Saturday, 23 October 2010

The season has begun

With snowcover now gradually returning to most of the higher peaks of both the East and West, and winter climbs having been recorded in the Cairngorms, it is safe to say that the 2010 / 2011 Scottish winter climbing season has begun!

A cold snap last week resulted in snow in the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis, but none in Glencoe. It is my pleasure to report that Glencoe has now also had snowfall. There was a very little on Wednesday, before being washed away (James and I witnessed the deluge on an aborted walk up to the North Face of Ben Nevis). This morning dawned crisp and bright, with the snowline on the Aonach Dubh resting at the level of the Rake. There isn't much, but the important thing is that the process has begun, and soon the great days will be back, sun and frost and white peaks marching from horizon to horizon.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Barn Wall

"The East Cliff was a humble and generous cliff, giving freely the sound climbs that are the daily bread of the rock-climber; therefore of more value than many airy severities that I had happened on in the past. On the East Cliff all men may climb."
W.H.Murray - Undiscovered Scotland

With fine weather having at last embraced the Highlands, I decided to make the most of my morning off yesterday. Work at three but a starry sky above: this meant a short day, and although my enthusiasm for summer climbing is not great compared to the winter stuff, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

I decided to visit the East Face of Aonach Dubh. This friendly cliff is one of the most popular crags in Glencoe, for good reason: it is sunny, it dries quickly, it's a short walk from the road, and it has an excellent selection of classic low-grade routes. My three previous visits to this side of the mountain--February 2009 (Quiver Rib with Mike Martin), May 2009 (Bowstring with Isi Oakley and James Roddie) and July 2009 (Barn Wall with Rachael Murphy)--were all memorable events. All of these routes were first climbed by W.H.Murray and friends in 1947, and are chronicled in the great bible of Scottish climbing, 'Mountaineering in Scotland / Undiscovered Scotland'.

It was dark when I began the walk in up the coire, but I used the red bulb on my headtorch to preserve night-vision, and so when I reached the foot of the cliff my eyes were used to the darkness and I was able to find my chosen route. I decided to climb the Barn Wall: graded Moderate, it's the easiest climb on the crag, a huge steep wall broken up by heathery ledges. There isn't much of a defined line, making route-finding critical to finding the easiest route. On my previous ascent last year, we wandered onto a more difficult line by accident and were forced to rope up.

I climbed the lower chimneys in darkness, with only a glimmer of pale light starting to reach out over Rannoch Moor. I was halfway up the steepest wall (at the central section) when the sun fired its first rays across the glen, piercing the veil of haze that lurked far below. All around me, Glencoe boomed and echoed with the roars of the rutting stags, and the dawn turned the entire world golden.

The steep cliff is covered with a surfeit of the very best possible holds, making this climb quite easy despite its exposure. By the time I reached the summit of the crag, the sun was out and the burnished copper colours of the glen were alight in all their glory.

Autumn in the Western Highlands is magnificent--but I can't help wishing that winter would hurry up and arrive!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Autumn days - and a project completed

As autumn progresses, the weather has for days now been characterised by high winds and sudden, violent rainstorms. Coupled with an unfavourable run of shifts, these circumstances have kept me confined to the compound for the last couple of weeks. Temperatures on the hill are high, chance of snow zero, but possibilities await just around the corner: the forecast for next week is dominated by high pressure, clear skies, and frosts.

I'm waiting for the opportunity to do my traditional early-season ascent of Ledge Route. In 2008 it was early December, 2009 it was October. Who knows when it will be this year, but I do know that modest snowfall and a bit of a freeze is all the route needs.

I also hope to climb it using my newly constructed Tricouni-nailed boots.

This project has been a long time in the making. It started with the hobnailed boots I put together in 2009 and reviewed in my previous post. I learned a lot from that project and decided to take it a step further. The new boots were handmade by William Lennon. Months of research and sourcing of materials followed before I finally managed to lay my hands on sixteen brand new and shiny Tricouni nails, complete with staples, that had lain undisturbed in a box for about fifty years. Add a sprinking of commonly-available single and triple hobnails, and the project was born.

Initially I tried to place the nails by holding the boot between my knees, but there was far too much vibration in the leather sole and the nails simply refused to bite. I tried inserting a stone into the boot, and achieved some success, but eventually ended up getting a proper cobbler's last from Ebay. This is an iron anvil specifically designed for traditional work on boots and shoes. It drastically reduced the effort and time required to place nails.

Each Tricouni nail is made in two parts--a hardened steel serrated edge, brazed to a malleable soft steel brace. The brace is attached to the edge of the leather sole by means of three U-shaped staples. The staples have to be driven in at specific offset angles in order to resist pulling out, and although Tricounis are far less difficult to install than the earlier Clinker technology, they still require a steady hand and knowledge of what you're doing.

Due to not having any usable Clinkers, or the specialist skill required to place them, the heel unit of the boot has been equipped with hobnails (it also features a horseshoe heel protector). The main feature of the boots, however, is the serrated edge of eight Tricounis.

It is my belief that these are one of the only pairs of new boots of this type to be made for many years, and it will be very interesting climbing in them over the winter.