Monthly Archives: November 2009

Üllr Finally Receives Long-Awaited Delivery of New Headlamp. Shines Light Once Again on Chamonix.

Shoulda waxed the cross country skis.

Now I know that all of you have been losing sleep over the absence of the Insider lately and for that I sincerely apologize. But with the Horny Toads embarking on their first undefeated season in over 70 years I figured I better get myself back to the land of the free, home of the armed and dangerous to root the ol’ alma mater to their rightful spot in the college gridiron national championships. Did I also mention that all three hometown schools – Abilene High (5A), Abilene Cooper (4A) and Wylie (3A) are in line for state titles in their respective divisions? And that sureshot Heisman Trophy winner, Colt McCoy, is from nearby Jim Ned? Ahhh, it’s a rare opportunity to represent Abilene and more importantly (because despite everything you’ve just read I’m not actually all that into football), to gather around a table to give thanks for our abundance of good fortune – good fortune not limited to but eloquently represented by Ol’ Deuce’s truly unsurpassed beef tenderloin.

And did I also mention that when I left it was more like summer than winter in Chamonix and there wasn’t a cloud on the horizon? There was some bad mojo hanging over the valley that manifested itself in a fat high pressure system and despite the small but passionate crews at MBC, Elevation and Chambre 9 imbibing copious amounts of magic elixir and doing their best snow dances Üllr remained aloof, steadfast in his recalcitrance.

But as of this morning all that’s changed and there’s finally a layer of lovely white slippery stuff on the ground and it’s still coming. Who knows what changed Üller’s notoriously cantankerous mind. Perhaps he’s had enough fun with our beleaguered little valley and will switch continents to wreak havoc on the BCS rankings. Don’t we know that he loves himself  an upset so if we can just get him to double down on Nebraska over UT next weekend then the Horny Toads will have a shot at the National title. I never thought I’d ever say this but … Go ‘Huskers!

Wishin I was there at this very moment for more than one reason. photos: LLMJ

Bullock & Houseman First Ascent of Coveted Line on Chang Himal

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Chang Himal, North Face, Central Spur. ED+ 1800m

Man, I can’t even tell you how much sleep I’ve lost sitting in front of my computer these last few weeks, checking my emails for news from Chamonix crew sticking burly new routes on formidable faces in exotic places. And just when I think it’s safe to catch a few winks I get hit with something like this from the November 6 Alpinist Newswire:

British alpinists Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman have completed one of Nepal’s most coveted challenges: the 1500-meter north face of Chang Himal (aka Wedge Peak, 6750m) in the Kanchenjunga Himal.

The team confirmed ascent via satellite phone text. The message said the pair had returned to base camp safely on November 3.

The north face of Chang Himal was featured in “Unclimbed,” a feature in Alpinist 4 documenting the most striking unclimbed lines in the world.

A bold new line, climbed in impeccable style. Early photos of the face are stunning beautiful, alluring, dangerous – 100% Grade A climbing porn. So I brew up another pot of chai and babysit my Inbox, anxiously awaiting a report from the hardmen themselves. Like this one I just received from Andy:

In association with DMM, Mammut, Crux, Black Diamond, Mountain Equipment, Scarpa, S.I.S (Science in Sport) and the Lyon Equipment Award.

With financial support from The BMC, MEF, Nick Estcourt Award, Mark Clifford Award, Shipton/Tilman Award.

Thanks also go to Loben of Lobenexpeditions.com for a great service in dealing with all red tape, transport and base camp support, especially in supplying us with the best cook in the world (Buddy). Definitely the reason we succeeded.

For us, the North Face of Chang Himal was an obvious though distant objective. Situated a long way from anywhere it took us a 2-day jeep ride and 10 days of walking to reach the base. The face itself is 1800 uncompromising metres of steep rock and ice that draws the eye and spurs the imagination with sweeping snow chutes, cones and ice fringes, seracs the size of semi-detached houses, bulging rotten rock, flutings and a pointy summit. Trekkers with no aspirations whatsoever sit and stare in awe. Mention that you intend to climb this face and watch their faces crack. They look and then they see you are serious. Expressions change to worry, doubt, concern. It is not that they worry about our physical health, more so our mental stability. Expressions then change once again as they realise they are stood with crazy people.

Please do not misunderstand, this face is not death. It is not the living end. It is not the best, the biggest, the highest, the boldest, not even the baddest. During an autumn where several new test routes have been climbed, here in Nepal and in China, it is certainly not the hardest. What it is, what it was, was a step into the unknown, a challenge to surpass other mountain challenges we have experienced, a step onto the largest mountain face that both Houseman and I have had the balls to walk to the base of and start climbing with just our bags packed. This is a mountain route that is not crazy, but a hard classic awaiting a few more ascents. How about it?

Here is some info for potential suitors.

Night/Day 1 – 29 October

02.30. We set out from our cave/bivvy at the base of the face and gained the large snow cone at the right of the spur via an ice/rock gully. Plunging steps into the more than favourable snow I turned to watch Houseman retching and throwing up. Hmmm, game over before it had started I thought. “Want to go down? Try again in a few days?” “Naa, I’m ok. Shouldn’t of ate that meat.” It wasn’t the meat though, it was Giardiasis [ed. – infected individuals experience an abrupt onset of abdominal cramps, explosive, watery diarrhea, vomiting, foul flatus, and fever which may last for 3–4 days], and I suspected it would get worse pretty soon. But respect to the Youth, 1800-metres to go (or to be more precise, approximately 2400 metres more to go when you add the traversing) and he was still game.

We soloed the 30° – 60° narrows on the left side, sensing the seracs above, until level with the top of the first buttress. A 70° unconsolidated slope/runnel was then followed and we eventually reached the first rock buttress. Rope out, and we climbed a 60-metre, M4+ direct line to the right of the spur followed by a further 120 metres of simul-climbing. It was now approximately 3pm, and we were at about 6000m and knackered. A fin of snow and some digging provided a reasonable step for us to recover and spend the night. Houseman was carrying a light single skin tent. Waste of time, I thought, and I was right. Never pitched it once…

Day 2 – 30 October The second rock band (make or break time).

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Day 2 - Andy Houseman leaving the bivvy, starting on the 1st techy pitch of the rockband.

A rejuvenated Youth took the lead from the bivvy stating, “It looks ok.” Little do you know, I thought, as he climbed a steep runnel with sack and an unprotected bulge at the top. (M5 / 55 metres).

“Take your pick,” was the Youth’s only suggestion as I pulled the bulge and looked up at three possible overhanging continuations leading through the rock band. “None,” was my reply but eventually I took a shallow overhanging corner line sprayed with a sheen of ice. Not the best with a big bag and above 6000m. Huffing and hanging on, I pulled the exit mush with relief after 60 testing meters. M6.

Pitch 3 of the rock band included traversing right to belay beneath another vague, shallow, rotten snow runnel. (M4 / 55m).

Pitch 4 was fortunately not as steep or as rotten as Pitch 2 and went ok. (M4 / 65m).

The biggest roof on the route was traversed beneath while hunting for a bivvy site that never materialised (M4 / 70°) and in the dark a snow slope was reached on the right of the roof. (70m). A final 30 metres of 70° was climbed until back on the crest directly above the roof and at 7:00 pm a 30cm step was cut for ‘Oh what a comfy’ evening. The approximate height on the face was 6200m. (Slowed us down a tad then, that section!)

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Day 2 - Nick Bullock starting up the crux pitch.

Day 3 – 31 October

The day started well with a 2.5 hour simul-climb following a broad, right-slanting, 60°-70°snow ramp to rejoin the crest beneath the final headwall where a rising traverse was taken. Oh deep joy, loads of rotten snow eventually lead to snow flutings on the right of the face. M4 / 80m. Youth took it away crossing two flutings and climbing a particularly rotten bulge of M4 rock until ensconced deep inside a fluting that gave no particular support. Well levitated, I thought as I followed. (50m). The day was finished with a flounder up the fluting with no protection and a possible dead end at 6550m. The best bivvy of the route was dug out with a fine, albeit chilly, view.

Day 4 – 1 November

A steep flounder directly out of the top of our bivvy (made easier without the weight of rucksacks which we had left at the bivvy) brightened our slightly cold and breezy day, when, with a bit of Peruvian/Nepal unprotected jiggery pokey, we entered the guts of a continuation runnel which we hoped and prayed lead to the summit crest. (70° / 180m).

And it did… A final 100 metres of 50˚ wind-scoured ice lead to the knife-edge summit at midday, directly above everything we had climbed.

After half an hour on the summit we downclimbed to our bivvy where we stopped for the evening.

Day 5 – 2 November

A tour de-force (from Youth) in constructing abseil anchors from very little indeed had us down in a one-er without too much drama. Setting off on one of the abseils, directly down the very steep rock band did have the old man puffing slightly but 13 hours later we hit and downclimbed the initial snow gully and cone and ice runnel to nestle back into our cave feeling very happy with our lot, 15 hours after leaving the high bivvy.

Game over…

The weather throughout the climb was very favourable, albeit a tad windy and slightly cool. The rock encountered on the climb was generally poor not favouring easy-to-place or easy-to-find protection for either running belays or belays. The ice was sometimes good and sometimes bad, and the snow was often rotten. All in all we had a pretty amazing time.

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Andy Houseman, Nick Bullock - summit of Chang Himal.

Once again thanks to all of the grants, organisations, etc for the invaluable financial help, this by no-means was a cheap trip and it really would not have happened without support. Thanks again to both Andy and my sponsors, named above; including SIS and Lyon, your support is very gratefully received.

You Shoulda Been Here Yesterday

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Fredrik Ericsson breaking trail through chest deep snow. Not bad for first day of the season.

Movember 8. The day the 2009/10 Chamonix ski season started for some of us and no, I didn’t spell Movember wrong. As you can see in this photo, Frippe’s got a bit of a head start on you but based on his past fur-bearing attempts I reckon that if you start now you should easily be caught up by next weekend. Ahh, but I digress…

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Needless to say there wasn't much shoveling needed to get the car out.

Faff-tastic!

Obligatory first day faff session

We’ve been teased all week with promises of 20cm here, 15 there, but Üllr has been quite the coy snow god as of late, teasing us with low dark clouds and frosty nights but refusing us a glimpse of her lovely white curves, the dreams of which have us leaping out of bed early each morning like kids at Christmas, racing to the window, unreasonably high expectations filling our ever-hopeful, childlike minds.

From the beginning of last week those of us who start our days with steaming cups of chai and a variety of forecasts, weather maps and radar images saw the big low pressure system bearing down on our little corner of the world. The optimists were calling 10cm for Friday night, another 20 Saturday. When Saturday afternoon turned to Saturday evening without as much as a dusting, most everybody began making other plans; another Saturday night sausage party in an empty ski town with nothing to look forward to on a cold, damp Sunday but a hangover and a ski vid or three. Sunday would be one of those brutal, undeserved rest days in the mountains – no wobbly legs, no

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You'll notice from the angle of this shot that I'm way ahead of Frippe. Actually, it's his second lap.

windburned skin, no gear drying by the radiator, nothing to look forward to but a bad weather Sunday morning with empty pockets and this ridiculous moustache. “Yo barkeep, une autre pastisse s’il vous plait et une tequila et tonique pour mon ami.” “Dude, you really think Dynafit is the right binder for a one-ski quiver or you reckon I should play it safe and go with the Dukes?”

Sunday morning my cell rings. Ohhh, me head. No way I’m gonna answer it and so I lie there, drowsing in the glory of a soft, warm bed in a cold room on a day off. Open one eye to get my bearings, the phone still ringing somewhere. It’s not early but hmmm it’s not late enough for this much light to be filling the room either. Holy smokes! I hit the floor as if the bed is on fire and race to the window. It snowed. Thank Üllr, it snowed!

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A mad, disorganized scramble for gear and an hour later Frippe and I are at the base of LeTour. It’s looking thin and there’s a low thick ceiling about 100 meters above us and we’ve got serious doubts. But there are riders coming down already, doing their worst to rock skis old enough to be in a ski museum. Others are walking, picking their way through the mine field of snow-covered sharks, razor sharp teeth hungry for a mouthful of P-tex. But then a snowboarder glides by with superior flotation, a big smile, double shakas and in an instant the skins are out, and we’re laughing and going through the ritual first-day-of-the-season faff. Frip’s bindings aren’t set to his boots and his slick new multi-tool doesn’t have the right screwdriver to make the adjustment. I somehow stored my boots for the summer with the liners switched and my feet are now punishing me for such a rookie move. But there’s no need to hurry, no crowd-induced stress, and soon enough we’re up and moving and I’m breathing hard, wondering where that rhythm could have gone that a mere five months ago seemed as natural as if it was embedded in my DNA. A cold north wind is bearing down on us and I’m sweating like a … erm … well, like a Muslim army psychiatrist about to stand trial for gunning down 13 of his fellow countrymen.

Clearly struggling

Way steeper than it looks. No, really.

I can feel the beginning of a blister on my right heel, I can’t catch my breath. How could I have forgotten to bring my thigh muscles? I stop, lungs bursting, and I kick up a ski to scrape the ice from the base of my ski skin. It’s a delicate maneuver and as I balance precariously the boozy chemical imbalance in my system takes its toll. Like a tree in the forest I fall slowly and surely into the cold, wet snow. Frip laughs and I laugh with him and there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than in Chamonix in Movember in the snow.

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Chamonix in Movember. Rockin'.