Friday, 30 April 2010

The Ascent of the Dragon's Tooth

Beinn a' Bheithr--mountain of the monster--dominates the western end of Glen Coe and dwarfs the village of Ballachulish that cowers at its foot. I have climbed the easternmost and highest peak of this mountain, Sgorr Dhearg, more than once although I have always missed out the slightly lower westerly Munro of the chain, a peak known as Sgorr Dhonuill. This mountain rises up at the head of Gleann a' Chaolais above a strath filled with forest, but in front of the peak itself, arresting the eye and inspiring the imagination, is the jutting pinnacle known as the Dragon's Tooth.

The Dragon's Tooth (also known as Sgorr a' Chaolais) is of modest height but is a precipitous peak in its own right, a jagged northern spur of the main mountain bulk. It is named after the dragon of legend said to once inhabit the high coire. An ascent of the Dragon's Tooth, followed by Sgorr Dhonuill, is something I have considered for some time but never got round to doing.

With a mediocre forecast, Isi and I decided against going to the Buachaille although as it happened the weather turned out quite fine. The walk-in through the forest, initially on a good road, was very pleasant and made a gentle introduction to the wonders of Gleann a' Chaolais, perhaps the most picturesque of the valleys hereabouts. Soon, however, we departed from the road and struck off through the trees, and this was where the adventure began.

The path leading into the high coire began innocently enough, but soon we found ourselves battling through humid vegetation and thick mud beside a burn crashing in high falls through the forest. The pungent smell of wet vegetation and loam dominated the senses. Our battle through the jungle climaxed with a ridiculous scene in which we were forced to climb through a tree in order to avoid a deep quagmire!

As suddenly as we had entered this arboreal underworld, we broke out into open moorland and were confronted with our first close view of our objective. The Dragon's Tooth divides the upper coire in two, and our route lay on the rightmost of two rocky spurs coming down from the bottom of the hill.

The spur proved to be highly vegetated, quite possibly the most vegetated route I have ever done! Luxurious heather and moss growth carpeted the entire route although some rock steps were more or less clear of vegetation (these proved to be slimy and loose). Nothing too hard although a couple of steep steps did require thought. Certainly not a place for a novice scrambler, given the impossibility of safeguarding passage with a rope.

After the spur, we climbed a long grass slope interspersed with little granite outcrops: these provided some lighthearted fun on the way up, trying to find the most difficult possible way up some 3m high crag! We eventually reached the summit of the Dragon's Tooth itself and here the character of the route changed. We now had to negotiate the narrow, twisting arete to Sgorr Dhonuill.

The arete was nowhere very difficult, but required constant attention thanks to the combination of (at times) breathtaking exposure and some suspect rock, although in general the rock was much better here in the open than on the dank lower ridge. Two pinnacles in particular required care to negotiate, with an improbable ledge traverse in descent, albeit with excellent holds. The final climb to the summit, up tilted slabs and granite ramps, was most enjoyable and perhaps had the most sound rock of the entire route.

We topped out to be greeted by a group of walkers who had come up the normal route. One of their number was determined to descend the arete to the Dragon's Tooth, and despite our warnings of slime and loose rock he proceeded confidently, no doubt a far more experienced mountaineer than either Isi or I.

After our visit to the summit (where a Brocken Spectre stubbornly failed to materialise), we continued over to Sgorr Dhearg and descended the N Ridge back to Ballachulish. All in all, an excellent day on a new hill with good company, although I am a little regretful that I didn't bring my camera, so have no photos of the climb.

For information. The ascent of the Dragon's Tooth, in summer conditions, is about Grade 2 in the standard scrambling system, roughly similar to the Aonach Eagach but shorter and more escapable. The rock quality is in general far poorer, however. In winter, the route is Scottish II but I suspect this involves avoiding the hardest sections.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

A quick update

We are currently 'between seasons' as the mountains are dragged kicking and screaming into summer. Spring has proved to be quite late this year; at our end of the glen the trees are only just starting to sprout into leaf, and there is no sign of the green fuzz on the hills that heralds the coming of the new season. Nevertheless, the killer thaw has hit long and hard, and most of the Munros hereabouts may now be climbed without winter gear, although an ice axe will be advisable for Bidean or Buachaille Etive Mor for a few weeks to come.

Thanks to an unfavourable run of shifts and a long week between days off, I've done nothing since the Grey Corries and am keenly feeling my absence from the mountains. To make up for my exile I have been planning the summer and working on the book. As far as writing is concerned, I am nowhere near the beginning of the end but I think I have at last gone beyond the end of the beginning; 72,000 words inspired by the Highlands and the Alps, and counting!

Hoping to get out on the hill tomorrow and also next week.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Grey Corries

Amongst the mountain ranges immediately surrounding my home--Bidean, the Blackmount, the Mamores, and the Nevis range--there are a diminishing number of Munros I have yet to climb. By this stage, this is mostly due to awkwardness of access by public transport, or simply because the hill does not inspire me.

The exception to this rule is Sgurr Choinnich Mhor, the westernmost Munro of the Grey Corries ridge. Of the Grey Corries Munros, I climbed Stob Ban in September 2006, and Stob Coire Claurigh and Stob Coire an Laoigh in June 2008 with Fell Club (we turned back short of Sgurr Choinnich Mhor due to lack of time). It's an inspiring peak and a glaring omission from my mountain CV.

James and I decided to do the classic horseshoe walk of the Grey Corries, incorporating all three of the main peaks, excluding the outlier Stob Ban. It was cold when we left the car at some point after 7am, and a light dusting of new snow lay on the ground. Undeterred, we ground our way up the dreadfully long ridge to the summit of Stob Coire Claurigh. The increasingly large snowfields on the way up, iron-hard from the recent refreeze, were initially dispatched by cutting steps but soon we put crampons on as the bulk of the terrain above 950m remains icebound and banked out with old snow.

The first two Munros passed uneventfully, with some airy scrambling along the crest, which was at times adorned with switchback cornices (although most cornices have collapsed by this point, leaving gaping crevasses and ice-cliffs). After scrambling down from the final peak we contemplated the ascent of Sgurr Choinnich Mor: steep and graceful.

The summit was a grand place with superb views of the Aonachs. All that remained was to descend the long, long ridge down into the forest and back to the car.

So: ten hours (summer guidebook time!), three Munros, five thousand feet of ascent, and 12.5 miles (20km). A satisfying day out.

Photo album

All photos (C) James Roddie. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Ben Lui and the NE Face of Bidean

Ben Lui

Isolated and largely out of sight from the main road, Ben Lui is one of those mountains that I have rarely glimpsed. Its reputation has grown on me these past few years, most particarly that of its Central Gully, the mightiest classic snow climb in the Southern Highlands. Given my lack of private transport and the relative remoteness of the peak by local standards, I decided that two leisurely days, and a bivvy bag, would be the best approach.

A late start from Tyndrum. As I walked through the forest, tantalising glimpses of the great mountain flashed through the trees: here a soaring ridge, there a stern white wall, or a high pinnacle glittering blue in the hot afternoon sun. Eager for the famous view, I hurried on towards Cononish.

Into the empty strath after the wood, and at last the mountain was revealed in all its grandeur. A huge free-standing peak, two sharp ridges converging on a finely-wrought summit higher in the sky than I expected, and directly beneath, the vast wall of snow and ice up which the Central Gully weaves its way. The view was as inspiring as I had hoped. Ben Lui is perhaps the ultimate mountain south of the Blackmount.

I took my time on the road, stopping for an hour or two at the river to soak my feet and bask in the increasingly hot sun. After climbing the gentle path beside waterfalls to the upper corrie, I quickly found a divine campsite: a comfortable rock to sit on, a soft hollow of grass to sleep in, and a little burn to fill my bottle from only ten yards beneath the snowline.

The night was undisturbed and I slept deeply for ten hours before waking to a marked change in the weather. The day before had been hot and sunny. Today was clagged in, a uniform sheet of grey sitting over the hills at 950m. The hoped-for overnight refreeze had not occurred under this insulating blanket of cloud.

I started up the Central Gully. The snow was damp and soft, but supported my weight; ice axe sank up to the head in the thawing pack. Not quite the perfect Alpine conditions I had hoped for, but it could have been worse and conditions were safe enough, although I was wary of crevasses. After a long grind up the introductory slopes, I started up the gloomy confines of the gully, which proved to contain slightly better snow.

It's a long route! It took me an hour to reach the muggy and slush-bound summit, which sadly did not reward my efforts with a view. Down the northern encircling ridge, in nasty conditions with hard ice alternating with bare scree and huge, yawning crevasses between boulders.

It was only when I had returned to pick up my bag in the corrie, and begun my descent, that the cloud started to break and blue-sky service was resumed! Nevertheless, climbing Ben Lui over two days was a great way to go about it, and I'm happy that I have at last stood upon the summit after years of thinking about it.

Photos from Ben Lui

The NE Face of Bidean nam Bian

I returned to the Clachaig at about five o'clock on Tuesday evening. The weather was still perfect, and after a wash, a change of socks, a quick meal and a pint of ale, I picked up my bag and headed out yet again. My goal was the Lost Valley.

Walking through the gorge at the start of the valley was refreshing in the cool of the evening, and I passed a couple of mountaineers who reported poor snow conditions. Nevertheless, the sky was perfectly clear as I bedded down for the night on the flat strath where clansmen once hid stolen cattle. The Alpenglow on the mighty peaks at the glen's head burned red long after the sun had set, and as I lay down, the narrow slot of sky above me, hemmed in by mountains, glittered with a thousand stars. The Lost Valley is a unique bivouac experience, quite possibly the best place I have slept that has not been a mountain-top.

At 6 am I awoke to find a stiff frost covering me and my kit. The sky was still clear and the snow was iron-hard. Excited, I hurried to pack and strike camp.

I quickly walked to the head of the Lost Valley and onto the small 'glacier' plateau in between the great mountains: Bidean, the Lost Valley Buttress, Stob Coire Sgreamhach. I decided to strike a line directly up the massive NE Face of Bidean. I have been this way once before, discovering a narrow Grade II couloir; this time I chose an easier but more direct line, a straight course from the bottom of the face directly to the eastern summit.

Conditions underfoot could not have been more perfect. Hard ice, warm and dry rock, baking sun. It was indistinguishable from a day in the Alps, including the necessity for glacier goggles and Factor 50 suncream! The view from the summit of Bidean, when I reached it at 9am, was the most stunning I have ever seen it. Every mountain in Lochaber in sharp relief against a cloudless sky.

I descended Coire nam Beith rapidly and began work at 3 o'clock this afternoon. After three days of adventure in the company of giants, it feels like a mundane and ordinary world down here in the glen!

Photos from Bidean

Saturday, 10 April 2010

24 hours in the Mamores

'Exhausting' is just one word that could be used to describe the past week, and in need of wide open spaces and silence, I packed my bivvy bag and headed for the hills. My objective was the wild eastern end of the Mamores. There's a clutch of Munros down that way I had yet to climb, so I planned a leisurely circuit to knock off three of them: Binnein Beag, Binnein Mor, and Na Gruagaichean.

The weather was muggy and a little cloudy as I walked in towards Binnein Beag, but the views compensated aptly. Binnean Beag proved to be easy, half an hour's run there and back from the col after dumping my bag next to the iceberg-filled lochan. From the summit, I took the opportunity to spy out the immense northern side of Binnein Mor, the highest peak in the Mamores at 1,160m, for the best way up.

I chose the North Face, which is an easy snow climb to the right of the prominent NE Ridge. The snow was well thawed-out by this point, so I timed my ascent to coincide with the cool of the evening, which helped the consistency of the snow. I put on crampons but as it turned out I could have climbed the slope without them, as the snow was firm but yielding underfoot and someone had already been that way in the last few days, providing pre-made footsteps. After the climb I topped out on the NW Ridge and scrambled the remaining 100m to the top.

The summit ridge of Binnein Mor was surprisingly sharp and highly corniced, with drooping seracs, crevasses, and all sorts of horrific fracture-lines. I steered well away from the edge and did not dare to stand on the exact summit, which was a huge serac that appeared poised to plunge down the length of the East Face. As I was soon to discover, this narrow, highly exposed snow ridge was to run for several more miles into the depths of the Mamores.

After enjoying the views from Binnein Mor, I descended the knife-edge Alpine crest to the south summit at Point 1062. Sunset was upon me and I chose to bivouac here. Of the three bivouacs I have so far enjoyed in the Mamores, this one was without doubt the finest: an excellent view, a flat patch of frozen ground free of snow, and a wide twinkling expanse of stars to accompany me to sleep. Other than a cold wind that sometimes disturbed me by sneaking into my hood, I slept very well and awoke ten hours later to the dawn.

Onwards! From my high campsite I continued towards Na Gruagaichean. The entire ridge was sharp and exposed, although happily a hard overnight frost had turned the snow to hard ice. In places the slopes to either side were far too steep to offer purchase and I tip-toed along the very crest in my crampons, hundreds of metres of air to either side. It was an exhilarating, sustained Alpine traverse at around F+ standard (a Scottish winter grade would be meaningless under the circumstances).

As I reached Na Gruagaichean, my final Munro of the trip, the skies started to clear and I was treated to an excellent view. All that was left was to reluctantly descend, happy and restored after twenty four hours of silence, wildness, and not another human being in sight.

A quick note on conditions: People have been asking me lately if it's possible to 'get away without winter gear'. Certain hills are definitely doable without axes and crampons, for example Binnein Beag, but generally speaking the bulk of ground above 900 - 950m is still snow covered and ice axe and crampons should most definitely be carried for all trips above this level, even if they may not be necessary in the heat of the afternoon. The snow is iron-hard early in the mornings at present.

Photo album

Thursday, 8 April 2010

End of season review: Scottish winter 2009 - 2010

The winter season season is dying its last gasp: sad but true, as we move into mid-April and the temperatures are rising day by day. However, it has been the most incredible, magical, otherworldly season, a season of soaring beauty and endless blue-sky days. So here is a quick round-up of the season's highlights.

In total I have climbed thirty two graded winter climbs during this season, plus many more days in the mountains not involving actual climbing. A notable feature of this winter has been that the vast majority of these routes have been solitary efforts, with the exception of only three roped climbs: Boomerang Gully with Isi Oakley in December, South Gully with Steven Holmes in the same month, and the cornice pitch of Easy Gully in February. The other defining characteristic of the season is that the bulk of my activity has been at Grade II. I have done very little harder than this: South Gully on the Ben, a couple of water ice solos at III,4 (including the highly memorable and rare Lower Falls in Coire nam Beith), and an ill-fated attempt at North Buttress on the Buachaille.

I think the occasion when Mike and I attempted North Buttress was the 'dividing line' in terms of my attitude to climbing. Before then I had been keen on pushing my grade and attempting harder mixed routes, but that day, plus a range of other factors, convinced me that I simply had no motivation to climb any harder. I am passionate about mountains and mountaineering, not climbing. Since then I have been happy with my solo explorations at II and III and content not to try anything more difficult.

Interestingly, I also started to view roped climbing as an unnecessary faff when almost any mountain face may be ascended without ropes. In this respect, my attitude to mountaineering has become even more Victorian in that even my perception of what I see as a 'route' has considerably changed.

Best moments are hard to quantify, and are always different in retrospect. However, some days that stand out as particularly special include the following:

Lower Falls, and a step-cutting ascent of Stob Coire nan Lochan
No.3 Gully
A huge day on Stob Coire nam Beith, and the first ascent of Symphonic Variations
The Traverse of the Aonach Eagach
Stob Ghabhar
The Sron na Lairig
NW Gully
Cornice-tunneling five minutes from my door
East Ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach

So: a winter of wonders, and another treasure store of memories that will sustain me for the rest of my life, whenever I find myself doubting that the Highlands are the true country!