Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Alps: Being tired in scary situations

First things first - 

(Start with a bang, an exciting first delivery sentence to draw the reader in)

This was my first trip to the Alps and I shat myself, both figuratively and literally (you'll have to ask me about the latter when I see you)

It started off with a rush to catch several connecting trains after landing in Zurich, it quickly became apparent I would be playing the uncultured Englishman on this trip as my German and Italian were based on war films and the sopranos respectively - I couldn't order food but I could tell them to PUT UP YOUR HANDS NOW QUICKLY!

It was raining as we spiralled down the Moloja pass with clouds leaving us only with a view of wet pine trees. The bus took the corners in fine style, the Mercedes buses steer with all four wheels so you whip round them like on  a ride. Arriving is Vicosoprano campsite we realised we had no gas or the correct plug converters. Cold food and no brews ahoy, a theme set for the remaining weeks.

The next morning we headed up to the cable car at planzaira, in retrospect this spoiled us as we didn't realise the amount of leg work it removed by gliding up the sheer valley walls. Within minutes we were at the cable car terminus, the bottom of a relatively big damn, not golden eye but still impressive. The first climb I had a planned for us to warm up on was 'Via Felici' on the Spazzacaldera, a 9-pitch 'plasir' climb. Plasir means leisure and signals that the route has some bolts and bolt belays. The climb felt like cragging all in all but still felt a bit spicy on licheny granite with no gear. On pitch one I dropped Oli's camera, on pitch 6 I dropped my watch. I found his camera but my £8 Tesco investment was nowhere to be seen. The crux 6a pitch was a curving jamming crack that felt straight out of Almscliffe, so I found it desperate and cut my hand open just to make the comparison more valid. The route ends at the top of a detached pinnacle about the size of high tor, we abbed down into a notch and moved around to a loose gully to gain the summit jenga jumble. We were looking for the famous Fiamma, a needle-like tower on the summit which you climb then perch on while you bray your chest like the bloody adventurer you are. We couldn't find it and then in rained hard, finding shelter on the summit I thought we'd fucked up out first climb as we just couldn't see a way down through the mist. Thankfully it cleared just enough that we could see the exit gully and slid our way down the mountain  (well, spiky hill really, compared to what was to come)

damn that's big

The next day the Ol' Spazz was really busy so we moved further down the Albigna valley to Piz Frachiccio, expertly gaining height then losing it as we blindly headed across the boulder fields. Topos aren't great at features when the route is hundreds of meters long so after failing to find the start we took a gamble and decided that as the route was in a selected guide it would be a classic, as such we chose the route which had two parties just starting. All was well, yes the 3a felt 5c and the 5a - 6b but we were on our way in roughly the right direction. We were actually on the Kaspar Pillar (6b) it involved a steep, wet and loose corner filled with tottering chock stones (Oli's lead) and a beautifully long and easy bolted slab taking you direct to a second summit (my lead). As we were off route the descent notes made no sense and so it was time to fulfil an Alps rite of passage and abb off some shit. The threaded and loose boulder was just too shit though so we down climbed, running the rope through as we descended. This worked for the next abseil as well and it didn't look much further, ah no but the next ones steep as fuck and oh look it's now raining. 3 pegs, one good, two shit. I back up Oli with a wire and off he goes off no problem, I take out the nut and set off down then realise I weigh about 2 stone more than the youth. "It's all a game, just a game". 60 meters down through mist, nicely atmospheric, to a snow patch in trainers.

fairly gripped after an ab down a gully

Catching the peasant wagon further down the valley we arrived in promotogno, stepping off the bus you look up and see first the mass of the Cengalo, with it's giant all seeing eye, then the jaw dropping Piz Badile which deserves a much better name (Badile meaning spade or shovel, to me it looks like a dorsal fin of a shark)

As I had read before from this viewpoint it looks so steep that even the ridge seems barely climbable and I felt a predictable knot tie itself firm in my stomach (this firmness would prove truly metaphorical later on) 

Promotogno, the little shop next to this made harrods look like lidl

The bondo campsite is under a school and has a nice a relaxed vibe
feel to it, i.e. no one about. Being Sunday we couldn't get any food so had a meal at the hotelin the village for a price more associated with anniversary dinners than a place where ants run over your knife and fork (great food though)

We were moving onto warm-up climbs stage 2, the Flat Iron ridge  on the Piza Gemelli. The walk up to the Sciora hut was brutal, unrelenting, torturous - all that stuff. In between weazing like a golden retriever in India I could see what a beautiful walk it was, you were walking with butterflys all the way, of all sizes and colours (disappointingly only one shape though). As the height increased so did the amount of mountains we could see until after one particularly painful set of switch backs we were greeted with the whole Sciora group, pleasingly pointed looking and Patagonian in their spikiness. There was lots of snow around still and I got to see my first glacier, I hadn't known they were that blue, positively glowing! After setting our bivy, lovely views, converted cellar etc, we made plans for the Flat Iron. We woke at 4.30 to some god awful song Oli chose and were on the glacier within an hour, all went fine aside from exiting the glacier onto smooth granite running with water which was bloody terrible in boots. The route itself went by smoothly, 13 or so pitches of flakey granite up a giant rounded arĂȘte, after abseiling down we spotted with envious eyes two dots on the 6c Iron Heart, a line striking through the middle of the big, clean but dark face. Stellar. While watching the Cengalo shrug off rock and snow at regular intervals in the morning we decided we would head back down in the morning for a financially advisable shopping trip to Chiavenna just over the border in Italy. Walking back down and spiraling through the switchbacks it felt as if you were a turd and the mountain was shitting you out, constantly moving at half-jog to save your knees. 

the glacier on the left was falling apart big time

final ab off the Flat Iron

happy after coming down from the Flat Iron Ridge, Sciora group in the background

Refuelled and now with charged up electronics, still no gas but heroic portions of tuna we set off up to Laret again but forked right for the Sasc-Fura hut. A steep steep chain featured walk brought us to the charming hut, it felt like an expertly maintained peak cottage, clean and spotless in comparison to us knackered and gopping. After eating Rosti, cheese and bacon it was still another hour or so to our bivy under the Badile's notch in the ridge. On the recce the approach ledges for the north east face routes looked really hazardous and even the Spanish Wads looked unsure of themselves. Talking it over we made a choice to leave the Cassin and do the North Ridge in consolation, deciding to be cautious being our first time in the alps.

4.30am and shook ones part 2 starts playing (yes, cool) but we're already out of our sleeping bags and hurriedly putting on harnesses like on a game show. Hiking up through the first snow patch we are caught up by two British lads Rick and Tom. There ensues a race to be the first on the ridge, it gives us a great pace and by the time the sun breaks over the first distant peak we are all on around pitch 4. This worked really well and made the whole climb a much more social affair, after the initial rush we just pitched together, pooling knowledge and sometimes leap frogging each other as someone dared to run a few pitches together. The climbing was interesting, especially the 'difficult slab', but nothing to write home about, however the position was outrageous and you really felt the exposure. After a while an American Guide and his clients caught us and we slipstreamed him for a bit, he pulled away but we caught up with him later on on the summit ridge as it weaves through and around towers. Though I did feel an achievement at the summit it felt odd because I had always pictured us getting there via the Cassin route, after saying goodbye to the Americans we reversed our steps to the first abseil ring and a long but smooth journey back down the 20 or so abseils. Adhere to the guides suggestion and you won't go wrong, "stay as direct on the ridge as you can, the rings are every 50m" they proved to be closer together than this so we skipped plenty. Upon reaching the notch of the ridge we went and had a look at the ledges across to the face routes, the blocks had broken up and had slid somewhat creating a pathway through to the other side. We sat down and stared for a long time, without much further discussion it was decided we'd attempt a crossing early the next morning to try Another day in Paradise. I went to bed after a 14 hour day knowing the day after was going to be even harder. 

Sasc-Fura hut, felt pretty mucky here

best bivy, north ridge behind

the top was metled from lightning strikes, that camera didnt perform well


We gave ourselves a lie in 'till 5.30 but were woken up by the weekend masses heading to the mountain through the boulders. The steeper snow patch  was much easier with the pre-kicked steps and before any time we were making a small abseil from the notch down to the ledges,  dawn broke on the tip of the Piz Badile. Eyeing up our intended path we snaked in between the sleeping giants and made it through, breathlessly running up a slab it felt like running from the police. The second snow barrier would need to be tackled internally and without much thought Oli crawled through and I followed, the tunnel proving only just big enough as while you slid along the wet on your belly your rucksack scraped away at the ice above you. We emerged from a hole in the middle and traversed the rock underneath, victorious, the climb felt inconsequential now these obstacles had been crossed after months of doubt. Identifying the quartz vein that symbolised the start of the route we roped up and tried to relax. I had a pang of jealousy looking across a little further to the teams starting up the Cassin, later this would turn into pity as they got caught up in queues and almost certainly wet chimneys. 

the way through to the face route starting ledges, big blocks of snow

heading for that slot in the back of the second snowpatch

running from cops

The first pitch also brings with it the first crux, the crux pitches are graded 6b but we thought them between 6b+ - 6c+, however we may have lost perspective with the added variables of gear etc. Oli cruised it like an 8b climber on 6c should, following up I was less smooth but just as happy to be executing actual moves rather than shuffling up easy angled terrain. I lead through onto a 5c+ pitch and was almost stumped by a move through an overlap, thankfully a 5 inch adjustment on an undercut gave my tips just enough purchase to pull up but not before the first 'watch me' of the trip. The route is bolted well, especially on the crux pitches, but throughout the 5 and low 6 pitches you are faced with heroic runouts between bolts with gear a concept rather than a reality. Helpfully these runouts didn't really dawn on you until you were stood on nubbins with wet hands. The climbing style, intricate slab, you could really climb anywhere so just followed the bolts. Some people wouldn't like these line-less pitches but I do like them, really like them. I have often felt hemmed in by the tramlines of more traditional features like corners and cracks. Basically - You're fingermantelling onto a flake as wide as your nail and as long as your middle finger, concentrating and breathing hard as you try to get a big toe anchored to this feature, weight it and roll upwards. You then stand up on this tiny perch and look up at the next bolt glinting in the distance then down at the billowing arc of your ropes to the last one you've clipped 'was it an old one, I can't remember'. Sometimes you look beyond the bolt, past Oli hanging on the belay and down to the cracked glacier, your eyes sweep along this feature as it ramps up the neighbouring mountain Cengalo, as you do this your vision zooms out and bit by bit you realise where you are. A speck of dust on a towering giant. You look down at your toes, 'fuckin' hell my bastard feet hurt'. Repeat.

high up on another day in paradise, the ridge sweeping away on the left with the cengalo glacier below

As we came up to the final easy pitches my feet gave way and the boiling pain flooded in with every step, barefoot on hedgehogs. I started cursing Oli, why wasn't he destroyed too??? Thankfully he wasn't and could lead the tottering choss pitches while I slipped on my trainers. Apart from my feet I was just totally and utterly exhausted. The Ab down was punctuated with sleeps at every station, with a final lie down at the notch, my body was shutting down and I couldn't even speak. I had my last energy gel (some shit from Holland and Barrett, avoid) and put my boots on we'd stowed away. I won't dwell on the descent as I'd like to learn what I can and forget that feeling, stumbling dangerously, unthinking and wild. At the bivy we just sat there panting like dogs, I had no appetite and just patiently waited for the chlorine to work on the melt water, my head was empty and I was thinking of nothing. 

looking up with a helmet and bag on is a fucking nightmare

starting to lose my cool with painful feet

KO'd and asleep at the notch after Another day..

the ever moving seracs

Later in the evening while sat there with a thousand yard stare a spaniard walks up on his recce of the 'spiggolo' and quizzes us for info, I get the distinct feeling we look rough as fuck and it feels like that scene at the start of Platoon (you know the one). We've had our turn, and now it's someone else's, individual battles in team after team. 

lazy morning the day after the monster 2 days of climbing

For the rest of remaining days we ate lots and tried to avoid walking uphill at all costs. The airport sucked, all the flies were attracted to us and the Swiss cleaned allllllllllll night. 

swarm of flies just out of shot

security for sleeping at 9 francs a day

The onset of ADHD in adulthood

I haven’t been able to write, I had wrote bits down here are there but linking them together felt tiresome and boring, bored just reading ‘what I gone and done’. I’d like to just put the various pieces on the table, they wont fit or be in the right order but it doesn’t matter as the game got played and everyone left happy.

There was something strange about Trollers Gill with it being a dried up riverbed. It didn’t feel like a place where you could stay long as the river felt just around the next bend, hushed up and waiting. Although it’s an oxymoron the stones really did look freshly water worn. This and the fact it was my first day back sport climbing after fingergeddom made me tense, I was going to get wet or broken. This narrow ravine nestled away in the Yorkshire dales has a compact and undercut sidewall with lots of good 7s and if I spied the line right a stellar hard route of Nik Jennings’ recent creation, the classic 7a Jim Grin was polished and had smooth climbing, it must have been an amazing trad route . The climbing was good and everyone had a great time, you should go. That evening we went to Gordale , being my first time I couldn’t contain an excited "fuuuuckkkinn’ hell" as rounding the corner it came into view, this has to be one of the best crag-reveals ever as until the very last moment you don’t know what’s coming*. Oli set off up Cave Route right hand in gusting wind,  so much so that him calling down for slack was met with the wind taking him in tight. I wish I could blame all my short roping on nature. Save one fist-fight in the upper crack he blitzed it and it was a shame he’d completely fucked it up the week before. Tim and I did Last dog, an hor dourve 7b on the bottom of a big wall with a big route on it called Pierrepoint. Tim led it the strong way and I the way where I desperately try to put my toe upside down in a peg scar to get any purchase. To the left of the cave routes there is a massive route called Supercool. That’s the one, that’s the dream route right there, 40m or so of technical 8a+ climbing in a setting that makes climbing look like warfare, on horseback.
*a technique normally attributed to sea cliffs, when you’ve abbed in and can’t swallow the frog in your throat as even the HVS looks steeper than hunter house road **
**where Jerry lived
With sport and bouldering off the agenda for a time I embarked upon a sort-of-easy trad campaign in the last month, starting off with a day in the shade of Millstone. I hadn’t done Great North Road before which seemed a glaring omission for a climb so close to home.A big grit pitch and a proper route. Emlyn and I then headed down into the sweltering hole of Lawrencefield, suffice to say Emlyn spent 30 minutes on the suspense crimp rail seeing how long it takes for different things to melt, things like rubber and belayers. I couldn’t say for definite but I’m sure the pool was bubbling.
10 meters in I’d used all my slings. 35 meters in, having placed shit gear, I realised I hadn’t brought up any medium wires. 40 meters in beneath the crux I realised I didn’t put in any gear before the insitu ‘bolt’ and thread. 45 meters in I slowly slid off, grating down a small bulge before finally taking a diagonal running flight waiting for a museum piece to hold my fall. I’d just fucked up Darius, a climb I’d been waiting years to try. Escaping off to the debauchery belay I lowered down on Simon’s victory ropes grumbling like a schoolboy with bad vibes , I then abbed off the end of the rope...

If this was the lesson, consider it taught. I don’t need any replays or more realistic injuries, this will do fine. 10ft and a commando roll is enough to make me daydream of ropes slipping through belay devices and bodies tumbling through space. No matter how high you’ve been riding it does always come as a surprise when a bad day knocks you on your arse. Exciting plans feel like scary prospects and improving injuries become stagnant ailments. Of course everything is the same, I’ve just cracked my head, but there is nothing like a cathartic blog spew to clear the rumbling grey matter; with that I WANT YOU TO IMAGINE STORM CLOUDS

As far as I can tell the human desire to wonder, speculate and discuss is crushed by daily work. I am now a basic trio of action, sleep, work and play. In an attempt to reignite a part of the brain long gone I send waves of nostalgic thoughts down through the synapses, however these sparks are dampened and become squibs with the main-brain counterpointing this expedition with brutally real questioning, “how will you ever pay rent?”
You can see yourself on the bus looking out of the window and actually sense you are thinking of nothing, unfortunately not in any meditative way but rather like the beady-orange-eyed pigeon perched on the bus stop. You cannot force character into pidgeons like you can with other creatures, they seem to deflect all personification in their desperation. Except woodcots, woodcots are little priests.