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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Valley and the Sky

A few years ago, someone in the UK came up with the idea of dark skies. Being small, crowded and electrified, Britain is not the ideal place for clear night skies. The stars above our densely packed island are too often drowned in noise. Choked. Swamped in a dense fug of smoky-orange light pollution. Since the dark skies award was launched, rural places like Northumberland and Dartmoor have had the clarity of their night skies formally recognised and rewarded; testament to their relative lack of urbanisation and the fact that more than perhaps seven stars can be seen suspended above them after dark.

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The Spiti Valley from Balangri

The problem is, though, that this doesn’t really mean anything. Not when you’ve been to the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. Not when you’ve looked up and seen real dark skies.

Imagine a sky untainted by light. Unspoilt by pollution. Viewed through an atmosphere of utter transparency. Imagine perfect clarity gazing up at thousands of pinpoint stars, the blackness between them all the more absolute for their brilliance. Sky in which the Milky Way is a broad, speckled, silver splash across an obsidian hemisphere. On a moonless night the light from the stars alone is enough to illuminate the Himalayan landscape around you, washing nearby rises and distant peaks alike in a pale and ghostly luminescence.

Two weeks ago I was in Langza village, just to the north of the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India, looking up at that sky. I’ve just led my first overseas expedition, taking a group of 12 young people to India for Outlook Expeditions (more on this in an upcoming post).

Spiti Valley lies in the rain shadow of the India Himalaya. It’s a beautiful, stark and desiccated landscape of barren cliffs and alien water-sculpted soil formations. Villages like Langza stand out from far away, their squat and whitewashed mud-built houses ringed by patchwork skirts of emerald wheat fields.

Spiti is more Tibet than India. From its climate to its culture, it has far more in common with Lhasa than Delhi. In fact, it was formerly part of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhist culture prevails here. Monasteries cling to precipices above the valley. One such monastery, in the small village of Ki, is in such a precarious position that it now stands in imminent danger of collapse; a point not lost on me as I wandered through its labrythine interior with an uncharacteristically reverential group. A tattered magazine wedged against the wall proclaims Ki Monastery as one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical sites.

In Spiti, we spent a week in Langza working on a greenhouse construction project and another six days trekking from Langza to Dhankar.

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Himalayan Griffons drifted overhead and our camp was invaded by yaks. We hacked latrine pits out of the dry, compacted earth with chisel-tipped metal poles and plucked black ammonites and trilobites from shallow streambeds. We sipped cups of sugary hot masala tea and slathered on handfuls of sunblock in sticky defiance. We laboured under sacks of plasticine mud, pressing it into metal brick moulds with bare hands before leaving it to dry in ordered rows. We breathed the thin, high-altitude air, feeling its inadequacy on gentle slopes and mountain passes alike, bent double to catch breath under leaden daysacks. We stumbled upon the gleaming bones of cattle bleached white by the sun. We played cards and laughed with the Indian porters, and ate more rice and dal than we ever thought we would have to.

And every night after dark we returned to our tents. Beneath the chandelier, of stars and atmosphere  – to quote the Killers.

Beneath real dark skies.