Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Boyzone (WI3), Setesdal

What was I doing here?

...Climbing a south facing icefall in February, in the afternoon with clear skies and temperatures barely freezing - if at all.

Seriously, what was I dong here? The snow on the approach was soft and wet. Signs of small avalanche debris beneath the route. The snow was too unstable to stop us skidding on the blank granite slabs beneath. Tomorrow's forecast was 3 degrees... the next day 4 degrees... the next day 5 degrees. The next day... warmer still but by then I would be home.

We bore left towards the trees to escape the lethal slabs. Victor slipped and took out Anna. Both clambered back to their feet. Anna now slightly more bruised. We were heading for Boyzone - a WI3 that was reportedly one of the only routes in condition in the Setesdal valley. The short approach suggested it would be the obvious choice given we had only arrived in the valley around 12pm. That said, a 200m route in less the perfect conditions was now seeming a slightly ambitious task. I donned my sunglasses and stripped to a single layer beneath my hardshell jacket.

I never thought I would use the words 'Boyzone' and 'impressive' in the same sentence
The good news is that I soon chilled out and enjoyed myself. The first couple of pitches were easy climbing up slabby ice. Despite the warm temperatures my axes felt secure, and my screws were... adequate. Rick climbed ahead with Victor in tow. Anna and me swung leads behind.

Second pitch
Top of the second pitch
Then the third pitch and things would start to get exciting. Anna put in a fantastic effort leading the steep crux wall, which easily merited WI4 via our central path and in these soft conditions. She looked gripped but kept her composure to place some good screws in tricky positions. Slowly she bridged her way up the steep ice groove, her feet periodically ripping on footholds to maintain excitement. Then she was over the top. I could sense the relief and elation that she was probably feeling. Another hardest ice lead for Anna. Good effort. Highlight of the trip for me.

Beneath the third pitch crux
Halfway there
A moderately steep fourth pitch with a couple of steps led to the top of the route. And I must say, a very good route. Tick.

Near the top of the fourth pitch
Possibly the only route of the trip? We would have to wait and see...

We started the abseil descents. No bolted anchors as with Cogne, no trees laced with abseil tat as with Rjukan. Setesdal definitely felt a lot further from the beaten track. Rick made fine work of rigging the abseils. But the final abseil was a bit naughty to say the least. Rick disappeared over an unexpected overhang a matter of metres from the abseil point and promptly landed in an equally unexpected tree directly beneath. The ropes now unavoidably passed under the branches of the tree to form a 'Z' shape. A tricky arrangement for pulling ropes through. Anna was the unfortunate one to go last but unlike the rest of us realised unlikelihood of retrieving the ropes. Already they were impossible to pull through from underneath the tree but fortunately free-able from a more lateral position where Anna made an intermediate abseil to continue her descent. Double good effort. The last abseil is never a good time for ropes to get stuck. A couple of the other guys on the trip also were caught out by this abseil in similar fashion the following day - by the sounds of it to a much greater extent.

We managed some single pitch climbing at the roadside Bykle crag next day. Not particularly inspiring climbing but the ice condition was decent enough. And it was good to see Anna getting some more good leads in. 4 degrees by the time was were back at the car...

Anna leading Right Wall (WI4)
It was above freezing throughout the following night. A large puddle had formed from melting snow close to our apartment chalet. It seemed silly and dangerous to try and climb anything the following morning and so we went for a drive. To my surprise a number of routes lower down the valley looked fully formed. Code Red and A Few Good Men (both WI6+) looked positively terrifying. Tsunami (WI5), and Beyond the Fringe (WI4+) also both looked formed from a distance. Ride the Punami (WI3+) looked doable. Further up the valley Hovden Falls (WI3) looked good. It might all be academic of course unless the temperatures sort themselves out soon.

The main thing I took from the trip was inspiration. Two months from now I will be moving to Norway to live and the prospects for next winter's climbing are already slightly mind-blowing to think about. Setesdal will be an easy weekend trip for me. Rjukan will be day trip-able. Hopefully payback for all the Friday night fighting through traffic within the M25 that I've had to do in recent years in order to go climbing.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Central Gully (III), Great Gable

There looked to be some good freeze-thaw cycles going on in the Lakes over the preceding 48 hours so a trip to the Lakes on Sunday looked potentially worthwhile. Worst case scenario was that we would end up at The Works if things proved warmer than expected. With a freezing level forecast at 700-800m Gable seemed an obvious choice. Maybe some mixed routes would be in nick, however I anticipated the thaw cycles would have stripped the buttresses. We went with an open mind with the view to climbing whatever might be in condition.

The buttresses looked black on the approach, except towards the top, so gullies provisionally looked the best bet. We aimed for Central Gully. The only problem was that the snow was still soft amongst the boulder field directly beneath the crag. Ominous signs that we might be walking back to the car shortly. Maybe 50-100m below the start of the route the snow started to firm up and our optimism improved.

I wasn't convinced that any mixed routes would be in condition but Engineer's Chimney looked worth a closer look all the same. From a distance there looked to be plenty of white stuff and possibly be some ice going on. I traversed across, peered up, saw plenty of signs of winter but remained unconvinced. Largely on the basis that all the turf my immediate vicinity looked unfrozen and damp. It looked a day for gully bashing.

The first 50-60m of Central Gully proved tough going. The snow coverage wasn't giving many hints as to where the cracks were hidden in order to find protection and the snow consistency was a little unnerving. Some places it was bomber hard, other places only the top surface had formed into neve, below which the snow remained unstable. I backed off the first steep step after the thin coverage of neve fell apart to reveal nothing useful below. Fortunately the snow slope immediately left was better formed. Not good enough to blindly heave on axes but fine provided I kicked in firm ladder of steps and just used my axes for support. Only the outer few inches of snow felt really firm and always I could feel my steps moving down an inch or two as I packed them down for reassurance. I found no runners on the first pitch but after my most recent winter outing this was feeling the norm.

We suspected the second step wouldn't be much better than the first so Anna climbed a short, cramped chimney to the left, which looked to be in better condition. And possibly more fun if cramped chimneys are your thing. Still not much in the way of gear though... Possibly the crux of the climb.

Snow conditions were clearly improving with height though and the final pitch leading to the headwall was a joy with first time placements into firm neve the whole way. With so much neve on offer the lack of frozen turf was irrelevant. One solid piece of gear at half height as well, which felt a real treat to find. Maybe the greatest pleasure though was the weather with clear skies and virtually no wind. Would this count as a proper winter ascent without storm force winds to accompany?

Anna led the traverse right and then continued up the final gully. Conditions had been perfect in the upper 2/3 of climbing and today there was no reason to run from the summit. Sometimes when you are not sure what to expect from conditions, a positive outcome feels all the more rewarding.

Great Gable
Anna climbing towards the headwall
The traverse right
The final gully
And of course the views!