Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chamonix, a ski pilgrimage

I am at the crest of a wildly exposed ridge, and my heart will not stop pounding. I arrived in Chamonix less than 12 hours ago and now I am at 3900m, having tagged along on a ski day with esteemed IFMGA Mountain Guide Caroline George and the rock climbing legend Liv Sansoz. We have pounded up here in a few short hours and I am feeling out of my element. Skinning - fine. Bootpacking - fine. But put together with jet lag, altitude, lack of a real meal in the past 24 hours and discovering that the crampons I had brought for the day were broken, I am feeling close to the edge of my physical comfort zone. I watch Caroline deftly complete a wildly exposed down climb into the the line we hope to ski. I begin to follow but the underlying snow is firm and I climb back up to the ridge, quaking at the fear of plunging straight off the side of the mountain. Liv offers me a belay and I take it, ego bruise dwarfed by my fear of blowing it on day 1 of a dream trip to Cham, and to be honest, the fear of my own death, which guides so many of my decisions in the mountains. I climb down to the softer snow and untie from the rope, but by this time Caroline has determined the line is too firm and we climb back out.
Liv ascending the final slopes on the Milieu Glacier on the Aguille d'Argentiere
Caroline, Liv and I on the summit of Aguille d'Argentiere
Day two provides challenges of a different nature, with a different partner. Fred Marmsater, a friend and talented adventure photographer has travelled to Cham to ski and shoot some photos with me. Starting the day with no firm plan and later than is ideal, we find ourselves ascending a warm slope underneath another party. It's steep and the route of ascent is right up the middle of the face, where anything dislodged by overlying skiers would have the potential to knock you out of the shallow bootpack and straight into the gaping bergschrund. We contemplate our options, contemplate bailing several times, and when it looks like the party above us is getting ready to start skiing down we do bail, still well below the top of the slope. The skiing is tough, really variable snow and the angle and the threat of falling the bergschrund has me tense. Fred is encouraging, a real cheerleader, and deftly demonstrates how to air over the 'schrund with control. I pause, chicken out at the last second and opt for the shorter drop with the worse landing and bail as soon as I hit the lower slope. Laughing, nervous, excited to push myself but also feeling in over my head, my mind is swirling with so many thoughts and feelings. This sensation is a common element of the most rewarding and scary times of my life. 
Fred climbing up to the top of Point d'Orny at sunrise 
Fred descending from the Col d'Amethystes
Fred shredding some pow off the Grands Montets
The remainder of the trip was punctuated by so many of these moments. Fear induced dry mouth as I rapped into a steep and firm couloir, realizing that at some point I would have to detach from the rope and rely on my skis, my legs, to safely carry me down to the glacier far below. Dizzying exposure as I crampon up a knife edge ridge, focussing hard on not tripping and pushing away the feeling that the skis on my back are pulling me off balance. Pure joy as I gaze at the unlikely geometry of diamond spires and fragmented glaciers, floating above the clouds and bathed by the most calming pink light.

Fred raps down to my stance in the Capucin Couloir
Sunset on the spires, as seen from the summit of the Aguille du Tour
It was the trip of a lifetime. Not for the reason that I won't be able to go there again, but because next time I won't be a Cham virgin. The whole trip my eyes were so wide, taking in the landscape, the techniques required to climb and ski, the culture of negotiating the mountains in the company of hundreds of other climbers and skiers. I was fortunate enough to share my adventures with the best partners, solid mountain people who shared my respect for the hazards and giddy joy at the pure fun of mountain play. As Mary Oliver puts it, "Let me keep company, always, with those who say 'look!' and laugh in astonishment and bow their heads."
Managed to eat most of a baguette every day of the trip, and sometimes would even just strap one to the side of my pack in the morning. This bakery was conveniently located right next to the Midi base station.
Fred somewhere between laughing, saying "look!", and bowing his head in wonder

The beginning of many Cham adventures is something between a group hug and a mosh pit in the crammed quarters of the Midi bin.
Me chillin' with one of the many amazing sculptures at the Cabane du Trient
Fred scampering up the Aguille du Tour
Fred celebrating on the summit of the Aguille du Tour

Jamie Bond trying to get to Italy for lunch.
A fun and relatively mellow tour had us descend to the mid-station above Courmayeur for lunch in Italy. This 'salad' was mostly cheese and bacon, with a few veggies for garnish. So good! 
Star rise on the Aguille du Tour as we make our way back to the hut
Evan shredding some lift accessed pow in front of the Aguille Vert
Jamie Bond, Caroline, Evan and HP heading around La Tour Rond to sniff out the snow in the Gervasutti. The line looked amazing but the snow was a stiff, hollow windslab and we bailed
The Alpine chough, a relative of the crow, kept us company at many of our snack spots. Fun fact from Wikipedia: these birds are monogamous
A group deskins at the Col d'Entreves with the inspiring face of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey in the background

The rate of glacial retreat in the Alps is terrifying. Here is the toe of the Mer de Glace, the end of the famous Vallee Blanche descent. Each year, more steps must be added to enable skiers to climb out of the valley and onto the platform of the gondola, which was initially positioned right at the edge of the glacier. The 2010 level is already many steps up.
Evan gunning for the summit of the Finsteraarhorn in the Bernese Oberland. We were turned around on this mission by super nuking winds.
The consolation prize was Abeni Flue a great summit and ski. 
The wildly positioned Hollandiahutte where we spent our second night on the Bernese Oberland mission
Our final ski mission was this peak, the Mittaghorn, which rewarded us with a 2200m descent to valley bottom
Evan and Caroline making their way down the ice fall on the Mittaghorn
Heidi, I mean Evan, frolicking in the Swiss meadows on our exit from the Bernese Oberland
Our home in Cham was this charming Mazot on the grounds of the Patagonia Chalet.

Thank you so much to Patagonia for providing Evan and I with accommodation on this trip. G3 set me up with awesome Empire Carbon skis and Ion bindings, so I could ride the fat boards that I love in Cham without dragging around a heavy set up. Taos Mountain Energy hooked me up with a great stash of bars because you can't eat baguette and cheese for every meal or bad things happen. And mostly, THANKS to all of you who were in on these adventures. Already planning my next trip to Cham to climb some of those jaw dropping granite spires.























Friday, February 28, 2014

Dispatch from the winter of contrasts.

As a ski guide and ski touring lodge owner winter always passes in a blur.  A day of sitting on my butt in front of the computer is the exception not the rule, and time seems to slow during these days as I get caught up on my inside jobs. I revel in this time - I can almost hear my leg muscles say "ahhhhhhhh" as they sink into the couch and my normally ski-boot clad feet say "thank goodness" as my toes spread into the furry depths of my slippers. It's nice to have a bit of time for hang-boarding, yoga, and feels great to achieve that feeling of caught-upness that comes when I tackle my to-do list.

But as I look outside, at the winter sun reflecting off the snow I know that I won't make it a whole day. Afterall, my dog needs his walk so I'll use him as an excuse and get out for a run or two. Hopefully I'll finish this little post first!

My winter up to now has been characterized by extremes: A January that was both sunny and crazy warm, followed by sunny and crazy cold. A long drought followed by 150cm of snow in a week. Two all woman's ski trips, two all men's ski trips. A month of not leaving the quiet isolation of Valhalla Mountain Touring followed by a marathon drive to Snowqualmie Pass Washington to teach a ski clinic for the Alpental Vertfest. The youngest VMT guest (Kai Everett - 7 weeks) and the oldest (Bob Workum - 82). Pushing my skis up the mountain in thigh deep snow at VMT and getting whisked to the top by a snowcat at Retallack. Hero skiing in 30 degree boot top and sidestepping my way down an icy 45 degree couloir.

Most of my time and energy is spent sharing my experiences with the guests I am guiding, hence the lack of blogging. Even my best buddies in Squamish don't hear from me for months at a time. However even though I am working, being surrounded by people who are on their cherished ski vacation time is infectious! As long as I get plenty of sleep, don't drink too much and carve out a few minutes of "me time" each day I truly feel this is the best job I could ever have.

Here are a few of my favourite moments from the past few months:

The epitome of winter bliss. Rosy cheeks, tired legs and great friends to celebrate with. "Porch beers" was part of the daily schedule of the VMT Women's Week. 

It's tempting to get frustrated when it's not snowing, but far more fun to revel in the sun! 

Team K2 Anex 108 poised to shred the Baron Bowl, the first time in years that it's both been in stable conditions AND had good snow!

Happy guests post-Baron Bowl shred. "I can't believe we just skied that!"

Guide's day off with my sweetie means going exploring in our south tenure looking for new lines. 
Evan poised for the first descent of the Hourglass Right above Shannon Lake. 
Bhumi Mountain Camp participants skinning across the Secret Valley at Sentry Lodge
Up-and-coming photographer Zoya Lynch shredding at Sentry Lodge

Caroline skis down from Profanity Col, Sentry Lodge. 



Bhumi Mountain Camp Sentry Lodge crew. What a pleasure to work with these beauties. 

She kept us safe during the Valentine's Day week. 

Guests at Retallack enjoying some ridge time between snow-cat assisted laps. Only girls on the mountain were the guides!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Winter Life

Spain seems quite far away now. My hands haven't touched rock in well over a month but I honestly haven't even missed climbing that much. The days have been full of skiing, ski guiding and dealing with the variety of day to day operational tasks at Valhalla Mountain Touring. I am so grateful for the fact that my winter job keeps me out in the fresh air, exercising and enjoying the mountains, problem solving and learning new things every day. But I admit, most nights I fall into bed utterly exhausted.

Evan put together a little video of some highlights of our winter season so far.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spain Part Dos - Terradets

After around 3 weeks of climbing in Rodellar, Spain I was finally started to feel it. As long as I could pinch a tufa between my knees, scum a shoulder or hip check something, I had a fighting chance of weaseling my way up some climbs. So I went project shopping. Because that's what you do when you go sport climbing, right? I spent several days sampling a range of climbs at my limit, but they all felt impossible! Maybe not "forever" impossible, but impossible until I stop eating refined sugar and milled grains, lay off the vino and do an hour of core workouts at the end of every climbing day. We decided it was time to move on to another destination. Our time in Spain was almost half over and there were still so many world-class crags on our list!
Most memorable send of the trip - headstand every morning for 6 weeks!
Sunset light on the village of Siurana. We didn't climb at this popular area, but enjoyed our scenic drive through. 
Our next destination was Terradets, specifically the Bruixes Wall. This is truly a cliff of dreams. Short approach, quiet zone, pretty views, stunning stone and tufas, sweet tufas. We spent almost every day of the rest of our time in Spain at this one crag. Everything I tried at the Bruixes Wall, including the routes I didn't actually do, felt kind of climbable, like if it was my home crag I might eventually climb them all! Indeed, the hard-climbers recommend starting at one end of the cliff and climbing every route until you hit the other end of the cliff. Well I didn't do that. Didn't even try. But I was happy to finish a handful of the fabulous climbs there and could probably rant on about this pocket or that crimp or this pinch, or that polished foothold but really! who wants to read boring stuff like that. Just take it from me, if you like to climb, and you enjoy climbing mid 5.12 to 5.13- you will probably have fun at this crag. And if you aren't having fun, I can only hope that you can be there on the same day as John Dunne and his mates like we were, because if you can listen to those Brits and their self- and partner-depracating banter and not have fun then you should head straight to the clubs in Barcelona, party all night and learn to not take yourself so seriously.
Climber on El Latido de Medio 8a, Bruixes Wall Terradets
View of the Bruixes wall from a hiking trail across the valley.
This is the climbing at Regina, a shady sector across from the Bruixes wall. A bit more chossy and mostly all 8a and harder, but impressive all the same. 
FYI The slabs shown here are for sunbathing, not for climbing.
The worst moment of the trip for me was when I was all gung-ho on one of the routes I did called Energia Positiva. I was having trouble with one of the clips so decided to clip it from above, when it was at my knee. Unfortunately on my last attempt of the day I was really tired but needed to do one more lap to clean my draws before taking a few days off to spend a city weekend in Barcelona. When I was above the draw but not yet clipped my foot slipped and I fell sideways, somehow got my body wrapped in the rope and got slammed into the wall back first. I let out a pretty good F%*&!!! when I hit. When I lowered to the ground I was physically tender but psychologically mortified. I wanted to disappear. It was a busy day at the cliff, everyone was looking at me wondering if I was going to live or if I had a broken neck but meanwhile it was just a few scrapes, bruises and a rope-burned love handle. That's the last time I try to emulate those famous climbers in the movies who skip bolt after bolt while enveloped in the focussed fearlessness of their redpoint. After a rest day the route went down with ease, probably because I was too terrified to let go.
What I would do if I stuck to what comes naturally - hiking
Grapes: functional AND beautiful
Evan with the local boys in post-climbing bliss watching some football and swilling some brew
We also visited two other crags - Tres Ponts and Collegats, both within 45 minutes of Terradets and definitely worth a visit. Both areas had some really nice climbs, were river-side and breezy on warm days, and had mellow approaches (although to get to the best wall at Collegats you have to cross a cable tyrolean - either bring your own pulley, or sacrifice a couple of lockers to extreme abrasion). Both crags had a combination of steeper routes and more vertical, techie but really high quality climbs. Collegats had a 45m 7a+ and a 35m 7b that were both really really good. Reminded me of Pet Wall movement, but on grippy, edgy limestone.

Evan on the tyrolean to Collegats
Climber at Collegats

In case any of you are using this post as travel beta, I will give you the particulars of what we sorted out here:

ACCOMMODATION
We divided our time in the Terradets area between 3 places, all near Tremp.

Cal Morralet was a big guest house run by a lovely woman named Ana. There are around 6 private rooms with ensuite bathrooms, and a big shared living room/kitchen. There are also several self-contained suites. We stayed in one of the suites in the basement and it was comfortable, clean and totally adequate with good internet. The location was great, only a few minutes from the grocery store in Tremp, and around 10 minutes to the Bruixes at Terradets. The only drawback was that the landscape right around the house and the house itself weren't very scenic, and when the house was full of people it was pretty noisy in our downstairs suite. A great deal at 35 euros per night for the suite. This and similar options can be found on the website http://www.lleidarural.info.

We stayed at Hotel Terradets for just one night when we were between places. It offers nice, simple hotel rooms and rates include a decadent breakfast buffet, but there are no cooking facilities in the room, so you have to cook on your deck or eat in the cafeteria or restaurant, or drive 15 minutes into Tremp to eat. It is within a few km of the Bruixes wall at Terradets. A great option for a shorter trip, or if you just want something really simple and close to the climbing. We paid around 50 euros for the night, but I think if you stay longer there is a discount.
Sunrise view from our room at Hotel Terradets
We finished off our trip with two weeks in the unbelievable tranquil settlement of Figuerola de Meia, where we rented an apartment we found advertised on the website climbinpeace.com. The website is run by a nice local climber named Cristian, who serves as a liaison between climbers looking for places to stay and Spaniards who have places to rent. Our apartment and the stone building that housed it seemed very new, but the surrounding stone buildings were literally crumbling ruins on a plateau covered with small fields with views to orange limestone escarpments and the snowy Pyrenees far beyond. Spectacular and silent. The only drawback was it was far from everything... 30 minutes to groceries and around 20 minutes drive to the Bruixes wall.
Tucked in behind these dilapidated building is our cute little apartment
The view from our deck at Figuerola de Meia
Evening light on Figuerola de Meia
FOOD
We bought most of our groceries from the supermarket in Tremp. We also found lots of great smaller stores, butchers and bakeries and even a little natural food store in the walking area of Tremp. The tough part with the smaller stores is navigating their schedule. Everything is closed on Sunday and most smaller places are closed in the middle of the day. We really didn't eat out at all - nothing seemed both enticing AND vegetarian.
The bakery in Camarasa was pretty delicious. This pastry had custard and chocolate chips on it, and as you can see, did not make it to the crag or even out of the parking lot. 
Cocktail hour at the refugio in Siurana looks like this. 
I grew up with health-food-nut parents, but even I didn't get orange juice or yogurt with carrot sauce for dessert! 
We could pick pomegranates right outside of our door!
REST DAY ADVENTURES
Most of my rest days are spent on a hike or a run, and my time in Terradets was no different. Two standouts were the Mont-rebei Gorge and the Aiguestortes National Park in the Pyrenees.
Mont-Rebei Gorge 
Amazing hike in the Mont-Rebei Gorge
Mont-Rebei Gorge
That is really the trail - Mont-Rebei Gorge
Crazy trail close-up
Nice to be back in the granite, but the freezing wind not so much - hiking in the Pyrenees
Evan chilling in the Aiguestortes National Park
Refugio in the Aiguestortes National Park
When we finally hit that point in the trip that we needed a little more than one rest day, we took off for a weekend in Barcelona and treated ourselves to a hotel room and checking out the famous Barca Football team play in their home stadium. Barcelona is only around 2 hours from Tremp.
Cool church in the gothic quarter in Barcelona. 
Barca! 
This Barcelona lady would probably rust in Squamish. 

This crumbling, abandoned settlement was a 5 km run on a gravel road from our apartment at Figuerola de Meia. 
Beauty everywhere. 
Well that's all she wrote about 6 weeks in Spain. It was a really wonderful trip. High enjoyment to stress ratio. Best tufas ever. I would go back and recommend it to others for sure. Glad I squeaked in this last post because my ski boots are giving me that look.