Thursday, 27 January 2011

A superb day climbing on the North-East face of Bidean nam Bian (posted by James)

Bidean nam Bian in perfect conditions.

"North-East Face" (Grade II), Bidean nam Bian.

I had one of those days today when everything came together so beautifully, that it really reminded me just why Scottish winter climbing is so ridiculously enjoyable. Because despite the regular bad weather, thaws and disappointments, when things turn good, they turn really good. On a day like today, Scottish winter climbing most be one of the most satisfying forms of mountaineering in the world.

The North-East Face. My route took the gully in the exact middle.

At the head of Glencoe's Lost Valley, two giant mountain faces dominate the view and dwarf everything else in sight. On the right is the North East face of Bidean nam Bian, and this is where I headed today.

A self-portrait under Lost Valley Buttress

The face can be climbed by various gullies and couloirs, ranging between grades I and III. However in the guidebooks there are no distinct recorded routes, and is simply logged as "North East Face".

My choice of where to climb today was spot-on. The North East face holds the most snow in the entire of Glencoe, and whilst Stob Coire nam Beith, the Aonach Eagach and the Buachaille are all looking depressingly black, Bidean still holds huge quantities of snow.

And the snow conditions were some of the best I've ever seen in Scotland. Weeks of thaw and now a re-freeze has produced solid nevé perfect for climbing.

The unrecorded gully I climbed...for now I'm calling it "Gateway Gully" (grade II)

Looking up at the face, I could see a very tempting steep gully in the middle. It currently has no name and isn't recorded as a climb even though it is a fine looking gully. The entrance is guarded by gigantic pinnacles on both side, giving it the appearance of a gateway. So this is what I climbed. Near the top of the gully it narrowed considerably to a small chimney, before fanning out onto the steep snow-slopes underneath a small cornice.

The gully goes at about Grade II, and as it is unrecorded for now I'm calling it "Gateway Gully".

The narrows in "Gateway Gully" (II)

Topping out onto the summit was brilliant. The sun was so warm I could feel my skin starting to burn, and the entire Western Highlands were cloud free. It genuinely felt like days I've had mountaineering in the Swiss and French Alps, but when it is like this in Scotland it is so much more satisfying, as you have the knowledge that many winter climbers will never see weather so good.

Where I'd come up....looking down the vast North-East face of Bidean nam Bian to the huge snowfields beneath.

So….a brilliantly fun way to climb one of the most impressive mountain faces in Scotland. There was such a sense of freedom simply following my nose and climbing what looked fun and within my limits, and not once referring to a guidebook. Days like today make all the rain and thaws seem like distant memories.


Thursday, 20 January 2011

Mist and magic on Ben Lui

There are some mountains in the Highlands that stand above all the others--sometimes literally, in the case of Ben Nevis, but more often in an aesthetic sense. These are peaks with character, reputation, history; they are noble in shape and furnished with splendid climbs. Their summits, when reached, are places of revelation and beauty. Ben Lui is one of these mountains.

I first climbed it in April 2010, taking a leisurely two days to climb the mountain via the famous Central Gully, including a bivouac in the coire. Unfortunately on that occasion hill fog meant I did not get to enjoy the view from the summit, and the soggy Central Gully didn't quite live up to expectations.

With an excellent forecast and a day spare, James and I decided to make another visit.

The walk in from Dalrigh is long but easy, over a flat farm road. A hard frost overnight had sharpened up the air and cleared the sky; the full moon still blazed down on the hills, painting the snowfields white and the frosty valley bottoms grey. Almost from the very start, we could see our mountain looming, miles in the distance ... at first just suggestions of a mighty form, and then as the pre-dawn light strengthened the mountain was fully revealed. It has a graceful yet sturdy shape, pointed and grand as all true mountains should be. The developing view on the walk-in really adds something to the ascent of Ben Lui, allowing anticipation to build.

James got his full photographic gear out to capture the Alpenglow as it spread over the upper snows, setting fire to the mountain's summit. What an incredible sight it is to watch the early light of dawn wash over the mountain you intend to climb.

Up into the coire beneath the East Face. We had thought about climbing the Central Gully, but a glance at the avalanche debris at the bottom and the cornice at the top suggested this would not be sensible. Besides, the grand jagged ridge to our left looked like a better way to the top, in the sun and with views to enjoy. We started making out way up the couloir to join the ridge.

Underneath a layer of powder snow, the ice was iron-hard and I cut many steps up this initial couloir, enjoying the bite of my boot-nails on neve. James, equipped with crampons, whizzed up to the ridge and started taking photos. When I joined him we continued.

A temperature inversion was beginning to develop, we noticed, and the higher we climbed the better it became. The ridge narrowed, providing some snowy scrambling; at a steep tower we took a wrong turn and I spent some time delicately cutting steps on hard water ice in a chimney, before deciding I didn't have the bottle to climb it without a rope! An easy line on steep snow traversed around this tower, and back in the sun again we continued without further obstacle to the summit.

The summit! Today the top of Ben Lui was a place of breathtaking beauty. Clouds rippled and boiled in every glen, thousands of feet beneath us; the bright sun reflected on the glittering peaks of a hundred mountains in every direction. We attempted to feebly compare it with climbs conducted in the Alps, but the truth is that those precious minutes on the summit of Ben Lui were something quite apart from any other mountain experience of my life.

The effort of the ascent, knowing I had climbed the arete in the same manner that the early men of the SMC did in 1891, felt sweet when rewarded with such beauty. Words cannot quite serve to describe the scene, so I shall allow the photographs to speak for themselves.

Our descent was regretfully made down the other ridge of Lui's armchair form. I had to cut many steps on scoured ice, but in general there was plenty of nice soft snow to sink our heels into. As we descended, and finally began the long walk back to Dalrigh, we constantly glanced back to gain another glimpse of our mountain ... no longer shining with bright morning light, but sleepy and subdued in the bitter evening cold. By the time we reached the car we were tired from our big day out, but happy.

Photo album for today

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

My hardest winter solo climb to date (posted by James)

Steep mixed climbing on one of the crux sections

Boomerang Arete (III), Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe.

Even though I'm not too fussed about climbing grades, I'm like most climbers in that to jump a grade is always a psychological leap. Although I've climbed harder routes than Boomerang Arete, I've never soloed anything harder in winter.

After almost 3 weeks of no climbing at all, yesterday I was brimming with energy and enthusiasm. I find it's often good to seize it when it's there, and to try something ambitious…whilst still climbing within your limits.

A fair bit of rime ice and nevé

Scottish winter climbing requires a far more hardened attitude than climbing in summer, and patience and determination to go with it. Due to the inherent dangue of solo-climbing, I have waited to make this grade-jump until I felt entirely ready.

Boomerang Arete is a broken ridge curving up the summit buttress of Stob Coire nan Lochan. It's one of those routes that almost feels like you're discovering it for the first time, as route finding isn't obvious at all.
Boomerang Arete is approximately in the centre, curving up right.

It has a fair number of steep mixed steps, before becoming a curving snow ridge, with narrows of immense exposure in the middle section. I was treated to some good patches of nevé just where they were useful, although fresh powder snow made things more difficult than they could have been.

I also liked the fact that the route had a sting in the tail, an awkward chimney to by-pass a wall right at the very top of the route once all the other difficulties have been passed.

The narrow and exposed section near the top

Conditions in Coire nan Lochan were better than I'd hoped generally. A fresh layer of snow covers an old hard snow-pack, but whilst constantly assessing conditions I didn't find the avalanche risk to be too high today. Be warned though, cornices threaten Forked Gully (right fork),Twisting Gully, SC, NC, and North West, and none of these routes have seen much traffic since the fresh snow.

So all in all, a brilliant return to winter climbing after 3 weeks of no activity. Nice also to talk to a few of you up there today who recognised me, I hope you all had as good a day as I did!


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Raeburn Project: Mid-Season Review

Although I have done relatively little climbing this season so far, thanks to a number of factors (weather, conditions, working hours, ebbing enthusiasm and increased emphasis on other areas of my life), I have had several good days out with the 'vintage gear' as I like to call it collectively. In 2008 this project began as an informal way of trying out some of the equipment and techniques of the past. It has since expanded into a full-blown attempt to become a Victorian mountaineer, in outlook, philosophy, and skills, and in that respect it is already a success.

I have conducted several challenging mountaineering excursions using only equipment that would be in common use during the 1890s - 1910s. Most of my climbs average about Grade I, but in the 08-09 season I climbed the Grade II North Face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach using step-cutting techniques (but, notably, using modern clothing as I did not then dare wear tweed on the hill!)


Bidean's North Ridge
A straightforward ascent of Bidean nam Bian in variable snow conditions, requiring several hundred feet of step cutting up an exposed summit ridge, and also considerable powder wading!

Stob Coire nam Beith - the Nameless Gully
Two thousand feet of continuous step cutting on the best quality neve, culminating in a sporting battle with a medium sized cornice.

Stob Coire nan Lochan's NW Ridge
The easiest outing of the season so far, requiring relatively little cutting. However, conditions on the summit ridge were severe, providing a good test of the capabilities of tweed in Scottish winter conditions.

In this section I will make brief notes on the discoveries I have made about each item of Victorian equipment I use.

My normal mountaineering outfit consists of cotton breeches (with thick trousers on underneath), two pairs of woollen socks, a long-sleeved cotton shirt, sleeveless woollen pullover (usually not worn), a long woollen scarf, a wide-brimmed trilby hat, and a coat of coarse tweed capable of being buttoned up right to the neck.

I have become comfortable wearing this gear in a variety of conditions. I haven't dared venture out in warm wet conditions yet, as I suspect I would get soaked; but in sub-freezing temperatures, regardless of wind strength, snow or spindrift, I am absolutely confident that this equipment is up to the job of keeping me warm and comfortable.

In fact, I would go so far as to make the bold claim that in many conditions this gear is better than the modern conventional setup of fleece and Goretex overcoat. I'm always more comfortable in tweed than Goretex in comparable conditions, provided it's not above freezing and raining!

The Tricouni-nailed boots have proved to be a qualified success. On the plus side, I have been raving about their superior performance on muddy and icy rock; they are simply so much more versatile than modern B3s. They are comfortable to walk and climb in, lighter than a modern boot and crampon setup, and easy to keep waterproof. They also grip neve beautifully.

On the other hand, the soles wear more rapidly than Vibram (both the nails themselves and the bare leather) and will require more skilled maintenance in the long run to keep the boots in service. The nails also conduct heat away from the feet very readily: even with two pairs of socks, these are cold boots to wear when climbing snow!

Their performance on hard, smooth, or sloping rock is also not as good as Vibram. Some kinds of holds simply cause the nails to skate off.

Ice axe
The ice axe I built over the summer is the pinnacle of this entire project. The metal components were salvaged from an old 1930s Stubai axe, and heavily modified: the pick and adze were reshaped to conform to the c.1900 norm. The handle was made from dense, seasoned hickory.

This axe, which is 3ft2in in length and has a weighty swing, is the best tool I have ever used for cutting steps, both uphill and downhill. Once the trick is learned of putting your bodyweight behind each two-handed swing, cutting requires surprisingly little effort for such a heavy axe. It is, however, far too heavy for one-handed cutting overhead: its use is limited to snow or ice slopes up to about 60 degrees.

Another minor problem is that the steel head was attached to the shaft using copper boat rivets. The bottom rivet has loosened very slightly (thanks to the low sheer strength of copper). A couple of hammer blows has fixed it for now.


For winter hillwalking and low-grade climbing, I have found the equipment of the Victorian mountaineer to be perfectly adequate and comfortable. In many respects it is better than modern equipment: I travel lighter, am more comfortable, have better freedom of movement, and never have to faff with putting on and taking off crampons, or ice axe leashes / lanyards. There is enormous satisfaction in choosing a line up a mountain face or ridge, and cutting steps up that line, creating the climb in a way that is more artistic than the brutally ignorant force of front-pointing. Step-cutting, once mastered, also requires less effort (and calf strength!) than front pointing.

I am quite certain that on higher grades, modern equipment proves its value. However, those higher grades are of no interest to me, and at this stage in the season the project is progressing as planned.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Mountaineering in Glencoe--how things currently stand

Many readers will be aware that Glencoe has recently been ravaged by an extremely serious thaw. At first we thought it might just be the sort of minor thaw that takes away cosmetic snow and firms up the snowpack, but as time passed and the torrential rains didn't cease, it became clear that this one was big, and that it was going to do serious damage.

As things stand, all low and mid level winter courses have been destroyed, with almost total loss of snowpack below 800m on most slopes. Above this level the pack has been reduced to patches on some aspects, although climbers who have ventured out in the appalling conditions report some larger areas of snow remaining on the north faces. All cliffs have been stripped.

It seems likely that only a handful of winter routes remain complete on the Glencoe mountains, and these will be the higher easy gullies: Great Gully on Bidean, the NE Face on the same mountain, and Broad, NC and Forked gullies on Stob Coire nan Lochan. Given my own observations and what I have heard, I believe it highly unlikely that any other winter climbs are still complete (many will now be completely bare of snow and ice).

Freezing levels are, however, dropping--and some wet snow was deposited on the highest areas today. By midweek it seems likely that the sodden pack will be refreezing, so perhaps we can salvage some climbing until the next big dump of snow.

It's worth also adding that, with the rapid snowmelt and heavy rains, all rivers and burns are in a condition of high spate, resulting in very dangerous river crossings and widespread flooding.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The waiting game (posted by James)

Sometimes, being a winter climber in Scotland can require the patience of a saint.

For a variety of reasons, I haven't done any climbing since I went up a very lean NC Gully in Glencoe on the 30th December. Around New Year I simply had no time…working a Hogmanay at the Clachaig Inn is tremendous fun, but it is hard work!

Then a fresh dump of snow, so a wait for things to settle down before trying climbing again. As soon as conditions improved, I fell sick for a few days and felt the worst I can remember for two years. I spent the days forlornly looking out my window at the mountains feeling sorry for myself, seeing dozens of winter climbers walking through the Clachaig's door having come down off the hill.

Now I'm recovered, and itching to get on the hill. Today was a stunningly beautiful day in Glencoe, the hills totally buried in snow, but I've been working all morning.

However avalanche risk is the highest it's been all winter at the moment. A few minor thaws and refreezes would leave the hills in superb condition, but by the look of all the forecasts it's not to be.

A big thaw is on the way, and the weather is set to be wet, windy and mild for the next week. Now I have the time and energy to climb, it looks like I'll be waiting for a good few days yet. No doubt you'll find me moping around the Clachaig staring out the windows for the next few days....

I suppose the way to see it is that once conditions finally improve, the reward will be worth the long wait!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

An ascent of Stob Coire nan Lochan

After over a month away from mountains and climbing, this week I began to feel the familiar urge to make an audience with the summit gods--which summit I didn't care, I just had to get up high onto a ridge in the sunshine! I failed to get out on either of my days off last week despite the good weather, convincing myself that snow conditions would be too dangerous on most of the routes I'd be interested in.

On Saturday morning, however, the weather was still fine and I wasn't due in work until 5pm. I could wait no longer. Packing my rucksack, lacing up the nailed boots, and donning the tweed, off I stomped towards Stob Coire nan Lochan.

I may have climbed this mountain dozens of times (I have now lost count) by every route within my capabilities, but it remains a favourite. On this occasion the approach path into the coire was heavily iced and extremely treacherous. Mountaineers wearing modern rubber-soled boots found it extremely hard going; conditions didn't warrant crampons, but I found my Tricouni-nailed boots to have significant advantages, and walked happily over iced slabs that others could not cross. Indeed, I overtook several parties of climbers all of whom were having trouble with the difficult conditions underfoot.

Once up into the coire I debated what to climb. Dorsal Arete had a trench all the way up, but without crampons and in dodgy snow conditions I didn't fancy it. In the end I settled for the NW ridge, a scenic walking route crossing the corniced cliff edge.

Conditions underfoot varied considerably. About 6 inches of snow (in all states between powder, windslab, and semi-consolidated) lay on top of old, hard ice. Sometimes I could simply kick steps in the snow, but quite often I had to cut--proper step-cutting with the pick, using the full weight of the axe behind each blow to carve out huge chunks of ice (the adze was simply bouncing off the surface). There is something uniquely satisfying about cutting steps in ice that crampon-clad mountain travel can't quite match.

A snow shower hit while I was high on the ridge, enveloping the mountain in cloud and freezing high winds. I quickly became coated with rime ice, but in such conditions the coarse tweed jacket keeps you far more comfortable than Goretex, and I remained warm and dry despite heavy spindrift and very low temperatures.

Upon reaching the summit, I was rewarded by a gap in the clouds and a fleeting glimpse of the Brocken Spectre. What a great day out!

Photos from today