Friday, 31 July 2009

Cneifion Arete

Ok so today I decided against going cragging with a random UKC’er who hasn’t let on what sort of grade he climbs as yet (I at least need info before I commit to climb with someone), but instead chose to do the 1 3/4 hour drive up to Ogwen and repeat the Cneifon Arete.

Ok so my original intention was that the next time I did this route I would continue it on and descend via Bristly Ridge as per Patrick’s [excellent] suggestion. Today that wasn’t to be as I didn’t manage to crawl my way out of bed until some time around 11am, after which I needed breakfast and then to pack my ‘sac. All this meant that I didn’t actually arrive at Ogwen Cottage until just before 3pm. Shocking I know.

Anyway, I headed out at bang on 3 o’clock and made fairly reasonable progress up past Llyn Idwal and to the base of the route. I say reasonable progress because it wasn’t a blistering pace by any means, but neither was I ‘hanging about’.

Now, the weather of late has been taking the mickey somewhat, one minute it’s sunny and the next it’s hooning down. Today was no exception – I started out in overcast but pleasant conditions, slightly boggy underfoot because of all the recent rain, a bit of a breeze with the odd strong gust, but nothing to write home about. I did most of the walk-in in just a T-shirt. This was soon to change…

No sooner had I committed myself to the initial ‘Mod’ section of the route, it started to rain. 'Twas a deceptively pleasant drizzle initially – the kind of lazy, unassuming type of rain that usually stops after a couple of minutes, like the clouds just can’t be bothered any more. Unfortunately I think the clouds were watching me and were in need of a laugh – they patiently waited for me to be completely committed to the route (Mod followed by Grade 3 scramble), and then proceeded to slowly and very patiently drench everything, including all my underwear.

I just had to keep telling myself that this was the entire point of the exercise – I need to be able to handle committing positions in crap conditions, and seeing as this was exactly what I’d got, that really, I should be grateful for the training opportunity. Somehow though, these thoughts were struggling against the other thoughts my mind was spontaneously producing against my nobler wishes: “I want to get off”, “if I slip this is going to be really, really bad”, “these walking boots are completely useless on rock this wet and slippery”, “what the hell am I doing this for?”, “where would be safe to sit whilst I wait for the Mountain Rescue Team?”, amongst others…Sadly my other attempts at focussing on more important issues like my pile of ironing still left to do, and which recipe for fruit scones I’m going to try first failed to improve matters…

On a serious note though, my walking boots really are not all that brilliant for scrambling, they are adequate, but not brilliant. My gorgeous new 5.10 approach shoes are, however, completely wonderful – I’ve even climbed VS in them! So why wasn’t I wearing them? Especially when this kind of thing is exactly what I bought them for? Simple answer: bog. They do not handle bogs, puddles or streams at all well (they’re just a trainer for goodness sake, what do you expect?). Hence today was most definitely a walking boot day as much of the approach and descent had become nothing more glamorous than a bog-trot.

Thankfully, climbing with a rucksac is a fairly familiar and standard exercise and so this didn’t prove to be much of a hindrance.

Once I’d gained the top and the power of positive thinking had finally proven its worth, the descent became the fairly obvious next priority, and I decided, being of a rather competitive nature, to see if I could catch the guys in front (who had just been finishing at the top of the Arete as I had started at the bottom). This was a stupid idea really as they were quite a long way ahead, nevertheless, not only did I catch them, I overtook and left them for dust! YES! Small victories…I think that maybe I was in need of something to take my mind of the fact that the rather impressive resistance put up to the rain by my softshell had finally failed and I was beginning to get damp…

So what did I learn from today’s experience? Well, to start with, when I pull my finger out I can actually impress myself: I was quite pleased with the way I handled the utterly sh*te conditions, and also very pleased with the (to me) remarkably quick time I made – 1:45 car to car.

Kit lessons:

Contact lenses are AWESOME in cruddy conditions like this. Today I was using the first of my five trial pairs to see how they would cope. Let’s just say I’m converted. There were times on the Arete where having totally misted and water covered glasses would not have been ideal. I’m actually still wearing them now, some 11 hours after I first put them in and my eyes aren’t complaining even the tiniest little bit, so I think I may well be investing…

Softshells are also AWESOME. But then, I’ve been saying that ever since I bought my rather expensive jacket. It’s not just that it was expensive though – it’s proven it’s worth many, many times over now, being perfect for ice climbing, alpine climbing, general cragging and scrambling and even going to the pub (it doesn’t look shabby!). Today was its first real test in the rain though. Normally, if it’s raining I will put a waterproof on (as you do – this is after all what they’re for), but my location at which the thought “hmm it’s raining properly now, my waterproof would be a great thing to put on” occurred was somewhat less than ideal (i.e. I was tenuously back-and-footing my way up a sopping wet chimney groove) and by the time I was actually able to stand with a degree of stability sufficient to take of my pack, my jacket was already wet all over – so I figured I’d just leave the waterproof off and see how the softshell coped. Anyway, it did excellently. I think it must have taken a solid half hour of medium heavy rain for it to finally begin to lose the battle, probably not much less time than my waterproof anyway, given the conditions.

Monday, 27 July 2009

lack of climbing

Climbing of late hasn’t quite been going to plan. I really want and need to be getting out cragging more – or at least I do if the weather holds for more than a few hours at a time.

So why haven’t things been going to plan? Well primarily it has been a lack of decent weather – take yesterday for instance: Patrick had come over and I wanted to go and do some nice mountain VS’s on Glyder Fach, and maybe Noah’s Warning on Dinas Cromlech (VS/HVS). All would have been great apart from the tiny little matter of the driving heavy rain in the morning. So we ended up cruising the shops in Betwys-y-coed, having tea and cake and then doing a scramble – up Bristly Ridge to the summit of Glyder Fach and back down Gribin Ridge. Not a bad day really, but we weren’t climbing!

Oh, the other slight issue has been one of me, my time and my priorities. Last week I headed back to Bucks for two nights – obviously using up three days of potential climbing time (although this wasn’t simply a waste of time as I did manage to fly some circuits at Halton in between thunderstorms, thereby keeping my license current – phew). I’m not sure the weather was that great back here over those three days anyway, but given some motivation, I could have gotten out walking or scrambling or running (fitness, fitness, FITNESS).

So when did I last climb? That would be Monday, my Monday climbing session with Dave. Great, we headed over to Maeshafn and Pot Hole Quarry – two Clwyd venues I hadn’t yet been to. At Maeshafn I led a nice little VS called ‘Puppy Power’, finding the only difficulties to be in working out what the guidebook meant by a ‘shallow groove’ and then the top out – a tenuous horribly mantle onto a very steep mud bank. Lovely. Dave led another VS, ‘Layback on me’, a very misleadingly named route that was much less layback, more tenuous step up. Hmm. Anyway, after our depressingly poor efforts we decided to head over to Pot Hole Quarry, where we were hoping for less mud and more pleasant top outs…

Pot Hole Quarry, small, compact, very near vertical and thereby fairly intimidating looking climbing. I thing the routes are probably really cool – there looked to be an abundance of positive holds and cracks. I say there ‘looked to be’, because I didn’t actually get to climb anything here – our jolly little afternoon in the sun, bimbling around on easy(ish) routes was about to be gut brutally short by Dave coming off the route he was on, only to have his sole piece of gear (a friend, unfortunately notoriously unstable in polished limestone cracks) rip out, sending him tumbling to the ground and a very solid rock ledge. My only use was as a spotter, as belaying had been rendered totally unnecessary by the sudden dearth of gear – so I tried to catch him…I like to think that I somehow stopped him landing on his head and ending up with some kind of horrendous neck or back injury, but we have no real way of knowing if I was really of any use. After avidly telling me he was fine, and me having checked him over to make sure he hadn’t actually broken his back or anything, Dave then decided, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that he thought that maybe, just maybe, he’d broken his foot…

Long story short, after an agonising ‘hop’ out to the car and an even more agonising wait at the hospital (probably more painful for me as by then I was absolutely starving), the poor sod has basically obliterated his heel. Operations involving metalwork and possibly bone grafting are what I’m now told he may well have ahead of him, along with several long months of simply not being able to walk on it at all, let alone drive or even climb. I feel terrible for him, and Dave, if you’re reading this – I wish you well mate and you’re in my thoughts. I hope I haven’t been too unfair in writing this account!

So yeah, weather, me not being able to prioritise properly or even get myself motivated, and losing a partner due to an accident have all been reasons I haven’t been climbing anywhere near as much as I should have done. So what’s today’s excuse? Well, I’m tired, lack motivation and need to get the house in order before our friends come to stay tomorrow. I really should be out scrambling in the Rhinogs or something, but actually, the housework and other chores (including finally making myself an appointment to get some contact lenses!!!) have taken over in priority today. Ho hum!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Alpine trip review

Ok so it’s about time I actually wrote something about my trip to the Alps (other than how much my head hurts).

I’m a bit sad and disappointed really, that in such a length of trip we only actually managed to complete two routes. These route were the Arete des Cosmiques (Aiguille du Midi) and the Gouter Ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc.

The Arete des Cosmiques was our first route of the trip (and my first ever Alpine route), and was chosen because of its shortness and relative simplicity, being a route that actually finishes at the Aiguille du Midi Telepherique station and also having a very short approach. The guidebooks tell us this route should be completed in 2-3 hours and is pretty simple technically. So how did we end up on the route for close to 8 hours and feel the need to bypass the crux pitch via a heinous and even harder ice chimney (scottish IV or V)? Simple – the queues. I won’t go into this any more right now as my rant on how insanely slow and incompetent certain parties (sadly mainly British) and how rude and discourteous other parties (mainly continental) really are could take up many many pages and simply wouldn’t be worth reading. All I will say is we chose the ice chimney after waiting, stood totally still, for over half an hour (!) whilst a guy hung from slings on the aid pegs on the 5m high crux crack (which is only 4b free apparently), seemingly incapable of getting up the thing. Half an hour! And we were in a queue!


Ok so that could have been a better experience. I can see how the route earns its ‘classic’ status – if it hadn’t been for the interminable nausea of the waiting around I’m sure I would have really enjoyed it.

After I’d recovered from my first ever altitude induced headache, on Tuesday we set off for the Gouter hut where we were going to be staying to start our summit bid early on Wednesday morning. A lovely day, nice weather, sunshine. Wearing approach shoes and carrying our heavy rigid mountain boots in our bags we set out from the train station at the Nid D’aigle, on a long but initially simple walk. All was good until we reached the short glacier crossing to reach the Tete Rousse hut. Short it may have been, but what we neglected to realise was that it was virtually a river in the middle…so picture the scene, both of us tip-toeing across the snow in our entirely insubstantial trainers, big rucksacks on, seemingly in complete control. All good so until suddenly…”sploooshhh!” What are essentially just lightweight trainers are clearly no match for several inches of icy water. We reached the Tete Rousse hut swearing profusely with very wet, cold feet. Still, at least I’d remembered my thick mountain socks (poor Patrick had tragically left his drying back in the apartment).

From the Tete Rousse hut (now wearing big boots, with sopping wet shoes in bags, destined not to dry out properly until the end of the trip), another glacier crossing (complete with fixed cable) and a long(ish) ridge scramble led us up to the hovel that is the high mountain Gouter hut. Now, I say hovel, simply due to the state of the toilets. Honest to goodness I’ve never experienced anything quite so hellish in my life (bearing in mind I spent time wading through blood and wreckage in the aftermath of the 7/7 tube bombings). There simply is no way to describe just how dire they were.*

Now, my idea of a good night’s sleep involves a large, warm, comfy bed with nice crisp, clean sheets and a gorgeous man to snuggle up to. This wasn’t quite the experience I was going to get at the Gouter hut. Ok so there wasn’t exactly a shortage of men – I was sharing a mattress with about 10 of them! The room itself may have contained a further 20 or 30, all smelly, snoring, self-obsessed and not in the least bit considerate of the fairer gender. Oh, and lord only knows when those sheets get changed or cleaned…still, I wasn’t in there long – everyone was up by 1:50am for breakfast.

And what a breakfast it was! Two tiny pieces of stale bread and an old crepe, complete with a mini portion of jam, a shot glass of orange juice and a small bowl of tea (no milk). Awesome. Just what you need when you’re about to spend 14 hours or so climbing Europe’s highest mountain.


Anyway, we summitted at around 9am, having left the hut at about 3:15. Not particularly fast, but I’d been going strong all the way, strangely not seeming to suffer with the altitude much at all (I’d been the slow one, puffing and panting my way up to the hut the day before, but on the mountain I was the one having to slow my pace and wait for Patrick). Unfortunately for both of us, I am officially, a COMPLETE IDIOT.

For any of you thinking of heading up Mont Blanc any time soon – may I offer one very simple tip. Don’t be an idiot. Wear warm technical clothing, not lightweight summer trekking trousers (I have no idea what I was thinking – I never wear anything other than my heavy duty thick winter climbing troos in snow normally – what the hell went through my mind when I left them behind? Honestly I don’t know). Also, TAKE A FLEECE, some kind of MIDLAYER. All I had was a baselayer and a T-shirt under my softshell jacket (and then my belay jacket on top, without which I would simply never have made it). I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand what caused my ridiculous and dangerous errors of judgement in packing…

Long story short, I got to the summit feeling strong but dangerously cold. The higher we had gotten, the slower we had needed to go (Patrick was struggling to breathe a little and so we needed to stop every few paces). This should not have been a problem, but as we reached the Bosses ridge, the wind came in over the mountains, ravenously cold, biting hard through my highly inadequate trousers and seeming to drain all the warmth from my body. If I’d have been able to keep moving at my own pace, and not keep stopping (sorry Patrick, honestly I am not blaming you in the slightest), I may have been ok, but as it was, by the time we got back down to the Vallot emergency refuge I was cold beyond sanity. My coordination and balance had gone and I simply fell into the snow. It was all I could do to get inside and into Patrick’s bivi bag where I would sit and shiver for an hour before we decided that I either had to get myself down or we were calling the helicopter. We made our way slowly back down to the hut (although I can’t remember most of the descent, I think I must have been in some kind of semi-hypothermic stupor). Once down Patrick presented me with a bowl of steaming hot Spaghetti bolognese, a can of drink and a hot chocolate. It was the best meal I’ve had in a fair old while I can tell you! (Up at the refuge I had been unable to eat or drink because of the altitude, but once back down to a sensible height felt ravenous!). After eating we made our way slowly back down the ridge to the Tete Rousse hut where we were to spend the night (we had originally intended to get back down to the train that day, but had taken too long and so had to spend another night on the mountain), where we had another meal and watched the wind and snow outside! The Tete Rousse hut was an altogether more civilised place that, despite still not having any running water, at least had a CLEAN toilet and some pleasant comfy dormitory beds.

The following morning we made it down to catch the first train back to the valley, despite the walk/scramble down now having a blanket of some 2 inches of fresh snow and some very variable visibility. We stumbled back into the apartment at something like 11:30am, then slept.

The next couple of days were spent ‘chilling’, the first because I really needed it, the second because I proved myself to be a true coward and bottling out of heading up the Frendo Spur to the bivi. We did meet an interesting couple up near the Telepherique station, but they are another story…

Saturday was to be our single day attempt at the Frendo Spur after I’d wimped out of the bivi’ing option. Sadly this attempt wasn’t to be, as I was struck on the back of the head by a rock roughly the size of half a brick (see a previous posting).

*One particularly grim experience with these toilets went thus: Me (in desperation), going to do the necessary (in this instance a VERY necessary number 2 I had been holding out against for hours), eventually managing to get the job done into the eco-toilet that may well NEVER HAVE BEEN CLEANED (picture it, caked on splattered excrement, pretty much everywhere, me battling to stay upright and not touch the seat, slippered feet sliding around on the FROZEN PEE all over the floor). The next phase, wiping and disposing of the by now somewhat corrupted paper. Should be simple no? Ok firstly, you’re not meant to throw much paper down these water-less eco toilets so most of it is deposited into a small plastic bin inside the cubicle, but obviously the worst bits can’t go in those bins (that would be just too nasty!) so the very worst goes down the hole to join the main bulk of offending sludge. Again a very obvious and simple concept yes? Well the critical detail I haven’t yet mentioned was the snow falling and the rather strong wind blowing outside (we’d just made it back down from the summit and the weather was turning a touch unpleasant). Ok. Eco-toilet – where the stuff simply falls into a big pile that is fully exposed to the elements – you can see daylight shining back up at you. Strong wind. Very lightweight flappy paper being deposited through the open air poo portal…

I’m sure it would have been utterly hilarious to anyone who could have seen (although they would have needed to have been pretty perverted to have even been there) – the toilet paper is dropped down the hole and then almost immediately proceeds to fly BACK UP, rising some 4 feet into the air, right towards MY FACE. Lots of panicked flailing as I desperately tried to grab the unsoiled edges as the stuff was flapping and floating in the breeze like some kind of sordid phantom then occurred, several times (as it took some 3 or 4 attempts to catch enough of a lull in the wind for the stuff to actually drop down and stick to something).


Monday, 13 July 2009



The pain. What the hell? My head. Oh god that hurts. That rock can’t really have been that big, it’ll stop hurting in a second so just shut up and stop being such a wimp.

Oh dear god, crap, f*ck, sh*t this hurts. Ok Patrick’s here, I don’t want him to think I’m being a pansy…I’ll just take my hand off my head and stand up…

Crap. Really CRAP, there’s blood. It’s bleeding. My blood is dripping onto my jacket and it’s ALL OVER MY HAND. And it really, really hurts. F*ck, f*ck, f*ck. Stop swearing woman, you need to get some help.


A chance in a million. I mean, seriously, getting hit in the head by a rock the size of half a brick when we were still only a few hundred yards out of the Telepherique station, on a footpath over which hundreds of tourists probably walk everyday. A footpath. Not even near the route where a helmet would have been necessary. Unlucky or what?!

Needless to say this little incident put an end to our hopes of climbing the Frendo Spur, as the rest of the day was to be spent firstly in an ambulance, then a French hospital (which was actually some 30km away, in Sallanches, as the hospital in Chamonix doesn’t open until sometime around 9am on a Saturday…makes sense no?), then on several trains BACK to Chamonix after which I retired to bed with a stinking headache and lots of blood still in my hair. Not a brilliant day all told.

A freak accident. Fortunately my injury has turned out to be pretty minor, merely an inconvenience really, but it could so easily have been different. Had the stone been bigger, travelling faster, had we been in a less accessible location, had I lost my balance and fallen down the moraine, had I been looking up instead of down, the consequences would undoubtedly been far worse. All of this has led me into a spiral of darkened self-recrimination and examination: Why do I do this? What is it that I need? Why do I crave a life of risk? Do I crave a life of risk? Is this really who I am?