Wet and Windy Wales

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell here we are home a fraction earlier than anticipated. Wales took the brunt of the wild winds and torrential rain that arrived in the UK this week.  Our timing for self-indulgent masochistic pleasure could not have been better planned. Luke and I had waited our whole lives to be able to cycle in such conditions. Although our planned routes were circular, it appeared that the wind, that was capable of tearing branches from leaf laden trees, was rarely behind us, choosing to either confront us head on causing us to vainly shelter behind the handlebars, or to try to rip us off our saddles from the side as we passed gaps in field hedges. Two secluded usually gently flowing summer streams were near impassable torrents of water. The roads beneath trees were covered with debris and camouflaged fallen branches waiting to ambush us.

Luke had put together what was expected to be six fantastic days of cycling in different OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAparts of Wales. He had devised routes to incorporate some classic climbs such as The Devil’s Staircase, The Tumble and the beautiful Dragon Ride. These rides were to range in length from 113km to 163km and with elevations between 1,775 and 2,921 metres. However the weather took it’s toll and with only a short respite from the rain on the fourth day and still no let-up in the wind, the forecast was a return to more heavy rain and continuing high wind for the fifth day and only a short window of drier weather on the sixth day, there seemed little point in prolonging our ecstatic pleasure of riding in such joyous conditions.  We had still climbed around 7,000m of elevation over 350km consuming 1,000 calories every hour.

As I write this on what would have been our fifth day, with the rain lashing at the window, I have slight regrets at not continuing, because today Luke and I would have been cycling in the beautiful hills around Snowdonia and still being buffeted and soaked.

To my good friend Luke, my thanks for your hard work in planning this trip. Yes, the weather was extraordinary, but in a strange way, (a very strange way) the challenging conditions have made sure we will remember this trip for many years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are some photos that have been posted in the ‘gallery’ section of the website. As with all good advertisements, they depict the best of the weather, primarily because when the weather was really bad, I was too cold, too fed-up and my uncontrollable shivering body was incapable of holding the camera still.

Please enjoy.

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CYCLING THE GENTLER ROUTE

IMG_1647One of the many attractions to sport is the choice of the levels of indulgence anyone of us opt for. We are inspired by those who have achieved the pinnacle of their chosen sport and may hold some hope of attaining a vaguely similar level of performance. Although this is an admirable goal, a reality check usually confirms we will have to be content with a more realistic expectation. Normal people rarely have the single mindedness, time, finance or masochistic trait to exclude all else in their lives to commit to such an objective. This is in no way a defeatist attitude, but does allow the mind to be opened to sport for more pure enjoyment.

Cycling, (I’m talking about road cycling here, as my knowledge of any other disciplines of cycling is astoundingly ignorant), cycling is a sport that encourages a high degree of competitiveness across the spectrum of riders. Show me a cyclist that can resist trying to catch another who he sees ahead of him. Show me a cyclist who having seen another behind him does not increase his cadence and generates more wattage to put distance between him and the impertinent challenger.

Yet .. there are those who cycle without sweating and do not relish the feeling of a Lactic OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAacid burn, who can happily wave and wish good day to a passing cyclist, who more than likely, as he waves a response is thinking, that’s another one overtaken. In most, the need to perform and constantly improve is strong and is positively encouraged, you have only to look at all the Apps available to record, compare and brag about. We benchmark ourselves against our peers. This, coupled with a personal need to seek thrills, feel the adrenaline and indulge in physical exhaustion, collude to fixate us with the viewpoint that ‘if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t doing us any good’.

Yet….  there are those who cycle for pleasure. They see the countryside they travel through, they stop to admire the view and to compose their photos. They seek out excellent coffee houses and restaurants. Even spending enough time off the saddle for it to cool down while they visit a castle, historic house or medieval hill top town.

I am addicted to adrenaline, that indescribable feeling of pushing the limits. Not as OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcavalier as purposely trying to cheat death, but life without risk, without that wild emotion of needing to be excited, would for me and so many others, be like locking us in a dark room and throwing the key away. But there is a place for sedate, relaxing cycling. If we indulge in anything for long enough, however extreme that is, it becomes normalized. We need variety and opposites to ensure the drug of adrenaline continues to be effective.

Anne and I have recently returned from a cycling holiday, a distinction very apparent from a cycling training ‘camp’. Anne enjoys her cycling, her rationale on performance is, well, more rational than mine. She will stop and enjoy those views and linger over a good cup of coffee. We had booked a holiday in Provence in France. I had at this time not realised that Mont Ventoux was quite close to our base.

We are very happy to tell you about our hosts and what they provided. Neil and Natalene Cowell have built a flexible business from their lovely period French home. Called Provence Cycling Holidays (which can also be found when searching for Memories de Provence). Located near the village of Coustellet not far from Avignon, Neil has devised an ingenious method of providing numerous cycle routes in the region. The region is then divided into smaller areas containing routes ranging from easy to hard, short     to long. It is simply a great system. Provence is a beautiful region of France and to have local knowledge to not only find wonderful places but the various routes to them in invaluable. Places like L’Isle sur la Sorgue and Lacoste. Neil and Natalene are also great hosts, providing a high standard of accommodation, breakfasts to die for and a gourmet evening meal on alternate nights where a variety of wines flow freely. Eating with them and in our case four other guests on alternate nights allowed us to sample the excellent local restaurants on the remaining evenings. Our fellow guests were a couple from Chicago and a couple from Vancouver.  Terry and Sue’s choice of cycle routes very much mirrored our own and we met frequently on the bikes during the week. With friendships sealed at the end of the week over a lingering dinner. Unfortunately we also provided a substantial meal for the local mosquitoes.

We rode every day, choosing our routes the previous evening. Each day was enjoyable, certainly not ‘hard core’ riding, covering up to 40 km and 500m of elevation. This opened my eyes to the fact that relaxed riding has a valid place on the spectrum. To satisfy my craving for more extreme cycling, I was granted ‘leave of absence’ for a day to cycle up Mont Ventoux.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVentoux was a must do ride for me. Having hired a bike in Bedoin, the first ascent was from there to the summit, descending to Sault before returning to the now windy summit. Speed on the second descent was hampered by the increasing velocity of The Mistral until arriving back below the tree line where it became possible to push the limits and enjoy the run back down to Bedoin.

So will I be seen cycling gently around the countryside? Probably not very often, but certainly on more occasions than before our holiday with Neil and Natalene.

Next week Luke and I head to Wales, where we plan some 100 mile rides each with several thousand metres of elevation. On this occasion our indulgence with food and drink will be during the evenings, with our minds focusing with increasing intensity on both as the day progresses.

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The Lure of the Scottish Mountains

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnly one winter’s climbing trip to the west of Scotland was planned for this year and that was courtesy of Neil Stutchbury’s invitation to do some more ice climbing, this to follow our very successful trip to Cogne in Italy a few weeks previous.

The annual ice climbing pilgrimage of either one or two trips to the Scottish mountains has been embedded for several years now, so we are fully aware that winter climbing in Scotland has a global uniqueness,  requiring  character traits  that find  discomfort, pain, a need to achieve and recognition of natural beauty, attractive. Hardly pure masochism, but on occasions, akin to it.

Neil had invited me to join him and his daughter’s boyfriend, Pete Hubbard and good friend, David Cronk to do some ice climbing probably in the Glencoe area.  For the first time I was to fly from Manchester up to Glasgow and after a delay of a few hours Storm Doris allowed us to depart.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had already established that there would not be sufficient ice to provide any meaningful climbing and although we kept our options open, it looked increasingly probable that we would be either rock climbing or ridge walking.  The forecast had not been favourable and to date had resulted in fresh soft snow on the high tops and reasonable formation of cornices that were becoming unstable in the warmer conditions. With high winds from the west our options weren’t great and on the Friday morning, having inspected The Three Sister’s area, we opted for a trip along the Aonach Eagach Ridge. Pete was to join us that evening.

We parked in the layby off the A82 at the eastern end of the Ridge and headed north up the slopes to Am Bodach. Nearing the start of the Ridge we passed several groups of climbers. Having donned harnesses and crampons we approached a further group, some of whom were experiencing difficulties in negotiating the first exposed down climbing section on Am Bodach. The offer of our rope was gratefully accepted, whilst they got theirs out. They then happily let us pass and we started to put distance between them and us as we were now the lead group. A situation we warmed to, knowing that no further groups were likely to hold us up on Meall Dearg. However whilst care had been required when moving over the rocks even behind others, that attention to detail was now paramount, as the rock was covered with deep but unconsolidated snow, making it harder to identify good hand and foot holds.

I had previously done the Aonach Eagach ridge from Sgurr nam Fiannaidh above theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Clachaig Inn ( at the western end) years ago, hiking up from the Red Squirrel Camp site and although a full on day, it had been done in the summer as a solo trip and was totally different to this winter outing. In winter the ridge is a different challenge and one that should not be undertaken as a solo adventure or by anyone without a reasonable degree of experience of climbing in adverse winter conditions.

The three of us were absorbed in our climbing, enjoying both the challenge and scenery that is unique to this part of Scotland. Whilst the wind was not strong, conditions underfoot were engaging and there was always the potential for a slip.

We had made good progress, with the first of the groups following us now several pinnacles behind. This is not to say we were rushing or being gung-ho. Quite the contrary.

008We had climbed The Pinnacles and with David in front followed by myself and Neil bringing up the rear we were unroped and moving at a steady pace. Without warning both David and I first heard Neil shout and then to our horror saw him completely airborne. His body seemed relaxed and open as he fell with incredible speed through the air. Having somersaulted before his first impact, he shouted “oh shit”.  Then he bounced on very steep ground and was thrown some twenty feet back into the air. He probably did two open rolls whilst in the air before hitting the ground again. Both impacts had been on sloping ground at 45 degrees and strewn with large boulders and smaller rocks. He was now rolling rapidly towards a ledge that dropped vertically down the mountain.  I had already thought that a fall of this magnitude could only result in tragedy. I was saying to myself, “Neil, Neil you poor bastard”. Then about five metres from the vertical drop, miraculously he stopped rolling and bless him, the first thing he thought of was to raise his arm to let David and I know that he was alive.

Yes, he was alive, but must have sustained considerable injuries. I set up an abseil for David to go down to Neil. David, a GP (thank goodness!) was very efficient and was soon by Neil’s side assessing his injuries. Neil had certainly been lucky and it appeared, had avoided any serious injury. No apparent broken bones or obvious signs of internal injuries, although early days to identify internal bleeding. He had sustained an injury to his left knee and backside. His helmet had a considerable crack on the left side. It had, if not saved his life, prevented severe head injury. Yes, he had lost his ice axe and his phone later was found to not work properly and the helmet was a mess, but amazingly he appeared to look OK.  Neil was however totally disorientated and had felt extremely dizzy and had probably blacked out immediately after the fall. He was determined to go on. With most of the technical climbing now done, we agreed that this was the best option and we would get off the Ridge as soon as possible. We all knew that getting off the Aonach Eagach can be difficult. To our south lay Coire Liath, an unlikely escape route with an injured climber. We either had to climb Stob Coire Leith and get onto easier ground on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and find a way down or call in Mountain Rescue. We had sufficient mountain skills and with David’s medical assessment of Neil and Neil’s determination to continue, we were satisfied that we could deal with the situation.

We roped up with David leading, Neil in the middle and me bringing up the rear, veryOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA conscious that Neil was in considerable pain and disorientated. There was still up climbing to be done on Stob Coire Leith and it became apparent that Neil was bleeding from his left knee, leaving patches of red in the snow. We decided to descend before Sgorr nam Fiannaidh immediately north of Loch Achtriochtan, some 800 metres below us. With loose rocks and wet snow over grass, our crampons balled up and compounded Neil’s pain. I was also in pain with the ever present sciatica, that kicks off big time when walking downhill. The cloud had long since drawn in and the rain was now persistent with increasing winds from the west. However arriving at the junction of the A82 and the Clachaig road, David got a lift in the first passing car, back up the A82 to retrieve our vehicle. In the meantime Neil and I walked very slowly towards the Clachaig Inn, warmth and beer, (no alcohol for Neil for a while, we still did not know his internal condition). We too were given a lift. Our thanks to the two girls who gave David a lift and the two guys who took Neil and me to the Clachaig.

Later we all returned to the YHA Hostel in Glencoe where David gave Neil a thorough examination and confirmed that there was no obvious serious injury. This had been the first of our three days climbing. It was Neil’s last for this trip.

Pete joined us later that night. On Saturday David, Pete and I hiked the beautiful Mam na Gualainn, a Corbett that sits immediately north of Loch Leven , west of the Mamores. Neil, unable to walk much, chose wisely to watch the two international rugby matches in the local pub in Kinlochleven.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe weather had cleared enough on the Saturday to allow that fantastic walk on Gualainn.  By evening the rain was back and Sunday morning was again wet. With a flight to catch from Glasgow later that afternoon choices were limited. We had come to climb ice and seen none. Now, there is a place called Dubh-Ghlac, also known as Onich Slabs. This is a recognised venue for Dry Tooling. I have to add that I have never climbed there in the dry. It is a place to visit when both time and venues are limited and weather is not perhaps the best. We all went, Neil offered encouragement, whilst Pete exhibited qualities exceeding expectations for his first introduction to Dry Tooling and David certainly enjoyed himself. I just love Dry Tooling, the delicate placing of front points and axes and balancing on seemingly too smaller nicks in the rock, ticks the boxes.

Surprisingly we weren’t that wet on our return to the car where David demonstrated scant regard for the coach load of Spanish tourists at the filling station, as he changed on the forecourt into drier clothes.

We said our farewells to Pete as we dropped him off at the hostel and drove onto Glasgow. As we drove south we saw hundreds of waterfalls coming off the hills, none of us had seen such wet weather before.

I would like to thank Neil for inviting me to climb with him and his friends. It would be OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwrong to say that the weekend was a great one, given Neil’s mishap. There were however many very enjoyable aspects, but the most important thing, was that Neil had survived a massive fall and for that I am so very grateful.

And the lesson learnt – however good we are at climbing, occasionally an accident happens. Each of us indulge ourselves in this sport for different, however similar reasons, (all well documented), but the risks that attract us and that we endeavour to manage are always present. It is exactly this, that is at the core of what attracts us to climb.

Here are just a few facts about the Aonach Eagach.  It sits north of Glencoe, running west/east. On it’s south side is the Bidean range which includes The Three Sisters and Ossian’s Cave    It is approximately 10kms long has a max. height of 967m above sea level. Once commenced it is difficult to escape the route until reaching either the western or eastern ends.

There are two Munro’s on the Ridge, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh 967m and Meall Dearg 953m and two Tops. There are 284 Munros and 517 Tops in Scotland.  A Corbett is a separate mountain over 2,500 feet.

 

 

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Ice Climbing in Italy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we get older and longer in the tooth, we either start to slow down or start to think that our time on this incredible planet is perhaps drawing to an end and yet there is still so much to do, to climb, to cycle, to kayak, or whatever is your passion. There are also those beautiful places on this planet to immerse yourself in whilst pursuing your sport.

Arriving home from having had Christmas with my youngest daughter and her family in Perth WA and having stopped off on route for a week of hiking and climbing in The Grampians in Victoria state, I returned to Manchester airport the following day for a flight to Geneva, where I met up with Neil Stutchbury for a planned week of ice climbing in Northern Italy.  We met with our guide, Andy Owen and made arrangements to drive to the Cogne area in Italy the following morning. Unlike for Mount Aspiring, the weather forecast for that area looked encouraging.

Neil and I had met in Nepal in 2015 and had since had a couple of Scottish climbing trips together. Over recent years I have become hooked on ice climbing and Neil is as keen as I am, so there was a recipe for an excellent week ahead.

Andy has worked for a company called Jagged Globe for many years and is an expert on the topography of the area. He is also a highly qualified guide, who among other big climbs has climbed El Cap in Yosemite, (a climb we certainly didn’t attempt when we were there last year).

The weather in the Valle di Cogne had been much colder the week before we arrived, downOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA to minus 10 to 15, however it had warmed up to around minus 5 and although many of the water falls were still active behind the ice, the ice was well formed and good for climbing. It is one of the wonders of ice climbing to be able to look through the ice and to see water running behind where you are placing your axes and if you can’t see it, to listen to it.

So with a great guide, (who can match Tim Vine with one liner jokes), excellent company and near perfect weather, we were ready to climb.

Our first day (31st Jan) saw us on L’Anfiteatro. We started the climb at the third of this four pitch climb, leading up from a frozen pond that in summer would be swum in underneath two cascading waterfalls. We climbed the left side twice using different lines and then climbed the four pitch, L’uscita di Destra, descending by an abseil and hike down to the first pitch. La Partenza di Destra. Arriving at the base of the second pitch we considered it too thin. A good days climbing, graded between 3 and 4.

Day two was the five pitch climb of Cascata di Valmiana, a 200m height gain with an overall grading of 3+. Having completed the full climb we returned to the start by an abseil and climbed the first pitch more to the right, this time to claim the grade 4 pitch.

Our third day saw us climbing the steep approach to the start of the classic Lillaz Gully, another 200m height gain. This route has four pitches and finished amongst trees having offered a varied and interesting climb.

We climbed Patri on our fourth day. This five pitch classic climb was thoroughly enjoyable with Neil leading one of the upper pitches.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur last day climbing followed a night of snow. Having parked  in Lillaz village, we walked up the valley renowned for its summer waterfalls and now offering a varied and numerous number of ice climbing routes. Crossing the river to the right-hand bank we reached our chosen route, Chandelle Levure, a stunning grade 4 climb. We hiked up to the base of the first pitch, noting that a team of two had already left their gear and were now climbing. We aimed to climb four pitches with a long stretch of moderately rising ground between two of the pitches. With the sun on our backs and relatively easy initial pitches, the climbing was enjoyed to the full.

Neil led the second pitch, Tim having taken the first. The third pitch started on easy ground before rising more steeply. To minimise anticipated rope drag, Tim hadn’t placed protection leaving the belay. A fall was unlikely to cause Neil any difficulties on the belay. A screw was placed as the ice rose to 70 degrees, with a second being placed and a sling used to minimise rope drag as the angle increased further. About 40 metres of rope was now out. Climbing to the right of the beginning of the next pitch, a shelf presented itself with a small recessed stance partly enclosed by a vertical curtain of ice. Andy had climbed to this belay point and was waiting for Tim. On arriving at the shelf and before moving right into the ‘cave’, it was necessary to place a further screw so that Neil would be able to gain the shelf at the same spot, avoiding a swing and direct forces on the belay should he slip. The pitch had used every meter of the 50m rope and perhaps a little more, as Neil had had to move up from his belay.

The final pitch of the day and of our week, was up with the best of the week. Yes, the sunOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA was doing it’s work, water was running over the ice as if it were being poured down from above. The external ice was brittle and was kicked freely away beneath our crampon, but the axe placements felt and sounded good. Pure enjoyment!

On finishing the pitch there was a sense that none of us wanted this climbing to end.

Abseiling back down the upper pitches, we walked down the steep lower slopes, where an Ibex stood and watched us. We ate our late lunch in silent thought of how great the past few days had been.

My thanks both to Andy and Neil  (let’s hope Neil that our trip to Scotland in a few week’s time will be as enjoyable).

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Aspiring to Remarkables

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast year was a mixed bag, some great climbing trips, a very enjoyable solo cycle ride around Ireland, but much of it was tempered by niggling health issues. Two crashes on the bike, one during a sportive and the other in Ireland, didn’t seem to either improve or worsen the pain that sciatica gives. So it was with a degree of trepidation that I signed up to climb Mr Aspiring in South Island New Zealand. Anne and I had planned some fairly full on hiking, or as they call it, Tramping and we also planned to meet up with Lucy and Tim, our American friends from way back in the Aconcagua days. The four of us did a highly enjoyable hike called the Routeburn Track which runs from near Milford Sound to near Glenorchy. We can thoroughly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We also met up with Jeff and Jill. Friends for some thirty years. Jeff and I first met whilst we were Emergency Planning officer’s for our respective Fire Brigades. They now run a highly successful bed and breakfast business near Seahouses, south of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the UK. All attempts at getting together over recent years had failed, however we managed to coincidently both plan trips to New Zealand and met for two very enjoyable evening meals both in Queenstown and Te Anau.

After Tim and Lucy and Anne and I had completed the Routeburn, Anne went to stay with relatives and Tim and Lucy took off to see more of NZ and I met up with Jamie Robertson, a guide for Alpine Guides to climb Mount Aspiring. We had not met before, but both knew that the weather forecast was not favourable. With high winds and considerable snow fall it was unlikely we would see the summit. The alternative options were limited. The same weather front was affecting Mount Cook to the North East, as it was most of the higher ground.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving climbed mountains with close friends, unknown groups from which you make close  friends during a trip and solidary trips where it’s just you and a guide, I can say that there needs to be more understanding between a single climber and a guide than say a group of climbers. In short you need to get on well with your guide. I had struck lucky, what a great person Jamie is.  Obviously I was disappointed at not being able to climb Aspiring, but have long since realised that in this game the weather dictates and you amend your plans accordingly. If you don’t, then chances are you will never become an old climber.

As I said, Jamie, who knows the area around Wanaka so well, offered the alternative of rock climbing at a place called Hospital Flats, no pressure there! Over recent years I have preferred to climb in the Higher Ranges and ice climbing and haven’t been on rock with climbing shoes for a few years.  This was apparent for the first day, although I was pleased and a little surprised to hear that I improved considerable during the week. Yes, you have guessed, we never got on to Aspiring.

We first climbed on Bake House and Riverside, climbs graded around 10 to 14. On the second day we did “Do I Have to” a grade 15 and then retreated to the indoor climbing wall as the rain and wind arrived at the lower levels. Next day we were on the main cliff and The Big Wall and managed a grade 16 on The Little Big Wall and another route called Tune in, Turn On, Drop Out and finished with Strawberry, graded 15.

On the fourth day we headed off early down to Queenstown to climb The Remarkables Version 2ridge. This impressive high ridge looks down on the town and is in part responsible for the turbulent aircraft landings when the winds are up. It took us four hours from leaving the car at the base of the ski lift to the highest point of the ridge. With relatively clear skies around us we could look NE and see that the right decision had been made to leave Aspiring alone. The Remarkables was highly enjoyable, longer and more technical than the Scottish Black Cuillin hills. With strengthening winds we returned from the ridge to one of the numerous cafes to reflect on a near perfect day’s climbing.

So my thanks to Jamie. I had come to climb Aspiring, but the alternative was very worthy and it has rekindled my interest in Trad climbing. The dilemma between cycling or climbing will have to be resolved by cycling in wet weather and climbing when it is drier, (that is a Yorkshire ‘drier’ of course).

I have put a variety of photos into the gallery section. For those of you thinking about heading out to New Zealand, firstly never think of the country as an add on to a visit, say to Australia.  New Zealand has so much to offer and is rightfully the mecca for outdoor sports. We hiked, climbed, kayaked, flew bi-planes and visited some wonderful places. Go and enjoy yourselves. You never know you may see me either on Mount Cook or Aspiring. It really is a ‘Remarkable’ country.

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Photos from last days ice climbing. 





Just a reminder that I’ll be putting a select of our photos on my website in a few weeks.  They will be in the gallery section on timralph.co.uk

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All Good Things …..

Our final days ice climbing in the vau di Cogne. Another wonderful day. We awoke to leaden skies and heavy snow falling. Amending our plans to climb Pattinaggio Artistico due to possible avalanches, Andy decided that a climb called Chandelle Levure, would be a good choice. The final pitch of this four pitch climb being a grade 4. By the time we had walked to the start of the climb the sun was out.We hadn’t anticipated the sun on our backs although the  we did get wet both in the cave, formed by icicles and on the vertical upper pitch. It was a great way to finish a near perfect week.

Neil and I can thoroughly recommend Andy Owen. He is a great guide who is also able to proved a substantial education in one line jokes. 

Please see next entry for photos.  Photos failed to load on this entry.

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