To Gogarth Chamonix and Beyond

It's been a funny old summer so far. It started wet, very wet, and rain in the Peak means climbing at Raven Tor. Maybe it was a blessing, as I went sport climbing way more than normal and actually got stronger. Brilliant, classic routes got ticked such as 'Obscene Gesture' (7c), 'Body Machine' (7c) and the not so classic 'The Green Alternative' (7c+). My first of the grade but, if you know it, I'm not sure it classes as a route - it's so short it would be a low ball boulder problem in Hueco! Either way this set me up well for trips to Wales, with ticks of more mega routes such as 'Hunger' (E5 6a), 'Rat Race' (E3 5c), 'Syringe' (E4 6a), 'True Grip'  (E5 6a), 'Rimsky Korsakov' (E4/5 6a) and lots of other classics. 

Dave B, shortly before taking the fall off Behemoth, E5 6b, Water-cum-jolly

Dave B, shortly before taking a huge, cam-ripping lob off Behemoth, E5 6b

With confidence high we finally decided to get on the classic hard limestone of the Peak. Rediscovering from the dust 'The Golden Mile' (E5 6b) and the mighty 'Behemoth' (E5 6b) which, at the time of writing, has won the battle over Dave and I with some spectacular air time (it was wet, honest guv!). We will return to the fight soon. 

The main aim of the summer was the Alps, dreams of the' Walker Spur' and other high peaks were completely destroyed by constant rain and snow during what turned out to be one of the worst seasons ever. It was, as Dad's always called it, "good beer drinking weather!". All that said, we went anyway. As Rich and I arrived in Chamonix the sun was blazing and it was HOT! Too hot, but this was all due to change the next afternoon. Thirty minutes in Cham and we had packed our kit and got the last Montenvers train heading for the Envers hut. The following day the forecast was good for the morning but as standard rain was due for the afternoon. 

Rich Howells walking in to Pedro Polar

Rich Howells walking in to Pedro Polar

We woke early and headed straight for the classic crack climb 'Pedro Polar' (6b+). This proved to be amazing crack and slab climbing on perfect granite with a tricky crux pitch sporting only one bolt feeling somewhere near E3 5c. We finished the route off nice and early before midday and, with cloud building, we headed down.

James Turnbull on Pedro Polar Rich Howells on Pedro Polar

James and Rich on the glorious cracklines of Pedro Polar

Back in the Valley with rain falling we meet up with friends from home Adam Brown and Tom Le Fanu (Le Fan-what???). Beers were drunk and we decided to look at the well named 'Un-named 7B roof crack' the next day. We had hoped this may stay dry in the pouring rain that arrived, and it did. This crag is more famous for the awesome 8a+ offwidth of 'Thai Boxing' which Adam optimistically decided to have a go at,  but came down saying "it will go with more big cams!". Hmmm? We will never know.

James Turnbull on the Unnamed 7b Roof Crack, Le Couteray

James on the Unnamed 7b Crack

Both cracks are now trad as the bolts have been stripped and were just about dry in the rain. After a few attempts I managed to use some grit training, lank and lack of technique to gibber my way to the top of the 7b crack. Not a bad way to spend a wet day. More beer and bad weather forecasts meant more steep sheltered crags, this time we spent another wet day at the sport crag of Bionassy. Again, fun but we didn't drive to Chamonix for this!

Le Petit Clocher du Portalet

Le Petit Clocher du Portalet

That night we see hope in the forecast, a (semi) decent day was coming. We discussed, what dries quick and what do we really want to climb? 'État Du Choc', or as we named it 'Attack the Shark' was first on the list. This route is situated round on the Swiss side, reached from the Champex chair lift, and is on the most stunning Yosemite style granite I've seen in the Chamonix area, the spire of 'Petit Clocher du Portalet'. We caught the first chair up and walked up in brilliant sunshine and pitched our tent on a great spot high above the glacier. By the time we finally got to the route it was already the afternoon and cloud was rolling in. We made a couple of mistakes, the first being not bringing a topo as it looked like a straight crack system. The first couple of entry pitches where uninspiring but they led to the incredible cracks. Awesome hand and fist cracks led to a belay on a scary booming chockstone, above was the 7a offwidth which the route was famous for. I set off fully laden with cams, but soon my heart sank, it was wet! I tried to carry on and ended up fully in the back trying to squeeze up, after a struggle I realized i would never get out, so I slid down a little and found it was climbable in more classic arm bar and fighting way. I arrived exhausted and bloody at the belay, but without a topo I'd gone too far and some faff started. Rich finally fought his way up and led on up the next pitch.

Rich on the awesome jamming cracks of État Du Choc

Rich on the awesome jamming cracks of État Du Choc

This proved to be my favorite pitch of the trip, a steep jamming crack on the left and an offwidth on the right to shove my feet in. However, with my belay in the wrong place Rich had no idea where to belay and climbed into the wrong (very wet) groove. After some more faff he found the correct belay and I followed up, enjoying every metre. On the ledge thick mist and cloud surrounded us, with rain forecast we made the sensible yet gutting decision to head down as everyone else on the spire had bailed hours ago, it would not be a good place to be in a storm! A pitch and a half away from glory we descended but, frustratingly, it didn't rain until late into the night. Damn, we could have done it!

We had wondered if we could finish it off the next day, but the weather decided other wise. It was a long night in a tiny tent when you're both 6'4 and it pours with rain. We packed up in the morning between more showers. Down in the valley we found WiFi and food so we could decide what to do next. It was a very mixed forecast and was hard to commit to anything, then Rich got a bad case of UFO (Unjustified F*%#£%$ Optimism). He stated "Right lads, if we drive RIGHT NOW we can be in Andermatt by 6pm (3.5 hours away), then walk into the Salbit before night fall for the West Ridge the next day before the rain". This seemed unlikely, the West Ridge is 33 pitches, 1000m of granite long and it was raining today and due to storm the next afternoon. However, you can't say no to that level of psyche, so 45 mins after getting down we drove off to the incredible granite towers of The Salbit in Switzerland. 

The drive took more like 4.5 hours, it rained a lot, but we carried on with plan A and made it to the bivi hut under a cloud covered and drizzly 'Westgrat' just before dark. We awoke at 4.30am and set off under a starry sky with a trad 6b (E2 5c?) pitch for breakfast by headtorch, yummy. We were off. Rich and I led off first and Adam and Tom followed. Even though they were stronger they described us as "fast, but simple!". The climbing was great and the first tower went well, just before the second tower we were overtaken by 2 fast Germans moving together. This reassured me, they must have seen a good forecast, so I asked them. One of them said "NO! the forecast is very bad, storms by 4pm, maybe 2!". They simply decided to go really fast to avoid the storms, this didn't settle my nerves especially as cloud was building. It wasn't until around pitch 20 that I relaxed a little as it cleared and didn't look like rain at all, we dropped the pace and started to enjoy it. 

Rich Howells on the Westgrat Rich Howells on the Westgrat

Rich on the Westgrat of Salbitschijen

Pitch after pitch of pure class with climbing maybe up to E2, loads of great cracks and abseils off all the towers to start the next. On pitch 29 or 30 the huge bulk of granite of the West ridge turns to an arete sharper than 'Archangel'. You layback it with 500 metres of exposure either side and the bolt disappearing below, breath taking. We arrive at the spikey summit (only room for one at a time) at 4.30pm with the sun shining. Mega. All there was to do was to write the normal comment in the summit log book, "Good, but not as good as Stoney" and head to the hut for a well deserved pint!!

After the beer it was a long slog to the van and finally the rain arrived, later than forecast. Awesome, well done Rich for the optimism to risk it, and get the tick of the holiday!

We headed back to Chamonix as Tom had to head home, what a great way to end his trip. The forecast was poor again and with a big tick under our belt we did the obvious thing, get drunk! Us Northerners can't climb 8a, but we definitely out-drank the London team!

After a couple of days of hangovers and poor weather there was a slight break, and we headed to the Aiguille de Blaitière where Adam had teamed up with the unstoppable Ginger Ben. A lot of the routes were wet, and with a poor guide book we climbed the only line that looked dry. I still don't know what it was but it was great! As we abbed down in the mist we could see Adam and Ben heading up the last few pitches of the incredible 'L'Eau Rance D'Arabie' (6b+). When we reached the bottom it seemed the rest of the climbers in Chamonix had followed their path (as it was one of the only dry routes). We decided to get involved too and did the first 3 pitches, awesome climbing and another fun day. 

Unknown roure on the Aiguille de Blaitiere Adam Brown l'eau rance d'arabie

Again the running theme of rain continued and the next dry day was the day we had to start driving home in the afternoon, so we chose the brilliant and accessible Brévent. This turned out to be a sociable crag, climbing with Ben and Rich and meeting loads of others. We climbed the classic  trad corner of 'Ex Libris' (6b) to start and then we moved onto the tricky but amazing corner/crack climb of 'Premier de Corvée' 7a?). This was the final route of the holiday and was one of my favorite, it is a semi bolted route that definately need some trad gear and feels around E4. The first pitch is an awesome finger crack/face climbing 7a pitch and then the next few are steep corner cracks at 6c+ with a final amazing crack up the obvious head wall. What a way to end the trip and as soon as we finished we began the hideous journey all the way back to Sheffield with traffic jams and exploding tyres!

Cloud Inversion from Brevent

Cloud Inversion from Brevent

Everyone in the UK had been telling us about the incredible weather while we had been away, but we bought the rain back with us, sorry everyone. It was a great trip but as normal very frustrating due to the weather and the big mountain ticks still keep me up at night!

But returning home to the peak is always great and got back to business by ticking the classic 'Tales of Yankee Power' (E5 6a) at High Tor, not quite the Walker Spur but not bad! 

By James Turnbull

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James Turnbull
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The Fantastic Fann Mountains of Tajikstan

“The what Mountains of where?” was most people’s response to my informing them of where I was off to in July.

KE Adventure Travel, for whom I was leading a trek around the range crossing its high passes, describe it thus.

"The southern edge of the Central Asian republics is defined by the rocky barrier of the Pamirs which includes the little-visited Fann Mountains. This spectacular range has numerous snow-capped 5000 metre peaks and the potential for brilliant trekking, through rocky valleys and across high passes. Accessed through the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, the sensational 12-day trek makes a comprehensive tour of this rugged and picturesque landscape, where Tajik shepherds graze their flocks on remote upland pastures. Climbing to many high passes and viewpoints, including the dramatic Mazalat Pass (4133m) and enjoying a succession of superb lakeside camping places, this is a truly memorable trek. After the trek, we travel into neighbouring Uzbekistan, where we visit the stunning Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Tashkent. More than 2500 years old and known as the 'Gem of the East', Samarkand is one of the wonders of the world, with mosaic-clad monuments that are guaranteed to take your breath away. This is Central Asia at its best!"

All true.

Base Camp in the Fann Mountains, Tajikstan

Trekking in The Fann Mountains, Tajikstan

Chimtarga (5489 m) is the highest peak in the Fann Mountains. It is located near the Mutnye Lakes, or as I called them due to glacial outflow and my poor Russian, Murky Lakes. We camped at the Murky Lakes towards the end of our circumnavigation and climbed the scree and snow Mazalat Pass above. It is the highest of the seven major passes on the route. Nearby Chimtarga on the other hand has no trek-up route to the summit. The ascent routes start either directly from the Lakes or by crossing over the even higher and more technical 4750 m high Chimtarga Pass, which lies between the peaks Energia (5120 m) and Chimtarga.

The established climbing routes on it vary from Russian grade 2 to 6 on both rock and ice. The known routes were all first climbed by Russians between 1936 and 1984. The potential for new lines both here and across the whole range is almost unlimited. We saw very few other people throughout the trip. There are two former Soviet Mountaineering Schools in the valleys and we met three or four small climbing groups in the Chimtarga area and one trekking group. On a distant and low rock ridge I saw a group on a multi pitch climb. It was definitely, ahem, peak season.  

Trekking in the Fann Mountains, Tajikstan

Tom Richardson in the Fann Mountains, Tajikstan

Trekking in the Fann Mountains, Tajikstan

Our friendly local guides, cooks and donkeymen - Fann Mountains of Tajikstan

We had a friendly local guide, cook and an interpreter with us and the gear was carried on donkeys supervised by 7 donkeymen. The food was traditional Tajik including lots of fresh veg and strangely loads of melon. On behalf of the group I declined the customary bottle of vodka on the dinner table every night!

Our freindly local guide in the Fan Mountains, Tajikstan

Access to and from the mountains was by four wheel drive vehicle, although at the end of the trek even they could not get up the newly “improved” road up the narrow Bodhona Ravine to reach our final campsite, so we had to walk out. This was probably a considerably less scary finish to an amazing trip.

A beautiful mosque in Samarkand


By Tom Richardson
Footwear and expedition specialist

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Tom Richardson
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