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

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.

Scrambling with bivvy gear – Alps training!

It seemed like a fantastic idea to do a grade 3 scramble fully laden with bivvy gear as perfect Alps training – we weren’t so sure of that half-way up Pinnacle Ridge, being thrown off balance by the huge bags on our back on every move we made! The idea came about when deciding what kind of “Alps training” to get done this weekend – climbing, fitness, getting used to lugging big bags around – when it dawned on us we could roll them all into one in a somewhat epic route from Patterdale back to Burneside, via the brilliant Lakeland classic grade 3 scramble of Pinnacle Ridge.

Despite the heavy load, I was thoroughly enjoying heaving myself over rocky steps and teetering over pinnacled crests. The ridge is in a fantastic position, the exposure is quite considerate and on a dry day (which it was) it is one of the most satisfying climbs in the Lakes. The technical difficulties are low for the most part, except for one pitch, the “Crux wall”, which amounts to a 10m wall of around Diff standard. The pinnacles themselves – which come after said wall and form the iconic picture of the ridge given in any guide book you see – are a lot easier than they look, but nonetheless are seriously exposed and a slip at the point could prove fatal. Despite its exposure, the ridge is surprisingly sheltered, and even on days when you’re being blown about all over the place on the summit, only a few breaths are felt on the ridge.

Imogen on the

Imogen on the “crux wall” of Pinnacle Ridge

Lorna, Imogen and me on the final pinnacles of the ridge

Lorna, Imogen and me on the final pinnacles of the ridge

I always forget how draining scrambling and climbing can be, and after the ridge I was already quite tired – I wasn’t looking forward to the walk over Fairfield and Red Screes and then up the other side of the Kirkstone Pass yet to come! We soon settled into a good pace and the sunny weather and plethora of typically-Lakeland views took my mind off my weary legs and aching shoulders. The lure of the Kirkstone Inn was too great when we reached the pass and we decided it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to rehydrate here before finding a bivvy spot somewhere towards Thornthwaite Crag: The choice of beer on my part as the rehydrating fluid probably wasn’t the best one!

By the time we had settled into our comfortable spot  just below the summit of Caudale Moor, the sun was already setting and the lighting changing to a lovely golden red. It’s always a special feeling, being up in the mountains late in the evening when everyone else is making there way home, and this occasion wasn’t any different. Some of my favourite moments in the mountains have been lying in my bivvy bag, gazing up at the stars, enjoying the cold evening breeze brushing across my face.

Our bivi spot in the evening

Our bivvy spot in the evening

The next morning, weather still in check, we summitted Caudale Moor, followed shortly by Thornthwaite Crag, Harter Fell and Kentmere Pike. By lunch time, we had made good progress and were just starting the ascent to Sleddale Forest and Potter Fell. Unfortunately, this meant leaving the well-formed paths of the Lakes’ more popular fells behind, and despite the dry spell of late, the going got considerably tougher! There were vague paths here-and-there, but for the most part we found ourselves bog trotting and marsh hopping over strangely spongy ground that we couldn’t help thinking we might disappear into at any moment. We were rewarded for all this hard work by the most amazing forest of bluebells just east of Staveley – photos nor words do justice to the breathtaking blue sea of delicate flowers that carpeted the entire forest floor. A perfect end to a lovely few days in the fells.

Ascending Potter Fell - you can see most of day two's route, from just past Red Screes onwards

Ascending Potter Fell – you can see most of day two’s route, from just past Red Screes onwards

Photos don't do it justice!

Photos don’t do it justice!

Howgills with Sir Chris Bonington

Bivvy spot

Bivvy spot first thing in the morning, with Andy Goldsworthy’s work of art behind us.

Report of a trip with LUHC to the Howgill Fells that took place on 27 May 2012.

As chancellor to Lancaster University, legendary mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington occasionally joins us for a walk. We got in touch with him last term and he suggested a trip to the Howgills, as the only other time he’d been up there (apart from a winter ascent of Cautley Spout) was two years ago with the Hiking Club again, and the weather was awful!

It couldn’t have been more different this time around, and the forecast was so good that Lorna, Imogen, Darren and myself decided to bivvy at the top of Cautley Spout the night before. We picked a spot alongside Force Gill Beck, in a sheepfold that it turned out included a work of art by acclaimed artist Andy Gouldworthy, who from 1996-2003 took about in restoring 46 sheepfolds around Cumbria and further afield. It was a bit windy, but once wrapped up warm in my bivvy bag I had a fantastic night looking out at the stars overhead. It stayed surprisingly light all night long.

The morning after, we walked back down to The Cross Keys to meet the minibus and Chris. By then it was already shorts and t-shirts weather. We headed up the side of Cautley Spout and along Force Gill Beck to The Calf. From there, we took the large footpath down to Bowderdale and then back down to the minibus by the Cross Keys. The Cross Keys is one of the only temperance inns left in the UK, and the building dates back over 400 years. It has only been a temperance inn since 1902 however, after the then-landlord drowned trying to rescue a drunken customer who held fallen by the river banking. I was quite surprised to find the Ginger Beer had an alcoholic content of 0.5%!

Cautley Spout

Walking down beside Cautley Spout in the morning.

It was great chatting to Chris about all of his adventures and expeditions and I think he really enjoyed chatting to us about everything from politics to climbing. He has written about the day on his own blog, as well as a bit about how day with the Mountaineering Club the day before.

The Calf

Everyone on the summit of The Calf.