Saturday, 26 June 2010

A dawn solo climb of Tower Ridge

Tower Ridge - the line leading directly up the middle

Alex and I have had a long run of good luck for the last couple of months with regards to our climbing. The weather has been consistently perfect for our days off, and in the last few weeks we've had so many great days. A mid-May solo ascent of Number 2 Gully on Ben Nevis was the grand finale to our unforgettable winter, but the spring has not failed to disappoint.

Based on this "on a role" feeling, I decided it was time to go and have one of those days your remember for years.

Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis is one of the most well known and finest climbs in Scotland. It's fair to say that as soon as I'd even started to take the slightest interest in scrambling and climbing, I'd heard of Tower Ridge, and I wanted to do it. Even though I've lived in Glencoe for the last 15 months and have been out in the mountains every single week, I'd never got around to climbing it until last week.

Despite, and probably because, of Alex's strict advice not to solo climb it, I decided to do just that. I finished work at half past midnight, slept for 2 hours, and was at the North face car park by 3am. As I made the long familiar walk into Allt a'Mhuillin, it was one of those stunning clear mid-summer Scottish mornings when you can just feel it's going to be a memorable day.

A blue dawn looking North East from Tower Ridge

By 5am I was at the foot of the Douglas Boulder. A damp, eroded scree gully leads up to the Douglas Gap, the point from which the climbing starts.The first gully out of the Douglas Gap is actually one of the more tricky parts of the ridge, and it's obvious that many teams will pitch it.

Once out of this gully I stormed up the ridge. I was absolutely buzzing with confidence, and for no particular reason wanted to go as fast as I possibly could. A lot of the ridge is Grade 3(S) or Moderate, but in the most magnificent of locations. The mighty North East Buttress towers above you to the East, and below Coire na Ciste and the Carn Dearg buttress look dwarfed compared to their usual splendour. The deep snow patches of Tower Gully stretched beneath my feet, their extent quite surprising for mid June. There are several points on Tower Ridge which are quite exiting if soloing like I was. The climb up the Little Tower is one, and another is the "cave pitch", where a giant chockstone has created a fantastic tunnel (still with snow in the bottom).

The "cave pitch" high on Tower Ridge, still with the smallest amount of snow.

Surprisingly quickly, I was stood at Tower Gap. One of the most iconic of all climbing locations in Scotland, and a place I have heard fearsome stories about. The narrowest of ridges leads to a deep notch in the mountain, the location of many epics and benightments. The drop down is very very exposed if soloing, as once you are making the move you can't really see the foothold, which is downwards sloping. To each side, gaping drops open their jaws.

A self portrait on Tower Ridge at 6am

A quick self-portrait taken with the timer on my camera was in order. Soon over Tower Gap, and alone on the summit of Ben Nevis by 7am. Such a treat, with no one else up there, my stomping ground stretching away in all directions below me. A quick jog over the Carn Mor Dearg arete, and I was down before I usually have breakfast. Great day.

The view from Ben Nevis to Sgurr a'Mhaim with Bidean nam Bian behind

Friday, 25 June 2010

A temporary change of hands

First an introduction. I'm James - Alex's brother, climbing partner, blog photographer and co-worker at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe.

As Alex is off to Norway very shortly, for the next few months the posts on this blog are going to be about what I get up to in my spare time. I've been climbing, walking and generally having a great laugh with Alex for the last five years. A great deal of the photos on the Glencoe mountaineer blog are my own, and my name pops up quite often in Alex's writing.

I'll apologise immediately for my vastly inferior writing abilities compared to Alex. My talent has always been in capturing the spirit of our brilliant hobby in photos, Alex's is in writing about it.

I hope you find some interest in what I'll be getting up to for the next few months, and I'll do my best to maintain the spirit of this popular blog.

If you are ever in Glencoe, pop into the Clachaig for a pint - I'm always around somewhere. See you around.


Thursday, 24 June 2010

Flickr test

Although I have been using Facebook for photo storage on this site since its creation, I have always been on the lookout for something better, while being cautious about unnecessary alterations. It seems incredible that it has taken me this long to set up a Flickr account, but here it is!

I shall be conducting a trial over the next few days to see how well this system works, and whether or not to go over to it completely. The main reason I am considering it is that I now have an iPad (lucky me!) which works well with Flickr but not so well with Facebook. Fear not, the Glencoe Mountaineer Facebook page will not suffer in the slightest, although at the moment I am having trouble connecting the two services together...

In the meantime, my brother James will be introduced as a guest blogger on the site until my return from Norway, and he'll be posting s bit about his own mountain adventures. My flight departs on the 5th of July; I can hardly wait!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The end of an era, and the beginning of another

After I finished my degree in June 2008, I experienced a limbo period as many recent graduates do. I had no specific direction to follow. My degree had made me cynical about the computing industry: I had made a solemn promise to myself that I would never work as a software engineer or systems analyst. My writing ambitions were at a low ebb thanks to months of zero inspiration. As always when I have lacked direction in my life, I took to the hills.

Summer 2008 was the period when I first tasted what it must feel like to live amongst the mountains. First I visited Glen Coe with the UEA Fell Club, stayed at Lagangarbh, visited Clachaig, and spent charmed days exploring the mountains of Lochaber; then I went to the Alps for a month and climbed high peaks. It was a time of adventure and discovery. When I returned, I felt as if I was a better man than I had been before, enriched by a thousand experiences that I could never have had in the trivial 'real world'.

Back to the bleak sameness of existence. I applied for jobs. I was desperate to remain in Norwich, without really knowing why. Unable to see far ahead, I was haunted by the memory of dawn at 4000m, Alpenglow on the Matterhorn, or the chill of a midsummer bivouac on Ben Starav. I felt that there was a promised land somewhere, but I could see no way to reach it. The future seemed hopeless.

Completely by chance, an opportunity arose. In the Alps, at the Schönbiel Hut, James and I had met an Englishwoman named Zoe. In our conversation the topic repeatedly returned to Glen Coe, a place where Zoe had once lived, working behind the bar at the Clachaig Inn. I remembered the fleeting thought that this would be a fine thing to do--but I never consciously thought about it any further. However, some little time later, in late August, I discovered that my old friend Rachael had actually applied to the Clachaig and was about to start work. She mentioned that they were recruiting.

I immediately saw my way out--or rather, my way in, to the life that I had dreamed about.

I moved to Glen Coe in September 2008 and it was immediately everything I had hoped it would be. Freed from the utter triviality of the real world, here I had found my promised land: a world of adventure, epic deeds, and breathtaking beauty. Soon this place became the real world, and the life I had left behind, of harsh concrete and long, caffeine-fuelled hours in a soulless laboratory, faded into nothingness. Here I have purpose and freedom, and a constant sense of wonder. There I was a drone who saw no point in any of it. The fact that I essentially live in a pub probably has something to do with it as well!

Wednesday is my final shift at the Clachaig, and on Friday I will be moving out. Why, I hear you ask, if everything I want is here? The answer is simple: to find the next adventure!

On the 5th of July, I am flying to Norway. Over the course of the following month, I will be trekking throughout a region known as Jotunheimen, the Home of the Giants. It is a vast area with few roads or habitations, but rich in mountain land. In fact, it contains the greatest concentration of 2000m peaks in all Scandinavia, and all 29 of Norway's highest mountains are to be found in Jotunheimen. My chosen route is roughly circular, and will take me through most of the mountain massifs in the area.

When I return in August, after a short period to finish my book, I intend to travel back to Scotland to explore some of the areas I have not yet visited: Knoydart, Torridon, the far North, and to climb more extensively in Skye.

Because I could not possibly imagine a winter in any other place but this, in the Autumn I will return to Clachaig, so it is not 'good bye' but rather 'au revoir!'

This will be my final blog post between now and August. I will be unable to post updates from Jotunheimen, but my brother James will occasionally post brief notes reporting on my progress. When I return, there will be a full account and photos a-plenty. In the meantime, enjoy the Scottish summer, and I hope this fine weather holds out a little longer than it did last year!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Realising ones limitations, or just rusty?

Not eveything went to plan with yesterday's day on the hill. Originally, we had wanted to do the NE Ridge of Aonach Beag, a long traditional mountain scramble in a remote place. Departure time was to be 7am, but when we awoke blanket low cloud smothered the hills. We decided to leave it a few hours to see if the cloud would lift.

By the time the cloud had burnt off to leave glorious clear skies, it was rather too late to start the long walk-in to Aonach Beag, so we changed our plan. An afternoon climb at Far Eastern Buttress sounded appealing, with its friendly aspect and short approach.

After investigating the disgusting Hole and Corner Gully (I proclaimed it vile and full of midges), I started to lead up the rather fine line of Farewell Arete. All went smoothly until I reached the crux step. At the ledge I arranged protection and attempted to decipher this baffling move. The guidebook mentioned a step left, and I could see where I was supposed to go, but could not see how to get there!

So: a left traverse on poor footholds with no visible handholds at all, at an overhang. After a while I began to suspect a spike may have fallen off to leave an obvious scar, but it was basically an excuse for not being able to find better holds in the confusing jumble of false holds above my head.

Unable to figure it out, I climbed back down, having been given a reminder that I am by now quite rusty on the more difficult climbs. James proceeded to solo a VDiff called the North-East Nose, a good effort!

Are my strengths to be found on easier mountaineering routes? I think so--but only because I do not have the inclination or drive to improve my abilities on difficult rock. Despite the sense of failure from yesterday afternoon it was not without its lessons.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Mountaineering on Skye

Sgurr an Fheadain

We arrived on Skye mid-morning on Wednesday. On the way up the weather had not seemed fantastic, with a lot of low cloud and some squally gusts; arrival in Glen Brittle soon demonstrated that the Cuillin were hiding under the perennial mists that plague Skye. We had originally planned to go for the Clach Glas - Bla Bheinn Traverse, but decided to attempt something easier and lower, considering the increasingly blustery wind.

Sgurr an Fheadain is a foothill of the grand Cuillin, a lower outlier of the northern range, its pyramidal bulk split by the remarkable Waterpipe Gully. The left spur of the mountain is an easy and uncomplicated Grade 2 scramble. The walk-in past the Fairy Pools was easy and had excellent views of the climb ahead; nowhere else can you enjoy a more or less flat walk directly to the base of your route. The slabs of the Spur begin more or less directly above the Fairy Pools themselves.

The route is easy and enjoyable, nowhere difficult or exposed, generally low in the grade. I would not hesitate to recommend it to beginner scramblers (providing they have the necessary hillwalking and general mountain experience to get them safely off the hill). The summit itself is a grand place, a rocky tower surrounded by airy gulfs on all sides. The descent, down hideously loose scree, was a taster of the toils that would come the next day!

After getting down off the hill the weather improved dramatically and we finished off the day with a trip to Elgol and the Sligachan.


The Round of Coire Lagan

Coire Lagan, situated at the southern end of Glen Brittle, is one of the most spectacular places in Britain. The skyline of Coire Lagan is a ragged crest of pinnacles, spires, boulder-jammed couloirs and some of the most heavyweight peaks in the country: Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, and the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A traverse of this crest, a full horseshoe, is a mission I have been planning for some years now but this was the first opportunity to actually do it.

We started early to avoid crowds on the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and the air was surprisingly cold on the walk-in to Coire Lagan. Things soon warmed up, however, as we began the unending toil up the Great Stone Chute of Sgurr Alasdair. This interminable slog is the longest and loosest scree couloir I have ever seen in Britain, comparable to the nightmare of shattered rock beneath Schönbielhorn in the Alps. The Great Stone Chute climbs from Coire Lagan right up to the main ridge crest only a handful of metres beneath the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, and by the time we reached the col we were knackered and covered in stone dust.

Unfortunately, by this time the clouds had descended and we made the short scramble to Sgurr Alasdair's summit in sombre mist. Back at the col, we roped up in preparation to cross Sgurr Thearlaich. The first pitches out of the col are on steep Moderate rock; we moved together on a shortened rope over this terrain, threading spikes and placing nuts as necessary. It was at this point that we were hailed by another team, attempting the full crossing of the ridge; it turned out to be Will Hunt and his friend. I hope they were successful!

From the summit of Sgurr Thearlaich, an easy crest led down to two steep abseils into Bealach Mhic Choinnich. We considered our way ahead. Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Mackenzie's peak, lay ahead. The face presented to us appeared impregnable to first glance, but is in fact riven by two lines of weakness: King's Chimney, a dauntingly steep corner; or Collie's Ledge, which weaves an exposed passage away to the left.

We decided to follow Collie's Ledge, unroping at this point since a rope would be more hindrance than use on such terrain. The ledge is not very hard but monstrously exposed as it crawls its way between vertical cliffs. The cliff drops many hundreds of metres directly beneath your feet, and in places the ledge is inches wide. A more exhilarating place I can scarcely imagine!

The summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich is an airy perch with excellent views of both the ground we had already covered and the delights that await. This central section of the Round is easy and we walked unroped over the ridge-top towards the next challenge, the East Ridge of An Stac.

We put the rope on for this ridge, which is quite steep and furnished with much loose rock. A slab and corner led to the upper arete. Despite the dubious quality of the rock beneath my feet, I enjoyed this climb tremendously: the line was devious, a true mountaineering route, yet the arete itself was simple and beautiful.

Upon topping out on An Stac we were greeted with our first intimate view of the ultimate objective, the most difficult mountain in Britain: the Inaccessible Pinnacle. This improbable-looking blade of rock is the true summit of Sgurr Dearg. Due to the relative difficulty of its easiest line of ascent (the Moderate but thrillingly exposed East Ridge), this peak is very popular and most summer days see queues waiting for their turn to rope up at the beginning of the arete. Happily, it was still early in the day by the time we got there, and there was nobody ahead of us.

I climbed the crest of the Inaccessible Pinnacle with a rising sense of delight. This is iconic British mountain terrain, one of the great climbs that every mountaineer yearns to do once in his life: regardless of its easy standard, in my view a climber who is not moved by this peak is no climber at all. Its relatively easy standard, in rock climbing terms, simply means that the climber can focus on the enjoyment of the situation and the anticipation of the summit a rope's length ahead.

James joined me at the top of the In. Pinn, and as we prepared the rope to abseil we took in the exceptionally lovely view. All of the Cuillin could be seen, most spectacularly of all the jutting precipice of Sgurr Alasdair. On three sides were the sea and idyllic green islands, and beyond it the mainland, distant ranges of unfamiliar mountains blending into blue haze. In the far distance, the highest of them all, Ben Nevis.

We didn't have long to enjoy the position, for other teams were coming up behind. A spectacular abseil down the vertical West Ridge took us back onto solid easy ground. After sitting in silent contemplation for a while longer, the silence of the mountains contrasting with the climbing calls from teams on the Pinnacle, we started down the ridge crest back towards Glen Brittle and the sea.

The Round of Coire Lagan is without a doubt the finest day I have ever spent in the British mountains during the summer months. It eclipses my previous high-points of Tower Ridge, the NE Buttress, and Pinnacle Ridge by an infinite measure. I think this trip is going to be difficult to beat!


Friday, 4 June 2010

Two scrambles on the Buachaille

After a late start, I took a taxi down to Lagangarbh this afternoon with the intention of camping in the shadow of the Buachaille and ticking off some of the scrambles. After pitching my tent I started the walk up to Curved Ridge, but the weather was so pleasant and my pack so light that I ended up running most of the approach and part of the ridge as well! It's my third ascent of this classic scramble to date so I know it fairly well by now, and the only step that gave pause for thought (as usual) was the crux corner right at the top. 1:30 hours from Lagangarbh to the summit!

I then descended Coire na Tulaich and climbed the NE Ridge of Creag Coire na Tulaich. This is a two-star Grade 3 scramble, very accessible, and showed signs of previous traffic. I found it to be very enjoyable but a rather unbalanced route. The first half was on delightful easy slabs, insanely grippy so that you could just walk up them. Then when the final tier was reached, two separate near-vertical steps have to be negotiated, and these are what earn the route its grade as a top-end scramble. The first step is not too hard, but the second is about 15m of almost vertical rock. Luckily the holds are large and of excellent quality, but they are all square-cut and there aren't too many reassuring jugs! Even so, the difficulties are soon over ... it amounts to one Moderate pitch, the rest of the climb being Easy.

It was only just after five o'clock by the time I returned to my tent, and as I'd already done two classic scrambles I decided a good day had been had and I might as well head home!


Thursday, 3 June 2010

Shrike Ridge and the Pinnacle

Today is my 24th birthday, and in tradition with last year's birthday ascent of Tower Ridge, we decided to do some rock climbing! The weather forecast was perfect, although the calm air and warm temperatures meant that the tigers of the highlands (the dreaded midgie) would be out in abundance.

As we climbed the steep vegetation of B Buttress on the West Face of Aonach Dubh, the midgies were indeed out in their thousands and we got eaten alive. Upon reaching the Rake the midge population thinned out a little.

We decided to climb Shrike Ridge. This is a razor-sharp arete of steep rock on the upper tier of F Buttress. I made the first recorded ascent last September and judged it to be one of the best routes I'd done on the mountain, and not without a little difficulty. A friend has since climbed it and reckons it to be a very good route although perhaps a little easier than the grade I had given it. Armed with a rope, climbing rack, and rock shoes, we decided to see how the route stood up to a second visit.

That first pitch is still incredible! Remarkably exposed climbing, not abundantly protected due to lots of thin parallel and flared cracks. The crux moves still require concentration and commitment even with a rope on, as a fall here would be bad. Unfortunately the second pitch is a little scrappy with some loose rock, which is the sole reason this route wouldn't get three stars. The third pitch, with its superb corner-crack, was also as fun as I had remembered.

We then headed over to the Pinnacle on the SW Face of Stob Coire nan Lochan. I wanted to do a new route on the West Wall but found the line I had chosen to be impractical, thanks to a slightly overhanging corner with nothing but a slimy offwidth crack for the feet. I'm sure it will be climbed one day, but not yet. We ended up doing the two established routes on the Pinnacle: the Arete (easy Moderate) and the East Wall Climb (Difficult).

Photos from today