Neige, Glace et Mixte

Review by Review
Friday 1st January 1999

It is often the case that guidebook reviews deal more with the merits of the guide's subject than the guide itself, and in this case it's hard not to. Basically Neige, Glace et Mixte is the first modern guidebook to the predominantly out of season ice and mixed climbing in the Mont Blanc Massif. Climbing in the Massif out of season, be it autumn, spring or winter is truly fantastic, and many climbers now view the summer months as out of season. The mountains are colder, the weather is more stable and the conditions are usually perfect for ice climbing. The quality of the ice and mixed routes in the Massif is world class, and the potential for `Scottish Mixed' climbing has barely been touched, with hundreds of lines waiting to fall to strong parties used to tourquing and hooking up granite chimney systems and cracks.

The cliffs and corries of Scotland would be empty every winter if people realized what adventure awaited them at the end of a 12 hour drive, routes that you approach over vast empty glaciers, not golf courses and swamps, and climbs that finish at Arctic 4,000m summits, not at groups of school kids dressed in bin bags.

The guide is written by two of the Massif's most prolific new routers and the route selection ranges from easy snow plods to Scottish grade 10s. The book is well set out, avoiding many of the problems of the Alpine Club guides, with each route featuring a sparse text, a modern grade and, in most cases, an indication of the steepest ice pitch. The majority of the information is imparted by the excellent photographs, which considering the text is in French, makes it easy enough to decipher.

Most climbers will use the guide in conjunction with Mont Blanc Massif Volume I and Volume II by the Alpine Club in order to get a more in-depth idea of their chosen route. Some routes do feature a much more detailed description than the Alpine club guides so a French speaking partner is often well worth taking along.

The guide uses a new grading system leaving behind the outdated system used in all previous guides, concentrating on a split system not unlike that used in the new American and Canadian guides. The grade for say the Super Couloir, which used to be ED2, now gets IV 5, 5c/A1 with the Roman numeral denoting seriousness and/or commitment and the numerical grades similar to the French icefall/rock system. The ice grades should not be confused with the British system, being generally one and sometimes two grades higher than an equivalent British ice pitch grade and the rock often feels harder than its supposed grade due to altitude and the fact that on most of the routes in the guide you'd be climbing in plastic boots. The majority of the grades are for a summer ascent, whereas many of the routes will probably be climbed out of season when ice conditions are at their best, and much of the rock will be in mixed condition. This could knock up the severity and seriousness of many routes by quite a few grades. Summer routes like the Frendo Spur graded III,4 in the guide can turn into a hard and nasty 1,200m Scottish VI,6 in winter conditions, so as with all guides, try and get Beta from as many climbers as possible, before you embark on some icy summer VS. After all Fallout Corner is only VS in summer.

The guide makes excellent use of over 200 black and white photos, showing both the route of ascent and descent of nearly every route in the guide. This gives the British climber a rare glimpse at all that seemingly top secret Beta only the French used to know, which can take seasons to find out for yourself. Now you can descend from the top of the Drus in six easy abseils, get to the bottom of the Nant Blanc Face without walking uphill and basically get to and from your chosen route without the usual frustrating, and often dangerous, flailing around that seems to plague most climbers venturing out to the Alps out of season.

These photos will also draw British climbers to modern classics and the little known desperates that in the past most British climbers were unaware of. Routes like Madness Très mince, Pinocchio and There Goes the Neighbourhood, routes where the skills of the British mixed climber can be put to the ultimate test in one of world's best modern mixed playgrounds. A chance to take those dirty mixed tricks and techniques learned on Shelter Stone, Stob Coire nan Lochan and Beinn Eighe and transfer them to the Pèlerins, Tacul and Grand Jorasses.

For those of you fed up with Scotland and wanting an adventure that will stay with you long after your frost nipped fingers have healed then Neige, Glace et Mixte is absolutely invaluable. Fulfilling the prime role of a great guide by inspiring you and giving you the Beta so that maybe, if you're lucky, you may succeed. But if you don't, never mind, you'll have the greatest adventure of your life trying. Actually one thing I forgot to mention, there won't be any turf, but don't worry, you won't need it.

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