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Sunday, 7 October 2018

Mont Blanc in a Day

It hit us all at once. We each doubled over in a foggy exhaustion, collapsing dizzily onto the glacier. Three thousand metres of vertical gain since midnight had brought us here. Memories rushed back of a failed attempt to climb the 4400-metre Mt Rainier, USA, in a day from sea-level. Surely I would have learned to respect the power of altitude on an un-acclimatised body? Fatigue, dehydration, sleep deprivation and now high altitude blended into a potent concoction. I slipped 100-mg of pure caffeine onto my tongue and stood up again as the pseudo-energy surged through my system. The crispy summit ridge of Mont Blanc was just within sight.

Johnie Briggs eyeing off the summit from the Dome de Gouter

The normal way to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter route sets out a far more sensible itinerary. Take a train up to the Eagle's Nest, skipping the first 1500 vertical metres of trails through the steep foothills. Hike a few hours up to the Tete-Rousse glacier, and scramble up to Gouter Hut for a night's rest and acclimatisation. Summit day, back to the hut for a hot cooked dinner. Day three, walk a few hours down to the train for a quick descent to the valley.

Anna Wells slogging above Gouter Hut

But this is France. One night in the plush Gouter mansion cashes in at 84 euros. We could not stomach the expense, but more than this was our desire to climb light, fast, and when possible, all in a single day. My partners for the mission, Anna Wells from Inverness, and Johnie Briggs from Yorkshire, shared the same mentality and were psyched on the objective. MBIAD.

We set off from the Church at Les Houches (a short ways down valley from Chamonix) a stroke after midnight. We packed a minimal yet conservative amount of equipment - we didn't know exactly how cold the upper mountain would be, nor how gaping the glacier would be in the late season. Warm gloves, waterproof and down jackets, helmet, aluminium crampons, 20-metres of thin rope for the glacier, 120-cm dyneema sling and one locking carabiner as a harness. Food for twelve hours. Everything fit into my 9-litre running pack.

Our light sacs rested easily on our shoulders, and compared to the loads on a normal technical alpine climb, they felt weightless. We floated up the initial thousand metres by headlight. Above the bushline, the night's chill froze dew on the boulders and we skated across the slate boulders.

From the bare and cracked Tete-Rousse Glacier, we could see the rock scrambling route up to the Gouter hut traced out by a myriad of headlamps. Now it started to become exciting. Unhindered by excess gear, we started picking off teams up the occasionally steep rock face, one by one. As expected for Mont Blanc's most popular route, the buttress was lined with steel cables, every hand hold polished and no loose rock to be found - if a rock even wobbled, we were probably off route.

The vista back to the Chamonix Valley

Crowds of French mountaineers licked at our heels emerging from the Refuge hut as we started to ascend to the snowfield to Dome de Gouter in the dawning light. We were struggling with the altitude, and our pace slowed to a halt. This invisible force dragged us to the ground, Anna collapsed onto the snow in a haze. I soon joined her. Johnie remained stoic but he too was not immune. The well-rested and acclimated French teams cramponned slickly past our ragged crew, we felt weak like peasants. The surge of caffeine into my system fought off the dreariness of a sleepless night and we rose to our feet to finish the job.

The challenge of a 3800-metre elevation gain into the thin French air now made itself known. The final snow crest, L'arĂȘte de Bosses, felt like a Himalayan struggle. I could never stop for too long to rest, the chill seeped through my thin approach shoes numbing my toes. I forced my core to overheat to pump warm blood to the extremities.

The Bosses Ridge

But the final narrow and exposed ridgeline was spectacular, and it was an emotional arrival onto the roof of Europe. Despite the route itself being very easy technically, our shared experience of the altitude struggle and holding to a pure & lightweight style floor made the whole climb fully memorable. We arrived back in Chamonix just as Autumn's first storm swept the valley with rain and snow, and the Turkish Kebab shop opened for dinner.

Full of stoke on the summit

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Traverse of Les Drus & Aiguille Verte, Chamonix

The Integral ridge spanning the Flames De Pierre to Aiguille Verte should be one of the iconic Chamonix alpine climbs. Over the course of five days in late summer, Daniel Joll, Chris Warner and I traversed the granite skyline ridge connecting Les Flammes de Pierre, Les Drus, Aiguille Sans Nom and Aiguille Verte, descending via the Moine Ridge to Couvercle Refuge. The 3 days of climbing involved traversing 3 kilometres of complex ridgeline, bagging 4 summits, ascending over 2000 metres of technical terrain, with 2 bivouacs just below the summits of Petit Dru (3700m) and Aiguille Sans Nom (3950m).
I was on the bus, arriving in Chamonix on the final leg of my long journey from New Zealand, admiring the glistening summits four thousand metres above the valley. Dan Joll sent me a message, a 5 day weather window was rolling in, and he was packing for a big mission. A ridge traverse of Les Drus, a linkup he had been dreaming of for several years. I was keen, it seemed like a great way to acclimatise to the great mountains of the Mont Blanc region, living on a ridge line for several days, living and breathing French air. I mentally treated this as a tramping trip instead of a trail run: although the extra weight would slow us down making steep climbing harder, I remembered how refreshing it is to be relaxed at the end of the day as darkness approaches, setting up a bivouac on the summit, instead of stressing about the long descent.

This would be my first climbing experience in Chamonix, and as soon as we began the approach beyond Montevers train station, I would find all the rumors of The Alps to be true. Industrial scale ladders bolted to the cliffs, Hundreds of trekkers and guided clients swarming across the glacier ice, checkered table cloths spread across boulders laden with baguettes & wine. But after scaling ladders towards Chapeau Refuge, we would have the mountains to ourselves.

Scrambling the lower section of the Flammes de Pierre (Flames of Stone).
Photo: Dan Joll

Chris and I scrambling the lower section of the ridge. The exposure builds.
Photo: Dan Joll
At daybreak we left our grassy bivouac at the base of Flammes de Pierre to begin the mile-long ridge traverse towards Petit Dru. Climbing was rapid, mostly easy scrambling but with complicated route finding. Un-acclimatised and still mildly jet lagged, above 3000m I started to suffer a strange brand of fatigue, gasping for breath after pulling each of the strenuous rock steps with the heavy pack. Daniel and Chris traded long simul blocks, stretching the single rack 100-150m per pitch.

Simul-climbing higher on the ridge. Long stretches of easy but complex terrain  were the norm with tricky route-finding between the many gendarmes.
Photo: Dan Joll
Just after sunset we reached a plush bivouac spot 50m below Petit Dru and dropped our loads with relief, a 15 hour day. I lead off in search of snow to melt, fortunate to find a cave full of ice smears to pain stakingly chip away. Despite our altitude of 3700m, our lightweight bivvy setup kept us comfortably warm. It consisted of a 650 gram quilt sleeping bag and a 2 person bivvy bag with openings at each end to allow 3 people to fit. The foam from our packs and lightweight air matts kept us lofted from the rocky base.

Brewing up a hearty dinner at our bivouac near the top of Petit Dru. The wiped facial expression captures the exhaustion of the day.
Photo: Dan Joll

Early morning vista from the summit of Petit Dru, my first Chamonix peak.
Photo: Dan Joll

Early the next morning after a spectacular daybreak, I discovered another Euro cliché on the summit of Petit Dru, a statue of the Virgin Mary gazing out to the valley where Chamonix was just waking up. Traversing to Grand Dru involved a single abseil and two pitches to our second summit via a thrutchy chimney made easier by a fixed rope, and made harder by a large backpack. By now every crux section would not leave me in such fits of deep breathing - the time sleeping up high was helping my acclimatisation.

Grand Jorasses at dawn. One of the most famous North Faces in the Alps.
Photo: Dan Joll
Instead of rushing over the summit of Grand Dru, we used the morning sunshine to dry our wettened sleeping bag and brew up hot drinks for about an hour. It can seem counter-intuitive to spend such time resting but we realised keeping hydrated on a long route was key.

Traversing the notch to the Grand Dru. How to attack this next peak? It looks steep! A deceptively easy route wound up the left hand side of the pinnacle.
Photo: Dan Joll

Traversing between the Grand Dru and the Arete de Sans Nom was one of the chossiest stretches of the route. Six raps from the summit brought us below the Pic Sans Nom, where a loose diagonal traverse through unknown and rarely travelled ground landed us in a stripped back gulley of rotten snow raining with stone-fall, and gritty granite slabs. Two heady pitches eventually freed us from this dangerous section, which in June or July would be an easy snow plod. Mist & fog now encircled us as we quested upwards to Aiguille Sans Nom, Daniel relying on his memory of the face to guide me up the correct line of rock ribs and snow couloirs.

Chris belaying on Aiguille Sans Nom as the mist rolls in.
Photo: Dan Joll

Delicate slab climbing in boots.
Photo: Dan Joll

Graunchy crack climbing in boots & gloves. A wide crack fit a knee on the left, while a thinner crack allowed perfect hand jams on the right. Still a strenuous piece of work.
Photo: Dan Joll

Chris pulling over the steep pitch with the sweeping striped glacier, Mer de Glace below.
Photo: Dan Joll

With my one Petzl Quark I climbed gritty mixed terrain and grunty sections of crack climbing in boots & gloves to reach the summit ridge of Aiguille Sans Nom. No ideal bivvy spot was to be found as our perfect forecast deteriorated into light snow and darkness closed in. As a result, Aiguille Sans Nom is now equipped with a brand new bivvy platform just below the snow crest.

Rising at the Aiguille Sans Nom bivouac.
Photo: Chris Warner

Running-shoe style boots seem to be very popular for less technical routes in the Alps, however the snow crest connecting upwards to Aiguille Sans Verte is renowned for having hard blue ice on the long traversing sections. We did not regret our heavier full-shank boots here, which was still precarious on some downclimbing sections with just the one axe. Flexible footwear and aluminium crampons would not have been a good time. Cresting Aiguille Verte's dome-shaped summit via the crisp snow arete was textbook mountaineering joy, and the outlook of all the Alps from this position in the morning sun was superb.

On the summit of Aiguille Verte.
Photo: Chris Warner
Here our plans to continue to Les Droites, another day's climbing, were foiled; the descent slopes were completely bare in the late season. The Whymper Couloir notorious for rock-fall was also bare. Instead we used the longer yet safer Moine Ridge for descent, following many cairns and 10 abseils just below the crest. Moine Ridge is rich in valuable quartz crystals and the evidence of crystal hunters mining efforts were spread across the ridge. Crossing the broken bergschrund was a relief, after 6 hours of very loose down-scrambling.

On the descent of the Moine Ridge.
Photo: Dan Joll

The Mont Blanc region is full of swaths of immaculate granite, but as we found on many sections of this traverse, that perfect granite is often broken into much smaller pieces. Even so this traverse covered some incredible and complex ground, multiple summits, high & comfortable bivvies, quality climbing at moderate grades, with great vantages of Grand Jorasses & Mont Blanc, and deserves to be a Chamonix classic. We realised that despite the current push towards light & fast alpinism, occasionally going slower & heavier gives you more time to relax and enjoy the mountains, rather than simply rushing through them. Don't come and go. Come and stay.

Our route across the integral ridge connecting Les Drus and Aiguille Verte.
Photo: Dan Joll
Topo: Chris Warner

Monday, 10 September 2018

Mt Hutton South Face - the First Ascent

Four years ago in 2014, I spied the 500-metre tall South Face of Mt Hutton on the topo map, and discovered it was unclimbed. I recruited two adventure racing friends, we mountain biked up the Cass Valley out of Tekapo and made an attempt on the face, but we were defeated after only two time-consuming pitches up the chossy, ice-streaked face. The route was beyond my experience at the time, more than we expected or could handle. Fortunately it was only two abseils back to the ground, because I had forgotten to bring a V-threader. I managed to equalise some shallow V-threads using my ice axe as a tool. To climb technical routes like this in the future I realised I needed good mentors and a pool of more experienced climbing partners. The following year I joined the New Zealand Alpine Team and found just that.

Since then several other parties have made attempts, mostly friends of mine, but each time they failed, repelled by sugar-snow covered greywacke lacking the crucial ice, and each time I breathed a sigh of relief. Moving to Australia made this alpine project even more inaccessible, and the face was never in condition when I returned briefly to the South Island each year. Every year the South Face of Mt Hutton haunted me.

The South Face of Mt Hutton

Finally this August, I returned for a second attempt, just after the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival. This time I was joined by fellow NZAT members Caleb Jennings and Rose Pearson who were frothing at the prospect of a new route in their backyard, the Canterbury Alps. This time 4WD access to Memorial hut instead of mountain bikes made the 5 hour snow-plodding approach up the Faraday Glacier a much more casual affair. However, comparing photos of the face to the previous Spring-time attempt showed the face was in much leaner condition, which would make the first two pitches accessing the main face more difficult. Success was far from guaranteed.

Comparison between Sep 2014 and Aug 2018 conditions

Alastair and Rose fuelling up before the climb with Wild Alaskan Salmon and Mediterranean Chicken

Plugging up to the face in the ellipse of the full moon's shadow, I set out to repeat the sketchy traverse diagonally upwards on snowy rock ledges towards the main ice gulley. Tenuous slabby moves, rotten ice and psychological protection made it a heady start to the route.

Off the belay is an exposed down-climb on small rock edges, with techy dry-tooling moves to pull around into the ice gulley, then followed by a rope length of thin ice. These desperate moves had left a deep impression when I had clawed my way through four years ago. It was rewarding to return to this spot four years later with a much deeper bag of experience in ice, mixed, rock, aid and alpine gained through the last three years of being in the NZ Alpine Team, to be able to negotiate the same moves, this time with even less ice, with much more control. It was good to see all the time spent dry tooling and scratching up the West Face of the Remarkables does pay off in the bigger mountains.

The first pitch. Rotten snow, poor rock, imaginary protection. A Mt Hutton classic.

Rose took on the next two technical pitches; slow difficult leads, we watched loose rock and ice cascade down the gulley as the rope inched upwards. But in the process she had surpassed our previous high-point and we were through the hardest climbing. We were ecstatic. Every turn of the corner revealed an exciting new view of the climbing that lay above, and from this point upwards it only got better and better. Rose was then treated to an incredible 40-metre pitch of pure, fat, plastic water ice - unheard of in New Zealand!

Setting out on another sugary traverse, Rose's speciality

Caleb seconding the crux pitch that had evaded me four years earlier

Rose climbing squeaky, plastic water ice. A classic pitch

Caleb, our packhorse from Darfield, carried the team onwards to the summit ridge, two moderate pitches and a long simul-climbing block to the top as the gradient relented. As always, the summit was still far beyond the top of the face, involving one 50m abseil and much deep snow plugging. By this point the Canterbury Alps were bathed in moon-light, a spectacular sight. Headlamps were unnecessary.

Stoked to be on the top of Mt Hutton with a full moon shining down on us

Reaching the summit revealed the mighty view west to the Aoraki/Mt Cook range, and unlike my previous climb with Caleb on Punta Herron, this time there wasn't a breath of wind. While climbing overseas provides amazing experiences, for three Kiwi mountaineers, nothing really beats the joy of climbing a new route in your own backyard, the New Zealand Southern Alps.

Sunset panorama from the summit ridge line

Approaching the base of Mt Hutton South Face, with the line of ascent marked

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Canada Ice - A Winter in the Rockies

It was 1998, I was stranded in Los Angeles airport, on a long haul flight back to New Zealand. Killing time, I stared at a world map. I still remember thinking, "I want to live in Canada in the winter."

Pilsner Pillar. One of the classic ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Almost twenty years later, that strange wish came true. Previously, I have always dreamt up my own trips and adventures in the homeland. Since becoming part of the New Zealand Alpine Team, the team commitment has included several overseas trips to world meccas of ice, rock and altitude to boost our mountain skills. Pencilled in over three years, these trips have made life planning easy.

Ben Dare on Louise Falls

Beginning with three weeks of ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies, I awoke my dormant dream of a Canadian winter and decided to stay on for four months after our compatriots had returned to NZ. Though risky, with no secure income guaranteed, the gamble would prove to pay off...

Myself on Bourgeau Left

Over three intense weeks, our group of ten climbers indulged in more frozen waterfalls than the average kiwi enjoys in a decade. While NZ has prolific mountaineering terrain, and we become skilled on rough approaches, exposed snow slopes and loose rock bands, we are rarely treated to columns of pure vertical water-ice.
Gemma Wilson on Weeping Wall

Adding to the challenge in Canada are debilitating temperatures, especially in the coldest month of January, with temperatures as low as -30 celcius. The screaming pain of thawing frozen hands was our inevitable companion on our first brutally cold climb of Louise Falls, and almost every other outing. Double boots designed for Himalayan altitudes were necessary to prevent frostnip on the coldest days of the season.

As the flick of our ice axe improved, our tick lists of the classic ice climbs grew, increasing in length and difficulty. A few weeks after the Alpine Team returned to New Zealand, I joined two new friends for a trip back up to the Icefields Parkway in the northern Rockies. Artem, from Russia, and Alexis, a Canmore local.

We started our ice fiesta with Murchison Falls, the perfect warm-up with four pitches of soft plastic ice up to WI4+. Conditions on this huge ice fall can vary wildly between the start and end of the 5-month Canadian ice season but we quickly realised how easy the climbing was in the relative warmth of late February compared to the cold, brittle ice in January. Alexis led her first pitch of WI4 from a cave belay at half height, having mentally recovered from the guilt of forgetting half of the quickdraws an hour earlier.

Myself, Artem and Alexis on Murchison Falls

All the hostels were fully booked that night so were forced to bivouac in the snow on the side of the road below our next objective: Curtain Call.

The majestic Curtain Call

Despite camping at the gate, we were still beaten to the base by a three man Spanish team. Improvising, I stretched a 70m pitch up the left-hand side of the massive pillar into a cave behind the central pillar. Instead of curving around onto the outside face, I climbed up to the curtain, towards the mystical blue light, and smashed my way through the shield and peered through to the outside world.

Breaking through the backside of the curtain halfway up Curtain Call

Just then, an ice axe appeared: the Spanish team was climbing up from the other side. I laughed and waited for them to pass before breaking out onto the steep chandeliers, stemming up a gulley to the top.

Myself on the right side of Curtain Call

In January we had made several trips to the famous Weeping Wall, an impressive sheet of ice a football field wide and 200 metres tall, only five minutes from the road. We had climbed it left, right and central, but due to conditions and weather, we never managed to venture onto the upper tier, to climb the notorious Weeping Pillar. A further 180 metres of "the most difficult plastic ice you'll ever climb". The biggest challenge is hitting it before the sun turns it into rotten slush, as many climbers had warned.

We fired up Weeping Wall left-side topping out on sunrise, now treating it as "approach ice", continuing up tracks to the Weeping Pillar, an intimidating jumble of chandeliers, snow mushrooms and hanging ice daggers. The three pitches were long, requiring crafty excavation for still dubious ice screw placements. We topped out just as conditions were deteriorating in the heat, and we V-threaded the melting waterfall as quickly as possible.

Artem, Alexis and I after the descent of the monstrosity that is the Weeping Pillar

If there was one climb we had our eyes set on more than any other, it was Polar Circus. One of the longest ice routes, although it starts off rambling, the top five pitches are a masterpiece of the Rockies, set deep in a powerful cleft. The avalanche hazard on this climb is notable, and we weighed up the risk carefully before committing to it.

Setting off excitedly at 3:30AM, we simul-climbed the first four easy pitches in darkness, and linked rope-stretchers up the first half of the upper tier at dawn, switching off headlamps in time for the business end finale- incredible, steep, featured ice. We wasted no time on the descent, literally running between abseil anchors, pulling the ropes as we galloped. The adrenaline was still pumping when we arrived back at the cars a fraction less than 7 hours after starting.

3AM, Artem and I ready for Polar Circus

Artem firing an ice axe salute to the upper tiers of Polar Circus on descent

After that success, the momentum was hot. Artem and I opened our eyes and started to dream, buoyed by the giddyness of tasting those mythical ice formations. Our next move followed quickly. A return to the windswept Ghost Valley, home to the Real Big Drip. We both knew this 200m monster of hard mixed and ice climbing was beyond us, with an opening pitch of friable M8 going on M9 rock into bullet hard ice blobs, steepening into outrageous WI7 overhangs.

Artem sights the Real Big Drip from a lookout on the approach

Artme climbing the bullet hard ice of the Real Big Drip first pitch

Even the approach was a challenge, and the icy wind had no mercy as we neared the intimidating formation. It was like nothing I had seen before, drip ice adhered to the rock in wild shapes and structures, disappearing out of sight above. The first pitch alone took two hours to lead, and two hours to second. Huge chunks of limestone peeled off as we climbed, I feared the whipper as I negotiated cryptic moves on small edges between spaced bolts.


Flash pump throbbed beneath my many layers of clothing. Shoelace thin ropes made seconding harder than leading, as every popped tool resulted in negative progress for Artem. We had tasted the next level, and decided to retreat. Humbled by the experience, and full of respect for the Real Big Drip, we vowed to return one day.

Retreat from Real Big Drip. The wildest & most inspiring ice formation I have ever seen

Soon after, the winter chill was replaced with unwelcome spring-time heat. Melting ice and ubiquitous avalanches drove us south to the Utah desert, in search of sun, splitter sandstone, and desert towers.

Fine Jade, The Rectory, Utah

On my return several weeks later, I was pleasantly surprised to find the icicles still hanging on. A sleep deprived welcome-back climb of Twisted in Field had me realise the spring conditions made for much easier climbing. The stage was set to take on some of the harder classics.

Twisted with Noburu Kiruchi. He later helped me land a job as a salad chef at the Grizzly Paw Brewery

Exploring new styles of dry tooling in a hidden cave above Canmore

Climbing a slender ice pillar accessed by bolted M7 choss-tooling, all while being pounded by spindrift

I soon found that the Stanley Headwall was in, and seeing action. Gemma Wilson and I attempted French Reality, but a snow storm blew in early and we made a hasty retreat.

Gemma skiing away from French Reality (right hand upper ice streak) as a storm rolls in

I returned a few days later with Michelle Kadatz, a super-keen ice & mixed aficionado from Calgary. We scratched back up to Gemma's highpoint, and proceeded to climb a hundred metres of the steepest, most sustained ice we had touched of the season. We couldn't feel too proud though, pushing into the mildness of April, it was practically a summer ascent. The same climb would be an order of magnitude more difficult in true winter conditions, a true WI6+.

Michelle Kadatz topping out French Reality

The season was closing, but Jason Dayman and I were frothing for a fierce finale. Michelle Kadatz had mentioned the mixed climb Man Yoga, put up a few years earlier by Jon Walsh & Jonny Simms on the Stanley Headwall. Something of a test piece it seemed. Steep M7 on trad, into a tenuous, thin M7 slab (not quite as heady with the retro-bolting), into a long pitch that culminates in an M8 roof pull. I made it through the roof on the onsight attempt, battling horrendous rope drag having run-out of long quick draws...

Jason Dayman approaches Man Yoga

Jason on the first pitch of M7 trad

Jason seconding the tenuous M7 dry tooling slab

Pumped out of mind, my picks wrenching rock loose from the wall, I felt I could peel off with the choss at any minute, but somehow hung on. "SLACK!!!" I yelled, tugging desperately at the tight ropes to clip the final quickdraw of the crux... I pulled so hard on those ropes, that I managed to pull myself off the wall, my grip finally failing, and I flew off into space. "Snap!" That was the sound of my umbilical leashes snapping. As I hung in mid air, dangling five metres below the roof, I looked up to see my ice axe wedged in a crack, the leash flapping around in the gentle breeze. I pulled back up and finished the pitch.

Jason coming through the M8 roof

Jason, a strong rock climber, followed up in bare hands. We bailed on the final ice pitch, which looked rotten. We needed the extra daylight to excavate Jason's skis, which had been buried by an enormous avalanche that had ripped overhead earlier in the day. Jason found his skis. We decided that was enough adventure for one winter in the Canadian Rockies.

Excavating our skis the day after the avalanche buried them

A week later I drove west to Vancouver Island, for six weeks of commercial prawn fishing around the beautiful inlets of west coast British Columbia. I was content to leave behind the winter of the Canadian Rockies, ready to start a new adventure...