Monday, 19 July 2010

Oscar Eckenstein's workshop

Another afternoon of hard work on the ice axe project has yielded some tangible results. I have made and fitted the spike assembly, and spent over two hours carving out the grooves and socket for the steel head. This is the most delicate part of the job, and the point where most can go wrong. The grooves have to be cut to exact dimensions, and of course, I am doing this work by hand as it would have been done a hundred years ago (although I have stooped to using power tools for a few of the more laborious tasks!)

One of the purposes of this project is to gain an appreciation of the craftsmen who made mountaineering equipment in the 19th century. During the Golden Age of Alpinism, if you wanted an ice axe, you went to your local smith and paid him a one-off fee to make an axe to your specification. In those days, quality was not assured and Whymper tells tales of the heads falling off ice axes, or the picks breaking with heavy use.

With the explosion of popularity that Alpine mountaineering experienced in the 1880s and 1890s, there soon became a constant demand for ice axes. As the first 'Alpine outfitter' companies evolved from existing blacksmith guilds, the production process was simplified and improved. The first riveted ice axe heads started to appear in the '80s. Although this meant the pick was almost impossible to replace, improvements in workmanship and quality materials meant that an ice axe might last for generations, if properly cared for.

Simond - Grivel - Stubai - these companies, well-known today, were mass-producing ice axes by the turn of the old century, using techniques virtually identical to the ones I have used to make this axe.

The master craftsman of the late 19th - early 20th century was the great inventor Oscar Eckenstein. From his workshop came ideas such as the first ice axe that could be used for cutting steps with one hand, and the modern crampon. He took his 'ice claw' idea to Mr Grivel in 1909. All crampons that mountaineers use today are the direct descendents of his design.

Eckenstein is an important character in my book, and it's interesting to experience this unique insight into his world. I have a renewed appreciation for the Alpine outfitters of old, where everything had to be painstakingly made by hand. Despite this labour-intensive method of manufacturing, the end results are invariably pieces of astonishing beauty and understated good design, unlike the soulless machine-made ice axes of today's age.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Ice axe project - and a new blog to watch

Back in sunny Suffolk and exiled from the mountains for a while, most of my energy is being put into my writing efforts. A novel on a slightly altered history of the late 19th century, from the perspective of the mountaineers, is taking shape. I have a few exciting research trips lined up for later in the summer--Cambridge, London, and Grindelwald.

In the meantime, I have recently begun a more hands-on project. With the raw materials of a knackered old ~1935 Stubai ice axe, and an ashen pickaxe handle, I am building a brand new ice axe from scratch. The idea is to make a 3ft axe of the sort commonly in use at the turn of the old century. The new pick, modified from the old Stubai one, is designed to he close in design to the one belonging to Edward Whymper: an incredibly practical and lightweight design, simple and easy to maintain.

I have already finished the pick (photos are up onnmy Flickr account) and am about to start the delicate plane and chisel work on the shaft.

In other news, my brother James, who has written a few articles for this site, has now set up his own blog. Given his renowned skills as a mountain photographer, it should develop into an excellent resource. Visit it here :

Friday, 16 July 2010

Final set of pictures uploaded

The Slettmark Massif, originally uploaded by Glencoemountaineer.

Find them here.

The final set of photos covers my journey from Lake Bygdin to Rauddalen, over the impressive Slettmark Pass that winds its way between huge mountain walls.

I have begun to type up my journals and will be publishing them in a series on the blog, doubtless interspersed with articles from my brother James on his own adventures--if the weather in Glen Coe ever improves, that is!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The second set of photos is now up

Drying off, originally uploaded by Glencoemountaineer.

Find them here ...

These photos are from the second section of my journey, covering an area that can broadly be described as the Mesmog Massif. This region is west of the Gjende Alps and north of Lake Bygdin, and features five distinct mountains, the highest being Store Mesmogtind. I climbed Kvitskardtinden, 2193m.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Eagle has Landed

Kvitskardtinden, originally uploaded by Glencoemountaineer.

As most of you have probably figured out or heard by now, I came back early from Norway.  The plan was originally to stay out for a full month and tour the entire region of Jotunheimen, an idea I now appreciate to be a little over-ambitious for a first solo expedition into this area.

The start of my journey was Gjendesheim:  the end of the road, and the gateway into Jotunheimen.  I spent the first day fighting my way up an enormous valley known as Leirungsdalen.  My first mistake was to avoid a river crossing I thought to be unnecessarily dangerous, leading to a massive detour in an attempt to find a way across the river.  After eleven hours of trekking through scrub and (eventually) moraine, I decided to make my camp at the foot of a glacier coming down from the highest peaks in the Gjende Alps.  At 1,660m it was quite a high camp by Norwegian standards and, although exposed, it proved to be an idyllic spot.

My forays into the Gjende Alps were foiled by the baffling weather.  A day would begin fine, with high pressure, only for a massive storm to suddenly appear over the space of minutes.  On one occasion, high on the glacier on Austre Leirungstinden, a snowstorm hit with such force and speed that I was forced to run back down the glacier and flee to my tent for shelter, afraid that the inevitable lightning would follow (snow and lightning when on a glacier, or an exposed ridge like the one I would shortly have been following, are not good things!)

On that evening the wind turned through ninety degrees and began battering the exposed broad side of my tent.  I spent an uncomfortable "night"--it does not get dark at those latitudes--using my body to stop my tent from being blown into Sweden.

The next morning, as soon as it stopped snowing, I packed and crossed the Leirungsdalen Pass, losing height as soon as possible.  My next camp would be 600m lower next to Lake Bygdin.  It was from this spot that my only successful climb was conducted:  Kvitskardtinden, 2,193m, a massive pyramidal mountain standing in the centre of the Mesmog Massif and guarded by a large but dying glacier.  It was the only day of really good weather on the entire trip, and the only day in which the wind got low enough to actually climb a high mountain.

The weather got worse again; I decided to get across the Slettmark Pass before the wind became too bad.  That long day trekking over moraine and the stubs of old glaciers was also sunny, but far too windy for any mountaineering.  I eventually crossed over to the western side of Jotunheimen and began the long walk to Olavsbu.

Olavsbu is a tiny locked cabin in the centre of the biggest wilderness, the farthest hut from any road or inhabited place.  It is surrounded by several glaciated 2000m peaks.  On the walk in it truly struck home how remote it is:  even Knoydart doesn't quite make the mark.  I encountered rivers whose bridges had been destroyed by floods, and had to be precariously forded.  Eventually defeated by fatigue after a very long day, I made my camp at 1,424m, still six miles from Olavsbu.

Predictably, another huge storm came in.  It rained for 24 hours non-stop, and the wind was ferocious, again swinging round to attack the vulnurable broad side of the tent.  I spent a miserable day staring at the four walls of my tent.  I had plenty of time to think about my situation, which was not great at that stage: my food had almost run out, and I was banking on finding more at Olavsbu.  What would happen, I wondered, if I made it to Olavsbu only to find no food?  I would be a full day's march from the nearest point of retreat (Gjendebu), and between those two places were several large rivers that would need to be forded.

The fording had been bad enough in low water.  After 24 hours of rain, with more on its way, I did not fancy my chances.  The very real risk of getting cut off in the most remote place in Jotunheimen with no food and no chance of escape meant that I had to make a decision.  After a day sitting in my tent brooding it was an easy decision to make, and I got out of there as soon as I could.

The clouds evaporated on the walk out, but it remained incredibly windy and the barometer was still low.  The rivers were indeed high but still passable--just.  I made it to Gjendebu and took the ferry back to Gjendesheim.  The next day another huge storm struck and the campsite guardian at Fagernes said that the storms in Jotunheimen were the worst they had been for years.

So:  a partial success and a solid lesson in respect for a mountain area that is a great deal more serious than any region in Scotland!  A week was a good length of time for an initial expedition.  I will now be better prepared for future ventures into Jotunheimen.

I have started to upload photos into my Flickr account. When they're all up, I'll post some more entries with links to the relevant sets. I might also publish my journal from the trip on here if there is demand for it (it goes into a lot more detail than the notes above).

Monday, 12 July 2010

Night-time and dawn on The Aonach Eagach

The Aonach Eagach in winter. The north wall of the great trench of Glencoe.

The Aonach Eagach, the "notched ridge" of Glencoe, is a massively special place for me. Even after 5 years of climbing and mountaineering in 6 different countries, I've never seen a dawn which comes close to rivalling the one I watched unfold from the Aonach Eagach one day in September 2009.

As the sun rose over Schielhallion and Rannoch Moor, and turned the sea of cloud covering the bottom of the glen bright gold, it was then that I had an "epiphany" of sorts. I knew that my time was not yet done in Glencoe, and I would have to stay for longer than planned. That was 10 months ago, and I've no plans to leave.

A life changing moment on the Aonach Eagach in september 2009

Last night I decided it had been too long since I'd visited the Ridge, and the idea of a night-time crossing sprang into my head. Why not? I thought it would prove a different experience, and I was certainly correct.

There's something special about being in the mountains in the dark. The approaching dawn seems to take an absolute age, emerging at first in the most subtle ways. I wasn't too encouraged by the grey overcast sky this morning, but I was in fact rewarded.

A thin beam of red spread slowly across the sky to the North West. Over the next 10 minutes, the sunrise forced its way through the overcast sky, producing a stunning scene. The sun rose up behind Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor above Kinlochleven, turning the sky to fire. Absolutely beautiful.

Just before sunrise, looking north west to the Loch Treig munros.

Unfortunately as I was some way past Am Bodach it started to rain. Looking around, there were ragged edges to the cloud bottoms in every direction, and heavy showers dumping themselves over Rannoch Moor. So I decided not to go for the full crossing of the ridge, as the wet would make the scrambling a bit more interesting that it should be.

Sunrise over Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor

The Aonach Eagach means so many things to different people. To many hillwalkers it has a fearsome reputation which is almost unparalleled amongst the ridges traverses of Scotland. This is well deserved, considering the number of accidents which happen each year. Yet to a seasoned climber or mountaineer, it is surprisingly easy. This doesn't stop it being one of the finest routes on the Scottish mainland, and one which should be treated with respect by everyone.

A WARNING: The Aonach Eagach is a committing undertaking of great length and exposure, and shouldn't be attempted solo by hillwalkers unless they are experienced scramblers and comfortable soloing grade II terrain over a distance of about 2 miles.

Also, THERE IS NO SAFE DESCENT ROUTE directly from the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh towards the Clachaig Inn. There is a well-used path down the side of Clachaig Gully, but it should be avoided, however tired and hungry you may be. The safest descent goes to the col between Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and the Pap of Glencoe, and then down the ordinary route from the Pap.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

A good photo of a new "Roddie route" from last year

The only recorded ascents are by Alex, myself, and Mike Martin.

"Shrike Ridge", Aonach Dubh West Face, 3-pitch **Diff graded.

Last summer Alex carried out a campaign on the West face of Aonach Dubh, the mighty cliffs towering above Loch Achtriochtan in Glencoe, seen best from the front of the Clachaig Inn. Despite there being dozens of recorded routes, there are a number of obvious lines which haven't been recorded as climbs.

Alex put up a new route on the upper tier of F Buttress, a superb 3- pitch narrow ridge which he named Shrike Ridge.

To date only Alex, myself and Mike Martin have been the only people to have ever recorded climbing it. The grade is open to debate. There is one move of awesome exposure, warranting a grade of Difficult in my opinion.

But grades…pah! The point is that this is one of the hidden gems of Glencoe, and was only discovered less than a year ago. There is still so much potential out there for exploration.

Here is a photo showing it clearly, taken by myself from the Clachaig Inn this winter.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

A storm and a midnight adventure in Glencoe.

The Coire nam Beithiach waterfall, in daylight!

Summer in the Highlands can be a double edged sword for climbers and hillwalkers. In periods of good weather (like the preceding month), the seemingly endless hours of daylight make for amazing opportunity, and May and June have been the most prolific months of climbing for Alex and I both this year and in 2009.

But now the weather has broken. It is usually a depressing time for me, especially as I am mainly a winter climber/hillwalker. The summer can seem so lacking in opportunity for adventure.

For various reasons I hadn't been on the hill since my solo of Tower Ridge a couple of weeks ago, and I've been getting itchy feet. When this happens, i increasingly feel the need to make up for lost time and do something insane.

The weather today was ferocious. Gale force gusts and torrential rain almost all day. I was inspired by the power and size of the Coire nam Beithiach waterfall this morning, and suddenly felt the urge to do a night-time visit.

At 1:30am, even with the rain at its heaviest, I just wanted to go. It was energising, being soaked as soon as I opened the door and stepped outside into the dark. Before I knew it, I was running through the downpour up the steep path into Coire nam Beithiach. The "Bad Step" scrambling section of the path had been turned into an actual waterfall itself by the rain, and I fought my way up this, my legs being submerged all the way up.

Past the bad step, and I veered left and into the falls themselves. I scrambled up through the cascades, totally soaked and hardly able to see a yard in front of my face through the rain. All the time, going as fast as I could, just wanting to feel the burn in my legs and my lungs.

A thundering noise. As I emerged into the pool at the bottom of the main waterfall, its sheer power was overwhelming. A thick mist of spray from the waterfall was covering a huge area all around. The noise was unbelievable. I stood for a full five minutes in the pool, simply living the moment. Utterly vulnerable, totally alone, but so alive.

Adventures can be had in the summer, they are just sometimes harder to find.