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.