Monday, 15 November 2010

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).

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