Saturday, 31 March 2012

Le Fil à Plomb (TD- / III 4+, 700m)

The warning signs that we were going to hit Alpine rush hour were evident from the moment we stepped off the téléphérique at the Plan de l'Aiguille the afternoon prior. Every climber including ourselves was planning to climb Le Fil à Plomb on the Rognon du Plan next day. I had not even heard of the route until a few day ago when I had spotted it from the téléphérique during our descent from the Aiguille du Midi. With the Grands Montets station shut due to high winds this seemed to natural plan B. The winter room in the Refuge du Plan de l'Aiguille was over-subscribed with one group having to be turned away. Still, on the plus side we were one of about four groups, which on the grand scale of things was not cause for major concern, provided we didn't begin the route at the same time.

Sunset over the Chamonix Aiguilles
Sunset over the Refuge du Plan de l'Aiguille
My 3am alarm appeared to serve as a cue for everybody to rise and soon there were a dozen or so climbers scurrying around the small confines of the winter room making final preparations. We were second out of the door and second at the bottom of the route. A short way up we waited patiently for an Italian team of three to climb an easy ramp and a short section of mixed. By now the first téléphérique had departed Chamonix and the slopes below were now awash with head torches as if a witch hunt was taking place.

The initial ramp
I led up the ramp with Mike continuing up easier slopes towards the main difficulties of the climb. Racking the full set of ice screws I set off up the steep 45m crux ice wall. Tapping into existing axes placements and winding screws in existing holes the climbing felt easy but fantastically exposed in what was a superb position.

Crux pitch of Le Fil à Plomb
By the time Mike had started the next pitch the French legion of local climbers had caught us up, and began to pass us one at a time. The hunted animal sensation had returned from the last climb and I was keen to stay near the front of peloton to avoid any bottlenecks. We moved together for the remainder of the difficulties for efficiency-sake. The route bared sharply left for half a pitch before straightening up again. I tried to push on in the lead despite sporadic gear placements causing acute adjustments in rope direction which served to neither benefit the safety of my second nor rope drag. Mike on second had descended into a cat's cradle of climbing ropes as numerous teams criss-crossed around him. Now above the difficulties I waited for Mike unaware that he was in M25 rush hour.

When Mike emerged from the pack red faced and mightily unimpressed with the whole situation. At least we were on broad easy slopes to the top of the route now. Shortening the rope between us we made haste for the Midi-Plan ridge line that would take us back to the Midi station. The chaos of the top half of the route had detracted from what was a great route, topped off by great views from the ridge. With no accommodation booked in Chamonix we descended back to the Refuge du Plan de l'Aiguille for a second night.

Enjoying the top-out with the crowds
Vie of Grande Jorasses from the Midi-Plan Ridge
View towards Aiguille du Midi from near the top of the route

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Spectacular Alpine Sunset over Mont Blanc

We hiked up to the Cosmiques hut for dinner tonight and were rewarded with these views.

Mont Blanc du Tacul
Mont Blanc massif
View towards Aiguille Rouge

Gabarrou-Albinoni (TD / III 4+, 500m)

We rose early, donned our snow shoes and descended towards the North-East face of Mont Blanc Du Tacul. We moved together over the lower half of Gabarrou-Albinoni and then swung leads on the steeper upper pitches. Conditions on the route were good. The ice was a little too thin in places for optimal screw protection but stepped-out and easy to climb. By the time we reached the penultimate pitch the route was becoming very busy as teams descending the route met other teams still on their way up. At one point there were two other teams sharing our hanging belay. I led off as one team pulled their abseil rope down, wrapping around my neck and leaving me with rope burn. With most of the teams still below us I found myself climbing like a hunted animal trying to keep ahead of the pack. I brought Mike up and then pushed on up the final pitch as quickly as I could. It's easy to see why this route is so popular though given the easy access, classic Alpine ice and easy descent. I've wanted to climb this route for many years and it didn't disappoint. A deserved beer awaited in Chamonix.

Mike ascending the easy lower slopes

First of the steep pitches on Gabarrou-Albinoni

Mike leading the second steep pitch on Gabarrou-Albinoni
Mike descending the final pitch of  Gabarrou-Albinoni
Mike descending the last of the steep ice

Views from the belay

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Contamine-Negri (AD+ / II 2, 350m)

Temperatures dropped to below -20°C during our first night's camping on the Col du Midi at 3500m. I slept with all my clothes on, which was far from comfortable. I woke in the night with a sore head, took some aspirin and tried to sleep again. Mike was as restless as me by the early hours with both of us feeling the altitude. By the morning everything had froze; water, sun cream, and even toothpaste. With high pressure was prevalent it was essential that we spent half an hour melting snow in order to thaw the sun cream before any climbing could commence. By now the sun had risen.

The Triangle du Tacul was the natural place for an acclimatisation climb due to its close proximity, relatively short routes, and easy abseil descent. Contamine-Negri, which skirted the left-hand edge of the triangle, sounded worthwhile and chartered territory unfamiliar to me. We had brought snow shoes but the snow was firm and our intended route only a short distance away.

The lower slopes of the triangle was stripped of neve. I crossed a broad snow bridge spanning the bergschrund and then trended left towards a short gully that skirted beneath an ominous serac. The climbing was moderately steep but the exposed ice was hard. Axe and crampon placements needed to be placed with consideration but the protection was safe as houses.

Climbers on the lower slopes of Contamine-Grisolle (AD)

I was out of screws by the time I had reached the seracs and so set up a belay safely to their right. I passed the rack to Mike who had the misfortune of leading the pitch beneath the serac roof. 'Climb as fast as you can' was the only useful words I had to offer. Mike´s appendix had been removed only a couple of weeks prior to the trip so I was thankful to have a climbing partner. He cautiously moved into the exposed line and placed a couple of screws for good luck. Each time externally rotating a limb in order to relieve the strain in his calves.With only a weekend's climbing in the Lakes Mike's 'hill fitness' was playing catch-up on this trip.

Mike beneath the serac
The climbing was not steep but very unnerving. Loose blocks of ice were jammed in the gully beneath the serac creating instability and lack of trust on my part. I slammed an axe into the ice only to see a loose block easily detach and tumble to the glacier floor. I climbed a quickly as I could, albeit compromised by altitude, and was relieved to join Mike at his belay knowing that the objective dangers were now below us.

Aiguille du Midi as viewed from low on the route

Mike handed me the rack and we once again moved together up the hard neve slopes interspersed with harder sections of ice that provided welcome protection. My lungs were working in overtime. Focus extended no further than the immediate placements above my head. I aimed for a vague ridge line above which I anticipated the triangle summit to be near by. Rope drag forced me to belay a short distance above the ridge. The summit was now only a short pitch away. Mike traversed through the deep snow in its direction. I waded behind.

The abseil tat that I had used to descend the right hand side of the triangle (in 2006 when last stood on top of the Tacul Triangle) was no longer present. With some searching I found another ab point hidden a short distance below the triangle's highest point. 60m lower we found another ab point that was leading us towards the right hand side of the triangle. I had been keen to aim for the top of Chere Couloir but was now unsure of its exact location. We bared right and soon enough we were following ample tat placements that extended down the right hand side of the triangle to the glacier floor. Mike's head was spinning with the altitude sickness. We trudged back to camp to make soup and tea.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Relax (IV/V), Saltdean

Trad chalk climbing is an odd style in so far as you need to clip in to your axes and hang on them in order to free up both hands to bang in a warthog with a lump hammer. Given that so few people chalk climb the ethics book hasn't been written yet. How often you stop to hang on your axes in order to place gear is entirely up to you. Therefore the style is similar to ice climbing with elements of aid. In the case of a route called Relax on the Western Cliffs at Saltdean I found myself hanging on my axes fairly regularly during the first pitch which was unrelentingly steep for the first half. My wrists burned with each successive swing of an axe as I steadily bridged up the beautiful corner. The chalk was top quality. Hard but very stable and a joy to climb. Every bit as good as the 'sport chalk' routes at the crag but of course without the bucket holds. The steepness eased as I approached the belay however the climbing was every bit as absorbing. I set my belay up on the knife-edge arête, from where the ground rapidly dropped away either side, and brought Kirill up. 

Climbing the first pitch
Climbing the first pitch
Belay stance
Kirill led the second pitch, which looked as though it would be softer than the first. In reality it proved nothing of the sort as the chalk became progressively harder and crampon purchase more tenuous. Kirill traversed out right a short distance in order to follow a line of weakness through the route's short section of questionable chalk. It wasn't as bad as anticipated and soon he was back on the rock hard stuff, delicately front pointing up a rising slab traverse to gain a tricky overlap. From here the top of the route was only a few axe placements away. As Kirill brought me up I could hear him in conversation with someone at the top of the cliff. It proved to be a policeman whose belief it was that climbing was not permitted at the crag. Although this was contrary to reality, the top of the route is is very close to coastal road and in full public gaze so attention such as this may be inevitable. This may unfortunately may be a route to avoid unless prepared to set up a lower-off beneath the top of the route as the CC guide suggests.

Kirill traversing out from the belay
Climbing through the chossy band

The steep upper slab