Thursday, 27 November 2014

Ravensdale (02.11.14)

Limestone: A rock composed mostly of calcium carbonate, which is formed by biological processes (the remains of fossilised seashells and plankton which where alive many millions of years ago).

Something I rarely do is write up a days climbing on the same day as the climbing took place. It's getting closer and closer to winter and as such the days are getting shorter. The temperature is also dropping and as such I value the sunshine that little bit more. Maybe I just notice the warmth it provides as it is so infrequent on some days but today I've basked in it's lukewarm glow today, whilst sat on a ledge on ravens buttress overlooking a quiet dry limestone valley. Either way I'm home earlier than normal with more time on my hands.

My day has been spent enjoying the pleasures of peak district limestone, a somewhat neglected rock type in my opinion. I some ways though I'm glad it gets such little traffic in comparison to the gritstone. I went to stanage a couple of times last month and had a great time but there was still loads of people. Even on a quiet day I still see the worn footpaths leading to sandy eroded bays beneath each cliff. What is nice to note is that I don't see that much litter at Stanage, even at popular area. It isn't that I don't like people but I just prefer the relative solitude you can have at a quiet crag. Crags of the limestone variety don't seem to benefit from neglect but too much traffic has an equally, if not polar effect. Neglect equals overgrowth of vegetation and a reduction in the clearance of loose rock. Each winter more is generated in small amounts, it add to the problem of vegetation overgrowth. Too much traffic and we get the reverse. Over climbed and polished routes. There needs to be a sweet spot.

The solitude was part of the reason that we headed to Ravendale, the other being that I was reading up on the geology of the peak district (again) and just got inspired. In the 10ish years I've been climbing I have given precious little time to the lime. I don't know why this is. I also joke that limestones are for caving. If I'm heading to the peak district it'll be to climb gritstone. The reason is simple; I love gritstone. Each route, each line, can be an intimate experience. Feeling the change in grain size and sorting through your feet (even if you don't realise it) looking for that perfect smear. Crimping on the tiny sharp ripples in the rock, a remnant from the distance past linked to the formation of this feature. Remembering the jam that is causing the pain in your grazed and swollen hand; was it the cold dark crack of high moorland crag, sharp and untouched where you could feel each crystal biting in the skin of your hand or the straight sided crack, young and fresh in it's life after being rudely exposed before it's natural time, which is comfortable and inviting. The peak district itself tells one story, but each crag tells its own. This goes down to each climb and even a single problem. Man, I love grit.

So we went to limestone. I text Finney describing the crag and he confirmed. I drove up to his in awful weather. Huge bands of rain kept sweeping across the motorway. This wasn't forecast and I paniced (minor) but picked Finney up all the same. The plan was to try and film as much of the day as possible and as such our journey to the crag is well documented from van to parking and then to the base of the cliff, crossing a dry river (bedded with limestone) on a set of stepping stones. I didn't take a picture of the crag, despite all the cameras so I'll describe it instead. It stands out from the valley side as a series of cliffs, the middle of which is two tiered in the shape of a prow of rock heavily grooved in it's upper section This was Ravens Buttress. North, up valley the cliffs shorten and are separated by bands or broken rock and vegetation. Ravens Buttress right flank had blanker walls in the upper section and a series of shallow discontinuous grooves with small overhangs above a shallow break, and a small yew tree on the terrace, somewhat broken and thin this side. The left was more grooved, deeply in it's upper section with overhands and corners. The actual middle had a large v groove and a vegetated slab on it's one side, with steeper grooves to the left. You could say the crag was pretty groovy.

We plumbed for Mealystopheles, not because of the name (which I'm sure I pronounce wrong) but because of the line and the grade. We both liked the like and it looked like it's grade, if that in any way makes sense. I lead the first pitch. It was hard. The rock was a little suspect and I have a reasonable and understandable fear of loose rock. Still it was not a tottering jenga tower but something that meant I had to check: every. Single. Hold. As such the climbing was a really involved process as I was looking everywhere. My feet were a real issue. I just didn't know what I could get away with on this rock type. What would stick and where it was. I felt pushed out away from the rock but it's steepness while at the same time drawn in and surrounded in the groove. About half way up after a series of small grimps but quite gymnastic climbing with good holds spaced far apart. As I said, it was engaging which probably lead me to drop my medium wires half way up. This was no problem. I had a tonne of gear on me so carried on but my attidtude subtly changed and I was move careful and placed what ever gear I could fit.

The ledge was a fantastic belay. My first was an alcove preached slightly above the terrace and gave one quite a commanding position from which to view the valley (it's got and excellent echo as well). It was cold and gloomy in the morning shade but comfy. My second was in the sun, on the right wall. As such the terrace was short and my belay was compact. The real pleasure was when Andy shouted safe and I could lie out of the grass ledge just next to me, lacking my confinement to stay within the sensible distance of the anchor. I lay in the sun and shivered from the occasional cold breeze. Every experience is worth remembering.

Finney's lead took up up the slab and then into a short vegetated groove before traversing diagonally upwards to finish up the final deep groove. He couldn't get his head round the rope from some reason. Not that he clipped everything wrong but that he didn't accept he'd clipped them fine. It seemed to worry him on route. We also had a laugh when he topped out yelling down “Chink, where's the belay?”. He did find something in the end. When I seconded the route I was impressed not only by the climbing, which was much more exposed and on smaller hold than the first pitch but also by his route finding. He took the wrong line in the guide book. The vegetated groove was his own addition. It avoided 4 metre of very loose rock. The dangerous kind that stands up to a few blows but not a weighted tug. I didn't come off when I follow Finney. I should have gone route but at the time it just seemed part of the route. I did pull off a large rock which I had to throw off. I hit the first pitch in the process, something I felt bad about. I cleaned up the mess and then with a tight rope and some sturdy ivy I was out of danger. And into the exposed finish. Wow. What a pitch. It was Mealystopheles VS 5a, 4c.

Purple Haze was our next route. This looked more intimidating. Round on the right wall taking a line through an overhanging groove above the shallow break. My first lead took me into the right corner, not where I wanted to be and I scuttled back retrieving and replacing gear. My false start might have cost me some time but it was much harder than I was expecting so I now approached the groove with caution. The climbing was gymnastic with layaways in tiny cracks converting to stemming on then edge of the groove. Heels, jamming and eventually a great rock over to bridge the groove and get over the over hang. It wasn't over and I stripped dead ivy from slabbier grooves.

Finney loved it and waxed lyrical from ages at the belay. His lead took him up an wide crack, amusingly climbed as he stepped his scrawny leg inside it to climb up on jammed rocks. A short battle with a yew tree cost Finney some serious rope drag, despite his victory and then the headwall above. This pitch earned its abjective grade. The climbing was sustained on steep rock acrossing a broad headwall to... a short groove. He took his time and rightly so. It must have been great to have been on that pitch on the lead. My experience was similar. After my laze in sun I climbed the groove (without putting my leg in) acted as reinforcement battle with the tree and freed the ropes before stopping and looking up at Finney peaking over this flat steep wall. It was impressive. Little clusters of gear long sections of climbing. It was steep face climbing with the occasional rest. After I'd seconded enjoying the tether of safety guiding me Finney told me how he'd just climbed really slowly, in short moves with pauses while he decided on the next move and just psyched himself up that he could do it. It worked, clearly. It was Purple Haze E1 5b, 5a.

And that was it. The sun had gone in and we were cold. Sometimes you don't need to push it and get another climb in, coming down in darkness. We left happy. We'd taken so much away from the days climbing. It had been different, unusual and challenging. The rock itself was an unknown. I kept moving for holds only to find the crimp, that I knew would be there, was no where to be found. I lacked that intimate knowledge that'd driven my love of gritstone. I climbed carefully tortoise like but slowly I began to read the rock. Things started to make sense. Each groove and each line was presenting a story. And that is where it ended, because I don't know enough limestone to compare it too. I've not climbed on it. I've neglected it, Ignored and pushed it aside in pursuit of pot noodle climbing and alpine starts.

But it won't any more. I have climbed on limestone in the past and this day has brought back so many memories. Great days out with old friends, Esoteric experiences and avoiding the rain and climbing the tower of babel one sunday afternoon. I love gritstone but the peak is more than just one rock type.

Thursday, 20 February 2014


I've been discharged from my hand consultant. I found out that the point of going to see them every 4 weeks or so was so that they could see how my physiotherapy was going and to decide whether I needed to be opened up again if things were not healing properly. Other than the nice consultant running her nails along my hand scars this wasn't a bad meeting. The first question she asked was “have you been climbing?”, to which I replied “yes, but I've told my physio”, added hurriedly as an afterthought. She didn't seem too bothered. We discussed how my hand is fairing and any problems. It might seem odd to be writing about having a now almost fully functioning hand, but if you'd seen the state of it 11 and a half weeks ago (especially the inside) then you'd be as amazed as me. I'd accepted that I'd never be about to open it again, thinking of it like a withered limb. I was happily getting on with working out how I'd continue in life with this pointless appendage, despite being told it'll be all right. Six weeks ago I couldn't open my hand, four weeks ago I couldn't put my palms flat together, two weeks ago I couldn't put them flat together, with my wrists bent at right angles (same position as prayer I guess, not that I've been praying). Now all these things are within my grasp!

The only oddity is that when I make a fist my 3rd finger curls inwards slightly, rubbing against my 2nd finger. I've been told it's because the tendon has probably re-aligned to avoid the swelling creating my by now defunct A1 pully. Who cares though? I can make a fist, my hand is almost normal... heavily scarred but essential normal.

I've not been discharged from my physiotherapy though and this I am glad of. My trip to the hospital each Thursday marks the progress I'm making. Each week there is something new. A new exercise, or a new strength putty to squeeze which make me feel better about the whole process. I've mentioned that my physio knows I've been climbing. They said the normal things (“we must advise that it's a bad idea” etc...) but all seem genuinely interested to hear how I've been getting on climbing on what should (by most peoples accounts) be a weak useless bunch of fingers on the end of a withered arm. There are endless discussions each week about taping (advised by the consultant, dismissed by me, and discussed later), grip strength, how each hold is used, area of pressure and stress on my fingers and how bloody strong my thumb is (it really is amazing!). They stopped telling me not to climb on it after week 3 anyway.
(A range of homemade physio equipment)
[WARNING: the next section develops into a massive rant about climbing tape]

With regards to taping up the fingers I initially brought it up with my physio. He didn't have much of a clue about it (unsurprisingly, as taping up fingers seems to be a “climbing” thing) but suggested that if it helps, why not? My consultant then brought it up an hour later. We discussed taping, pully rings (metal rings that do the job of the pully) and if it would be of any benefit. I said no and eventually she agreed. The damaged pullys in my hand are not worth taping (my A1 is compleltely cut open, and therefore redundant) and the A2 is never in enough stress to need a back up like that. I don't want to tape my fingers up either, and here's why:
Taping up you fingers correctly is very hard to do unless:
a) you are a hand consultant, medical professional, climbing specific physio etc or
b) you've seen a flayed hand and know what you're looking at, therefore knowing where to tape.

Thankfully I've been able to either hang out and discuss taping with people who fall into category a) and, since slicing open my hand I've become interested in what's going on in there and probably fall under the category of b). I still don't see a need to tape though.

Doesn't it annoy you when you see people down the climbing wall (not usually at the crag, but you always get these types at the climbing wall) taping up all their fingers with thick hoards of tape, applied regardless of where any damage it. I might start asking people which pully they've damaged or who their physio is (having told them to tape) when I'm next down the wall? Then again I might not. One you start taping up, you've got the be very very very very very careful not to become a “slave to tape”. For one thing it looks a little silly having each flan-gee or each finger on each hand taped up. I know there are people out there who do it to impress people, to make them think they're serious climbers... who're they kidding! (bear in mind the serious climber is probably the quiet chap or lass who climbs or boulders extremely hard down the wall, but you hardly hear them say a word). Confidence is quiet, someone once said. Confidence is also not being covered in tape.

Tape is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. People tape up for several reasons but the main ones can be summed up as:
a) to support an injury (either gained before or during, depending on the severity)
b) to prevent an injury coming back (also known as “I've got it dodgy tendon mate, so I keep it taped...”)

If you find yourself falling into category a) then I'm sorry you hear you've had an injury, but you're going the right way about it. The first thing you should do is stop climbing, at least for a few days, maybe a week. People don't do this. You should also actually do something to help repair the tendon. Hot and cold treatment is one of the best things. Before you start manically applying half a roll of tape to your hand at your next climbing session, stop and think. Do you know the purpose of taping? What injury are you trying to prevent? Do you know how to tape it up properly? If you can answer all of these, then go ahead! (also if you can answer most of these, then you and me are probably already singing from the same hymn sheet). THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO KEEP TRYING TO REPAIR THE TENDON! If you spend the next 6, 8, 12 weeks with it strapped up then the tendon will heal, but it won't be fully strong. You'll have generate this tendon that is strong enough... when taped up. Therefore you'll be taping again... see?

If you fall into b) then there is probably no hope for you... only joking! The body has an amazing capacity to heal, that coupled with the NHS, doctors and medical professionals in general means that you really do stand a fighting chance of repairing that single damaged pully (or whatever it is). Trust me on this. Taping up to prevent injury is like saying to your body “don't worry, the tape will do the work for you!”. If and when you stop taping up, that tendon is now not strong. Not weak either, but not 100%. Then you expect it to perform like a fully functioning bundle of fibres and... “snap!” (or “tweak!” but it never makes that noise) it happens. In your head it's the lack of tape. In reality it's because of too much tape in the first place.

The bottom line is that you need to make sure you heal any injuries, instead of just strapping them up. In the long run they won't last.

There'll be people reading this thinking a variety of things. Probably the most prevalent is that I'm morally, medically and fully against the use of tape. THIS IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE. I tape to prevent excess damage and support, as and when I need too. It might be for one week or maybe two, but never more than that. People probably think I don't know what I'm on about. WHY SHOULDN'T I KNOW WHAT I'M ON ABOUT?. I've studied it (not academically) and discussed it and bloody well tried it. I've ruptured several tendons in my fingers over the years. I've held my hand in a lot of ice water then warm water (the process of giving yourself “hot aches” isn't fun, but it works) and I've carefully learnt how to tape up different joints for different injuries. I've asked people. The final things people proabaly think is, how did this become a rant about tape... BECAUSE IT DID and that's why.

Ironically I'll finish by telling you that I've just been shown how to tape up my ankle, with three wide strips of climbing tape for extra support. This will be an aid to full recovery... not an excuse. I'm slowly on the mend which was the original point of this post, though it will be a very long road. My ankle is in an awful state (compared to my hand) and I've not yet started any physiotherapy.

It's time to dance in the rain.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Falling off slate (not to be recommended)

On the first of December I fell further than I've ever fallen. In short I pulled off a large block and fell 40ft hitting the ground on rope stretch. No gear failed in the fall as I was just very high above my last piece. I sustained an open fracture and dislocated the ankle on the left foot. I lacerated both the palms of my hands open; the left significantly worse. In the process I cut my FDS tendon on my ring finger. I was climbing a route within my grade.

And in short that's what happened.

I'd like to say that it started out as a bright sunny day in wales... etc etc. It actually started with a hangover and wandering around the camp site, bleary eyed in the weak morning sunshine... in between the cloud. Sooner or later vans and tents were packed up, vehicles where mounted and we headed to Gideon Slate Quarry to go climbing.

I love climbing in Gideon. If slate is the “pot noodle of climbing” then Gideon is those dodgy looking polish or chinese noodles you find in the “world foods” section of the supermarket. Occasionally (and mostly, in my experience) they turn out to be better than your average pot noodle. Once in a while turn turn out much worse. You choose to risk it or play it safe. Today it would be Uncle Rob, Soames, Stewie, Mick, Toaf and I heading into the quarries.

The morning was spent climbing the shorter and drier sport routes around the top of the quarry. Those who hadn't been before had a chance to get used the rock. Every single crag is different, even if they're made of the same rock. The slate in Gideon (when compared to Dinorwig) almost feels like it has a grain, like a brief glimmer of hope that there might be friction. Its been folded into different structures, feaatured and is more fractured than Dinorwig. Personally I think that getting to know the rock your climbing on is important. Either way we had to wait for the Gideon slab to dry out.

The slab never dried that day. A band of cloud rolled over and rain threatened as it always seems to. As it wasn't actually raining though we all followed Stu up to see him have a go at Cracking Up, right at the top of the quarry. Cracking Up is a route that I've been waiting to have a go at since I first saw it 5 years ago... and Stu beat me to the punch! I was more than happy to sit around today, just climbing within my grade and enjoying myself. It's been a long time since all us lads have been allowed to go climbing away together.

With time to spare waiting around till Cracking up was free, I checked the guidebook. Checked the line on the cliff and settled on the Rothwell Incident, graded E2 5b. I looked like my kind of route. Even from the base I could see what looked like loose rock in the top half. There are many people who'll shy away from loose rock and there are those who seem to revel in it (See Dave Thomas climbing “choss” in the DVD HXS or look at Mick Fowlers climbing career). I fall somewhere in between. I have a lot of respect for loose rock but I still climb it.

The route started out just like old times. Toaf and I haven't climbed together in a long while mostly due to life getting in the way really. We arsed around setting up, flaking the ropes out at the base of the route, whilst banter flew through the air between all 6 of us. Before long I had to do those last few little routines, cleaning and putting on my rock boots, chalking up the fingers and one last check of everything before I couldn't put it off any longer. I don't want to make it sound like I had an immense sense of forboding as I geared up or anything like that. Its just that I always feel nervous before setting off on a trad route but most of the time I still set off.

(horrific view of my lycra clad legs)
The climbing in the lower half was good. I can't say much more than that. It was nothing other than a 5b corner compared to the second half of the route. I was spooked by the sharp edge I kept seeing but the rock was solid. Just after half height I took out my nut key and scraped the remaining choss out of a small crack, deep in the bedrock of the slate. Here the rock looked looser but only for a short section. I figured that climbing through it would be ok, there'd be gear higher and what I'd climb through before certainly justified the E2 5b. I didn't forsee it getting any harder. I made one of the those big committing moves you seem to end up doing over and over on the slate. The ones where you've only gained a few feet in height but you know you can't reverse it.

There is no point in lying. I didn't calmly carry on climbing without a care in the world. I paniced and I paniced hard. Going down didn't seem to be an option but the stuff I'd just climbed into was horrendous. From before the really large flakes which I'd taken as solid bedrock were far from it. I climbed gingerly, if you can call it that being incredibly careful. Every single hold was tested, gently at first and then weighted. I'd have kept three points of contact as well, but the climbing wasn't easy either. The route changed in my mind from a corner to a shoot, directing whatever I pulled off down towards my belayer; Toaf. I couldn't put him in danger but I couldn't stay there. I carried on climbing, my state of mind decaying with every inch gained.

Toaf has climbed with me enough and together we've shared some risky and some downright dangerous routes over the years. He knows the tell tale signs of when I'm panicked. He knew this time and kept doing what he always does. Throwing banter up to me as I was leading whilst staring at me eye to eye when I looked down. I think he knew what I was going through up there.

It is very hard to describe the feeling of climbing on very loose rock if you've not experienced it yourself first hand. The sense of relief was overwhelming as at about 4ft from the top of the route I found a couple of perfectly solid footholds and a small flat but solid hold for my left hand. I now realised I was sweating and close to tears. I probably (knowing me) yelped out some noise of relief. The terrain ahead looked bad, but not as bad as I'd climbed through. I rested. I then reached up with my right hand and selected the most solid looking of all the flat topped flakes which barred my passage. I tested the big flake, gently and that was enough. I felt like the bottom of the flake crumbled out.

I remember everything about the fall. Time slowed. Its cliché but it did. I feel backwards with the flake. I felt that horrible feeling when you fall backwards, the one where you know no matter how much you wave your arms about there is no way you're coming back from it. I yelled “oh fuck!”. I was very conscious of how far away my gear was beneath me. Foreshortening works both ways and when you look down a route everything looks further way than it is. Falling, I grabbed the first thing I could in a desperate attempt to slow myself down. I must have slowed myself down to some degree but I still sliced open both my hands on a sharp flake. I crashed and tumbled down the route. I can only assume I looked like some kind of drunken cat trying in vain to land on it's feet at the bottom. I did hit the bottom just after the rope caught so I crashed into the floor on rope stretch. Muttering something to Toaf I sat down on the ledge just by his head and he got my up and lowered me to him. I was bleeding a lot. Toaf took off a couple of layers and wrapped them round me, then he sat behind me and wrapped his arms round me to keep me warm.

I assessed my injuries. My right hand was bleeding but it didn't look deep. My left hand was bleeding more and it did look deep. The peeled open slice of flesh revealed the inner workings of my hand, an image I won't be forgetting. I flexed my fingers and they all worked bar my ring finger, which just flopped around uselessly. Oh well (a detached part of my brain thought) I might have lost a finger but I'm still alive. My ankle looked bad. The swelling was visible over my rock shoe already while blood flowed out of a gash beneath where my ankle bone should have poked out. Now it was literally poking out of my skin, but not much.

The pain manifested itself as a dull throbbing ache. A friend told me that the brain can't remember pain, but I can remember what I experienced while I was in pain. By now things had sprung into action. Mick called MRT and while Soames got grid references & place names and told him to request a helicopter. Soames then set about making me comfortable and warm. Stuart went to the road to meet MRT. Mick then joined the entangle body that was Toaf and I on the small ledge and dealt with strapping me up and stopping the bleeding. The same detached part of my brain was watching the whole incident and laughing at the stupidity of it. Here I was lay on a ledge bleed and battered. A ledge only about 5ft higher than the floor, but I couldn't get off it. Rob had probably the worst job. He was at the base (therefore not on my party ledge) passing things backwards and forward from the bags. It was vital job as none of us could move off the ledge now but it must have just been awful not being able to do anything.

With me all strapped up and the blood flow staunched we just waited. I felt bloody useless as I couldn't move myself now as my hands had become stumps wrapped in beer towels, beanie hats and hordes of climbing tape. I darn't move my left leg or ankle, which lay rested on Soames sack and Mick had a hold of it anyway. The waiting seemed like forever. Shock is a horrible thing to experience. I kept going through cycles of pain in my ankle and hands. At these times I screamed profanities into the quarry. The detached brain listening to them as they echoed off the walls of the quarry. Primal screams of pain spewed out of my mouth but it felt good. It always felt like I was throwing the pain away with each scream. Eventually they'd abate. Sometimes my head would loll as I seemed to pass out. Toaf was a wonder. He'd rag on my beard or twist my ear. Once or twice he pinched my nipple. Each time I'd be pulled back to reality. Sometimes I would be manically happy. We'd crack jokes on the ledge and the banter flew through the air. Toaf and I sang so well that Soames told me in hospital he was amazed at how well we sounded. I think the quarry helped, acting in the same way as a shower or bathroom. It was fun during these period. I'm not joking but it was actually fun. Sometimes I would feel exceptional paranoia. I told them all to leave me on the ledge because of the danger from rock fall. I was manically worried for their safety, or apologetic for ruining the climbing weekend and putting them all through this. At times I cried and screamed Rachel's name into the quarry. I couldn't believe that I was going to put her through all this. She didn't deserve to be put through the worry and stress this would involve.
It just continued on like this. Me occasionally asking and being denied some water. I was so thirsty.

Then the cavalry arrived. The helicopter was heard long before it was seen. After circling a big chap named Neil was lowered down. He came skittering down the cliff, directed by us away from the loose material at the top of the route and crashed along the cliff onto our ledge. It didn't look like a fun descent and I can only assume that it was a challenging place to land someone. Neil was great. He stuck a collar on me which I instantly hated and requested to be removed. My request was denied but I was given gas for the pain. Gas is bloody amazing stuff. The pain was still there, but I just didn't care about it. Only problem I had was getting the thing into my mouth with my bound up hands.

MRT turned up soon after. I don't know what people expect when they see them arrive but my experience of them has been very different from my perception. I've ended up helping and being part of MRT rescues a few times over the last few years I'm sorry to say. All friends or good people I've met. I always thought Mrt would turn up and instantly take over and rescue the casualty in the nick of time. I mean them no disrespect (I hold them in the highest regard) but its just not like that. Every accident or rescue must be different, each with its own problems that need to be over come. It turned out to be problem solving time. It was decided that I was to be air lifted out, from where I was. Problems however arose in the form of the cramped sloping ledge I was on made everything awkward. Eventually things took place and people sprang into action. Bit of gear we called for and I was happy to donate my rack of small brass wires when no ones else had any to offer. Toaf and Soames didn't leave the ledge till I was airlifted out. The stretcher was slid down behind me. My harness was cut off. It probably wasn't necessary but it needed retiring anyway and it required the least movement.

Then it was time to go. Goodbyes were hard and I made the lads promise to meet me in hospital. I was tucked into the stretcher. The coats and jackets were removed and I remember being freezing cold, my teeth chattering uncontrollably. I was suddenly so afraid of the helicopter. How did it stay in the air? Would it fail? I panicked so much. Neil reassured me and told me I was to be accompanied by him. My belay or at least the last thing I was connected to was cut as the winch cable was clipped in. Everyone was sheltering as the down draft was flinging whatever small loose material that was above down onto us. I was covered by Soames, Toaf, Mick and Rob and Neil from MRT. Anything could have come down then, but they still covered me. And then I was off. Being pulled away from ledge I'd spent the last hour or so on. Being pulled upwards, freezing cold and feeling very very alone. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Chamonix 2

Thursday 1st August

Sat in the van trying to re-charge all the electrics (with my rudimentary electrics system) after our first route and our first bivouac at altitude. I already feel pretty trashed over all, but it's a good ache if that'll make any sense?

Our first route was the cosmiques arete (PD, II) on the Aiguille du Midi. I can see why it's such a popular route too. It's easily accessible, short enough that you can waste time on it and it seems to have a bit of everything. There's even possibilities to make it harder and harder depending on whether you want to climb the awkward little ice chimneys near the finish. I think our time from start to finish was 3.5 hours, which is a little slower than the guidebook time recommends but that's OK. It was our first route, Finney was out in front for most of the moving together and we were slowed down by the effects of altitude. I was over the moon with what we did.
Team pic just before setting off to the valle blanche
Walking in down the ridge, the one and only time we roped up for this
after caching the kit, Andy sets off out front
Picking out way through the boulders
Tech support is called on to set up the abseils
short section of alpine rock 
Finishing the route (me)
Andy finishing (I'm not sure how he copes with that mass of gear clipped everywhere)

However we didn't just do the cosmiques. The original plan was to bivi out and then head for Mont Blanc du Tacul's Triangle face and climb either the C-G or the C-Couloir. After finishing the first route, we took a leisurely walk back to our cached kit (under a boulder near the Abi Simond and the start of the cosmiques). We'd taken bivi sacks and packed as light as we could. Our little bivi was alright. I'd have given it a 6/10 and I'm pretty sure we could have made it much better with a little more work but we were tired.

Our evening was spent resting, melting snow to rehydrate and make food (provided by a stash of dehydrated expedition meals I've been saving up for months). We probably should have gone to bed a lot earlier than we did but we walked over to the cosmiques hut in the evening to ask about conditions on our objective for the next day. We were told to get up as early as possible and head over, which was fine we us. We hurried back and bedded down.
our now uncached kit, making a fine mess
"drinking like a poor person"
Clearly not poor enough to have someone melting snow for him

Waking up at 2am was definatley worth it, even if we only woke up to decided that we were completely trashed from the night before and going climbing would be a silly idea. Although I'd slept soundly, Andy hadn't gotten a wink of sleep and had just been lay there, trying to rest. We watched the line of head torches heading up Mont Blanc du Tacul's main route for a while and brewed up, before resetting the watch and heading back to sleep. This time Andy slept.

We still woke up early and very quickly a plan was hashed out. We'd skip breakfast and then head back down. Everyone else had tents and we realised that we'd be better off if we lugged ours up here. Heading back down also meant we could eat properly, re-stock all our food and gas and plan things a little better.

I think we did the right thing in doing the cosmiques arete. It was essentially an easy route and we had enough time to work out any problems we would encounter on it. It also mean that we acclimatised well and had a better understanding on the environment we were in. I'm used to just wild camping in Wales somewhere and just knowing where everything is, out here it's a little different. It was also a fantastic route!.

Saturday 3rd August

We've just got back from either an awesome time up in the mountains or a bit of a spirit quest, depending on how you look at it. We've been up in the mountains for 2 nights with a day's climbing in the middle. In that time up there I climbed my hardest alpine route and ended up leading every pitch, it was also probably the hardest winter route I've done (if you were to make a comparison with Scottish winter climbing). We spent the time making good decision, getting stressed at each other, panicking and laughing. Hell, there almost tears at one point.

Picking up where the last post left off we got back down to Chamonix and actually made a plan. We slept for a couple of hours, planned the food we'd take went shopping and set out all the kit we'd need. This level of preparation is unheard of between Finney and I (unless we go caving of course). All this careful planning went out the window when Finney went to get the tickets before the Telecabine place closed. He came running back 10 minutes later, while I was checking over the kit I'd lain over the ground with a panicked look on his face. The last ride up left in 20 minutes! I've never packed so quickly! however we still had to run to the sky car (as Finney has termed it).
Jess, a near constant mess.

We soon found ourselves walking round the Valle Blanche glacier looking for somewhere to put our tent. Everyone else had built a snow wall around theirs and had a nice little pitch. Everyone else it seems had brought a snow shovel. I don't even own one, but the team of Russians camped near us kindly lent one out to us. This wouldn't be the only thing we lent off them as in the rush to pack everything Finney did not have his head torch. Our original plan was to leave at 0230 to get to the route. Again the Russians kindly obliged and one of them handed over his head torch telling Finney “it's like the power of the sun, in the palm of your hand”. It was a pretty good head torch. After this our evening was reasonably relaxed, probably the most stress being either a choice of route or having to melt snow for water.
digging with our borrowed Russian snow shovel
an almost perfect spot to sit and view the route

I woke up before my watch went off at 0145 and lay there waiting for it to start it's annoying bleeping. We'd actually gone to the effort of setting the most piercing and irritating tone just so we'd actually wake up. There was no wind and only the very faint metallic sound of climbing gear clicking together. I thought we were all alone until I opened the tent and saw a steady stream of people making their way from the Cosmiques Hut and up Mont Blanc Du Tacul's original route. We brewed up, packed up, breakfasted and set off, plodding across the hard crisp snow in the direction of our route.
"what? we have to get up?!"
breakfast, tasted like vomit.

It's hard to describe what the climb was like without giving a rather boring blow by blow account of each pitch (which would just result in a mass of words meaningless to anyone but me) so instead I'll condense it as best I can. We geared up at the bergschrund, which Finney managed to put his foot through (to my amusement and his horror) and I set of climbing over it up the easy angled snow slopes. The first snow slope was about 100 metres of climbing (in from the left to avoid possible serac falls) before we even started on the route. In the early morning darkness we could only see about 50 metres up the couloir... and it looked amazing.
first ice screw of the whole trip!

The first part of the route was an ice up gully, with a short mixed section. This mixed section was from where the ice had fallen off about a week before (as we learnt from the guardian at the cosmiques hut). It still had hard neve snow in the back so it didn't prove a problem. The gully itself fluctuated between 60° and 95° degree ice for 5/6 pitches and was some of the best ice I've ever climbed. I can still feel the burning in the calves! We had a slight problem about pitch 3 where Finney's belay device made a bid for freedom and trundled off down the gully to be lost in the darkness (Italien hitches all the way!). By the last couple of the ice pitches the sun was coming up.
climbing in the dark, you can only fall as far as your head torch beam
a happy andy
an even happier and more comfortable andy
(that black and white tape is a homemade leash... it was crap, just buy one)
the sun slowly making it's presence known

With the sun coming up we actually could see where we were going. The next section of the climb was a broken up mixed section with unconsolidated powder snow, easy climbing with loose rock and harder route finding. Finney was letting the route get to him and by the time we were through this section he was talking about backing off. He didn't seem to want to actually agree on backing off, so I left him too it. It must have been a pretty big full on experience. His second alpine route and finding himself up 350m in a load of loose terrain with the knowledge that the snow ride we had decided on as our was down would be hitting the sun about now. I shared his concerns but I was safe in the knowledge that we could back off from where ever we ended up. I just wanted to keep moving.
1. calmly select ice screw, ignoring your already burning calves
2. place said screw the ice, clip it, then breath a sigh of relief
3. Start climbing, repeating steps 1 & 2, whilst ignoring the rising burn in your calves
4. continue climbing, whilst screaming at yourself to keep going. The pitch can only be so long
5. clip something that look like a belay and take the weight off your feet and relax. Act cool when your partner arrives, because right now you're in a bit of a state...

Finney finished his mental battle and I set off up another pitch of 55° ice, traversing under the loose rocks and stealing tat along the way. Another pitch of this ice led me on to a snowy ridge and a decent belay which I brought Finney up to. Being honest I was pretty pissed off at this moment. I was unfairly blaming Finney for this that weren't his fault and we were moving too slow. I'd allowed myself to get frustrated as well. We didn't have a choice but to keep climbing, so I set off up what I thought was that last but one pitch, and what a pitch!
Looking ahead...
The “last but one” pitch turned out to be the last pitch of the route and the final 30 metres of it were immense. The ice was very thin but it didn't matter. I danced my crampons across the thin ice while my tools led the way. I was torque my picks in cracks, hooking tiny thin edges and burying the entire of my hammer into one crack to make upward progress. All the stress and frustration just fell away and with the last and hardest moved I found myself hooking my axes over a block, before mantling onto my right foot and standing up looking up at... nothing, other than the snowy ridge that was a possible descent route. I yelled I was at the top and then gave him a thumbs up to let Andy know I was safe. Nothing else needed to be said.
Finney's first encounter with one of the many jokes in winter/alpine climb. Stuff freezing solid.
70 degree alpine ice
part of the loose scrambly terrain
a haunted look. n.p.
topping out
I genuinely can't believe I actually posed like this.
 a happy Finney
I had a massive sense of relief when Andy topped out. Not because I was happy the climb was over (I was also feeling slightly gutted that it didn't go on longer) but because it meant that I could concentrate on the second half of the route; getting down and back to the tents (the first being to approach the climb safely and get up it). One of Andy's worried while we were on the loose mixed scrambly terrain was how we were going to get down. It didn't seem to matter how much I assured him it would be fine, because for him the situation would have been overwhelming. He told me afterwards that pretty much all the climbing he's done before that route was just a simple and obvious walk off. This route did have a “walk off”, but it was a steep snow ridge, that at this moment in time had been sitting in the sun for way too long and seemed to be packed up with windslab. The guides we'd spoken too suggested just rappelling* down the shoulder and joining up with the Mont Blanc du Tacul route to cross the bergschrund or we could simply rappel back down the route itself. We'd seen enough tat and bolts that we could get down, but it was a winedy route with a lot of loose rock. We discussed the options.

We agreed to rap down the shoulder, just because it was a more direct line and so I began explaining to Andy and showing him how to bail off route**. The first rappel was simple apart from the ropes getting twisted together, the second went smoothly apart from putting me in the middle of a 50° ice/snow field. Andy'd already agreed that this was still the best option. I sat about hacking away at the snow and ice till I found something good enough to put a screw in. Andy was soon joining me on my poor excuse for a ledge while I worked away at building a couple of abalakov threads. I'd never built one before but we had a good back up and it was worth a test, we could always leave an ice screw or down climb in necessary.
my first abalakov threads
It did work (obviously, as I'm still here) but the ropes didn't reach the flatter snow. I tried to find more ice in the snow but it was just crap snow now. Settling for a bucket seat I yelled up to Andy. He didn't seem inspired by my bucket seat idea and instead opted to down climb, making short work of crossing a small cravasse. We now only had one obstacle in our way, the main bergschrund but a good track crossed it and we'd watched several people cross it (from a distance) and they'd not slowly down. It wasn't that challenging either, just a short hop and we were walking down defrosting snow, laughing as my crampons balled up and I kept slipping over. It think we were a little dehydrated.
The route is the gully on the right (1 o'clock from Finney's head)
Finney doing some snow melting
We did make it back to camp, safe and sound and the evening was spent eating, rehydrating but mainly melting snow for more water. It seems like the never-ending task! Our original plan was to go rock climbing on one of the spires of the cosmiques arete the next day, but we were trashed from the day before when we woke up. Instead we lay in the tent making brews and relaxing... until a nice gentleman from the PGHM arrived and told us off for having a tent up (which was fair play really). This gave us the push we needed to get moving. We packed up, walked out and promptly rode the telecabine down, with the same PGHM chap who'd told us off earlier. Finney thought we were going to get arrested.

My van was still parked up in it's little spot, still in the same tip as when we'd left it just over 48 hours ago.

Second alpine route of the year and Andy's second ever alpine route. We were horribly dehind guidebook time and possibly misjudged how unstable the walk off (which we didnt take) was, but I'm more than happy with what we climbed. I was very proud to call myself Andy's climbing partner for the day. He dropped his belay device but so what. He took mine and carried on. He didn't even mention the idea of bailing off route. I watched him overcome his fear and push forward. Personally I was happy I lead about 12 pitches without coming off once (especially as some were rather run out). We didn't get lost on route and made sensible decisions about how to get down. Looking back on this experience there isn't anything I would change if I could go back and do it over, not even Andy dropping the belay.

Always remember: it doesn't have to be “fun” to the fun!


*[it would be abseiling but I'm currently in the alps, for it's rappelling for now]

**[Some people might question the idea to bring an inexperienced partner into the mountains. I'd agree with this but I'd rather be with a friend and have an experience we can share together]

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Chamonix 3 (contamine-grisolle)

Contamine-Grisolle and Mont Blanc du Tacul:

We went back up the Aiguille du Midi with another couple of routes in mind. The afternoon was given over to resting in the sun and packing the bags up, making sure we didn't forget to bring crucial items such as a headtorch. Finney dissappeared off the get the tickets for the telecabine while I packed everything. We arrived with time to spare and enjoyed a quiet ride up with an English chap named Rob (and his guide) who'd been living in Chamonix for the past 12 years. He'd actually grown up in Cheadle and spent his youth bouldering at Churnet.
When marking out your dig, over estimate.
A completed circle of snow...
... which barely fits the tent!
Armed with a snow-shovel (that we brought together) setting up the tent was reasonably easy and we were soon snuggled down in bed trying to get some sleep. Anndy slept soundly all night, I didn't. I just couldn't settle for some reason and just lay there rolling occasionally when a part of my got sore waiting for the alarm to go off at 0144. When it finally did go off it was all action stations. We breakfasted, brewed up and got the tent down as quick as we could. We walked across the crisp snow of the glacier in a direct line to the snow bridge that signified the start of the Contamine-Grisolle.
porridge pant, nice
Finney tying on
The route itself was rather reasonable. We moved together up the first 150 metres (or so, I couldn't tell as it was pitch black and climbing via headtorch) till I hit the first crux pitch of the route. This pitch itself was fantastic to climb through! The start was a thin ice runnel, at the back of a wide open crack. I could still only just reach with my tools and gingerly stepping up on little ledges with my crampons. Surmounting this I was greated with a beautiful scene in front of me. The sun still wasn't up, but it was close enough to provide that erie twilight and seems to bring out the white in the snow. The pitch ahead of me was monocromatic and I marvelled at it's beauty. I wasn't sure if we had enough rope for this but it made more sense to continue that to just stop and I carried on, smiling.

Finney, just finishing the mixed section
Finney setting off on lead
It really was a great pitch of mixed climbing but we were soon off moving together as soon as I brought Andy up to me. He shot off up the snow slopes and through the easier mixed terrain covering it quickly. We only had one more pitch of climbing after this, another excellent mixed pitch before we hit the ridge itself. We checked the time, congratulated ourselves on actually hitting the guidebook time and decided to rest for 10 minutes. By now the sun was coming up properly and I just sat there eating saucission trying to gain some warmth from it's rays.

Making the most of the morning sunshine
Me, with our very British guidebook cover
Th last of the mixed sections
The snow was in better condition that last time we'd descended from the top of the triangle face and we opted to carry on up the ridge to meet the Normal route up Mont Blanc du Tacul. This in itself was not without risk. Walking together roped up I watched as small slabs broke off with every other step and we walked the ridge. It was a risk, but it was worth it because instead of just carrying on down, once we met the normal route it just made sense to carried on heading up. Tacul was only half a km away as it was. I'm not really one for summits, I'd rather enjoy the journey as you climb, but there is a sense of a achievement it topping out. It almost feels like I've given the day a sense of purpose. Standing on top of Tacul definatley did that for me.

The photo a kind guide took of us. He made us get Mont Blanc in the background
Descent was quick. The normal route up Tacul is apparently a long plod up the snow, with a bergschrund to cross. I was fairly disappointed that I'd seen so many people trudging up it over the time I'd been there. It didn't really hold anything for me, other than a quick means of getting down. I don't doubt that there is immense value in the routes and I don't look down on people who do it. It's just not my cup of tea.

We did have one funny moment when both of us, only 500 metres from the tents punched through a snow bridge and into a small cravasse... each with our right leg at exactly the same time. Tired and dehyrdated all we could do was pull ourselves out and laugh at how lucky we could have been. It just goes to show that the climb is never over till you're back somewhere you can call safe.

Me melting even more snow, a seemingly never ending job
yep, he's fast asleep