Chamonix vs Snowdonia

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!

Niall on the Col du Midi in deep powder.  Finn McCann on the Col du Midi in deep powder and whiteout.

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.

Niall McCann climbing on the Cosmiques Arête.  Niall McCann on the Cosmiques Arête.

Niall McCann on a stance in deep powder on the Cosmiques Arête.  Niall and Finn McCann on the Cosmiques Arête.

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!

Finn McCann skiing at the top of the Vallee Blanche with Mont Blanc du Tacul in the background.  

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.

  Niall McCann skinning in to the base of the Dent du Requin.

Finn McCann at the base of the Dent du Requin with the Aiguille Verte, Les Droites and Les Courtes behind me.  Finn McCann skiing down to the Mer de Glace.

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!

  Finn McCann leading pitch one of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.  Finn McCann on the icicle of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.

Finn McCann on the icicle of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.  Finn McCann at the top of the first pitch of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.  Wilki on pitch two of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.

Wilki pulling onto the icicle of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.  Wilki belaying a little too high at the top of the second pitch of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.

Me climbing through the chandeliers on the third pitch of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.  The third pitch of "The Devils Appendix" VI 6.  Happy chappies at the top of one of UK's best ice lines.

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!

 Finn McCann on "The Scarlet Runner" E4. Wilki on "Comes the Dervish" E3.

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!



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