Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Brief conditions update - and more terrible news.

Two bodies found after avalanche (BBC News)

Firstly, yet another tragic accident has occurred as an avalanche on Ben Nevis has resulted in two deaths. Avalanches on Liathach and Beinn an Dothaidh have also required callouts and climbers are believed to have been injured. Looks like it's turning out to be another bad season for mountain accidents.

The cause of these avalanches is the deep powder snow which has remained undisturbed since it fell, thanks to the very cold temperatures and low winds. However, high winds today have stripped most of the hills to an extent on certain aspects, and done some re-distribution. This will mean certain routes will be less soul-destroying in terms of powder swimming but correspondingly danger from windslab on lee slopes will have increased.

Basically conditions on the mountains are quite bad in most places, and I have decided not to venture into the hills until things settle down. Once I have recovered from the insane Hogmanay week, I will however be seeking out low-level icefalls to climb! Elliot's Downfall is a little closer to touching down today.

Take care everyone, and happy New Year.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Ice cragging at Aonach Mor

Today James and I took the 8 o'clock ski-lift up to the top station at Aonach Mor, with the intention of walking round to the West Face and doing one of the long routes there: Western Rib or Golden Oldie were our choices. However, it soon became apparent that large amounts of fresh powder were going to impede our progress, which was slow along the Allt Daim. After an exhausting slog through knee-deep snow (sometimes deeper in drifts) that seemed to get us no closer to the summit ribs, we decided we would not have enough time to complete a mountain route before dark. Getting benighted high on the West Face did not appeal, so we decided to find some waterfall ice to climb instead.

The guidebook mentions an area of iced slabs and frozen waterfalls to the left of the main climbing area. Despite the terrible state of the snow, the ice proved to be in excellent condition and all of the icefalls looked in pretty good nick, with the exception of a deep icy gully that wasn't fully formed yet. We selected a fat-looking icefall directly right of this gully.

Steep, heavily iced slabs led to a short snow shelf, followed by the main icefall itself: about 10-15m of very steep ice in excellent condition. The route was about Grade IV overall, although the lower cascade was a bit easier than this. With a huge snowdrift at the bottom of the route, falling off was not a concern as I expected a soft landing!

I would have preferred to pitch the climb, but since we had been planning on doing a mixed route, we had no ice screws at all. I decided there was no point in leading and not getting any gear in, so soloed the route. The water ice was indeed excellent, not too brittle despite my blunt picks! Upon reaching the upper cascade, I selected a line slightly to the left with a steep finish, as there was a bit of water running down the centre of the icefall.

The top-out onto powder and semi-frozen turf felt far more insecure than the steep ice and I wasted a lot of time flailing around on snow-covered slabs trying to find the best way down. In the end a swimming approach worked the best, and after packing up the ice gear we started the long wade back to the gondola station!

Lots of skiiers out and about on the mountains. In the current conditions, skiing is probably the best thing to do up high!

Photos from today

For further information, here are the conditions of Elliot's Downfall (Aonach Dubh) and the Coire nam Bheithach main icefall, as of yesterday morning.

Monday, 21 December 2009

New snow (lots of it!)

Over the past two days, snow has been falling to glen level in Glen Coe. There have been at least two freeze/thaw cycles on lower slopes, resulting in the formation of large quantities of ice. The River Etive was observed to be frozen over near to Buachaille Etive Mor, and Elliot's Downfall has begun to form on the West Face of Aonach Dubh ... it's that time of year again, folks! I just hope the frozen conditions remain until after the New Year, so I can enjoy the excellent water ice climbing that Glen Coe has to offer when it comes into condition.

This will probably be my last entry of 2009 as I am returning South until the New Year. Happy Christmas all!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Excellent conditions on Ben Nevis

Today Steve and I headed to the Ben, with the intention of finding ice gullies grade II - IV. We'd heard reports of good conditions, despite the relatively lean amount of snow on the mountain. There were plenty of teams out and about: Al Halewood and partner climbed Green Gully, there were teams on Central Left-Hand, North, Comb, Tower Ridge, and Ledge Route.

We decided to climb the South Gully of Creag Coire na Ciste, a Grade III ice climb. We climbed unroped up the easy initial pitch and I established a belay on the rock wall that was the first obstacle of the climb. I then led the second pitch, 50m of the most delightful snow-ice I have ever climbed! The average angle was not great, but three or four significant steep sections meant that I was very keen to locate good gear. The ice was not quite thick enough for ice screws, and rock gear was a little problematic to arrange, due to all of the cracks being filled with ice. Still, the ice was so good that the climb felt very secure, even on the steep sections.

After topping out, it was still early in the day so we descended No.4 Gully and soloed up North Gully, a Grade II route with a pitch of ice, then easy snow.

All in all, a great day on the hill on great routes! It started snowing on the way down and is still doing so, at glen level, so be aware that the avalanche risk is going to be creeping up, particularly if it gets windy again. Take care over the weekend.

Photos from today

Monday, 14 December 2009

I fought the thaw, and the thaw won

The plan for today was to climb one of the Grade II gullies on Ben Nevis, to give Isi an easy introduction to winter climbing on the North Face. However, when she arrived at the Clachaig at 7:30 she told me she was far too tired to go climbing, due to an exhausting previous day and little sleep! In the end, we decided that she and James would go walking somewhere, while I would be dropped off at the North Face car park to proceed to Ben Nevis alone.

Initially the walk up through the forest was heavily frosted, but within perhaps 60m the frost vanished and the temperature shot up. Clearly a pronounced bank of freezing fog overnight had produced this extraordinary ground frost in the glens. Above the inversion, things were warm, even muggy, and it started to spit with rain.

By the time I reached the CIC hut it was raining steadily, the air felt humid, and the cloud base was sitting in the bottom of Coire na Ciste. The ice all around me was melting very rapidly in the warm conditions. I couldn't see a speck of snow from the hut and what cliffs I could see were all black and dripping. Despite the knowledge that the high-up routes were probably in good condition, I decided I wasn't feeling lucky or enthusiastic enough after two very good days on the hill to progress any further.

The forecast is for very cold weather to return quickly, and with it more snow, which we desperately need at this point to bring a greater selection of routes back into condition.

I'm hopefully next out on the hill on Thursday.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Alpine conditions on the tops today

More bad news:- at least FIVE more rescues in Glen Coe today. The mountains have been crawling with climbers, literally queueing up at the foot of the routes, so sadly the risk of accidents happening increases. More details about the fatal accident yesterday may be found in this article.

Today I decided to go and have a look at the North-East Face of Bidean nam Bian. This huge snow face, riven by shallow gullies and narrow buttresses, overlooks the Lost Valley and is completely undocumented. Any ascent of this face is a true expression of mountaineering: on-sight, making route finding decisions on the fly, no guidance whatsoever from an outside source.

In order to get there, I climbed into Coire nan Lochan and ascended Forked Gully. Every single other route (that was in condition) in the coire was literally swarming with climbers, with five teams either on or queueing at the bottom of Dorsal Arete alone! Conditions are precisely the same as yesterday, although I encountered a little more crusty snow in Forked Gully than we had in Boomerang. In the slightly leaner conditions, the climb was entertaining, with a good middle section of frozen turf.

Most of the easy gullies will now be stepped-out, particularly Broad Gully and (I suspect) NC Gully. This will correspondingly make them easier--until the weather changes.

I topped out to see the major ridge lines also swarming with mountaineers of all descriptions. Hearteningly, unlike the group I had met in the coire bowl, everyone I saw actually on the tops today was equipped with crampons and ice axe--both of which are absolutely required in the conditions for everyone venturing above approx. 800m. As I climbed the ridge to the summit, a rescue helicopter flew overhead and then proceeded to practically land on top of me, hovering only a few metres above my head! It buzzed off, only to land on the West Peak of Bidean, where I believe it assisted in the airlifting of a person (that is my interpretation of what I saw occurring, at least).

From Stob Coire nan Lochan, I took the opportunity to scan the NE Face of Bidean for possible lines. The lower Face is vague, with difficult route-finding, while the upper Face is divided clearly into gullies. I decided to aim for the most prominent one, and with that goal dropped down into the Lost Valley. The cornice on the Lost Valley side of the ridge has been breached at the col, and the descent is stepped-out, making it much less hazardous than it often is.

I started climbing. This route is long! It had a genuine Alpine ambiance, that feeling of being an insignificant speck in the centre of a vast face of ice. Below was a huge yawning drop into the Lost Valley, and above, nearly a thousand feet of ice left to climb. The route was not overly difficult, at a Grade II standard, but it is serious. Ice rains down the face from mountaineers crossing the ridge far above. The ice is glazed from the heat of the morning sun, now frozen hard once again. It is difficult to navigate on the face and easy to get lost and find yourself in impossible terrain. All said, exactly the sort of climb I enjoy the most.

The view from the summit of Bidean was exceptionally clear, with zero atmospheric haze. I stayed there for a charmed hour, simply surveying the promised land and remembering all of the places I have been over the past four years. I could see the peak of almost every mountain I have ever climbed in Scotland; I could trace the long-distance walk I conducted in June 2008 when I walked from Etive to Orchy over the mountains; I could see the Slab Route on distant Beinn Trilleachan glittering under a pane of ice. Over on Ardgour, the Pinnacle Ridge of Garbh Bheinn caught the sunlight for an instant as the Alpenglow intensified. Closer to home, the Mantrap on the North-East Buttress of Ben Nevis was visible--or so I imagined--as a hard speck of light close to the top of that steep climb.

With the knowledge of a long and hard descent ahead of me, down the ice-glazed rocks of Coire nam Bheithach, I reluctantly left that cathedral of mountaineering and descended once more into darkness and cold of the coire to the north.

Tomorrow we are going to Ben Nevis to climb one of the gullies there, and after that I think I deserve a rest day!

Photos from today

Saturday, 12 December 2009

A magical day - but not all good news

First of all - I would like to convey my condolences to the family and friends of the mountaineer who was killed in the Lost Valley this evening. The name of the climber has not yet been released but having witnessed for myself how treacherous the paths are becoming with black ice it is easy to imagine a slip turning into something more serious. Take care out there in these icy conditions.

With perfect conditions forecast, Isi and I once again found ourselves walking into Coire nan Lochan this morning. The weather was calm, perfectly clear, and there had been a fierce overnight frost--yet the air itself felt relatively warm! What more could one want? The snow underfoot was as hard as glacial ice and we had to put crampons on from around 800m. The sound of crampons crunching on hard snow was so loud we had to raise our voices to make ourselves heard.

The coire has been comprehensively stripped by the thaw. I doubt many mixed routes are in condition, with the exception of Dorsal Arete, which looked fine. Most of the buttresses are black, albeit with neve on the ledges and some (small) ice weeps forming. Most of the turf is now frozen. It is the easy gullies which are currently in superb condition, with solid neve all the way to the top, except for a few suspect patches of slabby snow atop powder.

We decided to climb Boomerang Gully, as it is the hardest gully currently in condition that both of us had not yet done. The entry slope was straightforward; the mixed pitch in the middle was much less banked-out than the last time I did this route, in March, and required careful route choice. I scouted out several options, discounting two of them out of hand. In the end the runnel to the right 'went' at solid Grade II standard, with an entertaining steep step followed by a traverse out left onto the open face.

The rest of the gully passed uneventfully and the hard snow was a joy to climb. We topped out to yet another sunset of breathtaking beauty from the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan. As the sun sank in a fireball behind Bidean, blood-red Alpenglow touched the snow-free Aonach Eagach and the Ben, finally vanishing in a flicker before dusk took hold. It is the sort of sight one feels immensely privileged to have witnessed--and yet this is the second time in two weeks that I have been the audience to this greatest display of mountain grandeur.

Cold weather forecast for the rest of this week, and high pressure set to dominate for tomorrow at the very least. I hope to get out as often as possible. Long may these superb conditions endure.

Photos from today

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A good weekend ahead of us!

High pressure is forecast for the weekend, which means clear skies and deep freezing at night. As luck would have it, I am on holiday from Saturday onwards and intend to make maximum use of my time!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Not all doom and gloom

(No photos from today as my camera is still on the blink.)

The weather in the Glen is still extremely mild, but the rapid thawing seems to have slowed somewhat: there are still ice runnels left on the Upper Tier of Aonach Dubh, although virtually all the ice has gone from the lower two tiers. Needless to say, all ice at this altitude is going to be disintegrating.

I headed up into the Bidean coire again to give me a fighting chance of getting above the freezing level. From 850m to 1000m the snow was disgusting mush, exhausting to break trail through. All around me, icefalls were disintegrating. Central Gully on Stob Coire nam Beith was falling down as I watched. At the base of Collie's Pinnacle on the Bidean main cliff, the icicles were dripping and everything was very very damp. The start to Central Gully was very dodgy indeed.

The good news is that the snow is starting to consolidate well and avalanche risk has dropped, although clearly things are a bit soggy until you get up high.

I decided to head to the Gangway area again, for the maximum chance of getting high enough. Above 1000m things started to freeze again and the ice was in prime condition, with a fantastic toffee-like consistency. Turf was also frozen.

Three chimneys had caught my eye on our visit last week. The leftmost one looks relatively easy but needed more ice. I climbed most of the central one, which was in excellent mixed condition. It involved a nifty set of traversing/mantelshelf moves to overcome the lower crux, which was a set of heavily iced bulges. I liked the look of the upper crux rather less: a 3m high vertical wall right at the top of the gully, with poorer ice than the steps lower down. I made a tentative go at it but was not bold enough to climb it by myself in the conditions. My estimate for the grade of this gully is either III or possibly III,4 (although allowances should be made for its short length). Looks like the upper step in the narrows is tech. 4 in an exposed position, which is partially why I didn't commit to it as this is my maximum leading grade with a rope on!

The rightmost chimney is the shortest and easiest. Grade II ice climbing leads within about 15m to an icy bulge and corner, some 3m in height. An ungainly struggle ensued as I hung from my ice axes and tried to wedge my crampons in the corner, while simultaneously belly-flopping over the top of the ice bulge! Great fun, and a nice little move of tech. 4 in a non-serious situation, which is why I have graded this chimney II/III.

I finished up the regular line of the Gangway. The summit of Bidean nam Bian was a raging whiteout, with thick ice covering everything and very disorienting conditions. I navigated down the West Ridge mostly using my knowledge of the mountain (I know that ridge pretty well by now!) Care was required to avoid the gigantic cornices which are starting to overhang the North Face couloirs. Some of the cornices overhang by over four metres already.

As I reached the col between Bidean West Peak and Stob Coire nam Beith, I noticed the small gully cutting up the centre of the upper South East Face. This gully caught my eye last year, but it's in no guidebooks and is quite small--only about 60m in height. The ascent was a pure delight. Basic snow climbing up an ever-narrowing ice runnel between impressive buttresses of rock, leading to a short steeper step and a corniced exit. The gully was like a scaled-down version of the big Nevis gullies. I can't find out what it's called, but it must have been climbed before as it's easily accessed from the ridge. My name of preference would be Miniature Gully, Grade I/II.

I descended via Coire nam Bheithach, which is now a safer descent thanks to the snow having settled down. The upper snowfield was even complete enough to glissade, saving me much tedious work.

Some forecasts predict a cold snap towards the end of the week, which will bring the gullies into good condition rapidly, if it appears! Unfortunately we will need more snow before the lower buttress routes come back into condition.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


The forecast thaw is here--slightly more serious than I had expected, but ultimately good for conditions. The West Face of Aonach Dubh is looking completely stripped, and the snowline has gone up by about a hundred metres to about 800. There would probably have been mixed routes in condition on the Upper Tier yesterday; no chance of that now!

Weather is blustery and very mild, with a probable freezing level somewhere near the summit of Bidean, so I have decided to give mountaineering a miss for today. Even without the thaw, the galeforce winds overnight will have increased avalanche risk yet again.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Vast amounts of snow

Today dawned bright and frosty; sadly I have been stuck at work all day, but James conducted a traverse of Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach. He reports vast quantities of powder snow sticking to every mountain face and crag. Cornices are building, and rime is thick at many elevations. However, the weather is changing: a new airflow from the SW is going to bring warm air in tomorrow which will bring the freezing level up.

The air outside is already warmer than it was this morning. This slow thaw is exactly what we need to consolidate the snow in the long term, but of course in the short term it's not so good!

Getting out on the hill tomorrow (possibly to test my new Tricouni-nailed boots) so will write a full report when I get back. I am thinking about climbing the big ridge that comes down from Bidean West Peak, as it has no recorded ascents.

Monday, 30 November 2009

A great day in Coire nan Lochan

Today Jack and I headed up to Coire nan Lochan to see what was in condition. We were looking for avalanche-safe mixed routes, grade II to IV. Unfortunately Jack was not feeling at his best, due to a bout of cold and generally not being on good form; he decided to turn back when we reached the coire floor.

It was an unbelievably good day, with perfectly clear skies, deep frost, and no winds at all: the sort of day every winter mountaineer dreams about, and every now and again we are blessed. I observed an avalanche cone at the foot of Forked Gully, and decided that all the gullies would probably not be a good plan in these conditions. Therefore I headed up Dorsal Arete, an uncomplicated but excellent Grade II which is often in condition and a safe bet when avalanches threaten other routes.

Dorsal Arete was in surprisingly good nick. Climbers yesterday had exposed some of the lower layers of snow and turf, which meant that the track up the ridge was frozen solid in many places, with hard turf and lovely neve. In other spots it was very powdery. I climbed swiftly, and when I topped out I decided that the day was so good I wanted to do another route!

Firstly I descended some nondescript mixed ground towards the face that contains the route Pearly Gates. I found the first pitch of this steep snow route to be in excellent condition, with frozen turf and solid snow. However, upon reaching the crux step I found the turf (much thicker here) to be poorly frozen, and the snow powdery, so I climbed back down.

I then climbed the large easy buttress to the left of Boomerang Gully. This route is not named, but provides a pleasant, avalanche-safe ridge route at around Grade I/II. On the way up, I investigated a section of Boomerang Arete, and found the turf to be only superficially frozen where it poked through the snow.

I topped out--for the second time!--to be greeted by one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen in Glen Coe.

Conditions-wise, avalanche risk is still high in the gullies, with two separate layers of windslab separated by softer snow. This entire mass is resting on thawing grains (insulated from the cold by the snow above). Clearly, such a snow structure is unstable; I dug several test pits, which all failed dramatically.

Where turf was exposed to the open air, it tended to be frozen hard, but where insulated by snow it was generally unfrozen. There are dribbles of ice everywhere but they don't amount to much yet, except lower down in the coire, where the streams are beginning to form decent amounts of ice. The top third of the crags was well-rimed. The major ridgelines used by walkers are now consolidating well, thanks to a mixture of traffic, sun during the day, and deep cold at night; for this reason crampons should be carried by winter walkers on the high mountains, at least until the weather changes!

A thaw and re-freeze seems to be on its way, so let's hope that helps with consolidation. At the moment, the skies remain clear and it is -3 Celsius at glen level.

Photos from today

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bidean nam Bian conditions

Today James and I visited the highest coire of Bidean nam Bian to investigate conditions. We discovered frozen turf from about 400m up, patches of hard neve from 600, but only from around 800m was the snow cover continuous. The quality of the snow decreased somewhat with height, as the higher snow has had less of a chance to consolidate.

There is a strong wind blowing from the North at the moment, which is depositing inches-thick windslab all over the place--even on Northerly slopes in some cases, as we discovered today. I would estimate the avalanche danger to be at around Category 4 at the moment. I must emphasise that until consolidation takes place, this buildup of windslab is going to present a significant danger to all mountain travellers. We witnessed the remains of a small avalanche in a cone at the foot of Central Gully, and avalanches are going to be more and more frequent on certain slopes until things settle down. I would estimate the head of Coire nam Beithach (the normal route up Bidean from the Clachaig) to be particularly dangerous just now.

To avoid the windslab, we stuck right to the foot of the cliffs on the way up to our route, where re-frozen meltwater had improved the snow drastically. We were also sheltered from any avalanches from above. However. the centre of the great couloir looked highly loaded and I would not have liked my chances in the middle of it today.

In general, we found the snow to be a totally mixed bag, with areas of hard neve, much windslab, and also regions of loose powder.

In terms of ice, the crags are looking white and ice is starting to build up everywhere. Turf is frozen solid where exposed to the Polar winds, but where buried it was found to be only partially frozen on this mountain. Nevertheless, I expect a lot of the harder mixed routes are in prime condition, and we saw a team heading towards Crypt Route or Flake Route.

Our 'Gangway' up the cliff (as our chosen route was called) was pleasant and short-lived, with spectacular views into the depths of Central Gully. As a Grade II we found it quite easy and I would recommend it as a suitable beginner's route. We topped out onto the summit of Bidean to bitingly cold winds, instantly freezing all moisture on our persons. My hair froze into a tangle of ice that rattled as I moved, and as usual ice formed on the insides of my sleeves (I was wearing my ancient windshirt, aka 'The Death Smock' today).

The descent down the North Ridge of Bidean was uneventful, although we did observe soft snow aretes and cornices starting to form.

All in all, a fantastic day on the hill, even if we did have to get up at silly-o'clock to squeeze the climb in before a shift behind the bar! Conditions are surprisingly good for the time of year, and with a bit of luck all this snow will provide a base to build on for the rest of the season.

Photos from today

Saturday, 28 November 2009

This IS it

Unfortunately I am at work today, so unable to get out on the hill myself, but this morning my brother James made a quick visit to Coire nan Lochan. He reported hard-frozen snow at the coire floor, and large accumulations plastering all the cliffs. I do not know what condition the snow is currently in higher than the coire floor level. Yesterday it was reported to be wet mush on Dorsal Arete, but there has been a short sharp freeze overnight, which will at the very least have formed a hard crust.

The weather is forecast to get increasingly cold over the coming few days, with largely clear skies, so conditions can only improve in the short term. I am hoping to get out on the hill every day from tomorrow until Wednesday, if all goes to plan, so I should very shortly have plenty to report!

The photos above indicate the sheer amount of snow that has fallen over the last week. It goes without saying that the gullies will be very dangerous until some serious consolidation has taken place.

Photos (C) James Roddie 2009

Friday, 27 November 2009

This could be it!

For two days now, near-incessant rain at glen level has been dumping large quantities of fresh snow on the mountains. The Upper Tier of Aonach Dubh's West Face is currently holding some snow in the scoops and gullies, but buttresses seem to be largely bare; above this, Stob Coire nan Lochan is shining uniform white.

Although I have not yet been to check for myself, I anticipate that most of this snow will be damp up to around 900m, and above this it will likely be poorly-bonded and deep in places. I have heard reports of unstable new cornices. Although the wind has slackened off considerably at valley level, it has still been strong at times on the hills, which will be depositing windslab onto lee slopes--probably in quite large amounts.

The saturated ground underneath this snowpack, combined with an increasingly prolonged period of sub-freezing conditions on highest levels, will be gradually improving conditions underfoot. However, I think it is safe to say that few winter climbs will be in condition in Glen Coe at the moment, and care will be needed for all mountain travel, with the burns in spate and potentially large areas of unstable snow conditions. It's worth bearing in mind that the Scottish Avalanche Information Service does not start broadcasting avalanche assessments until the 1st of December, so until that happens we are on our own in terms of avalanche forecasting.

Given the high pressure zone and deep freeze we are hoping for over the weekend, there is a fair chance some climbing conditions might materialise early next week. I am planning on getting up onto Bidean on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday to see what is going on.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A wet day in the Mamores

Despite the diabolical weather forecast, today I accompanied Jamie and Isi from the Ice Factor on a walk up Stob Ban. It's a good thing I had companions to drag me up the hill, otherwise I should have gone straight back to bed! The scramble up the North Ridge was very wet and windy. Due to the unfortunate mild spell, snow has failed to materialise--except in a wet form high on the Ben--and even at summit level on Stob Ban it was mild and wet. Very, very wet.

I'm glad I got out on the hill as I needed the exercise, even if we did all get drenched! Most of the rivers are now in high spate and starting to burst their banks; the Coe is already flooding meadows near the village.

Colder weather is on its way, so fingers crossed for next week. I am determined to remain optimistic!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Things are changing

A change in the weather occurred today, with a gradual decrease in temperature occurring from mid-day onwards, coupled with a steady onslaught of relentless drizzle (later heavy rain). This rain is falling above about 850m as snow although I have no way of knowing how wet this snow is. Given that the freezing level is probably about 1000m, it seems likely that snow is starting to build up on the highest slopes of Bidean nam Bian and the other highest peaks in Lochaber.

Freeze/thaw cycles and further blizzards are forecast over the next three days, followed by a sharp decrease in temperature, which is exactly what we need at this stage.

This development comes just in time to save what was left of the snow on Ben Nevis, which has been subject to drastic thaw over the past few days.

p.s. The Twitter weather update system is working out well. It only takes me a couple of seconds to update from anywhere in the Clachaig and I am glad to see that twelve of you have already signed up to follow the feed through Twitter itself. I find that I am also paying more attention to what the weather is doing, which is all to the good.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

New conditions feed

Since I am keeping an eye on what is happening weather-wise in the Glen every day, but only usually update this blog when I actually go on the hill, I thought it was about time I introduced some way of posting intermediate updates on developments. I have signed up to Twitter, the micro-blogging service, and on the toolbar to the right beneath the 'About me' section there is a live feed directly from my account.

This will be updated more often than this section, and will include any observations I make from my home in the Glen, accurate to the best of my ability. I am normally able to gauge the snowline with a reasonable degree of accuracy up to around about 1000m, but cannot see any ground above that contour.

As with all the information given on this site, how it is used is not my responsibility: it is offered in good faith, as a source of information amongst many used by modern climbers, not as a sole source of advice that should be relied upon. The most important information source for any climber should be his or her own judgement and experience.

Anyway, I'm not going on the hill today as it is far too windy, but tomorrow and Monday are looking a little more promising.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Little to report

I am currently on holiday sown South. From what I can gather, conditions have not been ideal lately in the mountains due to the mild conditions. Ben Nevis still harbours plenty of snow, despite the thaw; this can only be a good thing in the long run!

I am returning to Scotland on Friday so will be back in the game soon enough.

Monday, 9 November 2009


Today the weather was fine in the morning, but forecast to deteriorate throughout the afternoon. We decided on a short day with the potential for some new Munros, and to that end paid a visit to the Blackmount.

Meall a Bhuiridh and Creise are two of the easiest mountains in the Glen to climb, thanks to a high starting-point and a gentle walk to the summits (by the normal routes). We encountered ice and frozen ground from glen level upwards, soft snow from around 950m but only above about 1050m were the mountains in proper winter conditions. Ice axes were used but we decided not to put on crampons at all.

The scramble back up to the Creise - Clach Leathad ridge had suffered substantial snowmelt and was quite practicable without the use of crampons, although we found ice axes useful for frozen turf placements, since we chose the most difficult possible line through the crags! On the way down a front came in, the wind picked up and the clag came down.

I suspect this is the end of the good weather for the time being, and the forecasts would seem to indicate slow thaw at all but the highest levels for the next few days. However, it seems quite likely that the routes on Ben Nevis that are currently climbable might survive for a while yet.

Photos from today

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Stunning conditions on the Ben

Today Isi and I went for a scramble over the Arete between Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg (commonly known as the CMD Arete). This fine long mountaineering route, exposed but technically easy, is a favourite of mine due to its unrivalled views of the North Face of Ben Nevis.

We chose the right day for it, and other than a few wisps of cloud and flurries of snow on the ridge itself, the weather conditions were superb.

Snow conditions were also surprisingly good. Near Carn Mor Dearg's summit we encountered hard-packed neve requiring crampons, and since the snow on the arete itself was partially consolidated we decided to leave crampons on for the scramble over the ridge. The snow was slowly thawing in the sun by mid-day and it felt fairly mild at 1200m, but overall I was surprised at how consolidated the snow had become.

Upon reaching the summit of Ben Nevis the temperature dropped markedly, to below freezing, and the slushy normal route down (well trodden by many boots today) quickly froze to become a skating rink. Equipped with crampons unlike most of the others we met on the hill, we breezed down the at times steep and slippery snow track. There was quite a lot of snow in evidence and the plateau was a very wintry place, with accumulations of between one and two feet of snow. Minor cornices were starting to form over some of the gullies, especially Gardlyloo's deep slot. I also observed a cornice near the East Ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach which had already formed a tubular structure, so it has obviously been there for several days.

Teams were out on North-East Buttress enjoying the early season conditions today, and I suspect Tower Ridge and Ledge Route may also have seen ascents. I did not get a chance to closely inspect conditions on the North Face but I observed ice forming up high and, since these climbs largely lie in the shade all day, I doubt much thawing has been going on.

We were treated to a beautiful sunset from the summit. Today counts as one of the best days I have ever spent on Ben Nevis.

Long may these superb conditions remain.

"Later, while we walked slowly across the plateau, it became very clear to me that only the true self, which transcends the personal, lays claim to immortality. On mountains it is that spiritual part that we unconcsiously develop. When we fail in that all other success is empty; for we take our pleasures without joy, and the ache of boredom warns of a rusting faculty. At last we turned toward Achintee and went down like fallen angels, with an ever-mounting reluctance, from a spiritual paradise to the black pit of Glen Nevis."

View the full photo album here

Saturday, 7 November 2009

New snow in Glencoe

It's not a fantastic picture, but it does show that the snowfall overnight in the Glen has now resulted in a snowline at around 840m. More snow is forecast for today, so things are looking up for winter walking (or perhaps even climbing?) conditions for the weekend and beyond.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Photos from the Cairngorms

As promised, here are some photos from my trip to the Cairngorms. The full photo album is located here.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Ben Macdui

Today I was on Ben Macdui. As I walked I could tell that the Northern Corries, and Fiacaill Ridge, were substantially stripped by yesterday's sun. However, on the plateau things were wintry indeed, and above 1000m I observed accumulations of consolidated snow, a lot of rime ice, even small pockets of windslab. Conditions on the summit were very cold although by late morning there was once again thawing going on at high levels.

It's set to freeze hard again tonight. This process is rapidly consolidating what snow there is, but unfortunately I doubt any climbs are currently in condition in the area. For winter walking, however, it is superb.

I'm back in Glencoe tomorrow, when I will post photos and plan adventures for the weekend...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A quick note from Aviemore

I climbed Fiacaill Ridge today as a winter route in surprisingly good conditions, thanks to an early start. I doubt anything else is in nick, but the plateau is quite wintry and there is lots of rime, and even some very hard neve in places, up high. However the sun is very warm and is stripping exposed ice even at the highest levels.

Watch this space! I'm heading up Ben Macdui tomorrow.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Winter to return next week?

October has turned out mild and wet--not unexpected, but a bit of a disappointment after last year's cold and snowy October. However, all the forecasts indicate large quantities of snow heading our way next week, probably forming accumulations on the mountains.

I had planned to make a rare visit to Wasdale Head next week, but given the atrocious forecast I am debating whether it might be wiser to adapt my plans. It's coming round to that time of year when the Cairngorms begin to present an appealing challenge again, and it has been a long time since my last failed attempt at Braeriach--maybe it's time I had another stab at it, if there's going to be snow!

Watch this space for news ... I very much hope winter is going to make a comeback within the following few days.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Local warning - Clachaig Gully path

Just a reminder to folks after tonight's incident that the Clachaig Gully path is not a safe way off the Aonach Eagach, particularly in the dark and at the end of a long day. A lot of people come down this way safely, but a significant proportion come to grief.

Without divulging personal details of the incident that occurred tonight (it is not my place to do so), the walkers in question were benighted near the top of the path but were helped down via the Pap of Glencoe col with the assistance of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team. They arrived at the Clachaig just after 11pm after fourteen hours on the hill.

Although Clachaig Gully is the tempting option, leading from the summit directly to the pub, a descent this way can easily turn into a full-blown epic, even for experienced mountaineers.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A new crag?

Another wander up to the neglected wild corners of Coire nam Beithach took me once again to the Pinnacle. This time I approached it from the top path, and this really hit home to me why this crag is unknown: it's virtually impossible to see from above, except from a distance.

I didn't climb anything new on the Pinnacle, but I did explore it thoroughly from all angles and seek out the best lines. There are some truly superb routes here waiting to be climbed.

I then traversed across the hill to find what I believe to be an entirely new crag, which I named Trafalgar Buttress in honour of today being Trafalgar Day. It is to the right of the Pinnacle, and is long and squat with a variety of ridge and gully lines up to about 15m high. It was fairly wet today, so I contented myself with a minor ascent which I named Nelson's Slab, a short Difficult line in a pleasant situation.


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Uisge beatha

A slight tangent to my usual subject matter, but many of my readers will be aware of the fact that I am a big fan of Scottish single malt whisky. Tonight I was off work, and attended a whisky tasting session from Gordon & MacPhail's at the Clachaig. We don't often host these events--just a few times a year, and often only twenty or so people attend--but they are always worthwhile.

This is only the second time I have had the opportunity to attend one as a customer. The gentlemen from the distillery began by handing out drams of Benromach Traditional, a fine Speyside malt which we featured as our malt of the month some while ago (and which, if I remember correctly, flew off the shelves!) This a beautifully mellow malt and a good beginner's whisky. Since I prefer the slightly more full-flavoured Islay malts, it slipped down very easily. We sampled several other drams, including the brand new Benromach 10yo (which I had never tried before--highly recommended) and the Bowmore Legend, which does not give an age and does not have the maturity associated with the more standard Bowmore expressions that we have at the bar (12, 15 and 18yo). Nevertheless, a very palatable whisky.

We finished with the Benromach 'Peat Smoke', a delightful whisky from this distillery which has more in common with Islay malts than its native Speyside.

And of course, after the tasting session, we all piled into the Boots bar to sample the enormous range of whiskies behind the bar. It isn't often I can forget the fact I work here and see the place as a customer does, but there was a good crowd in the pub tonight and when all's said and done this is indeed a damn good pub!

(I also bought a new bottle of whisky today--the fourth I have ever owned--to replace the Mortlach 16yo I bought for my birthday and which sadly ran out last month. I chose the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, a 48% whisky I have long admired.)

Friday, 16 October 2009

East Wall Route

Dawn this morning was crisp and very cold, with frost lining the deep hollows of the glen and a clear, still quality to the air. I tramped along the road briskly, hands in pockets, to keep warm. My plan was to investigate the potential of the upper tier of G Buttress; however, on inspection it proved to be unacceptably loose and slime-ridden even for my tastes!

I decided to escape the face by continuing along the Rake. I then visited my Pinnacle on the South West Face of Stob Coire nan Lochan, just around the hill. There is much potential on this massive, squat spire of rock, but as usual I was limited by being alone. Three lines on the South and West walls appear to be of very high quality, mostly following corners and grooves; one of them is a 10m overhanging finger-crack, capped by a monstrous corner, and is probably of extreme difficulty.

The East Wall, rising out of the short gully on the right-hand side of the spire, is altogether shorter and tamer-looking. There is an obvious line breaching its defences. It proved to be a reasonable little climb on excellent rock (albeit with some loose blocks, which I cleaned up). It ascends a short steep wall to a ledge, then traverses left to enter a narrow vertical corner to the top. Only a short pitch at Difficult standard, but it gets a star in my book!

After having lunch on the ideal picnic spot that the summit of the Pinnacle makes, I enjoyed a leisurely ridge walk and soaked in the fine Autumn views. This really is a stunning time of year, when the weather is nice!

Photos from today

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A bit of gorge scrambling

A warm front has brought calm, almost muggy weather to the glen, with dense cloud blanketing the hills almost down to the valley floor. Disinclined to venture out into the mist to slide about on wet rock, I decided today to instead embrace the wet conditions by exploring some of the ghylls on the West Face of Aonach Dubh.

At the bottom of the approach path up the face is a small steep wood of birch trees, bounded on both sides by beautiful waterfalls. I explored the left-hand one first.

The first little rock step was easy, but beyond that was an impossible cascade, so I walked around on the bank to the right and abseiled in from further up, leaving my rope in place so I could Prusik back out afterwards. At this section of the ravine it is more or less impossible to climb out at any point: the slope I abseiled down was several metres of almost vertical moss and mud!

A short easy section led to two difficult pitches. The first was a devious ramp of slimy rock, climbed using tiny holds and delicate balance to bypass the waterfall. I waded through a deep, crystal-clear pool to the foot of the next step, which was a steep move bridging up between either side of the narrow gorge.

Easy walking and rock-hopping now led to the gallery at the back of the ravine, the prize: a beautiful plunge-pool capped by a huge vertical waterfall, at least fifteen metres in height. I found many strange and wonderful plants (unharmed to the inaccessibility of the gorge), a sheep's skull, and a small but ancient cairn indicating someone else had made the ascent at some point in the past.

After exiting the first gorge, I found a way into the second--just an easy scramble up grass. Right next to the impressive waterfall, on the right side, was an ominous-looking cave. I waded out into the plunge pool and the water reached as high as my waist--freezing cold! Ultimately however I was unable to climb the slippery rocks into the cave, so I retreated.