ICE Fest - 2009 Ice cliimbing festival

By Col>

This trip was a true team bonding experience, while also giving my Supersofts a chance to come out of retirement for another shot at the big league. 5 of us hit the road early, in the Alpvan and packed to the roof with gear, heading for l’Argentiére la Bessée in the Ecrins. The last 4, myself included, held the fort and followed along a day later by plane, arriving in Turin at 11pm to collect the hire car. All went smoothly until the ascent up to the Montgenevre pass, where steady snowfall all evening had covered the roads. A valiant attempt to go all the way ended in the initial attempt at fitting snow chains, but this was abandoned as cars continued to come passed us, both upwards and downwards. So we proceeded onwards again until finally the lack of snow tyres and an increasingly smelly engine brought us to a holt, where a fight with the chains ensued amidst -8º temperatures and light fluffy snow flakes. We are convinced the chains were slightly too small, but we finally got them on in a fashion.
Arriving at the gite at 3 a.m Ken had stayed, waiting to let us in, where he proceeded to inform us that our guide for ice climbing was going to be geared up and ready to go at 8. Tired eyes looked into our wind down thimble of wine and we finally fell into our beds, ready to rise again at 6.30 for breakfast.
Ice climbers making an early start
So the first day proper saw us hook up with guide Murray Hamilton, who had obviously tired of all that lovely Scottish weather and migrated down to these parts many years ago. Driving us up the Freissinières valley, it was clear to see what a stunning place this area is and the shear number of ice climbing opportunities there were.
Ice climbers approaching ice climbs
Murray proceeded to show us the grade 4’s, grade 5’s and grade errr how the hell? as I looked solemnly down at my old Supersofts and thought about my old 800 gm Vertige’s, I never did really get on with them. Luckily I had not wasted my weight allowance and was going to try these new fangled leashles axes. Well it had been a while since I’d dug my axes into frozen Scottish turf, so was pleased to be greeted by perfect ice at a pleasingly low angle and perfect blue skies above. It was the ideal situation to re-aquaint myself with the techniques of moving on ice and while I had resigned myself to fact that I’d never be cut out to become a top ice basher many years ago, it just ignited a tiny spark which might see me dig out the big V’s once again. With a couple of people who had never climbed on ice before, it was a superb day and perfect for those of all standards to try their hand or improve on good quality ice.
Ice climber getting warm in belay jacket
After a hearty meal we wandered down to watch the best of Banff, but after a couple of films there were a few weary eyes and so we headed back for some beers and for some a little bit more wine, in preparation for the day ahead. The second day saw the nine of us strap on some snow shoes and head off into the back country to enjoy the amazing surroundings beyond the Puy St Vincent ski resort. It was a lovely day which the whole team seemed to enjoy, especially our lunchtime cheese fondue.
Snowshoeing in the Ecrins
The evening consisted of the bivouac somewhere deep into the Fournel valley. After a short shuttle bus ride we walked in the moonlight for a while until finally turning a corner we were faced with a couple of large marquees, some warming bonfires and a large vat of Vin Chaud. It was a beautiful setting and hard to imagine that it was dropping in temperature rapidly. Of course this trip wasn’t all about pleasure and we had come equipped with various bits to test. I had assigned myself with one of our SkyeHigh 800 sleeping bags with the thought that it would drop to about -10º and so was a perfect opportunity to test the rating. Finally when the fire had burned down, we headed to our bivi spot before we got too cold.
Alpine bivvy in the Ecrins
Directly onto the snow I used a foam mat with a Fat Airic on top of this. (we didn’t have to walk far!) During the evening I’d left the valves open in the optimistic hope that it would self inflate, but to no avail. I tried a few puffs, but by now the temperature had dropped well below the -10 and I wasn’t in the mood to try and inflate a whole fat href="{path=sleeping-mats}" so I left it fairly flat. With hindsight, a slim or a wee href="{path=sleeping-mats}" may have been a better choice as they would have been easier to inflate properly.
Well it finally dropped to a nippy -16 during the night and for a -10 bag the 800 performed admirably. I was just in my thermals and to start with I didn’t pull the hood and baffles in tight. There were certainly a couple of times when I felt a bit chilly, but for me I’d say the SH800 rating is bang on at -10. I certainly wouldn’t worry if I’d have to use it again at -16 with the knowledge that I might feel a bit cold at times, but I’d certainly see me being ‘comfy’ at -10. Just because the comfort rating is -10 though, at -10 and below it is always going to feel cold and a number of factors are important in letting the bag realise this rating. So you still need to take into account factors such as ground insulation, tiredness and how well you’ve eaten.
Cooking in the snow on a gas stove in the Alps
On the final day we all hit the slopes and a few of us snowboarders decided to have a go at learning to ski. Well I have to say, the first hour must have been one of the most frustrating I’ve ever had to endure, as I battled with these planks going in all sorts of directions. Just as I reached the stage of launching the skis off into the trees, never to be seen again, something just kind of clicked and I started to pick up the turns. By the end of the day us beginners were happily making stirling efforts descending the blue and red runs of Puy St Vincent, which rounded off a rapid, but action packed weekend.

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