This summer I finally got out into the mountains again after an almost 2 year absence. Obviously from the day I returned to London is started planning trips for 2022 because I can’t wait to get my crampons back onto those mixed routes. In this miniseries on my climbing plans I want to share with you my plans for the coming year.
This year I was lucky to be able to escape the UK for two weeks to spend in the beautiful northern Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia. This had originally been my goal for two weeks in July 2020 as an acclimatisation for Mont Blanc three weeks later, but the pandemic eradicated both those hopes.
When those plans fell through in March 2020 and a huge workload at work looked to consumed my summer, the motivation to keep fitness levels up also evaporated. So … 18 months of partial lockdown later I arrived in the 2000m high town.
I had decided to leave my rope, harness, ice axe, crampons and other gear at home after long thought. Although I craved getting up to the Breithorn West just to taste that high altitude air again. I knew it would only end in disappointment. My body simply wasn’t feeling ready for it. So instead I decided to spend my time hiking in the area around Cervinia, enjoying the gorgeous view of the Matterhorn, testing my legs and stamina and just enjoying the views without the mild stress that comes with going a challenging route and sticking to a planned schedule.
Thus, the plan was to take it easy. My basecamp was at 2130m, a little above the town, which made walks from my accommodation to the town centre and back a good exercise to get started on. Reminding myself, I wasn’t there to prove anything, just to feel where my legs, lungs and heart were after being still for pretty much 18 months. Where in the summer of 2019 I would do a 1500m ascent on the 3rd day of my alpine stay (Chamonix valley to the Brevent summit) to get the juices flowing, here I was taking it 10 times easier. My aim was really simple and down to Earth: seeing how long I would need to do a 500m ascent in under two hours. If I would feel extremely well, the Cervinia area would give me plenty of options to do 1500m or more, and Cervinia Valley to Testa Grigia was amongst those options: comfortable paths and enough opportunities for a break (looking at you Igloo). I never did the Testa Grigia walk … it was just to damn nice to simply enjoy the late season quietness and slowly drop the work-related stresses along the way.
An activity that I always enjoy, a part of climbing, that perhaps I even enjoy the most, are the hours I spend on maps thinking of routes, tracing them on the detailed maps, painting the routes in my mind, reading the elevations along the tracks I construct and thinking what it would take in terms of time and gear to bring, etcetera. Although Cervinia 2021 was just about hiking of course I couldn’t resist that urge. And under the Matterhorn’s watchful eye, I spent hours with coffee, maps and MS paint. Never mind that the paths there are mostly so obvious that you don’t need a map, bringing one along is fun nevertheless if you stay away from the “4×4 tracks”.
After 14 days I returned home to London, being satisfied with a final hike in which I ascended 600m in 1h30 minutes, descending again in just under 1 hour, with a delightful long break at Igloo with delicious crepes, cappuccino and grappa. Time to think about 2022 and what I could do, while still deciding to take it notably slowly.
About a week ago I finally cut some knots and made some bookings for 2022 to get my return-to-the-mountains year going. Yes, Mt Blanc is still an option but 2023 might also be good for that one. I don’t care much whether I summit Mt Blanc at the age of 55 or 56. But if that happens in 2022 it won’t be in April, so no need to go into that now.
One major change in my climbing plans is that my regular climbing partner of the past few years, my youngest daughter, now has a regular job and hence isn’t quite as flexible as she was as a student. At the same time, I want to be more flexible in going for short trips when I feel like it and so I plan routes with an emphasis on that they offer a sufficiently secure solo option. In terms of the nature of the routes this does have implications: I want to avoid overly long passages across glaciers. No matter how well prepared you are, crossing glaciers without a rope-partner is a significant avoidable risk. I of course do consider the use of a guide, who then naturally acts as a rope partner. But on the more interesting routes a guide will cost you about as much as the entire trip including flights. On top of that, guides are not necessarily fans of “taking it slowly” as they frequently seem to have a next paying party waiting.
So, to shore up my skills on slightly more rocky mixed routes and ridge-routes I want to get practicing early this year, before my actual season starts. As a result for early April I have chosen (and I hope to be lucky with the weather) to spend three days at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William. The route-plan is the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, approached from the valley floor in Fort William.
I have been at Ben Nevis in early spring conditions before, so the mountain isn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. The CMD arete route is one which requires a little more planning and commitment, to the route, than the regular pony track, as well as a little more skill in case you need to escape the route when bad weather emerges. None of it will be harder than any of the things I have done before in the Chamonix area … but it will be a 16km hike with about 1700m of ascending to do to get to the summit. I am really looking forward to it because it will be enough of a challenge to really push me to do some training over the next few months to retain a decent level of physical fitness. But it will also give me lots of opportunities to play with my gps toys, give me some early season ridge kilometres and all in a setting that, early April, should be wintry enough to give all of it an Alpine glow.
But what if the weather is bad?
When the weather is on my side, this would give me a solid 48h to do the climb and two days to choose from. The exact plans will depend on the weather forecast just ahead of, and during, my stay there. But in the optimal case I would be able to do the 10h-12 tour (remember I do intend to take this relatively unhurried) on one of the two days, leaving the other day for a lower summit in the area, either the ‘warm up’ or to celebrate the experience of the day before. If the weather is good I will probably spend the evenings giving my legs a break and staring on my maps for my May destinations … but more about that some other time.
But what if the weather is bad? Well, in that case yours truly is simply going to spend the days enjoying the food, the drinks, a pool, the fresh air and the wifi … I might even answers some work Emails in that case or mark some assignments and write feedback for my students. As I get closer to the April dates for my Ben Nevis trip I will share some more details here about my preparations and expectations.