Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Out there... Andromeda (IV,4), Coire an Lochain

The relentless headwind during the walk-in to Coire an Lochain on Saturday was wild - as though subjected to a giant Dyson hand drier. We walked with our hoods up and heads down to shelter our eyes from the horizontal snow. A grouse flew past me, flying lateral to the direction it was facing. White-out conditions made navigation ‘challenging’, particularly with the path being buried in snow and any proceeding footprints having been scoured. I had visited the coire more than half a dozen times previously but was struggling to identify any landmarks.

Something felt wrong. The coire I knew to be slightly bowl-shaped with a ridge butting its right-hand side. Instead the ground felt as though it was subtly falling away either side of us as though we were on higher ground. The boulders that littered the coire were also absent and there was no sign of the loch. We had been walking north for too long and my altimeter suggested we were too high. I had my suspicion that we were either too far East or too far West but I was 50/50 as to which one. On a couple of occasions we stopped to consider turning back but then agreed there was no harm to push on a little further and see what presented.

Briefly the cloud lifted to the west to reveal flat ground, beyond which lay lowlands. We realised that we had overshot the coire and were now at Miadan Creag an Leth-choin to the South-West. Then a brief parting to the East revealed Cairn Lochan to confirm our whereabouts. We backtracked a short distance north to the edge to the coire - in Anna’s case via a small semi-frozen pond, which quickly cracked at its surface and engulfed one of her feet up to its ankle.

The slopes into the coire were wind-swept and icy so needed crampons. The cliffs remained hidden by cloud from the loch so closer investigation would be needed. At half height the buttresses came into view and were not surprisingly holding a lot of snow. Climbers to our left were backing off an approach towards Number 1 Buttress due to wind slab but a safe passage towards Number 2 Buttress was possible via a channel of old avalanche debris that was covered in only a thin layer of newly formed wind slab.

Andromeda looks viable. We tried to make a rock belay at the base of the route but soon gave up. Most of the rock was buried and what remain was covered in a three inch layer of ice. We chipped away at the ice but found nothing of use. At least a pair of planted axes felt solid enough so this would have to do. The first pitch looked easy so it was time to cut losses and start climbing.

Base of the route - Anna trying to smile with a bread role in her mouth
The climbing was steady with solid axes placements in firm snow. Finding gear was another matter and looked a remote possibility. 15m passed before I found a bulldog placement in frozen turf. At 25m I found a good nut placement with an offset nut placement just above. I was at the point where the route bore right from the Milky Way and so cut my losses and made a belay. Soon after Anna had joined me at the belay we heard a distant boom, which we acknowledged without words to be an avalanche somewhere in the coire.

Anna on the first pitch
The second pitch looked white but I hoped that the corner feature would offer up some protection with enough digging. 10m from the belay I uncovered a peg on my right.

10m above the peg… no gear

The corner was banked out with snow. Ice densely plastered any rock that wasn't submerged, leaving its surface featureless and me clueless as to where any cracks may lie. I paused whilst spindrift poured down - the first of many occasions.

20m above the peg… no gear

Cramped corners and indifferent snow conditions were a bad combination. I kicked in deep steps but didn't wholly trust some of my axe placements in the inconstantly consolidated snow. Enough searching around usually revealed something secure but the focus was always on spreading pressure equally between limbs in contact. I bridged my feet where possible to avoid overloading the snow locally and occasionally leant off the right-hand side of the corner to generate a ‘fifth’ point of contact.

I was clueless as to where to look for gear. My distance above the peg forced me to chip away the ice on a couple of occasions but this revealed nothing but blank rock. I felt I was only making the climbing harder by removing the vital layer of ice needed to climb the pitch.

30m above the peg… no gear!

…I would finish at the bottom of the route if I fell now.

I had by now largely given up trying to locate gear placements. The belay looked to be possibly ten metres away and so I needed to focus on the climbing. I made some delicate moves into a right-hand branch, aided by a positive left hook and then facilitated by some ice to my left higher up.


40m above the peg…

I cleared a wide crack and planted to two hexes…

…Finally the belay…

…Finally I was able to breathe relief.

A very serious pitch was below me. Easily V 4 in these conditions. Far more serious than any V that I could think of.

A combination of wind and spindrift avalanche meant my footholds were already largely filled in by the time Anna had reached the top of the pitch. Two inches of spindrift snow was balanced on my helmet, which I swept clean. The main difficulties I hoped were below us. Surely the junction with the top Central Crack Route was close at hand followed by the route exit. We heard another boom to our left from high up. Cornices were evidently collapsing but one more pitch I hoped would bring me to the top of the route.

I started up the third pitch by traversing right towards an obvious snow ramp weakness. Another avalanche sounded this time further right. I rounded a corner and was confronted by a massive drooping cornice less than fifteen metres above me, which overhung maybe three metres. It looped back on itself like a giant inverted wave. It looked ready to collapse any minute. I recognised the layout to be the top of Central Crack Route and so quickly moved left towards the route exit. Visibility was down to a matter of metres but hopefully a gap in the cornice would present. The rope went tight. I tugged at it and tried to climb on but it was hopeless. The switchback was leading to huge rope drag despite the absence of runners. I spied some bare rock beneath the cornice and so climbed up to it. If the cornice collapsed then the safest place to be would be directly underneath and behind its lip I figured. I planted my red hex in a horizontal gap, promptly tied in, and pulled the ropes through. ‘ON BELAY’ I shouted at full volume. I heard Anna’s high pitch acknowledgement in reply.

…Then the cornice above me collapsed …

It momentarily knocked me off my stance but the hex held. I looked up to see two metres of horizontal snow missing from the cornice. The huge cornice avalanche had slid towards Anna’s belay directly beneath me. I shouted her name but there was no response. I waited a few minutes to see if the rope to would slacken in response to her climbing but nothing happened. Gripped with anxiety I tied the lengths of ropes linked to Anna to the hex and then abseiled down the surplus rope. Halfway down the pitch I shouted her name and this time she responded. Relief ran through me to learn that she was unscathed. The wind had muted our shouts to one another. The delay in climbing was due to one of the belay hexes taking ten minutes to remove. A whitened Anna soon joined me at the belay. Her back and rucksack were plastered with avalanche debris but she was fine.

Snow was constantly blowing off the plateau and down the face, which made sighting an exit from the route impossible from our belay. I traversed out leftwards. Quickly the cornice receded above me but with it so did the shelter from the plateau elements. Snow blasted my face and body. I blindly kicked in steps, slowly progressing leftwards, making sure they were deep enough to fully support my weight before moving my axes across. I swept away the fresh build-up of snow directly below the summit in order to find some firmer placements and collapsed a small fragile cornice that was steadily reforming. Then acutely aware of my lack of runners I pulled myself over the top whilst enduring the wrath of the snow that was rapidly plastering my face in the process.

I kicked in a bucket seat of sorts and then sat down but quickly concluded it was too cold for sitting - even with my back to the wind. I stood up and belayed, confident that I could easily take the weight of Anna's little body in the event of a slip. Soon a white figure whose face was quickly riming up appeared over the top. My hexes were similarly covered in dense rime that made them look like giant pompoms. We briefly congratulated one another - with relief as much as anything and then turned our focus to getting off the plateau. Hurriedly we untied our ropes and shoved them into our bags.

Descending down the couloir would be a death trap so we looked to traverse to the ridge on the West side of the coire from where we could descend back into the coire basin. I carried a map and compass but the map was folded up in its original state rather than being open at the relevant section. Rearranging the map in such winds would be impossible and likely the map would shred. I opted to rely purely on bearings… something that would prove to be a huge mistake.

We could just make out the cornice edge in the white-out conditions so it made sense to follow this whilst possible to allow for easier navigation. Soon we lost sight of the edge and so followed a SW bearing. The light was totally flat with the only indication of ground being the occasional exposed icy section, which indicated safe passage towards it. Having followed a SW course for maybe ten minutes it felt the right time to start bearing West with the view to swinging North around the edge of the coire.

The slopes became mildly wind slabbed and totally featureless as we descended. Snow and sky were merged into one. I progressed slowly, deliberately kicking snow ahead of me in order to create some texture to the ground directly ahead of me. I thought I saw a dark object a short distance in front of me and so assumed the ground between was safe.

…Then I was falling…

I hit the ground and then tumbled over something else. I slid down the mountain in a disorientated state. I tried to arrest myself with one of my axes but I was riding an avalanche with the surrounding snow was travelling at the same velocity. I plunged my axe pick deeper into the snow. Gradually I came to a halt. Or had I? Avalanche debris continued to poor down around me and the relative movement between the flowing snow and myself left me confused as to whether I had actually stopped, or otherwise. Somehow I was still clinging to the compass with the same hand that had arrested with my axe. My other axe was tethered on my leash between my feet.

Anna was nowhere to be seen.

I wasn't sure whether she fallen with me. 

I wasn't sure whether I had fallen through a cornice or triggered a slab avalanche. 

Then with relief I heard her voice above shouting my name from somewhere above. I shouted back but she couldn't hear me. I started to climb back the up the slope but was unsure of which direction to climb or how far she was away. I was worried that we could become separated. Snow continued to poor down the channel of snow that I had presumably fallen down. I looked across to see Number 4 Buttress through the cloud – fortunately a long way to my east.

Then I remembered our radios and spoke a few words to Anna to confirm I was ok. I told her to shout my name continuously so that I could judge her position. I shouted back in reassurance but the wind muted my shouts. Soon she was blowing her whistle, which much more clearly defined her location. I climbed in her direction. It became apparent that I had tumbled about 60m before applying the breaks. Anna’s voice sounded distant, even when only a few metres below her, such was the strength of the wind. She couldn’t even see me through the white-out despite my close proximity below the cornice, which it was now evident that I had fallen through.

I tried to climb a section of cornice left of Anna but quickly realised it was too steep and unconsolidated to be safe from another fall. I spied directly beneath Anna an almost vertical slab – presumably where the cornice had slid with me on board. The slab was lined with hard névé. Carefully I climbed it acutely aware that one mistake would lead to a similar tumble. I was reunited with Anna who had managed to stay surprisingly calm despite thinking that I had possibly fallen down one of the main buttresses.

We skirted further west before bearing to a more northerly direction. This time we had found a safe passage. Now the ground fell away at a gentle rate and became increasingly more scoured, which allowed us to identify the contours of the ground more readily. Every metre of descent felt a step closer to safety. First sight of the loch was the real indicator that we were on route. The rest would be simple from here. All paths lead to the car park.

We arrived back at the car park for 6pm. In hindsight we were on the wrong aspect for the given avalanche conditions. That’s said, it had snowed a lot more than expected in the afternoon, which had escalated the avalanche risk. Better preparation for navigation off the plateau in white-out blizzard conditions would have helped matters. We had the right bearings but I should have been counting my paces to better indicate my position. I had maybe been a little blasé given my general familiarity with lay-out of the Northern Corries.
I hoped the day’s dramas wouldn’t kill Anna’s enthusiasm for winter climbing - given that she was just starting out. On the contrary it seemed to have the opposite affect. The day had been a little too epic but at least Anna had seen the ‘worst’ that Scottish winter has to offer. Everything else should will feel like a walk of Clapham Common.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Another route lost at Saltdean

With Scotland still looking a bit buried under snow, and my body politely requesting an easy weekend after Cogne, I popped down Saltdean on Saturday with Laurence for some axe pulling practice. I we caught the tide at just the right time to do some traversing along the Eastern end of the cliffs - always a good opportunity to pump the forearms out.

Perfect weather
A short route climbed to the right of the Thunderdome up a mildly overhung wall to gain a steep slab to the lower-off. I made a quick ascent of this to round off the morning activities. The placements were small with arrows scratched into the chalk to identify them. Some of my foot placements were no bigger than a monopoint width. It swung right at the top towards the lower-off. Having led the route I quickly scampered up a more direct line to the lower-off on top-rope and immediately followed this up with another top-rope ascent via the line of protection. Three consecutive ascents and my arms were feeling a satisfying burn.

The rain has been causing further damage to the cliffs. The routes on the 4x4 Wall had already been lost a number of months ago, including Slab Route. Now Cold Front has gone. This route was only two years old. The upper half of the route is totally absent as though it was decapitated in the night. All that remains is a single bolt in the initial slab. I couldn't even recognise the climb at first. I actually felt off this route in November, ripping the final piece of gear in the process.

Cold Front before & after. Note that the roof has totally disappeared.
We climbed some of the easier routes on the West side in the afternoon. The start of Back Up has also seen transformation. Part of the roof has fallen down and the overhung wall to its left is now missing with surrounding chalk looking suspect. The first warthog above the roof is very loose. I tried to climb the route but twice this led to some large blocks of chalk becoming detached along with me. Particularly on the second attempt when I was painfully struck on the left knee cap. This section of cliff isn’t tidal so collapse is a rarer phenomenon compared to parts of the East side. The fallen chalk blocks were totally saturated with rain water, which appears to be the main problem. The holds at the start of Back Up can be reapplied but the crux moves will be much easier now without the awkward bridging moves beneath the roof.

Fallen chalk at the bottom of Back Up

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Pattinaggio Artistico (WI3), Cogne

Our flight was not until 9pm so there was time for another route - provided no epics. It had snowed for much of yesterday and also during the night so it made extra sense to stay close to Lillaz under the circumstances. I thought I had seen climbers on the upper pitches of the 3 star WI4+ Sospiri Ibernati during our descent from E Tutto Relativo yesterday so I was keen to take a closer look.

There was another six inches of powder to contend with today. The trail up the hillside was still present and there was a hard crust beneath the fresh layer of snow to aid ascent. On closer inspection it became apparent that we had yesterday been looking at an icy couloir further right called Pattinaggio Artistico as the first pitch of Sospiri Ibernati was absent. The former route now seemed the best option for squeezing another climb in without drama. Pattinaggio Artistico Direct incidentally looked in top condition.

The absent first pitch of Sospiri Ibernati (WI4+)
Pattinaggio Artistico Direct (WI5+)
We wasted a lot of time trying to find the correct rising traverse to the start of Pattinaggio Artistico. We were obviously not the first people to make hard work for ourselves given the maze of paths in the snow. We initially made the mistake of climbing too close to the cliff, which brought us to a point that was too high up for descending to the route. We backtracked and then cut down to a lower path, which meant a lot of wading through fresh unstable snow interspersed with hidden rocks. Snow regularly slipped down the hillside whilst cutting a new trail. I carried my ice axe but it seemed of limited use for it had little to bite on in the event of needing to arrest.

The belays were difficult to locate due to the fresh snow but fortunately Anna uncovered some bolts close to the route that facilitated the down-climb into the couloir. I somehow then missed the first set on belay bolts on the right side of the couloir despite sweeping the rock clean in the immediate vicinity. I made ice screw belay higher up beneath the crux steepening.

It was a pleasant finale to the trip to see Anna lead the crux of the route. Arguably it was another hardest lead for her with the short icefall being around 80-85 degrees and probably harder than typical conditions. She made another ice screw belay higher up and looked exhausted upon joining her.

Below the crux step
The crux ice
I then led an easy 60m pitch up mostly snow slopes to a bolt belay on the left. Belaying was almost proving as hard work as climbing, particularly on the easy pitches where we could move fast, as my ropes were a frozen mess. Their time was at an end.

Easy snow slopes
After the recent snowfall the skies now clear and we presented with stunning views down the valley to Mont Blanc. Something we had been denied during our ascent of Lillaz Gulley.

Mont Blanc
Anna was by this point low on fuel and so happy to second the remaining pitches. We had lost time on the approach but the top was now in sight. Maybe one more pitch? The next section of ice looked possibly a little thin so I climbed a series of steps up the steepest ground in the centre of the icefall – partly for fun, partly to ensure good protection. Another ice screw belay.

The penultimate pitch
Despite another full 60m run-out the top was still a further pitch of climbing. A tired Anna joined me at the belay. This time I stuck to the easiest line in the name of efficiency and bore right up a weakness that finished at an icy step amongst the trees. A bolt belay greeted me near the top. It was 1.30pm - later than we would like to have finished but still an acceptable time.

We followed a trail North through the trees, which eventually dropped down to meet the slopes above E Tutto Relativo from where we picked up yesterday’s descent. It was 2.40pm by the time we were back in Lillaz. I reckoned we had 20 mins to play with so there was time for a hot chocolate and panini impressively filled with an inch of cheese.

The descent
Then it was time to head for the airport. Sadly my ropes were in a terrible state and so would not be making the return journey. They were a frozen and tatty and so were left in a hotel bin prior departure.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

E Tutto Relativo (WI4), Cogne

After yesterday’s long day out we were happy to try something a little closer to home again. Particularly given that there was a large amount of snowfall forecast today. We knew that E Tutto Relativo was in good condition having spoken to other climbers and the 10m vertical ice section looked a good progression on previous routes we had climbed on the trip. Temperatures were hovering around zero but they had been minus numbers in the night so we anticipated good ice conditions again.

Approaching the base of the route
It was another busy morning but everybody was suitably spaced out so that there were no delays. Anna led the initial 70 degree ice pitch, which was a little wet, with water running out of one screw placement. Axe and front point placements easily bit into the ice as a consequence though.

First pitch
The main pitch looked impressive but was surprisingly easy due to the amount of traffic that the route had seen. A series of deep hooks led all the way to the top of the pitch with barely need to swing the axes more than a couple of times. What’s more the ice was now dry and placements felt secure. I placed my 22cm screw at the base of the vertical section. Then a couple of ice screws in existing holes higher up and I was soon at the top of the pitch with little signs of exertion.

The main pitch
An easy ice pitch then led to the top. It was only just after 11am so we had made even better time than yesterday. We contemplated climbing Cristal Giusi (Eau Des Cristaux looked too thin to climb) but Anna was feeling pretty tired after some big days out and I wasn't overly bothered about climbing a no star single pitch WI3 as a potential finale to the trip (although it looked more like WI4 in current conditions). Back in Lillaz there was more coffee to be drunk and panettone to be eaten. Today was provisionally supposed to be our last day’s climbing but given the rapid ascent my mind has turned to thinking about potentially one more route tomorrow morning before the flight home…

Fouth (final) pitch

Friday, 3 January 2014

Patri de Gauche (WI4), Cogne

After yesterday’s relatively short day we were keen to explore further up one of the valleys than previously ventured. The freezing level was predicted to rise to around 2000m today so the sensible thing was to aim high. I was keen to stick with WI4s, now that Anna was finding her feet on ice, so it was time to try one of the Cogne classics Petri de Gauche. Maybe Petri de Droite if I was feeling in good form.

The longer walk up the valley felt a stroll compared to previous outings due to the firm path that had formed in the snow. This continued all the way to the start of route. There were already two groups climbing the first pitch as we approached with two more teams gearing-up lower down. The guidebook described the route as being the most popular in Cogne, which seemed hard to believe given busyness of Cascades de Lillaz. We waited our turn whilst more climbers approached the route from the valley. The guidebook was evidently right. This route really was a honey pot.

The walk-in
The Petri icefalls
Anna led the impressive first pitch, climbing sustained 70 degree ice with intermittent steeper sections, skirting to the right of another pair of ropes. Then some Italians began climbing the far left-hand side of the icefall. Traffic was busy but everybody was courteous to one another compared to some of the antics I have experienced in Chamonix. This was Anna’s hardest lead for the fourth day in succession... so I will forgive her for dropping a screw that resulted in me having to cross two sets of ropes to retrieve whilst seconding the pitch.

First pitch
I continued up a short, steep icefall on the second pitch to an easy snow slope. Anna then led another short section of ice steps. Both these pitches felt easy due to the ice being hooked / stepped out from traffic. Above this presented the impressive cirque of the main Gauche and Droite icefalls.

Third pitch
The easiest line up Petri de Gauche looked to be the trade route on the left-hand side but the ice was wetter here. By this route, people were climbing to a belay at only 2/3 height and then ab’ing back down, which seemed a bit of an anticlimax. It looked difficult to move right in order to gain the final 1/3 due to the arrangement of the ice and would potentially involve another belay to do so. The central portion of the icefall was too thin and fissured to climb but the right side looked an excellent challenge – steeper and much more direct. It looked to be the perfect climax.

The Petri icefalls
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
The Gauche and Droite icefalls
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
The lower half was sustained. I my technique on steeper ice felt stuttered and out-of-practice but I made steady progress. In places the ice was brittle and fissured, which required care with my axe placements but overall the ice was far more pristine than elsewhere on the route with little signs of previous traffic. At half height the angle eased back slightly with a series of spaced large blocky steps to navigate through. The climbing was now much easier with obvious, positive hooks for much of the way. I bypassed a bolt belay on the right and continued up a short ice chimney to the summit of the route.

The final icefall
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
A chilly Anna had been waiting at the bottom of the pitch for a long time. She had firstly needed to wait for the pair of climbers ahead of us to move-off, and then for me to climb to the belay. Her gloves were damp and cold and halfway up the pitch the worst hot aches of her life kicked-in in brutal fashion for an unrelenting five minutes. She pinned herself to the ice and waited for them to pass. A pair of abseil ropes was dropped in her face from 30m above in the meantime to add to injury. Only when the hot aches had completely passed was she able to continue climbing.

Anna climbing the final chimney
The pitch was a grand finale to what was an outstanding route that rightly deserves classic status (and busyness). The top of the route was a tranquil place compared to the hive of activity below. We paused for five minutes before starting our descent. It was too late in the day to consider Petri de Droite and my technique was confirmed as being a little rusty to contemplate. Apparently the route was more like WI5 in its current state so it was maybe not the day for it.

Top of the route
We abseiled back down the entire route unaware that there was a simple walk-off down to our bags. The abseils at least allowed us to reflect on the great climbing that we had done. Particularly Anna’s effort on the first pitch.

Ab'ing down the first pitch

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Lillaz Gully (WI4), Cogne

After resting-up on New Years Day we were ready to hit the ground running. Anna’s leading was improving so swinging leads on Lillaz Gully now looked possible. For the first time on the trip we were able to follow an existing trail through the snow to the base of the route, which made for a remarkably easy approach compared to the preceding ones.

View back to Lillaz
Anna led the first pitch, which climbed an aesthetic ice gully. The ice was in good condition with first-time placements but the climbing was made easier by the existing ice screw holes and stepped-out nature of the ice. Two rope lengths of easy snow slopes then led us to a short gully of ice, which Anna also led. This pitch was less steep but the ice was thinner to counter this.

First pitch
The guidebook described the fourth pitch as “40m, 85 degrees” so I was expecting some sustained ice climbing. In reality the ice was relatively easy to climb but it tapered out towards the top of the pitch, which meant some tricky mixed climbing to substitute. Exiting the tapering ice to gain the snow slope above was proving a tricky task as there was little in the way of ice or turf for the axes to bite in to on the slopes above - just powder snow. I bridged my feet out wide and found some good hooks in the rock but I could not find anything higher to progress. We had spent some time translating the French description the previous night and had been amused to learn the need to pull on tree roots on one of the pitches. With the ice now running thin I looked to my left to see a line of tree roots poking through the snow. This was obviously the location. If it was ok for Perroux and Damilano to hook their way up tree roots then it was ok for me! I bridged left to meet them and then delicately hooked my axes over them in succession. The final root was felt particularly wobbly.

The fourth pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Top of the fourth pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Pulling on roots at the top of the fourth pitch
For the fifth pitch I climbed the right branch via the M4+ moves. The ice was thick low down and the mixed moves towards the top of the pitch felt easy compared to Scotland with steady bridging of the feet up a succession of holds. Unlike Scotland’s rime-up rock it was much easier to involve the hands where necessary. By now it was snowing heavily and visibility was vastly reduced. Anna started her climb on second and eventually her first ice axe appeared over the top of the pitch like a submarine periscope.

Scottish conditions at the top of pitch five
Anna led the final pitch, which was awkward and sketchy due to limited ice and deep powder snow and intermittent hidden rock. I found myself tugging on trees for the first part, with a delicate rock step higher up to reach the top of the route.

The tricky step at the top of the route
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
We were soon both a the top. The climb had been fantastic. Certainly the best so far on the trip. Anna looked ecstatic. What’s more we had made good time having completed the route before 1.30pm and in only 4.5 hours.

Top of the route
After a long series of abseils down Valmiana two days previous, the easy walk-off was a welcome experience. We descended through the trees to eventually meet Cascades de Lillaz. The ice was looking in much better condition due to cold temperatures and the section of ice that was running with water had now filled (although looked thin still). With much of the afternoon still free we were able to drink coffee and relax and contemplate a big day out up one of the valleys tomorrow.