Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Spring snow routes in Glencoe (posted by James)

Stob Coire nan Lochan from Bidean nam Bian

Well things are certainly very different in Glencoe to how they were this time last year. I was out on the hill today for the first time in about 2 weeks due to my time away in Yorkshire, and things couldn't be more different from the last time I was out!

On the 16th March I went up Gearr Aonach via "The Zig Zags", in the deepest dump of snow I've ever seen in Scotland. But you wouldn't think it looking at things now. The thaw has been sustained and pretty drastic, and now I doubt you'll find anything to climb in Glencoe over Grade II.

Central Gully (dividing the two buttresses), and Great Gully on the right

Eager to see how firm the snow up high was, I went for a quick climb up Bidean nam Bian's Central Gully this morning, after the Clachaig's annual staff litter pick along the back road to Glencoe. Central Gully is Grade I under heavy snow, but after a thaw there are two possible cruxes, one in both the left and the right hand fork around Collie's Pinnacle.

A very thin left fork of Central Gully

I first tried the left fork, but found that two much snow had melted from around the chockstone leaving this part of the gully overhanging, thin, and far far harder than Grade I/II! Under these conditions the left hand fork really isn't an option.

Huge holes in the snowpack. This photo doesn't give any scale, but this snow is perhaps 15ft deep.

So I tried the right hand fork, and found a short pitch of excellent ice (steep for the grade) leading to the snow gully above. To my great surprise, this was probably the best quality ice I've climbed all winter!

Excellent ice in the right fork.

The snow in the gully is quite firm and friendly, although with a melting and rather slushy surface, but overall pretty good. I topped out onto Bidean's summit, and then descended by the Grade I "Great Gully" and down Coire nam Beithiach.

Central Gully from the top.

So the winter climbing season in Glencoe is all but at an end I'm afraid…certainly I would doubt many mixed routes are in condition at all apart from perhaps Dorsal Arete, but I haven't actually been into Coire nan Lochan for a while so don't take my word for it!

Bad weather forecast for the end of the week, let's see what happens!


Saturday, 26 March 2011

Underground explorations in the Yorkshire Dales (posted by James)

The incredible underground world beneath the Yorkshire Dales

I've been away in the Yorkshire Dales for a few days focusing on my photography, and judging by the reports of an extreme thaw in Glencoe that Alex has given me, I'm quite glad I haven't been in the Highlands!

I used to visit the Dales every year as a child, but the last time I spent any time there was in 2003. This spring, armed with my full photographic gear and eyes which see very differently from 8 years ago, I've had a wonderful time rediscovering old haunts.

The Dales are world famous for their endless network of limestone caves and potholes. They are surely amongst the most mysterious and emotive places in the whole country, and with this in mind I decided to try something new for me - underground photography.

Bizarre formations in Stump Cross Caverns

On the moors high above Settle there are quite a few caves, and I was lucky when I stumbled across an unnamed one a few days ago. It was surprisingly deep and I experimented with camera shutter speeds and exposures, but the experience paled into insignificance compared with what I did a few days later.

The entrance to an un-named cave above Settle.

Troller's Gill near Grassington…the most silent place I've ever known. Not caves here, but old abandoned, collapsing lead mine shafts in the middle of nowhere. There's one in particular that I've known about for about 15 years - I've peered down the tiny intimidating entrance a few times and had shivers go down my spine.

But as I say I'm a different person now, and on this day I saw it is a potentially very exiting way to spend an afternoon. So I carefully started to climb down.

The Mines of Moria anyone?

I can't really find words to describe just what an incredible place it was that I emerged into. Even though the entrance is only about 4 ft wide, the main chamber of the mine must have easily been 100ft from the floor to the "roof" above. Dark passageways and tunnels branched off in every direction, and holes above cast shafts of light down into the gloom below.

Rotten timbers and rusty beams seem to just about hold together place, but the feeling of fragility is so strong that it makes for a very unnerving place. Every now and then a stream of debris will fall to the ground filling the main tunnel with dust, and then silence resumes, broken only by the drip-drip of water falling from above.

I don't know how far the main tunnel went…but I climbed down quite a long way until it was becoming too unsafe to justify, and it still seemed bottomless below.

So a fantastic experience, and a very different one from the wide open skies and blustery hills of the Highlands! If there were more caves in Scotland I could see myself taking up potholing…

About to enter the black...

Back to Glencoe tomorrow!! I think the winter climbing season is all but over for me now, but I'm now turning my thoughts to for goals and aims for the Spring. Watch this space…


Saturday, 19 March 2011

The deepest snow of the winter in Glencoe (posted by James)

Winter perfection on top of Gearr Aonach

The Zig-Zags (Grade I), Gearr Aonach, 16th March 2011

A few days back we had a massive dump of snow in the Glen, the heaviest of the winter and a welcome surprise. And wednesday was arguably the most beautiful day we've had since the start of the season, so despite a 12 hour shift starting at midday, I decided I had to go and make the most of the sun and the snow.

Sunlight catches the top of Gearr Aonach

In need of a short day, I headed towards the Zig-Zags on Gearr Aonach, the classic scramble which makes its way up the middle of the Three Sisters. Even on the walk-in, I was fairly surprised by the sheer depth of some of the snowdrifts, and I became very grateful for the trench cut through the snow by Jamie Bankhead's team a few days before!

A stunning morning...The Lost Valley Buttress

The first "Zig" was heavily banked out with sugary snow, but with a thin frozen crust on top. Hard work indeed! But the higher I got the more the route turned into a scramble rather than a "winter route", and all the rock steps were fairly free of snow or ice.

Deep drifts beneath Gearr Aonach

The sun hit me as I was half way up the Zig-Zags, and I was suddenly warm. For a few minutes a cloud inversion over Rannoch Moor turned a beautiful pink, and the Lost Valley Buttress of Bidean nam Bian was smothered in Alpenglow. It was shaping up to be a truly special morning.

Melting ice half-way up the Zig Zags

The view from the summit of Gearr Aonach is always one of the best in Lochaber, but on wednesday it was utterly spectacular. I'm approaching the end of my second winter in Glencoe, and I'd never seen so much snow in Coire nan Lochan. Instead of the usual cobweb and grid of climber's paths weaving through the snow towards every route imaginable, on wednesday there was just one heading predictably towards Dorsal Arete.

A spectacular moment over Rannoch Moor

I was amazed by the drifts on my way down…where there are usually small ravines to cross over the river, there were just slight depressions in the snow. And it was the easiest, quickest walk down from Coire nan Lochan I'd ever done - just following a knee-deep snow trench rather than going down endless steps.

A very, very snowy Coire nan Lochan

Things have changed a bit since wednesday - most of the lower level snow has melted, but the snow remains pretty unstable on North and North-Easterly aspects, especially high up where there are massive accumulations. My guess is that most of the easier gullies are a complete no-no…but that having been said once there is a re-freeze things could be very nice indeed on the easier snow routes! The winter isn't over yet….


Thursday, 3 March 2011

Ben Nevis gully-fest (posted by James)

From the top of Number Five Gully

Number 3 Gully (I), Number 4 Gully (I), Moonlight Gully (II), Number 5 Gully (I), Garadh Gully (II), and the first pitch of South Gully (III)

I hope that those of us who proclaimed the winter was over last week are now hiding in shame….I'm just down from Ben Nevis, and snow conditions high up are pretty damn good.

Knowing that the snow was going to be good, I decided to really make the most of today, especially as I'm going to be down in England for a lot of March.

An amazing dawn but a threatening sky...the cloud rolled in later in the evening.

Despite having lived in the area for almost 2 years, I'd still never got around to Number 3 and Number 4 Gully on Ben Nevis until today….so this is what I did first. Up Number 3 and down Number 4. The down-climb into Number 4 Gully is fairly steep just now, but there is a real trench cut through the cornice and bucket steps all the way down.

A climber enjoying good ice on Comb Gully Buttress

After descending Number 4, I headed towards Moonlight Gully, which weaves up beside the Trident Buttresses and joins Number 5 Gully higher up. In order to make it more fun I climbed a short mixed chimney to gain the gully, a "direct start" I suppose. The gully itself was straightforward, but the traverse into Number 5 Gully is fairly exposed…it would be very spicy indeed in poor snow conditions!!

Climbing a thin direct start to Moonlight Gully

Down Number 4 Gully again. I saw that South Gully (grade III) was looking very fat indeed and knowing the cornice had been by-passed recently I decided to have a tentative look. I climbed the first traversing pitch, but once I got to the first exposed ice step I decided it was too bold a solo. I'm far happier soloing mixed Grade III climbs than ice routes.

Number Five Gully from the top of Moonlight Gully

So I headed towards Garadh gully, the curving gully hidden away underneath the Coire na Ciste side of Tower Ridge. Earlier in the season it had contained two steep Grade III ice pitches, but these are now buried under deep snow. But you can see where they were, as the snow has slumped onto them making some deep crevasses.

A deep crevasse in Garadh Gully

The top of the Garadh is a fantastic viewpoint. I had an amazing view of people in the Comb Gully area, enjoying amazing late season conditions. Lots of people on the Ben…and many of the classics being ticked. Green Gully, Comb Gully, Tower Ridge, No.3 Gully Buttress, Indicator Wall, Italian Climb, North Gully, Central Gully of Creag Coire na Ciste….to name but a few.

Italian Climb (III)

So there we go - lovely late season conditions on the Ben. And my guess is that despite what some people have been saying on UKClimbing.com, there are other venues with similar conditions.

In Glencoe you'll still find a lot of snow about above 900m, but be warned, the Coe did suffer a massive sustained thaw not so long ago and there hasn't been considerable snow fall since, so be prepared to be open minded if you intend to climb here!


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Battling spindrift on the North face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach (posted by James)

The North face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. The line takes mixed difficulties in a line to the summit.

"North Face Direct" (Grade III), Stob Coire Sgreamhach, Glencoe.

Sunday, 27th Feb 2011

Up until a few days ago, it was almost starting to look like the winter season in Glencoe was going to come to an early end. We've had a massive thaw…but thankfully last saturday the temperature dropped again, we had a bit of fresh snow and the old saturated snow-pack started to firm up really nicely.

Knowing it was probably my last chance, on sunday I headed towards a route I've wanted to do for a while, the direct route up Stob Coire Sgreamhach's North face. It is an impressive triangular peak standing tall over Glencoe's Lost Valley, and the route links mixed ground with snow lines as directly as possible to the summit.

The first steep wall

As I started the first steep wall, the snow was still very soft as it had fallen the night before, and unfortunately at this low level the turf wasn't frozen so this first wall was quite spicy to solo! About half way up I came across a very steep corner where all the holds moved when I put pressure on them, so I had to do a rather unnerving downclimb and traverse around.

Blinding spindrift

At about this point, all hell broke loose. The wind quite suddenly picked up, and for the rest of the climb I was fighting through some of the heaviest spindrift I've ever seen. Ski-goggles definitely required! At some points it was so thick I could hardly see my feet!

Whilst climbing one of the steep snow sections I had a bit of a fright. I'd started up an area of grade II ice and only discovered half-way up that it was hollow. I'd kicked a hole through the ice, to find a gaping, evil-looking hole beneath which must have been at least 20ft deep. Needless to say my next few moves were delicate to say the least!

A frightening hole which I very nearly fell down....

Dramatic light on Gearr Aonach, the middle of the Three Sisters.

Above about 800m the snow was very firm indeed and perfect for climbing. After about 2 hours of battling spindrift I reached the last steep section and pulled over a small cornice onto the summit ridge, almost to be blown right down in to the Lost Valley again.

I was very pleased to have got this route done…a really nice route-finding challenge with some areas at the top end of safe soloing ground, and probably the last chance I'd have had to get it done this year.

Plumes of spindrift blowing over the top of Sron na Lairig

Now I'm going to be turning my attention to late season snow routes on the higher mountains…hopefully we'll get some nice sunshine!


The Central Gully of Bidean nam Bian (posted by Alex)

The northern cliffs of Bidean nam Bian

Bidean nam Bian is the most local mountain to the Clachaig, and it also happens to be one of the finest peaks in Scotland. I have visited it many times over the past four years; although I've lost count, I estimate I have stood on the summit almost fifty times. There are many routes to the top, all of them stunning, and I had climbed all of them I was capable of doing ... except one.

Directly left of the grand couloir, Great Gully, the northern cliffs of Bidean are divided into two halves by a savage fault-line. This gully is known simply as Central Gully, and passes through magnificent scenery between Diamond Buttress and the Church Door. On several occasions now I have attempted it, but every time the entry pitch has turned me back, either due to poor conditions or an insufficient build up of snow and ice.

This time things were different. Once again using the Victorian climbing gear, I swiftly walked up to the basin beneath the north face. A line of steps climbed the snowfield to the base of Collie's Pinnacle, and I progressed rapidly up this slope, only occasionally expanding a step with a stroke of the axe. At the base of the Pinnacle, a broad patch of snow, stomped flat by the boots of climbers belaying at the foot of the gully, allowed me to stop and eat my lunch.

Up into the gully! I decided to take the Lower Right Fork, which is the easiest entrance. This narrow groove between Collie's Pinnacle and the Church Door contained a short pitch of extremely dense water ice. In crampons such a step would be no obstacle at all, but that was not the point of yesterday's climb: I wanted to really earn my ascent, make the climb with skill and physical effort.

I set to work cutting steps, wielding the axe with full-weight swings from the shoulder, striking with the point of the pick, carving great chunks of ice from the slope. This was the first time I have really had to pay attention to proper technique while step-cutting, and the extensive study from Victorian mountaineering texts has paid off. Cutting steps in this kind of ice with a modern axe and zero knowledge would be very difficult indeed.

Fashioning a step in water ice

My experience of using the traditional equipment so far this winter stood me in good stead, and I hugely enjoyed dispatching that first pitch. Once in the gully proper, the wonderful rock architecture all around me inspired awe and wonder: it was like the interior of some grand cathedral, enormous overhanging walls riven by cracks and tunnels, dripping with icicles--a vast secret place inside the mountain I had often imagined but never before ventured into. To the right, legendary climbs resonant with history revealed themselves to me for the first time. I emerged at a narrow arete of snow, the neck of Collie's Pinnacle, and I imagined my hero balancing on that airy spire, gazing into the soft springtime haze in the valley below.

Looking down the Lower Left Branch

For the very first time, I began to feel that I had succeeded in shaking off the constrictions and clutter of modern climbing culture. Only from a perspective slightly outside the circle can one truly appreciate the extent to which mountaineering has become shackled and chained, robbed of its free spirit and the joyous innocence that characterised those early years of exploration and discovery. That modern techniques are safer and faster there can be no doubt; but as someone who has experienced both worlds, I would never give up the profound satisfaction and freedom I have found by putting away my crampons and learning the older craft. Every ascent feels so much more earned, more valuable; and although I climb at lower grades the enjoyment is magnified a thousand fold.

Collie's Pinnacle framed by the gully

After my moment of revelation, I set to work climbing the long easy central section of the gully. A snow slope at high angle rose above me for some hundreds of feet, steadily getting steeper but with no obvious difficulties. A line of steps allowed me to dispense with step cutting some of the time, although more often than not the old steps had refilled with new snow and frozen again, so I ended up doing a lot of cutting regardless. Sometimes drifts of powder covered the neve, but mostly the snow was a joy to cut and conditions were very favourable.

Tackling the snow slope

I reached another fork in the gully. To the right, a pitch of steepish ice seemed to offer an exit, but left looked easier so I took that fork. One last pitch of easy-angled ice, and then a romp to the top--or so I thought!

I took my time cutting steps in an exposed position on the final ice step. Now onto what I believed was the easy snow, only to discover that a thin layer of powder coated a slope of 45 degree water ice that continued for another two hundred feet to the exit! It took me an hour to climb this slope, cutting every step from the shoulder with the pick, and by the time I finally reached the shoulder of the North Ridge I felt a full-body tiredness--but such a sense of satisfaction.

Final few yards to the summit

Bidean's familiar summit rewarded me with its gorgeous views, and I chatted with several other mountaineers who expressed admiration and surprise at the equipment I had used to climb the gully. One gentleman even remarked that the boots I was wearing closely resembled the ones he had learned to climb with, fifty years ago. After a brief pause at the summit I ran down the West Ridge, and only narrowly missed being late for my shift behind the bar!

Looking back at the mountain, from the West Ridge

Photo album