Mileage

I arrive back in Chamonix at the start of October, practically frothing at the mouth at the prospect of being back in the mountains.

I message everyone I know in the valley to find a partner, but no-one bites. Instead, I spend a frustrating day driving up and down the valley, scoping out conditions on the faces you can see from town, winding myself up further as I realise that there’s so much to do.

The following day, Tim and I head up to the Midi to do the delightfully named Shit Route, which earns its name by -allegedly- being the frozen outflow of the Midi toilets. Tim tells me that he’s sure this is little more than urban myth, but he’s eating his words as he gets splashed by some interesting smelling fluids whilst following the top ice pillar.

Tim nears the top of the first pitch of Shit Route, a good runnel of ice with great hooks and awful gear.
Tim nears the top of the first pitch of Shit Route, a good runnel of ice with great hooks and awful gear.
The ultimate Chamonix experience.
The ultimate Chamonix experience.

Hungry for something bigger, a chance celebrity partnering with the legend that is Ken Applegate sees sights firmly set on the mega Eugster Couloir Direct, a 1000m line that shoots right up the north face of the Midi from the Plan de l’Aiguille to the summit. We make a bit of a boo-boo on our first attempt and start up the wrong couloir in the dark… We climb about 500m before I hear Ken shout down to me:

‘Mate, I’m at some sort of weird col…’

That’s not right, I think. The route is a gully line, a col is the last thing we want. I climb up to him and we discuss the options. The obvious line is a little ribbon of ice over to our left that would link us up with the upper section of the Frendo Spur, but to climb it would involve several rope-lengths directly underneath the most terrifying looking serac I’ve ever seen. Chalking it up to experience, we make two rappels and down climb 400m of hard-earned couloir, tails firmly between our legs.

We give it a couple days to come to terms with being such mugs and then we head back up to set the record straight. I’m glad we do so, as the route is phenomenal. There’s lots of monotonous wading up easy ground, but the 250m of incredible ice and mixed in the middle more than compensates. We find the crux pitch in very thin conditions, with just a very fine film of brittle ice coating the back of the crack. fortunately there are adequate hooks and good gear, but it’s very steep and definitely gets the blood pumping! Maybe around Scottish VI 7. After the excitement there’s just a mind-numbing 250m of swing-swing, step-step to get up to the lift station, where you reach a conveniently placed cablecar…

Beautiful sunset over the Chamonix valley the night before we climb the Eugster.
Beautiful sunset over the Chamonix valley the night before we climb the Eugster.
Ken sets off up the first pitch of the difficulties, sixty metres of squeaky ice and first-time sticks.
Ken sets off up the first pitch of the difficulties, sixty metres of squeaky ice and first-time sticks.
The grim slog up the final slopes of the Midi to the lift station.
The grim slog up the final slopes of the Midi to the lift station.

I get home to a message from Tim, who tells me he wants to go and do ‘something interesting/challenging’. This excites and scares me in equal measure. Previous outings with Tim that might fall into the ‘interesting/challenging’ category have sometimes left me convinced that I should sell all my climbing gear and take up golf, but, presumably because I am still psyched about having done the Eugster, I bite his hand off.

“Does the Rebuffat-Terray come under ‘interesting/challenging’?” I enquire. The consensus is that it does, so off we go. Another luxurious bivvy at the Plan de l’Aiguille and another early morning start hopping across powder covered boulders hoping to reach the route with both ankles still functioning puts us on the glacier, and, after an abortive attempt to start up Francois Marsigny’s unrepeated One Step Beyond to avoid climbing under the seracs, we resign ourselves to having to simul-climb 80 degree ice as fast as we can without puking our guts up. We do so, and before long we are relieved to see that the Rebuffat-Terray is in great nick.

A thick coat of ice allows straightforward climbing but makes protection something of an issue. The climbing is very bold in many places, not least when I miss a subtle rightwards traverse and end up on a snow-plastered, slabby horror show.

I was a muppet and didn’t take many photos on the Rebuffat-Terray but Tim took some stunners and has an excellent write-up here.

Another stunning sunset over the Plan de l'Aiguille.
Another stunning sunset over the Plan de l’Aiguille.
Tim on the second pitch of the difficulties.
Tim on the second pitch of the difficulties.
On one of the upper slopes, just below the pendulum pitch which went free at short-lived M6.
On one of the upper slopes, just below the pendulum pitch which went free at short-lived M6.

Riding high on another wave of success, Tim and I look for another objective. We want to head up and climb the Merkl-Welzenbach on the north face of the Grands Charmoz, which looked in good condition a few days ago, but a selfless reconnaissance mission by Tim and his trusty zoom lens discovers that the Foehn wind has laid waste to the bottom icefalls. I am mightily disappointed as this was one of the routes I was most looking forward to getting on. We bury our heads in the guidebooks, seeking a worthy alternative.

Because it’s the last week that the Midi is open and because we both like sleeping in comfy beds down in the valley, we opt for a series of day hits up around the Col du Midi. First up is the Pellissier Gully, which was so fat we could’ve moved together for everything except the last 5 metres. The lack of challenge leaves a bitter taste in our mouths and we head back to catch the lift down to town, discussing options for something spicier. Some choice words raise the pulse.

‘…Nick Bullock’

‘…Jon Bracey’

“…Scottish VII’

I’m apprehensive but the seed is sown. My mouth agrees to the plan before my mind can stop it.

As I try to fall asleep that evening, tucked in a comfy bed, in a warm apartment, the voice in my head groans.

But Nick Bullock is a nutter…

The next day, the route, Tentation, does nothing to dispel this accusation. The thinning smear of ice plastered into the corner mirrors my bravado, and both run out when I reach the capping roof and see the tenuous Scottish VII 7 crux laid bare in front of me. I swallow and shout down to Tim.

“How am I doing for rope?”

As he counts the remaining slack, I pray I’ve climbed far enough to warrant building a belay and absolving myself of the arduous climbing ahead.

“You’ve still got thirty metres!”

Fuck.

I scrape my axes around a bit on the granite, feebly searching for a hook or a torque. I find some placements which seem more useful for comedy value than upward progress, but commit to them anyway, throwing a right foot out wide, pushing hard against a diagonal crack. As always seems to be the case with these things, one delicate move turns into two, two turn into more. Before long the moves are flowing (as well as the fear will permit them to) and I’m at the next belay. A wave of relief washes over me as I clip myself to a solid anchor, knowing that I can hand over the reins to Tim, at least for a while.

Tim pulling hard on thin torques, nearing the top of the crux.
Tim pulling hard on thin torques, nearing the top of the crux.
Slabby, wobbly dry-tooling - my favourite.
Slabby, wobbly dry-tooling – my favourite.

The rest of the route feels more straightforward until conditions force us to take a variation exit on the last pitch. Thankfully it’s Tim’s lead – the climbing is secure but steep, with very little for skittering front-points. Pulling hard on good hooks, udging against a wide dihedral I shimmy upwards, sense of humour failing rapidly, until the meter hits zero when I see the medley of gear that Tim has placed in order to aid past this section. As I rest on the rope to remove the hardware above me, I’m glad I’m not on lead. Protection removed and ideas running out, I throw a ridiculous, crampon-shod heel hook over a small ledge and mantle upwards with difficulty.

We top out on the dark, wind-lashed ridge of Pointe Lachenal and pack up, grinning that we’d managed to complete the route, but both utterly wasted.

Tentation (Photo: Nick Bullock)
Tentation (Photo: Nick Bullock)

A day of rehab in the valley gets us keen for further mixed madness, so we head up on the first lift again and break trail over to Pointe Lachenal once more. This time we aim for M6 Solar, which provides another four excellent pitches of tricky mixed climbing, and a lung-busting race against the clock to make it back to the lift station in time for the last trip down.

As the date of the annual Midi closure ticks closer and closer, fever sets in and we decide to head up for one last hit. This time Les Temps est Assassin, another spicy modern mixed line on the Triangle du Tacul. Five more pitches of consistently interesting ice and mixed with just enough ice in the cracks to make progress possible, a hasty abseil descent and the last breathless slog of the season up the Midi arete leave our appetites sated for at least a couple of days.

Tim joins me at the first stance of Les Temps est Assassin.
Tim joins me at the first stance of Les Temps est Assassin.
Things start to get nervy as the ice runs out on the crux groove. A solid lead here from Tim, the climbing is supremely delicate and requires a cool head above questionable gear.
Things start to get nervy as the ice runs out on the crux groove. A solid lead here from Tim, the climbing is supremely delicate and requires a cool head above questionable gear.
Abseiling the Triangle - no one has been down the Tacul normal route since a huge serac collapse a couple of months ago.
Abseiling the Triangle – no one has been down the Tacul normal route since a huge serac collapse a couple of months ago.

All in all, that’s about 3000m of climbing, 18 pitches of technical ice and mixed on shorter routes and two big mountain classics in the space of about two and a half weeks. Mileage is the backbone of all success in the mountains, and with just a couple of weeks left in Chamonix and a solid weather forecast, fingers crossed I can keep the pedal to the metal right to the end.

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8 thoughts on “Mileage

  1. Brilliant write up Alex, although I’m not sure celebrity or legend describes me in any way!

    Have a great final couple of weeks in Chamonix, winter’s still a way off back in Scotland.

    1. Haha Ken, you’re a household name! But seriously, I checked your old blog regularly for Scottish winter condition reports, that’s celebrity enough for me 😉

    1. Hey Morten, I use a Canon EOS 700d with a 10-18mm lens. It’s a nice small size for a DSLR and it doesn’t weigh as much as things like the 5d and 6d (images not as good though). The super wide-angle works really well for shooting in the mountains!

  2. I have a 5d mk2 wich i often use with a 24-105 but its quite a heavy combo as you mention. So I don’t get that many action pictures taken when out. I have a s95 in my inner pocket wich is ok, but misses some wide angle!
    For me it’s Often that dilemma if your mind is in climbing mode or picture mode. Enjoyed reading through your post’s !

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