and the Aiguille Verte on the right with Mont Blanc in the distanceAfter no more than 5 minutes on the summit Wilki and I marched down the west ridge to our launch spot, but things weren’t right. The wind wasn’t coming from the northwest as had been forecast, it was coming from the northeast. This may not sound too bad but a 90° difference meant the wind was blowing across the launch slope rather than straight up it, on top of this it was very erratic; nearly non-existent at times but gusting up to 30-40km/h every 30 seconds or so. We decided to sit and wait for a few hours to observe the wind; noting any patterns and hoping that things would improve. They didn’t.  By now the idea of flying to the base of the Courtes was out of the question, we were just thinking about how we were going to get down at all.
Finn and Wilki on the summit of the Aiguille Verte
Eventually we decided to just give the launch a go. It felt strange untying from the ropes and packing them away for our take-offs; as a climbing partnership I’m used to having an umbilical cord between us, we are responsible for each other and make all our decisions together, with speedwing alpinism the second half of the mission is carried out solo, something I’m not used to. We stood separately, going through our own personal checks and tests, lost in our own thoughts. After a few minutes the silence was broken when Wilki spoke out, partly to me partly to himself.

“I shouldn’t be doing this… I’m getting married in 3 months’ time… I shouldn’t be doing this”.

They were the words that I desperately didn’t want to hear but had been anticipating for the past few hours. I wanted so badly to fly off the mountain. It wasn’t over yet though. Wilki said that he was happy and confident to descend the mountain on foot by himself and he would do anything he could to help me launch. I asked him if he was sure he was OK with the plan and he assured me he was. I returned to my preparations and no more than 2 minutes later I was ready to go. Waiting for a lull in the wind my heart thumped against my chest like never before. The repercussions of a failed launch were terrible, I knew that, but I was confident that I could pull it off. The lull came and I made my move. As soon as the wing was up I was blasted by a powerful gust and thrown to the ground, I shouted out to try and reassure Wilki.

“I’m OK, I’ve got it.”

Slowly getting back to my feet I stabilised the wing, but just as I was ready to give it another go a second gust hit me, throwing the wing and me with it across and down the slope. I was no longer in any way in control and Wilki dived in to stop me getting dragged off the 1000m cliff I was heading for.

“F**k this s**t mate it’s not worth it!”

Wilki’s words sounded strangely distant as we finally got the wing under control. I sat defeated and appalled at myself; appalled that I’d been prepared to take such a risk, to let my ambition rule my rationale. I’ve always prided myself as someone who makes sensible decisions in the mountains. I’d let myself down this time and I felt truly ashamed of my actions. Not only had I put myself in unjustifiable danger but I’d been prepared to let Wilki descend the mountain solo, an inherently dangerous task.
Finn attempting to launch off the summit of the VerteFeeling very sombre, and with a huge amount of adrenaline still pumping through my veins from my near miss, we packed up and trudged back over the summit to access the top of the Whymper Couloir- our descent route. It was now getting late and the sun was close to setting, my thoughts once again turned to Niall and Muzz, they must be worrying about us, wherever they are.  I was pulled out of my thoughts by an unexpected sound and the sight of two shapes that my brain couldn’t quite figure out at first; two dark blobs 50m below me that certainly hadn’t been there earlier in the day.

“You guys are a sight for sore eyes!”

To my amazement, and immense relief, the words came from Niall as he led a very weary looking Muzz up the final snow slope towards the summit. They’d been climbing for 16 hours and were massively dehydrated and hypoglycaemic, the one thought keeping them going was that the summit was the finish line; from there it’d be just a 3-4 minute flight back down to safety, or so they thought. I felt truly sorry for them as I broke the news that the conditions weren’t right for flying and we were all going to have to descend on foot to the south.

“We’ve got a long night ahead of us boys.”

Little did I know just how long.
——————-Muzz reaching the summit ridge at sunset  The team descending the ridge to access the Whymper Couloir
Wilki and I had descended the Whymper Couloir at night once before, back in 2012, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect and set off ahead of the others to scout the route as the light faded. Unlike the frozen snow and ice on the north face the snow on the south side was soft and deep making it easy enough to solo down climb; that said, a trip or slip would be bad news as the couloir ends with a series of cliffs which you wouldn’t want to fall over. After a few hours of down climbing we finally reached the cliffs and set up an Abalakov thread to abseil off. I rapped first and called up to let the others know that the rope reached the bottom of the cliffs and it was safe for the next person to come on down. The first person to appear out of the darkness above me was Niall looking and sounding much chirpier as he descended the last few metres of the cliff towards me. I’d been worried about him for the past few hours as he was clearly feeling quite jaded as a result of his dehydration, so it was a relief to see him looking more alert and energised. My relief was short-lived. As Niall lowered himself down the last few feet of rope I gave him a little warning that he was nearing the end but he clearly didn’t absorb my comment.  He told me later that he had thought he was abseiling down to flat ground – the very bottom of the mountain – but the reality was that at the bottom of the cliff was another 300m slope leading down past the bergschrund – a giant gaping crevasse. I watched in horror as Niall abseiled off the end of the rope and started tumbling down the slope, building speed with each second as the time between his impacts lengthened. Before I could even properly absorb what was happening he had disappeared into the darkness beneath me.

I screamed internally.

Had I just watched Niall plummet to his death? I set off down-climbing in a panicked frenzy, my mind a mess of dark thoughts. After 20 seconds I stopped climbing and shouted down into the darkness. I had no expectations of receiving a reply but to my amazement I heard Niall’s voice rising up from hundreds of metres below me.

“I’m OK!”

His voice was reassuringly strong and a wave of relief flooded over me. We exchanged a few more words before I continued my descent unconvinced that he could possibly be as unscathed as he was suggesting. I followed his path of ‘body-prints’ down the slope for 200m – amazed at the distance between some of his impacts – until I reached the bergschrund. Niall didn’t realise it but he had cleared the bottomless abyss with one massive flight before continuing his tumble for another 100m!

At this point I realised with a moment of panic that I hadn’t warned Muzz not to make the same mistake as Niall. How terrible would it be if he came tumbling past me as well! So I quickly shouted up to the other two and communicated what had happened. It was a further 45 minutes before I finally reached Niall along with Wilki and Muzz; I had had to engineer an enormous snow bollard as a means to safely cross the giant crevasse and at times I thought that Niall had had the right idea in just flying over it! Niall looked damaged. He was standing awkwardly and his face was bloody and swollen. Amazingly though, other than a very sore ankle he was indeed uninjured, the same couldn’t be said for his underwear unfortunately…  no he hadn’t soiled himself… one of his ice axes had punctured through his pants and ripped a giant hole leaving them in tatters. It’s a real shame; they were a good set of pants…

For the second time that night I had to tell Niall that it wasn’t over yet. We still had a long trudge down the glacier to get to the Couvercle Hut, a little shack with beds and rugs where we could get some kip. It was 4 hours before Niall finally got off his feet and got some rest. We had left the Argentiere Hut 26 hours earlier.
Photo of the Whymper Couloir with Niall's fall shown in redDespite the beautiful weather, I felt pretty subdued the following morning as we sedately strolled down the Mer de Glace to the Montenvers station. I had been so excited about this trip and the prospect of taking ‘speedwing alpinism’ to the next level.  In hindsight I would say I had been too excited, and too determined to make it work. I had been building myself up for a big fall. The reality is that ‘speedwing alpinism’ can work, but it should never be assumed that conditions will come together to make it a viable option, one should always assume that it will be necessary to descend on foot, and only if everything is absolutely perfect should a speedwing descent be considered. I was disappointed with how the trip had gone; I felt that Mammut would be unimpressed with how little I had to show for all their support; I felt I had let down my family and Lucy by taking the enormous risk of trying to launch in spite of the dangers; I felt I had been hugely selfish in being prepared to leave Wilki alone on the mountain; and on top of all this I felt that my over ambitious ideas for using the mountains as a playground had nearly got Niall killed.

So back to my original question, was the trip a failure? Well, it’s taken me months to see it this way but my answer is “No!” What I’ve come to realise over the years is that the majority of my ‘mountain wisdom’ has come through surviving bad decisions that I’ve made.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or in Niall’s case it gives you a bloody face and a ruined pair of pants. The late great Roger Baxter-Jones used to say that there should be a hierarchy of outcomes from a mountaineering expedition:

  1. Come back alive.
  2. Come back as friends.
  3. Reach the summit.

We achieved all 3 of the above on this trip and had some pretty cool experiences along the way. I’d count that as a success any day!

I need to finish this post with a HUGE thank you to Dan and Nida who not only sacrificed a beautiful mountain day to film us on our climb, but then had to spend the whole night that followed wondering what on earth had happened to us, and the majority of the following day ferrying all our gear down to town where we were busy stuffing our faces at a local restaurant. Dan and Nida, you’re absolute legends!


Shropshire Shenanigans

It’s the middle of winter. The days are short. The weather inclement. My finger injury persists.

But fear not! Fun can be found even in the darkest of times. Here’s a short film documenting some mid-winter McCantics (guest appearance from Glen Harper) in our wonderful home county Shropshire. Speedflying and highline slacklining… enjoy!

——————–Nesscliffe highlining Finn McCann highline slacklining at Nesscliffe——————–Rory McCann on the Nesscliffe Highline Glen Harper highlining——————–Finn McCann on the Nesscliffe highline slackline Nesscliffe Highline

In other good news. Our film ‘Arctic AIR’ documenting Niall’s and my adventures in Greenland has been short-listed for the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, the Adventure Travel Film Festival, and the Echo Mountain Film Festival… in Macedonia! If you’re interested in viewing it yourself please visit Arctic AIR- SteepEdge where you can rent or download it for a very reasonable price!

A big well done also to my Mammut team mate Ethan Walker who has just won the 2014 Trespass Blog Awards! Nice one Ethan!



Fight and Flight

Last year I sustained some serious tendon damage to my right hand meaning that I was forced to take 12 months out from rock climbing. At first I was understandably devastated as rock climbing brings me so much happiness and fulfilment on a regular basis, but it wasn’t long before I opened my eyes to the opportunities that came hand in hand with this set-back.  Because I wasn’t going to be able to rock climb I figured I may as well dedicate myself to learning a new skill which one day could compliment or even enhance my climbing exploits. So that’s the back story to how I got into speedflying.

This spring’s expedition to Greenland opened my eyes to the unbelievable fun that can be had when combining mountaineering and speedflying. My mission now is to really push this discipline, which I’ve named ‘Speedwing Alpinism’, to a whole new level.

A few weeks ago I drove out to Chamonix with my alpine climbing buddy Wilki to explore the possibility of foot-launched speedwing alpinism. Up until now all the alpine launches I’ve done have been on skis, but this itself precludes you from climbing particularly technical routes (climbing with skis on your pack and ski boots on your feet isn’t fun). So our question was this: when attempting a flight from a snowy alpine summit, can we run fast enough to launch our wings by foot?
——————-Wilki flying on our training day.  Wilki flying on our training day

We intended to climb the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses and launch off the top, but a heavy dump of snow and a Northerly wind put an end to that plan. There are no North facing launch sites on the mountain, and the South side would have been dangerously avalanche prone meaning that we would have been climbing into a trap where we could neither fly off nor safely descend on foot to the South. So with only two days of good weather to play with we picked out the Eugster Direct on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi.

——————-Approach 1  Finn and Wilki Eugster

The climb got off to a bad start as I was hit in the shoulder by a head-sized lump of granite which had fallen from 20 metres above me. The impact knocked me off my feet leaving me hanging upside down from my ice-screw and ripped a hole through three layers of clothing. At least it didn’t hit me in the face! Adrenaline got me through the rest of the day as my shoulder slowly stiffened up.

——————-Finn McCann climbing the Eugster Direct  Wilki climbing the Eugster Direct

The rest of the route went wonderfully smoothly. The route was in pretty good condition with only a few sections of very thin delicate ice which had to be climbed with great care, despite this we climbed fast and topped out onto the summit ridge before 3pm.  Out came the wings and we scouted out a good launch area. Wilki drew the short straw and launched first, then it was my turn. I must say it felt amazingly un-daunting running off the edge of 1000m mountain face! The views were spectacular and I didn’t want the flight to end, but 8 minutes and 2,700 vertical metres later Wilki and I simultaneously touched down in Chamonix.

——————————————–Wilki Eugster Direct  Finn McCann high up on the Eugster Direct

—————— Wilki Eugster 2  Finn McCann on the top pitch of the Eugster Direct

——————-Wilki Summit Flight 1  Wilki Summit Flight

——————-Finn McCann looking down the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi  Finn McCann Summit Flight

So, the experiment worked. Foot-launched speedwing alpinism is a goer! Now let’s see where we can take it!

Arctic AIR at the Kendal Mountain Festival

Big news! Arctic AIR has officially been selected for the Kendal Mountain Festival 2014.

The festival will take place from 20-23 November and will feature many of this years most exciting adventure films. Check out the website at: www.mountainfest.co.uk




Arctic AIR

It’s been some time since I last uploaded a blog entry onto here, so it’s time to remedy that! I’ll be writing a few times over the next few weeks with various updates, but to begin with… What happened in Greenland?

Well, in a nutshell, we had the adventure of a lifetime. Having picked out the perfect base using satellite imagery, Niall and I flew out to Kulusuk on the East coast of Greenland with the task of finding our way out to our intended camp.  We finally made it by means of snowmobile, boat, and a long ski down a frozen fjord. Our base camp was perched on a steep sided moraine in the middle of a gargantuan valley, the scale of which we never quite got our heads around, with monstrous peaks rising thousands of feet out of the sweeping white and blue glaciers. Totally surreal, and we had the place to ourselves.

                                Niall McCann en route to our base camp  Niall McCann man hauling on day 1

                                Base Camp  The Foxes Jaw

Over the next ten days Niall and I basically just ran around having as much fun as we could. We summited two beautiful, unnamed peaks and flew off the very tops of each with our speedwings. We had three more flights from high mountain slopes, which proved to be rather more dramatic than we had planned. We made the first ascent of a 100m ice cascade which we named ‘The Ephemeral Avalanche’ and went at around Scottish V/VI. And we spent the rest of our time downhill skiing, kite-skiing, eating Haribo, and exploring the local ice caves!

                                Fox's Jaw Approach  Finn McCann on 'The Ephemeral Avalanche' Pitch 2

                                Niall and Finn McCann climbing a new route  Niall and Finn McCann on an unnamed summit

                                Finn McCann flying  Niall McCann flying

                               Fox's Jaw Climbing  Niall McCann on an unnamed peak  Finn McCann climbing a new route in Greenland

                                Polar Bear tracks  Niall and Finn McCann

If you’d like to read a more detailed account of the expedition follow this link to an article I wrote for UKClimbing: http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=6773

Below is the trailer for ‘Arctic AIR’ which will be released in the next few months. Huge thanks to WillCopestakeMedia who produced the film and to Tom Adams for providing the most beautiful soundtrack. Whack the volume up and enjoy it in full HD.

Need for Speed!

Hi everyone! It’s now less than two weeks until Niall and I depart for our big Greenland expedition and the planning and preparation is reaching a state of fever pitch! This is going to be the first of two blogs that I write over the next week; my aim today is to introduce the third and arguably most exciting component of our upcoming expedition… speedflying.

Before I describe what exactly speedflying is, I quickly want to explain why it is that I’ve decided to introduce a new discipline into my trips away at all. So, I can basically attribute it all to picking up an injury seven months ago, not an exciting injury as such, but one that meant that technical, tips of the fingers climbing, has been out of the question. Basically, I trained a little too hard and developed acute tendinitis in my right hand which resulted in severe pain whenever I tried to use one finger in particular. On picking up the injury, I was immediately aware that it was going to take a while to recover, so I decided that I could either sit at home doing nothing or I could learn a new skill.

As it was, because of the awful weather we’ve had, I pretty much did just sit at home doing nothing… but in between work and bad weather I have managed to get out enough to feel that I’m now ready to use my new found skills in anger!

So, speedflying is basically paragliding, but with a wing that has just a fraction of the surface area.  The result of this is that a) it weighs next to nothing, and b) you go really fast. Basically the perfect combo for descending off a mountain that you’ve just climbed. The speedwing can be launched on foot, or on skis; the latter allowing you to rapidly descend terrain via a combination of skiing and flying. Awesome!

My training started by sneaking around the Shropshire hills, hurtling off the slopes and trying to avoid getting caught by land owners. By far the most valuable training though took place in the Chamonix valley under the incredibly capable supervision of my good friends Tag and Elling from Norway.  These guys are helicopter pilots by profession which basically gives them loads of free time to get outdoors and scare themselves silly; they are both incredibly experienced skiers, climbers, windsurfers, BASE jumpers, sky divers and most importantly… speedflyers!

Below are a few shots from the trip courtesy of Tag, and some screen grabs from my head cam.


Tag and Elling  Tag skiing the Midi Ridge

Muzz Skinning in the Vallee Blanche  Muzz and Tag on the Midi

Finn 'skiing'  Finn giving a perfect demonstration of how to descend a slope with skis

Elling launching  Finn flying towards the Mer de Glace

Finn flying in the Vallee blanche  Screen grab from Finn's Vallee Blanche flight

On returning to the UK I immediately downsized to a smaller wing, basically so that I can go faster, and hooked up with Niall to have a play back in the hills around Shrewsbury.

Niall leading the way  Finn on the new smaller wing

Finn (green) and Niall (orange)  Finn (green) and Niall (orange)

The wing is currently in the repair shop as a result of a frustrating incident that occurred last week on the summit of Snowdon, but will be packed up and ready to rip up the Greenlandic skies in two weeks’ time!

I once again want to draw everyone’s attention to the fantastic charity ‘Climbing Out’ who I’m raising money for in memory of my Dad. Please donate what you can for a fantastic cause at www.justgiving.com/Finn-McCann.

Huge thanks must go to Tag and Elling for being legendary mentors, Muzz for his awesome company as always, and lastly UK Airsports and NEO for their flying kit contributions.  Stay tuned for a short film documenting Niall’s and my training over the past few months.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 574 other followers

%d bloggers like this: