Faster and lighter? From the Alps to Scotland – Part I

I’ve just returned from a week in Chamonix, in the French Alps. From squirming up narrow granite chimneys, to traversing precarious snow arêtes, to climbing ice choked gullies on weighted crampon points, it was an excellent week and a valuable mountaineering experience. As well as reflecting on what we did, I’m writing this two-part post to answer a question: what lessons from alpine mountaineering can be applied to trekking and mountaineering in Scotland?


Part I, here, covers what we did. In Part II (next week) I’ll focus on answering the question above.

First, some context. Chamonix is a region in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. The town itself lies in a valley bordered by the Aiguille Rouge mountains to the north and west, and the incredible Mont Blanc massif to the south and east. The latter is undoubtedly the main attraction here. The jagged granite spires of the Aiguille du Midi (3842m), the Aiguille de la M. (2844m – so called because its profile looks like a letter M) and others soar above Chamonix, dominating the southern skyline. To the southwest lies the snowcapped dome of Mont Blanc itself at 4809m. The summit exudes a languid impregnability, its blunt profile a calm contrast to the sharp relief of the surrounding spires. But Mont Blanc is no baby; it has a reputation as the world’s most dangerous mountain, with the massif averaging around 100 fatalities per year. This dubious honour is largely down to the sheer number of ill-prepared visitors every year, led by guides more concerned with their bank balances than client safety. To an extent, it’s a matter of statistics.

So, Chamonix is a very popular destination. Every year thousands of tourists roll up for summer trekking and mountaineering, and winter skiing and snowboarding. I was there with a friend, Rich Andrews. Our aim was to focus on ice and mixed routes, pushing up to D+ (Difficile+) or possibly TD (Tres Difficile) – roughly equivalent to Scottish Winter Grade V. We also had a keen eye on some of the classic arête routes in the area. We initially placed less of an emphasis on pure rock climbing routes, and more of a focus on cold climbs.


Looking back towards Mont Blanc du Tacul from the finish of the Arête des Cosmiques

In the end we managed four days out and four routes. On Monday we started on the classic Arête des Cosmiques, a relatively easy AD (Assez Difficile) 3 rock ridge which finished at the Midi station. The Aiguille du Midi lift (telepherique) whisks you from the lowly 1030m Chamonix up to the lofty 3842m height of the Midi station in about half an hour. After a descent from the station via a snow arête, a one kilometre drop into the Chamonix valley just inches from our boots, we were the first on the route. The previous couple of days had seen some fresh snow, meaning that much of the rock was buried in powder and holds had to be excavated before they could be used. This made for a relatively slow going, but an enjoyable start to the trip.

Next up, on Tuesday, was our first ice/mixed route, the popular Chèré Couloir (D 4) on the north-facing triangle of Mont Blanc du Tacul. Getting there requires a traverse of the Col du Midi, a mostly flat expanse of snow-covered glacier. We crossed in excellent weather; walking at 3530m can be pretty warm in the late summer sun. The couloir actually runs up to the top of Mont Blanc du Tacul but the first five pitches are the steepest and most interesting; many people only climb them and then abseil down. So that’s what we did. After crossing the bergschrund at the base of the climb over a snow bridge, Rich led the first, third and fifth pitches. I led the second, and the fourth (crux) pitch. The ice on the fourth pitch banked up to about 80 degrees and was beautiful. Solid axe placements on good ice made for a secure pitch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The ice was quite stepped out, courtesy of the many climbers who had been up Chèré Couloir already this year.


Steep ice on Chèré Couloir. Photo credit: Rich Andrews

After a rest day with some cragging at Les Gaillands on Wednesday, the weather turned warmer on Thursday. We decided to do a rock route because few winter routes were in condition – a sad consequence of climate change in the Alps. The Rébuffat-Pierre route (TD- 6a+) on the Éperon des Cosmiques is a beautiful five-pitch trad climb on clean granite. It’s one of Gaston Rébuffat’s original top 100 climbs on the Mont Blanc massif, and for good reason – the climbing, the aspect and the views are spectacular. And so was the weather! Rich and I decided to climb light for this one, leaving our rucksacks on a rock ledge near the bottom of the face. I led the crux pitch, a 6a+ granite overhang 150m above the glacier. To be honest it felt easier than the official grade suggested, but pulling up and over that roof was fun, if intimidating. We abseiled down the face afterwards, although it is possible to top out onto the Arête des Cosmiques and finish along it at the Midi station.

Rébuffat-Pierre route, Aiguille du Midi

The crux overhang on the Rébuffat-Pierre route. Photo credit: Rich Andrews

Another ridge route, the Arête des Papillons (D), capped off the week. Unlike our previous climbs, this one was lower down in the valley – in the shadow of the crenellated Aiguille du Peigne (3192m) – so no snow or ice was expected and we climbed in approach shoes and rock shoes. The arête ascends about 250m and has two cruxes, both graded 5c. The second of these is the more interesting; we squeezed between two rocks in a section known as ‘the letterbox’, before a thin and airy traverse around to the right. Rich led these cruxes. After a few more difficulties we finished the route via an abseil off to the south side and a walk back down to Chamonix.


Belaying on the Arête des Papillons

In just four days, Chamonix had offered us everything from committing ice climbing, to airy traversing above dizzying drops, to steep and technical trad. It’s not difficult to see why it’s such a popular venue for climbers, walkers and mountaineers from around the world. But what lessons can be taken from this experience (and alpinism in general) to improve on the quality, enjoyability and technicality of mountaineering in Scotland?

The Alps certainly are a different beast. Scotland’s mountains are undoubtedly wild and remote, but sheer scale of Alpine peaks presents a new and different set of challenges. The alpine climate can be extreme, especially in winter. Risks such as crevasses force the alpinist to take specialist safety equipment and to take extreme care when routefinding. Alpine routes are also more committing in terms of time, and so the consequences of an error are potentially far more serious. Above all, in the Alps, speed of progress is critical.

In Part II next week I’ll consider how these lessons I’ve been putting into practice over the past week, and those which have been developed and written about by famous alpinists over the years, have real relevance in Scotland as well as Chamonix.

Ben Nevis weekend double

The weekend (3-4 September) saw a double ascent of Ben Nevis, a grandstand view of the annual Ben Nevis Race to the summit and back, plus a reminder (not that it was needed) of the Ben’s capacity for spectacularly grim weather.

On Saturday I led a decent-sized group up to the summit for Large Outdoors, a company with a good reputation for adventures which have a social side. Along with the capable services of two other guides, Iain Smith and Alan Cameron, the entire group of 27 made it to the summit for a well deserved photo at the trig point. It was a great day with plenty of conversation about whether or not mountains should be on TripAdvisor (verdict: they shouldn’t) and the merits of climbing higher than midges can fly.


At the summit shelter

Despite being late in the season, the Pony Trail was still very busy and the damp weather hadn’t dampened peoples’ enthusiasm. Part of the reason for the crowds was the annual Ben Nevis Race. Held every year since 1951, the race sees some of Scotland’s best (and strongest-ankled) fell runners haring up to the summit and back down. These athletes are very good and very single-minded; we saw a few slipping and falling on the wet grass, only to bounce straight back up again and carry on their mad descent. This year’s winner was Finlay Wild, who finished in an impressive 1:28:45 – only 3 minutes and 11 seconds longer than the all-time record.


Race runners on descent

I’d had Tower Ridge in my sights for a while before Sunday. It’s a classic Grade 3 scramble and one of Scotland’s iconic mountain ridge routes. Marie joined me for an early start, and we set off at 7.30am from the North Face car park in light drizzle. After an initial misstep (going too far up Observatory Gully in the mist) we gained the high ground and made good progress. Despite a ‘brief ridge’ of high pressure being forecast by MWIS, the mist clung to the crags all day and we were constantly drizzled on. The wet and slippery rock made for a slightly more challenging experience but we made good progress, enjoying the occasional views down to the Allt a’ Mhuillin and – further northwards – the Loch Lochy munros.


Looking north, with Carn Dearg Buttress in the background

The rope first came out for a pitch at the start of the Little Tower, where the ridge steepens quite sharply. Good holds on wet rock saw us up and over this initial obstacle in good time. The next milestone, the Great Tower, was easily scrambled over and then around via the Eastern Traverse. It was a lot of fun, but sadly the view was hidden by the dense cloud.


An atmospheric Eastern Traverse

The short wall up the eastern edge of the Great Tower was (unexpectedly) the only white-knuckle part of my day as I soloed it in the wet, and with a heavy rucksack, before toprope belaying Marie after me. Tower Gap – the grand finale and the crux of Tower Ridge – is fantastically exposed. There’s nothing like lowering yourself over an edge with nothing but 200 metres of empty space beneath your feet.


Facing Tower Gap. Photo credit: Marie Cheung

The climb out of Tower Gap, on a blank wet slab in walking boots, was a sting in the tail but by then we were on a roll and cruised up to the top of ridge and the summit plateau. It was an excellent day made more memorable by good company and the claggy weather. And the sun finally came out as we reached the plateau!