Tour of Mont Blanc by Road Bike 330 km, 8000 m Vertical, Single Push

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Last week I rode the Tour of Mont Blanc on the road, in a single push. Being late August the days are getting short fast requiring a 4 am departure that meant 2 hours of riding by headtorch to start the day. During those 2 hours I would pass over 2 cols and in the 4 degree C predawn temps I would be chilled to the bone. It was the first time I had ridden a road bike on alpine cols in the dark and despite taking the head torch I regularly ski with I found those descents fairly nerve racking; are those wet patches on the road or ice?  I was praying that all those eyes that flashed in the undergrowth just stayed put and didn’t run into the torch light.

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Once in Martigny at 6 am my legs were wooden with the cold afterr the descent from the Forclaz and I rode for the next couple of hours with my Berghaus race smock on to generate some heat. I kept looking right and seeing the line of sun creeping down the hillside, estimating the sun would hit the road at 9 am but by then I had entered the endless avalanche tunnels. My left foot was really cold and hurting me but worse was the pain in my pelvis from changing my saddle. My previous saddle had collapsed on my last ride so I replaced it with the same model. It seemed fine when I tested it, being weary of any changes to the bike that would haunt me on an 18 hour ride. Now I just couldn’t get comfortable with nerve pain and numbness, having to change the motion of my pedal stroke on my right leg to compensate and get out of the saddle every minute. As I rode on I was thinking I could use this as a recce since I had not done the Grand aint Benhard before. From the col it would be and easy roll down the 30 or so kms back to Martigny and the train home. Finally I got clear of the avalanche tunnels, the road kicked up, the sun came out and the scenery got interesting. What a contract to the psych and monotony of the graded main road. I enjoyed those last few kms to the col where I stopped to massage some blood back into my feet and eat a block of cheese. The long descent would give it time to settle in my stomach and I would need those fatty calories. There I made a snap decision to get on with it based on not ever wanting to do the long boring climb up to Grand Saint Bernhard again!

Dropping into Italy it was pretty windy and again the descent was cold and spent dodging the fluffy lupin pollen seeds. Swallowing those make you gag like a cat with a furball. In Aosta I stripped off my smock, long sleeved top, arm and leg warmers and my shoes. Planting me feet on the warm tarmac allowed them to absorb some of the stored energy from the sun and defrost. The next stage is pretty flat and I was worried about potential headwinds but it was fairly benign and I arrived at Pre Saint Didier to fill my bottles with cool water from the village fountain.

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Now I rejoined the route I rode the week before with a tired body the day after a hard rock climb. That was part of the strategy and even after 8-9 hours riding I still felt better on the climb to the Petit Saint Bernhard that I had the previous week. On the ride up a Swiss guy who I met on the GSB caught me up and told me about his nice restaurant meal in Aosta while I was churning along at 120 bpm. We talked for a bit before he shot off to get a coffee in La Thuile were, upon seeing me riding by, ran out of the café and started shouting allez!

At the top of the PSB I stopped for a good Italian coffee before entering back into France which just isn’t the same. I now was pretty sure I would be ok. I had 2 worries, firstly the week before I got nuked in the 35C heat on the 900 m climb to Col de Saises and secondly, I wasn’t looking forward to riding in the dark at the end. This time I would start up the Col de Saises at 6 pm so the shadows would be growing on the road and the temperature much more amenable. As for the dark, I reckoned I had 1 hour on autopilot on local roads from Fayet to make Chamonix for 10 pm. On the plus side my saddle was now broken in and fitting my bum so finally I was comfortable and able to resume my natural pedal stroke. This had a massive lift effect on my psych and I was enjoying being on the bike once more.

The descent to Bourg St Maurice is long and graded so I just coasted down at 40 mph sitting upright and saving my neck from unnecessary tension. Arriving at Bourg at 3 pm I felt it was time for some proper food and I spotted a drive by MacDonalds on the road. Not exactly proper food but its easy to get down your neck and digest. 2 double cheeseburgers and a coke had me ready for the grind up the Cormet de Roseland. This is a 2 stage climb with a flatter section in the middle. Once gain it was hot in the lower gorge and I could see my heart rate creep up in the 130s and 140s coping with the additional stress. Once out onto the high pastures there was a strong wind coming down from col as usual, and the storm clouds were gathering. At the col I was rushing to get all my clothes on and get down to Beaufort before the storm broke, the weather was better to the West and in the end I avoided getting a drenching.

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I started up the 15 km climb to Col de Saises at 6 pm, exactly 14 hours in. The temperature was a perfect 20C by now and I was climbing nearly twice as quickly as the week before. The last couple of kilometres of this climb are a bit of a grind a go on forever after you see the resort as the col is right at the far end of the village. From here I knew it was easy going to Le Fayet with only 400 m of climbing left up to Servoz and then the Vaudagne. Twilight had me stopping at Saint Gervais to put my headtorch back on as the descent there is in thick forest. I felt really happy to be climbing well up to Servoz. After 5 hors cat climbs the short sharp Vaudagne was not a mental worry but a final chance to feel some burn. I’m remember my heart rate was sitting at 130 here even though I was working hard – I had taken on a lot of fluid on the easy ride down from Saises so probably had more blood volume and the 15C temps were ideal for a Scotsman but it was probably also a sign of being tired. As I crested the Vaudagne I flashed a couple of doggers cars in the woods with my headtorch before shooting down the descent and into Les Houches. A few km on the flat and I was home and ready for a good shower and a quick meal before sleep!

I was super happy to get this ride down which had been talked about with various people for about ten years. Injury, work, etc all getting in the way before. This year I had a high end of season fitness from skiing stuff like the Matterhorn and I’d also ridden my mountain bike a lot. My road biking had been limited to about 10 rides, half of which were in February so my leg power was shocking even though my endurance was high.

I’d never ridden that far on a road bike and a 60 mile ride aged 11 stood as my limit for years. While I was working in Aberdeen in 2013 I did the Tour of the Cairngorms and the Tour of the Snow Roads which were  166 miles and 200 miles respectively. The road bike really is a great way to cover a lot of distance and take in the scenery. Read about them in the links below.

Tour of the cairngorm mountains

Tour of the snow roads 305-km 5000m vertical

The Brenva Spur

Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti

The Brenva Spur

We arrived at the Cosmiques hut with the plan to climb Tacul and Maudit and ski the Brenva Spur on-sight, but news there had been 40cm of snow dampen our enthusiasm. Tour Ronde and the Brenva Face had been in the rain shadow, while the Chamonix side had received a pristine bounty. As the afternoon cloud lifted we studied the voie normale and considered our options. There was good chance of being forced back in the dark by avalanche risk if we opted for Tacul and Maudit, so we went the long way round, over Col de la Fourche.

We woke just after three in the morning, forced down as much food and water as possible, and headed out into the night to ski the Vallée Blanche. The night was black as ink and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. Even my powerful head-torch’s beam seemed to be absorbed by the night. Navigation became difficult. Suddenly, something unfamiliar began to form in the darkness – a strange shadow against what little light there was. We broke left to ski parallel to a chaos of huge ice blocks as much as four metres high. The seracs under Col du Diable had fallen. We continued to ski down the Vallée Blanche, beside the avalanche, all the while adding yet more distance to our day. Eventually, after a considerable detour, we were able to ski round the toe of the debris and start back towards Cirque Maudit. Our friends had passed this way the previous afternoon while traversing from Torino to Cosmiques, so we knew this biblical serac fall must have happened in the last few hours. It was an ominous portent for the Trilogy.

Brenva Spur Tom Grant Ross Hewitt

Brenva Spur Tom Grant Ross Hewitt

At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn as the sun peered over the eastern skyline. That moment of first light is a revelation for the mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark. Fear, anxiety and doubt evaporate as all becomes clear, calm is restored and the low point in the soul disappears. In front of us the Brenva face revealed its magical hidden secrets.

Brenva Spur Ross Hewitt

Crossing Col Moore at just before seven that morning, we stashed excess kit in the snow to reduce pack weight before starting up the route. We left behind our skins, ski crampons, ropes, shovels, probes, and extra food and water for the return leg. We would travel through survivable avalanche territory on the way back, but on the route itself only a transceiver was needed for body retrieval by the rescue services. Having estimated the snow would be soft enough to ski by half-past-eight, that gave us a leisurely hour-and-a-half to bootpack 700m. 
Brenva Spur Ross Hewitt Tom Grant Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt

The air was still and a blanket of cloud was drawn over the landscape below keeping Italy snug. Most people would still be curled up in bed enjoying a lazy Sunday morning. Snow and ice crystals glimmered, and the temperature was pleasant enough to climb the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur in thin mid-layers. We quickly covered the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 1Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 2

Brenva Spur Sidetracked lores-10Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt Tom Grant

Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 3After stamping ledges in the snow, we swapped crampons for skis and took in the magnificent surroundings. The endless east face of Mont Blanc lay to our right, a crazy mix of couloirs, buttresses and tumbling seracs that held historic alpine climbs such as Route Major. Sun-warmed powder waited for us on the upper section but, as I gazed on it, I wondered how it would ski. Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 4

We skied some cautious turns initially, allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of shallow snow over the ice. Then the angle eased, allowing us to open it up more and a dozen turns of almost sensual skiing took us to the narrow arête. We dropped onto wide open slopes holding perfect spring snow sucking in a couple of hundred metres in five or six swooping turns. Smiles all round.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 11.21.54Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 5

Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt Tom Grant 2

 

Now, however, we had to cross back over the Brenva glacier and Col de La Fourche before the final 600m skin back up the Vallée Blanche to the Midi. We were all hit by a sudden slump in energy as we skinned back towards the Fourche, the adrenaline of the descent fading, replaced now by heavy fatigue. The fun was over and it was time to push hard for the last three hours and escape the searing alpine sun.

The Alpine Trilogy Project – Skiing’s Triple Crown

Its been a busy few weeks here which kicked off after a heavy dump of snow plastered all the faces.  A project had been forming in my mind over the last year which involved skiing and shooting 3 of the biggest, baddest and hardest lines in the Alps. The Matterhorn is perhaps the most well known and iconic mountain in the World. Any time you ask a child to sketch a mountain they draw you the outline of the Matterhorn.  Its East Face is an incredible slab of rock, steep enough to defy logic that snow will stick, and its rarely in condition. The West Face of Mont Blanc was a must, Himalayan in scale, the upper pitch alone is 1200 m of 50º starting at 4810 m, combined with another 1000 m of 45º couloir skiing below. This one had been alluding me since 2009 and in years when you have already been skiing for 7 or 8 months, its tough to hold out through June for it. The obvious choice for final route would have been the Eiger West Face but I’d already done it in 2011 and my interest lies in exploring new places. Having not skied in the Brenva Cirque, the Brenva Spur was the obvious choice. A route steeped in history and coveted by Alpinists in a remote and wild setting. After a mild season with low valley snowfall levels, we would be entering and leaving the Brenva by Col de la Fourche and the Aiguille du Midi rather than being able to ski out to the Mont Blanc Tunnel.

All that remained was getting the right partners with the head, experience, strength and fitness to take on these big days. When we embarked on the project I guessed there was 50% chance of completing it in 5 years. The Brenva fell to us first in a 12 hour day and a few days after we nailed the West Face in a 14 hour day – the last 3 hours without water. Reassessing our chances I now put them at 60% chance of completing the project this season but the long term forecast was showing that temperatures would rocket.  A couple of days later we were off to Zermatt for what would be our only shot at it. And we did it!

Skiing the Trilogy or Triple Crown in a period of ten days days was a full on experience, mentally and physically. The shortest day was the last one at 10 hours, all 3 days were at 4000 m or more, and all were a race against the clock before conditions became dangerous in the heat of the day. A bit like doing 3 iron man races in 10 days? Maybe, but who cares, this was a personal quest to ski and shoot in wild places with my friends.

Finding skiers who have enough energy left for some big pushes at this time of the year can be tough but a big thanks to the ever psyched and super strong guys who joined me at various stages along the way to make this project a massive success: Mikko Heimonen, Jesper Petterson, Tom Grant, Enrico Kareletto Mosetti, Guilhem Martin Saint Leon.Below are a few shots from the trips with the good stuff and full blog post still to come.

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Sundown from the  Cosmiques Refuge, en route to the West Face with lots of trail breaking to do over Tacul and Maudit.Matterhorn Moon Light Ross Hewitt-1

The Matterhorn East Face under full moon as Mikko Heimonen sets off from camp.Matterhorn Cervin East Face Ski Topo Routes Ross Hewitt-1

The East Face plastered the day we skied it.Mont Blanc West Face Ross Hewitt topo

The West Face of Mont Blanc with our lineBrenva Spur Topo Ross Hewitt-1

The Brenva SpurMatterhorn Cervin East Face Ski  Ross Hewitt-1Heading in the Matterhorn, with low cloud we couldn’t see the line in the upper couloirsSunrise Aiguille du Midi Chamonix France Ross Hewitt-1

The Midi or Mothership at Dawn, the best ski lift in the WorldScreen Shot 2015-05-25 at 11.21.54

POV Shot from the Brenva Spur, Italy under a sea of cloudsMatterhorn Cervin East Face Ski  Ross Hewitt-1-2

55º uppers on the Matterhorn above and below

 

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Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 16.48.00Some POV on the Matterhorn in a steep section looking towards Zermatt.Matterhorn Cervin East Face Ski  Ross Hewitt-1-3 In the upper central couloir of the Matterhorn
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Me on the Saudan’s West Face line – photo Guilhem Martin Saint Leonbrenva

 

Enrico Karletto Mosetti and Tom Grant on a lush morning on the Brenva Spur

Charlet – Gallet Traverse of Mont Dolent

When my friend Andy Nelson sent me a message to say he was free mid-week and wanted to do something, I knew the exact thing that he would love as a climber and skier. Although we had both started the guide scheme at the same time, Andy and myself had never had the chance to spend any time in the mountains together and I was psyched to get he chance to do an Alpine route with Andy. Andy at http://www.infinitymountainguides.co.uk is one one the most professional , well trained and talented guys I know, in both climbing and skiing disciplines. Along with Andy Townsend and Paul Chidlow they put us to shame during our guides training! Neither of us had climbed for months so something fun rather than technically challenging was the order of the day.  In fact the Charlet-Gallet traverse of Mt Dolent had been on the list for some time and as an intensive period of spring skiing was coming to an end, my friend Emily Roo had jogged my memory at the perfect time. Neither of us had been on the mountain before or had read anything about it so it would be a little adventure.

The route should have been straightforward but after about 200 m we were both weighing up the decision to continue or rappel off. Under a bombardment of rockfall I had seconded up to Andy with my head down below my skis to collect the gear while he looked down wincing as football sized boulders narrowly missed decapitating me. As I reached Andy he dropped the gear down the rope and I climbed as fast as I could and kept going until we broke out left onto the ramp. Now clear of the rockfall we were able to relax a bit and it was Andy’s turn to wade up steep faceted mank to the headwall. Much to my horror he took a belay there and it was my turn to experience some deep facets over rock while looking desperately for a rock anchor amongst the shattered weetabix. I was pretty relieved to reach the col and some sound spikes where I chilled out and took in the view down the Argentiere basin.

A quick traverse to the rimaye under the North Face and we were able to put our skis on and descend the exposed Gallet ridge. Just before flipping the ridge we had to change to crampons for a 10 m section of ice on the traverse but we were back on skis on the crest of the ridge with the pub beckoning. All that separated us from the pub at La Foully was a 1500 m 10 minute meadow skip down the glacier right? Wrong, its pretty complicated crevasse territory and difficult to read onsight. And did I mentioned the 2 inch crust? Holy Jesus it just about ripped my face off when it caught me unawares, once minute supporting you, the next trying to eat you.

Anyways we made it to the bar. 1.5 hours later. The bar maid started to treat me like a local as I had been skiing so many routes to there and soon had 2 pints of ‘red’ on the table for each of us. ‘Service’ as they say in Switzerland.

Ross Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-1The shrund went easily after resculpting it to be ski friendly20150415_122235 20150415_122649

When the first incoming rock exploded on that rib on the left I nearly shat myselfRoss Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-2Climbing fast while salvoes of rock zinged pastRoss Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-3

This is John McCune’s Poopy Pants traverse – see his topo below. He was soloing over sugar coated slabs and I was under fire from rock fall so have no recollection of it as I was maxed out trying to go as fast as possible. poop pants20150415_141918 Andy and all the classic ski lines of the Argentiere basin in behind20150415_141921 Taking a breather now we are out of the rock fall zone. Pierre Tardivel skied to this spot in his ski descent in the late 90s.20150415_145610 Ross Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-4Ross Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-5Faceted death mank, my favourite especially combined with the weetabix rock. I guess some Alpine rock experience in New Zealand didn’t go to waste.Ross Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-420150415_160851Andy nearly as excited as me to get off the 60 degree sugar coated rock.

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The final ridgeRoss Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-6 Under the summit shrund about to skiRoss Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-7 Ross Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-8 On the Galley above and about to put skis on below after traversing onto the ridge crestRoss Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-9 Ross Hewitt Mont Dolent Traverse-10

Beer time. Last look at that weird rock formation above La Foully

 

 

Grands Perron – Ballade des Gens Heureux or Shiny Happy People

Our last trip out was to the Grand Perron and the classic Shiny Happy People. Its a great time of year to head up there picking myrtille berries along the way and admiring the views of the Chardonnet and La Verte. The 7 pitch route is bolted throughout (spaced on easy ground) and generally slabby on sound rock and little vegetation. The exception is the 6a+ 4th pitch which goes diagonally through some steeper ground so be prepared to start pulling! The summit holds a commanding position to hang out over the dam and its turquoise waters.Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-3Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-4Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-5Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-6Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-7Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-8Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-9Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-10Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-11Miollet Grand Perron Michelle Blaydon-12