Saturday, 31 December 2011

Another amazing year (posted by James)

The finest dawn I've ever seen, on Sgorr nam Fianniadh, Glencoe.

At the end of 2010 I was convinced there was no way the coming year could be as good as the 12 months I'd just had. I was wrong…and 2011 has been an absolute blast.

November: A day when I climbed Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, and then climbed North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor as soon as I got down.

It has been an amazing year - one of those when the rollercoaster has taken me to the highest highs and the lowest lows, but never given me a dull moment.

January: The summit view from Ben Lui, on the most beautiful day I've ever seen.

The whole year is to me now a blur…my camera and I and countless icy dawns and glowing sunsets, waiting and watching the light perform its dance and the world sing its song. And always making sure I was there to see it.

September: A view of Clach Glas during the Clach Glas - Blaven Traverse, Skye. One of the single best mountaineering days available in Britain.

At the beginning of January I realised something that has guided me for the whole of this year. I realised that I'd been in Glencoe long enough that in order for me to carry on taking "original" or exceptional (by my standards) photos, I would need to go to much greater measures. There's only so long you can live somewhere and keep taking photos before you need to find a new angle on things.

The same applied to climbing. It was time to aim higher and take a bolder approach.

January: Approaching the NE Face of Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe, on the way to the probable first winter ascent of Gateway Gully (II)

So I started waking earlier for dawn photography trips, putting more time into researching and exploring new viewpoints. Visiting more remote and obscure cliffs, hills, crags and ridges. Training hard in my spare time so that I was fitter and more prepared for the greater demands I was putting on myself.

December: Dawn light catches The Aonach Eagach, seen from the West face of Aonach Dubh on my way to the likely first winter ascent of Number 3 Gully Rib (II/III).

And all the time assessing and trying to improve my mindset as a soloist, the climbing discipline at which I have now become the most comfortable. I've learnt some massively important lessons about solo climbing this year and as a result I've managed to break a fair few mental barriers.

June: Quiver Rib (Difficult 4*), E Face Aonach Dubh, Glencoe - the steepest route of its grade in Scotland and one of the best solos I've done.

I've had countless wonderful days climbing and taking photos this year, far too many to mention. As always a few stand out….

May: Multiple crossings of the Aonach Eagach, Glencoe this year…the most memorable being a night-time crossing in a gale in August.

The best winter sunrise I've ever seen was on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh this February. Trudging through snow turning pink with the dawn, the entire West Highlands glowing the same rosy colour…one of the most staggeringly beautiful sights I've ever seen.

Five consecutive days of winter climbing in late February, and not a single cloud to be seen for the whole time. Perfect snow, perfect sun. Magic.

February: The view from topping out on the East ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach, after 5 days of winter climbing in perfect sunshine.

Battling my way up the rarely climbed "North Face Direct" (III) on Stob Coire Sgreamhach in a gale, and narrowly avoiding falling down a 10 foot deep crevasse that opened beneath me on an ice pitch.

December : Looking down the crux during a solo climb of Castle Ridge (III), my boldest winter solo to date.

The Lochaber Traverse - easily a candidate for the best hill-walk in Britain.

April: Mid-way along the Lochaber Traverse, A 22 mile crossing of 7 of the highest and finest Munros and finishing on Ben Nevis.

On-sight soloing The Great Ridge of Garbh Bheinn (Difficult) in June, a personally symbolic route and a committing solo.

June: Immense exposure during a solo of The Great Ridge of Garbh Bheinn, Ardgour. A route of the same scale and grandeur as the Ben Nevis ridges, but seldomly climbed.

Doing 69 new Munros taking me over half-way, the Clach Glas - Blaven Traverse, running Bidean nam Bian in a Clachaig split shift, trips to Assynt and the far North, the Aonach Eagach by starlight, a winter solo of Castle Ridge on the Ben….and many, many more!!

April: The amazing view along the Cuillin Ridge from my 100th Munro, Sgurr na Banachdich, Skye

It's been again great this year to bump into a surprising number of my readers either in the Clachaig or on the hill - I hope you find this blog useful or entertaining in some way, and I'll do my best to keep you up to date with news and photos from this wonderful glen.

March: A moment of magic seen from Gearr Aonach, Glencoe.

A very happy New Year to you all, and stay safe and have fun in the hills in 2012.


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A jogged memory (posted by James)

On Ben Lui on the 20th January 2011

On sunday morning I started the long drive back to my parent's home in Suffolk, back for a few days over Christmas. Rannoch Moor never looks so fine as when under a cover of snow with a clear sky ahead, and on sunday morning it was magic.

I had that pang of sadness upon leaving the glen, even though it would only be for 9 days. Leaving my current home for a previous one.

When we got past Tyndrum I pointed out to Nicole the sight of Ben Lui standing proud and magnificent at the end of Glen Coronish. Totally buried in snow without a single rock breaking through its depth, and just starting to catch the eerie glow that comes in the minutes before sunrise.

It's strange, what happened in the next few following moments. Tiny details, flashbacks and recollections from a day 11 months ago all came back in the space of a few seconds. I usually remember events by the photos which I've taken of them….and here, all of a sudden for a few moments, came back one of the little things that was impossible to capture.

The 20th January 2011, and I was breaking trail up the South East ridge of Ben Lui. A scene of singular grandeur was opening up in the view below me… a cloud inversion was quickly forming, billowing through the glens and extending from Glasgow to Knoydart. The sense of height, space and scale exceeded anything I've experienced even on 14,000ft Alpine peaks in Europe.

The blueness of the skye, the depth of snow, the crispness of the air above this layer of cloud…..In 6 years of climbing in Scotland, England, Wales, Switzerland, Italy and France, various things combined to make this the single most beautiful day I have ever seen on a mountain.

Some of the photos I got on that day are amongst the best I've ever taken. But in those few brief moments on Sunday morning when I saw Ben Lui on the journey home, the first thing I remembered wasn't anything I'd captured on camera.

In a rare gust of wind, a tiny tornado of snow twisted it's way a few metres over the summit. As it reached the gigantic cornice overhanging Central Gully I saw it dislodge a tiny piece of snow which fell off the face. I watched it…the air so clear that I could still make it out even after it had travelled a long way down the icy slopes of the corrie. And then it stopped.

I'd spent a while on the summit, soaking in the scene of perfection around me. Apart from that tiny snow tornado and the falling bit of snow, nothing else moved. Such an amazing lack of complication in those few minutes…time had stopped and was irrelevant.

Strange, that that's what I remembered first in that flashback on my journey back to England…somewhere that I associate with complication. Often I think Frederic Chopin was correct. "Simplicity is the final achievement".


Friday, 16 December 2011

Snow and sunshine in Glencoe (posted by James)

A red deer silhouetted against the Aonach Eagach

I couldn't get out early this morning due to my car being in the garage, but it was such a beautiful day that once I was free I simply had to get out with my camera.

So I headed up the Lost Valley with a vague intention of having a look at the summit buttress of Beinn Fhada but decided against it due to lateness and the exhausting, deep crust of snow covering everything.

What a beautiful day. So far this winter days like this are a rarity…such a contrast to the 2009/10 winter when the blue skies and sunshine sometimes seemed endless.

So here's some pictures to wet your appetite if you haven't got out in the snow yet. Glencoe is looking absolutely stunning.

The Aonach Eagach looking grand

Ice falls on the East face of Gearr Aonach

Serious snow on Sgorr nam Fiannaidh


Thursday, 15 December 2011

A solo to remember on Ben Nevis (posted by James)

Looking down the extremely exposed vertical crux of Castle Ridge

Today I soloed Castle Ridge (III) on Ben Nevis, one of the great winter mountaineering routes of Scotland.

Castle Ridge

At about 11am this morning I found myself on a narrow snow ledge looking up at the crux. This vertical iced rock chimney is the key to unlocking this long climb, hard for the grade and hanging over a drop of several hundred feet. The feeling of exposure here is pretty insane…and any mistake would be unsurvivable.

Looking up at the crux, I was quite aware that this was going to be the hardest pitch of winter climbing I'd ever attempted to solo. I knew exactly how psyched up I would need to be in order to climb this chimney without fear and the gaping drop below taking grip.

Dawn lighting over The North East Buttress

Today was the day and I was feeling spot on. So I set to it. The amount of rime and icing in the cracks in the chimney made the pitch far harder than it could have been and for a few moments it felt desperate….but after some contorted and committing moves I had hauled myself onto the safety of the rocks above.

Heavily iced up rock en route

A sigh of relief and a high of adrenaline, having soloed an immensely exposed and committing crux.

The rest of the ridge today was in pretty good condition - under very heavy snow cover which is beginning to consolidate, though actually today the snow on the bottom half of the route was in better nick.

The approach slopes

There are huge accumulations in the entire Castle area of the Ben, the remains of a hefty avalanche evident underneath the area near "Boomer's Requiem". There's also loads of ice around, especially on the North side of Carn Dearg Buttress where even The Shroud isn't too far away from touching down.

Lots of ice around!

When I topped out on the plateau, I had that great feeling of a challenge accepted and achieved. Soloing routes is a very different business from roped climbing. So many different pieces need to come together before you can responsibly take on a solo climb that will test you. The mental stresses and rewards can be intense, and given the numerous complications and intricacies of Scottish winter climbing, the natural high you can get from a challenging solo is pretty hard to surpass.

The Shroud...getting there.


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A promising two weeks (posted by James)

Summit Buttess Ordinary Route, Stob Coire nan Lochan

After a late start the winter has definitely got going fully now, very fully in fact. There's been some very heavy snowstorms in the Western Highlands over the last two weeks, and there is now a huge amount of snow accumulated high up.

Thinking back to this time last year, there was in fact less snow build up on the higher tops than there is now in Glencoe and Lochaber. It was far, far colder though…and persistently so. There's no sign yet of the low-level ice-falls and double figures below freezing that characterised early winter last year.

A climber on the crux of Dorsal Arete

As I'm writing this the wind is howling through the glen, and an area of deep low pressure is burying the mountains with snow. It's all really good in the long run this - Ben Nevis has already seen a lot of routes done, and given the amount of snowfall things could shape up really nicely on the North face in the coming weeks.

Stob Coire nam Beith

When I was up there last week I was surprised to see the Castle Gullies already totally banked out (far earlier than last year) and ice routes like Mega Route X already fully formed.

Mega Route X, Ben Nevis

There's also been a lot of exciting news coming in of some very significant ascents - Greg Boswell's name associated with many of them. His onsight second ascents of "Defenders of the Faith IX,9" and "The Knuckleduster VIII,9" are big news - not to mention his first ascent of "The Big Cheese VIII,8" on Ben Nevis.

Something that has already struck me again this year is just how small the world of Scottish winter climbing can be. I so often see the same faces again and again on the hill, in the Clachaig, the same names filling up winter route logbooks on UKC… A lot of people come up from England and the Central Belt to winter climb. But it strikes me that number of true winter activists is quite small. Mainly guides and dedicated locals like myself, those of us who are out all the time in the winter come across each other surprisingly often.

It looks like temperatures might rise a bit next week, but there's still no sign of any general thaw. Fingers crossed! I'm starting to appreciate long periods of bad weather like this for one thing….it increases my psyche levels day after day, so once good conditions arrive again I'm in precisely the right mental state to contemplate a challenging solo. It always seems to work. Bring it on!


Saturday, 10 December 2011

"Yankee Go Home" - posted by James

The Aonach Eagach at sunrise.

Thursday's thaw and the past two days of hard freeze held the promise of great climbing conditions today in Lochaber, and I was not disappointed. Glencoe delivered on every level this morning.

Interesting skies over Dinnertime Buttress

Due to the closure of the A82 between Corran and Fort William, I was limited where I could go today. But I didn't mind…the starlit sky and frosty dawn promised great things, and to be honest I would have had a great time wherever I'd gone.

Stob Ban, Mamores

As I climbed up on fresh snow and frozen ground up Dinnertime Buttress on Aonach Dubh, the sunrise cast its golden glow on the snow of the Aonach Eagach. It was cold…the turf frozen hard down almost to the glen and a clear sky above. Yes…it was going to be amazing day.

Very deep snow in Coire nan Lochan

I'd chosen to go up Dinnertime Buttress as a more interesting approach to Stob Coire nan Lochan, as I had intentions for a quite obscure route on the summit buttress.

"Yankee Go Home" (III) takes a line up the low rocks left of centre, then moves right to the crest above.

About 45m left of Scabbard Chimney is a little-known Grade III route called "Yankee Go Home", distinct from the line of "Boomerang Arete". It's not even recorded on UKC but it is mentioned in the Glencoe guidebook and I thought it worth a look, especially as I was feeling the need of a challenging solo.

An icy corner

You start up a ramp to join a small snow-field and then climb steep corners in order to gain the upper half of Boomerang Areté. I was treated to great snow conditions - lots of nevé just where it was crucial, and some really nice steep snow-ice bulges in the corners.

A steep ice bulge

One of the corners was definitely at the upper limit of my soloing capabilities at the moment, and I'm currently climbing the best I ever have. Some very thin ice coating a blank slab made for a daunting move to escape to easier ground, and if it hadn't been for the excellent quality of the nevé I would have had an "interesting" time indeed!

Climbing a corner

When I topped out onto the areté I spend 20 minutes or so taking photos of what was going on around me, as Coire nan Lochan was a thrilling place to be today! There were many other teams out on routes of all difficulties, but the team on Central Grooves (VII,7) definitely took centre stage.

Central Grooves VII,7

There were also teams climbing Summit Buttress Ordinary Route, Scabbard Chimney, Spectre, Dorsal Arete, Twisting Grooves, Raeburn's Ordinary Route, NC Gully and Crest Route. Conditions were great….the heavy snow cover consolidating nicely and frozen turf everywhere.

Raeburn's Ordinary Route

The winter might have taken a while to get going, but it's certainly delivering the goods now!


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Even more new snow! (posted by James)

An impressive amount of snow has fallen on the Western Highlands in the last 24 hours. Considering the amount of fresh unconsolidated snow I forget any ideas of climbing anything today and went for a photography trip to the North face of Ben Nevis instead.

Heavy snowfall at all levels

Without any doubt, I've never seen so much snow so low down before on the walk-in to the North face. There was about 8 to 12 inches of level fall even in the woods just above the carpark, and from the top fence onwards the snow was approaching two feet deep in many places.

Thankfully a team ahead of me had dug a trench all the way up to the CIC hut, which must have been exhausting work. It was an absolutely beautiful place to be today with all the pristine new snow.

A cornice next to the CIC hut!

The Castle and Castle Ridge

Things look to be shaping up very nicely indeed in terms of climbing conditions, in the long run at least. There's enough snow around so that hopefully it'll survive the thaw forecast thursday and firm up very nicely at the end of the week. I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount of ice around, routes like The Shroud, Mega Route X and Gemini beginning to form.

The Shroud

If things play out the way the forecast suggests, there could potentially be some absolutely cracking climbing conditions on the Ben in a few days. Those who had manage to wade through the drifts today were climbing on steep mixed routes like Cutlass on the Douglas Boulder so there's definitely lots of climbing to be had right now, especially higher-grade mixed.