Solo in the Winter Alps

My aim was to go for about a week, alone, live in a snow hole in a self-sufficient manner and climb some routes on the Tacul Triangle and, if that went well, hit up some bigger steep routes on the back of the Mt. Blanc Massif.

At the time I did not really realise it but I was feeling a general background hum of stress at the time (2010) with the recession nabbing the more interesting projects for the coming year while still having staff costs/general overheads always there. The ‘recession’ was literally everywhere with doom and gloom in the news, papers, TV, radio and in conversation.

The previous winter I was meant to go to the alps with a mate but he managed to totally ruin a finger pulley bouldering so cranking  on ice axes was not going to happen. This year there was not really anyone eligible to go (motivated & in possession of the cold-weather right gear)but as I was super keen to get out so I decided that this was as good a time as any to test myself with a solo trip.

I had big aspirations (as you do when sitting in the warm a 1000 miles from the mountains). I learned how I could self-belay on half ropes, should I need to, and started my  training. This mainly involved running and calf training with the general expectation that if I can keep comfortable on my front points, avoiding a fear inducing calf-pump, I will not find it too scary and can stay in control.

I spent quite a bit of time studying a super high-res picture of the Tacul Triangle I found online to work out which route I fancied doing first and which sections could be more daunting for free solo. My preference was ice over mixed as it felt more secure from a soloing point of view.

Going there

With ropes in a big carrier bag as hand luggage and wearing my mountain boots, I took a morning flight to Genva, coach to Chamonix and, as always, got there just at the 2 hour French lunch was starting. This means there is nowhere open that sells cooker fuel/gas (the only thing I did not bring with me). After walking around Cham waiting for a couple of hours I was able to get some gas so I went up the to the Midi via the cable car started the walk off. My bag, with enough for a week’s snow hole living and various options for climbing weighed around 35kg (80lb) making getting down the thin edge of the midi a little more precarious than usual. Later in January they put up hand rails to help with the decent – but I was there too early to benefit from such a luxury.

Winter_alp_solo2
Nathan Murphy about to descend the midi with 35kg+ bag

Once down I picked a suitable place, away from potential avalanche and started to dig in to the deep snow. I made an L shaped snow-hole and, to finish it off, heaped snow up at the entrance so it could more effectively be blocked with a bag to keep some of the cold out (but requiring you have to dive/slide in).

Winter_alp_solo3
Snow hole with dive-in exit to the right.

A few hundred meters away was a tent, unusual for this time of year, but no sign of any people throughout the evening so  I bedded down for the night and possibly for the first time I felt actually quite alone. Being the first week of January there was literally no one around and it was insanely quiet in the snow hole. I melted snow for tomorrow’s water, cooked some pasta and went to sleep waiting for the carb-loaded dinner to start warming me up.

The next morning I woke up to good weather and as I slowly got stuff sorted I saw a rescue helicopter choppering off what seemed to be stretchers from the longer routes on the East Face of Tacul. It turned out that the day/evening before two young British lads took a fall from the upper sections of Gervasutti Couloir. The news of these deaths via text message was a little sobering; a few years before I had been on that route; a fairly straight forward route but with high objective risks due to the massive towering Seracs looming threateningly over the top of the climb. It reminded me of the seriousness of the winter Alps.

During the day I walked to the base of the routes breaking a trial to make it easier when I went to climb them. To reduce the amount of stuff I had to carry I did not bring up snow-shoes making trail breaking fairly arduous, the snow builds a hard crust in the top layers which takes 90% of your weight to punch through, meaning that you are constantly doing steps ups.

Climbing

Moving from London (elevation 20m) to 3500m on Mt.Blanc in a day is a fairly significant shift in altitude so your body is not used to it. For me, the usual affects are a constant mild headache (for which I bring plenty of Asprin) and general sleeplessness. The sleeplessness is caused by the fact that your heart has to pump faster and your lungs breathe more making your body keep thinking it is waking up not falling to sleep.

The next morning I woke with the light,  time was not such an issue since I was going solo, so I geared up andContinue reading “Solo in the Winter Alps”

Winter Alps; tips for dealing with altitude & extreme cold

Over ninety percent of all of my mountaineering experience has been gained from climbing on Mount Blanc in January. The first time I donned crampons in anger it was walking off Aguille de Midi January 3rd 2004 after a night sleeping rough in Chamonix. In the following few days I learnt a lot about living in the cold – the first lesson being after 5 minutes; a platypus hose is utterly pointless.

When getting my annual cold-fix I typically fly out from London on an early morning flight and, by 5pm, I am dug in to the side of the Mt.Blanc massif with enough supplies to stick it out a week. Its pretty cool – however being prepared for the cold and sudden increase in altitude is pretty important.

Climbing in the Winter Alps, especially if your sticking it out for extended periods is generally tough and, from what people experienced in Summer Alpine climbing say,  it is incomparable. In the summer 2 routes in a day can be a blast but in winter, when contending with the environment and it’s effects on your body, if you get 2 decent routes in a week and you haven’t done badly.

Dealing with the cold

The weather in January at 3,800m is generally pretty brisk, and I have experienced everything from sunny pleasant mornings where it feels like +5°C (until any wind picks up) to bitter cold in the regions of -35°C or lower. The general temperature is -15 to -20 and it is often very windy meaning the wind chill can be severe enough to freeze exposed skin and make talking difficult due to the cold’s effect on your mouth and face.

Long term exposure in temperature likes this, especially while on routes means a high risk of cold injury. Typically in the form of frost nip or frost bite but the cold dry air can also accelerate dehydration. If you have the right clothing hypothermia should not be a likely problem unless you end up in a very exposed bivi in bad weather/very extended belay.

Nathan Murphy
Back in the day.. 2004

Sleeping:

  • In winter it is so cold a down sleeping bag is generally fine – not much is going to melt on to it – so it is unlikely to get wet very quickly
  • It is good to melt tomorrow’s water in the evening – put it in a platypus or water bottle and put it in your sleeping bag – this can really make things toasty
  • Sleep with anything you do not wantContinue reading “Winter Alps; tips for dealing with altitude & extreme cold”

Calf training for winter climbing

If you have ever had the pleasure of your calves being so pumped out that you have to hang on your axes to de-pump or when the idea of taking a 60ft fall is tempting just so you would be able to sit for a while – you will understand why when I try to get in shape for a winter trip, if I do nothing else, I will beast my calves.

I find nothing more discomforting than, when on a ice route, your calves pack up. My theory is that, while you are able to stand happily on your front points, you remain in control and therefore can remain fairly safe . In early January 2009 I was going to go to the Mt.Blanc massif and go soloing for a week – the aim was to be self sufficient – live in a snow hole and do some routes on the Tucal. Therefore calves were an important part of my training.

When soloing in winter, the way I see it, you have to bear a few of things in mind;

  1. It is very cold
  2. You need to carry enough to stay warm & rap a route
  3. If you fall you will probably die, and if you are lucky enough to get away with just being severely injured there will be no one around to help so you will probably die
  4. There is a lot of ice, often bullet hard, meaning lots of front pointing.

Weight wise – with plastic boots & crampons,  axes, various clothing required, rucsac, a couple of ice screws/abolokov threader, a pair of 60m half ropes to rap, tat, harness, a bit of water and some snacks you are probably going to weigh around 20kg more than if you stood naked. So bearing that in mind that you are going to be heavier than if you are leading when climbing as a pair – making sure your calves are have good strength and endurance is critical to  your safety.

At the time I had a spare room in my house & a load of wood from an old fingerboard frame and an ikea bed I recently dismantled – so feeling fairly creative I made the mother of all calf training rigs..

The mother of all calf training rigs
The mother of all calf training rigs

This rig enabled me to stand on my front points, carrying a 20kg weight bag and do sets of one/two foot calf raises to build strength or spend around 5 minutes at a time on one foot to build up endurance. With the stack of rungs – I was also able to use it to train my thighs in a style similar to the requirement Continue reading “Calf training for winter climbing”

Yosemite valley life & road tripping

Living in Yosemite as a climber is not overly straight forward. Firstly you are limited to the amount of time you can stay in the valley (2 weeks) and especially Camp 4. To stay at Camp 4 when it is busy requires you to que up at the site enterence at 5am to try and get a camping spot.It is not unsuprising that some people who want to stay for longer tend to spend their time sleeping in caves or just somewhere in the woods with the bears.

Vagrants biving (legitimately!)

The only problem with this is that, if caught, you get Ranger bum-raped and shipped out with a $500 fine; meaning the people who do sleep rough need to have a co-ordinated back story at all times just in case; ‘We arrived in the valley today’ – ‘Tonight we are staying on El Cap’ – ‘Last night we were on the Captain’ – ‘Tonight we are leaving the valley’ might be a choice set of explanations. It’s a  bit of added stress for people who stay in what is unofficially coined as ‘Camp 5’ – but being able to stay for longer and do amazing routes is worth the hassle (for the people who might do this).

Other than that you are free to enjoy the scenery (so long as you do not collect fire wood, recycle bottles from bins, have a piss in the woods, park in the wrong place, leave food in your car, leave food in a locker for too long, sleep in a car, sleep at the bottom of a route, sleep anywhere outside a designated camp etc..).

Rules aside it is an awesome place to hang out! With clear cool stoney bottomed rivers, beautiful waterfalls, awesome woodland, bears strolling around, fantastic weather and Continue reading “Yosemite valley life & road tripping”

Cold and pain in Chamonix

The day after climbing Chere Couloir (late Jan) the weather came in cold and generally not very pleasant, the temperature dropped to -25 and it had snowed during the night. With the weather forecast looking like it was only going to get worse we had to weigh up our options.

I had hoped to go down and snow-hole underneath some of the big routes on the back of Tacul, but if the weather was bad it would only mean a longer walk getting ourselves, and all our kit, off the mountain.

We decided to climb the relatively easy Cosmiques Arette with our day-packs full of stuff to leave at the Midi station and come back for the rest of our kit. We figured it would only take a couple of hours so we had a leisurely 11am start.

The weather was seriously cold and the snow conditions were poor. There was two to three feet of fresh snow making climbing generally slow. By the time Oli had climbed 40 metres up the route I was already pretty cold and with every plunge of my ice axes and hands in to the snow my hands just got colder.

The snow blasts melted on my face and, due to the extreme cold, immediately froze again forming lumps of ice on my eye lashes – freezing my eyes shut. 

The route climbs to a mini summit from which you abseil down twenty meters or so to get onto the next section of climbing. Unfortunately due to the snow heaped up on the ledges Oli lowered too far and we ended up off route. By this time the wind had really picked up and the snow was relentless. After Oli traversed with no pro for about 20m he was able to climb up a steeper section of mixed climbing to get us back on route.

As I joined him at the next belay we were back on track, but due about an hour hanging at the belay in fairly ferocious wind my hands were very cold and stopping after climbing I experienced the most intense and painful hot aches. Although Oli was leading the entire route in one block the main thing I had to do was suffer diligently.

Another section required me to take the rope in tight and then lower Oli down a small cliff Continue reading “Cold and pain in Chamonix”

Five tips for hydration efficiency

Hydration is always a major issue when doing extended periods of exercise; dehydration can cause severe drops in physical and mental capabilities, slow you down and exacerbate the problem.

There are usually guidelines quoted telling you how much water you need based on activities and conditions but what most people tend to over-look is techniques that you can employ to improve your hydration efficiency and that allow you to consume and carry less water while maintaining a good level of hydration.

Here are my top tips for hydration efficiency;

Tip #1: Small sips often

This is the most important method to improve your hydration efficiency. I learned this during a 4 day trek through Malaysian jungle; I was trekking with two Sweedish guys, and as I had the water sterilisation pills I was aware of how much water each person consumed. It was during a very hot spell of weather (in an already hot and humid place) we were sweating so much that you could literally squeeze a puddle of sweat from your tee-shirt after taking it off.

Clearly this sort of activity requires a lot of water to stay hydrated and as there were plenty of small streams to re-fill we could drink as much as we needed. I noticed that between leaving after breakfast and arriving at the next camp I was only consuming a little over 2 litres of water whereas my friends were drinking well over double this amount and despite this I felt well hydrated.

The reason I could get away with comparably so little water was that I was using a hydration pack and was having a small sip of water every time my throat & mouth felt dry. It may have been as little as 10ml Continue reading “Five tips for hydration efficiency”

Climbing in Chamonix with Oli Lyon

My and a good friend Oli Lyon decided to get a winter trip in, Oli has been living in Chamonix for the winter season so I was keen to get over and do some routes with him.

I flew out on an early morning flight from London City airport and by 4pm we were already up on the hill on way to the Abri Simmond hut (only open in winter) where we planned to stay. The weather when we arrived was brilliant and the sunset led to some great photographic conditions.

Oli skiing in dragging his sled.

The alpen glow was epic and we got some good shots of the Midi!

We decamped at the hut (3600m) the temperature was probably about -18 degrees Celcius – so cold and high enough to feel fairly rotten. We ate tortellini with Spicy Italian Dolmio sauce with cheddar chunks melted in. This heavy carb dinner had our bodies burning hot which helped us get to sleep in the cold.

I have been on 6 winter trips to the Alps and I have never seen the face of Tacul looking this snow covered; there was in places 2 ft of rime! It made it look really wintery and pretty cool.

We got up the next morning to go and climb Chere couloir a fantastic ice route with the odd 90 degree section, although actually having done it before in winter, it is a great warm up climb to get you into the ice climbing mind set.

We climbed the steep burchund, soloed up the first pitch to the base of the steeper climbing.

The climbing was fantastic, and the weather was pretty stable throughout the day, we climbed the 400m route quickly and ended up on the top of the ridge after a couple of hours. We rappelled back down, the route has bolts on belay anchors so this is a really quick process. at the bottom our ropes were not long enough so we ended up rapping off some very thin looking Abolkov threads left by another climber which I was glad to say held for both of us. Sooo much fun!

Nathan Murphy abseiling
Nathan Murphy abseiling

Ice climbing in Conge

I was not expecting to go to Italy, but we (me and the seasoned climber/extreme skier Oli Lyon) decided to do a road trip and find some water fall ice to climb. We arrived in Conge on a week day evening and it was like a ghost town, the snow was falling lightly at just the rate you would want if you were doing a snowy scene in a film.

We climbed a few routes, then did a bit of soloing which was great! Ice cragging (first time for me) was fun, but won’t not replace mountaineering for me.

Oli Lyon wrecking the place
Nathan Murphy soloing
Nathan Murphy soloing

Ever had Italian strudel? (if it is Italian) was very very rich and heavy – it tasted like there was a spirit in it of some kind – but over all nice if expensive!