Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Completing British Mountain Guides' pre requirements.

Hamish Dunn and our assessor Adrian Nelhams climbing Gogarth on Gogarth Main Cliff, during our British Mountain Guides Rock Induction. 
Earlier this year - coincidentally on the same day as Britain voted to leave the EU - an email landed in my inbox informing me that I had been accepted onto the British Mountain Guides' training scheme. Over the previous eighteen months I had focused all of my free time in ticking through the remaining prerequisites. The post below explains my journey and is hopefully of interest to those contemplating following the same path. I have written it because I would have found something similar really helpful eighteen months ago. Completing the Guides' pre requirements has been a really satisfying and enjoyable process. Having now undertaken the first three days of rock training I have been really impressed by the quality of the training and am really looking forward to the journey ahead, though I imagine the assessments will be a little bit stressful. 

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A little over two years ago, my wife and I stood in the Llanberis Pass looking up at the stars. We'd first met in North Wales and had spent the first three years of our relationship living there. A year previously Nikki's work had taken us both to Sheffield, by no means a bad place for a climber to live but it wasn't North Wales. We'd both grown accustomed to living in the mountains and our lives felt empty without them. Sheffield has a number of advantages over North Wales. First it rains a lot less and second it has more normality, plus conventional jobs are easier to come by. At the time I had a conventional job, working in the sales office of a major outdoor brand. I was rubbish at it - administration and spread sheets are not my strong suits - and the hour long commute, in stop start traffic, down the M1, was making me miserable. 


Looking up in the darkness Nikki said she missed being able to see the stars. She proposed that we move back to North Wales once she had completed her training. Eagerly I agreed but pointed out that there wasn't much employment in my line of work over here. Tentatively I suggested that I could train to become a Mountain Guide; expecting the usual negative I'd gotten whenever I'd previously made the suggestion. Much to my surprise Nikki asked what it involved. I found a pad of paper in the car, uploaded the pre requirements page on the BMG website onto my phone. I spent the rest of the evening scribbling down the routes I had done and working out the gaps in my experience.

The BMG's pre requirements are roughly as follows:
  • 50 multi pitch E1 rock climbs
  • 50 British winter climbs. At least 35 of which are in Scotland and 20 grade Vs.
  • 20 major alpine summits.
  • 10 easier alpine routes
  • 10 alpine routes grades TD or harder, 5 of which needed to be mixed and over 800m long.
  • 30 days of ski touring, 15 of which need to be multi day ski tours consisting of 3 consecutive nights in alpine huts.
At the time my experience was a long the lines of:

  • UK rock climbs. Having spent much of my life living in either the Lake District or North Wales I had climbed stacks of multi pitch E1s and E2s and I had done a bunch of long rock routes abroad. I'd not done many in Scotland however. 
  • Winter climbing. I had just over 50 routes; but quite a lot of them were in England; and Wales and much of my Scottish experience was on Ben Nevis. 
  • Major Summits. I had climbed 15, plus a few smaller ones.
  • Easier Alpine Routes. On paper I had more than what was required but quite a few of them were high altitude rock routes. My list was also very Chamonix-centric.
  • Harder Alpine Routes. I had about 8, 5 of which were long enough. However most of them were quite rocky and once again were Chamonix-centric. I also had a handful of routes in Patagonia, Peru, and Alaska which would hopefully count. 
  • Ski touring. This was major area of weakness. I'd been on a few ski holidays with my parents and vaguely knew how to ski. However I'd not done a single day of touring.

Next week at work, in between answering 'what jacket should I buy to walk up Mount Snowdon emails' and making mistakes on key accounts' forward orders I discreetly typed out the BMG application form. I then emailed the form off to a Guide I knew asking for feedback. He got back to me telling me to do more Scottish winter routes and to climb in remoter coires; do a few more alpine routes, making the effort to visit areas other than Chamonix and hardest of all learn to ski properly. Nikki and I sat down together and  made a plan. We calculated that it would probably take 18 months for me to finish the pre-requirements. We decided that over the following year I'd focus all my weekends in getting my Scottish winter climbing up to scratch and that I'd use my holidays to bolster  my alpine experience. We also decided to save up as much money as we could and both take six months of work. We'd spend six months living in Chamonix. This would allow me to get my skiing up to standard, complete the ski touring pre requirements and to do a few extra alpine routes. 

That winter I went to Scotland every weekend from mid-January to Easter. Regardless of the weather forecast Friday afternoon would see me driving North on the M1. I made the effort to get some remoter venues and by the end of the winter I'd managed to boost my list to just shy of fifty Scottish routes. 

Rock climbing was pretty straightforward. I just continued as normal, going climbing in the Peak after work and heading away at the weekends. Rather than heading for the usual suspects (Gogarth and Pembroke) I made a special effort to head up to Scotland a couple of times. Climbing the Old Man of Hoy with Nikki, Heather and Jonny and The Needle with Dad were two of my best days climbing in 2015. 

I used my three remaining weeks of holiday in 2015 to head to the Alps. Short Alpine trips are always a bit of a gamble with weather, acclimatisation and conditions. However I was relatively productive and managed to climb some extra alpine summits, do a couple of shorter TDs and the S Ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. 

Crunch time came in November when I handed in my notice. By this time I was working as a sales representative for a smaller outdoor firm and was actually enjoying my job. I finished work just before Christmas and headed to Scotland with my friend Hamish (who had also decided to apply for the Guides' Scheme) to get a few extra climbs done.

On Boxing Day I flew to Patagonia with my friend Matt and Polly for a five week climbing trip. In early February I got back from South America after a successful trip. I managed to squeeze in four days work doing boot demos, before Nikki and I packed up all our possessions into the car, and started the long drive to Chamonix. Arriving to rain was less than ideal but we soon got into the swing of things, piste skiing every day through a stormy February. I had a few ski lessons too, which although expensive were well worth the money and helped improve my technique big time. I also did my first day tours on the occasional sunny days. As the season progressed so did my skiing. Thankfully 2016 was a very snowy season and skiing was possible well into June. Although it wasn't a great winter for alpine climbing I was still able to get a few shorter mixed routes done. 

My first multi day tour was in late March. Together with Will Harris and Rich Howells we skied the Verbier to Zermatt Haute Route over four days. As well as doing a host of one and two days tours I also skied the Bernese Oberland West with my Dad and sister, and did a bunch of Monte Rosa 4000ers with Hamish Dunn. These multi day journeys were really valuable experiences and far more challenging than single days tours. They were also a great way to bag a few summits. I found them one of the most enjoyable parts of the pre requirements. 

The deadline for applications is the 31st of May. A few day prior to that I gave my application a final proof read, and after ringing the BMG office to pay the £75 application fee, emailed my form across. It seemed an age until I heard anything back and towards the end of June I was getting pretty tetchy. Finally an email landed in my inbox telling me I'd been accepted with no proviso. 

Hopefully this post is helpful to anyone thinking of becoming a guide. 

To summarise:
  • If you have a partner make sure they are fully on board regarding what is involved with the Guides' training scheming. The pre requirements alone are quite time consuming and costly. Once you are six months into the scheme it is pretty much a full time commitment. 
  • Fill out the application form early and treat it as a working documents. That was you can see any gaps in your experience and work to eliminate them.
  • Speak to any Guides you know and ask them about the job and what it involves. Every British Guide I have come across has been approachable and friendly. They are just psyched climbers after all.
  • Try and find some reasonably flexible work that you can do whilst on the training the scheme.
  • Make sure you have done your five long TD routes before you apply. In my view these are the hardest section of the pre requirements to complete, as you need good weather, good conditions and a good partner. I think I would have found doing them to a provisional deadline really quite stressful and not at all enjoyable.
  • Enjoy it. Don't too much pressure on yourself. Going climbing and skiing is really good fun. 
A massive thank you to everyone who has climbed and skied with me; all the Guides who kindly looked at my application and offered their advice; and most of all to Nikki for being the most supportive wife ever. Hopefully the training scheme itself will be as rewarding as getting there. 


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Chamonix Aiguilles Traverse

I'm not sure of the exact definition of the Chamonix Aiguilles. I should know, I've watched the evening light glow across them enough times. To my mind they are the set of spiked mountains that run form the Aiguille du Midi westward, finishing at the Grand Charmoz or maybe l'M. My original plan was ambitious. Bivi underneath the Grand Charmoz and climb it and every other peak between it and the Midi over two days. Mike brought me back to the earth, pointing out it would probably take us at least three, and we agreed to go downwards from the Midi instead. 

Looking across the Chamonix Aiguilles at sunset.
Josh's partner had bailed on him so we were now a trio. The three of us took a late Midi up and spent a few hours relaxing in station. After a brief negotiation we secured accommodation, "No, we won't make any mess and we'll be gone by two in morning." In the warmth I fell into an easy sleep. The alarm went off, we gulped down breakfast and got going. It is amazing how much quicker everything is when you're warm and inside.

We tiptoed down the Midi Arête, marvelling at the Valley Blanche under the full moon. The snow, firm beneath our crampon made passage secure and easy. As we sped along the Midi-Plan ridge, un-roped, I remembered the last time I'd been here: aged fifteen, the last route of my first alpine trip. It had been a big adventure back then, we'd turned around just before the summit of the Plan so as not to miss the last lift. 

A couple of fun rock pitches led us to the summit of the Aiguille du Plan, just before dawn. The whole traverse had taken us around two hours. After a short abseil Mike led us down and up onto the Dent du Crocodile. We were still making good time and the description still made sense. I made a slight error abseiling off the Crocodile, but a short pendulum brought us back on route and we continued on towards the Dent du Caiman. We started to loose time here as Josh led us towards the summit. Still everything was under control. 

We started to descend of the Caiman; we tried to follow the vague disruption in the photocopy of the Phillipe Batoux book we had with us. Nothing seemed to make sense and soon we were lost on the south face with nothing but the faded tat of other unfortunates to keep us company. We certainly never found the "strenuous grade five move" that led back onto the west ridge. Eventually Mike found himself in the footprints of the party ahead of us, but only after climbing a scary pitch of wide climbing and making thirty metre horizontal abseil that involved three runners to redirect his ropes. Josh came across this last and slipped off taking the last runner out. Thankfully the ends of the ropes were also tied in and he was caught like giant fly in a spider's web. We were now all thoroughly pissed off, having wasted at least four hours. 

We continued onwards, moving together, with the occasional abseil, towards the Lépiney. Tired and dehydrated after a day in burning sun. It felt like we had spent the whole day descending rather than climbing. I tried to find a way to the summit, but the heat had frazzled my motivation. Instead we brewed up and ate our freeze-dried meals, before continuing on to a good bivi ledge below the Fou.

My sleeping bag was too warm and I struggled to make myself escape out of it into the cold morning air. Eventually I mustered the motivation and we got going a little later than planned. The Fou was straightforward, slightly longer than expected. I block led, pulling on the occasional runner to speed up the process. From the summit – Well, just below the summit, I couldn’t work out how to surmount the final perched block – we continued abseiling and moving together towards the Ciseaux. Josh led a final tricky section before we were able to scramble over towards the Blaitiere. At this point we noticed a core shot in one of our two ropes and decided it would be prudent to descend straight down rather than attempting to reach the summit.

After a snowy winter, the descent down the Spenser Couloir was in good condition. However we managed to jam our other rope early on and were forced to chop it. Thankfully this did not cause an issue for the descent down the Nantillons Glacier and we managed to make the last lift.

Ridge ministers
Josh and Mike heading towards the summit of the Aiguille du Plan.
Rigging the abseil of the top of the Dent du Crocodile.
Mike brewing up below the Lépiney
You know it's a good bivi when you fall asleep with your sunglasses on.
Cold scenes in the morning.
Josh A0ing for Yorkshire low down on the Fou.
Josh and Mike a couple of pitches higher on the Fou.

Mike and I shuffling across toward the Blatitiere. Photo: Josh Fawcett.
Granite eats rope!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Mainly skiing...

Nikki and I have been living in Chamonix since the start of February. Thankfully there has been lots of good snow and I have been able to spend most of my time skiing. I've also managed a few a routes too. Good snow is definitely coming to an end now and I can't imagine I'll be using my skis for much other than accessing routes in the coming weeks. Here are some picture of all that hedonistic sliding.

My first ski tour, the Col du Passon. Back in February with Harry Mcghie.
Nikki skiing fresh powder on the VB. 
Heather experiencing lactic acid in Cogne. 
In March I skied from Verbier to Zermatt, over four days, with Will Harris and Rich Howells. Rich on day one. 
Cabin fever in the Dix Hut.
Will and Rich cramponing up the Wall of Serpentine on the way to the summit of Pigne d'Arolla.

Supplies being delivered to the Vignettes Hut.

Hamish and Marie joined us for the last day. Marie and I on top of the Tete Blanche, the Matterhorn behind us. 
A few days later Hamish and I climbed the Gran Paradiso NW face and skied off the summit. Hamish collecting melt water outside the Chabod Hut the night before. 
Hamish on the NW Face. Conditions weren't particularly good with black ice under snow.
Hamish leading a short pitch of Diff that lead to the summit. 
Madonna scenes atop the Gran Paradiso.

Me leading the Eugster on the Aiguille du Midi.
Will Harris leading the final ice section on the Eugster before it meet the Midi Arete. 
Big Tim charging up the lower slopes on the Frendo Ravenal. 
Me leading on the Frendo Ravenal on the Aigulle Carree. Heavy spindrift slowed my pace to a snail's. 
Rob Partridge leading one of the tricky upper pitches on the Frendo Ravenal.
John Roberts skinning up the Aiguille d'Argentire. 
John and I decided that there was too much fresh snow and it was far too hot to continue up safely. So we turned round and skied fresh powder. 

In early April my Dad, sister, Simon and Simon headed to the Western Oberland for a four day tour. Here are the team skinning up on day one.
Caitlin mastering the art of going down hill with skins on.
Heading up towards the Wildhorn. 
Caitlin and me on top of the Wildhorn.
Pin bindings aren't indestructible. I ripped the leave off these on the way down to the Wildhorn Hut. Thankfully I was able to bodge them back together and continue for the rest of the tour.
Day three: We skied from the Wildhorn Hut to the Wildstrubel Hut in bad weather. 
Simon leads the way up a final rocky ridge that led to the Wildstrubel Hut.
The joys of spring ski touring. Hamish enjoying grass and rain on the way to the Adele Planchard Hut in the Ecrin.

Me ecstatic to arrive at the Adele Planchard Refuge after 1500m of skinning in the rain and snow. Unfortunately the hut had no heating of any kind, making it pretty grim. 
After a really wind night, we woke next morning to really grim weather. Without a GPS there was no way we were continuing onwards. However we were treated to fresh powder in this fun couloir on the descent.
Antoine enjoying the last of the fresh powder. This was followed by lots of skating and a fair amount of walking. All in the rain.
Josh Fawcett enjoying the Modica Noury on Mont Blanc du Tacul. 
Josh leading the final pitch of the Modica Noury. By this point all the other teams had abseiled off, making it a much more enjoyable experience.
More spring ski touring, at least the weather was nice this time. Polly en route to the excellent Rifugio Bezzi. 
Polly, skinning now, not much further to the skiing and then the hut. 
American Matt, skinning up the Gran Paradiso. We left the car at six and tried to go top in a day. Strong winds and extremities turned us around 100m from the summit and we enjoyed a fun ski down via the Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele.
Two days later Burdy joined us for the Breche Puiseux.
Burdy skiing fresh snow under the Jorasses.
The next morning, Hamish and I got up early and drove to Zermatt.
Not early enough though. We missed the good weather in the morning and spent the day skiing and skinning roped up to the excellent Guide d'Ayas Hut.

Hamish taking his skins off before the final ski down to the hut.
The next morning the weather was grim. Rather than going up and over Lyskamm we descended down beneath the hut.
With 60cm of fresh powder there were plenty of hidden rocks. I managed to take some big chunks out of my recently serviced skis.

We the skinned up for 700m (very grateful to the super fit french guide who broke trail all the way) before traversing down to join a closed piste that lead us down to Staffal. After an hour thawing out in the cafe, we took three lifts and then skinned for an hour more to the Mantova Hut. 
Day 3: The weather was still awful. Undeterred we set off towards the Monte Rosa Hut in a whiteout. We turned around at around 4000m when strong winds got the better of us. We spent the rest of our days twiddling our thumbs in the excellent Gnifetti Hut. Top tip: The Gnifetti Hut is 5 euros a night more expensive than the Mantova Hut, but it does include half a litre of wine and a a litre of water with dinner. 
Day 4: Finally good weather! We left the Gnifetti Hut and skied up and over three 4000ers, before descending down to the very swish (and very Swiss) Monte Rosa Hut. Me on top of Pyramid Vincent. 
Hamish and I on the summit of the Signalkuppe.

Only in the Alps, a mountain hut atop a 4554m mountain. 
Hamish just before the summit of the Zumsteinspitze. Our third 4000er of the day.
Day 5: After much deliberation we decided to set our alarms for 3am and skin up the Dufourspitze. After eleven days without a rest I felt pretty terrible. Miraculously once I get going my body seemed to forget how tired it was.  

Hamish and I at the top of the Dufourspitze. After 1600m of skinning we were treated to a fun little climb to reach the summit.
Hamish skiing fresh snow on the way back to the hut. Unfortunately the last couple of hundred metres were horrendous breakable crust.  
Back in Chamonix. Amy and I caught the first lift and skiied down to the base of Point Adolphe Rey.We climbed a few pitches of warm, dry rock, before abseiling off and skiing down in time for the last train.