Here’s the first trailer of our Cirque of the Unclimbables trip. There’ll be another teaser coming soon before we release the full length film. Don’t ask me how long the final cut will be… I’ve had no role in the production of these films! A big thumbs up to Muzz and co. for all their great work! If you have any issues with playing the video follow this link to the vimeo site: http://vimeo.com/73786253
A little over ten years ago, when I first started leading rock routes, my dad bought me a climber’s log book to record my various ascents. Unsurprisingly (based on my lack of effort with keeping diaries in the past) I’ve been diabolically bad at updating it. However it has been far from a wasted purchase as the photos that are scattered throughout the book have been a huge source of inspiration to me. The photo that caught my imagination more than any other was an image of a silhouetted hiker dwarfed by a gargantuan wall of granite, bathed in sunlight and rising countless hundreds of metres into the sky behind him. The description underneath read: “Cirque of the Unclimbables, North West Territories, Canada”. The seed was sown.
In March this year, my friend Wilki discovered that he currently has a condition which precludes him going to extreme altitudes. This news forced us to re-think our proposed trip to climb high altitude peaks in Peru and got me thinking about some potential low-to-medium altitude destinations where we could find adventure in abundance. It wasn’t long before I was researching how one goes about getting to the Cirque of the Unclimbables. “Not easily” was the answer! But that wasn’t going to put me off.
I put together a four man team consisting of a sports climbing super-star (Sam Hamer), a highly experienced alpinist (Wilki), and a world class kite skier/ kite surfer (Muzz). Despite not being a climber I had no doubts that Muzz would be a fantastic addition to the team due to his general competence as a highly experienced expeditioner, and his boundless enthusiasm. I wasn’t wrong. We met up in Vancouver airport and drove straight up to Squamish (Canada’s answer to Yosemite) for a quick training hit on the immaculate granite which it has to offer and spent two days getting to know each other properly and consuming copious amounts of pancakes and syrup. The highlight of our trip to Squamish was climbing ‘The Grand Wall’ on the Chief, Squamish’s most impressive cliff, which is generally considered to be one of the most coveted routes in the world at its grade (approx. E4). We climbed in two teams, as we would in the Cirque, Sam with Wilki, and Muzz with me, and ascended the route in around eight hours with only one awkward moment when Wilki emptied his bladder down a crack, unaware of the fact that someone was climbing up said crack just five metres below. Wilki made a swift exit, thus avoiding being beaten to a pulp by a steaming Canadian (literally and figuratively) three hundred metres up the Chief!
Below are a few shots from Squamish including two shots that I’ve stolen off the net which shows the crux pitch of ‘The Grand Wall’ of which we failed to get any particularly good photos.
On returning to Vancouver we spent a fantastic evening with my great friends from uni days Joe and Polly, before flying up to Whitehorse which is the biggest settlement in the Yukon. A fantastic fact about the Yukon is that it has a population of 30,000 people; 27,000 live in Whitehorse itself and approximately 1,500 live in each of ‘the other’ two settlements. What’s important to note here is the Yukon is approximately the same size as Spain! That leaves a huge amount of wilderness. I had arranged to be flown into the Cirque by a float plane pilot based out of Watson Lake which is a four hour drive from Whitehorse so the morning after arriving in town we found ourselves optimistically stood on the south exit with our thumbs stuck out attempting to hitch a lift. Seven hours later we traipsed back into town with aching thumbs and tails set firmly between our legs! We finally made it to Watson Lake by bus a day later and began the next challenge of our trip which was to track down our pilot who didn’t use computers and never picked up his phone. This took a further twelve hours! It wasn’t without a small amount of relief that the following day we found ourselves taking off from Watson Lake, finally on our way into the wilderness that we had come so far to explore. We landed on a glacial lake an hour or so after taking off and after a brief sort of our gear and food set off on what was to be a seven hour hike in to our base camp with as much as 40 kilo’s on our backs. Having poo poo-ed all the locals who had assured me that if we didn’t carry a gun we WOULD be eaten by bears and/or wolves I was slightly disconcerted by the ubiquitous bear and wolf droppings that we passed on our hike in!
The Cirque of the Unclimbables is a cluster of sheer granite towers in the Ragged Range of the Mackenzie Mountains (not a bad address). We had set our sights on the most famous peak in the Cirque called the ‘Lotus Flower Tower’, a 750m (2,500ft) monolith which stands out from the rest of the peaks as being particularly beautiful. We set up our base camp in the idyllic meadows known as the ‘Fairy Meadows’ an hour’s hike from the base of the Tower and spent our first day bouldering and organising gear for the climb. A heavy rainstorm in the night and the need to allow the face to dry delayed the start of the climbing for twelve hours till 14.00 the next day. The first ten pitches of the Tower climb up amazing flakes and chimneys, at a relatively moderate grade, to a substantial ledge which is located at the half way point of the climb. I was chuffed to bits at how well Muzz climbed these pitches despite his lack of climbing experience and he ended up only having to jumar two of the pitches up to this point and free-climbed everything else with a big grin on his face!
We arrived at the ledge just as the light was beginning to fade, it never really got dark as we were so far north but it got dark enough that you wouldn’t want to climb, so we set about failing to make ourselves comfortable and warm and spent the next six hours shivering. That is, everyone but Muzz, who put no effort into making himself warm or comfortable but proceeded to sleep as though he was lying in a hammock in the tropics! He even slept through a few snow showers that passed through. By 04:30 I’d had enough of the shivering and decided that the best way to warm up was to start climbing so I set off up pitch 11 with freezing water running over my fingers and clouds looming above that didn’t inspire confidence. By the time Sam was leading out on pitch 12 a full-on blizzard had set in and after a brief wait to see if it was going to be short-lived we made the difficult decision to retreat off before we really got caught out.
We then proceeded to have three days of diabolically bad weather confirming that we certainly made the right decision in bailing off the Tower. We decided to spend these days back down at the lake where we’d left the majority of our food in a shed and could entertain ourselves by going out canoeing, fishing, rock throwing (boy there was a lot of rock throwing) and chatting with a team of Canadians who had hiked in from the nearest settlement. This is a very impressive feat given the unexplored terrain of glaciers, high passes and dense forests.
As soon as the weather improved we raced back up to the meadows with the remainder of our food. By this stage we had been joined by a second team who were hoping to climb the Tower, Young and Tag from Norway, who proved to be fantastic company for the remainder of our time in the Cirque and have become very good friends indeed. With the new weather window we faced the conundrum of attempting the Tower again immediately but potentially finding it still very wet, or alternatively climbing it a day later when it should be drier but risk missing the weather window for a second time. With a good forecast coming through on the sat phone we opted for leaving it another day to dry out. This gave us an opportunity to climb some of the boulders and routes around our base camp which we found to be incredible themselves and made for a fantastic day of fun.
This time around we woke to clear skies when our alarms rang at 00:30 and we enjoyed a pleasant hike to the base of the route. On pitch two, with headlights still necessary to find holds Wilki took what looked like an unpleasant fall. It’s always horrible watching someone fall; hoping with your heart in your mouth that nothing’s going to snap, be it the rope or their ankles. We could see that the fall had knocked Wilki’s confidence but he reassured us that he was OK and proceeded to dispatch the pitch without a word of complaint. As Muzz set off following me up the second pitch the Norwegians arrived at the base of the route and started gearing themselves up. They took a few shots of us which put the route somewhat into perspective.
The first half of the route went without a hitch and before we knew it we were climbing on new ground. From the ledge to the top we decided to climb as a single team with Sam and myself taking it in turns to lead each pitch. The Lotus Flower Tower, although not known to many, is considered to be one of the most beautiful climbs in the world and it’s the second half of the climb that gives it this reputation. The headwall which forms the last three hundred metres of the route would be nigh on impossible to climb if it weren’t for the small diorite inclusions which protrude from the granite giving it the feel of an artificial climbing wall with screwed on holds! The headwall itself gets steeper and steeper the higher you climb but the diorite nubbins or “chicken heads” as some call them keep on appearing whenever you need them. It is undoubtedly some of the most enjoyable and aesthetic climbing I have ever done and it certainly deserves the reputation it has gained. We had a bit of route finding difficulty in the last thirty metres of the climb which came as an unpleasant end to an otherwise immaculate afternoon of climbing but finally found ourselves stood on top of one of North America’s finest peaks as the sun dipped low on the horizon, lighting up the amazing ‘Ragged Range’.
With darkness preventing us from beginning our abseil immediately, Wilki, Sam and I found a comfortable spot where we sat shivering whilst Muzz lay down on a spiky rock and slept like a baby…
Our abseil got off to a terrible start when Sam’s and my rope got snagged so badly that we were forced to cut it, but was uneventful thereafter and by 09:00 we were hiking back into basecamp to a chorus of high-pitched whistles emanating not from an adoring crowd of people but from the marmots who sat at look-out points throughout the meadows. Quite an experience! The weather broke three hours after we returned to our tents but luckily the Norwegians, who topped out a few hours after we started abseiling back down, beat the weather and got down safely later that afternoon. We ended up only having one more day of climbable weather in the remainder of our time in the Cirque, but that was just long enough for us to climb some more amazing routes in the meadows and for Sam to make an incredibly impressive ascent of ‘The Cobra’ an 8a route on one of the most amazing pieces of rock I’ve ever seen! Nice one Sam!!!
We said our farewells to the meadow and its marmot inhabitants fifteen days after first arriving and headed back down to the lake where we proceeded to sit for two days waiting to be picked up by our float plane. This is pretty prompt by Yukon standards… back in the day when hunters and trappers were dropped in the wilderness by pilots they’d simply agree on a season to be picked up in! The Norwegians, who got picked up a day after us, made a rather impressive entrance into our lodge by jumping out of the plane from 11,000ft wearing wing suits! The two of them are currently in Yosemite where they’re hoping to climb some big walls and base jump as much as possible. Amazing guys!
So we discovered that the granite towers of the Cirque are indeed climbable, but only for very brief periods of time! Given that people only ever attempt to climb in the Cirque in July and August it’s no surprise that these mountains get very few ascents. What made this trip so special was that we were visiting an area which is truly remote and pristine. The Lotus Flower Tower, which I’ve been dreaming about for over ten years, is as beautiful as I could ever have imagined and certainly ranks as one of the most amazing climbs I’ve undertaken to date. All in all… a great adventure!
I want to thank my three team mates for being such fantastic company and such competent and reliable partners on the rock. Many thanks to my mum and Niall for their role as the ‘home team’ in keeping us up to date with forecasts. Huge thanks to Lucy for the texts that she sent through daily on the sat phone brightening my days and infuriating the others who appeared to have been forgotten by the outside world! Thanks to Warren LaFave of ‘Kluane Airways’ and ‘Inconnu Lodge’ for his incredible hospitality and generosity. And lastly, a huge thanks to Mammut for their support and amazing kit which couldn’t have performed better.
It feels like I’ve only just arrived back from Yosemite but the time has come for me to head off again….
I won’t give away too much about this next expedition for now. All I’ll say is it’s VERY remote and I’m heading out with a kick ass team!
In no particular order we have:
Andrew Wilkinson (Wilki)- my companion for many adventures over the past few years including our ascent of the North face of the Eiger.
Murray Smith (Muz)- star of ’Last Man Standing’, world class kite skier/surfer and all round impressive outdoorsman.
Sam Hamer (Sam)- one of the UK’s brightest climbing stars and one of my oldest friends. When the climbing gets really extreme we’ll unleash Sam.
The last few weeks have been very busy so I’m afraid I can’t relay any climbing antics as there haven’t been any. We did manage to fit in some swinging antics though (that is rope swinging…. not the other kind of swinging). Check out the video below produced by my good friend Will Copestake who joined me along with my brother Niall and friends Dave and Tom on a micro-adventure to the North-West of Scotland. Enjoy!
See you in a months time!
Good day all!
I’ve just returned from a two week trip to the States accompanied by my Dad. Dad has stayed out longer and should now be somewhere in the region of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming having already visited five other States over the past two weeks. I’ve made a very short video of us on our climb which you can see below. Make sure you set the quality to at least 360p otherwise it looks awful!
For those of you that don’t know, Dad was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a form of terminal lung cancer, back in 2004. The statistics for this cancer aren’t good; in fact they’re about as bad as they come. Less than 40% survive the first year, less than 20% survive to live a second year, and less than 10% make it into a third year beyond diagnosis.
When Dad received his diagnosis nine years ago he had no illusions of trying to ‘beat’ the cancer, the statistics can’t be ignored, but as Stephen Jay Gould said “The median isn’t the message”. Just because the cancer has a median mortality of eight months does not mean that you will probably die in eight months. Dad is a scientist, and therefore very familiar with how statistics work and what they represent. Rather than focussing on the median, Dad was much more interested in the variation surrounding it.
Attitude matters in fighting cancer. Those with a positive outlook, a strong will and desire to live have been shown to live longer than individuals with the same medical conditions who lack those attitudes. Dad is positive to the core; in fact he takes great pleasure in the fact that his blood type is B positive! Nine years ago when he got diagnosed he didn’t sit down and give up, he decided to do his utmost to cram as much into his remaining years as he could. I think we can safely say that he’s been successful in achieving that.
It would take way too long to list everything that he has done since 2004 so I will just mention a few of the highlights.
He has undertaken four major cycle tours, India (highest road in the world), Outer Hebrides, Madagascar and Turkey. On foot he has walked the GR20 Corsican high-level route, the Routeburn track in New Zealand, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and the Tour of Mont Blanc. On home soil he has completed the mid-Wales 100 miler in 32 hours and taken part in the Long Mynd 50 miler four times with a best time of 10hrs 59mins. He has had seven overseas mountaineering trips including an ascent of Stok Kangri 6,153m in the Himalayas and an ascent of ‘Motorhead’ a world class fourteen pitch E2 in Switzerland. All this and more whilst also going under the knife three times, receiving radiotherapy, participating in drug trials, and undergoing two courses of chemotherapy.
I asked Dad if he’d like to join me in climbing ‘The Nose’ on El Capitan almost two years ago. He was surprised that I asked but after a brief moment of consideration decided that he’d like to take on the challenge. Our original plan was to attempt the route in May-June 2012 but Dad’s health deteriorated and he ended up taking part in a drug trial and later received chemotherapy. The therapy had a fantastically positive affect on him and in autumn 2012 we started thinking again about planning our trip.
We arrived into the valley late on Friday the 17th May and began climbing the very next day as the forecast looked good and we didn’t want to waste time. There is a very prominent feature about 150 metres up the route called ‘Sickle Ledge’ and on the first day we climbed unencumbered by a haul sack up to this ledge before abseiling back to the ground leaving our ropes in situ. This is a common practice known as “fixing” which basically means that when you decide to finally set off for good you can race up your fixed lines (using rope ascending devices) to your highpoint, effectively giving yourself a head start on the rest of the route.
Yosemite is an absolute phenomenon. A paradise for me personally, and everywhere you turn you’re met by yet another mind-blowingly beautiful sight. Following our day of fixing lines we spent the next two days relaxing, taking in the sights and preparing ourselves for our 1000m climb. Unfortunately, no matter how beautiful your surroundings are, it’s very hard to fully appreciate them when you have something as large as an ascent of El Capitan literally hanging over your head! By the Monday evening I was raring to go and didn’t feel I could possibly spend another day on the ground.
Setting off early on Tuesday morning we made quick work of the fixed lines, ascending them in well under an hour, before heading on up into the crack system known as the ‘Stovelegs’ which lead all the way up to El Cap ledge, our target for the day. We had decided to take our time over the route and climb it with three nights on the face so we could really enjoy the experience without feeling too rushed. Three nights however does mean that you have to carry four days’ worth of water and food on top of all your other kit, this amassed to somewhere in the region of 40-50kgs in the haul bag (over 30kgs of water alone). As the leader it was my responsibility to do the hauling and after a few hundred metres of climbing I was beginning to resent the decision to go slow and “enjoy” the experience!
We chilled out for about three hours in the afternoon on ‘Dolt Tower’ eating food and playing the ukulele (we’re inseparable) before climbing the final 80 metres up to ‘El Cap ledge’ in the cool hours of the early evening. ‘El Cap ledge’ is a luxury bivi if ever there was one. It’s less than two metres wide but it’s perfectly flat and about eight metres long. We were disappointed therefore to arrive to find two climbers fast asleep right slap bang in the middle of the ledge forcing us to sleep in a cramped spot at its far end. You get all sorts climbing big walls, usually very interesting folk, but not always particularly nice or considerate! We were lucky however to be accompanied for the first two days of our climb by a couple of lads, Corey and Nate from the University of Arizona who happened to set off at the same time as us and climbed at a similar pace making belays wonderfully sociable.
We woke on our second day surprisingly well rested, and relaxed on the ledge eating and playing ukulele until Corey and Nate (who were aiming to get further than us that day) had departed from the first belay. This meant we didn’t set off until 11:00am, much later than I would have liked but fortunately my aim for the day was to get to a ledge underneath the ‘Great Roof’ which was only a few hundred metres away, up and diagonally left. The most exciting part of the day was the ‘King Swing’, a huge pendulum which is required to reach a series of cracks which are the key to progressing onwards. It feels very strange lowering down a full 40m from the belay, losing the height that was so hard earned, but it’s all worth it for the incredible exhilaration of running like a mad man across the blank face, 500m off the deck, to reach the security of a new crack system.
Dad discovered on this day that being the second, rather than the leader, isn’t always the easier job! Following or “cleaning” a traversing pitch requires a huge amount of care and exertion, especially when the haul bag needs to be lowered out to prevent it from swinging wildly, and inevitably gets caught up in the crevices and flakes that it’s been hauled over. By the end of the second day Dad was exhausted and the bivi ledge we reached offered little in the way of rest and comfort. That night it reached 2°C in the valley and we were shivering on our tiny ledge 600m above!
We had the ‘Great Roof’ pitch for breakfast on our third day. This is a pitch I’ve been looking forward to climbing for years and it didn’t disappoint. My most heart stopping moment of the climb occurred as I was traversing towards the end of the roof. I had stopped placing runners behind me to make Dads life easier but this meant that if I came off I was looking at taking a big fall. With just a few metres left before reaching easier ground I was hanging off my smallest camming device (a size zero) which fits into cracks less than a centimetre wide, at that moment in time that tiny device was the only thing keeping me from plummeting. I had to really stretch to reach for the next cam placement, a 0.5, and I cringed as my efforts caused the tiny cam holding me in place to creak and slip. At the exact moment that I placed the 0.5 cam, the zero broke out. For a split second all that I was aware of was that I was off and falling. It was with immense relief that a moment later I came to a stop hanging precariously off the tiny 0.5 cam which by some miracle had caught me. What incredible inventions they are!
We made steady progress the rest of the day and reached our ledge in the mid-afternoon allowing plenty of time for lounging, indulging and needless to say… ukuleling!
With only five pitches to go on the last day we were excited to be getting going after a chilly breakfast sat in our sleeping bags and a toilet stop for Dad. This is something that I’m sure a lot of you have wondered about… basically the prospect of going to the toilet is awful but the reality isn’t that bad, and yes, we do then have to carry it all up with us!
The exposure on the last few pitches is outrageous. As you can see from the photos it’s hard to figure out which way to orientate the camera, all you’re aware of is that there’s a lot of air beneath your feet. We reached the final pitch quickly as I only had to aid climb one or two harder sections and free climbed everything else making our progress rapid. By this stage the haul bag was significantly lighter too making hauling much less of a chore.
I had mixed emotions climbing the last few metres towards the top of the cliff, I was obviously elated at having reached the top but part of me didn’t want it to be over. As it has been said, ‘The Nose’ is the proudest line up one of the greatest pieces of rock you’ll ever see, and it’s a climb that’s always been in the pipeline for me. I now have a Nose shaped hole in my life! Seeing Dad coming over the top to meet me ousted all those feelings though… he had put absolutely everything into the climb and there were times when he wasn’t sure he’d make it. I’ve done lots of great things with Dad but climbing ‘The Nose’ together trumps them all. We gave each other a hug at the top and sat down to try and let it all sink in. I say we sat down… I squatted to relieve myself for the first time in three days…
I’m a firm believer that you can turn any negative experience into a positive if you just have the right attitude. I can certainly say from my own experience that some of my biggest successes have come directly off the back of failures. As for Dad, would he have achieved everything he has over the past nine years if he hadn’t fallen ill? It’s impossible to say, but I doubt it. And I think it’s pretty safe to say that this last decade has been one of his most incredible, in a life packed full of incredible decades.
I’ve written this article in the hope that some of you, cancer sufferers or not, will be inspired by my dads’ story as I have. This isn’t a tale of hope, this is a tale of action!
I must say a huge thank you to my sponsor Mammut who supported the trip and provided both of us with amazing kit. There’s been more than one comment about how well dressed we were on the climb! Also I must thank Tom Evans of El Cap Report who followed our progress and photographed us from the ground.
Below are a few shots from our road trip through California, Nevada and Utah at the end of the trip.
It’s been a little over a month since returning from Chamonix and it’s now nearly time to head off again. This time I’ll be heading out to the incredible Yosemite Valley in California to climb what is arguably the most famous rock route in the world “The Nose” on El Capitan. My last two trips to Yosemite have been with my brother Niall, but this time I’ll be joined by my dad who will accompany me up the 3000ft of granite over 3-5 days. Below are a few shots from our trip back in 2009.
The last month hasn’t been without excitement itself. The big news for me is that Mammut have taken me on as one of their “Sponsored Athletes” and will be supporting me with my future expeditions. Mammut specialise in producing high-end Alpine climbing equipment so have been able to kit me out with everything I could ever need, so for the first time ever I’m actually looking well equipped!
Climbing wise, I’ve used this month of relatively good weather to make the most of my local crag, Nesscliffe. I’ve established a new boulder problem at the Little Northumberland area named “The One Pinch Punch” which goes at about V7 or thereabouts. It’s now had a few repeats from Angus Kille and Nick Dixon, and although not especially hard the consensus is that it’s a nice new addition to the area.
Feeding off Angus Kille’s enthusiasm and superb beta (route description) I headpointed “Marlene Direct” E7 6c on a boiling hot day a few weeks back. This is an absolutely stupendous route which climbs the Marlene Arête in its entirety, climaxing at the very top with some perplexing moves to pull through a near blank section of rock. I used “Red Square” E1 5b, as a cool-down lead and was reminded of just what an amazing route it is itself; certainly one of the best routes of its grade I’ve climbed anywhere in the country. Below are a few shots and a video of the ascent of Marlene Direct.
The Hamer brothers, Sam & Ed, made a three day visit over the Bank Holiday Weekend and as usual made quick work of a number of the crag’s hardest routes. Between them their most impressive ascents included “Il y a Stazi” E8 6c, “Une Jeune Fille” E8 6c, “Berlin Wall” F8a and “Subtilitas” V9. I personally dedicated my time to climbing Berlin Wall which has ended up being a bit of a mission! Although I got it all worked out very quickly on an abseil line, I keep on messing up on the last move when attempting to lead the route. Now thwarted by poor weather I’m going to have to wait until returning from Yosemite before giving it another go.
Also worth mentioning is that Ed Booth and Angus Kille climbed “Une Jeune Fille” E8 6c, during the Bank Holiday Weekend as well. Impressive ascents of a route which until that weekend had only been repeated once since its first ascent back in 2006.
The single highlight for me over this past month was a team ascent of “Notional Trust” E5 6a, along with Ed Booth and Sam Hamer. This route takes a convoluted line up the wall to the right of Red Square and definitely feels like a bit of a marathon to get to the top. Ed had climbed the route a few years back so went first making a retro-flash in fine style; Sam and I then followed to each make flash ascents. An absolutely superb line!
Right, I’ll leave it at that for now. I return home from the States at the beginning of June and I’ll be sure to post an update. Until then though, enjoy the rest of May!
The expedition season has now well and truly kicked off and the next few months are going to be packed with climbing adventures near and far!
The first trip of the season didn’t go quite to plan but ended up being fantastically fun-filled all the same. My main objective was to get out to the Alps with Niall (my oldest brother) and get on some Alpine routes in the Chamonix area; a mecca for ice, rock and mixed climbing. I’ve probably developed a bit of a complacent mentality over the last year because over a six month period in 2012 I had three trips to the Alps which couldn’t have been more successful with ascents of some of the most prized Alpine lines culminating with an ascent of the North Face of the Eiger. Looking back I realise that I was incredibly lucky to get so much mileage done in the Alps with only minor disruptions from bad weather/ conditions.
My run of good luck came to an end on this trip!
The day before Niall and I arrived 1.5 metres of powder fell over Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains leaving all the high mountain faces loaded with avalanche fodder. Unperturbed we set off down the Col du Midi on our first full day planning on dumping our gear at a hut, climbing the Cosmiques Arête and returning to the hut in the same day… this round trip would take 4-5 hours in normal conditions but without skis or snow shoes it quickly became apparent that we had grossly underestimated the impact the powder would have on our speed. We ended up taking 4 hours floundering in the snow just to get to the hut. That’s 4 hours to walk less than 800m downhill!
After our reality check hike in we decided to wait out the rest of the day in the hut and climb the Cosmiques Arête with plenty of time to spare the following day. So at sunrise the next day we set off from the hut. We had -15°C temperatures and 40mph winds battering us from the North but we couldn’t have been happier to be out in the mountains and after a few bouts of hot aches we started making good progress along the ridge. The route, although relatively untechnical, is a fantastically exciting line following a series of granite gendarmes up to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi at 3,800m. We had to contend with enormous amounts of powder along the way but being a ridge route there was no serious risk of avalanches and we reached the end of the arête by lunch time pleased to have a route in the bank.
With more snow forecast we quickly realised that climbing the big face routes that we’d hoped was not going to be safe so we decided to spend our time getting in some ski practice. I’m a snowboarder myself but am very aware that being able to ski is an important string to any mountaineers bow and a skill I need to develop. So after 2 days practice on the pistes, at which point Niall and I felt we were probably more like intermediate to advanced level skiers than beginners, we were joined by my usual Alpine climbing partner Wilki (a very experienced skier) who led us down the Vallee Blanche. The Vallee Blanche ski route follows the Mer de Glace Glacier down from the summit of the Aiguille de Midi at 3,800m to its snout at 1,900m and features steep powder skiing cutting a line through the ubiquitous crevasses. It became apparent within minutes that Niall and I are NOT intermediate to advanced skiers! Unfortunately we also had to contend with very poor visibility, less than 20m at times, which made route finding doubly difficult and was definitely responsible for the majority of my face plants! Despite getting lost and having to wait for better visibility for over an hour we made it down with pants full of powder in less than 5 hours and caught the last train back in to Chamonix. Many thanks to Wilki for his patience!
As a last attempt to climb some ice before Niall had to head home we skied up to the Envers des Aiguilles hut, arriving after dark to find the front door submerged under nearly 2m of snow! The following morning we skied into the North Face of the Dent du Requin to scope out our proposed line but were gutted to find it totally choked up with powder and avalanching as we watched it. We couldn’t stay unhappy for long though as the rising sun lit up the Mont Blanc Massif and unveiled one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever set eyes on. With our new found skiing skills we made short work of the ski back down to the Mer de Glace and were back down in Chamonix for an early lunch.
Although Niall had to head home at this point Wilki and I still had a few days to play with so had a good think about what to do with our time. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that Chamonix was a no go for hard big mountain climbs so we thought we’d return to the UK to see what we could find to keep us amused on home soil.
After a few days of R & R Wilki joined me at the McCann household and we spent our first day climbing up at Nesscliffe where Wilki on-sighted a few routes and I worked on a top rope project. We got up early on our second day and drove up to the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia where we planned on getting on some classic Welsh ice. I got ridiculously excited after meeting Callum Musket in the car park who informed me that “The Devils Appendix” VI 6, a pure ice line in the Devils Kitchen had been climbed by Tim Emmett and Neil Gresham a few days earlier. “The Devils Appendix” is one of the most coveted ice lines in Wales if not the UK as it involves wild climbing on a rarely in condition ice feature. It had to be done!!! After some warm up climbing we headed over to the Appendix just in time to watch Callum head up the first pitch. It was impressive to see how calm and confident he was despite the fact that the ice feature hadn’t formed properly so was going to involve some nerve wracking moves to pull on to the free hanging icicle. On pulling onto the icicle Callum dislodged a large section of ice which smashed him in the face and blinded his right eye with blood and immediate swelling so he down climbed to his last ice screw and lowered off. Scary stuff! With Callums climbing partner Steve Long now a part of our team I led the first pitch with some heart stopping moments getting established on the icicle, thinking light thoughts and trying to avoid doing anything that might dislodge it from the wall. Wilki led the second pitch to get positioned under the final section of umbrella like ice formations and I led the last pitch winding through the delicate ice chandeliers to the top of the route 130m above the deck. What a route!
With our appetite for ice sated, the following day we decided to climb some Llanberis slate and over the course of the day climbed four routes, a HVS, E2, E3 and an E4. Wilki picked “Comes the Dervish” for his on-sight lead, certainly one of the best E3’s in the country, and I picked “Scarlet Runner”, a scary E4 with unnecessarily spaced out bolt protection!
Looking back at this trip it has really highlighted the fact that you don’t need to leave the island to find world class climbing. We have a huge amount right here on our doorstep and I’ve definitely been guilty over the last few years of neglecting what we have on home soil for the bright lights of the Alps and other foreign destinations.
What an awesome island we live on!