Thursday, 30 December 2010

Last climb of the year (posted by James)

A thawing snow-pack in Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe

Despite the rapid thaw, and despite losing my wrist-watch and not waking until 10am, I ended up in Coire nan Lochan today to see if anything was climbable. It was my last chance to climb in 2010, so I wanted to see what I could do.

It was a depressing walk-in today for sure. The last time I'd been there, thick snow and extensive ice had covered the entire corrie down to the road. Today however, muddy slopes, rapidly melting ice-falls and a snow-line at about 800m. The snow is melting and slushy at all levels now, and all the buttresses are fairly black.

So I headed towards NC Gully, one of the great chasms dividing the cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan. In mid to late season it is a continuously easy angled snow-slope, but in today's conditions it was far more fun.

An atmospheric NC Gully

There were three nice mixed steps in the gully, all quite lean with the worst ice imaginable. The snow slopes under each step were made from the type of snow that just doesn't take a "bite" from crampons at all, so getting to the top of these rocky steps was quite fun.

The cornice at the top wasn't very big, but was so loose that I had to more or less vertically swim upwards through it. Thankfully it was smaller than the cornice over SC Gully, otherwise I'd not have topped out!

The top mixed step

So although conditions today were awful, the climb was far more worthwhile than it would have been in fatter conditions. There were also climbers on Raeburn's Route, Boomerang Gully, Dorsal Arete and Broad Gully today.

So, my last climb of 2010. It has certainly been a brilliant year! Both Alex and I have had countless memorable days climbing, particularly during the exceptional winter weather that has defined both the start and end of 2010. Between us we've climbed about 50 winter routes in 2010, and I did a fair number of the classic Scottish ridges this summer.

Fingers crossed for 2011 to bring even more fun and adventure!

A very happy new year from Alex and I, and keep safe on the hills in 2011.

Monday, 20 December 2010

For those of you who know the Clachaig (posted by James)

Sgurr nam Fiannaidh and Clachaig Gully glowing in the moonlight

A couple of photos of interest for those of you who know Glencoe's mad and wonderful Clachaig Inn.

Half a foot of snow a few days ago has caused all sorts of chaos, but as always it has positives!

I know it sounds clich├ęd, but the snow really has transformed the Clachaig into a picture-postcard winter wonderland. Clear skies and a bright moon have made for moonlit hillsides glowing through the dark, and it has been truly magical to walk around at night and take it all in.

The atmosphere inside the pub can be simply magical at this time of year - the roaring fire and candles, and tired winter climbers sharing stories, laughter and warmth.

Alex and I are off to England for Christmas until the 27th, but we'll be back in time for the cheerful mayhem and madness of a Scottish Hogmanay.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

An amazing two months (posted by James)

A stunning morning on Ledge Route, Ben Nevis

It looks like the cold is to return tomorrow after the massive thaw of the last few days, so now is a good time to look back on what has been a superb start to the winter.

Until this year, 'early season' to me has meant strong winds, deep powder snow, little or no ice, damp walk-ins and more often that not disappointment when trying to climb.

Alpenglow on the Aonach Eagach, Glencoe

This year has been an exception - I've climbed 10 winter routes already, and nearly all of them in good conditions. And I'm not the only one by any means. The winter climbing community of Glencoe and Lochaber have had a field-day, with routes being climbed that aren't usually done until mid-season, and some which are rarely in condition at all. An Steall Ban in Glen Nevis, rarely in condition at all, has seen at least 2 ascents, and the great ice falls of Aonach Dubh and the Aonach Eagach have been climbed on several occasions.

Winter perfection on Stob Coire nam Beith, Glencoe

And there have been some impressive first-ascents too. I was lucky enough to witness Donald King and Andy Nelson doing the first ascent of Satyr (IX,9) in Coire nan Lochan, and it was certainly something to behold.

Exposed early-season climbing on Dorsal Arete, Glencoe

The weather has been stunning for much of the time, with clear skies and bright sunshine. But with it came deep, intense cold. On Ben Nevis 2 weeks ago I experienced brutal cold the like of which I'd never seen before, leaving me with a frost-nipped finger and sore skin for days.

Early season ice in North Gully, Ben Nevis

Unfortunately the exceptional cold and heavy snow also created some very dangerous conditions as well as I unfortunately discovered in Coire nan Lochan a week ago. I was caught in a small avalanche, and had a very lucky escape indeed.

It's an experience I'm actually glad I had, although it was deeply unpleasant and very frightening. It's good to be reminded how very dangerous this game we play is.

So all in all, a remarkable start to the season. Fingers crossed for more of the same!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Back in the game (posted by James)

A breathtaking view from the summit of the Ben

Number 2 Gully, Ben Nevis.

Since my encounter with a small avalanche in Coire nan Lochan a few days ago, I have deliberately kept my distance from the hills. For the first time in over a year and a half, I didn't want anything to do with them.

Thankfully though a bit of distance has done me the world of good, and I found myself really looking forward to visiting the Ben this morning.

There has been a lot of snow melt in the last few days in Lochaber, but what remains is firming up very nicely indeed. With this in mind I headed towards Number 2 Gully.

In a way I think it's a great shame that some of the Nevis gullies have been named so unimaginatively. Minus 3 to plus 5. Number 2 Gully is one of the most atmospheric climbs I know - a narrow cleft forming a striking line up the side of the North face, often filled with gigantic and bizarre icicles.

The amazing ice formations at the entrance to Number 2 Gully

We should stop and think more often about these things. Number 2 Gully could easily be straight out of a fantasy novel if you just allow yourself to look past the guidebook description and the grade.

Conditions were grand in the gully - lots of hard snow-ice, and a very small manageable cornice. Such a contrast to the huge overhanging monster of a cornice that greeted Alex and I the last time we climbed Number 2, in May this year.

A small and easy cornice

Today was really made for me by the temperature inversion that is sitting over the west Highlands right now. I topped out of the gully to see the most beautiful misty haze covering my stomping ground - Glencoe, Glen Etive, Rannoch Moor, Glen Orchy….

I couldn't have asked for anything more to get me back into the swing of things after a brief confidence crisis. I suppose any such accident or near miss like an avalanche can make you question things, but I'm glad that I've got down from the Ben today excited for the rest of the winter and looking forward to what the new year will bring.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A near miss and a fright in Coire nan Lochan (posted by James)

I had a bit of a fright today in Coire nan Lochan, one of those days that leaves you slightly shaken and makes you reflect on how easy it is for things to go wrong.

We've had a large dump of fresh snow a couple of days ago in Glencoe, which is now lying on top of the semi-consolidated old snowpack that has been there since early October. Until some freeze-thaw, this is always a dangerous situation.

A climber on Central Buttress (VII,7)??

With this in mind, I had no plans to do any climbing today so I headed up to do the West ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan, simply to be up on the tops on another stunning sunny day.

I was paying constant attention to avalanche hazard all the time, as is essential in these snow conditions. None the less, on my way down the West ridge I was caught out, and had a very near miss.

The West ridge of Stob Coire nan Lochan

An area of windslab, not very large, broke away beneath my feet and set me sliding down the slope. An ice axe arrest was impossible due to the terrain, and after a few metres I was brought to a nasty halt. My left leg got caught between two boulders and stopped me with a jolt, as the rest of my body's momentum tried to carry me forward.

For a brief moment I feared broken bones, but when I got myself up again it was very painful but everything seemed in one piece. Ultimately I was very lucky, as if I hadn't been stopped so suddenly I would have continued on the avalanche all the way into Coire nan Beith, and in all likelihood to a sticky ending.

Serious snow on Ben Nevis

So a word of warning. Conditions on some slopes are now very hazardous. The extreme cold of the last two weeks has formed a layer of hoar frost (in some places) on the old snowpack, making a line of serious weakness between this and the new dump of snow. Even on the lowest slopes, the new powder hides extensive horizontal ice flows which you don't know are there until you are already sliding.

Until we have a thaw and re-freeze, serious care is needed. I was taking every caution today, and still nearly had a serious accident.

Remember, it only takes the smallest of slips to do serious harm. Be safe folks.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A change of plans, but a stunning day on Ben Nevis (posted by James)

An Alpine ambience on Ledge Route

A month into Scotland's period of cold weather, and still it marches on. I had one of those days today on the Ben which is so stunning that you simply don't believe you'll get a day so nice again…but I've said that a lot recently, and have been wrong every time.

I was heading up to do Number 2 Gully today, the great chasm which divides Tower Ridge from The Comb. But there had been quite a lot of fresh snow overnight, and it was clear from the approach that avalanche risk has risen considerably on certain slopes. Going near any of the easier gullies would have been a mistake, so I changed direction and waded my way up Ledge Route instead.

The summit of the Ben

In the end it was actually a blessing - being in the shade of the gullies would have been a waste of what turned into a staggeringly beautiful sunny day. Ledge Route was a truly sublime place to be today. Entertaining straightforward climbing along the crest of one of the great ridges of the North Face. But it was exhausting work - I had to break trail through about 12 inches of fresh snow, all the way from the base of Number 5 Gully all the way to the plateau.

Such a contrast from the brutal cold we experienced on Raeburn's Easy Route a few days ago! It felt like a day in the Alps - a sky so blue it is almost purple, and a sun so bright that you can feel it starting to burn your face.

The ice flows near the CIC hut

It can vary so much, on Ben Nevis. Days like today seem like a million years away from the ones when it all starts to go wrong, and when the Ben can be a very, very intimidating place.

A word of caution - avalanche risk has gone up in the easier gullies, due to the new dump of snow on the old consolidated snowpack. The new snow is also hiding very extensive ice flows on easier ground on the approaches, especially into Coire na Ciste. If you are planning on ice routes, sharpen your axes! The ice is extremely brittle just now, but will take sharpened picks.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A trip to Ben Nevis

Yet another breathtakingly clear, blue-sky day in the Highlands. James and I teamed up with friends Isi and Lorraine for an assault on climbs in Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis. Our original plan was to climb Garadh Gully, currently sporting two short pitches of steep ice, then continue to Raeburn's Easy Route or one of the other climbs in that area. However, by the time we arrived at Garadh's Gully, we saw five people on the route so decided to leave it for another day. We climbed up towards the No.2 Gully area.

We talked about Raeburn's Easy Route, a Grade II snow and ice climb heading out of the left wall of No.2 Gully. On the one hand, it looked loaded with snow; but on the other hand, the snow in the bottom of No.2 Gully on the approach was excellent. In the end, Isi and Lorraine decided to go up No.2, while James and I opted for Raeburn's (we have already done No.2).

All went well to begin with. The ice steps were short and amenable, although the ice was so cold and brittle that even with razor-sharp B rated picks, it was shattering and fracturing quite badly on impact.

The higher we climbed, the worse the snow became. I put in an ice screw belay below the steepest part of the route while we assessed our chances. By this point, the snow had become a thin icy crust on top of bottomless cruddy powder--most steps were collapsing under our weight. Dangerous conditions to be considering an exposed traverse on snow, which we expected to see above the steep scoop.

In the end it was an easy decision: safety won over ambition to climb the route. Down we went to the CIC hut, very cold indeed by this point. I don't recall ever having felt so cold in my life. Despite wearing a duvet jacket, balaclava, Dachstein mitts, two pairs of socks and huge mountaineering boots, I lost feeling in my fingers, toes and ears for quite a long time. As someone who usually runs warm on the mountain, even in temperatures well below freezing, I have no idea how cold it must have been! James suffered badly from the hot aches.

We met up with Isi and Lorraine at the car; they had found far better conditions in No.2 Gully, and reported it to be in fairly easy nick. Despite our failed climb, it was a good day out with beautiful views.

Photos from today