Thursday, 25 February 2010

Cold is the snow that sweeps Glencoe...

Despite the forecast for 'snow flurries', we are now over thirty hours into an increasingly severe blizzard. It started as gusting winds and snow showers yesterday before dawn, but by now the wind is consistently galeforce and gusting at around 50mph. Around 3 - 4 inches of damp snow have fallen in terms of level fall, but the drifts are much deeper and it has only actually been settling here for around 24 hours.

Up in the mountains conditions are savage. Yesterday was a terrible day for avalanches. There were several reported slides on Ben Nevis, and one mountaineer was airlifted out with severe injuries; it is not entirely clear whether he was actually avalanched, or simply the victim of a fall. Closer to home, an avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor resulted in an epic search and rescue operation that lasted well after dark, although tragically two climbers lost their lives in the accident.

We are currently snowed in at the pub, the snowgate is down and staff and customers alike are stranded here! Needless to say, the advice from all quarters is not to venture out into the mountains until the snowpack stabilises again.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Glencoe Mountaineer is now on Facebook

Despite starting from humble beginnings with practically no visitors, this blog has enjoyed steady growth in its fan base over the last year and now sees an average of around two hundred unique visitors a day. Customers in the bar often ask about the blog and are always appreciative of my efforts to document my adventures, even if people sometimes mistake me for someone who knows everything about local conditions! I always try to help where I can, but generally I can only comment on places I have been to recently.

In any case, it's nice to know that the blog is becoming more widely read in the Scottish climbing community. To recognise the increasing impact that the blog is starting to have, I have set up a 'page' that Facebook members can subscribe to in order to see regular updates.

Become a fan of Glencoe Mountaineer on Facebook

In other news, today was the seventh day in a row of unbroken sunshine and low winds. Sadly the forecast for tomorrow indicates high winds, cloud and snow might be on the way, but after this unprecedented week we can't really complain!

Monday, 22 February 2010

North West Gully, Stob Coire nam Beith

Although I had work in the afternoon, the continuing good weather was too good to miss so yesterday I once again packed my axes and set out up the hill. My objective was the north face of Stob Coire nam Beith, by whatever route I deemed best. Summit Gully and No.4 Buttress caught my eye, but I had investigated No.4 Buttress before and was unsure of its correct start.

In the end, I followed a system of ledges and ramps in the vicinity of Deep-Cut Chimney until I reached a large 'crossroads' with several couloirs branching off in all directions. I later learned that this was directly above the steep entry pitch of North West Gully, which I had avoided due to the ice being exceedingly thin, brittle, and hacked about.

I then followed North West Gully to the top of the mountain, taking the left branch where it forked again, finally finishing with a further steep pitch of II/III snow ice where the gully narrowed. The route-finding on the line I took was complex and required both thought while on the ground and a basic knowledge of the topography of this large north face.

Conditions-wise, the snow in the gully was acceptable, with a thin layer of powder and windslab lying on top of stable snow. Avalanche risk was low, although at times it was hard going where the unconsolidated layer was slightly thicker. Still not ideal conditions to be climbing gullies, but it was by no means dangerous and I've safely climbed gullies in worse conditions before! The snow ice on the upper crux was excellent, but the water ice on the lower pitches was extremely brittle due to the cold conditions.

Photos from today

Friday, 19 February 2010

Another Alpine day - Sron na Lairig

Unbelievably, the perfect weather has continued for yet another day! Temperatures dropped to around -10 C last night, and the sky was starry when James dropped me off at the top of the Pass of Glencoe in preparation for my planned route.

Sron na Lairig is an Alpine-style objective, a major mountaineering ridge route and the only climb of its type in the Glen I had not yet done, despite an attempt in October 2008. Throughout the gentle walk-in along the Lairig Eilde, the ridge is always in view ahead, catching the early Alpenglow. I climbed rapidly up the initial steep ground and soon found myself beneath the first crux, where I had been forced to turn back on my previous attempt due to thin conditions.

There is a ramp on sloping rock holds, covered in consolidated snow, which I climbed without too much difficulty. After this there is a short steep wall, which must be climbed using small edges as holds for the front points. Not too hard, but made more entertaining by the fact that I only carried a single axe. One particularly interesting move for a Grade II would have been irreversible, but luckily after this point the angle relented and easy terrain predominated once again.

After some wandering steep ground I arrived at the final crux pitch: another slanting ramp, followed by a difficult steep chockstone. Again, I wished I had two axes! I climbed this exposed move entirely on balance, having no hold for my left hand and sloping slabs for both feet. Definitely good value, but it was only one move. I then climbed two more pitches on steep snow to reach the summit of the first tower.

From the top of this first tower, the way onwards was clear: a sharp, highly exposed snow ridge crossing a small col, followed by another tower. The ridge was excellent fun although sadly too short!

After topping out on Sron na Lairig, I visited the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach and savoured the yawning gulf of its gigantic North Face dropping down into the Lost Valley: a massive wall and a fine climb, sadly out of condition at the moment. Breaking trail up the East Ridge of Bidean was soul-destroying but soon enough I met another climber coming down, and used his steps with relief. By this point the sun was starting to bake the snow and ice, turning it to that particular sugary consistency so familiar from early afternoon descents from Alpine peaks. Once again I had to wear my glacier goggles and actually got sunburnt from the reflected sunlight off the snow!

The summit of Bidean was hard-won after such exhausting work but the view more than compensated. I started to consider possible ways down. Bealach Dearg was guarded by a huge cornice, and in any case I could not face the long walk back down the Lost Valley to my house; that also ruled out the North Col route. Bidean's West Ridge was pristine and had not been climbed since the recent snowfall (I was also concerned about the huge slope at the top of Coire nam Beithach). In the end I decided to traverse Stob Coire nan Lochan and descend the NW ridge, not a major undertaking but it added another peak to the day and the sugary snow was rapidly becoming tiring to walk through!

Stob Coire nan Lochan proved to be extremely busy, with a large team of mountaineers resting on the summit and having a photo taken with a huge Scotland flag, presumably for the benefit of sponsors! On my way down the ridge, I saw several teams topping out from climbs. Broad Gully also had lots of people in. I chatted to a pair of girls who had just climbed SC Gully and reported it to be in good condition, defying expectations. Altogether, I saw people on Broad Gully, Dorsal Arete, SC Gully, NC Gully, Raeburn's Route, and Boomerang Gully.

The day was rounded off by an unusually long glissade next to Lochan Buttress on the way down.

To sum up: mountaineering conditions on certain routes are epic at the moment, particularly if this fine weather continues, but breaking trail on sun-baked slopes is disheartening work. This weekend is going to be extremely busy. Take sunglasses, think about doing the major ridges for minimal avalanche risk, and adopt an Alpine attitude!

Photo album

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Z Couloir and Aonach Eagach ridge of Stob Ghabhar

Another gorgeous but freezing morning, another Aonach Eagach! Given the dump of snow to valley level in Glen Coe, we decided to head further south, to the Black Mount, to ascend the comparatively little-known Aonach Eagach of Stob Ghabhar. Stob Ghabhar is a large peak that forms the easternmost termination of the huge ridge from Ben Starav in the Etive.

The day was clear and still right from the start, bitterly cold on the walk-in but as soon as the sun rose the temperature skyrocketed. Before long we had stripped down to our shirts, and I put on my glacier goggles the moment the sun hit us, to avoid snow-blindness. The snow underfoot proved to be an inch or two of undisturbed powder lying on top of old, hard snow: excellent walking conditions with minimal avalanche risk. No windslab in evidence where we were.

In order to attain the summit marked 'Aonach Eagach', you have to climb or bypass a large craggy nose. We chose a Z-shaped snow course up the left side of this face, which I have called the Z Couloir. It's an entertaining Grade I snow climb with a few optional exits and is a good start to the ridge above, in character with the rest of the route. After climbing this, and the broad easy ridge above, we arrived at the real gem of the day: the knife-edged snow crest!

This crest featured a small cornice in places but mostly consisted of a finely-wrought ridge of fresh snow, extremely sharp and exposed on both sides. Although sadly short-lived, this ridge puts the Carn Mor Dearg Arete to shame. I had endless fun breaking trail along here--it felt properly Alpine, and in fact reminded me of the summit ridge of Castor in Switzerland.

The view from the summit was spectacular, and as always, we descended only with reluctance from our audience with the mountain gods.

Photo album from today

Saturday, 13 February 2010

An educational day on the Aonach Mor

Isi and I had originally planned to climb Tower Ridge yesterday, but with cloudy weather, too much beer the night before and Isi already tired from several days of climbing and walking, once again the Tower Ridge plan was put back (this process has been going on for about four years now!) Instead, we decided to go to Aonach Mor.

Aonach Mor has a reputation as being an 'easy' winter climbing area thanks to the telepherique and pisted tracks leading up to the crags. However, the slog up the hill is a proper grind and by the time we got to the top of Easy Gully (in a whiteout) it felt like almost as much effort as the walk up to Coire nan Lochan!

We abseiled into Easy Gully over the cornice (overhanging but not massively large) then descended the gully to the traverse slopes across to the other climbs.

The snow on the traverse appeared to be perfectly good, but I became increasingly unnerved the further I went across the traverse. My 'avalanche sense' was tingling despite no evidence there was anything amiss. With pounding heart, I stopped and dug an avalanche test pit.

Over a foot depth of windslab sheered very easily and cleanly. I dug several more pits on different aspects and the results were conclusive: the avalanche risk was extremely high!

We ran away as fast as we could, back up Easy Gully where the snow is decent. At the top I made a buried axe belay and secured Isi over the cornice, which I followed in ungainly fashion!

This was my third visit to Aonach Mor, and the third time I have failed to climb anything of substance due to conditions. I am not impressed by the hill at all and doubt I will return a fourth time.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Traverse of the Aonach Eagach

Aonach Eagach: it's a name that conjures up different images for different people. For many it will speak of queues and stress to finish a monstrous mountain traverse before impending dark, followed by a dangerous (and sadly sometimes fatal) descent of the Clachaig Gully path. But for others, notably the climbers based at the Clachaig, the Aonach Eagach is a symbol of perfection in the mountaineering world and today's traverse did not tarnish that image.

The ridge includes four peaks, two of which hold Munro status, and the only way to connect them all up (the Traverse) involves several miles of continuously exposed climbing. In winter this is an expedition of classic stature and the scene of countless epics.

With perfect visibility, an azure sky and low winds, I rapidly ascended the ridge to the first peak, Am Bodach. The sun was already starting to heat up (it was around 10am when I arrived on this summit), and I knew it was going to be a hot day! Despite this, the ice and snow was still iron-hard from the overnight freeze. We are currently in an Alpine freeze-thaw cycle in which snow thaws due to solar radiation during the day, then refreezes at night.

In fact, everything about today was Alpine: the perfect weather, the conditions underfoot, even the slight sunburn and the necessity of wearing glacier goggles at all times to prevent snow blindness. Exposed rock was warm and dry.

The initial descent from Am Bodach is the first fierce section of the ridge and a taster of the difficulties to come. As on my first traverse almost exactly a year ago, this descent featured one decidedly tricky step down but did not present any problems. Happily, all of the difficult slabby downclimbing sections were furnished with usable water ice, making them straightforward.

Rapid progress was made up to the Pinnacles, at which point I slowed my pace and considered my moves more carefully. This long section of highly exposed climbing features drops of over two thousand feet to each side. At times the ridge is the width of a hand and was highly corniced in places. The large amount of experience I have gained soloing climbs of this kind has given me a great deal of competence on this kind of ground, and I progressed confidently. There are several difficult steps throughout the Pinnacles, one of which I did not remember from the previous traverse. The pinnacle we roped up for the first time was much easier than I remembered.

I descended with regret, having been given a second chance to enjoy what is surely one of the most coveted winter mountaineering expeditions in the British Isles ... although it felt like a day in the Alps! I'm quite pleased with my time, as well: 6:30 from the Am Bodach car park to the bottom of the Pap of Glencoe path.

Here's the full photo album.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Sgor na h-Ulaidh circuit via West Gully

Today, James and I headed up to Sgor na h-Ulaidh with the intention of climbing one of the gullies. The day dawned clear, crisp and cold, and we made good progress along the gentle and enjoyable walk-in, which takes you into an un-named glen where few people venture (compared with most of Glen Coe!) The North Face of Sgor na h-Ulaidh, which means Peak of the Treasure, towers above. It's a great cliff with only a few recorded routes, although I noticed an impressive free-standing ice pillar which to my knowledge has not been climbed. Too difficult for the likes of me!

As we were gearing up under West Gully, one of my crampons--which James was borrowing--snapped at the plastic bail. Unfortunately this rendered the crampon unusable. I offered to lend him my other crampons so he could continue up the walking route, but eventually we decided that he would head for home with the rope while I set off up the gully alone. A misfortune, but at least it didn't break halfway up the route!

West Gully proved to be an easy but interesting climb, mostly on snow but with two short ice pitches. The first of these was a very short groove (about 2m high!) but the second was most fun, a short near-vertical ice chimney in good condition. As the forecast had suggested, there were pockets of soft windslab in the gully (thanks to the spindrift tornados from above) but they were mostly easy to avoid and weren't too much of a concern.

Upon hitting the ridge, the wind became ferocious: far, far stronger than the forecast 15 - 20mph. I struggled along the ridgetop to the summit of Sgor na h-Ulaidh in a strong gale, gusting to the extent that I was forced to lie on the ground at one point to avoid being blown over!

The snow on the face immediately beneath the summit looked to be highly unstable, with all the summit routes being laden in fresh windslab and drooping, soft cornices. Much worse than a Category 2 avalanche risk would suggest. I believe this is due to the wind being an order of magnitude stronger than originally anticipated.

I continued along the ridge circuit to the Munro top, Stob an Fhuarain, then to Aonach Dubh a' Ghlinne before dropping back down a long grassy spur to the glen bottom. The walk along the ridge-top afforded superb views of the enormous South Face of Bidean nam Bian and also the Etive mountains, but was a bit of a struggle due to the high winds!

So: a fantastic hill day, even if it did not go quite as originally planned!

Photos from today

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Quality over quantity

Since moving to Glen Coe, my climbing strategy has been one of saturation: get out on the hill as often as is humanly possible, even in the worst weather. This has paid off, to an extent. I have got a great deal of climbing mileage in over the last year and a half, with over fifty winter climbs and more like a hundred and fifty rock climbs. However, there comes a point when quantity over quality is no longer satisfactory, and I believe I have reached that point.

Readers will no doubt have noticed that my frequency of posting has decreased of late, since I am getting out less often. Since New Year I have had a run of terrible luck, with quite a few failed excursions due to my enthusiasm in getting out regardless of weather. Recently I have decided to be more discerning over when I choose to go climbing, in the hope that exercising better judgement will lead to a higher proportion of excellent days on the hill.

So I may post less frequently from now on, but hopefully I will have more successes to report and fewer failures! The weather is looking excellent for next week.