Crowds on the Courtes North-East, 29/04/16

Courtes North East Grant climbing 1

Sweating, distracted, my thoughts wandering, I’m suddenly brought back into the here-and-now by the forceful impact of a few small-but-dense chunks of snow on my right thigh in mid-step, and an instant before glancing upwards to see if there’s anything else coming down, a distant voice from the back of my head screams at me “Don’t look up, duck!”, which I do, as a block of snow a little bit bigger than a Gideons’ Bible collides with the top of my helmet, breaking cleanly in two as it crushes the air from my lungs with a cartoonish “Oof!”

My mind’s eye plays a flashback to six weeks ago, and I watch in horror as my friend cartwheels down almost the entire length of the descent from the Col des Cristeaux, only a few towering ridgelines away from where I stand now, shedding skis, poles, and the contents of his rucksack as he goes, the zip torn open by the rocks that launch him clean into the air once, then again, then out of sight. Through gritted teeth there comes a constant torrent of profanity lasting as long as each exhaled breath, and I ski down towards him as fast as I dare whilst staying safe myself until, still a few hundred metres below me, I can see him sitting up, shaking his head. Miraculously, he has suffered no more than a bloodied nose and a lost contact lens. He was lucky that day. Many aren’t.

Back to the present. Today, although long and steep, the climb up the north-east face of the Courtes is easy, on a well-trodden bootpack, and I had allowed myself to become just a little blasé about the whole thing, plodding rhythmically uphill and using my axe only for balance, and not support. But as I lean into the slope to catch the breath knocked from me, gripping tightly the head of my axe and watching through the gap between my legs the careening pieces of snow on their slapdash journey downwards, I am forced to consider a handful of alternative realities: if the first impact from above had been with my left leg instead of my right, my only point of contact with terra firma; or if I had looked up instead of down and the second impact had connected not with my helmet but with the bridge of my nose, then I might easily have been thrown off balance, and I could quite well have joined the various nuggets of snow on their race to the bergschrund, nearly half a kilometre below us. Yes, the climbing is relatively easy, but the consequences of cocking-up are real. I focus on the task, and give the remainder of the ascent the attention it deserves.

It’s now two days after fresh snow, two days before the Grands Montets lifts close for the season, and the last day of good weather before yet another storm in a spring with so many of them. Predictably, the queue for the top bin starts early and grows quickly, and we know today is going to be busy. When Grant and I step over the bergschrund at the bottom of the bootpack we are in positions thirteen and fourteen, and we are keen to minimise the amount of sluff that could be dropped on us, so despite the raging heat and thin air we manage to gradually close the distance between us and the dozen in front. But happily, although our efforts weren’t exactly wasted, neither were they necessary, as when we reach the narrow col that separates the north-east face of the Courtes and the Couloir Angelique to the south-west, the various teams and soloists in front of us obviously have their eyes on one of the other magnificent descents on offer, as they have carried on across the bony, shark-infested ground that leads to the summit, leaving us first in line to ski the north-east face. As we get ready to ski, we are joined by a few teams of two and a couple of singles, and the limited space below the tiny col quickly becomes crowded, so we sidestep down a short distance to make room, and we wait for ten minutes whilst another four below us make their way up through a rocky bottleneck.

Courtes North East view south
Looking south from the col towards the Dent du Geant and Mont Blanc

Courtes North East Grant waits
Grant waits for a team of four to pass

Our manoeuvring to get near the bottleneck has inevitably knocked loose a little snow into the bootpack, and as the people above us at the col move around and get ready to ski, they too send the occasional chunk down the slope, but with a fair distance between us and the next group below us, we decide to set off. Grant, whose legs are longer than mine and got to the top before me, gets the honour of skiing first, and once past the slight bottleneck he traverses out right through a patch of rocks towards the east side of the wide couloir, not just because the untracked snow here has been better-sheltered and doesn’t have the slight layer of sun crust that the heavily-tracked western side suffers from, but also to minimise the amount of sluff he might drop onto the people still climbing up, a group of four and, behind them, a single guy.

Once Grant is tucked in at the side above the line we want to ski, I start to make my own way down towards him, but the single guy has put on a burst of speed in the meantime and is now only about forty metres below me. I switch to side stepping carefully down through the tracked-but-soft snow, trying my hardest not to dislodge too much onto the bootpack, and I’m about to start my traverse through the rocks to Grant when the guy on his own flags me down.

“You need to wait!” he calls to me in French, quietly, but forcefully.
“I’m sorry for the snow,” I reply in my broken French. “But we can’t wait for everyone…”
“You have to! It is dangerous to ski with so many people below. You need to wait.”

I glance down the slope. There is the team of four about twenty metres below us, and another four have just come into view from behind an island of rock in the centre of the face about sixty metres past them. Beyond that, I can see a few pairs, a trio, some singles, another team of four just making their way over the bergschrund, and yet more people still skinning up the slope below that. There are going to be people climbing this slope for hours yet, and as we stare at each other here in the middle of the face, the occasional chunk of snow tumbles down past us from the people getting ready to ski up at the col. I can feel their eyes on me, and I know that the two of us standing here with our thumbs up our arses isn’t making the day any quicker, easier, or safer, for anyone.

“Look, we’ve all had to deal with snow from above on the climb up. But we simply cannot wait for everyone below to finish the climb. It isn’t possible…” I plead, reluctant to leave the conversation on a sour note.
“On a line like this, you need to wait for everyone to be out of the way. There can be no-one below you, on the whole length of the route.”

I turn my eyes down the slope once again, and I wonder if he can actually see the same scene as me. I’m sorry buddy, but that isn’t going to happen. Do you think we are going to wait another two hours for everyone already on the line to come up and join us? Where the hell are we going to put everyone up on that narrow col, are we going to sit on each other’s laps? How about that hungover Australian on his own who has only just arrived at the bergschrund, who isn’t even going to start climbing for another hour (we chatted to him on our way past, on the ski down), are we waiting for him as well? All thirty of us, cuddling together in a big squirming pile on a tiny col, for the next three hours? When you reach the top, are you going to wait for everyone to come and join you?

You arrived at the line after us, it’s up to you to make the call whether or not you can get out of the way of the people in front of you in time, and if you can’t, then you shouldn’t start climbing up after us. If you are at the bergschrund and there’s already a score of people in front of you, some of them already nearing the summit, maybe you should change your plans for the day and try harder to be on the first lift next time. Like we did.

But I’m not hanging around on this mountainside to debate proper alpine etiquette with a stranger, and whilst I desperately wish to say “I’m sorry, but my French isn’t good enough to share the above internal monologue so that I might convince you of my position, and we should just agree to disagree on this point,” I have to make do with a simple “I’m sorry, but my French isn’t good enough.” We wish each other a good day and a pleasant ski, and we go our separate ways. Grant and I make our traverse to the east, and the skiing is incredible.

Courtes North East Grant ski 1
Grant making his way down the Courtes north east

Courtes North East Pete ski 2

Courtes North East Pete ski 1

Courtes North East Pete ski 3

Courtes North East Pete ski 4

I recognise one of the people climbing up the lower third of the face as we ski past him, and I send a cheery whoop his way. Shortly after we’d gone by, he looked up again and counted the legs still to ski, then he switched crampons for skis and made his way down. A difficult decision to make, but the correct one.

Later that day, about an hour after we’ve made it back to the pistes of the Grands Montets, one of the other thirty or forty people on the north-east face of the Courtes that day makes a mistake, and bounces down the entire length of the slope, before landing in the bergschrund. A helicopter takes him to the hospital in Annecy, where he dies from his injuries a few days later.

Posted in Black Crows, Grand Montets, skiing | Leave a comment

North Face of the Tour Ronde, 28/04/16

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The north face of the Tour Ronde is, for a lot of mountaineers, their first proper north face route. With around 350m of difficulties it isn’t very big, and the climbing, with just two pitches of grade 4 ice in the middle of a steep snow plod, isn’t very hard, which makes it perfect for getting a taste of things like exposure and hot aches and all the other exciting aspects of alpinism.

One of the most common thoughts flying through people’s minds, as they top out of the second ice pitch and gratefully clip in to the bomber bolted anchor at the bottom of the upper snowfield, and often loudly vocalised with a considerable quantity of swear words, is a wide-eyed disbelief that anyone would willingly try and ski down the same route that they are dragging themselves up.

Tour Ronde north face April 2015

As I took my turn to lead on the upper snowfield when Dan and I climbed the route in April 2015, I didn’t get that thought. We had waded through around a foot and a half of deep powder snow on the lower half of the face, found decent ice on the crux, and now had firm snow under a slight crust for the top half. The wide slope, hemmed in on both sides by towering orange granite, felt manageable, accommodating. With some better snow on the upper snowfield, I thought, I could ski this.

We topped out, got our ropes stuck on our way down the Gervasutti couloir, missed the last train from Montenvers and had to walk down to Chamonix in our ski boots. It was the perfect day out.

*

Wind waves on the Vallee Blanche

Fast forward one year. Repeated storms and relatively-warm temperatures have left the glacial ice on most of the steep faces across the Mont Blanc massif under a thick blanket of snow, and Chamonix is enjoying a period of conditions perfect for steep skiing. All of the grand classics like the Cosmiques and the Courtes North-East are left as mogul fields at the end of each day; many of the seldom-skied lines like the Nant Blanc on the Aiguille Verte, the Col de l’Aiguille Verte, the Pain de Sucre beneath the Aiguille du Plan, and the Voies Suisses and Autrichiens on Les Courtes are seeing repeated descents; and even some new lines and variations are being put up by the strange and terrifying creatures in the upper echelons of the skiing community, much to the envy and amazement of the rest of us. Bergschrunds are filled-in, rocks are buried, crevasses are covered. As long as you play by the rules and think about where you are going, a lot of things are, for the most part, safe and stable.

Riding a high from a run of good days the week before and feeling fit, capable, and strong, on April 28th Grant and I wandered up into the Combe Maudite looking for something steep following yet another top-up of fresh snow. The Accursed Combe, tucked away behind the Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Aiguilles du Diable, has a number of descents on various different aspects, which means that you can often find something good to ski whatever the weather has been doing, and as we make our way up from the Glacier du Geant we study the various cliffs and couloirs above our heads through my binoculars. A lot of things seem to be in good condition and we discuss the various options along the way, but we have our hearts set on the Tour Ronde.

Combe Maudite topo

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Pete climbing Gervasutti

Grant climbing Gervasutti

Once we are past the often quite-exciting step over the gaping bergschrund at the foot of the Gervasutti couloir, we aren’t in the least bit surprised to find that the westerly winds of the previous night have scoured it dry, which, whilst providing us with quick and efficient climbing, would make for a physically-taxing, though still enjoyable, descent. But after we’ve reached the sloping col at the top of couloir, we are thrilled to find an even carpet of deep, soft snow clinging to the left bank of the north face. However, being of a cautious mindset and wanting to be sure of things, we decide to take the time to check out the top of the slope whilst fastened quite securely to the mountain. When in doubt, get your rope out. We stash our bags, then Grant digs a good bucket seat and throws the rope around a shoulder whilst I step out along the ridge, poking around with my axe.

“How is it?” he calls across to me.

“I don’t want to sway your opinion one way or the other, but I think it looks pretty damn good. I reckon we could ski this!” I reply.

“Not that I don’t trust your judgement, but do you mind if I take a look?”

I pick my way back to Grant and make myself comfortable in his seat whilst he takes his turn at smacking the mountain with his axe. The upper half of the descent has a certain kind of amphitheatre shape to it, and it’s easier to get a good look at the route from the furthest end of the ridge separating the Gervasutti couloir and the north face, above the left bank of the snowfield, and with each step he takes away from me as I pay out the rope across my shoulders, I can almost feel his enthusiasm for the day increasing. At the end of our thirty metres of rope, he agrees. “Shall we give it a go?” he cries.

But we aren’t finished playing with our bits of string yet. We simply aren’t as brave as some of the people who like to hang out in the Mont Blanc range, and we have no shame in doing things carefully, even if the pictures don’t look quite as cool on Instagram. Grant threads a sling through some rocks and anchors the rope to it before returning to me and the bags on a Petzl Micro Traxion. We clip in to our skis and get ready to go before I take a seat again, digging my tails into the snow beneath me and holding the rope whilst Grant traverses back to our rock anchor, from where he belays me across the ridge towards him, and then again as I make a few exploratory turns down the slope, making a final check for any sheets of black ice hidden just below the surface of the snow – but there’s nothing. We’ve got a foot of fresh powder on top of a chalky, grippy base. The sun is out, the sky is blue. Everything is perfect. Grant raps down to me, we pull and coil the rope, and then we go skiing.

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Tour Ronde belay entrance, Pete

Tour Rond north face, about to go
Getting ready to set off, with the Grand Capucin, the Breche du Carabinier, and the Aiguille du Midi in the background

Tour Ronde north face, first turns
First turns on the north face

Grant on Tour Ronde north face
Grant enjoying the north face in perfect conditions

Tour Ronde north face in perfect condition
Sunshine and blue skies above the Tour Ronde

Tour Ronde north face, centre of upper snowfield

Grant on Tour Ronde north face, looking down
Grant tunnelling a path to the crux

Tour Ronde north face, looking for the rappel anchors
Looking for an anchor above the ice

Around 150m of skiing through perfect snow at 45 to 50 degrees brings us to just above the rocks and ice that separate the upper- and lower-halves of the face. We know that there is a bolted anchor hidden in the rocks somewhere beneath us, but we are wary of getting too close to the edge whilst looking for it, so we find a sturdy-looking rock and tie it up with some tat to make our first rappel, and then from the bolts we make another rap down to a faded-but-fat rope sling around a solid flake. Our third thirty metre rappel drops us just beneath the point in the 60 degree gulley where the grey ice turns back into deep, soft snow, which encourages us back onto our planks in spite of the angle of the slope. We manage a couple of tight turns in the narrow gulley before it opens out onto the lower snowfield, still gloriously-steep, but a wide expanse of untracked powder which empties out onto the easy-angled Glacier du Geant a few hundred metres below us, and after a quick hop over a barely-noticeable bergschrund followed by some mellow, sunny turns down a relatively-untracked Vallee Blanche, we are on our way to the train at Montenvers.

Exiting the central gulley of the Tour Ronde north face

Looking back up at the ice crux of the Tour Ronde north face

Tour Ronde north face, after  Grant and the Tour Ronde north face

We make it up the stairs and onto the last train with just a few minutes to spare. We realise that we lost quite a bit of time, obviously, with our apparently-unnecessary rope faff up at the top of the line, and knowing the face a little better now we’d probably feel a lot more comfortable with dropping straight in, provided we were confident about the snow conditions. Similarly, now that we know the exact rock that the bolted anchor is on at the central crux, we could probably ski straight to it and dispense with the extra rappel we made. But peace of mind is a wonderful thing to have, especially if all it costs is a few minutes of ropework, and it helped us immensely on this terrifically-exciting day out.

It’s hard to believe that we managed to score our first descent of this incredible classic in such good conditions, and whilst I’d absolutely love to plan for a return trip in the future, I think it we’d have to be pretty lucky to have the place all to ourselves again with such good snow. But we can always hope.

Thanks Grant for another awesome day in the hills, and for pretty much all of the decent pictures scattered across the page. I did manage to get enough video footage to staple together a short documentary of the day though, set to a ridiculously-rocking cover by Blue Murder of the Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park. Enjoy.

Posted in Aiguille du Midi, Black Crows, skiing, video | 2 Comments

Col du Plan north face, 20/04/16

Fear, I think, is one of the more useful emotions we have at our disposal. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is great, it’s absolutely smashing, and it’s definitely the preferred state of mind to while away the hours with, but at times it runs a little counter-productive in the task of keeping us alive, as we seem to have evolved or adapted to enjoy all kinds of unhealthy and dangerous things, like sunbathing and sugar, or drinking fizzy wine until the small hours of the morning, or throwing ourselves out of planes or off of mountains or into the sea, you know, the good things in life. Sadness and anger, too, strike me as a case of faulty programming, as they don’t really provide any benefit to a body other than creating an interesting contrast between delight and despair, and they have an annoying habit of clouding one’s judgement, of further muddying the waters in an already confusing world. The decisions you make when upset are seldom the correct ones.

Fear, though, is essential for continued survival. Fear is your body’s way of telling you to wake the fuck up and pay attention, and the adrenalin shot you get from a sudden burst of terror is stronger than even the darkest of Italian espresso. It sharpens the senses, quickens the reflexes, it tenses your muscles in preparation for the whole fight-or-flight thing. It forces you to take a good, hard look at the problems you are facing, and to think them through. It makes you faster, stronger, and more intelligent.

A short while ago, as part of a rambling apology for the thick, snowy blanket of recent inactivity on this “web log”, I hastily scribbled down the idea that it wasn’t as easy to write about the experiences you have when you are simply happy and enjoying yourself, as it is to write about those when you are cold or exhausted or terrified. Well, here we are, there’s no two ways around the fact: if you happen to make any kind of reasonably-big mistake, you’ll die. That’s simply the nature of an E4 descent, and, standing as we are at the top of one, I am shitting myself.

Col du Plan north topoCol du Plan north face, toponeige 5.3 E4, photo by Ben Briggs

As my gaze makes its way down the steep slope to the sudden, formidable, and most-certainly fatal drop of the hanging seracs crumbling away at the end of the glacier a few hundred metres below our feet, I am struck by an almost irresistible urge to pull the plug, to turn to Grant and demand that we ski a simple Grand Envers back down to the safety of Chamonix under a blazing sun, and I get a pretty strong feeling that Grant is thinking exactly the same thing.

But the quivering terror churning deep within my guts forces me to think logically: we have skied steeper slopes before, and in much worse snow. Having studied topos and reports from the route for hours on end in the years leading up to this moment, we’ve got more than a vague idea of where we are going. After spending most of yesterday sliding down the same mountain on a slightly-different aspect, we are reasonably certain that the snow we find is going to be safe and stable. We know our ropes and we’ve got enough of them; we’ve got tat and tiblocs and tea. Crucially, and, all modesty aside for just a few seconds, we are both quite good skiers, and we know this, despite the occasional and inevitable goggle-flinging yard sale on easy-angled meadow skipping that we all experience every now and then.

The cogs and gears deep within our brains grind away as they perform the mental gymnastics of weighing the pros and cons, the risks and rewards. Then it all becomes clear: we can do this.

*

Midi

But my, what a difference from the day before! We arrive early, expecting another scrum of skiers looking for something steep, but it seems most people’s coin toss took them to the north faces in the Argentiere basin today, and the Midi is almost deserted. There are only about forty people here but, regardless, the staff at the ticket windows are still giving out the plastic tokens reserved for the busiest of days. As is traditional, they begin with number 9, but the first bin isn’t even slightly full before they have to move on to the number 10 tokens, one of which Grant presses into my hand as he scuttles towards the turnstyle. I gather my scattered belongings together and trot after him.

“Look, there’s no-one here!” one exasperated guide, his two clients at his heel, splutters to the gatekeeper as we squeeze past him. “Can’t we just get on without the chit?” The liftie shakes his head and waves flamboyantly towards the caisse.

We feel rushed. I have no time to finish my coffee, to eat my pain au chocolat, to strap my skis and poles together. I bumble into the first bin, untightened harness flopping around my buttocks. In the confusion, I spill some coffee on an Italian man’s bag, but he doesn’t notice and I’m not brave enough to apologise unprompted, so I hide. At the midstation we are awarded a few minutes whilst waiting for the upper lift, and as I scan the face through my binoculars, spotting just three tracks left the day before, I notice the people by my side looking at the same bit of mountain: it’s a team of Chamonix celebrities, and I worry that our enthusiastic amateur attempt will result in dropping sluff on their, obviously, much quicker and slicker descent. But after a quick chat I’m relieved to find that they have their eyes on a much bigger prize, and with no other likely-looking candidates making their way on to the lift up to the summit of the Midi, it looks like we’ll have the descent all to ourselves.

Aiguille du Midi map
Aiguille du Midi map, click to view larger

Midi-Plan
The Midi-Plan ridge, photo by Adrian Earlyup

Once out of the ice tunnel and down the ridge to the almost deserted plateau, I take a moment to reflake a hastily-coiled rope and stash everything in the right pockets, then we skate down the Midi-Plan ridge towards the Col du Plan, stopping briefly to peer into the optional first entrance, by the Tournier spur. A poke with a ski pole suggests hard, wind-buffed snow, skiable but exposed, and a little too engaging for this early in the day. On to the col we go, and the lower, more predictable, slightly less-terrifying entrance to the route.

From glorious sunshine on the first pitch of the Grand Envers, we step through the narrow rocky breche and into the shade on the north side of the col, where we finally get a good look at the target. Just a few metres below us the snow looks good, no, the snow looks great, but the steepest section at the top has a hidden layer of ice just below the surface. There are people who would just drop straight in and ski it like champions, but we aren’t them, and I think it’s better to be thought of as a big girl’s blouse than to end up in a splintered heap at the bottom. So after finding a bomber anchor in the rocks to skier’s right of the col, Grant puts me on belay and pays out a few big loops of slack, and I enjoy some tethered turns down the first fifty metres of the slope, but after the first fifteen or so, my ski edges stop making contact with the icy layer underneath the fresh snow, and soon I have nothing but deep, cold snow under my feet. I call up to Grant, who adds his strand to the rope we already have out, and raps down to join me. We pull the ropes, coil them carefully, and then we are all alone on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, grinning like idiots.

Rap into Col du Plan
Grant rapping down the first section of the Col du Plan

Col du Plan top
Looking down the north face with nothing but air and good snow below us

Grant on first pitch of Col du Plan
Grant skiing the upper slopes

Grant skiing Col du Plan
Grant enjoying some steep

Pete skiing Col du Plan
Pretty bloody decent snow on the north face

Pete skiing Col du Plan 2

A few hundred metres of steep, soft skiing takes us down to the spine that borders the right-hand side of the face, where Grant digs through the fresh snow around the rocks for the first of the two rappel anchors that will drop us into the lower couloir. As I ski down to join him, a growing sound of rushing wind fills the air. “Oh shit,” I think, assuming the worst for the noise and turning my head to look behind me. “Avalanche. We’re fucked,” but it’s only a speed rider. He slashes three huge arcs across the lower half of the face, banking hard under his tiny wing, then he looks up towards us with a scream of “Kiaii!” and throws into a barrel roll as he launches off the end of the serac below us. There are similar tracks peeling off of all the other hanging glaciers along the north face of the Midi, as a dozen speed riders make use of a bluebird day with fresh snow and no wind. Just another day in Chamonix.

Speedriders galore
A few seconds after being buzzed by a speed rider

The received wisdom from various sources for the 60m rappel in the middle of the descent is to do it as two separate raps of 30m, and it’s easy to see why, as a slight diagonal leftwards-lean through a network of flakes and chimneys could easily see a knot jamming halfway down when you pull your ropes. For this reason I think it’s definitely worth it to bring a pair of 60m ropes anyway, and just to put up with the extra weight. We must have brought 59m ropes today though, because our first rappel on a single rope doubled-over only saw us to the second anchor with a little bit of rope stretch and long arms, but the important thing is we got there. The second anchor is an intricate network of tat and nuts that might not look the neatest, but at least you are given an exciting range of options for which bits you want to clip, and then the second rappel drops you comfortably at a wide, shallow-angled ledge, where it’s fairly easy to stamp out a platform to get your planks back on your feet.

Grant leads the way down the couloir whilst I coil the rope carefully again, knowing that we’ll probably need it again in a short while, then when Grant tucks into the side out of the way, I make my way down past him. We still have deep, soft snow, but sluff-carved runnels and steep sides in the narrow couloir make the skiing down here a little more technical than it was up on the face, and tight little jump turns are the ticket all the way down to the top of the final crux of the day, a bulge of rock that squeezes the couloir into a narrow, icy gap. There are some pretty entertaining photos to be found of people just launching themselves over this when there is good snow, but we are not them, so I pick my way across to one of the anchors a few metres above the difficulties – there are two good anchors, one on either side of the couloir – and I get the rope out again, throwing the strands out into the middle of the couloir so that Grant can swing by and pick them up whilst I stay clipped to the anchor. We make our final rappel with skis on feet, stash the rope, and then the difficulties are over for the day.

After the crux, the couloir opens up considerably, the near-bottomless snow has been carved into playful troughs and airborne-inducing spines by gentle spindrift sluff, and we are treated to another few hundred metres of unbelievably-beautiful skiing. But all good things must come to an end, and once the north-facing couloir has emptied onto the west-facing slopes beneath the Aiguille du Plan, we are forced onto endless fields of the most unpleasant sun-crusted avalanche debris imaginable, the inevitable remnants of yesterday’s glorious blue skies.

Col du Plan topo

We pick our way slowly back to the midstation under an endless blue sky and a blistering sun with speed riders soaring over our heads every now and then, and when we reach the buvette we scatter our gear around the nearest table before I head inside to order some drinks.

Deux bières s’il vous plaît, madame,” I beam.
“Bien sûr, grand ou petit?” she asks.
“Oh, grand, pourquoi pas? Nous sommes en vacances!” I reply.
“Ah, d’où êtes-vous visiter?”
“De Chamonix, mais nous sommes en vacances sur l’Aiguille du Midi pour quelques heures…”

Grantplanks in Col du Plan exit couloir
Grant’s planks looking down the first half of the couloir

Grant in lower couloir of Col du Plan
Grant making his way down the upper half of the couloir

Pete in Col du Plan exit couloir, saute
Hop turns in the narrow section before the final icy crux

Pete in Col du Plan exit couloir again
Ropes coiled, leaping away from the rocky step

Pete at the bottom of Col du Plan exit couloir
Incredible skiing on the final slopes

Victory beer
Beer and pastries for the victory dance

(Thanks to Grant for a phenomenal day out in the mountains and the fantastic photos, I’ll bring an actual camera one day instead of my grainy little camera phone; thanks also once again to Adrian Earlyup for the photo of the Midi waiting room and the Midi-Plan ridge)

Posted in Aiguille du Midi, Black Crows, Plan d'Aiguille, skiing | 2 Comments

Two Days on the Midi: Cosmiques, Rond, Passerelle, West

Cosmiques Couloir, 18/04/16

Charlie Edwards, approach to Cosmiques CouloirCharlie, Dan, Gareth making their way to the Cosmiques in fresh snow

Pete rapping into Cosmiques 180416
Me rappelling into the Cosmiques, photo by Dan

Swirling clouds with the occasional tiny patch of blue. A light on-off drizzle in town. There are six skiers in the nearly-empty first bin at the Midi, along with a few teams of climbers armed with either approach skis or snowshoes. Under a bright blue sky, Dan and I are the first to clip in to our skis on the ridge, perched high above the clouds down in the valley. We each have a go at knocking sluff down the south face before the traverse to the west, where the four of us take it in turns take it in turns to stamp down the new snow on our way up to the col.

We have a quick look at the Rond, but the entrance is dry and wind-scoured, a tangled mess of the old cable car wires and grey ice. The top of the glacier looks bare, and the exit couloir is hidden by a thick bank of sluggish cloud, so we turn around and sidestep back to one of the many rappel stations littering the top of the Cosmiques couloir, which looks sheltered, cloudless (for now), and beautiful. Gareth makes the first rap, and then juggling our two pairs of thirty metre ropes, the four of us quickly make the three rappels down and out of the wind, and into a good 50cm of fresh snow. The skiing, though quite dramatically sluffy at times, is spectacular.

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Looking down into the Cosmiques, Charlie is in there somewhere…

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Gareth and Dan on the exit junction of the Cosmiques

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Dan and Gareth on the edge of the Bossons glacier

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Charlie on the Bossons glacier

The forecast has promised some “fleeting sunny spells towards the middle of the day”, but two thirds of the way down the Cosmiques couloir, that seems to be optimistic at best. Visibility drifts somewhere between ten and a hundred metres, and we have to ski relatively close together on our way across the edge of the Bossons glacier and back to the traverse. The wind picks up, the snow falls heavier and heavier, and the weather gets a fair bit worse than any of us had expected according to whatever meteo we chose to believe. Moving carefully through the impenetrable fog and taking the appropriate steps for risk management, we make it to the top of the Para face and the old lift station, where we are joined by four others; a pair who rapped into the Cosmiques just behind us and a couple of French guys from the Rond. Given the worsening weather, we all decide that we are done with traversing, so we ski the Para face down to treeline, then walk back down to town.

This is very short and preposterously-clichéd video that, though quite pointless, captures the atmosphere of the day remarkably well.

 

Glacier Ronde, Passerelle Couloir, West Couloir, 19/04/16

It’s no surprise: given the vast amounts of new snow and a horizon-spanning blue sky, the queue for the Midi is just as expected, out the door, and there is a scrum at the ticket window for the plastic tokens that secure your place on the lift. The announcement crackles over the tannoy: deneigement et des problemes techniques, informations a dix heures. A theatrical groan rises from the congregation.

People drift across to the boulangerie to while away the morning with a croissant and another cup of coffee, but as zero hour approaches, the familiar faces from all of the best ski porn videos take their places near the front of the line, and overheard snippets of conversation between people packed shoulder-to-shoulder make reference to Cosmiques, Rond, Passerelle. It’s going to be a busy day on the west face of the Aiguille du Midi. The tannoy pops back into life: “Mesdames et Messieurs, l’ouverture de l’Aiguille du Midi est à dix heures.” Cheers, applause, the excited shuffling of four hundred ski boots.

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Grant waiting for the next bin

I manage to squeeze my way on to the third bin, leaving Grant and Charlie in the queue for bin four, but I’m more than happy to wait on the bridge between the two summits of the Midi and watch the show for a few minutes. A team of three, obviously from the first bin, are halfway through their first rappel down into the Passerelle Couloir, and as I scan the rocks below us looking for the next few anchors, two skiers with perfect form slash a couple of high-speed turns across the Rond and into the exit couloir. I can’t help but mutter a plea for the lift to hurry up, for my friends to arrive. They do, and as we pass the Passerelle hopefuls, I beg them to leave some snow for us. “We’ll be back for lap two!”

Out of the tunnel and down the ridge, a few metres of skiing, the long traverse under the orange rock of the south face of the Midi. A dozen people are already queueing for the rappel into the Cosmiques, another handful are hot on their heels, and yet more people are plodding up the hill behind us, towards the Rond. We pick our way down over the entrance ridge, the rocks and wires mostly buried now by new snow – the wind must have eased off relatively early yesterday. By now five or six people have torn down in front of us already, and the higher, steeper part of the face has sluffed off most of it’s fresh powder, leaving firm-but-grippy snow underneath, but the shallow gulley to the right of the glacier has held it, and skis damn well, as does the exit couloir, and the magnificent people from the first bin have already put in the traverse and bootpack back to the midstation. At this point, Charlie leaves us for an admin afternoon, but Grant and I are soon soaring once more to the top for another go.

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Grant and I making our way to the Rond, thanks to Adrian Earlyup for the picture

Grant on the Rond
Grant on the Rond

Charlie on the Rond
Charlie on the Rond with the Aiguille du Midi and Passerelle couloir behind

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Charlie in the Rond exit couloir below the Midi

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Charlie in the Rond exit couloir

Grant Rond exit
Grant in the Rond exit couloir

Grant on the Rond traverse
Grant on the traverse back to the lift

Nicely warmed up by the Rond and eager for more, we stick our necks over the parapet of the passerelle, and are shocked to see that the team of three from our first walk across the bridge are still on their way down. They are past the second anchor but they are taking a pretty long time, and we dither for a few minutes as to what we should do. Would dropping a pair of ropes on them make life too difficult or dangerous, would we make things better or worse for them? But one of the group is hiking back up to their last anchor, and we realise that their rope is stuck. That decides it: Grant takes the lead on each rappel, and when he reaches their ropes, he unties their tangle and saves the day. He should probably get a medal.

We are nearing the end of our third rappel when the shouts of commotion ring down the steep walls of the couloir. Another team of four have started to abseil in after us, and as the another member of the team starts the vertical, free-hanging section of the rappel, the extra weight of the skis on his rucksack pulls him over backwards, and once inverted, he can’t right himself. “No, no!” one of his friends at the anchor below him cries as he unclips his bag, which takes the quickest route that it can down the couloir. There is a loud crash and a continuing clatter as the bag impacts again and again on the steep rock walls, one ski pops off, followed by the other, and they add their own high-pitched cracks to the din as they flutter-bounce down the couloir towards us. “Attention!” I scream down to Grant and the guys below us, unnecessarily in French, but they must have heard the racket already, and at any rate the bag slides to a halt about twenty metres above me.

Justifiably worried that someone else might use me for target practice, I quickly finish my rappel, and once we’ve stashed the ropes, put our skis back on the feet where they belong, and waited for the team in front of us to skip across the Rond to the exit couloir and out of the way of any sluff we might dislodge, we get to enjoy the goods.

Passerelle rappelGrant rappelling into the Passerelle couloir

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A free pair of Black Crows skis above us, thanks to Adrian Earlyup for the picture

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Grant in the Passerelle

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Me in the Passerelle

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Grant enjoying some rather good snow

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Grant nearing the Rond

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Me nearing the end of the Passerelle couloir

Somewhere close to 50cm of fresh powder sees all the way down to the Rond, where we ignore the regular exit on the opposite side of the glacier, and instead peel off right towards the terrifying drop of the hanging seracs, but a short climb on the right bank of the glacier brings us to the col at the entrance of the West Couloir. At the steep, narrow col, we find a ridiculously-friendly French dude waiting for his two friends to catch up. He already has his alarmingly-skinny rope out to make a single diagonal ten metre rappel over some mixed ground to the skiable slopes, which he offers to us to use. This is a huge gamble on his part, he doesn’t know us, and he has no idea whether or not we are total idiots. I know people who have had whole days out ruined by some numpty stranger hanging on the end of their rope for hours on end, but we obviously look trustworthy enough for him to lend us his line for a few minutes, which is quite reassuring.

Merci mec! C’est super sympa, il y a une pichet pour vous à Elevation!” we call up to him, clipping in to our skis once again, and receiving a grin and two thumbs up in reply. But just as we are getting ready to go, an insistent hissing noise seethes down one of the gulleys opposite us, feeding directly into the couloir. As the day wears on and the sun carves its way across the sky, several west-facing hanging snowfields above us are being exposed to direct sunlight, and shedding their fragile load. Now more than ever, we agree, we need to follow proper procedure and ski the following pitches one at a time, find somewhere clever to tuck in and watch for the other, and shout like hell if we see anything following us down. The occasional sun sluffs aren’t distressingly huge, but they’d certainly knock you off your feet and take you for a ride, so we decide to pay attention to what we are doing for a few minutes. But our biggest concern for the day, an ice runnel in a narrow constriction during the lower half of the descent, where we were worried we might have to spend an inordinate length of time getting the rope out again for another rappel, is under a few feet of new snow, and we can ski straight over it. Soon enough, too soon, we are out of the couloir and under the fearsome hanging seracs at the end of the Rond, where the angle eases and we can let rip with huge, high-speed turns, before joining the traverse back to civilisation once again.

But once we join the small crowd at the old lift station and share some chatter with our three friends from the depths of the Passerelle Couloir, we decide that although it’s a little late in the day to be up on the west face under a blistering sun for lap three, we haven’t finished skiing. So after a quick cup of tea we point our skis downhill once again for some final fast turns on some Para face powder, until the snow turns to slush and then to thigh-screaming soup, and, finally, pine needle and puddle. We walk down through the steaming forest as the last of yesterday’s snow melts from the trees above us, grateful for the refreshing shower on our sweaty faces as Chamonix draws closer and closer, and with it, the promise of chips and beer on the sunny-drenched terrace at the Monkey.

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Grant at the top of the West couloir

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Me in the narrow “crux” of the West… no crux today!

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Grant exiting the West crux

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Grant on the easy-angled slopes below the West

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Me underneath the Rond seracs

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Grant and the beautiful north-west face of the Aiguille du Midi

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A pretty good day, really…

Grant, the long walk home
Grant enjoying a stroll through the nature

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The long walk home

(Thanks to everyone for the skiing: Dan Pobega, Gareth Hughes, Charlie Edwards and Grant Fulton, and to Adrian Earlyup who we shared the Rond exit couloir with; thanks to Dan, Grant, and Adrian for the photos that aren’t mine; and sorry to the French guy at the top of the West couloir, who we lied to, because there isn’t a pichet of beer waiting for you at Elevation, yet. Sorry.)

Posted in Aiguille du Midi, Black Crows, Cosmiques, Plan d'Aiguille, skiing, video | 4 Comments

January… February…

I haven’t been writing any short stories about the things I’ve been doing in the mountains. I don’t really know why, because I’ve had the spare time. I might have just run out of different ways to say “and then we skied some more nipple-deep powder”. It’s actually fairly hard to write anything interesting about having fun, it’s much easier to write about the experiences when you are cold, hungry, exhausted, terrified…

Anyway. After a depressingly-dry start to the season here in Chamonix, winter finally began somewhere in the middle of January, and since then we’ve had regular and generous top-ups of fresh snow. I’ve mostly just been touring in the woods with my dog and enjoying a bit of storm touring, but I’ve managed to throw some bigger objectives into the mix as well, including a few new descents.

Now, with each new snowfall, the couloirs up high have started filling in and the holes in the glaciers are covering over. I hate to jinx it by saying it out loud, but peak touring season looks to be shaping up rather nicely, so let’s all cross our fingers and toes for favourable conditions.

Here are some pictures from the season so far.

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Faceshots on a forest tour with Baldric and Mikael Abrahamsson

DCIM512GOPROLong, lonely tours up the Italian Val Ferret

12615365_449250228597220_1569767070043152494_oA crevasse-strewn descent of the Millieu Glacier, Aiguille d’Argentiere

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IMG_20160121_091036Vallee Blanche laps with Jack Doyle on a Midi powder day

IMG_20160129_082919A dawn raid up Mont Buet with Georgie Fitzgerald

IMG_20160129_092537Baldric tests the stability of the snowpack on Mont Buet

IMG_20160129_110727Georgie and Baldric above a sea of cloud on Mont Buet

IMG_20160204_120052Lunch break snowshoe touring with the Pontoons up in the forest

IMG_20160205_150623King of the forest

Joel CdB1Joel Evans helping to open up a fantastically-atmospheric descent of the north face of the Col du Belvedere, with churning cloud, zero-vis, and howling spindrift

DCIM511GOPROAs I was stepping into my snowshoes at the bottom of the path into the woods, waterskis strapped to my backpack, a group of American girls came over to talk. “Do you know our friend?” one of them asked, pressing a Shane McConkey sticker into my hand.

12778707_10156616362465501_1407024350822310803_oZero-vis powder day on the Grands Montets, but you don’t need to see where you are going with snow this deep.

IMG_20160304_145004_BURST009Baldric in the white room

1907618_10153310380031035_3749452950341067060_nSkinning up to the Col du Passon with Stuart Macdonald

IMG_20160307_113644A perfect Col du Passon with Stuart Macdonald, Tania Noakes, and Georgie Fitzgerald

12828345_10156630327615501_7353259493482577156_oHigh on the west face of the Aiguille d’Argentiere

Dan Belv1Dan Fitzgerald breaking trail to the Col du Belvedere

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All alone in the Berard Valley after opening the north face of the Col du Belvedere

IMG_20160309_131150_BURST0022Dan Fitzgerald destroying a blank canvas on the Glacier du Chardonnet

IMG_20160309_132741_BURST009Dan Fitzgerald in the central couloir, Glacier du Chardonnet Col de Crist skinOn the way to the Col des Cristeaux with Mark Sears, Alex Collins, and Mattias Mattisson

IMG_20160313_125441Alex Collins dropping into the Col des Cristeaux

12694911_455736721281904_3933077908512781638_oOpening the Chapeau Couloir with Nick Draper

12728772_455738257948417_4906219285021677235_nStorm touring in the moyenne-montagne with Nick Draper

12716200_455739834614926_8170665309503783985_oNick Draper on an unnecessarily-deep storm tour descent

10365535_1312509408777702_7484684864059986850_oPowder touring laps on the Plan de l’Aiguille

dan geantDan Fitzgerald opening up the Gros Rognon on a perfect Midi powder day

12829477_10156630327625501_3245219411510924620_oGlacier du Chardonnet

1401390_10156630328130501_6285926959425550324_oInto the central couloir, Glacier du Chardonnet

dogtour01Fresh snow, one dog deep

IMG_20160311_104003Climbing the ladders to the Col de la Buche, behind the Aiguille de l’M

IMG_20160311_120125_BURST007Dan Fitzgerald at the top of the east couloir, Col de la Buche

12828395_10156638441020501_57692030037035693_oEast couloir, Col de la Buche

12823312_10156638441270501_9019012219144602043_oOn the way down to the Mer de Glace after Col de la Buche

A thousand thanks to everyone in these pictures, either in front of or behind the camera, and thank you for sharing your ski days with me. Here’s hoping for some more great skiing in the second half of the season.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Trail Running: Shortcuts

Knocknarea shortcut

With one arm outstretched for balance and the other hovering in front of my face in a futile attempt to brush aside a relentless tangle of hawthorn and bramble, I pick my way carefully along the spine of a crumbling, moss-covered drystone wall, crushed here-and-there into gravel by the occasional rotted tree trunk, having grown, died, and fallen many years after the wall itself was long-forgotten. The haphazard pile of stones is an island in a sea of bracken, thistle and thorn, five-feet-deep and impenetrable, and every broken gap takes time and blood to cross. Baldric follows along close at my heels, sitting patiently whilst I clear the worst of the jungle, avoiding eye contact but exhaling pointedly to voice his disapproval of the decision that brought us here. He knows what I’ve done.

It could have been so much simpler: another five hundred metres of trotting along a quiet road would bring us to the start of an established trail winding its way through the forest then over the moor to the summit of Knocknarea, but suddenly, there’s a gap in the hedge to my right, and I can see an easily-recognisable stand of tall trees about fifty metres above us, marking a prominent junction on one of the very few paths up this hill. If the shortcut works, I can save us at least ten minutes. Through the hedge we go.

One of the supposed hallmarks of an intelligent species is the ability to modify your behaviour as a result of your interactions with the environment around you, that is, to learn from your mistakes. This is a mistake that I’ve made many times before, and I still haven’t learned, so I mentally move the peg with the name of my species written on it down a couple of notches on the scale (sorry, everyone), past orangutans and dolphins, below octopuses and crows, to somewhere around the level of slugs, lobsters, and Daily Mail readers. This time, I mutter to myself as I peel another string of tiny barbed hooks from my stinging legs, I’ll learn: there are no shortcuts on Knocknarea. I know that it would be quicker and easier to turn around and head back to the road, but something at the back of my simple mind won’t let me… the path is now a short distance above us, we can make it if we just knuckle on.

I’m distracted from my toils by the merest hint of a familiar but unexpected smell and, nostrils flaring, I glance around the hidden forest floor, my brain switched instantly to mushroom-hunting mode by the whiff of rotting woodland fungus. There, fifteen feet away in a tiny clearing, a scattered handful of creamy-white caps, and I pick my way gingerly across to them whilst Baldric stays firmly on the wall, tutting loudly. I am greeted by a cluster of Hydnum repandum, the hedgehog mushroom, absolutely delicious when young and tender and springy, but these ones are too old and their flesh would be spongy and bitter, so I leave them alone. They will continue to scatter their spores, and the next time I’m here, whenever that may be, there could quite well be a sizeable crop of these tasty little morsels.

Old hedgehog

I claw my way back to the wall and we press on up the hill, but I feel somehow vindicated for my ridiculous choice of route – if we didn’t endure the trial-by-undergrowth to get here, I would never have discovered this patch of one of the forager’s finest prizes, fairly common back home in the Alps but the first time I’ve found them here in Ireland. The terms obstinate, stubborn, and pig-headed are washed from my thoughts and replaced with the more-favourable synonyms of steadfast and tenacious, and I move the peg with our name on it back up a few places, to somewhere near ferrets and rats. Once more enthusiastic and optimistic about the day, we are soon at the gigantic 5000 year old cairn at the summit of Knocknarea, a thick mist obscuring the incredible view. Broken snow crystals tear past on the howling wind, the thin needles trying desperately to form drifts behind the scant cover of heather and bog moss.

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“Queen Maeve’s Grave” lurking in the mist, built a thousand years before the Pyramids of Giza, and at least 3000 years before Queen Maeve ever lived

Killaspugbrone
Killaspugbrone and its derelict church, where St Patrick is said to have lost a tooth

Dune running
Baldric negotiating the crux of the Strandhill sand dunes, Toposable technical grade 4.3

Strandhill dunes
The mighty Strandhill sand dunes, the tallest of them towering at least 39m over the desolate shores of the raging Atlantic

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A couple of hours later and with 20 of today’s 25km behind us, we are about to reach the summit of Knocknarea for the second time, on our way back home. We’ve yomped over every inch of beach that the area has to offer, around Killaspugbrone and across the end of the runway, up and down every available sand dune past the Strandhill waterfront, through the sucking mud of a receding tide at Culleenamore Strand, and finally over the seaweed and slick rock of Oyster Lane towards the Glen road.

There is a sudden whiff of coal smoke in the wind as we pass the last cottage before the final climb back up Knocknarea, and the fine but persistent rain turns to flurries of hail, collecting on top of the thin drifts from the earlier attempt at snow. At the summit, I notice that Baldric looks much colder than I’ve ever seen him back home, and I realise with a start that I am, too – I’ve dressed, through habit, for the more familiar environment of the French Alps, and a dry cold, which, as long as you keep moving, isn’t really cold at all. But here on the Atlantic coast, today, it’s a savage wet cold, and we are chilled through to the bone. If we were planning to be out overnight, or even for just a few more hours, I would start getting worried, but as it is, we are only a few kilometres from a roaring log fire, a steaming bath, and a hot whisky, through a couple of fields and on the other side of the forest… that forest.

I know where the best place to cross into the trees is, I’ve used it before. But I have an idea forming in the back of my head, just an inkling of a notion, of a coloured line drawn on the map in my head, of a quicker way through the forest, back down to the road, and straight into the bathtub. I look at my dog shivering beside me as we trot along, and I decide that anything we can do to shave a few minutes off our travel time is a good idea, so I take a sharp left turn and plunge into the forest.

Knocknarea Forest

Minutes later, I am stranded in a roiling ocean of winter-hardened gorse, with huge thorny waves towering over my head. I’ve been hooked across the chest by a hanging snare of newly-grown bramble, a spindly green vine looking for something to latch onto and choke the life out of. The tiny razor-sharp barbs slice through my soaked thermal top, but my frozen, unresponsive fingers couldn’t unhook them if I tried. I pirouette slowly, clumsily backwards in an effort to disentangle myself, my useless arms held high above my head as a pathetic mewl dribbles out from between twisted lips.

“You fucking idiot,” Baldric hisses as he squeezes past me, rolling his eyes. “This way…”

The path out of our own private hell grows wider, and we are soon back on the established trail. I move the intelligence peg for the human race back down the scale, to somewhere far below dogs.

 

Posted in dogs, running, water | 1 Comment

A Cluster of Early-season Ski Tours

Buet from Oreb

It’s been a funny old start to this season. We had some sudden, short-lived snow in early October, but summer carried on until the very end of November, then autumn lasted two days, and in the space of 48 hours we went from cragging in T-shirts at 2000m to a 150cm snowpocalypse, but then, oddly enough, summer came back, and for weeks on end the Alps sweltered under an enduring high-pressure system.

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Baldric the Wonderdog enjoying the aftermath of the 150cm snowpocalypse, before Summer Part II started

What little snow we had been gifted gradually receded, and anything worth skiing became harder and harder to find. Keen to stretch my legs in an effort to get fit for ski tours later in the winter, however, I found myself leaving the house in the early-morning dark time and time again, resigned to the necessity of carrying my skis on a backpack until at or well-beyond the treeline. This is a small collection of the photos, videos, and sentences I found scattered among the rocks and tree roots of this dry early-season.

Mont Buet, 04/12/15


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The dog and I had decided to stick our noses up the Berard Valley, with no goal other than to get to the refuge and see what things looked like. We managed to follow a skin track on the summer walking trail through the woods for a couple of kilometres, made by three or four people the day before until just a few hundred metres before the refuge, where it peeled off to the left towards the Col du Berard.

Once we’d crossed the river in an almost-dignified manner and found the route ahead surprisingly well-covered, I decided to press on until things started to feel a bit more dangerous than I’d like, but a thin veneer of high cloud kept temperatures down and the snow, happily enough, felt reassuringly stable in the few holes I poked here and there, which encouraged an attempt on the summit.

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So after breaking trail for 1300 of a 1700m climb, the dog and I had the pleasure of declaring Mont Buet open for the winter season. Sadly, the clouds thickened a short while before we reached the top, and though the snow was decent enough, flat light made for a scattered, confused descent. A mixed success, but good exercise all the same.

Whilst wandering around this autumn doing a bit of topographical research and filming some time-lapses of clouds and things, I accidentally dropped my terrible little off-brand video camera into a slightly-raging glacial torrent. I managed to fish it out, but the chill had already gotten into its bones, and it video’d no more. So I picked up a second-hand GoPro3, and I’ve been trying to get to grips with some fancier technology. This, for all its faults, is the first result.

 

Col du Belvedere, 08/12/15

Dru sunrise

With just a few days left until the Flegere lifts opened, I wanted to go and enjoy an empty Aiguilles Rouges before the crowds arrived. A 6am start was followed by 1550m of ascent, 1000m of which on foot until Lac Blanc, and the rest with skins up to the col. One could have quite reasonably started skinning a while before that, as the snow was actually pretty good from the Chalet des Cheserys all the way up to Lac Blanc, with only a couple of clickety-clackety bits. But as I wasn’t really sure what the conditions on the ascent were like and I had resolved to turn around and walk down again at the first significant sign of wind slab anyway, I decided to stay bootpacking until I could see a clear line up to the col. A stream was still flowing with running water above the cliffs and, downing half a litre of brain-freezing crystal-clear water, I was glad I had only brought the weight of a pint of tea in my battered and dented thermos.

Lac Blanc
With a thousand metres of bootpack finished, a considerable amount more snow than the last time I was here, and the lake finally, thankfully, well-frozen, its time to switch to skins for the final five hundred metres up to the col.

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Skintrack to the Col du Belvedere
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Mont Buet and the alarmingly-scarred Glacier du Berard, over a hundred metres below the north side of the col. This won’t be (comfortably) skiable for quite a while yet.

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The sunny south side of the Col du Belvedere provides some perfect, silky-smooth spring skiing… in December.

Now, I wasn’t breaking trail for the whole way up today… luckily enough, some kind soul had been out the day before and had put a bootpack in all the way to the lake. She was out again today, and just before switching from skis to shoes on my way down, I bumped into her and stopped for a chat, so I could thank this sprightly septuagenarian for putting in the track. We both agreed – the Aiguilles Rouges are wonderful when the Flegere lifts are closed.

 

Aiguilles Crochues, Sommet Nord, 10/12/15

The day after my trip to the Col du Belvedere was dull and grey, and the valley was flecked with drizzle: the perfect opportunity for a lie in. That afternoon through swirling cloud and a pair of binoculars, fresh snow could be seen high above the treeline… a mere dusting, but still more than there had been for weeks. The skis were strapped once again to a backpack and an early alarm set.

A 6am start, another 1600m of ascent, and an incredible sunrise across the glowing red gneiss of the Aiguilles Rouges followed by a brilliant blue sky. Once again, the whole place is deserted, and there is no-one around with whom to share the completely-unexpected carpet of almost 10cm of fresh powder snow. Selfishly, I find myself wishing once more that the Flegere lifts stay closed – I like having this place to myself.

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I was originally aiming for either the Col des Dards or as far as possible up the Glacier des Dards towards the Aiguille du Belvedere (pictured above), but with a few small patches of windslab on some of the more south-facing slopes and anything leaning south-east already soaking up the suns rays and turning a bit soupy, it looked as though the north-east-facing slopes leading up to the north summit of the Aiguilles Crochues would be a much safer bet. I managed to get to just about twenty metres below the summit when a few rock bands blocked my way, and since I was traveling light without axe or crampons, I didn’t really see the need to carry on to a summit I’ve enjoyed many times before. So after a quick slurp of tea and a few brief moments of watching the choughs dance on the breeze, I turned around and went home, scoring around 800m of untracked, ankle-deep powder. Not much compared to some years, but quite a prize for this low-snow start to the season.

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Mont Buet: Les Tours and the Glacier de Tre Les Eaux, 13/12/15

This beautiful descent that tears its way down the sunny south face of Mont Buet to a notch on the Arete des Cristaux formed by a schism between two distinct geological layers (the gneiss of the Aiguilles Rouges to the south and the limestone of the Haut Giffre to the north), before turning to the north down a long, narrow finger of glacier, and then finally winding its way down the beautiful Val de Tre les Eaux, had been at the centre of my thoughts for months, and I spent most of the autumn running, hiking and cragging around Mont Buet and Mont Oreb with almost the sole purpose of trying to get a good look at it from every angle. I made regular trips to see how the very first snows that had fallen back at the start of October were holding up on the Glacier de Tre Les Eaux, sheltered under the imposing north-east face of Mont Buet and hidden from the sun behind a funny lump of rock called Le Gros Nol.

Alex in front of Mont Buet and the Gros Nol

Alex Collins (http://masteringdiabetes.net/) in front of the magnificent north-east face of Mont Buet and the shady Gros Nol in early October, just after the first snow of the autumn, and the only snow we’d see for at least another five weeks.

Now, with over 1700m of ascent, skiing Mont Buet is always a long slog regardless of which route up or down you take, but escaping the Val de Tre Les Eaux this early in the season, before the river canyon at the bottom of the valley has been filled with enough snow for a clean ski descent, makes for a particularly long day out, as the alternative involves a little bit of hiking, climbing, and via ferrata over the summer walking trail at the foot of the south face of the Aiguille de Loriaz

I got an early start, wanting to be away from the huge south face of Mont Buet before it had spent much time in the sun. I preferred the idea of being too early in the day and chattering down bullet-proof refrozen snow on reasonably-sharp edges to the alternative, of being too late and having the entire south face empty on top of me in the rapidly-warming, spring-like conditions. So I started running up the Berard Valley just before 4am, switching to skis a few hundred metres from the refuge once most of the bare rocks lay hidden beneath the thin snow cover, and, trying fruitlessly to ignore the ridiculously pretty sunrise over my right shoulder, I was at the summit by half-nine.

Sunrise on Mont Buet Mont Buet summit Mont Blanc from Mont Buet
Mont Buet summit looking north Val de Tre Les Eaux
Buet south face
The ski down the south face was as much of a bone-shaker as I’d imagined, but after another quick skin up to Les Tours and a traverse towards the Gros Nol, there followed a good few hundred metres of cold, pristine, north-facing snow down to the Tre Les Eaux glacier, and some skiing decent enough to make up for the, frankly, hilarious struggle on the way back to the village of Le Buet. All things considered, I might wait until the snow cover is a little more predictable lower down before repeating this route, but spending hour upon sweaty hour hopping through streams and down rock slabs and picking pine needles from your hair certainly adds a bit of value to the day.

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This is a short music video about this unbelievably-enjoyable day out.

 

Mont Buet, 15/12/15

Today was the last chance I had to go skiing before going on holiday to Ireland for Christmas and New Year, so I teamed up with Georgie Fitzgerald for one last trip up one of my favourite mountains. More of the same: an early start, another 1700m of top-quality uphill exercise, some less-than-brilliant snow on the descent, and a little full-on combat skiing and exhausted trudging at the bottom of the Berard Valley to get home again.

Mont Buet, Les Tours Mont Buet, Arete de la Mortine Buet summit Baldric on Buet Baldric on Buet2

I’ve noticed that whilst Baldric moves around more than enough to keep warm on both the uphill and downhill sections of a day, the time that we spend faffing around with skins or drinking tea leave him shivering. So I decided to invest in a nice new belay jacket for him to lounge around in when we reach the summit. Only thirty five euros from Technique Extreme – bargain.

Buet descent, Vallon de la Diosaz Buet descent, Georgie on Arete de la Mortine Baldric on Buet3

*

Well, that’s it, my rather dry early season, rock-and-root filled as it was. As I write these words beside a roaring log fire on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, during a relatively-peaceful lull between two tropical storms in a seemingly never-ending string of them, after perhaps the worst start to a winter in living memory, the French Alps are finally starting to get the snowfall they deserve and so-desperately need. With any luck, by the time I make it home to Chamonix next week, a lot of the scarier holes in the glaciers will be filled-in, there’ll not be quite so many sharks lurking in the seas of the Grands Montets, and we won’t have to spend quite so much time walking to get to and from the good bits of skiing.

Merry Christmas and all the best for 2016, everyone!

Canoedle

 

Posted in Aiguilles Rouges, dogs, skiing, video, Volkl Nunataqs | 2 Comments

Aiguille du Chardonnet: Debruyne-Manu/Gabbarou 79, 10/10/15

Aiguille du Chardonnet north face dawn

A short while ago, Nick Draper and I wandered up to the Albert Premier hut with the intention of going up the Chardonnet. We were intending to do the Goulotte Aureille Feutren, a long walk followed by a pitch or two of mixed, then two pitches of 4+ ice, then a snowy plod up to the top, but it was pissing spindrift constantly as though someone had turned a tap on, so we rummaged around a bit further to the right and did some sort of melange of the Debruyne-Manu and Gabbarou 79 instead.

Despite having to take the high road (towards the Col Sup du Tour) instead of the direct route across the glacier because of gaping crevasses, and breaking trail through fresh snow all the way up to the start of the route, we made the summit in good time, but a completely different set of gaping crevasses caught us out on the way down, and we were still trudging around in the snow when it got dark. Thankfully, we found our in-trail before we got too bored of it all, and we could follow our footsteps back to the Albert Prem.

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Mixed pitch, Chardonnet
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Sunset on the Chardonnet

There are all kinds of exciting words and pictures over at Nick’s story telling internet cave, so I don’t really feel the need to repeat much of what he’s already said. I did, however, make a short music-video-cum-documentary about the conditions and dance moves that were present on the Aiguille du Chardonnet around early-mid October, so I hope it’s helpful to some.

Posted in climbing, Le Tour, video | 2 Comments

Ski Running: Col du Belvedere, 29/09/15

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Once again, I am witness to one of my favourite scenes of Chamonix: the Aiguilles Rouges coming to life under a rising sun, from dark to dawn to daylight. The wind blowing across the mouth of the light aluminium ice axe strapped to my backpack whistles its hollow tune, and the raucous bellow of rutting ibex drifts up from the cliffs below me.

One of the many unpleasant things about being a trail runner is the sudden shock of a heavy backpack at the end of summer, as the trainers and tights are hurled into the cupboard and replaced by skis, boots, and glacier gear. This year I’ve decided to ease the transition by taking more weight out with me a little earlier on, and following a thermos-weight jog up Mont Buet, armed with tea and binoculars, it was a joy to see that summer had softened its warm, sweaty grasp on the mountaintops, allowing a nice thick layer of snow to accumulate on the north-facing side of the Aiguilles Rouges. The glacier under the Col du Belvedere started calling out to me, begging me to hike up to it with my heaviest bag yet.

Aiguille du Belvedere north face, September

The Aiguille du Belvedere and the Glacier du Berard, seen from the south face of Mont Buet, September 28th

 


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Upon reaching the col, freezing winds send screaming billows of cloud up the narrow north-facing couloir, and the glacier far below lies hidden from sight. Wearing every item of clothing I’ve brought and dancing maniacally to fight off the cold, I bemoan the prospect of having to retrace my steps and trudging back down to Argentiere, but after an hour of waiting, the clouds split, the raging dawn winds abate, and a crevasse-scarred but pristine-white glacier appears through the mist.

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If we’re being completely honest, it wasn’t a very fair trade: over 1500m of ascent in return for not even 10% of that on skis for the descent, followed by a few kilometres of heavy-footed yomping over moraine, scree, and finally the well-worn but technical trail down the Berard Valley, to the amused but, frankly, pitying laughter from the matriarch of the Hotel du Buet.

Berard Glacier
Col du Belvedere north face, September

In short, it might not have been the best snow the Aiguilles Rouges has ever seen, but it was certainly the best that could be found on that day, and a pleasant-enough morning spent outside.

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This is a short video documentary about ski-running the Col du Belvedere in September. Pretty poor camera work for the actual skiing, but hey ho. It didn’t last long anyway.

Posted in Aiguilles Rouges, running, skiing, video, Volkl Nunataqs | 2 Comments

Trail Running: Mont Blanc 80km, 26/06/15

Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind.
The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
– Mary Schmich

Col de la Terrasse 2

The desperate cry of “Pierre!” tumbles down through the sweating, swearing procession faster than the skull-sized chunk of rock that it’s warning against. I bellow my contribution to the chorus then look up to see if it wants to hit me – no danger, it’ll pass five or six metres wide, to my left, but there is a sudden snap as it bites into the hillside a short distance above me, leaving splinters and shards and a puff of dust as it soars once again into the air with an angry hornet’s drone. Sixty metres below me, a light blue T-shirt sacrifices precious hard-won metres and scuttles back down the slope, out of the path of the rock as it follows the call of its name before plunging into the snow with a spray of slush and a satisfying “whumph”, and the warning cries fade to silence.

As grateful as we are for the diversion and the chance to breathe normally for but a few brief seconds, with the excitement over we must return to the task in hand, and once we have been herded through a maze of red tape by a dozen volunteers at the very top of the potentially perilous steep col, after a 1300m climb under a stifling sun through scree, snow, and brittle rock, the second serious ascent of the day is over.

Dealing with the bureaucratic red tape on the Col de la Terrasse
Cheval Blanc from Col de la Terrasse

My spirits soar as I haul myself over the last few rocks, and as my timing chip is swiped by a beeping high-vis vest at our fifth checkpoint, I can finally see the impending descent: there are persistent snows on the north-facing side of the col, allowing for care-free bounding with an open gait over a forgiving-yet-refreshing crash mat if you do take a tumble, and when the slope gets a little steeper, a few hundred metres of speedy glissade on soft snow of a perfect consistency.

“Do this bit on yer arse!” a safety volunteer, perched high on his observatory rock, calls to us as people file towards the deep runnel in the centre of the snowfield, carved by the passage of hundreds of buttocks before us. Not a chance, I scoff, I’m a skier first and a runner an unbelievably-distant second, and I will not have this solitary opportunity for joy in a day of interminable suffering taken from me. Grinning from ear-to-ear and leaking the occasional whoop of delight, I find myself racing downhill shoulder-to-shoulder with a bushy-bearded Canadian in a green T-shirt as we zip past a cluster of bumsliding runners. We emerge, breathless and soaked, at the bottom of the slope, the end of the snow, and immediately launch into a full-pelt run over loose rock, gripless slabs and broken trails, switching leads for the next 4km until we stumble into the clamour and hubbub of the revito station at the Emosson Dam, where the temporary friendship is cast aside by the selfish need to refuel. Thinking back to the all-too-brief glissade descent as I squirt some mango, avocado, and ginger puree into my panting gob, I realise that it’ll be the last taste of happiness I’ll have for a very long time.

Veudale glissade
MB80km, Emosson Dam

*

But my, what a strange way to spend a day. Well over a thousand quite-weird individuals have gathered voluntarily in the centre of Chamonix in the middle of the night so that they can tramp up and down some mountains for a few hours, and they’ve paid good money to do it. Why? For most of us – almost all of us, in fact – there can be no question of winning, of being the first person today to step for the second time over the line that, in another two or three minutes, we will all jostle and shove our way towards. We are confident that there will be no podium to clamber onto once we’ve dragged our stained, smelly, clammy selves back home. We all know that we are going to be thoroughly miserable for at least some of the day, when the various cramps and aches or vomiting and fatigue sets in, and some of us can even predict, quite accurately, the exact point on the course at which our personal ailments will strike.

MB80km start line crowd

Some of us are going to fall over, and for a lucky few it will mean nothing more than a grazed knee or torn shorts, but for others there could be bloodshed or broken bones. Some of us will, despite our best efforts, be taken off the mountain before the race has even been won, if we fail to meet one of the fairly-strict time barriers. Others will make it past each checkpoint towards the end of the allowed time limit, but they’ll still be out on the mountain come nightfall, and they’ll have to endure the final, and arguably most brutal, section of the course by the light of a head torch.

Everyone in the crowd surrounding me knows all of this, and glancing around as I stamp my feet in the chilly pre-dawn, there are a handful of LED-illuminated faces that are visibly terrified. Others appear to be a bit more calm, their eyes closed and head thrown back as they concentrate on their breathing, changing the air in a pair of lungs that will have to work hard today. Some people are laughing and joking with their neighbours, stranger or friend, it doesn’t matter. Sixty seconds.

The reasons we each have for being here, despite the undeniable suffering we will inevitably face, are as unique as our fingerprints. Maybe we enjoy a challenge, maybe we lost a bet. There could be others in the crowd who, like me, are curious to see what the human body is capable of with the luxury of an impeccably-organised safety net beneath you, so that you can apply that knowledge and confidence in your own abilities to whatever else you do in the mountains. Perhaps there’s one or two masochists dotted about who enjoy the sensation of an arse crack rubbed raw, and are prepared to go to extreme lengths to get one. There are, without a doubt, some people here this morning who are only running to pick up three points towards the necessary score of nine for entering the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race twice the length of today’s comparative stroll. So, yes, there are definitely a few masochists amongst us.

MB80km, start line

The music stops, ten seconds. The quiet contemplation as I stand wiggling my toes and stretching my fingers has to cease, there are no more thoughts of what-ifs and why-are-we, there is no starter’s pistol or klaxon or a loud “Go!”, but the countdown has stopped so I suppose now is the time, and to the tune of a hundred cowbells and the applause of god-knows how many, we surge towards the church, shuffling along in a pretend-jog with flashbulbs blinding us as we try not to step on the heels of the people in front, but as the road widens and the hill steepens on our way out of town we have enough room to start swinging our limbs a bit, and with the applause thinning out to an occasional pair of sleepy well-wishers, the soundtrack changes to the hushed scuff of two thousand rubber soles on tarmac. It has begun, we are on our way.

MB80km, head torch traces MB80km, running so fast we are a blur

I’ve run this particular part of the route a few times in the last couple of months, I know what’s coming: I need to overtake as many people as I can right now, or I’ll be stuck in a series of bottlenecks as the trail gets narrower on its way into the woods. Aware that I’ll pay for it later if I try too hard at this early stage, I try and nip past whoever I can when I see a space, whenever the rocky 4×4 track will allow, but before long we are squeezed into single file as our path creeps uphill towards the Col de Bellachat. The line is slowed to a walk as we cross a pile of scree before being funneled through a thick wall of brambles, and most of us have the good manners to stay in single file, but two red skin-tight vests prance over the stones and elbow their way back into the queue on the other side, overtaking at least ten silently-fuming people. Tutting in polite indignation, I vow to overtake every red vest I see today.

“How are you, Pete?” I am torn away suddenly from my train of thought, the all-consuming task of putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again. I steal a glance over my shoulder, I don’t recognise the man. Confusion.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“I’m pretty good Pete, you?” He repeats. I remember, surprisingly slowly, that my name and number is stapled to my side, just above my liver.
“Not too bad for now, but ask me again in an hour…”
Through carefully-measured breaths we discuss races, ski touring, holidays. Janne tells me that it’s hard to train for routes with lots of ascent, such as today, in his native Finland, and I reply that here, it’s hard not to.
My, you’re awfully chatty for someone with another thousand metres of ascent in your immediate future, I think, not unkindly but perhaps quite loudly, because to my thoughts he replies “I think it’s good to talk to people during a big climb like this, it stops you from hyperventilating and keeps you cool.”

Well, I’d never considered that, and I’m not sure the science is totally correct, but you are a lovely chap so I’d be delighted to share some conversation with you. We chatter away as the trees under a starry sky are replaced by alpenrose glowing in the sunrise, but I probably wasn’t keeping him cool enough, because as we climb over the Col de Bellachat and up towards Brevent, he flies off into the future. He will finish two hours ahead of me, in position 49. Maybe I should talk to people more.

MB80km AR topo

The route through the Aiguilles Rouges. Click on the picture to see it a bit bigger.

From Brevent, we have fifteen kilometres until we reach what I think of as the first major milestone of the day, the village of Buet, as the path weaves through the forests above Chamonix, across the Flegere ski area, and into the Aiguilles Rouges nature reserve. Whilst quite technical at times, the trail is one that I’ve run so often that I could almost do it blindfolded, and, feeling healthy and naively-confident at this early stage of the day, I cover the distance quickly and take the lead of a small pack of runners on the steep, rocky descent to the Col des Montets. A pleasantly-simple grassy plod down from the col drops us at Buet and the first crowd of clapping, cheering strangers, and I see the welcome faces of my support crew at the front of the mob. Whilst I squeeze some of my home-made fruit goo down my gullet and gulp down some luke-warm sugary tea, Georgie swaps my shreds of rubbish for fresh fuel and Dan refills my hydration pack with some lemon chemicals. I think about sitting down and soaking up the festival atmosphere for a few minutes, but they turn me around and kick me through the gate, out across the meadow. With 26km and 1900m of up now behind us, we are just under a third of the way around the course.

MB80km, mango, avocado and ginger puree MB80km, Buet meadow

MB80km, Tete, Terrasse and Tour topo

The route over the Col de la Terrasse, past Emosson, and to Le Tour. Click the picture to see it a bit bigger.

As I walk away from Georgie and Dan at the Buet revito and towards our second ascent up to the Col de le Terrasse, the route’s longest, I try to mash a cured ham and cream cheese sandwich into a stomach that doesn’t want it – the very thought of food at this stage adds to a quiet nausea brought on by the sickly energy gels I’ve already started sucking down, despite the soothing ginger in my fibre-rich fruit puree. But the day has barely even started, and I know that if I don’t get some decent fats and complex carbohydrates into me to balance out the sugars in the gels, then I’m as good as finished.

The trail climbs up, steeper and steeper, through lush green forest and over the occasional ice-cold torrent, but the shade and spray does little to detract from the heat of a violent midsummer sun, and as the sweat gushes from my forehead I start to experience my first doubts, and the creeping pessimism slows my stride. Until now I’ve been comfortably overtaking people, fixating on a pair of buttocks in the distance and gradually narrowing the gap until I pip past them, but now as my energy is sapped and my enthusiasm wanes, the hunter becomes the hunted, and I can hear poles tack-a-lacking up the stoney trail behind me like the footsteps of a giant spider, until four bearded, bald, and bandana’d Frenchmen sail past me, barely even sweating. They are followed by others, and more, again and again. My feet start to drag, bouncing off of the tree roots and rocks covered with the corpses of thousands of ants, their panicked comrades swarming to gather the bodies crushed by an endless procession of rubber soles, but they are fighting a battle they can’t win. Allowing myself a little indulgence in melodramatics on account of my exhaustion, I can’t help but think that I know how they feel, and as the trail climbs higher and the scant shade of the forest is replaced by a dusty path through sun-scorched scree, I wallow in my self-pity, internally howling my laments that I’ll have to pull out of the race at the next aid station.

“Oh, putain!” I cry, breaking into a sprint before my brain has told the rest of my body why. The man in front of me, half a biscuit shoved into his gob, has lost his balance and toppled over backwards, sliding a metre and a half from the narrow path over the rocks. I reach down with one arm and we grab each other’s wrist as his friend does the same, and we haul him back up onto the trail. “Ca va?” we ask as he brushes the grit from his grazes, and I notice his dossard is covered with blood, but it’s already dried. I then see that his friend has an impressive wound on his left forearm, with broad carmine ribbons from wrist to elbow, and a painful-looking gash that refuses to scab over. I bring up the rear as the three of us turn back to the climb. Five hundred metres to go.

There are an awful lot of abnormally-fit people living in Chamonix, which, given the nature of the terrain, isn’t exactly surprising. But the exploits and endeavours that some of these superhumans get up to are, quite honestly, beyond belief. You are constantly bombarded with the most preposterous tales of incredible skill and endurance: a new speed record on the Frendo Spur, a solo ascent of the Grandes Jorasses, Kilian has just jogged up Mont Blanc again, someone squeezed a traverse of the Aiguille Verte into their lunch break; just about every other day you hear of something that leaves you mouth agape, brow furrowed, a dumbstruck “How?” half-formed in your throat. For most of us mere mortals it’s a double-edged sword – whilst we draw inspiration from the seemingly-impossible accomplishments that the top-level athletes are capable of, it can also be tempting to think “Well, if they can do it, there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t be able to as well…”, and it’s easy to forget that their capabilities are the result of countless hours of dedicated training, year-upon-year of hard-earned experience, and, usually, a level of devotion to their sport that could be described as slightly-worrying.

As I trudge wearily through the scorching heat behind two others who, limping and blood-stained, look as enthusiastic about the race as I feel, I start to get the impression that my own recent training regime up to this point – working lunch and dinner six days a week in the restaurant, followed by three weeks at sea level in Ireland and the UK, peppered with the occasional bout of moderate drinking, and finally, donating a pint of what little remained of my thick, vital, altitude-conditioned blood to the NHS – might be sorely lacking to perform very well in an Alpine ultramarathon. But whatever mistakes I’ve made in the run-up to today can’t be changed now, and dwelling on them, whilst providing a distracting alternative to the horrific realities of the here-and-now, won’t get me around the course and out of this living hell any quicker. I need a strategy.

The simple fact is that my sea-level lungs cannot cope today with the relentless and repeated ascents at altitude that are the key to success on this course, whereas in the past I’ve had no problem in powering quickly up these steep climbs with my ski-tourer’s legs. But contrary to my previous approach on routes such as these, I make a decision to take it easy on the uphill, to use the time to digest a bit of fuel and pump some caffeine into my blood so that I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in readiness for the descent, where I can make up for lost time.

So once the incessant plodding up to the Col de la Terrasse has given way to the spirit-lifting glissade down the other side, and after taking on supplies and getting a motivational kick up the metaphorical arse from my support crew at the Emosson Dam, I launch head-long into the absurdly-steep descent through the forest as the narrow trail weaves through towering cliffs and past sheer drops, the path slippery with a thick carpet of pine needles. I manage to overtake people and slowly fight my way back through the positions, and once again I find myself leading a small pack of fit-and-sporty runners on the pell-mell charge for Chatelard, the halfway-point of the course. As we bleep through the seventh timing checkpoint, someone claps me on the shoulder and says “That was well descended, mate. Good one,” and although every fibre of my body is aching and I don’t know how much I’ve got left in the tank, I am, for now at least, back in the race.

MB80km, Emosson Dam, descent to Chatelard

Predictably, just a few short minutes later, I am struggling uphill again, clawing my way with gritted teeth up our latest climb of over 1200m, through mushroom-scented pine forests, over ridiculously-pretty Swiss chocolate-box meadows strewn with every possible variety of Alpine wildflower, across twinkling streams and past gushing snow-melt waterfalls. A white-faced young man at the side of the path is emptying his guts onto his shoes; we all pat his shoulder and commiserate on the way past, but I can do no more, if I stay and listen to his retching I’ll be forced to join in myself. Yet as grueling as our current efforts are, with more than 4000m of ascent already behind us today, every step brings with it not only another jolt to weary muscles, but also new-found determination, as each step we take now brings us closer to the finishing line, and not further away from it. As the trail winds its way past the ardent applause of a solitary, beaming volunteer in a high-vis vest, and, finally, up to the breezy summit of L’Arolette at 2330m, the mighty snow-capped dome of Mont Blanc looms into view, and with it, the promise that the end is, if not near, then at least getting nearer.

MB80km, Mont Blanc from L'Arolette

I haven’t puked the energy gel back up, the ibuprofen has kicked in, and I’ve accidentally necked the whole damn bottle of liquid caffeine. I nearly died on the climb up from Switzerland, but now I’m fucking invincible, my legs are a blur, and I’m screaming past everyone that appears in front of me like a fighter plane. I can see through bends in the path and my feet know where to put themselves without even asking my brain. If it could only be like this for the next 30km until the finish line, I’d be there in twenty minutes, and it never once occurs to me that this sudden, fiery burst of exertion might drain me completely and come back to bite me in the arse later on. That doesn’t matter right now, we are flying down to the revito at Le Tour and there’s only one more crushing ascent left to think about. Dan refills my hydration pack with clean, cold water to try and balance out the cocktail of chemicals in my toxic stomach whilst I spray gibberish at Georgie. I toy with the idea of having them donate one of my little bottles of caffeine to my green-shirted Canadian friend when he appears, but my selfish side rears it’s Gollum-like head and stops me, these are my drugs, I’m not sharing them, and I instead ask that they give him only raucous applause. I later find out that he DNF’d at Le Tour, and I am struck with remorse.

MB80km Le Tour revito

Cramming another ham sandwich into my chops as I stagger away from the aid station, I run the numbers through my head for the hundredth time: could it be true, are we only two-thirds of the way around the course? Do we really have to do another 27km and 1300m of ascent before this is over? A familiar face appears beside me: the same guy who congratulated me on the descent from Emosson, who had overtaken me on the climb up to L’Arolette but had dropped behind again as I flew on wings of caffeine and painkillers down to Le Tour. We share a few hundred metres of relaxed strolling through yet another flower-choked meadow, the warm air thick with the hum of honeybees and the inventive chirping of blackbirds, before he pulls away at a brisk pace and calls “You’ll find me again on the next descent, I’m sure,” but I won’t.

A wide, easy trail through the woods clinging to a shady, north-facing hillside takes us through the tiny hamlet of Le Planet and past Argentiere, along the Petit Balcon Nord to Le Levancher and down to the revito at Les Bois, then whilst a pair of apologetic young ladies search our bags to make sure we’re carrying all the mandatory race equipment (with time penalties for those who aren’t), you can stare up at the day’s final climb: yet another steep path through the forest up to Montenvers, perched high on the shores of the shrinking Mer de Glace, under the gaze of the magnificent and imposing peaks of Les Drus and the Aiguille Verte. By this point, too-many hours into a day that doesn’t want to end, any more caffeine wouldn’t do a thing to wake me up, all it’s doing is making my heart hurt a little. But now I feel like it doesn’t matter, I don’t need a brain, and I fall into the motions of our last climb methodically, mechanically, almost in a trance, registering nothing until I rise above the trees and see the final checkpoint at the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille silhouetted on the skyline, still some three kilometres distant, and my determined attempt at progress collapses once more into a disjointed, shuffling despair.

Eventually, somehow, I make it over the final summit before the section of the route I had always feared the most, a relentless descent of nearly 1200m from the Plan de l’Aiguille down to Chamonix, the finish line, home. I suck down a mouthful from my secret weapon, a screw-top pouch of pure honey, but I fear that the rocket fuel of simple sugars might be too-little, too-late. Still, there’s only one way down from here, and with a snarl of defiance that leaves my mouth as more of a pathetic mewl, I muster what little remains of my energy and clump heavily across the alpenrose and splintered granite towards the spindly, wind-blown shrubs at the top of the treeline, and as the hillside tumbles precipitously out of sight and down to town, onwards through the mighty pines of the Grand Bois.

Onwards, downwards, I am passed by a trio of determined-looking runners, and I couldn’t keep up with them if I tried, which I do. We share friendly platitudes as the distance between us grows, nearly there, it’s over, keep going! I’m truly happy for them, better trained, fitter, and more capable as they are, but it’s impossible not to visualise, with a tinge of sorrow, the position counter ticking away as you fall behind. I catch up with someone else, his laboured movements are identical to mine and his face carries the same weary, dazed expression. When the narrow path allows, I squeeze past and slowly draw away from him. Nearly there, we mutter at each other, keep going!

I know this trail like the back of my hand, but the familiar landmarks at the side of the path don’t make sense – someone has moved that pile of fallen trees, this rock used to be lower down – and I can’t use them to measure where I am, how much more of this hateful mountain I’ve got left to descend. An occasional gap in the trees provides a glimpse of Chamonix far below, but it never seems to get any closer. Every footfall I make sends jolts of pain from my toes, stubbed and swollen, through screaming shins and stiff knees, all the way up to burning thighs and creaking hips. It takes every ounce of energy to resist the pull of gravity and stay upright on the inconceivably-steep and perplexingly-technical trail, and it’s almost impossible to plug my feet safely into the maze of twisting tree roots and broken rocks.

“My friend, I thought you liked downhill?” someone cries out as he speeds past me, a familiar face that I don’t remember meeting, his legs a blur, an astonishingly strong finish that I simply can’t comprehend.
“I’m done!” I call after the rhythmic thud of his shoes on the rocky trail. “I’ll see you down there!” But I don’t. He’s long gone by the time I emerge from the torture of an endless descent through the forest and onto the final kilometre of blissfully-flat tarmac through Chamonix’s increasingly-busy streets, past the growing applause of strangers in bars and restaurants and the respectful nod of dusty runners, medals around their necks as they limp away from the finishing line, leaning heavily on wives and girlfriends. Crowd control barriers lined with friendly faces funnel me towards the spot where I had earlier today been stamping my feet and glancing around nervously, and as the cheers and applause blend with the staccato crackle of a loudspeaker into a single, deafening roar, my foot crosses the line, that same cursed line that I had hopped over for the first time nearly seventeen hours ago, and suddenly I don’t have to think about what I’m doing, where I’m going, or how many more bloody metres I’ve got to climb up another bloody mountain. Unable to think, barely able to stand, my support crew press a plastic goblet of booze into my quivering hand, and I am escorted to the closest thing to collapse onto, which I do, and there I remain, for an awfully long time.

MB80km finish line Finish line champagne

*

Well, that’s the end of that one. Days later, my legs can bend in the middle again and the stairs are no longer a considerable obstacle, although walking to the shops still leaves me out of breath. An exhausted body with a weakened immune system has become the temporary home of a hacking cough and nostrils dripping with mucus, but through a carefully-chosen diet of pizza and beer, I’ll fight off the infection in no time. The hastily-blurted protests at the thought of doing anything like this again have given way, inevitably, to sitting down with a map and thinking about where to go next. Because even though the whole experience ranks among the hardest things that I’ve ever done, it turns out that, contrary to what I felt at various times throughout the day, it isn’t impossible, and the thought of how much closer to that line I can get is, I have to say, quite intriguing.

Sausage party in the hot tub

*

I’d like to thank the wonderful Fitzgeraldsies, of skinnylegsphoto.com, not only for being my early-rising, long-suffering support crew throughout the day, but also for most of the beautiful photographs littered throughout the preceding blurb. Go to their website and look at their pretty pictures.

Thank you as well to all of the other runners I met along the way who helped me with kind words and inane chatter, or even just shared a few steps with me. On a race like this, you really aren’t competing with the other runners (at the level I’m running at, anyway), you are competing against the course and the terrain, and you draw strength from each other. It’s a team effort, it’s just that the team is made up of people you’ve never met before.

I was running the race today to try and raise a bit of money for the North West Hospice in Sligo, so I’d also like to thank absolutely everyone who donated to the cause. It was, in all honesty, your generosity that kept me moving during some of the darkest moments of the day. I’m delighted to announce that we’ve reached our target, and we managed to raise 2000 for the hospice.
We are going to leave the lines open for just a little bit longer though, so if you’ve got any change lying around and would like to chip in, pop along to the fundraising website here:
http://www.mycharity.ie/event/mb80km

Posted in Aiguilles Rouges, hiking, Le Tour, Plan d'Aiguille, running | 2 Comments