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

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