About Dave Sharpe

My name is Dave Sharpe and I am a 30 year old British

Built To Send X-Series Pack Review

For roughly the last two months I have been been using and testing the Built To Send (BTS) X0 Alpine Pack. I have used it extensively during what has been a very busy summer of guiding on everything from Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and the Eiger, to an ascent of the Badile North Ridge, a trip to the Dolomites and everything in-between. BTS are a relatively new brand on the market place and looking on their website they promise a lot. So when I heard about them, their products and their ethos I was keen to find out more. So what was the outcome? Read on to find out..

The Brand 

BTS was established in 2014 and born from a group of friends that have climbed together all over the world (including extensively in the European Alps) over a twenty year period. The inspiration came from failing kit whilst out in the hills and a belief in being able to design and make something better. Simple! 

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High on the Badile North Ridge this summer

Technical

So what is it that makes these packs so special? Well quite a lot, as it turns out…

• The packs are made using a mono-shell construction for the body which makes them almost seamless and eliminates weak points. This in itself is nothing new but in over twenty years of rough rucksack use I have lost many a pack due to the seams bursting so this is a welcome feature. The bases of all the packs are double layer too as this is where a lot of packs ultimately fail. The composite fabric is extremely tough and fully waterproof tho not seam- sealed.

• Custom-made hard anodised aerospace grade hardware is used in all but two points on the pack. Again a key point for longevity. Plastic buckles break regular during hard use and if you are lucky they can be replaced. If not (and they are ‘sewn in’) you will either need to operate yourself or be friendly with a local tailor to replace them and keep the pack functional. Obviously not ideal if in the field or away on expedition.

• The foam that is used in the back piece and shoulder straps is similar to that used in fighter-jet pilot seats. This not only makes it VERY comfortable and forgiving if packed in a rush, but will also withstand repeated compression better and therefore last longer.

• ‘X-Fold Top’ folds like a roll-top bag and fastens securely using 2 metal G-hook closures. This eliminates a potential stress point and is one less thing to go wrong. Again plastic buckles break and even top quality, chunky zips fail too after repeated use especially in the cold. A serious problem if it breaks whilst in use leaving a gaping hole.

• The X0 has a 50mm non-padded waistband (in my opinion the best option for a sub 40ltr pack) which is easily stowed away around the rear of the pack whilst climbing but is comfortable enough when carrying extra kit into routes. This is the same on the X1 whilst the larger packs (X2 and X3) have a padded waistband to facilitate the carrying of heavier loads.

• The packs all come with a ‘Alpine Customisation Pack’ which is essentially a bag of extra attachments for you to be able to customise your pack to your requirements. The pack consists of x4 20mm side compression straps for a roll-mat / tent etc and x4 ice axe retainers. The pack also includes shock cord for the front of the rucksack to carry crampons etc. All these work well and are again attached via custom-made metal attachments. Having these as an added extra means that if you don’t want or need them you can keep the pack nice and simple, as well as also shave some weight. It also means you can essentially change the pack throughout the year and customise it for different adventures.

• The packs have 4 fully rated top band haul loops that enable the user to use the packs as a haul bag for short sections. This is not something I have used in anger yet but I can see it will work well and is a welcome addition to these sort of packs.

The packs are all made and stitched together using V-92 thread with a 16 pound breaking strength and are hand built in Britain under ISO – 9001 quality system. What does all this mean? It means that it will not break!

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My X0 being used mid route on the Miroir d’Argentine

Performance 

So how was it in use? I found the pack essentially as it says on the tin: bombproof, well thought out and very simple in it’s use. Due to the way the pack loads it stays open like a haul-bag and is very easy to pack / unpack. The X0 is big enough to carry full rack, ropes and kit into a climb and can then be folded down whilst on the route. The bag is still low-profile enough to be able to access rear gear loops on a harness whilst climbing.  

The Verdict?

The ultimate question; would I recommend it? If you are after a simple, lightweight, very well designed pack that is manufactured to the highest specifications and tailored towards the dedicated climber / alpinist then the X series of packs come highly recommended. The simple design, bomb-proof construction and light-weight nature also make them suitable for lightweight backpacking. 

ProsSimple, bomb-proof, very well designed. Lightweight and very comfortable in use. Hand made in the UK. 

ConsThe G-hook closures take a bit of getting used to initially. Expensive, but then again you get what you pay for!

Overall tho an awesome bit of kit and one that I’m sure will accompany me on many more adventures to come! 

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 ■ Retail price for the X-Series X0 is £279 and it is available direct from BTS @  builttosend.com

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Martin Moran, a Eulogy.

January 2016. Lochcarron, North-west Scotland, UK.

A confident, clean-shaven, youthful looking man entered the room and welcomed me warmly. 

“Hi Dave. Thanks for coming to work for Moran Mountain” Martin Moran was one of Britain’s foremost mountaineers and most experienced Mountain Guides. I’d heard the stories (how could you not?) but stood before me was the man himself, in the flesh. It is easy to build up people in your mind based on what you hear about them, folklore in the case of Martin. Through experience I have learnt this to be a dangerous practice often wide of the mark and especially so, the more their reputation precedes them.

“I’m not long back from a solo, winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. The conditions had been good up to a point, but then the mist came down and I couldn’t see a thing. I’ve done either forty-four or forty-five summer traverses of the ridge, but up there today at points I couldn’t make out a thing. I was looking around for rocks I might recognise, my glasses all frozen up” Martin laughs light-heartedly looking back at his predicament in retrospect, as is often the way in mountaineering. Christ. Forty-odd Cuillin traverses. Makes my singular summer traverse seem trivial. Maybe all the stories are true?

Martin continued to talk full-bore and with born again enthusiasm about the Scottish mountains and the climbing conditions the North West were experiencing at the time. I was new to all this outdoor work having only recently officially joined the BMG training and assessment scheme. Indeed this was to be my first ever, paid outdoor work. Did Martin know my lack of experience? Should I have told him? Over time I grew to learn about Martin’s willingness to ‘bring in’ the next generation of Guides, a practice that suited not only the many dozens of aspiring British Mountain Guides Martin had helped along the way, but also benefited Moran Mountain with a seemingly endless supply of young, fit and overly helpful Guides, all keen to make their mark and eager to guide on one of Moran’s adventurous itineraries. 

Working for Martin in the particularly wild NW of Scotland was something of a right of passage for many a British Guide. Prospective Guides looking for acceptance on to the BMG scheme begin by amassing huge amounts of experience in mountaineering, climbing and skiing before being signed-off to start the training and assessment process. The UK elements of the scheme are gradual and progressive beginning in summer in Wales, before heading north for what many see as the crux of the whole process, the Scottish Winter test. To this day the climbing and guiding I have done in the NW of Scotland is still undoubtedly some of the best I have ever done. The wild terrain, beautiful mountains and incredible selection of routes, no wonder Martin and Joy Moran (Martin’s wife) chose to base themselves here.

There were very few ‘easy’ days working for Moran Mountain in Scotland. The area is wild and generally quite inaccessible necessitating big walk-ins off the back of early starts and late finishes. This did however mean it was rare to see many (if any) other folks on the hills and we often had the crags to ourselves. Miles and miles of Torridonian monoliths, as far as the sea. 

Martin saw these points as key to his business model, ever keen to get away from the crowds and an easy sell to clients looking for something special. Martin built and demanded something extra from both his Guides and clients and was never happier than when groups came back off the hill having had to put in a ‘little extra’ (often a few savage extra hours descending safely off the hill in appalling weather). His eyes would light up at such information; mission, achieved!

He would only ever give you just enough information (never all the pieces of the jigsaw), to go off and have a total adventure. Information is key and Martin was always keen to keep the uncertain element of any outdoor forays. This was Martin’s nature through and through, always looking to give folks the ‘full’ experience and nothing less. If you just wanted to ‘tick’ the box, this was not the course or the place for you…  

I remember back in my first season working for Martin as a Trainee, out guiding the classic Forcan Ridge in Glen Shiel. I was running a ‘Winter Mountaineer’ course. Unlike most run of the mill generic type mountaineering courses Martin’s featured a steeper learning curve than most, taking on challenging traverses and the option of a night out snow-holing to able teams in good conditions. 

All the elements came together that week and the last couple of days saw me guiding a team of three along the Forcan Ridge to a snow hole on the saddle, just down from the summit. 

As previously mentioned Martin was keen to maximise the adventure at all times and having three on a rope on a fairly involving ridge traverse complete with big packs and an as yet unknown doss for the night made for quite the day out. Couple this with my relative inexperience as a Trainee Guide and the full team were on for some good learning. At one point the lead client (let’s call him Jim, mainly because I think that was his name) completely blew his footing and dived head-first off the ridge…! Much to my delight (and everyone else’s) my rope system worked perfectly and we continued our traverse to the summit. 

Even with this very enthusiastic team we spent many hours digging our snow hole for the night before settling in. I remember this foray being a high point of the week for one in particular. He lived and worked the city life in London and I’m not sure he had even been camping before. He was able and keen, happy to dedicate the time and the long drive north to overall adventure, a prime Moran Mountain client. 

It was clear the week (and in particular the snow-holing) was one of the best things he had ever done. He enthused about it and we finished off the week with a full traverse of Liathach in fantastic blue-sky, spring conditions. Along with Martin’s guidance I had taken the group from relative newbies to experienced novices and we had all learnt and experienced so much along the way. What an introduction to Scottish winter mountaineering! I could only imagine the stories he would regale when back in the city.

Martin also gave me the chance to guide further afield in Norway and the India Himalayas. In particular the trips I undertook to India struck a chord with me and now four trips later I can safely say (again) it is some of the best guiding I have ever done and one trip in particular quite simply the best thing I have ever done.

Summer, 2016

‘I am organising a personal climbing trip to India and there is the possibility of some others coming along. We are heading to the Miyar Valley area in Himachal Pradesh to attempt an unclimbed ridge line. There is plenty of scope for adventure and new routes in the area’ read the email. 

I spoke with my climbing partner John Crook (a friend and fellow Aspirant Guide at the time) and debated what to do. We had not long returned from a trip to Alaska which had been one of the warmest and snowiest on record. On this trip pretty much all we had done was dig the tents out and fight for lives, but now this potential offer to join Martin and co on what would be our first trip to the Himalayas was too good to turn down. We replied to Martin eagerly and although there  had been interest from much more accomplished alpinists to join the trip he saw our keenness and potential and signed us up. And so it began. 

Over the next several months building up to and then on the trip itself, what an education in expedition planning and execution we had. It was like we were being schooled by the grand master himself. Arriving in Delhi it was clear Martin was in his element. Here was a man that had done over 35 trips to India and it showed. Indian cultures and customs, history, Gods, geography, regional conditions, travel and just about anything else, Martin understood it and the way it worked in this bizarre country. Upon entering mine and John’s room the morning after arriving in Delhi Martin preceded to tell us all about the ‘new’ mosquito-borne virus that was doing the rounds and the need to keep covered-up. 

‘Can we borrow your mosquito spray?’

It was a good job as me and John on our first trip literally did not have a clue! 2000 Rupees is how much?

Martin had given us some objectives (along with everything else we needed) including beta on the biggest peak in the area, which was still unclimbed. We were lucky that (unlike our recent trip to Alaska) we hit great weather and conditions and all the remaining pieces fell into place to climb two new routes on two new summits, without doubt the highlight of my life so far. Essentially Martin saw something in us and gave us the golden ticket. Hitting lucky with conditions and weather on this trip all we had to do was cash it in. It was that simple. After our time up at high camp we returned to Base Camp and were all reunited to share stories of our successful forays into the hills. All three teams had successfully summited our peaks on 1st October. Martin could see how obsessed both me and John had been with our ‘A” plan and had started calling it ‘The Eye of Sauron’, such was the fix it had on us. I’ll never forget.

On another trip to India to the Kalapani Glacier a couple of years ago I was working with Martin and was storm-bound at 5200m at our advanced base camp along with 7 clients. We had a selection of tents and I was in a small, two-person Rab bivy tent on the end of our row of tents, cut into the snow. It was the sort of night with regular alarms to remind us to get up and dig the camp out. The morning dawned clear and we all came out to have a look at what greeted us. I was met by Joe (one of the clients) who was wide-eyed and eager to share. 

‘I woke up to a funny tinkling noise last night in the storm. I looked over and saw Martin in the porch. He was having a wee into our pan. Then he opened the door, threw it out, scooped up some snow and put a brew on’ 

Completely normal expedition behaviour to Martin but clearly a memorable moment for Joe! We went on to climb four virgin summits as a team and descend safely back down to civilisation.

I remember last autumn when planning our Nanda Devi East expedition we kept on coming up against Indian bureaucracy and uncertainty as is so often the way in such things. Our agent, Mr Pandey (of Himalayan Run and Trek, Delhi), was doing a fine job sifting through all the necessary paperwork and chasing all the correct channels but at one stage the process was looking increasingly unlikely and with a substantial financial outlay with no guarantee of a permit. I asked Martin what he thought. His answer was simple and unequivocal, ‘You have to go for it, just go and there will be a way’. This uneviquival, adventurous and raw attitude summarised Martin, time and time again. We went for it and the gamble paid off. We got our wish and our permit and headed to Nanda Devi East. Here we experienced appalling snow conditions, frost-nip and a lot of sitting in tents. When we weren’t sitting in them we were digging them out. After two months I headed back to the UK. All Martin could say was ‘it is all part of the learning curve’ Be careful what you wish for…

After many years on the guides scheme I finally received my full IFMGA carnet at the annual BMG AGM last year. As luck would have it that year was held in Kendal (my home town). Due to a couple of reasons it was at one stage looking like I might not attend. I had mentioned this to Martin who came straight back via email to say I should go and that it would be great to see me get my pin. I’m so glad I went now. 

I only knew Martin for maybe three or four years but looking back over that period he had without doubt the single biggest influence on my life during that time. Who will I be able to quiz now about conditions and objectives in India? Who will tell me what is in condition to climb around the NW and where the best bum-sliding descents are? Before Martin and Mark Thomas left for their last trip I had spoken with Mark about looking to return to Nanda Devi East to have another attempt on the NE Ridge. The only two teams to have ever tried it were Mark and Martin in 2015 and myself and John last year. It’s a mega line and we were both feeling keen for a rematch. As to how I feel about it now I’m just not sure. Maybe in time it will become clear, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe there are plenty of other things to climb in life, or indeed other things to do. 

When the news was coming out and it was starting to look like the unthinkable had happened a friend messaged me saying just how sorry he was as he knew what an influence Martin had had on me. He signed off with ‘Keep his spirit alive’. I intend to do this and will never forget our times together, my fortunate progress under his wing or the man himself. A fair few glasses have been raised over the last week or two, within the guiding world and a personal one at that. Martin often spoke about the fine line between the two; the do’s and don’t if you like. It was a fine line indeed, for such a man as Martin. 

I’ve now lost quite a lot of friends and colleagues in the mountains. Martin and the other seven victims aren’t the first and unfortunately they won’t be the last. When I think about the mountains and the risks involved in all honestly I’m not sure if I would continue adventuring in them if the risk was nil and void. I’m just not sure I’d see the point. It’s a serious game and I like it as such. I’ve never really seen myself as tennis or track type guy, just doesn’t seem to cut the mustard. The mountain gives and the mountain takes, it’s as simple as that for me. 

This post is mainly about Martin with who I had close contact but my friend Chaten Pandey was also taken. Chetan was an Indian national and had been with us for three out of four Indian trips and was a total legend. Never an angry word, a raised voice and always with a smile, no matter what he was doing, he ALWAYS had that smile! I remember carrying loads with Chetan on our first trip several years ago. Me and John had just finished our summer alpine training on the guide scheme and were more conscious than we had ever been on looking after folks in the outdoors. Martin had drummed it into us too; that the porters and the assistants on the mountain were our responsibility and to do our part for their well-being. We were carrying big packs and the weather came in, whilst crossing the moraine from hell. We were both trying to look after Chetan but he clearly didn’t need it. A fine example for me when I am out with clients in adverse weather.

This post has taken me an age to write and now in re-reading it I fear I might not have done it justice. I feel like I have been waiting for the perfect words, unaware there aren’t any. I have had countless conversations with colleagues and friends over the last couple of weeks and there is so much more to be said. I myself am absolutely gutted. It’s not a contest or question of time served front-line or other, but a huge feeling of loss for myself and many others that surrounded him. In my case the loss of a mentor (a pivotal one at that), colleague and friend. This tragedy has affected many and it is hard to imagine he is gone. Truth be told it hurts. I will continue to guide in his spirit both on the hill and in life in general. 

My sincerest thoughts go out to Joy, Hazel and Alex Moran. Also to Mansi Chetan, C.S. Pandey and all the staff at Himalayan Run and Trek (HRT) and all the family and friends of the other victims involved in this tragedy. You will never be forgotten.

Take care out there boys and girls, it’s a dangerous world.

Dave x 

Below are a selection of images from Scotland, Norway and India showing both Martin and Chetan doing their thing…

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The Magnificent Adventures of Teflon Dave.

Pangi Valley

It has been rumoured that the further you get away from bouldering competitions the less it has to do with climbing. After returning from my most recent trip to India I can indeed confirm this to be true.

The plan was for me to first work a trip out there for Moran Mountain (writeup here, the clue is in the name), before meeting John Crook for a personal attempt on the huge North East Ridge of Nanda Devi East (NDE), 7434m. The work trip although with a great bunch of clients was essentially shut down due to a very snowy seventy two hour period when it snowed an estimated one meter plus at Base Camp (4000m) and a likely two meters or more above 5000m. After this event however hard we may try the trail breaking and any travel (particularly above 4500m) was torturous.

The plus side of this trip however was all the clients were fantastic so myself and Mark Chadwick (fellow Guide and trip leader) along with all the clients still had a good time and got to enjoy being in the mountains. In circumstances such as these a sense of humour and positive outlook on life pays dividends. We did manage to make one first ascent as a team however, ‘Frejas Peak’ (5271m) was climbed by all members of the team from Advance Base Camp out and back in a day. This was just before the snowy conditions arrived and was done without crampons. The peak gave magnificent views across into the Miyar Valley and beyond. We could see ‘James Peak’ and ‘Marakula Killa’- the peaks myself and John and Martin Moran with Ian Dring made first ascents of from the Miyar Valley two years ago. I have fond memories from that trip and it was great to see those peaks in such great detail and from such a rare angle. A rare treat indeed and one that was enjoyed by all team members.

The getting out of the Pangi Valley and back to civilisation proved much more hard work than getting into the mountains. The snowy weekend we had endured up high had been stormy lower down and caused many landslides and power outages on the north side of the Rohtang Pass. This made for a lot of logistical problems but eventually the team made it back to Delhi in time for flights home.

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The Pangi team all ready to go

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Our custom made bridge to access the valley

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Frejas Peak

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Start of the snow

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Nanda Devi East

A while ago someone asked me why I write these things down and like to keep a (sometimes irregular) blog. I enjoy writing about my experiences in retrospect, and the ability to re-live them again afterwards. I also find the process quite cathartic in sorting out what’s in my head and digging deep into how I really feel about a certain something. The fact that some folk read it (and enjoy it they tell me) is an added bonus.

Our trip up the Lawan Valley for Nanda Devi East (NDE) was of a similar ilk. Due to logistic / beurocratic reasons (a constant in trips to the Indian Himalaya), both myself and John were a week late arriving at NDE Base Camp. We attempted a first traverse of Changuch (6322m) and Nanda Kot (6844m) as part of our continued acclimatisation and preparation for NDE. Again we found terrible, energy-sapping snow conditions and after a few days of toil and added acclimatisation decided it wise to bail and focus our efforts on NDE.

On the 16th October me and John left BC for a self-supported, alpine style attempt on NDE NE Ridge. We reached a camp at c.5350m at the foot of the ridge on the 16th and climbed to 6150m the following day via the lower ice arête. Here we stayed for one night to aid acclimatisation with a plan to continue the next day. We had a forecast of only snow showers for the next few days however it proved to be much more than that and although only light to moderate snowfall, proceeded to put down between one and three feet of snow each day in organised showers. Later we found out it was mostly clear at BC and below 5000m but remained clagged in above this. We spent three nights camped at 6150m with snow accumulating. Average pre-dawn morning temperatures were -20 to -25ºC. 

On the 19th after another night at our camp with the frequent sound of avalanches we probed upwards in marginal conditions to our high point at 6300m. Here we found terrible, time-consuming and difficult to protect snow conditions and after returning for another night at our high camp retreated in very snowy conditions to arrive back in BC on 20th October. 

I could wax lyrical about the views along with our intent, drive and perseverance but in all honestly all it came down to was an ambitious plan, bad snow conditions and lots of suffering manifested in this case through trail breaking, wading and digging through snow. One thing I am now sure of is that I am excellent at carrying large loads in poor snow conditions and also that I don’t want to do any more of it anytime soon.

When these trips are a success I return home on cloud nine, literally walking on air and the highest of the high. After such a long time away there is undoubtedly a heap of life admin to sort upon my return (typically bills, emails and more bills), but after a great trip I return ‘full from the experience’ and none of it can touch me. Daily dealings with Origin Broadband (I can mention them, this isn’t the BBC) and all those other hassles dissapear like water off a ducks back, or Teflon Dave in my case.  René Daumal sums it up perfectly:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

After a successful trip and having ‘seen’ above I carry it back to normality and use it well. After a while however it fades and I need to repeat. When the opposite happens and the trip is ultimately unsuccessful I return home with more questions than answers, unfulfilled and hollow, unable to validate myself through the endless hours of training leading up to a trip and ultimate success. All those 3am offshore night shift gym sessions. Not enough? Too much? Who knows. That is however the game and ultimately you wouldn’t get one without the other. A plus point is that I have undoubtedly learnt more lessons from these last two expeditions than possibly all the others put together. Great knowledge for future attempts of similar objectives.

Right now I’m looking forward to taking some time over the next month or so to relax and do all the things I’ve missed out on in recent times; see friends and family, sleep in my bed and not be constantly on the go. I have been enjoying wood fires, showers and eating a little bit too much since my return. I know I will be back on the expedition train at some point but as to how and where yet I’m not sure. Mark Thomas has already expressed am interest in returning for NDE in a couple of years if the line still stands, it is however too early for me to even think about seriously yet.

After that I will be moving to Chamonix and beginning my new life as a Guide with just a little bit of offshore work thrown in for good measure. My offshore trips are getting less and less and it is something I plan to leave soon, however having the option of a second income with a main profession such as guiding is always nice as a back up. You stay classy Nanda Devi East, maybe we’ll meet again someday….

Have fun out there!

Dave.

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Snakes on the way in!

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Manish, our Liaison Officer

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Serac fall from high up on NDE. An amazing display of nature. 

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Accessing Changuch

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Lower NDE ridge

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Our high point on NDE

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Bailing off NDE on the 20th October

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Bad weather on the descent

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A zoomed-in shot of a black bear spotted whilst walking out from NDE

 

Becoming an IFMGA British Mountain Guide.

On the 10th August I completed my final alpine assessment and in doing so became an IFMGA British Mountain Guide. The journey has been a long one with more training and assessments than I care to remember over the last four or five years, this on top of the same again before it finishing off my application and gaining the experience necessary to begin the process. I am very pleased to have gone through and be able to qualify with the British Mountain Guides who I believe are some of the best around.

Becoming an IFMGA Guide has been a dream of mine ever since my first season in the Alps when I was sixteen. Over the last eighteen years my attention has wandered at times but essentially it is all I have ever wanted to be. I am of an obsessive type nature and there is a high chance I have thought about becoming a Guide every single day since that first trip to the Alps.

So what is a Mountain Guide? A Mountain Guide is someone with the IFMGA carnet, the highest qualification in the world for leading people in the mountains, whether skiing, climbing or mountaineering. A BMG Guide holds the IFMGA carnet, which is the only UK qualification valid abroad for climbing and skiing off-piste on glacial terrain. The IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Association) has 22 member countries and regulates the training and assessment process across the board. The different schemes all have minor variations to accommodate their particular mountain environments (the Scottish Winter section for example on the BMG scheme), but when completed we all hold the same IFMGA qualification and ability to guide any mountainous activity anywhere in the world. There are around 6000 IFMGA Guides worldwide.

When I got on the scheme four years ago I knew it would be hard work (I have seen a lot of my friends go through in recent years), but I had no idea how it would change me over it’s course. To get on the scheme the BMG are looking for a vast application with a wide range of experience and not necessarily technical brilliance or past experience of working in the outdoors. That’s right, you don’t need past experience of instruction or UK based guiding to get onto the scheme, of more interest is the amount of experience you have in the mountains and your reasons for wanting to become a Guide.

When I first applied to the scheme I had some pretty big holes in my knowledge. Having never been trained / assessed in the outdoors before my navigation skills were poor and looking back my level of avalanche awareness and terrain management was low. For me this has been one of the biggest points of becoming a Guide, the filling in of ‘essential’ skills in the mountains. Come assessment day there is no-where to hide if you do not have these crucial skills.

A huge part of the job is also just being able to look after people in the hills. There is a constant, on-going dynamic risk assessment going on in your Guides’ head all day long. Sometimes this is easy and straight-forward and sometimes it is more challenging when there is a lot going on.

The job is ultimately very rewarding and I am thrilled to be able to now begin my new career in earnest. I am moving back out to the Chamonix valley full-time from the end of November and can’t wait for the winter to begin.

Before that my next move is a trip back to India in just under a week. I begin with a work trip working once again for Moran Mountain before moving on to a personal objective, the unclimbed North-East Ridge of Nanda Devi East. It’s a whopper at 7434m and I am returning with my regular climbing partner and fellow BMG John Crook. At the time of writing there is uncertainty with which permits the state of Uttarakhand are issuing after a high court order banned certain activities in the area. Hopefully this will be sorted and we will be able to proceed as planned with our trip. The fun and games of expedition climbing!

Here are some pictures. The first one is of our objective on Nanda Devi East that I leave for next week and is from Moran and Thomas’s attempt on the NE ridge in 2015. The rest are of the last few years guiding in Scotland, the Alps, Norway and India. Photo credits to Martin Moran, Urban Užman, Graham Frost, Andy Townsend, Jon Bracey, Mark Walker, and my friend Nick Bortman.

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There will be a full write-up of our expedition upon my return in mid November.

Wish us luck!

Dave.

 

Miyar Valley expedition, India 2016.

I’ve been a little bit quiet on the blogging front on from the winter, mainly due to being very busy with various things and life getting in the way… So what have I been up to? After a successful winter in Scotland and passing my Winter Guide exam I progressed to the Alps and have spent a large part of the summer working over there as an Aspirant.

The summer was amazing and very informative for me as an Aspirant Guide. I can now see why the Aspirancy period is so integral to the Guide’s learning process. Along with the usual Matterhorn’s and Mont Blanc’s I was also able to explore some more hidden corners of the Alps and jump on routes that were not only new to me but also needed to be approached in a very different way, working as a Guide with clients. There was also the small matter of a trip to Alaska in the Spring which I promise will be reported soon! For now tho this post is about a trip I have just returned from; an expedition to the Miyar Valley in the Indian Himalaya.

For well over a decade now I have been reading books by the likes of Fowler, Bonatti, Messner and House about their incredible experiences in the Himalayas. I have bookshelves full of them. When I was thirteen and beginning to climb regularly I went to a slideshow by Simon Yates (of Touching the Void fame) at Wilf’s Cafe in Staveley. I say slideshow and not lecture because with an audience of no more than twenty and set in a very intimate setting one winters eve, I was witness to an incredible couple of hours of talk and slides that undoubtedly stirred something deep inside me. That night at the end of the evening I bought a signed poster off Simon titled ‘The Latoks and Ogres from the East’ that I can still remember clear as day. I have known for as long as I have been climbing that one day I too would gravitate towards these climbs and seek my own experience when the time is right.

Being part of the British Mountain Guides network has a lot of advantages, not least being able to easily communicate with and be ‘kept in the loop’ about up and coming trips and what members are up to. It was one wet February afternoon when a post came through our Yammer network (think Facebook for Guides) that stood out from the rest. Martin Moran (Himalayan legend and fellow BMG member) was planning a trip to a remote corner of the Indian Himalaya and was after reliable folk to come along. We asked him some obvious questions (the sort Himalayan virgins would ask) about routes in the area and likely conditions. We received the reply below:

Dear Dave and John, 

I have attached pics of the N Face of Pk 6294m. The face height is 1200m. The mountain is so far unclimbed as far as I know. It’s the pivotal peak of the area geographically. The easy route will be from the top of the Miyar Glacier up the south-east face – looks about AD. I organised but didn’t participate in a trip to try and climb the easy route in 2015 but it was somewhat disastrous. The team never got to the bottom of it. They got bogged down and demoralised by several days of bad weather lower down the Miyar Glacier. You could reach an advance camp-site at 5000m in a day’s walk up dry glacier from the Jangpar side glacier. To get to this N Face from here would be a real mission – totally committing. You’d have to go over Kang La (5400m) , down to 4500m at Khanjur in the Temasa valley, then up the Tidu Glacier to the base of the face at around 5000m – all technically easy but long and rough. I did all this on a guided trip in 2011 which is described in my Higher Ground book. If anything went wrong on the face and you couldn’t get back over Kang La you’d be stuck on the wrong side of the Himalaya. You’d have to go out to Padum in Zanskar (about 20km to a road). Then it is a major road journey via Kargil to Leh (300km, 2 days). From Leh you could fly back to Delhi. This has all the ingredients of a complete adventure. In 2011 we saw no-one for 10 days – no shepherds or trekkers in these valleys at all. 

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Martin’s original pic. Raja Peak in the background

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, working a time frame and calculating some finances, myself and regular longtime climbing partner and fellow Aspirant BMG John Crook thought it too good an opportunity to pass up. If you are a dedicated alpinist and you receive an email like this off someone like Martin, the answer is YES. He had us hook, line and sinker. The Himalayas were on!

Fast-forward to the end of the following summer and three months working in the Alps has left me hill fit but chomping at the bit for some personal climbing. The now usual a lot to do / not enough time to do it in ensued, but soon enough I’d driven back to the UK, packed the necessaries, fed the cat and was on my way to India.

Now having read so much about a place before you can’t help but have certain preconceived ideas. I have heard on more than one occasion India to be described as ‘THE most vibrant mix of sights, sounds and smells on the planet; a sensory overload’ and on first inspection Delhi did not disappoint. The usual Western-priced rip off taxi fare saw us deposited at Delhi YMCA, our accommodation for the night after a round-the-houses approach with what was essentially a cab driver who had no idea where he was going. All good fun to start the trip. Here we would meet Martin and Ian the following day. Guess it could have been worse, at least we got ripped of with a smile…

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Sorting gear for the off at Delhi YMCA

The following day was spent largely sorting out kit, packing and re-packing and buying any last minute essential items. All this taking place in-between bouts of sweating profusely in the intense, afternoon Delhi heat, with a trip to the local market sealing the deal as experience of the day. I was grateful I had shopped for the obligatory essentials before I left the UK, however enjoyed accompanying John whilst he played the customary game of haggling for his life over a few Rupees for items he didn’t really want anyhow.

‘Hello my friend. You want t-shirts, you want watches?’

‘No, not really’

And so it continued.

Now in nearly every book I have read about trips to climb in the Indian Himalaya the IMF is mentioned. The Indian Mountaineering Federation is the point of reference for teams coming to spend time in the high mountains of India and place for teams to meet their assigned  Liaison Officer along with getting the legally required pre-ordained permit to climb. Again the place had taken on an almost mythical status (funny how you build things up in your head) so it was great to finally go there and see for myself. The building was nothing like I imagined, grander and with a brilliant climbing wall in the well-kept grounds. It turned out Martin is somewhat of a celebrity around those parts and had agreed to do a lecture for them that evening. We met Ghadjhi (our Liaison Officer), sorted the necessary paperwork and then enjoyed a fine evening at Martin’s talk with great hospitality shown to us from officials at the IMF.

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Alongside Martin and Ian were another couple on the expedition; Charlie and Annette who had flown in from Sweden that day. All three teams had different hopes and objectives for the trip, however with a seemingly shared goal of first ascents (albeit on very different peaks) and a very exploratory sense about us we set off travelling overland to Manali; gateway to the Himalayas.

A long journey by jeep led us up, out of the manic chaos that was Delhi and North away from the accompanying mosquitos to cooler climbs. It was good to see Delhi but after even just a couple of days I had no desire to remain there and was keen to get going. Now India has close to 150,000 deaths on its roads each year and quite frankly from what I saw I’m surprised it’s not more. Mental does not even come close. Why bother staying on the correct side of the road when there’s space in the other lane or waiting to overtake at a suitable place when you could just do it now?  A very interesting and different way to think about driving indeed and thankfully not one I will be importing to Cumbria’s roads.

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Our transport for the next couple of days (YMCA Doorman not included)

Manali is a town of two halves. Manali itself; a busy, bustling typical Indian community set high in the hills and Old Manali; somewhat quieter, more expensive and obviously better set to cater for the whim’s of Westerners like ourselves. Old Manali was thankfully our base for the night. it was a good chance for final preparations before heading over the Rohtung Pass the following day and we took full advantage of what was very likely to be our last taste of this level of comfort for a while.

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Early the next day and we were off over the near 4000m Rohtung Pass heading ever closer to the Miyar Valley. Having never been to India before the experience was all new, different and very enjoyable. Sweet tea is something it appears you have to like when travelling around India. Every stop is a tea stop and even if you order coffee and they agree to it in principle (in itself unlikely) you’ll probably get tea anyhow. Save yourself the time and just order tea to begin with would be my advice. That way at least everyone will know where they stand.

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Top of the Rohtung Pass

Soon enough we made it to our accommodation for the night; a homestay in a very small village at the road head of the Miyar Valley. This gave us an invaluable opportunity to sample real, rural Indian life first-hand and see just how warm and friendly the local people were. Put simply their life is basic but seemingly very happy. I felt they had a light-hearted contentedness with what little they had with a focus on the true necessities in life. Here we were well catered for and after a few too many fresh Chapattis and a more than comfortable nights sleep we started our walk the next morning along the flat-bottomed valley. We had two base camps planned (one for Charlie and Annette and one for me, John, Martin and Ian) along with Gajendra, Heera (our Cook) and Chetan (our High Altitude Porter) who were to accompany us to our base camp. We also had six horses to get all our kit up there, managed by two Horse Men.

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Miyar Valley at first light

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The next two days were spent like this, nudging ever closer to our own camps but very much enjoying the walk. I felt like a child in a sweet shop with so many unclimbed peaks towering overhead. How lucky we were to be here.

River crossings are something you just have to get used to on these trips. The more remote an area the less likely it is to have bridges where and when needed and after all, that’s what we came for. Glacial flows are in fact even colder than they sound and careful route choice along with a quick immersion and exit seemed to be paramount for limiting the pain.

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Martin on the last of the bridges

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There comes a time in a man’s life when you realise you just need to man up. That point for me was wondering how I was going to get across this river when this lad turns up barefoot and carries his horse across. It was only a small horse but still…

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On arrival at our base camp (BC) we wasted no time in packing up and getting ready to move further up the glacier. Our ‘A’ plan was adventurous, extremely long and full of uncertainties. To help we had paid a little extra to get assistance from a high altitude porter (Chetan) to make our plan look a little more likely and to be able to maximise our time in the hills. As it turned out Chetan was a total legend and brought so much more than badly needed resupplying and help load carrying.

Leaving BC to establish advance base camp (ABC) our loads were massive, 25-30kg each.  We had been told to skirt the left bank of the glacier but after several hours it became apparent this was in fact not the best way and proved to be even harder work than anticipated. We did a solid 7 hours like this with peaks and troughs of incredibly loose moraine over fifty metres high before hitting dry glacier where we camped for the night. Tough day in the saddle.

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John sorting supplies at BC

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Throughout this day Chetan followed casually and I would often ask him how he was getting on.

‘How you doing Chetan?’

‘Good’ came the reply. ‘I just follow you’

Delivered light-heartedly yet meaningfully every time with a huge smile and despite the fact it had now started to snow. Good man!

It feels my recent ongoing training as a Guide has made me much more aware of how others are doing around me in the hills. I recognise instantly if it is cold and someone isn’t wearing gloves, they have not eaten, or are slowing down. I notice the same awareness in John too.

Days like this are what the iPod shuffle mode was made for. Thanks to Oasis, Leftfield, The Prodigy, Hot Chip and many more for helping me through the highs and lows. I am forever in your debt.

ABC established and after a night there Chetan left us and made his way back down to BC with an agreement to come and restock food after a week. It felt ever so slightly more isolated when Chetan left, just the two of us remaining. Although slow we were making progress. It felt great to finally get to ABC (felt like a mission in itself) as from here we would be able to travel a lot lighter and soon the climbing would begin in earnest.

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Bad weather hampered us the next day (one of only two days on the whole trip) so a tactical rest day was called for and when we awoke to blue skies the following morning we began our acclimatisation on a nearby 6036m peak. The peak had been climbed once before in 2007 (only to find this out upon our return, thinking we were doing another first ascent) but we spent two days on its South-East ridge along with a stunning bivi at 5600m. Although not particularly technical, the ridge made a brilliant acclimatisation peak and gave us a superb vantage point to inspect our likely descent of pk. 6294. The day was incredible with clear blue skies, warm temps and light winds. If this was what climbing Himalayan summits is all about, then I want more! We descended back to ABC to relax for the rest of the day and with the weather still looking good packed leisurely with a plan to leave the next day for the main event.

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Our ‘A’ plan had been suggested to us by Martin whilst we were thinking of possible objectives for the trip. The best idea when heading on these expeditions is to come with a LOT of plans and objectives and bring everything you think may be needed for 99% of eventualities. This way when expedition life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade and change and adapt and still get something done. It is a very long way to head and get nothing done. ‘A’ plan was big. Part of the enrapture of alpine expedition climbing for me (and alpine climbing in general) is the unquantifiable nature of and often huge level of uncertainty associated with it. I have a tendency to search for certainties in life (and there aren’t many) so this is a pill I have learnt to swallow over time in both life and the mountains. We had some numbers (we even had a map to see us to our peak and back, even if it did turn out to be wrong) but actually how far was it and how long would it take? Did we have enough food? These constant ponderings along with the accompanying natural anxiety over the unknown technical difficulties, weather (out of our control beyond our own assessments) and other logistical and technical wonderings are an integral part of the experience. Years ago (I’m talking ten or so) I could so easily get psyched out by such a big route. ‘Over 1000m of climbing?‘ or ‘How hard?‘ Now tho I have learnt to handle these uncertainties. I have climbed routes of close to two-thousand meters in length and jumped on (and capably retreated in horrendous weather from) even bigger. I have climbed Scottish grade VIII 8, and although not the strongest rock climber in the scheme of things I can keep going for a really, really long time. Time served in first rock climbing about the Lakes then Scottish Winter, followed by an alpine apprenticeship has given me these tools. And I can suffer. This means I no longer need to focus as much on natural uncertainties and I believe I will be fine whatever happens.

Before you have actually done something on a trip it is all just hot air and to be honest not even worth mentioning. I could be off to solo hard new routes on the South Face of Annapurna (stand aside Ueli), but until I’d done it and was safely back at BC it’s all just hot air and dreams in the making. I often think as expeditions as being 9/10 experience and (hopefully) 1/10 climbing. How will it play this time? After what can only be described as an absolute suffer-fest on my last trip to Alaska we were due some good fortune.

The next afternoon we were off. First stop was back up the glacier heading to the Kang La pass, crossing point to the north side of the range. This was by now a slow, familiar walk and although still heavy, our bags felt light after the load carrying to ABC. I wondered weeks before we set off on this trip what it would feel like if we got to the pass. It was a pivotal point of commitment for our plan, the point where any onward movement northwards would be inextricably linked with deepening commitment to our goal and the way back becoming more and more involving. If we commit and can’t make it over our objective for any reason what would we do? Climb a different route back over somehow? Walk back around? Maybe neither? We hit the col and had decided to camp on top to further aid acclimatisation. We were treated to an incredible night under one of the best skies I have ever seen. We lay in our our tiny two-man bivi tent with the door open and watched the sky chatting like we were down the pub. You really get to know someone when partnered on a trip like this. I saw a good ten shooting-stars then dozed off. The next day we felt great despite a cold night and we continued down steep, firm slopes heading to the Jangpar glacier. On from here each step of the journey from the col began to feel more and more liberating and like we were doing what we had come here to do.

From dry glacier to wet-snow line then back to dry glacier. We were travelling through the hills. Down we went. All the time the ground was broken and extremely rough. The Himalayan chain is still rising and so that makes the boulders and more recent rockfalls much more unsettled. The ground is not like adventuring around the Lakes. Big, loose, boulders, huge loads and long journeys make for problematic journeys for the unprepared and unaware. I fell badly four or five times over the trip and it felt like it could have had consequence. A broken leg out here would be problematic to say the least. By the end of the trip tho despite these setbacks I felt a much greater understanding of the moraine. It’s inability to move under it’s own stream; being pulled and pushed in all sorts of directions, it’s precarious positioning. What happens when your iPod runs out on day six whilst on a load carry through this ground? You think about shit like this.

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More river crossings on the Jangpar Glacier

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Raja Peak on the left

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Seracs beginning to wake up

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We rounded the corner of the Temasa Valley and caught a first glance of or peak. Martin wasn’t lying. It was massive, sheer and by far the biggest around. What a hill! I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated initially but with the appearance of more and more useable features on the face and it looking like it could actually be in quite good condition I relaxed into it. By end of play that afternoon we had made it to a campsite across the valley from our peak, a perfect vantage point of the subject of so much thought these last few months. Again on a dry glacier, it felt a minor luxury to have streams running nearby and not have to melt snow. The whole place (at this altitude) felt so much more hospitable than Alaska. Butterfly’s and Bee’s were all around along with the usual alpine Chuff’s and it really set the scene. Our plan was to spend twenty-four hours here to rest, observe the face and generally just prepare ourselves for what was to come. We had brought a pair of binoculars to see if we can work out a route on the face. Were those corners ice or snow? We would soon find out.

Now John likes his food and apart from carrying it so far, it was nice to have plentiful supplies the day before a big route. A rare treat indeed. Fed, hydrated and relaxed was how we left the penultimate bivi site before getting on the wall. We found a way through a maze of crevasses over to our final bivi site beneath and a little way from the prospective beginning of our route.

Now in the very early morning with all the aforementioned anxieties about such an endeavour, the last thing you want to be worrying about is finding your way to the correct start of your route. Experience has told me this. It is worth (in my opinion) putting a track in the day before so you don’t end up wasting precious minutes at a very bad time of the morning and preventing you from getting a good start on your route. If there is no moon to light the way even with a very good head-torch it can be confusing to say the least. This done along with other final preparations like water bottles filled and into sleeping bags (to prevent them from freezing) and another check of the proposed route and it was time to bed down.

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The alarm always goes off too early, or too late. It is never on time. So much of alpine climbing is about timing and discipline. The alarm goes off, you get up. It snows you put your hood up. It blows like hell and you spend the extra time guying the tent out. If you don’t none of these things will likely be catastrophic, however each will lead to a gradual decline in performance and if it goes on long enough you will pay. On this occasion 2:30 was our nemesis. With a track already in and water ready for the morning brew the routine for departure is simple and takes 45 minutes.

I lead off and John follows when the rope goes tight. I decide the Bergschrund looks different in the opaque morning light and head further left than planned. The ‘Schrund apron is slab, slab over sugar snow. The slab is deep and a pain for travel but not a threat at this stage. Upwards, rightwards, up some more. It is on terrain like this when I wish I was following. I look at my watch. 4:26am. The avalanche prone gully is quiet. This is good. I gamble on the snow above being firmer and more useable when I will need it most. I place a screw and assess it. It is good. I move on up and onto the face proper. John follows.

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We move together for several hundred feet. This is a very efficient way to move on moderate terrain in the hills and can really eat up the ground. The climbing is easy and there is protection. I have very little interest in moving roped together with anybody with no protection on any type of ground. The threat from anything falling and knocking either climber off is real and the consequences up here dire. We climb up a little more and John takes the lead. We use one rope for now and I carry a second in my pack. John climbs to where the climbing looks to get harder and makes a belay. I climb to join him. John is keen to continue and we begin to get out the second rope. In the change from one rope to two and early morning confusion I drop my belay device. Balls. ‘Here’s to practicing my Italian-hitch for the next thousand meters‘ I think. We realise neither of us saw it drop too far and decide to investigate. It has stopped on the firm sixty-degree snow just fifty meters below. I could drop it again a hundred times and I don’t believe it would stop there once. With the face still yet to claim it’s first swag and back in the game belay wise, John moves off up. I am not a religious man tho with enough of these well timed fortunate happenings I wonder if one day I could be. Deep down I doubt it.

The next pitch is much harder and John climbs up the main gully line before the ice gets too thin, then out right for the sanctuary of rock and the protection it offers. I am left at a hanging belay. The belay is good but in the post dawn space and getting hammered by spindrift (to become a regular feature of the face from then on) for the next two hours I get cold and struggle to follow the pitch. People love the pictures and accompanying tales but if they could see me now they would think we are mental. Is this how I choose to spend my ‘holidays’? It would appear so. We could have gone to Majorca sport climbing in the sun or maybe Kalymnos. I’ve heard Crete is lovely this time of year too but no, we came here. I am however happy to be here despite the immediate situation. John puts in a solid, inventive lead and climbs what turns out to be the route’s crux. I join him for my time on the sharp end and continue on slightly easier ground. The spindrift is really bad (Point Five Gully on a bad day type bad) and I place more gear than usual to compensate. I chase the sun which is now hitting the face above us just a little too slowly whilst moving steadily upwards all the time.

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John on the crux pitch

We emerge on the mid-way snow ramp above the lower third of the technical difficulties. It felt great to have been able to climb our ideal line to this point, the stand-out route so far. From here we traverse right for circa 150m to a point where we can gain access to the upper face. The traverse tho easy features crossing of some vast, open slopes and with protection limited in the compact granite care is still needed to continue moving together. It is very often on such ‘easy’ ground like this where one’s guard is dropped and accidents can happen. The attention required when climbing like this is significant and a constant and I see this as my own form of meditation. Meditation with consequence.

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The vast mid-way slopes

The high Himalayan sun beats down relentlessly and is intense beyond belief. In just a few minutes temperatures can soar from minus figures to stifling, along with it all the changes solar radiation brings to the alpine party. Increased spindrift and snow movement, along with wet insulation and the ever-constant never quite warm enough toes. This is an environment where a lack of discipline will be punished. Can’t be bothered to put your hood up? You’ll pay for that eventually. And still the spindrift pours.

The incessant spindrift is now both a continuous and well accepted feature of our day. We look to climb where the ice is best, but this invariably leads us to climb up the same runnels down which the spindrift chooses to descend and we fight for prominence. Despite the good weather I am glad to be climbing in full hard-shells. If properly managed it is so much easier to stay dry in the spindrift and also means I will not need to carry them on my back or stop to put on these layers. With these already on this is one less thing I need to think about.

We look to climb as direct as possibly linking snowy corners and the now drooling tongues of ice. John is going steadily and I follow as best as I can, now back in to pitching mode. Goulotte after goulette of beautiful ice now lead us in a slow, arching line up left. The time is 4pm and it will be dark in a couple of hours. We both recognise the need to find somewhere to spend the night and the suitability of the ledge John has belayed on. We decide to push on to capitalise on the daylight with John remaining in the lead. Two hours later and with no good bivi ledge in sight we realise maybe it would heave been better to stay put at the last ledge. The joys of hindsight. John fixes the rope at his high point and descends forty meters back to the small ledge I am on. I have been preparing it now for fifteen minutes and it’s looking good. We won’t get the tent up but we have space for both of us to sit up comfortably, space for kit and good anchors. The Himalayan sun drops below the horizon and the temperature plummets. We have climbed for 16 hours straight today and melt snow to produce the much needed water to begin our recovery. Everything is going very smoothly and the mood is good. We have only 1.5 days of food left tho along with 2 days of gas so need to summit tomorrow. With this in mind we drift off.

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Transcendence bivi

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The big chill sets back in again

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Watching the sun go down on my first ascent of an unclimbed peak at around 6200m is something that I will never forget

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Traverse of the Gods

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After a fitful nights sleep we awake to another perfect morning. The process of getting going again after a night sitting on a small ledge on a high peak is harder and more time-consuming than you might think. A dropped stove or boot shell here would really complicate things. We are both very aware of this and take the necessary time to avoid these problems. The sun hits us and helps with this. We have decided we are going to have another look at finding a direct way through the top half of the face and for this will have to abseil down and across for a rope length first. Are we mad to be spending time descending trying to find a better, harder line? I don’t think so. I ascend to the top of the fixed rope and replace the anchor with something we can leave. I then re-fix the ropes and descend down and across to under the main steepening head-wall. I build a belay and John joins me. He has the rack and so sets off. We swing leads taking it in turn climbing pitches all around Scottish 4/5 heading for an obvious, large rectangular wall diagonally to our right. We had spied this as a key linking feature when checking out the wall from below and hoped it would grant us access to the final third of the wall. I belay here and stare across at what awaits. The climbing looks quite a lot harder, maybe Scottish VII or VIII. John joins me and it is apparent straight away we are thinking the same. It would be good to have a go, however it looks technical and time consuming and protection looks very limited. With only a day and a half’s food still left and very aware of our isolated position we reluctantly decide to leave the direct and continue heading right to find a way through.

Keeping to ‘pitched’ climbing John leads off. The next pitch is long and traverses around to the right out of sight. This pitch is reminiscent of the ‘Traverse of the Gods’ on the Eiger 1938 route, being easy but in an amazingly exposed position and again with protection only good where most needed. After this pitch the angle and exposure relent and we begin moving together again.

It is very hard when you are the first people to try and climb something and have nothing to follow to know where to go and what to head for. Instinct built up over twenty years of route finding on routes helps but invariably is not always the answer. We are very keen to climb as direct a line as possible but need to be be wary of time constraints, limits on our supplies and the very real danger of having an accident on the face. This could turn what is so far a relatively straight-forward climb into something much more involving and needs to be avoided at all costs.

Upwards again we go. We have an option to head right to escape the wall up a huge gully and associated ramp line. The gully has a vertical bounding right wall and the ice looks in good condition. After this we think we would be out on to the North-West shoulder and could continue more easily up and over the mountain. As an option it is tempting but we continue up the middle of the face as much as we can still seeking our direct line. John finishes his ‘block’ and I take the lead leftwards across first across easy slopes then straight up into a steep runnel. Twelve hours into day two and progress is now beginning to slow. We haven’t drank enough water and my muscles are now beginning to cramp badly. I diligently spend the extra time protecting the pitch like a form of compensation for my acknowledged weariness and move on up using the bounding side walls to rest when I can. The climbing remains first-rate with protection ample for the weary. Up and left I head to belay below an overhanging step. I belay from a screw you could hang a house off and a small wire. John climbs to join me.

‘Fancy it? I say.

‘Can do’ comes the reply.

We switch bags to keep the lighter of the two with the leader and John heads off. The overhang is very short and ultimately easier than it looks however I was happy to relinquish the lead and give my cramp a chance to subside. I feel the first rays of the day soaking into me and warming me all over. Here at the belay and well protected from the spindrift under overhanging walls it is a nice feeling tho I know it will not last long. The rope pulls and yanks me out of my wandering thoughts, back to the wall. It goes tight and stays tight, my sign to climb. I have climbed with John extensively now over the last seven years and you typically become very tuned in to being able to tell what the other person is doing, when you are on belay and generally what is happening out of sight and earshot on the other end of the rope. This way shouts can be kept to a minimum.

I climb up to see John belayed next to the final steeping below the summit slopes. It looks like there is still a few hundred meters to go but this is likely the last of the steeper pitches. John think it looks easier to traverse low down to my left and I begin to head across. The rope work is a nightmare and the extra faff and complicated nature of what I am trying to do soon outweighs any benefit. After a lot of expended energy I finally emerge level with and on the other side of John. Now at over 6000m and having been constantly on the go for the last eight days this really was not the desired result. Lesson learnt: Keep it simple, stupid.

I belay John up. He joins me as one by one then last light of the day is extinguished on the distant peaks like candles being blown out on a domino stack. Back to moving together again John leads on up, steadily and placing ample protection to counter the now growing feelings of tiredness and altitude. The ridge crest looks to be only one hundred meters away but turns out to be more. I follow taking out the protection John has put in. We are moving steadily but surely. One screw followed by another. A cam. Two nuts, another screw this time tied-off, another nut. And so it continues. It is pitch-black by the time I hit the ridge. This is now a section of the route we have not seen before and to my dismay the ropes lead off in a huge arc continuing the ridge line. Where is the summit? I follow with heavy legs over another two false summits until I see the faint glow from John’s torch. It is stationary and I conclude he must be on the top. Ten steps at a time in-between rests I climb to join him. I look around in all directions just yards from John in an effort to clarify there is no more up. There isn’t. It is 8.06pm.

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Raja Peak summit shot. Despite feeling pretty knackered it was very special to be the first  people to stand there. Raja means King in Hindi and seemed suitable for the area’s most prominent peak

I have been fortunate enough to sample a lot of different types of summits over the years. Some are joyous, some are casual and some are truly celebrated. The ones that have made a real impact on me tho are those that have been the culmination of months of work and have remained in the balance, uncertain until the final point. They are not like in the movies, no ‘Vertical Limit’ style celebrations here. There is no greeting party and no salvation. Just continued slabby snow accompanied with a brisk North-westerly and a feeling of thank fuck. We have reached the top but this is only half the job and now we need to get down. More than half of accidents happen on the descent. It is a time when when you are most tired and it is easy for the unsuspecting to believe the hard work is done and drop their guard. If anything it can very often be the opposite.

Ten minutes on top is enough. We share a warm embrace, snap the obligatory summit shots and head off down. The snow conditions have improved and the going is now good. We un-rope and quickly loose three hundred meters in height descending the South Ridge to a col. Happy with our position, we decide to camp. It is now 9:30pm and we have been on the go for seventeen hours. We get the tent up and stove on in-between bouts of me trying to throw -up.  There is however nothing to bring up and so I continue my sickly demise. Headache tablets and a cup of tea will have to do. The late night snack of champions in the alpine world. When I finally lay down it feels good and eventually the salvation of sleep takes me.

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Our South side descent

Another cool but faultless morning dawns. I feel better, so does John. We are tired but on good form. We both feel for the first time on this route the effects of the last week of cold conditions on our hands and feet and notice the now familiar dulled sensation of frost nip in our digits. Even writing this in my living room sat here with the fire on they are still not right. Occupational hazard? Maybe so. We wait for the sun to warm us before getting out of the tent. In the mean time we each drink litres of tea. The tea bags have broken and grit sits in the bottom of the pan but it makes little difference now. We pack up and begin to make our way down steep slopes on the opposite side of the col heading for the South side of our mountain. It is early in the morning and there has been a good freeze which now renders the South facing slopes stable enough for our needs. It will not stay like this for long. We rope up and I lead the way around the cornice and off down the hill. I feel the effects of the previous weeks’ effort straightaway and realise it will not be a fast day. Steady will do. Glad to have continued stable weather and good visibility for this descent I thread my way in and out of crevasses and seracs heading towards ABC all the time. We are on a wet glacier with varied snow and are diligent to take the time to add extra length to the rope between us as needed to protect us from the slots. The next few hours see us continuing our weaving line in and out of the features, back now onto the previously inspected descent spied from our acclimatisation peak and accompanying recce. At noon we hit dry glacier.

Me and John had by now spent a considerable length of time together and had not been more than 60m away from each other for several weeks now. The more time goes on the more the trusty iPod is brought into use on the long walks in and out. Hours would pass without a word, only those spoken by the Beach Boys or Basement Jaxx. Over the next few hours we continue down to ABC stopping only briefly to pick up some kit left at a stash along the way. We arrive back around 4pm and are relieved to see Chetan has kept his word and brought food. Job done.

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Transcendence topo with bivi spot in blue

We spend a day at ABC relaxing and recuperating. It feels good to do nothing and switch off. We decide to head down to BC for a proper rest and a chance to find out how Martin and Ian got on before they depart in a couple of days. Essentially our plan was to stash our kit lower down the Miyar Valley towards the Jangpar glacier ready to come back up to try something else after a few days of luxury.

It was great to get back down and see everyone and get some real food. We have been living on boil in the bag type meals and Smash / Cous cous for a couple of weeks now and it was beginning to wear thin. Turns out Martin and Ian had succeeded on their A plan, establishing a high-quality technical rock route up their proposed spur (link at the bottom to Martin’s blog). Charlie and Annette had also succeeded in climbing their route so it was good success all round. All three teams summited on the 1st October and all three peaks were first ascent’s. What more could you ask for? As luck would have it we were all together at our base camp for one night only so it was great to catch up and see how the last couple of weeks went. That and eat fantastic pizza from Heera the cook.

Two days later and it was time for Martin and Ian to depart. Me and John had arranged to stay on a few days and were still keen to head back up. We waved them off and began our slow ascent again back to where we had stashed our kit. The last couple of weeks had taken it’s toll and we were both feeling pretty tired by now. I also felt a slight change in group dynamics with all the rest of the expedition leaving and heading back home with only me and John heading back up to into the mountains to try something else. It felt like we had already done what we came to do and I would have been happy leaving it at that and chilling at BC if I’m honest. Still tho John was psyched and I was keen enough and so on we went. We got back up, collected our gear and began to head East over very challenging moraine once again until we found a suitable flat-topped boulder where we could spend the night. Water was not plentiful around here and so we collected what we could where we could and bedded down for the night.

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Gajendra, Heera, myself, Martin, John and Ian

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Our plan was an early start and quick, light-weight day hit on a line spied up the face. Up at 1:30am and off shortly after. It was all automatic by now. We had no option to put a track in the previous afternoon (it was on a dry glacier) and we spent quite some time locating the correct line of ascent in the darkness. Our line consisted of easy slopes to around half height which we soloed, followed by a traverse across East to hit some mixed ground and then finish up a gully line and summit slopes. The day was all technically pretty easy and the view from the top predictably amazing. There are some incredible mountains around here, what a place! After a traverse of the mountain to ensure we had ‘topped out’ (it wasn’t certain we had gained the highest point initially), we began our descent abseiling from the mid-way col. The ridge was sunny and warm and it felt pretty cold getting back onto the North side of the mountain for the descent. Eight abseils and a lot of down climbing saw us down and off the face via easy gullies. Another really good day out followed by tea and medals back at our bivi boulder!

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Hitting the ridge crest on James Peak

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Last Chance saloon topo. Descent in blue

All that was left then was for a casual descent back down to BC the next day. We now knew the way very well and despite the heavy loads knew it was our final carry and so it didn’t matter. I wandered out with the iPod now back on shuffle and The Verve’s ‘Lucky Man’ came on. What an apt and fitting song to be walking out to, on what had been such a successful expedition.

On arrival in the mountains of Northern India the colours had been fantastic as the area had clearly started to usher in the change of seasons. Warming yellows and auburn reds, darkening shades abounded which really set the tone for an atmospheric walk-in. Now on the walk out and fast forward three weeks the mood has changed considerable and much less leaves remain. Those still in tact darker still with the colder temps and dropping snow line. The local people are out working in their droves and where there was silence before busy, relentless, time-restricted work was happening everywhere. Hay stacked eight meters high and securely fastened down on roofs. Fields ploughed, final produce gathered and prepared as surely only remote Himalayan villages knew how. Winter was coming and the village elders knew it.

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And then just like that it’s all over and I’m sat back in my living room. It is completely silent but for the usual pitter-patter of autumnal rain rebounding off the window. The lights are on because it never quite gets light this time of year. I miss the life and death decision making, the climbing that requires a continuous exhausting physicality, yet so often necessitates such a delicate touch. You will likely only get it wrong once up there. The slow burn of the experience has me, the likes of which I am yet to find away from the alpine arena.

Since I have been back I have had some time to reflect and things haven’t quite been the same. The world appears to have taken on a slightly different persona in my absence and things feel a bit different. All we did was go away on a climbing expedition and it (largely by chance) ended up going really well, but it really feels like a turning point in my climbing career. Did we really head to a remote part of the Himalaya and smash out two first ascents including one via a 1200m North wall over six days, spening two days on the wall and all largely unsupported over a trip of 60+km? It is beginning to sink in that is exactly what has happened and the door now feels open for the next step up.

I have had these feelings before after particularly intense or memorable experiences in the hills. Ten years ago I was out on a ‘working holiday’ (skiing lots, working a little) in New Zealand. One day I went for a solo hike up Mount Taranaki with my skis on my back without giving it much thought. In all honestly I was a little bit lost at the time and wandering around some beautiful lands thousands of miles away from home and everything I knew seemed like as good an idea as any. Why not? Why not indeed. As I climbed up the steepening slopes of the extinct volcano nearing the top I couldn’t help but begin to feel what I was doing was actually quite special. It was not hard or particularly technically challenging, however I was 10,000+km from home climbing and about to ski off the impressive summit completely alone. I had told no-one were I was off to for the day and felt very isolated. The mountain is on a small peninsula and I could see waves crashing onto the shore all around, with perfectly round distinctive bands of forested greenery on the lower slopes. It was like being in a drawing of a perfect land. From the summit if I faced North and looked to my left the next thing I would hit was Australia and to my right South American a very, very long way away. I had not been looking for what I found that day but I got it anyway and it stayed with me as a very vivid feeling for close to a year. On the the return car journey I bought a post card of the mountain to remain myself of that day. I still have it on my notice board at home, badly faded but a strong reminder every time I look at it. One day I will go back and do it again. Maybe I’ll go with someone else this time? Eventually however the feeling diminishes and I seek it again. I have a very addictive personality and these experiences which I find so incredibly drawn to will I’m sure continue to attract me in some form or other until I die.

Make no mistake it has been hard work. This moment has been 20+ years in the making. That’s up and down, successes and failures, life doing it’s level best to get in the way. Done with expeditions? I haven’t even started yet. I am aware however that in making this statement I am confining myself to at least several months in camps, grim times in tents, some brutal hill time and suffering above and beyond what has come before.

So what next?  A well earned break is what. A break from the (my) norm, training, with time to do some Rope Access work and restock the funds needed for my winter and the next part of my Guide exams. Apart from that I’ll likely be down my local if you need me….

‘You stay classy Miyar Valley’

See you out there next time!

Dave.

A HUGE thanks needs to go to Rab for continued clothing and equipment support along with The Mount Everest Foundation for their generous financial support on our trips. Also to Alistair Yarwood for home-based support, a huge help at times. A special thanks needs to be given to Martin Moran too. Without him we would not have been able to go on this trip and would in fact still not even be aware of Raja Peak or they area at all so a massive thanks to him for all his help. You can find out more about Martin, his guiding work and whatever else he’s up to here.

Indian Miyar Valley trip 2016.

So myself and John Crook have recently returned from a very successful trip to the Indian Himalaya. I am in the process of finishing off a full report that will be posted on here ASAP, however until then you can have a look at one of the news links below to see a round-up of what we got up to. Come back soon for the full story!

UKC Newsflash: British First Ascents in India.

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British Mountain Guides- news.

 

 

BMG Winter test and winter round up.

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So after two and a half months in Scotland this winter my time up north finally drew to a close a few days ago. My goal for the winter had been to prepare as much as possible for my BMG Winter test and after all my hard work I’m very pleased to say all went well, and a pass means I am now able to progress to the next stage of training;  alpine ski-touring which begins in just a few weeks.

The test was split over six days and is to establish Trainee BMG members meet the required technical and professional standards required to operate in the Scottish winter environment. We were assessed on climbing ice and mixed routes, our mountaineering judgement and general mountaineering knowledge, and general client care in what turned out to be some tough winter conditions.

The first two days were spent on an expedition around the Cairngorms operating as a team of three all using a single rope, mountaineering axe and carrying kit for a night out in a show-hole. I was paired with fellow Trainee Dave Rudkin along with Dave Hollinger who was assessing. Lots of ground was covered with short-roping and pitching around Coire an t’sneachda before dropping into the  Loch Avon basin and climbing another couloir near the Shelter Stone. The weather and conditions were brilliant and a good, informative day was had by all. We snow-holed on the plateau before our night navigation skills were put to the test.

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Fantastic conditions on the first day of the exped. Looking across to Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone. Credit: Dave Hollinger BMG

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Dave Rudkin in our snow palace. Credit: Dave Hollinger BMG

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Dave Rudkin taking the lead during night nav. Credit: Dave Hollinger BMG

Day two and a big change in the weather saw us head back over towards Coire Lochain where more nav, anchor building / selection and short roping was covered amongst other things.

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Somewhere on the Fiacaill Ridge in stormy conditions. Credit: Dave Hollinger BMG

Day three was a personal mixed climbing day based in Coire an t’Sneachda. I was climbing with Graeme Ettle and many topics were covered en-route to climb (his own) ‘The Messenger’. The crag was thawing but conditions were ok and the day went well.

Day four was the allocated personal ice climbing day and we all headed over to Ben Nevis. A 3am start ensured we stayed ahead of the game on the (very!) snowy drive west, but once   there ice conditions were good and plentiful. I was paired with John Crook and Dave Hollinger and we climbed ‘The Curtain’ and ‘Mega Route X’

The Curtain was my route and was a little thin in places whilst getting established onto its lower reaches and also pretty steep for a few moves climbing the top pitch directly.

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Myself on The Curtain. Credit: Dave Hollinger BMG

John then led off up a very steep Mega Route X in good style before rapping off and a cautious descent in the as forecast increasingly snowy / windy conditions.

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John Crook on Mega Route X. Credit: Dave Hollinger BMG

The last two days were the big ones; client days with real members of the public which would test us all in coming up with and carrying out a suitably pitched couple of days for our clients. I was paired with Phil a regular client for past winter Guide tests who turned out to be very capable, keen and good company.

On the first day we climbed ‘Fingers Ridge’ with Jonathan Preston with some snow-pack evaluation towards the end of the day. The weather was once again amazing and we spent time identifying distant peaks when we gained the plateau.

The last day of the test was a continuation from the first client day but with a much deteriorated forecast overnight we this time headed into Lochan to climb ‘Ewen Buttress Direct’, a cheeky little number which turned out as predicted to be in good condition after the recent buildup. Phil enjoyed the route finding it around the right level for him and also something he hadn’t climbed before. We finished with a descent down Fiaciall Ridge and Twin Ribs area.

The results took until late into the evening to be delivered however, a clean pass for all five Trainees means we can now all progress forward in the training scheme. A huge thanks to the assessors and all involved for such a well planned week.

The hangover had barely subsided before myself and fellow Trainee John Crook headed north for 5 days work with Moran Mountain.

I ran a Winter Mountaineer course with three London-based clients and had the now usual recent mix of good / unsettled weather throughout the week.

The first day was spent at Fuar Tholl practicing basic axe / crampons skills, constructing snow and ice anchors and climbing an introductory gully.

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Fuar Tholl team summit shot

Days two and three were spent on a traverse of the Forcan Ridge along with a show-hole bivi at the Saddle near the summit. Snow anchors were looked into in more detail along with navigation in the poor weather and snow analysis to stress the importance of being aware of what is under our feet whilst travelling about the hills.

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Forcan Ridge

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Our snow hole at the Saddle 

With the weather back to very good again myself and a couple of clients traversed Liathach main ridge on the fourth day with tricky snow conditions and no track but amazingly calm, alpine-esque conditions.

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Approaching the ridge

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The Pinnacles

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Descending back down towards Torridon

My last day in Scotland was spent at Meall Gorm with the same two clients getting them to take the lead on some easy pitches and a day of looking at the decision making processes that happen on a day out climbing. The weather was once again amazing and my time up north definitely ended on a high.

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View out to sea from the summit of Meall Gorm

Thanks to Ed, Dai and Tim for a great week and Martin Moran for the work. It was great to finish with such a good week and great weather. Looking forward to heading back up already!

Dave.

 

Scottish Winter conditions report 04/02/16

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So the last few days I have been out in the East, West and finally the NW today. A fair few things are beginning to look in good condition, a lot more so than of late after the recent, hefty thaws.

On Tuesday I was out with John Crook observing Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountaineering. He had a regular, strong client and we went and climbed ‘D Gully Buttress’ on Buachille Etive Mor. The forecast for the day was 70+mph winds and rising temperatures. I didn’t hold out much hope of finding good winter conditions and a sheltered enough spot to climb reasonably, however our route on the Buachille was well sheltered from the strong South Westerly winds and despite the low altitude of our route it was in good winter condition, so a good day was had by all.

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Mike Pescod on the crux wall of D Gully Buttress

From the summit we descended to the South West on good and firm wind-scoured slopes.

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Wednesday saw myself and John Crook on a mission into the Loch Avon basin to check out an abseil approach into routes on Hell’s Lum and then onto Route Major on Carn Etchachan.

Hell’s Lum itself is shaping up nicely with a fair bit of ice forming. The cornice is small at the mo and the slopes above the crag were scoured and stable a couple of days ago. Routes like The Chancer and other classic lines are forming, but will need a little while yet until climbable.

Across under The Shelter Stone and the harder lines (Citadel and The Needle) looked to be lacking useable ice however Sticil Face appeared in reasonable condition.

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John Crook traversing towards the Shelter Stone

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Looking up towards Sticil Face

Route Major itself was in good condition with good snow coverage and frozen turf throughout. The upper section was a little cruddy in places but overall in pretty good nic.

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John Crook high up on Route Major

Finally, today I was in then NW working for Martin Moran. We climbed George on Liathach and despite the fast-setting in thaw found good conditions throughout if a little damp on the descent down the south side. There is a lot of ice forming here, however by the time we left it was raining at all levels. A good freeze soon will help massively!

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Liatach. Poacher’s, Umbrella Falls and Salmon Leap complete but thin. Might take a little while yet…

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Happy clients on George

All in all a great few days out and about!

Dave.

 

 

 

Cairngorms Winter Skills and Winter Climbing weekend.

This weekend I have been out working for Martin Moran with a couple of clients who were keen to improve their winter skills and climbing knowledge.

Weather wise we had one good day and one bad, tho with such a keen and enthusiastic pair the bad day didn’t seem to matter much at all!

We began yesterday with a snowy walk up from the firmly shut snow gates at Glenmore headed for Coire na Ciste. Practical topics covered were axe, crampon and general snowcraft skills, along with snow and ice belays.

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The cold and windy weather meant regular movement was key as well as a couple of breaks to warm up in the Aonach shelter up there.

The day was finished off at the Ciste crag looking at gear placements and belay building around the base of the crag before an even snowier descent back to the van.

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Day two and with a much calmer forecast we headed to the Twin Ribs area in Coire an t’Sneachda to look at some more technical climbing and practice some of the skills they had learnt the previous day. We climbed a few pitches on the right most rib before practicing an abseil descent from the crag followed by an abseil from a snow bollard on the approach slopes.

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All in all a great couple of days and well done to Carlos and Paula for all their hard work!

Dave.

BMG Winter Training and Scottish Winter conditions report 24/01/2016

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So this week has been 6 days of BMG training for myself and the other 4 Trainee Guides that make up the class of 2016. The training comprised of a Scottish avalanche day followed by 5 days of training in general guiding looking at all aspects of safe and efficient guiding in the Scottish mountains during winter time.

As mentioned the first day was a one-day avalanche course focusing on how the unique Scottish maritime climate affects avalanche conditions. The day was based at Aonach Mor and much was discussed and learnt under the watchful eye of Mark Diggins; the SAIS co-ordinator. This day was sponsored by the Chris Walker Memorial Trust so many thanks to the trust.

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Shovel pat-test

The second day was spent in Glen Coe at Stob Coire nan Lochan and was a personal climbing / guiding day looking at many different aspects of guiding on mixed routes. Routes climbed were Scabbard Chimney, Crest Route and Twisting Grooves amongst others.

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Paul Warnock belaying Jon Orr on Scabbard Chimney

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John Crook on Crest Route. Credit: Tim Neil

The next day was spent on Ben Nevis looking at guiding on snowier routes / ice routes along with short roping snd how to safe guard clients during the approach to and descent from routes. Routes climbed were Green Gully, Central Gully left branch and Thompson’s Route. The conditions on the mountain had stabilised from all the recent snow and persistent cold temperatures so along with a good, calm weather forecast the first two days were both enjoyable and very informative.

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John Crook taking the lead on Green Gully

The following day we all went to Buachaille Etive Mor and looked at safe guiding practices on longer routes and with it transitions from short roping to shorter pitches, then on to longer pitches where appropriate. Routes climbed were North Buttress and Naismith’s Route, with myself guiding Adrian Nelhams and Matt Stygall on North Buttress. It was great to have both Adrian and Matt as my ‘clients’ for the day. They are both IFMGA guides and once again a huge amount of knowledge was passed on. All teams then looked at guiding in descent whilst coming down Curved Ridge.

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Buachille Etive Mor. Credit: Tim Neil

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Myself guiding North Buttress. Credit: Tim Neil

The second to last day was spent back up on Ben Nevis with a team ascent of Tower Ridge again looking at all aspects of suitable, safe guiding on a long ridge route like that. The temperature had risen a lot and so the mountain was thawing fast and a wet day on the hill ensued. It is always nice to do Tower Ridge again tho and the conditions up high were good and it was a very suitable objective taking into account our aims for the day and the conditions on the hill.

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Tower Gap. Credit: Tim Neil

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Looking across to the North Face if anybody is wondering how much ice there is left… Credit: Tim Neil

The final day was spent back up on Buachaille Etive Mor bringing everything together by looking at all aspects of snow anchors, movement over varying terrain and suitable rope / guiding systems for different conditions.

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The 6 days have been amazing and have left us all with a very clear picture of what will be expected during the Winter Test in March. A massive thanks to all the training team throughout the week and everybody else who helped bring the week together. Next stop, Winter Test!

Dave.