A Photo Essay- 1st Descents Down Under

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A photo essay from an exploratory ski mountaineering trip in New Zealand’s Southern Alps Continue reading

Training to Become a British Mountain Guide

This summer has been hectic since I got back from Baffin so apologies for the lack of blog posts! The main focus of the summer has been training to become a British Mountain Guide with a 6 day assessment in North Wales coming up in mid September. Many of you who are not from the UK will be asking what has Wales got to do with mountaineering? Well North Wales has the highest density of fantastic trad rock climbs in the UK with many mountain crags being relatively roadside compared with the two hour plus approaches in Scotland. Snowdonia attracts over 6 million visiters a year and is divided into several ranges with the following including all the Welsh 3000 foot peaks; Moel Hebog, Mynydd Mawr, the Snowdon Massif, the Glyderau and the Carneddau. The elite SAS and Marine regiments of the British Army are trained here, with the extreme and erratic weather often playing a role in accidental deaths from exposure or heat exhaustion. Without question its the real deal and a place to find out how tough you really are. The rock is a geologists dreams varying from from cracked Rhyolitic tuff, the famous pocketed rhyolitic breccia at the Cromlech, a mixture of rhyolite and dolerite at Dinas Mot, dolerite at Tremadog, slate in the foothills, quartzite at Gogarth sometimes with shale or silstone, and limestone at Llandudno peninsular. This list is not exhaustive and  gabbro and other types of rock exist further afield. North Wales certainly holds a special place in my heart and I have loved my time here and look forward to sampling more of its fantastic routes.

For me its not just about passing a test, but more about actually learning the skills to be a guide and ensuring the safety of both clients and myself in the mountains. A mountain guide must be current in many disciplines and those of you who have done triathlon will understand how hard it is to maintain your level in 3 concurrent disciplines. For the summer rock test alone, Mountain Guides need to be maintaining a good level in personal rock climbing, guided rock, crag rescue techniques, short roping, navigation, teaching and coaching, survival and first aid.

Having qualified for the guides scheme from personal climbing experience without  a Mountaineering Instructor Award or Mountaineering Instructor Certificate has meant that a good part of my summer has been focused on gaining experience taking out mock clients and developing that personal touch with them that goes beyond simply getting the rope up routes. Their safety comes foremost but client comfort is right up there with good stance management, ropework, pace and attention to their needs making it overall a more enjoyable experience. A big thanks goes out to Caroline Wilson, Iggy Iggulen, Ryan  and Augustine McDermott, James Parkinson, Michelle Blaydon, Nikki Gilbey and Kelvin Joy, Isaac  Murphy, Cecilia Mariani, Kevin Hadyn, Tom Thorne (thanks for the photos) and Jonathan Burgess who helped me by joining me on the mountains as mock clients. Its given me a chance to improve my skills and sample some of the finest rock routes in North Wales if not all of UK. Along the way we have climbed some brilliant routes with the most memorable being Flying Buttress (VD) on Dinas Cromlech, Grooved Arete on Tryfan (HVD), Main Wall on Cyrn Las (HS), Dream of White Horses  at Gogarth (HVS), West Rib (HVS) on Dinas Mot (FA Kirkus in 1931!), Scratch Arete (HVS), The Grooves (E1) on Cyrn Las and many many more. Sure we have had some wet and wild days along the way but its been a laugh being on the hill with a lot of interesting characters this summer and outside is always better than inside! I also have to that my partner Michelle Blaydon for being so understanding with all the time spent away from home. Apart from January and February this year has been continuous living out of a bag and I’m looking forward to some time at home together in the autumn.

There are ten trainee guides in my year, possible the biggest intake ever,  showing that British Alpinism is flourishing and it sounds like the following year has as many candidates who are dreaming of making a career from guiding in the mountains and sharing some of those awesome experiences with future clients and friends.  We are all from different backgrounds and walks of life and are a variety of ages which makes it continually entertaining.

When the trainees have teamed up together we have done some marginally less desirable lines just to prove to ourselves we are mountaineers and can cope with sub optimal conditions (read greasy wet ming fests). Less sought after routes such as Jammed Boulder Gully, Soap Gut, the Gorse Bush Directissima to Pinnacle Rib, Bilberrry Buttress. These will leave your kit stained, dirt under your finger nails, gorse rash to the crotch or just plain soaked from the waterfalls. Some of the younger trainees have argued that these are not worth doing and they will decline to climb them during the test. We’ll see. Soem desceribe them as ‘character building adventures’ that put you on the edge of your comfort zone to ‘where the magic happens’ and ‘once in a lifetime opportunities to be experienced’.  Definitely type 3 fun in some cases!

Its fundamental that a guide can climb efficiently, fast and safely and its been fun getting immersed back into the world of UK trad climbing. While being out in the hills is not really training for hard leads, I’ve tried to squeeze in one day personal climbing each week and supplemented it with either a night at the Cromlech boulders or a session at the Beacon centre to keep my own climbing level up to scratch. It’s been a long road back to rock fitness trying to shed the weight off the legs after skiing around 400 of the last 500 days but I’m happy where I am and have enjoyed some great routes like Rat Race (E3), The Big Groove (E3), The Mau Mau  (E4), Resurrection (E4). Conditions for one of the legendary Gogarth E5s have been evasive but that can wait until after the test and some fresher northerlies for optimal friction.

Short roping is the next most important skill for a guide as with a 2:1 client to guide ration its fundamental for safeguarding 2 clients on moderate terrain when travelling around the mountains. Basically the guide shortens the length of the rope by taking in coils and keeping some rope available in his spare hand to run out over steps. This skill relies on keeping the rope snug between the guide and the client so a slip is checked before it becomes a fall. The use of spikes and features can act as natural belays and as the terrain becomes more serious it is easy to revert to long roping or pitching. The 2 day expedition section of the test will give ample time to test our short roping but also allows us to show off our skills at climbing VS in big boots, micro navigating at night and bivying skills as we journey through the mountains. The final 2 days of the test are with a mock client and allow us to demonstrate a progressive guided rock day, and a teaching a coaching day, typically in context of climbing on a multipitch crag.

After 2 months on the ground in North Wales with only one day off, I’m starting to feel close to the standard I want to be at. Its been an interesting trip with ups and downs but thats all part of the learning experience. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, my work rate has been the same as a ski season where you are out every day, and its certainly been harder than a university degree! Time will tell if that work has paid off and I have another two weeks to fine tune things before the test.

 

 

 

 

Col de la Verte

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This was an attempt early April…possible a weak one at that, my head was full of Baffin preps and Lambert had just fallen 600 m down this slope a few days before and was lucky to live. He is still in hospital months later. I hope he makes as good as recovery as is possible.  I went  thinking it would be good skiing but the wind blew away our dreams of powder.  At mid height we encounter sections of neve which doesn’t really rank as fun skiing in my opinion, risking it all when the margin is that slight is something I will leave for the lemmings.

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Enrico at the turn around point, patches of neve glistening amongst the snow.

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The Final Day of my Chamonix Winter

I really wanted to ski badly…it was the last day of my Chamonix season and it felt like months since I had tired legs from big days out. I spent most of yesterday deciding what to do, would there be enough new snow for a rematch on col de la verte? But as the rain poured down last night, focus switched to the Midi North Face, a sure bet and no worries about getting sluffed climbing up something.

So I met Dave at 0730 , got first bin tickets…all looking good. Then that ding dong of the PA system…oh no, here we go, FFS, they never announce good news like we were all happy this morning and got to work to open the lift early because its a powder day and we are here to serve. Problem technique, next info at 10 am. Too late and too sunny to hit the Argie basin and besides Dave had DH kit. So we gave up our dreams of freeriding powder all day long and did the next best thing (well not really but options were low) and went to the bakery for a pain au chocolate. After wasting another couple of hours of my life, and just before I went home to get on with packing for Baffin, the Midi did open. CMB redeemed themselves!

And I am glad I waited. Col du Plan gave me the best powder I ever skied on the North Face – I think its fair to say we were all buzzing after sending the top pitch in 10 seconds – Tof, Christopher Baud, Arthur Ghillini, Dave Searle – thanks for an all time run. After that we we went to Rond – West Couloir combo, with that riding beautifully. But then we lost 10 minutes at the lift as one of the lifties wouldn’t let Searler on a bin that was far from full. What was that about? Our final run was Salopar was pretty good too and after red lining the last half hour and nearly breaking down the locked door at the Plan, we made the last lift down. Overall CMB is forgiven. A day to remember. When Cham is good, its real good. I was sad to be leaving but glad it was on a high!

A big thanks to my friends for fun times this winter and looking forward to more this summer. Time for guides training and the couloirs of Baffin!

 

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Baffin Preparations

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After I got back from Lofoten my main aim was to reacclimatise and have some training days for the big mountains and the Baffin Island ski expedition that I have been working on for month’s now – more of that below. 2014 Baffin photo essay

Dave Searle wangled a day off work so we decided to go the east couloir on the Tre la Tete as a training day since its a long approach to the end of  the Miage Glacier. I have always wanted to camp up the glacier for this line and ski it in the early morning sun but we had to forgoe that to do this line in a day. In the end we got unlucky and fog enveloped us 700 m up the line and as its more of a ramp than a couloir, without  rock walls to handrail, we decided to ski down from there. Still, good exercise being on the go all day.

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Looking up towards Pointe Baretti from the Miage Glacier

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Dave Searle dropping out of the fog on the East Couloir of Tre la Tete

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The Mont Blanc Glacier dropping down in the background towards the Miage

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Sunsets on the Mothership

High pressure was still dominating so the next day I went up the Chardonnet for a solo of ski the classic South Couloir. This line is one of my favourites with a good combination of steepness, exposure, spurs, and couloirs all with fantastic views of the Verte, Droites, Courtes and Argentiere.  My acclimatisation was coming back and I was back down for lunch – on the same trip before Christmas in tough conditions it had taken Jesper and myself 5 hours just to get to the bottom of the couloir!

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Z or the Washburn variant on the Verte the day after Capozzi, Pica, Rolli did it.

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The North Face of the Droites

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The North Wall of the Argentiere Basin

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Skiing on the Aiguille du Chardonnet

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The North Face of the Argentiere stripped back to glacial ice

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Sun’s out, whats not to like with this view

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Smooth snow on the Chardonnet – its at a premium right now after the wind

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One of my favourite views from the exit couloir of the Chardonnet

I then had my niece Tash and her friend Toby to stay for a few days and had a great laugh showing them some of my favourite spots up the Helbronner and Midi as well as blasting a few pistes laps, watching the guys wingsuit from the Brevent and going on the luge.

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My niece Tash and her friend Toby

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Wingsuiter just jumped

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Brevent telepherique and the Midi

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Parapente

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Speed rider

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Wingsuiter

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South face Dent de Geant in Red and South Couloir Aiguille de Rochefort in Black

There was one sunny day left before the high pressure moved away, and although the cold north wind was still blowing, I decided to take a gamble and go try Remi Lecluse’s line on South Couloir of the Aiguille de Rochefort. With reasonable acclimatisation I was pretty confident I could move fast from the first cable car and get to the top around noon when the snow would be soft enough to ski. As I arrived in the car park the north wind was still blowing snow off the ridges and I didn’t have much hope for success, which relied on the sun to make the snow skiable. However, there are loads of options in that zone with the Dent de Geant, Petit Dent de Geant and Marbree as fall back plans so I decided to continue and go take a look.

The wind was still blowing at the Helbronner but as I skinned across to the Col de Rochefort area it seemed to be dropping. The traverse across the south face is long, a crab crawl on axes and crampons that seems to go on for ever.  I now know how Tom Patey felt on his traverse of Creag Megaidh!  The face was sheltered from the wind and the temperature was rising, and with that my hopes that things would soften and become skiable and I made good progress on the climb.

 

This face is vast, much wider than it is tall and being out there on your own makes you feel pretty insignificant in comparison to the scale of the mountains.

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Selfie high  on the Rochefort

Things were looking good but as I put my skis on, the breeze came back. At nearly 4000 m the air was still cold and the snow that had been softening nicely started to refreeze. I guessed the breeze would dissipate once I descended away from the Rochefort Arete but I was also worried that the breeze might pick up refreezing the whole line.  I started down as quickly as possible which wasn’t fast at all on very variable poor snow. This part of the line is in the 50 degree range so there is a fair amount of gravity pulling at you. Each turn required maximum concentration, each time the skis landed they reacted differently. Sometimes they skidded on the icy surface, sometimes the snow sheared out from the downhill ski, all the time causing me to react quickly and make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes sections of hard glazed snow and rock forced me to sidestep. Tense times on skis.

When skiing becomes this slow and technical it often loses all of the aspects that draw me to the sport; rounded turns, quality of the snow, the sensation of virgin snow under your feet, your mind entering flow state.

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The rap off a no. 7 rock through the upper choke

However, I still felt positive that the breeze would drop and the snow would be soft below the first choke where the couloir opens out onto the face. A rap through the choke thankfully took me onto soft snow allowing me to relax as fun skiing returned. This section starts of steep but quickly moderates to a similar angle to the neighbouring Dent de Geant run though it has more features scattered with bluffs and spurs to play on.

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Soft snow now – yeehaa!

After hours of being alone a human voice pulled me out of my introverted mental state. I stopped skiing and scanned the mountain for its origin. 2 skiers were exiting the classic Dent de Geant run 500 m below me and whooping for joy. It was reassuring to see fellow skiers but they soon gone and I still had some technical difficulties ahead to exit the face through the rock bands.

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The median slopes on the face open right out providing good skiing

In the lower section the couloir becomes well defined again as it cuts through the cliffs and the banks provided good corn skiing. Just before reaching the lower choke you can break out left onto the face and here I found a rock anchor Tom and Johanna had used on their descent.  A small 5 m rap over a rockstep takes you onto the lower slopes and a straight-line over a rockslab spits you out above the bergshrund.  This was a final challenge, as over the course of the fine weather, the shrund had opened up and there was now a gaping 6 m drop from the upper lip to a flat landing. Jumping it was the only option in the isothermal snow so I took off my transceiver and backpack, tied the rope to them and threw the rope down to retrieve them from below. The landing was going to be a big enough impact that I didn’t want the added weight of my pack on my back or the chance or breaking a rib with my transceiver.  Lets just say its been a while my body has taken that kind of impact!

Whilst the skiing wasn’t memorable, the mental experience was – it felt like a trip to find myself, shut out all the clutter of everyday life and really be lost in the moment.  In the end I found what I was looking for and liked what I found, so it was a worthy trip.

My next outing was to the Perche Couloir on the Griaz. My body hadnt recovered fully from the Rochefort so it was a case of treating it as a recovery day,  going easy and allowing the toxins to slowly flush out of the system. Searler joined me once again and we had a leisurely day stopping for a sandwich on the plateau.

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Hard snow made it easier to bootpack

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A short bootpack connects the two snowfields

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On the traverse to the Griaz – best with ski crampons

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Descending the ridge to the Perche

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Searler scoping out the steps in the ridge

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Searler  following down the moderate ridge

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Some steep downclimbing, looked worse than it was

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Nice red rock

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Slightly exposed and loose here!

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Skis on, one rock to sep over then time to ski

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Good snow on the line

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Another little choke

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Uninterrupted skiing to the valley floor 6000 ft below

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Surprisingly good snow considering all the wind and temperature spikes

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Dave skiing

For the last 6 months I have been organising a second expedition to Baffin Island’s mythical fiords. These fiords are huge, typically 30-70 km long and snake through the granite big walls that the Island is famed for. Couloirs between 600 – 1400 m high split these walls and there’s enough for a lifetime’s worth of exploration. Unusually, this time round we are 3 Scots and a token Englishman! The team consists of fellow Scots Evan Cameron from Christchurch, Si Christie from Courcheval and Anglese Chipie Windross from Tignes.

The trip is sandwiched between the mountain guides summer training 1 and 2 courses in the UK so if its anything like the last trip I will come back emaciated and weak – not ideal for rock climbing but you have to take these opportunities. As usual there has been a lot of work gone into this between researching objectives, grant applications, booking flights, finding a iridium sat phone, planning and ordering food, kit lists, kit modifications, ordering kit, team discussions. This all takes up time from planning and skiing routes day to day in Chamonix but right now conditions are far from optimal with all the Foehn wind and I am really craving going somewhere remote and exciting. Its a bit of a juggling act managing the trip, training for the rock part of the guides scheme and training for Baffin which includes eating a lot (that takes time too!). Time will tell how well I manage this juggling act while I try to boulder as much as possible to get some finger strength back and do some bike rides to keep my leg strength!

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Baffin preparation – drilling holes so I can tow my skis rather than carry them

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Adding a stirrup to my neoprene Kosy Boot should stop it riding up off my toes

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Baffin preparation – eating as much as possible to put on weight