Jonathan Griffith Photography Blog
I've been wanting to do Naia for a few years now- it's the perfect combination of an area that I havent been to, with the fact that it looks like a good winter route to climb with skis on your back. It's hard in winter to find objectives that allow you that 'up and over' feel as you have to carry skis with you or endure 8 hours of trail breaking up to your waist back to town. Having done the latter on a couple of occasions I'm keen to avoid it as best I can!
The weatherman had given us a few days of good weather, but with the Foehn still lurking it was best to not get on anything major and commiting as you never quite know what is going to happen when the Foehn is visiting. So I managed to convinvce Ally for one last mountain burn before he jumped on the plane for some home time. Given the amount of snow we've just had I figured it would be the perfect time to get on Naia- being a natural gully line I thought it would be buried in snow and therefore pretty fast and easy to climb. I was wrong, but hey we got up it anyway.
The approach was horrible- the sun bore down on us with a warm Foehn wind and soggy wet snow. It took hours to break trail up to the Charpoua hut- but as usual the views up here are incredible and it's always magical having a bivy hut in winter to yourself. After chatting the rest of the day away and attempting to play Uno (an impossible task) we headed off to bed.
Ally arrives at the hut
Cross dressing night...© Ally Swinton
A 4am wake up call saw us heading up to the base of our route. The snow pack had refrozen overnight in to a perfectly annoying crust- not thick enough to support body weight but also too thick to break under ski edges. So it took a while to get to the shrund- plenty of swapping skis and boot packing and swearing. Arriving at the base and it all looked good- at least there was ice on the route!
Arriving at the shrund as the sun rises over Mont Blanc
Nice views from up here
The sun rose behind us on the Mont Blanc massif and Ally started up the first ice pitch. What looked good was obviously not as he climbed up eggshell old ice and got his first introduction to climbing steep ice with skis on his back.
Ally gets stuck in to the first pitch
From here on it's a fast couloir romp to the cruxes above which looked mighty thin from below. It was good to feel like we were moving fast again, less good was that I'd only brought 4 cams as rock pro. A good schooling in thutching with skis on (not pretty) saw us out of the cruxes and on faster terrain to the Sans Nom Ridge. By now it was obvious we weren't going to make last lift down Montenvers so it was just a case of kicking back and enjoying where we were. The ridge itself actually took some time- skis catching on gendarmes coupled with plenty of traversing on black ice wasn't too conducive to setting any speed records but it was great being up on the Sans Nom Ridge.
On the easy ground, Mont Blanc in the background
Ueli Steck-ing it
High up in the couloir with the Grandes Jorasses North Face in the background
High up in the couloir with the Grandes Jorasses North Face in the background
Myself eyeing up the dry cruxes above, © Ally Swinton
On the first crux pitch- dry...very dry. © Ally Swinton
The second pitch looked fun but with skis on was a bit of a struggle, © Ally Swinton
Since I have no shame here is me thrutching with skis on...sexy. © Ally Swinton
Ditching the pack was the best thing I did all day, © Ally Swinton
Ally tops out from the second pitch, Jorasses in the background
Easy ground to the ridge
Myself arriving at the Sans Nom, © Ally Swinton
Sunshine! © Ally Swinton
The Sans Nom ridge to the summit of the Verte
Questing up the ridge, © Ally Swinton
Looking back at Ally and the Mont Blanc
Epic alpine terrain!
Nearly there... © Ally Swinton
© Ally Swinton
The views from the top of the Verte in winter are really 5 star. I've climbed the Verte 7 times now and it's still one of my favorite summits for the view. Downclimbing the Whymper was great- soft deep snow to plough down. A quick rap at the shrund saw us combat skiing on horrible snow down to the Vallee Blanche and the final ski and walk down to Montenvers just as the sun set.
Summit pano from the Verte of the Jorasses and Mont Blanc
The Whmyper couloir
Half Way down the Whymper
All in all a really fun day out. After a couple of tough and abortive attempts on the Jorasses it was nice to move again and enjoy Chamonix for what it's best at delivering- fast and light alpine romping.
This winter has been titty-deep, shred-gnar, high-5in' for skiers, but not so much for any alpine climbing antics. Deep snow, strong winds, and poor conditions have left even the keenest climbers valley based, itching to get up high. Thankfully 10 days ago the first sign of good weather finally arrived on the horizon sending everyone deep underground to sharpen their tools, dust off their cams, and pack away outdated route food. Everyone had different ideas on what to do but none of them were really great options- having very little idea of what might actually be climbable (given that it is still winter here) myself Ally and Steve headed up the day after it stopped snowing for a recce up the Leschaux basin. We wanted to climb anything on the Petites Jorasses with the greater goal to getting a good look at the main event of the area: the Grandes Jorasses.
Ally tours in to the Leschaux Glacier, the Petites Jorasses in the background
Amazingly two other teams had decided to head in to the basin that day as well. I think it's great when I see teams giving a big middle finger to conventional wisdom and just trying their best to get something done- if they fail then so be it but at least they got in there and gave it a go. I have a lot of respect for that- it's always easy following someone else's tracks but a whole different game being the first to 'open' a route for the season. Any excuse is a good excuse in winter, especially this winter. As it turned out they were both heading in for the Grandes Jorasses itself and I was dying to know what they were up to.
Ally arrives at the Leschaux hut with the Grandes Jorasses in the background
We ended up in the Leschaux Hut as our objective was laughable by comparison so we could afford the luxury of sleeping well- but I kept a constant eye out for those mystery climbers and which part of the wall they were going for. With the Jorasses in one of the worst conditions I've seen it in I couldn't help but think that they were heading for one of the hard 4 or 5 day suffer fests that snake their way up improbable parts of the wall. Now, after all, would be the time to get a winter tick of lines such as Manitua etc.
Safely nestled away in the hut, I'd grossly underestimated how much gas to bring for three of us so spent a good while melting snow under some left over tea candles late in to the night (FYI it works, but only just; gas is so the way to go). Nevertheless, nice and early we toured off in to the darkness and tracked our way up to the Petites Jorasses. We had expected some heavy trail breaking and we got it- but I could see the lights of the first climbing team high up on the central icefield of the Jorasses. They were moving fast up the Colton Macintyre and I was impressed with their tenacity trying it in such dry conditions.
Melting snow over some tea candles....not ideal
Sunrise on the approach
Ally and the Grandes Jorasses
The main event...
The wall above us revealed itself in the light of the day and it was obvious which line to take- none of the others had any ice in them. As it turned out this was the NW Gully of the Petite Febrouze / Petites Jorasses. It's a long way to come for such a route but I've never actually climbed anything on this wall before, and given my poor success rate this winter anything is good right now. A heart in mouth shrund crossing saw us at the base of some perfect Chamonix ice which weaved its way to the top- from close up this had looked like verglassed rock but we were lucky to find it just thick enough to make fast and easy progress. The route is never hard and it was great fun to run up an alpine route again; even better to see the Grandes Jorasses from the top and take in the Hirondelles ridge and East face from this angle. That mountain just keeps drawing me in...
Ally heads up the first pitches of stellar ice
Steve on the lower pitches
Steve on the lower pitches with the Dru and Verte in the background
Ally cruising on
Cant complain about the views
Woohoo alpine ice!
Myself on the short steep narrowing before it all kicks back for a while, © Ally Swinton
Steve and Ally on the final pitch
An angle of the Jorasses I hadn't seen before
Happy Alpine smiles
Hmmm...miles of untracked powder to get home
It has been a long time in the planning (!) but I've put together two courses this summer which will teach you all the skills that I use to shoot in the mountains. We'll be covering real climbs on 4000m peaks as well as shooting in all lighting conditions from Full Moon to sunrises. There are only 4 places per course for a more personal feel, and two guides will be on hand to lead you up the climbs. Check out the brief below and email me by clicking here for further information.
Ueli on Beinn Eighe
As odd as it might sound, one of the biggest joys of living in a mountain town like Chamonix is actually getting away from it- whether that be on expedition or just a week somewhere else in the world. When you're constantly focused on the mountains towering above your home it can get a bit stagnant. With that in mind myself and Ueli had decided to head over to Scotland at some point this winter- nothing special, just for a week of fun. I wasn't even going to bring my SLR with me...shock horror. The priority was to climb some great routes, no matter what the grade, and focus on eating as much cake, fish and chips, and real ale as possible.
The trip started off on the right foot with a weekend of shots, late night dancing, and general Chamonix party antics with plenty of folks for the Annapurna 'charity' night. Feeling delicate and extremely hungover we tried our best to pack within the measly Easyjet allowances and flew out snoring like pigs on the plane to Edinburgh. After a pit stop for the Mountain Film Festival we headed north the following morning to the North West. I've always wanted to head to the North West, partly because it's meant the be one of the remotest areas to climb, and partly because it's got some amazing looking routes. The GPS showed the way and I struggled to remember to drive on the correct side of the road whilst Ueli caught up on his sending sleep from the weekend.
The other side of the Swiss Machine
True to Scotland we arrived at our bunkhouse in Kinlochewe in driving rain. Above us the peaks looked white which was a good sign. The bunkhouse was sparse to say the least, and the damp that is so key to a Scottish suffer week was already starting to seep in to us. I instantly came down with a sinus infection and we sat in the cold kitchen whilst I sniffled and ate cake and drank tea. A perfect start to the trip.
The following day I managed to set the fire alarm off by turning on the gas stove to heat up the kitchen area...so we did the mature thing and legged it. The 'mute' button on the fire alarm panel had all but been punched through the wall to the other side with an ice axe so I don't think we were the first ones to have set it off inadvertently.
The mountain of choice for the trip was Beinn Eighe, and the route of choice was Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. Leaving the car park we opted to walk around the whole mountain rather than go up and over- it was raining hard and thick cloud was hanging above us. Still this is what Gore-Tex was apparently made for; I never know how they get away with the slogan of 'Guaranteed to keep you dry' - obviously their version of what dry constitutes must include your boxers being so wet you could fill a pint glass at the end of the day. Maybe i'll do that one day and send it over to them.
The Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe
Contouring round Beinn Eighe and arriving at the base of the Triple Buttress we bumped in to an old friend from chamonix, Tom Grant. Small world. They had gone up to retrieve some kit but had been put off by the avalanche risk- we had naively concluded that the slopes around us were too small to be a threat so we pressed on up. Finding the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears was almost impossible in the whiteout and so we ended up on something else by accident. I'm not sure what real Scottish conditions are but essentially if it's in really sh*t conditions by European standards then that seems to mean really good conditions by Scottish rules. So we inched our way up a heavily buried route which was great fun for the leader and heinous for the belayer given that it was sleeting hard most of the day. As I tied in for the third pitch I felt we were not doing too badly- the route hadn't really matched the description but then actually following any features with this much snow was impossible. But the final pitch stung- I spent hours cleaning before feeling I was going to commit myself in to a dead end. I couldn't really see which way was going to lead me out- wet snow covered everything and by now I was on a series of slabs rather than following an obvious crack. I was a bit sick of having to clean this thick wet snow and gave the sharp end over to Ueli who wasn't too keen either. A few meters above my high point and it was Ueli who was coming back down to the belay- we were getting a good old Schooling in Scotland. Excellent. So we bailed.
Heading up West Central Gully
Approaching the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears area
Ueli arriving at the top of the first pitch of something...Maelstrom(?)
On the second pitch of something....Maelstrom (?)
Ueli walks back out in the rain
The great thing about having no expectations is that you're always happy with whatever you get. Even though we had no idea what we'd tried we'd still had a great day and in its buried condition it definitely proved pretty challenging both for climbing and for pro. Our prior two leads had been fully run out at the top, we tried and failed, we'd donated a centimetre of axe tip to the route, and we'd both gotten 100% soaked. Cant complain.
The next day we tried again. This time it was clear on the approach but the freezing level was way above the summit- 5 degrees at the base of Blood Sweat and Frozen Tears. Mindful of courting any winter ethics wrath in our direction by climbing when nothing is frozen we kept heading up to West Central Gully where we could see some ice. Finding a good belay cave Ueli headed on upwards without any screws- thankfully a man who has soloed numerous multipitch WI6s around the world doesn't need any pro on ice. But yet again we found our match- the ice was pouring water from behind and completely detached from the rock. These temps were getting a little annoying now.
Heading back in under brighter skies
Back up WCG
Cave Gremlin on West Central Gully
Our plan B (or was it C by now?) was to just go have fun on one of the Buttress routes and so we did just that. Starting up the first pitch of Piggots route on Central Buttress we bumped in to Tom again and Paul Swail. Deciding that there was plenty of buttress for everyone we took a line to the side and then directly up the top 'headwall' (left of Piggots route) that actually proved pretty spicy. I cleverly managed to drop an axe on the last pitch which thankfully landed on a ledge next to the belay and after a lot more digging we eventually broke out on to the summit. Bum sliding back down was maybe the highlight of the trip.
Somewhere up on Central Buttress
The sun does occasionally shine in Scotland
Making our own way up Central Buttress
The top part of Central Buttress
What turned out to be the crux...glad it was Ueli's lead
Tom Grant and Paul Swail eye up the rest of Piggot's Route
Summit of Beinn Eighe
The forecast had been getting worse and worse- rain, high temps, and gale force winds. It was mainly the high temps that worried us and so the following morning saw us driving over to Lochcarron to check out a dry tooling venue there. The drive was scenic but the crag was dripping wet- this was no Le Zoo. But it did provide us with some good afternoon exercise and whilst driving back the weather did actually clear up offering us some really great vistas of what the NW costal region is all about. I'm sure when it stops raining its pretty stunning up there.
The drytooling crag at Lochcarron
We found ourselves at a bit of a loss for what to do by now. The weather for the last two days of our trip together was really bad, or maybe just very 'typical'- 100mph winds, rain, freezing level above the summit. Bit of an all round pain. We'd decided to leave the NW and head towards the Cairngorms- smaller, easier access, and generally faster than anything in the NW- it was worth a poke about. Ian Parnel arrived that evening though and threw a spanner in the works by wanting to head in to Beinn Eighe....what did he know that we didn't about this weather? After umming and eering for most of the evening we stuck with plan A- abandon ship- and drove over to the Ski Car Park in the morning. After overshooting the Cairngorms entirely after nattering away incessantly about life and the future, we back tracked and arrived at a very blustery Ski Car Park. Firstly we needed a coffee- it had been a long drive. I could see Ueli wasn't hugely keen to head in to the maelstrom but I'd just dried my gore-tex out and it was looking like it needed a little soaking. Tom and Paul arrived at the cafe just as we sat down and advised us not to go out- a millisecond later and Ueli had bolted to his feet and was getting us all more coffee and bacon sandwiches. I could see that we weren't going to get the Gore-Tex wet today! Instead Tom and Paul convinced us to drive to Newtyle Quarry. After all this it was starting to look like we were going to be having a dry tooling holiday- after a total of 7 hours in the car we arrived at Newtyle. Local beast Greg Boswell arrived and showed us how it's done, whilst I showed us how it's not done. And so we headed back to Aviemore for the night where fish and chips and plenty of good ale flowed. It was a good night.
Bright, early and a little hungover Ueli left for Edinburgh airport leaving me a couple of days to catch up with local 'Rain Man' Will Sim. I haven't seen much of Will since he wisely decided to leave the alps and pursue his guides training, and after a day of catching up we headed in to the Cairngorms with nothing in mind apart from just go have a play. Which was exactly what we did soloing up Doctor's Choice, Pygmy Ridge, and quickly roping up for the easiest ascent of The Genie in history.
Will on Doctor's Choice
Heading over towards Pygmy Ridge
Crag booty galore
All in all a really fun week. Yes we didn't do much but we did get ourselves a pretty fine holiday in and met some really fantastic people in the bunkhouse and Aviemore. Getting down and dirty and wet in the highlands was a great motivation for the Alps again and now that the first sign of good weather has arrived since 2013 it's time to get the softshells out, the suncream on, the skis deployed, and the alpine suffering to take over.
Thanks to all who we met, shared beers with, discussed at length about Scottish independence, and generally made the trip for us.