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Pierra Menta, British Champs and Cham-Zermatt- unfinished business. March/April 2013

Following a fortnight of fun ski guiding carrying a heavy pack (glacial ski touring kit in an ABS pack) in the Stubai and Engadine I was acclimatised and fit to get stuck in to the Pierra Menta. I had avoided the numerous lurgies that had nailed so many friends but one client had the tail end of an illness that he passed onto another- I seemed to avoid it myself, or so I thought, but as I drove back from Switzerland to pick up Ben Bardsley from the airport, I began to cough..

Immaculate snow, guiding in the Stubai

4 days of spluttering/self medicating/not joining the others on beautiful sunny day tours ensued- will I survive the Pierra Menta I wondered? Certainly I would have pulled out had it been an individual race. The first day nearly killed me, the second was better, relapse on the 3rd but finally on the 4th day I no longer felt viraemic and was able to turn it on and go hard on the climbs. Shame I had slowed Ben B down on the other days..Overall 60th out of 220- exactly the same as last year but in a broken state that seemed reasonable. As always it was a masterclass in endurance athleticism from countless continental superstars. It is the most amazing race I can imagine through incredibly beautiful mountain scenery. This is my 6th Pierra Menta and I fully intend to do it every year until they time me out!

Me and Ben having it in the powder at the Pierra Menta- briefly took my mind off my lurgy

I had earmarked the following 2 weeks for a crack at one of my lifetime objectives- Chamonix Zermatt on skis in a single push- sadly the most unsettled winter weather in recent years was looking like totally scuppering all attempts. Instead we did a wicked tour up the Aiguille de Genepi in stunning conditions on the only fine day of the week. Not a soul in sight all day (note to self- always worth driving an hour from Cham to avoid crowds), cloudless, fresh powder, 45 degree couloir from the summit- heaven. Great amusement as Calum Muskett, very new to skiing, snapped a rotten ski, half way down the descent. It was sold to him by a guide who will remain nameless- wasn’t me! By now I was only coughing 3 times an hour rather than 3 times a minute- huge relief- I don’t do ill very well..

Calum Muskett, recent ski touring convert, looking happy at the prospect of the steep N facing couloir to come, from the Aiguille de Genepi.

Next focus- the 2nd British Ski Mountaineering Championships, which I had organised for Easter Sunday. Es Tresidder had organised it the previous year in Chamonix, but the race he had chosen to piggyback our 1st Champs onto was not available to us this year- it was part of the Military-only World Champs. So I had picked a race that Leanne had previously competed in, near Grenoble, the Belle Etoile. The day before the race a few of us helped out the organisers put the track in the course. Category 3 avalanche risk seemed an underestimate as we kicked off wet sloughs on any slope of 30 degrees or more. 900m of slushy trailbreaking and putting the flags in ensued. Would they run the course?

Skiing the Couloir de Mitraille, Rochers de Fiz.


We woke to hosing rain at 1000m on Easter Sunday but at resort level just a few degrees colder and the hideous snow of the day was frozen with powder on top- perfect- well the snow was perfect but you needed infrared vision to penetrate the dense fog. In the Mens comp there were 4 realistic contenders on the start line- Carron (British Champ last year), Ben Bardsley (less than 30 seconds behind him last year and a beast on the early climbs in every race), Es (always fit and very slick on the transitions) and myself (behind all these guys last year but 4 months training/competing on snow this winter). Shame Jon Bracey had to work that day- he’d have certainly been up there too.

Racing in a mingfest- familiar conditions this winter

With my lack of sprinting-off-the-line ability I was predictably behind all these guys on the first climb- Ben was out front as usual charging up the first climb, Es not far behind. But after the first descent- I have had plenty of practice this year- we all arrived at the foot of the second climb roughly together. A tough race ensued up the second climb, assisted by some fairly aggressive shoving from one or two of the other guys competing in the French Champs, which was concurrently held. It was difficult to keep up with Es who was very adept at sneaking into any possible gap between racers to work his way through the field. Carron was very much in touch too with Ben just behind- any of us could have had it. By the 3rd climb me and Es were neck and neck, but I sensed I might have more in the tank and digged as deep as I could to open up a small gap, on which I was able to capitalise on the following descent in the difficult conditions.

Training on a beautiful day up the Milieu Glacier, Aiguille d’Argentiere

The race organiser unexpectedly finished the course at a different place to anticipated, due to some of the densest fog I have skied in. Towards the end I was lucky to just be able to sit on the tails of some of the jedi French descenders who somehow found their way down at impressive speed. It was much harder for the guy out front who really can’t have seen very much at all (suspect he may have more than 20 consecutive full seasons skiing, mind you).  I couldn’t possibly have maintained anything like that speed without their help as markers in the fog. I ended up winning the British Champs by a minute over Es with Carron not far behind, followed by Ben. 1hour 40 for the 1550m ascent/descent in the ming. Gaby Lees won the womens race, followed by Janine Frost then Ursula Moore. Mattheo Jacquemoud- who has pretty much cleaned up every International ski race this year- won the French individual race, 10 minutes ahead of me.

Pillows of perfect powder, Aiguille de Genepi

So I had a week left for a possible Cham Zermatt. Hmmm the meteo still looked dodgy- Easter Monday was bluebird, Tuesday a front was forecast to come through, then more intermittent skank for the week- ah well time to ski some couloirs and enjoy the gorgeous conditions and forget all about what might have been. Ben Tibbetts went to the Aravis for a couple days; Misha, Ben Bardsley and I headed to the Val d’Arpette to ski one of the Arpette couloirs, with slightly weary legs after the Brits the day before. But what’s this? As we skinned up Misha checked the forecasts- all change! Tuesday was now a few clouds and light winds, Wednesday was now beautiful with cloud only very late in the day. Ben T was texted to be told unless he abandoned his 2 day Aravis hit he might have unbearable FOMO (“fear of missing out”) if we pulled it off. Gutting to turn around at the Col d’Ecandies and miss out on the amazing looking couloir, but after 1400m of ascent (on heavy kit this time, to maximise the fun on the steep terrain) we thought it wise to get back, get sorted, not to mention rested if we were going to try and skin over 8000m the following day..

Chamonix church 2pm Tuesday 2nd April

Simple self-imposed rules- set off from Chamonix church, stop at Zermatt church- no road transport or lifts of any description- proper Haute Route. It had only ever been done 3 times, always by top French racers and had been in the back of my mind for 10 years since I had attempted an abridged solo attempt. Frantic organisation/ski and skin waxing/food shopping/arm twisting for road support/detailed weather assessment followed. There seemed fair agreement from French/Italian/Swiss forecasts that winds would be light with minimal if any precipitation. Fog might be an issue at night- no time like the present- let’s get involved. The guardian of the Valsorey hut confirmed to me a track had gone in over Plateau du Couloir just 6 hours before we set off- 12 litres of sweet tea and risotto for 4 ordered.

Ben B striding out towards le Lavancher

It felt slightly mad running in ski boots wearing a skinsuit through central Chamonix at 2pm with skis on our backs, but from les Bois onwards we were able to skin on the ski de fonds tracks, up to le Lavancher then the Balcon Nord track up to Lognan. Ben Tibbetts set a cracking pace. Toto kindly met us there with glacier kit (if you could call aluminium axe/crampons, 4mm cord with 3mm prussiks glacier kit..). We took 4h 20 total elapsed time Chamonix church to Col Chardonnet- mist was swirling around but clear at the Col. Ha- a rope in situ so no need for crampons/axe to descend. Ha- a track heading towards the Grand Lui. All good- less good was Mishas guts necessitating awkward skinsuit/harness removal at uncomfortably frequent intervals. Also less good was the cat 3 avalanche forecast, especially on NE to NW facing slopes- essential solo travel up to the Col de Grand Lui. It didn’t feel too dodgy as I broke trail up the 40 degree slope. Hmmm this bit feels a bit hollow- whuuuumph the snow bridge collapsed and ‘shrund opened up a third of the way along my short skis. Ah that’ll be what the hollow feeling was! 50m further to one side it passed OK and before long I was breaking through to neve and cramponning up to the ridge at 3500m at dusk.

3 lonely figures shivering below as I break trail up to Col Grand Lui at dusk

I first did the Haute Route in ’97 and from this col we had skied down amazing spring snow at midday to la Fouly. Indeed at midday 8 hours earlier it would have been similar judging by the numerous tracks that folk had left, who’d skinned up from the other side. But now, after a refreeze we had a winning combination of heinous breakable crust and fog (not too thick but in combination with darkness and 2800m of ascent already our legs definitely got a work out on our race skis. They are 65mm underfoot and 164cm long... 2000m descending in the dark on really bad snow felt like a long way. We all had Petzl Nao torches that were awesome so at least we could see the enemy. Ben Ts boots didn’t seem to fit as well any more-he looked briefly unsure about the prospect of many many more hours of suffering. FOMO ensured he ignored the pain.

Breaking trail into the night linking la Fouly and Bourg St Pierre


Big refuel at la Fouly- thanks Alison!- onward up to Ferret, then over Col des Planards -lots of trail breaking/cramponning and solo travel again up the steep slope to the Col. Phew- nice powder then easy hard-pack to Bourg St Pierre. Baltic throughout this night section, especially for the others having to wait for me to put the track in to the Col. Trusty RAB Microlight jackets came in handy. Big refuel again- thanks again Alison. Being a total pig I ate and drank tons and felt good heading up to the Valsorey hut, chatted to the guardian and admired the stunning dawn looking back to the Mont Blanc Massif. Possibly the depths of the night or possibly lack of drinking and nutrition- for the others this section appeared to be a low point.

Nobody said this was going to be easy..

We took a long time to eat our risotto- delicious but portion size inappropriate to objective size. After the risotto we tucked into Roesti with egg supplemented with lots of sweet tea. Misha quietly died for 10 mins on a bench, and we all swallowed painkillers/changed socks/repaired our feet. Ben Ts feet didn’t look pretty at all. 20 hours elapsed- this pace wasn’t quite what I had hoped for and at this speed we weren’t going to make it before the second night with cloud/fog forecast- that wasn’t going to work on the Stockli glacier. Packs much heavier now as we carried enough water to get to Zermatt- 3 days travel at normal client speed.

Ben B and Misha revitalised, striding up the Plateau du Couloir

Brillant sunshine, inversion and now a great track to follow- everyone felt a whole lot better  once the breakfast and painkillers had kicked in. Misha awoke a different man- what pills did HE take? He stormed up to Plateau de Couloir with Ben T out front. What a view! Group photo?- no let’s get a move on. We still have a huge distance and 2500m vertical to cover. The second night was not an appealing prospect.

Brillant weather and inversion from the high point the Haute Route. But who shrunk my race partner??

Luckily intermittent cloud and cooler temps prevented total meltdown in the afternoon on the Otemma glacier. But the flat light and sleep deprivation let my mind morph the skin track into other varying objects- sleepmonsters.. Ben B said he was seeing buildings in his peripheral vision. The Otemma Glacier is tediously long and flat, but, after 24 hours on the go, it was particularly frustrating to hardly notice the horizon change as the hours went by.

Endless trudging up the Otemma Glacier. Borderline type 2 fun.

Fog returned and various navigational devices/techniques helped us find Col l’Eveque. We lost time. This was alarmingly familiar- in April 2004 at midnight after 15 hours alone I had abandoned a similar outing in the fog and snowfall (different ethics back then- I had started from the top of the Bochard lift at 9am and had also used road transport from Champex to Bourg St Pierre). Descent once again to Arolla was looking frustratingly likely- aaaaagh. We dropped out of the fog at 6pm at the foot of Mt Brule- didn’t look very promising and I really didn’t fancy the Stockli with no vision- what to do?

Are we on Col l’Eveque?

Having got this far we agreed to press on and cross our fingers- didn’t seem likely to work but none of us wanted to quit unless it was absolutely unavoidable. Misha and I were out front- he was a new man- powered and psyched, no longer feeling the need to frequently undress. 600m/hour ascent race as we headed towards Col Valpelline doesn’t sound quick (because it isn’t!) but the glacier is almost flat and after 29 hours it felt fast enough. Ben T had horrendous foot pain (and still does) but ignored it and never slowed down. Ben B was well in his stride- a veteran of countless multiday adventure races this was hardly a big outing for him.

Looking back towards Col Mt Brule in the gathering gloom

Col Valpelline- 8pm, dusk, fog. This is not good. Critical decision time. A light wind had filled in the tracks- none to follow now. I knew the way down from here from countless descents (and one ascent- the PDG) but had never done so in these conditions.” I know it’s that way” I said as I pointed into the white out. Somebody was smiling on us- the fog lifted just enough and we frantically poled forwards, soon dropping into the main descent with numerous tracks now- huge slots obvious now with the vis, easily avoidable. An hour and a quarter later we persuaded a Taiwanese tourist to take our photo outside Zermatt church. 110km and 8300m of ascent/descent according to the Suunto Ambit. The beer and pizza sure tasted good. Thanks Toto for the lift home!

Lucky boys- the clouds part from Col Valpelline- sunset on the Dent Blanche.

Has the rat been fed? Well yes he has but already I know I need to go back and do it properly. This can be done sub 24 hours- we had an amazing day out that none of us will forget, but I suspect I feel like someone who has just run the Bob Graham in 31 hours. A friend in UK, Ben Gibbison, texted and asked which I thought was harder- a winter BG or a C to Z. Well undoubtedly C to Z as you are carrying a lot more and it is harder to get optimal conditions, but that is also the appeal- not to mention that all your descents are on ski. I will be back another winter to have another crack at race pace- harder at the time but easier overall if you go quicker. Guiding has taught me that- the hardest Mont Blancs are the slowest ones. I once took an ex Olympic athlete up Mt Blanc- 2 hours from the Gouter hut- way less tiring than other occasions when I have had to take 3 times as long.

Zermatt church 915pm Wednesday 3rd April


Post Script- Ben B and I had months ago planned to be the first Brits to complete the Skimo series known as la Grande Course- it is 6 monster races spread over 2 years, of which we had signed up to do one of them- the Adamello Ski Raid- only 72 hours after our C to Z as it turned out. Luckily 3 days of eating a lot, sleeping a lot, eating a lot, sleeping a lot, eating a lot, sleeping a lot saw us right and last Sunday we completed this International race in 44th place out of over 300 teams. The stats on the Ambit tell me that, with 46km and 4200m of ascent/descent this is nearly half of the C to Z in 7hours 15. Go slightly slower for twice as long and you have a sub 24hr C to Z. Unfinished business...