Sunday, 20 February 2011

A wild day on the West face of Aonach Dubh (posted by James)

Two climbers ahead of me on Dinnertime Buttress

Dinnertime Buttress (Grade I/II), Aonach Dubh, Glencoe.

With a fairly grim forecast and avalanche conditions today, I headed over to the North face of Ben Nevis just for a walk to see what the snow and ice was looking like. There's a lot of snow, and lots of ice forming too….but unfortunately a big thaw is on the way next week!

When I got down and back to Glencoe, the weather had picked up a bit, so I decided to go climbing after all. On the West face of Aonach Dubh, the mighty cliff viewed so well from the Clachaig Inn, there are few easy routes in winter that are in condition often at all.

As none of the gullies are currently in safe condition, I headed towards Dinnertime Buttress, an easy angled buttress climbed by a short but steep chimney. It was the only place I could think of that would be relatively sheltered from the very strong winds that were blowing.

Dinnertime Buttress in the middle

Snow conditions on the approach were grim…indeed I'd forgot how absolutely relentless the walk-ins to the West face of Aonach Dubh are, especially when the heather and unfrozen turf is coated with a few inches of slush.

Snow conditions in the chimney weren't any better, so all my ice axe placements were in cracks in the rock. Thankfully there are good footholds, as this chimney isn't quite as straightforward as a Grade I/II suggests in these conditions.

Very poor snow in the chimney

As soon as I topped out from the chimney, I could feel the already strong winds really start to pick up. When a gale blows and the cloud starts to close in, the Aonach Dubh can be the most intimidating mountain face I know.

The intimidation factor of Aonach Dubh's West face.

As I entered the cloud and gained the ridge, things turned very wild indeed. I was battered by gusts from all directions, covered in spindrift and frost quickly formed all over me. I couldn't really move at all for a fair while, as walking was impossible. I finally started to make some progress, but it was exhausting work wading through some of the deepest snow drifts I've ever seen.

Deep snow drifts in Coire nan Lochan, my rucksack for scale. This wasn't the largest by any means...

Eventually I managed to find Coire nan Lochan and the walk down into the Glen. The snow in Coire nan Lochan is the deepest I've seen, and it is all still very unstable and unconsolidated. Hopefully we will get some consolidation soon, not just thaw…

So a wild day, and a very different experience from most of my climbing days this winter.


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Starting the year's sun-tan on Sron na Lairig (posted by James)

Walking in to Sron na Lairig, the ridge in the centre.

Sron na Lairig (3* Grade II), Glencoe.

Although the frightening avalanche risk of the last few days has gone down a bit, today I wanted to find a ridge to climb rather than a gully or face route, in order to avoid another potentially lethal encounter with the white stuff.

Sron na Lairig on Stob Coire Sgreamhach's Eastern flank is one of the classic Scottish winter ridge climbs, but I'd never got around to climbing despite this being my second winter in Glencoe.

It would be difficult to find the start of the ridge in mist or cloud, so the clear sky and heavy frost which greeted me when I awoke this morning was just what I needed. The walk-in is delightfully easy and I pretty much jogged the entire way, Sron na Lairig appearing bigger and more defined the closer I got. As soon as I walked into the sun, I could feel its warmth…a real feeling of spring in the air today!

Sron na Lairig from below

Route finding on the bottom half of Sron na Lairig can be a bit tricky when the snow isn't good, and it certainly was not good today. There hasn't been enough freeze-thaw since the considerable snowfall of a few days ago, so I had to do a lot of wading through sugary drifts to get on the climb. On the walk-in I was shocked by the sheer number of avalanches which have happened on nearly all slopes in the last couple of days - everything from huge slides to cornice collapses.

Heavy powder on some slopes

I saw another climber ahead of me turn back from the most usual entry groove onto the ridge, as he was constantly sinking up to his waist in the deep snow and it looked decidedly unstable. Notably the entire ridge was covered in debris from snow slides which have swept down the face in recent days, and I didn't want to risk setting off another one so I avoided the entry groove too.

Much less snow on the ridge itself, all melting fast.

I went right up a steep snow scoop, which was absolutely exhausting. A very thin layer of crust on top of deep powder made for slow progress indeed!

The massive East face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. Note avalanche trail under the cornice at the top left of the picture.

After traversing left again to gain the platform under the first steep wall, things improved a lot. However everything was thawing quickly, the turf wasn't frozen at all and it felt distinctly like a warm April afternoon!

The top section of Sron na Lairig is absolutely spectacular, the ridge narrows to a thin gangway with awesome exposure to both sides. Not a route to do in strong winds!

Another climbing approaching the narrows.

So a great route, one of the classic ridges, albeit in less than great conditions!

In summary, avalanche risk is still pretty high in Glencoe just now - I saw debris trails on slopes of all aspects. Generally the fresh snow of the last week is still fairly unconsolidated and makes for exhausting work, and the turf remains unfrozen up to at least 900m.

Take care if you're heading out this weekend, the forecast isn't looking good I'm afraid.


Saturday, 12 February 2011

The East Ridge of Beinn a Chaorainn (posted by Alex)

It's not often that I do a new Munro these days (I've only done 46 but that includes almost all the mountains immediately surrounding Clachaig). Beinn a Chaorainn lies West of Creag Meagaidh, in a region I have never visited but travelled through often enough by road. Its lengthy and impressive East Ridge is a route often favoured in high avalanche conditions, and although today's forecast could have been worse, a dump of new snow overnight meant that James and I were keen to get onto a safe ridge.

Some other people had the same idea. Although we were the first team to leave the car park, we bumped into a group of three lads several times during the day as we kept overtaking each other! Plenty more people were following not far behind, and I think in balance an avalanche-safe ridge was a good choice for the day, given the unstable new accumulations of snow (and some evidence of avalanches already).

Despite signs that the cloud might lift, it never properly dispersed until we were well on the way down. Consequently the ridge took on a mysterious, atmospheric character as we began to weave our way between the steep rock towers. Conditions underfoot were very good, with nice hard snow underneath a thin layer of powder. Although lower down the turf was mushy, on the ridge proper we found it to be well frozen, making it easy to find a good placement for the ice axe.

It's classic Scottish mountaineering terrain: never very difficult, but varied enough to make you think about route finding and with some steep snow and steps of mixed climbing. I enjoyed it tremendously. This is the kind of climbing I like most!

Upon reaching the summit we found ourselves in a complete whiteout. Our first plan was to follow a ridge back down into the coire, but the threat of cornices vetoed that plan, so we decided to follow the South Ridge back to the forest road. This slightly longer descent was accomplished initially by taking bearings and leapfrogging across the featureless plateau as we tried to concentrate on which way was up and down ... if you've been in a whiteout you'll know what I mean! Although my navigation is a little rusty I'm quite pleased that when we dropped out of the cloud, we were exactly where I expected us to be.

The sun came out on the walk back, and all that remained was to squelch our way through the bog back to the car. A good day out!

Photos from today

Thursday, 10 February 2011

My best day so far this winter (posted by James)

Approaching the pinnacles.

East Ridge, Carn Dearg Meadhonach (grade II)

Wow….days like today convince me that Lochaber must genuinely be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I got on the early climber's gondola this morning at the Nevis Range ski centre with the aim of climbing Western Rib (III) on Aonach Mor's West face. But yesterday's thaw and then fresh snow made things on the West face less than ideal…and as this would have been a serious and committing solo I quickly made the decision to leave it for another day.

So instead I headed towards Carn Dearg Meadhonach's East ridge. Not a difficult climb, but it turned into the best day for me so far this winter.

The route from below

The ridge itself is striking, formed from two gigantic pinnacles. Unfortunately there is a long slog to get to it, but once I did, it was worth the effort. Conditions weren't great…not much old snow, and I did a fair bit of scratching around on rock with only a dusting of fresh snow.

The shadow of the East ridge darkening the snow on Carn Beag Dearg

The fragments of cloud from the morning quite suddenly broke up as I started climbing, and what followed was one of the most beautiful sunny days I've ever had in Scotland.

The ridge steepens and narrows until it suddenly becomes awesomely exposed. The lack of consolidated snow made some of the downclimbing moves on the pinnacles more interesting than they could have been, but all the more fun!

As I was climbing I noticed a large amount of debris from an avalanche on the East side of Carn Mor Dearg…a sobering reminder how unstable things have been recently…

A day like mountaineering in the Alps in more ways than one!

The sun got warmer and warmer, and quite soon I was reminded of days in the Alps, and of late season ascents in April and May last year. It felt like mid spring, not mid February!

The reward of the route - a view to the biggest mountain face in Britain.

Like all great routes, there is a final reward as you top out. Quite suddenly as you move over the last pinnacle, the North face of Ben Nevis is revealed in all it's wonderful glory. The entire magnificent array of cliffs, the biggest mountain face in Britain, is suddenly there in front of you. I've climbed on the North face of the Ben many many times, and even now I am sometimes still awestruck by just how huge it really is.

The narrows

I spent quite a long time just taking in the view when I topped out, listening to climber's shouts echoing around the cliffs of the Ben. I could see two teams on Point Five Gully, and some on Tower Ridge and possibly Castle Ridge. There's a lot of snow on the North face at the moment…fingers crossed I'll still be doing winter routes in May again this year!

A self-portrait on the way down, a view to the vast North face of Ben Nevis

Today was a perfect example of how the best days really do not have to include hard climbs. I set out to do a route that I think would have really challenged me to solo climb, but I don't think I'd have had as good a day as I did on the East ridge. I am a photographer before I am a climber, and today the climbing came second place to the awesome splendour of my surroundings.


Sunday, 6 February 2011

The "Pearly Gates" (posted by James)

In the steep icy chimney on "Pearly Gates"

"Pearly Gates" (Grade II) Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glencoe.

In the last week I've seen some of the worst weather we've had since I moved to Glencoe. A savage storm ravaged the Highlands for almost 3 days…and along with the rapid thaws of the last 2 weeks it hasn't been looking promising at all for winter climbing in Lochaber.

But three days of no sleep was incentive enough today for me to get on the hill regardless of a fair deal of doom and gloom about conditions on And I'm glad I did, because snow conditions in Coire nan Lochan were superb today.

Looking up to the small chock-stone.

I'd been wanting to climb a route called "Pearly Gates" on the summit buttress of SCnL for a while, but it has been out for most of the winter. In order to get a look at the full length of the route, I quickly climbed Dorsal Arete first and found it very different indeed to when I last climbed it a few weeks back. It is well banked out with iron hard nevé and perfect snow ice.

As Pearly Gates looked promising, I descended half way down Broad Gully and started climbing.

The bottom of the route was good value for the grade today - quite lean, with fairly thin ice mixed on frozen turf. But soon you arrive at the gates themselves, two large pinnacles split by a chimney with a chock-stone at the top. Today the chimney had a steep snow-ice pitch before the chockstone, and it's definitely an atmospheric (if short) route.

From the snow fan which ends the route I could see lots of other climbers, nearly all heading for Twisting Gully and Dorsal Arete.

Looking down on the "gates" from above

So things are much better than feared! There's been lots of freeze-thaw and so long as you go high enough conditions are grand. Be wary though…cornices still threaten the majority of the Glencoe gullies and some huge snow-bridges over the rivers and burns have collapsed fairly spectacularly in the last few days.

Two climbers head into Twisting Gully, a popular route today!

As soon as the weather improves I'm hoping to be spending more time on Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor….and then soon enough I'll be looking to Aonach Beag for some late season action.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

A book for those of you who love Glencoe…. (posted by James)

Something different for you today!

On the 4th of March a paperback novel will go on sale that might just rank amongst the touching works of fiction ever written about the Scottish Highlands.

"Witch Light" by Susan Fletcher (Whitbread Prize- winning author of "Eve Green" and "Oystercatchers") is a historical fiction based on the events of the Glencoe massacre of the 13th february 1692. (Previously published in hardback as "Corrag").

But this is no ordinary historical fiction novel…for those of you who love Glencoe it will genuinely make you feel like you've rediscovered the glen, that you're visiting it for the first time. Even after living in Glencoe for over a year before first reading "Witch-Light", the sheer truth and beauty of the description of the Highlands that Susan Fletcher gives us took my breath away.

Whether you want a story about history, landscape, nature, or love, I cannot recommend "Witch Light" enough for those of you who know Scotland's most famous glen. Not a single word is wasted, and you will see Glencoe in a different light after reading it. It is a haunting, exquisitely beautiful work, and the only book that has ever brought me to tears.

Oh and If you decide to read it, check out the name credited to the landscape photos and the author portrait in the back of the book. You might just recognise it….


("Witch Light", ISBN 0007321600, available 4th March. Also available as "Corrag" in hardback).