Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Valmiana (WI3), Cogne

Our initial plan had been to climb a WI3+ called Thoule but we found ourselves behind a group of six on the trail who were all intent on climbing the same route. We quickly aborted plans and headed further up the Valnontey valley with no real back-up objective. The prominent icefall on the first pitch of Valmiana soon caught our eye though.

The route
We broke the trail to the base of a route for the third time this trip. The deep snow was no less unconsolidated and we progressed at a rate of about half mile/hour. Every foot was hard work. Anna admirably insisted on breaking the trail for for the first part despite the depth of soft snow being half her height at times. Midway between the valley path and the route was a prominent step, above which the snow underfoot suddenly became firm with the exception of the top foot of powder. It became apparent that we were standing on top of a huge avalanche field, which extended all the way to the base of the climb. Presumably it had slid from much higher up the hillside during the previous week when it was particularly warm spell. With firm snow underfoot we doubled our pace.

Swimming uphill
By the time we had reached the climb it was already 10.45am - over two hours since leaving Valnontey. The skies were blue and sun flooded the initial icefall making it quickly wet. The pitch was hard for the grade with short, steep steps broken up by soft snowy ice that needed to be stripped to find better placements. My climbing at Dover had prepared my patience for finding good holds and fortunately this time my belayer was out of the firing line of raining debris. Often the best placements were in the gaps between chandeliers on the steep steps. Easy snow presented above the icefall and so after a short climb and cleared some snow and made an ice screwed belay.

First (crux) pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Anna led next pitch up a short step that was thin on ice. She managed to kick a football sized hole through its surface, behind which was water running like a tap.

The second pitch
Hollow ice
More easy ground led to another step, this time bigger but still thin. Maybe two inches thick. By this point on the trip I was used to climbing façades of thin ice to the sound of running water. Another easy snow slope led to a bigger icefall. 'Safe'... 'On belay'... A deer casually passed me by whilst Anna swung her axes out-of-sight.
Third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
It was our fourth day's consecutive climbing and Anna was looking exhausted. She was still keen to lead the next pitch in spite of it being harder than anything she had led previously. She hit mental overload at half-height and rested with her head on the ice in silence. She didn't look to be enjoying herself. Maybe the last climb of the trip I thought. We could do tourist stuff for the remainder of our time. Slowly she progressed higher, lacing the ice with screws as she went. By the time I joined her at the belay above she was smiling ear-to-ear and raving about how much she had enjoyed the pitch!

Fourth pitch
An easy but aesthetic final pitch put the icing on the cake of an excellent route, albeit in thin condition. The guidebook had stated the climb to be 110m but in reality it was more like 250m.

Final (fifth) pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Top of the final pitch
We abseiled back down the top pitch before veering to the right of the ice to continue to descent off fixed anchors in the trees. We bounded easily back down the deep snow and back at the cross-country piste stripped ourselves of climbing gear. Our crampons were so frozen-up that we couldn't loosen the hitches on our straps. Eventually I needed Anna's help to remove one of mine. It was another walk back after dusk but we managed it in the fraction of the time compared to reverse.

The descent (down the fourth pitch)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Cascades de Lillaz (WI3), Cogne

We were feeling a little tired after yesterday's long approach and late finish so opted for Cascades de Lillaz today. We were first on the route - something we were keen to achieve after seeing five pairs of climbers in the vicinity of the initial pitch two days ago. As with yesterday there were sections of thin ice and sections with running water below but overall the ice consistency was much improved. Maybe due to the route having been better swept clean of the fresh dump of snow, unlike routes further afield.

We split the first pitch into two halves. Water was pouring down the centre-middle-left of the icefall so we opted to climb the right side, which involved a steep curtain of ice to a bolted belay to right of the main cascade.

First pitch
The right-hand side of the upper part of the icefall consisted of transparent chandelier ice. It looked as though it would fracture easily so I traversed slightly left towards the centre where tiny snow ledges were visible and the ice looked more dense. Unsurprisingly the ice was a little hooked and stepped, however the recent freeze-thaw temperatures had limited this. Water ran beneath the ice but I could confidently trust my axe placements and generally the ice was thick enough for screws.

Traversing left from the belay
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
A short walk up the gorge brought us to the second pitch, beneath which a large pool of water had formed. Water poured down the base of the pitch where a metre and a half of bare rock had been exposed. Fortunately it was just possible to skirt the pool on its right then gain the easy angled ice with a couple of high hooks.

The second pitch
The remainder of the pitches offered pleasant, easy climbing with similar ice conditions to previous. The strolls up the gorge between the sections of waterfall heightened the enjoyable experience, and it was as though we were slowly climbing up a giant wedding cake. We third icefall was busy due to the presence of a climbing school but we were able to climb ice on the left. The fourth pitch was often too thin for ice screws but the climbing was easy. We reached the top of the route before 1pm, which left plenty of time to relax and drink coffee, and contemplate Anna's first leading on ice (maybe tomorrow). 

Top of the third pitch
Top of the fourth pitch

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Gran Val, Valnontey (WI3), Cogne

It had been a hard slog through deep powder snow and over boulders to the bottom of the route but Gran Val in the Valnontey Valley looked an excellent objective for Anna's first day of water ice. The second and third pitches looked particularly enticing with the latter's ice couloir looking characteristically 'Scottish'.

Deep snow
The route
The first pitch was very easy apart from more deep snow wading to reach an ice screw belay on the right. There was probably a bolt belay somewhere but it was lost beneath the snow.

The second pitch provided some enjoyable climbing up the impressive icefall but the ice quality was inconsistent. What's more the temperatures felt above freezing and there was water running beneath the ice in multiple locations. Many of my axe placements were soft and sometimes unreliable. Often a top layer of rotten ice needed to be stripped from beneath the snow coverage to find more reliable placements. My mono-points felt equally insecure but most of the time I was able to kick in shallow steps. I one occasion my foot placement ripped but it was a minor event. I trended left towards the centre at half height but needed to back off due to the ice being unjustifiably thin with running water below. I swept in at a higher point where the ice was thicker. Another ice screw belay with the sound of running water in close proximity.

Second pitch
(Photo credit: Anna Kennedy)
The third pitch ice formations reminded me of the main pitch of Creag Meagaidh's The Wand. It was a steady angled 70 degree attractive ice gully hemmed in by rock walls. Again the ice was inconsistent and occasionally thin, which made the climbing feel harder than it would have been otherwise. Rotten blocks of ice rained down on Anna but it was the inevitability of finding reliable placements. Then throw in into the mix some hot aches at half height that took a woozy five minutes to pass.

Third pitch
(Photo credit: Anna Kennedy)
We didn't bother with the final pitch, which looked very easy and was buried in deep soft snow. We rapped off the single bolt at the top of the pitch, which looked an infinitely better option than trusting an abalakov thread. Anna threw the ropes back down the pitch. One landed in a drain of water but she managed better clearance on second attempt. We abseiled off bolts down the second pitch, followed by an abalakov thread abseil down the first pitch. It was 16.40 and snowing by the time we reached our bags, and largely dark by the time we reached the car. We had earned our cheap bottle of fizzy red wine once back at the apartment. 

Anna Ab'ing down the second pitch

Sunday, 8 December 2013

White Goods

With an ice climbing trip to Cogne a matter of weeks away Anna and I drove to White Goods for the weekend in order to get some mileage with the sharp bits. My closest experience to dry tooling until now has been the chalk routes at Saltdean and the indoor routes at Swiss Cottage. The style of chalk is not strictly the same as conventional dry tooling venues so I was unsure what grade I was capable of climbing. I wanted to gently ease into the grades for this reason and also offer a pleasant introduction for Anna, for whom this was her first time climbing anything harder than Scottish II. A massive step-up for her.

We warmed up on Cenopath Corner (M4), which was most memorable for the amount of mud at half height. Then Adams (M5), which was far more pleasant and maybe slightly easier due to it being a cleaner route.

Cenopath Corner (M4)
Things got more interesting with Left Wall (M5+), which involved some steep, exhilarating moves through overhung roofs near the base of the climb. I needed to pause momentarily to rest my tired arms above them and refocus for the final wall. It was a lot less steep but I had a lot less gas by this point. I climbed up and right towards the final bolt. I hooked my left axe on a shallow ledge and reached across to clip the bolt at full stretch. Nervously I drew two metres of rope slack and clipped the quickdraw with one eye half on my left axe. Gripped! Then with seemingly all the hard moves completed my axes popped and I fell a short distance onto the last bolt. Ahhhhhhh!! I was devastated given all the hard work put in. My second attempt on top-rope was smooth all the way to the top. With the sequence through the overhangs now clear I think I would lead this clean and efficiently next time without problem.

Left Wall (M5+)
I was keen to push the grade a little more and so finished the day by top-roping Apple (M7), which was excellent. Thin crack placements off the ground gave way to horizontal breaks and a steep final wall on small but positive crack placements. It felt surprisingly steady.

Watching Anna lead Adams in the afternoon was arguably the highlight of the day though. On first attempt her axe dislodged a short distance above the first bolt and she finished up a foot from the ground on a taught rope. Without a word she started the route again unperturbed. This time she found a better axe placement slightly higher to the previous. With patience she hooked her way to the lower-off. From Scottish II to M5 is a mighty leap!

Anna on Adams (M5)
After comfortably climbing M7 on top-rope on Saturday, I was feeling full of confidence to try some harder stuff on lead. Plus there was every incentive to do so, given the safe bolting arrangement. Agent Orange (M6+) looked a suitable challenge although the top half looked thin. I hooked and torqued my way up the initial crack only for my axes to be spat from the ledge at mid-height. Luckily a scrapping desperate hook stuck and I was able to re-established myself. The upper half of the route appeared to offer little in the way of features. After much searching around I eventually latched on to a small hidden hook at full reach and then found another higher up close to the lower-off.

Agent Orange (M6+)
The next route Monoculture (M5+/6) was arguably the finest route of the weekend. It followed a gradual rising left traverse up a wall, around an arête, and above a roof with lots of exposure. I had foolishly believed that the fourth bolt marked the top of the route but this was only halfway in reality. Some neighbouring climbers were on hand to direct me to the next bolt beyond the arête and then to the lower-off, which was hidden until at close quarters.

Starting up Monoculture (M5+/6)
Anna on Monoculture (M5+/6)
With time for one more route I was keen to try an M7 on lead. 'And Pears', to the right of Apple, looked the ideal candidate as the styles looked similar. The former had an apparently ridiculous start beneath a roof. With axes at full reach I hooked onto the roof, progressed my feet higher onto a shelf and then moved my axes up into a crack. Then the physical tussle began. Little was on offer for the feet a good but my axes were bomber. A good stiff pull-up over the roof was what was required. Then higher axe placements in the crack... second bolt clipped... and relax. The top of the route was comparatively easy. My first M7 onsight and a fitting way to round off a great weekend. And maybe still with headroom for the next visit? These were mild achievements compared to Ramon's The Upsetter of course.

Above the roof

Saturday, 23 November 2013

A New Route in Coire an Lochain

There was plenty of activity in Coire an Lochain on Saturday with teams on many of the classics. Plan 'A' had been The Hoarmaster but there were climbers already gearing up at its base. Instead we turned our attention to a line left of Oesophagus that was missing from the guidebook. It looked a strong enough line with a clean corner distinguishing the first pitch. Too good not to try we thought.

The route climbs the system of cracks and corners just left of the centre of the photo
My partner Michael led the first pitch up parallel grooves with sparse protection. Some strong pulls on turf at the top of the grooves confirmed that it was totally frozen solid. Then the left-facing corner, which offered up plenty of bomber hooks and gear. A further short step brought Michael to the belay above an excellent first pitch.

Michael climbing the groove at the start of the first pitch
I led the second pitch, which continued up an obvious off-width crack. I considered that maybe I had a potential fight on my hands were it able to fit my girth. 'Fortunately' this was not the case and I managed to largely bridge my way around the wide crack with the occasional jammed chock stone to facilitate. I managed to lace the base of the crack with gear but this quickly dried up. Steep hooks up the right wall needed some awkward footwork to counterbalance. Finally a sound nut placement five metres above the last piece. Then some delicate moves back left to exit the crack to the belay.

The base of the crack
Photo credit - Michael Barnard
Near the top
Photo credit - Michael Barnard
Top of the second pitch (my camera was having a hard time by this point)
We reckon the route to be about IV,5 despite a couple of run-out sections. The pitches were about 45m and 25m in length and both were around tech 5. The second pitch was the crux (maybe tech 6?) but it is easily escapable so arguably as committing as you want to make it. You could argue on this basis that the first pitch was the crux. It was certainly a good way to start the winter season and demonstrates even at the most frequented of crags that new routes are still possible. We've provisionally named the route Snuffaluffagus.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Cote d'Azur, France

I had plenty of annual leave to take during the second half of 2013 as a consequence of being out of action through the first half of the year. Trips to Ariège, Bregalia, and Lundy had started the ball rolling. Even with an ice climbing trip to Cogne booked over Christmas and New Year I still had a week to play with. Where to spend a week in November? Wadi Rum appealed but was maybe too long haul for a week. We considered the Alps but concluded November might prove too much of a gamble. There was always the UK but the wet weather did not overly inspire us to stick around.

In contrast the South of France sounded appealing. Particularly in light of the great trip to Ariège earlier the same year. There would be sunshine, cheap wine and good cheese on offer and hopefully some good climbing, albeit with weak fingers. Most of my prior training had focused on winter. Lots of chalk climbing and weights. Not much time at the wall pulling on plastic and one very wet weekend at Portland where I had struggled to get up 5s. I was largely hitting the ground standing still for this trip.

We booked flights and hire car and purchased the Rockfax guide. That was largely the extent of our planning. We would start and end our trip in Nice and hopefully visit Verdon Gorge during the second half of the trip.

Shiva (F5+) & Rose Marie (F6a), Mount Coudon

My climbing nerve had apparently also gone walk-about during the first few days of the trip. Psyche and commitment possibly suppressed by too many recent weekends climbing on wet or greasy rock. Maybe my focus was blinkered towards the forthcoming winter season. I managed a couple of easy routes at Gorbio in Monaco on the first day but equally backed off a couple without much commitment. The second day we climbed the nine pitch Le Innominata (F5+) on Saint Jeannet. Anna made difficult work of the crux, for which I was very happy just to second. Difficulties dispatched I chilled out a little and enjoyed the climbing and scenery.

Crux pitch of Le Innominata
View from midway up Le Innominata

Some faint climbing form began to emerge at Mount Coudon, near Toulon. We climbed some pleasant slab routes at the Baudouvin sector on the first evening and enjoyed a pleasant wild camping spot nearby. The following morning learning that we were in hunting area when a gun dog came chasing around our tent with it's nose to the ground. The man carrying the shotgun in tow politely smiled without any complaint but it seemed sensible to drop camp immediately and move on.

With a few more steady routes under my belt my drive began to return. The main crag offered a couple of excellent corners. Firstly Shiva (F5+), whose overhang at half height looked unlikely for the grade. In reality the surprising number of large holds made the moves a relaxing affair.

Shiva (F5+), Mount Coudon

Nearby Rose Marie (F6a) was maybe the best single pitch climb of the trip. It involved sustained climbing up an obvious open corner, with steep lay-backing and bridging, and then more traditional chimney moves right at the top to mix things up further.

By the evening we were in Marseilles. Mount Coudon a worthy stopping point.

Rose Marie (F6a) , Mount Coudon

La Vire au Cade d'Or (F6a), Morgiou

Driving around the streets of Marseilles was arguably more adventurous than our day's climbing at Les Calanques. Particularly the narrow side street close to our hotel. The unwritten rule of Marseilles appears to be that it is acceptable to park / abandon a vehicle anywhere provided hazard lights are left blinking. This included parking at traffic lights, or mounted on pavements at 45 degrees.

We spent only one day at Les Calanques, which wasn't as long as it deserved but heavy rain on the second planned day meant little reason to hang around. Our plan A had been 'the high crag' of Paroi Noire at Morgiou but the manner with which the car was being buffeted by winds in the car park suggested reconsideration. Instead the lower, less exposed l'Abri Côtier seemed a far more sensible option.

We warmed up on some routes in the centre of the cliff, which were uninspiring (and polished) despite their 2 star status. The three routes at the far left end of the crag were much better in contrast. A 6a called La Vire au Cade d'Or was certainly the best route of the day. Some memorable undercut moves low down called upon some acrobatic bridging to traverse left beneath a roof before escaping onto the upper wall.

La Vire au Cade d'Or (F6A), l'Abri Côtier

I'd say Les Calanques would be second on the list of places to return (after Verdon Gorge of course), as much for the waterfront atmosphere as for the climbing.

Cocoluche (F6a), Gorges du Verdon

Our first route at Verdon Gorge. We had expected this part of the gorge to be busy but saw just a single pair of climbers. November as a whole seemed largely off-season despite ideal day temperatures. We stuck to the regular 6a line, which proved pumpy enough for my weak fingers. Lots of good climbing on perfect rock but lacking the features to really stick in my mind compared to the next route listed.

2nd pitch of Cocoluche (F6a), Gorges du Verdon

Saut d'Homme (F6a), Gorges du Verdon

This was undoubtedly the best route of the trip. It followed a steep corner system with the crux third pitch packing a punch. Anna did a fine job leading it - particularly given that she had struggled with her lay-backs on the first two pitches and the third pitch only increased in difficulty. The pitch provided a good mix of sustained bridging, lay-backing, and jamming. It was physical and unrelenting but needed equal application of thought in order to unlock the moves. The bolts on the right-hand wall were at times a long way from the corner. At point a cam placement being required to protect the move out right in order to clip.

Abseiling Saut d'Homme (F6a), Gorges du Verdon

Third (crux) pitch of Saut d'Homme, Gorges du Verdon

Top of the third pitch

The major downside with visiting the gorge in November was the reduced daylight hours, which made the classic twelve pitch La Demande impractical to attempt. The cooler temperatures and off-season feel definitely suited me though. Needless to say Verdon Gorge would be the place that I would most likely return to and very much the highlight of the trip.

Gorges du Verdon
On the whole my climbing performance felt significantly below par compared to other trips this year. Maybe it was to be expected when so late in rock climbing season, and without specific objectives to really drive the advance training towards. To be fair the focus of the trip in the lead up had been to explore the general area and enjoy some climbing whatever the grade. Next time the the climbing objectives can always be a little more ambitious and definite.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

It's Not Sport Climbing Folks...

I was falling… My hip crashed into the cliff three bolts below my high point. I looked down to see blood dripping from my fingers and a bulldog and quickdraw dangling from my rope. The last piece of in-situ gear had blown during the fall. I had fallen a good five metres. Fortunately the bolts below the bulldog were sound enough to catch me. My hip felt sore from the impact. I had been only a few moves below the lower-off of Cold Front (C5+) at the Eastern end of the cliffs. Almost close enough to reach out and touch the lower-off ring with an axe. I was clueless as to what had caused the fall. I had done the hard moves out right above the roof and seemed to have it in the bag. The composure and tension had felt controlled. The last thing I remember was trying to get my feet set above the roof. But then I was off. Maybe a foot hold broke off? I have no recollection.

The Eastern Cliffs
A second attempt was out of the question. Blood was running down my fingers and my hip was sore. The main problem though was the detached piece of gear, which now meant a big run-out to the top. If the highest bolt failed following a second fall from a similar position then I would be close to a ground fall situation. It was time to call it a day and go and find some plasters.

It was a positive day despite the unexplainable fall. I was feeling sleepy and so attempted nothing particularly hard. My axe grip was feeling relaxed and my movement and body tension markedly smoother than my last visit. But most encouragingly my strength feels better than previous autumns. For the first time in a few years I have managed to stay injury free through the summer and so have been able to steadily progress my fitness without setback. 
Back in Time (C5)
A final note: The seas... They were the roughest I have witnessed at Saltdean. We arrived shortly after high tide. The concrete walkway leading to Western half of the crag was close to impassable due to the volume of water crashing over it. Waves exploded maybe eight metres high before retreating back. It was difficult not to contemplate thoughts of being swept off my feet and into the sea. But after ten minutes of watching with nervous laughter we realised the big waves were fairly spaced and so made a break for it. The waves abated for long enough.

Big waves
Next visit to Saltdean I'll be ready for the steep routes on the Eastern side.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Real Harrison's Rock

Mike and me passed the 'Nudism is not Allowed' sign at the top of the cliff... wrapped up in warm clothes and Goretex to keep out the rain.

There were rain showers across the whole of the UK over the weekend... Obviously time for chalk climbing.

Last year's winter season was a write-off for me after post-appendectomy abdominal pains kept me side-lined until well into spring. The psyche was overflowing to make up for the disappointment and lost time. Mileage was objective of the day. I was looking to get some forearm pump.

High tide put the East side off limits so we climbed some of regular routes on the West side: Back Off Back On, Back Up (the start feels much harder this year), Strangeness and Charm of the Quark, and then Back to the Future. It took a couple of routes to find the flow and relax the axe grip. Gradually the weather improved.

Mike climbing Back Off Back On (C5)
Mike climbing Back to the Future (C6)
Then we set about trying the recently erected 'Hawk', a C6+ to the West of 'Fulmar'. And what a route! 30m of relentlessly steep and bulgy climbing with plenty of bolts but plenty of thin moves. And little in the way of rests. The moves were not obvious. My forearms ached. Regularly I would shake out only for the pump to soon return. I made it as far as the penultimate bolt on the final steep wall. Then my wrists turned to jelly and I was forced to rest. More hanging around at the final bolt followed before pushing on to the lower-off. Despite the dogged last few metres I was chuffed with my effort as it was undoubtedly the hardest thing I had climbed at Saltdean (the C7s on the East side feel easier due to the bucket holds and easy linkage). My arms were wasted. But then that was my objective for the day.

Hawk (C6+)