Winter Bouldering

For many, this Winter has been a bit of a let down. Scotland wasn't exactly as exciting as recent years, not to mention North Wales (remember the activity on Craig Du last year?). Similarly the Peak hasn't been experiencing the 'snowballing' scenes of two years ago, and the rain has stopped play for many. That's not to say it's been a complete write-off. Katy Whittaker has had a pretty decent run recently (climbing The Angel's Share, Jumping on a Beetle and Walk On By to name but a few) and Jordan Buys has had a fantastic season (The End Of The Affair onsight, Requiem For A Dream etc).

It's not all been big names and big numbers though, members of staff at Outside have been working their way through some of the local classics. Drew has had a few days over the winter ticking such classics as The Terrace (7C) at Burbage North and Soft On The G (7B) and Mark's Roof (7B) at Gardoms North.

John Alexander on Made in Sheffield

Sometimes however, it's the less classic problems which end up being more fun. Problems such as Perfect Day Direct Start (7A+) at Gardoms North are fantastic, and well known, but far less travelled.

Drew on Perfect Day Direct Start

Then there are problems which are genuinely off the beaten track. Places where you can guarantee to have the place to yourself: venues like Houndkirk Tor. Many people have heard of Houndkirk, but a surprising number have no idea where it is. This is odd, as it offers one of the Peak's best 7A+'s. That's quite a claim, but Made In Sheffield is quite a problem. We're not short of classic 7A+'s, but this one holds its own. It's definitely worth a special trip. We decided to have a shop outing after work by the light of our headtorches. We started on The Edge, which isn't very edge-like but makes for a pleasant circuit up to about 6C. There were some brilliant problems to warm up on, the pick of the bunch being an arete problem called Friends and Relations (6B+). Afterwards, we wandered across the moorland to Houndkirk Tor proper to search for this hidden gem.

Drew narrowly missing out on Soft on the G

After making it out to the lip twice consecutively, but dropping it both times due to the stretch, Drew finally sucked it up, engaged his core, and flailed wildy to top out in the classic 'beached whale' style. A quality problem, and one which deserves the praise.

Details about Houndkirk bouldering can be found in the new Peak District Bouldering guide.

Drew is the Boot Room Supervisor at Outside Hathersage

By Drew Withey
Footwear Sales

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Drew Withey
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Its Cold in Winter

For years, alpine climbing in winter didn’t appeal to me, but after recent Scottish winter trips and a great summer trip to the Alps, Aidan, Rich and I were all keen to give it a go. Dad always loved it, so it can’t be that hard, can it?

Midi sunset

Normal winters in Chamonix consist of skiers having to get the lift back down into the valley due to lack of snow. Not this year, the snow was all the way down to the valley; in fact it was all the way back to Calais and tons of it up high. At the start of the holiday the forecasts read -52°C in the wind at the top of the Midi! Not perfect climbing conditions but what can you do, it was February after all.

After a days skiing we decided two days ice climbing in Cogne was on the cards due to less snow and warmer temperatures. A great couple of days were had with the highlight being the classic Cold Couloir, a brilliant 600m grade 4+. The crux actually seemed to be sleeping in and driving the van as diesel freezes at -27°C along with everything else!

Aidan in Cogne

We now had the urge to climb something bigger and so headed back to Cham. Temperatures up the hill had improved to a mere -25°C to -30°C so we went climbing. It still seemed too cold for big routes so we skied across from the Grands Montets lift to do the technical but well protected Farron on the side of the Aiguille Verte, followed by a memorable moonlit ski back to the valley.

Aidan on mixed terrain on Farron

More cold and wind over the next few days left the top lifts shut so more low level ice climbing was in order and a great day on the falls in Les Houches. This was good but once again left us wanting bigger things, it hadn't really warmed up but we were getting impatient.

Ice at Les Houches

We headed back up the Grands Montets and made our way to the Argenitère hut. Our main plan was to try something on Les Droites, with the weather looking ok we were optimistic. When i was woken and kept up by a howling northerly wind my heart sank. We wisely decided against such a big face and headed for the Swiss Route on Les Courtes, a classic 800m ice/snow face which at an easier grade, allowed us to move together the whole way. This all went to plan but climbing in ski boots and with a wind-chill of -30°C left fingers cold and toes worryingly numb (they still are 3 weeks later!). We were very pleased with our route choice for such a cold day and a crowded half term ski back to Argentière got us down by 4pm. We were the only ones with huge packs on!

Rich on the summit of Les Courtes

More frustration with the cold temperatures led us back to shorter routes and we aimed for the mixed route Goulotte Profit / Perroux on the north-west face of the Aiguille du Midi. This starts with a spectacular abseil from the bridge of the Midi to the couloir below. It was another bitterly cold day and with a distinct lack of ice meant difficult mixed climbing, and a final sprint up the last section of the Arête des Cosmiques got us to the last lift down. Another great route ticked!

By now we only had a few days left and finally the weather looked like it would improve to normal February conditions, -10°C felt positively warm! Time for Plan A, it was last chance saloon before home and work called. The route we were after was The Ginat on the north face of Les Droites, 1000m of ice runnels up an incredible face. So we headed back to the Argentière hut once more but this time the winds didn’t roar in the night, game on! We had a very early start but with no moon, thick snow on the approach and difficult bergschrund meant we finally arrived on the face around 5am.

Approaching the hut in the mist

The first few hundred metres are meant to be quick and easy, but the cold weather had left bullet hard black ice. We managed a steady pace and we were moving up the central ice fields around sun up on a glorious day, I couldn’t have been happier. When we reached the steeper ice we took it in turns to lead on, moving together for much of the time. The ice was quite brittle but mainly took screws well. The main thing we all noticed was the distinct lack of ledges of any kind. The climbing and belaying was all done on off vertical ice and boy did our calves burn! At one occasion we found rock protruding around 50cm long and wide, we took a few minutes each standing on it to relieve our calves, it was bliss.

James moving up the ice runnels on Les Droites

The ice seemed to stretch on forever and still with a few hundred metres left to go the fatigue kicked in. We should have eaten and drank more but stopping and removing your pack seems like a lot of effort. Luckily I had done my share of leading early on as nearing the top i felt very tired, weak and the altitude was not helping (we were just under 4000m). As normal Aidan and Rich ploughed on up the ice but we were all showing the strain. A huge lump of falling ice from Rich managed to crack and smash my helmet, the ice was getting more and more brittle! Finally we plodded up the final gully to the Breche des Droites at 5:45pm to an incredible sunset looking over Mont Blanc. A sight I will never forget.

Summit of Les Droites with sunset and Mont Blanc

It has been said before but reaching the summit is only 50% of the climb and today was no exception. We had been climbing for the best part of 13 hours and the hardest part was yet to come! We began abbing down the gully on the south side and soon it was dark. It was very slow work, we had clearly been the only people up here for months and the snow went up to our waists and buried a lot of the ab points, most of what we did find had to be backed up.

Happy, tired and with a long descent to come

Finally the angle eased and we down climbed and began the long walk back to the Couvercle hut. This mere 2.5k should be so easy but it was the hardest few hours of my life. We were exhausted and the snow was as deep as my knees at best and often up to my thighs with 3 layers of crust which we went through with every step. When Aidan tried to break trail he would often get his legs stuck below the snow as he was shorter than Rich and I. It was soul destroying. At 12:30am we finally reach the hut and started the process of melting snow for food and much needed water after eating and drinking next to nothing all day. Finally at 1am, 23 hours since we got up, we got in our sleeping bag which has never felt better.

We awoke late (by alpine standards) to a beautiful day and the view of the Grandes Jorasses from the window. We ate and drank all we had before starting the walk back down the Vallée Blanche to the Montevers station. It would be easy to think the adventure was over but no, life is never that easy. It took us over 2 hours to find the ladders down to the glacier due to more thick snow and not a single footstep to follow. Finally we found the buried ladders and sensibly decided it would be better to abseil from them as so much was covered in snow. As Aidan set off from the final ab he didn’t look happy and shouted up "I think i can see a leg?". There was a body hanging upside down from the rungs by his legs all alone; a disturbing sight. A Polish mountaineer, out on his own, must have slipped and come to an upsetting end. He had been missing for 2 months. We made our way down and soon mountain rescue were called. Minutes later the chopper was looking from above and then landed right by us for more details. We were hoping for a lift back to Cham in the helicopter but they were having none of it, and so the walk continued! Finally we made it to the train and descended back to the van pleased with ourselves and tired. Time for one beer and then we had to begin the long drive to the ferry, and finally Sheffield ready for work on Monday morning.

View from the hut on the final day

Back at home my Mum was very pleased to see me home. She had been through all the worry and stress many times before, in fact 30 years ago, nearly to the day my Father climbed the north face of Les Droites. At the time Mum had been at home 7 months pregnant with me!

Sorry Mum.

James works at Outside Hathersage

By James Turnbull

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James Turnbull
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