It was cold and windy outside the First Light tent. "Salopettes are awesome for this kind of weather" lectures Adam at 4.30 am, "but they're rubbish if you have a wet dream". Alpine partnerships are priceless and no more so than when in the company of funny man Adam George. We'd come to do an alpine photo shoot for Adidas Outdoor and I'd opted for the Super Couloir direct on the Tacul. It was my favourite kind of shoot- a worthy alpine objective and two rope teams meaning no faffing about; just pure light and fast climbing photography. In keeping with the 'speed' element, Adam and I had headed up the previous day to fix ropes for a faster get away the following morning, and scratched our way up a very dry 'direct'.
Adam on the approach to the Super Couloir
The Direct was looking a little dry
Adam seconding the long first pitch of the Direct
Nice ice on the second pitch
Nice ice on the second pitch
Adam throwing some shapes on the snow mushroom
Adam destroying said snow mushroom
Nevertheless we got back down, met the rest of the group, and hurriedly crammed ourselves in to the First Light tent. As I desperately tried to warm my feet up I couldn't help but feel it was more like Alaskan temperatures than anything European. So we talked the night away and I slept comfortably drifting in and out of the nightmare of clouds spoiling my photoshoot (how sad is that?!), whilst Adam spent the night worrying about having a wet dream.
It was windy the following morning; not a good omen for a feature called the 'super' couloir. But there were clear skies and we'd come for the sunrise shot, so at 6am everyone was on their way in to the darkness. Sunrise came and went and we got some great shots of Stéphanie Maureau and Maxime Thirvaudey on the Direct (keep your eye out in a couple of months for all the shots and video). Unfortunately, above us loomed the dark and cold couloir element of the climb- not a place that instilled huge excitement. It had been manageable in the sun but the shade looked grim.
Adam heads in to the couloir
Adam headed off and we simul climbed up as two teams snapping away as I went, trying to keep moving as fast as possible to stay warm. It really was a cold day out, -24 degrees in fact, and it's not often that i'll simul climb with a down jacket on all day.
Arriving at the final crux pitch we could hear the wind roaring above our heads somewhere. It looked like the scene from The Perfect Storm where he's pointing out what happens when two weather fronts clash in to each other- the updraft from the couloir met head on with the downdraft and tons of spindrift from above. It was a maelstrom of shite up there. So naturally we pressed on and as I lost Adam in and out of the spindrift I did wonder at how ridiculous my job is sometimes.
Adam on the last pitch
Spot the climber?!
The Super F*cking Cold Couloir
My photo op point was of course in the middle of this spindrift maelstrom. It was 'unpleasant' to say the least. There's spindrift and then there's Super Couloir spindrift- after clearing my nostrils out and screaming in agony at the brain freeze I snapped the last few shots of the climb and called it a day. The team had put in an amazing effort in coming this far but enough was enough, at least we'd made it to the top of the ice.
Another excellent day out and some great shots and video in the bag. Thanks to Adam, Steph and Max for keeping going.
Oh god its coming! The fear...the fear!
Cautious Tom- a man perfectly suited for a fast and light Alpine hit in what was quickly turning into a Patagonian style weather window. With tons of fresh snow about, bitterly cold temperatures, and a new storm system moving in within a day I knew that 'Cautious' wouldn't be the man to bail. Which was good news as arriving at the Midi it was indeed 'minus baltic degrees' and the skin up to the base of the Requin was an excellent omen for skiing but not a great one for climbing. In a way everything conspired against us on Sunday but amazingly we got away with one of the best Chamonix goulottes I've ever climbed...
Tom on the approach to the Requin with the Verte in the background
The Drus, Verte and Droites looking very cold and wintery
Arriving at the shrund and the already precarious snow bridge we had crossed last time had collapsed. In fact the whole shrund had collapsed leaving holes everywhere and maybe the worst shrund crossing I've ever done as the only alternative. By the time we'd scouted about and desperately tried to find an alternative crossing it was getting late. Thinking light thoughts over an unconnected snow bridge we finally made it onto the mountain; this was quickly turning into a bit of a mission. By now it was 1pm, and the weather had started to move in. High cloud quickly warmed up the face around us and a huge snow mushroom high up the couloir released sending an impressive powder avalanche down the Sorenson-Eastman. Hmm...
These snow mushroom collapses would continue throughout the day; terrifying to watch as a huge billowing cloud would come diving down on you, but also completely harmless- the snow had not had time to harden or settle yet and apart from a twinge of panic it provided a new experience in the mountains, though not one I'm keen to seek out again.
Tom negotiated two further shrunds and then beasted up the access couloir above. As we got closer to our intended line things started to feel a bit more positive. There were no obvious mushrooms hanging in Ice is Nice and the route looked fat...really fat. Two easy ice pitches bring you to the only tricky pitch of the route which is a real gem. It's not often that I find perfect nevee plastered on angles up to 90 degrees but this pitch had it all. Fun climbing, steep sections on bomber axes, and good rock pro every 10m- it was maybe the best pitch I've ever climbed of that nature in Chamonix. Ice certainly is Nice in this gully.
Ice is Nice is the obvious ice streak just above the rope
Stellar climbing on the crux pitch, © Tom Grant
More amazing climbing!, © Tom Grant
Tom heads up the last ice pitch
As I brought Tom up I lost sight of the Aiguille Verte opposite and as we topped out from the route we lost sight of pretty much everything. It had started to snow. Everything turned Scottish and pummelled by the biggest spindrifts I've ever dealt with every few minutes, we rapped back down the route.
At the top of the route
Getting ready to rap back down
Not sure why Tom is smiling....
An exciting descent
Just as we pulled out of the couloir something huge released and came down. You can just make out the couloir behind Tom filling with the start of the avalanche. Not a great picture but you get the idea
Clipping in to our skis it was an epic powder descent following our tracks in a white out and snow stinging our eyes. Cutting it fine? Maybe, but then I don't often spend all day grinning ear to ear with how much fun I'm having...thanks Tom for an excellent day out.
'Grim' was my first thought of the day. The alarm called. It was still cold and it was still windy. The Sans Nom face at our backs had come alive in a worrying way from the winds slamming in to it, and the avalanches coming down it weren't inspiring us to set foot on the thing for the next two days. 'Bail' was my second thought of the day.
The winter of 2012/2013 has definitely been a skiers year which sucks if you want to fight gravity rather than use it. Last week was no exception with a meter of fresh snow, 60mph winds, and the coldest temps we've had all winter; not exactly alpine climbing weather. But weather windows have been so few and far between that you just have to try something....anything. So with that in mind I rang around to see if I could convince anyone to ditch the skis and pick up their axes for some winter suffering in the hills. Tim Neill was the man for the job. The idea was to pick something big that we could solo thus avoid freezing our tips off in the predicted -25 degree temps and strong winds. So the Swiss route on the Courtes North Face it was.
I was sure that it would be buried, the approach would be a nightmare, the face would be spindrifting heavily, and the top would have a scary layer of wind blown snow on top of hard ice. So we went heavy with a rope and enough screws and tiblocs to move together. Most crucially on this kind of mission you need a partner who is 100% on board. With the given forecast and snowy conditions even the slightest bit of doubt at the shrund is enough of an excuse to bail- thankfully Tim is, as Dougal put it, "the most psyched man in Wales". Win.
Big Tim arrives at the Shrund
Catching the lift up the next morning we toured up to the Courtes. It's a strong indication of bad conditions when there isn't even a ski touring track up the Argentiere Glacier, but the weather seemed much better than predicted and we were buzzing. We opted for the social tour in to the Courtes putting in two side by side tracks and shortly after we arrived at the shrund. No winds, no spindrift, and the route looked in bomber nick; no need for that rack and rope after all.
The route went by without any hitches. The start was perfect nevee, the crux was nicely formed, and the top 500m of 50 degree ice was the traditional calf burner. I had a fun time carrying my little approach skis whilst Tim had a 'fun' learning experience working out how the hell you swing an axe without smacking them in to your skis. I felt like I was cheating a bit with such a light pack compared to Tim's expedition size looking pack...but hey i would get stung on the descent.
Bomber Nevee at the start
Tim enjoying chewy ice before two months of Welsh and Scottish ice...
These skis rock...
Tim and the Chardonnet in the background
Myself psyched out of my mind to be in the mountain again, © Tim Neill
Tim topping out of the crux
And so begins the 500m of calf burner ice
Tim pulling his best Ueli Steck pose
On the final section to the summit
The view over towards switzerland
Topping out to the next weather system sweeping in from the West, we quickly hurried down to the Col de Droites where we deployed the skis and aimed for home. The top few hundred meters were characterised by huge scary slabs, but we had come mentally prepared for this, and after slowly and very gingerly negotiating our way down these slopes the slabs gave way to champagne powder and we 'shredded' back down to town. 'Sick dude' as the freeriders would say...'safe finally' was what we would say.
Thanks to Tim for an awesome day out...enjoy Wales!
And now the small matter of getting down...