Saturday 24 July 2010

gear update, Alpkit Pipedream 400

Following this blog entry I wrote back in May, I figured I should actually get round to writing down some of my thoughts about my latest gear aquisitions, now that I’ve actually used them.

Firstly, we have the sleeping bag, an Alpkit Pipedream 400. What can I say? It does the job! I bought it as an ‘in between’ bag, mainly for use in the UK outside of winter (when it’s really cold I use a rather lovely Marmot Pinnacle), but also for use as a summer Alpine bivi item as it’s light and packs down remarkably small. I’ve not really used it for any standard UK camping yet, although a night spent in a bunk in the Ogwen MRO base seemed fine…

As a bivi sleeping bag it seemed to perform quite nicely – I used it inside my bivi bag when we slept out on the glacier on the Vallee Blanche a couple of weeks ago, and whilst I did get cold (despite also wearing my down duvet jacket inside the bag), this is probably a greater reflection on my pathetic temperature tolerance, and the fact that I was sleeping on a 3/4 length super crappy foam mat and with my feet on my rucksack, on snow.

The build quality is reasonable, although it is obvious that it’s a more ‘budget’ offering than many of the super expensive top end bags out there, but for the money the Pipedream is fantastic value and has all the features you would expect – hood and storm baffle, double ended zip etc. I did find myself having to even out the spread of the down within the baffles each time I laid it out, as downless spots seemed to present themselves quite regularly, but really, this isn’t a big deal.

Size-wise I find it is a perfect cut for me, which means that anyone with a larger build than myself (I’m about average height-wise for a woman, and slim) might find the bag a bit tight – Phil did complain about this when he tried it out.

Packed size is great, and Alpkit helpfully supply you with two stuff bags along with the big cotton storage bag (you shouldn’t store a down bag compressed as it compromises the lofting capability of the down – the feathers end up all intertwined and less able to separate and ‘loft’, meaning your bag isn’t as warm as it could be). One bag is a compression sack with pull tabs, and the other a straightforward lightweight tight stuff bag. I haven’t used the compression bag yet, as when I played with them at home initially, it seemed to me that because the ‘normal’ bag is such a tight fit, the compression bag didn’t actually provide any advantage, but simply made the whole package heavier. Admittedly, the compression bag is easier to pack as it is bigger to start with, reaching the same size as the smaller ‘normal’ bag only after you’ve used the compression straps.

All in all I’m pretty happy and would recommend one of these to anyone (who’s not really tall or bulkily built) after a decent quality down sleeping bag for use in the UK or the Alps where weight is a consideration, they are great value for money, built pretty well, lightweight and pack down tiny. If you’re not so concerned about the weight and pack size, Alpkit’s slightly cheaper SkyeHigh range are another good option, and also come in different lengths (I also hear they aren’t cut quite as tight as the Pipedreams, so if you’re broad of shoulder they may well be a better bet!).

Saturday 17 July 2010

chamonix 2010, more photo highlights

Now I’m back at home sitting here feeling rather ill for some inexplicable reason, I have been going back through some of our Alpine photographs, and I’ve decided to post up a few of my favourites that haven’t already been used on the blog. Some of them are mine and some are Patrick’s (he did grant me permission to use them so don’t worry, I have also noted which ones are his in the annotations).

(Disclaimer: should you want to use any of these pictures then please drop me a line, please don’t just copy them. Thanks.)


The Midi-Plan Traverse:

SDC10780 Just starting the Traverse after the initial descent of the ice arete, we overtook the French pair ahead and didn’t see them for the rest of the day

SDC10782gimped Three Germans ahead of us, just heading down into the base of one of the ‘cruxes’ – the exposed gulley

IMG_0695 The Tour Ronde viewed from the Requin hut (Patrick’s photo)

Mont Blanc du Tacul:

IMG_0657 Tiny trail of ants heading up Mont Blanc du Tacul or the Three Monts route, viewed from the Midi-Plan

SDC10842 Mont Blanc du Tacul in the cloud

IMG_0775 Posing just before the summit of the Tacul (Patrick’s photo)

IMG_0786 Posing just after the summit of the Tacul, Aiguille du Midi in the background (Patrick’s photo)

SDC10957 My favourite photo of the trip, climbers descending from the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul

Wednesday 14 July 2010

chamonix 2010, le bivouac et Mont Blanc du Tacul

The weather this year really hasn’t been kind to us – persistent high pressure conditions have meant that the temperature has been consistently higher than normal. Today for instance, the thermometer on the electronic sign opposite out apartment, is currently reading 38 degrees C (at 12:20pm, so due to get hotter still). Basically, the predominantly snow and ice routes we had been wanting to climb are not in a good state, and descents after the sun has gotten onto the snow are far riskier than normal. What with Alpine climbing already being an activity full of objective dangers, we basically made the decision that the increased risk levels - high temperatures leading to unstable snow, unstable seracs, crevasse snow bridges collapsing more readily etc, were not really acceptable, and so our objectives changed.

Not willing to head for the routes we had originally had in mind, our last major effort was to head up the normal route on Mont Blanc du Tacul, an easy and straight forward ‘plod’ up a 4000er. But we wanted to start really early in the morning – hence we decided to bivi up on the Vallee Blanche.

I must now admit that this was in actual fact my first real ‘bivouac’. Sure, I’ve wild-camped before, but I haven’t ever simply settled down for the night in a bivi bag, and certainly not on snow, so it was an interesting experience, and not one without its ‘moments’.


Sleep doesn’t come easily to me at the best of times, so why I should have thought that I would actually reach the land of nod after eating a packet of rehydrated mush and a lion bar and then listening to the faint thuds of a distant electrical storm that provided the backing track for the unrelenting audible intrusions of my beloved partner, I do not know.

Anyway, we survived the night, ate our somewhat squashed ‘jam-o-laits’ (pain-o-lait with jam in), failed to get any water to boil properly for tea, packed up all our slightly soggy kit and began to scrunch our way across the snow toward a 3 hour uphill slog.

To be fair, there were a couple of interesting bits to negotiate – a few crevasses and the bergschrund provided some brief respite from the monotony of just plodding ever upwards, and the final rock step up to the actual summit contained a couple of slightly hairy moves in a short iced up chimney. The views were utterly spectacular.






The descent was pretty uneventful and we were back down on the flat glacier in just over an hour. Unfortunately by this point we had basically run out of water (idiots), and I had all but run out of everything. A night with no sleep, a long slog at altitude and the baking heat of the sun served to mean that the hack back across the Vallee Blanche and up the ice arete (or smushy snow arete) to the Midi station, was utter torture. Patrick compared it to one of the levels of Dante’s vision of hell (along with Ikea Birmingham on a busy weekend, and Snowdon on a bank holiday). The slope just seemed to go on forever, and my legs didn’t want to work anymore.

The relief on actually getting up into the Midi station was immense. The hell was over and we could finally relax – so we did. Lying on one of the wooden terraces, bodies in the sun and heads in the shade, with a stunningly refreshing drink of diet Coke, truly was one of life’s pleasures. Bliss. Or at least it was bliss until we got talked into filling out an electronic questionnaire that had obviously been written by someone aspiring to be a caretaker down in Dante’s labyrinth of interminably long winded and stupid questions…


Friday 9 July 2010

chamonix 2010, midi-plan traverse

I think I’m going to have to admit to a woeful lack of ‘alpine stamina’ here. Now, this is not the same as ‘alpine fitness’ which it seems that I do actually possess in somewhat greater quantities than I had anticipated (what with my complete and utter failure to train properly for this trip despite having written a plan and everything…). By ‘alpine stamina’, I simply mean the ability to go up day after day and climb route after route without being rendered a virtual cripple in between. Why do I say this? Well, simply because the number of muscular aches and pains I currently possess mean that moving or walking is a rather unpleasant notion, and all this after doing what was merely meant to be our second warm-up or acclimatisation route – the Midi-Plan Traverse.

The weather here at the moment is unusually and excessively hot, meaning that snow conditions are really not great, the snow pack barely freezes overnight and possibly doesn’t freeze at all some nights. Basically this means that many of the predominantly snow routes we had wanted to climb are seeming like a bad idea right now – an early start may well get you up the route ok, but the heat means that getting down again will be really rather unpleasant and even riskier than normal. That said, we had two options for the traverse – doing the route, and then reversing it back to the Aiguille du Midi and catching the cable car back down to the valley, or descending from the Aiguille du Plan, down the Glacier d’Envers du Plan to the Requin hut, then on down the Mer de Glace to the rack and pinion railway at Montenvers, to then catch the train back down to the valley. Both of these options would involve hot afternoon snow.

We had originally intended to reverse the route back to the Midi as this would be the quickest and probably simplest option, but on crossing some disintegrating snow slopes where I very nearly fell down the gap between snow and rock whilst unroped after an abseil (the snow just collapsed and I was only saved by the way that I fell straddling the snow – one leg down the slope and one leg down the mini bergschrund), I made the statement there and then that there was no way I would be going back this way. We actually pitched 150m of what would normally be very very simple snow traversing because it was falling apart  (and this was only 10am) – every step was a lottery as to whether you were just going to end up sliding all the way down onto the glacier. Very, very scary stuff. So we had the decision made for us – we would be descending the glacier.

The route itself was pretty cool, some wonderful views and vantage points (see photos for some highlights), continuously interesting but never really that technical. Thankfully the final snow slopes up to the Aiguille du Plan were still in reasonable condition when we got to them after the terrifying snow traverse, so finishing the route and then descending back to the col Superieur du Plan from where we would descend to the glacier was quite straight forward. We even stopped there for a sandwich before we began the arduous and [for me] nerve-wracking descent.

SDC10783Most of the route as viewed from after most of the initial snow crest

SDC10788The view back to the Aiguille du Midi from the gulley on the Chamoix side leading up to the Rognon

SDC10799 The final slopes up to the Aiguille du Plan, view from the top of the Rognon du Plan, just before the abseils

IMG_0671The view back to the Midi from the Plan

The descent was horrible. As a general rule there are two aspects of climbing I really don’t get on with – traversing and descending. (So why the hell was I on this route huh?). I’m not good at walking down things, I find myself feeling like a newborn calf – all gangly, off balance and uncoordinated. I harbour a constant dread and fear of slipping and sliding uncontrollably to my death, which then makes me more uncertain of my steps and it all goes round in a vicious circle. Anyway, the descent really was horrible. Steep mushy shitty snow that went on for hours, crevasses with collapsing snow bridges, I even managed to fall in the actual glacier bergschrund when the snow bridge collapsed, although thankfully I managed to get my axe in the other side and kind of belly flop my way out (yes Patrick, I should have jumped the thing, you were right). Ice sections that needed a capability to use the flat footed ‘French Technique’ of crampon work (which I’ve never really done, so that was fun, not), more steep mush that barely held body weight, the sun constantly beating down on you making you sweat and giving you a headache, and of course we didn’t have enough water with us (who does?).

IMG_0691On the Glacier d’Envers du Plan

The Requin hut was a very welcome haven after some 2 hours of torturous descending, we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and a bowl of pasta before then heading down the ladders to the Mer de Glace, where we would then spend another 2+ hours of hacking over glacier (although this time a ‘dry’ glacier, where all the crevasses are open and visible and therefore fairly straightforward to negotiate), including a rather unnerving section of crevasse jumping where the Mer de Glace met the Glacier des Leschaux. The access ladders back up to the Montenvers station complex were one final kick in the teeth, seeming to go on forever (there are something like 4 vertical ladder sections to go up). Happily we did actually manage to get the second to last train back down to Chamonix.

So, in short, it was a naffing long day – the glacier descent is actually a rather long way as well as being an arduous slog. Hence, I’m feeling pretty battered and tired – my ‘alpine stamina’ does need some work…

Monday 5 July 2010

chamonix 2010, petite aiguille verte

It’s Monday, the first real day of the trip, and today was a day we’d allocated to doing an ‘acclimatisation route’, i.e. a route that was short, straight forward and with easy access. The ‘Normal Route’ of the Petite Aiguille Verte, also known as the ‘North-West Ridge’ is a very short (I was actually heard to exclaim “is that IT?!” upon first sighting the route from the Telepherique station), and relatively simple PD graded route at a moderate altitude – so perfect for us today.


Normally we are quite strict with our timings and general Alpine discipline (honest guv’), but because the route had a guidebook time of only 2 hours, and a 1 hour descent, we decided that the ridiculously early start required to catch the bus to then catch an early bin*, perhaps wasn’t strictly necessary, and so we had a civilised breakfast before setting out, eventually getting geared up at the base of the route, just outside the telepherique station of Les Grandes Montets, at around 10:30am.

Before I continue, I really should note one genuine point of safety and sensibility for anyone thinking of doing this route, or just thinking of starting out in the Alps generally: snow gets soft, soggy, smushy and really unstable after it’s been in the sun for a while. This is why the ‘Alpine Start’ is often so essential – so you have time to climb the route and get the bulk of the often snowy or glacier based descent out of the way before the early afternoon heat causes the snow to become the stuff of nightmares. Starting your approach or even your climb before dawn is often the only option you have for bigger routes, but with a short, easy access route such as the Normal Route of the Petite Verte, it is all too tempting to just do it ‘whenever’. I genuinely think the parties just starting up the route as we were finishing the descent at about 1pm were bonkers. The snow was in a really bad state by that point and we’d spent a deal of time in the descent either wallowing or sliding through stuff roughly the consistency of cold porridge…you get my point.

The route itself is quite a simple affair, with a slog up a steep snow slope to begin with, that steepens just before you reach the ridge line. Once you reach the ridge you basically follow it over a few rock ‘steps’ until you reach the false summit, where a very scary and awkward downclimb then allows you access to the final part of the ridge to the actual summit. We didn’t do the final few metres of the route after the gnarly downclimb, preferring to choose a more leisurely descent than would have been possible had we continued behind the few guided groups at that point in front of us (by turning round where we did, only a few metres from the true summit, we essentially ‘overtook’ them).

IMG_0644 IMG_0646

For a route graded PD, it does have a couple of ‘interesting’ sections on the rock ridge, with some moves perhaps a touch harder than you’d necessarily expect. The downclimb after the false summit is especially unnerving. The views over to Mont Blanc, and of Les Drus (the big triangular double peak behind me in the last picture above) are absolutely spectacular, and the route is well worth doing as long as you can cope with crowds – it is a very popular outing and you will often get beginners learning basic skills on the lower parts of the slopes you climb to begin with.

Arriving back at the bottom of the stairs up to the telepherique station (those bloody stairs feel tougher than the route I swear, I was huffing and puffing going back up those, flipping hundreds of them!), we de-geared and basically assumed it was all over and time to go and grab a drink from the cafe, but one more challenge presented itself – suddenly we were plunged into a game of life and death, where every second suddenly counted as a life hung in the balance…

A Hummingbird Moth had somehow gotten itself into a bit of trouble - when I found it the poor thing was lying on its back feebly trying to move as its wings were stuck to the snow. I freely admit to having a bit of a thing about butterflies and moths, I think they are wonderful creatures, and Hummingbird Moths are particularly special (they get their name because they do actually look just like a small hummingbird, and they do hum as they fly), so obviously I took it upon myself to do what I could, and happily, after picking it up very carefully and letting it warm up on my hand in the sun for a few minutes, the moth stopped shivering (really shivering, quite bizarre!), perked up and flew away. Brought a big smile to my face that did, knowing that I’d saved the poor thing’s life!


*bin: abbreviated form of the French telecabine, another term for the telepherique, or cable car to you and me. An oddly appropriate term for the small boxes you get thrown about inside of as you stand shoulder to shoulder with people of all sorts, battling for simple breathing room… 

chamonix 2010, introduction

Trip reports. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, I’m going to be writing a few.

We are currently in Chamonix, the classical home of Alpine mountaineering for many. Yes, I know there are more imaginative places to base yourself for an Alpine trip, but I happen to really like Chamonix, not only for it’s ease and convenience of route access, but for the whole town atmosphere – the gear shops, the bars and restaurants, and the ice cream. I am hoping to have a less traumatic trip this time round, as last year’s head injury was not an experience I have any desire to repeat.

Anyway, we have a ‘route list’ or perhaps even a ‘wish list’, a list of potential objectives we would like to achieve over the next couple of weeks before we head back home, a list I am not going to publish for reasons of self-protection and vanity - I don’t want to put up a list of gnarly routes that people will see and think ‘wow, she must be amazing* if she’s planning on climbing all those’, fail to complete them and then make a hash of justifying it all on here…So I’m not going to. What I am going to do, however, is write up some basic details of the routes we do, as we’ve done them, perhaps including a few photos for good measure.

So, where do I start? We arrived in Chamonix town late on Saturday night, and proceeded to spend Sunday fannying around town on ‘logistical’ missions (so we went to the supermarket basically, oh and of course had a cursory wander around the legendary Snell Sports). The most critical of these missions was actually my purchase of a new pair of standard (i.e. non-prescription) Cat4 sunglasses – this turned into a bit of an epic because I am possibly the tightest and fussiest customer any of the Cham sport shops and opticians have ever met. I am happy to report that [eventually] we found a pair that looked cool, were Cat4, had side protectiony bits, and most importantly didn’t come with the 1300Euro price tag of some of the Cartier glasses (I jest not!).

We did manage to spend part of the afternoon acclimatising at altitude by heading up on the Midi lift to have a cup of tea and sit watching the storm for a few hours (yeah, we got stuck up there for a while when the weather closed in…), I even managed to acquire a little bit of an altitude headache, so we declared the day a success!

Enough prattling, the next update will include some climbing and some photos.

*Just a note for any new readers – I am actually one of the best climbers and Alpinists in human history, not the ‘bumblie’ alluded to in the blog’s title…