Mark Thomas IFMGA, Sponsored by Jottnar
To say I've fluked the weather the past few weeks would be an understatement. Kate, a very good client of mine, booked me for some winter climbing in the Lakes and Scotland many months ago and whilst skiing some of the best powder I can remember here in the French Alps, I doubted we would get conditions for a UK winter hit. How wrong I was.
Rocking up into Ambleside at sunset, the Langdale Pikes winked their snowy eyes at me across Lake Windemere and around the Fairfield cirque, darkness left me only a glimpse of whiteness as the excitement already began to rise deep inside me, winter climbing in the Lakes, woop, woop!
Next morning, totally fired up, we headed into Red Tarn Cove on Helvellyn, in classic UK winter conditions, wind we could hardly stand up in and visibility, yea, pretty poor. Climbing on Viking Buttress was tip top! With the occasional gust attempting to whip me off the crag and fly me back to the comfort of the car, life on the fells was as I remember it from my student days, living the dream here in Ambleside, totally cool.
We crawled off the summit and back down to the car brimming from ear to ear with excitement and expectation for our next adventure, whilst in front of the fire at base camp, in Grassmere, our glowing faces tell the story of windswept fells and mixed climbing on cliffs that feel like my second home, how very cool it is to be back in the Lakes.
Day 2, sees us battling across the Climbers' Traverse on Bowfell, roped up, moving from rock island to rock island in white out conditions, trying to avoid the windslab plaguing the hillside, created by the constant gale which seems endless and has with it, a destructive feel today.
We arrive at the base of North Buttress and I feel a glow as memories rush back, memories of good days spent here with very good friends of mine, having mini adventures, new routing in winters' past on routes such as 'Soul Vacation' and 'The Gnomon', amazing times, really amazing times. How lucky we were back then that stunning lines like these still hadn't received a winter ascent, that they were there, to be tried, to be ventured and that we had the enthusiasm and motivation to give them a go and have some of the neatest UK winter climbing experiences I can remember.
Just to the right of 'The flying Gimp Trick' is a small buttress with an obvious left corner running up to an overhanging upper headwall, "Super Storm", IV,4, the first of our new routes on this trip, climbs the buttress. Through the spindrift and chaos of the storm, Kate pop's her axes over the top of the wall to greet me on a very blustery summit, we smile and skip our way back down the Band to the warmth of the Old Dungeon Ghyll Inn, whilst the skies close in upon another adventure and the open fire welcomes our hearts. It's moments like these which create memories to hold and recount in years to come, they're the sort of memories to fill a story with glowing reminiscence, a personal experience held in time, it's unique, it's totally awesome!
Over the next few days we continue to climb through all the storms the Lakes and Scotland can throw at us, from Stob Choire Nan Lochain, to Crinkle Crags.
When on day nine, we find ourselves in deep snow, back on Helvellyn, on Brown Cove crags and powering our way up through the spindrift avalanches on “Two Grooves” a two star IV,6**, a striking open corner at the top of the crag. Today, my Jottnar ‘Alfar’ mid layer and ‘Vania’ salopette are really doing their thing. Conditions are brutal! So full on is the weather,that we decide to go back down into the corrie for a second route! The 1st ascent of “Jetstream” ** VI,6. This route climbs the cracked headwall to the right of “Two Grooves”, wild!
As we top out, the clouds begin to break and we are at one with the most beautiful view Lakeland can offer and with a renewed injection of excitement, we nip up to the summit, to sit, to stare, to take on board the beauty our wonderful island allows us to share in, I love the UK, magical!
Our last day and the Gods throw everything they have at us! Pavey Arc, the crag, “Gwynne’s Chimney”* IV,5, the route of choice, the weather, Scary!
The car park at Stickle Barn is deserted, all the Inns and Coffee shops are empty, the UK, according to the media, is on ‘lock –down!, we are in the midst of a hurricane!
Kate and I wander up to Pavey, not really aware of the weather that’s boiling above our heads, or aware of the battering we are about to face. We get pummeled! We press on, our kit and our souls get pushed to the limit as we haul ourselves up the cliffs and onto the summit. Conditions on top are crazy, we wade and stumble our way off the hill, down in to the rain and to our lonely car, still by its lonesome in the valley below. When conditions in the mountains are so brutal, there is an overwhelming feeling of, ‘being alive!’ it’s so powerful all I can do is giggle!
Before I even have time to reflect on my UK adventures, I’m on a long haul flight to Sapporo, in Northern Japan, on the Island of Hokkaido, this time with my skis and a whole load of jet lag!
The beauty of this wonderful skiing island, is the fact that it doesn’t stop snowing and it’s cold, really cold, perfect powder skiing, woop, woop!
A week of skiing in ‘cotton wool’, with sun on our backs, Kaz, my client from Sapporo and I rip up some totally amazing mountains around Kiroro, with perfect snow, perfect views and most importantly, a perfect ski buddy, nice one Kaz!
Just as I’m settling into my new time zone, I’m swooshed back onto the landing strip at Geneva and the same afternoon back on some Chamonix steep mixed with Tom. The weather has completely changed from the un-settled winter storms, to a big fat Azores High, bonzai!!
Conditions are totally mega. Wall to wall sunshine, not a breath of wind and a super stable snow pack, climbing heaven!
A quick Perroux/Profit out of the passerelle couloir, where I manage to snap the shaft on my axe torquing in a crack, oops! We climb the rest of the route tag teaming with Tom’s axe, a little time consuming. Then the next day a hit on the Pre de Bar with a winter room bivi in the Argentiere refuge to warm up, then next morning a rapid ski down to the valley to meet my client for the rest of the week.
La Pepite on the Petit Aiguille Verte is totally dry, making it difficult mixed, but really good fun and with the sun bathing the Aiguille D’Argentiere and the Chardonnet, the backdrop is breathtaking. We slip slide on our planks down to the warmth of the valley before the following day heading up to the Plan D’Aiguille winter room and a very cool, but rather thin, Fil A Plomb. Moving together through the moonlit ice at the start of the North Face, the crux pitches appear from nowhere, steep, thin ice for breakfast, woop, woop!
The sun breaks the darkened sky into a sea of blue as we swing our axes in tune to the squeaky snow ice and the purity of movement in the high mountains. We top out on the Midi–Plan Traverse to the greeting of sun drenched rocks and the extra training benefit of the long climb up to the Aiguille Du Midi, just in time for the Last bin down to Chamonix.
Next day we’re back up the Midi on the 1st bin for a dry M6 Solar and a ski down the Valley Blanche to Chamonix. Day 5/6 finds us kipping in the Argentiere refuge ready for an Alpine start on ‘Madness Tres Mince’, very nice, and a beautiful ski back to the valley, ace!
I hook up with Tom and my client heads for Geneva airport. Cragging in the valley on hot rock, feels a bit weird, my body seems all confused with these transitions from powder to ice to rock, I’m on a conveyor belt and can’t get off, it’s all moving so quickly and I’m loving every minute!
Back up on the Midi with all the luxuries of a bivi in the Perroux wooden box, together with some dehydrated curry, cappuccino and plenty of banter, the sun sets over the Jorasses whilst we settle down as the moon casts sheets of silver over the Blanc, we rest, ready for another day of alpine adventures.
3.00am and we’re bumping our way, in the dark, over the satstrugi on our skis to the start of the Modica-Noury goulotte . We move together over the first few hundred meters with just the glow of the head-torch guiding our path, when at last, the sun creeps up behind me on the crux pitch, setting the whole route on fire, amazing!
We descend and skin back up to the Midi station, just for training! Time for a quick expresso, before we hook up with Suze and together we ski down to the Pellissier on the East Face of Pointe Lachenal for a quick route before the fast descent to Cham with the sun falling to sleep behind the Blanc, nice one Tom and Suze, top day!
All this Alpine training is part of our preparation for our big pioneering expedition to Tajikistan at the end of April 2014. We will be a team of 4, myself, Tom , Suze and a good friend of ours, Rich. The objectives of the expedition are to explore and climb in an area un-explored before and to climb and ski peaks of around 5,000m – 6,000m in height, awesome! We leave Geneva for Dushambe on the 27th of April, bring on Tajiki!