Trail Running: The Dartry Mountains, 11/06/15

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
– The Stolen Child, WB Yeats

Slievemore

A peat hag pretending to be Benbulben, high in the Dartry Mountains. Click any picture to view them a bit bigger.

We are into the seventh day of a remarkably-tenacious high-pressure system, and once again tiny white clouds float lazily across the bright blue Sligo sky. This child’s-drawing-made-real is reflected in the filmy water at my feet, where tendrils of waterlogged grey wool swirl and merge with the clouds in the perfect mirror image, torn and scattered every now and then by skittish water boatmen.

I am several days too late, but the tragedy unfolds before my eyes: a young lamb, not more than two weeks old, has fallen into a deep puddle in the peat bog, the sides far too high and steep for it to climb out. His mother, in a panic, jumps down after him and tries to nudge him aloft with her muzzle, but all she does is churn the narrow edges around the stinking water into a slick, sucking ooze. Weighed down by his filth-caked wool, the lamb cannot have endured more than a few hours of the exhausting struggle to escape, and his mother might have lasted a few days more before finally collapsing on top of him, pushing them both down into the quagmire. The distant buzzing of chainsaws, clearing forest in the Gleniff Horseshoe far below us, is mimicked cruelly by fat droning bluebottles as they crawl in the empty space where eyes once were.

It’s sad, but I’ve stopped and stared for selfish reasons: the same sun that brought the unfortunate lamb here to drink glares violently down on me, and as I scrape the sweat from my forehead again with one hand, I reach behind my back with the other and wobble the contents of my hydration pack through the thin mesh fabric – I have maybe a pint of lemony electrolytes left, but the day isn’t even half done, I’m already pissing yellow, and, with a corpse in every puddle, there certainly isn’t any fresh water to refill with up here. Picturing the map in my head, I draw a new line that swings past a shop and the chance to resupply, but it trims about eight kilometres from my original intended route. “Thank god for that,” I mutter as I set off across the bog again, waving politely to another nearby ewe and her lamb as they gaze at me suspiciously.

*

Benbulben
Song thrush eggs

What a difference a blue sky and a warm sun can make: the last time I was here, stumbling blindly through thick November fog and howling gale, and navigating my way compass-in-hand over muck and heather, slowly, by the occasional hint of a contour, there hadn’t been much of the outing that would be considered enjoyable by most people; but today, with a panorama that extends for thirty kilometres in every direction, the heady scent rising from a sea of tiny wildflowers as they are crushed underfoot, and a double concerto of song thrush and bumblebee ringing heavily in the air, it is impossible not to grin from ear-to-ear.

A long, lazy, early-summer’s day had allowed the time this morning for a full breakfast and a late start, and with a belly full of black pudding and scrambled eggs, I had been dropped off at the end of a tiny farm track, a tunnel through overhanging bramble and rose hip, as it winds its way up towards the south face of Benbulben, through a maze of bright yellow gorse and wool-strewn barbed wire. A single sign hanging over a gap in the fence politely requests that I piss off, and I am reminded that there have been questions over the access to Benbulben from this direction, but I believe that as long as you don’t behave like a prick and have a little respect for your surroundings, people will generally let you get on with it.

Picking through Benbulben's south face
Dartry Mountains

A sweat-inducing warm-up of a steep 400m climb up an obvious wide gully drops us at the long plateau that leads west to the classic ship’s prow shape of photographic fame, where I find two chaps dangling their legs over the edge and sunning themselves as they snigger at my running tights. After taking a moment to locate a few narrow-but-skiable couloirs for future reference, if only it would snow here a little more often, I retrace my steps east for a few minutes and then carry on to the flat, relatively anti-climactic true summit of Benbulben, before pressing on across the bog towards Slievemore, and the incredible cliffs of Annacoona. These refreshingly-airy, cave-pocked cliffs towering hundreds of metres over the Gleniff Horseshoe, and the long, wide saddle leading north to the shark’s fin summit of Benwiskin, provide a jaw-droppingly beautiful view of the surrounding forests, rolling farmland, and scarred peat moors, the millpond-calm waters (today, at least) of Donegal Bay, and, hazy in the distance, Carrigan Head and Slieve League; and to the south and west, magnificent but foreboding, a litany of peaks and points scattered across the Dartry Mountains and my immediate future: Truskmore, Hangman’s Hill, Keelogyboy, Leean. The day has barely even begun.

Breche in Benbulben's south face North to Benwiskin
Truskmore, sheep, cutting turf Benmushroom
The Cliffs of AnnacoonaBenwiskin north face, Mullaghmore Benwiskin

When I reach the top of Benwiskin, I creep towards the edge to get a good look down the terrifying drop of the sheer north face, and my balls shrink up into my stomach as I lose faith in the grip of my last-legs running shoes on the slick grass, with my toes poking through holes and the tread all but worn through. Ravens soar overhead and the wind buffets me impatiently, and I suddenly realise that despite having gone barely ten kilometres, I’m already starting to feel the strain a bit. It’s a symptom of the same mistake I make every time I come here, I underestimate how much more difficult traveling over terrain with little-or-no established trail is, and it takes a great deal more time and energy to cover the same distance as it would back home on my familiar Alpine trails. I crawl back from the edge, grasping at clumps of sedge for poorly-chosen security, then I suck down an energy gel before picking my way gingerly down the steep north-east ridge to a brief but terribly-exciting downclimb on a short section of mossy rock, and over a few hundred metres of barbed wire hurdles to the comfort and safety of a sun-baked tarmac road which leads to the other side of the Gleniff Horseshoe, and the start of the second significant climb of the day.

Truskmore from Benwiskin, across the Gleniff Horseshoe

Looking east across the Gleniff Horseshoe towards Truskmore on the right, with the radio antenna…

Slopes to Truskmore Benwiskin

…and looking back west across to Benwiskin

I pad along the road until an obvious path towards Truskmore presents itself, and as I peel left I am forced to hop another couple of fences. A solitary figure a few hundred yards uphill notices me and watches me plodding along for a few seconds before returning to his work, cutting turf and laying the sods of peat in neat rows to dry, but I still make sure to treat the fragile fences with extra care and attention. The ground underfoot gets gradually steeper, and soon an occasional steadying hand or a bracing knee is required to make progress, until, closer to the summit plateau, we are back on the bog, with its peat hags, stinking puddles, sun-bleached skulls and freshly-drowned sheep. After waving back at the men in high-vis vests, I stop under the shadow of the radio antenna and force a bacon sandwich and two chocolate bars into my stomach as I study the map, halfway through the adjusted route and at the highest point of the day, a respectable 647m above sea level. From this vantage point, peering south into the distance, I can start to think about the details of the new route sketched out in my head: I can see a handful of paths and trails creeping up through forest and field into the Crockauns and Keelogyboys, but the ever-present question of access rights can make things far more difficult than they should be.

Keelogyboy from Truskmore

The Keelogyboy Mountains in the distance, seen from Truskmore

Knocknarea from Truskmore

Knocknarea seen from under the radio antenna’s wires on Truskmore

Largandoon

Largandoon moors, below Truskmore

With the first weary sigh in an increasingly-common procession of them, I haul myself back onto my feet and descend Truskmore’s tumbledown south face, then yomp over the barren but beautiful Largandoon moors, and I am treated (for the second time today) to a few kilometres of actual running down the Glencar track, built to allow access to the peat bogs and a ready supply of fuel during the coal shortages of the Second World War, but now providing a blissfully-easy route to the cafe perched on the shores of Glencar Lough and an ice-cold bottle of Club Orange. I sit and refill my Camelbak under the confused glances from a score of chubby Americans in fanny packs, squirt another energy gel into my gob, and limp away on shin-smacking tarmac up the N14, in search of a path to the route’s third and final major climb.

Glencar Lough

Glencar Lough, where flapping herons wake the drowsy water rats, with Hangman’s Hill and the Keelogyboys on the left in the distance.

Keelogyboys

My first attempt ends at an undeniably-visible and quite-convincing sign suggesting I go no further, and, confidence diminished through fatigue, I have to retrace my steps back down the N14, gnashing my teeth and spitting abuse at the car tires that speed past mere inches from my aching feet, until a second potential route leading up into the hills appears. I zip up the path gratefully, my eyes resolutely on the ground to avoid seeing any “No Access” signs, speeding up as much as my legs and lungs will allow until I am far enough up the hill to be away from any human interference. Breathless and dripping with sweat after a mercifully quick-and-brutal ascent, I am soon at the top of Hangman’s Hill, a deliciously evocatively-named summit with a commanding view over both the previous few hours’ toil and the shrinking list of summits yet to come. The world is absolutely silent except for an insistent breeze, and it takes every available ounce of willpower to not just plonk myself down and absorb it all through passive meditation, but I manage to convince myself that a dozen equally-engrossing views are waiting at the top of the next few hills. At a distance, I can clearly see the black mouth of a deep cave near the top of Keelogyboy’s northern summit, and powerless as I am against the childish urge to explore such things, I have to make a detour of a few hundred metres to rummage around in its depths. Lacking helmet and headtorch, however, I am quickly turned back, only to be treated at the entrance of the cave to the exciting spectacle of two furious crows mobbing a pair of ravens, their shrill cries echoing off the dripping rock walls as they swoop and dive around the much larger birds. But it’s cold in the shade, and as I start to shiver I realise, annoyingly, that I am lingering because I am slightly exhausted, and that I am deliberately delaying the last few kilometres of the route. So I shovel what little fuel I have left into my face and kick myself out the front door of the cave, up to the summit, and past the uninspired-but-aesthetic Sramore Lough.

Slievemore and Truskmore from Keelogyboy North

Slievemore and Truskmore in the distance from Hangman’s Hill

Keelogyboy East from Keelogyboy North East

Keelogyboy East from Hangman’s Hill

Keelogyboy Cave

In the mouth of Keelogyboy Cave

Caves on Keelogyboy

Two crows from Keelogyboy Cave, not pictured: two harassed ravens.

Sramore Lough

Sramore Lough

The last of the caffeine and sugars that I brought with me kick in, and with no fluids left my pack is as light as a feather, so I am soon hopping with renewed vigour across a hallucinatory landscape where the early-evening sun has started to cast long, twisted shadows across the time-carved limestone, the ground spread with a tapestry of a thousand hues of heather and heath. A steep, speedy descent through crumbling blocks of stone down to Sramore drops me right in front of two men with sledgehammers, their quad bikes piled high with fence posts and coils of barbed wire.

Keelogyboy East, The Doons

Keelogyboy East, and The Doons, seen from near the top of Keelogyboy North

“Hello!” I call tentatively, desperately trying to keep the lid on a bubbling pot of anguish and remorse over every strand of barbed wire I’ve clambered over today, with another two  freshly-constructed barriers just fifty metres away from us, blocking the route to the top of my next summit. “Umm, do you think you would mind if I just hopped your fence there? I’ll be ever so careful…”

“Sure, go mad,” one of them replies cheerily. “Where are you headed?”

“Oh, up this side, down the other, on to Leean Mountain, then down towards Lough Gill and Parke’s Castle…”

“Well, rather you than me, anyways!” the second fellow chuckles. We wish each other a good evening, and I set off across the heather, over their new fences, and up a slope that turns out to be much steeper than it looked from across the valley, and happens to be suddenly and shockingly studded with the odd particularly-malevolent patch of bramble and bracken, the former gripping my calves with keen claws and the latter encouraging a spontaneous descent. But I can’t slow down whilst the eyes of these two kind-hearted strangers are upon my back, and it is red-faced and wheezing that I explode onto the summit of Keelogyboy East, out of sight of an audience who I inexplicably thought I should try and impress, and onto the floor.

Frightfully embarrassed for myself, after pulling myself together I stumble down yet another steep and grassy slope, contour through and over the clustered hillocks of Fawnlion, tip-toe through one last stretch of sucking bog, and trudge, slowly but determined, to the top of today’s final summit, Leean Mountain, having managed to squeeze around 1800m of ascent from the rugged, undulating hills of Sligo and Leitrim. I make the call to my rescue party, who promises to have water and a change of clothes waiting for me in the car. I take one last look at the string of summits behind me, then set off down the remaining few kilometres to the road, that hallowed ribbon of tarmac that leads to cold beer, hot shower, and grilled meat.

Leean Mountain from Fawnlion

Leean Mountain in evening sunlight

Lough Gill from Leean Mountain

Lough Gill seen from Leean Mountain

*

This was the final big run I was able to go on whilst training for the Mont Blanc 80km later this month. Hopefully it’ll be enough. I’m running the Mont Blanc 80km to raise money for the North West Hospice in Sligo, and there is still time to donate if you have anything to spare, but if not, maybe you would consider sharing the link below among family and friends. Thanks for your help, it really is appreciated.

http://www.mycharity.ie/event/mb80km

Benbulben green

Benbulben, right, seen from the north, a few days earlier

Dartry Mountains route info:
38km distance, 1800m ascent, potential issues with access. Respect your surroundings, don’t break any fences, don’t drop any litter, if the landowner is around then ask for permission, and if they aren’t, then run like hell and you’ll probably get away with it.
Link to map, profile, route info

Dartry profile

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Alpine Running: The Petite Verte from Argentiere, 04/06/15

Grands Montets map

The same old story: the angry seething at a too-early start, the confused fumbling with the key in the front door. My brain, still waiting for the caffeine to kick in, doesn’t register the headtorch-illuminated rocks strewn across the dusty building site surrounding the bottom of the Plan Joran gondola, and I keep tripping and stumbling. The path steepens, the two litres of water and 30m of rope on my back keep whispering that I should go back to bed. But then the sun rises, the trees thin out, rocks and snow appear all around me. Problems are forgotten, lurking as they are a thousand metres below: they’ve only got little legs, they can’t climb mountains. Life is as it should be.

Chardonnet, Argentiere

The Aiguilles du Chardonnet and Argentiere in blazing morning sunlight

My path snakes its way around the corner from the Grands Montets midstation into the Argentiere glacier basin, and the familiar sight of the Aiguille du Chardonnet looms monstrously overhead. The long, flat, glacier in front of me has started to take on its summer colours, a dirty yellow streaked with patches of brilliant meltwater blue. At the far end of the basin, several hundred metres of spindrift plume from the crest of a bright-white Mont Dolent, but where I am, the air is still and warm – worryingly so. But worrying never solved any problems, so I suck down the first energy gel of the day and, understandably terrified of too much solo travel on a summer glacier, I set off up into the rocks to the north of the Rognons Glacier at a determined pace. However, the interesting scrambling through beautiful granite soon drops me at the Col des Rachasses and the start of the mandatory glacier section of today’s itinerary, and I have to think light thoughts as I tiptoe gingerly over pronounced depressions in the mercifully well-frozen snow. But a cruel sun glares down upon us despite the still-early hour, so I look around for a better, flatter route to take on the return journey.

Petite Verte

The Petite Verte from the Col des Grands Montets

After what feels like an age I reach the Col des Grands Montets, and having already ticked off 1900m of ascent today, the final objective seems easily obtainable, so after cramming a short length of sausage baguette into my gob and strapping some floppy aluminium crampons onto my feet, I launch onto the North Face of the Petite Verte, finding perfect neve all the way up, until it is replaced by open air and unassumingly-foreboding rock. The climbing is easy, I’ve done it before and I’ll probably do it again, but today, alone, I’m not in the mood – I packed lightweight carbon-fibre running testicles instead of forged steel mountaineering ones. I straddle the snowy breche below the rocks, my right leg pointing at the climb it just enjoyed, my left leg flapping in the breeze under the hypnotic gaze of the Aiguille Verte and Les Drus, a snarling Nant Blanc Glacier six hundred metres below me. I don’t need to go any higher, I am quite content right here. I take a few minutes to drink it all in. It’s never enough.

Dry Chevalier Couloir

A rather-dry Chevalier Couloir

Petite Verte climb

Looking down the climb for the Petite Verte, with the Argentiere Glacier far below

Aiguilles Rouges from Petite Verte

The Aiguilles Rouges seen from the Petite Verte

I extract myself from my perch, various sphincters fluttering involuntarily as I swing my leg back over the saddle, and I replace my feet into each of the well-kicked steps down the 50 degree slopes at the top, past the top of a depressingly-dry Chevalier Couloir, and over the covered but obviously still-there bergschrund with a long-legged lurch worthy of the Ministry of Silly Walks, before the angle eases off a little and I can walk, run, and glissade back down to the col. Soft snow makes quick progress back to the Col des Rachasses over the new, carefully-chosen route, and a quick glance onto the front face of the Grands Montets suggests that a descent on the colder snow of the Glacier de Lognan and the consolidated but rapidly-disappearing Herse piste might be a better idea than the now sun-baked, potentially-suicidal slopes used on the ascent. So, horror of horrors, I am faced with a good few hundred metres of running on steep springboard-snow and creamy glissading, until the snow runs out and a blocky 4×4 track drops me off at my front door, a pot of tea, and a simmering pan of spicy lamb curry.

Grands Montets front face

Fresh tracks in June on the Grands Montets front face…

I was testing new toys today: perhaps a little horrified by my choice of footwear for the last bit of high-altitude jogging I endured and the conditions they were expected to perform in, my wonderful mother offered to make a donation to the shoe fund for a pair of X Alps, Salomon’s lightweight mountaineering boot with a valley-to-summit concept. Now, I hate to sound like an advert, but these shoes are absolutely smashing, and if you’ve been umming-and-ahhing about buying a pair, stop it, go and buy them right now. They are exactly the sort of thing I’ve been looking for since I started running, and if you are into the same kind of outdoor experiences as I am, then they’ll work for you too. Unsurprisingly, they are also a damn sight better at front pointing on neve than the Snowcross.

Shoes, Salomon X Alp

Right, that’s enough free publicity for Salomon. I accidentally filmed a music video today, so please take the time to enjoy two-and-a-half minutes of my pulsating buttocks accompanied by some vintage Rock ‘n’ Roll.

 

Posted in Grand Montets, hiking, running, video | Leave a comment

Alpine Running: High Traverse of the Aiguilles Rouges

Chamonix at night from Bel Lachat

My head torch attracts swarming clouds of tiny flies, and I take in huge gobfuls of them as I hungrily gulp down air, even if I breath through gritted teeth. At first I try and spit them out, but I can’t afford to waste the precious fluids, so down the hatch they go. I kill some time by wondering how many gnats you’d need to eat to make one calorie.

As I round the corner there is a slight gap in the trees, giving me a brief glimpse of the mountains on the other side of the valley. There is a thin snake of light winding it’s way up the glacier from the Grands Mulets refuge, a string of head torches on their way up Mont Blanc, and suddenly, despite there being 8km and over 2000m of height between us, I don’t feel quite so alone. I wave, but I don’t think anyone waves back. I don’t mind, they probably have other things to think about: a few seconds later there is yet another crack, muffled by distance but still loud, followed by a bass rumbling. I imagine the procession of ski tourers speeding up momentarily, their already-weary legs given fresh vigour by the unmistakeable sound of collapsing seracs, the third one this morning.

There are no seracs here on my side of the valley, the only real danger that I have to face today is time: I simply have to be away from the steepest slopes before the Spring sun has softened the snow too much. As long as I cover the distance that I need to in the coldest part of the day, the risk of avalanche will be negligible.

“So why are you putting that on?” one participant of my internal dialogue smirked condescendingly as I strapped my transceiver on, earlier that morning. “Going to dig yourself out, are you?”
“It’ll look better in the news reports,” comes the dismissive reply, “If it comes to it.”

As I yomp up through the forest from Chamonix towards the Col de Bel Lachat, I am soon sweating in the cool night air and I strip off my thin gloves and sleeves. Despite wearing the heaviest running pack I’ve ever carried, burdened with aluminium crampons and axe, 30m of walking rope, and two litres of lemon-flavoured electrolytes, I am feeling strong and confident, and the only thing slowing me down is the desire to keep a hard-battled breakfast in my stomach, where a pint of acrid coffee and a dry raisin pastry churn and gurgle in protest at the early start. The glowing eyes of ibex peer at me from the darkness when I reach the cliffs below the col, and their owners throw me the occasional desultory snort.

TrAR Brevent

Finally, an hour after leaving town amidst the now-familiar clatter of tungsten-carbide spikes on tarmac, I reach the snowline on the slopes leading up to Le Brevent, and my choice of footwear starts to feel a little less ridiculous. The gaiters and Gore-Tex on my fancy new Salomon Snowcross do their best to keep the worst of the wetness at bay during a few hundred metres of tedious and expletive-laden post-holing through the dieing snowpack, but as I gain altitude and the snow becomes firm enough to support my weight, the built-in studs grip keenly, swift progress is made, and I am soon at the first summit of the day, Le Brevent, with 1500m of ascent behind me, and the indescribably-beautiful moonlit vista of Chamonix and it’s surroundings splayed out in front of me. I allow myself the luxury of a few minutes to drink it all in, but the wind snaps cruelly through my thin clothes, there is already a hint of sunrise over the Aiguille du Tour in the distance, and I have no choice but to keep moving.

Aiguille de la Gliere at sunrise

After a quick skip down the oft-trodden path to the Breche du Brevent, in just a few short weeks the easily-guessed route to the Col du Brevent will be over loose blocks of gneiss and tumbling scree, hazardous and time-consuming to move over, but for now the well-frozen snow flying by underfoot makes travel quick and easy, and at the col I am faced with the first major decision of the day: to follow the established trail, still under several feet of snow, as it descends to the Brevent midstation and then traverses through the pistes and ski lifts to my next col, a safe, speedy, and predictable route, but one that misses off several important summits; or to explore new ground and follow the very crest of the ridge formed by the Pointe des Vioz, the Clochetons, and the Aiguille du Charlanon. I’ve never taken the second path before and I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’ve got a rope, a short length of rap-tat, and enough time on my hands to solve any problems I encounter. It’s an easy choice and one made quickly, so I munch down a handful of fizzy Orangina sweets and set off up the ridge line.

Chardonnet and Verte

As we make our way northwards, mostly on the east side of the ridge, there follows a few slanting snowy couloirs, some wide-open bowls, the occasional rocky step, and one or two tufts of grass poking through on the southern-most facing pitches, but route finding is generally easy and intuitive, and I find myself overflowing with a confidence in my abilities. Aware that, at some point, I’ll have to make my way to the west side of the ridge line to avoid the steep ground at the base of the Clochetons, I pick my way up a steep channel between two insignificant little summits, and enjoy the view across the Gorges des Diosaz to the Pointe Noire de Pormenaz as I scramble along until, suddenly, there is an impassable breche between the pinnacle of rock I am on, and the final summit of the Pointe des Vioz. Bugger. I can’t turn around, that would eat up too much time… I’ll try and down-climb this section off to the right, it doesn’t look too bad.

Just a few minutes later, the world around me is ringing with the most offensive vocabulary imaginable, directed towards the splintering rock to which my trembling fingers cling, the crumbling ledges and steep, shifting gravel under my floppy-soled running shoes, the poor decisions that brought me to this point in life, and the fucking idiot who made them. Immediately after, there is a single moment of startling, silent clarity, during a mercifully-brief period of dynamic down-climbing, before my desperately-grasping hands and wildly-skating feet find enough purchase to arrest our increasing momentum. Were it not for an ablutive pit-stop earlier in the morning in an attempt to lighten the load I was carrying, I would almost certainly shit myself out of pure terror at this point. But, once back in constant physical contact with the planet, I open my eyes, reject anew a temporarily-accepted religion, pull myself together, and press on. Down this ramp, up another snow-filled couloir, over a narrow col, and there we are: at the Clochetons, on the easily-traversed west side, just as we had planned all along.

Clochetons de Plan Praz
Aiguille du Charlanon, south couloirLife is reassuringly-simple for nearly a kilometre as we make our way over wide snowfields and up slightly-steep slopes to the summit of the Aiguille du Charlanon, passing along the way a very interesting-looking couloir whose location has been memorised for next winter. Full daylight is now upon us, and the sheer scale of the mountains surrounding us on all sides can be felt to an astonishing degree. Trailing off to the south-west lies the rolling ridgeline that brought us here, punctuated now and then with the occasional gendarme and summit, culminating in the huge blank wall of Le Brevent’s south-east face, nearly three kilometres away by now. To the north, worryingly-close as it towers over us, lurks the day’s next obstacle, the confused rabble of peaks propping-up the three summits of the Aiguille de la Gliere. Across the valley, still and silent, is a panorama more vast than I have the opportunity to enjoy, because although I yearn for the chance to sit down and lose myself in a view I’ve seen a thousand times before, the day is getting warmer, and I must continue.

Just over a week ago, on another early-morning foray into the Aiguilles Rouges with Chris Cloyd, we stood looking up at the face that I now have to descend. “It’d be easy with skis,” I thought at the time, which isn’t very helpful to me right now, but I remember that most of the terrifyingly-steep snow-slopes directly to my north finish with small but potentially-painful cliffs, so I elect to explore the north-west ridge instead. I am relieved beyond words when I find myself, presently, at the bottom of around thirty metres of quite-exposed but comparatively-easier down-climbing than my previous endeavour, over solid-ish flakes and through corners carpeted with gravel, and I am soon at a wide and comfortable snowy saddle that leads to further rocky steps down the shallow ridge to Col Cornu. I know what my immediate future holds, and I take a few minutes to strap on my blunt and featherlight aluminium crampons.

TrAR Charlanon

The journey to the col passes without incident, as does another short ascent to the Aiguille Pourrie, the “Rotten Needle”, so called on account of it crumbling to pieces but for now still safely glued together by the enduring snow, and onwards back down to the Col de la Gliere. This is my final chance to bail before a simple-yet-strenuous climb of three hundred and fifty metres for the next kilometre-and-a-half, up to the Aiguille de la Gliere, but once filled with fruitcake and a couple of cherry-flavoured caffeine sweets I decide that I’m still fairly fit and capable, and set off with a purposeful stride. Having spent more time wandering around here than we would have liked with Dan Fitzgerald over the last year, I have the most direct route through a series of shallow-angled bowls mapped out in my head, but the climb drains my energy and slows me down to a crawl, and the final, steeper slope almost finishes me off.

As I pull myself up onto the ledge at the top, for the first time today I can see the section that has worried me the most: a sun-baked descent down forty degree slopes past the Gendarme Wehrlin, down into the Flegere ski area, where a poorly-timed presence could see you underneath five or six metres of avalanche debris. But after exploring the area shortly after a raging storm with Nick Draper a week earlier, and finding without the least bit of surprise that the whole Gliere bowl had thoroughly purged and shed most of it’s load, I was convinced that there would be hardly anything left up here to slide, and sure enough there is a deep crown line extending along almost the entire top edge of the bowl. “There’s nothing left up here to slide,” I think to myself, without quite believing it, so I say it out loud, as though I really mean it.

I eventually manage to convince myself that it’s safe enough to carry on, but it is with my stomach in my throat that I start to down-climb the snow and traverse across the bowl, towards the couloir next to the gendarme, so I stick to the relative safety of islands of rock as much as I can. But as I poke around in the snow under my feet, the more confidence I gain in the slope’s stability, and once I’ve made my way into the centre of the couloir and the deep runnel carved by last week’s avalanche, I am on solid but creamy snow, the perfect consistency for three hundred metres of smooth glissading down to the moraine. The day, quite suddenly, feels like a roaring success, and a toothy grin spreads across my face.

Gendarme Wehrlin

But all good things must come to an end, and before long I am hunched over my axe halfway-up the climb to the Col des Crochues, gasping for breath and sweat dripping from my nose as a hot sun snarls angrily at my back. The day is taking its toll.

TrAR Crochues

“I’m not doing the Belvedere as well,” I wheeze, collapsing onto the first comfortable-enough rock that presents itself at the col, snipping the final objective, staring down at me from across the Combe de la Balme, from today’s itinerary. My legs are too short and the snow is too wet, and I still have to run down at least fourteen hundred metres of altitude to get home. But before we can even consider the idea of hot showers and cold beers, first we have to cross the final and most technically-challenging obstacle of the day, the traverse of the Crochues, with a few moves of actual climbing and some terrifically-exposed sections over precipitous cliffs. I shove the last of my Orangina sweets and caffeine chews into my gob and make my way towards the first crux pitch, a thirty metre chimney of 3c climbing which, at this time of year, is still filled with snow. Once at the top, some easy ground over the west side of the ridge leads to a narrow breche that opens onto a short, narrow ledge facing east, from which you then make a 15m rappel back to the west. In sensible shoes you could quite reasonably down-climb this section, as I have done in the past, but to do that today would mean carrying the rope all this way for absolutely nothing, so I wrap a narrow sling around my buttocks to form a rudimentary harness and swing out to do battle with the ropes gnomes.

Once the rope is again coiled and thrown over my shoulder, we climb up a wide corner back onto the east side of the ridge, where we are greeted by a rushing wind and a sickening drop, a narrow ledge and a steep slab which is made no easier by being covered with sugary, crumbling snow, and then finally a series of easy blocks and a snow slope up to the first summit. Seventeen kilometres and 2400m of ascent after leaving Chamonix that morning, I pour myself onto a flat, comfortable rock, and concentrate very hard on not moving at all. The world around me is silent except for the occasional insistent breath of wind, and stays that way for several minutes, until two choughs appear and hover over me, riding the swirling breeze, chirping loudly. I chirp back.

Summit sandwich selfie
Salomon Snowcross, Climbing Technology Agile 45

But it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done this traverse and I’ve obviously forgotten just how much of it is left, because there are still a few quite involving sections of terrain before I can start sprinting down the Glacier des Dards, and I am soon cursing angrily at every single rock I see. I feel bad, it’s not their fault. I’m just tired.

The second summit of the Crochues appears, finally, and just beyond it, nearly two kilometres of crotch-deep post-holing through sodden snow down to Lac Blanc, where, thank god, there is rock and earth and solid ground that supports my weight. The rocks part to provide a path, the path leads to ladders through cliffs, the cliffs turn into forest, and the forest thins and becomes shops and houses, a front door, a fridge door, a beer, and a sofa.

The route:
Chamonix > Bel Lachat > Le Brevent > Col du Brevent > Pointe des Vioz > Aiguille du Charlanon > Col Cornu > Aiguille Pourrie > Col de la Gliere > Aiguille de la Gliere > Col des Crochues > Aiguilles Crochues > Lac Blanc > Argentiere

25km distance, 2400m ascent

I thought I’d try and make a bit of a video documentary of today’s route. It isn’t very well documented, and the footage at the start is barely even video, but until GoPro send me a fancy new camera, this is the best I’m able to work with.

Posted in Aiguilles Rouges, climbing, hiking, running, video | 3 Comments

Trail Running: Col de la Gliere to Col du Lac Cornu, 30/04/15

Chamonix Aiguilles

The Chamonix Aiguilles with the town far below. One thousand metres of ascent to reach this point, a perfect warm-up for the day ahead.

My ears are suddenly filled with a familiar but despised tune. After finishing work late last night, today’s alarm is a particularly tempting one to ignore. “Just turn it off and go back to sleep,” the darkest corners of my brain murmur soothingly, but loudly, trying to drown it out. With a pathetic whimper, I pull on my dressing gown and stumble down to the kitchen to put on the coffee and porridge. The dog greets me at the bottom of the stairs before squeezing past, he’s on a mission to keep my side of the bed warm. The poor thing doesn’t yet know that he’s coming as well today.

Buoyed by the success of last week’s exploratory excursion deep into the heart of the Aiguilles Rouges, and encouraged but a little confused that someone else thought it looked like fun, today there are four pairs of legs headed up into the snow. Mine and Baldric’s, trotting up from Argentiere through the Bois de la Trappe, are the first to arrive at our rendezvous point at the Flegere midstation, and we sit down to wait for legs seven and eight, owned by willing-and-able volunteer Chris Cloyd, as they journey up from Chamonix. Pressed into the doorway of the closed ski lift for shelter from the weak-but-painful morning breeze as it bites through my thin running clothes, there is a perfect silence except for the twittering of wagtails sorting through the gravel, an occasional distant cuckoo, and the indignant snorting of a nearby chamois. The mountains above us glow gold in the freshly-risen sun. The hated alarm that so rudely started my day is not forgotten, but forgiven.

Dog and Chardonnet Chris arrives, and as we set off up the shrinking ribbon of snow on the Pylones piste, weaving its way up the mountain under the closed chairlift, we alternate between discussing our options and gasping for breath. In town for only a few days, Chris doesn’t mind where we go, it’s all new for him. “Let’s get weird…” was the brief. Righto!

Chris, les DrusThe currently clear skies are an assuring contrast to the rain clouds and thunderstorms we’ve been promised for later in the day, but all the same we decide to play it safe and opt for a slightly lower-level traverse with more opportunities to bail if things get a little bit too exciting. With ice axes in hand, we cross the col underneath the Index and descend into the Combe Lachenal, a slight gradient coupled with an unpredictable snow surface making progress slower than would be ideal. We see the first shreds of the summer walking trail poking through the retreating snow, and use them as a cue to traverse across into the Combe de la Gliere, crossing a terrifyingly-huge patch of avalanche debris dropped from the Gliere’s south couloir, above us to the right. We are too early in the day for any fresh avalanches to be of much concern, but there is always an aura of menace when hanging around in slide paths, so we lift our knees as best we can, until we reach the flatter ground at the base of the combe.

Chris and combe Dog skiing Dog and Col de la Gliere

By the time we reach the final steep climb up to the col at the back wall of the combe, the sun has already softened the snow beneath us, and we find ourselves swimming up through sugar towards stepping stone islands of rock, which provides a more exciting but easier finish to the ascent. Perched on our little atolls in a sea of white, we lurk for a few minutes to take on fluids and absorb the energy from our surroundings – an incredible panorama, the Verte and Drus and the Aiguilles du Chardonnet and Argentiere to our south, the limestone fortress of the Rochers des Fiz to the north, the sprawling peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges to either side of us, and the whole lot soaring above the churning clouds that tear through the valley far below us. We forget, momentarily, the physical effort of the 1600m of climbing we’ve just endured to get here, and enjoy the perfect peace and solitude of the mountains.

Aiguille Verte through the looking glass
Pete and Combe de la Gliere Chris and Col de la Gliere Lac Cornu Chris and Mont Blanc Chris on the VK descent 2

But alas, we can linger no longer, because although we now have a short but steep and slightly-involving traverse across cold, safe snow on the north side of the Aiguilles Rouges to the Col du Lac Cornu, we have to keep in mind our descent back to the Brevent ski area, through snow on the sunny, south side of the hill, which is soaking up the sun’s heat with every second that passes, getting warmer, wetter, and heavier. We press on, and are soon post-holing our way down through more sugar to the firmer snow of the Cornu piste, where for the first time today, we can speed things up a notch and let rip, and we enjoy a few kilometres of actual running downhill before our final, mercifully-short climb of the day up the Blanchots piste to the Brevent midstation, and finally, the steep-and-technical descent of the Vertical Kilometre, back home to a hot shower and a quick nap before work. Chris on the VK descent 1

Thanks for a top morning in the mountains Chris, looking forward to the next adventure.

(I’m currently in training for the Mont Blanc 80km, which I’m running to raise money for the North West Hospice. Please, please consider donating at http://www.mycharity.ie/event/mb80km. Thanks.)

Posted in Aiguilles Rouges, dogs, hiking, running | Leave a comment

Trail Running: Crochues-Berard, and other short stories

Essential kit!

Bathed in the milky glow of dawn, the forest around me is silent except for the rhythmic clatter-and-crunch of the built-in spikes under my running shoes as they scrape their way over rock and gravel. An annoying soundtrack this early in the morning, but I’ll be grateful for them later on, when I reach the crux of today’s route. The last time I was here, on the path from Les Nants up to the Flegere midstation and beyond, I was in the middle of a sweating, wheezing crowd of over six hundred on the TAR 2014, but today, with the winter season finished and the lifts closed for the spring, the Aiguilles Rouges are completely deserted. I am all alone.

Drus dawn

Fueled by a pint of strong coffee and a crust of dry bread dripping with honey, the path climbing up to the treeline is finished with quickly, and as I take my first step onto the grey, gritty snow of a closed ski run, I’m relieved to find it firm and well-frozen, supporting my weight easily – just a few days previous in a different part of the valley, I had been sinking up to my nipples in wet, sugary snow after venturing too-far from the established trails – and I am delivered to the top of the Floria ski lift by easy plodding over consolidated pistes. This is only possible by leaving Chamonix, more than 1400m below you, under the glare of a head torch, and moving quickly before the rising sun has had a chance to soften the snow underfoot.

It’s at this point that the exciting part of the day begins: from the top of the Floria lift, the route heads up towards the Col des Crochues, and the path underfoot gets significantly steeper. A well-trodden bootpack provides easy, bucket-sized foot placements, but with the lifts closed and the absence of hundreds of passing feet on this popular and busy ski tour, the track is being ironed-out day-upon-day by a violently-powerful sun, and soon enough you’ll need some slightly beefier technology than running shoes to make it up to the col safely. Today, the nine carbide spikes on each of my feet and the ridiculously-light aluminium axe in my hand make short work of the climb, which gets to around 40 degrees in its steepest parts, and two hours after leaving Chamonix, I am at today’s high point of 2700m.

Combe de Pouce map

What follows is an almost unbelievably-pretty descending traverse across the Combe de la Balme, under the shadow of the unassumingly-mighty north faces of the Aiguilles Rouges. Their (admittedly) vastly more imposing and terrifying sisters to the south tend to hog all the glory, those lofty granite peaks in the Mont Blanc massif, but if they were to stand alone in a range of their own, these humble gneiss hills would undoubtedly see a lot more traffic. Anyway, despite enjoying a somewhat more mellow reputation than their neighbour, this is still quite a serious place to spend some time, and the path we are on is about to cross one of the most popular places to peg it in the Aiguilles Rouges – people can, and often do, slide to their death here. As the traverse reaches the slopes under the south couloir of the Pointe Alphonse Favre, the ground underfoot gets noticeably steeper and tumbles away beneath you to a cluster of rocky couloirs, winding their way down to huge grey piles of avalanche debris at the bottom of the combe. A poorly-placed foot here would spell certain injury and possibly worse, so I am reduced to kicking steps in my soft shoes and stabbing the stubby pick of my ice axe into the receptive névé, plugging my fingers and toes into the occasional pocket formed by rocks and pebbles soaking up the sun’s warmth and burrowing down into the snow. Progress is slow and requires a degree of concentration, but the experience is refreshingly invigorating.

King of the Hill

With the crowds gone and winter receding, the rightful inhabitants of the Aiguilles Rouges can move back into their home. This magnificent beast, strutting along like the king that he is, knows how good he looks with his formidable horns silhouetted against this incredible backdrop.

By and by, the terrain gets a little less terrifying, and after another short climb we reach the second col of the day at 2460m, the Col de Berard. After taking just a few minutes to cram a cheese sandwich down my throat and with a few tentative steps to gauge the texture of the snow underfoot, there follows a good few hundred metres of decent running on grippy chalk before the inevitable happens: the heat of a day already in its ninth hour has started to melt the surface of the snow, and the descent turns into an erratic stop-start of sneaking, arms-outstretched, across a fragile shell that barely supports your weight, with sudden and frequent plunges through to the granular sugar below, shins scraping painfully on the edge of the crust through my thin and worn running tights.

Eventually, and with great relief, the unpredictable and infuriating snow gives way to a thin layer of slush, then to a rocky path through a tangle of tree roots strewn with a thick, soft carpet of pine needles, and before long the familiar trail down the Vallon de Berard has spat me out onto the road up to the Col des Montets, the track to Argentiere, and a lift home to a breakfast of white pudding and scrambled eggs.

Crochues-Berard trail running

Chamonix > Crochues-Berard Traverse > Argentiere, 23km distance, 1900m ascent, late April 2015

*

Regular readers of this “web log” (both of you) will have no doubt noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet this winter. This is down to a number of factors; the inevitable primary cause being the broken shoulder back at Christmas and the ensuing weeks of convalescence in the UK, but the questionable conditions, verging on downright-terrifying, that lasted throughout January and February certainly didn’t encourage me to go outside much.

“Where are you taking your clients at the moment?” Elodie asked the guides propping up the bar at Le Stone as they sipped their thimbles of rosé and cloudy balloons of Ricard, fishing for tips on where to go for her day off.
“Nowhere!” came the spluttered reply. “It’s too dangerous at the moment!”

A navigation race with friends in the UK. Triangulating our way to Checkpoint 9 using two prominent points on the horizon...

A navigation race with friends in the UK. Triangulating our way to Checkpoint 9 using two prominent points on the horizon…

As a mediocre and slim-pickings season progressed, Chamonix was struck by heart-wrenching tragedy as two of the valley’s most respected ski mountaineers were killed on the same day. I barely knew either Brendan or Dave – in fact I’d only ever met Brendan O’Sullivan once, years ago in 2009, at the top of the Keyhole in the Aiguilles Rouges, on what was probably the third or fourth ski tour I’d ever been on. The final bootpack up to the breche had been scoured clean by overnight winds, and was unimaginably icy. As I was about to struggle up it in my heavy downhill boots without axe, crampons, or clue, Brendan slung the boulder at the top of the couloir and threw a handrail rope down, saving me energy and embarrassment. An insignificant story, my only contribution to the legacy of a man known and loved by many in Chamonix, but an episode that helped to shape the way I move in the mountains to this day.

Dave Rosenbarger was the last person who I spoke to before traveling to the UK in mid-January, just a few days before he died. I was taking my recycling to the Molok before going to the airport when Dave saw me leaving through the garden gate of my apartment, and he came over to say hello. We chatted about my broken shoulder and his recent trip to Canada, about how I was leaving Chamonix for a few weeks so I wouldn’t be tempted to go skiing before my bones had knitted back together, and what he was generally thinking about the mountains at that point.

We had shared the occasional lift line before, but I’d only met him properly about a month earlier, in Moo on Christmas Eve, and to be completely honest I couldn’t help but feel a little starstruck – which I am unashamed to admit – because I’d been jealously following his skiing exploits for years through the magic of social media. But even though we were surrounded by people who he already knew and liked, who almost certainly had fewer pointless little questions to bombard him with, he gave me so much of his time as we discussed our hopes and ambitions for the winter, sharing with me his advice from a wealth of hard-earned experience. He was a decent dude who just wanted to go skiing.

The absolutely horrifying news that echoed through the valley on January 23rd hit a lot of people hard, and it took a long time for many to return to the mountains. The collective enthusiasm in Chamonix waned considerably, and it quickly became apparent that this was a season for toning it down a touch, for dialing back the grand objectives, and just settling for what little was available. Mellow, easy-angled ski tours and sticking to the barely-covered trees were mostly the order of the day. Then as conditions improved throughout March and April, I found myself skint and healthy, so I started work on the opening of a new restaurant and my free time was reduced to a single day off a week, plus the occasional stolen morning. But at the very least, a heavy work schedule forces you to appreciate what little time you do get to spend outside so much more.

Montenvers Train

Making the best of a day when every lift in the valley was closed due to high winds and angry dragons. Only the Montenvers train was running.

Skiing Gervasutti, Tour Ronde

Skiing the Gervasutti, photo Mikael Abrahamsson

Mike skiing Gervasutti, Tour Ronde

Mike skiing the Gervasutti, photo Ludvig Malmborg

Aside from various dog-friendly powder tours, sunny skips through the Aiguilles Rouges, and sight-seeing tours across to Italy, I’ve had two trips to the Tour Ronde, once to the Little Gervasutti with Mikael Abrahamsson, where we found a pleasant climb followed by an icy-but-enjoyable ski; and once to climb the North Face with Daniel Fitzgerald in a truly British style, with a reassuringly-heavy rack of gear. We made good progress on the climb, but hordes of angry rope gnomes attacked us whilst rappelling the Gervasutti back to our skis, and as the minutes turned into hours we realised that we would miss the last bubble up to the Montenvers train, and we would be walking back down to Chamonix in our ski boots. It finished as a rather long but incredibly enjoyable day out.

Pete, Tour Ronde north face Dan on the ice, Tour Ronde north faceDan, Tour Ronde north facePete rapping the Gervasutti, Tour Ronde

The next week, after a day and a half of tepid drizzle in the valley with the promise of some quite good snow up high, Nick Draper, Mike, and I went for a bit of a burrow up towards the Col des Nantillons, with our greedy eyes set on the Spencer Couloir. I had been wandering around the Signal Forbes and the Fretes des Charmoz the day before with my dog, some snowshoes, and a pair of binoculars, and it looked as though the bergschrund was covered and the couloir well-filled. But our light-ish bags and keen enthusiasm were no match for either the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, who decided to leave a growing crowd hanging around for about forty minutes before opening the lift, nor for the sheer immensity of the 800m bootpack, so in rising temperatures and (mostly) perfect snow that wouldn’t stay that way for long, we turned around to enjoy what little we had earned.

Baldric inspects the approach to the Spencer Couloir

Baldric inspects the approach to the Nantillons Glacier, with the Spencer Couloir peeking out through the clouds at the top-left

Mike climbing Nantillons Nantillons Glacier Nick pointing at something Nick on the NantillonsMike on Nantillons exit couloir

On top of the occasional outbreak of skiing, I’ve tried to keep up with my least-favourite sport throughout the winter, and have managed to go on a few runs every now and then. Because even with less-than-fond memories of the week spent hobbling around on rigid hips and creaking knees after my last race, the CTS Dorset Ultra 72km, I am now looking forward to an even more beastly challenge, that of the Mont-Blanc 80km, which, as the occasional newsletters I receive take delight in sneering at me, is now even more “wild and technical”, with a course designed to “avoid towns and favour secluded trails.” What a treat!

80km xsec

Course profile for the MB80km 2015. 6000m of ascent crammed into around 82km of distance.

The weekend of the Marathon du Mont Blanc, at the end of June, is the first significant date in the remarkably-busy racing calender here in Chamonix, and plays host to a number of races, among them the classic marathon, the 80km, and the famous Vertical Kilometre, a thousand metres of quite-stiff ascent squeezed into just under 4km of distance – the perfect place to train for a hellishly-long day of running uphill on some unbelievably technical trails. However, the Vertical KM as most people do it is just shy of a full thousand metres, as to get the whole lot, you need to start from the town centre at 1040m of altitude and carry on to about two hundred metres distance past the upper lift station. But if you run it lift-to-lift, as most people do, it works out at about 2.5km with 900m of up, so running laps of it and taking the lift back down is a wonderful way of clocking up some serious vertical in a short space of time, and wheezing and gasping up it four times finishes as an unpleasantly-steep 10km with 3600m of up. You do get a most-welcome few minutes to sit down in between each lap on the descent, but it honestly felt as though each break got shorter and shorter… I suspect the lifties cranked it up a notch when they twigged what I was doing.

Laps of Vertical KM

Reassuringly, at the end of the fourth lap, I actually felt as though I could carry on for quite a while longer if it weren’t for the crushing boredom of repeating the same course again and again and again. So whilst the prospect of 6000m of ascent over an 82km course is still an absolutely terrifying thing to have lurking in my thoughts, I am quietly optimistic that I’ll finish the race, at least.

*

All-in-all, I had some pretty bold goals for this winter: after a summer of trail running and finishing not-too-badly in a couple of races, I was feeling fit and ready to take on some big days in the mountains. I had planned a few high-level traverses and had a wishlist of couloirs and cols as long as my ski pole. But the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy.

So, the best-laid scheme of getting fit enough for some hardcore ski alpinism ganged quite aft agley, as the promis’d joy of lots of steep couloirs led to grief an’ pain, and given my current work schedule, winter is now all but over for me. But one mustn’t dwell: you have to glean whatever lesson you can from the ongoing life experience, and through some admittedly shaky joined-up reasoning, I’ve decided that if my masochistic endeavours into trail running aren’t guaranteed to benefit my own narcissistic wishes to go skiing, they might as well benefit someone else. So I’m going to stick with the running, for now, and I’ve decided that the next race I run will be in aid of the North West Hospice in Sligo, Ireland, where people close to me have, unfortunately, had to spend a lot of time recently. I’d be absolutely thrilled if you could donate absolutely anything, no matter how small, on the fundraising page I’ve created on mycharity.ie.

Well, that’s the end of that story. Sorry it isn’t a very good one, more a cluster of episodes to reflect upon and look forward to. Hopefully there will be some more exciting adventures worth writing about in the future.

Dog on Buet

Posted in Aiguille du Midi, Aiguilles Rouges, dogs, Plan d'Aiguille, running, skiing, video, Volkl Nunataqs | 7 Comments

Combe du Pouce, 13/03/15

Skinnylegs_598
Combe du Pouce winter

On Friday 13th March, Dan Fitzgerald and I went on an exhausting day out in the Aiguilles Rouges – up the Gliere, down the Combe du Pouce, up to the Keyhole, down the Berard valley, beer in Buet. We battled a cruel sun, terrible snow, angry dragons, howling winds, tired legs, amorous sailors, empty lungs, and a whole host of other complications and inadequacies, both real and imaginary. Skinny Legs has a smashing write-up of most of the adventure here:

Skinny Legs Story

Dan also made a rather brilliant film that cunningly manages to hide just how little fun we had through the magic of image stabilisation and high-definition technicolour video.

Pombe de Couce Map

Despite more than 1300m of uncomfortably-sweaty ascent, and some perfectly horrendous skiing for 96% of the descent, this was a wonderful day out covering a lot of distance in the Aiguilles Rouges, and definitely one to be repeated, but ideally with some slightly better snow.

Combe du Pouce, lower couloir
Aiguilles Rouges north faces

Dan covers most of the more interesting bits of our day out, and I have little to add to the saga, but I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about someone else’s adventure that we happened to observe and become involved in, though hopefully insignificantly. Towards the end of our second climb of the day, on the way up to the Breche de Berard (or the Keyhole, as it’s known), we looked back over our right shoulders at what could have been our escape from the Combe du Pouce – instead of skiing all the way down to the Vallon de la Diosaz through a narrow but not-too-steep couloir carved out by the Torrent de la Floria, as we did, it is possible to cut a traverse out to the right towards the end of the Combe du Pouce, up and over the west shoulder of the Tete du Bechat, and descend via a diagonal shelf down to the Combe de la Balme, from where you have a much shorter climb up to the Col de Berard. This diagonal shelf, however, is surrounded on all sides by cliff bands of various sizes, and unless you know exactly where to point your skis, you run a pretty serious risk of getting cliffed-out.

Combe de Pouce map

Cliffed out, Combe du Pouce traverse

The summit of the Pouce, far left, with the Aiguille de la Balme just next to it, and the Tete du Bechat across from the col. The traverse from the Combe du Pouce across the western flanks of the Tete du Bechat should take you to the diagonal ledge which drops you into the Combe de Balme. A too-high traverse will bring you to the top of some pretty serious cliffs, like the eight people clustered at various points in this photo. Click on the picture (or any of the others) to enlarge it.

The eight people in the picture above, which to our distant eyes looked like two groups of four, had taken their traverse far too high, instead of dropping down skier’s left for the path through to the combe below. One skier from the party in front had descended worryingly close to the edge of the cliff, but had thankfully realised his mistake and was climbing back up to the other three above him, and they slowly – distressingly so – made their way back towards where the other party of four were waiting. We can only hazard a guess as to why they were moving so slowly, but the obvious assumption to jump to would be a lack of couteaux or crampons on an unpleasantly-icy track.

Every now and then we heard shouting as if to draw attention, so we tried to reply using a few whistle blasts, but with no response. When the wind happened to blow in just the right direction, we could hear snippets of discussion at almost-conversational levels wafting across the valley, despite the thousand metres of distance between us, so we tried to tell ourselves that they weren’t in any great distress. But we remembered that when we were back in the Combe du Pouce we had no phone signal, and were worried that the group across the valley from us now wouldn’t have it either, so we called mountain rescue. In my embarrassingly-broken French I tried to explain ours and their location, that there were eight people dangerously close to the top of some cliffs, and I honestly didn’t know if there was a problem, but that they were clearly somewhere that they didn’t intend to be and were moving very slowly indeed. Maybe if there a helicopter nearby that had a few litres of fuel spare, they could swing by and just have a look? The guy on the other end of the line thanked me for the call, he’d look into it, and replied when I offered that, no, he didn’t want us to wait around and watch them, there was no point in having another two people out later than they planned.

Keyhole, Breche de Berard

By the time we reached the Keyhole and the drama across the valley had dropped from view behind the hills, the lower group of four were still inching their way up along the top of the cliffs, and the higher party had started skinning back to the Combe du Pouce, and from there, either back up to one of the cols to the south of the Aiguille de la Gliere, or down the same narrow couloir that we had enjoyed hours earlier, and then a long climb up to the Col or Breche de Berard – either way, a long way home. Their day wasn’t even slightly over yet, and it would start to get dark in just a few short hours.

There are a few obvious lessons to take home from this – the first, of course, is to never go outside, just stay indoors where it’s safe and warm and there are no cliffs to fall off of. But if we choose to ignore this pretty indisputable bit of wisdom, we should at the very least do every bit of research we can on an intended route (or be appropriately equipped for the unknown), and never follow someone else’s tracks blindly. Dan and I had specifically chosen the lower, longer route today so that we could get a few decent photomaps of the higher traverse that we’ve never skied before, so that we might be more prepared for it next time.

Well, that’s it. There’s been nothing in the news and I’ve heard nothing through the grape vine, so I hope the eight people behind us got home safely that evening without too-much of a shitty escape. And maybe, just maybe, a couple of coloured lines on the picture above might help someone else find the right path in life.

 

Posted in Aiguilles Rouges, skiing, video, Volkl Nunataqs | Leave a comment

Recovery

06013sml

Sooner or later, you reach a point when the urge to go outside starts to intrude upon the lazy contentedness with which you bask in your inactivity, counting down the minutes on the clock until you can pop another tramadol without looking like too much of a junkie. You miss the underfoot crunch of rubber soles on snow in an otherwise silent forest, and the invigorating bite of early-morning cold on ear lobes and tip-of-the-nose, the only flesh poking through dense layers of woolen armour.

You’ll teeter warily on exploratory forays down familiar paths, laden with extra coats, spare gloves and hats, emergency rations and the all-important first aid kit, carrying a rucksack so overflowing with various paraphernalia that you look like you’re on your DofE bronze expedition, aware that a fall will not only dislodge the setting bone, but bring forth scorn and fury from those who care enough to expect you to bloody well know better. You may even find a pitying friend who, out of some noble sense of duty, might sacrifice one of their hard-earned days off to drag you around a cloudy hillside like your the elderly and incontinent family dog, limping and hobbled but too sprightly to just leave at home all day, an obligatory inconvenience.

Quite excitingly, there are gradual but noticeable improvements in your health every single day, and with an almost startling degree of naive optimism, you might finally decide that pumping away on an exercise bike in your ski boots with a litre of UHT milk strapped to the bottom of each pedal to simulate the weight of crampons isn’t even as fun as it sounds, and that it’s time to swap the snowshoes – as enjoyable a pastime as it is – for some skis and head into the proper mountains again.

Of course, your doctor probably won’t agree. “Well, it’s healing just as it’s supposed to: slowly…” he’ll say confidently, hardly even glancing at the new X-ray, his intonation and the angle of his head suggesting that he’s said exactly the same line to hundreds of other people in your position before you. He really can’t recommend skiing for at least another month, no matter how careful you are. And what about ice climbing?
“Haha!” he’ll chortle, before suddenly realising that you are only half-joking. “Oh! There will be no climbing for about five, maybe six months. These things take time.”

This bit of news hurts much more than the fall.

Shoulder screwsShoes, Aiguilles Rouges Blaitieres dessous, ChamonixPete, Col des Crochues, hiverCol des Crochues, hiver

*

In the first few weeks following my noisy bounce down an icy couloir, the conditions in the mountains remained pretty shitty, and I honestly believed (and was constantly told) that if there was ever a good time to break a shoulder, this was it. But as a belated yet inevitable winter arrives and finally brings the long yearned-for snow clouds, the temptation to go skiing when I really shouldn’t starts to get stronger, and I make the decision to retreat to the relative security of my ancestral home in England, for the restorative properties of a chest freezer full of delicious animal protein and mile-upon-mile of flat, safe, muddy trail running.

Shoes and a chicken

Now it is of course a bit of a cliché, but one of the silver linings of this particular cloud is the new-found pleasure that can be obtained from the smallest, seemingly most insignificant of things. Oh, the giddy thrill of being able, once again, to tie your shoes laces without an adult’s help, or the first time you do your own hair without mewling like an abandoned kitten. Learning how to use all the correct holes on a jumper pain-free becomes a cause for celebration, as does regaining the ability to tuck your shirt in after taking a piss. Eventually, you’ll be able to lift a coffee cup, and with practice, a pint glass. It’s incredible. I’d almost say it’s worth breaking a shoulder in exchange for these little nuggets of unalloyed joy, the occasional victories hewn from a daily procession of tiny, tedious challenges.

But I’ve been searching desperately for some kind of meaning to the whole experience other than the obvious “be more careful”, and it’s disappointing to say that I haven’t actually found one yet. Even at the beginning, as I lay groggily on my gurney deep in the bowels of Sallanches hospital, waiting for the drugs to kick in so they could slice me open, surrounded by the rhythmic beep of heart rate monitors and the predictable hissing of respirators as a half-dozen of us in various states of repair are watched over impatiently by our anaesthetists, I was in some perverse way looking forward to whatever fragment of arcane knowledge or spiritual reward was waiting for me at the end of this journey. I felt confident that the needles and tubes poking holes in me, and the suffering that they represented, were going to make me into a better person, a stronger one. Perhaps, as this episode of misfortune drifted further into the past, whatever mark it made on the account in my misguided interpretation of karma would leave me a luckier one, too.

Later that evening I awake, barely, briefly, to the same sound track, beeps and hisses and hushed conversation. I can’t move, so I don’t try. There are jagged holes chewed in both my top and bottom lip, flesh missing, as though I’ve been clamping and grinding my teeth against some horrific nightmare. The thought and sound of power tools floats abstractedly through the few corridors of my mind that have the lights turned on. I remember why I am here, and I peer at my right shoulder without turning my head: a clean white bandage stares back at me. I’m not in the mood for continuing the philosophical ponderings from a few hours ago, and as the beeping continues I drift back to sleep.

Maybe it’s still far too early, but for now enlightenment remains elusive. The only thing that has changed is that I can’t lift my right arm over my head without wincing and ripping apart some brand-new and quite delicate muscle fibres, but this admittedly quite frustrating enfeeblement will pass in time. Perhaps the only lesson I’m going to get, the obvious one, will fall on deaf ears. When I am finally allowed to go and play outside again, I will of course err on the side of caution, but only as much as I always have, as I was taught to and as I have done since, apron strings cut, I started making my own way into the mountains. I’ll still make the occasional stupid mistake, as we all do, because that’s one of the many things that human beings are so spectacularly good at. I am, withouScart a shadow of a doubt, going to go and ski the same things that I’ve always enjoyed, just as I’ll still carry with me the knowledge and the acceptance that if I put a foot wrong at a bad time, then I’ll suffer humiliation, injury, or worse.

The mountains don’t care what they do to you, they aren’t concerned with whatever catastrophe or triumph or pleasure or pain you get from them. They don’t demand your respect, impossible as it is not to give, because to their mind you simply don’t exist. Their reality is nothing but a silent, enduring observation of physics and time, stoic meditation at a geological pace. They don’t even see these funny little creatures in their brightly-coloured Gortex throwing ropes around and sniggering like schoolboys about nuts and cracks. Mountains cannot be accused of showing you antipathy; whether you experience against-all-odds success or crushing defeat, there will have been no targeted malice to suffer. It is for this reason that no matter what calamity befalls you in the mountains, be it great or small, you will always be welcome to return – though not with open arms, nor with cold hostility, but with an enveloping ambiguity and a disinterested shrug of the shoulders.

 We all go into the mountains for our own reasons, and at times those reasons might be difficult to articulate, but the very fact that we choose to be there shows our acceptance – be it through design or ignorance – of a certain level of risk and the inevitable consequences, and despite the occasional brush with misadventure (a few broken bones, a misplaced tooth, a small piece of an ear…) that could suggest to a more rational mind the benefits of staying indoors, so far I’ve found myself returning again and again. So I suppose I’ll carry on with the same considered obstinacy, the same childlike wonder, and the same constant, terrifying sense of my own vulnerability that I’ve always brought into the mountains with me, and has so far brought me back (mostly) in one piece. I suspect I just haven’t found the tipping point yet, where the risk outweighs the reward, and all I can do is hope that I never will.

Small person

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Bok Bugark

One of the best things about having a broken shoulder is all of the free time it gives you. I’ve used some of this free time to make a very short documentary-slash-musical about dinosaurs.

No chickens were harmed in the making of this video, but about a dozen earthworms weren’t so lucky.

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Trail Running: Dorset Ultra CTS 2014

County Sligo, Ireland, November

Benbulben and the Dartry Mountains, seen from Streedagh Point on a much nicer day

Benbulben and the Dartry Mountains, seen from Streedagh Point on an unusually-pleasant day. Click this picture, or any that follow, to view them a bit bigger.

For the third time in a week, I am yomping through a sodden, stinking bog, a compass glued to my left hand and a carefully-folded map in a ziplock sandwich bag clasped in my right. I can’t see more than thirty metres through the slate-grey, drizzle-flecked fog as it screams horizontally past me on the relentless wind. As my eyes dart between the featureless gloom ahead of me and the compass needle spinning at my side, I constantly scan the ground for holes: the big ones are easy to spot, the labyrinth networks of steep-sided trenches are up to three metres deep and twenty long, they are tedious and time-consuming to navigate through and the black muck oozes and sucks underfoot, begging you to stay. But the small ones are worse, they are hidden completely by the scrubby heather and a poorly-placed foot would easily end with a knee snapped forwards. Everywhere around there are mossy craters, collapsed sinkholes formed as the constant rain tunnels through the ancient limestone below. People sometimes disappear into them, never to be seen again. The shrouded, torn, pockmarked landscape feels like the battlefields of Ypres.

Benbulben and the Dartry Mountains map

A knee-high cairn materialises through the murk, the third summit on a day with many, and after a few seconds it has disappeared without ceremony into the mist behind me. But barely a kilometre later, I can feel the faintest glow of the sun’s warmth on my face as the clouds above me thin out a little. Even if there was anyone within a few miles distance from me, they wouldn’t hear my sudden, ecstatic shrieking over the bellowing wind, for as it howls in my ears it tears a brief but revealing window through the impenetrable fog, and for the first time in nine kilometres I can drop the compass into a pocket. In front of me, wisps of cloud streaming from its gaping mouth, a steep-sided and narrowing couloir plummets for two hundred metres through the cliffs of Annacoona down to the Gleniff Horseshoe, its crumbling limestone walls seemingly held together by nothing but seeping moss. As I carry on north to the summit of Benwisken, the swirling skies throw me the occasional glimpse of the coast in the distance – the tiny, desolate island of Inishmurray, dotted with the remains of a fortified monastery established by some hardcore hermit-monks in the 6th century; the crashing waves around Mullaghmore Head, home to some of the best big-wave surfing on Earth; and lurking in the haze of the far horizon across Donegal Bay, the towering sea cliffs of the six hundred metre Slieve League. From the summit of Benwisken, I turn back to the south as the world is once again swallowed by malevolent churning clouds. Out comes the compass.

 

Dorset, UK, December

I’d be the first to admit it: for someone who – I swear – still doesn’t like running, since the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges at the end of the summer, I seem to be doing an awful lot of it. Other than rolling around in foggy bogs on the Irish Atlantic coast, I’ve spent hours plodding towards a distant horizon over the flattest bits of England, I’ve stumbled hand-and-knee across the slickest quagmires of red Warwickshire clay, and I’ve left dripping trails of blood and torn clothing through dense thickets of briar and bramble. With the first winter storms back in Chamonix, I’ve shuffled blindly with frozen toes up through blankets of deep, fresh snow, and on bumbling, coccyx-crushing descents the resulting hot-aches have brought me to yelps of glee, grateful for the painful proof that my feet are still alive. Why I choose to be spending my time doing this is confusing enough, but perhaps most perplexing of all is that on top of all the pointless masochism that I’ve been enjoying for free, I have, once again, actually paid for the privilege of going running, down at the Endurancelife CTS in Dorset, with around 3000m of elevation spread over a 72km route.

Lulworth Cove

As far as quaint little English villages go, Lulworth Cove is nearly up there (but not quite) with the likes of Bibury in the Cotswolds or Wiltshire’s Castle Combe: a single narrow road winds its way down to the cove, flanked either side by little stone cottages topped with thatched roofs. The gardens and ponds behind their adorable picket fences overflow with leeks and watercress, thriving on the alkaline waters cutting through the chalky soil. The cove itself, carved over hundreds of thousands of years by a very patient tide, is dotted with a dozen tiny fishing boats bobbing languidly on Caribbean-clear blue water. A modest brick shack sells fresh fish at the weekends. It is all just so ridiculously charming.

We aren’t in the mood to appreciate all of that right now, though. Nearly two hundred of us are huddled in a marquee tent for the pre-race briefing, stamping our feet and rubbing blood into our arms, our running tights and windproofs scant protection against the freezing dawn. A cloud of steaming breath congeals on the canvas ceiling, and as the hi-vis jacket at the front of the room explains the tediously complex route to us, we are being steadily dripped on, Chinese water torture. “Now, who’s going to be leading the pack today?” he asks. There is no reply, except a ripple of polite laughter a few seconds later. These seem like my kind of people. Briefing complete, there is a frenzied rush to the portaloos as people make one last attempt to reach race weight, and we shuffle over to the start line. Our first climb stares down at us – the convoluted route means that we’ll be going up this hill three times before the day is out.

Dorset CTS 2014 map


The route: from the centre, Lulworth Cove, a big loop out west, then a big loop to the east, then the same loop to the west, then half the west loop again just for luck. 72km, 3000m of ascent.

Pete Houghton, Dorset CTS start

With a countdown from five and a cluster of tepid cheers, we are off. As the rustle and shuffle of running shoes on car park gravel tears west towards the first climb of the day, the sun creeps over the hills to the east, and suddenly we are in bright light, the orange glow a welcome sensation on our cold shoulders. But the limestone cobbles beneath our feet are still covered with last night’s frost, and we all struggle to find purchase on the slick, worn-smooth path. I can hear feet slipping and people cursing, and as the gradient steepens, I change pace to a brisk walk and place each foot carefully, keeping level with the girl next to me who is almost jogging on the spot, wasting precious energy as she flaps along. As we crest the first rise, the stunning beauty of the Jurassic Coast becomes apparent  – the Isle of Portland floats lazily in the early morning sun across the glinting waters of Weymouth Bay, its waves lapping at the base of the sheer chalk sea cliffs that drop terrifyingly down to our left. Fridge-sized blocks of freshly-fallen snow-white rock stud the sandy beaches, looking like lost ice bergs with the constant gentle surf pooling around them.

Dorest CTS14 startDorset CTS14 starting
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Dorset CTS14
Lulworth RangesThe cliffs rise and fall under our feet and the kilometres gradually tick away, and as we turn inland, plodding along over rolling hills and grassy fields, I take care to try and memorise every bit of the terrain possible, not looking forward to the second and third times I’ll be seeing it in the not-too-distant future. After just under 20km we arrive back into Lulworth Cove, the first visit of four until we eventually finish, where my family swap the wrappers and rubbish I thrust into their hands for new cereal bars, energy gels, and pouches of honey, and after quickly refilling my platypus with another litre of lemon-flavoured sports gunk, I rejoin the runners and head down to the cove. As we run towards the sun and into our eastwards loop, the rocky shoreline is cruel to my feet through their thin-soled shoes, but then we are climbing yet another monumental chalk cliff on soft grass and springy earth. Soon enough we are deep into the Lulworth Ranges, and the rusted shells of target-practice tanks peer out at us from behind clumps of tall grass. Frequent signs enthusiastically suggest that we stay on the marked paths, hinting at the possibility of being scattered over a wide area thanks to unexploded ordnance.
cts 14-15 Dorset Endurance Life

Absorbed in my surroundings and quite alone, I am struck with a vaguely lost feeling. My track has dropped me at a locked gate, and I am surrounded by patchy brown-and-white cattle. One of them nudges my shoulder. “Excuse me,” he says, as I turn to face him. “No-one else has come this way. They all went over there…” and he nods towards the other end of the field, where another runner is waving his arms at me. I must have missed a turn, and this is the jolt I need to switch my brain on and start concentrating. After a perfunctory health check, I decide that I’ve got the energy to spare to speed things up a little. I catch up to the guy who waved me back on track, and after sharing a few pleasantries and agreeing on how much we are looking forward to seeing the westwards loop again, I gradually pull away from him and focus on getting closer to the next rucksack and pair of piston-like legs, two hundred metres up the path.

Tyneham 2I play this game for the next few kilometres, and eventually we arrive in Tyneham village, a cluster of tumbledown stone cottages requisitioned by the army in the Second World War for training and target practice, which they must have just forgotten to give back to the people who lived there at the end of hostilities. There are information plaques dotted around everywhere and the whole place is bursting at the seams with history. I wish for nothing more than to stop and poke around, but barely thirty seconds after arriving, I have left, the path climbs another hill and turns back towards the sea again, and Tyneham is but a fleeting memory.Tyneham village

We find ourselves back on the coast atop soaring chalk cliffs, and the peculiarities of our meandering route start to be felt – near the end of our eastwards circuit as I am running back to Lulworth Cove for the second time, for a couple of miles the path rejoins that of the runners still coming out from the village, first a scattered handful of those bringing up the rear on the ultra-marathon, but then a dense crowd of the hundreds of people running the half-marathon. I’ve done nearly 40km by this point, and my legs are screaming at me for a walking break, but as the wide, grassy path drops away into a steep descent down to Arish Mell, I’m being clapped and congratulated by dozens of strangers as they labour uphill towards me, and I break into an open, bounding stride, the fear of fucking up overcome by a surge of optimism and confidence drawn from these people who I’ll never see again. As the path climbs once again up Bindon Hill, I catch sight of my friend Oli trotting towards me on the half-marathon and, desperately grateful for any human contact, I stop for a split-second man-hug and wish him well, before turning once again for Lulworth Cove.

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The same story: at the checkpoint I swap the empties for fresh fuel, refill my platypus with another litre of liquid, and grab the extra weight of a headtorch, muttering a prayer that I’m not out late enough to need it. With the cheers of my family fading behind me I set off once again on our westwards circuit, the coastline’s incredible geology – the colossal white cliffs, Durdle Door, the natural arch of Bat’s Hole – now glowing under the brilliant midday sun. It does nothing for my mood though: I am plagued by fatigue, doubt, and loneliness, and the combination saps my strength. For mile after mile, it is hard to break out of a shuffling jog, but inexplicably I catch up with another runner, who I quickly realise is as eager for some company as I am, then soon enough we catch up with someone else, and the three of us gladly match pace. Just before a steady climb for three kilometres on a narrow country road, we agree that we hate tarmac and slow down to a walk, chattering about races, shoes, and what we’d rather be doing. As we reach the summit and the path underfoot turns once again to grass, we cease conversation and, unbidden, break into a run, but I am unable to maintain the pace, and they gradually pull away into the distance.

A few miles later and for the fourth time today, I am back in Lulworth Cove, then after a few brief seconds I am leaving again, and headed once more for the top of those chalk cliffs. The route setters are cruel people; I can visualise them hunched around a table by candlelight as a raging storm rattles the thin windows, they are cackling and leaping around and rubbing their hands with glee as they imagine us limping up this hill for the third time. Muttering the most obscene curses imaginable at each climb as they drift away behind me and only half not-meaning them, the remaining distance shrinks painfully slowly as the skies grow noticeably darker over my head. At checkpoint three, just five kilometres from the finish line, the impossibly-cheerful girl with whom I have fallen slightly in love with over the last eight hours waves me on for the last time today, and, tired and emotional, I am struck with a pang of sadness, but by the time I’ve decided to abandon the race and start a new life with a stranger in a field in Dorest, she is three hundred metres behind me, so I press on instead.

Then I realise, quite suddenly, that each step I take over this now-familiar ground is another that I won’t have to make ever again, and the revelation provides me with a great surge of energy, so I silence my constantly-whinging inner monologue, inform my aching legs that I’m just not interested in the many complaints they have, and break into a steady run. Barely a thousand metres from our journey’s end, I hear his breathing long before a very determined runner pulls up behind me: as the sweat pours from his face, he’s sucking in every single atom of oxygen that he can through his mouth, nostrils and ears in noisy, hungry gulps. Wow, I think to myself as he claws away from me, he wants this more than I do, so I breathlessly shout my encouragements to his dripping back, and I follow him over the finish line barely twenty seconds later, as we place sixteenth and seventeenth. “Strong finish dude!” I gasp to him in a half-hug as we are handed a protein bar and a shiny medal, a decent-enough reward for eight and a half hours of absolute agony.

The rest of the evening is spent mopping beer and steak juices up with chips, and melting away slowly in a hot bath. Every now and then until late into the night, I hobble to the window to check on the near-constant stream of head torches as they make their way down the final hill to the finish. I don’t envy them one bit.

final cropped

The next day, my legs don’t bend and I’m amused to discover that one of my toes has turned black. It is a week before I can walk normally without groaning and creaking. People go out of their way to do little things for me, which is nice, but slightly humiliating. But then as soon as I can use the stairs without whimpering too loudly, I start searching online, quite inexplicably, for the next possible race. It seems that I have not yet finished with this, my least-favourite of hobbies.

A thousand thank yous have to be said to absolutely everyone who helped me on this ridiculous venture, most obviously my support crew of Aine and my parents, Paul and Bobbie, who had to endure a whole weekend of strolling around the beautiful Dorset countryside; and also the Endurance Life staff, stewards, and volunteers for setting the whole thing up. But, as I found whilst running the TAR back in September, a unique kind of gratitude has be given to the other runners you meet out on the route; you might only know them for a half-dozen strides and a throwaway remark, or you could share a few miles and your life story, but the whole day would be near-impossible without them.

Shoe2

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Trail “Running”: Bec Rouge Supérieur, 18/09/14

P1080918

I’ve invented a new sport. It’s called “off-trail not-running”, and the best place to try it out is on the route from Old Argentiere up to the Bec Rouge Supérieur, next to the Col du Passon. At 16km there-and-back, with 1700m of up-then-down, it’s a short, steep bastard of an outing on the most unimaginably terrible ground with a very short stretch on a glacier.

The trail from Old Argentiere up to near the Abri de Péclerey is fine and over quickly, and on the climb to the Bec de Lachat the path is at first sheep-like in nature but rapidly turns goaty. The cairns are there, but some are quite small and attention has to be paid lest ye wander off down a path carved by an ibex on the forage. This is great if you have a digestive system capable of breaking down complex cellulose molecules, but fruitless and time-consuming if you don’t, and may lead to some interesting scrambling to get back on track.

Past the first Bec Rouge, there are dozens of genuinely-terrifying opportunities to trundle some five-ton chunks of razor-edged rock down on top of you if you don’t plug your hands and feet in the right places, and after a quick, chilly hop over a reassuringly-flat bit of the Glacier du Tour,  you have to stay well to the right to find a decent path up the second Bec Rouge that avoids surfing down landslide rivers on tombstone-sized granite slabs, as happened twice in the short time I was watching. Once at the summit, with the Col du Passon to the east and the Aiguille du Chardonnet towering over you, you have an P1080919unimpeded view across to the Aiguille du Tour one way and, the other way, various north faces in the Argentiere glacier basin, if the clouds are behaving. Today, they weren’t, the freezing rain was starting to get the better of me, and the rocks were by now actually wet instead of damp, so I sucked down the last of my home-made Sports Honey and turned around.

The descent is not an easy one, and for once when trail running, when descents are usually a little quicker, the route back along the ridge to a proper path takes as long as it did on the way up. There are two ten-meter patches of actual running, when crossing two wide grassy cols, but other than that it’s mostly a hands-and-feet job until you are rolling down on wet mud and alpenrose back to the established trails above the Argentiere forest.

This would be a brilliant route for testing new shoes on a wide variety of the most hateful conditions, and it’s pretty hard to get lost in bad weather seeing as you are straddling a ridge line for a lot of it. All in all, I can’t recommend that you do this route unless you are looking for a thoroughly miserable time.

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