Ice Ice Baby – beginner ice climb time

The first time I tried ice climbing it was an impromptu hour of top roping into a Moulin on the Mer du Glace last June. So not content with the array of supposedly dangerous mountain activities I already participate in, that short session was all it took for me to decide it was something I wanted to have a go at properly this winter. It’s fair to say that first ice climbing session may as well not count when compared to the waterfalls and river which defined my Ice climbing adventure this past weekend.

This winter has been a tough one for those seeking snow sports in the Chamonix valley. With only a handful of decent snowfalls between December and the end of February, it’s been far from ideal conditions for those in search of powder, but thankfully those bitterly cold, dry nights have ensured that the regions ice falls are in top nick.

On the advice of my guide for the day, an essential when you don’t have a buddy to teach you the skills, we headed to Congne on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massive to take on the Cascade de Lillaz, a stretch of undulating river and tall waterfalls which create a gloriously winding route for beginner ice climbing at grade 3.

With blue skies joining us for the day, there was something therapeutic about every thud of the ice axe securing in the shimmering ice whilst the sun streamed down.

With such good conditions, we weren’t alone on the ice, making for plenty of queues up to narrow stretches of ice. At one point the wait was looking like a good 30-40 minutes so in the spirit of adventure we headed for a steeper separate section to test out my skills whilst we waited to carry on the main route. A classic frozen column of water with dangling icicles, mushrooming lumps of ice and sections separating off, it was certainly steeper than it looked, I later found out it was graded at 4+.

After I belayed the guide it was my turn to follow, removing the ice screws and quick draws as I went. Wow was it hard. The arm pump started in a matter of minutes, the legs started shaking with every kick in, at one point I must have swung my left axe 15 times before it stuck due to the tiredness of my arm (it never helps when you are weaker on one side than the other). There was so many times I thought I was going to have to stop, to go back down.

Popping up over the top was incredible, adrenaline pumping and elated with completing a tough route for a complete novice, I felt invincible – well at least until the tiredness of my arms caught up with me. The only way to label it was tough but amazing. Unsurprisingly this means I might have found a nice addition to my mountain hobby list.

Bring on 2017

Everyone has come back from the Christmas break with the usual new year’s resolutions to eat better, exercise more etc etc. but for me 2017 is all about being outside, getting new qualifications and enjoying life.

I work in a pretty stressful job at times so getting outside is super important for me, being in the hills and mountains, weather it’s walking, climbing or skiing is my zen time and my time to refocus. Unsurprisingly this means my goals for the year are mountain orientated

So many people I know are doing 7 for 2017, but instead of seven I have just three:

  1. Climb the Matterhorn
  2. Climb the Eiger
  3. Get my Summer Mountain Leader qualification

None of these goals are going to be easy to accomplish, and in the case of the Matterhorn and the Eiger they will be both mental, physical and skill challenges for me. I’m hoping that by the end of the year I’ll have been able to tick them off.

I’m taking most of the year to train up for all three of these goals and I’ll be sharing my ups and downs with you on the way.

African giants

Wet. When people ask me how my trip to Kilimanjaro was, wet is the only way to describe it. I don’t think it’s quite the adjective they expect when they ask but forget having beautiful vistas on our assent of the world tallest freestanding mountain all we saw for days was rain, rain and more rain. Grey skies blocked out the sun on a fairly consistent basis turning to white as we reached higher ground, when snow took over from rain.

Unlike so many of my other trips, Kilimanjaro was never a mountain that I had a desperate desire to go and climb, rather a place I thought, yeah maybe one day. However, when the opportunity came up for a trip over New Year I knew it was something I couldn’t pass up. Thankfully it exceeded all expectations.

Aside from the unexpected weather it was a beautiful place, even in the rain it has an otherworldly beauty to it’s diverse landscape, from the rainforest at its base, which reminded me so much of something out of a mythical story, to the lunar-esq fields of boulders which appeared to stretch on forever and the sloping path of the crater rim. Forget the physical toll of being there, just thinking of it now makes me want to jump on the next flight.

But in all reality this was a tough challenge, far more than I thought it would be. Forget being a slow walk at altitude, at times this felt like a crawl, drag, move your self by any means assent, primarily thanks to it’s elevation. I love climbing mountains but every time the altitude always manages to almost surprise me, punishing your body and taking away the oxygen you so need.

Add to that my shockingly bad circulation and a sprinkle of exhaustion and it almost became comical as delirium set in. Needless to say there was several instances of laughing fits amongst our little group as the air got thinner.

With any adventure it’s only once you return that you start to forget the painful bits, everything starts to become so much rosier around the edges, something even a few days later I’m already noticing as I reminisce. All those hours complaining about how miserable we where because of the weather, now it seems insignificant. Those instances of getting so cold that I could barely move, and crying when I warmed up because it was so painful, surely weren’t that bad. Having to forcibly suck in air with each step into the never ending darkness, all but a distant foggy memory.

Now all I want to do is go back, to retrace each step and take new routes, explore all sides of this mountain which will always be a special place. All I can say is it was certainly worth the journey.

Talking to the Tough Girl Podcast

The Tough Girl Podcast has long been one of my favourite parts of the week, an eagerly anticipated Tuesday morning treat on my commute to work. So when I was asked to be part of the podcast’s 2017 series following seven real women with adventure challenges in 2017 how could I say no.

I’m not alone on this podcast adventure for the year, joined by six other incredible women: Georgie Akin Smith, Rae Red, Rachel Wise, Laura Try, Jen Dykxhorn and Jo Jo Rogers.

So here it is. Episode one of the 7 women 7 challenges 2017 series of the Tough Girl Podcast. If you’re keen to know more about what I’ve got in store for 2017 and why I chose to get into mountaineering in the first place take a listen, I start rambling about mountains at about 51:38.

Turning back isn’t easy … but at least there is tea

Not making it to the top of a mountain when that’s the sole focus of a trip is hard. This is the first time I’ve had to turn away from a mountain summit, and on Mt Toubkal in Morocco, a mountain I thought would pose no problem. Compared to EBC and Mt Blanc, I thought it would be a walk in the park, no technical skill required and not too high, just good stamina and strong legs. Oh how wrong I was.

Trying to conquer a 4000m mountain in a weekend is certainly not easy, more than anything it’s the rapid altitude gain. It was here my over confidence in the mountains caught me out. I forgot that whenever I’ve been at altitude I’ve always had proper acclimatisation time, yet going from sea level to over 3000m in less than 8 hours was not easy on my body. No matter how fit I was or how little altitude has affected me in the past, there’s no way to anticipate it happening.

When it started I thought it was simply mild heat stroke, dehydration and tiredness. But when it was no better the next morning I knew I had to make that decision to come down. Having seen first hand how dangerous altitude sickness can be when I climbed Mt Blanc, I was reluctant to put the rest of the team in the position I had been in – so focused on helping someone else that you don’t know what you’re doing until later.

As I sit writing this, with what can only be described as a mini Moroccan afternoon tea, I’m surrounded by the mountains that bested me on this occasion.

The mountains here are so different from the towering Himalaya or the beautifully rugged alps, here they feel older some how. As I look up at them my eyes immediately seek out what could be the best lines to climb up, which gully’s could be a mixed route and which ridge lines would be an exciting adventure. For this trip at least my mountain adventures are over but at least I know I made the right decision for my body.

It certainly knocks the confidence having to retreat from a summit, but it definitely feels like a retreat rather than a failure. If anything I’ve learnt a lot about how I need to climb and it reinforces my decision to start working with private guides rather than booking straight onto pre-planed trips. Not that the guide on the occasion was anything other than brilliant. I simply just need more flexibility in my trips and better acclimatisation time.

As frustrating as it is not making it, I feel in an odd way like this is good for my soul, to give me a reminder check that even ‘easy’ mountains bring their own risks. More so that being in these environments challenges you, encourages you to learn and puts you in a position to come back stronger. After all the mountains aren’t going anywhere, they will still be here in years to come with their rocky faces and snowy tops.

That first snowy ascent

Why on earth did I think this was a good idea. At over 4000 meters high, huffing and puffing my way uphill in the dark, I was seriously doubting my holiday plans to climb Mt Blanc. The tallest mountain in western Europe, Mt Blanc was a mountain I’d decided to climb just over 12 months earlier whilst descending the Khumbu valley in Nepal – I’ve always been bad for planning the next holiday before I’ve even got on the plane to leave the current one – but with absolutely no alpine climbing experience, let alone knowledge of how to use crampons or an ice axe, deciding to take of this snowy dome was one of my more hare-brained holiday ideas when I came up with it. Fast-forward to June 2016, and one Winter Skills course in Scotland later, I had arrived in Chamonix for what would be the most challenging thing I’d done up to that point.

Chamonix in the summer was so unlike my previous experience of this alpine town. The fact there was still people touting skis around in 20+ degrees whilst runners in shorts and vest tops bounded past was baffling, but only reinforced that it really is an outdoor playground. It certainly felt that way on our first day out with our guide, when he took us up onto the Mer de Glace to test out skills and introduce rope work. When this resulted in a quick dabble in ice climbing it felt like being at home, digging in axes and crampons to climb up out of moulins before abseiling back down again was brilliant, even if I was less that graceful whilst climbing over the moulin lip back onto the top of the glacier. It was a reassuring start to what would end up being a physically and mentally taxing week.

For Mt Blanc many companies encourage you to climb two people per guide. As a solo traveller this means I end up not knowing who will be my climbing buddy for the week until I meet them at the first course briefing, somewhat of a concern when you don’t know if they will have put in the same effort to skill up or if they will be as physically fit as you are.

Unfortunately, these concerns came to fruition for me. I was landed with a perfectly pleasant but slightly incompetent individual who in hindsight really shouldn’t have done the trip given their existing level of skill. Now I’m all for encouraging others to give things like this a go, but at the end of the day, when someone puts other peoples lives at risk because they haven’t taken the time to learn the necessary skills it’s not good.

I don’t know what I really expected when we set off for our two day assent of Mt Blanc, hot weather and lots of people was probably not it. But then heatstroke wasn’t something I anticipated getting either. Ascending next to the notorious Grand Couloir, getting sunburnt and overheating because you can’t stop to get water is not the typical picture most would associate with a snowy scene. Starting to loose vision and having to rely on stuffing snow and ice under my helmet and on my neck to lower my body temperature was the only way I managed to push myself on to the Goutier hut, our stop for the evening. It certainly brought home just how carefully balanced our bodies are and how easy it can be to get into trouble somewhere like this.

Like a Bond villains lair in the late 60’s, the Goutier Hut peaked at us all day from its spot on the near vertical mountain face. It is by far one of the nicest mountains huts I’ve ever been in, with clean, warm dorms, friendly staff and delicious French food. I almost didn’t want to ever leave. With an early start on the cards admiring the sunset from such an amazing place wasn’t an option no matter how tempting it might have been.

Unseasonably warm weather greeted us at 2am on summit day, trying to judge layering was tough. Zigzagging up the mountain side in the dark felt like a slog, not helped by stopping every few minutes for the guide to shout at the 3rd member of our group for standing on the rope. It seemed to go on forever, my one distinct memory of it was debating with myself why I thought it was a good idea to this trip at all. However, the second those first rays of light peaked out from the horizon all thoughts of difficulties vanished. It became a desperate desire to see more, see further, stand above it all on the illusive mountain summit.

After curving round crevasses, along ridge lines and over what seemed to be endless false summits we made it to the top of Mt Blanc.

There are no words to truly describe the feeling of standing there, the magnificent alps seem to stretch out in all directions, snow capped peak after snow capped peak like gleaming spires as far as the eye could see. Standing there it’s so easy to forget that the journey is only 50% complete, that you can’t relax just yet. After all it’s well known that more accidents happen on the decent of a mountain.

Needless to say the decent of Mt Blanc was certainly more eventful for our trio when it became apparent that the other person who had paid to be on the trip, who hadn’t really had the request skills or fitness, hadn’t told anyone that he was experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. When combined with exhaustion it resulted in a situation I certainly wouldn’t want to relive anytime soon. Trying to literally talk someone down a mountain for hours is hard. And if I’m totally honest, more than a little scary when your attached by a rope to someone who is becoming an increasing danger to everyone else.

Force feeding him sweets, water and making him move when all he wanted to do was sit down was an ordeal, and when we considered how we would get him down anything which involved him doing more than a stumbling dragging walk the decision was made to call in the helicopter. He had become too much of a liability, and a risk to not only himself but our own lives, to take him any further down the mountain than the Goutier hut. Seeing the helicopter land to collect him was a welcome relief before my guide informed me that we were now over 4 hours behind schedule. We should have already been back in Chamonix celebrating out successful summit, instead we faced a race to make the last train of the day and all that stood between us making it was several thousand meters of snow, rock and ice including a crossing of the Grand Couloir during the hottest part of the day, when rock fall is most likely.

I’ve never been so glad that I rock climb, deciding the rocky ridge line, finding hand and foot placements seemed like a dream compared with earlier experience on far simpler terrain. Aside from ducking a few falling rocks the rest of the descent was a breeze and a few child-like toboggans later we reached the train to take us back down to the car we had left the previous day.

With the rose tinted glasses on, which everyone wears when reminiscing, it was an incredible trip, one I still can’t quite believe I’ve done, at least not until I look down at the two black toenails I acquired on the trip. It at least makes a strong reminder of what I’ve accomplished for the next six months.