A lot has happened in this years First Quarter so it feels time for a round-up. This is partly due to recent global events (some sort of virus, you’ve probably heard about it) giving me the time required to write this and no doubt you the reader, time to read it. So here goes…
January started off with a bang after heading back out to Chamonix early in the month. My return to the valley coincided with some of the best climbing conditions Chamonix has seen in recent years, particularly in the mid-mountain range. With this in mind myself along with fellow Mountain Guides Paul Swail and Tom Grant jumped on ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ on the Aiguille des Pelerins. Now much has been written about this route, its first ascensionists and its / their reputations. Originally established by Mark Twight and Andy Parkin in April 1992 the line had taken 3 attempts over a number of years. The pair had graded the route as severe as they came at the time unable to get a single ice screw in on the ascent and illustrating the topo to the route with a skull and crossbones to denote the serious and dangerous nature of the climbing on the final pitches. When I was in Chamonix in my late teens and early twenties Mark Twights’ books ‘Extreme Alpinism’ and ‘Kiss or Kill, Confessions of a Serial Climber’ were legendary inspiration to us and his masochistic style very intriguing to us as youngsters so it was cool to be able to jump on such an iconic route.
The route was in fantastic condition and was clearly a very different experience for us than the first ascensionists. The climbing was nothing harder than some cruisy Scottish VI climbing, really good fun and an impeccable line, quite possibly the best mixed route I have done in the massif. It is important to note that as we did not climb the top 3 pitches (they were all looking very dry) we cannot claim a true ascent. Essentially we climbed the meat of the route and had a superb, fun day out as mates and one that I will remember for a long time. It being my first day out this winter there was a lot to get back into the swing of, not least the ski back down from the route to town in the dark with big bags on and no ski legs! Chamonix style day-hitting at its finest and as strong a start to the season as I could have hoped for.
After this I climbed some other things like Scotch on the Rocks, some other routes around the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul and had abortive attempts on the Plan West Couloir (in poor conditions despite the nearby excellent conditions just around the corner) and Omega on the Petit Jorasses (binned on approach due to snow conditions). Still tho you have to be in it to win it so more than happy to go and have a look. I feel very fortunate to be able to live in a place where these world-class routes are on my doorstep and even more so to be able to spy on conditions from my garden. Already looking forward to re-matches on all of the above!
After this it was time to get back into work with the usually mixture of climbing and ski work. Towards the end of February myself and regular long-standing client and friend Nick went to explore the island of Senja in Arctic Norway. The island is home to some amazing Scottish style mixed climbing and Euro type ice routes too. Best described as Scotland on steroids with big routes of all types right next to the sea. Whats not to love?
We had an awesome week which included establishing 2 new routes and 2 new variation starts to others. We climbed ice and witnessed (experienced?) the full brunt of the arctic weather. An amazing place and we already have plans to head back there next year. If you would like to join me over there for some arctic fun then please get in touch! I must give a huge shout out to Bent at Senja Lodge for the top-notch accommodation and route / venue beta. Also to Rich Cross of Alpine Guides for all his info and advice. Having detailed info like this for a first visit really makes the difference.
This last week was time for the first winter ‘Young Alpinist Meet’. This is a fairly new initiative supported financially by the BMC and the Alpine Club with the idea of getting young (under 30) folks who are already experienced alpinists to climb bigger and harder routes in the Alps in winter, with a view on looking to equip them with the skills needed for expedition climbing over the next couple of years too. The meet was incredibly snowy and was most likely the hardest period of the winter to be holding a climbing event. It was at least very realistic alpine winter conditions and over the course of 11 days a lot was climbed, descended, discussed, learnt and passed on.
With the emphasis on already experienced alpinists looking to progress what best to try to help with and pass on? Looking back at my own journey as a ‘young’ alpinist I learnt a lot by trial and error and was ultimately lucky to get away with my learning style at times. I guess after myself attending a BMC Youthmeet back in the day (in a not so glamorous Langdale) I have been looking for a way to try to help and give back a little and this fit the bill well. Another good reason I was keen to assist on such a week is because a higher standard week such as this really keeps me on my toes. It was not an intro or intermediate week and although we maybe didn’t get as much high mountain mileage in as we would have hoped due to the conditions some of those attending were strong so it was a really cool week to be involved with.
As well as practical feedback whilst in the mountains myself and fellow Guides Will Sim, Callum Muskett, Jon Bracey and others gave skills sessions, slideshows and talks throughout the week on a variety of sessions. A huge thanks to Tom Livingstone for doing most of the organising of the event, to Luka Warzecha for the amazing pics and for all the other volunteers throughout the week. Also to Mountain Equipment and Petzl for their support and goodies throughout the week too, much appreciated by all! Full write-ups will be on Mountain Equipment and Petzl social media soon.
With the mountain round up complete there remains only one thing on my mind. You’ve come this far, why not a little further?
Coronavirus has come along in a dramatic fashion to possibly change the world as we know it forever more. Like many millions of others all of my planned work for the foreseeable future evaporated almost overnight and here in Chamonix we are on day 10 of ‘Lockdown’. I feel I am fortunate enough to be in a better position than most with a little saved so my overwhelming emotions during all this are of fascination and curiosity. There has undoubtedly been no more interesting (bigger?) news story in my time and is surely the closest my generation have come to another World War. Other ‘contenders’ (for lack of a better word) for also life-notable news events would be 9/11, the 2004 Tsunami, the BSE outbreak of the 1990’s and dare I mention it, Brexit. All of these and others were similarly huge events but could still pale in significance to the effects of Covid-19. I’m sure those that have been following the news have seen the daily briefings and even statements by world leaders stating we are at war, but who’d have thought we would all be in it together and fighting an invisible enemy. World leaders demonstrating social distancing, politicians greeting each other with their elbows, all part of a very uncertain time for now at least.
Some good news tho is it appears people are beginning to work together more and see things as ‘we’ instead of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Local communities are pitching in the world over to accommodate self-isolation for the most vulnerable with offers to collect and deliver supplies etc. I have had several friends in the UK offer help to my parents which is greatly appreciated. A British politician tasked with increasing the amount of ventilators being produced in the UK for use on critically ill patients during the outbreak quoted “it doesn’t matter if we make too many, we can give them to other countries”. The words “give” and “free” don’t get bandied around together too often by those in power nowadays in normal times.
There is a wartime spirit in the air and a slowing of life for many folks. In the last few days I have spoken to more members of my family and close friends on the phone than I would normally do in 6 months. People now have the time to slow down and take stock and to realise what is really important. I appreciate these are tough times for a lot of folks but what good can come out of this will be essential to move forward. I read today a BBC item on how the numbers are over-egged and how the NHS is now actually prepared for the crisis. I like a lot of others I’m sure would take that.
On the nature side of things it looks like Mother Nature will be getting a well-earned break over the coming months. All activities are now banned in the mountains here in the Alps and more regulations elsewhere will surely follow. The Chamonix Aiguilles are quiet with no tourists, cable cars or choppers buzzing around the valley. But for the fact it wasn’t our choice it is actually quite nice. Pollution levels around the world have dropped by nearly 50% from this time last year. If I was more of a hippy I’d say this was a cunning plan by Mother Nature as a way of getting us to calm down and stop burning through our resources. A possible stroke of genius for the long term… Just a shame the weather has been so good since our lockdown began!
You take care and look after each other. Follow the rules to the best of your ability and remember it is for the collective good.
You stay classy people of the world. Until the next time!