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.