Tuesday, 1 April 2014

‘La Tete De L’Elephant’ Via Ferrata on the Rocher de la Chaux

Well, we did it, the easier(!) ‘red’ 300m Via Ferrata on our local Rocher de la Chaux (Lime Rock), but prior to that we had a couple of days skiing with James on his long weekend with us.

James and Jackie on the Avoriaz 'Grandes Combes' plateau
Brian, Jackie and James take a break
It’s only a pity the snow wasn’t as good as when Roger was here, it’s got very hot again (18⁰C today!), which has degraded the snow quite a lot, the pistes are hard packed and icy in the mornings and slushy by mid afternoon. It means fast piste skiing in the mornings, which Jackie and I love (possibly a bit more than James does!) and what remains of the off-piste skiing in the afternoon, when it’s soft enough to ‘give’. Trying to do off-piste in the mornings is like trying to ski on concrete, you get stuck in previous ski tracks and can’t get any bite to get out, the black mogully runs are challenging, but possibly a bit more doable if you get it right by jabbing a pole into the top of a mogul, jump, turn the skis and slide down the side of the mogul, only to repeat the exercise for the next one. Interesting when going down a steep black where speed increases if you’re not too careful and very tiring on the knees and thighs!

James skis a very thin piste remnant!
James chose one of the steepest and set off down, while Jackie and I looked at one another, but he’d gone too far so we had to follow. It wasn’t quite as bad as it looked and we got down OK with just a few ‘moments’, James not doing quite as well, taking a tumble and losing his skis at one point. However the afternoon’s skiing was better and the off-piste was pleasant, although getting thin. We wonder just how much more skiing we will do, our local resort closes at the end of this week and even if we get more snow it probably won’t last as the ground is now warm. We will probably be restricted to the fast piste skiing on icy runs (probably with shorts and tee-shirts!) until just after lunch when it softens too much and becomes quite unpleasant and hard work, but we don’t mind as we’ve done over 1300 runs and had a great time. The sun and warmth starts to make us think of summer things and skiing is starting to feel oddly out of place in the warmth and green, even though there’s still plenty to do up high.

Si and Cassies fabulous 'Chalet Bernadine' If you fancy a good, inexpensive winter or summer holiday check out their website: www.alpineactionadventures.co.uk
Elephant rock - you can see why it's called that!
After saying goodbye to James we set our sights on the Via Ferrata that we had arranged to do with Cassie and Si and what a day it turned out to be! After a bit of a lie-in we arrived at their chalet (Chalet Bernadine) at 11:00am, to be joined by their neighbour, Eddie, a smashing guy of 50 who is a very fit triathlon competitor who is currently training for a half ‘iron-man’ (55mile bike ride, half marathon run, 2km swim). We set off in the warm late morning sunshine in clear blue still skies, Cassie admitting she was feeling quite nervous, despite having done it only last week. Eddie was completely unaware there was a narrow beam traverse across a gash in the rock high up on the route with hundreds of feet of fresh air beneath until it was pointed out to him before we set off from Si and Cassies by looking up at the rock. 
We did the 'red' route shown here
It’s a steep walk up through trees on a narrow path, which gets the heart beating, particularly at Si’s pace setting, but we managed to chat most of the way, conversation trailing off as we approached the start and the thought of what was to come.

Outside Si and Cassies before the start. LtoR: Brian, Si, Jackie, Cassie and Eddie
Nervous smiles at the start
Gearing up, Si and Jackie went through with Eddie the technique of clipping the two karabiners of the lanyard Via Ferrata tails into the steel rope, always making sure at least one is clipped to the rope at all times, as he had never done anything like this before. All set, we were off, Cassie leading, followed by Si, Jackie, Eddie and me last. Unlike the original Italian Via Ferratas, this one is a ‘sports’ route, almost entirely on metal hoops drilled and glued into the rock, with very little opportunity to touch the rock. In fact it would be virtually impossible to climb without the hoops as there are very few natural holds and, in most places the rock is vertical or a little overhanging, making it a very exciting ascent with a huge amount of the feel of exposure. 
Off we go!
You just have to put your faith in the strength of the metal hoops and the hope that they are adequately glued into the rock! The steel rope is regularly attached to the rock with a peg and hoop, so it’s necessary to clip the second karabiner to the rope on the other side of the peg and unclip the one on the previous side, interesting when you’re hanging with one hand on a hoop on slightly overhanging rock, fiddling with karabiners! Of course, when going up vertically, if you slipped off just below a peg, you would fall down until the karabiner snagged on the lower peg, a potential fall of 3 or 4m, hitting several metal hoops on the way, so falling off is not recommended!

Carefully does it!
First bit of vertical rock
On the first vertical ascent I heard Eddie say to himself “OMG, come on Eddie, get a grip!” and up he went, me trailing behind to give him plenty of space. I had given Si my 30m climbing rope and a belay plate, just in case anyone lost it and needed a tight rope to give them confidence, but it wasn’t needed, we all made steady progress with plenty of nervous chat going on in a high state of exhilaration. The views were amazing and the exposure fabulous, what a great route this was turning out to be! Very soon we came to the beam traverse, which turned out to be a plank of wood, probably 75mm x 75mm square by about 3 to 3.5m long, spanning a gash in the rock with nothing below your feet and only the wobbly steel rope to clip into and hold very carefully. We weren’t too sure how the beam was attached to the rock, it appeared to be just resting there, but it must have been attached somehow (surely!?!). Only one person on the plank at a time we were warned! 

Eddie 'enjoying' himself!
I was too far back to see Cassie and Si go across and only saw the latter part of Jackie’s traverse with Si commenting on her sure footing. Eddie was next and was clearly very nervous. He clipped into the rope, put his feet on the beam and said “I can’t do this, I can’t do it”. Words of encouragement from us all and he edged across finally saying “I can do this!”, clearly pleased with himself. No-one waited for me, they were off, but it went OK and I was up after them.

It's pretty steep and a long way up! I hope those hoops are solid!
Oh, and don't look down!

'Give us a smile' and they all look round
Jackie just finishing the beam traverse
A relieved Eddie reaches the far side
Mmm, it is fairly exposed!
Glad that's over, is that Si and Cassies chalet down there?
After more vertical and slightly overhanging rock I saw them disappear over an edge, the slope eased and in a short time we were up on the summit, shaking hands, laughing, taking pictures and congratulating each other on a successful ascent. We all really enjoyed it, but it was one of those things you could only say after you’d finished. The adrenalin rush and exhilaration made it a thrilling and exciting experience and gave a great feeling of ‘being alive’. We’re all talking about doing the harder ‘black’ route next, which involves much more overhanging rock and will be much more tiring on the arms and nerves. Are we ready? I don’t know, let’s see!

Great views and feeling of exposure

We've made it and we're still alive! Jackie, Cassie, Si and Eddie
Just to prove I was there too!

View from the top. That's St Jean d'Aulps village down there. The white snaky track centre right disappearing behind the hill is the red piste descent into our resort. Our apartment is just out of sight at the bottom of that piste. The white mountains in the distance on the left are the Morzine and Avoriaz ski resorts

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