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.
While I was whiling away the time this autumn from the discomfort of long hours behind a desk, something amazing was happening out there in the real world. Social media alerted me to incredible mixed climbing conditions the Alps as icy tentacles started to drooling down the faces providing relatively easy passage for all the mixed masters. Fomo was kicking in pretty badly and I managed to engineer my way out of work for a week in September and another in October. Success on the Michto-Polish route on the Jorasses in September brought confidence in off the couch fitness and ability to use a pair of tools after a year or two off. It allowed the mind to explode with all the possibilities and adventures out there given the right partner, enough time and the weather. I eagerly looked forward to the October holiday knowing one big route would calm the mind from the boredom of work during the run into the ski season. Conditions just seemed to get better and the weather was looking great. The week before heading out there was a minor blip with some days off training due to a cold. Arriving in Chamonix I took advantage of the Brevent being open to get some lift assisted mountain biking i.e. downhill. But then I started to feel tired, like wtf, am I imagining this? I thought it was probably psychosomatic but not completely willing to try my theory out on a big face, we decided to go for a quick hit on Chere Couloir. A friend had recently solo’d it and reckoned the serac was not threatening. And so Sandy and myself started romping up the neve plastered line and I was feeling ok, not great but ok. Then boom, out of nowhere my body went cold and into shutdown mode like I had flu. I put on ever stitch of clothing from my bag and continued to climb in it all the way to the top. Just as well we weren’t on the Grand Pillier D’Angle! I Guess it pays to listen to your body no matter how much you want to do something. 6 weeks later and I think I have finally got rid of what was bugging me, just in time for the snow to arrive. And the serac is mildly threatening, enough to make us feel relieved once we had past it!
Last weekend I got a chance to go back to the Jorasses for the first time in 7 years. I teamed up with Ben Tibbetts and we were joined by Misha Gopaul and Jeff Banks for a social day out. I had managed a day acclimatising up the Midi skiing earlier in the week so it wasn’t a straight from the office hit which Andy Houseman and myself had done the last time on Colton Macintyre. After the warmest bivi ever in the mountains at montenevers, we walked in during the early hours, therefore avoiding a bun fight at the overcrowded Leschaux hut. It was a beautiful starry night and Ben caught a fantastic shot of the face under the stars with several teams well established on the Colton Macintyre, Croz and Polish routes. As we arrived for first light the face was relatively quiet and we quickly got to work climbing neve for several hundred metres. A few goulottes of ice and neve followed with fun climbing that was never hard up to the summit ridge where we were treated with gorgeous autumnal milky light over the Peuterey Ridge and the Aosta Valley.
The Rebuffat Thierry route was first climbed in winter by Rab Carrington and Alan Rouse who followed a series of ice runnels that drooled down from the Col des Pelerins. Fpr some reason or another I had never got onto this route. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of spending a day climbing at Gogarth with living legend Rab Carrington and knew I had to amend this obvious omission to my Chamonix winter climbing resume. Aged 60 odd Rab is inspiring to watch on the rock, still climbing big E5s and 8a with impressive flexibility, a testimony to the benefits of a stretching regime. After a year off climbing myself with being busy skiing, this was going to be a challenge to my residual climbing fitness and break me back into shape. I headed up with Sandy Simpson who was keen for a mid length day route and is fit from time well spent dry tooling at the Zoo.
The route itself was in good to lean conditions with a couple of breaks in the ice at the steeper cruxy locations due to traffic. It was great fun being back Alpine climbing and moving quickly in the mountains and not spending much time searching for protection (unlike Scotalnd) – even if slowed slightly in freeride touring boots!
On the way down we descended Pre de Rocher which contained a mixture of awful crust, disgusting wind buff and treacherous frost coated boulder fields. Hopping from sugar coated boulder to boulder was the order of the day (or night by now) and after 600 m I gave in on the skiing and decided to walk.
Ahhh, the mythical Dubh Loch in winter, what other cliff in the UK hold such a aura; remote, unpredictable, committing. Granite climbing at its finest, with the usual large dose of Scottish Winter climbing canniness required to find protection amongst those rounded flared cracks. Success here is just so much sweeter. The crag has treated me very kindly over the last few years with a lifetime experience on Mousetrap, and now Vertigo Wall, a contender for Britain’s finest winter climb.
The first few pitches went without incident, although the first 2 would be significantly easier with build up. A friend had dropped a comment during the week about the upper slabs on pitch 4 leading to the flake being ‘interesting’, and as it happened that lead fell to me. I was warned not to fall off as I approached the belay and one look at a tied off kingpin in a crack didn’t make me any less anxious about what lay ahead. I didn’t bother to look at the other piece, I didn’t need to know. The slabs were covered in 1 cm of ice which removed any chance off pro before the flake and I levitated up on shallow hooks to a wee blob of ice below the headwall. It took our shortest 7 cm crew and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
At first glance I thought about foot traversing the flake, but being clumsy I knew I’d probably knock myself off with my shoulder. Then I wasn’t too sure what to do, and finally I decided to just get down and battle with it, any which way you can, hands, tools, the lot. Hats off to Andy Nisbet and Alfie Robertson climbing this in 1977 over 2 days with a bivi. With that in mind, having climbed a few winter Dubh Loch pitches now including the crux of Rattrap, I’d say that Mousetrap was noticeably harder, longer, more sustained and teetery, but so much varies with conditions on the day.
Finally it wouldn’t be right not to mention that mad hare we met on the way in. It joined us as we drove up the Loch Muick road. If we sped up it ran faster, if we slowed it stopped in front of us. Switching the headlights off and back on revealed it sitting in the middle of the road staring at us like a demented fiend. Eventually after quite some distance we forced our way past it. Guess who joined us for another run on the way out?
Dawn breaking over Glen Muick as we enter Central Gully on the Dubh Loch
Mark Musgrove seconding the first pitch which would be significantly easier with build up.
Mark above the techy corner on the second pitch
Mike Mcghie on pitch 3.
The guys on the flake traverse pitch.
Myself and Neil Morrison on Mousetrap in 2010. Photos by Simon Richardson.
I teamed up with Rab athlete Ali Swinton for a second day at the Triangle, which is the easy access local mixed crag. Conditions are still on the lean side but good with blobs of neve dotted about to make great climbing. This time of year is fantastic with the trees in a blaze of autumnal colours and the early morning mists carpeting the valleys creating those sublime silhouetted panoramic views. The day was much more relaxed due to it being about 20 degrees warmer without the biting wind we endured on our previous outing.
I was keen to climb a superb corner a couple of pitches up which I’d previously seen friends Mike and Jim climbing. Ali kicked off with beautiful cracked slab or golden granite which led towards the corner. Arriving in the corner things were getting thin from previous ascents and some sloppy torques led to better hooks. What appeared to be a bolt and hanger winking at me at the top of the corner under a roof turned out to be an ice screw hammered into a crack – someone must have been gripped!