Sunday, 30 June 2013

Kinder Killer

A bit of running and a bit of climbing in the peak...

This weekend I went out to run a loop based on the 'Kinder Killer' which is a circuit of Kinder - surely the best place for fell running in the peak -  starting from Edale.  The only catch is that every time you reach the plateau the route launches you back down into the valley, before immediately sending you back up to the plateau via the steepest clough it can find.

It's a cracking route, taking in lots of ascent and descent which is, on the whole, away from the main paths and I'd never run over lots of the route which made for an enjoyable and enlightening experience, exploring some of the less frequented parts of Kinder.  The route I ran was slightly truncated from the 'official' Kinder Killer route as described here, but still covered about 25 rough miles and nearly 2500m of ascent.  It's certainly good training for something like the Bob Graham, and 8-10 hours is supposed to be a reasonable time at "BG pace" so I was aiming for anything sub-8 hours on my little jaunt.


Slightly abridged version of the Kinder Killer


From Edale you head straight up, I chose Ringing Roger but Grindsbrook is the official route, to hit the plateau and find the Druid's Stone.  From here you launch down through the heather and bracken aiming for the Youth Hostel hidden in the depths of Lady Booth Brook.  A bit of downclimbing(!) over some loose rocks gained the stream and, thankfully, a small path down to the hostel itself.  A short section on a good track gains Jaggers Clough which is followed back up to the plateau with a fun bit of scrambling near the top.  The futility of your day dawns on you as you immediately turn right and descend all the way back down to the Roman Road to the East, joining it less than a kilometer from where you started the ascent up Jaggers Clough.

From here a fast descent on a good track leads to Ashop farm, and a fantastic rough trod traverses the hillside to gain Blackden Brook.  Another long climb here up the lonely but beautiful clough on the Northern Edge of Kinder gains the top again, but not for long.  A quick jaunt along to Seal Stones marks the next descent and it's a good one, steep grassy tussocks gains a boggy track which allows another fast descent down Gate Side Clough all the way back to road level at the base of Fairbrook Clough.  From here either climb up via the stream, or take the direct and very steep rib which runs up to Fairbrook Naze.

Seven laps up (and down) Kinder


Take a breather on the next flat section (the only one) along the plateau before dropping down steeply to Ashop Head, and then William Clough to the bridge at the end of Kinder Reservior.  The next climb either follows the River Kinder right up to the downfall, or takes the steep path direct up to Sandy Heys.  It was on this ascent that I had a bit of a 'crash'; having left my jelly babies in the car I was in desperate need of some sugar and bagels just wouldn't fit the bill.  My uphill march was more of a stagger by now, and I clearly looked wasted enough that a passing DofE group felt the need to shout encouragement at me.  From the downfall I pressed on, and by the time I reached Kinder Low I had perked up enough to take on the final two climbs.  I dropped down to Edale Cross, and then down Jacob's Ladder to below the Woolpacks.  The next climb takes a pure fell-runners line straight up the hillside following an old fenceline to Crowden Tower, before coming straight back down again via Grindsbrook Clough.  Rather than take the obvious (and alluring) path back to Edale it then goes off piste again.  Another very steep and pathless climb will, for the strong-willed, gain Grindslow Knoll.  From here it was a simple case of giving directions to a lost walker, and then dropping down the very fast descent back to the Nag's Head.

I think it took me about five and half hours round trip, with the legs still feeling fresh at the end which I was fairly happy with.  I think my route is about 4.5km and 100m shorter than the 'official' route described, but I made my fair share of navigational errors which would probably even out some of that.  As a route it's certainly good conditioning for a challenge such as the Bob Graham, I'm now trying to figure out if it's possible to shoehorn any more climbing into the route to make it more of a challenge :)

The rest of the weekend was spent with a productive session at Raven Tor, and then a little bit of summer gritstone climbing with a couple of friends.


Curly Chris on L'Horla at Curbar


I'd also like to point out that a mate of mine just completed his first (and possibly only?!?) 100 mile ultra which is a pretty amazing effort and is raising money for charity in the process.  If you'd like to donate go to:
www.justgiving.com/oscars100

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Alaska - Logistics, Gear and Tactics

A quick post with some logistics beta for anyone else wanting to climb in Alaska.  We got quite a lot of really useful information from others who have made the trip out there so here is my take on it.

Getting There

Flights to Anchorage cost us about £700 from the UK, going via Seattle (which is still a three and a half hour flight from Anchorage).

We spent a whole day in Anchorage which was useful to get all of our shopping done, but would certainly be possible to arrive there in the morning and get all your shopping done before catching a transfer the next day.  We stayed at the Arctic Adventure Hostel which was cheap, friendly and walking distance from REI and Wal-Mart - highly recommended.

For technical gear, go to either REI or Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking (AMH) which is just across the street.  The latter is a small independent climbing shop where you'll get good advice from 'proper' climbers!

There are various options for transfer up to Talkeetna, and the prices are all similar (in the region of $50-60).  We used Yukon Transfers on the way up, and the scheduled Park Connection Service on the way back.  Both were fine although the Park Connection won't drop you at your hostel (it stops downtown and then at the airport).  Purple Transfers is another company that seems to be popular with climbers.

For flying into the glacier we used Talkeetna Air Taxi as they came highly recommended from everyone who we spoke to (flights are about $600 with whoever you fly with).  I can't fault the service we got from TAT, they helped us sort our gear, provided a taxi service for us in Talkeetna to visit the Ranger Centre and buy gear and then managed to fly us in the same afternoon.  They also have a free bunkhouse if you are waiting for a flight in, or a connection to Anchorage.  It's probably also worth mentioning that they also have planes equipped with the navigational gear to allow them to fly in limited visibility, which could make the difference between getting flown out, or waiting out a storm on the glacier.  

White gas is stored on the glacier so you just pay the air taxi company and collect it in base camp.  1 gallon per person per three weeks is recommended although you can easily collect leftover gas from other climbers, or buy more if you really need.


Food

As we were staying at Kahiltna Base Camp our food didn't need to get carried anywhere so we didn't pack light.  A big shop in Wal-Mart provided our rations for the trip and it was well worth paying for a bit of excess baggage with TAT to have the luxury of tinned fruit and bacon (though not together).  Be prepared to fork out a fair bit of cash as food is expensive in Alaska (especially anything fresh).
Things that were good:
- bagels - great for lunch on climbing days and rest days though expensive
- tortilla wraps - cheap alternative for rest day lunches but got a bit squashed on the way out
- pancake mix & maple syrup - amazing rest day breakfasts!  1 box did about 5 breakfasts each.
- sachets of porridge mix - a brilliant buy, instant hot breakfasts that just need water.  Easy to make up in the tent with a jetboil for those early start days where it's cold outside!
- tins of chilli - good hearty meals
- tinned fruit - good for puddings, you start to crave fruit and veg after a week or so
- big tub of ragu pasta sauce - useful for making all sorts of meals
- bacon - mmmm...
- peanut butter and cream cheese - for bagels or wraps
- budget cereal bars - really quite tasty
- boxes of just-add-boiling-water macaroni cheese

With a bit of care it's actually quite easy to make a snow fridge and keep bacon, fresh mince, cheese, eggs and possibly some veg fresh for quite a while.


Things that were bad:
- fun sized chocolates - small does not equal fun, buy full-size bars (but not Hershey's, it's foul)
- blueberry bagels - taste a bit weird
- baked beans - just didn't get eaten
- smelly cheese - got very smelly
- the fact that we didn't take out beers
- eggs - got broken then froze, although you can buy 'liquid eggs' in cartons


Camping

- Get a stove board (or two) of a good size.  It doesn't have to be thick so some 5mm ply would work fine.  Makes cooking/chopping/preparing so much easier
- Buy a large (4-8L) pot and use this for melting snow (and melting snow only).  Always keep the pot half full of water.  Overnight, wrap the pot in a bin-liner and seal it in little snow cave somewhere in the kitchen to stop it from freezing overnight.
- Make sure you have two MSR-type stoves that work well, and lots of lighters.  It's nice if one of them is a 'gourmet' style stove with a decent simmer function (e.g. Dragonfly or similar).
- Dig a pit in the porch of your tent for boots etc.
- Wetwipes are useful for washing although a little bottle of handsoap is nice when you want a proper wash with water.  Don't forget washing up stuff, and a teatowel is useful.
- A cheap walkie-talkie ($25 from REI) will pick up the weather forecast on the buttress (Ch 1, 8pm)


Kit

- A thermarest and a karrimat/foam bivi mat are nice to have for added insulation.  Take a good sleeping bag as, although it was very mild when we were there, -30C is not unheard of in May and that's COLD!
- A small food/kit tent was really useful.  A large fly-only living tent, or a one pole teepee-style tent would be a good alternative as you can then dig your living/kitchen and storage areas underneath it.
- Sunhat essential, spare sunglasses would be good as you'd be stuffed if you lost your only pair.
- Snowstakes can be useful for crossing bergshrunds but are not essential by any means.
- Don't forget the sunscreen.
- A snowsaw is really useful for cutting blocks
- It's nice to have plenty of ab tat in case you need to equip a couple of descents.  If it's cold enough abseil straight off the thread rather than adding tat.
- Tent pegs are pretty useless.  This is where snowstakes come in handy.  Alternatively you can fill any spare stuffsacks and the tent bags with snow and bury them.
- Figure out how to leave your inner boots on and take your outer boots off with the crampons still attached - useful for bivis!
- We climbed in ski touring boots which worked OK, although mountain boots would have been a little bit comfier over a long day (though not £500 comfier as we both already owned ski boots!).  Some of the Americans couldn't believe we were even considering climbing the North Buttress in ski boots, but I don't think they have the Chamonix ski-climb-ski-beers mentality that we do this side of the pond!


Tactics

For a big route such as those on the North Buttress all of the attempts we saw were fairly light and fast, big push type efforts.  Unless it's really cold I don't think a tent would be worth the weight (not that there's anywhere to pitch it unless you're going over the top).  If the weather is that bad you can always descend.  The bivi ledges marked on the topo all seemed reasonable, although they'd proabably take a bit of chopping if you were the first team of the season (shovel would be useful then).
As well as what I wore (thermals, adidas tracksuit, shell salopettes; baselayer, R1 hoody, goretex shell) I carried:
- Goretex bivi bag
- Very light Rab Quantum 250 sleeping bag (mountain marathon bag - ~600g)
- Down jacket (Rab Neutrino ~600g)
- 50cm of bivi mat
- Spare light pair of gloves, spare mitts and balaclava

Will didn't have a light sleeping bag so carried a pair of synthetic insulated trousers instead, and also carried a mid-weight synthetic belay jacket (Arc'teryx Atom) as well as his down jacket.  He had a 3/4 length bivi mat too.

The pro's of the puffy trousers are that they zip on, removing the need to take your boots off to get into a sleeping bag, and can also be worn for climbing/descending if you get really cold (Will wore them on the descent with no problems).  The con's are that they aren't as warm as a down bag.  I think they worked really well for him as it was very mild, but I'd have been very glad of my sleeping bag had we been on the route a week or so earlier and trying to get some sleep in the shade.  The bivi mat was more useful for sitting on rather than sleeping on to be honest, so you could probably get away with carrying one between two and sharing it at bivi stops.  Some form of belay jacket is a must, especially for long belays on technical ground.

Our group kit/food was:
- Jetboil
- Single plastic bowl (10g)
- Gas (1x100 and 1x200 canister)
- 3x MountainHouse dehydrated meal (~140g and 800kcal each)
- 4x porridge oats sachets (~35g each?)
- Personal supply of cereal bars/chocolate bars/bagels (probably ~800-1200g each when we left the ground).  Will was a fan of energy gels whilst I preferred bagels.  We found some yummy energy chews - endorsed by Lance Armstrong - which worked well (it was probably the EPO)
- We each carried a knife and v-threader.  We had ~15m of ab tat between us.
- Other odds and ends (goggles, camera, laminated topos, radio etc.)

We each carried 2L of water

If I was to do it again I think I'd carry pretty much exactly the same stuff.  I reckon we got the kit just right.

What I learned:
- DRINK MORE!  I should have drunk more, both whilst climbing and also at bivi stops.  I consumed in the region of 7-8L over 50 hours which was stupid.  Force yourself to drink even if you're cold, I think my main problem was not wanting to open my bag whilst being hammered in spindrift.  It also takes discipline to drink if you're busy belaying a leader, or moving together.  Drinking whilst you have your second on autobloc is much easier.
- Drink a full 2L whilst you are at a brew stop, and then leave with a full 2L for the next block
- Brew up regularly, I think you HAVE to stop at least every 12 hours to keep functioning well.  That will give you a consumption of 8L per 24 hrs.  Whilst you can get away with only drinking a couple of litres on a 24hr route, that isn't sustainable for 2 days.
- The jetboil works really well for melting snow.  A small plastic cup would have been useful for collecting snow and pouring it into the jetboil.  A 100 canister is enough gas to melt ~8L of snow, and give you hot water for a dehydrated meal (temperature dependent I guess).
- Electrolyte powder or tablets are quite useful, they give a bit of taste and help ward off cramp (we were both suffering from cramp at the second bivi).
- Don't underestimate the reviving effect of a hot meal and a few hours sleep.  Had we carried on to the cornice bivi and got some sleep before descending, then I suspect we wouldn't have had the epic descent that we did.
- The Mountainhouse meals are really tasty - I'd carry 4 meals and no porridge if I was to do it again.


Rack

Our rack was quite rock-heavy as we knew there was some hard climbing on Deprivation.  For the Moonflower I'd probably leave some of the rock gear behind (maybe take 6-8 wires and a half rack of cams) and carry an extra couple of screws as it's all ice apart from the two aid/pendulum pitches which have in situ gear.  More stubbies and 12cm screws could be useful.
We carried:
- 13 screws
- set of wires (2-11)
- Friends: blue alien, F0.5, yellow alien, F1, F1.5, red camalot, yellow camalot
- 2 blades, 1 lost arrow, 1 medium pecker
- 10 draws
- 3-4 slings

Hope that bits of this are useful to somebody!

Monday, 10 June 2013

ALASKA!

Right, well I've just got home from my much anticipated trip to Alaska.  To cut a long story short we flew out to Kahiltna Glacier in perfect weather and managed to get a couple of great routes in before jumping on the North Buttress of Mt Hunter, making an ascent of Deprivation with the Bibler Come Again finish to the top of the difficulties (top of the last rock band).  As we descended however, the weather warmed up considerably forcing us to abandon plans for any other ice routes as the whole glacier started to melt out alarmingly.  With the big tick under our belts though, we were pretty happy to hire a car and go on a sport climbing/animal spotting roadtrip for a few days before flying home.  An awesome trip!


Mt Hunter as seen from base camp, the North Buttress is on the left

 
Background

Will and I have been planning this trip since I realised that I had a month off from uni between mid-May and mid-June.  Alaska seemed the obvious place to go for what would have to be a 'quick-hit' alpine/ice expedition with only 4 weeks to spare.  I had initially been keen to target an ascent of the stunning Cassin Ridge on Denali, a classic alpine test-piece which is committing and high, but with moderate climbing.  Will fancied something a bit meatier however, and informed me that despite a bit of research he hadn't come across a British ascent of Deprivation, a Mark Twight route on the towering North Buttress of Mt Hunter.  I was well aware of the 'Moonflower' buttress and it's reputation but had never really considered it as something that a punter such as myself would be able to climb.  Following some reading, and looking at photos, and studying Mark Twight's topo of the route (you just have to ignore the skull & crossbones', and the "psycho-death-mixed" annotations that litter the page) the climbing all seemed possible and the psyche/trepidation began to build.


An ascent of Deprivation was what we decided to aim for, given the gift of good weather, conditions and ability.  I was pleasantly surprised at how willing organisations were to support such a small British expedition, especially considering it was essentially (as all climbing trips are) a holiday.  I think I speak for both Will and I when I say we really appreciate the assistance from The BMC, The Alpine Club, Bigstone UK/Arc'teryx and Bloc.  There are links to their webpages to the right of the page. [edit: I forgot to mention Crag X, who can can be found at cragxclimbing.com or at 'The Foundry' climbing wall.]

Will plus a large load of gear in front of our Sea Otter

Looking out over big snowy peaks on the flight into the glacier



And We're Off

We left the UK on the 18th May, and after a day of food and gear shopping in Anchorage we headed up to the little village of Talkeetna where 7 climbers (and all their gear) were shoe-horned into a DeHallivand Sea Otter for the short 40 minute flight onto the glacier.   The flight was great fun, and puts not only the size of the mountains, but also the skill of the specialised 'bush pilots' into perspective as they weave through the peaks before daintily landing a fully laden plane onto a makeshift runway on the glacier.  Once on the glacier we set up camp a little up the hill from the airstrip in the vicinity of a few other climbing teams, leaving the pitches next to the runway for the Denali climbers.  The North Buttress of Mount Hunter seems to loom over the base camp despite the base being an hours ski away - an indication of its size - and I admit to feeling somewhat apprehensive when I worked out that I hadn't swung an ice axe in anger since I climbed the Droites with Will in 2011.  Nothing like some huge Alaskan faces to get back into the groove...  We found an abandoned campsite which we easily parasitised, meaning we didn't have to dig our own walls, toilet area or kitchen - and we were set.

Where we called home for the next fortnight

Our kitchen at 'Kahiltna International Airport'


Mt Frances - SW Ridge

On our first day on the glacier we skinned up underneath the North Buttress and the Mini-Moonflower to have a look at conditions and to gague the sheer size of the faces.  The following day we made an early start from BC to climb the SW Ridge of Mt Frances - the small but aesthetic peak (at ~3000m) that lies just north of the camp.  The ridge still contains 1000m of vertical height gain, with a series of rock towers up to 5.8/HS linked by curving snow aretes.  The ridge provided a fantastic alpine day out, somewhere in the region of TD- and would no doubt be one of the most climbed routes in the area if it happened to be located in the Chamonix valley.  We took 8 hours from the glacier to the summit (guidebook time is 8-16h) which we were fairly pleased with considering that we were ploughing a trail through deep, crusty snow for most of its length.  Despite the cloud building through the day it was broken enough on the summit for us to see the descent ridge (the East Ridge) so we hurridly carried on down whilst we could still see the way, making it back to the tents 12 hours after leaving them.

Will on one of the rock towers on Mt Frances (about 5.8 or HS)
Will on the summit ridge of Mt Frances


 
Bacon & Eggs - Mini-Mini-Moonflower

Following a rest day which, like most of our rest days, involved a breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup (probably the most inspired of our provision purchases) the weather was still stellar so we packed our gear for another warm-up day route.  A bit of ice-climbing practice was the goal, so we made a leisurely start (7:30) and skinned up to Bacon & Eggs - a soaring ice couloir just up the glacier from the Moonflower which had been reported to be in great condition.  We climbed cautiously up a couple of pitches of hard, brittle icefield just above the bergshrund, and were rewarded above with a fantastic series of ice-runnels flowing through imposing granite spires.  A short vertical ice step led us to a huge groove of beautiful ice at 75-80 degrees.  The ice finally ran out after about 7 pitches of climbing when we reached a snowfield maybe 2 ropelengths from the summit cornices.  Happy with what we'd done, we descended from here down an in-situ set of v-threads and were back in camp by late afternoon.  The gully was reminiscent of, and at least as high a quality as the classic ice-gullies on the East face of Mt Blanc du Tacul.  Bacon & Eggs seems to be considered WI4 or 4+ which would seem about fair.

Will climbing the entry steps into Bacon & Eggs

A fantastic ice groove on Bacon & Eggs, Mini-Mini-Moonflower
Will on perfect ice, high on Bacon & Eggs


Getting Ready

The weather was still perfect 5 days after landing on the glacier and we were running out of excuses to not get on something a bit bigger.  Unfortunately the crux pitch of Deprivation, usually a steep pitch of fairly unprotectable snow-ice I believe, had fallen down a week or so before - a risk we took I suppose with being out relatively late in the season.  A fairly strong American team who we were camped next to had previously been up the lower slopes to recce Deprivation, and then made an attempt a day later but were eventually turned back by the 'missing' crux pitch through the first rock band.  They had now turned their attention to the classic Bibler-Klewin or 'Moonflower' route on the North Buttress - the established hard test-piece on the buttress which saw numerous attempts and several successes during our time on the glacier.  We were both keen to try and get on Deprivation as it was the route we'd both been reading about for months, so with this in mind we planned to climb the 'Moonflower' (Bibler-Klewin) as far as the first iceband where we could then traverse across to join Deprivation, hopefully climbing this to the third iceband where we could access the Bibler Come Again finish (this is not the original finish to Deprivation, but it is probably a more logical finish from where Deprivation joins the third iceband and seems to be the most popular way to climb the route in recent years). 


North Buttress: the red line is Deprivation via the route we climbed.  The black line is the Bibler-Klewin ('Moonflower') route, with the variation 'Mugs Start' (which we were trying to find) in blue.  The dashed purple line is the original finish to Deprivation.


Will skinning in to the base of Deprivation


To clarify, although the North Buttress on Hunter is often referred to as the Moonflower Buttress, 'Moonflower' normally means the classic North Buttress route, which was first climbed by Stump-Aubrey in 1981 to the top of the buttress, but is often called the 'Bibler-Klewin' as they were the first team to climb to the summit (in 1983), and their variation on the route is the one which is usually followed (they climbed a slightly different start, and the 'Bibler Come Again' exit in the fourth rockband).



Deprivation - North Buttress, Mount Hunter

We packed as light as we dared and set off early on Sunday morning with food for 2 days and enough gas to melt snow for 3 days (at a push), and crossed the bergshrund at the toe of the buttress at around 5:30am.  The original plan was to climb the 'Mugs variation start' to the Moonflower (as this was the easiest start this year), and then follow the Moonflower to the first iceband.  As it was, we went wrong almost immediately and followed a vague set of tracks into the starting gullies on Deprivation.  Will led off on the first block of pitches and we climbed several hundred metres of brilliant ice runnels, moving together apart from the odd steeper pitch or 80 degree steps.  We were moving well until Will traversed left into the continuation of our route, entering what looked like a large chimney system just out of sight.  He disappeared round the corner before climbing back down out of it to belay on one of the walls.  When he brought me over to join him I immediately recognised the chimney system as being the crux of Deprivation - only the crux pitch was missing - which was exactly the dead-end we were trying to avoid climbing into.  

Moving together low on Deprivation.  Brilliant climbing through a series of icy runnels
Will climbing an ice step low on Deprivation


There was surprisingly little discussion about what to do next, Will handed me the rack with a cheery "your lead",  I left my sack at the belay and set off.  There was a steep ice chimney visible about 40m above, but the ice smear we were on terminated in a series of gently overhanging granite walls which I clearly wasn't going to be able to ascend.  There was a thin crack over on the left wall though, so I placed a screw at the top of the ice and traversed left into the crack - at its top there was a roof and then a steep groove which looked like it might contain ice in the back.  A mix of aid and 'french-free' allowed me to slowly make progress up the crack to reach the roof, but the groove above was steep, smooth and full of soft snow.  I carried on up the groove, but I was in full-on aid mode by now.  With no seam in the back of the groove for good gear, I was aiding for placement after placement on a sling round the tip of my axe picks, with a hammered wire and a tied-off blade being the only reasonable gear I can remember in the groove.  I managed to get stood on a small block at the top of the groove and stood there, scared, with the good ice visible only about 6m above me.  Back into free-climbing mode I somehow made it to the ice above, but not until I'd done some of most terrifying 'frontpoints-on-matchstick-edges-and-crimping-like-a-demon-on-verglassed-seams' climbing I've ever experienced.  Suffice to say that my first belay screw was placed in double-quick time.  As we didn't have ascenders Will then seconded the pitch as best he could, wearing his sack and hauling mine up alongside him which took a huge amount of energy.  Following that I led the short vertical ice chimney above, and then Will led a long hard pitch of sustained poor ice to an overhanging chimney exit which thankfully deposited us on the first icefield at 5pm.  Tired but full of confidence - having climbed the technical crux of the route - we kicked a ledge and sat down for a couple of hours to melt snow and eat a dehydrated meal.

Will following the 'missing' crux pitch on Deprivation; in the steep groove which finished in hard free climbing over to the left of the photo.
Will about to enter the overhanging chimney on the last pitch before the first iceband


We left the ledge at 7pm climbing up and left across the first icefield towards the large ramp system that splits the second rock band, stopping only briefly at 8pm to pick up the weather forecast on our radio - "high pressure persisting".  Unfortunately despite what the forecast may say, the 'big three' mountains in the Alaska Range (Denali, Foraker, Hunter) are all capable of creating their own weather and that night it was the turn of Mt Hunter.  The cloud rolled in, the visibility dropped and it was snowing quite hard as we made progress up the ice ramps above - with retrospect the arrival of this wet snow probably signified the rise in temperatures that started to strip all the lower elevation ice routes over the next 24-48 hours.  Then the spindrift started.  If you listened carefully you might get a couple of seconds warning, as the eerie silence was broken by a faint whooshing sound before the barrage of snow arrived, trying it's hardest to fill your jacket, and gloves, and sack with soggy cold.  I'd got quite wet clearing snow leading the crux pitch and was suffering from the cold through the night as the wet spindrift turned the down in my belay jacket to mush and sapped the heat from me on the belays.

We kept climbing through the night to keep warm, making progress up through the second ice band and onto the rightwards traverse that gains the long diagonal snowfield in the third rockband.  I think we may have gone the wrong way here, taking the hastily drawn line on one of the topos a little too literally and ending up on a narrowing snowfield that stopped just short of connecting to the big snowfield we needed to be on.  An overhanging rock section barred the way to the snowfield which was only about 10m away, yet was out of reach.  The only way to access it was for me to squirm through a flared and snow-filled stomach traverse, aiding on ice screws placed in a detached ice block in the back of the cave.  On the other side a bit of scratching on snow-covered rock gained the snowfield, and Will seconded (carrying both packs again) with the help of a backrope on the other side of the cave.  The pitch had taken me a long time and it was now Will's turn to get rather cold - we were both struggling in the wet and constant spindrift avalanches pouring over us.

Sitting down on the first iceband melting snow


We knew there was a chopped bivi ledge on the third iceband which we were aiming for but we were both shattered from over 24 hours on the go - climbing much slower than we usually would and pitching ground we would normally move together on with ease.  Eventually the snow stopped, and we reached the bivi ledge on the third iceband at about 10:30am.  Here we stopped for some food, melted some snow and slept for a couple of hours until the sun came onto the face.  In the afternoon we ate, drank and soaked up the suns warmth until we felt a bit more energetic.

Leaving the ledge at about 5:30pm we moved together up the icefield for several ropelengths.  As for all of the icebands on the route it consisted of hard ice covered by a layer of snow which made for awkward and quite time consuming climbing.  Once into the fourth rockband we climbed the Bibler Come Again exit, where Will led a long pitch of fantastic icy steps and runnels, and then me leading the final 'overhanging offwidth' pitch which is supposed to be M5 but felt reasonably steady.  From here about 4 pitches easy snow/ice slopes lead to the top of the buttress but we were more than happy to descend after the night of spindrift hell which we'd just endured.  With retrospect, it would probably have been easier for us to climb up to the bivi at the top, and get a descent nights sleep before descending the next day but we were both quite keen to get back to our tent!

Will following a traverse on at the top of the second iceband, looking for the linking pitches onto the upper ramps.


Brewing up and catching some sleep at the bivi ledge on the third iceband

The descent

The descent was more of an epic that the climb in many ways.  We decided to descend the Bibler-Klewin rather than Deprivation, as the former is a more direct route and was already equipped with v-threads from previous descents.  We good off to a good start when the pulled ropes jammed round a flake on the first abseil, "If you go and sort this one I'll get the next one" said Will, something he'd later regret saying.  I re-led the bottom of the pitch to free the ropes, climbing back down to the belay.  From there the descent went quite well until we were descending 'The Shaft' pitches in the second rockband where the ropes were getting wet and then freezing; the ropes were freezing like cables, belay devices and 'biners were icing up and our gloves were frozen into useless claws.  Eventually the ropes jammed solid, they had frozen into the ice in the time it took us to abseil, so Will valiantly prussicked a full 60m up a single 8mm iceline to free them.  Fortunately I had a ropeman on my harness which Will used to jug up - prussic loops were next to useless on the iced ropes so without it we would have been stuck there unable to ascend the rope.  I think one of those will become a permanent feature on my alpine/winter rack.

Will on the icy grooves on the Bibler Come Again, fourth rockband


After Will had spent a couple of hours re-ascending and re-rigging the abseils we carried on descending off the in situ v-threads down the Moonflower.  We were both struck by how good the climbing looked; pitch after pitch of brilliant sustained ice climbing.  I can see why the Bibler-Klewin 'Moonflower' is an absolute classic and whilst perhaps not as difficult as the crux on Deprivation it looks like a more complete and sustained route - definitely something I'd be keen to return for.

At the top of the difficulties, having just climbed the M5 offwidth pitch




Our final stroke of bad luck came after abseiling down a rock wall to an in situ ab station about 50m above the bergshrund.  We pulled the ropes, and had the knot in our hands when the rope above flicked through the last anchor and wrapped itself round a flake, jammed solid.  The pitch we'd just abseiled was near vertical rock wall with few gear placements so climbing or prussicking the pitch wasn't really an option.  We pretty quickly decided to ditch the rope, untying the stuck one and carrying on down using a single rope for a 30m abseil.  This reached a short snow slope just above the bergshrund at about 7am, but there were no obvious anchors or ice anywhere so we built a large snow-bollard.  Will went first and the bollard held up well until he started the free-hanging section over the bergshrund when, suddenly, the rope shot through the bollard and was gone.  I didn't even have time to yell a warning as Will fell over the 'shrund and bounced all the way down the icy slope below onto the glacier, eventually rolling to a halt in a horrible tangle of rope and gear.  

He lay motionless for a couple of seconds as I started trying to figure out how on earth I was going to get down to him (with no rope), but then he picked himself up and dusted himself down.  He was pretty beaten up, and had some nasty scratches on his hand where he lost a mitt, but was fortunately essentially unscathed.  He then climbed back up the snow slope to below the bergshrund and threw me up an end of the rope - I'd managed to pound a peg in behind a rock flake which I cautiously abseiled off to cross the 'shrund.

It was about 7:30am when we reached the skis again, wearily packed the rope up and headed back to our tent so we were about 50 hours round trip from the base of the route.  The next couple of days were spent recuperating: eating, drinking and sleeping in the sun.   The American team who were thwarted by Deprivation had started up the Bibler-Klewin the evening before us, but had retreated during the second night due to the snowfall and huge spindrift avalanches which were also hammering us (although the Bibler-Klewin is a more natural funnel so I suspect there was a lot more stuff falling down it than Deprivation).

The next few days continued to be unseasonably warm.  No other teams tried to climb the North Buttress and the ice runnels were shrinking daily on the routes in the Kahiltna area. We attempted to go and rescue our stuck rope a few days later but the snow wasn't freezing overnight and the bergshrund was pouring with water at 7am in the morning so we decided it wasn't worth the risk on a big thawing face.  We flew back out to Talkeetna the next day for a slap-up feed and some beer-fuelled celebrations in the local bar with a couple of Swedes who'd just come back from a successful ascent of the Cassin Ridge.



Me underneath the North Buttress

  Sightseeing

After returning to Anchorage we had a touristy few days.  We hired a car, spent a couple of days rock climbing at a really good steep granite sport crag about 90 miles from Anchorage, went and saw bear, carribou and moose in Denali National Park and then had a final lazy morning sampling the Anchorage local cragging (which was pretty disappointing compared to the granite crag - think bolted chossy road cuttings).  We flew out of Anchorage about three weeks after we flew in (having moved our flights forward so we could spend a bit of holiday back home) having spent only 11 days in total on the glacier, but it was still a fantastic trip and we were more than happy with our tick!

As well as the ones here I've put some more photos on facebook which can be viewed here.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

Over The Moors - Bloodrush...

So I've got exams next week, but the arrival of spring, and the fact that I've not been on rock for a couple of weeks was enough of an excuse to  go and explore some moorland gritstone.  Shining Clough in Longdendale, just above the Woodhead Pass gets an intriguing introduction in the new Moorland Grit guide with tales of ghosts, and a photo of what is possibly the best looking route on grit....

Will past the crux on Gallileo (E1)


Bloodrush, a route first climbed by Andy Cave is an E6 which climbs an astounding double-areted fin about two feet wide.  Situated above a 8m drop it gives fairly wild exposure from the first move, and brilliant climbing up the twin aretes to summit the jutting prow.

Toprope on Bloodrush, Shining Clough

Bloodrush


After a bit of heather-bashing on the steep walk in I managed to find the path which leads up to the crag, which boasts an impressive array of tall buttresses and rippled gritstone walls.  As luck would have it I bumped into a couple of friends who arrived just after me, a bit of a coincidence as I certainly wasn't expected to see anybody else in such a remote setting.  Anyway, after a quick toprope Will gave me a belay on Bloorush which is fantastic.  Will and Amy did the classic Pisa Superdirect (HVS) and Gallileo (E1) which both look really good, taking  big crack lines up a tall tower, and must be some of the longer routes on grit.




Leading Bloodrush - should have moved the ab rope out of shot really!



I think the moorland crags provide some of the best climbing on grit.  The solitude of the moors, the long walk-ins and fickle conditions just add to sense of achievement.  The rock at Shining Clough reminded me of Thorn Crag, or Simon's Seat, or Great Wolfrey - all crags that the budding grit esoterica lover should visit.  Next on the list - perhaps Black Mountain Collage at Ravenstones - it certainly looks like it has the potential to provide a full-on 'moors' experience...

Will and Amy enjoying Pisa Superdirect

Over the moors...


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Lochnagar Skiing

Skiing on Lochnagar today - hopefully the conditions beta might be helpful to someone:

Lochnagar from the col



So Glenshee shut for the season last week - but there's still plenty of cracking skiing in Scotland for those who are willing to earn their descents, and conditions are only going to get better over the next few weeks.

Walking up the 'ladder' from the col - looks almost alpine


View from the summit plateau
I'm back in Braemar for the weekend and could see from the road that Lochnagar is still holding a lot of snow so I had planned to get out on Saturday to see if I could find some good skiing.  The weather had changed on friday, with a return to 'wintery' rather than last weeks 'spring-like' temperatures which wasn't ideal as I was hoping the milder weather would mean soft snow.  Anyway, I awoke on saturday morning to a dusting of snow on the lawn and a light northerly breeze and thought that Lochnagar was definitely worth a shot.  

I haven't skiied a huge amount on Lochnagar but I think that if you are willing to take on the walk-in there is a huge range of terrain available.  It is high (1150m), holds snow well, and has big open faces as well as tight gullies.  More importantly - although the coire faces NE - the actual aspects of potential descents vary from North-West facing (on the Sentinel Sector) right through South-West facing for some sections of the main crag (for example the main branch of Black Spout).  This means it should always be possible to find good snow somewhere - it's a shame I don't seem to have the experience to take full advantage of this yet!

Lochnagar summit cairn

The had been a reasonable amount of snowfall the previous night and, as it arrived with strong Northerlys, was drifted deep in sheltered locations - I met a woman from the SAIS team who reported windslab on south-facing aspects near the top of Black Spout.  I reached the summit and had a look into the two branches of the Black Spout.  The left (steeper) branch had a steep entry but no windslab, whilst the right branch had an easier entry but lots of fresh slab on the (skiers) left of the entry.  The narrows on the right branch look reasonably well covered at the moment and I suspect would be fairly easy to negotiate on skis.  

Entry to Black Spout LH - although the cornice is small it was steep directly below


Entry to Black Spout RH - fresh windslab on the right of the picture
Me!


I decided to drop into the left branch so geared up and stepped down to the cornice.  Whilst the cornice was small, there was a very steep section immediately under it before it rolled back to a more reasonably angle (40 degrees?) maybe 100 feet lower down.  Some walkers had appeared on the edge and were filming my entry on their phones - no pressure then!  I committed to the drop onto what I was hoping to be soft-ish older snow to be hit by the roar of edges on hard ice, and the horrible juddering of the skis trying to get some purchase.  Instinctively I eased the pressure off the edges and managed to control my speed, before putting in a couple more very careful turns to reach the lower section at a more normal angle.  The rest of the skiing down to the junction was the same - very hard, icy snow with little respite.  Below the chockstone (there is so much cover that this is a mere steepening in the angle) I was able to ski fresh snow patches on the (skiers) left bank which was more pleasant although it wasn't particularly well adhered to the hardpack underneath.  Once back in the coire, the fresh snow was heavy, but the old snow was now slushy, giving a much nicer pitch down to the rescue box.

Looking back towards Black Spout





















The bottom of Douglas-Gibson gully well banked out
After a quick break I began the walk back up to the col at Meikle Pap, spying a gully just next to Sentinel Buttress en route, which had good cover and was only a short walk back up the tourist path.  I decided that I may as well get another run out of the day and a short hike got me back up to the rim of the coire above the gully - which I figured couldn't have worse snow that what I'd just skiied.  I dropped in with no cornice issues and got a few steep turns in above a cluster of rocks - the snow was hard but not as hard as that in Black Spout, as the face was lower and had seen a bit more sun. I quite enjoy forcing myself to turn on steep ground with hard snow - as if you can deal with committing situations and icy snow then everything feels easy when it's in good condition.  Below the rocks the snow quickly softened up; I'm not quite sure how or why but it gave some fantastic fast skiing back down to the bootpack.

Good snow in a gully near Sentinel Buttress, Southern Sector


From there I headed back to the car, climbing up to the Meikle Pap col, and then skiing most of the way down to the track junction.  The cover is patchy in places though, and I suspect a lot of the new snow will disappear quickly over the next few days.  The walk back to the car felt short and almost enjoyable - I must be fit at the moment!


Lochnagar from Loch Muick


In summary - both branches of Black Spout have great cover for this time of year.  Once the temperature rises and the snow softens to spring 'hero' slush the skiing will be great. I skiied the left branch of Black Spout in such conditions in May 2010 and it was fantastic fun.  There are also plenty of lines with good cover in the Southern Sector from the col right round to Central Buttress.  If anyone is interested Douglas-Gibson gully looked easily ski-able from below the kink, and Raeburn's Gully had a lot of snow in the bottom (although I couldn't see the ice pitch).  I haven't heard of either of these two being skiied but I suspect these are the kind of conditions one would need.  I noticed on the drive home that there is lot of snow on Beinn a'Bhuird also, with all of the gullys in the main coires looking complete.

Finally some words of advice from a friend of mine: remember that things are always in condition - it just depends on your interpretation of 'condition'.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Chamonix Part III


Friday

With the weather forecast not being great for the day I wasn't particularly optimistic, but I headed up to Grands Montets anyway to see what things looked like.  The lifts were quieter than I was expecting so I jumped on the bin up to the top station and walked right up to the top viewing station to have a look at the ski patrollers run.  There were footprints heading down the wire, so I jumped over the fence and scrambled down the ridge to get a few good turns in before joining the piste lower down which was choppy back to the mid station.  For those that have never done it, it's a worthwhile but short run which often still has good snow when most other places are tracked out, or if the snow is heavy lower down.  From the top viewing platform at the GM station jump over the fence and follow a wire down to a ladder, which leads over some rocks to a short slope which bears right down to join the black piste just before it branches.

Looking down from the Petit Aiguille Verte towards the top station at Grands Montets


I soon found myself back at the top, looking at the North Face of the Petit Aiguille Verte - there was a team skinning up towards the ridge, so I decided to have a skin up to see what the snow was like.  I'd neglected to bring crampons and an axe but was just planning on skinning up the easy angled lower slopes to get a few fresh turns in.  Predictably, I soon found myself climbing up the North ridge of the Petit Aiguille Verte, ski boots balanced on some small rock edges and my gloves failing to gain any purchase on the hard neve above.   Needless to say I managed to reach the easier ground just below the summit but it had reminded me how useful the proper equipment can be.  I had caught the team ahead of me, so was the first to drop onto the North Face - I was surprised to be putting fresh tracks down steep cold powder which was as good as anything I'd found all week.  Some fantastic fast turns got be back to the cable car station and I was happy to spend the rest of the day skiing the natural forest features off the Tabe chair, and charging some deserted pistes as the day wore on.  All in all a great days skiing.


Saturday - GM 50th Birthday

My last day.  The forecast was poor again but it was the 50th anniversary of the opening of Grands Montets.  This meant that a lift pass was half price and, more importantly, there was a party at Lognan.   George and I decided that a day of boozy piste skiing was in order - how wrong we were...

After a brief altercation with a policeman about the suitability of George's chosen parking spot in the car park, we made it up to Lognan to find the visibility was actually pretty good (George had to move the van, in case you were wondering).  A couple of quick laps of the Tabe chair got the legs working, then George dragged me through the park, refusing to let me go home until I'd thrown myself off one of the red jumps.  The park dispatched, we found ourselves at the top of the Bochard, looking down into the Poubelle Couloir which drops down onto the Pas de Chevre, and then the Mer de Glace.  I don't think either of us particularly wanted to ski it but we both refused to admit as much to the other, so we found ourselves making the short abseil into the top of it.  Admiring crowds gathered at the top to give it the true 'hero' feel.


George enjoying the Poubelle
Dropping in below the crowds!


I've skiied the Poubelle once before, in deep powder getting fresh tracks all the way down to Montenvers (as the top station had been shut for days) so this descent didn't quite compare although the snow at the top was pretty good considering.  It was quite nice to feel totally comfortable on steep terrain in mixed snow, but the quality worsened as we got lower however and the bottom of the Pas de Chevre was frozen crust and not much fun.  I managed to find the abseil on the descent, and the exit gullies onto the glacier were
just still ski-able - although there was constant rockfall down the chutes to keep us on our toes.

Looking up at the Drus from the Pas de Chevre exit - the poor weather forecast was wrong again!
Short abseil on the exit back onto the Mer de Glace - exit couloir just below


The James Bond track deposited us back in Chamonix (via a bit of walking low down) so we jumped on the bus back up to GM for a pint.  We made it back to Lognan, but somehow found ourselves at the top of the Chapeau Couloir which drops off the West edge of the Bochard ridge back down to Lavancher.  Once again, neither of us particularly wanted to ski it, but we'd never admit it so we found ourselves putting wide, fast turns down the couloir in forgiving soft snow.  As before, the snow quality deteriorated low down and we ended up working hard in very heavy snow and avalanche debris.  Now, I've also skiied the Chapeau before, and I managed to miss the leftwards exit above the ice cliffs at the bottom of it.  On that particular occasion myself and my partner Paddy ended up performing multiple abseils down the cliff on a single 30m glacier rope - it wasn't really long enough and it was a minor epic.  Determined not to make the same mistake twice (as that would be rather stupid) I kept a careful eye out for the exit on the left bank.  Predictably we rapidly found ourselves at the top of the cliff having missed the exit - only this time we only had a 20m rope with us... skis off and rope out then...
Abseil 1 was easy - about 8m to a sapling on the lip of the cliff proper
Abseil 2 was less easy - an 8m overhanging wall led to a tiny ledge, which we had to traverse for about 5m, pulling round a large detached icicle.  From here you had to abseil off the ends of the ropes and jump into a fir tree below.  I had sensibly sent George down first, so when I arrived at the jump he clipped me into the tree via a sling made from my belt
Abseil 3 was another 8m to the last tree before a big drop
Abseil 4 was another diagonal abseil on grassy ledges, before you had to pull the ropes and climb down a thorn bush before jumping into a snow drift at the bottom.

Back on (more) level ground and feeling quite pleased with ourselves for not dying we skiied/walked the cat track back to Lavancher and hitched back up to GM, just catching the last bin up to the party.  We celebrated our lazy piste day with a couple of pitchers before I had to head back to George's to pack my stuff.  A transfer to GVA and an uncomfortable night sleeping on the floor awaited me before my flight back the next day.
 

George at the top of the Chapeau Couloir

Chapeau hi-jinx - George, having abseiled off the end of the rope, about to leap to safety in the tree...