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.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

First route of the season

Yesterday afternoon, I walked into the coire beneath the North Face of Ben Nevis to inspect developing conditions. There was a dusting of snow and what appeared to be some icing on the highest rocks. Since most of the face was dry, I tentatively planned to climb Tower Ridge the following morning, as only the top 100m or so would be snowy. However, overnight as I camped near the CIC hut a storm struck, attacking my tent with wet snow and plastering the cliffs.

I awoke at 6:30am when it stopped snowing, and immediately discounted the idea of soloing Tower Ridge in the conditions, which I anticipated to be powder snow on wet rock. Ledge Route is a ridge I am familiar with and a safe option in most conditions. On the approach there was just a little thawing snow on the ground, but upon attaining the ridge proper there was an inch or so of pristine powder on top of clean dry rock. I scrambled up the lower aretes in my boots: no point in attaching crampons at this point!

At some distance up the ridge, probably near the halfway mark, the snow became icier and the rocks sported a patina of rime and verglas. Icicles dripped from shadowed corners. It became unsafe to climb without crampons, and although it wasn't really 'proper' winter conditions, the route was white and frozen and it certainly wasn't in summer nick. Today was one of those grey areas where summer and winter conditions subtly interplay.

As I neared the top of the ridge, the sun came out and immediately the rocks started to drip. I removed my crampons for the rest of the day.

The plateau was almost completely white. Although the depth of snow was obviously nowhere near what it attains during the winter, it did seem wintry and the highest buttresses of the mountain were draped with rime and ice. Proto-cornices were already starting to form over the gully exits. The summit shelter itself was quite well-iced.

By nine o'clock, everything was melting in the sun even at high levels, and only the snow in the shade survived unscathed. By mid-day the mountain had suffered substantial snowmelt. What conditions existed at all were very fleeting indeed, as you would expect at this time of year.

So although I wouldn't describe Ledge Route as being in full winter conditions today, I required crampons and the route was certainly wintry in appearance and character. Unfortunately my photos don't do the conditions justice as the camera stopped working just before I got on the route!

For some far better photos of what Ben Nevis was like today, look at Al Halwood's blog entry for Tower Ridge here.

Photos from today

Monday, 5 October 2009

So it begins

Snow showers over the past couple of days have dusted the top few hundred metres of Bidean nam Bian with powder snow--nothing substantial as yet, but the northern corries of the mountain are starting to gleam white, and every time it rains in the glen more snow is being deposited on the high peak. My friend John today reported a 'fair dusting'!

The forecast is for blizzards on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, after a brief thaw tomorrow. I plan to get as high as possible to investigate potentially developing conditions for myself. There is a very real chance, given the position of the isotherm over the past couple of days, that the highest rocky mixed routes might start to come into condition. Pygmy Ridge in the Cairngorms has already been done as a winter route yesterday.

Ladies and gentlemen, I declare the 2009/2010 Scottish winter mountaineering season open (at least until the first thaw!)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

All change

Our internet is down at home at the moment, so I'm just typing a brief report from the public computer in Ballachulish. I made a short excursion onto Aonach Dubh the other day, and added two direct starts to No.2 Gully Buttress Climb, both of a Difficult standard and quite serious for the grade, as they share an exposed hard move with no available protection--the same sort of climbing as on Shrike Ridge, but sadly less sustained and on poorer rock.

I also discovered a buttress with no recorded routes at all. I've called it Hidden Buttress as it can only be seen as a distinct crag from the top of No.2 Gully Buttress, which is itself rarely climbed, meaning that only a few people are likely to have noticed the Hidden Buttress at all. I climbed an Exceptionally Difficult face route on the left side of the crag, which I have called Hidden Wall. I dislodged quite a bit of loose rock but there is still a lot of slime and rubbish waiting to come down the overhanging corner. It might be more realistic as a winter route. I also prospected a truly excellent line on this crag ... and I'm saying no more about that for the time being!

The weather is in a state of change, with a big storm last night paving the way for blizzards and ice to come on Sunday and Monday, if the forecast holds true. Fingers are crossed that this will herald the start of the winter season.