Saturday, 24 January 2015

Christmas in Chamonix

I Can't believe it's a month since Christmas already but once again spending it out in Chamonix was, as ever, a lot of fun.  With a mix of climbing, the usual festivities but a lot less skiing than normal due to a distinct lack of snow this year, although a few weeks on now and it sounds like it has eventually arrived now.

Although I didn't actually climb anything I hadn't done before I got some great days out with some quality climbing.  First up was Scotch on the Rocks with Jon.  Not been able to ski down to the valley and a late first cable car meant we only had time to climb the first few pitches to the top of the crux before getting the lungs working and skinning back up to the Midi to get the last lift down.

Photo - Jon Griffith

Next up was a bit of cardio training with Jon again, this time a quick simul-solo up and over the Swiss Route on the Courtes with skis on the back to kick the legs and lungs into gear.  Conditions on the north faces in the Argentiere basin were looking great and we up it in just over 2 hours, forgoing the summit and making straight for the Col de la Tour des Courtes in the rapidly worsening weather.  Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for the conditions on the decent and we eventually made it back to Chamonix 5 hours later with some pretty battered looking skis.

Photo - Jon Griffith

After that it was back to the East Face of the Tacul again, this time with Ross for some more quality climbing on Pinocchio, just to the left of Scotch.  It really is a fun route stacked full of quality climbing.  Conditions were just about perfect, just enough ice to make it make it good fun and really entertaining climbing, not too hard but not too straightforward.  That’s the great thing about these sort of routes, you can do them numerous times in different conditions and have a different experience on them every time.  I’d say Pinocchio is probably one of the better, easy access day route in the valley.

Photo - Ross Hewitt

Photo - Ross Hewitt

I couldn't resist getting the skis out on the final day, so Ross, Betony and myself headed into the Argentiere basin for a little look around.  We ended up skiing a little couloir behind the Argentiere hut, which although it had been skied quite a bit and the snow wasn't amazing, gave a really good fun day out.  A great way finish off a fun trip before returning to the office - out in the mountains with good friends, that’s what it’s all about!

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.