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.


  1. Nice pictures. Good to see you using a set of double spring leashes there - I've just invested in a set after some rather unsatisfactory attempts with home-made versions, they are certainly a step forward from the ordinary lanyards I was forever worried about tripping myself up with. Do you ever find them awkward or prone to tangles? I'm currently experimenting with using a swivel which seems good, but maybe extra unnecessary weight on long 'alpine style' days.

  2. Hi Lauren, thanks for the comments. Today was actually my first outing with the spring leashes as I only bought them the other day. I've been climbing leashless for about a year, but up until now I've been using some makeshift lanyards made from 7mm cord that attached to the shoulder straps of my sack: okay for preventing tool loss, but obviously wouldn't take any kind of force!

    My initial impressions of the spring leashes are that they are about a million times better than my previous setup. I didn't find them getting in the way at all and in fact they were entirely unobtrusive throughout the (admittedly short!) climb.

    I think the swivel system would be of benefit on hard mixed routes where you might be swapping tools over a lot, but on ice routes and mid-grade mixed I think the Grivel system is excellent ... from what I've seen so far!

  3. Alex,
    I'm in a very similar situation, the cord lanyards were more of a trip hazard than anything (but necessary after a very close call with a dropped axe on a route...another story altogether).
    I looked into the various spring lanyard options very carefully (ok so there are only really 2, the grivel and the BD) whilst researching for my entirely homemade spring option - playing with the commercial ones just made the effort of making my own seem pointless as I was never going to get anywhere near the quality without some serious effort.
    As for the swivel - I will be blogging my thoughts about these lanyards soon, including the various options for swivels.