Friday, 26 March 2010

Another aquatic adventure

Another clagged, muggy day! Since it looks like today may have been our last opportunity to get on the hill for some time, James and I packed rope, axes and crampons and plodded in the rain up to Coire nan Lochan. Our intention was to look at the ice gullies. Twisting and SC are unclimbable in their present state, the cruxes black and stripped of ice, but there is a chance SC may come back into condition if it gets cold again (I doubt Twisting will).

We climbed the slope up to the start of NC Gully to have a look. The snow was sugary and thawing although relatively firm underneath the slushy top surface. Huge cornices still menace some areas of the cliff although others have fallen down (there has been substantial melting even since Wednesday).

NC Gully is still fairly well banked-out with snow. However, there was significant stonefall coming down all the time, it was raining hard, the snow was of poor quality, and we could hear water running in the gully bed. We decided to run away.

If / when the refreeze comes, these easy gullies will be in superb condition, but at the moment they are only really a realistic goal early in the morning after a cold night.

Photos from today

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Wet and windy on Stob Coire nan Lochan

Another poor-forecast day today. Maz and her friend Pete had been wanting to climb Bidean, so we set off up the Coire nan Lochan approach with a hopeful attitude, despite the persistent drizzle and occasional gusts of wind. We made good time up into the coire floor, at which point we decided to pop on crampons and debate which way to go up.

In the end we climbed the West Ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan. The snow quality was not good underfoot, with a thawing, sugary layer, but there was no avalanche risk whatsoever on our route and the snow appeared to be generally very well-bonded. Cornices overhung all of the gullies although some of them have already collapsed.

Two brave souls were battling their way up Dorsal Arete in the rain and high winds, although it looked pretty unpleasant to me with a lot of wet rock! Broad Gully looked like it may well have been okay, although we decided not to risk going down there. The other gullies all looked decidedly grim and there was avalanche debris at the bottom of Forked Gully (this may have been old; I didn't look at it closely).

We topped out to disgusting conditions: mild, windy, raining buckets. At this stage we desperately need some good weather and a refreeze to salvage some more winter out of the season.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Back to Polldubh!

Affirmative folks, it's that time of year again! With mild conditions prevailing in the mountains and steady, if slowing, thaw of lying snow (despite a new dusting overnight up high) we decided to go for a Polldubh day today. Isi and I teamed up with our friend Maz, who has plenty of walking and scrambling experience but was keen to do some outdoor rock-climbing.

The day was a little chilly and windy but entirely dry; most of the crags are drying out nicely in the breeze despite yesterday's heavy rain. A (very courteous) Outward Bound group were making use of the SW Buttress area and a few more teams were out and about.

We climbed Repton Ridge, The Gutter, and the Right Wall of Styx Buttress. As my first rock-climbing session since the summer, the movement felt quite unnatural at first and the tendency was to try and kick into the rock as if I was wearing crampons! However, I soon got back into the swing of things and enjoyed climbing the familiar classic easy routes, particularly the Gutter, which is my favourite route at Polldubh.

Maz was also pleased with the day's work, with two Diffs and a VDiff under her belt. Tomorrow we are aiming to climb Stob Coire nan Lochan and Bidean by the North Ridge.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The thaw continues

Little change in the weather. The past two days have been wet, wild, and extremely warm. Massive, rapid snowmelt at all levels has led to a substantial reduction in total snow cover, with the West Face of Aonach Dubh now being almost entirely snow-free (although patches persist in some of the gullies, and 2B Scoop still seems complete). The upper slopes of Stob Coire nan Lochan even have large areas of bare rock where the snow has been washed away. Aonach Eagach has been reported to be largely snow-free although patches still persist on the ridge.

This is pretty dire news for winter mountaineering in Glen Coe. A refreeze will do wonders for the snow-pack, but a vastly reduced number of routes will come back into condition until it snows again.

Monday, 15 March 2010

General thaw

Unfortunately, the winter seems to be winding down in Glen Coe for the time being. A general thaw of lying snow up to quite high levels has been proceeding since about Friday, and Aonach Dubh has become correspondingly stripped, as the above photos show. The only winter routes currently complete on Aonach Dubh West Face are gullies 1, 2, and 3 (middle tier only), and 2B Scoop. I observed a waterfall at the crux pitch of No.6 today, although it does seem to have been in condition for a long time this season!

Most of the buttresses are now black, and it seems likely that on a warm day rock-climbing will once again be a possibility on this face, for areas that do not suffer drainage. The East Face tends to have more drainage weeps so will likely be wet for a bit longer, but I recall climbing Quiver Rib in February last year, so who knows?

Winter still prevails on the high mountains, however, and there was a little fresh snow overnight down to about 1000m. I'm not ready to put away my axes and crampons just yet, and still fully plan to be climbing snow and ice routes into May at the very least.

Just a reminder that the Glencoe Mountaineer Facebook Page, linked to the right, is a convenient way of keeping up to date with what's going on. I also tend to post a fair bit of content on there that never makes it to the blog, including photos, so it's well worth joining! Nearly a hundred members have signed up since it was launched three weeks ago, which is a great start.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Aonach Dubh morning

Yesterday I was blessed with a three o'clock start at work, so decided to make the most of it and head up to the West Face of Aonach Dubh. On the approach I immediately noticed the impressive debris from the giant avalanche last week. The debris flows are incredible, quite literally banking out entire watercourses, smashing trees, moving boulders around and generally wreaking devastation on the coire. The debris flows look a bit like a multi-branched small glacier spreading out from the face. The floor of Coire nam Bheithach has been substantially altered and the approach to Stob Coire nam Beith has made much easier, as you can now just walk over the 'glacier' instead of mucking around with that icy slab scramble!

The normal approach to the West Face has also been changed. Usually you walk straight up the steep buttress from above the Lower Falls, but now it is easier to walk up the 'glacier' in No.3 Gully, climbing short ice pitches as you come to them. In this way I rapidly dispatched half of the approach before being forced to cut back left onto the buttress crest. Several of the scrambling sections that are usually easy are now highly banked out in snow, necessitating more care than might be expected.

As I approached the Middle Ledge, I noticed a substantial bergschrund at the foot of No.3 Gully main icefall. The Screen still has plenty of ice on, but is only freezing at night currently.

After traversing a little of the Middle Ledge I proceeded to climb C-D Scoop, something I have been meaning to do for ages as a Grade II gully very close to my house! It's quite easy, mostly Grade I snow but with two short steep ice pitches in good nick. After reaching the Rake, also highly banked-out and displaying crown walls in places, I traversed left and finished up 2B Scoop.

I climbed this route in January and it makes a good finish to any climb on the Middle Tier. Originally graded II, it is now highly banked out and in I/II conditions, with the turf pitch being nothing more than a steep snow bulge. However, the exposed traverse at the top was guarded by a bizarre cornice, so I finished with a short pitch of quite difficult mixed climbing up to the right on the buttress.

Also worthy of note from yesterday is the massive crown wall, with associated seracs and crevasses, at the top of No.2 Gully. I had intended to descend this way, but despite the stable snow pack the impulse not to climb beneath seracs in the heat of the day is very deeply ingrained from previous Alpine seasons! I elected to choose the longer, safer way down by Coire nan Lochan.

Photos from C-D Scoop
An album of avalanche damage photos!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

East Ridge, Carn Dearg Meadhonach

Although I'd been offered the chance to climb Steall Falls today with Isi, the forecast indicated a good chance for sunshine in the morning, so I decided to head off to do a ridge that has been on my wishlist for a long time now. The route in question was the East Ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach, a remote Grade II arete in the heart of the huge Allt Daim between Aonach Mor and the Carn Mor Dearg ridge.

I took the Nevis Range gondola to the top station. The usual descent into the Allt Daim was badly corniced, so I turned this slope on the right. The walk along the glen was variable: at times the well-bonded slab was dense enough to walk on, but at other times I sank through to my knees or waist. Exhausting work all-said breaking trail. I'm glad I had my poles with me for once.

Once on the ridge itself, conditions were good. Raised footprints indicated scouring, and snow alternated between firm neve and thin, insignificant windslab deposits. Once again it was a sunny, hot day, and I actually rolled my shirtsleeves up!

The ridge itself is fantastic, worth far more than the single star it gets in the guidebooks. From the first tower, an exposed, jagged crest surmounts two more towers before topping out at the summit of the peak. It's far better and more sustained than Sron na Lairig in Glencoe, with a more defined line and no route-finding issues. It's also an easy route for Grade II.

After savouring the Alpine ambiance of the ridge, I topped out to be blown away by the awe-inspiring view. Ben Nevis towered ahead, almost pure white against the blue sky. Carn Mor Dearg itself was a perfect pyramid, an archetypal mountain form. The West Face of Aonach Mor was vast and daunting. I was sorely tempted to continue over the Carn Mor Dearg Arete to Ben Nevis and then down to the pub in Glen Nevis, but a bank of cloud was rolling in from the NW and the forecast warned of snow showers.

Reluctantly, I left that high altar of mountaineering and descended. At first my descent was made along the excellent raised track down the North Ridge, but after a while I struck off right down the sheer face and once again enjoyed an exceptionally long and easy glissade, around 300 - 400m down powder-filled scoops and gullies at high speed!

Yet another unbelievably good day amongst the Scottish mountains. I could get used to these perfect Alpine days that seem to keep on coming--although sadly I know all too well that these conditions are the exception, not the norm.

View the photo album

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Stob an Fhuarain Reconnaissance Expedition

Extremely calm and still weather today, but a veil of cloud shrouded the sun, warding off the worst of the solar heat. I spent the morning forging a trench through Fionn Ghleann towards the East Face of Stob an Fhuarain, a mountain rarely visited by climbers although it is popular for walkers when combined with Sgor na h-Ulaidh.

On Easterly slopes windslab is limited to isolated pockets, but the going is still tough as above around 200m the drifts are between knee and chest deep. Certain areas, conversely, are completely scoured. After thoroughly examining the cliffs and gaining as much information as I could about the possible lines there, I started up a meandering ice and turf course on the NE Ridge of the mountain.

For anyone who is interested, there seem to be several steep ice lines on the south buttress, but who knows how long they will last given the forecast rise in freezing level.

I finished the day by a rapid 400m glissade down the snow slopes beneath Sgor na h-Ulaidh, taking less than a minute to cover ground that would have taken twenty minutes on foot!

Photos from today

Monday, 1 March 2010

A mini adventure

With dangerous conditions persisting in the mountains, I decided to use my imagination for a short winter climb this morning before work. At low levels the snow has been thawing during the day and re-freezing at night: perfect conditions for forming hard neve. Last night was clear and there was a hard frost so I decided to go for it at 6:30am. My chosen destination was Banana Buttress, the crag two minutes from my house. I had an open mind what to climb, perhaps a first winter ascent of one of my rock climbs there; but in the end I couldn't really justify the conditions for mixed climbing, as most of the rock was bare (or at most verglassed).

I spotted a gully to the right of the top crag, between the Antenna Rib and a formation I call False Slab Buttress (which looks like a slab but is actually vertical). The gully was broad and easy at the bottom, but narrowed to a steep chimney sandwiched between an overhanging rock wall to the right and turfy banks to the left.

The tight section at the top was delightful, with about 5-6m of genuine chimney climbing to overcome a steep chockstone. I can imagine this chockstone being quite hard in anything less than these exceptional conditions. I have observed this chimney forming a steep ice pitch, hence the split technical grade.

After the squeeze chimney I emerged at the upper gully and caught first sight of the enormous cornice that awaited me. I didn't expect there to be a cornice here at all, given its elevation at around 100m above sea level; it didn't even top out at a summit or ridge, just a shelf beneath slabs. But as the quote goes, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

I started tunneling. The cornice was huge: at least ten feet high, with a thick crust of hard snow but sugary and soft underneath. With the small adze I currently have fitted to my ice axe this was time-consuming work, particularly as I was balanced between rocks to the right and a huge crevasse at my feet that I kept stumbling into. I ended up digging a massive trench that curved left to avoid rocks directly ahead of me.

After an hour of effort, the tunnel was big enough to climb through and I emerged triumphantly, having done a quality bit of climbing in a place I least expected to find it.

Surprise Chimney. II 2/3 *

Between False Slab Buttress and Upper Buttress is a wide snow gully, which narrows to form a steep chimney between an undercut right wall and the turf bank to the left. In lean conditions the chockstone may be difficult. Requires a hard freeze and a large dump of snow. Sometimes forms a cornice at the top

Edit: After speaking with Ed, it turns out that this chimney has seen common use in summer as a way of accessing part of Banana Buttress. Mine is however the only winter ascent I know of.

Photo album from today

Please note that from now on I am storing all photos directly on the Glencoe Mountaineer fan page. This doesn't affect you if you're just a general reader, but for Facebook members this should make things a little easier as all photos are now in one place, instead of linked to my own Facebook account.