One of our Instructors, Charlie, recently took a trip south to escape the British Winter....
As the “coldest winter in 50 years” didn't materialise, and I had lots of free time, I decided to hedge my bets and book a flight to the mountains of the South of France to visit a friend and climb some ice.
One of the marvellous things about the Climbing Community is that everyone is ashtonishingy friendly and accommodating. I have, on multiple occasions, been invited to stay and climb with people that I've only met once or twice and of course, offered the same. This makes getting away and seeing new places great fun, with the benefit of local knowledge, and keeps the cost down! What's not to like?
In preparing for a trip, packing is an essential part. Unlike heading off to Tenerife where you just need some swimwear and suncream, an outdoor trip is a little more involved. This can be made easier by breaking it down into areas though, just as you would for your normal beach holiday. So instead of swimming stuff, fancy clothes and a walk kit, you need to work out the areas that are important for your trip. As I was heading out for some winter climbing I had the obvious areas of climbing hardwear (ice screws, harness, helmet), clothing (which I break up into head/hands, base layers, warm layers and waterproof layers) and footwear. It's easy to forget the little things, so you need to check through different eventualities, such as taking longer than expected (head torch), injury (first aid) equipment damage (gaffa tape). All of this on top of your usual packing routine and normal things (like socks).
You should have backup plans. I was heading with the intention of ice climbing, but given that I was going to escape the warm UK weather, I went prepared for equally warm European weather, which turned out to be very wise as we ended up sort Climbing as well.
Having landed at Nice airport, I was met by my friend Marj in her classic battered old French car. Now I was in France! We headed back to her house to be met by her other half, Alex who I was to climb with the next day as she had work! Sorry Marj...
They have such a lovely homely place, with an open fire in the living area, massive comfortable sofas and some pets looking very inquisitively at their new arrival. They are well sorted for their outdoor lifestyle, with the 'shed' (more like an outhouse) that has been fully setup for all their outdoor kit. With ropes, bags, gear, skis and much more all hung out in it's own specific area to dry out and store. It was like a smaller version, but no less organised, than something you'd find in Joe Brown’s or V12. They even had a workshop table which got utilised straight away for converting my Scottish winter tools, all dulled and blunted by numerous battles on the Cairngorm granite, to super sharp Euro ice crushing machines!
After dinner, we did what all sensible people looking to head into the winter mountains should do. Research! Luckily Marj and her partner are French, so we were able to check all the local websites for weather, avalanche risk, local climbing websites and anything else we could get our hands on. Knowledge is power as they say. It's a little bit of a dark art sifting through all the information out there and working out what to trust and what to disregard. Thinking back to home where the BBC give out a weather warning of 'severe snow storms coming' and advise you to stay at home and lock yourself away until spring with some hot coco and a book. Climbers and Mountaineers often rejoice at another's 'poor weather'. This means fresh snow, which is the beginnings of winter activities in the mountains. On the other hand if MWIS or SAIS says 'severe snow storms coming', then we batten down the hatches and get some coco and a good book as this advice really is to be heeded! The real tricky advice to sift through is climbing websites, such as UKClimbing, where people log their recent ascents and post small snippets about conditions. How do you know if this info is from a knowledgeable seasoned mountaineer or professional, or if it is just some chap that's only been out in the mountains for their first time and was lucky not to get avalanched. So he might think it was a great day, in great conditions unaware of having walked on a knifes edge all day and got away with it. This only comes from experience, and knowing what to trust and what not to. There is no shortcut here.
So after trawling round various websites, we worked out which valleys and aspects would be the safest given the conditions and opted for a nice 150m grade IV,5 icefall about an hour and a half north of us. The weather was looking like it was going to be a cold blue sky day. Perfect!
After an hour's worth of jet pilot driving through the mountain roads by Alex in the old Dacia (definitely the most terrifying part of the trip), we arrived at a small village. We had a final kit check, phoned his mum to let her know where we were going and what time to expect a call later. This is a very important habit to get into, even if you're going on a gentle walk on Kinder in the summer. You never know when you'll sprain your ankle while falling into a bog, killing your phone in the process. Then last thing before we start the hour long walk into the icefall, transceivers on! Any time you're heading into avalanche prone areas, make sure you have one, as well as a shovel and a probe, and of course know how to use them.
The walk was lovely, albeit through knee deep snow. The Alpine is so beautiful and picturesque, so different to the UK: the sharp snowlined edges of the mountains; the carpets of pine trees covered in snow; and the sound of water way down in the valley winding its way past all the old wooden alpine homes scattered about the valley.
After an hour of trudging through deep snow, we gained sight of our objective for the day. The only problem was the stream we needed to cross to get the start of the route. Given the slightly warm conditions, there wasn't a nice frozen lid to the stream, and just some sloppy snow bridges which Alex kindly suggested I test out first as I was the lightest. Thanks Alex!
The ice was in great condition, but the recent snowfall impeded progress a little. By the time we got to the final pitch we decided the amount of fresh snow sitting at a steep angle wasn't worth the risk, so we set up an Abalokov thread and abseiled back down, via a bolt belay further down. It's always worth scoping out as much of the route as you can before you get on (binoculars are good here). Luckily, we got a great view from the other side of the valley before we started, so we already had a backup plan for when we got to the snowfield at the top incase it was as bad as it looked. Don't be afraid to back off a route if you're not comfortable with it. There are a whole host of skills that once learned weigh nothing, and give you lots of tools and tricks to get yourself out of tricky situations safely.
Day 2 saw us as a team of 3 going to a much steeper and longer icefall in the next valley along. The walk in was about the same distance, but on a less travelled path and steeper. So we opted to bring the snowshoes after the previous day's snorkeling expedition through the soft snow. But the cold conditions overnight had caused much of the soft snow to consolidate. So it was much firmer and easier to walk on. This was also reassuring as it meant the avalanche risk had also gone down for the day. (Note, this isn't necessarily a hard and fast rule).
This was a BEAST! The guidebook described it as the same size as the day before, but this was sustained 80 degree ice pretty much all the way, compared to the previous day's ice route which had large sections of 50 degree ice which you could almost run up. Climbing as a three can go one of two ways. Either you're switched on, and you can share all the jobs out between you, and you've got someone to chat to at the belays. Or you end up in a tangle and get really stressed out with all the ropes and slings and gear at belays. Luckily we were the former and had a fantastic day out, with Marj being thrilled to second the whole thing clean. Given that this was the first ice climbing she'd done in over 2 years, this was a great effort! This thing was STEEP!
There were a couple of interesting sections higher up where we could hear the water running behind the ice against the rock. It was still ok to climb on, but if you kicked, or swung your axe too hard, you went straight through! It was quite unnerving at the belay when the second was hitting the ice, it was just reverberating under your feet. Good job there was a bolt belay.
On the way home we spotted a few avalanche debris fields from the previous few days when the warning had been high. The brief cold snap had consolidated things somewhat, but now it was getting warm again!
The next few days were far too warm for playing on ice. So I headed for the coast for some bolt clipping. Remember folks, always pack a back up plan!! Packing rock shoes and a chalkbag weighs little, but can turn a write off winter trip into a impromptu sport climbing trip. I managed a day at Chou Chou Place crag, managing some great 30m sport routes.
This was followed by a great adventurous day out on the amazing Arete du Marseille, overlooking, you guessed it, Marseille. This involved a jump/stretch between a finger of rock and the remaining ridge to the summit. Such an amazing route, and only 5c sport. Get yourselves there. The walk in is pretty spectacular too.
The last day was the best day. We had planned to do a big alpine route, which we'd wanted to do since the start, but conditions hadn't allowed. But as I'd had so many days in a row doing big walk ins and pulling hard on sport routes, I was absolutely trashed. So instead, we decided to go hard! Opposite the big icefall we did on day 2 was a vertical ice pillar known as Cigare de La Vieille. It is a 20m vertical icicle that touches the floor when it's in condition, which it was, just.
After the walk in from the previous route, we then had a massive slog straight up the hill! The snow started to get pretty dubious and steep, so we opted to go one at a time in case the snow gave way, then the others would have a chance to spot and dig them out... By the time we had got to the icefall we were tired but psyched. It looked awesome!
After gearing up and giving it a go on the lead, we decided the quality of ice wasn't enough that if we fell off, that an ice screw would hold. The ice was in good condition to climb, but there were quite a few air pockets, meaning the ice screw didn't have much purchase in the ice. So we decided not to risk it, and Alex and I missioned around to get to the top to set up a top rope.
Once, we had carefully negotiated some further dubious slopes and got to the top, we rigged a top rope and abseiled down the icefall, checking the condition of it on the way down. We had made a wise choice. The higher up ice was more solid to take screws, but very fragile for climbing on. This would have meant that we could have just fallen off without warning before getting to ice that would have safely taken the life saving ice screws. Being a wimp paid off again!!
We had a great afternoon climbing the icefall and mucking about as it was our last day. Many antics were had and much tea was drunk before we finally headed back home for a final night feast!
I hope you guys manage to get away on adventures soon, be it near or far. As long as you've got good company to have a laugh with, a flask of tea, and let the wimp in you make smart safe decisions, you'll have a great time. Remember, anytime you wimp out of doing something, it just means you've got an opportunity to come back another time for another adventure!! Stay safe folk, and enjoy yourselves.
Charlie Mackie is an Instructor at Horizon Expeditions. He holds the Mountaineering Instructor Award, and is a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors. You can find more about Charlie here: http://www.horizonexpeditions.co.uk/meet-the-team.html
You can meet Charlie this year on our School Programmes and Climbing Courses.
Horizon Expeditions is one of the UK's premier providers in Mountain Adventures, Courses and Guiding.