All photo's are Copyright of Scott Swalling or the tagged Photographer. (Background photo Scott Swalling Photography).

About Me:

24Hr MTBike racer and general bike rider, climber and mountaineer. Good coffee drinker and cake eater (any cake, seriously, don't leave your cake laying around). Also, I like to try new things that challenge me.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Ice climbing, head spanners, chamois, Cogne and Chamonix

Every year a friend Dave Pegler organises Ice Fest, non-guiding, non-coaching, just accommodation, excellent food, wine and some local knowledge.

This year it was in Cogne and would be my first time ice climbing in 5 years and with the absence of any real climbing in the past 4 years, it was always going to be interesting.

But with some training under the belt and feeling surprisingly fit, other than a servere lack of sleep.  Daniel and I bundled our gear including skis into my van and headed off for a 12 hr drive to Cogne.  The drive went surprisingly well bar some confused French when buying some food.   We arrived in Cogne in pretty good time.

I had smuggled some Alpkit Frazils, my Filoment, Balance jacket, Qark and a number of their base layers and fleeces out of the country as well, to give them a proper beating in the mountains.  I will do a separate review blog on them.

Dave, Tommy and Andre all arrived safe and sound a little while after us, and Ice Fest 2019 Cogne was a go.

Dan and I had some ideas of what we wanted to climb but had no real goals (maybe I should have set mine even lower).  With a few routes picked as options for the week, we settled into a pizza meal and beers at Bar Licone.

I won't go through each day and climb in detail, but pick out the low and high-lights. Plus I am not convinced I am writing as well as I use to at present, out of practice.

Day 1, would prove to be the first low-light. Dan and I headed to Candelabro del Coyote WI4 as it looked good and we had both climbed many routes beyond this grade. After short and eventful very icy walk in and once of those little scrambles that warms the body. We arrived at the base and Dan opted for first pitch, which he dispatched slowly but confidently allowing for his return to ice climbing after a similar break.  I started to second and it was going wrong from the start.  Huffing and puffing like to 2 pack a day smoker I eventually made the belay, in no state to continue on.  I took a moment and then decided I really couldn't push on. So we abbed off, Dan calm and understanding, me disappointed, but chalking it up to exhaustion.

   Dan on the 1st pitch of Candelabro del Coyote

                                                                                                       Further up the first pitch of CdC.

There was some discussion of what to do over another great dinner prepared by Dave.

Day 2 would see us take a walk into Valnontey and after very close encounter with our first Chamois (about 3 meters from Dan, we would now see Chamois almost every day) and a walk up to the Super Repentence area (closed for vulture nesting), we returned to what we would later learn was Patri and enjoyed a fun easy few picthes in the beautiful valley, the only one with any real snow cover.

Dan appears from the fun, but short lived rock chute on Patri

On the exploration walk before getting on Patri
Day 3 we opted for Thule a surprisingly steep 3+, after a battery issue with the van, we made the short approach and I lead the first pitch. Whilst I got through this without any issues, there was a moment of doubt that caused some overt screw placing and slow progress.  Over the top and on to the annoyingly easy angled ice and up to a belay.  The sun had hit the ice on the last pitch, but the ice had clearly been melting for a while.  The thin ice curtain hung running like a shower.  As Dan arrived at the belay, we had the discussion and he decided the curtain was to thin and wet for his liking and we retreated. Again there was a very large chamois buck, whilst Dan threatened it with the pot, I am sure it would have had him.

I had felt overall better in the head on this day and was a bit more fired up.

The van being grumpy

Dan under Thule (how can it melt when it is minus 8?)

Day 4 and a complete and utter head spanner. Dan and I headed back to Candelabro del Coyote. I felt fitter and hadn't experienced any real head issues, none that I had not overcome before mid route.  I chose to take the first pitch.  Long story short, my confidence was severely misplaced and I would soon disappoint myself and in my mind let down Dan.  I basically lost the confidence in myself to repeat moves I had just completed on the shelfed ice fall and placed far too many screws, I hung around for ages, without any physically detrimental impact to my arms or legs, but my head would not let me move up.  I have never experienced such a loss of confidence and found myself along way from climbing much harder ice in Kandersteg, Vallouise and La Grave and much harder Scottish winter.  Basically I was confused at the monumental loss of confidence and I was stopped on the ice.  I had to backed off, and appologised to Dan about 50 times as we walked out and made other plans. (Dan was very understanding, one of the reasons he makes an excellent climbing partner and is a great friend).

Whilst Dan, Dave, Tommy and Andre were all supportive, I was pissed off with myself and needed my own head space to be even good company let alone climb, which I was given.

Day 5 started me with reminding myself I have done naff all climbing in 5 years and that I know how to get back to the best I was, but it won't happen this trip. That a few routes have now been chosen for fun.  A fun outing on Cascade Lillaz (a few photo's below) was calm and exactly that, fun, but we avoided the running water of the first pitch and got caught in the queues.  But everyone was pleasant and it was more like a day at the crag.

A) A busy Cascade Lillaz, B) Dan cruising the final pitch.

On Day 6 we walked back into Valnontey (it really is a beautiful valley) to the classic Acheronte. After an interesting and totally new approach and a little waiting at the first pitch for some other teams. I started up, head in a good place, happy and climbing with confidence. Once through the difficulties I mved the full rope length with a few well placed screws and Dan started up behind me. We moved as one until the route narrowed, we caught the other teams and I ran out of gear.  Not long after Dan arrived at the belay he could move up to the next belay (he had all the gear after all).  After a while his voice crackled over the radio to get comfy as we had a little wait. I watched chamois (about 20 or so), bounce from rock to rock, dart back into the trees and generally make our movement on such ground look slow and cumbersome. After being hit a few times by ice, he called me up and I soon joined him and member of another team "chained" to the belay.  The route narrowed greatly above and one of the teams above was about to abb.  It was far to tight to climb whilst they abb, not to mention the above belay was shit.

 Waiting for the first pitch on Acheronte to clear a little.
 Overjoyed with being hit by ice bouncing bombs, with only a small flake to hide behind.

Soon I could lead the narrow and thinly veiled (in parts) ice and rock, it was more like Scotland which strangely gave me a boost. Wiggling my shoulders through the narrowest bits, placing axes and crampons rather than kicking and soon the belay and the 2 seconds of the other team ahead were in view.  Shortly after, they headed off and I got on belay. Dan climbed up, just as the abb rope appeared from above and a little bit of good humoured chaos ensued. Everyone secure and no-one left above Dan, headed off for the last pitch, which had a fun Scottish finish to it.  I soon followed, enjoyed a short stint of dry tooling and we were at the top. A quick photo opt and then we abbed.  It was certainly a classic and a good recommendation from Andre Clarke.

 Dan leading the 2nd proper pitch on Acheronte.
Photo opt at the top.

We had been held up a bit by the other teams so time had got away.  As we sped out of the valley in fading light and on icy terrain, I hadn't noticed my threadbare socks rubbing, with about 1km left to walk out, I suddenly did. I slowed behind Dan and after a lot of very short but rapid steps we were back to the van and soon back in Cogne for dinner and wine, beer and Ruko gin.

 A and B, heading back into Valley Valnontey, it was tad cold.

As for my heals, I had taken several layers of skin off, I committed to Chandelle Levure 4+ with Dan. So repair would be conducted in the morning once the skin had dried a bit. No pics of that grimness sorry.

Day 7 and the last day in Cogne, we head back into Valeille Rive Gauche and onto Chandelle Levure.  I had to pace myself as my heals were killing me directly out of the van.  My goal was to climb enough to get Dan to the last pitch.  Once at the base of the climb I headed up the first easy pitch, using most of the rope and reaching a sunny belay and called Dan up.  The ground above looked supper easy and took very little time to cover. Although every step hurt.  I started off up the next easy pitch, with the assumption that the bigger cave was the where the belay was, as this would make the last pitch a bit longer and more interesting.  I should have read the guide book. with only 3 screws left I had to set up and ice screw belay in a safe location and Dan headed up.  But now my heals were screaming "Kill me now!" I muttered "STFU". Dan arrived grab some gear and headed up, theres was enough rope, but again number of ice screws on harness lead to actually finding the bolted belay in the cave above. I soon followed and could no longer bear the pain.  Shortly before the belay I hatched a plan with Dan, the last pitch being so short, if it was safe to do so, he would lead and then I could lower him off.  If not, I would have to suck it up. "Could I campus the last pitch?" I thought.

Dan headed off and made short work of the first half, then it steepened a little more. A little shake out and a final screw and he was on top.  I was joined by a great Italian chap by this time (from Tuscany), he had driven up that morning with his mate.  His English was better than mine and I asked him if he was OK with our plan and explained why. He was great!

 Dan starting up the last pitch of Chandelle Levure

Soon Dan was back down and we abbed off and started the slow walk back to the van.  I was happy to be able to get to that point for Dan.  All I had left to do now was worry about if my fitted ski boots would kill my heals more?

Every route Dan I did (or tried) was excellent, the atmosphere, the beauty of the valleys and the styles of route are endless and fantastic.  I will certainly head back and I will go back at the peak of my point end game and get on routes based on what I like the look of, that has always put me in good stead in the past.

That ended the week in Cogne on Ice Fest and as per usual we had to try and drink most of the alcohol that night, it is tradition really and we did OK.

The next day we were off to Chamonix for 2 days of planned ski randonee and to visit my sister Kathleen and her other half Andy.  Unfortunately a we couldn't meet until that evening so Dan and I headed for Les Houches and a ski randonee which I knew was going to kick my butt. Being able to ride uphill for ages is not the same as being able to ski uphill for ages. Not one bit! When your Norwegian mate makes it look as easy as walking, rubs salt into the wound a little, although not into the wound on my heals as those fitted boots hugged my feet comfortably to the top.

 Dan making it look too easy

 Worth the effort to ski up and "Earn those turns".

The route goes from the bottom of the Prarion Lift to the top and weaves a lovely route to the top, with some nice climbing through the trees and plenty of steep little turns to practice your kick turns.  Mine improved a great deal by the summit. But heck it actually gave me more of a kicking than I expected.

After a short while at the top, we kicked into downhill mode, but I could only last about 200 metres before I had to stop and shake my legs out. Whilst I stood shaking one leg whilst the other trembled, Dan laughed and laughed and made a comment I won't repeat, but it was pretty funny.  Surprisingly, as we descended further my legs recovered bit by bit. So not a bad sign after all.  The idea of earning your turns always appeals, but this has tended to be a short boot pack from the highest lift for me in the past.  But I really wish to do more ski mountaineering and get to those more remote places.

 200m's down from here, I as nearly crying. "My legs, my legs".

So all in all a mixed week in the mountains. But I was in the mountains, I had fun (mostly) and I am motivated again to climb (after I sort some major DIY out).  Of course I was in the mountains with great friends, got to meet a few new ones, to see my sister Kath and Andy, spending sometime with them in St Gervais.

Thanks to Dave for organising Ice Fest, do check them out on Facebook.
Thanks to Kath, Andy, (please say thanks to Estelle and Justin, again for us.)
Thanks to Dan for, well just being Dan.  If you meet him, you will understand.
Thanks to the long suffering Nik for suggesting going, whilst she stayed at home with our 3.8 year old and 9 week old. Thankfully Skype ensured they didn't disown me.

Of course thanks to Alpkit who have made some many climbing trips dry and comfortable in the past and this was no exception.

For those interested I will be reviewing the gear I took on this trip and other Alpkit bits I have been battering for a while now.  Also, Dynafit are getting a jersey with a multi-pupose helmet review, as it was basically near impossible to find a non-bias review on such helmets.

Happy climbing everyone and if you ever have an unshakeable head spanner. Remember to take sometime and space, reflect on what you have achieved in the past positively. Don't let it own you, but remember how you achieved those goals. Remember that and to have fun. If you need to scream to get the frustration out, go right ahead and do it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Dorset Gravel Dash 100 - Beers, bikes and pirates. Aaarrrhhhh!

Charlie The Bike Monger, the purveyor of fine bicycles in Swanage, has been running the Dorset Gravel Dash 50:50 and 100 for a couple for a few years now.

The 50:50 is an over night bike packing, eating an drinking fest, which sees many participants enjoy the riding, food and the antics of the combination of alcohol, fire and bikes in an empty farmers field. Many of the 50:50 arrive back at The Red Lion in worse condition than the 100 riders.

The 100, bikes off the entire route in one day and there are brutal climbs to get the blood flowing in the early stages.  The 2 years I have done it now have been single speed over the 100. This year it was on the Sonder Broken Road and a slightly changed and more challenging course, with far too much sticky mud.

Before DGD100

After a few ciders, a great lasange at The Red Lion in he company of may pirates and their antics (Swanage Pirate Festival) and a group of divers, it was time for a walk watch the sun set, park the van up on the shore and watch the lighting show roll in and fall asleep.

Waking early to find my rear tyre flat was not ideal, then for the tubeless valve to snap, less ideal, first tube in was faulty, even less ideal. 2nd spare tube did the trick. I would need to buy 2 spares of Charlie shortly after the start. Food and coffee whilst I hid from the biblical rain, which stopped a few minutes before the start.

Once signed in and having made a plan with Charlie and Sam to get my tubes, I drifted to the back of the 100 riders.  After some fine poetry from Charlie, we were off, well, me to the shop first.

Paid for and stuffed in my saddle bag, I headed off confident in my new spares if anything would go wrong (it didn't). Having wasted 10-15 minutes I was very surprised to be catching people up this climb. I combination of single speed grinding and walking (running slowly) I crested the first obstacle.  Reward with fine views and big blue skies.

Onward, over familiar ground, spinning, grinding, running and walking, I paced myself making good time, enjoying the views and chatting to others as I went. Yo-yoing with others over the differing terrain, where the mix of gravel, mountain, CX and fat bikes, rubbed shoulders.

The weather was stunning and made me forget mostly about my legs, sore from kilometer 20, Charlies helpers, where in the perfect spots both times and filled us with water and treats.  The best of which was a Lance ball, I had two.  My short stop in the pub at Humble before the hill forts proved helpful also, OJ and more water was chosen over a beer and pub lunch.

From 30+ k's to go I found myself alone, having broken the elastic on my Yo-yo. My Garmin gave me a warning beep of Low Battery and my legs started to spin a bit faster. 20 to go I lifted the cadence again. It is not a race, but a personal challenge and I was doing just that.

The last punch in the guts comes at about 6k to go, Old Henry the climb back up onto Purbeck Way is tough after the day in the saddle, and the rough section before the crest was just too much for my legs. Off and brisk walk to the crest of the hill and straight back to work. Across the top and then through a herd of the most chilled cows in the world.

Now it was down for the last time, a tricky descent, made easier by some walkers opening the top gate for me and some 50:50 riders holding the bottom one open too. A slick descent and onto the road to run back into The Red Lion and the finish.

I managed to be 1st Single Speed back by some way and 8th overall according to the unofficial results board (It's not a race!). I felt like I had worked hard and finding a friendly face proceeded with some celebrations in food and drink form.

Again the after event antics were funny and certainly entertaining. Charlie with the combination of pirates, Drunk Cyclist and Surly International Drinking team, certainly made it lively.

After DGD100 and the very sticky mud

It is quietly one of the best events I do and I'll do again. It has a subtle international feel as riders are learning more about the event from near and far.  The scenery is amazing and The Red Lion is a super chilled start and finish venue and Charlie is a showman.

A massive big up to Charlie and his helpers and to Sam, who holds the fort down until every rider is safely home. I hope to see the event grow (not too big) but enough to make it a regular event on the calendar.

As for the Broken Road, I have to give that it's own blog. But I wanted one the first time I rode one a couple of years back.  I was right, it is an awesome bike.  I am excited about it as much as I was about my SIR9 Niner, probably more so, that is really saying something. More on that soon.

Thanks to Sonder/Alpkit, SurreyHillsCycleWorks and Wolf Tooth Components for getting me set up and the bike tweaked to perfection.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Hi all,
So I have had an Alpkit Arro and Balance jacket for sometime now and have tested both extensively.  I give a short review of both below.

This is a lightweight, small (not ultra small) packing waterproof. It breathes really well and is cut nicely so as to not be too baggy for cycling and still have room for a few thin layers and plenty of movement to swing an ice axe.

The hood is ample for most helmets and snugs down well, helmet or not. A slight smaller peal than my Crux Shock, but that is no issue, and the Shock is built for full gnarl, winter ice with sharp teeth (check out the Alpkit Definition).  The Balance is built to do a lot of things really well.  So far I have found it does this.

On the bike is always a real test for jacket.  The Balance has passed with flying colours, decent overlap with waterproof trousers, doesn't ride up and in wettest test days, 5hrs in the rain and grot, stayed dry. The top of my waterproof shorts were bone dry to prove this.  It has easily out performed my much loved Endura Flyte

The dual pit zip vent/map pocket vent really well and are good pockets, although I do think too many wet mild walks, and the lack of separate map pocket and pit zip vent might bother me. But on the bike and climbing, it is not noticeable as I keep nothing in those pockets.  Maybe a small phone/camera sized chest pocket could be added for little weight gain?

The only other tiny quibble would be I think the storm flap could be a little wider. I found sometimes that on a really active decent or just throwing it on quickly the storm flap easily folded back on itself and the wind cut through the zip a little.  But this was only on occasion and easily manageable.

I love this jacket and it is as minimal as I would go, but still give great performance from the elements. My Endura Flyte now sits as quality spare for when the UK really turns on the muddy riding weather.

 Balance proving it's breathe ability in a sunny but cold Kielder.

Not much to say here other than, just buy one.  It is the best lightweight wind stopper I own.  I have a couple of the Endura wind stoppers and they are great, but they don't pack like this does or are as light, unless you buy the FS260 Pro Cape.  But that is not a multi-purpose jacket, I have, biked (a lot) ran, climbed, carried the rug rat in her backpack and even cut wood in this jacket.

It is loose fitting, which allows some layering, but it is again not too baggy.  The cut ensures your lower back isn't exposed when hunch over the bars chewing on your stem. It has a small (I find) super useful zip pocket on the right side hem, which my keys nestle in - out of the way (even with a small pack on). Whilst it is not a brushed back soft shell, it certain is comfy against bare arms.

As for wear, this should be falling apart by now, as it gets used or packed for every 2nd ride. As you can see above, it still looks new.

The technical bit.
I won't go into details as Alpkit have them here in these links:



I say buy the Arro and really consider the Balance as a multi-purpose does it all really well light weight jacket, I haven't had the chance to test the Balance skiing yet, but I am sure it will be as great ski touring as it is biking. Super glad I got mine.