Things have been very quiet on the blog front for many months; that’s not due to inactivity but rather because we’re about to launch a new and improved site. But it’s time to rectify all that so here is the first in a series of blog updates on my climbing life from the last 6 months…
The New Year couldn’t have started any better really. Myself and Andy Houseman decided to ring in 2015 with a quick simul solo up the Swiss route on the Courtes which is always a great cardio and acclimatisation day- unfortunately whilst the ‘up’ was fast, the ‘down’ was pretty epic, weaving our way from snow patch to snow patch in the rain on a very dry Mer de Glace glacier. Winter has been slow to come, which is actually prefect if you’re here to climb. It gave me a good opportunity to gauge high mountain conditions as I wasn’t sure what the gale force winds of December would have done to the faces- amazingly they are still in incredible condition. In fact every route in the massif above 3000m is in very good winter nick (more or less).
A few days later and the next weather window was creeping up on us- this one looked good; not too cold, low winds, and 4 days of sun. The great thing about climbing in the dead of winter is that there really is no one else around, the downside being that the days are super short, it’s ridiculously cold, and there’s a lot of snow around making access a logistical crux in its own right. Access is key, if you can’t get to a route you’re unlikely to climb the thing; and access on the big faces is the reserve of the ski meaning you have to ‘up and over’ with them attached to your back. Enter the Approach Ski- a slender lightweight winter weapon. Mounted with Emery chromo bindings and you’re laughing, you become an unstoppably fast winter machine out here. However the flip side is that skiing in 130cm skis with climbing boots is a bit like playing badminton with a bowling ball: it’s sh*t. I say that, but actually I love skiing in this setup. Like everything in life, it seems impossible at first but then you feel like you’ve discovered some dark secret that no one else has- skiing in approach skis is just so much fun.
I’m quite a big fan of Link Up’s as well. They don’t all have to be in the same day, but its fun going from mountain to mountain as long as the weather allows you to. Not dropping back to the valley means you cover so much terrain, it does obviously mean that you’re exhausted day after day. But it’s all good training for something. So a link up it was- conditions are fat right now and it felt like the best use of these conditions and the time. Of course not everyone has a penchant for the approach ski life so finding a willing partner was the next crux; thankfully David Gottler is Chamonix’s newest ‘most psyched man in the valley’ and he jumped at the opportunity.
Our plan was simple. Start at Le Tour and climb as much as we could in the direction of the Grandes Jorasses until the weather crapped out. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy of course, it’s often just a umbrella term for “I’ve got no f*king clue, let’s just see how it goes”. On the approach to the hut David discovered his binding was two screws too light and became my new hero by just locking it down in to ski mode and shrugging it off; there would be no excuses on this trip obviously. I did think I heard him mutter something about it being typical of French engineering but who could blame him, he is German after all.
The new winter hut is ace. I never went to Scouts so the only way I know how to make fire is with a lighter and a gas canister. I may ask Ray Mears for fine tuning of the technique but for the moment the system works fine and before long we had a roaring fire- discussing routes and options is always easy around a roaring fire- you forget about the cold, the crevasses, the snow and the fear, did I mention the cold?
The following morning, with a half fixed binding, we toured over towards the Chardonnet. Some deft glacial navigation by my ‘bergführer’ avoided me having to reteach myself crevasse rescue, and we found ourselves at the base of the Escarra at sunrise. A quick simul climb took us to the sun and the summit of our first peak, the sun being well received, the summit less so as it gave us a perfect view of the rest of our intended itinerary for the day.
Deep snow hampered progress down the Forbes arete but we eventually entered the descent couloir down towards the Col D’Argentiere and put in some sick ‘freshies’ on the descent, and by ‘freshies’ i mean a deep boot track. Where was Ben Briggs I was thinking; it was the kind of couloir and snow that skiers use the term ‘bacon wrapped titties’ to explain their excitement. Unfortunately 130cm ski don’t really cut it on that kind of terrain- you end up just jump turning from one bomb hole to the next.
Down at the Col and it was up the North Ridge (?) of the Aiguille D’Argentiere. Before long we were on top of our second summit casting our gaze towards the Grands Montets lift station on the other side of the valley- our final destination for the day. Of course that’s still a long day when the ‘valley’ in question happens to be a massive glacial one, and you’re standing 1800m above it. Time to deploy the approach skis; a suitably scary descent given how open the crevasses are right now, and weight displacement is marginal to say the least. One final push up to the Grands Montets lift from the valley floor and we found ourselves in excellent company of good friends for the rest of the night. I ate my body weight in protein to try and recover for the next day whilst we got bad news that the weather was coming in earlier than expected. No Grandes Jorasses then, so we resorted to finishing our climb with the Sans Nom to the summit of the Aiguille Verte the following day.
Many years ago I had my very first accident on the Sans Nom face, and I haven’t been back to it since. Climbers above knocked down a huge chunk of ice which resulted in us getting lifted off the face and my climbing partner spending 8 days in Sallanches hospital. So it was nice to finally tick it off- plus climbing the Aiguille Verte is always special. I think that makes it my 8th time on the summit in winter, probably my most frequented summit. Heading in to the Sans Nom is always a bit daunting seeing as there are some vicious seracs 1000m above your head, so we got a move on and quickly found ourselves high up on the face at sunrise. The crux ice pitches are in fantastic condition and we quickly made our way up on to the very atmospheric Sans Nom ridge; atmospheric mainly because it was blowing a really cold Northerly. Wrapped in everything we had we heroically topped out on the summit before not so heroically running away back down the Couturier Couloir- unfortunately this year it’s mainly ice, so many raps later, a bit of down climbing, and a chance encounter with the Stecks we found ourselves at the base.
So all in all a fun couple of days out. Skiing back down to town in the dark is always really hypnotic and relaxing I find, or it might have been the 3800m of vertical ascent we’d just covered….who knows?