Tuesday, 30 November 2010

North Gully solo, Ben Nevis (posted by James)

The crux of North Gully, steep ice.

North Gully (Grade II), Creag Coire na Ciste.

What a start to the winter! It's almost too good to be true… November has to me felt more like January.

I was looking for Grade II solo options on Ben Nevis today. North Gully of Creag Coire na Ciste is quite short, but forms a nice curving line which is a reliable route early in the season.

North Gully

Walking into Coire na Ciste, I was astonished at the sheer amount of ice for November. Everywhere you look there are icefalls forming - the CIC Cascades, Waterfall Gully, The Curtain, Gemini…all forming fast.

I must have experienced almost every type of snow in Coire na Ciste today, from hard nevé to windslab, but overall things are looking good. Most of the instabilities look obvious and are avoidable.

The summit of Ben Nevis

The first section of North Gully is steep for a Grade II. About a third of the way up, I came across a steep pitch of ice, probably nudging Grade III. Unfortunately the ice was quite brittle, and when I was nearly at the top of the icefall, at the crucial moment my left axe broke through the ice and I was covered with a jet of water. A couple of slightly alarming moves and pull-ups on my right axe and I onto less steep snow.

Ben Nevis today - doesn't get much better than this.

The steep exit onto the plateau, pulling over the lip of the cliffs into crisp freezing sunshine….it never fails to be an amazing experience. Emerging into the bright, "real" world, after the cold and shadows of the north face.

The summit of the Ben was an unusually magical place today. The observatory ruins were coated by a thick crust of rime ice, making them look more like igloos. With bright sunshine, intense cold and utter silence, it is arguably my most memorable summiting of the Ben.

The forecast is for the cold to continue....

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Hourglass Gully, Bidean nam Bian (posted by James)

Deep cold on the cliffs of Bidean nam Bian

Not that I needed convincing, but yesterday proved to me without a shadow of doubt that I am either slightly mad, or just single-minded beyond belief.

I'd been on South Uist since tuesday visiting a friend, and the ferry didn't get me back to Oban until 6am Friday morning, so I wasn't back to Glencoe until 7am.

I hadn't slept on the ferry at all…a band of Gaelic-singing, accordian-playing Uist natives had kept me awake! But when I got back to Glencoe - a clear, freezing sky, and the promise of consolidated snow on the highest summits.

Only November?? Astonishing winter beauty on Stob Coire nam Beith.

So I got back to the Bothy, after 7 hours on a ferry overnight with no sleep, packed my bag, and set off towards my favourite of all places, Bidean nam Bian's north cliffs.

Hourglass Gully is possibly the steepest Grade I route I know, and forms a striking line up the West summit of Bidean. As it happens there had been some fresh snow, a lot of which had been deposited in the gully, so it was actually quite unstable.

Hourglass Gully (slightly right of centre), in spring 2009

There is a quite amazing cave half way up Hourglass Gully at the moment, where the snow has drifted against the top of a chock-stone. Huge icicles hang down into the cave, and there is an other-worldly feel to the place.

The summit ridges of Bidean are utterly spectacular now. Deep powder snow covering every rock, rime ice six inches thick sticking out horizontally from the cliffs. Small tornados of spindrift weave their way across the slopes. This is what I live for!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Stunning conditions on Stob Coire nam Beith

The only way to describe today's weather and conditions is 'absolutely stunning'! Back from a weekend down South with my girlfriend, I found I had another day off before work tomorrow. The forecast was good and a hard freeze overnight convinced me that the snow gullies would be worth looking at.

Once again I decided to use the traditional equipment. The more I use this kit, the more I grow to like it, and there is something deeply satisfying about step-cutting. It gives interest and challenge back to the task of climbing snow gullies--a style of route whose enjoyment has been destroyed by specialist modern equipment.

The snow was good and firm from about 500m. I observed weeps of ice forming on the walls, some of them surprisingly large; rime wasn't really present until about 950m however. I strolled over the fields of pristine neve in my nailed boots. The last time I was up there, I had been floundering in knee-deep powder and making very slow process.

Once in the upper coire, I debated what to climb. Great Gully is always a good choice in stable conditions, but I'd done it several times before. The battlements and ridges of Stob Coire nam Beith caught my eye: plenty of options there, even if there's nothing in the guidebook between Bidean West Peak and the actual North Face of Stob Coire nam Beith. I wandered in that direction.

An obvious gully presented itself as an appealing option. It lies directly right of a small but impressive tower, which is itself right of the large couloir whose tributary is Hourglass Gully. Difficult to explain unless you know the area, but it's perhaps sufficient to say that there are many large Grade I gullies in the area without names, and I simply chose the most appealing one.

Now I set to work cutting steps. This is a process I hugely enjoy, for its power and rhythm, and the necessity for economy of energy. I zig-zagged across the firm snow, slicing steps in the icy crust. Conditions underfoot were almost perfect, certainly not what you'd expect for late November! I observed the occasional small patch of windslab, but nothing to cause any alarm.

The exit of the gully proved to be very steep indeed, and guarded by a drooping cornice. I now cut steps with greater care as the angle steepened. Steps had to be incut sufficiently to use as handholds. I would estimate the exit slope to be 50 degrees or steeper, and provided excellent practice in steeper cutting with the yard-long axe. Finally I came up against the cornice, which was about as tall as me and slightly overhanging. After cutting good bucket-steps to stand in, I set to work digging my tunnel!

The long axe is quite simply the BEST tool for digging through a cornice. I've dug cornices before with my modern Alp Wings, and they simply are not as capable, there's no two ways of putting it. With a long axe you can put momentum and weight behind your swing, and carve out huge lumps of ice with the adze; you can thrust the shaft deeply into the snowpack to gain purchase; you can cut steps high above your position and cut handholds beyond the lip of the cornice to help you surmount it. The experience was far easier and less stressful than it usually is when wearing crampons and carrying ice tools.

After hauling on the handholds cut in the plateau above, and hooking my leg over one side of the tunnel, I succeeded in defeating the cornice--and was rewarded with the usual stunning view over the loch to Ardgour.

I summited Stob Coire nam Beith and made my way down leisurely, hardly having to cut a step thanks to the well-used track down the West Ridge. Another great day out with the traditional equipment, and given the hard freeze forecast for the next few days I think conditions can only improve in the long run.

Photos may be found here.


Thanks to my friend Lauren for pointing out a great new source of climbing and mountaineering equipment, Elite Mountain Supplies. This webshop stocks everything you could wish for in terms of winter mountaineering equipment, and at a substantial discount for BMC / MCofS members. Worth a look if you need to replace something this winter!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A day of two winter routes in Coire nan Lochan (posted by James)

Exposed climbing on Dorsal Arete (II)

I spend the entire summer waiting for winter's return, so when it arrives I'm always determined to make the most of it. So despite being tired having been on the hill for the last 2 days, I decided to head to Coire nan Lochan to see if the snow had consolidated a bit more.

As I walked into the corrie the snow was feeling much more firm than the last time I'd been there. However there was mainly just a thick crust of hard snow on top of a far softer layer underneath, so the going was still quite hard.

With this in mind I abandoned ideas of the gullies, so I headed towards old favourite Dorsal Arete as my back up option. I decided to solo "the fin" today, the spectacularly exposed crux of the route, which has some moves fairly high end for a Grade II. It's the most exposed climbing I'd be willing to solo, but it's very exciting and highly enjoyable - despite being short Dorsal Arete really is superb.

A climber struggling with extremely lean conditions on Scabbard Chimney (V,6)

Whilst descending Broad Gully I found the snow far more promising than it had been lower down. With this in mind, and as it was only 11am, I decided to go for another route.

I headed towards Boomerang Gully, the giant Grade II snow couloir which curves up to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan.

Where the gully bends there is a steep rocky section, which either banks out or forms an ice pitch in late season. Today however it was extremely lean, with a bit of snow and melting ice on the rocks. I had a very careful look at it and decided it was perfectly climbable with care, although it was definitely pushing the top of the Grade II the route gets.

The very lean crux of Boomerang Gully (II)

The rest of the route was well banked out with snow, and is straightforward to the summit.

Plenty of others in the corrie today - two teams at least on a VERY thin Scabbard Chimney, others on Dorsal Arete, more heading towards the Crest Route/Thompsons Route area.

Now I'm very tired! Three winter routes in the last two days…I'm having a brilliant start to the season.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Ledge Route, Ben Nevis (posted by James)

Two climbers about to top out on the plateau from Ledge Route

"It's only November!!" - the phrase I have to keep saying to myself in my head. I'm finding myself thinking of it as mid-season already, when it wouldn't be unusual for there to be NO snow at this time of year.

Today, for the second day in a row, I did the long sweaty walk into the North face of Ben Nevis. It's been warm the last couple of days, and the freezing level has gone up to 1000m, so I wasn't too hopeful.

The stunning narrow crest of Ledge Route

But if there's one route on the Ben which is known for being reliable in early season, it is Ledge Route - to my knowledge one of only two 4* grade II winter climbs in Scotland. In my opinion it is deserving of it - a fine line which zig-zags it's way up the mighty Carn Dearg Buttress, with some hefty exposure on the crux of the route.

The Carn Mor Dearg Arete and the North East Buttress

The short passage across Number 5 Gully was distinctly dangerous. The warm temperatures were sending rocks, lumps of ice larger than my head, and broken icicles shooting down the gully with alarming frequency. The last time I'd seen the like was climbing in the Swiss Alps.

The initial ramp to gain the ridge was banked out with deep, but wet snow. Conditions very gradually improved with height, and I really enjoyed the crossing of the narrow crest of the route which is stunningly exposed. A few of the moves were made more interesting than perhaps they should have been due to the lack of solid snow or ice for crampon placements.

The No.4 Gully cornice

There was only one other pair of climbers on Ledge Route today, but plenty elsewhere. I saw teams heading towards the area of the NE Buttress, Creag Coire na Ciste, The Comb, and elsewhere.

The forecast for next week is something special! "Exceptionally cold" is the phrase used. With the large amount of snow left on The Ben, Bidean nam Bian and The Aonachs, there should hopefully be lots of ice forming by next week.

I think we can safely say by now that the winter is getting off to a brilliant start. It wasn't anything like this at this time last year. Shall we all just let ourselves dream, just for a moment, that it will turn out an even better winter than the last one?….


Monday, 15 November 2010

Deep powder snow on Fiacaill Ridge (posted by James)

Fiacaill Ridge, Grade II

Fiacaill Ridge (Grade II), Cairngorm

A heavy dump of snow across the Highlands to coincide with the start of my month holiday….brilliant in some ways, but if only it had been a few days earlier!

For the time of year, it is heavy snow. Knowing that nearly every route within my grade in Glencoe would be a bad choice, I headed east to the Cairngorms to a well known "powder-day" route - Fiacaill Ridge.

A lone mountaineer making his way over the Cairngorm plateau

I was surprised at the sheer amount of powder for mid November. It wasn't like this at this time last year was it? However fit you are, it's tiring work, slogging through powder uphill.

As I reached the start of the climb the wind started, and I was treated to the most spectacular displays of spindrift tornados and icy Brocken Spectres I'd ever seen. Ski-goggles out! I was grateful for them, otherwise seeing anything would have been a nightmare….

There's a couple of awkward moves on Fiacaill Ridge, tight chimneys which were a bit stiff for the grade under the amount of powder I was dealing with. Every axe placement had to be thoroughly searched for and cleared of loose snow. All the more fun!

A bold skier peering over the edge of Coire an't Sneachda

The walk across the plateau towards Cairngorm was unusually spectacular, and a sheer dream from the perspective of someone who is a photographer before a climber. Spindrift veils and bright sunshine, and occasional cross-country skiers battling their way through the snow.

That's 3 winter climbs for me already, and it's only mid November. The season is off to a good start!

A climb of Bidean's N Ridge under challenging conditions

After considerable new snowfall in the mountains, I knew that a day of climbing would be a tough proposition--but the forecast for yesterday was excellent, so I packed my bag and headed up into the coire! My chosen destination was Bidean nam Bian, and I decided to conduct this climb using 19th-century style equipment (nailed boots, long ice axe, tweed jacket etc). It's a very different way of climbing and really opens your eyes to the challenges and choices faced by the pioneers.

On the way up into Bidean's coire I noted that considerable cloud still shrouded the summits, contrary to the expected conditions. The snowline was reached at around 600m--firm at first, then crusty, then as the snow grew deeper it finally gave way to knee-deep, exhausting powder. This powder (with occasional deeper drifts up to waist-high) continued without change into the floor of the coire, where I was hailed by two mountaineers making their way to the Church Door--they actually mistook me for my brother James!

My original intentions had been to ascend Great Gully (the huge couloir directly right of the Church Door) but I believed conditions would make this arduous, particularly given the fact that wind transportation of snow was already creating pockets of windslab in places, and I could see threatening cornices guarding the upper precipice. Instead, I climbed the steep slope left of the North Route, thus joining the N Ridge and ascending the mountain from this side.

This slope proved to be hard going. It was up to 40 degrees in steepness, and alternated between epic powder drifts and hard neve--the old scoured snow which had consolidated prior to the new snowfall. I couldn't tell what each footstep would be like until I made it. I ended up swimming part of it and cutting steps for the rest. The ridge itself was also pretty tough--corniced and swamped in powder, again except for the scoured areas which required step-cutting. I reached the summit in a whiteout and immediately began the descent of the West Ridge, once again breaking trail.

Surprisingly, most of the West Ridge proved to be well-scoured, and I ended up cutting steps a great deal of the time, although luckily sometimes the snow was soft enough to sink the heels in and so avoid having to cut. The descent of the snowfield into Coire nam Beith was under heavy snow. I could see avalanche debris towards the centre of the snowfield, and therefore kept close to the edge, although I don't think the risk was too high.

I got back home at four o'clock, an hour before my shift began, completely exhausted after a full day of hard work in the mountains! Definitely worth it though to see some astonishing early season conditions. In my two previous winters at the Clachaig, we didn't get this much snow until December.

Photos may be found here

Equipment notes

I chose to use largely 19th century / early 20th century style equipment for this ascent. I've used the tweed jacket for winter climbing before, and am well aware of its capabilities and limitations; it is superb in cold and snowy conditions, being warmer and more breathable than modern softshell. As an outer layer it keeps you far more comfortable than Gore-tex. Its main disadvantage is warm, wet conditions. Tweed is not waterproof--it is at its best in keeping out snow and spindrift.

This was my first outing with the Tricouni-nailed boots and long ice axe. Both performed even better than expected. Despite areas of hard snow I felt no need for crampons at any point; on slopes up to about 20 degrees I could just walk along without cutting steps, as the Tricounis act like miniature crampons themselves. Their grip on rock and turf is unmatched. The long axe is also a pleasure to climb with, and it has just the right weight and length to make cutting steps easy on this kind of ground.

On the way up into the coire I did bits and pieces of bouldering on iced-up rocks, and the performance of the boots standing on tiny edges has convinced me that I could easily climb harder mixed routes in these boots than I could wearing crampons (which I have always found cumbersome on rocky routes).

Saturday, 13 November 2010

New snow

Conditions are in flux at the moment as a further change in the weather has deposited a new covering of snow. At 9:30am this morning snow was lying down to 550m; now there is a dusting down to 400m. Through the breaks in the clouds it appears to be quite a healthy covering above about 700m.

It's possible that the initial snowpack may have consolidated to some extent yesterday, so with a coating of new fresh powder it's worth bearing in mind a risk of small slides (albeit unlikely--the pack isn't thick enough yet for full-scale avalanches).

P.S. It's great to see an increase in traffic to the blog with the coming of the winter. Over the summer, unique visitors averaged 50 a day with a fair degree of uniformity. At the start of November it has shot up to an average of 200 unique visitors a day. Let's face it, this is a winter blog, not a summer one!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Slow thaw

Stormy weather for the past two days has been gradually thawing snow at moderate to high levels on the mountains here in Glencoe. The current patchy snowline rests at the level of the Middle Ledge on Aonach Dubh, at approximately 600m. Above 850m snow cover still appears to be fairly regular, although bits and pieces of ground are starting to poke through.

Given the considerable rain and mild temperatures, it's encouraging to see that the snowmelt is progressing so slowly--thanks, I would expect, to the well-consolidated state of the snow at moderate levels on Wednesday. Unfortunately I have no idea what is going on above about 950m as I can't see any higher than that from here; has there been more snow? Has it been melting all the way to the tops? Time will tell!

In any case, it's been a grand start to the season, with plenty of routes already being climbed in good conditions.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A busy day in Coire nan Lochan

With a perfect forecast, inspiration from James' tales of Dorsal Arete the previous day, and the threat of more storms on my days off, today we decided to seize the opportunity with both hands and go for a climb. Despite starting work at 12 we still managed to get a climb done on Coire nan Lochan. Leaving the car park at five, walking rapidly uphill in the dark, we arrived in the pristine upper coire just in time to see Alpenglow breaking over the cliffs. A beautiful sight!

On the walk up, most of the snow beneath the coire lip had refrozen hard overnight. We didn't actually need crampons, but did need to kick steps in places and an axe was required for the final climb up into the coire.

I quite liked the look of Forked Gully. This is a broad scoop directly right of Dorsal Arete, and normally gives a steep snow route with potential mixed ground in the middle. In the conditions, it consisted of frozen turf with a covering of powder snow; exposed rock was well-rimed and isolated patches of the steeper snow were bizarrely frozen iron-hard. We decided that the route was perfectly justifiable given the frozen turf, and indeed it proved to be quite fun, weaving around snow-covered slabs. The conditions were completely delightful: almost every axe placement gave a solid 'thunk' into frozen turf, most of the rubble was stuck down with ice, and there weren't even many powder drifts to get stuck into!

Once at the top we realised that, given a descent through knee-deep snow, I was at risk of being late for work. For that reason we didn't make the summit visit, but hurried down the ridge and back to the car.

On the way down we saw evidence of many other climbing teams, either on the cliffs or on the approach walk. Teams were on Dorsal Arete, a route on Summit Buttress, and plenty of other mixed routes besides. Forked Gully received one other ascent today; Isi, Graham, and Kev.

An excellent start to the season, and things are looking up for more snow (and possibly consolidation?) during the stormy period over the coming days.

Full photo album here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

An early season solo of Dorsal Arete (posted by James)

Yesterday saw a fairly major (for the time of year) dump of snow across the Highlands. As luck would have it, I happened to be free to climb this morning, just as high pressure started to nudge its way over Scotland.

Knowing there would be very little consolidation of the snow, I set my sights on Dorsal Arete, Glencoe's famous shark-fin of a ridge in Coire nan Lochan.

On the approach I wasn't hopeful. The snow was damp and melting, and the temperature was higher than I'd hoped. I bumped into Alan Halewood and Mike Pescod on the walk in, who later successfully climbed Crest Route V,6.

As I reached the corrie bowl, conditions drastically improved, and it was brilliant to see the cliffs covered in rime ice.

Thin conditions on Dorsal Arete

The approach slope to Dorsal Arete was unpleasant due to the lack of snow build-up, but once on the ridge itself conditions were grand, it a little thin. I started a bit lower than is the norm to make things more interesting, probably at about Grade III.

In lean conditions like this it is a fine climb. Just because it is popular doesn't make it any less good. Thick rime ice covered all the blocks, and climbing with my new winter tools was an absolute pleasure. I topped out grinning ear to ear - my first winter route a whole 20 days earlier than last year.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Epic snowfall in the West

Just a quick post to announce the first significant snowfall of the 2010/2011 Scottish winter season. Overnight blizzards have deposited vast quantities of snow on all slopes--drifting slightly deeper on Westerly aspects (so reports James, who has driven up and down the Glen today inspecting various mountains).

With reports of frozen turf already on certain cliffs prior to the snowfall, and a forecast of freeze-thaw on higher areas over the coming days, things are already looking up.

From my perspective, this comes at just the right time. I haven't been on the hill in weeks thanks to dreadful weather on my days off, but the addition of snow into the equation will make bad weather easier to bear!