Chamonix Mountain Festival

My last year’s alp trip went bonkers for reasons told. This year will be hopefully different. Fingers crossed that there won’t be any unforeseen issues rising just before the D-day :)

My previous trips rope mate – Lauri – has other intentions set. As well as does Markus, my Swiss friend and Nepal tent mate and who I was supposed to go last year. So I was left with two choices: find someone else to go with or go on my own. Quite fast I started to incline on the latter one, but I wouldn’t like to go solo on nothing else but the easiest routes or snow plods.

Mont Blanc scenery. End of Cosmiques arete in the foreground and in the back from left Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc and Dôme du Goûter

Mont Blanc scenery. End of Cosmiques arete in the foreground and in the back from left Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc and Dôme du Goûter

I had set my eyes already last year for two quite interesting events held right in the heart of Chamonix. First would be Alpine Academy organised by Arcteryx and for second there is Chamonix Mountain Festival which is “organised by mountaineers for mountaineers”.

The Alpine Academy is run for the second time this year and it actually ended week ago. The event has three days of various activities or “clinics” available for different levels ranging from total beginner to advanced climbers. Activities have something from all the aspects of alpine activities. You can choose climbs from acclimatization to multi-pitch rock climbs or long alpine excursions. Or then you can choose one of the non-climbing sessions like mountain photographing, overnight bivy or crevasse rescue courses. All these are individually priced so you can freely choose what you want to do on each day. The “clinics” are followed with evening program. Apparently the Alpine Academy has gained quite a good reputation as the clinics seem to sell out pretty soon after the registration opens. All the clinics for this year were sold out well in advance. The only way to then to attend those would have been to win a competition they ran which would have got you flights, clinics and gear for you AND you friend. Not too shabby price, isn’t it? Quite obviously I did not win :)

I’m sure the the event would have been of great fun and I was looking for it, but at the time I was choosing out, most of the clinics were already sold out. Also being just for three days it is a both good and bad. Three days is quite short time to get into alpine stuff, but it is also short enough to hop in for just a extended weekend. For me it was a bit of a minus this year as I was going to go solo and do not know how easy it is to find people to climb with from Chamonix outside events like this. If interested, you can check their show-off videos from previous years.

As mentioned, last year I also had my eyes on another event: Chamonix Mountain Festival. I’m not 100% sure about what exactly is the organizing party behind it, but I’ve understood that they are a bunch of mountaineers who just started to run this event for fun. The event sound quite intereasting: a week of climbing with a very reasonable price. For me the price was actually one of the key points that caught my eye. For the price around 500€ (around because it is bit different whether you pay in one chunk or in two) you get lodging in UCPA in center of Chamonix, ski passes for the week, breakfast, dinner, packed lunch, free snacks and gear to test from sponsors and different evening events. It does sound quite interesting, doesn’t it? There isn’t organized guidance as such, but there are few places to book on some guide tours by some sponsored athletes.

Personally I do not know anyone who would have participated this event before, but somehow the whole thing seemed quite appealing to me. After some considering I booked a place for myself and then the flights to settle the deal. One reason was that I should be able to find people to climb with relative ease during the whole week and also not having that “clinics” based stuff, I could perhaps concentrate on the routes and climbs I’m interested with. If I’m able to find a buddy to do those, that is.

After I had signed up they have posted quite a few new sponsors and things they’ll have during the event which definitely has not decreased the value. Later on I also heard that one of my other climbing buddies is going to Chamonix around the same time aiming to climb the Mont Blanc via the Royal Traverse route. Could be that I have some day to climb with them also.

It will be seen how the festival turns out to be, was it a good choice or not. I’ll certainly will share my experiences later on. Now it is only a few days left until I’m leaving. I’ll be flying in already on Friday morning and arriving in Chamonix at around noon. I’m trying to get to do something already on Friday, but with who and what, I do not know if anything. The festival starts on Saturday now, which actually is one day earlier than they had initially programmed. Don’t know what is the thing with that. Anyway I’ll try to hit the hills latest on Saturday, though I would need to find someone to go along before that. If I still have time I’ll post a few routes I would like to try out, but there is actually quite a lot happening this week and don’t know if I can squeeze another post in. You’ll need to read about about what I had really done then.

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Back in the game

It has passed more than a year from my last post. Too long, yes, and much have happened in the time between.

Last spring I was very much looking forward for my second alpine trip in early July with my Swiss tent buddy I had in Nepal. I was in quite nice shape, had ran my fastest one hour jog ever and had gotten really back into climbing practice after my surgery in December. But things don’t always happen as planned. Instead of five days of alpine air and fun outings, this happened.

Our boy looking at his best

Our boy looking at his best

Not that this guy was not planned, but he was just some five weeks and a bit more too hesitant to emerge into this world. All the plan I had was thrown out of the window and replaced with endless changing of diapers. Oh… did I mention that we had also bought a new apartment which we got two days this fellows early exit? And that the renovations for kitchen, bathroom and most of the floors started on the week after?

Our things stuffed into our new living room. Basically the place that got least of renovation mess.

Our things stuffed into our new living room. Basically the place that got least of renovation mess.

It was not gloomy after all. Yes, I missed the long waited trip and I had to work a bit longer days shuffling between our new home and our temporary one, switching smoothly from saws and hammers to cradling and poop. I was tired from all of that, but it really WAS worth it. Also the insurance company reimbursed my flight tickets, so I was not that affected money wise. Except that the new apartment and renovations did it’s best to tip the scales to the other end.

Me waiting to be rescued. Dont worry, it is part of a course to be in predicament.

Me waiting to be rescued. Don’t worry, it is part of a course to be in predicament.

But despite me having my hands full of different kinds of chores, I did manage to get some climbing stuff done too. First of all, I had signed on to a climbing instructor training earlier in the spring. It was not REAL climbing instructor course, but the first level of training in the Finnish Climbing Associations (SKIL) training pool. I was to become “Köysitoiminnanohjaaja” or roughly rope activity guide in English. Which then I did, after all. The training consisted of two two-day modules and an exam. Both of the modules had first an indoor day and then an outdoor day. The first module was basically just about basic rope management and belay techniques and some tips and tricks on what to do in when a problem occurs. The second module dived more into the problem scenarios and rescuing. Some of the stuff was quite familiar for me, but some were totally new. We also took some time to to cover basic things when working with different kinds of groups like kids, bachelor groups or disabled people. According to the rules set by SKILL you can not take the exam no sooner than after two months you have completed the second module. I was supposed to take the exam already in June, but unfortunately that was cancelled due to lack of participants. Then I had to opt for the next one held in September. For me this was a bit bad, since I had so much do with all the renovations and such towards the fall. Also I became increasingly busier with my actual work, so I did not have that much time to spare for practicing then. I wonder if I managed to squeeze in more than one weekends worth of time for that.

The rescue scenario demonstration

Mikko Nieminen The rescue scenario demonstration

Most of the course was pretty laidback. Especially with a nice weather like this.

Mikko Nieminen Most of the course was pretty laidback. Especially with a nice weather like this.

In the end, I did pass the exam, but with some remarks on few things . Luckily I did not have to do any extra work as that could have been the case if you’d screw up, but not that critically. First we had a written exam, which apparently you could not fail, as it was more to put shame on you if you didn’t know the stuff. I did get good points on that though. Next we needed to gear up and do couple of knots and such. Got it otherwise perfect, but my prusik cords knot ends were a wee bit too short. Passed nonetheless. If you’d fail here, you would not have been allowed to continue to the outdoor part. Like said, for the second part we went to a local cliff, the same we had used for the modules, to do some tests. We were divided into two groups which did different tasks at the same time. Basically we had four different scenarios and you had to do two of them. My groups first tasks was to create a top rope anchor to bolts just over lip of the cliff with single rope, while the other group was creating a system for group abseiling activity. These of course had to be done safely. The second task for me was to do a rescue of person who had abseiled half way down and had twisted his or her leg. For me everything started of nicely and it looked like a smooth sail, all to the point where I realised I had made some big ass fuck up. It was the same damn mistake I had done when practicing. What I had done was that I had attached my belay device (or abseil device this time) directly to my belay loop as I would do when abseiling myself normally. I should have attached it to the end of this special rescue sling too give more room to operate. I did managed to manoeuvre us out of that mess, but it pretty damn close it would have escalated to major fuck up. It was a good example of how tiny mistakes can escalate into critical situations in just few moments. I was a bit lucky there and the instructors were nice enough to give me some hints (so much easier to se the situation when not in it) which I managed to turn into actions. I was initially thinking that “why weren’t I in that other group”, later I thought it was better this way. That is because the second scenario for the other team was to escape the belay when belaying a top rope climber. I’m pretty sure that I would have nailed that for sure, but then I would have missed this excellent learning opportunity I got. We did not got the feedback from our tasks until we were back at the office. It was a bit tormenting to wait there for your turn and the results whether you passed or not when you now you did some mistakes. Eventually it was my turn for the feedback which was very constructive and on the spot. The course was then concluded and I received my freshly laminated card to certify skills.

My laminated KTO certificate card

My laminated KTO certificate card

The next step would be to apply for the Sport Climbing Instructor course after which I would be able to held basics courses for climbing. That one actually have some climbing skill requirements which I SHOULD be able to pass already. To apply, you should be able to lead on-sight UIAA 5 (french 4c) and when finishing the course UIAA 6 (french 5c). Those among many other skills. After that would come the Rock Climbing Instructor course which is the first internationally recognised certification. For that the requirements are higher for both skills and experience and I doubt I will ever go through that fully. My initial plan was to apply for the Sport Climbing Instructor course already this year, but there has quite a bit of things going on which have been prioritised. Haven’t yet even fully decided whether I will attend at any rate. We’ll see. If nothing else, I should do the exam day of this KTO course again within the next five years to keep it valid for another five years.

Me climbing some easy route with some alpine feel

Niklas Karlsson Me climbing some easy route with some alpine feel

On top of this course stuff and other things, I did managed to get few climbing days in also. Though, was there more than just three or four days I got to climb on real rock leading and all. My outdoor bouldering season weren’t much more active despite I did got my new bouldering pad in summer and managed to do few sessions with it. No major bouldering breakthroughs though, but I managed to nail few problems I hadn’t dared to top without a pad earlier. Being now a proper family and all also did have its toll on indoor climbing. Most of the times I changed ropes to bouldering caves as it is just so much faster to work out a pump when bouldering.

To compensate a bit the lack of climbing opportunities, I’ve tried to some power training in a bit more than before. I also think has had some effect since I’ve been able to do some boulder routes which have had required more about on the core and also on the pure power. During the spring I’ve got somewhat more meters on rope the I got during the previous fall and now I’ve been able to climb most of the 6b/+ routes I’ve tried on one go and even a few 6c routes which pars the personal best ever. So either the power training has paid out or I’ve developed some better technique while not climbing :) Which ever is the case it feels like I’d be in perhaps the best condition ever. Perhaps I should start leading a bit harder routes than the 5b/c.

At the top of my first ice lead

At the top of my first ice lead

My last winter season went totally bonkers as I spent all the short season recuperating from the surgery. So, my brand new ice screws and double ropes remained idle on the shelf. This year, however, brought some relief to the itch that only ice tools could help. Sadly the local “man made” ice wall could open only very late in the season, because of the warm weather and it left quite a short time to do any ice climbing. The natural ice falls were not really in any better shape and I could not take time to those beefier falls in the north, so I had to work with what we had. Also I missed few opportunities as I was ill. In the end I got some half a dozen ice climbing days in and though there weren’t that many meters in total, I got my first ice lead done. Just as the cold season arrived late and suddenly, the spring did it’s best also to end short the winter season. Almost within days all the ice that had accumulated during the cold, melted rapidly away into an unclimbable slosh. It was quite fun though to toprope-solo that kind of molting ice as it was very fun and scary at the same time since you could not stop thinking whether the wall of soft icy snow would loose with this strike or kick. Toprope-solo was another new thing for me and I’m sure I’ll be doing more of that in the future. Works especially well on ice.

The mushy "ice" of Pirunkallio at the end of season. Would you lead that? ;)

The mushy “ice” of Pirunkallio at the end of season. Would you lead that? ;)

That somewhat summarises my past year in absence. Summer climbing season is still kind starting for me as I’ve been is it three times outside climbing with ropes. Hopefully the June will bring more days for that and would really wish to generate time from somewhere to visit the Olhava or Haukkakallio this summer again. I do have some abroad plans for this summer, more of that later. Nothing major, don’t worry :) Just some fun time in the alps for a bit over a week.

At the anchors of a tricky 5c at Kauhala

Aleksi Mehtonen At the anchors of a tricky 5c at Kauhala

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It’s a fixed, yes!

Two weeks ago I had my fourth physiotherapy session. The ankle is still stiffer than the non-operated one, but it has improved all the time. This time, though, my physician surprised me by bidding me farewell with: “Go jogging, boy”.

My last session was a bit over a month ago and the plan was to do a little jogging there on the threadmill, but it seemed that the ankle had not improved in a way the physician thought. I have practised ashtanga yoga for a few years now and my joint are a bit more flexible than average. This factor did give the appearance of a super fast recovery, but it proved to differ. The recovery was normal, though, but it was too soon for jogging then. Needless to say, I was a bit put back with this and my dreams of getting back to the walls soon shattered.

Then now, a month later, I went to the session with not much of hopes. We talked the normal stuff and he twisted and turned my leg and tested the movement of the joints. We tried the knee-to-wall test which had jumped from last times 13,5cm to 16,5cm. For comparison, the measurement on my “good” leg was initially tested to be 19,5cm. Just to give some perspective on this figure, the normal measurement is 10-12cm. Furthermore, on the initial test my “bad” leg was measured to be 10,5cm, which actually is within the normal range. The therapist wondered if it is benefitical to have such a joint flexibility, but such a hobbies of mine – climbing and ashtanga yoga – that’s what were aiming for then.

We did a few more tests – which showed a good progress – and he then twisted and tried my leg to see how it moves. Then I was surprised that we walked to the “training hall” and he told me to jog a few times back and forth the short matress. Didn’t really know that I was ready for that. Even more I was surprised when he told me to step on the threadmill and start jogging up to almost to a running pace. Didn’t feel any pain, though, which was nice to notice. The jogging was filmed and I was then shown it on a screen with in depth analysis on my stepping. Apparently – and not surprisingly really – I had an over pronation on my feet, but otherwise the jogging was just fine. This meant that there’s no stopping for me to start jogging again with increasing pace. Woohoo!

Since that I haven’t been jogging yet, though, but I have been climbing once. It was quite fine, toproping from easy 4 to a tricky and slopey 6b (just managed to do the moves). The leg felt a bit sore some days afterwards, but otherwise it was fine. Recently we have also moved out from our flat, which has ment a LOT of carrying heavy loads. Initially it felt just ok, but later on I the ankle seemed to get more sore and up to a point that in the morning stiffness it buckled under a little when pressured. Not good. When I got going after breakfast it soon got better as it warmed up on the way. Better. Today I also got to wear the specially made insoles for the first time. During the previous session the physician took moulds of my feet for precision made insoles. Hopefully those will get my feet going even faster.

Dispite the setback of the last few days, I can really see some light in the horizon, and have some hopes for good climbing season still to come. The only climbing session I’ve had showed that all the bare muscle training I have done during the summer have not gone totally in vain, as the climbing felt very strong, though, all my stamina has gone down the drain. Just a couple of climbs with the self-belaying lines and I was completely out of it. A lot of stamina training is in order during the following weeks as I am trying to manage do squeeze in a short alpine trip during early July in mids of all the fuss that is going on. The fast closing due date of my wifes pregnancy and moving in to our new apartment about the time of my trip does make a good mess, but I’ll try to wheel around all this in a shapely manner. It does need a lot of work, though, which requires time that seems not to be an endless resource.

Today I did my first lead, indoors though, since the operation. A meger 5a, but one has to start somewhere!

Just to recap (and remind) for myself (and others) how this all injury, surgery and healing has gone, here are a few pictures on a timeline to wrap this whole thing.

Amelie @ Kräkinniemi

Perttu Ollila Amelie @ Kräkinniemi. The line I tried is the right hand side crack. I took to fall from much lower height than the climber here is.

27.08.2011: It all started then. I took lead fall at Kräkinniemi, Kustavi when climbing Amelie (5).

My air cast

My air cast just after I got home from the health center.

28.08.2011: I got my leg bandaged and put into an AirCast shell. The home for my leg for the next three weeks. Luckily I could take off for sleeping and washing.

My feet after the first day in Rome

My feet after the first day in Rome and 5 days after the fall

03.09.2011: The feet few days after the fall. A bit of swelling here and there.

On crutches at Colosseum

Me skipping away with crutches outside the Colosseum

03.09.2011: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Our vacation in Rome turned into a battle with cobble stones on crutches.

Me on top of Mera Peak

Me on top of Mera Peak. On the bground you can see from left to right mountains like Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Khanteka left of me and to the right Nuptse, Everest, Lhotse, Baruntse

10.10.-14.11.2011: Later I was in Nepal trying to climb Mera Peak (6476m) and Baruntse (7129m). I got on Mera Peak, but had to bail on Baruntse due fever and flu. The injured leg showed no real hindrance, except the lack of training during the last weeks.

The original India chappals. The only way to walk when in India.

The original India chappals. The only way to walk when in India.

Dec 2011: After a two weeks of walking on these the ankle didn’t feel too good. Went to see a doctor again, which said it could be a bruise in the bone. Nothing could be done to speed the healing. I didn’t opt for the MRI to confirm as I might have had to pay it myself.

Spring 2012: The ankle was somewhat improving, but very slowly, if any. Could climb alright, but could do only light jogging.

The Cathedral Peak seen from near the Orange Peel Gap. On the way up we couldn't see a thing.

The Cathedral Peak seen from near the Orange Peel Gap. On the way up we couldn’t see a thing.

May 2012: On our trip to South Africa we went hiking some hills and the loose ground and 1600m uphill and downhill made my leg almost unbearably sore. I decided that I would go to see the doctor again once we got back to home.

08.06.2012: Went to see a company doctor which looked that the company insurance would cover the MRI if prescribed by an specialized doctor.

14.06.2012: The orthopedician sent me to the MRI.

20.06.2012: The MRI. First time in my life.

MRI of my ankle

MRI of my ankle. The cartilage should be smooth and the whie area below that is swollen bone contution.

05.07.2012: Got the results from the MRI. A broken cartilage and tendon. Will need a surgery. I was forwarded to a surgeon specialized in feet surgery.

On the ridge towards Mont Blanc

And the other side. Mont Blanc du Tacul with the clounds, Mont Maudit just behind my helmet and Mont Blanc is the snow top in the far distance. On hour in on the ridge and three and a half to go :)

23.08.-01.09.2012: A trip to Chamonix. Had a wonderful week of climbing with my friend. Got to do climbing on 6 days out of 7. Only the walking on melting glacier snow did make the ankle sore and it was pretty stiff and akward to walk on the following day. Didn’t affect the actual climbing at all.

05.09.2012: It was decided to do and an anesthetic test on the ankle and inject some cortisone into it. I went for a run after the shot and it was fine for the 1,5 hour run.

01.10.2012: Check up with the doctor. The leg showed some improvement, I could jog just fine, but it weren’t “perfect”. Very annoying situation. The decicion was to wait a few weeks.

29.10.2012: The ankle was bad again. The surgery was booked to be in December.

Me coming down from the last lead

Ilkka Å. Me coming down from the last lead

06.-09.12.2012: A climbing trip to Siurana, Spain. The last thing to do before the surgery. Had wonderful time, though, we did not climb as hard as we had hoped. Still, a very good trip.

After surgery waiting to be picked up. Not one of my best pictures. Not the worst one either, though.

After surgery waiting to be picked up. Not one of my best pictures. Not the worst one either, though.

10.10.2012: The surgery. First time ever. I was very, very nervous about the operation. The whole thing was in real a very pleasent experience, if you can say that of an operation. I got crutches, five weeks of sick leave and a bunch of painkillers.

Wraps off. The bandages are covering the wounds, but you can see some of the bruises developing there.

Wraps off. The bandages are covering the wounds, but you can see some of the bruises developing there.

17.12.2012: Removed the wraps for the first time. Took some extra padding off.

Stitches on!

Stitches on!

Stitches off!

Stitches off!

21.12.2012: Got the stiches off. The nurse said that it had healed pretty good.

Three weeks after the operation

Three weeks after the operation

28.12.2012: Walked for the first time to the local supermarket. Took about ~40mins instead of the normal ten :)

31.12.2012: Ditched the second crutch.

03.01.2013: Walked first time to the local mall without crutches.

Four weeks after the operation

Four weeks after the operation

14.01.2013: After operation checkup. Everything was looking fine.

16.01.2013: The first physiotherapy session. The knee-to-wall measurement was 10,5cm.

06.02.2013: The second physiotherapy session. The knee-to-wall measurement was 12,5cm

Nine weeks after the operation

Nine weeks after the operation

04.03.2013: The third physiotherapy session. The knee-to-wall measurement was 13,5cm. We were supposed initially to try jogging this time, but it was too early for that :(

08.04.2013: The fourth – and currently final – physiotherapy session. We did now the jogging test and others too. Everything looked fine. The knee-to-wall measurement was 16,5cm. I was given permission to start jogging and similar things with causion.

13.04.2013: First climbing session. It has to start somewhere.

Four and a half months after the operation and still have the nice scar

Four and a half months after the operation and still have the nice scar

24.04.2013: First lead (5a) since the operation. Progress it is.

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Pocket muscles? What pocket muscles?

So, back home again from the warm and sunny Spain. Well.. it was sunny alright, but with the temperatures floating around +5 and having to scrape the car windscreen on the last morning from frost, I would not call it too warm. Nonetheless, for climbing the weather was pretty much perfect… good friction and sun. If I would have to be picky about something, then the days could have been longer and the stone a wee bit warmer. The first evening I was really struggling on a route just because my hands were so freaking freezing, but then again when we climbed in the sun, it was nice and warm.

Briefly, our trip schedule was to fly early on Thursday morning to Barcelona, take the rental car and drive straight to Siurana, spend the next four days climbing there and then drive back to the airport for a late Sunday evening flight back home. And that’s pretty much how it went. Our inward flight departed at 6:10am, so we had an early start for the day. We got to the flight alright, though, and in no time we were already picking up the car the Sixt office at Barcelona airport. With no delay we stuffed our bags in and drove off. The stuff really needed shoving as we had rented the cheapest (and the smallest) car we could get and got a Smart Fortwo. We got our bags in, though, and we only needed to transport them from one place to another. It took about three hours for us to drive there, but that included a grocery stop, a very dissappointing stop at the closed Burger King and a few short stops to look at the cliffs on the way.

Trusty Smart Fortwo

Trustworthy Smart Fortwo. We could fit all our gear in it, barely, very barely.

Soon after noon we managed to check in at Siurana Camping, where we had booked a small bungalow for us. We had a fridge and a gas stove there, but no shower or toilets. The price was quite ok (36€ per night), though in places like Montserrat or Lleida you can get a bed&breakfast for a bit over fifty euro. Here, though, you can walk pretty much to any of the fifty odd sectors in less than half-an-hour and the closest ones are a just a few minutes away. We had eaten a brief lunch while driving, so we didn’t waste too much time but headed straight to the rocks. We bought a guide book for the Tarragona crags, but sadly they did not have the new Siurana guidebook which has been, and apparently still is, out of stock. We fond out though that the closest sectors were just a few minute’s walk away over the hilltop and they would have plenty of climbing for us too. Quite a few sectors here are really sensible to visit only if you climb 7a or harder. We don’t, so we had to pick our places.

My friend climbing the Mi Primera con Muñón

My friend climbing the Mi Primera con Muñón – Can Marges de Baix

The first time approaches are always a bit tricky and it wasn’t too smooth a ride this time either. Or any other time, for that matter. Finally we got to the sector Can Marges de Baix, which is the last sector reached from the castle parking lot. We started quite cautiously with routes graded IV+ (250 Ptas.) and V (Mi Primera con Muñón). They were, how would I put it… easy. The second one was, though, a bit more “adventurous” or “alpine” as it wandered around the side of the small face. Then we went to the sector proper as these two were 10-20m off from the main wall. Here I lead a Ay Candemor (V) which wasn’t that difficult, but it was now completely in the shade and the sun was starting already to dip in and my hands were totally freezing on the rock. I literally had to shake them on the wall to get some blood circulating. Finally we climbed Tahona (V+) which was more on the sunny side and wasn’t that ice-cold. It had a cruxy section right at the beginning with an overhanging bulge. Again fun climbing and a nice end for the day. Even though we had heard that at 6pm it would be completely dark, we were caught a bit by surprise with the nightfall, as it wasn’t no later than 5:50pm when we left the crag and started walking. We did however a small detour to have a look at the village and were quite happy to find out that the walk out to the parking lot was no more than 10 mins. Now in complete darkness we took a brief tour around the tiny village and walked the same 10 mins back to the camping site and our bungalow.

Some hippy at Siurana village in the evening

Ilkka Å. Some hippy at Siurana village in the evening

The rest of the evening went by drinking a few beers, having some dinner at the camping site restaurant (I got vegetarian lasagna for 6€ and a spanish omelet for 4€, gulped down with sangria at 8€) and then retiring at the bungalow. A nice first day at Siurana.

Still a good day a head in front of the bungalow

Ilkka Å. Still a good day a head in front of the bungalow

Already lost when parking

Ilkka Å. Already lost when parking, just don’t know it yet. Notice the “lunch bag”.

Our target for the second day was to get early on to the crag and climb throughout the day with some packed lunch. Ok… it didn’t start that well, though, as we got up quite late (9am), had a long breakfast and it was no earlier than 11am when we were finally ready to head off. So, we got ourselves going, but that was not the end of our difficulties. The drive to the crag parking (we has decided to go for another sector which was a bit further away) was a bit obscure and by the time we found some kind of a spot, we weren’t too sure if this was the right one or not. We knew anyway that we would have to get lower down. So we walked on a smaller dirt road until it forked off to a marked walking trail (there are quite a few of them around Siurana) and headed further down. At this point we saw some bolts here and there and thought that this must be about the right place and continued on. Eventually, we ended up following a few local guys to a crag which, after all, was not the one we were looking for. Luckily, though, they had the newer topo guide which has all the sectors in it and what more, they knew where we were. A bit of orienteering and we were finally on our way to our chosen crag, Grau dels Masets – Esquerra. At the time we got there it was already way past noon and we could kiss goodbye for an early start. Also the crag was quite full of local families climbing and most of the easier routes were taken. We had find out the previous evening that Thursday had been a public holiday also here in Spain (December 6th is the Independence Day of Finland and thus a public holiday) and that was the reason why there were so many families on vacation here. Also the following Saturday was going to be a public holiday and they had warned us at the camping site that everything in the town would be closed.

Time to look for the scenery

Ilkka Å. More time to look for the scenery when you’re lost

Yep... still not our crag

Ilkka Å. Yep… still not our crag… too steep.

Finally at the crag we started off with perhaps the worst IV+ (Danielpunk) we had ever climbed, but not much else was available at the time. After that, another, longer 18m, IV+ (Arbres) was free and we climbed that. Then we went on for the adjacent Primera (V+ 30m) which was way better than the last two. Next to us was a nice looking route (Black 6b, 30m), but it was busy all the time. Because of the hassle on the way in, it was already lunch time after these and with the same effort we moved to the next sector called Grau dels Masets – Camí. We ate the baguette and cheese we had taken for lunch and started to look for some more routes. Not too surprisingly, the same bunch of spanyards that had been racketing next to us at the previous sectors, was naturally here too. The most interesting one of them was a person they referred as Taco, who looked like he was smoking pot all the time and doing quite efficiently some magical no-hands belaying – luckily for all – with a Gri-gri. No surprise if there is an accident every now and then. We now focused our eyes on Baronia del Cabacés (6a, 15m), a route which has big pockets and a bulge to pass in the mid section. I again started the lead, but my on-sight was ruined at the bulge when I was too pumped and afraid to clip-in the bolt above the bulge. I dogged it to the top, though, and my friend did a nice flash of it. I also redpointed it afterwards, but overcoming the bulge was as thin as it had been the first time. Managed to do it though. Again the darkness started to creep in and the last climb of the day was El Trinxant (V+, 20m).

Having the lunch was the best moment of the day so far

Having lunch was the best moment of the day so far. Luckily there was still two more, and better, routes to climb with stomach full.

Me climbing Capritxo V+

Me climbing Capritxo V+ at Can Marges de Dalt

On our third day the schedule was the same as earlier. We did not have much for breakfast anymore so we ate what we got and grabbed a spanish omelet to-go from the camping site restaurant. For a 4€ it is a bargain. You get a hefty potato-filled omelet pinned between a half-a-baguette. That should hold the hunger away for a moment. We decided to head back again to the crags we had visited on our first day, but now to to the upper one called Can Marges de Dalt. There are few V/V+ routes and then couple of 6a/6b routes. It was now my friend’s turn to on-sight the routes as I had done it for the past two days. We started off with Capritxo, a nice 22m V+ route with first a slabby section of darker rock and then a steeper section of reddish rock. It was a really nice route actually and my friend did a very nice job on-sighting it as it was a bit tricky in parts. The first part was all rubbly and pocketed rock and the top-most section was steep and bouldery, totally different from bottom past. Here again we were accompanied by a few noisy “family groups” and we eventually climbed toproping just some variations of the same route and then the adjacent 6a climb, Spit de Boira, again toproping. After these we moved down the path towards the parking lot and looked for more climbing from the sectors on the way.

Few others climbing too

Can Marges de Dalt – a few others climbing too. The five year old (honestly) is climbing a 6a there. Perhaps with a little help, though.

I'm king of the mountain

Ilkka Å. I’m the king of the mountain. Really, just taking a look at the rock formations they have there. There is an aid route going directly over that long roof.

For the afternoon, we ended up to a sector called Ca la Isabel, which is about halfway to the parking lot. There wasn’t much for us to climb there, as it was mostly 7a and above, but there was one V+ route and next to that a 6b running very close to each other. So, we chose to climb the Faraday (V+, 15m) and my friend seemed to really struggle on the corner section of if. When I climbed it in my turn, I didn’t find it that hard, but on-sighting is always on-sighting. We decided to change the anchor to the adjacent El Dit del Gegant (6b 15m) and toprope that. The problem was that I had not for some reason taken with me an ATC and only had my Mammut Smart with me. I could not abseil down with that, so the only option was that my friend would second the route up to the ledge and then lower me down before abseiling himself. But I could not belay from the top with my Smart, not in “alpine style” that is, and the anchor was too low to do it regularly. So we had a little problem. My friend then yelled to me that “couldn’t I do some kind of alpine-thingy or something” and that I actually could. It then flashed to me that I could use the Münter-hitch to belay him while seconding. I’ve never had used it for that and that’s why it didn’t occur to me right awat. Luckily I do know how to do it and how to use it; now it saved us a good fifteen minutes of fussing with other options. Smoothly up he came and smoothly we both then got down. You’d never could have thought that a Münter-hitch might come in handy while purely sportclimbing. But it did. After the anchor-related episode we toproped the route. From the bottom going over the roof looked the most trickiest part, but it actually proved to be quite easy, really good jugs to pull on. The trickiest section was the lower smoother part, where you really had to pull on those crimps and trust your feet. My friend “toprope flashed” the route nicely, but I had tremendous trouble with the first couple of moves. At the beginning there was another roof to overcome and the moves from the lip of it to the proper face were quite tough for me. After a few tries when I got the first moves and then the rest went easily. Well… not “easily”, as I really had to push it during the smooth lower section, but I did not want to try it again from the bottom, so I just ground my teeth and pulled on the small stuff I found. My friend was confident that it was “lead material”, but for me it might have needed a few more toprope doggings to trust my moves.

Bigger boys leading

Ilkka Å. Ca la Isabel – Bigger boys leading

The Boys Don't Cry 7c+ is a bit airy at the top

Ilkka Å. Ca la Isabel – The Boys Don’t Cry 7c+ is a bit airy at the top

The third day was not that phenomenal as this 6b remained our last climb of the day and we headed off at the same time as other people that had been on the crag. There were a few “a bit” better climbers doing some nice sends for grades around 7c and it was quite exciting to look at them literally jump over the topmost roofs. Our skills and strength is still a few climbs away from those. Three days done, one day to go.

That dog tried to snatch our lunch sandwiches

Ilkka Å. Ca la Isabel – That dog tried to snatch our lunch sandwiches. Bad dog. Bad, bad, bad.

Belaying sure is fun

Ilkka Å. Ca la Isabel – Belaying sure is fun

As climbing gives you the muscle

Ilkka Å. Ca la Isabel – Climbing gives you the muscle

We had to spend a few moments undecided about where to spend the last day. We also reverse calculated from our flight time that we should be in the car and rolling at 3.30pm if we would want to have any dinner on the way out. We had been throwing options like the crag we had visited on the first or second day (there were still quite a few routes in our range to do there) or if we should go to the sectors near the main parking lot and on the sunny side (which would mean them being warm early on), and one option was even to diss Siurana altogether and to go to Arboli which would be conveniently 30-45 minutes drive away towards the airport. Also we had looked at the first sectors you see when you drive in (L’Herbolari and Siuranella Sud/Est) and also the interesting red rocks below them. We actually took a better look at them on the way out and they looked really, really interesting. They had a lot of large grooves and holes in them and the rock is red througout. It didn’t look like as sharply pocketed as in other sectors, but instead these were round and smooth and some of the bumps were big enough to climb in (!) so I’m not sure they can be called pockets anymore. Somewhere on the interweb I saw a term called hueco, so maybe that’s it then. Eventually we decided not go to any of the above mentioned sectors, but we called in the dark horse instead, sector El Ditot. We had spotted this from a German website topoguide.de which is an independent site whose owners climb routes and give them grades opinions, stars and a whole lot of more. They have a Siurana leaflet which does not work as an independent guidebook, BUT it has grade opinions and ratings for a lot of routes on different sectors. We had browsed it through earlier, but sadly only now we really took a good look at it. Finally we found from the last page the sector El Ditot which had many three star routes at 6a/+ which sounded pretty perfect. The only problem was that we did not know where this sector was as it did not appear in our guidebook. We decided to go to the camping site restaurant for breakfast and take a look at the older Siurana guidebook they had, if it would be there. Well… wasn’t, but lo and behold, in came a Spanish couple who had the new Siurana guidebook with them. We politely asked them if we could borrow it and browsed it though. We were then quite stunned to find out that the El Ditot sector was the exact same one where we ended on our second day by accident. We took some pictures of the guidebook for reference and then it was settled. We then ate the hefty spanish omelet-baguette breakfast and took one more for the go.

At the last morning our car was a bit frosty

The last morning our car was a bit frosty

When you see the Darth Vader, you are at El Ditot

Ilkka Å. When you see the Darth Vader, you are at El Ditot

As we had been at the crag once before, it was quite easy to get there. The only difference was that we now knew how to get to the right, and much closer, parking lot. Approach to the crag was really just a breeze. We were the first ones on the sector as it had been quite freezing in the morning… all the roofs in a frost and the windows in our car were almost frozen solid. No wonder none of the locals were up before us :) Truthfully, we weren’t that early there either and starting the first route at 11am we had just scant four hours to climb. We didn’t want to waste much time and soon my friend was going steadily up his first on-sight of the day, Els Fenicis (6a, 18m), a nice quite sustained route with an interesting top. The second one, Delirium (6a, 25m), had a pretty nice layback-flake start which spoiled my friends on-sight attempt. I managed to flash it, though, but my friend told me that I cheated as I skipped mostly the layback stuff by just stepping up and reaching for the good jug above :) In my defence I have to mention that my friend is taller than I am ;) The route was quite tricky to navigate and you easily could have wandered off the to adjacent route as my friend did by first clipping the bolt on the route we just had climbed, but then unclipped it and re-clipped it to the correct bolt. I did not have such a trouble as I had the quickdraws already on the wall. The rest of the route was not that hard, but there were few demanding moves. The third route, Faktoria (6a+, 25m), looked the trickiest of the bunch. After a few meters there was a nasty looking bulge you had to cross. My friend was again on-sighting it and had to go back-and-forth a couple of times until he managed to pass it. In the end he managed on-sight it very nicely. I, on the other hand, took the only fall of our trip at the bulge. Not long, maybe just a 2m or so, and nicely in air, so no harm done. I managed to pass on the second try, but I decided to just dog it and not start from the ground again. Eventually it was just pulling on good holds and nothing more. The route had quite a few thinner moves on the top section and was thus quite sustained. I managed to do it then without more falls.

Me coming down from the last lead

Ilkka Å. El Ditot – Me coming down from the last lead Faktoria 6a+

Again the clock was ticking against us and we only had time for a quick toproping session.  We had watched a Spanish group had been leading and toproping a route Pitxuti 4 (6b, 25m) which looked quite interesting. The spanyards had a toprope already rigged there and we ask to borrow it and got permission. My friend did it first and then I. Both got it “toprope flashed”, so it probably would have been totally lead material. Shame we did not have the time for it. The route had first a diagonal easier section. Then it started up a slab by some ledges you had to mantel. At first glance and from down below it looked quite blank, but there actually was quite a few holds there. Also the route did not go directly up the slab, but a bit on the edge of it. I think the 6b grade is quite valid, but it certainly was easier than the 6b we did the previous evening. As this last one, all the routes we did on this last day were quite superb. So, it definitely was worth looking and following the topoguide.de recommendations. Too bad we did not find this out sooner so that we could have skipped all the crappy climbs and just do three star routes as today. Well… there is always next time and when that time comes, you can be sure that I will check the topoguide.de recommendations with more focus.

Me climbing the Delirium 6a

Sergio González El Ditot – Me climbing the Delirium 6a

Then the climbs were over and we only had the drive to the airport left. Our plan was to stop at a restaurant in a small town on the way in and have something to eat. When we got there it was fortunately too late and the kitchen was closed. It really looked like a place where you would have gotten your money’s worth of food. They even had a titty calendar on wall :) But no can do. The same thing in a pizza emporter next door. It seemed like 3pm is closing time for everything here on a Sunday. We then tried to go to a Burger King which had been closed when we came. Well… it was open but I’m a vegetarian and they did not have really nothing to serve for me. Ok.. fries and onion rings only, but I passed. Eventually we ended up eating crappy food in a crappy place at a local shopping outlet area. Perhaps we should have just waited until we got to the airport. Again… next time we know better. If you are leaving on Sunday, 3pm is too late get food. The rest of the drive was ok, though, we took a small detour and drove the same toll road all the way to Barcelona and not the seaside highway. For some reason it was cheaper by the tolls despite the longer route. At the airport we had plenty of time and we spent the remaining slack time by drinking the few last beers we had and eating some olives there at the airport benches. Boarding came, boarding went and our Spanish adventure was over.

We landed at Helsinki-Vantaa at around 2:15am early Monday morning and in just 12 hours I would be in the surgeon’s chair having my ankle finally operated. But that’s another story and I have pictures to prove it ;) … Maybe in the next post.

 

So, what does that title have to do with all this, you might ask. A very valid question and I will answer you. Well… on our third day of climbing at Siurana, I began to feel my left arm being quite pumped. But not like you would normally have it, totally wiped out and unable to do nothing with it. Not like that. My arm was sore, yes, but it was sore in quite a distictive place, perhaps five centimeters above my elbow on the inner side of the arm. I squeezed my hand and shaked it and tried to figure out what was going on as the rest of the arm was just fine. The same repeated on the final day… or it actually had not fully recovered from the previous day at all. I had, though, perhaps figured out what or where the problems was. I happened to try out the fingers by pushing them straight while giving some resistance. It did not take many moments for me to find that the exact same spot that was sore, was actually connected to my “middle two” fingers, that is the middle and ring finger. When we then started to think about this around our evening beers, we remembered that in all the videos where you see some top climbers send some tough routes, what are they using there? Yes… pumping up the pockets using their monstrous two-finger grip. If you don’t remember then just look at Iker Pou climb the Action Directe, Nit de Bruixes or Demencia Senil which is nothing else expect pockets. Sorry I couldn’t find any good videos from Siurana. So, there you have it: the pocket muscle.

Pocket muscles in use

Ilkka Å. Pocket muscles in use

If you think about it, it is not just two-finger pockets where you use these muscles. It is also when the pocket is big enough for all of your fingers, but it is actually just the middle two that take most of the strain. Just try it out, find a ring or hole somewhere, pull it and you’ll see. So, why this is of any importance? Probably most people know about it already, but I didn’t. But now I know. And I also know what muscles to train before I go to limestone walls again. The pocket muscles. The sad part is, that neither the usual indoor climbing walls nor the Finnish rock quality does support this. I just recently noticed that my local indoor crag got a new set of holds which have a couple of nice two finger pockets. Ok… there have been some pocket holds earlier too, but not many and I haven’t really paid attention to them before. The problem still remains: how to train the “pocket muscles” indoors with just a few odd pocket holds here and there? If anyone knows a good answer, I’ll take it. So far the best we have come up with is to climb easy routes with huge jugs by using just your middle two fingers. Stupid? Yes, but efficient? Yes… I think ;)

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Touched for the very first time by Chamonix – Part 2

So, our week of climbing continued. So far it had been three days of excellent climbing and there was more to come, though, the weather did look a bit iffy towards the end of the week.

Climbing Day 4

The next day we were picked up in the morning and we drove over (or under) to the Italian side. From there we took a lift to the Helbronner station or to Torino hut, which ever you prefer as they are right next to each other. The all the areas up there and on the way was one big construction yard. This is because they are building a new lift and a new station called Pointe Helbronner and which should be ready at sometime in the future. There will also be a tunnel which will give direct access from the station to the refugio, bit like something they have at Midi station.

But we weren’t there to just check up on the construction progress. Our goal was to do a new classic, a traverse of the Aiguille d’Entrèves. We did it from South-West to North-East and it is rated something between PD and AD-, but if you compare this to the Cosmiques Ridge which is also rated PD by the guidebook, this is definetly much easier. First we had about an hour of walking to the base of the ridge on a rolling glacier. Few crevasses here and there, but the path use well worn and easy to follow. Before heading up to the ridge we packed the crampons away as the ridge was totally bare from snow. For a change Lauri was taking the lead and I had a nice relaxing day of just following the rope. The difference in the mental and physical taxing between leading and following is quite huge. At least for me it was quite a relaxed day out.

Mont Blanc du Tacul from Aiguille d'Entrèves

Mont Blanc du Tacul seen from the Aiguille d’Entrèves. You can see the Midi station and the Cosmiques ridge in the far back.

The is mostly easy scrambling kind stuff, but there was few trickier places. There was one akward chimney you had to downclimb and near the summit there was the crux, a two move slip up a smooth face with a crack. That section had some aid in it, though, if you would need it. The few trickier bits, and the fact that there were quite a few groups on the route, made some queues. We did not mind the waiting as we could spend all that time learning a lot of small tricks on belays and between them. The Aiguille d’Entrèves has a double summit which are separated by a short ridge. After those the ridge descend quite steeply onto a flatter section which you follow all the way to the point where you descend to the glacier again. The last bits of downclimbing were quite tricky, especially with the crampons we had put on already. Following was actually a bit more scarier as you did not have the belay from above anymore. We did manage to get safely back down to the glacier. When there, we headed directly back towards the Helbronner and the lifts back down. On the way quite near the station we met two other Finnish guys who had been thinking of doing some ice routes on the Tacul, but the all of those were in quite bad condition. We wished them luck and took the lift down.

Traffic jam before the crux of the d'Entrèves traverse

Traffic jam before the crux of the d’Entrèves traverse

The mandatory summit shot

The mandatory summit shot. Tour Ronde and Mont Blanc du Tacul in the background and helmet tilted as usual.

We packed ourselves again into the van and drove back to the Chamonix. A dinner, some baguette and cheese and a lot of sleep.

Check the video of the traverse from tvmountain.com though we did not have that much of snow on the route and neither we did arrive there with skis.

Climbing Day 5

For Wednesday the forecast had predicted a bit unstable weather starting from the afternoon. This stormy weather was supposed to last for few days which didn’t sound so nice in climbing wise. The morning though was shady, but ok in mid elevations and we aimed for a route starting from Plan du l’Aiguille. This time either we did not got for the actual Arêre des Papillons, but on a route on its flank. This was named in the same theme as Les Lepidoptères which translates to lepidopterans which is a common word for all butterflies, moths and such. There are two versions of this climb (I’ve heard): a bolted version and then the mostly trad original version. We took the original route which has a maximum grade of 5b, though, most of the route is just 4b/c. The crux section is a short overhang which you kind of swing over, otherwise it is slabby cracks and small ledges.

Aiguille du Peigne and the Arête des Papillons

Aiguille du Peigne and the Arête des Papillons. The Les Lepidoptères goes diagonically up the right edge of the lighter grey face area.

So, we started by getting a téléférique up to the Aiguille du Plan station. From there it was about 45min to 1 hour approach first trough some rocky grass fields and later through bouldery path and up a easy chimney to a higher ledge where the route actually starts. You might want to use a rope for the chimney part. We had taken the big big boots and axes for the descent if there would have been some snow on the way, but it was all bare. We dumped all the excess gear at the bottom of the route and started climbing. The route starts first with crack next to a pillar and continues on a slab and then again on some cracks with odd ledge here and there. The first three pitches follows this same line until it reaches a moves on ten or so meters to the right through some bouldes onto belay ledge. So far I had been focusing on speed, which is essential in alpine climbs, and that meant very few gear placed. I believe the fewest I had was just two pieces on almost a full rope length pitch. Easy ground yes, but still there would have been quite big drops if one would have slipped.

The first pitch of the Les Lepidoptères

The first pitch of the Les Lepidoptères

From there started the crux pitch. First there was a bit trickier crack and then the overhang crux. This far Al, our guide, had been soloing all the way :), but now he tied into the rope. The crux moves we could protect with a piton and a threaded sling. Getting over the overhang wasn’t actually kind of an overhang at all as you basically first inched your feet as high as possible while having them on spread wide on either side. Then you just kind of rolled over the spiky bulge that was there until you reached a good jug and pulled yourself up. From there the rest of the pitch and the final pitch up to the ridge above was quite low angle and easy going. Lauri lead the final pitch and got do his first trad leads of his life.

At the top of the Les Lepidoptères

At the top of the Les Lepidoptères

That was the end of the actual route, but we continued up the two final pitches of the Arêre des Papillons up to the face of the Aiguille du Peigne. The first pitch first a traverse on the side of the ridge and then a bit scary move or two up a quite thin crack back to the ridge. The finger jam I managed to do there was quite painful and it didn’t help that I had very gear placed before the move. Then the ridge was easier again filled with large flakes and spikes. At the end we abseiled down the Papillons gully and the Voie Normale of Peigne, but climbed a again an easy pitch back to the ridge and the top of the Les Lepidoptères. Once there we remembered to take the mandatory summit pictures, though we were not on any summit, and started the abseil back down the route. The weather started to looked worse by every minute and we had not too much time to loose. It took first four abseils to get back to our stashed gear and then another one to the path below. This last abseil saved us the scramble and downclimb of the approach chimney and detour. We didn’t actually have in the end any slack on the walk back as it started to rain more and wind took up the closer we got the lift station. As we got there, the personnel was calling everybody to hurry up as the storm was fast approaching and the lifts might not run much longer. You can’t run them in high winds.

Al and Lauri preparing to do the last abseil

Al and Lauri preparing to do the last abseil

Despite the detoriating weather we got nicely back to the valley. We stayed in the valley for a pizza dinner, shopped some late evening snacks and wine and took the bus back to Les Bossons. On the way back, though, we took the bus just to the Les Bossons village itself and thought of walking from there. The bus that ran next to our lodge didn’t go that often in the evening. Otherwise it would have been just fine, but it was pouring with rain and on top of that we managed to first get ourselves a bit lost and had to back-track our steps and just follow the main road. We were wet and the baguette was wet, but still edible. Shower, clothes drying up and some wine and cheese. It wasn’t so bad after all in the end.

Super-diet pizza in Chamonix style

Super-diet pizza in Chamonix style. This place was by far the best pizza place in the town.

Check the video of Les Lepidoptères from tvmountain.com.

Climbing Day 6

Al had told us that he would send a text in the morning what we’ll after he had got the latest forecast. The start was postponed first until nine and though he did arrive, we still had to skip the morning as it was still raining all over the place as we spoke. He said he would come back an noon and we would then do something. One idea was an ice cave somewhere nearby, but it had to be seen. We took a lift to the center for a morning stroll. We tried to find just a café where they would serve croissants, but we actually ended up eating a second breakfast in true hobbit style. This 6,90e French breakfast included some tea, baguette, croissant, juice, butter and jam. Not sure whether there was also something else, but it was way better deal than just having the croissant and tea for 5,50e. Rest of the morning we spent in various gear shops they had there and even bought a few postcards to be sent back home.

Prussikin on a tree branch

Prussikin on a tree branch. Some of the hardest move we did on the whole trip :)

At noon we were back again waiting with our packs as Al curved into the yard. We would not go to the ice cave as it could be too dangerous in heavy rain, but would go to local crag to do some crevasse rescue simulation. We ended up prussikin in various ways up a rope setup on tree branch and later on doing some rescuing on the actual wall. It was good stuff eventhough we did not get to climb much more than that tree branch. After the late start the training took pretty much the rest of the day and it was time for early dinner in the town and back to the lodge to relax the rest of the evening.

Again in the pizza place, but now for pasta

Again in the pizza place, but now for pasta. For future reference… don’t eat pasta in a pizza place. It is crap. The wine was ok, though, and cheap.

Climbing Day 7

When we looked out of the window in the Friday morning it didn’t look too good. We did have some hopes for a climb still, though, as Al had sent a text message in the morning about an 9am pickup. When he showed up, he said that the weather is as bad as it looks, but surprisingly down the valley on the Italian side it looks just fine. So, we drove again through the Mont Blanc tunnel and continued then about an hour down the valley past Aosta and down to the castle of Bard where we turned to hillside and to a small village or Albarda. Here were some nice multipitch routes tucked in between the chestnut trees. Nearby there are some “bigger” crags, but many of the routes in those are quite hard. Our chose route was called Dr. Jimmy and had 9 bolted pitches of maximum of 5b+ in grade. It would continue for another two pitches with a short crux of 6a, but Al told that it is missing some bolts now and it is not that great climbing anyways and you would need to abseil down those same to pitches to the descend path. The last kilometer or so of driving was on some small and steep roads and if someone goes there for the first time, enough time should be spared for the drive in and also for the approach walk which was also had a quite discreet start.

Al had climbed it earlier had knew way, which was quite helpful for finding it. We devided the leading so that I lead most of the pitches and Lauri did three of the easier ones. The first pitch had a steeper start and then a easy ledge hopping to the belay. Lauri led the next one, which nice and easy slabby and a bit grassy pitch. The third was again mine and it started with an 15m traverse to the left and then some tricky moves up the face and then followed some cracks and holes up to a belay. The pitch was easier near the end, but it still quite a hard work as there was a horrendous rope drag because of the initial traverse. Furthermore, just about 5 meters short of the anchor they yelled from below that the rope is running out. We had the full 50m of rope in the system and still 5 meters to go. Well.. they asked if I’m good for a few minutes and they took of the belay and moved few meters closer. After this shuffling I got to the anchor just fine. We should have had a 60m rope or better yet, we should have done a short traverse pitch first and then start directly up the rest of it.

Team pose at the last belay of the Dr. Jimmy

Team pose at the last belay of the Dr. Jimmy. From left to right: Lauri, Al and Me.

After the rope-issue pitch it was Lauris turn again to lead. It was again mostly easy, but had a quite a few tricky moves in between. That was perhaps the hardest pitch he had ever lead. The next was again for me as it was dubbed as one of the harder ones in the route. Otherwise it was pretty straightforward going except the small roof you had to climb over, or actually hop onto from the side, and the steeper section right after it. Then there was a short walking section and again a harder pitch. This was by grade the crux pitch, though, Al had said that the last pitch was also quite hard despite the easier grade. The hardest part was the couple of first moves as you had to pull yourself onto a ledge up a vertical wall, but there was a good jug to help you out. The rest was cracks and flakes with lot of good holds, altough it was quite steep. At this point the wind started to really pickup and it was quite hard to communicate from the top to the bottom. Again we had a small walk and the Lauri did a short traverse pitch to the acrossa the bottom of the final face. I took again the lead for the last two pitches. The first was good going up a big crack and then a traverse to a big bowl and the anchor. We took the usual summit pictures there and we all three cramped into a pose up there in the middle of the face. Then the final pitch. I lead this one too and Al was not wrong saying it is quite hard. First it was few moves up a crack and some flakes, but then it shifted into a crimpy and steep and I could barely keep off laughing when I saw that monopocket there in the middle of it all. The ever increasing wind did not help in this quiten delicate section and Lauri told me that they had been laughing about my trousers flapping in the wind while I tried to hold my balance during the gusts. We did get to the top, though, and did not waste much time before wrapping thing up and heading back to the car. The sky around us looked like it would start pouring in any monent.

Lauri looking the clouds coming in and Al does not look too happy about the weather either

Lauri looking the clouds coming in and Al does not look too happy about the weather either

Lookin down from the top of the Dr. Jimmy

Lookin down from the top of the Dr. Jimmy. There are some hard routes on that big wall on the right.

Check a video of the Dr. Jimmy from Youtube.

With all the climbs now in our bag, we drove back to the Chamonix and our lodge, though it took a good while longer in this direction as there was the normal Friday evening traffic jam in the tunnel. At the lodge it was time for the celebration beers and in the meanwhile Al gave us some tips what to do next. It was all great though I’m not sure how much I still remember of it all as there was much of possible things he suggested we could try next. We shook hands, farewelled each other off and after a refreshing shower we headed to the nearby restaurant for dinner. We had already decided that we would eat fondue on the last evening and that we did. Big bowl of melted cheese was just what our bodies needed after a week of climbing. Stomach full we retired back to the lodge we had some wine stashed and celebrated all the accomplisments we had done during the week.

Happily munching the fondue

Happily munching the fondue. Om-nom-nom…

The next morning I had a transfer back to Geneve where I took a train to Paris where I would meet my wife, but that is another story. Lauri spent another night in Chamonix before heading home. In the end I can only say that the trip was very succesful and we got to climb loads of stuff, more than we had hoped for. As it was the first time in the Chamonix, the mecca of climbing, it did not at least diminsh the thirst to go there again. I already have, actually, the next climbing trip booked, but not any alpine stuff this time, but just a lot of sport climbing. So, I’ll go with another friend for few into Spain and somewher in the Montserrat, Siurana, Terradets zone, but haven’t decided which one yet. So, there will be some more climbing to be done!

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Touched for the very first time by Chamonix – Part 1

I have lost my virginity. For Chamonix. For the other things… maybe someday :D

I spent the last week of August in Chamonix to do some climbing. We had booked a course from Alpine Guides with my friend Lauri, but had also some time for climbing to do on our own. My trip did not start there, however, as I first visited my friend Markus in Basel. I flew in on Thurday morning and I spent a nice day and a half there with him and his extended family. I also got to experience a real Basel activity: floating on the river Rhine. Basically, you take a special waterproof bag sold (or rented) for that purpose called a “fish”, strip your clothes, stash them into the bag and jump into the water. The river has quite a strong current and you do not need to swim much at all. The area where you can float safely is not very long and when you’re finished you climb off the water. Floating was a very fun thing to do and I would recommend it for anyone going there.

On top of the Basel Minster with Markus

On top of Basel Minster with Markus

Snack lunch at the train

Snack lunch at the train. Mmmm… Swiss cheese :)

On Friday afternoon I took a train to Gevena airport where I met Lauri. We had booked a shuttle bus to take us to our bed & breakfast in Chamonix. We didn’t arrive there until 10 pm when there wasn’t much else for us to do than find a place to eat. A restaurant down the street had just closed the kitchen, but we managed to get some food from a camping site restaurant nearby. Cheesy pasta and a beer was all we needed for that evening. After we got nourished it was soon sleepy-sleepy time, as we would have an early start the next morning to do some climbing.

Lauri enjoying the first cold bite

Lauri enjoying the first cold bite

Climbing day 1

Early morning wake up was followed with a limited, but sufficient breakfast. The breakfast consisted of different kinds of cereal and müsli, juice, milk, tea and coffee, ham and cheese, toast and, the best of all, fresh baguette. It is unreal how good a freshly baked real french baguette can taste. Well nourished we packed our packs with rock gear and headed off to Chamonix center. We stopped quickly at the tourist office to check the weather forecast and it looked all good for the day. Confident about the good weather we took a bus to the Flégère téléphérique.

Over there we bought a multipass for a week as we figured it would be the best option if we would use the lifts even a few times. Then we took the next lift up and continued with a chairlift all the way to Index station. From there it was only a 5 minute walk to the base of our chosen climb: Voie Brunat-Perroux on the Aiguille L’Index. It is a seven pitch climb with grades ranging from 4c to 5b if you do not do the last short 6a variation at the end.

Aiguille L'Index South Face

Aiguille L’Index South Face. The Voie Brunat-Perroux route starts at the very bottom unlike other routes (they start at the ledge in the middle) and goes pretty much straight up the center of the face.

We had to look for the start of the route for a few minutes, but from there it was pretty straightforward. The first two pitches got us to the ledge and from there the route continued a few meters to the side. It was pretty easy to follow still and the difficult bits were quite short. There was just a few trickier moves on the first and third pitches from the ledge. But the last pitch to the ridge was another thing. I climbed here and there and could not really see where the route goes and eventually ended up traversing quite a bit and then having a huge runout until I reached the belay I thought was the correct one. From there it was just a few easy moves and we were at the top. Hooray!

At the top of the Aiguille L'Index

At the top of the Aiguille L’Index

We took the mandatory summit shots and started the traverse on the summit ridge to the abseil point. There were quite a few anchors to choose from and we chose the biggest one. For a while few pondered on which side we should abseil as the route description did not clearly say that. We chose the northern side as it looked a bit more appealing. Once we got happily down and started pulling the ropes down we saw that something was wrong. The ropes were stuck. For a few moments we tried to tug and pull them in different directions, but with no luck. Eventually I ended up half climbing, half prussiking all the way back to the anchor and moved the knots nearer to the cliff edge. I abseiled down again and just then realized how futile my efforts had been as the ropes did not budge at all. There was just too much friction on the ropes. Luckily there was a guide with a client who reached the top after us and they released our ropes. We had used the wrong anchor to abseil on that side. What an embarassing moment, but we were sure we weren’t the first ones to make the mistake. When we finally had our ropes with us, we headed quickly back down to the lifts and down to the valley. If nothing else, at least I got one of the most scariest experience I’ve ever had when I was hanging 30 meters in the air held by just two tiny cords :) I tried, I learned and do not want do that again if I can avoid it.

Dinner with local food

A real local food: wine, potatoes, mushrooms, and loads of cheese topped with an egg. Yummy, yummy.

Because of these little incidents we had, the trip took a little longer than expected and we just quickly had pints of celebration beers for the succesful ascent and headed back to the B&B. A quick dinner at the nearby restaurant and off to sleep.

Climbing day 2

For Sunday we had big plans. We woke up early and had a brief breakfast before hitting the bus to the city center. We then walk to the Aiguille di Midi lift, where there were some 20-30 people queing in. We got the second lift up and quite soon we were gearing up at almost at 3800m high. As soon as we were ready we headed off from the “alpinist exit” and on to the narrow snowy ridge that leads to the Vallee Blance. Our goal for the day was a super classic Arête des Cosmiques that starts from the northern edge of the valley and continues all the way to the Aiguille du Midi lift station. The approach along the ridge was a bit scary, but the rest of it was just walking on the glacier.

On the Cosmiques Ridge

One hour into the Cosmiques Ridge. Vallee Blanche down there with a few tiny tents, Aiguille du Dru is the pointy thing at the left, Italy on the background and Aiguille d’Entrèves on the far right. We did a traverse there later during the week.

On the ridge towards Mont Blanc

And the other side. Mont Blanc du Tacul with the clouds, Mont Maudit just behind my helmet and Mont Blanc is the snow top in the far distance. One hour in on the ridge and three and a half to go :)

With no delay at the bottom of the route, we started up at the same speed. The first part of the route was relatively easy with a few more physical moves here and there. After a bit more than an hour we reached the abseil points. So far we had basically only seen one guide with a client who passed us and some other people further up the route. So, we were basically all on ourselfs there. We absailed down the fifty odd meters there was. Right around the corner we encountered one more difficult spot, a chimney where you were supposed to step over the corner to the right. It was not difficult, but having that 400m of air beneath you, it does make things a bit more interesting. After that there was a slippery couloir up, then some rocky downclimbing and finally we walked the snowy section to the crux. We had to wait a bit for the previous party to clear the spot, and were delayed a bit more as Lauri managed to drop one of his gloves into between the rocks. It took a good ten minutes and some hooking with the ice axe (the only spot we really used those) to get the glove back. Finally he managed to grab it and I was able to continue to the crux. I started up the crack and used pretty much everything there was, the newly chopped crampon pockets too. I was feeling pretty tired here, but managed to pull it through. The elevation must have taken some toll as we had come up almost three kilometers from the valley.

After the crux belay, we had thought it would be just an easy walk up to the top, but we were a bit surprised to find quite a few tricky spots still. Being tired and on the most exposed section of the route the going was slow and we used a lot more ad hoc belays from rock spikes. At the very end there were a couple of quite physical moves and then we were at the top of the ridge. An easy walk to the viewing platform and we were done. At the viewing platform there were dozens of tourists taking pictures of the views and also of us. We took a few summit shots and then had the mandatory top beer before we took the lift back down.

Back again at the Midi station

Back at the Midi station. Tired, but happy. The last bits of the ridge can be seen below and most of the Tres Monts (Tacul, Maudit, Blanc) route at the back.

Cosmique ridge from the Midi viewing platform

Cosmique ridge from the Midi viewing platform. The large rock block in the is the Grande Gendarme which has one of the highest 8a climbs on it. The route goes around that from behind, comes to the ridge just to dip down again behind the ridge to the crux. After the crux the route comes to this side of the ridge on that small ledge down the steep edge and follows some ledges and chimneys to the top of the ridge. The Midi station and its viewing platform is just outside the picture to the left.

You can see about the whole route being climbed in these Youtube videos. A total of nine of them.

When we got back down to the valley we were tired, hungry and burned in the sun as neither of us hadn’t remembered to apply sunscreen for the day. We had asked for a dinner in the lodge so we headed straight back to the B&B. In the evening we also met our guide, Al Powell, who told us about the week’s program.

 Climbing day 3

Monday was our first day with a guide. Our plan was to climb Chapelle de la Glière, a longer climb on the Aiguille Rouge near the L’Index we had climbed earlier. Wake up was about the same time as previous days and after breakfast at 8am Al came to pick us up for the day’s work. We drove to the Index lifts and headed straight up. From the top it was about a half an hour walk to the base of the climb. We saw a couple of groups on the route, some on the right track and some wandering a bit off the route.

Chappelle de la Glière ridge

Chappelle de la Glière ridge. The route goes up to the ridge on that one shadowy corner and then basically follows it all the way to the church-like rock formation higher up.

The first pitch of the route was surprisingly difficult. It was graded 5a, but was quite a physical half-layback corner with pretty polished rock. I would not have been too comfortable with leading that, and luckily I didn’t have to :) The second pitch was a bit easier, on the same corner up to the ridge above. On the ridge there was an easy section, though sparsely protected, to a belay. Next was a tricky corner again in two shortish pitches on to a ridge. We simul-walked the easy ridge and then climbed again an easy short pitch to a belay. Next was the apparently famous razor-edge, though I did not see why the fuzz about it. It was more complicated to do those couple of tricky moves first up the smooth slabby crack and then onto the razor-ridge itself.

The slabby cracks just under the razor edge

The slabby cracks just under the razor edge and Al climbing

Then it was one easy pitch to a large terrace and then more walking or scrambling to the bottom of the chapel itself. The pitch over the chappel started with a few airy moves, but there were good holds if you looked around a bit. A couple of moves more and a traverse on the roof of the chappel to the bottom of the bell tower or Clocher. There are two ways to the top and we chose the easier one. This, too had a few balancy moves until a peg and then crimpy stuff to the edge and over. The more difficult one would have taken a more direct line apparently with some thin moves. Now we were on the top of the Chappelle and we took some summit pictures and abseiled off to the back side on to a good picnic spot.

Al leading the pitch to the top of the chappel

Al leading the pitch to the top of the chappel. Good holds and just an odd more or two, but very, very airy.

On top of the chappel bell tower

On top of the chappel bell tower

A few groups had had a snack break here, but we just shuffled our gear up and darted towards the lifts. The path was a relatively easy one to follow, but there were a few bits of down scrambling here and there. Mostly, it was walking ground, though, and us being roped up was a bit unnecessary until the path went down into the Col D’Index, the same loose gully we had descended earlier. We downclimbed into the gully and continued directly to the lifts and back to the valley. Our first guided day was now at its end. After a late pizza lunch we headed back to our B&B to get ready for the next day’s adventures.

Check out the video of the Chappelle de la Glière climb from tvmoutain.com.

Desperados - a tequila flavored beer

Desperados – a tequila flavored beer. We drank these while waiting for a bus after the Chappelle. Tasted horrible. Don’t drink it.

This was the first part of our week. I’ll try to wrap up the rest, too, shortly in “Part 2″ with more climbs to come.

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A week in the alps

Next week I’m going to head over to Chamonix for a technical alpine mountaineering course by Alpine Guides. My friend Lauri will join me there as he could not go with some other friends at mid-summer. We climbed together at Kebnekaise two years ago and last year at Grossglockner. Both times on different ropes, though.

The course will focus on technical routes, i.e. more on the rock and ice than on the snow. The course will run from Monday to Friday with a short briefing session on the preceding Sunday. I’ll actually head over there already on Thursday morning, but to Switzerland and to the city of Basel where one of my friends from the last fall’s Nepal expedition lives. I’ll first spend a night there and late on Friday afternoon travel to Geneva airport and where I will meet Lauri. We’ll then take a shuttle bus to Chamonix and our bed and breakfast Ice & Orange.

We will then have almost two full days to do some climbing by ourselves. For our Saturday activity I’ve been looking at a route called Voie Burat-Perroux which tops out at Aiguille L’Index in the Aiguilles Rouges range. It is an eight pitch multi-climb (seven pitches in practice) bolted route on the east face. It should not be too difficult at a maximum grade of F5b and by combining some routes you can alter the crux to be from F5a  to F6a, so you have a nice range there to choose from.

Voie Brunat-Perroux topo

Hervé Thivierge Voie Brunat-Perroux topo in blue. The normal route is in red.

For Sunday we have a planned to do the Arête des Cosmiques which is more of an alpine climb. It starts at the Abri Simond hut and ends at the Aguille du Midi cable car station, which means it is a bit higher in the elevation. The route is also a bit more easier on the technical grade, which is understandable as you will be climbing it with boots instead of climbing shoes due to the snow sections and the glacier approach. The alpine grade for the climb is a bit disputed as it has been given a grade from PD to AD depending on the source.

The course schedule is composed so that on the first day we will do a multi-pitch climb also in the Aiguilles Rouges focusing on ropework, moving together and such. On the second day we’ll do a long alpine route like Papillons Arete or Mirroir D’Argentine. The latter, though, is in my opinion more like a classic multi-pitch rock climb rather than an alpine climb. The next three days will be spent doing climbs around the Mt Blanc range and the next two nights will be slept in the mountain huts. Possible climbs could be Aiguille D’Entrèves, Chèré Couloir or Dent du Géant. There are loads of options and most probably the decision is done right before the climb according to the weather and snow conditions. We’ll see where we will end up.

On Friday evening we’ll have an end briefing and the next day I will travel onward instead of heading home. I’ll catch a train to Paris where my wife will be waiting for me at her business history conference. We’ll then have a nice couple of days in the Paris to even out the strain from the week of climbing.

That’s my plan for the near future. After that, I don’t know yet. I have now been to a consultation of an ankle surgeon who said that we should do a local anesthesia on my injured ankle and then strain it. That should tell if that is the actual spot that causes the pain or not. Then, depending on the results of that test, it is likely that I’m up for a minor surgery where he will smoothen some rough spots on my broken cartilage and bone. That would then mean at least a few weeks of no training or much else activities either. Shame, but it is more important to get the ankle fixed for good. Though, it could well be that it won’t ever come as good as it used to be as the cartilage does not heal by itself. I’l just have to wait and see how things go.

MRI of my ankle

MRI of my ankle. The cartilage should be smooth and not have those bumps.

MRI of my ankle

Another MRI of my ankle. The cartilage should be smooth and the white area below that is swollen bone contution.

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Few climbs in South Africa

Too long it has again been from the last post. Too long it has also been from our South Africa trip to get something written. Our trips focus was not on climbing, but we still managed visit few places for that too. The experiences were quite mixed, but mostly fun.

Blyde river canyon

Our first stop after the ten days at Kruger National Park was at Blyde River Canyon. We stayed at the similarily named camping site, which might be a bit of an understatement as they did have dozens of quite luxurious looking huts or apartments also. The views from the establishment were one of the best you can find in the whole canyon. Even the views to the Three Rondawels were much better from the campsites view point than from the “official” Three Rondawels viewpoint.

Enough about the boring views :) The climbing around here is all actually situated within the complex and is completely trad climbing. Before hand search from the topo had revealed that there should be couple of single pitch climbs and few multipitch climbs within our skill and focus range. In total there are currently 11 different crags to choose from. If you comfortably climb 6a-6b trad routes, you should have plenty of climbing available in any of the crags. For us that was not the case and there were basically just two crags that had easy enough routes in all of their pitches.

Blyde River Canyon from the top view point

Blyde River Canyon from the top view point. Three Rondawaels are the three cone topped hills at the back. The first crag we tried to reach is the the huge red cliff on the bottom right. Not sure though whether it was the top or bottom one…

On the day we arrived there we took decided to take a little walk to one of the crags and see how it looks like. If it looked good, we could go back and fetch the gear. Sounded quite simple like that, but proved to be something totally different in the end. The instructions said that we should take one of the few walking trails within the complex from the lower lookout point and follow it for some time. That was simple enough at first, especially with the map provided by the resort, though the trail markings were quite worn off. The first hurdle we encountered was the small stream we were supposed to be crossing soon after the start. We found the stream, but it took some walking back and forth to really believe that the initial place was to place to cross the river. Never would had guessed that you were supposed to cross the stream by ankle deep in the cold water on a walking trail in such a place. But we did cross the steam and the trail did continue on the other side. From here we were supposed to walk until the trail starts to head down and some while after that there should be and old trail leading to the crag. We did walk down the path and tried hard to find the path with no luck. In one place there was something path like there, but after some climbing through thorny bushes and branches we kind of figured out that this was not it. We tried to look for the path a little more down, but with no results. Nor did we see anything  on the way back and we returned to the car empty handed. It is a shame that the nice looking cliff you could see from the lookout point was just within out reach, but still somewhere in unknown. That scrambling was enough for us for that day and we went to do some braai.

Blyde River Canyon and braai

Blyde River Canyon and braai. Try the butternut if can get hold of it.

The next morning we went to take look at another crag, near the upper lookout point. This time the walk over to the base of the crag was quite straightforward. Only after 10-15 minutes of walking on a good path we found ourselves at the bottom of the crag. Here, though, we encountered another kind of problems. As we looked at the wall and then the topo and then again the wall and few times more at the topo, we kind of figured out where the route could start… perhaps. We considered the wall for sometime, but it was quite clear that it would not be a wise thing to start a 5 pitch climb with quite scetchy idea were the route goes. I’m sure we would have just gotten ourselves off route into something out of our abilities. So, we decided to leave to wall for someone else with better knowledge and skills and headed off to see the sights along the Blyde River Canyon.

There is a PDF topo available for Blydepoort

Sabie Gorge

Big Swing

Big Swing. We jumped from the platform across the gorge.

After Blyde River we spent the night at Graskop, a short drive away. First thing in the next morning we did not do climbing, but we did a swing jump called Big Swing in  gorge within the town. If we still had any dust in our eyes, they were all sprinkled off after that. The swing consists of a 68m free fall and after that the ropes will start to catch and you will swing across the gorge back and forth. We did a tandem jump and it sure was worth the big bucks they charge for it.

We did not get our adrenaline dose for the day yet though. After the jump we drove to a town called Sabie. Actually we stopped just outside the town at the bridge across the similarily named river. I’ve read that there should be climbing in all the grades on the walls of the gorge. We parked at the parking area next to the bridge and went to have a look at the crags. The routes were pretty easy to find as there was basically just one path that went down to the river downstream. We spotted some of the routes that could be in our grade range and also met two guys who were just finishing their climbing. We exchanged a few words and headed back to the car to fetch our gear.

Gearing up at Sabie Gorge

Everything was looking great as I was gearing up for the first climb

Soon we were all geared up at the bottom of the first route we were supposed to climb in South Africa. It was graded 12 in South African scale (about 4a in French scale). It sounded easy enough for the first route. How wrong I could be. As I started up the route, I began to feel that this is a bit tricky for a route of that grade. I plunged on, but at the second bolt I took a rest and tried to figure out where the hell the route goes. I couldn’t understand that this should be something with that low grade. It didn’t take long for me to make the decision to bail out as I could still down climb a little bit on the side. That was not something I had figured out how the climbing here would be.

I was not totally turned back by hardness of the grades, though, and I soon started up another route opposite to this one. This was graded 14 (about 4c/5a) and seemed to have some nice jugs to pull, but on the same it was a bit overhanging. Also the topo said that it is steeper than it looks. Well… it certainly was. I would not call that a easy 5a for any rate. In the end I managed to do all the moves and get to the top, altough I had to hang on the rope near the top to figure out how the last few moves would go. At the top I tied the rope to a tree and around a rock and absailed down. I had had enough climbing here with just the two routes tried. We packed all the things up and headed back to the car.

Abseiling down at Sabie Gorge

Me abseiling down the second route I tried and collecting the quickdraws off the wall

So, no onsights or even redpoints under my belt after the first real climbing session. I was not very sorry for it, but a bit scared if this is the level of climbing they have in here. I don’t know if it was the different type of rock or what, but that level of climbs I should be able to climb any day. All I could do was to wonder how the rest of the climbing would turn out as we drove towards the Swaziland border and our next destination.

The decision to leave the climbing to only two routes was on time schedule wise a very good move, as when we put our next destination to the navigator, the route was much, much longer than we had thought. It would  be well after dark when we would arrive there and that did not include yet the border procedures at the SA-Swazi border. On top of that we had to do a slight detour too on the route, as at some point we came to realize that we are missing the paper that shows that we have a permit to take the car into swaziland. A quick call to the Avis number told that we would definetily need the paper and we could get it from any Avis location. Luckily we had just passed the exit ramp to a nearby airport and they had Avis office there. Then about one hour later we were again on the same spot, but this time with all the needed documents in hand. So, if you ever do cross the borders in South Africa, do check that you have the permit. We thought that the permit would be amongst the other paper we received, but it was not, altough I had many times said that we would need it. Well… things happen and this time we had luck and we eventually reached the next place, though, much later than we had planned.

Permit to cross border with a rental car

Permit to cross border with a rental car. Make sure you have this with you when you leave the rental office if you are planning to go border crossing.

There is a wiki topo for Sabie Gorge available.

Swaziland

We did not actually do any climbing in Swaziland, although there should be some climbing to do there. Instead we had other activities planned there. We had beforehand booked us a treetop canopy trail in the morning and a caving tour in the evening. These are not exactly climbing, but we had never tried neither of them and they have quite a few related aspects in them.

After some misunderstandings in our reservation and the time, we did get things rolling after an extra breakfast at the canopy tour venue inside the Malolotja Nature Reserve. The time issue might have something to do that we were the only clients there and perhaps the guides did not wish to wake up that early :) I have to admit that, I was a bit dissappointed in this, though, it certainly will provide a lot of exitement for some others. Sliding on the wire across the canyon did not just have the same kick as the 68m free fall did the previous day. Still, we did enjoy the rides. The whole tour including the short jeep ride and walk ins and outs took about two hours or a bit more. Our guide was obviously keen to do this job and provided us a lot of information about the vegetation and surroundings, though the speeches did sound a bit rehearsed. There was also another “helper guide” who took some pictures of us as slided on the wires. At first we were told that we could not hold the camera ourselves during the slides, but I did take some video footage during a couple of slides nonetheless. Apparently the guide saw that this weren’t that demanding for us, as by the book you should hold the slings you hang on with your one hand and be ready to break down the speed with your other hand on the wire.

Swinging the canopy tour slide

Swinging the canopy tour slide

Overall it was fun to do those slides, but after couple of them it got a little bit of repetitive. If you haven’t done anything similar ever like climbing or other height sports, you will certainly find the experience thrilling, but for others it perhaps is not worth it. There are quite a few of these canopy trails across South Africa and then this one in Swaziland to choose from if you are interested to give it a go.

The evening program, the caving, did not neither start as scheduled, as we had asked for a pickup and they had a little scheduling problems with another event they were running the same day. We thought the the pickup would be great as there should be some food and drinks afterwards and driving after a beer or two is always discouraged.

Chimneying down at underground

Chimneying down at underground

Eventually our pickup arrived and we got our gear (nice white jumpsuits and helmets with lamps) and shuffled on to the cave parking. From the parking space (on some of their friends property I believe, as we went through locked gates to get there) it was a 45 minute walk uphill to the entrance of the cave. Totally we were about two hours underground. The cave is not developed at all, so there were no signs or markings anywhere. The caving itself was quite a bit more challenging than I had thought, as we had to really crawl and squeeze ourselves through narrow gapes and climb up or down slippery chimneys or boulders. In the end it was fun allright, but on the same it was quite clear that this was not our cup of tea. It didn’t make it any more attractive that we had to stop and pose for a picture every few meters. It was fun for the first few times, but it soon became mostly just annoying. If nothing else we got quite a few pictures of us in white overalls. After the caving we went to a local cuddling place called quite intuitively Cuddle Puddle. It was an outside swimming pool which was sourced with hot water from the near by springs. That I have to admit was fun… float in a hot water and eat pizza and drink beer at the same time :D

My wife squeezing through a tight place

My wife squeezing through a tight place

The overalls after the caving

The overalls after the caving

So, if you are at the area and have any interest in caving or want to try it out, by all means try it. Be warned though that it is not a walk in park I thought it might be, but you do require some amount of strength, agility and adventurous mind to manage it.

 oNgoye Forest Reserve

It took a few days after the canopy tour and caving for us to do any climbing related things, though we did some scuba diving at Sodwana Bay in between. When I had searched for the possible climbing venues on our route, I came across with a little gem called oNgoye Forest Reserve. The place is basically a park where ornitologist go to see birds. I don’t know if there is much anything interesting for anyone else… except for climbers, of course :)

First a little warning if anyone is ever going there, that do take a four wheel drive car with you as it will definitely save a lot of stress on the way. The last about 3km is on a very rough (and when I say very rough, I mean VERY rough) road or on concrete strips they have installed there. The concrete strips are nice to drive on, but in places without 4×4 car you would not have wanted to drive off the strips as you might not be able to get back on. We managed to get there with a normal Volkswagen Polo, but I think the drive there was much, much more scary and mind shattering than any climbing there would be. Do your pick, but be warned.

We spent one night there and did some climbing in the evening and in the morning. There is a rangers office close to the crags and we camped there. They only charged us 10R (1€) each per day for that. The ranger who was posted there when we arrived did not speak any English, but only Zulu. With some sign language we managed to say that we would like camp there and our message seemed to hit the mark there. Later that evening there came another ranger, too, there and we were also told that we could use the water from a nearby tank and use the toilet in a structure behind the ranger office. We had prepared our selves with plenty of water, but the toilet was a welcoming surprise.

oNgoye slabs from the below

oNgoye slabs from the below

In the evening we scouted the crags and did some climbing on “oNgoye slabs”. They are more than fifty meter high, but actual climbing is on the highest 30 meters or so. It took some time to figure out where the routes are, but in the end we managed to do two sport climbs there. The rock there had quite a few interesting feature in it with few big holes or horns here and there. In places it was quite featureless, but still with some good holds scattered around. During the last climb we could enjoy ourselves with the gospel music that was played down in the valley at the local church. The place in itself was already quite amazing sight, but with the sun setting behind us and the gospel playing in the background, it made the whole scene surreal with serenity. That had to be one of the best and most memorable climbing session I ever had had. We even ended the day with a pancake party at our camp, so what more can you really demand from life?

Looking very professional on top of the oNgoye Slabs

Looking very professional on top of the oNgoye Slabs. You can even see the ocean from here.

The next day before breakfast we headed for a big  rock called Baboon Boulder that had few routes on it. You could actually see the rock from the camp perimeters if you looked. It was a nice session there and my wife did her first ever lead climb outside which was great. After the climbs we had a break for breakfast and headed then for the third crag in the area, Barbet Boulder. This crag had the most routes on it, although half of it did not have the bolts, but only top anchors I’m understood. I did three climbs there, one going up a huge slabby flake onto a huge bowl, one with some bushy moves after some tricky moves and one with with big bowl shaped holes on the route. The routes here were much more trickier than the ones on the other crags. The rock and the quite smooth featureless surface reminded of me about some our Finnish crags with next-to-non-existant holds. Again the overall features of the rock were quite amazing. Never before I have climbed into a huge 3-4m wide crater like bowl.

Barbet boulder and I'm inside a huge stone bowl

Barbet boulder and I’m inside a huge stone bowl. The move to get there were quite tricky.

The place is quite tucked away, if I might say, but it is a very amazing place and should be visited for just the sake of itself if not for climbing. There is enough fun climbing for a weekend or two, though the grades might seem a bit low. Don’t be fooled by this as the routes are trickier than you would imagine. The routes we climbed were in scale from sub 4 to mindblowing 5a, but that felt more like 6a to me in parts. In anyway the climbing was fun relaxed and very enjoyable and I would definately go back there again if I would be around there, but with a four-wheel drive car this time :)

The scenery from the top of the Barbet Boulder

The scenery from the top of the Barbet Boulder. Can you really find a more aestetic crag anywhere?

There is a wiki page for oNgoye forest climbing at Climb ZA.

Kloof

Right after oNgoye we drove to another climbing venue, Kloof Gorge. Kloof Gorge is a large canyon just north of Durban. We purposefully skipped the Durban itself for other more interesting things. Our guesthouse was situated right at the bank of the gorge and you could look right into it from the yard. We arrived there just at the twilight, though, and had to wait until the next morning to really see the scenery.

There are plenty of crags to climb on, but most of them start from 6a-6b range. We had planned to go on a trad climbing cliff called Boothill. With that on our minds we drove to the parking area for that crags after the breakfast and started the walk in. It was supposed to be just a few minutes to the crag, but after about 10-15 minutes we decided that there must be something wrong. Also the trail was steadily heading away from the cliff more and more. We turned back and this time aimed to the top of the cliff. We soon found it and figured out that the few minutes approach must be to the top of the cliff only. There was supposed to be a trail to the bottom too, but we did not see it perhaps. Now we faced the fact that if we would like to climb here, we would need to abseil down with a natural anchor as there was no bolts or anything like that.What would make the thing more difficult was that we did not know exactly which part of the crag we were. After a couple of minutes of pondering, we decided to head instead to a sports crag nearby.

Approach to Rumdoodle

Approach to Rumdoodle was a bit more scrambly than average.

Soon we were again approaching a crag, this one called Rumdoodle. This time it should take about 20 minutes to the crag on a good path. That timing was spot on, but we again found ourselves stranded on top of the cliff. There was supposed to be a path on both sides of the crag, but again we failed to find neither of them. We were already checking on that which of the top anchors would be the best to abseil down, when out of nowhere came a park ranger who asked if we were looking a way down. We certainly were and he was nice enough to show us the correct spot where the route down would go. I don’t believe that we would have ever found the spot neither from the top or from the bottom by ourselves. The “path” was more kind of a scramle with few almost climbing moves involved and it was quite nicely hidden and tucked away behind some bushes. Anyway we got the the bottom and in no time were under the first routes we would climb.

Rumdoodle canyon

Rumdoodle canyon

We only did two routes there and both of them were in a less than two meter wide canyon that separated the tip of the gorge escarpment. Our routes were on the slabby “island” side as the other side was a bit too challenging and a bit too overhanging for us. The climbing was more “juggy” than in oNgoye and the grades I think were more spot on than in Sabie Gorge. Both of the routes were nice, pleasant and relaxed climbing. As one of my friend would say, holiday climbing. It was easy, but fun. We could have tried a couple of more routes there, but we decided to call it a day and instead head for the Drakensberg mountain range so that we wouldn’t have to drive in the dark again.

There is a wiki topo page at @ KZN Mountain Club pages.

Drakensberg

Cathedral Peak range in the clouds

Cathedral Peak range in the clouds. This is one of the better visibility moments on the ascend.

Our original plan was to climb to the peaks of Cathedral Peak and Sentinel Peak, but former one was ruined by a bad weather and the latter one of my injured ankle giving some trouble while coming down from the former. The route to Cathedral Peak is not, as one could say, technical, but it would have had a 1600m elevation gain from the car park. We managed to get to the bottom of the actual Cathedral Peak, but the fog that had been lingering around the whole morning prevented us to go any further. We did not know the exact route and trying to find it in that weather would have been just plain stupid. The last 200-300m climb would have been a scramble and no ropes should be needed. The scenery from our high point was quite amazing, though, in the moments the clouds did give some break and we were still happy with the trek. On the way back the weather did naturally get better and we were quite amazed for how ofter you could see peak enroute as on the way up we literally could see about 50m maximum in any direction. The descent on the wobbly surface also took some toll on my ankle, as it was very sore on the way down and during the evening and even in the next morning. This made us to do some alterations in our trekking plans, but we eventually did almost all the hikes we had planned, though it looked kind of bad in some point.

Chain ladders at the Sentinel Peak

Chain ladders at the Sentinel Peak

Sentinel Peak from the car park

Sentinel Peak from the car park. That sheer face is the north face.

The sore leg of mine did also quickly dissipate the thoughts of climbing the Sentinel Peak too. The “normal route” up there is mostly a scamble, but it did have a short climbing of one pitch in the beginning. We didn’t want to push it and decided to skip it. Instead we did visit the highest point in the area, Mont-Aux-Sources 3282m, at the border of Lesotho. Despite the initial goal were not met, the Drakensberg range is truly an amazing sight, especially the Royal Natal National Park area. You should definately go there if you have the change. There are also a lot of climbing to be done, but the rock quality of the mountain range is quite poor and the climbing then a bit iffy with poor protection everywhere. There is only one bolted route on the whole range which is a route up the sheer North face of the Sentinel Peak. If you are adventurous enough, though, there should be enough routes climb for one’s hearts content.

Eagle Mountain (Mt. Everest)

Before our return to the city, Johannesburg that is, we stopped at Eagle Mountain on the way from Drakensberg. Eagle Mountain (also know with a name Mount Everest) is a three rocky hills on a private game reserve right outside the town of Harrismith. You could spend a day there or even a week or two for just to climb as there are a lot of routes on both the cliff faces and on boulders scattered around the area and if that is not enough there is plenty of room for new routes. At the reserve you can either camp or stay in the huts. We don’t know how much that would cost, but our day visit was 60R (6€) per person, though the guide book was talking something much less than that. I guess the inflation runs here quite steep too.

The three main hills at the area are called Eagle Mountain, Mount Everest and Mooihoek. In addition to those there are at least a dozen boulders which have bolted routes of all grades. We had bought a guidebook (120R) from Bush & Bundu in Pietermaritzburg and from there we had chosen a long single pitch trad route with a grade 12 (around 4a) at Mount Everest. We parked the car to a most closest and most convenient place we saw, gathered our gear and started off towards the route. At the parking place we could not yet really see or figure out the exact location of the route, but we chose to follow the rock and check from the guide where we were heading. It didn’t take long to notice that the vegetation is quite impassable in places and we had to make quite a few detours and turn-arounds on the way. It didn’t make the walk any easier that the lower slopes of the hill were surprisingly steep, much steeper than they looked. Eventually after wandering around a good while through the thorny bushes and scrambling around small cliffs, we arrived at the bottom of the route. It looked like quite pleasant one with huge jugs and a lot of features, almost like limestone cliffs. We then started to sort out the gear and just as we had almost everything in place I noticed one crucial thing missing. The nuttool. I had left it at the car trunk. I tried to figure that if we would need it, but I couldn’t really be sure if my wife or even I could get all the gear off the wall if they would happen get stuck too much. I had quite a few cams with me which I knew we would get out, but the stoppers or nuts I weren’t that sure. After a few minutes I came into conclusion that we’ll head back down to the nearby boulders to do some sport routes again. The little hangover from yesterday evenings beer did help a little also to make that decision. So, it looked like that we had carried all the trad gear for no reason through the whole trip. I weren’t dissappointed though as I was sure I would get plenty of use for those back in Finland.

My wife on top of her first onsight

My wife on top of her first onsight

So we went to down to a boulder called Bonni Boulder where we climbed few easy routes. My wife did the first on-sight on really easy route in her own words. I also soloed a route next to it with similar grade. It was a bit scary eventhough it was quite easy is it was about 10m high and on the beginning there was an ant colony living inside one whole in the rock! Just the few route under the hot scorching sun was enough for this time and called a day and had some lunch.

Coming down after my solo climb

Coming down from my solo climb was more trickier than the actual climb.

This weren’t yet the end of our trip (we still had a few more days left), but it was the end of the adrenalin filled action. If I would have to some howe gather the feelings of our climbing in South Africa, I would say it was fun and relaxed. It might have something to do with the grades we climbed, but in the end I think thats what I will like to do on a holiday. It would be a different thing to go on a climbing holiday, but for this trip it was just perfect. If I would give any advice for people going in these areas for climbing I could say that really take some for the approaches. This probably is valid for any location anywhere when you are going to a new crag, but here sometimes we couldn’t even find the cliff though we tried. So take some time. Also the grades seemed to be quite inconsistent, at least on the lower end of the scale. This too might relate to any place anywhere, but just some causion could be use when choosing a route. As always.

You can find some route descriptions from the KZN MCSA site.

For the rest of the summer so far, I have been climbing outside only few times as my time schedule has been hindered with all kinds of other activities and illness. And about the rest of the summer, I will be doing more climbing and at the end of the August I will be going to Chamonix for a mountaineering course. This will be focusing on more technical stuff, which I think might help me get climbing routes above AD in future. I’ll try to put a separate post about later on, I hope.

Then another issue. That my injured ankle. As you might have read on the Drakensberg section that it is still causing some trouble even after 10 months from the accident. In June I had an MRI scans taken from it and got the results back. It turned out that there is some tendon rupture there and also some cartilage damage. I’m not sure how it will be eventually be healed, but good changes are that I’m up for some minor surgery later on. I have scheduled appointment on a specialist on ankle injuries and a surgeon in two weeks and then will know more about it. That I’ve told that it won’t get any worse now and I can use it within the limits of my own feelings.

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A month in South Africa coming up

At the end of the month I’m leaving for a month’s vacation in South Africa with my wife. We are going there mainly for animals and nature, but we have included some scuba diving, trekking and even some occasional climbing in between.

In a month it is impossible to travel around the whole country. It is just so huge. That’s why we will just cover the eastern side of South Africa, the area between Lesotho and Mozambique. Our itinerary will include some animal-watching in Kruger National Park followed by some adventuring with canopy tours and caving before we head to the shores of the Indian Ocean to do some scuba diving. From there we will go to the Drakensberg for some trekking. By then, the month will be almost over and we’ll head back to Johannesburg for a few days before our return back to home. That’s all we really have time in a month. Of course you could really do a whole lot more if you really wanted, but on this trip we decided to focus on fewer things but experience them better.

I have done quite a bit of research to find suitable climbing venues on our route and I think I have figured out a pretty nice combination of sport and trad climbing for us. I also tried to find only the kind of places we both – me and my wife – could enjoy. Not that I would be a real ticking machine (I can do a 6b with a pinch), but I had to choose crags with more than one of 4′s and 5′s which is the grade the missus might enjoy too. Well, enjoy might be a bit of a push here, but at least she should be able do a few routes at any place we visit. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to some relaxed climbing too, with not too much pushing-to-the-limits kind of sweaty work. In total we will have something like 4-5 proper days for climbing but on most of those we will do something else as well. The route we take also dictates that we won’t be climbing at the big venues of Table Mountain or the world famous bouldering mecca Rocklands, they are just too far away. Neither will we visit the Magaliesberg even though it is just an hour or two drive away from Johannesburg.

Treasure Island crag @ Blydepoort

Justin Nixon Treasure Island crag @ Blydepoort

Where we will be climbing then? Our first South African rock experience will be just after visitin Kruger at Blydepoort. Blydepoort is situated right at the edge of the Blyde River Canyon and one of its landmarks, the Three Rondavels. Climbing there is strictly trad climbing with the exception of the odd few pegs pushed into the rock in the early days. The routes are mostly multi-pitch with only a few single pitch ones here and there. The walk-ins are short as you can drive almost to the top of some of the crags, so the access won’t be a problem. Check out the resources at the bottom of this post for more details on this crag. Initially, I had considering the Manoutsa crags, some 40km north from Blydepoort along the road, but when I got some insight about the approaches there, I chose to go with Blydepoort instead. Manoutsa is somewhat similar to Blydepoort: all trad and multipitch, but the approaches for the easier routes could be two hours of walking uphill in the bush to the base of the crags. After finding this out the place did not sound too appealing anymore.

Kids Corner in Sabie Gorge

Toprope Kids Corner in Sabie Gorge

After Blydepoort and Blyde River Canyon there we might have time for a quick excursion to the Sabie Gorge crag. As the name implies, the crag is situated just outside (or within, depending on your view) the town of Sabie, some 45 kilometers west of Hazyview and 25 km south of Graskop. The crag has developed almost right under the Sabie bridge crossing the Sabie River. The routes are within the gorge and some of them could provide a deep water solo if you are brave enough to expose yourself to the risk of underwater rocks and possibly contaminated water. The climbs are all single pitch and bolted and are mainly on the 5/6 scale. I doubt that we will have time for this detour as there is a lot to see in the Blyde River Canyon and we been thinking about taking a swing at the Big Swing – a 68 meter high rope swing – in Graskop, and about doing a canopy tour in Hazyview. We aren’t sure about the latter, though, as a similar canopy tour is available in Swaziland that we might opt for.

After that it will be some time before we will have a chance to kick our feet on the rock again. We’ll first stay a few day in Swaziland and then head for the coast and Sodwana Bay for some scuba diving. In Swaziland we are going to do a caving trip, though, which relates to climbing a little, but I do not know how serious the stuff is. We’ll see. In any case I think it will be quite exciting as we’ve never done caving before.

After our few days of scuba diving, we will head towards Durban, but on the way we are planning do a stop over at oNgoye Forest Reserve. It is quite popular with bird ethusiasts, but I’ve read that there should be some climbing too. What would be nicer than climbing in a nature park! The place is not something you would call a popular climbing venue, but the idea of climbing there sounds really interesting. Overall there are three crags, or boulders you might say, that have established routes on them. There could be room for even more according to the route guide. The route grades range from sub 3 to 5b in the French scale, but the guide says that the grades are bit deceiving and are harder than they seem. Whether they are just under graded or sneakily tricky is not quite clear. The only problem with this venue is the access. On the official website it says that you will need a 4×4 car to visit the reserve and we will only have a so called “regular” car with us. But the route guide mentions that some kind of concrete slabs have been installed on the road and it should now be accessible with cars without the 4 wheel drive. The official website was last updated in 2009, so this really might be the case. I also received some information from one of the bed&breakfast places we have booked, who were kind enough to ask about the access from their friends about. They told that accessing all the roads within the park would require a 4×4, but that you can access the camp with a vehicle that has “a reasonable” clearance. I will take this as a good sign which encourages us to at least try to go there. Only when we get there we will know for sure. The accommodation should not be an issue, as there is a camping place in the park and it only costs 10R per person plus another 10R for the entry fee to the park.

Rumdoodle crag in Kloof Gorge

Greg Streatfield Rumdoodle crag in Kloof Gorge

After oNgoye we will have another climbing opportunity when we go to Kloof, near Durban. My original idea was to go to Monteseel a bit further north, but after googling and asking some questions, it became clear that it isn’t possible to stay at the “old MCSA club house”, situated just a few minutes’ walk away from the crags. Monteseel is a trad only venue and it would have had plenty of nice and easy routes to climb for us. This meant more work for me as I now needed to find another place to stay and possibly another place to climb as well. Things seemed to eventually sort out as we booked a bed&breakfast at the very edge of the Kloof Gorge, which also has plenty of climbing to do. Unfortunately most of the climbing here is sport climbing and worse still, it is way too hard for our skills. If you can climb confidently from 6b and above, you would have a lot to climb there. But despite the fact that most of the routes are beyond our reach, there are a few easier routes to climb too and even one trad climbing crag with some routes for us to try. Considering that we will only spend one night here, there should be plenty of climbing option for us with the odd 10-20 easier routes. In addition, if we are lucky, we might have time for a quick stop at Monteseel too, on our way to Drakensberg.

Angus Leppan (pitch 3) in Drakensberg

Lukas Malan Angus Leppan (pitch 3) in Drakensberg

So, after Kloof our plan is to go to the mountainous area of Drakensberg, the region with the highest peaks in the whole southern Africa. We will be spending a few nights in both Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal national parks. Our idea is not to actually climb there, but to trek instead. We might do some scrambling, though, as getting on top of the Cathedral Peak or Sentinel Peak requires a little bit of that.  We might have an opportunity to do a route which requires more climbing and even a rope, but we’ll have to see how it is when we get there. In general it will be mainly trekking in Drakensberg and there should be a lot of that to do there. If you would have the time you could do a one-week traverse trek from Cathedral Peak to Royal Natal or if you were even more enthusiastic you could cross the whole Drakensberg in two weeks. The best option is said to be the first mentioned week-long trek. Sadly, we won’t have time for more than just day treks from the comfort of the camps.

Free State OfMind at Eagle Mountain

Colin Crabtree Free State Of Mind at Eagle Mountain

After we have had enough of Drakensberg, there won’t be many days left of our trip. However, on the way back to Johannesburg there is, conveniently, a grand climbing venue on the way – the Everest … or Eagle Mountain as some people call it. Eagle Mountain is situated just outside Harrismith in the Free State. There should be over 200 sport routes, both single and multi pitch, and you should find some trad routes there too. The grades range from easy scrambling to 7c, so everyone should be able to find something suitable. We won’t have too much time to spend there and will only get to scratch the surface. If we would have an additional day to climb there, we could utilize the lodging facilities right under the crag. The whole place is actually situated on the property of the Eagle Mountain Game Lodge and a nominal fee 5R must be paid by day visitors.

I wish we would have more time for everything, but we don’t. After the last climbs at Eagle Mountain, we will drive to Johannesburg and will spend the last few days there taking in the sights around the town. I won’t get into details about that, but our plan is to visit the Cradle of Humankind, Soweto and the Apartheid Museum. And, of course, just enjoy good food and drinks before we fly back to home. That was our itinerary for the trip summarized. I’ll make some more detailed posts either during or after the trip.

Finding the places to climb in South Africa is, if not tricky, at least time-consuming as it takes a bit of work. Especially getting information about the routes is complicated as the real guide books are hard to get a hold of outside South Africa. I’ll list the resources I have used below.

Online route guides:

KwaZulu-Natal MCSA guides is a collection of route guides of most of the venues in KwaZulu-Natal and some from the neighbouring states too. Some of the guides you can find only here, like the oNgoye and Old Baldy. Check also the old KZN MCSA sites guides as there could be some information that has not passed to the new site.

Climb ZA route guides includes venues from all over South Africa. Most of them have similar information to the KZN MCSA route guides, but there are some venues, like Eagle Mountain, that have an online topo only in here.

SACIN route section has information on routes all around South Africa. Not nearly as vast as the two above, but seems to have some unique pieces of information like the cave of Shongweni.

Despite the name, www.climb-europe.com has some information about South Africa climbing.

Guide books:

There are several guide books on South African crags. I only looked for the ones on KwaZulu-Natal, but there are books for other areas too like Table Mountain and Rocklands in Cape area.

A Climber’s Guide to KwaZulu-Natal Rock is a comprehensive guide book for the crags in KwaZulu-Natal.

Serpent Spires is a rather interesting hybrid of a route guide and a short-story collection for Drakensbergs. It is compiled of articles from MCSA Journal about Drakensberg climbing and of route descriptions in various areas. You can find most of the routes in KZN Drakensberg route guide, but they lack the many topo pictures and introductions and comments you can find in this book. There is also a leaflet type of a guide published MCSA, but I have not seen it.

More difficult than finding the book titles is finding a place to buy them from. I bought my KZN Rock guide from Mammoth, a Cape Town based outdoor store, though you cannot see the book in their web store. I asked them about the book via email and they had it available. I bought it at the same time as I bought two Drakensberg hiking maps. The maps cost R55 each and the KZN rock guide R239. The shipping to Finland for all three items was R139. I could not place the order online because the rock guide was not available from the web shop, so I paid the order with a credit card that was processed on phone. They were nice enough to call me and we handled the payment like that. As for the other book, Serpent Spire, it was much more simple as it was available at Book Depository and it took only a few clicks before the book was on its way. For the other books for South Africa you could try the Climb ZA shop where they have a few titles available, and they offer international shipping too. You could also try Bush & Bundu, a Pietermaritzburg based outdoor shop, from where you should be able to get many of the books and also some of the MCSA published leaflets like the one for Drakensberg.

Guiding

If you need a guide for Durban/Kloof/Drakensberg area (or even further) you could contact Peak High which offers guiding for both rock climbing and mountaineering.

I hope that the pieces of information I have gathered will have some value for fellow climbers!

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To the Khumbu valley and back in civilization

The last day in the basecamp had gone and the last morning at the basecamp was at hand. Most of the morning went packing things up and taking the last individual and group pictures against the huge west face of the Baruntse. During the breakfast we also heard an interesting news from Lukla that there has been a traffic jam because of bad weather and there are around 2000 persons waiting for the skies to clear and the flights to start operate again. Well.. we would have still almost a week till we get there and were sure it would be sorted out before that.

The road from Baruntse basecamp to Amphulapcha pass

The road from Baruntse basecamp to Amphulapcha pass is quite rocky

Crystal clear mountain lake between Baruntse and Amphulapcha

Crystal clear mountain lake between Baruntse and Amphulapcha

The days trek would take us to the high camp on Amphulapcha pass, which is our last obstacle before entering the Khumbu side of the valley. The route was on most parts quite tricky with non-existing paths going through large sections of broken rock. So, it was most likely a good decicion for Alan and Erik to leave one day earlier for the journey. Beside the terrain the trekking was quite pleasent. On the way we could observe the Hunku valley opening to the south and we could enjoy also the crystal clear mountain lakes on the vay. Before we would climb up to the high camp, we entered the side of the valley where lies the Panch Pokhari – Five lakes – which is a sacred place. On the adjacent slopes we walked we could see all down the Hunku valley and back towards Baruntse as well as to the Ama Dablam which was rising at the end of the ridge formation that the Amphulapcha was part of. At the end of the valley, just below the climb up to the pass, there was another group of people camping there. We do not know whether they were coming or going over the pass, but we continued pass them to very edge of the pass. When we reached the high camp spot just under the layered glacier of the pass, the sun was already starting to set in. We were now on the northern slopes which meant the sun would dip behind the mountains quite early. Again Markus had been early on the spot and picked us an amazing tent spot with one of the best views of the whole trip. Eventhough I could not match the Markus’ speed, I had a pretty steady and good flow that day and especially up the last climb. I took that as a good sign that the whatever I had had in my system was already passing.

Panorama of the Panch Pokhari

Panorama of the Panch Pokhari, though you can only see two of them from this vantage point

Our tent spot at Amphulapcha high camp

Our tent spot at Amphulapcha high camp is right there where the bag is. I have seen worse than this.

As I mentioned that the sun was already setting when we got there and it started to get cold quite soon after. That would not been much of a problem otherwise, but the porters where quite late and only couple of the tents had arrived and basically none of the gear duffel bags. The terrain during the day must have been very hard for the porters. This ment that none of us had really not much more clothing to put on as it was getting colder. Luckily the kitchen stuff was partially there and we got some warm drinks and some noodle soup to eat. More so I was in luck too as the first two duffel bags to arrive to the camp were my two bags. At least I did not have to be cold unlike most of the others. It eventually took until 6pm that all the bags had arrived to the camp.  Soon after we got dinner and then it was time to sleep again.

People waiting for their bags

People waiting for their bags and trying to stay warm with the hot tea

The night at the Amphulapcha was surprisingly much more warmer than any of the nights at the basecamp despite the fact that the sun does not shine much here and the 400m higher elevation. The others also said that the camp 1 had been also much more warmer than the basecamp, so it seems the basecamp is quite a cold magnet sucking in all the cold air around it. After nice pancake breakfast we started up to the pass. The day was supposed to be a bit longer one and we got a small lunch package with us. There is no direct way up the Amphulapcha glacier at it is very layered and there could be more than 10-20m of vertical ice to climb from one platform to another platform if going up a direct line. We, however, went up a route that the sherpas had been scouting the last evening. It wounded up zigzagging here and there, but it saved us from doing actually much real climbing at all. We could have most probably gone up by other routes too, but the porters would have had real trouble if would have done so. Even now there were two or three places were you had to use your crampons for real. We made through it nice and clean, but I really have to be amazed by the porters as they navigated through the same route and while wearing nothing but cheap canvas shoes for friction. Not that just getting up with the sneakers they wore would be an effort they did it while carrying up 60kg loads with them. Those guys are real crazy bastards, they are.

View of the Amphulapcha glacier from right underneath it

View of the Amphulapcha glacier from right underneath it. You can try to search for the best path up yourself too.

Porters climbing up the steps on the Amphulapcha glacier

Porters climbing up the steps on the Amphulapcha glacier. The loads with these guys in the picture must be over 50kg.

From the top of the pass we had quite a nice view both to the Hunku valley and to the Khumbu side and right across valley there rose the huge face of Lhotse and Everest was lurking to us just behind it. The enjoyment was soon rendered into dispair as we were able to descend from the pass just mere 10m and had to stop there. What had here was a true traffic jam. Apparently there were some people coming up the pass from the other side, which is not very common. This jammed the whole thing as a bit further down there is a section which you need to ascend or descend via fixed ropes. And you can’t do that in both ways at the same time. On top of that all the porters and other non-climbing sherpas had to be rappelled down, because they did not have neither the skills or the equipment to go down by themselves. What they did was, that they tied up a loop around a porter – or sometimes two at the sametime – and then they would lower the poor porter down with that rope. They porters did not have much control of the things with their canvas shoes and thumbled all over the place when they were lowered. Apparently no-one was hurt, though. Eventually we had to wait perched on a rocky edge for more than four hours than any of us got through the bottleneck. When it finally was our time to go, the whole affair took something like a minute in total. Such a wait for such a small thing.

The traffic jam on top of the pass

Noora Sotaniemi The traffic jam on top of the pass

After the abseil there were still fixed ropes going for about 200m more. I witnessed a close call situation, though, just at the top of the fixed ropes. A porter just before me, carrying the solar panels to charge anything among other things, fell and his cargo was sent thumbling and rolling down the quite a steep slope. It looked like the panels were a goner, but they luckily stopped just before they would have fallen off another edge down below. Fortunately for the porter he did not hurt himself and only needed my assistance to lift him back on hes feet. I did that and after confirming he was ok continued my descend. Somewhat further down there was another incident when a very you – could not really be even 15 I would say – had fallen with load and it was beginning to slip from his grasp. At that point I was accompanied with Mia and David and we helped him to keep hold of the load and I also chopped a small platform for him to stand and work with the cargo. A momoent later though apparently his big brother (or cousin or something like that) came back up and helped him from there on. We had then only the final steep snow slope to descend and we would be back in the valley floor. We were told that we were quite lucky that the slope was no under the snow as other times it has been quite a rolling rock run to the bottom. Much more nicer to walk on the snow than on the wobbly rocks. Later on we by the way heard that only a day or two after us passing the Amphulapcha, there had died four people – a sherpa guide, two clients and a porter. Apparently they had been roped together and somebody had slipped. If this truly happened, mysterious is that why the rope was not attached to anything? The answer to this we might never know.

Looking up to the Amphulapcha pass from the north side

Looking up to the Amphulapcha pass from the north side

From there it would be relatively gentle walk to the campsite. Or thats what we thought. The leg to the “big rock” – as the place is called – was surprisingly long and winding. It was quite frustrating that you did not have any clue how far the place is. The fact that it started snow a little on the way and paths were very slippery in parts did not help either. Neither did the vanishing little light we had left under the thick cloud coverage. The clouds had creeped in while we had descended from the pass and the visibility was quite low. On the way we could have enjoyed the views to the Lhotse or even to the more closer Island Peak, but none of that could be seen now. Eventually just after the dark I arrived to the campsite where there was oddly quiet. Most of the people were in the tents resting apparently and in the darkness you could not see anyway much. We were served some dinner soon after, but I was wondering where was Markus who I thought would be sharing the tents. I wondered if he has gone for a little hike somewhere, but even later on there was no sign of him. Later I learned that he was actually sleeping in the tent next to mine and we both apparently had individual tents for the night. Little extra did not hurt me.

Chukkung

Chukkung. The first real village after left Lukla.

The girls enjoying the refreshing cola in Dingboche

Markus Stählin The girls enjoying the refreshing cola in Dingboche

The night had more clearer skies than the day before and I could see during my pee break that we had actually slept almost right under the north face of Ama Dablam. Could not have guessed that yesterday. The morning, though, was quite chilly and again covered in the fog. After the breakfast people started to head off towards the warmth of the Khumbu valley. It took about an hour to get to the first real village, Chukkung, where the most thirstiest of our group made a stop for a very pricey beer. Up here it costs around 500 rupees, approx 5€, per can. I did not stop there an continued on. At Dingboche, at 4530m, I met Markus, Mia and Noora who had stopped instead of beer for a cans of coke. We had a brief chat and headed again further on. At noon I stopped at Shomare, 4000m, for lunch. I had some noodles and cheese momos. After some akward communications I also got a mug of hot chhang in front of me. It tasted great. Well… I if you like a warm moonshine, you could say it tasted great. While I was there I saw first Alan to pass by and then Rich and Steve too. I lured them inside to have some company. After the surprisingly effective mugs of chhang we headed the final half and hour walk to Pengboche where we would sleep for the night. We arrived there just in time for the lunch, or the second one for me. Most of the people were already there and majority of them had a can of beer in hand. It was quite obvious that everybody started to let go of the expedition stress. Here we actually slept indoors for a change and everybody a got a bed in on of the double rooms they had.

The common room of our Pengboche lodge and our team having an afternoon drinks

The common room of our Pengboche lodge and our team having an afternoon drinks

Before the dinner I left with Rich and Steve to look for some more chhang. As a skimpy person I did not want to pay 500 rupees for a can of beer when I could get a whole jug of chhang with less than that. After some search we finally found a place that served chhang, but I think it was even there fetch from another place. We did not then locate the real source of chhang in Pengboche. Getting a bit light headed we headed of for some dinner. Dinner was quite uneventful, but after that the party really got loose. It did not take long for somebody to turn on the nepali pop and after that the room was full of dancing sherpas before you could blink an eye. It also did not take long when we were also asked and half dragged to the dancing floor which was basically formed as an circle around the heater in the center of the room. The dancing lasted the whole night and if any of us it was Noora who got the lions share of the dancing as for some reason the sherpas where very fond of dancing with her. Maybe it was her height that made her quite the same sized as the sherpas that fonded them. We could never know, but I did went to bed in good time as it seemed the dancing might last through the whole night.

The party at Pengboche

The party at Pengboche

The classic Khumbu view from just outside Penboche

The classic Khumbu view from just outside Penboche

The next morning we finally had some good weather and good first time in Khumbu really enjoy the surroundings. The last evenings partying did not show much on the breakfast table which had remaned the same as the last few days with toast, pancakes and omelets. It would be just a few hours walk to Namche Bazaar if one does not stop for too long. Most of us could not pass the well advertized bakery at Tengboche, right next to the almost as famous monastery. At the bakery you have around ten different chocolate cakes to choose form and then you have also the cupcakes and bisquits and all too. For me the one piece of

Chocolate cake at the Tengboche bakery

Stef Wolput Chocolate cake at the Tengboche bakery

that “Wacky Crazy” was enough. With the overdoze of chocolate inside us we took a brief tour at the monastery before returning to the path down the valley. From the monastery you can by the way look one of the most famous sceneries of the Ama Dablam. The monastery is on top of a hill and either way you go you have to ascend a steeply to get there. At the bottom of the hill towards Namche and our way we crossed the Dudh Kosi river that has been flowing at the bottom of the valley. I met there some others of our group and stopped for a drink of chhang. This time they did not have to go fetch it from anywhere and in no time I had a full jug of it at the table. When finished I headed off again, though, now with bit more faltering steps. The final few kilometers to Namche Bazaar on the way down are very unmotivating walking. After every corner you pass and think that now you will see the houses of Namche there comes in to view instead just another bend in the path. If something positive there is at that path, it is in very, very good condition and it is in long parts wide enough to drive with a car. If you can somehow get a car up there that is. Finally after the many bends on the way I reached the Namche and our quite thugged away teahouse.

Here finally the luxury needs of many came inlight and most of the members did sleep in other guest houses or hotels. Eventually there was only six of us that slept at the designated guest house. This time we did not have the warmth of the rooms, but it was back to the tents again. After the super-carb dinner of mashed potatoes, rice and pasta, we planned to go a local bar as did most of the others too. There would be also members from the Ama Dablam expedition who had been stuck here at Namche for about a week already. They had been hit the worst by the traffic jam at the Lukla and some of them had even decided to walk out from Lukla to Jiri, which would take additional four days time. We – I, Rich, Arnold and Jangbo – war aiming for the bar, but just at the corner of it Jangbo told that we could visit one of his friends. We were like “why not” and soon we where at a darkened guest house banging on the doors. It was a bit akward , but Jangbo said it would be ok. We did have to infact wait for long and we found ourselves in the common room of the guest house with jugs of chhang in front of us. It did not look too bad. The guest house owner was somekind of a legendary sherpa who had been on expedition on basically with all the legendary western mounaineers. It was very stunning how he told all the stories and just casually mentioned that “and then there was also this guy Messner with us” without even stopping. We had great fun listening these stories. After quite a few jugs of chhang it was time for as to finally head to the bar. Our host did, however, invite us for a pancake breakfast the next morning which we delightfully accepted. At the bar there was full party going on and we joined in. The party lasted until the bar closed and everybody started to head back to their places. Personally I was quite wasted, but luckily had some supportive people with me to get to the guest house. For some reason – hard to imagine why :) – I had trouble finding my own tent and I had to basically go through all the tents until I was not anymore steered nicely to the next tent. It was a damn good party I have to say.

Party at a bar in Namche Bazaar

Steven Etchen Party at a bar in Namche Bazaar

My morning at Namche Bazaar was not perhaps the high points of the trip. I was woken by the sherpas pulling down my tent and almost dragging my stuff out of it and me with them. I had a bit vague memories of the last night, but by the feeling I now had it must have been a good one. I jumped out of the tent and pulled my gear out. Not a moment too soon as soon I was out of the tent it was collapsed and packed by the very effective sherpa staff. I had a bit of trouble orienteering myself and got some help from Jangbo to stuff by gear into the duffel bags. With Jangbos very resolute packing it was quickly done. I then hauled myself to the breakfast that was still served inside the guest house. Almost all had already eaten, though. After I got something to my stomach we headed for the second breakfast to the place we were yesterday invited. At mid-morning there we were, Jangbo, Arnold, Rich and me, eating potato pancakes and some sauce to go with it and of course it was washed down with a glass of chhang. What other would be more better than a good morning brew? Eventually we had to say farewell to our kind host, but we were able to leave we were given one kata each. Those are white scarfs embroided throughout with symbols of good luck. I was still feeling a bit unsteady from the last night, but luckily the most of the way was downhill and on a good path so not too great exertion was needed. Our plan was not to go all the way to Lukla today, but stop at the halfway at Phakding. This was because they had only been able to book the flights for the day after tomorrow.

At halfway we stopped for a lunch. Now the hangover had really kicked in. I took some relief in cheese sandwich and french fries. From there it weren’t much more than an hours walk to Phakding, although it felt much longer. The path was very fortunately good and too hilly. I arrived to Phakding at midafternoon. I took notice of the reggae bar they had there, but today I did not have any interest of going there. Maybe on the next trip ;) At Phakding we did not have much to do other than just wait as most of the bags had not arrived. Even by the dinner there were only few of the bags that had arrived. We heard that there had been some hassle with some porter who had been a bit drunk the night before and at halfway to Phakding many of the porters had returned back to Namche Bazaar to check on the guy. For us it stayed unclear what eventually had happened to the poor guy and had the other porters found him after all. It was well past the normal bed time when the bags finally arrived. It would not had matterd much, though, as we had already gotten some blankets were quite well off with those.

The last morning really on the road broke out with clear skies and with the almost constant roar of the planes arriving and leaving Lukla. It was a very good sign that we would be able leave as planned. After the usual porrige-pancake-omelette breakfast we started the last trek of the trip. It was only two hours walk to Lukla and well before noon we were already there. Thus, the trek ended. It was for real quite good to know that there was no more trekking or anything like that left. Everybody looked quite happy. There was, though, one incident about 20 minutes before Lukla, but not for any of our team. There was, apparently an Americans, two ladies who passed me and Mia on one tight corner on the briddle path that was laid out there. The moment thei had passed us we heard a bushes rustle and a scream and ended with a thud and roll. I turned over and went to look what happened. Before me there were already few others and some was already climbing down the 5m drop she had apparently fallen. She was moaning down there which ment she weren’t too badly hurt I guess. Few moments later there came a man with a large medic kit running down the path who had I guess heard the screaming. It was quite a shame that the women, who most likely were on their way to the Everest basecamp, had end their trek only after 20 minutes away from Lukla. We saw that there were already quite few people attending the situation we continued our way to the Lukla.

We are waiting for our flight at the Namaste Lodge

Erich Bonfert We are waiting for our flight at the Namaste Lodge

Expedition team group photo just before we leave Lukla

Erich Bonfert Expedition team group photo just before we leave Lukla. From left to right: Robert, Steven, Daniel, Mikko (me), Stef, Rich (at the back), Jangbo, Noora, Mia, Markus (just behind Mia), Arnold, Vivian, Jan, David, Alan, Andrew and kneeling down are Erich and Takeshi.

When we arrived at Lukla we headed to the Namaste Lodge to get our rooms and then it was time for the well deserved beer. The afternoon went pretty much with enjoying the warm sun and the cold beer. We had some lunch at the bar and more lunch at the lodge. Before dinner we had some more beer in the various bars that had happy hours of three beers for the price of two. After dinner it continued pretty much with the same formula. We stayed quite late at the bar playing pool and drinking more beer. Again in the morning we could notice the evenings fun and we seeked amending at the local Illy café and their cakes and milkshakes. At this point we did not know when our flight would be, but we were supposed to be at our lodge waiting for the notification. As it was with the fly in, the flight times are not exact science here. We did not have to wait for long as just after noon we were summoned to the airport. At the airport we had to wait for a while for our flight in the surprisingly cold waiting hall. Still, it weren much more than hour from that and we were back again in hot Kathmandu. From the airport we had a minibus to our hotels, I would be staying at the same Kohinoor as before the expedition. Quite a few others, though, chose a more extravagant accommodation from the top of the line hotels in Kathmandu. The hot and polluted air as well as the flight did some tricks to us too, with most visible being the Viv’s puking in the minivan on the way from the airport. I, as well as some others, had too some symptoms of cold and feverish feeling after we got back to Kathmandu, but that did subside in a day or two of rest.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu

Durbar Square in Kathmandu

I had still four nights until I was planned to leave Kathmandu, I had plenty of time to do some sightseeing around and do some souvenir shopping. I also had good time to organize the shipping of my excess gear back to Finland as I would be continuing my trip elsewhere. Many of the days and evening followed though quite a regular theme with dinners together with others and the breakfasts and the days we spent on separate ways. I tried to visit some of the sights we had missed with me and my wifes visit 5 years before, such as the Boudhanath stupa and the famous monkey temple, where we did not go because of our skimpynes. It did afterall cost 200 rupees or 2€ for foreigners. On of the highlights of our second Kathmandu stay was, most certainly, the party that Murari, the nepali organizer of SummitClimb, held at his house. We were told that it had been quite a while since the last one and it might get a bit out of hands at there. Our party, though, was quite pleasant chilling and we had a very good time there. Day by day people started to leave and every evening there were fever and fever attending. Somehow it was worst like that than everybody would leave at once. Some of us got really well together and it was a shame that it had to end.

The four days I had went actually surprisingly fast and it was time for me too to continue onward. I did not leave for home yet, but I would travel to Kolkata in India where my wife would be waiting for me. She did fly there the same day as I and we would meet there after the more than a months absense. The expedition then become to its end and for those who like to read about the two weeks we travelled in India (it was our sixth time there), can read about it from our travelling blog. It is in Finnish though.

And for those who interested about sending your gear from Kathmandu to home. I sent about 30kg of luggage back to Finland and the total cost for me was about 160€. I do not think it is very expensive, at least it is cheaper than have that as excess baggage on most airlines. The shipping took almost exactly four weeks to arrive at the airport where I had to pick it up and clear the customs. I did not have to pay any customs duties as they were my won used gear that I had.

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