Droites North Face Solo.

I must say I’m feeling pretty drained.  I’ve gained (either climbing or walking) close to 5000 vertical meters in 3 days.  Tuesday was one of my all time biggest days in the mountains in terms of the mental and physical stress.  I’ve had it in my mind to solo a route on the Droites North Face for a while now but never found myself in the right situation to actually do it, either because of fitness/psyche or due to conditions. I absolutely love the mountains of Chamonix, especially the Argentiere basin in the Autumn.  I have fond memories of climbing my first grande course, the Ginat and the Colton/Brooks the following year with one of my partners in crime, Ally Swinton.   When the good weather comes in there is nowhere on earth I would rather be, which is saying something!  These past few days have left me smiling ear to ear and have given me that feeling of satisfaction that I only get from climbing a big face.

The Argentiere Basin. October 2014

Choosing which route to climb on the Droites was a bit interesting.  I  didn’t particularly want to repeat the Ginat, although it is the obvious choice being the most straightforward.   My memories of the descent off the back of the Breche des Droites are pretty bad and it wasn’t somewhere that I wanted to be by myself.  I also really wanted to climb the East summit. After scoping the conditions from the Col des Montets through my binoculars I knew that the top of the face had lots of good ice, so I knew I had a few options of ways to go on the headwall.

I headed up the home run of the Grands Montets ski area on monday about 3pm still feeling the Chere Couloir in my legs from the day before. I arrived at the Argentiere hut at about 7pm to find three other teams, one of which was already asleep!  I asked what time they would all be getting up. One team was planning on getting up at 12 (!), one at 3 and one at 4.30.  This proved quite disrupting to my already nervous sleep which meant I didn’t get much until they had all left. I had set my alarm for 5 but actually didn’t get up until 7 and left the hut just after 8.  Making my way across the glacier I could see a team on the central Ice field of the Ginat and another team starting up the crux pitches of the Colton/Brooks.  I was 50/50 whether or not I was actually going to climb the thing as I felt quite tired and a bit sluggish. I wanted to do it relatively fast and wasn’t sure how quick a pace I could keep especially with a rope, mini rack, stove etc on my back.

When I got to the bergshrund I had a bit of water and food and automatically got on with getting my spring leashes attached and before I knew it was over and starting up the hero Ice towards the Messner ramp. Meters and meters of Ice began accumulating below my heals as I made my way up to the crux wall. By this point I had caught up with the team on the Ginat and It had confirmed that I should go to a different route as I didn’t feel it was safe or wise to be underneath/near/above other climbers. I took a rest on an ice screw and prepared for the crux steepening, about 60m of 85-90º ice.  It took a lot of positive affirmations to fend off the rising pump in my arms and it felt pretty out there with more than 600m of cool autumnal air beneath me.

From the top of this steepening I slowed it right down and rested when I needed as the balls of my feet were killing me and I could really feel the past few days in my legs.  Weaving through the final steep section and on to the upper snow field I soon had the summit in my sights. I always love the moment when the sun hits your face after a long slog up a north face, and it didn’t disappoint.   Sat on the summit I contemplated what I had just done and what I still had to do.  Mostly I just took in the breathtaking scenery…

The descent went relativity smoothly with 10 or so 30m abseils, some down climbing and some shin-deep-slushy-wadding down onto the lower Talefre glacier. I spoke to Ross Hewitt on the phone and he suggested I stay in the Couvercle hut for the night, but I was felling ok so I began the long march back to down to town.  I made it back to my bed at 11pm, some 9 hours after leaving the summit. My feet and legs where destroyed and I was too tired to make food so I just passed out for 12 hours and when I woke began consuming calories like a mad man and waddling about like I’d aged 60 years.

The route took me 4 hours and 20mins from bergshrund to summit and was 1070m according to my Suunto. It was an amazing experience and just the kind of adventure I was looking for. If I don’t manage to do another route this autumn I’ll be happy!

Here’s some photo’s from the day. (Click to see them in gallery format)

Chèré Couloir, Aiguille du Midi. Speed Solo.

As I sit here stuffing my face with last nights Lasagna, I feel pleasantly happy with this mornings activities.

When you mention the Chèré Couloir to an Alpinist here they’ll instantly think of the popular classic on the Tacul Triangle. Robert, however, was a busy man during the 70’s and put up more than one route don’t you know ;-). The Chèré Couloir on the Midi north face is threatened by Serac fall for the first 800m (its only 930m) so it doesn’t often get climbed.  It stares me in the face from my balcony here in Cham, taunting me with its perfect looking ice.  I’ve been wanting to do it for a while and I wanted to do it as fast as I could. Today was the perfect day. The ice looked amazing, I was feeling fit and well rested and after scoping out the Serac from a few different angles over the past week I decided it would probably,hopefully be OK. Continue reading

Kyrgyzstan, September 2014

First off I want to thank my partner Emily (roo) Ward for all her hard work on getting this trip off the ground.  I saw what it did to her during the months and weeks leading up to the trip.  Now it’s over and it went (relatively) smoothly its been a great time to reflect on what could have been done differently. Bringing together 9 people, most of whom hadn’t been to mountains outside of the Alps before, is not an easy task and without Emily’s motivation and experience I doubt this trip would have taken off. So thank you!

I can’t say that Kyrgyzstan was on the top of my list of places to go climbing, but having been there now it’s definitely somewhere I want to go back to soon. I doubt there are many places where you can take a two day drive from the centre of a big city and be miles away from anyone on a high mountain plateau.  The mountains are stunning and the scenery beautiful. Kyrgyzstan itself is a mad country (in a good way of course) which we realised  pretty much as soon as we landed in Bishkek. After spending a few days in the bustling markets buying all the food and supplies we would need for the month we were ready to head into the mountains.  The best way to describe the capital is ‘ex-soviet’.  If you weren’t careful you could easily break your leg falling into a pothole or drainage ditch and it seemed that every taxi driver was trying to set a speed record.  Having said this I never felt threatened whilst I was there.

(click on the photos to see them in a larger gallery format)

We all (bar Sam Simpson) headed up to the Ala-Archer gorge to stay in the well placed Ak Sai mountain hut at ~3200m to give everyone on the trip a good starting base of acclimatisation.  We did some scrambling, eating and light treks to fill the day when things for me took a turn for the worse.  My guts turned pretty bad and the 200m stroll to the long drop felt like an expedition in itself.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience and unfortunately it started whipping through the group like wildfire (sorry guys!).  Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and broad spectrum antibiotics, one 500mg tablet of Ciprofloxacin was all that was needed to unleash all hell in your guts on the rampaging bacteria and put a fairly abrupt end to the endless toilet searching.  Starting to feel better I could feel the others pain. Herein I learnt a good (double barreled) lesson of expedition climbing…. BRING PLENTY OF ANTIBIOTICS AND HAND SANITIZER!

We departed for the Tien Shan shortly after our night in Ala-Archer. We were picked up by our transport, which could well be described as a tank, from outside our hostel and began the two day bounce about to the base of the glacier. Traveling through the country we saw the population thinning and eventually turn into just a few sheep herders on the plateau. We were all mega impressed and stoked at how close our driver Sergey got us to the bottom of the glacier as it saved us many miles of predicted load carrying.  After waving goodbye to him and being left there all alone, it pretty soon sunk in just how remote we were.  We waited at this altitude (~4050m) for a few days to really embed the acclimatisation before we started carrying loads onto the glacier.  There was an awesome collection of boulders to explore just a few hundred meters from camp which passed the time.  When we headed up we found a suitable spot in the middle of the glacier at about 4300m and started building camp. We were very fortunate to have a Mountain Hardwear Stonghold tent lent to us for the trip which proved absolutely invaluable for the sanity and comfort of everyone.  I had my reservations as it weighed a good 30kg and would mean more load carrying but I pretty soon ate my words once I got inside.

After getting established on the glacier we turned our sights to getting more acclimatised and picking out some objectives. We first aimed for the much frequented Obzhorny, a 5100m peak on the right bank of the glacier which would provide a good view into the Navlikin Glacier which was home to our intended final objectives. Getting up that morning I let the other lads get a head start on me and headed out across the mellow (almost dry) glacier to the base of one of the snow slopes that headed up to the ridge. About half way across the 2km trek I realised that I hadn’t packed any sunglasses which would be essential when day broke.  I dumped my bag and cursed myself as I made the trip back to collect them.  I arrived at the bottom of the slope with frustration boiling in me. I managed to turn it into positive energy and attacked the climb only to catch up with the other three lads on the ridge (Joel, James and Sam).  We bimbled along the ridge in strong winds and made it to the final col before the last snow slope to the top.  It seemed like a good time to put a rope on as some crevasses were visible and me and James took it in turns to break trail up the boot deep snow to the summit. It was pretty tough and slow going but it didn’t take too long to reach the summit.  The descent was fairly straightforward down a different slope and back down to camp.

What followed was to be a blur of snowstorms, a recce up to the col at the end of the glacier and a quick scramble up a rocky peak. Time seemed to slip away with days being lost to bad weather and then the subsequent deep unstable snow.  In the last week me and the three lads (Joel, Sam and James) packed up and headed up to the col to try and climb on the Navlikin glacier.  We had decided that our main objective for the trip (a peak marked 5611m) wasn’t going to happen as the glacier around it looked badly crevassed and we were running low on time and supplies, namely gas. ….LESSON 2 OF THE TRIP BRING MORE GAS.  Me and Sam had scoped an attractive looking mixed buttress on the ridge to the right of Pik Letivet which looked like it would provide a few hundred meters of quality climbing to a snowy ridge. When we got to the col the cold temperatures and snow were taking its toll on our feet. I had (foolishly) decided to bring my lighter summer boots instead of my double boots. I knew no one else would be bringing double boots so went with the general consensus.  I wished on numerous occasions i’d listened to my gut on that one but what can you do. LESSON 3: BRING WARMER BOOTS.

After sitting out a storm for 2 nights and a day in the Rab Bivi tents we had been lent for the trip (James and Joel had headed down to base camp after the first night as they didn’t have enough food for longer) we sacked off the idea of the mixed buttress as it had snowed a fair bit and it was brutally cold in the shade. We set our sights on a ridge which led up to Pik Pyramida and set off into the unknown.  It was very satisfying to be somewhere that no one had been before (this section is unclimbed as far as I can tell from research).  Unfortunately Sam was feeling the strain and was struggling to breath well and was becoming delirious.  We made the decision to bail after the first pinnacle.  This ended our climbing for the remainder of the trip due to running out of time and psyche… we really couldn’t face the 7 hour wade back up the glacier.  We had had a good few games of the trail game between us though… Not played before? It’s simple. Pick a spot 30m away and walk to it. When you reach that spot pick another one…. you lose when you collapse and then it’s your partners turn.

I enjoyed the winding down of the trip, even the monster 40kg load carry on the last day.  It always feels great to be heading back to civilisation after a long time of living in a tent.  Like I said I’d go back to Kyrgyzstan in a heartbeat.  The mountains are big but not too big, there are some awesome big lines out there and it’s a pretty cheap place to go compared with Nepal. I have some ideas of routes to do and I now know a little bit about how it works out there which makes it easier to organise my own trip.  It’s all a learning experience as they say and success or failure is only a personal feeling. Personally I feel any trip that I come back from safe and in once piece having learnt something from is a success. Routes and summits are optional/additional extras.

Time to think and plan the next trip(s)!

Thanks to the BMC, MCofs, MEF for the additional funding for the trip

Thank you to Salewa and Wild Country for my personal Kit and Rab and Mountain Hardwear for the tents.

Thanks to Emily, Libby, James, Sam, Joel, Emma, Cora and Simon for a great trip. I look forward to seeing everyone photos and version of events soon!

Jottnar, Aiguille du Midi.

Aiguille du Midi, Cosmiques Arete North West Face, AKA off the bridge. Scottish VIII 8 or M7+. 4 pitches, all of which are very good. With Ally Hurst.

Good route, Good conditions on the top pitch.  Had to take a rest on the crux wall.  One to come back and get free! Great route from Dave Almond and Mark Thomas (UKC News report here)


Vent du Dragon And Meeting Up With An Old Friend

When mountain guide and general good guy Stu McAleese called me up looking for a partner I was more than happy to go out for a climb.  I first meet Stu when I was 18 years old.  I was set fast on a career as an outdoor instructor and I managed to convinced my parents to pay for my first big outdoor qualification, the Mountain Leader Award.  Soon I was packed off to Plas Y Brenin where Stu was working as an instructor whilst he was working towards finishing his guides exams. We had an action packed week in the hills of North Wales where I learnt a lot about navigation, group management and general safety in the hills.  At the end of the week and during the evaluation Stu and Phil Dowthwaite (the other instructor/guide working at the time) obviously saw something different in me to the other brasher boot wearing candidates and all but put me off my chosen career with just a few words! They suggested a different, ultimately more appropriate for me, path to a life in the mountains.

“It seems like you just want to go climbing more Dave.”

“Well yeah.”

“Just do that for a few years, come back to it when you’re ready”

I thought I was ready but in hindsight is a teenager ever going to be ready to take a group of people into the mountains as the leader? Perhaps they were right. Perhaps I should just go climbing. It’s funny how words from someone you look up too can change your outlook on life.

It seems strange but also really cool to be shoulder to shoulder on a belay with the same guy from all those years ago racking up for our first route together. And what a cool route too! Easily and quickly accessed from the Midi bridge, Vent Du Dragon, although only 4 pitches, provides a fun fast day’s worth of mixed climbing in a pretty awesome setting.  Thanks to Stu McAleese for a fun day and some wise words back in the day to set me off on a path that I’ve followed for the last few years.

Topo For Vent du Dragon here…

Matterhorn North Face, Schmidt Route.

Arriving back from Kyrgyzstan on Thursday evening I was feeling weary from the traveling and slightly frustrated from the lack of climbing in the last month. Lots of snow made it difficult to access most of the objectives from our base camp and I cursed my choice of boots on numerous occasions finding the temperatures more akin to winter than summer alpine (full expedition report coming soon). I needed to do something and I wanted to do something big. My long time friend a climbing partner Gav Pike asked if I wanted to drive through to Zermatt on Friday to attempt the Schmidt route over the weekend.

Continue reading

Rebuffat Gully, Tour Ronde.

Grande Pilier d'Angle

Grande Pilier d’Angle with the breva spur infront. The view from the Forche bivouac!

Finally some stable weather and a route in the mountains! What a fun little route too. I can’t believe this little gem has evaded my sights before now.  This inconspicuous gully on the north face of the Tour Ronde (but not the actually Tour Ronde North Face if you get me) is only properly visible from the approach to the Fourche hut and would normally be considered a winter/spring route.  Being as this summer hasn’t been very summery up until now, there has been a lot of good ice forming on the north faces up high. Continue reading

It can only get better…

Despite living in Chamonix and having a lot of spare time over the past few months I’ve got very little to show for it in terms of big days in the mountains, which makes me sad and frustrated.  The weather this Summer has been abysmal with lots of wind, rain and snow up high. On the bright side this poor weather has been building some awesome conditions on the high north faces which bodes very well for this Autumns mixed climbing season.

Verte North face

The north faces of the Verte and Droites already looking good for this Autumn.

Shameless Selfie soloing the Chere Couloir one afternoon.

Shameless Selfie soloing the Chere Couloir one afternoon on one of my only foray’s into the mountains this summer.

This summer has been a good opportunity for me to get into the swing of a good training regime.  With the help of Steve House’s new book Training For The New Alpinism (full review on here coming soon!) I’m already starting to feel stronger and more focused on what I need to do to improve my fitness. The hardest part for me was realising that what I thought was a half descent way of training was actually making me weaker for what I wanted to do. Its great to finally have an extremely well thought out and well written manual on training for Alpine climbing.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting back on how I felt before, during and after previous climbing efforts.  It’s made me realise that I could have been a lot better prepared for some of the objectives I was planning.  Especially looking back at my 2012 expedition to climb the north face of Talung (7349m) in Nepal, I can now see just how far away I was from being ready to climb an objective like that.  I may have just been able to drag my scrawny butt up it but it would have been preferable to have been feeling on the top of my game for that one.  I was recovering from a knee injury, I wasn’t strong or even particularly fit but I still felt confident.  Had I trained harder or with more structure then I might have been feeling even more confident and had even more chances of success.  I still remember the feeling of the rucksack straps digging in to my shoulders on the acclimatization climb to 6300m and my lungs being compressed under the fairly average pack weight. Not good.

With my focus shifting away from the alps and the fantastic, although often crowded, climbing that it has to offer, I feel I want (or need?) more stimulation from the mountains which I’m just not getting from what is on offer out here. I have by no means done everything I want to do in the alps…far from it, but I crave the adventure that can only be found from going to the greater ranges and for this I need to be stronger and fitter above all.

For now I’m super psyched on training and looking forward to getting out for some bigger days when the weather allows.  I’m also going away to Kyrgyzstan for a peak bagging trip for September which I’m very excited about.  With an awesome team of fun loving friends and nothing too technically challenging this should be the perfect opportunity to wet the appetite for bigger trips to the Himalaya and hopefully get a few good peaks under my belt outside of the alps. It should also be a great warm up for this Octobers mixed climbing season! More info on this trip soon but check out the team blog here to start with to see what everyone has been up too. Some really well written posts up already by the team.