Sunday, 27 September 2009

Conditions-Watch begins!

There is no snow as yet in the glen, but MWIS predicts that 'showers will give snow on highest Scottish summits' during a sharp drop in temperature later on in the week. The long game of keeping a keen eye on developing winter conditions has begun.

Last year the first snowfall that settled was on the 3rd of October, and within a week or two snow was beginning to accumulate above 850m and everything was starting to ice up. By the 30th of October there was ice everywhere; sadly it didn't last!

Not long to go now before we can pick up ice axes and crampons and resume REAL climbing.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Looking back on the summer climbing season

Although there will probably be the odd dry and fine day in the Autumn, and I daresay I may get a few more scrambles and climbs done before the winter kicks in, I think it is now safe to say that summer is over. So it's time to reflect on a successful summer of mountaineering in Glen Coe and the surrounds, and point out some of the highlights.

I think the summer climbing season kicked off with our unseasonably hot trip to the Lake District in March. We got two climbs done of substance: Middlefell Buttress via its Severe line, followed by a rambling exploratory route on the South Face of Harrison Stickle. This was a great start, as it was my first Severe lead and it injected a good dose of confidence after months of not touching rock.

Three trips to Polldubh, on the 20th of March, 2nd of April and 3rd of April laid the foundations for our enthusiasm for cragging later on in the year. Highlights of these visits include Fence Edge--Isi's first Mild Severe lead, and a struggle for us both at the time, Tricouni Slab, my first Very Difficult lead in over a year, followed the next day by Three Pines (Severe 4a) and Tyke's Climb (Very Difficult). We had built a decent amount of momentum and when Jamie suggested a trip to Reiff and Sheigra a couple of weeks later, it was difficult to resist!

The Reiff trip did a lot of good for both myself and Isi, and was hugely enjoyable to boot. The best routes of this trip included Moonjelly, Tystie Slab, Slanting Corner, and the crowning glory of them all: Tall Pall. This sweepingly exposed Severe climb is hidden amongst the Treasure Island Walls at Sheigra, and features a steep slab, an airy traverse suspended high above a churning abyss, and steep climbing to the top. It was the most spectacular single pitch climb I had ever done and also the first Severe I found straightforward! The trip was rounded off by Isi's significant lead of Meikle Neuk, her first Hard Severe lead and my first second at this grade.

Mountaineering rock climbs began for the year when James and I climbed the North Buttress of Buachaille Etive Mor on the 29th of April. Traditional, long, sometimes vegetated, and offering many excellent chimney pitches, this felt more like a real climb. It appealed to the explorer in me.

Rock climbing took a brief pause during a spell of perfect winter conditions on the 10th-11th of May, during which time I made my solo ascent of Dragonfly (III) on the great ice face of Aonach Beag, followed by the traverse of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and over Ben Nevis.

On the 14th of May we were back at Polldubh, pressing home our assault on the Pine Wall and SW Buttress areas. Isi led Pine Wall, somewhat soft for Hard Severe 4a and a non-line compared to the much easier but better Gutter to its right. I led the short and almost ridiculously well-protected Tear, my first lead at Hard Severe. Shortly after this trip, another visit with Jack took us back to SW Buttress, where Jack led the thin and sketchy route Scratch--no pushover at Very Severe 4c, and I found it precarious even following Jack's rope.

During this same spell I had begun to systematically explore the 'top crag' above the Clachaig, which is un-named but allegedly at least partially explored by Ed Grindley at some point in the past. I climbed several routes between Moderate and Very Difficult standard, and many times prospected the excellent-looking chimney and nose climb on the main wall, but never succeeded in an ascent. James, Isi, and myself also climbed the Bowstring on Aonach Dubh, a very fine long Difficult route on the Terrace Face.

The best period of the summer began on my birthday, the 3rd of June.

Isi and I made our way to Ben Nevis after the bar closed and walked leisurely into the coire, reaching the base of Tower Ridge as the sun rose. Our ascent, clad in big boots and carrying only 100ft of rope and a long-shafted ice axe by way of technical equipment, was one of the best climbs of the entire year. We employed the rope only for the exposed step into Tower Gap, and in the cave pitch I chopped steps out of the banked-up ice.

On the 8th of June I climbed the North Route on Bidean, a nightmare of a climb in summer conditions. The guidebook gives it 'Difficult' but realistically it is ungradeable; a contender for Exceptionally Difficult (Vegetated) if ever there was one!

The following day, Jack and I climbed Nirvana Wall on Far Eastern Buttress: two pitches of pure joy, and I now look back on this ascent as the height of my rock climbing powers, such as they ever were. We discovered after we got back down that the route was Hard Severe 4b, despite how smoothly the climb had gone.

James and I climbed Agag's Groove on Buachaille Etive Mor the day after that. This superb mountaineering rock climb felt like a real achievement and was certainly not an easy ascent. One of the finest climbs of the summer. On the 24th of June we went back to Ben Nevis and climbed its North-East Buttress, the premier line on the mountain, and (in my opinion) better even than Tower Ridge. It was also the longest rock climb I had ever done, at almost 500m in height and countless pitches.

The 'great confidence crisis' began when I failed to climb Staircase at Polldubh in late June. This was compounded by a trip to Dunkeld and Clova in which I made mistake after mistake on easy climbs, ultimately losing my ability to calmly make bold moves on lead without worrying about falling off. Jamie's patience and natural teaching ability helped to minimise the damage, but to all intents and purposes my confidence crisis was a freefall. I got dragged up some more Severes and Hard Severes on that trip, mostly shaking like a leaf all the way up. After that point I never led harder than Very Difficult again.

What I see as the second phase of the summer began on the 4th of July, when I made the first recorded ascent of No.2 Gully Buttress Climb on the West Face of Aonach Dubh, using period equipment including nailed boots. This fine arete of Moderate rock re-awakened the exploring urge, and from that point onwards that grand face was my greatest inspiration. Our activities as a group, including Isi, James, myself, and (on one trip) Rachael, moved almost entirely in the direction of mountaineering routes. It was a polar shift partly in response to my vanished enthusiasm for single-pitch rock climbing, and partly I think in anticipation of the coming winter.

We climbed the Slab Route on Beinn Trilleachan, and the Pinnacle Ridge of Garbh Bheinn--both highly obscure, somewhat vegetated, traditional routes. Then we went to Skye and had a belter of a time. The Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean proved to be one of the finest mountaineering routes of the summer, and Mummy's Church at Carn Liath was a hugely enjoyable caving mission.

Another short trip to Reiff saw us tick off some more of the Difficult and Very Difficult routes, but my head was still in no sort of order on single-pitch ground and I did not lead well. Then it was August and it rained--a lot! Other than a very good day on Lagangarbh Buttress, I spent all of my time exploring on Aonach Dubh and working out all the possible ways that a solitary man might find of climbing the cliffs. I discovered the Amphitheatre Escape Route, the difficult and forboding Buzzard Ridge, and several times prospected a direct passage through the Amphitheatre but was thwarted by the mighty dripping overhangs above the Great Slab. A bit further around the hill, on the South-West Face of Stob Coire nan Lochan, I discovered an unknown pinnacle of great promise and made the (probable!) first ascent of 'the Arete' on its northern side.

This almost brings us up to date. In the last settled spell, I climbed a'Chailleach, followed by the Aonach Eagach, and a couple of days later the North Buttress of Stob Ban--a very serious 'scramble' with two hard chimneys to contend with. Last week, Shrike Ridge on the West Face of Aonach Dubh fell to a determined assault, despite its obvious difficulties, and proved to be the best route I had so far done on the entire mountain.

Taken altogether it has been a fantastic summer, with some fine achievements and some very memorable mountain days. However I think the most important achievement of the summer is the wealth of knowledge and experience we have gained--particularly with regards to future winter ascents of routes we have done this summer. The North-East Buttress, Tower Ridge, and further exploratory missions on Aonach Dubh: these are all major objectives for the coming winter season.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

At last, a new route of quality!

With the good weather continuing, I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 this morning to make the most of the precious few hours before my shift at 3 o'clock. The night had been very cold and it took a brisk walk down the road to warm me up: in fact, I was half expecting the rocks on Aonach Dubh to be iced!

Once again, I plodded up the vegetated Lower Tier of B Buttress on the West Face. To my great surprise I noted two other climbers following me some distance below. These are the first climbers, other than myself and my friends, that I have ever seen on this face ... and I go up there a fair bit!

With no particular aim other than to explore the Upper Tier beyond F Buttress, I decided to traverse the Middle Ledge in order to avoid the horrendous Great Slab, which I would have to descend if I had climbed the Middle Tier of B Buttress. If that sounds confusing, that's because it is! It is an incredibly confusing crag, vast in size and complex in its ways, and it has taken me many visits to learn its various ins and outs.

I scrambled up the Amphitheatre and escaped to the right. This is the normal route for B-F Buttress, the serious scramble Rachael and I did a year ago. It finishes up a fine pinnacled arete of rock, and I noticed that the ridges to the right of this are not recorded in the current Glen Coe guidebook.

The ridge directly right of B-F looked superb. Intrigued, I scouted out the base and found a way up a cracked slab and steep wall: a stiff little pitch, which I soon discovered could be avoided on the left, to reach a gap between two vegetated scoops.

From this point, my explorations will be best described by the route description I have written for UKC:

SHRIKE RIDGE, Very Difficult, 60m (**)

One of the best routes of its type on the Upper Tier, with good rock, sustained climbing on the second pitch and exhilarating situations. Situated on the upper section of F Buttress, right of the final arete of B-F Buttress Route.

1. Climb a slab, steep crack and wall to a small gap. This short pitch may be avoided to the left by easy scrambling up a vegetated scoop.

2. An excellent pitch! Climb the overhanging front wall of the arete directly on good holds. Step up onto the knife-edge and climb steeply for about 10m up the arete, extremely exposed, with a couple of bold moves. Resist trending right onto the slab to avoid the crux step, as the slab is less sound and harder than the arete.

3. After reaching a small ledge, the angle relents and pleasant easy climbing leads to the last obstacle, a short tower formed by a detached boulder. Move right, layback up a short rib, then bridge up the final groove. After the groove, scramble easily to the top.

Upon finishing the route, I broke out into a broad grin. Shrike Ridge is the best route I have ever done on Aonach Dubh West Face--and that includes 'established' climbs such as the Pinnacle Face and B-F Buttress. I am astonished that it has never been recorded, but I'm sure I am not the first person to have passed that way and enjoyed the airy delights of that knife-edged crest.

Another point to ponder is that lately my performance on the crags has suffered, mostly from being unable to commit to bold moves on lead. I wonder why it is that I will sometimes get worried leading VDiffs at Polldubh, and yet I can wander by myself to a neglected corner of a vegetated mountain face and create a new route, which is more serious, more exposed, and just as technical as the VDiff I was worrying about on a sunny roadside crag?

I think it is about feeling in control. When cragging I do not feel in control. I am following a route that is well-established and has been climbed hundreds of times. This fact imparts judgement on you, as a climber, when you set foot upon the route with your huge rack of nuts and cams and karabiners. I feel more in control when pioneering on serious mountaineering terrain, even if that terrain is often chossy, exposed, and objectively dangerous. The rope I carry can be a genuine aid in retreat but sometimes it offers only the illusion of being able to back down.

Today, that sense of being in control came from the simple fact that, once I was committed to the arete, there was no way out but up. I think I need that kind of stark reality, the realisation that you have no choice but to make a route, in order to motivate me. And I think that is why serious scrambling, Alpine climbing, and Scottish winter are (to me) the ultimate forms of mountaineering.

Photos from today Note September 2011 This route is now officially graded Difficult after several repeats by various parties.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The North Buttress of Stob Ban

Yesterday afternoon, I took the bus into Glen Nevis with bivouac gear and food for two days. My objective was the North Buttress of Stob Ban, a winter ridge route first climbed in 1895, which is graded for summer conditions as a Grade 3 scramble. My plan was to traverse the Mamore ridge after this climb.

The walk into the high corrie was pleasant, and I was pleased that I could recall many features on this path from my only prior visit exactly three years before. At the back of the corrie I left the path and struck a diagonal line up the boggy hillside towards the great face of Stob Ban.

The ridge began innocuously enough with small vegetated buttresses, but things soon got steep and serious. The first crux came in the form of a vertical chimney-crack. Luckily the holds were good, but my heavy pack made things awkward and it was a thuggish fight to make progress up the crack.

The next crux was to be found on the subsequent buttress. After a short scramble up a grassy gully, with one delicate rockover onto a slab, I broke out onto an exposed ledge. The escape from this ledge came in the form of a quite improbable crack up a blank wall, leaning slightly steeper than the vertical. The guidebook makes scant mention of this pitch but it proved to be fierce! Once committed into the crack it is impossible to regain the ledge below, and the subsequent moves are hard. In winter, with turf above the head to hack into, I can see this being easier. In summer it is wildly out of character for a 'scramble', more like the crux on a Difficult rock climb, but it is short and well-protected for parties who choose to use a rope.

I finished up a knife-edged arete to the summit. From there, racing the sunset, I ran to the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair where I was treated to a spectacular temperature inversion and a blaze of fire looking back over Stob Ban. Luckily, a small grassy ledge directly beneath the summit cairn made a perfect perch for me to spend the night.

I awoke with the dawn illuminating the mountains on the other side, and yet another temperature inversion! The dawn was spectacular and I lingered for a while on the summit, waiting for the sun to warm me up before getting going.

Unfortunately a twinge in my ankle upon reaching the summit of Am Bodach made me unwilling to finish the traverse of the Mamores, and I decided it was prudent to call it a day before committing myself to several more peaks.

So: another good scramble, a nice walk, and the best mountain bivouac I've ever enjoyed.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Traverse of the Aonach Eagach via the South Face of A'Chailleach

Today I awoke to blue sky and beams of sunlight shining over the summit of Aonach Dubh. That could only mean one thing: a hill day!

I walked up the length of Glen Coe admiring the clear lighting on the hills, making my way to the Study in preparation for an ascent of the South Face of A'Chailleach. This Grade 3 scramble is a route I've wanted to do for a while, as it appears to be a perfect 'playtime' route--just pick and choose which bits of rock you want to climb! It proved to be fantastic, and while it lacked a defined line and was somewhat contrived, many of the individual pitches were much better than anything on Curved Ridge.

The final crux pitch was simply magnificent (this is the cover shot for 'Scrambles in Lochaber'): a near-vertical corner-crack that looks utterly improbable for any kind of route described as a 'scramble'! Despite its forbidding appearance, however, it proved to be easier than the two tricker steps lower down; although it was very exposed.

After topping out on the ridge crest I then proceeded to make my first summer traverse of the Aonach Eagach. As I have some familiarity with the route from my winter traverse in February, and was nicely warmed up after 600m of scrambling already, I soon fell into a rhythm and made rapid progress along the ridge. My impression of the Aonach Eagach as a summer route is that it is a striking hillwalking ridge, interspersed with sections of quality scrambling. There's nothing hard here although a head for heights is obviously required, as there are several points where if you slip you will fall for nearly 3000ft!

Ignoring the Clachaig Gully path which other teams were making their way down, I chose the longer, safer descent via the col next to the Pap of Glencoe. Although it adds a mile or two to your journey, it is the safest way off the Aonach Eagach and avoids the excessively loose and steep ground next to Clachaig Gully which has been the scene of several fatalities over the past year. I would urge all scramblers most strongly to follow my route down, however tempting it may be to descend directly to the pub!

Today was the best day on the hill I've had since Skye, two months ago. I hope this good weather holds!

Photos from today

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

An answered prayer

At last, after almost two months or near-constant rain, cloud, and high winds, the weather has changed. Today was fine, and the forecast is for up to ten days of excellent weather.

It is time to get some more climbing and walking done before the bad weather of Autumn sets in.

This evening after work I went for a potter up the hillside. I had intended to climb on the West Face of Aonach Dubh, but the river was still too high to cross, so instead I made a visit to a vegetated little crag near the bottom of the Chasm of An t-Sron. It proved to be a good contender for the most slimy and vegetated crag in the world; only one 'route' appeared to be at all possible, and that was far too steep.

However, I noticed an amazing free-hanging waterfall in the gully to the right, which was the bottom of the Chasm of An t-Sron. Intrigued, I found a way into the bottom of the gully and discovered a deep, dank ravine, shrouded in ferns and mosses. It was an incredibly atmospheric place although it didn't take long to realise that the overhanging waterfall pitch was impossible to climb in summer conditions, and would indeed take significant freezing to ever form a decent icefall!

Photos from today

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Autumn is here at the Clachaig!

EVEN the mountains can look dull.
When we remember
their haze of August heat,
the glaring rays that beat
on flattened colour, unrelieving line,
our clouded hours of life seem of design ;
for we remember
that even mountains can look dull!

Mountains are most beautiful
in September.
For evening, and distance,
the sun's more level glance
lifts under curling lashes of rain-mist
to rest on hills, silvering and shadow-kissed :
in our September
all hours of life grow beautiful.

--Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, 'April and Rain'

It's official: the summer season is now over, and Autumn has begun. Unfortunately the weather has not changed, with constant rain, low cloud, and low temperatures being almost continuous. There has been the odd sunny and dry day, but without exception they have occurred when I've been at work!

So my friends and I have done no climbing at all in ages. Last week James and I made a half-hearted attempt to climb something on the West Face of Aonach Dubh, but it started raining buckets as we ascended the rib beneath the Pinnacle Face, so we bailed out (incidentally discovering a small out of the way cave in the process). Since then we have mostly been working and lounging around in the Bothy, staring glumly out of the window and slowly going insane.

It is once again my 'weekend' off (Thursday and Friday), and typically, the weather is at its worst when I have spare time. I have absolutely no inclination to walk up familiar hills in the pouring rain, even though I know I need to get my fitness up for the winter.

In that spirit, I am compiling a list of routes I want to do this coming season. My primary objective is a winter ascent of the North-East Buttress of Ben Nevis: it was a fantastic expedition in summer, and in winter it will be a truly epic undertaking. I have many other plans but as always I just want to get out and climb!