Scottish Winter conditions report 22/02/15

I’m up in Scotland at the minute getting ready for my BMG Winter Induction next weekend, so here’s a quick conditions write-up of what I’ve found the last few days. Tuesday 17th February- This was my first day out on the tools in Scotland this winter and unfortunately coincided with the end of the recent spell of very good conditions and the beginning of a big thaw. I joined John Crook and Bruno Yates and went and climbed ‘Italian Right-Hand’ route (IV,4) on Ben Nevis and after an abseil descent from the end of the difficulties (in-situ rap point), a very damp ‘The Curtain’ (IV,5) before running away to begin a big drying mission back in Fort William. Both routes were in really good condition if a little on the soft side by the time we were lower down the mountain on The Curtain. By the time we left it was raining at all but the highest levels. Friday 20th February- On Friday I teamed up with John Crook again with Iain Gallagher and headed up to climb ‘Tower Face of the Comb’ (VI,6). The bad weather of the previous two days had resulted in a lot of fresh snow and it took a fair wade to reach the base of the route. The route was in great nick with ice and well frozen turf in all the right places and with the forecasted heavy snow showers and a bit of wind it made for a classic ‘Ben’ day out. We topped out just as it was getting dark and got a chance to practice some nav in our descent down the side of the Red Burn and back around to the North side of the mountain. The ice up high all looked to still be in good condition from what we could see and appears to have survived the thaw of a couple of days ago well.

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Team keen walking in with the CIC hut in the background

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Approaching the Comb

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DEEP snow!

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Myself setting off on the crux pitch

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Spindrift

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John and Iain following the crux pitch

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John setting off on the second to last pitch

Saturday 21st February- After such a great day out on the Friday we were keen to get out again and see what else we could get done. Me and John headed back up this time with John Orr and jumped on ‘Route 1’ (VI,6) on Carn Dearg Buttress with the variation start. Like all the other routes we had done this was another 3 star line, why bother doing anything less when conditions are good on Ben Nevis? There are more than enough to choose from! Even more snow had dropped down to around 250m in the night and this made for a very snowy approach. The route itself was again in good condition however there was a very definite thaw towards the end of the day. As forecasted the winds dropped off in the afternoon and we were treated to a very calm walkout with amazing views of the North Face. Another great day out. What a mountain!

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John Crook on the third pitch. This is the first of the chimney pitches

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A very alpine looking Ben Nevis North Face

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John Orr on the first variation pitch

IMG_0284 So a good last couple of days out. With more fresh snow on strong West to South West winds today and a High Avalanche forecast for North – North East aspects around higher locations in Lochaber / Glencoe, careful route selection will be essential over the next couple of days. Have fun out there and stay safe! Dave.

BMG Ski Technique, Ski Induction and Avalanche courses.

So the start of January was the time for the next round of courses for BMG candidates to attend, and with it hopefully get a step closer to completing the induction process and becoming a British Mountain Guide. The three courses were all ski / snow safety based and where all to be held in the Alps. First up was the Ski Technique course which was to be run out of Leysin, Switzerland then the Ski Induction and Avalanche courses the following week in La Grave, France. I really enjoy skiing and spending time in the Alps during the winter months, so it will come as no surprise to hear me say I was very much looking forward to this block of courses and the learning they were sure to offer. We (myself and Kev Avery, a good friend and fellow BMG candidate) had decided to rent an apartment in La Grave for the duration of the courses and headed out on the 27th December to find our ski legs and get to know the area. With us was a mutual friend James ‘Parky’ Parkinson who was along for the ride and together completed our alpine possy. Upon arrival in La Grave we were met with 30cm of fresh snow, a promising sign for the weeks ahead. We wasted no time in getting out over the next week, remembering how to ski and exploring around. The following Saturday came and I was off to Grenoble aeroport to pick up my girlfriend for a small alpine break. It was on the way back I received a txt off Parky saying Kev had slipped skiing, hurt his knee and had been choppered off the hill. Thoughts immediately came in the form of obvious concern for his wellbeing, then as to whether he would be able to continue with this year’s Guides’ programme with the ski induction just around the corner. A tense and (for Kev) problematic few days followed, the result of which was that he was now set to miss out on the ski / avalanche courses this year and would need to head back to the UK for treatment. I felt so unbelievably gutted for him that such a small, innocuous fall could end his season and delay him a year on the scheme, especially after having put so much effort in over the last year. I also felt sad that after spending such a large part of the last 12 months climbing and skiing together and after such a lot of memorable times in the hills, I would at least for this year be continuing without Kev. A full write-up of this period is available on Kev’s blog-https://truenorthalpine.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/trouble-at-knee/

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Kev and Parky touring en route to Pic Blanc

A few days later and I made the 3 hour solo drive to Leysin for the Ski Technique course. This is a course that has been running now for around 15 years and has helped dozens of BMG scheme participants improve their skiing. The course was setup by the Fred Harper Memorial Trust in memory of Fred Harper who was a BMG and past Principal of Glenmore Lodge. Fred had held a particular passion for skiing during his time as a guide and his friends and family began the trust in his memory in 2000. The course was to last 3 days and include a heavy focus on technical skiing skills, both at a personal level and also how best to coach clients when out working on skis. The course was to be instructed by Alex Languetin (trainer and assessor for Swiss ski instructors, part of the Swiss demo team and technical advisor to Hefti Sports), Fabian Pavillard (ski instructor, expert trainer and Mountain Guide) and Jean Pavillard (a well-known Swiss Mountain Guide, ski instructor and past director of the Crested Butte ski school in Colorado). With these credentials I felt sure it wouldn’t disappoint! On the first day we all met in Leysin and split into 3 groups. The weather was good and the plan was to spend the day practicing techniques off the local lifts. Despite there not being an abundance of snow, the pistes were in a good condition for our needs and our group (instructed by Alex) progressed well. It was also an excellent opportunity to quiz Alex on any questions about kit or any more technical queries we might have. Alex’s knowledge on anything skiing seemed all-encompassing and not a single question was left unanswered. In the afternoon we had a short classroom based session to discuss the theory behind the techniques we were learning, and again Alex’s knowledge and passion for anything skiing really shone through with a very thorough and animated presentation. The second day brought us more good weather and it was decided to head to Les Diablerets ski area which was around a half-hour drive from Leysin. The main skiing to be done here is up high on a glacier and as such brings reliable conditions for a large part of the year. I had been here before many years ago to start the tour of the Western Bernese Oberland (a brilliant little tour- get on it), and it was great to be able to return and make use of the ski area I passed through all those years ago.

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Great views from Les Diablerets ski area

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Alex explaining his theory with unsettled weather building

As well as the chance to improve our skiing over the 3 days it was also great to be able to meet so many BMG members in different stages of their training and get to chat to and find out more about them and their work. The folk present for the few days ranged from BMG candidates like myself, right up to honorary guides with 30+ years guiding behind them. Members attended from all over the UK and many parts of the Alps and the wealth of experience was vast. They were all very friendly and open about their experiences of guiding and I was impressed by what a tight-knit community it was.

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Bad vis, cold and blowy on the last day

The final day saw us back skiing around Leysin, only this time on a deteriorating forecast and with overcast conditions. Although it is always nice skiing under blue skies and with good conditions, this was a ski technique course so the less than ideal conditions the last day had to offer gave us a good opportunity to practice skiing in less than perfect visibility and practice using ‘the force’! The day was spent bringing together the techniques we had learnt the previous couple of days and applying them to our off-piste skiing. Some good snow was found and much fun was had! We also had another classroom based session after lunch, this time to discuss equipment and the various pros and cons of different pieces of kit. Again, this was all delivered expertly by Alex.

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Alex presenting the kit presentation

After the Technique Course it was time to head back down to La Grave for the Ski Induction. This was a one day assessment of the candidate’s skiing ability and was run by Bruce Goodlad (BMG Technical Director) and Mark Diggins (head of the SAIS). Both Bruce and Mark are very experienced mountain guides and it was really good to meet and ski with them both. After weeks of blue sky and no snow the morning of the assessment brought mist and rain  to La Grave and with it strong winds and a shut lift, so It was decided to head over to Monetier to see how conditions were over there. The area was open and so skiing commenced with Bruce and Mark taking turns skiing with the candidate’s in 2 different groups on whatever terrain the area had to offer. The weather improved throughout the day as per the forecast, and I’m pleased to say the end result was that all 6 candidate’s passed and could now move onto the final induction (UK Winter), in Scotland at the end of February. Last up was the avalanche course. This was set to last 5 days and promised learning on transceiver usage and search strategies, weather observations, hazard evaluation, terrain choice, snow analysis and many other practical aspects of winter travel / guiding. The course was to be run by Mark Diggins and Bruce Goodlad again, this time with Steve Jones, Nick Parks and a local Swedish guide also on hand to offer their experience. Day 1, and after introductions it was onto the importance of understanding the history of the snowpack and the events that led up to the present time. This was really interesting listening to the ‘story’ of the snow and how we had ended up with the current conditions. After the days’ weather observations and avalanche bulletin reports (a daily theme), we headed out to the Col du Lautaret for an afternoon of practicing with safety equipment and transceiver searches / search strategies. Day 2 and we began with a classroom session looking at basic snow science and the how / why avalanches occur. This was followed up with a practical session of avalanche hazard observations, group management / dynamics and safe travel in avalanche terrain. We also began looking at snow profiles and the different types of stability tests.

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Steve Jones showing us how it’s done

Day 3 and the practical session was spent looking further into travel in avalanche terrain with more snow profiles / observation, this time in pairs. This was followed by an afternoon session back in the classroom plotting the morning’s findings and interpreting the data we had found. We also looked at how to use all the information we had gathered from the previous few days when planning a ski tour for the following day. Day 4 began with the final preparation and planning of the tour for the day and then heading out to see what we find. I was with John Crook and Gareth Hughes with Mark Diggins as our instructor and we had planned a ski tour up towards the Col du Galibier from just below the Col du Lautaret. We looked carefully at route selection with reference to our planning and how it was important to be observant to change and flexible with plans whilst out in the mountains to allow thoughtful and good route selection. Mark introduced guiding strategies to us throughout the day to help us manage groups in future. We rounded off the practical element of this day with more snow profiles in our groups. The day was finished off with a presentation by Bruce on avalanche considerations for ice climbers. Day 5 was a chance for us to bring together all we had learnt throughout the last 5 days. This day was based of the La Grave lift and with very unsettled weather. There was around  30-40cm of fresh snow that had fallen the previous night which made for great skiing but also a lot to think about with the change in conditions. The day was finished off with another snow profile / analysis (this time individually) and a multiple burial transceiver test before a debrief and course evaluation back down in the valley. So all in all a brilliant few weeks out in the Alps and a huge amount learnt. I would like to extend a huge thanks to all the guides who assisted in any way with the courses and in particular a massive thanks to the Fred Harper Memorial Trust for all their help on the Ski Technique course (more details of which can be found here-http://www.bmg.org.uk/index.php/eng/Guide-Training/Fred-Harper-Memorial-Trust). See you all out there on the slopes! Dave.

Lakes Winter conditions report 08/02/15

So just back from a trip offshore and I was keen to get out around the Lakes and see what conditions are like in the hills. Here’s what I’ve found the last few days…

Thursday 5th February-

Myself and Dave Thornley went and climbed Bowfell Buttress. The weather was amazing and we had a great day out. The route was generally well frozen if a little bare in places but it was easy to avoid the not so frozen bits. The route catches the sun so this won’t be in condition now after the last few days. We used the south gully for descent off the route and found a lot of windslab deposits so care is needed in descent choice if heading down this way.

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Bowfell Buttress

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Friday 6th February-

Me and Dave headed out again, this time to Scafell. We did Botterill’s Slab, a route I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It isn’t V,6, more like VI,7 and more goey than routes like Fallout Corner and White Magic. It was a superb route tho, quite possibly the best I’ve done in the Lakes!

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Scafell Crag

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Botterill’s Slab main pitch

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Saturday 7th February-

I  headed up to Helvellyn and Red Tarn Cove to climb with Claire Farrell. We climbed a route to the left of V Corner which was in really good condition. The area was very busy but all in good condition with fully frozen turf and lots of ice. Another good day out with amazing views!

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Our route to the left of V Corner

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Sunday 8th February- 

Today myself and Phil Evans headed back up to Scafell to see what else we could get on. The buttresses have been almost fully stripped and the gully lines were looking out too so so we turned our attention to Pikes Crag to the left of the main crag and a great little ice route there, C Gully. It had formed an impressive fall! It had started to thaw by the time we finished however the build-up is very good so it will remain a while longer yet…

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C Gully

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After this we had a great walk across the tops to Great End crag. The crag was busy again with all the classic lines in good nick. Things were thawing by this point but we had a blast up Central Gully Left Branch, down Cust’s Gully, then up Window Gully Icefall. Things look well set to stay in good nick on Great End the next few days with a good quantity of ice.

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Scafell panorama

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Window Gully Icefall

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Window Gully

So all in all a great four days out on the hill and still some brilliant alpine type conditions to be had. Have fun!

Eiger North Face, 1938 route.

So why now decide to write about a 2 week trip from nearly a year ago? Well, apart from it being a really fun quick-hit alpine trip, I’ve had more questions about the infamous ’38 route on the North Face of the Eiger than probably every other route I’ve ever climbed. So here it is…

The first ascent of this nearly 1800m high wall came in late July 1938 and followed years of Ill-fated and epic attempts. The successful German-Austrian first ascent captured the public’s imagination and opened a new era in alpine climbing. The events of this period are well documented in climbing history, and Heinrich Harrer’s book ‘The White Spider’ written about the first ascent continues to inspire and enthral all who read it. This is a route that should be on every aspiring alpinists’ tick list. So when the call came through off Kev suggesting we go and have a crack, what other answer was there really?

October 2013.

Our plan was to meet in Chamonix and discuss our options. It was late autumn and due to a bad combination of heavy snow, strong winds and shut lifts, it became clear quite quickly those options would be limited to say the least. This would be the first time myself and Kev Avery had climbed together and Jon Griffith kindly put us up for a few days whilst we decided what to do. We had come out for Grandes Courses and hard mixed, but with conditions as they were it was looking unlikely. After a few days of weather watching, attempts to climb off the Aiguille du Midi and a few too many over-priced coffees, we thought it time to look elsewhere.

‘What about the North Face of the Matterhorn?’ questioned Kev. ‘Maybe conditions will be better over that way?’

I was keen, so yet more unpacking / packing followed. A last minute check however revealed similar conditions around the Valais as we were already experiencing in Chamonix, with more terrible weather and ‘ascenseurs fermes’. Bollocks. Ever get the feeling someone’s trying to tell you something? Now with these two areas looking unlikely we needed a new objective, ideally some distance away and hopefully with better conditions. The Eiger fit these requirements being miles away and after more checking of the weather it seemed things might be more favourable over that way. Jon even gave Ueli Steck a call to see if he knew about conditions on the face. He was away so didn’t, however being aware of the weather the area had received lately he thought it might be in OK nick. That’s good enough for us! More unpacking / packing (getting good at this now) and we were on our way through a maze of tunnels to Switzerland.

We arrived to a damp and overcast Grindelwald and a very snowy looking Eiger North Face. It’s hard to say what I was thinking at that point; keen to get on the route but feeling very aware that conditions might be problematic. Our plan was to catch the afternoon train up to Kleine Scheidegg then onto the next station (Eigergletscher), where we would camp and start the route from the next day. We found a sheltered spot under an out of action lift station and prepared our accommodation for the night.

It was snowing lightly, but the forecast was to improve and be clear by the early hours. We took the opportunity of the remaining daylight to scope the walk in for the next day, tho the mist was down and visibility was poor. We returned to the tent and tried to sleep as best we could. Upon awakening it was still clagged in and snowing lightly and had put a bit more down in the night than we had anticipated. We packed up and started to walk. At around the point where the path begins its final ascent towards the wall we stopped for a minute. We had both been so optimistic about what we were hoping to get done on the trip (despite the weather), however truthfully I was feeling unhappy about committing to the biggest wall in Europe in what looked like pretty bad conditions and a doubtful forecast. I wasn’t up for it. I voiced my concerns to Kev who being the good guy he is understood my reasons and accepted my decision, however I could see he was dissapointed. He had made it as far as Death Bivi a few years ago in even snowier conditions before having to descend. I wondered what he was thinking about bailing from the wall again, this time having not set foot on it. We returned back down to the valley and decided to head home. Both of us had driven out there in our own vehicles, and during the 1000 mile drive home I was really hoping I hadn’t damaged a potential good climbing partnership before it had even begun.

Eiger 1, Climbers 0.

March 2014.

It was time for the rematch. The weather in the Alps was spring like and we had heard reports of good climbing conditions on the Eiger. Me and Kev joined forces again, this time deciding to drive over together to help with the long journey and cost of the trip. We had both been out on the tools and going strong all winter. A day hit up Langdale before we left onto Cambridge Crags and ‘Soul Vacation’ (VIII,8) just before heading out confirmed this and that the technical difficulties of the ’38 route should be fine for us. We were on our way!

We drove all the way to Grindelwald in one hit swinging time behind the wheel. This is a much better way to do it and means you actually get some sleep on route! Upon arrival in our usual car park at the bottom end of the village we found a suitable spot and pondered our options. Our loosely based plan was to rest the day, sort our kit, then head up on the first train the next morning. Kev raised the point of exactly how much rest we were likely to get in a packed van, in a busy car park, in the middle of the day and I was inclined to agree. Fair point. It was still early enough to get packed up and get an early train to get started on the wall, giving us the added advantage of an extra day’s good weather for the route should we need it. A quick pack and 2 more overpriced coffees each (needs must) and it was time to get going.

The train took us quickly from the valley floor up through the alpine meadows and began to contour round underneath the wall. The usual big route nerves were there, but this time very different to last. The feeling was that it was all stacked in our favour and we were gonna send it!

We got off at the top station and traversed round to the base of the wall, meeting a couple of American climbers on the way. They had jumars on their harnesses and big bags. We passed them as the ground steepened up and very soon we were clambering past the Gallery Window and traversing round towards the Difficult Crack. This section of the wall is all pretty easy and swift progress was made. Passing a Swiss / German team at the base of the crack, Kev was soon out in front and dispatched the pitch with ease. We moved together up under the Rote Flue and traversed round to the Hinterstoisser Traverse. Easy and with fixed lines (but a lot of exposure, so generally pitched) I set off across this photogenic gem of a pitch, acutely aware of the history it held. Kev soon followed and then back to moving together again, we moved on up towards the Swallow’s Nest Bivi site and soon after the first ice field.

Kev getting stuck in to the Difficult Crack

Kev getting stuck in to the Difficult Crack

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Myself on the Hinterstoisser Traverse

The ice fields were in as good a condition as they looked from below and we were soon at the Ice Hose. This required a slightly more delicate approach, but soon gave way to easier ground and the second ice field. We just couldn’t believe what great condition the route was in, a huge contrast to last time. The ice field had a good track and we were soon motoring up and leftwards, on a beeline for Death Bivi. A more interesting mixed pitch led us up off the top of the ice field and we were soon at the 5* Death Bivi- our home for the night. The snow ledge itself was well flattened from previous visits and being protected from rockfall by an overhanging wall above definitely makes it the best Bivi site on the route. Add to that a good selection of bolts to anchor to alongside a million-dollar view and you really couldn’t ask for more. It had been a long day and we were happy to just sit, eat and drink and take in our surroundings. We even got some sun for an hour or so before settling in for the night.

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Gaining the Ice Hose

Kev relaxing at Death Bivi

Enjoying the afternoon sun

There is always a time when sleeping on routes (planned or unplanned and depending if you’ve managed any sleep) when you wake up and realise exactly where you are. In this case nearly 1000m up the North Face of the Eiger with huge rock walls all around me and nothing but frozen water and rock beneath my feet for a very long way. I’d have liked to have woken up and spent some time savouring the view, however it wasn’t my alarm that had woken me, it was voices instead. I looked down and saw a few distant lights snaking their way up towards us. We hurriedly packed and got ready to leave, anxious to keep ahead of the approaching teams. Too late. A pair of what can only be described as European 16 year old looking hotshots were soon on the ledge, had said ‘hey’ and were gone again. Despite setting off soon after, that was the last we saw of them. A 4am schooling off the Continentals. Good skills boys, good skills!

After our hurried start we had The Ramp for breakfast. Super fun mixed taking us up and left all the time to the Waterfall Chimney and Brittle Ledges. The Waterfall pitch was the steepest part yet but with plenty of fixed gear. The rock was dry and not verglassed too, again just couldn’t believe what condition the route was in. It was at this point Chamonix climbing legend and PGHM hero Jeff Mercier caught us up. I recognised him from some of Jon’s pics (also helped by the fact he had ‘Jeff’ written on his helmet in big letters). We said hello and moved on up.

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Waterfall Pitch

The Brittle Ledges led swiftly to the Brittle Crack and my turn for some steep and shattered limestone mixed. With that pitch in the bag Kev was quick to set off on the Traverse of The Gods. Aptly named, another incredible traversing feature and a crucial section set to take us across to yet more legendary ground- The White Spider.

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Myself leading the Brittle Crack

Sometimes on big routes it can be scary (sometimes really scary) and for brief moments you might wonder why you feel the urge to put yourself in these positions so often. Then there are those times on these routes which are about as far away from that as you could imagine. Times when you feel completely at ease in your surrounds, are having a great deal of fun and feel absolutely in your element. This was that time for me. The route was in great nic, the weather was good, the banter was superb, and we were charging on the North Face of the Eiger. It simply doesn’t get much better than that!

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Kev setting off on the Traverse of the Gods

The White Spider was just as I’d imagined- a huge expanse of ice constantly peppered by snow and ice fall and a very bad place to hang around. We put our foot down and soon reached it’s top and with it a queue (there were a fair few teams on the face now) below what we thought to be The Quartz Crack. A team (turned out to be Irish) were well engaged and not making it look easy. They had been on the face a few days and moved at a slow pace. After closer inspection however, It soon became clear this was not the Quartz Crack we were after, and we had in fact wandered from the track and were off route. A pitch or two back over to the right soon sorted that, and with it the Quartz Crack came into view. Kev took this very short but brilliant mixed pitch, which probably contained the best moves of the whole route and belayed at its top. Team Ireland managed to drop an axe when they eventually hit this pitch, I’ve no doubt they came to miss it higher up on the route…

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The Quartz Crack

After this a short downwards traverse over to our left on fixed lines led us to the foot of the Exit Chimneys and my turn on the sharp end. Not hard but quite delicate and with sparse protection (the theme of the route for sure), the chimneys succumbed to a steady approach and we once again moved together to their end. It was at this point we came back into the sun and enjoyed its rays for the first time of the day, for just a couple of moments.

Myself getting established on the Exit Chimneys

Myself getting established in the Exit Chimneys

After this it was onto the summit ice fields where we started to feel the effects of the altitude and a lack of acclimatisation. A steady pace however soon saw us reach the Miteleggi Ridge. I had traversed the Eiger via the Miteleggi / South Ridge traverse a couple of years ago, however this ridge bore little resemblance to the one I remembered. The ridge was sculptured in many more ways, with only the exposure to remind me of last time. We took coils and moved together to the summit. It was 5pm. A quick man hug sealed the deal and we rested there for 10 minutes before starting our descent of the West Flank.

The descent had a good track and we were soon making steady progress over broken ground down towards the train station. It was at this point the track split with the option of following the ridge line and its anchor posts, or a track further out to the left. I think me and Kev had both grown a little tiresome of different bits of the terrain; for I chose the ridge and he chose to follow the track. Both appeared without difficulty and we agreed a spot to meet lower down. Upon arrival at where I thought we were due to meet and Kev not being there I began to wonder… 10 min turned into 15 which turned into 20. Where was he? I had no signal to call and heard nothing back after shouting. It was getting dark. Shit. Where was he? Was he OK? Then I saw a head torch miles below and knew that must be him. I headed down. It transpired we had both been on about different meeting places, hence the confusion. Looking back it was pretty dumb to split up whilst descending in that situation after a long route, lesson learnt.

The rest of the descent was spent trudging down ever closer to the station and by the time we arrived we were the only folk there. The toilets were open however, so we made full use of the facilities before bedding down outside for the night.

The next morning we awoke early for fresh coffee then a leisurely descent down to Grindelwald and a well deserved big breakfast. Cheers Kev for a good couple of days out!