Tuesday, 17 July 2018

BACK HOME IN THE CAIRNGORMS

Purple Sandpiper
Deserted Fiacaill Coire Sneachda
Pair of juvenile ptarmigan
Loch Avon
The beautiful song of the Snow bunting
Climbers on Savage Slit
Mountain Hare in dark summer plumage
Flowers superb just now, almost like the Alps
A calm Loch Avon
Juvenile Golden Plover
Cairn Lochan
Male ptarmigan
Hardly a trickle in the Feithe Buidhe, check out the white rock!
Female Ptarmigan
Good to be out and about in the Cairngorms after a 4 week spell out in The Alps. The first thing anyone would notice is the lack of people, if you get off the main trails. An early start and up into Coire an t-Sneachda. I saw just one other person on the way up to the Fiacaill Coire Sneachda. It was dull day, considering a decent forecast of some 'bright, sunny periods'. There was none really! What we didn't get in terms of weather was well made up by the abundance of bird life and flora in the hills. Spring has passed and well into summer and plenty of juvenile birds around on the plateau. Top spots today were Purple Sandpiper, singing snow bunting, and of course ptarmigan. The long, hot and dry summer has had it's toll on water in the Cairngorms, just like every other place in the UK. I've never seen the Feithe Buidhe so low, virtually just a trickle down from the waterfall into Loch Avon basin. The most strange sight was how white looking the granite slabs were that are usually covered in flowing and gushing water.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

ALPINE MID SEASON ROUND UP

Mont Blanc massif from Lac de Chesrys
My summer work of guiding in The Alps again. This season is the usual, popular treks of Tour du Mont Blanc trips and the Walkers Haute Route.  Almost mid season and a chance to put some of my 'proper' camera images up on the blog. So here is my usual mix of guiding and photography.

Col du Bonhomme, mid June

We are well into the summer Alpine season of trekking. It's been a hot, sunny and dry one, a bit like back home here in The Highlands I guess. Before mid June there had been some unsettled weather after a long, snowy winter in most of the Alpine regions. This, of course, leads to a lot of big lying snow patches above 1800m.

My season began on 15th June and the first of three Tour du Mont Blanc treks I am guiding this year. My first two TMB's were guiding for Mont Blanc Treks, a brilliant small and friendly company based out in The Chamonix Valley and my third season guiding for them.

Descending from the Col de la Seigne into Italy
I really like the early season out on the TMB or any other trek in The Alps. Even without an exceptional snowy winter there will always be snow lingering about on the higher cols well into July. The trails are also much quieter than the main July/August season. The quality of air superb and a brilliant time for the flowers.
My first group in 2018 was a lovely family from Singapore. They had ever hiked in snow. Going with a guide is very beneficial when much of the higher paths are snow covered and navigation may be tricky in poor weather. For the Chang family they were lucky. It was blue skies virtually all week on their 'highlights' version of the TMB.
Despite the excellent weather conditions, getting folk up and down on steeper snow slopes with summer boots does have it's moments. Because of the high temperatures the snow was always soft and so much easier getting folk through.

Monte Bianco & Aiguille Noire
Trumpet Gentian
Below the snowline the flowers are in bloom and the Marmotts are out of their 6 months hibernation period. More chance of seeing these wonderful cuddly characters when the hills are quiet and you get off the trail a wee bit.

Marmotts emerging out of their burrow

Some of the higher, even popular refuges aren't open until July, especially in Italy where the season seems to start quite late! When the weather is good who needs a hut to eat in? Most days out on the trail we have a pic-nic lunch on beautiful meadows and there is always a wonderful views.
A Globeflower filled meadow at Col de Balme looking down the Chamonix Valley
You don't need to wander very far to get some great mountain photography in The Alps. Every col, every meadow and every traverse along a path will give you a stunning view. Even from the valley you can get some terrific shots up at the mountains.

Mont Maudit from the Chamonix Valley
After my first trek of the season I had a few days off. You could quite easily spend an entire week going on day trips from Chamonix. One such hike is the spectacular Grand Balcon Nord. It does get busy, most folk tend to get the Montenvers train up one end and a cable car back down the other end. Much more satisfying to walk up and down to do this traverse high above the Chamonix Valley.

Les Drus from the Grand Balcon Nord
Mer de Glace
Les Drus and Mer de Glace
Back on the trail and a 10 day full TMB with a group of 10 folk from USA and Australia. More snow, more hot sun and more spectacular views! Walking on soft snow is more time consuming and energy sapping if you're not used to the white stuff. Something to bear in mind when trekking early in the season.
Snow up to the Brevent, Day 1

Col des Fours, one of the higher, snowier cols on the TMB

Late afternoon, looking back up toward the Col des Fours
If you want a nice big day out on the tour then the 3 cols of Col de Bonhomme, Col de Croix de Bonhomme and Col des Fours will always deliver. Especially under snow! We just made dinner at the Mottes Refuge at 8pm on this day. It was worth it. Fabulous late afternoon light on the snow fields and a 10 minute close up encounter with a marmott.

Everyone loves a Marmott
The finest days of the TMB are definitely on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, Monte Bianco as it is known in Italy. The high level routes above Val Veny and Val Ferret offer the most spectacular views. Don't miss them!

Monte Bianco
Monte Bianco, Grandes Jorasses & Val Veny
I can never decide which of the two days in Italy are the finest. The views of the Grandes Jorasses are in some ways better than Monte Bianco. Spending a night at the Bonatti refuge you get more time to take in the spectacular south face of this '4000er' peak.

Monte Bianco from Monte de la Saxe

Grandes Jorasses from Monte de la Saxe

Grandes Jorasses from Tete de la Trenche summit
If you get up early at the Bonatti refuge you get a fine sunrise on Mont Blanc. This is the last time you get to see the highest peak in western Europe until the French border some days later.

Sunrise on Mont Blanc from Bonatti
Early mornings and late afternoon are, of course, the finest times for photography. Nothing better than Alpine early mornings. The trail is also much quieter.

Grandes Jorasses from Bonatti Refuge

Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses and Val Ferret

Ever changing outline of the Grandes Jorasses as you head toward the Swiss border
Photogenically the Swiss part of the TMB is the less spectacular section. The Valais region the tour passes through is quite green and fertile. It does have it's moments though.

Chamois

Alpine Pansey

Switzerland and the Grand Col Ferret
One of the easier sections on the trail is over the Col du Balme into France. The view from here down into the Chamonix alley is superb. The end is nearly in sight! But there are still a couple of more days to savour before the delights of Chamonix again.

Mont Blanc, Aiguille Rouge and Chamonix Valley
The Ladders , Aiguille Rouge


Spectacular views
The final day of the TMB is up to Lac Blanc. A fine viewpoint to end the trip. The route up there from Argentiere has many variations. The finest way is via 'The Ladders'. A direct way up from the town and an exciting section of steep ground easily overcome, aided by a series of short iron ladders and narrow ledges protected with cables. It's also an area where you are most likely to see ibex, the king of the mountains.
Ibex, female and her young
Time for a swim, Lac de Chesrys
You soon join the crowds of folk up at Lac Blanc. Before you arrive at this high point there are some wonderful small lakes to get a great view of mountains and water and if you are lucky a reflection of Mont Blanc in one of them.
Aiguille Vert from Lac de Chesrys
Lac Blanc
From Lac Blanc it is all down hill to finish in Chamonix. The end of the TMB. Actually the Tour of Mont Blanc doesn't officially touch Chamonix! Of course most folk end up there at some point, wherever you begin the trek.
So I had a few days with my wife at the end of this first stint of work. Plenty of day trips out of Chamonix. One of the main tourist attractions in the valley is the cable car ride up to the Aiguille du Midi. One of the modern wonders of the world, they say. Who could not disagree with that statement! A modern feat of engineering to a spectacular view point (or view points). The world of high mountains, glaciers and mountain climbers is reached effortlessly by day trippers in all kind of attire to marvel at  a world of ice and rock.
Grandes Jorasses across the Vallee Blanche

Climbers on the Cosmiques Arete, Mont Blanc in the background

Looking across the Vallee Blanche to the Aigulle de Chamonix
A few more swims (for some?) and few more walks and lots more sun before heading back.

Sunset on the Aiguille du Midi

Swimming Lac Combal

Aiguillete de Argentiere
So that was part 1 of my Alpine season. Next stop The Walkers Haute Route. More mountains, more wildlife, more guiding and more wonderful Alpine trekking.
Grandes Jorasses and Aig. de Chamoz