Thursday, 23 June 2011

Mist and silence on Tower Ridge (posted by James)

Insomnia has returned in full force again, as it now always seems to during the summers. I'm finding that the best way to keep myself sane is to get out and do stuff during sleepless nights rather than simply lie awake in bed.

So last night I thought it would be interesting to go and climb Ben Nevis' most famous route in completely opposite conditions to the last time I climbed it. Tower Ridge was bathed in bright, warm morning sunshine when I climbed it this time last year. Last night however it was misty, damp and cold.

An eerie silent Tower Gap

It was an oddly rewarding experience. Although some of the harder moves were made far more difficult than usual due to being wet, it was a very useful and informative thing to do - to get an idea of the ridge in unfriendly conditions. Despite the large amount of "traffic" Tower Ridge sees throughout the year, there is still a lot of lichen, algae and areas of vegetated rock lower down as it is snow-covered for half the year. And these areas require a lot of care in wet conditions.

Upon reaching the Little Tower it struck me just how utterly silent it was. It was quite eerie, seeing glimpses of the snow-pack in Tower Gully making brief appearances through the mist and then disappearing immediately afterwards. Looking at Dave MacLeod's masterpiece "Echo Wall" I was tempted to shout and test it to see if it lived up to it's name, but I didn't want to break the silence.

The cave-pitch after the Eastern Traverse

I've thought about it a bit, and I think that actually Tower Ridge is my least favourite out of the three Nevis ridges that I've climbed (Observatory Ridge being the only one left to do). It's hard to explain why, but it's almost because it is such a perfectly formed route. On the North East Buttress, for a solo climber like myself good route-finding is absolutely critical, as is the ability to overcome a fierce, infamous and intimidating crux after almost 4400ft of ascent. For a soloist, the North-East Buttress feels like a committing undertaking, whereas for me there just isn't the same sense of adventure and mountaineering challenge on Tower Ridge.

Gardyloo Gully

That having been said, Tower Ridge justifiably remains the all-time classic Scottish summer route. I don't know how many times I've stood underneath it and have thought "wow". It is a masterpiece of natural architecture, and one which never fails to deliver.

Sp…a quiet, contemplative and rewarding way to climb Scotland's most famous ridge - with only a snow-bunting calling to a mate on the Orion Face to break the silence.


Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A mid-summer dawn solo on the East face of Aonach Dubh (posted by James)

A mid-summer dawn in Coire nan Lochan

I absolutely love days like today - when you don't plan anything, you start to go with the flow, a plan then starts to emerge but then you end up doing something totally unexpected and have an amazing day.

Last night we all had our summer solstice bonfire down by the river - a day early but we had a dry night for once and the opportunity was too good to miss. I didn't really have any plans for after the bonfire, and I was just enjoying relaxing with my friends watching the sky.

But at about 2am when it was noticeably starting to get light again, the temptation of a dry and fairly clear sky was too much to resist considering how infrequently it seems to happen during this summer....

So I set off towards Ben Nevis with the intention of climbing Tower Ridge. It's about that time of the year again when I start wanting to get on the big Nevis ridges again. But as I got to Fort William it started to gently rain, so I decided to leave it until another day and head back to Glencoe to get some sleep.

Looking across the East face of Aonach Dubh and "The Bow' to the Aonach Eagach

But when I got back to the Glen, the sky was clear. So I decided to take a chance and go and "take a look" at the East face of Aonach Dubh to see how dry it was looking. Things were looking good, so I quickly decided to try and tick off one of my goals for the summer - an onsight solo of "Quiver Rib".

Quiver Rib**** Diff

The East face with the approach traverse in blue and Quiver Rib in red.

It ended up being a good decision. Quiver Rib is considered the steepest Difficult-graded climb in Scotland, and I can see why. It takes an intimidating and improbable looking line straight up the East face to the right of "The Bow", the obvious black curving cleft in the middle-left of the face.

Stunning exposure on Quiver Rib

It is continuously very steep with gaping exposure, on perfect rock and in a stunning location. The steepness increases the higher you go, and on the crux you are on ground steeper than any other climb I've done at the same grade.

Steep moves below the crux

I was elated when I topped out. To have climbed one of Glencoe's very finest routes solo for the first time left a very satisfying feeling. And just to top it off, I was treated to five minutes of the most amazing lighting on the descent - a golden glow that transformed Coire nan Lochan in seconds.

The reward on the way down.

Two hours after I got back down, it started raining. It is still pattering on the window as I write this, but to me it doesn't matter. The day had well and truly delivered before I'd even had breakfast. Good day.


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Seeing the Cairngorms in a new light (posted by James)

Up until the last few days, the Cairngorms to me have always been a place of winter. Climbing trips on the shortest days of the year in brutally cold temperatures and icy winds, the Runnel as my first winter climb, getting frostnip in Coire an't Sneachda. Even when going to summer rock climb I've needed an ice axe to cross vast snow patches on steep slopes.

Just below the level of the cloud on Ben Macdui

But the last week has allowed me to see the Cairngorms in a totally different light. I've had a week of holiday and the bulk of my walking has been in the East where the weather has been good.

A warm summer afternoon above Coire an Lochain

And it has been a totally different experience from what I am used to in the Cairngorms. Long walks in hot burning sunshine, crystal clear visibility…a long way removed from the blizzards and gales which so frequently ravage the plateau during the winter.

Coire a'Choire Bhoidheach - "The Rocky Hill of the Beautiful Corrie"

I'd previously avoided the Cairngorms in summer, thinking that the arguably less dramatic scenery of the East was best kept for the snowy months of the year. But I have enjoyed the last week immensely. Long walks of 20 miles over huge rolling hills without the dangers, stresses and heavy packs of the winter months have been very enjoyable, especially as a means of regaining the fitness I've lost during my period of forced inactivity.

A young red deer stag on Cairn Bannoch

And I've changed my mind about the scenery being "less dramatic" as well. Whilst walking over Ben Macdui on tuesday, the sheer awesome grandeur of the corries on Braerich and The Angel's Peak really struck me…as did the semi-Arctic atmosphere, even only a few days before the summer solstice. And there are corries here that few people know even know about, but if placed in the West Highlands would be major winter climbing venues and household names amongst hill enthusiasts.

The gigantic snow patches of Garbh Choire Mor, Braeriach

Added to that - the wildlife. As a previous volunteer conservation warden for the National Trust and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, it is one of my main interests. And whilst you may often only see a few ptarmigan flying through the spindrift in the winter, the wealth of wildlife I've come across in the last week has been wonderful. Red squirrels, dotterels, peregrine falcons, snow buntings, golden plovers, reindeer and ptarmigan chicks - wonderful.

Young reindeer on Ben Macdui

So. Although I remain firmly a winter photographer and climber as my main area of focus, I think I'm finally starting to appreciate the summers far more. It is an amazing country, this adopted home of mine, and there is always something new to see.

The Northern Corries in summer mode.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Photos from the last 3 days (posted by James)

At last! Some good weather to speak of…

I've been lucky that a 3 day respite from the rain has coincided with my week long break from work, so I've been very busy having fun in the hills since wednesday. There's still been quite a few heavy rain and snow showers so it's been hillwalking, not climbing weather. My friend John and I finally got around to doing Lochnagar on wednesday - a nice walk and a landmark for John, leaving him only 30 Munros left to do.

The dark cliffs of Lochnagar

Just a tiny part of a huge herd of deer in Glen Muick

Then Stob Ban in the Grey Corries for me on thursday, one of the 'local' Munros which until now I've just never got around to. Snow falling, downpours and rainbows a plenty!

A dark sky over Stob Coire an Laoigh, Grey Corries

Large remaining snow patches on Aonach Beag

A beautiful dawn at Kinloch Laggan

And then yesterday I walked the "White Mounth" circuit above Loch Muick in the Eastern Cairngorms - a long (18 mile) but easy walk over 4 Munros with good views of the main Cairngorm plateau.

Carn a'Choire Bhoideach in the White Mounth

56 miles of hillwalking and 8 Munros in the last 7 days…it's been a good week!

A totally calm morning at Ardverikie near Loch Laggan

An amazing dawn on Loch Laggan


Saturday, 4 June 2011

A brief return of the sunshine (posted by James)

The magnificent view to Braeriach from the summit of Sgor Gaoith

Just three photos to prove that the sun is still capable of shining in the Highlands during this (so far) rather grey and damp early summer. I have some rather raw skin after being well and truly roasted on the Cairngorm plateau yesterday, with a very hot sun and stiff breeze blowing. My friend John and I did the long walk between Mullach Clach a'Bhlair and Sgor Gaoith with possibly the clearest visibility I've ever seen in the Highlands in summer.

Unbroken sunshine in Glen Feshie, surely one of the most beautiful places in Scotland

Lush countryside near Beinn a'Ghlo, South Eastern Highlands

But by the look of the forecast, back to showers tomorrow!


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A last taste of winter on the Ben (posted by James)

Very snowy on the Ben on the last day of May 2011

One of the most rewarding aspects of climbing or mountaineering for me is the way that your mind is focused entirely on something apart from all the usual 'stuff' going on in the rest of your life.

For various reasons I've been feeling a bit blue for the last week, and by the end of my extremely busy bank holiday monday shift in the Clachaig I just needed to well and truly escape. So as soon as I finished work at 1am I packed my bag and headed towards the Ben, with the knowledge that I had only 11 hours before the start of my next shift, and a brief window of fair weather.

Gearing up in the North face car park at 2am

I wasn't looking to do a route I'd never done before, I was just craving simple escapism - so I headed towards my old favourite Castle Ridge. Although often ignored in favour of the other Nevis ridges, it is one of the classic Scottish ridge climbs.

Due to the last few weeks of bad weather, the rock was most certainly not in prime condition for climbing, to say the least. In fact there were small streams flowing over some of the rock steps which you need to climb over, so I was having to take extreme care.

A sinister looking Carn Dearg Buttress and the Castle

But the 'interest' really increased when I got to the cruxes. Although the ridge had looked totally free of snow from below, there were small pockets of hidden snow on some of the hand and footholds, so I had to use all my concentration. Thankfully at this altitude there wasn't much at all, because the hardest crux on Castle Ridge rivals anything to be found on most climbs a grade harder. I've climbed it in winter as well and this chimney briefly attains technical Grade IV, so I wouldn't want to be climbing it without crampons if there has been any more snow!

Maximum concentration required on a very wet and slippery Castle Ridge

The crux of Castle Ridge in drier, more friendly conditions - about a year ago

But as soon as I was past the crux, things very quickly became more wintery. Very soon there was enough snow that it looked every part a real winter day - rime ice, small drifts, even small fresh cornices forming over the large easy gullies. In particular I noticed the monstrous cornice over Number 2 Gully, now even larger than it was when Alex and I climbed it on the 15th May 2010.


Once back down it was only a short while before my next shift started. So by the end of my shift last night I'd been on my feet almost continuously for 27 hours. Knackered physically - but due to those few wonderful hours on the Ben….recharged and refreshed inside.