It all started with a screech of tyres, RnB pumping out of a stereo, and an exhaust so loud that any nearby seracs were falling like apples from a tree. Quite how her car made it all the way to Chamonix I will never understand, but right on queue, Hazel Findlay landed in town, with a thirst for adventure and a hot-wired Citroen Saxo.
The Findlay-Geldard Route. 600m. Maximum difficulties encountered: E5 Rock, Scottish VI,6 Mixed.
The Aiguille de Saussure is a rock spire above the Glacier des Bossons, on the side of Mont Blanc du Tacul. A triangle of perfect granite, it is easily visible from Les Houches, and piques the interest of many climbers’ eyes.
According to my research, it didn’t have a route up its beautiful orange front face. The original route follows a spiral of weakness, following large cracks and chimneys, and the only other route I could find out about involves some aid climbing and finishes up the original line.
What a cool place to do some new trad climbing!
The upper headwall of the spike itself is quite small, perhaps 200 – 250m in height, but the access is tricky. In wintery conditions it is possible to abseil to a point way below the spike from Mont Blanc du Tacul, which is the normal access for the famous but rarely climbed Afanasieff-Bodin Gully, a front cover route adorning the Snow, Ice and Mixed guidebook.
This is the approach Hazel and I first checked out, but unfortunately it was under constant stonefall, and the gully was dry in its lower half (we were kind of expecting this). Our plan changed, and we climbed the side of Mont Blanc du Tacul and abseiled in from the very top of the gully to reach the breche between the mountain and the Aiguille de Saussure. From there we abseiled down the rock spike itself to reach the ledge system below the headwall. Game on.
We chose a line up the centre of the front face, following our noses as we climbed, and not necessarily taking the easiest way, but climbing what we thought looked like the best pitches. Hazel made a couple of good leads, one being a poorly protected face-climbing pitch, the other a loose chimney/offwidth pitch. I opted for a perfect hand crack!
Once on top, a short abseil lands you in the breche, which gives reasonably comfortable options for bivvy sites. It was essential for us to bivvy here, as the gully was in a dangerous condition anytime after noon, so we bedded down until 5am to get the upper ice at least semi-frozen.
The first pitch to get in the gully proper proved a little problematic, as all the ice had melted out of what would have been a great 85 degree ice pitch, leaving some thin and loose mixed climbing instead – meaning an engaging breakfast for me. Once in the gully proper, a few hundred metres of Scottish 4 and then 2/3 led us virtually to the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul.
So, in short: a fun new route in the Mont Blanc Range (you don’t get those everyday!) with some tricky free climbing, and some nice ice romping.
Getting the gully in better condition would probably mean freezing hands on the rock, so we think we struck a good compromise.
Also it is entirely possible that the face has been climbed before, but we are 99% sure that the line we took would be new, as we followed fun features to give exciting technical free climbing, as opposed to the very easiest way.
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
We assume the peak is named after the famous Alpinist, who made the third ascent of Mont Blanc. You can read more about him on Wikipedia. Here he is below:
The ledge system at the top of the Main Cliff of Gogarth is 60m above the sea. Most ropes these days are 60m long. Now I’m no genius, but I had an idea…
The routes on the steep headwall section of the main cliff weave their way up, usually in two or three pitches, skirting slightly sideways to belay on good ledges along the way. A direct way up the centre of the steep wall, with continuously overhanging climbing, no rest and mega exposure, had to be possible, and it was with this in mind that I found myself at the foot of Main Cliff, tied in to Jimmy Big Guns. First up was a quick romp up Dinosaur, the classic E5, and a route I’d never done before, I was psyched!
Climbing through the crux, I eyed a flake out right that would take me straight in to the headwall, and not out left to the belay ledge. Aha! I made a mental note and we carried on up Dinosaur. And what a route it is. The guidebook description about needing micro cams is of course nonsense, and the route is well protected and has great moves in a fantastic position. I just love those Main Cliff E5′s!
Okay – so that’s the left hand entrance sorted, now lets switch sides, and move to the right: Alien!
Big Guns had followed the imposing corner of Alien (E6 6b) a few weeks previous and was psyched to get on the sharp end. Up he went, and I paid out the rope. In went a few cams, but then Big Guns started to look pumped. Although he got a little flustered, I saw a look of determination on his face and he forged upward, but alas, the arms were spent, and down he flew, taking a lob from somewhere near the crux section.
It’s a double edged sword taking over the reins when your mate has just taken a big fall. The good points being you already have some of the gear placed for you, and you’ve probably seen a few of the moves (although I never really pay attention). The bad points being that, well, you’ve just seen your mate, who is way stronger and fitter than you, take a massive lob…
I was psyched!
I grinned and set off up Alien. By some miracle I found it pretty straightforward and enjoyed the moves, looking ever leftwards for a way up the headwall to create a new link-up route. There was a way, but it seemed not quite as logical as the Dinosaur link… Okay, lets come back tomorrow, and we’ll see how it all goes…
The next evening, and conditions were not quite as good.
I was stood underneath Dinosaur, sporting the word’s biggest rack. Over to the side was Robbie Rocket Pants, fighting his way up Mammoth, another classic E5. He looked pumped, and as is his way, began to fight upwards with ever-increasing urgency. His rapid-fire commentary was raining down like machine gun bullets, and everyone knew he was going to take the mighty fall. Off he came, and down he went!
Dinosaur felt pretty easy, and I headed off up the flake on the right. Higher and higher I went, and then I was in to the E6 ‘The Big Sleep’. It was all going according to plan. All of a sudden my arms were pumped. I eyed up a big flat hold, busted some moves and grabbed it, just. Things were getting out of control.
I managed to wiggle in a Wallnut 1, and eyed up the runout to gain the good holds of Positron. There was nothing else for it, I had to go on, and I started snatching sidepulls as fast as I could.
Arms bursting, eyes on stalks, I grabbed the good hold of Positron with my right hand. YES! I’d made it, and thank God, as the little wire now looked very small and very far away. But.. NOO… I was too pumped, my fingers were opening on the flake. I was panicking. Instinctively I snatched up my left hand. I had both hands wrapped around the jug, but the smears for my feet were not taking any weight. I couldn’t hold on, and slowly my fingers started opening, one at a time, like someone peeling a banana. The 55m of pumpy climbing had fried my arms. I was off.
“NOOOOO!” I screamed. The boys at the base all had a little giggle. I arched through the air, and managed to scream another ‘NOOO” on the way down, landing virtually back at the Dinosaur belay.
About a week later I went back and led the route, but getting to the same position again, and being equally as pumped, I realised that The Big Sleep is a bit eliminate, so I bridged 1m left and got a shake-out in the second pitch of Dinosaur (E4). This was enough to replenish the reserves and carry me up the rest of the route, but it wasn’t quite the unrelenting pump-fest I was looking for.
Still, ‘Dinosnore’ is born, and there is still more to come from this amazing section of cliff.
Rock climbing – isn’t it brilliant!
Thanks to Ray Wood for filming this route, and Paul Diffley of HotAches for sending me the screen grabs.
Also big up to Big Guns (legend) and Rocket Pants (loveable fool) and Chamonix visitors Cautious Tom and American Geoff. Such fun times!
It was my last day in Wales and I woke up in the South Stack car park. The weather was a bit shitty, but I hoped it would clear. I had a couple of brews to warm up, packed my things, texted Jimmy Big Guns to arrange a 6pm belay, and set off at a trot toward the Main Cliff. It was late morning, leaving me enough time for a bit of soloing before Jim came and we roped up.
The scramble down to the cliff always feels more dicey than it should, and I find myself questioning my ability on rock, after my inability on the approach path. The cliff seemed dry enough, but sea mist was swirling in and I was hesitant. But I was aching to be up on the Main Cliff headwall.
I crouched under the first pitch of Positron and collected my thoughts. They went along these lines; Do I want to do this? Oh yes I do. Hmm, it would be cool to have a photo. God, do I want to do this so I can show off photos afterwards. Hmm. I don’t think so. But maybe. God that is weird. Maybe I can take a photo of myself when I get to a big hold. Christ what if I fall off trying to take a photo of myself soloing. But if I don’t take a photo, perhaps no one will believe me. So, that means I care if people believe me. I shouldn’t care. I don’t care. I’m not taking a fucking camera. Jesus.
Whilst thinking the above load of nonsense I put on an old pair of rock shoes, enjoying their well-used feel. I over-filled my chalk bag and set off up the route. It was greasy, covered in that fine film of slipperiness that all Gogarth climbers know. Not wet as such, but what we call ‘goppy’. I told myself that the headwall would be dryer, as it’s further from the sea, and I pressed on a little higher.
Then, as quickly and haphazardly as I started, I reversed, it was too slippery. My thoughts on the headwall being dry were not true, and somewhere deep in my mind, I knew that today wasn’t the day.
After hot-footing it back up the approach path, I moved left and soloed across the top of the cliff on an easier girdle route, a HVS called Cordon Bleu. It was damp so I was on a go slow, a 60m drop and some loose grass and rocks were enough to make me maintain 100% concentration.
Arriving at the sloping ledges above the main cliff headwall, I sling a spike, toss my rope over and abseil down the wall, checking the dryness, and looking for the right line to take to link two pitches together, to create a new link-up route that tackles the centre of the main wall.
The rock is by this time soaking wet and I am hanging 60m above the sea, in the middle of perhaps the biggest cliff in North Wales, and I am glad I have my rope. My earlier decision to back off from soloing was the wisest move I have made for some time. I smile.
I feel at ease on the rock, in this place, with myself. The sea is giving its constant rumble, that almost unnoticed backing-track to all sea cliff routes. I look out at the boats in the distance, and I feel happy. I switch from abseiling to an ascender, and start climbing out, the ascender following me up the rope, offering me protection if I fall. What a funny place to be shunting routes, I think to myself. But it feels like home. I love the texture of the rock, the holds, the shapes, and with the comfort of my rope, I enjoy the slippery dampness. The exposure is wild and I can taste the clamminess of the billowing sea mist.
I hear noises on the ledges above and I freeze. Climbers are on the easier route, where I have left my sling that is holding my rope. I tug on the rope and it seems solid, so I jump back on to it, using my weight to make sure that the climbers above don’t take off my sling. There are lots of spikes above the hard routes of the main cliff, and it is quite common to leave slings and carabiners there to abseil from, especially if you want to do several routes in quick succession. It has happened to me several times that climbers on the traverse have crag-swagged my gear, as I have been just 50m below, gearing up for the next route. I was worried that those above me now might do the same thing, and my safety line that I was just a few moments ago most happy with, would go whooshing down past me and pull me off in to a watery oblivion.
The climbers passed, and said hello. I knew them and it seemed odd to see some familiar faces in this place, in this weather. I continued climbing up the headwall, pausing a moment to sit on the bucket seat belay, a tiny bum shaped ledge, perched at the very apex of the headwall.
I didn’t realise either of my climbing ambitions that day. In fact I didn’t climb anything really. But I did have five minutes alone on the bucket seat belay. The best seat in the house.
Continuing the run of publishing videos, here’s a short clip of my friend Alex. She’s cool. She likes cakes.
In this clip, which is sadly lacking any cakes, Alex attempts the short and powerful Frankenjura 8c Oddfellows at Pornowand.
So, this little clip was a bit of an afterthought really, I had spent a few hours shooting stills of Alex on this route, some of which I am very pleased with, I’ll dig one out and publish it soon. I’m keen to put this video online today, as I know Alex is back at Pornowand today attempting the route – GO ALEX!
I’m going to publish up a few videos on here that have been stored away on my hard drive for too long. Here’s the first…
Back in the summer of 2011 Rob Greenwood aka ‘Robbie Rocket Pants’ (a name I must add he has given himself…) gave a small concert in my Chamonix apartment.
Here he is singing Sexual Healing.
Remember ladies, he is single, and with a voice like this, and a nick name like that, one wonders why. Roll up, roll up. And Rob, yes you can kill me for publishing that.
Seriously though, Rob and I are off to the Himalaya in a few months time, and we are taking a variety of instruments with us, specifically to annoy fellow Base Camp member Nick Bullock. Looking forward to it already.
Here’s more info on our expedition: Peak 41
I’ve just been down to the south coast of England to attempt a new route on a cliff of chalk called Bats Head. I first heard about Bats Head when I was chatting to legendary climber, alpinist and choss monster Mick Fowler in a pub. He sent me some photos, but the best images were to be found on the Southampton University Website.
Anyway, Mick climbed the alpine-esque ridge line, but we (knowing nothing about Chalk) preferred the look of a steep overhanging groove in the middle of the face, rising vertically up from a cool looking sea arch. A preposterous line on a preposterous cliff. A chance meeting in the pub the night prior to leaving saw us chatting with Adam Wainwright, who had partnered Mick Fowler on the ridge. He said our chances were slim. We were psyched.
To cut a long story short, Rob Greenwood, George Ullrich and myself faffed around on this disintegrating choss pile for a day and a half, and in retrospect we had seriously underestimated the medium of chalk. All three of us are experienced choss climbers, having done between us I would say literally hundreds of routes on the Lleyn Peninsula of North Wales. Bats Head was in a different league. This was the first time I have been on a ledge, with every item of climbing hardware in production strapped to my harness, and been unable to build a body-weight belay.
Anyway, we had a brilliant laugh. George slept in a cabbage patch. We all got drunk. We ripped off huge pieces of chalk. Rob learnt how to row. George punctured our rubber dingy with a warthog. We all fell in the sea. And we failed to climb any part of the route, in any style.
After getting back to Llanberis at 4am, having driven the length of the country for no good reason, pretty damn tired, we all vowed to return. But perhaps not for a while.
What did strike me as quite interesting about this trip was how it showed me that rock climbing is a fundamentally ridiculous and pointless pastime. And climbing chalk is on the very fringe of this pastime. There are no grades to describe the route we attempted, and there are no ethics or styles to consider here. There’s no beta. There’s no rehearsal. There’s just a cliff, and three men in a boat. And then the boat sank.
It has been a whirlwind month, with a visit to the Ariege in southern France, the Frankenjura in Germany and a trip back to the UK, which is where I am now.
Lots to report, and some nice shots from both Ariege and Frankenjura, and I’ll post more about them soon, but right now it’s all about the UK.
I went out about a week ago for a couple of hours of soloing at Almscliff, when I was researching for an article for UKClimbing.com.
Here’s the video from the day from Ian Burton – thanks Ian!