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

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