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!