15 September, 2010

Interview With Liz Jones

Liz Jones has been climbing with Mountain Tracks for the last 3 summers. She specialises in hard Alpine routes, and is equally happy on rock, ice or mixed ground. Liz steers away from the big snowy routes and peaks, instead choosing technical climbs of high difficulty.
Liz lives in Yate, Gloucestershire and to prepare for Alpine climbs she trains in North Wales and the Brecon Beacons. If you live anywhere close to Yate, you may have been served by Liz in the local Tesco where she works.

MD:What inspired you to begin alpine climbing?

LJ: My first walking trip to Chamonix in 2000 inspired me to want to climb Mont Blanc, so I returned the following year with my then boyfriend and climbed with a guide. We did several easy classic routes which built up to an ascent of the Cherie Couloir on the last day. The boyfriend hated it and never returned but I was bitten by the bug and never looked back. I still haven't climbed Mont Blanc though!!

MD:How do you prepare for your Alpine climbing? What advice would you give to people before their climbing trip begins?

LJ: My preparation for a climbing trip. Mmmm, not enough!! I am lucky to possess a pretty good level of basic fitness from just general day to day walking the dog and looking after my horses. I supplement this with long hill walks and running. I try to make sure that I'm as fit as I can be, even if this means that I have to sacrifice climbing days for a good long walk in the hills. I find that I can get climbing fit indoors if needs be. In fact, I think that you can get a lot stronger by climbing indoors rather than messing around on easy rock routes. However, I try to make sure I get plenty done outside on long multi-pitch routes to get the head around the whole exposure thing, as the big routes in the Alps are on a whole different level to anything home here.

My advice to anyone coming out to the Alps for an alpine climbing holiday, whether to climb rock or big peaks, is to be as fit as you can possibly be. I also would advise getting to know which foods you like when you are being pushed to your physical limit. I find it really hard to eat on routes especially at altitude. I know from experience that I like Twix and saucisson! It's definitely worth getting as slick as possible with all your rope work too, it saves a lot of time. You can end up in some spectacular positions and the pressure is on to get everything right.

MD:What do your work colleagues think about your exploits?

LJ: My job couldn't be further removed from the mountain environment!! I work for Tesco as a checkout girl!! My customers have no idea that whilst scanning their groceries, my brain is working overtime planning the next big route in the Alps. My managers don't actually know what I do on my holidays, best not to tell them!! Some people there think I'm mad, as they are more interested in OK magazine and Eastenders, but a lot of my colleagues are very interested even if they don't actually understand exactly what I get up to.

MD:Describe a magical moment you have experienced when alpine climbing.

LJ: That is a difficult question as there have been so many. But if I had to choose one, then it would be sitting below the North face of the Tour Ronde, waiting for dawn to break. It was the first time I had experienced the alpine night sky properly, as we just sat and looked up, rather than walking head down. The sunrise was as perfect as the route. And we had that all to ourselves as well, which is rare indeed.

MD:How do you feel about the dangers associated with alpine climbing?

LJ:I have yet to experience a thunderstorm up close and personal, but hopefully by good planning, speed, and close attention to the weather forecast, it's something that I can watch from the valley balcony. There is always going to be danger in the mountains, and you need to be aware but not let it become an overriding thought, or you cannot get anything done up there. When the worry overrides the enjoyment, then it's time to give up.

MD:You tend to steer away from the big Snowy peaks, in favour of more technical routes, why is this?

LJ:I think that I'll leave those for the time in the future when I have worn out my fingers on the rock!! I do like a good view from a summit though, but I like to feel that I've had to work for that summit a little bit harder, hence the reason I like more technical routes.

MD:Which routes do you aspire to climb?

LJ:Routes that I would love to climb, well, there is an endless list!! But if I had to pick five, then they would be as follows. Cassin route on the Piz Badile, Freney Pillar, Walker Spur, Diable Ridge and the Ginat Route on Le Droites.

MD:What’s next for Liz Jones?

LJ:I would like to attempt some long ice routes in the Alps this winter. I'm also going to get as many days in the hills as possible as I am going to start working towards my International Mountain Leader qualification. I have made plans to spend three months in Chamonix next summer, with the intention of getting plenty of days trail walking for my logbook. This will of course mean that I'll be getting very fit, and I intend to put this to good use in the higher mountains as well, and will fit in as much climbing as my fingertips will allow!!

09 September, 2010

How difficult is the Matterhorn?

The Matterhorn is the most easily recognised peak in the world. Many climbers and walkers aspire to climb it. But how difficult is the Matterhorn? This is a question we are asked frequently. The fact is, looking from Zermatt, the peak looks nothing short of terrifying! Compared to most alpine peaks it looks impossibly steep and uncompromising. But on the other hand it is a popular mountain which is climbed on a daily basis by people without vast amounts of experience. The route is both complex and loose, so it is a necessity that the leader knows the mountain well. We would never advise attempting the peak without using a qualified guide.

The most important attributes for the ascent of the Matterhorn are fitness, determination and 'sure footedness'. Typically the summit day is between 9-12 hours, that's pretty much non-stop without long breaks. There is an old joke regarding the lack of rests. 'A British climber was tired on the approach to the Solvay hut (half way bivouac refuge). So he says to his Zermatt guide "please can we rest and have a drink", to which the Zermatt guide replies "yes, at the Solvay Hut". When they get to the Solvay hut the guide does not stop. The English climber, says "I thought we could stop for a rest at the Solvay hut" to which the Guide replies "yes that's right, on the way down"!

Sure-footedness is of prime importance on the Matterhorn. This is different to climbing ability. I have guided good climbers who are not sure footed and non-climbers who are surefooted! This simply means the ability to be agile and secure when scrambling on rock, ice and snow. This ability can be learned by practising scrambling and easy climbing. The climbing on the Matterhorn is not so hard, but it is exposed. That means it is important not to take a fall.

When climbed via the Hornli ridge, the Matterhorn ascent is graded AD with a vertical height gain of 1300m (from the Hornli refuge). The climbing is never more difficult than the British grade 'Moderate'. The climbing is mainly on rock, however the upper section is usually snow and ice. The most difficult sections have fixed ropes.

There is no doubt that climbing the Matterhorn is an intensly satisfying experience, and one which will stay with you for a lifetime. Plus, everybody has heard of the Matterhorn so it is instantly recognised by family and friends.

At Mountain Tracks we offer Matterhorn courses from July - September. The courses are 6 days in length and include 4 days of training & acclimatization climbs around Zermatt or Saas Grund prior to the 2 day Matterhorn ascent. Participants should have some alpine mountaineering experience before the Matterhorn week, although being an expert climber is not a prerequisite.

These pictures were all taken from a recent trip with Don McGill and David Rowlands. Both summited the Matterhorn on Friday, 3rd September 2010.

If you'd like to climb the Matterhorn, take the first step by contacting our office on +44 20 8123 2978 or by emailing Chris at chris@mountaintracks.co.uk

08 September, 2010

Up Close and Personal with an Icy Time Bomb

I have just made a successful Mont Blanc with a Mountain Tracks team of 5. On the way up to the TĂȘte Rouse hut we passed all the engineering works for the draining of the subterranean glacial pool. There are thousands of gallons of water trapped in a large pool below the TĂȘte Rouse glacier. If the pool bursts it will send a raging torrent down towards St Gervais. It's not as if it hasn't happened before. Last time this occurred in the 1800’s it killed a few hundred people. Now it's predicted to affect more than 9000 inhabitants should the worst happen.
I took some shots of the instruments used as an early warning.

There is radio transmitter station connected to a cable running across the gully below the main glacier bowl. This is supposed to detect increases in water flow rate. I'm no hydrology engineer but it seems to me if you live in St Gervais you have about 10 minutes to start running up hill!
To drain the lake French engineers have been drilling and digging into the glacier and extracting the water using large pumps. This is lengthy process hampered by the recent poor weather in the Alps. I should imagine they are worried winter will come early and make working at 3200m impossible.
We had a snippet of these conditions last week where the temperatures at that altitude fell to -15degrees with strong winds and snow. Working in these conditions is impossible as all metal equipment starts to freeze. I'm pretty sure the engineers aren’t too happy working in these conditions either.
If the subterranean lake isn't drained in the next two months temperatures will hamper further progress leaving the problem unresolved until the spring. It is already having an effect on ascents of Mont Blanc and walking the Tour du Mont Blanc as certain paths are closed and the TMB train stops an hour short of the top. Due to this Mountain Tracks have been running some of our Mont Blanc ascents from the Aiguille du Midi as it’s a shorter return journey.

Olly Allen

Mountain Tracks Guide