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)

Vanoise: Sport climbing at La Fraiche

My final post on our trip to the Vanoise is about a great little sport climbing crag that we visited quite a few times in the two weeks we were there. It’s name is La Fraiche and it lies only five minute’s walk away from Camping le Chamois.  This crag is split up into four different sections, the easiest and most frequented being the “Grande Falaise” section, which is literally 10 metres from the road. The ease-of-access does mean the crag is extremely popular with climbing schools, so expect large groups of children throughout the summer months. There are plenty of routes to chose from, ranging from 3 right up to 7b. A guide to the crag (and others around Pralognan) can be bought from the Bureau des Guides for £2.

The crag was in a fantastic location!

The crag was in a fantastic location!

Although most of the routes are actually multipitch, it is commonplace to climb the first pitch and then be lowered back down. We had some great fun on the easier-graded first pitches whilst dodging bad weather on the second week we were there. On the last morning there, we decided to attempt one of the multipitches that we’d done the first pitch on earlier in the week. The route was La Traversée, a four-pitch 3+ route probably akin to a hard British Diff or easy VDiff, and which gets the Alpine grade of III/IV-, AD.

Our bus back down to Moutiers was at 5pm and so with the fact that we still had to pack up our belongings in mind, we made an early start. A few others had had the same idea, most likely to avoid the midday sun, and it certainly wasn’t warm when we started up the first pitch. I took the lead first of all, as I was keen to repeat the pitch which I’d struggled on earlier in the week; the guide reckons it has “one move of 4a”, though personally I felt the entire pitch was a solid 4a. The difficulties arise because of a few delicate balancing traverses one has to make across rocks that jut out. In particular, one sequence of moves has you pulling up on a slightly-overhanging block so that you are balanced with your right foot on a rightwards-leaning slab whilst being thrown backwards by the overhanging rock. Your left foot must then find a foothold that at first seems far-too-far away, and then you must trust this and use the overhanging rock to pull leftwards to gain better handholds to the left of the rock. I enjoy this kind of climbing that isn’t so much about physical strength, but more so about ingenuity and requires a lot of thought about what your next move will be.

Start of the third pitch

Start of the third pitch

I squeezed onto the belay alongside a French couple doing another route, and they kindly waited until Lorna and followed me up and lead the next pitch. The route gets its name for its line that traverses rightwards across the crag, and this line was picked up on this pitch, which comprised a ramp and a few blocks. I took over for the third pitch, and regretted trying to squeeze behind a flake that was probably a little too small for me. The final pitch was technically easy but in a very exposed position, and the view down to the base of the crag was quite dizzying. We reached the top just as the sun was shedding light onto the crag; just in time! We both thoroughly enjoyed the route, which would probably be a classic if it was in Britain. It’s just a shame that it’s bolted!

Belay before the final pitch

Belay before the final pitch

Topping out in the sun

Topping out in the sun

Not a bad view, eh!?

Not a bad view, eh!?

Vanoise: Walking (and running) around Pralognan

The spell of good weather we saw on the first week of our Alps trip wasn’t to last, but that meant we got to really explore the area around Pralognan and do some fantastic walks and runs, a few of which I’ll document here in the hope they’ll be useful for someone travelling to the area. If “trekking” isn’t your thing and Alpine summits are all you’re after, then these ideas would make perfectly good acclimatisation days.

Petit Mont Blanc (2680m)

I’ve been up this mountain once before, on a holiday with my parents in 2005, and I made a point of returning as I remember thoroughly enjoying it the first time around. I’m not sure what gave me the idea to do it as a run instead of a walk, nor why I chose to do it the day after Dome de Sonnailles when my legs were still aching, but it definitely paid off! So, at 6am on Sunday, I found myself running up the track towards Les Prioux with a small bag containing a camera, one litre of water, windproof jacket, gloves, map and 300g of brioche. Similar to the previous morning (when we got rain on the summit of Dome de Sonnailles), a rather heavy shower passed through, but fortunately just as I had reached a particularly tree-covered part of the track, enabling me to take shelter. I reserved the first path up the mountain that I reached for the descent (which me and my Dad had descended 8 years prior), instead choosing the second route – the “sentier du foret” – a path that I hadn’t been up before. The path zigzagged its way up the mountain for what seemed an eternity. It was excruciatingly runable; just at that angle that is too shallow to warrant walking but too steep to be comfortably runable. It took me an hour and forty minutes to ascend, only stopping once to re-tie my shoe laces. I spent a good few minutes on the summit admiring the views over to where we’d been in the previous week, eating my brioche and drinking most of the water, before heading off at speed to return back to the valley just within the “two hours from valley to summit and back” target I’d set myself.

I remembered the descent from 2005 as being steep, but I didn’t remember it being quite as steep as it was! I struggled down in my Inov-8 fell shoes, which after a few years of solid use are becoming a little light on the tread. There was a fair bit of slipping and sliding, and a Lance Armstrong moment when I overcooked a corner and took the “short way” to the next zigzag through some bushes, but I eventually made it down in one piece. It was then just a case of struggling along the valley path back to the campsite for a cup of coffee and breakfast number two. Total time from campsite to summit and back: 2 hours 46 minutes.

Summit of Petite Mont Blanc, with La Grande Casse in the background

Summit of Petite Mont Blanc, with La Grande Casse in the background

Crete du Mont Charvet (2362m) and Rocher de Villeneuve (2197m)

The day after Petit Mont Blanc, the forecast was for thunderstorms in the afternoon and so any Alpine summit attempts were off the cards. Instead, we decided to do a walk and hopefully be off any exposed ground for when the storms hit. The Crete du Mont Charvet, a long ridge running north from Dents de la Portetta, is visible from Pralognan and caught our attention as a possible route earlier in the week. After checking the map it seemed completely plausible to do a loop encompassing Col de la Grande Pierre, Crete du Mont Charvet and Rocher de Villeneuve.

We followed an array of yellow signs from Pralognan to Col de la Grande Pierre, which offered a choice of routes in a number of places. We chose the “sentier du foret” in hope of shade, though it actually turned out to be mainly a large forest track through quite open ground rather than the little forest footpath we’d been hoping for. All the routes converge near “La Montagne”, a little mountain village sitting underneath Crete du Mont Charvet, before making the ascent of the Couloir de la Grande Pierre to the col of the same name.

The “col” is one of those Alpine cols that isn’t really that much lower than its adjoining ridge, and we only had a few more metres of ascent to do to gain the high point of the day on the Crete. We worked our way day the path that wound its way in, over and around obscure lunar-esque terrain, comprising many quartz ridges and craters with pine trees popping up at random locations. Word or photos don’t do justice to how unique and interesting the Crete was; you really have to see it for yourself!

We were soon down at the Col du Golet and quick dashed up Rocher de Villeneuve before the ominous looking thunderclouds reached us. As we gained the summit, huge growls of thunder could be heard and impressive fork lightening could be seen striking peaks ever-closer to ours. In reality, we had plenty of time to get off the exposed ground, but being struck by lightening in the Alps last year was still fresh on my mind and we didn’t hang about on the descent. The rain hit just as we reached a few little chalets, under the eves of which we took shelter. Fortunately, the worst of the storm skimmed past where we were and so we only got a bit of a shower, before enjoying the refreshing walk back down to Pralognan.

Crete du Mont Charvet

Crete du Mont Charvet

Col de Napremont (2185m)

Immediately visible from Pralognan, rising in front of ominous Dents de la Portetta, is an opened topped grassy hill standing at 2185m. Whilst the hill is nameless on the map, the col between it and the aforementioned Dents is labelled the Col de Napremont, and it seems to me at least that this is the name used to refer to the hill as well. We’d been eyeing it up for a while and on one rainy morning I decided it was time to have a quick run up it. The plan was to approach it from the south and descend on the north side. However, after firstly running far too far up les Prioux valley and having to retrace my steps, I found a sign saying my chosen route was “closed” and had been for a number of years; they obviously haven’t updated the maps yet! A good path lead from here up through the Bois de la Cholliere, and I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether I obeyed the sign or not. However, for future reference, I would strongly advise anyone visiting to col to definitely obey the sign – whether I’m advising that from having been up it and regretting my decision, or simply looking down from the col over the extra-steep waist-high grassy slopes to the south, is your guess!

The northern route to the col was surprisingly varied, and a few days later, on another rainy afternoon, Lorna and myself went for a walk up there. It starts off by winding its way up through the forest, before throwing you out onto open slopes above on a zigzagging path that takes everything from boulder-strewn hillside to dense vegetation. We didn’t have much of a view when we reached the top, but somehow that didn’t really matter as the clouds shrouded the neighbouring hills made for an equally as impressive view.

View back down to Pralognan

View back down to Pralognan

Pointe de la Véliere (2467m)

The weather turned good once more for our final weekend in Pralognan, and so we decided to catch the bus to the neighbouring valley of Champagny to attempt Sommet de Bellecote. Unfortunately, however, Lorna’s long-term hip injury started playing up on the walk in to the Refuge de Plaisance, and so instead we opted for a bivvy in the valley and the following morning I went for a walk up Pointe de la Véliere before we caught the bus back.

There was about 1000m of ascent from the valley base to the summit, and so I set off nice and early (4am) to make sure I was down in plenty of time to catch our bus at midday. This also had the added benefit that it was still nice and cool. The entire of my ascent was done under headtorch light, so I haven’t much to say for the view! It was quite a drag with no reference frame other than a few steps in front of me. Fortunately, it started to get light when I reached the Col de la Bauche de Mio, which was at the start of the kilometre-long ridge running south to the summit. The ridge was mainly grassy but with a few rocky exposed steps to add a bit of excitement, and it was in an excellent position with grand views either side. On the east lay the sleepy valley of Champagny-le-Haut, with the ominous backdrop of Le Grand Bec, whilst to the west the view reached far out towards the Écrins. I was treated to a spectacular cloud-inversion to the west, which looked striking in the early-morning light.

Unfortunately I was a little bit too quick on the ascent to witness sunrise on the summit, but that did mean that I could make the most of the walk down and enjoy the views that I didn’t have on the way up!

Looking back down the Champagny valley

Looking back down the Champagny valley

Lovely bivvy spot for the evening!

Lovely bivvy spot for the evening! (Don’t worry, we were outside of the National Park).

Fantastic clouds!

Fantastic clouds! To the east of the ridge.

The ridge itself

The ridge itself

 

 

 

 

Cheese, cheese and more cheese

Today is my final day of a three-week summer school in Grenoble. Our timetable has been hectic at best and so my apologies for the long delay in posting my final posts from the Vanoise, something that I will do over the course of the next week. I’ve also had some pretty amazing adventures in the mountains around Grenoble whilst I’ve been here, so no doubt you’ll hear about them in due course.

Three weeks is a fair amount of time to spend away, especially when coupled with the two-and-a-bit weeks we were in the Vanoise shortly before this, and I’ll admit that I’m definitely missing Britain. So, in a break from my tradition of only writing about mountains, here are my (intendedly light-hearted) reflections on what’s good and what’s not about staying in France.

Why I miss Britain

  • Wholemeal bread. Don’t get me wrong, I love baguettes, but after three weeks of them I’ve had enough!
  • British weather. There, I said it! I’ve always maintained that I enjoy Britain’s weather, and I definitely feeling that more than ever now. I’m longing for a damp and misty day up on the moors, or a wet and windy day scrambling over some ridge line in Snowdonia; you can’t beat it. All this sunshine (ironically it’s just starting raining as I write this) is great for a change, but it lacks the dynamicicity and unpredictability of good old Blighty.
  • British cheese. We’ve been given more cheese in the past few weeks than I’m likely to have for the rest of my life; they definitely lived up to their stereotype! I do like French cheese, and some of my favourite cheese include Tomme de Chevre and Blue d’Avergne, but I still maintain that we have the better selection at the end of the day. Though apparently, no one outside of Britain knows about our great selection – I spent a good part of my three weeks educating people!
  • Driving on the left. I hired a bike whilst I was here, and I never did get used to cycling on the right; it just feels wrong.
  • British mountains. The Alps are all well and good, but they’re still not a patch on our hills. I’m also fed up of following signs and am longing to do some proper mapwork again!
  • Rock quality. Whilst we’re on the subject, I’m fed up of crumbly Alpine rock and having to test every single handhold before making a move. It makes me appreciate how lucky we are in Britian to have such good rock!

Why I’ll miss France

  • Tomatoes. Well, fruit and veg in general, but I’ve picked tomatoes as there’s probably the biggest difference between Sainsbury’s tomatoes (tastless and watery) to Carrefour’s tomatoes (rich, juicy and full of flavour).
  • Croissants and pain au chocolat. I do love a good croissant, and they’re just not the same over in the UK.
  • Good coffee. You’re hard pushed to find a bad coffee in France!
  • Provisions for cyclists. As far as a city goes, Grenoble is really good for cycling around. Cycle lanes are marked out everywhere, for the most part bikes get priority over cars and drivers genuinely seem aware of their two-wheeled counterparts; possibly because there are so many of us.
  • Cheap wine. I refrained from writing “good wine”, because you can get very good wine in Britain, it just costs one heck of a lot more! For around €2, you can get a decent red wine that would probably set you back £5 in the UK.

So, c’est la vie! And until next year at least, adieu la France!

Our group at ESONN, the European School on Nanostructures and Nanotechnologies

Our group at ESONN, the European School on Nanostructures and Nanotechnologies

Vanoise: Dome de Sonnailles

With the weather still firmly in check after Pointe de la Réchasse, we decided to take a rest day before our next summit attempt. So, it was in the intense mid-afternoon sun that Friday brought that we found ourselves making the steep and relentless ascent to the Refuge de la Vallette for the Dome de Sonnailles (PD) the following day. The weather forecast was for “unseasonably hot temperatures” of nearly 40C at 1000m, and mid-thirties in Pralognan. Even at 8pm in the evening at the refuge, at an altitude of 2590m, the thermometer in the shade read 25C. It was no surprise then that our bivvy outside it was by far the warmest bivvy I’ve ever experienced in the Alps!

Our route up was straight from the campsite, through the Foret d’Isertan and via the Pas de l’Ane. The forest brought some welcome shade, but we were soon out into the open on a steep zigzagging path, scrambling our way through the seemingly impassible crags bounding the top of the forest on the map. This devious route brought us out to the more open ground through Pas de l’Ane and west of the Cirque du Petit Marchet, bringing striking views of the surrounding mountains.

Marmot

A marmot takes a fancy to Lorna’s leg!

Great views of le Petit Marchet and the rest of the Vanoise

Great views of le Petit Marchet and the rest of the Vanoise

The refuge was in an equally as striking position, commanding brilliant views right down the Prioux valley to the Aiguilles de Peclet and Polset. We were welcomed warmly by the guardian (who was particularly friendly and spoke very good English), and we paid our €3.70 each for the right to bivvy outside and use of the facilities. The refuge was fully kitted out for self-catering folk like us, and we made use of it to boil some water for our couscous. The whole place had a very cosy feel, right down to hand-sewn cushions and decorative wallpaper (it even has hot showers). I have to admit I was a bit disappointed we weren’t staying in the refuge! I would definitely recommend making a point of visiting the place if you’re in the area.

Refuge de la Valette

Refuge de la Valette. The hut on the right is the dining room and also acts as the refuge d’hiver (winter refuge).

We’d spied out a bit of the route the evening before and so we were confident we knew where we were going when we set off at 4am the next morning. I was soon down to t-shirt and rolled-up trousers as we made our way via a well cairned path up the moraines. At around 3000m we eventually reached a steep snow slope (about 35 degrees) that lead up to another patch of scree and boulders and finally the glacier to the rocky summit. The snow was extremely soft, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the slope, which gave the route a proper “mountaineeringy” feeling and probably is what warrants the grade of PD (Peu Difficile).

Early morning on the snow slopes up Dome de Sonnailles

Early morning on the snow slopes up Dome de Sonnailles

An early-morning band of rain passed through just as we were reaching the summit, and we had a few short showers and general drizzle, along with a lot of atmospheric clouds swirling around our summit and neighbouring ones. It all made for very dramatic lighting and it was quite a novel experience to be in bad weather on an Alpine summit – something which is usually to be avoided! After a bit of a walk on the Glacier de la Vanoise, we headed back down before the sun hit the already soft snow to make it more unstable. We were the only ones up on the summit, and we didn’t see anyone else until we were nearly back at the refuge at around 10am, when two others passing us heading for the summit asked how the route was.

Dramatic clouds

Dramatic clouds

Summit of Dome de Sonnailles

Myself on the summit of Dome de Sonnailles

On the Glacier de la Vanoise, with Dome de Sonnailles in the background.

On the Glacier de la Vanoise, with Dome de Sonnailles in the background.

We picked our bivvy gear up from the refuge, and had a coffee and Orangina whilst enjoying the fantastic views. The route down we chose was different to the one we ascended on; via les Béveriers, les Prioux and the long road back to Pralognan.

Back at the campsite

Back at the campsite

Vanoise: Pointe de la Réchasse

After a quick wander up the Rocher de Villeneuve on the day we arrived, and a rainy forest bimble the following day, we finally set off in earnest for our first Alpine adventure on the Tuesday afternoon. The goal was Pointe de la Réchassee from the Col de la Vanoise refuge, a route offering a small amount of glacial travel and a long but not too difficult rocky ridge to a summit offering fantastic views out over the extensive Glacier de la Vanoise, all at the grade of “Facile”. I’ve just completed writing a detailed route description on Camp to Camp, and that can be seen here.

As a rule, camping and bivvying is not permitted in the Vanoise National Park, with the exception that some refuges may permit it outside upon payment of an “hors sac” fee of around €3.50 to cover use of facilities at the refuge. Unfortunately, the Col de la Vanoise refuge isn’t one of the refuges that does permit it, but fortunately being Alpine Club members and being under 25 meant that it was only €7 to stay in the refuge itself. This was quite welcome as it meant we didn’t have to drag heavy bivvy gear up with us as well, just a sleeping bag liner instead.

Regardless of the relatively lighter bags, it was still hard work ascending the 1100m to the refuge. We were rewarded with lovely views back down the valley and dramatic views of the highest peak in the area, La Grande Casse, capped by isolated low-lying cumulus clouds. The clouds didn’t extend as far as our peak, and that allowed us to have a good look at the route we were to take the next morning. From the description it wasn’t all too clear which way our route would actually take us, but we felt confident all would become clear in the morning.

La Grande Casse and Refuge du Col de la Vanoise

La Grande Casse and Refuge du Col de la Vanoise

Pointe de la Réchasse

Pointe de la Réchasse (left) and its voie normale (via the grassy nose and rocky bands)

As we were catering for ourselves, we were placed in the “Refuge d’Hiver” (the winter refuge), a portacabin-like building that serves as a refuge out of the summer season when it isn’t guarded. We had quite a peaceful night after the group of Russian’s we were sharing it with eventually quietened down, and I felt quite awake and rearing to go when we awoke at 3.30am. After a cereal bar and a couple of swigs of water, we were on our way, following cairns across the moraines of the Glacer de la Réchasse on what we thought must have been the correct route.

How wrong we were: The cairns eventually disappeared and as the sun rose we realised that we far too far left on the morraines – the trail of cairns we had followed must have either been for an older version of the route (when the glacier took a different shape), or perhaps a different route entirely. We lost time crossing a snow patch to the bottom of a set of rocky bands, before regaining the main route and ascending the bands to the Glacier de la Réchasse. We’d given ourselves plenty of time, and indeed there were still a good number of people still behind us on the route.

Arriving at the Glacier de la Réchasse

Arriving at the Glacier de la Réchasse

After crossing the glacier, we gained the long summit ridge by a rocky step (around the left of the ridge) that was a little bit tricky. It was then easy scrambling along the initially narrow ridge, giving us plenty of time to admire the view over La Grande Casse to our left and the Glacier de la Vanoise to our right. We spotted a piton half-way along (at a little notch) which was used by a guide and two clients to ascend onto the ridge, in doing so overtaking us. I wouldn’t recommend this ascent, as it is the start of the ridge that this would miss out that offers the best scrambling and hence the most fun. After a bite to eat on the summit we descended back to the notch and decided using the piton to abseil would be a much better proposition than down-climbing the tricky step up onto the ridge.

The beginning part of the long ridge up to the summit

The beginning part of the long ridge up to the summit

Impressive views over La Grande Casse

Impressive views over La Grande Casse

We followed the correct route down to the refuge, which was as simple as could be in the daylight. It is cairned well all the way, though what threw us off must have been a snow patch covering where the path splits in two at the very start of the route – we forked left up a valley, whilst the actual route trends right up a grassy nose.

After a coffee (lemonade on Lorna’s part) at the refuge, we descended on the GR55, passing through the picturesque but crowded Lac des Vaches.

Lac des Vaches

Stepping stones over Lac des Vaches

Parc National de la Vanoise

We got back from the Alps at 3am last Wednesday morning and after a chaotic week of catching up with work whilst trying to sort out things before I go away on a summer school to Grenoble next weekend, I’ve eventually got the time to write a bit about it. I’ll split the holiday across a few blog posts, starting with this quick summary.

When looking at our options for travel, it transpired that the cheapest way to do it would be via coach from Lancaster to Paris, and then train down to the Alps. So that’s exactly what we did. This way, it worked out at a little over £100 return each – pretty good value for money! Upon arriving in Pralognan-en-Vanoise at 9:15am on the Sunday morning, completely worn out after the 31-hour journey, we were regretting that decision. The sleeper train we caught from Paris to Moutiers was quite enjoyable and rather comfortable, but the coach part was completely the opposite, the highlight of which was our driver (who didn’t speak a word of English or French) being threatened by UK border patrol: “If you drive through this checkpoint, the police will come after you”.

We stayed on Camping le Chamois in Pralognan for the two-and-a-bit weeks we were there, which at roughly €5 per night made a nice change from the expensive campsites of Switzerland we experienced the year before. The municipal campsite was just what we wanted – modern(ish) facilities, cleaned regularly and with friendly staff. It’s just a few minutes walk from Pralognan itself, which has two grocery shops – a Sherpa and a Petit Casino. The latter is actually quite big, and you won’t struggle finding all you need food-wise. Camping Gaz was hard to find, and the only place stocking it was a souvenir shop named “Les Campanes”. There are many gear shops in the town, as well as eateries of all different shapes and sizes – I recommend “Le Restaurant du Tourisme” for take-away pizzas at around €10 each. Importantly, there is a Bureau des Guides, who will give information about route conditions and who also sell climbing guides for the local area, usually in the form of photocopies of hand-drawn route descriptions (everything from local sport crags to multipitch rock routes in the mountains).

The weather we had was mixed: The first week consisted of heatwave temperatures in the valley reaching the mid-thirties and perfectly clear skies with only the odd shower; The second week was considerably wetter and we had a good few days of solid rain. All this meant that we only managed two Alpine routes (both in the first week), but this didn’t really matter as we did some fantastic walking, climbing and running in the second week:

All route descriptions I offer in the following posts are solely descriptions under the conditions we found when we were out there and should be treated justly. It is worth at least checking out other people’s trip reports and generic route descriptions such as those on Camp to Camp. I’d be being hypocritical to recommend buying a guidebook, as we didn’t and got by on route descriptions from Camp to Camp, but I would at least recommend having a look at the book Topo de la Vanoise – which can be found in the book shop in Pralognan for €26 (and I confess to checking our routes in the book in said bookshop to confirm what I’d read on Camp to Camp was correct).

After arriving at the campsite

After arriving at the campsite on Sunday morning. Petit Mont Blanc can be seen in the distance.

‘C’ Ordinary Route on Dow Crag

It’s the day before we (me and Lorna) head out to the Vanoise National Park in the Alps, and I’ve finally managed to catch up on writing blog posts! This one is about a day out we had on Monday – a final bit of Alps training and a final chance to make the most of the weather.

For a while we have been wanting to repeat Giant’s Crawl, a brilliant Diff route on one of the Lakes’ most popular crags, Dow Crag. With that in mind, we decided to head up to Dow Crag on Monday morning and go for a climb. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to do another three-star Diff on the crag that neither of us had done before – the Ordinary Route on C Buttress – as it would be much better “Alps practice” to do a route we’d never done before. I’d also read that the route was better than Giant’s Crawl, and after being recommended it by a guy I was working with at the weekend, the final decision was made.

Top of pitch five (i.e. our pitch three)

Top of pitch five (i.e. our pitch three)

We went for a “lightweight” approach, well, as lightweight as you can get with climbing gear. Owing to the weather, the waterproofs were ditched and replaced with a thin insulated jacket “just in case”. We sweated our way up to Goats Tarn, before checking the route and heading to the lowest part of the crag, which is where the climb starts from. I lead the first pitch, and no sooner had I brought Lorna up, another two groups arrived at the bottom of the climb – phew, just in time! Lorna lead the second pitch, before I accidentally joined pitches three, four and five together. This wouldn’t have been a problem, had it not been for the rope drag which made dragging myself up the slabs on pitch five hard work. The climbing was relatively straight forward, but in a fantastic position we great exposure – I can see where it gets its three stars from! Lorna take over once more for pitch six, which was by-far-and-away the crux of the route (though whether we were actually on the route is debatable). I was glad of the rope above me as I teetered around a protruding bulge before awkwardly pulling myself over a block with little hand-holds and plenty of exposure – good lead Lorna! The final pitch added some excitement in the form of a rightwards traversing gangway that threw me a bit off balance. I soon topped out onto Easy Terrace (another route on the crag that gets a grade 3 scrambling grade) and belayed from a massive block.

Lorna leading the crux pitch - the difficulties lie just above

Lorna leading the crux pitch – the difficulties lie just above

The difficulties weren’t quite over, and we struggled finding our way up the buttress directly behind the climb – we headed around to the right before branching up left, whereas I think in retrospect the best approach would be to follow Easy Terrace leftwards for a short while first, as we eventually found a path coming from that direction. After summitting, we descended via Blind Tarn, which gave us an opportunity to take a dip in the refreshingly cold waters without the crowds of people that we gathered around Goats Tarn.

Topping out on Dow Crag

Topping out on Dow Crag

Corvus: How to avoid the queues

How to avoid the queues on one of the Lakes’ most popular multipitches? By bivvying, of course! If you’ve read my last few posts you’ll have seen a recent trend of making the most of this fantastic weather we’ve been having recently, whilst get in some quality Alps training. Lorna and me were joined by Mouse, Calum and Sarah for a weekend in Borrowdale.

The weekend started off on the Saturday with a hot and sweaty slog up Sour Milk Gill to gain the summit of Green Gable. The plan for the day: A 20km semi-horseshoe over Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts, before descending to Buttermere and reascending to return via Robinson, Hindscarth and Dale Head. The toughest part was, as expected, the drag back up from Buttermere to Robinson. We decided to take the steep path skirting east of Goat Crag to gain the summit directly, and it really was quite tortuous in the intense afternoon sun. We had the summits to ourselves (except for a passing Bob Graham round heading the other direction) and it soon became worth all the effort.

Buttermere from Fleetwith Pike

Buttermere from Fleetwith Pike

Back at the car park in Seatoller, we had our tea and packed our bags with climbing gear, before setting off for the 2km walk-in up Combe Gill to the base of Raven Crag. As was expected, the bivvy was particularly midgey, but this time I was armed with a midge net and so had a much more comfortable night than last weekend.

Mouse's midge-proof bivvy setup

Mouse’s midge-proof bivvy setup

We were up early, and were greeted by a fantastic cloud inversion as we made our way up to the base of the climb (Corvus, D***), which we arrived at for 7am. Me and Lorna took alternate leads, whilst Mouse led the other two up behind us. I lead the first pitch, which after a few delicate traversing moves at the top led nicely onto a damp ledge for the belay. Lorna took over for pitch two – a groove that took a little bit of tought – before I combined three and four together. Pitch three was a scrambling traverse left-wards across the crag, whilst pitch four was back in the vertical with an awkward chimney graced with hand-holds aplenty – a bit of a squeeze with a rucksack on! Lorna took over once more for pitch five, which this time was a right-wards scrambling traverse, and that left me with the fantastic and (in)famous Hand Traverse pitch – a 10m traverse on a vertical wall with fantastic hand holds but a bit lacking in the footholds. I teetered my way off the belay ledge and onto the traverse, placing a nut pretty much straight away. The next few moves were a bit bare on gear, before a good ledge-like foothold was reached with a couple of great cam placements above (I was glad I took the advice of the guide I had read that recommended taking cams). The final few moves of the traverse again didn’t have any decent footholds to speak of, and after pulling myself up onto the next belay ledge my arms breathed a sigh of relief. I decided to belay there so I could lean out an take a few photos of Lorna making the traverse – which has equally as severe consequences for the second as it does for the leader. Lorna combined the next few pitches together, and we were soon at the top of the crag, basking in the bright morning sunlight whilst sorting out our gear.

The cloud inversion burning off in the early-morning sun

The cloud inversion burning off in the early-morning sun

The climb (Corvus, D***), which takes a devious route up Raven Crag

The climb (Corvus, D***), which takes a devious route up Raven Crag

The fantastic Hand Traverse pitch (on that good foothold I was talking about)

The fantastic Hand Traverse pitch (on that good foothold I was talking about)

Lorna following me over the Hand Traverse

Lorna following me over the Hand Traverse

The climb deserves every one of its three stars, and the Hand Traverse more than makes up for the broken-up nature of actual climbing pitches. We headed down over Thonrythwaite Fell, descending steeply eastwards off the its northern ridge to collect our bivvy gear. Setting off early was definitely the right choice, as we could see many other groups on the route which we’d had to ourselves.

P.S. Did you know? “Corvus” translates to “Raven”, and the climb is on Raven Crag.

Attack of the flies: Why not to bivvy without a midge net!

It’s not often that you get perfectly still bright sunny days out in Snowdonia, which probably describes why bringing a midge net didn’t even cross my mind on a bivvy trip me and Lorna did a couple of weeks ago. Bad mistake…

The Saturday was spent enjoying an impressive spectrum of colours and smells in the gardens of Powis Castle with my Mum and Dad, before we all headed to Snowdonia on the Sunday. The plan was for us to do a walk on Sunday and then for them leave me and Lorna there few a couple of days of Alps training. The walk we chose was the popular Carnedd Llewellyn horseshoe from Llyn Ogwen – comprising of the summits of Pen yr Ole Wen, Carnedd Daffydd and Carnedd Llewellyn. It’s a route I know well, but one that Lorna hasn’t done for many years. Unexpectedly, it was quite cloudy and Carnedd Llewellyn – the highest mountain in Wales outside of the Snowdon range – has a whispy covering for most of the day. It was still very hot though, and this made for hard work; by the time we were back at the car I hardly felt like the walk-in to our bivvy spot of Llyn Bochlwyd!

Powis Castle

Powis Castle

Clouds rolling over the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen

Clouds rolling over the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen

We picked the windiest spot we could find for the evening, though that only amounted to the odd breath every now and then. After a quick swim, we settled down for our tea of couscous and quiche, and before too long a black cloud of midges had descended. Even after applying Avon Skin So Soft (which apparently is a good midge repellent, though I’m not so sure I agree now), we were still being plagued, and so headed to bed. Unfortunately for me, the drawstring closure on my bivvy bag (an Alpkit Hunka) doesn’t close properly, and even if you do close it properly it’s very difficult to breathe inside the bag – a bit of a design flaw. This meant that I was still being plagued and after an hour or so of torture I gave in and somehow managed to squeeze into Lorna’s hooped bivvy bag (it’s a good job we’re both thin!) and finally got some sleep.

Lovely sun set

Lovely sun set

 

Main Gully Ridge, 3***

The midges were still out in full force the next morning, and so our breakfast of Sainsbury’s Basics scotch pancakes (surprisingly tasty!) was rather rushed. We dumped our gear around the far side of the Llyn and started the slog up to the base of our route – the three-star grade 3 scramble of Main Gully Ridge on Glyder Fach’s northern face. The route follows a vague ridge line that borders Main Gully on the right, before traversing left across the Chasm Face and joining up with other routes on the face for a few hundred metres of fantastic grade 1/2 scrambling. Even though it was only 7am, it was already very hot work and we had to have a large rest at the base of the route to recover.

The line of Main Gully Ridge, 3***

The line of Main Gully Ridge, 3***

We decided to move together at the start, but after gaining the ridge by an easy groove I was presented with a foothold-less chest high block that I didn’t like the look of. I think the guidebook talked about “pulling strenuously over a block”… I shouted down for Lorna to put me on belay, placed my trusty number 4 nut safely in a crack and awkwardly heaved myself over the obstacle. The next couple of steps weren’t much easier and so Lorna stayed belaying me whilst I worked my way up the difficulties, placing a few slings along the way. After creating a nice belay, I brought her up before pitching the next bit again to overcome pretty much all of the difficulties that the route posed. It is this section that gives the ridge its grade 3 rating.

The start of the grade 1 Main Gully (left) and Main Gully Ridge (right)

The start of the grade 1 Main Gully (left) and Main Gully Ridge (right)

From then on, we moved together, practicing placing gear on the rope between us even though it (or the rope) weren’t really necessary at this point. This style of movement – moving together in “Alpine style” – is different to usual “pitched” climbing in that no belays are taken and both climbers move at the same time. It is generally used on “easier” ground where the chance of a fall is less but still present, and it is typically used in Alpine ascents where moving at speed is imperative. Coils of rope are taken around the chest to leave 10-20m of rope between climbers (depending on how hard the ground is). The leader places gear – known as runners, as the rope runs through them – which the second then removes, trying to keep two or three bits of gear on the rope at the same time. The rope can also be wound around rocks to help increase the friction in the event of a fall.

Moving together at the top of Main Gully Ridge

Moving together at the top of Main Gully Ridge

This initial plan was to then drop down to Llyn Bochlwyd, pick up our bivvy gear and walk over to the base of the Clogwyn y Person arete for the following morning. However, we were both far too worn out (I blame the heat!) and so instead we simply headed down the Gribin ridge and stayed at Llyn Bochlwyd for a second night – totalling an impressive 3km for the first day’s walking! Of course, being the weather as it was, another swim was simply compulsory!

Lovely views of Castell y Gwynt and Glyder Fawr

Lovely views of Castell y Gwynt and Glyder Fawr

 

Bristly Ridge

It wasn’t quite as midgey on the Monday night, but I still had to resort to Lorna’s bivvy bag again. The following day, instead of climbing again, we thought it would be a good option to take our bivvy gear with us and walk out to Capel Curig over Bristly Ridge. This proved as strenuous as I had feared it would be with 15 kg of gear on my back (I weighed it when we got home!), but it definitely served good Alps practice. For me, Bristly Ridge surpasses most other scrambles I’ve done – it is such a good quality route for its grade, and there is lots of exposure to be had by taking the most direct line.

The Great Pinnacle. The way down in to the right.

The Great Pinnacle. The way down in to the right.

There are lots of feral goats on the Gylders. It's impressive watching them negotiate the steep rocky steps that us humans struggle with!

There are lots of feral goats on the Gylders. It’s impressive watching them negotiate the steep rocky steps that us humans struggle with!

The walk out seemed to go on forever, made only worse by hoards of horse flies that bugged us (pun intentional!) for most of the descent of Y Foel Goch. After what seemed like an age, we arrived back in Capel and caught the bus to Betws-y-Coed and then the train back to Chester, via Llandudno Junction.