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
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