Great Whernside fell race

Last Saturday was the Great Whernside fell race, an annual affair starting from the village of Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales. I’m gradually getting back into the running and so thought it about time I enter my first race in 18 months. I wasn’t sure how my fitness would compare with how it was before I got injured, and so didn’t really have a clue where I would come in the race.

The route is a classic and relentless 4-mile straight up and down, with barely any respite in either direction. Intense would be an apt description, as right from the off you are thrown up a barely-runable field, before being let loose onto the energy-zapping, shoe-snatching bogs that, whilst being slightly flatter, are equally as draining. A few rockier sections in between where a welcome break, despite being the steepest parts of the race. The descent is equally as punishing, not necessarily because of the terrain, but because it is fast.

Struggling my way up!

Struggling my way up!

I set out in around 30th position and soon worked my way up to 20th by the end of the first field. Lactic acid was pumping through my legs and my breathing was laboured, but I felt surprisingly good and decided to push on at the same pace. I picked up another couple of places over the next mile or so to put myself in around 15th at the summit. I naively thought that I would get a rest on the way down, but I realised this wouldn’t be the case as the guy in front set off back down at a blistering pace. I was soon overtaken by a few others, by managed to hang on to 18th position by none-less-than a sprint all the way down. I took a few tumbles in the tussocky bog, but fortunately didn’t do myself any injuries.

On the descent

On the descent

I was a mere few seconds from 17th place at the finish – perhaps had the race been 200m longer I would have got it – but in the end I was very pleased with my 36:25, especially when compared with the winning time of 31:49 from Ian Holmes. Can’t wait until the next race!

Thanks to Woodentops for the great pictures!

La Grande Moucherolle, Vercors Plateau

The weather forecast was pretty dismal for second weekend that I had in Grenoble, and so a weekend trip to bag another Alpine peaks were out of the question! Instead, I turned my attention to a smaller but equally as impressive peak in the immediate vicinity of Grenoble: La Grande Moucherolle.

La Grande Moucherolle, Vercors Plateau

The public transport around Grenoble and its suburbs is fantastic, with frequent bus services reaching the base of many good walks in the area. We had been given a ticket pre-loaded with ten TAG journeys on urban buses and trams, and when planning for the second weekend I was there, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that I could get as far as les Saillants-du-Gua (about an hour away by bus) using the ticket on the number 17 bus. There is also another “Flex” bus service from les Saillants to Prélenfrey, but this has to be booked in advance (and owing to the ever-changing weather forecast I hadn’t got around to planning a route until the Friday evening – too late to book!). This left me with 1900m of ascent to the summit of my objective for the day – La Grande Moucherolle – and I decided this would be worth it to make the most of the free transport.

The forecast was pretty terrible, and the rain was meant to start around midday at the latest. Hence, I opted for an early start, and after catching the 7am bus from Trois Dauphins, I was walking by 8am. The first part of the route was nothing but a drag – for the sake of saving time and getting into the mountains as quickly as possible, I’d opted to walk along the road. A few hours and 600m of ascent later, I arrived in Prélenfrey, already feeling tired. Fortunately, my route then took me off-road and wound its way up through forest tracks to eventually reach the Barquette des Clos, a small shelter perched on the impressive Balcon Est. I was relying on there being a source of water at the shelter, as I had read previously, but upon reaching the so-called source I was dismayed to find it was completely dry. I decided to press on, but keep a careful eye on how much I was drinking. The rain that was forecast hadn’t materialised either, and the sun had made an appearance, making the lack of water even more frustrating.

The beautiful Balcon Est path, looking southwards down the edge of the Vercors Plateau

My route to la Grande Moucherolle was via the Col des Deux Soeurs, which is gained via a loose scree gully between the Deux Soeurs, with a few rocky steps of British grade I scrambling standard. There are vague signposts to the col, but they are not necessarily to be relied upon. From the Barquette des Clos, the best route is to follow the Balcon Est for a few kilometres until you are directly above a refuge at the top of the Col de l’Arzelier telesieges. Here, a good path branches off right and zigzags its way up the grassy slopes beneath the cliffs of the Deux Souers. Upon reaching the base of the cliffs, it traverses northwards back towards the col. A signpost marks the obvious start to the route up to the col. It isn’t until you reach the base of these cliffs that you truly realise their scale, which is quite breathtaking and also intimidating, especially when traversing under then.

Traversing under the Deux Soeurs

Traversing under the Deux Soeurs

The gully to the col didn’t pose too many difficulties, but was a little loose in places. I had a bite to eat once at the col, enjoying the unique limestone landscape that makes up the Vercors plateau, before taking a vague path that lead to the base of the eastern ridge up la Grande Moucherolle, a ridge which warrants an Alpine grade of F, and felt around I/II British scrambling grade. It is a little exposed in places, especially at the top, but there are quite a few options to limit the exposure. I couldn’t see any need for a rope, unless your party is particularly inexperienced.

Looking back down the route to the col

Looking back down the route to the col

La Grande Moucherolle from the Col des Deux Soeurs

La Grande Moucherolle from the Col des Deux Soeurs

The eastern ridge of la Grande Moucherolle

The eastern ridge of la Grande Moucherolle

The summit commands an extensive view southwards across the Vercors plateau, and despite being very tired from the climbing and dehydrated from my lack of water, I decided the it was definitely the worth the ascent. It helped that I had the summit to myself, and I spent quite a while taking in the view. The time was now mid-afternoon and I was conscious that the last bus back of the day was at 7pm. With this is mind, I threw away my original plan of descending via the Pas de l’Oeille, and instead went back the same way as I ascended.

The summit

Looking southwards down the edge of the Vercors Plateau

Looking southwards down the edge of the Vercors Plateau

The descent dragged on and on, and by the time I reached les Saillants, I was tired and completely dehydrated. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the actual distance of the route – as I previously mentioned, the planning was a bit last minute – and so I was very surprised that when I had a closer look at the map that it came to a shade under 30km. No wonder my legs were aching! I had a quick coffee in a coffee opposite the bus stop, before catching the 6pm bus back. Strangely, the weather had stayed dry all day, and did so until the minute I stepped back inside my appartment – perfect!

Aiguille de Goléon

During my time in Grenoble (see this post), I trying to make the most of every opportunity I got to get out into the surrounding mountains. One of my objectives was to get at least one Alpine route done, and after some extensive research, a guy on the UKC forums suggested that the Aiguille de Goléon’s voie normalle from La Grave would be suitable as a solo ascent. As I was out on my own, the prerequisites for any route I did were that it was technically easy enough to climb without a rope, and also that any glaciers crossed were (relatively) uncrevassed and considered “safe”. Aiguille de Goléon fitted this description perfectly, having only a small uncrevassed glacier and a long, exposed but technically easy (maybe UK scrambling grade II, UIAA I) ridge to the summit.

Conveniently, there is a coach service that runs from Grenoble to Briancon, via La Grave. I picked up a ticket from Grenoble’s Gare Routiere on the Saturday morning (at the rather steep price of €17.35 for a single) and jumped on board the 11:45am coach, which got me to La Grave for 1:15pm. There is a road that takes you right up the valley to Valfroide, but I unfortunately had to walk this section. I didn’t really mind though, as it was a pleasant walk with plenty of lovely scenery and quaint hamlets along the way. Clouds started rolling in on the zig-zagging ascent to the Refuge de Goléon, and for a moment I thought that it might rain. I didn’t stop at the refuge, but instead carried on for a few more kilometres up to the end of the valley, past the Lac du Goléon and unique marsh-lands that lie beyond it.

Lovely bivvy spot for the evening

Lovely bivvy spot for the evening

The clouds started to clear somewhat as I set up my bivvy. I went for a quick walk up the first part of the route to make my life easier in the darkness of the next morning, before retiring to my sleeping bag for a cold night’s sleep.

I awoke to a thin layer of ice over my belongings, and was very glad I’d packed my down jacket, which stayed on for a good proportion of the ascent. The route didn’t really require quite as early an “Alpine start” as the 4.30am that I chose, but I wanted to be at least nearly on the ridge for the sunrise. This paid off, because after initially getting lost on the morraines (I’m seriously getting worried about my cairn-following abilities, after the Pointe de la Réchasse incident as well), I was treated to the most spectacular sunrise just as I reached the ridge. The route to the ridge was mainly on rocky glacial morraine, with a small uncrevassed glacier to reach the ridge.

Sun rising as I reached the ridge

Sun rising as I reached the ridge

Fantastic gradient of colours in the sky

Gradient of colours in the sky

I’ve seen some good cloud inversions in my time, but the one that I was treated to whilst scrambling my way up to the summit was undoubtedly the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed. At first, the clouds were bathed in a rich yellow light and everything around was painted golden. As the sun rose, the yellows were replaced by a vividly blue sky with crystal-clear white clouds beneath. The odd cloud forming interesting shapes on the horizon just added to the picture-perfect views. The position of the ridge certainly helped: On the left-hand side the views extended for out to the Mont Blanc range, whilst on the right the much-closer Écrins National Parc showed off it’s highest peaks. To top it all off, the scrambling was good fun and the rock quality surprisingly sound. There were plenty of exposed sections which made the views seem even more stunning.

Barre des Écrins and la Meije on the other side of the ridge

Barre des Écrins and la Meije on the other side of the ridge

Looking back down the ridge

Looking back down the ridge

Even though it was bitterly cold on the summit, I made a point of hanging around and taking in the views. Descending the ridge included a few small sections of easy down climbing, but nothing too difficult at all. As I was crossing the glacier, the groups that had set out at a later time (perhaps 6am) from the Refuge de Goléon were just making their way up; I was smug in the knowledge that they’d missed out on one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen. In fact, the cloud inversion had began to dissipate, making me doubly glad of the early start.

Views from the summit (spot Mont Blanc!)

Views from the summit (spot Mont Blanc!)

Unfortunately it did mean that I had a 5 hour wait in La Grave for the bus, but that didn’t really bother me as I was still high off what a fantastic morning I’d had.

Lac du Goléon (left), La Meije (centre) and Refuge du Goléon (right)

Lac du Goléon (left), La Meije (centre) and Refuge du Goléon (right)