Monday, 30 August 2010

Solo of North East buttress, Ben Nevis (posted by James)

My route ahead...the skyline ridge.

North East Buttress, 300m *** (V.Diff)

Is it the most impressive mountain prow in Scotland, the North East Buttress? Quite possibly - I've yet to see its equal.

I'd been contemplating a solo climb of the Ben's mightiest ridge for a couple of months or so. Alex and I had climbed it as a roped team over a year ago, so I was familiar with the terrain.

Pink clouds and morning light on the North East Buttress

Route finding is far more difficult than on Tower Ridge, there is a longer walk-in, the rock is far more loose and broken, and there are two cruxes which are considerably harder than Tower Gap. The ridge becomes increasingly difficult and committing the higher you get, and as such has quite a feeling of being inescapable once on it.

Tower Ridge, North East Buttress' more forgiving neighbour?

Faced with a totally perfect weather forecast, and wanting to get a 'grand finale' route before the autumn started, I decided to just go for it. Confidence is a massive part of being able to solo routes at the top end of your ability.

I was treated to beautiful pink and red puffy clouds drifting over the Ben as I made the long walk-in. It was notably very cold for the time of year, and by the time I reached the First Platform on the buttress I was considering putting a wooly hat underneath my helmet.

A portrait using the camera's self timer, on the level ground above the crux wall.

It was interesting to see at least 7 different snow patches as I walked in under the face, the largest being the one in Observatory Gully.

I made quick progress up the broken terrain between the first and second platforms. There are far fewer crampon scratches to help guide you to the route than on the other Nevis ridges, as it is far more seldomly climbed. I soon came across the first vertical wall on the ridge, characteristic of the entire buttress in that it is split by downwards sloping diagonal cracks, making the climbing quite stiff for the grade.

The first crux move.

Then…the "Mantrap", the infamous crux move of the buttress, an overhanging wall with little in the way of good holds for hands or feet. I was alarmed to see rime ice crystals on the rock (in August!!) and after fighting with the move for 20 minutes I managed to do a step right and move up a vertical slab. It was here that I took a rapid swing onto my left arm as my feet slipped, dislodging the scab on the wound on my elbow.

Solo climbing V.Diff with iced rocks....hmmm...

On this area of the buttress I was solo climbing at the top of my abilities. But I was massively enjoying myself, riding an adrenaline high. More rime ice had to be dealt with in the "Forty Foot Corner", but once over that I was home and dry, and on the busy summit of Ben Nevis.

The result of a swinging fall - apologies for covering the route with blood.

It was elating, topping out onto the summit plateau. It was the hardest and most committing solo climb I'd ever done, in perfect weather. It's always nice to dream up a silly idea and then see it through. And I got my last big route of the summer, a wonderful conclusion to what has actually been a fantastic season.

Autumn isn't far away....

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Pigne d'Arolla

Despite a weather forecast for high freezing levels, we decided to set off for the Vignettes Hut in the early afternoon. The walk in from Arolla, through fragrant pine forests and over alps of soft grass, served to remind me that this is how Alpine mountaineering ought to be enjoyed: on foot, from the valley, to gain a full appreciation of the objective and to fully earn one's success. This is how the Alps were first explored, and Arolla is still largely unspoiled by the mainstream of Alpine tourism.

Onto the glacier! The ascent of the Glacier de Piece proved to be a straightforward proposition, and we made rapid time along the easy stretches of moraine and dirty ice. Above, the huge seracs beneath the north face of Pigne d'Arolla occasionally calved icebergs onto the rocks below.

On the final section of glacier the altitude began to make itself felt, and the trudge up steep snow was tiring. We finally made it to the Vignettes hut just as dinner was being served.

This mountain inn is situated on a spur overlooking a vast sea of ice between Mont Collon, l'Eveque, and Pigne d'Arolla. Overnight a little cloud came in, leading to worries that it would not freeze, but at dawn it was obvious that the snow had refrozen wonderfully and conditions would be excellent. We joined a large team leaving the hut at 6am and dropped back onto the glacier.

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the normal route up Pigne d'Arolla has changed considerably due to glacial retreat. Where a snowslope ought to have merged seamlessly with the glacier, now a huge ugly rock band prevented any hope of getting up that way--and above it, threatening seracs of black ice. We had no alternative but to return to the col, where a passing guide hailed us: 'The route to the Pigne is up that way!' He pointed up an ugly heap of moraine.

Up the moraine we went, annoyed at having lost thirty minutes. Nevertheless, soon we were able to step back onto the icecap that crowned the mountain, and were back on track.

The route proved to be an easy but tiring glacier, with one crevassed section but nothing to cause alarm. The altitude was really starting to have an impact on both of us now and the long trudge felt exhausting.

Despite the effort and heat of the ascent, the summit, when reached, was worth every step. The view showed almost every corner of the Alps, from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, and even the Oberland. The view directly down the north face towards Arolla was particularly striking.

After a pause for refreshment in the hut, we tackled the long descent back to base, and reached the village at a little after three o'clock. Behind us, our mountain was the highest point in a perfectly clear sky, and we reflected upon the satisfaction of climbing an Alpine peak from valley to summit entirely on foot. Most of all, it felt good to be back in the Alps climbing again; my last Alpine season was 2008.

Location:Despatches from the Alps

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Forcan Ridge (Posted by James)

The Forcan Ridge from near the summit of The Saddle

The Forcan Ridge

The mountain ridges of Scotland have definitely been my "theme" this summer.

I had intended to do yet another attempt on the Three Brothers of Kintail yesterday, after failing three times previously to get them done. I'd been turned around by pouring rain the first time, deep powder snow the second, and had crashed my car on the third attempt.

Mid way along

After a large spot appeared overnight in an uncomfortable place on my right foot, I decided to take the hint and not even bother trying with The Three Brothers, so I headed towards The Forcan Ridge of The Saddle in Glen Shiel instead.

It is one of the most striking ridge lines in the Highlands for sure. It struck me as being rather like a shorter but spikier version of the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, but with perhaps even more potential for taking more direct, more difficult lines.

Difficulties can be bypassed, but the true line is very narrow.

At its narrowest it is a true knife edge. I was hit by several heavy rain showers whilst on the ridge, making the rock very slippery. None the less I decided to take the most direct line to make it more interesting, and was not disappointed.

A slight hint of autumn on the hillsides.

After several false summits I reached the top as the clouds cleared. Looking down there was a definite feel of autumn in the air, a slight brown colouring over all the hillsides.

With high pressure forecast for next week, perhaps I'll get my 'grand finale' to the summer season? Fingers crossed.

The summit of The Saddle.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Castle Ridge, Ben Nevis

Britain's mightiest mountain face.

Castle Ridge, Ben Nevis

Of the four great ridges of Ben Nevis (five including Carn Dearg Buttress), Castle Ridge is arguably the most overlooked.

There's no doubt that it lacks the aesthetic curve of Tower Ridge, or the sheer awesome grandeur of the North East Buttress, but it's a cracking ridge none the less. I'd only climbed it in winter before today, with Alex leading me up my second winter climb (at a respectable grade III,4).

A cloud inversion over Loch Long

"April showers" is the best way to describe the weather…one moment bright sunshine, the next heavy rain. To the North, it looked much clearer, a small cloud inversion hanging over Loch Long.

The ridge gains interest and increases in difficulty the higher you get, as any good route should. The crux of the route is a series of chimneys heading vertically up the tower at the top, which with damp rock were surprisingly tricky for the grade! In my opinion the crux easily matches the cruxes of Tower Ridge for difficulty, minus the extreme exposure of Tower Gap.

Looking up at the crux chimneys

Castle Ridge only suffers from its position on the mountain, in that it isn't situated in the middle of the great arena of the North face, as Tower Ridge is. None the less, it is arguably as enjoyable in summer as in winter, and one of the best summer ridge climbs I've done.

Looking down the crux pitch.

On my way to the summit, I caught sight of the large snow patch in Observatory Gully. Fingers crossed it remains until the first snows of the autumn - hopefully a small number of weeks away!

A small patch of snow in Observatory Gully

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

It's that time of year again!

James and Castor, originally uploaded by Glencoemountaineer.

Last year I didn't manage to get out to the Alps, but 2007 and 2008 were brilliant seasons for my brother and I. It has been my wish this summer to do some kind of a short trip, to keep my finger in the Alpine pie as it were: two missed seasons in a row would not do!

The opportunity has come up, and on Monday I'm sharing a lift out to Switzerland. We are aiming for Arolla. The plan is to have a look at some of the classic 3000ers at the head of the valley. It is not going to be an ambitious trip; I haven't climbed in the Alps for two years, and have done little hard climbing at all for months now, so I will be perfectly content with some nice easy glacier routes.

After our week of mountains, I will be getting the notebooks out and going into intense research mode. There's a lot of first-hand research I need to do, both in the Arolla area and Grindelwald. Only when I have completed this vital research will I be able to finally finish my novel and make a decent start on the other one.

I'll see you when I get back, hopefully on the 7th of September. Shortly after that time, all being well, the countdown to the Scottish season should commence.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Introducing the Raeburn Project

It's no secret that I've been interested in the history of mountaineering for quite some time now. It started by reading a copy of 'The White Spider' when I was seventeen, followed shortly after by purchasing a battered old 1930s ice axe from Ebay. I gradually broadened my knowledge of the subject, and by this point I have read a great deal about climbing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is also my subject of choice for my fictional projects.

I have a specific interest in how mountaineering was done in that period. What skills were employed that have been lost today? What equipment was used, and where did one get it from? In short, I want to know exactly how the practice of mountaineering differs between the late Victorian era and the present day.

Over the past couple of years this interest has driven me to tentatively try out various items of 'vintage' equipment in the mountains. It started off with a long-shafted traditional ice axe, and in the 08-09 season I climbed several routes with the step-cutting technique, culminating in my ascent of the North Face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach sans crampons (Grade II). However, climbing ice in crampon-less Vibrams is a bit unnerving, and I decided to take the next step and get myself some nailed boots.

Up until now my experiments have been disorganised and haphazard, but I think this coming season is the perfect opportunity to start documenting and do these experiments 'properly'. For guidance, I will be using the respected mountaineering texts from the period: work such as the Badminton Book of Mountaineering, Whymper's observations, books by G. Abraham and O.G. Jones, and a range of articles from the journals of the Alpine Club and Climber's Club.

Why am I calling the experiment 'the Raeburn project?' Harold Raerburn was one of the greatest Scottish climbers to have ever lived, and completely dominated winter climbing prior to the Great War. Indeed, it took many years for standards to get back up to the level that he set in the first years of the 20th century.

So, my mission is going to be to try and recreate the equipment used by these early climbers, and then to become proficient at the skills required to use this equipment. I already know how to cut steps on ordinary steep snow, but what about climbing steep ice with a long axe and short hammer? And mixed climbing in nailed boots--how was that done? What about standing glissades, Mummery tents, 19th century style belaying? The list goes on.

There is only one item I refuse to compromise on, and that is the rope. You will not see me using a static Hemp rope on the mountains, because it is a fact that they are dangerous compared to modern dynamic ropes.

Still, I hope to learn a lot from this experiment and perhaps broadening my base of skills will make me a better climber. I will not be using 'vintage' equipment and techniques exclusively over the winter--far from it--but I do hope to get enough mileage in to practice the skills sufficiently.



I currently have:
1. Hobnailed boots. Early 19th century in style, basic conical hobs, no climbing nails at all. I plan to replace these boots with ones equipped with Clinkers and Tricounis (currently underway).
2. 3ft2in Hickory-shafted step cutting ice axe
3. 'North Wall hammer' for cutting on steep ice
4. Coat, single-breasted, made from full-weight rough tweed. Modifications include adding extra buttons and sewing up key areas to improve weatherproofing.
5. Knapsack, WWI style, about 15l
6. Glacier goggles, of the type commonly used 1900 - 1930

Work in progress:
1. Pair of leather climbing boots fully equipped with an efficient pattern of Clinker and Tricouni nails.
2. Designs being made for 9ft Puttees

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Frequently Asked Questions

I get emailed a fair bit during the 'season' by folks with questions about the glen, so in anticipation of this, I thought I would set up an FAQ section to answer some of the most common queries.

1. Who are you?
My name is Alex Roddie, and I've lived in Glencoe since September 2008, working as a barman at the Clachaig. Before that I studied Computer Science at UEA Norwich, although much of my spare time was spent escaping to the mountains. I am not much of a climber, but I enjoy mountaineering and I have climbed in Britain, the Alps, and Norway.

2. Will (insert name of route) be in condition tomorrow?
The short answer is, I don't know! A more complex answer will take into account my own recent observations and what I've heard from others, but as a general rule I am reluctant to speculate unless I have recent first-hand knowledge of the mountain in question.

3. Recommend me some routes.
Since this is a very personal thing, my recommendations aren't necessarily going to be useful to every climber, but I have particularly enjoyed:
Aonach Eagach crossing (Easy)
The easy route, Gearr Aonach (Easy)
Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor (Easy/Moderate)
North Buttress, Buachaille Etive Mor (Difficult)
Quiver Rib, Aonach Dubh, East Face (Difficult)
Shrike Ridge, Aonach Dubh, West Face (Difficult)
Agag's Groove, Rannoch Wall (Very Difficult)
Nirvana Wall, Aonach Dubh, Far Eastern Bs. (Hard Severe)
Great Gully, Bidean nam Bian (I)
Hourglass Gully, Bidean nam Bian (I)
N.C. Gully, Stob Coire nan Lochan (I/II)
2B Scoop, Aonach Dubh, West Face (I/II)
N.E. Face, Bidean nam Bian (I - II depending on line)
Dorsal Arete, Stob Coire nan Lochan (II)
North Face (ordinary route), Stob Coire Sgreamhach (II)
Boomerang Gully, Stob Coire nan Lochan (II)
Sron na Lairig (II)
Aonach Eagach crossing (II)
North-West Gully, Stob Coire nam Beith (III)
No.3 Gully, Aonach Dubh, West Face (III)
North Route (Direct), Bidean nam Bian (III)

4. Do you need a climbing partner next weekend?
Due to the shifts I work, I am almost never available at weekends. My days off are midweek. If you happen to be looking for a partner on a Thursday or Friday, and climb at my level (up to IV, or III mixed), I might be interested.

5. Can I use your photos on my website / in my publication?
Talk to my brother James, he's the photographer in most cases! All photos are ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, which means they may not be reproduced without permission. I will often be glad to give persmission for photos that belong to me, providing full credits are given.

6. Will I be okay crossing the Aonach Eagach / what's the Clachaig Gully path like?
The Aonach Eagach is perhaps justifiably the most popular objective in Glen Coe for the ordinary mountaineer. In summer, given good conditions, it is an easy scramble within the reach of most fit and steady walkers. Most people asking about the Ridge are thinking about a winter attempt. Under snow and ice, it is a serious (if not excessively difficult) undertaking requiring better than average fitness and a range of mountaineering skills. Ice axe and crampons are absolutely essential--twin axes and a full rack of gear are not required. Most climbers will opt to carry a rope and a few slings for the odd pitch, but not all will deploy them; this depends on the team. The most important skill on the Aonach Eagach is rapid but safe movement to avoid getting benighted.

The Clachaig Gully path is a tempting option as it leads directly to the pub and safety, but should be AVOIDED, particularly at the end of the day with darkness approaching. Many people have died here, often experienced climbers. A better option by far is to continue north towards the Pap of Glencoe, descending the good path towards the minor road near Glencoe village.

7. Do I really need an ice axe and crampons?
Surprisingly, a lot of people seem to think they can get away without winter equipment in winter! I have seen many walkers turning back when the snow gets steep and hard, or even more worryingly, keeping going thanks to the false safety of trekking poles. Poles are not a substitute for an ice axe and crampons in winter. Remember that the winter season, in the high mountains, potentially lasts from late September until early June. Unless you know for a fact that no snow is lying on your route of choice, I would always carry winter gear between the months of November and June as a matter of course.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

A joyful reunion

Since returning from Norway, my time has been spent in Suffolk. I have been spending seven or eight hours a day in my study, editing the manuscript of my book and conducting further research. My thoughts have never strayed far from the 1890s, except when concerned with grammar and sentence structure. While this is all essential work, and I managed to maintain admirable focus, I felt a growing need to escape.

So I took a holiday! The five weeks since I left Glencoe have been long ones, even though it has been a self-imposed exile; a deliberate step away to restore my sense of perspective. Now I decided to return to see what effect this parting had on me. When the bus crossed Rannoch Moor and turned that familiar curve in the road, suddenly revealing the Buachaille in all its stern glory, I could have cried. As I passed through the Glen I have come to call my home, I looked at every mountain and remembered the many times I have climbed each one. Moments came back to me vividly, in a way they never do when I live here all the time.

Every bend in the road revealed more of the landscape. Finally I came to the Clachaig.

It was fantastic to see my friends and colleagues again, and it seems strange to think that the last time I saw them was only late June--time seems to follow different rules here.

This evening I went for a wander onto the Aonach Dubh, which is the mountain that has perhaps given me more enjoyment than any other. My objective was not ambitious. I decided to go up the easy route (Dinnertime Buttress, where I once got stuck on a snowy descent). I think this route is the perfect example of why Glencoe is special. Here we have a starred Grade I scramble within easy access of the road, yet there is hardly a path up it and most of the rock sections are vegetated and loose.

I was privileged to witness the sunset from the summit of the Aonach Dubh, and made my descent of Coire nan Lochan in good time. I'm relieved to discover that I haven't lost too much fitness during my weeks of inactivity.

I will be here for a few days yet, but won't be back for good until some point in September. It's an exciting time of year. Less than two months from now there will be a chance of some substantial snow in the mountains. Fingers crossed that the next season is as good as the last two.