Wednesday 2 May 2018

Northern Hemisphere Winter

Myself on The Chute, one of the few winter routes I did this season. Although not particularly hard, it is not often in condition, and it felt good to have got it done. 
It is a long time since I last updated my blog, for which I apologise. I kept meaning to do it, but kept getting distracted. Also, until recently there were no significant events, hard winter routes or interesting trips away in my life to write about. However, an imminent change of circumstances has spurred me into action. As I type this I am sitting on a train on it’s way to London, my first step on my journey to return to the Antarctica for another austral winter. However, more on that later.

Although it does not feel like it, it is now five months since I left Rothera. Returning to Scotland in mid December, I had about three days before starting my winter job as an avalanche forecaster. 
Work wise it was a busy winter for myself due to a combination of factors. I did not manage to get much climbing in for myself, I certainly did not do anything that I would regard as hard or  significant. However,  I did mange a pleasant route or two,  and despite a lack of climbing it was a satisfying winter.  
A pleasant day avalanche forecasting on Ben Nevis. 
Some winters, such as the winter of 2016/17, are quite pleasant weather wise, but with little snow on the hills. During these winters being out on the hills is quite pleasant, but the avalanche hazard is quite a bit lower, and the work feels less satisfying. There are other winters which are characterised by stormy conditions with lots of precipitation and freeze/thaw cycles. Although these winters can build good ice conditions, lots of strong winds and regularly getting soaked by the incessant West coast rain makes work harder going. However, the avalanche hazard tends to be higher making the work more satisfying if physically less pleasant.

This winter seemed to be the best of both worlds, there was a fair bit of snow meaning with work felt worthwhile, as well the skiing being pretty good, but it was generally below freezing on the hills, so things were good in terms of comfort. I could definitely handle a few more winters like that one.

Through the winter I was pondering Antarctica, and whether I should go back down to Rothera for another winter season. Before I had even left Rothera previously I had been offered a position as a field guide the following season. BAS were keen for me to head down in the middle of March so as to be able to catch the last flight on the season into Rothera. This had felt a bit too soon, I had wanted to remain in the Northern hemisphere into the Northern spring. Fortunately however, there was a change of circumstances, and an opportunity arose to head South in late April/early May. That tipped the decision in the direction of heading South for another austral winter in Rothera.
Sunshine and good snow. Ski touring near the Gran Paradiso in Italy. 
Being around for March and April gave me the opportunity to get involved in a bit of Alpine ski touring. However, all the people I knew who were going out were at times when I was not available. Then I noticed a post on social media from a Scottish guy called Chris Dickenson who was already out in France with a car and who was looking for people to go touring with in a few weeks time after the people he was with had to go home. I did not know Chris, but a little research suggested he knew what he was doing and as I was keen to get touring in the Alps, this seemed like a very hassle free way to get that done. I sent him a message, and we made a plan. A few weeks later I flew to Lyon, from where it is easy to get the train to a place called Oulx in the Italian Alps where I met Chris. In the days leading up to travelling the weather forecast had been poor. The the Gran Paradiso area seemed to offer opportunities given the forecast, and so we headed there. In the end the weather was not as bad as was forecast, and we had a good five days hut to hut touring in the Gran Paradiso area. I was impressed by the Italian huts, particularly the quieter ones which were off the beaten track (i.e not on the main route up the Gran Paradiso itself.). 
Great weather conditions whilst touring in the Vanoise. 
I had also been invited on another touring trip a few weeks later. Initially, I was not sure if I would be able to go on this one due to the timing of various medical check ups required by BAS for my work in Antarctica. However, a cancellation by someone else allowed to to re-arrange  the timing of some of these, and I was able to head out again. My friend Andy from Inverness was also going and had made all the arrangements. All I had to do was book my flights and get myself to Aviemore where he would pick me up and drive me to the airport. At the other end, in Geneva we were picked up by Tom, another friend who was already out there.

Arriving in the Alps we did not really have much of a plan. The forecast was looking pretty good all over. After a fair bit of discussion, in the end we decided upon the Vanoise area. There we managed six days hut to hut ski touring with great weather, with an ascent of the Gran Casse (3856m) on the final day being a bit of a highlight. 
Andy and Tom at the summit of the Grand Casse, the highest peak in the Vanoise.