Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Polish/Michto route on the Grandes Jorasses

After seeing picture after picture over the last two months of this year’s amazing conditions on the Grandes Jorasses I eventually got chance to sample it for myself.  Jack Geldard and Dave Searle were heading up to climb La belle Hélène on the right hand side of the north face of the Grandes Jorasse and had kindly allowed me to tag along with them.  It was all a bit rushed but pretty nice to have just caught the end of the weather window and to be stood at the top of the north face 26 hours after arriving in Chamonix.

After a very early start from a cramped Leschaux hut we arrived below the route find two parties already starting up it.  It was frigging cold - warm temperatures and long daylight hours on the Grandes Jorasses are definitely over.  We decided the best course of action was to get the stove out, get some warm cups of tea down us and let the other teams get established on the route.

Jack leading the way up the initial ice slopes.  You can just see the team above us.
Dave heading up the Polish Route
The first of the steeper pitches on Michto (Photo - Dave Searle)
Fun mixed climbing on second pitch of Michto (Photo - Dave Searle)

Andy heading up onto thin, fun ice on the second pitch Michto (Photo - Jack Geldard)

Dave seconding the second pitch on Michto
Conditions on the face were as good as the hype, perfect névé and ice all the way.  Instead of climbing behind the two other teams on La belle Hélène we headed left to climb the Polish/Michto combination which like a lot of the ice routes on the Jorasses this season has seen a lot of ascents.  The ice is definitely starting to thin out on some of the steeper pitches which gave brilliant and absorbing climbing.  The final pitch of Michto that leads you back to join the Polish route was just awesome.   An awkward balancy little mixed step lead out onto a small hanging ice ramp with hundreds of meters of air below you, simply stunning and what these thin ice routes are all about.

Andy climbing a short mixed step to get onto the hanging ice ramp (Photo - Dave Searle)

Dave pulling on the exposed ice ramp on the final pitch of Michto
Dave on the final pitch of Michto
Loving it! (Photo - Dave Searle)
There were signs of previous ascent everywhere going off in all directions and in the end we just followed the most direct line up finishing up the last couple of pitches of La belle Hélène.  A proper combination of routes by the time we got to the top!

Jack climbing up to the final pitch on La belle Hélène
Andy on the final pitch of La belle Hélène (Photo - Dave Searle)

Jack climbing the final few meters to the top of the face

Dave on the summit ridge with Pointe  Hélène and Marguerite behind (Photo - Jack Geldard)
It was great to be out swinging tools on a big alpine face again and a really fun day climbing as a three.  Given it’s now snowing hard down in Chamonix, the quick turn around and rush to make the train was well worth it to grab a route before the weather came in.  Thanks to Jack and Dave for letting me come along and Josie for getting all my kit out and ready so I could make the train!

Evening sun over Mont Blanc

Jack and Dave at the start of the abseils
Dave leading the abseils down from the summit ridge - we traversed the ridge to join the decent from below Pointe Croz.  We found out after there is a direct decent from where La belle Hélène tops out which we were told isn't as bad as it first looks.
Dave heading down from the Boccalate hut the next day 

Monday, 8 September 2014

CCC Ultra Trail

I was nervous as hell before it. Not sure why, but I felt more apprehensive than I had before any alpine route. But after talking about it for what feels like an age it came and went and three important things happened:

1 – I started it (earlier in the year I wasn't so sure this would happen)

2 – I finished

3 (and most importantly) – I actually enjoyed it - well not all of it, that would be a blatant lie, but most of it (oh dear does this mean there's more to come…??)

The start line along with another 1900 people - for some reason
a lot of people want to do this ultra running - I now know why, so rewarding
So how did it go? The CCC starts in Courmayeur and finishes in Chamonix after 101km of alpine trails with 6100m of ascent.  Basically, it was a roller coaster of up big hills, down big hills, highs, lows, loving it, hating it, up more big hills, down some more, highs, lows, love, hate…….. you get the picture. And that is the one thing I will definitely take from this, ultra trails are a journey of emotions and pain, but also one hell of a lot of fun and so very satisfying and rewarding.

Eventually feeling the psyche on the start line along with Sharon and
Trevor - only 101km and 6100m of ascent to go!
I was still nervous as hell the night before and trying to think of any excuse to get out of it, but by the morning of the race in Courmayeur with a lot of help (aka being told to ‘man the f*ck up’) from Josie I actually got into and started to look forward to it. By the time I was stood on the start line along with Sharon and Trevor, their positive vibes and the excitement of the other 1900 people surrounding us definitely wore off on me and I was so psyched for it I was worried I was going to go off at a 4 minute mile pace! (Just for the record I never have run and never will run a 4 minute mile, but you get what I mean).

My first mistake of the day was maybe a blessing in disguise. A few friends had told me to make sure I got in the front pack and set off fast to get a good position going up the Tête de la Tronche as the trail is really narrow and hard to pass people on. I didn't. The fast girls and boys went off and ten or so minutes later the whistle went again and we were off. The climb up Tête de la Tronche was so slow, even stationary at points as the mass of runners made their way up. It was pretty impressive to see so many people snaking their way up, just an endless line in both directions. But also very frustrating… I was really beginning to wish I taken the advise and sneaked into the front group, but then I’d probably have got too excited and tried to keep up with everyone so who knows.

The first major low for me came on the climb to Grand Col Ferret, I felt destroyed already at under 30km in, oh shit! Seeing the tents on the col seemed to give me renewed energy (coincidently it flattened off here too…) and I charged into the long decent down to La Fouly. The charge lasted about 2 minutes before I realised the legs weren't feeling that revived and I settled in for the long steady haul all the way down.

Putting on a brave face for the camera in Issert just before the climb
up to Champex -  contrary to the photo I was hating it at this point!
Seeing Josie cheering me on at La Fouly was a big boost. I stuffed myself with saucisson and cheese at the check point, nearly had to rugby tackle someone walking off with my poles (he must have been feeling super fit as he wanted to carry his own poles on his pack as well as mine in his hands!) and then begrudgingly carried on down the valley. I was suffering big style. As beautiful as the scenery was through the valley forest I hated it, begging for the climb up to Champex to arrive.

Reaching Champex was both a mental and much needed physical boost. At 55km it is just over half way, so in your head you can start counting down the kilometres to the finish. It was also the first checkpoint on the CCC where you are allowed ‘assistance’, so not only was it great to see Josie it was even better to have her running round after me filling bottles and just generally giving me a lot of positive encouragement.

Feeling like a new man after two large bowls of pasta at Champex - took quite a while for the
pasta to settle so I could start running again!
After two big bowls of pasta and a mouthful of pizza, I realised half an hour had gone and it was time to get back on it and out into the rain. The climb up Bovine was brutal and the weather had turned pretty miserable, but after the stop in Champex I felt like a new man. Arriving in Trient was awesome and it was a massive surprise and a big uplift to not only see Josie, but also another seven friends there cheering me on! And once they got into the tent and got hold of the microphone the banter just started flowing! I definitely had the biggest, best and loudest support crew on the whole race, thanks guys.

The surprise welcome in Trient!  Such a big mental boost just when needed. (Photo - Betony Garner)

Getting the serious face on and shoveling as much noodle soup down as possible at the
Trient checkpoint - and showing of the potential for an impressive receding hairline to come!
After leaving Trient I was feeling good. I’d run this part of the course before so knew what was to come. I wasn't so sure I’d get my own personal goal of sub 18 hours anymore, but barring injury I knew I would finish. I took the gentle climb out of Vallorcine steady, but the climb up to La Tête aux Vents really really hurt big time. Rather selfishly though my mood was been boosted by the amount of people I was flying past. ‘Flying past’ was definitely a figment of my post race high imagination, but for once, thanks to the enforced (and at the time frustratingly) slow start I felt I’d got the pacing right.

Katie, Bet and Gaz got a bit bored waiting for me in Vallorcine....
After a much needed bowl of warm noodle soup and my umpteenth cup of Coke at Flégère it was downhill all the way for the final 8km into Chamonix.  I don’t usually like descents but was loving this final section down into town and it went by in a blur. In the end I crossed the line in 17hr 36min.  I was so happy to just have started and finished the CCC and getting in under my 18 hour goal was the added bonus to finish it all off.

Finished! So happy and relieved!
Josie deserved the celebration drink just as much as me for the countless miles driven 
and long day providing amazing support around the course.  
What a day and one to remember for lots of good reasons. A massive thank you to Josie and everyone else for the amazing support all around the course. And of course all the volunteers that help make the whole UTMB week happen.

Will I be back for more? Maybe in a few years time. I’m in awe of the speed that the top runners complete the course in. The winning time this year was 11hr 21min! I just cannot comprehend running it in that sort of time. After struggling with fitness for the last year just completing the CCC this year meant one hell of a lot to me and has been a major boost in confidence again. Although I’d never be competitive with the top runners, one of my downfalls is I can be quite competitive with myself. So there is a bit of me that would like to see just how much I could improve on my time this year… we’ll see, but definitely not for a few years.

And the question everyone seems to ask once you've run the CCC – so are you going to run the UTMB next year? I can safely say the answer to this is a definite NO! I have massive respect for anyone who has done it, but 166km just isn't for me I’m afraid...

Friday, 5 September 2014

BMC Yorkshire Area meeting and talk

I'm doing a short talk after the BMC Yorkshire Area meeting on Monday 15th September at The Wheatley Arms in Ben Rhydding.  All welcome and there will be a break for food (and a pint) between the area meeting and my talk.  Cotswold's will also be there too with all their new winter kit to have a look at.

All details are on the poster below.  Its a great opportunity to come and hear about all the hard work the BMC do and any local and national issues they are looking at. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Getting The Miles In

A couple of weeks ago I had a bit of time off and tried to make the most of by getting as many miles in on the bike, foot and hopefully back up in the mountains.

Josie and I started the week off with a Coast to Coast in a day bike ride and 6.15am Monday morning saw us dipping our back wheels in the sea at Seascale, Cumbria and pedalling eastwards. 240km eastward to be precise! Now things didn’t exactly go according to plan to start with and within 5 km Josie had her first puncture.  Not a problem until you realise you've left the spare tubes back in Seascale, opsie! After that and another mechanical 1km later (we nearly gave up at this point) we eventually got properly under way an hour or so later with a full supply of inner tubes (thanks Dad!) and thankfully things went a lot smoother.

Josie arriving at the top of the first climb, Hardknott Pass

Nearly there!

We basically followed the Open Cycling Coast to Coast Sportive route through the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales across the Vale of York and finally the North York Moors. Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass were a bit of a rude awaking straight out of bed and there were a few short steep sting in the tail climbs when you think you’re nearly there but it is simply a stunning route. And what better way to finish with the world’s best Fish and Chips in Whitby. (Thanks to all the pubs and cafes that kept our water bottles topped up along the way)
It had to be done - cheesy celebration photo arriving at Whitby. Love it!

After a lazy day in Whitby and a brief visit back into work it was out to Chamonix for the Tour des Fiz and a bit of Alpine climbing. The weather didn't play ball with the climbing plans unfortunately but we did manage to sneak one day up in the mountains on the Traverse d’Entreves which was so much fun. To be honest I could have probably just got of the cable car and gone for a plod around on the glacier and still felt like a kid in a sweetie shop with a big beaming smile. Its so long since I've been climbing on anything resembling a hill and even longer since I've felt the need and want to. But both are back and it was so nice to be back in that environment feeling I wanted to be there rather than feeling I should be wanting to be there.

A climbing photo, yes i do still do it, and yes it is still so much fun and I can't wait to be back out again.
Josie on the Traverse d'Entreves
To finish off the multi activity week it was time for the Tour des Fiz. 61km with 5000m of ascent, umm yes, that was hard work. I’d entered this as I wanted to see how my general fitness was coming on for the CCC at the end of August. As expected with one thing and another my training has been very limited and this definitely showed but still it was a fun (definitely type 2 fun) day out. The course is beautiful and I ended up finishing in 10hr 25min which I was really please with. I’d even thought I might get under 10 hours at one point but I completely blew up on the final climb and the descent all the way back to the finish was an absolute nightmare, a lot more technical then I’d expected and the legs had absolutely nothing left in them, if only I hadn't faffed as much at all the stops!

Start of the long 12km descent from the Col de la Portette

The decent from Refuge de Grenairon

Josie on the podium, 3rd in her category!

All smiles when it was over
So all in all a positive result from the day with a lot of lessons learnt. Firstly I faff way more at the food and drink stops than anyone else I saw! But the main one being that 5000m of ascent means 5000m of descent.  Kind of obvious when you think about it really... anyway I discovered I definitely don’t know how to descend. So what will I be doing for the next month? Well most likely you will find me running down hill in varying degrees of control trying to figure out how to do it, any advice is more than welcome! (well that was the plan when I wrote this last night... fast forward to 7am this morning in the yard loading a trailer and my back now has other plans.  I shall now be mostly found not running down hills but in the physio trying to sort out a sprained facet joint whatever that is - sure it'll be fine for the CCC....)

Looking down on Courmayeur. I managed to sneak a quick morning reccy of the start to the CCC the day I flew back home.  That is going to be a brutal warm up - 1400m straigh off the start line!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

48 hours in Chamonix

This year definitely seems to be more about running and biking than climbing and that was what last weekend was all about in a mini 48 hour trip to Chamonix.  The thought of having no expedition or big climbing trip planned for the year was at first a bit of a blow but I'm pretty happy with it now and to be honest with you think its a good thing.  Physically my body needed time off to recover and mentally I also needed a break from expeditions.

Cooling off in Tré-le-Champ after a the run up from Chamonix through Argentière, La Planet and Montroc. From here we headed up to Flégère and along to Brévent before finally dropping back down to Chamonix.
The trip to Pakistan last year was a disaster for me and turns out to probably been down to some sort of post viral/chronic fatigue I already had but hadn't noticed until I really pushed myself.  That trip really knocked my confidence in my own abilities, I'd never felt so weak and small in the mountains.  Discovering there was maybe a reason for it (and not just the fact I'm two years into my thirties!) has also give me a light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.

Josie heading down the long decent from Brévent
The local wildlife blocking the path
I still needed something to aim for this year and goals to help motivate me and gradually build up the fitness again.  I had already applied for a place in the CCC (one of the races that is part of The North Face Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc) but in my post Pakistan low had all but written it off, as well as been advised against it.  In the end I've gone for the opposite approach and entered a couple more races out in the alps to build up to it and just see how it goes.  More to act as markers for my fitness progress than anything else.  I've got the Mont Blanc Cross at the end of the month and then the 60km Tour des Fiz at the end of July before the CCC at the end of August.

Swapped the running shoes for the bikes on Sunday and headed off down the valley to explore Mont Salève, Geneva's local mountain. Josie heading up the nice and gentle climb from Cruseilles after having gone up and over the very steep climb from Collonges-sous-Salève. Lac d'Annecy in the background.
Originally I'd hoped to try and get a relatively decent time (relatively speaking for me!) in the CCC but that goal has definitely shifted to just completing it one way or another.  One thing is for sure with the way my legs felt after Saturdays run I definitely need to start getting the miles in but on the major plus side the massive fatigue I'd feel for days after a weekend like this seems to slowly be abating.

Josie looking out over Geneva from the top of Mont Salève. The views down to Annecy, across to the Mont Blanc massif and out over Geneva and the Jura Mountains are stunning from up here.

Monday, 5 May 2014

A belated Easter post

A bit late posting this but here's a few pics from 10 days I spent in Chamonix over Easter. It was probably the first time in a long time that I have spent that much time in Chamonix and due to various niggling health issues had no plans of trying to bag a big alpine route. And to be honest it was pretty nice to just wake up see what the weather was doing and decide what to do! 

Josie and I started off by heading up Mont Dolent taking the easier option and staying at the Fiorio hut for a night. The weather wasn't so nice looking in the morning so we had a lazy lie in at the hut and headed up as the weather cleared around 9am (behind most of the people that started from the valley that day, opps!). After a lot of time in Chamonix I'd never actually climbed Mont Dolent but stared at it many times so it was nice to eventually stand on top and for Josie to fulfill a long time ambition of standing in France, Switzerland and Italy at the same time.  Through luck rather than good planning we timed it perfectly and had a really good ski back down to the hut on lovely spring snow.  It really does make a great ski peak.

A Haute Savoie breakfast in an Italian hut
Just above the Fiorio Hut
Josie approaching the ski depot and the last few hundred meters boot pack up to the summit
The summit!
Josie touching France, Switzerland and Italy all at the same time

High winds shut the valley down for the next few days so I settled for a bit of running and biking in the valley rather than heading up high. Plans for the Easter weekend had been to head out ski touring to Zinal or round the Mont Rosa massif but the weather was looking pretty crap so we did what most people do in Chamonix when the the weather sets in and ran away to Italy.
Great views of the Mont Blanc massif from down the valley
First stop was to head up to the Refugio Bezzi above Valgrisenche. I'd never been up to here before but will definitely be back, loads of touring potential on all types of terrain and the Bezzi is definitely more like a hotel rather than a hut. The weather was coming in the next day so we just did a short tour over the Becca Giasson and back down to the valley, no spring snow like on Dolent this time but I would imagine this would be a great ski in better condition.

The joy of spring ski touring, shorts and flip flops to find the snow
Skiing in to the Refugio Bezzi 
Refugio Bezzi is definitely more like a hotel than a hut, really friendly gardians, hot showers, espresso machine and a wine selection to match!
The other joy of spring ski touring...
With the weather no set in in the mountains we headed South to join some friends in Finale Ligure on the Mediterranean coast for three days.  More knows for it's climbing we were down there to make the most for the smooth, quiet roads and get a couple of good days road biking in.  Oh and the food and coffee....

Back in Chamonix and a final morning on the skis to finish off a great 10 days and get the final ski of the season in with Bet and Josie