Friday, 29 January 2010

An attempt at Central Gully by moonlight

The full moon is out tonight and the sky was clear, so I decided to make use of it. A rapid ascent of the Coire nam Beithach path brought me into the coire beneath the cliffs of Bidean and Stob Coire nam Beith. I hadn't even had to switch on my headtorch: the moon was so bright it couldn't be looked at directly, and colours were bright and easily distinguishable.

From my perch on a boulder, I contemplated the giants surrounding me on all sides. The mountains look much bigger, steeper, and more forbidding by moonlight. My objective, the Central Gully of Bidean, was a grim slot in the huge northern cliffs. After checking the snow (it was absolutely solid and safe neve), I began climbing up to the start of the route.

There are four potential entrances to Central Gully, and I checked them all. The leftmost one was too thin for me to be doing without a rope in the middle of the night, so I let it be. Two more featured very steep mixed steps that I would have preferred a rope for, and the only remaining one was a 5m step of near-vertical ice. I started up this steep step. The ice itself was as hard as diamond and extremely brittle, no doubt due to the fact that the temperature was about -10! Most of the time my picks were actually bouncing off the surface, but when I did get a stick, it dinnerplated horribly.

I admitted defeat, and considered heading round to do North Route. However, on the traverse across the snowfield, I suddenly heard a loud 'bang' and a shooting crack appeared at my feet. I froze and got my axe ready, should the worst occur. An instant later, a very large section of hard windslab sank about 6 inches down the slope, overbalancing me. I managed to arrest the slip before it became a fall, but I took it as a warning and got out of there as fast as I reasonably could.

The only explanation for this that I can give is that there must be highly isolated and almost random pockets of slab masquerading as regular neve. I was quite happy that most of the snow I was climbing on was entirely safe, having dug several test pits on slopes of the same aspect and altitude, but it goes to show that you can never be entirely certain. I was very lucky.

A lovely walk in the moonlight though!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

A great day for a big link-up

Excellent weather arrived as promised, and with the whole day free until my shift at seven I planned a monster day in the mountains. First, I headed up to Stob Coire nam Beith with the intention of doing Arch Gully. I passed several teams on the way up, and in fact the whole coire was crawling. There were teams either on, or gearing up at the bottom of almost every low-mid grade route in condition on the mountain. Notable queues were on Deep-Cut Chimney and Central Gully. I ended up doing Broken Gully, an unremarkable Grade II with a stunning view from where it tops out on the Shoulder of Zero Buttress.

After two failed attempts at this serious north face, I have finally climbed it! The view from the summit was also spectacular, with a temperature inversion over Glen Etive.

Not willing to descend, I cut across and climbed Hourglass Gully on Bidean West Peak. This easy gully is a very graceful and striking line, and has been on my list for over a year now. The climbing was unspectacular but the situation and views were tremendous.

After summitting Bidean--the cairn is completely buried under a huge cone of snow--and descending the North Ridge, I took the opportunity to visit 'Crag X' and make a new route there, which I have called Symphonic Variations (II/III). I'm sure the canny amongst you can work out where it is, but it's no great secret really: I've done a few new routes there over the past year as it has virtually nothing recorded and is an excellent place to have a potter about and explore, but I do not plan to submit details of any of these routes as I would like it to remain quiet!

I nipped into Coire nan Lochan (queues there also!) and descended in time for a rest before work. A tiring trip, with three fairly substantial routes, 1,400m of total ascent and 560m of actual climbing! What a day!

Conditions-wise, things are excellent underfoot with generally well-bonded and stable snow, only a few pockets of windslab, easily avoided. Gullies are looking good. There's also a lot of ice around.

Photos from today

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

No.3 Gully, Aonach Dubh (West Face)

Although the weather forecast did not look particularly inspiring today, given the threat of new snow tomorrow I decided to make an effort and swapped my shift with Vicky to give me the morning off. I'm glad I managed to get out of bed! The gusts of wind overnight were terrific, and light fine snow was whirling everywhere as I tramped along the road. The only thing that kept me going was my conviction that the West Face would be a) sheltered; and b) consolidated.

I made rapid progress up the lower tier of B Buttress, although about halfway up I was forced to pop on crampons and get the Alp Wings out to deal with the rock barriers, which were in frustrating icy conditions. In certain conditions the B Buttress approach can be a Grade II climb in its own right, although luckily today the turf was still frozen iron-hard (surprising given all this thaw!)

Just before I reached the Middle Ledge I diverted right to climb the first complete ice pitch in No.3 Gully (Grade II/III). As I had predicted, the snow and ice was in fantastic shape and I was completely shielded from the wind ... if not from the plumes of spindrift blown off the ridge high above. No.3 Gully was complete and in excellent condition, with several steps of beautiful ice and generally well-bonded snow. I passed beneath the Smear but decided it looked a bit delicate for me to be doing on my own.

After the steeper right-hand finish I topped out on the Rake, and proceeded to climb a scoop between No.2 Gully Buttress and B Buttress (Upper Tier). This minor gully, which can perhaps be most consistently described as '2B Scoop' in keeping with the naming convention of the cliff, was uneventful but featured a turfy steepening at mid-height.

I topped out at the Dinnertime Buttress Col in wild, whiteout conditions and made my way down Coire nan Lochan as fast as possible. There is a good track beaten into the snowpack now and the bumslide next to the Lochan Approach buttress is complete.

So: conditions excellent on what snow remains on the West Face, but lots of routes are thin and still others have no snow on at all. Most of the buttresses were dry.

More snow forecast tomorrow so things could change fast.

Photos from today

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Another failure!

Today James and I went to the Buachaille to climb Curved Ridge. This time there was no question that we started early enough; indeed we made excellent time, until that is we came to the foot of the ridge and uncertainty struck over the correct way to follow. I have climbed Curved Ridge in summer several times and know the way to get up to it very well, but in winter in dense hill-fog and under a blanket of snow it is a different matter, particularly when there is no trail to follow.

No matter. Another group came up behind as we were gearing up, and they pointed us in the right direction. Unfortunately conditions underfoot were very poor. The ice pitch at the start of Curved Ridge was very soggy indeed, with water welling up from pick placements.

Upon starting the ridge proper, it soon turned out that the ridge had a very poor covering of snow, and what snow there was proved to be loose and thawing! In the face of very poor conditions, we decided the honourable thing to do would be to turn around. Turf was frozen, but we wondered how long it would last since mostly everything else was rather damp.

So another ignoble failure, but at least this time it was an act of God and nobody's fault!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

An attempt at the Clachaig Icefall

A large icefall has formed on the broken ground to the right of Clachaig Gully. Foolishly, I posted about it on UKC to ask if it had been climbed, and if so, what its name was. Turns out it had never been recorded, but thanks to my posting about it for all to see on the internet, I missed out on the first ascent! It was climbed yesterday and graded III.

Jack and I had planned to make the second ascent this morning. However, Jack didn't make it to the Clachaig so I elected to set off by myself, a little later than I would have liked.

The icefall is magnificent, a beautiful line strikingly visible from the pub. The walk-in takes about twenty minutes and from the bottom of the route the ice looked good, albeit not fat, and with a little water running behind it. I set off up the first pitch, which wasn't too steep.

Unfortunately, the route started to rapidly thaw within minutes, water spurting out of pick placements! The sun started to hit the ice and I decided it wasn't worth the risk to continue by myself.

Given slightly warmer temperatures forecast at low levels next week, it seems likely that this icefall will collapse at some point soon. I've well and truly missed the boat on this one!

Friday, 8 January 2010

A very different two days

Stunning weather in the glen at the moment, with deep frost overnight and absolutely calm, clear, and sunny weather during the day. The entire glen is frozen solid, with sections of the River Coe encased in ice, and most of the minor streams reduced to a mere trickle behind huge icefalls.

Yesterday, given the good forecast I decided to do an ascent of Stob Coire nan Lochan using entirely period gear. That meant full-tweed jacket, nailed boots, long ice axe, puttees etc. I ended up cutting a lot of steps! The tweed jacket was remarkably comfortable and effective in the sub-zero, windless conditions, being far more breathable than any modern garment yet also warm. I found the nailed boots to have many advantages, notably their superior performance on iced rocks, but after a while the nails started to conduct heat from my feet into the ground, leading to cold feet despite two pairs of socks!

It was an interesting experiment and I learned a great deal about how climbing was done in the 19th century, and while I can see myself donning the tweeds again when the mood takes me, I will not be throwing away my Alp Wings and crampons just yet.


Today I am in work at 3 o'clock so planned a short jaunt up onto Aonach Dubh's West Face, for a possible ascent of C-D Scoop or C Buttress. However, conditions on the approach concerned me, with a buildup of windslab on the snowslope leading up B Buttress. Having had difficulties with avalanche-prone conditions on that same slope last year, I decided it wasn't worth the risk, and backed down.

On the way back home I noticed that the Lower Falls of Coire nam Beithach appeared to be in good shape. Apparently they were climbed yesterday by several teams. I attacked the first pitch with vigour, but the vertical step didn't feel very secure with my rucksack on, so I left my bag at the bottom and proceeded with greater comfort. Once again, the Grivel Spring Leashes proved their worth.

The climb was delightful. Pitch 1 was steep (tech 4) but short. A large pitch had formed above the cave waterfall I investigated over the summer, and I found that with the river frozen I was actually able to access the cave, which was full of icicles and rather eerie. The ice was a joy to climb, the less steep sections covered in steps and hooks that seemed to have naturally formed as part of the freezing process.

I was forced to avoid pitch 4 as it was looking decidedly fragile from yesterday's traffic, with a spout of water flowing behind hacked-about ice on the vertical section. Didn't really feel like committing myself to about 12m of vertical and near-vertical ice that might fall down with me on it! However, the top pitch was in great shape.

Overall I would grade the climb III,4 as it is mostly solid Grade III but with some short very steep sections.

I also got a good look at the main icefall (or upper fall) of Coire am Beithach, and it does indeed seem to have suffered partial collapse at some point. That said, there is a complete column on the right-hand side and I daresay it is climbable by anyone who is bold enough!


Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Deep cold

Today has been the coldest day I can remember in my year and a bit of working at the Clachaig. I don't own a thermometer, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's dipped to -10 Celsius. The weather has been completely calm and clear all day, but the frost hasn't let up. Elliot's Downfall touched down yesterday but is a way away from being climbable yet.

I didn't get out on the hill today, as I twisted my ankle slightly on my adventure of the day before and wished to give it a rest. However, with a continuing forecast of clear skies, low winds, no snow, and fierce frost, I hope to head into the mountains tomorrow to find an avalanche-safe ridge to climb!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

North Buttress : an analysis of defeat

Despite the less than perfect forecast, my friend Mike Martin is up in the Glen at the moment, so we decided to go climbing today. Unfortunately Mike and I don't seen to have a lot of luck when we climb together: on the first occasion we were forced to cut our route short to prevent being late for work, and the second time was the notorious Pinnacle Face epic, which resulted in the loss of both Mike's ropes and a good deal of his gear, not to mention a nerve-wracking multipitch abseil in the dark. Today the forecast was not great, but encouraged by the good weather early on we decided to head for the Buachaille.

Our chosen route was North Buttress, but things went wrong from the start. Here is my analysis of the defeat, blow by blow, and (I think) illustrates the alarming way that minor annoyances can quickly escalate to become a full-blown epic. Luckily on this occasion we managed to avoid the epic part, but it was potentially a close escape.

1. Mike spent longer than expected getting from Ballachulish to pick me up at the Clachaig, thanks to a little overnight snow making the roads difficult.
2. This resulted in me thinking Mike had decided to sack it in for the day, so I went back to the Bothy to adapt my kit for a solo day out.
3. Neither of us had food, so we had to go to the garage to pick up something to eat.
4. In the event it was ten o'clock before we left the car park.
5. After walking for about ten minutes, Mike realised he hadn't locked the car, so had to run back to lock it.
6. He then realised that he had an extra rope in his sack which was weighing it down: the rope was buried in the snow for later retrieval.
7. On the way up we were plagued with doubts about whether or not we would have time to complete the route, and considered choosing a shorter climb.
8. On the initial easy section of the climb, Mike climbed a rocky wall I was unable to get up. I tried to find a way up the side but had to put on crampons to deal with the frozen turf. This wasted some time.
9. Above this wall, Mike dealt with the powder-covered slabs with ease but I found them tough going in crampons. I progressed slowly on the Grade II rambling terrain.
10. A diversion to climb a short ice pitch which I anticipated being easier than the slabs took longer than expected, thanks to rubbish ice.
11. We were overtaken by another team as the weather started to close in.
12. Just before the start of the difficult pitches, a blizzard hit and soon enough we were enveloped in heavy spindrift.
13. With two teams above (one of them very slow), bad weather upon us, and a sense that we didn't have much luck to play around with, we made the decision to bail out of the route.

The descent was safe enough but time-consuming, as the accumulating powder and spindrift was difficult to descend through. Rather alarming quantities of windslab were building up, even though we were on a Northerly slope where avalanche risk should have been minimal. In all fairness there was no risk of an avalanche, as the terrain was well-broken up, but the huge shooting cracks across the pack was a bit alarming.

We descended in snow showers back to the car, aware that we had been well and truly beaten by a combination of circumstances, largely beyond our control although I think we were both guilty of more faffing than is usually acceptable!