The British Mountain Guides Scottish Winter Test

This year I spent January, February and March this winter in Scotland preparing for the British Mountain Guides (BMG) winter test that is based in the Cairngorm mountains there. I learnt to climb and ski there so I was no stranger to the place and love it to bits, but Scottish winter climbing is so unique that climbing in other ranges around the world does little to prepare you for the onslought of the sub-Arctic weather, or provide you with the cunning skills required to climb, and more importantly, protect  heavily rimed and snowed up mixed climbs. Its fair to say that some of the climbing I have done there have involved the most technical trad protected leads that fully engage the mind.

The first week there was spent in the Cairngorms getting my eye back into climbing snowed up rock before relocating to Ben Nevis for a week’s winter training with the BMG. It had been mild and dry winter in the lead up but the trainers did a brilliant job making the most of the conditions to show us the guiding techniques for short roping, approaching climbs, guiding mixed and ice routes, descending, navigating and general client care.

Since I’d already spent years climbing in the Cairngorms, I decided to use some of my trip to explore some of the remoter areas of Scotland that were still 4-5 hours drive from where I used to live in Aberdeen. The beautiful region of the far North West known as Torridon was on my to do list and as it happens Martin Moran and his wife Joy have been running a guiding agency there for 32 years. When they offered me a job guiding in February I jumped at the chance and fellow trainee guide Guy Steven and myself were allocated to deliver the technical mountaineer course.

On week 1 I had the pleasure of Singaporeans Jie Ling and Arnette Wong. We visited Beinn Eighe, Ben Nevis, Skye and the Kintail, all being strong contenders for Scotland’s best scenery and climbing. On Week 2 I met Peter and Chris who were two strapping strong lads and we ticked off Beinn Eighe’s East and West Buttress, Cobalt Butress and Seamstress in the Cairngorms. On my final week I had the company of Californian Linda Sun and Londoner Guy Arnold and did Fruar Tholl;s Right End Buttress, Beinn Eighe’s West Buttress integral, Cobalt Buttress, Pot of Gold in the Cairngorms and finished with a big dry tooling session. Linda had come to Scotland lured by the promise of climbing icefall routes such as Poacher’s or Salmon Leap but with Scotland experiencing a dry winter there was no ice to be had and having never done any mixed climbing she took a little persuasion to swing her brand new picks into the frozen turf. However by the end of the week she was fully sold on subtleties of mixed climbing and was seconding grade Vs with ease.Brilliant. Despite Scotland experiencing a dry and mild winter it was still producing fantastic adventures with great company.

After 6 weeks in Scotland it was time for a quick trip home for the weekend to see Michelle and get a quick fix skiing.  It was still low tide in the Alps with little change from when I left after Christmas but with spring like conditions we enjoyed a nice run down from the Aiguille du Tacul and another in Y couloir.

Then it was back to it and the final few weeks leading up to the test were spent in the Cairngorms practising guiding skills. The whole winter so far had been plagued by persistent southerly gales with temperatures bouncing up and down. Finally as the first group started their test it looked like winter had returned and should be set for us. Cruelly the temperature bounced once again and most of our test week was spent in positive temperatures.  With atypical conditions that few had seen in 20 years, the test itself became more mental than physical making conservative safe decisions on where to go and what to do.

The 6 day test kicks off with an overnight expedition where the candidate gets to demonstrate their knowledge of climbing history, geology, snow and ice craft, snow science, night navigation, client care, bivi skills, and of course rope skills for protecting clients while moving through the mountains.  Our journey started out from the Cairngorm ski centre and passed through Coire an t-Sneachda where some of our rope skills were assessed. After we travelled on to Coire Domhain where we had a brew in the snow holing zone.  We set off on night navigation as the sun started to set and made our way around the Cairngorm Plateau navigating to the various locations requested. Once the assessor was happy with the navigation we dropped down to the Hutchinson Memorial Hut situated on the Braemar watershed side of the Cairngorms in Coire Etchachan. It had been twenty years since I had visited this mountain hut, or bothy as they are known, and it was good to see it newly renovated.  After cooking some dinner for the team we settled down to a few hours sleep and got away early in the morning.

Day 2 dawned clear and mild as we made our way back onto the Cairngorm Plateau towards Carn Etchachan in glorious warm sunshine. There we were assessed on snow science and ability to manage a team descent down the steep terrain of Pinnacle Gully. We then held an ice skills class before returning over the plateau and making the short rope descent down the goat track and heading back to Glenmore Lodge for the debrief.

The mild weather was due to continue over the next 2 days which meant we needed to get the personal ice climbing day done as quickly as possible. That meant getting up at 3 am, driving an hour and a half followed by a 2 hour yomp up Ben Nevis to seek out any remaining ice before a warm band of rain past over at noon. With a few pitches of ice despatched we topped out on the Ben just as the monsoon started which ensured we were all wet to the pants by the time we got back to the cars.

Back at Glenmore lodge we all had our personal debriefs before demolishing dinner and getting an early night to catch up on lost sleep.  The personal mixed climbing day was scheduled next but the forecast wasn’t looking good and sure enough the next morning brought storm force winds and positive temperatures. After some discussions the assessment team called the day off and left us to prepare for the 2 final client days.  This meant that we would each have to come back the following week to sit the personal mixed climbing day.

Meanwhile we needed to plan and prepare what to do on the first client day and the weather was not cooperating. Summit temperatures had been above freezing for the previous 24 hours which would mean soggy turf, loose rock and out of condition climbs. My mind wondered through all the possible ridges available in the area to do as a mountaineering objective and I spent a lot of time asking all the instructors and guides at Glenmore Lodge about what had been done recently. Conditions on the nearby Moray coast at the sandstone crags of Cummingston would have been perfect for rock climbing. Ally and myself had already enjoyed 2 lush days sports climbing at Brin Rock in the middle of January but going rock climbing wasn’t going to pass us a mountain guide’s winter test.

I went to bed with some good ideas of what to do and decided to wait to the morning , meet my client and ascertain their fitness and ability and make a plan A, B, D and D to cover all eventualities. I really wanted to avoid focusing on an instructional day as it isn’t my background and delivering in a structured manor off the cuff doesn’t come naturally to me. After all it was a guiding exam and if at all possible I wanted to cover lots of ground while throwing in some teaching and coaching along the way where appropriate.

Next morning I met Paul Jackson who would be my client for the next 2 days. Paul is an ex-marine / Falklands war vet who now works in the Oil and Gas Industry as an asset manager. He falls into the category of an alpha male high achiever where time is a major commodity. The Fiacall ribs would provide safe climbing sheltered from the worst of the westerly gales and by the end of the day we climbed 3 mini routes covering a fair bit of ground and throwing in some snow science instruction along the way. This was by far the worst day of the exam for the candidates as it was difficult to pin down an inspiring option and doubt played heavily on the mind. Having seen my client move well on rock, I went to bed a lot happier knowing he was up for smashing a couple of grade IV/Vs the following day with the return of winter conditions.

Thankfully the final day of our week dawned clear and cold with light winds and it was back to normal winter conditions. All the doubts we had experienced about what to do on the previous day were gone and it was time to go mixed climbing. An early start from the Lodge allowed us to make the most of the day and comply with the non-negotiable return time of 4 pm. We headed for Mess of Potage to maximise the climbing to walking ratio and started up initial pitches of the Message before taking on the burly top pitch of the Melting Pot V,6. Having smashed this Paul just wanted more and we did the brilliant direct start to Hidden Chimney to finish the day.

Once we got back to the lodge there was time for a quick shower before our individual debriefs for the day. We all had to come back the following week to take the personal mixed climbing day and that loomed like a shadow over us. Despite this we all wanted to get debriefed on how the week had gone so far and adjourned to the bar for the long wait knowing the first results were unlikely to be given before 11 pm.  By 9 pm we’d already had half a dozen pints and were all feeling somewhat jaded after a busy week with less than optimal amount of sleep. As we started to relax from the busy week, falling asleep at the bar was a real possibility and I went to get some coffee for the lads. By 11 pm its fair to say we were all wasted in every sense of the word and desperate for some sleep. Finally the examiners were ready and called the first candidate. We were all on tenterhooks and hoped we hadn’t made any major errors during the week and embarrassed ourselves. I continued to wait n tenterhooks as the second, third and fourth candidates were called and passed provided they passed the mixed day the following week. The pressure was mounting and with the initial candidates getting provisional passes it felt inevitable that someone would be deferred. My mind wondered if the mistakes I had made during the week would be viewed as minor or result in a deferral. During a week long assessment its unlikely that your performance will free from errors and the effect of exam stress comes into play an impacts negatively on performance.

At last I was called and prepared for the worst just kept  quiet and listened to my feedback. As expected its started off with the things I had done well and I was braced for the shit sandwich only to hear, come back next week, do the mixed climbing day and you will pass! Relief and happiness washed over me with a new wave of fatigue. I was over the biggest hurdle on the way to becoming a British Mountain Guide and the mental burden of the Scottish winter test was being me. Afterwards I stayed up into the wee small hours chatting about the week and our experiences with my friends Jack Geldard and Ally Swinton before crashing out for a few hours well earned sleep.

I now had a few days off before the mixed climbing exam and went to see my Mother in Aberdeen. It was great to relax a little and eat well after a busy week and I needed a couple days to rest a pulled hamstring but all the time there was the final day in the back of my mind.  4 of the guys elected to do their final day on the Monday while Swinton an myself chose the following Wednesday. I drove back to Aviemore on Tuesday and met up with David Thexton to climb the good Burning and Looting mixed route on the Fiacall. On the Wednesday Ally and myself went into our final day knowing the other 4 had passed so the pressure was on not to fluff it at the final hurdle. The weather was kind and conditions good so we headed back to the Mess of Potage for a couple more laps. I kicked off climbing a big pitch combining Pot of Gold and the Message. All I had to do was climb steadily and not mess up the ropes and I would pass – I’ve probably never climbed so slowly, but steady and sure was the theme of the day. With my part done it was over to Ally who despatched the Melting Pot. As we walked out of the Northern Corries for the final time that winter we got given the news that we had both passed.

Ally and myself said our fair wells in Aviemore before hitting the road south. I ‘d hoped to get to Michelle’s work flat in middle England but the adrenaline of the day soon faded and was replaced by deep fatigue from the stress of the test and a long winter on the hill. Luckily for me my sister lives in the Scottish borders and I stopped off at theirs to celebrate passing with bubbles, beers and a dram or 2!

 

My 5 Favourite Places to Ski in the World part 3 – My Home, Chamonix Mont Blanc

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First please accept my apologies for the delay in getting this post up. The Alps has seen some of the best early season conditions that Ive had the pleasure of experiencing in 20 years and its been really fun to ski with visiting American’s Johnny Collinson and Griffin post and share some of our favourite spots with them.

An article on ski mountaineering wouldn’t be complete without a mention of my hometown Chamonix. Hailed as the birthplace of alpinism, it is the superbowl of steep skiing, where boundaries are continually pushed due to the healthy competition amongst the hoardes of very strong skiers who make the pilgrimage there to either learn and grow or cut their teeth on the established test pieces. Easy (lift) access allows the big faces to be studied close up until its judged enough snow has stuck for them to be skiable. These are serious committing undertakings, fall you die terrain, and the grave yards will testify about all those who made a slight mistake in their quest. These are the real steeps rad, gnarly, complex, and to be given utmost repect.

In an area with thousands of lines it could be hard to chose one which stands out above all others. The 800 m 50 degree Gervautti Couloir on Tacul is a beauty, the 1100 m 55 degree Couturier Couloir on La Verte is definitely up there. But for me I will go with Trevor Peterson’s and Eric Pehota’s simple philosophy of the big line on the big mountain and that means the himalayan sized West Face of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak.

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The West Face drops over 2000 m from a start point 4810 m (15780 ft). It’s a line that comes into condition late May or early June once the snow starts sticking to the ice cap high on Mont Blanc and as you ski over the upper convexity you will feel all of that exposure! The upper pitch alone is 1200 m and can be skied clean, no ropes, no tricks, just great skiing. If you then take the Quintino Sella hut couloir, the change in aspect will mean its just softening up perfectly and the 600 m exit couloir will take just a few minutes. A quick traverse of the Dome Glacier and you take the line of the summer path down onto the Miage Glacier where you glide down past all the mega couloirs under Petit Mont Blanc. The final walk down Val Veni is charming where the smells of the grass and spring flowers are a strong contrast to the snow and ice in the high mountain and about 15 hours after starting your day, you arrive at the road head tired and very happy to have skied one of the best ski lines in the World.

Sylvain Saudan did the first descent of this line and by stroke of coincidence I was lucky enough to bump into him the day afterwards while I was out mountain biking and we shared a few memories of this incredible line.

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Home Sweet Home

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After nearly six months away from home this year its great to finally be home, wake up in the same bed, catch up with friends and enjoy the Fall in the Alps in the autumn. I love this time of year with the valley being quiet, temperatures better for riding, near perfect friction on the rock, early snows of the winter, first turns…the hardest thing can be deciding what to do! Its especially sweet that he hard work in Wales this summer paid off and past the British Mountains Guides’ summer rock test and will be going to Scotland for the winter test next. At the start of summer I had a bad bike crash when I dropped the front end off a jump a piled my neck into the ground.  There was a lot of heavy crunching in my back and while I spat out bits of broken teeth, my back muscles went into hard spasm stopping me from getting much air in my lungs. It was a pretty scary experience and with my back feeling weird I made a beeline for the emergency room. The doctor was pretty nonchalant about it, monitored my blood pressure for a few hours and released me armed with a paracetamol and the advice that I might be a little sore in the morning. Having played rugby and raced bike downhill for years I’m not unused to taking hard knocks but this was a new level.  A week of not being able to sleep and 3 weeks of complete inactivity had me thinking it was unlikely I’d get into shape for the guides exam. 3 months later and I was starting to move a bit better and not feel like I’d been hit in the back with a sledge hammer, but for a while there were some major doubts about getting over this injury in time! A big thanks goes to Martin Chester who spent a day giving me some great tips during my final preparation for the test. He’s a IFMGA mountain guide and a fantastic performance coach and all round nice guy so check him out at: martinchester.co.uk  Also a big thanks to John Whittaker for being the perfect mock client – hope to see you for some Scottish Winter action!

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Coaching how to fist jam. Photo Martin Chester

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Me leading Shadow Wall. Photo Martin Chester

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John Whittaker seconding. Photo Martin Chester

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Me on Western Rib, Dinas Mot. Photo Martin Chester

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Placing gear on The Chain, a quality crack pitch, Dinas Mot. Photo Martin Chester

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On The Chain. Photo Martin Chester

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John Whittaker belaying me on The Chain. Photo Martin Chester

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John getting the finger locks on The Chain. Photo Martin Chester

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John on the jugs. Photo Martin Chester

 

The following biking photos are from Merlet, my home run.

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And Gietroz with Enrico Mosetti and Beatrice Michelotti (photo credits)

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Then to the Gabarrou route on the triangle with Phil Brugger who is over from Innsbruck to train in the high mountain. Its ultra dry and the crux would be way easier in rock shoes but feels like M6+ right now. Short and sharp.

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And skiing on the normal route of Mont Blanc du Tacul.

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Finally a couple of scenic shots and Michelle at Elevation!

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A Photo Essay- 1st Descents Down Under

With it starting to feel autumnal here in North Wales and seeing all the ski porn flooding in from the southern hemisphere, I’ve started to dream about skiing again and am looking forward to some sensual turns in the powder. Here is a short photo essay about trip Tom Grant and myself did last October to New Zealand’s Southern Alps.  We skied 18 days out of a 25 day trip, losing 2 days to lost bags and 1 to a blown camper van engine. The highlights were skiing on the east face of Mt Cook and first descents on Elie de Beaumont’s west face and Darwin’s south face.

A big thanks to Evan and Mandy Cameron, Mel Cash & Stefan Austin, Shane Orchard, Cam Mulvey and Beau Fredlund for your hospitality, beta and good times.

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Petzl Laser Speed Light Ice Screw Review

In the mountaineering and ski touring World weight means everything. Its simple physics that the amount of energy to elevate an object is equal to mass x gravity x height raised, hence why we are all obsessed with shaving a 100 grams off one bit of kit or another. For example, in theory to raise 1 kg 1000 m in elevation take 1 x 9.81 x 1000 = 9801 J or 9.81 kJ and that does not account for significant the additional frictional losses from walking or skinning or wind. So it can be seen that carrying one kilogram less will easily result in the energy from an extra bar or two being saved, plus the added benefit of moving faster and more easily and saving the accumulated strain on your neck, shoulders and spine.

In the last 2-3 years we have seen big advances in ski touring boots and skis. Right now a pair of boots weighing 2.4 kgs skis 90% as well as a 4 kg pair of boots did 3 years ago and the same is true with freeride touring skis loosing 1 kg/pair over the last few years – thats a 25% weight reduction.

Our attention to our kit should not stop there, every item of your gear clothing, hardnesses and equipment should be scrutinised for pack size, weight, is it overkill, can I make do with something lighter? This goes for clothing, harnesses, backpacks, crampons, axes, ropes, etc. As an engineer the downside of reducing the weight of an item is the fatigue life is reduced, and for the majority of us fatigue from every day use is the governing factor in the design life of an object. For those of you who are heavy on kit then the overall strength of an item will be the governing factor and maybe going light is not right for you.

Petzl have done an amazing job with their  Laser Speed Light ice screws reducing the weight from 192 g for a steel 17 cm screw to 101 g for the ‘light’ version, thats a weight saving of 91 g per screw. Thats 1.1 kg saving for 12 screws in a cascade rack! So how is this possible?  Ice screws have been around in the steel form for decades with the main innovation being the introduction of winder handles for quick placement and removal. About 20 years ago there was a short period where titanium made and entry on the scene with larger diameter tubes but these were difficult to sharpen and poor quality control of materials from Russia often meant these were unreliable. Petzl have taken a step back and have engineered a screw with an aluminium hanger and tube with hard steel teeth bonded to the tube to cut through glacial ice. Petzl technical spec states there is unlimited lifetime on laser speed light so there are extremely  confident in the new design.

So far I have used mine for climbing alpine faces where neve and ice are present or for ski touring where I’m most likely to use them for an anchor on glacial ice or for creating an abalakov v-thread anchor to abseil from. For ski touring its brilliant as 99% of the ice screw is just a precaution for glacial travel and rarely used in anger and I have not noticed any difference in performance between the ‘light’ and the steel versions.

Price wise they are only a few euro more than the steel version so make sure you check them out.

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17 cm with bue winder handle and 21 cm with the green handle. 13 cm are also available

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The steel teeth on the laser speed light

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17 cm laser speed light on the scales at 101 g

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17 cm steel laser speed on the scales at 192 g. Thats 91 g heavier than the light.

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Equalised double abolokov in the shaded cooler ice backed up by the ice screw.

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Skiing in wild places with exposure after coming through an icy mixed section

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September 2015. Me racking up under the Grandes Jorasses photo : Ben Tibbetts

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Heading up the initial ice field on Michto – Polish, Grandes Jorasses. Photo Ben Tibbetts

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Its starting to get steeper now. Photo Ben Tibbetts

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Shacking out on a small bulge. Photo Ben Tibbetts

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Ben Tibbetts enjoying the sunshine on the summit ridge

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A perfect cloudless winter day for Michelle to practice her mountaineering skills and for me to practice some short roping on her! No matter how many times you do this route its still loads of fun in a beautiful setting. Thanks Michelle!

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Fil a Plomb

While we anxiously waited for snow to arrive I took the opportunity to snatch a day alpine climbing with my good friend Andy Houseman. Its great to cross train to avoid imbalances and injury and besides I still love Alpine climbing despite not having too much time away from skiing to do it. My friend Nico Magnin had been to Fil a Plomb so we took advantage of his trail breaking to have a fun day climbing this Chamonix classic. I was also testing those Lenz heat socks in my lighter Scarpa Phantom boots. Usually I suffer from really cold feet but the socks worked brilliantly and enabled me to leave my heavier Scarpa 6000s at home. Check them out at https://www.lenzproducts.com/. I chose the 1800 rcb battery for long days alpine climbing.