Friday, 25 March 2011

The Classic Haute Route, Chamonix to Zermatt - Planning Stages

I have already discussed at length
the enkindling in me of a hitherto latent desire to spend time in the Alps and the consequential motivation for wanting to add Alpinism to my life’s résumé. This formidable high-altitude trek from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland connecting Mont Blanc with the Matterhorn, draws an inspiring and uncompromising line through the nucleus of the Alps. Unlike the Walker’s Haute Route, the decaffeinated version, this traverse requires genuine mountaineering skills. As neophyte mountaineers, and with the Tour du Mont Blanc under our belts, we considered ourselves sufficiently proficient to undertake the Classic Haute Route, but only with services of a guide. This is a route which crosses several elevated and onerous cols and traverses more than a dozen glaciers. Although not a particularly long trek, at 120 kilometres (75 miles), the route involves significant ascent and descent - more than 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) in total - and includes ascents of the Tête Blanche (3421m / 11,224ft) via the Col Superior du Tour, Pointe des Planards (2866m / 3402ft), Pigne d’Arolla (3796m / 12,454ft) and the Tête Blanche (3724m / 12,218ft) from the Mont Mine Glacier.

Why employ a guide? Two very simple reasons. Although we have some experience of alpine walking, and some experience of winter hillwalking and mountaineering, we are still fledgling alpinists. A guide would simultaneously ensure our safety in what is a parlous environment while educating us en route and developing our raw, nascent mastery of alpinism. What we would learn on the CHR, if those skills were properly embedded, would permit us to venture into the Alps alone in future and attempt 4,000m peaks with only ourselves for comfort. We could indeed recklessly amble into this unpredictable dominion alone, and probably survive, but the habits entrenched by this wanton approach would be fatal to our long-term evolution. So we chose to be guided and joined the KE Adventure Travel CHR trek. I like KE Adventure Travel, who have an excellent reputation within the adventure travel and trekking industry, and so they were a good option. Ron Walker MIC, our recent mentor in the Cairngorms, knows our guide and speaks highly of her.

And so the planning begins, although this time much will be done by our hosts. We leave London for Geneva on 21st August 2011 and then head by bus transfer to Argentiére, in the shadow of Mont Blanc herself, and an old friend from last year. There we meet up with our Guide, and the rest of our group, and enjoy a meal before we begin the trek the next day. My plan is to keep my kit to under 7kg, but I'll post on the Pre-Departure Kit Analysis later in 2011. Clearly, as well, be travelling on snow and glaciers, it will be a different proposition to the TMB but similar principles apply - light means fast and that's the name of the game in the Alps. The CHR itinerary, summarised, is as follows:

21st August '11
Fly to Geneva and transfer to Chamonix. Rendezvous at the group's chalet in Argentiére, meet the group and enjoy an evening meal together. Then we have a trip briefing and equipment check.

22nd August '11
We take a cable car from Le Tour, then hike to the Albert Premier Hut, or more properly the Refuge Albert 1er, (2702m) where we can practice our snow and ice skills on the Glacier du Tour. Overnight at the hut.

23rd August '11
We cross into Switzerland via the Col Superior du Tour (3289m). If conditions allow we will make an ascent of the Tete Blanche (3421m) before grabbing lunch at the Cabane du Trient. We then descend via the Glacier d'Orny and overnight at the Cabane d'Orny (2831m).

24th August '11
We descend into the Vallon d'Arpette de Saleina, then traverse the east side of Val Ferret to our hotel in La Fouly.

25th August '11
We climb to the Col du Neve de la Rousse (2752m), with a diversion to ascend the Pointe des Planards (2866m). Apart from great opportunities for spotting alpine wildlife, including marmots, chamois and bouquetins (ibex), there is also a chance to take a swim in the clear waters of a small lake, the Gouille du Draggon. Overnight in Bourg St. Pierre in a Gîte.

26th August '11
A long and easy ascent to the Col de Lane (3033m), then a descent via the old bergeries at Nicliri (2492m) to our overnight stop at the Cabane Brunet (2103m).

27th August '11
We set off to the Cabane FXB-Panossière, via the Col d'Avouillons (2647m).

28th August '11
We climb to the Col des Otanes, then descend the Pierre a Vire to Lac de Mauvoisin, from where we make the steep ascent to the Cabane de Chanrion (2462m).

29th August '11
Today we cross 4 cols to leave behind the greenery of the lower Alps, and to ascend to the rock and ice of the high glaciated environment of the Brennay and Gietro Glaciers: the Col de Tsofeiret, Col de Lire Rose, Col de Mont Rouge (3325m) and the Col de Cheilon, to finally reach the Cabane des Dix (2928m).

30th August '11
An early start to reach the high point of our route, the Pigne d'Arolla (3796m) via the Glacier du Cheilon and the Col de la Serpentine. A short glacial descent takes us to the Cabane des Vignettes (3160m).

31st August '11
We climb beneath the North Face of the Petit Mon Collon on glaciated terrain to the Col de L'Eveque (3386m) and descend onto the Haute Glacier d'Arolla traversing snow and bare glacier. We then  cross the Col de Bertol (3268m) to reach the Cabane de Bertol.

1st September '11
Today, we descend the ladders from the hut, rope up and start the long, gentle ascent of the Mont Mine Glacier, heading for the easy snow peak of the Tete Blanche (3724m / 12,218ft). Then, we descend by way of the complex and heavily crevassed Stockji Glacier to the Schönbielhütte, directly beneath the Matterhorn.

2nd September '11
Finally, a pleasant stroll down to Zermatt, beneath the towering north face of the Matterhorn before finishing off with a big meal in Zermatt.

Much is dependent, as is so often the case in the Alps, on the weather but ascents of four major Alpine peaks seem likely. This will extend us, I hope, and provide us with the experience necessary to progress to self-guided missions and the Alpine 4,000ers.

Alpine Huts and Refuges
As with the TMB, we’ll be staying in huts and refuges but, unlike the TMB, we won’t organise this - KE will have done so ahead of us. This is unnecessary, of course, and it’s not difficult to book one’s own alpine huts a day or so ahead of time. A simple phone call, usually from the hut you’re currently staying in, will suffice and we did this on the TMB a day or two in advance once we knew where we’d be staying as a consequence of the route we'd be taking. You will have ascertained the possible routes you’ll be taking well in advance and have the contact details of each an every potential hut noted. There are copious guidebooks to the various alpine regions and most have hut details. It is, however, part of the package that KE offer so it is one thing not to have to worry about. Where the particular hut has a website of its own, I have linked it, but often the best resource is the CAS or CAF website.

Switzerland Topographic survey Maps - Bundesamt für Landestopographie 1:50,000. 2 Sheets:
Sheet 1 - Mont Blanc Grand Combin - Sheet no. 5003
Sheet 2 - Matterhorn Mischabel - Sheet no. 5006

Peter Cliff, ‘The Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt’, (2003, rev.) Cordee Press
Peter Cliff, ‘Alpinism’, (1998) Cordee Press
Johnston and Adby, 'A Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering', Cicerone Press 2003
Cunningham and Fyffe, 'Winter Skills: Essential Walking and Climbing Techniques', UKMTB 2007

BMC DVD's: 'Alpine Essentials' and 'Winter Essentials', both available through the BMC

Club Alpin Français
Club Alpin Suisse and the Monta-Rosa Section of the CAS
Summit Post
The Swiss Train Timetable website

Sunday, 13 March 2011

New Kit for 2011

Mrs M rolled her eyes at me as I walked through the door last week, indicating with an (almost regal) wave of her hand the dining table which is plainly visible from our front hallway. On it lay several packages. Without speaking, she drifted off to see to dinner as I removed my suit jacket and located a knife. I made a number of purchases recently, all of which will form the basis of separate Initial Analysis posts in the coming weeks. They are not solely for my alpine endeavours later in the year - some most certainly are - but they are also designed to refine my 3-season trips. As a consequence of these targeted acquisitions, my kit will be more versatile, lighter and more effective.

As a nod towards the principles I found so appealing in the Buffalo systems, and on the recommendation of others, I looked at the Rab Vapour-Rise Pull-On in some detail. I liked what I saw and that is the first of the four I'm going to be Analysing soon.

To lighten my shell-layer as much as possible, whilst still suiting my requirements, I secured the services of the OMM Cypher Smock and the Golite Tumalo Storm pants. The primary balance for me is between weight and breathability - I prefer a more breathable shell-layer for the upper part of my body than the lower so different fabric considerations applied. The OMM Cypher Smock I reviewed in brief as my brother-in-law purchased one recently after seeking advice from me and he used it in the Lake District. I initially looked at Golite Reed pants but they are tough to find now and have been replaced by the Tumalo. At 180g, the Tumalo are just about the lightest waterproof/breathable pants I could find. They are also my first experience of Golite, so I am intrigued.

Finally, for the Alps I needed some pants which would shed water and show reasonably well, keep me warm but breathe well whilst on the move and be robust and durable. I went for the Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants. It's worth reading the Mountain Equipment blog in respect of these, with an eye to corporate self-promotion of course, as the design and manufacture process is actually rather interesting, particularly in reference to nano-technology.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Loch Morlich and Rothiemurchus

On our final day in the Cairngorms, the four of us (one in a Phil and Teds Explorer 3-wheeler off-road buggy) went for a ambling circumnavigation of Loch Morlich. There's not much to tell except that the weather was wonderful - gleaming sunshine and crisp, fresh air - and it was a wonderful conclusion to our winter trip. I am not going to bore you with words, the pictures say enough...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Patagonia R1 Regulator Hoody Review

I needed a base layer that would be warm enough for winter yet capable of functioning as a mid-layer in milder, more temperate, weather - in short I needed something that I could use below and above 2,500m in the Alps - a single garment that would do more than one job obviating the need to carry extra layers. My aim for the Classic Haute Route is 7kg without food and water and re-thinking base and mid-layers would be essential. I wanted thumb-loops to prevent sleeves riding up and keep my wrists warm beneath potentially wet gloves and I wanted a hood that could go beneath a helmet. Finally, I wanted it to be lightweight. I'd seen the Mountain Equipment Couloir Hoody (395g) and rather liked it despite its weight, but the R1 Hoody from Patagonia, with Regulator fleece, was lighter at only 326g and a better base-layer. It is also a modern classic, a reinstalled phoenix and testament to the power of the voice of the people. It was worth a look.

The versatile R1 Regulator fleece is a Polartec® high/low interior-grid Power Dry® fabric - the inside of the fleece is a grid system, the exterior a soft-sheen fabric which reminds me of the Powerstretch from Rab. This aims to provide a stretchy, warm, wicking and breathable fabric which functions equally efficiently in a variety of temperatures - this is exactly what I wanted - a versatile base-layer and mid-layer that would work across a multitude of theatres and altitudes. The Fleece has 'high/low' grid system on the inside which enhances compressibility, airflow, and drying time and the microfiber face speeds moisture-wicking and moisture transfer. This is primarily what enables me to utilise the R1 as a base-layer, directly next to the skin, or as a mid-layer as it does not hinder the moisture transfer of the base-layer below it. It also has Capilene® 4 stretch panels under the arms, at cuffs and the hem (more on that hem later) reduce bulk and increase breathability.

In terms of 'features' there is also a balaclava-style hood with a deep offset front zipper which has the dual advantage of ensuring venting is easy and the chin isn't chaffed by the fully closed, locking zip. A mesh chest pocket exists, which also helps venting and something small could be placed here if using the R1 as a mid-layer, as well as raglan sleeves for comfort under pack straps and Capilene 4 cuffs which stretch and have thumb loops to hold sleeves in place.

The body is made from: 190g Polartec® Power Dry® 93% polyester (41% recycled)/7% spandex. Cuffs and hem: 150g Polartec Power Dry 92% polyester (54% recycled)/8% spandex. Additionally, the R1 is recyclable through the Common Threads Recycling Program.

Designed for alpinists and backcountry skiers, the R1 is a winter base-layer fashioned around a refined version of the Polartec® high/low interior grid Power Dry® fabric. This fabric provides an augmented breathability, which stretches and remains durable and warm, but the most interesting quality is how quickly it dries. Overnight, after a cold, wet day in the Lakeland Fells in winter, the outer material was still damp and cold to the touch but the inner grid fleece was much drier, and warmer, despite storage in a drybag. Once I had pulled it on, realising that it was still reasonably warm and comfortable - the residual moisture was wicked away from the inside to the outer and I remained sufficiently warm to set about breaking camp. Aiming for the pared-down detailing that climbers and backcountry skiers require there are not much in the way of 'features' - only the deep-venting, front locking zip which is offset at the face; wrist-warming thumb loops and the balaclava-style hood. The pocket is more for venting than storage to be honest. It also has raglan sleeves (a sleeve which extends in one piece fully to the collar, leaving a diagonal seam from underarm to collarbone which enables a greater freedom of movement - this is not a new innovation but an essential one) for a comfortable pack-carry. Interestingly, it is recyclable through the Common Threads Recycling Program.

However, there remains one final feature and it is one of the most significant facets of the R1, making it eminently suitable for winter hillwalking and scrambling, mountaineering and ski mountaineering - the low-grid stretch polyester at the cuffs and bottom hem which engenders virtually no bulk under a harness but, snug as it is, prevents the R1 riding up. This hem is a broad character - the top sitting around the waist and the bottom falling below the buttocks - creating something akin to a small skirt. This is actually crucial in winter hillwalking and scrambling - with so much movement involved over a range of angles, a different top might well expose the small of the back to the elements - this is something the R1 avoids completely and I very much favour it. There is literally nothing in the way of bulk to make the fitting of a harness uncomfortable yet it breathes and warms all the way down to the buttocks which is, again, useful when sitting in a snow bucket seat or a cold rock.

So how did the R1 perform in winter conditions, on the move? It wicks well enough and I wore it alone underneath the Páramo Aspira Smock in some cold, windy and wet conditions - both on the move and whilst stopped. When not moving, an extra layer was starting to become necessary as we did some preparatory work on roping up and moving together in the Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms this February - but we were standing in a cauldron of wind and snow for nearly 40 minutes. I cannot blame the R1 for that. When moving, it was perfect - not too warm and not at all cold. The fit is designed to be snug and athletic which is why I went up a size - this is not intended to be a loose garment, it is intended, primarily, as a base-layer so you should remember that when choosing your size.

The hood is not as snug a fit as Patagonia would suggest but I should say I went for a larger size (L) deliberately (which is just too big for me on its own) as I knew I would want to use it as a mid-layer as well so I did not want too snug a fit as to make this uncomfortable. I found the hood to sometimes move into my eyeline but it was not often enough to be annoying and I got used to where the offset zip needed to be to avoid this. It simply means that ensuring you get the right size is even more essential.

The thumb-loops were excellent. Whilst they exposed the Capilene 4 to the damp of my often wet gloves and, as both my smock and gloves compressed against the wrists of the R1, they were often damp, they kept my wrists warm and comfortable which, in turn, assisted my hands. The range of movement is 100% even with the thumb-loops engaged and I think this would be the case, given the stretch of all the materials involved, even if I had gone for a medium and a tighter, base-layer only fit.

The R1 is a genuinely classic piece of kit that climbers and hillwalkers alike will love, and have loved, for years. On this evidence, I can see why.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Mountaineering Ice-Axes: Grivel Airtech Evolution vs Black Diamond Raven Pro

I have two ice-axes. On one view, that's one too many, yet on another, that's not actually enough. Time will tell, but I see me buying at least two more in the years to come - especially as my climbing becomes steeper and more technical. That said - how do my current axes, the Black Diamond Raven Pro and the Grivel Airtech Evolution, compare to each other? It's an edifying question when purchasing an ice-axe because it throws into stark relief the issues that need consideration.

Which is better rather depends on the use to which you'll be putting your piolet. The Raven Pro is very lightweight, yet strong. As a walker's axe, it has almost everything. The straight shaft is very comfortable, beautifully weighted and slips almost unbidden into snow. The head is also snug to hold when walking and so, for winter hillwalking, it's hard to fault. It will cut steps, although not as easily as others as the adze is not the widest, and requires a perfect technique for reasonable progress in this regard. As a self-arrest tool, it works adequately as the pick is long, adroitly curved and razor sharp.

Yet, for moving on to steeper terrain and what would be classed as a Scottish Winter Grade I (or worse) climb, I would find the Raven Pro somewhat disconcerting. This is where the Evo really pulls past it. At almost 100g heavier, it has a far more aggressive pick which penetrates névé and ice far more readily, and confidently, than the Raven Pro. The adze is wider, and sharper, and cuts steps (and consequently snow anchors) far more easily. The shaft is T-rated (unlike the B-rated Raven Pro) so buried ice-axe anchors and belays are possible, unlike the Raven Pro. The angle of the shaft means that knuckles are protected when it's used as a tool to ascend a steep slope. The grip is welcome in this theatre too. Its spike and shaft also drives well into snow when gripped at the head and used as a walking tool - not as well as the Raven Pro for obvious reasons, but still effectively enough.

So which is better? As I said - it depends on the use to which you are putting your piolet. The Evo is far more technical and better suited to steeper ground where the pick and adze, as well as the angled shaft (with a very effective grip), will enable better progress but will still cut it on the walk in as well. If you are unlikely to spend much time on steeper ground and will be on far more even ascents, then the Raven Pro is probably the better choice - if only because of the weight saving and the lack of a grip.