Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Grivel Monte Rosa: first impressions

The new Grivel Monte Rosa crampon (RRP £80, weight 804g per pair) seems to have been released as a response to the general increase in price across Grivel's crampon range. With G10s now costing over a hundred pounds--previously the standard walking crampons used by most--it makes sense to introduce a new basic model. The Monte Rosa is a flexible, 10-point, lightweight crampon intended for glacier travel, trekking, and non-technical snow climbs. It uses a full strap-on attachment system which theoretically allows it to be fitted to any boot capable of taking a crampon.

I purchased a pair of Monte Rosas in order to compliment the B1 boots I will be using on a backpacking / mountaineering excursion to Norway this summer. My requirements for the setup are simple:

1. A good, supportive boot that I can walk in comfortably all day, yet can still climb in and kick steps in hard snow.
2. A lightweight and basic pair of crampons for added security on glaciers and steep snow slopes.

I think these requirements closely resemble those of the average 3-4 season Scottish mountain walker, who rarely ventures onto graded winter ground yet still requires a footwear setup that can cope with moderately steep snow and lots of walking below the snowline.

I purchased my crampons on special offer for £65 from Field and Trek, which is in my opinion an absolute bargain. The box contains the crampons, a set of Antibott plates (already fitted), some instruction leaflets, and bolts for permanently fixing the regulation bars to a certain length. There is no crampon bag included in the price.

From initial observations, the Monte Rosa crampon differs from the old established G10 in the following ways:

1. Most obviously, the Antibott plates and straps are black instead of yellow.
2. The next thing you notice is that the metalwork has a matt instead of gloss finish.
3. The straps are slightly thinner and made of a more lightweight (cheaper?) material.
4. Only the front points have 3D stamping for added strength, as opposed to the G10 which has extensive 3D stamping throughout.

So far, so good. The crampons certainly felt lightweight and were easy to adjust to my boots, with the fast and easy adjustment bar Grivel owners have come to expect. I managed to achieve a near-perfect fit on my Mammut Mt. Envy boots within about a minute of adjustment.

My opportunity to test the crampons out came with a late-season cold snap. I climbed an easy couloir just right of Church Door Buttress on Bidean. I think this route is a good example of the terrain these crampons were made for: steep snow for about a thousand feet, not quite Grade I but steep enough that you need to be sure of where you're putting your feet.

When putting the crampons on, my impressions were that they were if anything slightly easier to put on than the old G10s. I think this is due to the new straps, which are more flexible and handle more easily. It was also easier to 'lock' the straps down by rethreading them through the split ring after the straps had been tightened. This made them feel more secure, although I wondered if they would be more difficult to untie later on.

Walking in the crampons on flat hard snow felt very comfortable, thanks I suspect to the flexible regulation bar. Rigid crampons can sometimes suffer in this respect (although they have other advantages!) When the going got steeper, I found the best way was to zigzag up the slope; flexible boots and crampons are simply not made for front-pointing over long distances, but this is a price you pay for the increased comfort, versatility, and light weight.

As I'm used to 12-point crampons, it took me a while to remember the best way of walking in 10-pointers. The loss of two extra points makes it doubly important to walk with feet flat to the snow on steep ground, rolling the heel to ensure all points are engaged with the snow. Flexible boots make this a lot easier; with B3s the temptation is simply to front-point up everything.

When I got to the top of the route and took the crampons off, I did indeed find that the knots I had tied to secure the straps had frozen and were more difficult to untie than usual. I blame the thinner, more flexible straps, although I suspect a different tactic for securing the straps might solve this problem. Further experimentation is due here.

In conclusion, the Grivel Monte Rosa crampon is a no-nonsense piece of kit. The low price is appealing, and despite the lack of frills these crampons have all the essential features for safe travel on steep snow slopes. They are, in my opinion, ideal for winter walkers in the UK. When used correctly and in combination with the right boots, I think they will also be capable of much more: lightweight Alpine climbing, normal routes up Himalayan peaks, extended mountaineering tours in remote regions. The only disadvantage that I have been able to discover so far is the strap which is more difficult to untie and more prone to icing.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Two days in the Cairngorms

A morning in the Northern Corries

With a relatively good forecast East but poorer West, James and I decided to head to the Cairngorms for the day. The plan was to do a climb in Coire an t-Sneachda, after which we would part ways, leaving me to begin a two-day expedition to climb Braeriach ... or at least make another attempt!

The weather was still a little cloudy when we left the ski centre, but not too bad. To our surprise, we discovered that the coire was still largely banked out in snow, with most of the Grade I routes still in condition. Our goal was Pygmy Ridge, a dry rock climb at Moderate standard in these conditions, but we would have to climb a fair bit of snow to get to it!

It was typical summer snow: sugary and firm, easy to kick steps in. We needed an ice axe on the Grade I slope to get to our route, but did not need crampons. The route itself looked well-defined and steep.

I started up a likely-looking chimney, but it turned out to be much too steep, with good holds all out of reach. I came back down; this was the winter line. To the left, an easier slab led back into the chimney, and from here onwards the climbing was simply superb! Good sustained hard Moderate, perhaps approaching Diff in places. I led the whole route, which was brilliantly varied with chimneys, slabs, walls, and finally a superb knife-edged crest that added an Alpine flavour to the climb.

Routes like this, enjoyable for the shear pleasure of climbing easy rock in spectacular places, reinforce my belief that you can climb easy routes and still get everything you want from the mountains.

We descended the Fiacaill Ridge, and once back at the car I re-packed my bag for the trip to Braeriach.

Photos from Sneachda

Braeriach - Day One

The walk to Chalamain Gap is now a familiar one to me, after three failed attempts at Braeriach over the past two winters. In every case, the cause of failure was a blizzard, and I was determined that on my fourth attempt I should succeed in climbing the peak. With a forecast as good as the one issued on Wednesday, blizzards would be the least of my concerns.

James dropped me off on the way back to Aviemore, and I began the long walk to the place where I would spend the night: the Garbh Coire Bothy. I entered the Lairig Ghru, and noticed more and more snow patches down to a low level, some of them huge. As I climbed the long glen, soon enough the river running through it became completely covered over with old snow.

The Pools of Dee, at the highest point of the pass, is a wilderness in the limbo between spring and summer: a world of icebergs, crevasses, old brown snow and blue ice shining beneath clear water. The pack is calving icebergs into the lochans, creating a maze of large crevasses and ridges of ice. This bizarre scene would be more at home on an Arctic ice cap, or an Alpine glacier.

Looking up into the hills, the snow cover is still extensive up high, although thunderous torrents spurt down the newly-bared scree. All around me I can see the violent and energetic side to springtime in the Cairngorms.

Back at the Chalamain Gap, there had been plenty of other walkers. Here, three hours out, there is nobody but me. I descend, following the baby river Dee from its source, and begin the final traverse into Garbh Coire, the great eastern amphitheatre of Braeriach. This stretch alone would be an appreciable walk-in by itself in Glen Coe; here it's just the final stage in a longer journey. And there's no path here!

Finally, beneath the north-eastern spur of the Angel's Peak, is my goal and home for the night. Little more than a heap of stones with a tarpaulin roof, but it's the only shelter for miles. Unfortunately, to get to it I have to cross the river, swollen to a high spate by the snowmelt.

The river is simply impossible to cross near the bothy: fifteen feet across, probably six feet deep and flowing fast enough to wash me away. In the end, I had to follow the river almost a mile upstream before I found a snow bridge that was safe to cross. Even then, as I walked across the ice, I could hear the torrent roaring beneath my feet.

I've now set up camp on the pleasant grassy alp just outside the bothy (the bothy is a bit grim inside, but if a thunderstorm rolls in overnight I will make use if it). The time is just gone 10pm and it is still easily light enough to read and spy out details of the hills in the distance. When I think about where I am, five hours on foot from the nearest road, probably many miles from another human being, I feel privileged to be here. This is a stunning bivvy location: true wildness, no paths or litter, just a lonely howff and a cirque of huge white mountains.

Tomorrow I plan to climb the NE ridge of the Angel's Peak, followed by a crossing of Braeriach.

Day Two

It was a mild and calm night, and I slept well, although a passing rain shower woke me at half past six. By seven I was packed and ready to go. The air was already hot and muggy.

Initially my route lay to the right of the large waterfall coming down from the higher loch. First thing in the morning, before the body has had a chance to get used to walking again, this abrupt ascent is very tough! There is no path at all, just steep boulders and scree until the lochan is suddenly reached. The lochan, nestlings between Cairn Toul and the Angel's Peak, is still frozen over.

My plan was to climb Angel's Peak directly, but the NE ridge looked distinctly unappealing with a potential cornice at the top. However, the ridge coming down from Cairn Toul looked much easier, and would give me the opportunity to climb another Munro. It turned out to be bouldery and loose but not difficult, and deposited me directly on the summit of Cairn Toul, with superb views of the Braeriach amphitheatre. For the first time, I could see the scale of the entire coire, and it is enormous! The Falls of Dee, a huge waterfall running off the plateau, crashed into a massive crevasse in the base of the cliffs and the watercourse didn't reappear from under the snow in nearly a mile. The extent of the remaining snow on the crag is astonishing.

I could see my entire route stretched out before me, all the way around the cliff tops, and it looked bloody long!

The Angel's Peak was an easy ascent from this side and soon enough I had begun the long easy walk round the ridge-top, and onto the Braeriach ice cap. The mountain is still mostly snowbound and although the plateau was easy to walk over for the most part, in places where the slope changed angle crevasses were starting to open up. Therefore care was required to negotiate what must usually be a very easy walk on snow.

The summit of Braeriach, heavily corniced and hidden under a mound of ice, offered an excellent view of the other two Munros I had climbed that day--and it was satisfying to at last stand upon the top! All that remained was the long descent, back over the Chalamain Gap and to the ski centre. Unfortunately the bus from the ski centre to Aviemore never turned up. Another walker took pity on me, and made a considerable detour to drive me to the youth hostel. I am indebted to his kindness; he saved me a miserable night at the ranger station!

The past two days have been very successful. An excellent rock climb; a long walk; three new Munros; and a night spent in a beautiful and wild coire.

Photos from Braeriach

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

One last ice climb

After the euology I had written for the winter only a few days ago, it occurred to me that the season had not been brought to a triumphant and spectacular close, like last year. Almost exactly a year ago, I climbed the mighty North Face of Aonach Beag in stunning Alpine conditions, followed by a crossing of Carn Mor Dearg to Ben Nevis. It remains my single best mountain day last year and was the last ice climb for the previous season.

James and I decided that something just as special was needed: one final ice climb, another day with ice axe in hand before the inevitability of the snow-free months had to be confronted.

Cold weather and high pressure were forecast. We set off for Ben Nevis at three o'clock this morning, starting the walk-in along the Allt a'Mhuillin at just before four. The sky was already quite light (already there is no real darkness on a clear night), and as we left the forest and began the long flat crossing of the moor, the first sparks of Alpenglow flared on the high peak ahead of us. The Great Tower burned orange for just a moment. We could tell it was going to be a special day.

Our route of choice had been Tower Ridge, but an inch or two of fresh powder snow overnight, and a good plating of verglas over every rock, vetoed that idea. As we walked beneath the vast amphitheatre of Coire na Ciste, the deep slot of No.2 Gully arrested our attention. We decided to head in that direction.

The snowfield in the base of Coire na Ciste sports several giant crevasses and possibly a number of hidden ones as well, but we decided not to rope up as we crossed the 'glacier', given our plan of mostly soloing the couloir above. Nevertheless, we passed a huge bergschrund at the bottom of Glover's Chimney, and as we climbed higher up the gully we crossed several more large crevasses (still with well-frozen snow bridges in place).

Conditions underfoot were rock solid but somewhat unforgiving. A small amount of cosmetic powder snow lay on top of the old glacier ice, iron-hard and full of muck blown over the cliffs. Progress was exhausting on the calf muscles, and we found ourselves laboriously cutting ledges on which to rest every twenty or thirty yards. Daggering with our axes was impossible on this consistency of ice.

As the couloir narrowed, the slope got steadily steeper ... and kept getting steeper! The sun hit the ice slopes above, and volleys of stones whizzed overhead and rattled down the centre of the gully, reminding us to be ever vigilant and stay out of range. What with the stonefall risk and the gaping crevasses, an Alpine grade of about AD- felt far more appropriate than Scottish Grade II.

At its steepest, the gully was perhaps 60 degrees and on the same exhausting bullet-hard ice as lower down. Luckily by this point we could take some of the weight on our arms, but it was still tiring work.

The cornice loomed ahead, a seemingly impossible obstacle. A wall of ice some twenty feet in height overhung the exit of the gully on all sides, fringed with icicles, gleaming the menacing blue of old ice. James climbed this final pitch first, and declared the exit impossible. He started to traverse left on the narrow gangway beneath the huge wall.

This gangway was exposed and quite alarming, but we took our time. In places we were forced to crawl on hands and knees to fit beneath enormous bulges of ice. Finally we topped out to be greeted by spectacular views, although sadly a bank of light clouds rolled in as we reached the summit.

On the way down, the weather warmed up, and by the time we had reached the valley it was summer again. It is a strange thing to spend a morning climbing steep ice in an Alpine environment, then to descend to find balmy temperatures and trees in leaf. Summer ice climbing in Scotland is a rare pleasure.

Today counts as among my top five days of the winter, even though it's not really winter still! Even so, a fittingly magnificent end to the 2009/2010 snow and ice season. Now I can put my axes and crampons away happily and enjoy the summer.

For information: there is a large amount of snow and ice still remaining on the northern cliffs of Ben Nevis, and although much of the ice will go next time there is a thaw (it's getting late in the year for ice!) the snow in the easier gullies will remain for weeks yet. With care, an ascent of the cliffs on snow might be possible well into June this year.

The full set of photos from today, featuring pictures by both myself and my brother James

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Euology for the winter

Although I first mourned the passing of the winter over a month ago, observing the snow and ice receding from our mountains, the time has at last come to admit that the seasons have turned and summer is truly upon us. Light past ten o'clock in the evenings; the trees resplendent in their bright new green summer coats; the chatter of trekking poles and flash of sunglasses heralding the summer hordes. Perhaps most tellingly of all, the snow patches are in terminal retreat and now nothing can stop the passing of the ice.

Last year I found this a difficult time to come to terms with. Snow gives a mountain a certain formidable stature. In summer, any mountaineer may scale any one of the peaks in Glencoe, even the very highest, Bidean nam Bian: they are tamed and predictable, unchanging. After the first storms of the winter, the great mountains glower down at us, promising a different experience. Those first snows of winter are an incredibly exciting time and we eagerly measure the advance of the ice as it re-takes the high ground, filling the gullies, smoothing over the crags. The peaks are once again converted into the wild and austere cathedrals where we may test ourselves and, as often as not, are humiliatingly beaten. Our successes are more keenly earned in winter.

In July, a mountain is just a mountain. That same elevation in February is a question mark. What equipment will be necessary? How will conditions affect the speed and route of my ascent? Will a savage storm or avalanche force a retreat? To climb a mountain in winter requires greater skill, experience, fitness; it requires different equipment and a tougher mental attitude. Correspondingly, the rewards are increased a thousand fold.

Perhaps most importantly, the aesthetic quality of a mountain is improved beyond measure in winter. Consider the West Face of the Aonach Dubh in summer: a treasured rock-climbing crag, but aesthetically it is dull, just a huge lump of rock. On a bright February afternoon, however, the great peak rises from the dark glen and burns white and gold in the sun. On the high ridge-top, mountaineers may be spotted, through telescope, climbing to their audience with the summit; perhaps a plume of spindrift is dislodged by their passage and blows like a comet's tail into the sky. Below, on the face, ice thunders and falls in the gullies. We watch the waxing and waning of rime-ice on the wall as the days pass. The mountain is alive, a symbol and a challenge.

Sometimes I am accused of holding onto the winter for too long. Perhaps next time you see me standing by the side of a forlorn patch of snow in the baking summer heat, you will cast your mind back and remember when that soggy morass was part of a million tons of living ice, changing by the day, helping to furnish a great peak with the uniform it wears for more than half the year.

Photo (C) James Roddie 2010

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Two days in the mountains

My friend Maz has been staying at the Clachaig for the last few days, and since her visit corresponded with my days off, mountains were an inevitability! We had two separate excursions.

Glas Bheinn Mhor and Ben Starav

Glen Etive is a place I have visited relatively infrequently, yet it is one of the finest glens in Lochaber and fairly local, being only a thirty-minute drive away. The finest mountains dominating the lower section of the glen are Glas Bheinn Mhor and (overwhelmingly) Ben Starav, a giant peak rising straight out of the loch. I first climbed these mountains two years ago but had never visited since.

Our route climbed a gentle pass to the bealach east of Glas Bheinn Mhor. From here we followed the ridge west, with increasingly excellent views. Glas Bheinn Mhor fell easily. After dropping down to the col and contemplating the view ahead, we enjoyed scrambling past the crazy pinnacles on the eastern top of Starav; it is in this area that the Grade IV winter route Hidden Ridge is located.

A short arete of easy scrambling led to the summit, and a fine panorama. An excellent day out.

Photos from Glas Bheinn Mhor and Ben Starav

The Easy Route, Gearr Aonach

The blunt cliff-face of Gearr Aonach is one of the most arresting sights in Glen Coe: a steep mass of rock, seemingly severe and inaccessible by easy routes. Yet it has one major weakness in its defences, the exceptionally easy Zig-Zags, a Grade 1 scramble I have climbed a few times.

This cliff was initially ascended in 1898 by a route that cuts directly up the Zig-Zags. It was named the Easy Route, and nowadays is known as a two-star Grade 3 scramble. I've wanted to do it for a while and with superb weather Maz and I decided it would make an excellent short outing before I start work at five o'clock.

We took helmets, harnesses and a rope but in the end the route proved to be quite straightforward, a simple steep course up superb rough rock with excellent holds, very similar to the style of climbing on the East Face of Aonach Dubh. The crux was a steep chimney to the left of a wedged block, with perhaps a move or two of Moderate but still quite low in the grade compared to Sron na Creise or the North Buttress of Stob Ban.

After topping out, we walked along the long ridge of Gearr Aonach and enjoyed the brilliant views in the sun before dropping down Coire nan Lochan. Now a busy Saturday night shift awaits me!

Photos from Gearr Aonach

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A scrambling day on Creise

Sron na Creise, the great spur of the mountain that gives the route its name, is a climb I have wanted to do ever since I arrived here. The line is one of the most obvious in the entire glen and I have heard good things about the quality of the rock. With a day off on a good forcast, James and I made the journey over to Glen Etive.

The day began by crossing the River Etive, luckily in low water conditions at present, but that didn't stop me from getting water over the top of my gaiters! We then walked through the pathless bog up to the start of the ridge, which is studded by minor outcrops. Some confusion was suffered when we attempted to climb one of these little crags, vegetated and slimy, furnished only with sloping holds of little value. After considerable climbing up and down on disintegrating choss, we decided to walk around.

The route properly began above a collection of giant boulders. The main weakness in the crag above is a narrow chimney corner, quite steep at the beginning. It proved awkward but not difficult enough to justify the use of the rope (about Moderate for a few moves). Once at the top of this, easy slabs led to the next major obstacle.

A steep wall had to be negotiated. We tried various ways, but eventually settled on a corner to a capstone, followed by a very steep face, quite vertical and exposed for a few metres, albeit on the best Rhyolite and with superb holds. All said, this wall was about Moderate as well.

The route continued without much further difficulty, but many pleasant sections of scrambling, to the summit. After enjoying the view, we reversed our steps back to Stob a' Ghlais Choire (the Northern top) in order to descend the NE Ridge.

This ridge is much easier than Sron na Creise, but still substantially a rock arĂȘte and care was necessary to negotiate the best way down. I even found sine crag swag in the form of an old abseil anchor setup!

Back at the bottom of the mountain, all that remained was an easy stomp through the bog beside the river, then back over the Etive to the car.

An excellent day out in fine weather, and yet another route done from my long-term wishlist!

View photos here