Friday, 6 December 2013

Back to Earth with a Bump

Mixed climbing on tied off terrible ice screws... My favourite!

Why my veins don't work.
Sometimes, I wish I were braver. Once again I find myself in an MRI scanner, fighting back the tears and trying not to hit the panic button. How can I handle my nerves on a high mountain and yet go to pieces during a routine hospital procedure?! It’s not the noise or claustrophobia that freaks me out but the canula and the feeling of cold liquid forcing it’s way through my tired veins. This year, the nurse and I both thought that my veins had recovered a bit. But apparently I still have chemo tracklines that would make a hardcore junkie proud! I guess my biannual round of hospital visits felt worse this time as exactly a week earlier I was carrying loads across a river in Kyrgyzstan. I felt too fit and well to deal with the idea of maybe being sick again. Luckily I don’t have to as I got the all clear for another year PHEW. All you budding doctors should note that telling a patient “Have your life back for another year” is not the most comforting bedside manner…
Bouldering on north wales' hardest V3 between hospital trips.

Gritstone cragging at the start of October - down Jacket obligatory
Since then the autumn has been a blur of exhaustion, cragging near home in Chester, attempts at training and trying to write formal trip reports. I hadn’t realized just how much the expedition had taken out of me until quite a few weeks after. Suddenly I felt like I had been on my feet for the whole summer, which actually I had! Being super well aclimatised to 4000+m obviously carried me through for a good long while though, suddenly running 10km and cycling 30 felt pretty easy. Having become used to carrying 30+kg bags means that 20kg of luggage allowance feels like nothing!
Dave Looning the Tube
Emma ready to place the next bit of gear!

Back in Chamonix for ten days, I found myself too tired to consider any hard climbing and rediscovered my love of bouldering instead. Not suffering for a bit is quite nice! I love the fact that I can have an ‘easy’ holiday in Chamonix and still get 4500m of ascent in. Now that I’m all signed up for the Vertical K race next June ascent is what I need! Doing ‘Shit Route’ off the Midi with Ally was good fun in spite of the floral smelling liquid at the top. Although I managed to forget my crampons and had to get the lift back down to fetch them, it’s nice to remember that I can still mixed climb… Sort of!
Ally heading up towards the top ice fall on Shit Route, I sand bagged us up this accidentally, telling Ally that 'it's easier than the Chere Couloir'. It isn't....

Heading towards Tower Gap in beautiful evening light.

Hands free rest for Jonnie on Arch Enemy
Winter has been pretty slow coming in Britain, which is sad. So far I’ve only managed one weekend in the Highlands. Fortunately it was amazing and brought winter psyche levels pretty high! Although at the time I cursed my enthusiasm for doing Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis as a ‘good little warm up’. Everyone I know of, who has attempted this route early season, has epiced hard. Tom, Marcus and I probably should have learnt from this! We found the conditions to be pretty hard, a bit sketchy and time consuming. It was actually a relief when the unconsolidated snow over rock slabs low down gave way to a couple of inches of thick verglas high up.  The conditions definitely made the day more memorable than we were expecting. Maybe we should have persevered to the top, with daylight fading fast and the wind picking up we decided to be sensible and abseil from the gap. Nevermind, the Ben definitely isn’t the Drus and ‘will still be there next year.’
Treacherous rock slabs on Tower Ridge.

Bill on Daylight Robbery, Creagan Coire Cha-No. It looked so much fun that we abbed down and climbed it too!

When conditions and weather aren't playing ball it's time for a bothy trip with your pals!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Gummy Girls hit Kyrgyland!

The team together at last! But sadly not for long. L-R: Myself, Libby, Hannah, Imelda, Carol.
Oddly, I’ve been struggling somewhat to find the right things to say about our Kyrgyzstany jaunt. This is a bit strange as it feels like I’ve done nothing but talk about it for the past 5 days! For a first expedition and first time as an expedition leader, it was a pretty big learning curve. But in spite of my current exhausted state, I feel a lot tougher for experiencing it. The time we spent in the Tien Shan was amazing and unforgettable; definitely my best alpine trip to date, all the difficulties made me savour the mountains more than usual I guess.
Negotiating the weird shrund near the summit of Night Butterfly. Seeing through it and down the entire north face was disconcerting!
At last! A glacier! The end of uphill load carrying is in sight... Although it only actually too us 4 days of carrying to get here from the Soviet road 20+km away.
When we eventually had ourselves set up on the glacier, Imelda, Libby and I completed four new routes and I soloed a fifth.  Our first route, to be honest, was more of a snowy walk than a climb. On the other four we were glad to have a pair of axes each. Sadly, as an Austrian team beat us to the basin by a month, there aren’t a great number of unclimbed summits left to be had! The first, easy ridge that we climbed may have featured virgin summits but they are non-entities in our opinion! For four of the five routes we can claim first female summits, however we don’t entirely agree with this distinction. How often do you hear about ‘First Male Ascents’?!

We had planned on doing challenging, technical Alpine routes, but had to reassess our aims somewhat! Losing two members of the expedition and the discovery that the Sat phone didn’t really work meant that we erred on the side of caution. We chose lines that were quite aesthetic, generally involving scrambly ridges and/or snow couloirs. I was pleased that my recent experiences on Chamonix snow routes came in useful!

Nearing the top of Pony, a small peak being only 4700m!
The highlight of the trip was definitely the East Ridge on Night Butterfly, and also our first 5000m peak. The ridgeline is definitely THE line of the valley and dominates the vista. We presumed that it had already been climbed but we were that inspired by the line, that we had two attempts on it. The first ended before we even got beyond the bergschrund, as Libby was suddenly very unwell.
Our route up Night Butterfly, surely it had already been climbed?
Time to run away before the cloud clears.
The second and successful effort was a bit of a battle. A cloud of mist hung over the approach slopes at 3:30am, meaning the snow hadn’t refrozen. I was also struggling to figure out whether we were even in the correct couloir! Fortunately the snow became much more manageable once we pulled above the frustrating mist. Sadly a front came in with the dawn and the weather became positively Scottish. Luckily we are quite used to Scottish style weather! The snow showers were only short bursts anyway, so we decided to continue to the summit. Rather than completing the intended traverse of the mountain we reversed our route in case the weather deteriorated further. Instead, the weather cleared and the sun came out, great! That is except for the fact that we were descending an east facing narrow snow arĂȘte! Spurred on by the terribleness of Imelda’s anti-balling plates we legged it down, managing to reach camp just six hours after we left it.
Summit selfie!!
Other than the significant health related problems our expedition had, we were a bit unlucky with our transport. Although we loved our little grey soviet van, often marveling at its ability to negotiate the ‘roads’, we unfortunately couldn’t be dropped off or picked up anywhere near the point we had planned. This gave us an extra 11km of unexpected load carrying each way, and a lot of frustrated rage!

To add some excitement to our journey, our driver Sasha, spoke no English and our Russian is patchy at best. None of us, including Sasha, had ever been to the area before and consequently he missed the turn off towards Kyzyl Asker. After a three-hour detour to the wrong military outpost, we were back on track.  At least we hoped we were. Trying to explain to Sasha that we were going to Plan A glacier (Dzhirnagaktu) rather that plan B glacier through mime, was traumatic for all involved.  We did thankfully end up in the right area, (after the van got stuck in the notorious mud overnight) but without enough petrol to drive the whole way in. 
The van sank in the mud to it's wheel arches, a hunting party (complete with matching van) were able to help us lever and push it out the next morning. Roads in the Western Kokshal Too are interesting....
Our first night in the Trango 3 was not quite in the planned location. (wildly leaning van in background!)
To be honest, I didn’t quite appreciate just how remote our location was before we got to Dzhirnagaktu, or how few other people and vehicles would be in the area at the end of the expedition season! The hardest thing for me to do during the expedition was making the decision to send Hannah home a few days into the trip. With her mystery illness of persistent vomiting complete with inability to keep down water, I had major concerns about taking her up to basecamp. This decision was vindicated by later events and the nature of our location.
Beginning of the end for Hannah.
I had this strange feeling that organizing a helicopter rescue would be a bit trickier than getting one in Chamonix/Scotland… This turned out to be very true unfortunately; getting Carol off the hill when she developed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) was a bit of a nightmare. The mountain rescue wanted her insurance to contact them to confirm payment, her insurance told us we needed to arrange it and then they would pay later. This stalemate combined with our broken, credit less Sat phone meant that we had a stressful day straining our ears for the helicopter, pretty skeptical about whether it would actually show up! Fortunately in the late afternoon the day after we initially phoned it appeared to collect Carol, leaving only three of us able to climb on the expedition.
Just a walk really, but what a view! Heading up to our first 4500m peak.
It Wouldn't Happen on A Lads Trip: No. 6, Afternoon Tea with Saucers.
I think it will be a while before I can fully process the trip mentally. There were moments when it felt like the expedition was descending into a catalogue of unfortunate errors. Load carrying off the glacier in a big storm, separated from Libby and Imelda felt like the final straw but sadly wasn’t! The news the following day that we couldn’t be picked up from boulder camp was semi-soul destroying for all of us. However we had become a great deal fitter during our time on the glacier as the three of us (plus Carol who we were reunited with) only took 6 hours to ferry out the kit that had taken a day and a half on the way up.
Load carrying, second river crossing.
After bringing food for five we narrowed it down to this; enough for 12 days but mainly powdered. Though it wasn't as bad as we were expecting!
I am amazed at what Libby, Imelda and I achieved on this trip considering all the setbacks and lost time. We were exceptionally lucky with good weather and snow conditions, meaning that we attempted routes every day that we spent on the glacier. It is disappointing that we didn’t get a proper attempt on the iconic Monolith; we decided that it looked like a manageable objective the three of us after all but we ran out of time to fully acclimatize for it.

The final icing on the cake was coming home to discover that our route up the East ridge of Night Butterfly (Flutterby) was in fact unclimbed after all! Neither the Irish or Austrian parties attempted it; the Polish 2010 expedition tried it but turned around on the false summit due to poor cornice conditions. Psyched!!

Me on our first summit? At least it seemed to be the highest point on a very gentle ridge.
It Wouldn't Happen on A Lads Trip: No. 8, Cheese platter (also No. 2, Constant Collecting of Pretty Rocks)
The glacier wasn't really crevassed on the whole, but these glacial streams have carved mini gorges that needed to be negotiated. Not so much fun with a 25kg pack on!

The ridge between Rock Horse and Butterfly's Leg. You can thank the Polish exped for the names!
You don't get more Highball than this!

A holiday without some bouldering would be a total failure. Imelda agrees....
Typical morning view at Boulder Camp!

Every expedition should get invited along to a local celebration feast when they get back to civilisation! This definitely contributed to my weight gain.....

"Look strong Girls!" Most of the kit that we carried up with us. Load carrying with duffle bags like the red one was not the wisest idea we had and fortunately they got left down at Boulder Camp.

Reunited with van and Carol, we get a final look into our basin. Kyzyl Asker next maybe?!?
A massive thanks to our sponsors: the BMC, MCofS, Meers-Grey Award, Blue Ice, Mountain Hardwear and Nora's Noms, without your support the expedition probably wouldn't have got off the ground!

Monday, 26 August 2013

A lesson in failing (and route finding!)

Giving a new Choucas harness and lanyards a whirl; liking the ice screw holders.
Its easy to get used to mountaineering success. A couple of summers ago I had a very unsuccessful Alpine summer, although it did mean that I got a lot slicker at abseiling! This spring/summer in Chamonix has been an extremely succeson a route, we haven't backed off it. Although a few times we have changed to plan Bs, once we've started a route we haven't backed off. Until the South Ridge of the Peuterey Noire that is!

With Hannah developing food poisoning we were a man down and a day later than planned. So Sam and I went for our classic 'single push from the car' approach to alpinism... But this time we took enough food and kit for an (uncomfy) bivvy. We also took more than 1.5l of water between us! Finally learning from past mistakes and all that!

The walk in, complete with scrambly via ferrata, went well and fairly fast. We were gearing up for the start of the climb, by the fixed rope, just afterw the sun reached the bottom of the face. The climbing was pleasant and easy, although the grassy ledges were more numerous than we had reckoned on. We were climbing really fast, simul soloing as there wasnt a lot of gear to be had. 

Turns out we were climbing a little too fast though as suddenly we pulled up over the ridge and had a lovely view onto the Freney glacier. Definitely not where we should have been! We had been following tat and had made the terrain fit the guide description, we had totally missed the rightwards traverse under point gamb! Some fantastically sketchy downclimbing abseiling followed as the tat anchors definitely werent good enough to fully weight! It was 10am by the time we were back on route; too late to start again and not bivvy. Although I had accepted the inevitability of an uncomfy bivvy, Sam was more psyched for a single push so we wisely decided to head back down rather than pushing it.

From a distance, we stopped to figure out where we had gone wrong. Turns out that the 'triangle feature' described in the guide wasnt a pinnacle but a HUGE white shape on the cliff! In full daylight it was so obvious yet in the pink dawn light we missed it completely! Least we will know where not to go next time!

As I wanted to leave Chamonix on a high note, I went up the midi the following day to get in some pre-work soloing. As I got stuck in queues and nearly killed by falling rock on the Lachenal (avoid the last chimney/couloir! !!!) I decided against doing the Grisolle aafterwards and finished up the Cosmiques arete instead. Even though I once again got stuck in queues, I did the route surprisingly fast. I didn't feel particularly restricted by having 2 nomics, crampons and 120m of rope in my bag! Can't believe I have been scared of soloing this route all winter. I also got to test out some of our lovely new Blue Ice kit, so all in all an amazing final day in thelp Chamonix mountains!
Too high On point Gamba!


Red is where we went, green where we should have been!

Back to the french side and the good old Lachenal.