Saturday, 30 July 2011

Making the most of the sunshine (posted by James)

Crystal clear light on the cliffs of Ben Nevis

What a wonderful few days it has been in the West Highlands! Usually when it gets to July I resign myself to the fact that it'll probably be grey, drizzly and muggy until september….but this year we've been blessed with a fairly long period of beautiful, clear sunny weather.

I've been hillwalking all over the place during the last two weeks, mainly working towards the aim of reaching a significant landmark in my "mountain CV"….more on this soon, hopefully in the next two weeks or so.

Glenshiel, Glen Lochay, the Ben Alder range, the Creag Meagaidh range, the Monadhliath, Loch Mullardoch….and sunshine on nearly every day. And we've had an almost impossible number of amazing sunrises and sunsets in Glencoe recently. Dusks outside the Clachaig have been truly special recently, with the West face of Aonach Dubh being lit up by Alpenglow nearly every day.

August tomorrow, and the last leg of the summer begins. I really have had a great summer so far, but I'm starting to yearn for the next season to start already. It'll be here soon enough!

Here's some photos to wet your appetite for the next period of sunshine!

A ptarmigan in summer coat on Sgurr na Lapaich, Loch Mullardoch

The wonderful wild land above Loch Mullardoch

Clachaig staff enjoying the sunshine in Glencoe

A scorching day on the Monadhliath plateau

Dawn at Loch Laggan

A calm evening on Loch Leven

The ridge from Mullach Fraoch Choire to A'Chralaig, Glenshiel

Dawn over the Pap of Glencoe

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Wasdale scrambles popular and obscure (a guest post from Alex)

Since my departure from Glencoe in May, I haven't missed being amongst the mountains. Being away from them suits me. I am happier when they exist as remembered moments of inspiration: a heroic form glimpsed through a gap in the clouds, a sparkling gulf beneath a gendarmed ridge, the sound of Tricouni nails biting neve, or a peppering of rime on tweed. The everyday reality of mountains, when life is lived amongst them, becomes more ordinary than I can bear. Mountains will always be part of the framework of my mind, but I want them to be special. The writer in me will always look to them for inspiration.

To that end I decided to relive part of a treasured holiday I undertook over six years ago: my first real adventures in the Lakeland mountains.

After a night in Langdale (up Side Pike by the South Ridge that evening, to revisit the climb that nearly broke my back in 2006) I walked over the dalehead to Wasdale Head. The weather gods blessed me with three perfect days, one acceptable day, and two complete washouts. By Lakeland standards those are good odds!

The Y Boulder

Wasdale Head is a tranquil place, if you ignore the bustle of groups on their way up Scafell Pike. It retains the air of a haven, divided from the rest of the world, where mountain folk can gather and do what they love most. Mountaineers have been doing this in Wasdale for a very long time, and it's no surprise that it is home to one of the sites where bouldering as a distinct form is said to have been invented. This place is the Y Boulder in Mosedale.

From at least the 1880s, climbers used this rock as practice. Oscar Eckenstein taught his students balance-climbing here; O.G. Jones perfected his crack-climbing technique on the rock before attempting the Kern Knotts Crack in 1896. The pioneers build a stone wall around part of the area so that spectators could sit in comfort and watch the antics of their friends. A popular challenge was apparently to do the ordinary route upside-down!

Great Gable

I first climbed Great Gable on May the 13th, 2005, and have not visited since. In my memory it remained one of my best ever moments in the mountains, not only for the beauty of the fine peak but for the moment of reflection when paying my respects at the monument on the summit. However, I had never climbed on it, and this time I was determined to find a more adventurous way up.

I decided to follow the classic moderate scramble, Threading the Needle, to bring me up close and personal with Napes Needle itself. An awkward chimney, polished by nearly 130 years of boots, takes the climber up to the platform at the bottom of the Wasdale Crack. Looking up the climb that Haskett-Smith conducted alone in 1886, I marvelled at the skill of the pioneers. Today this route is a polished and highly exposed Hard Severe.

I followed the Climber's Traverse into Needle Gully. After crossing the Dress Circle, I wondered about following Arrowhead Ridge, and to that end scrambled up Eagle's Nest Gully--but the dripping chockstone defeated me. After passing the Sphinx Rock, I decided to climb up onto the exposed arete behind it: Sphinx Ridge, another classic scramble. It features a surprising knife-edge crest not unlike the crux pitch of Shrike Ridge, only shorter and easily avoidable.

After finishing Sphinx Ridge, I made a continuation over Pinnacle Ridge on Westmorland Crag. This brilliant Moderate climb is the sort of route I enjoy best: traditional, surprising, jagged, yet easy.

The summit was just as I remembered it, the views sublime. I took my hat off at the memorial and paused for a moment, thinking about the climbers who died in the Great War.

Great End and Ill Crag

The next day was just as fine, so I decided to go exploring on the rough craggy flank of Great End above the Corridor path. The route I pieced together reminded me of the S Face of A'Chailleach in Glencoe: avoidable outcrops, as much rock as you could wish for with plenty of scope for variation, and an open aspect. I found some challenging pitches, but felt a little less proud when a herd of lambs followed me up some of them!

After reaching the summit, I dropped down into the NW Combe of Ill Crag and climbed a slabby rib directly left of the main couloir. An excellent short scramble, maybe 70m in height and on good rock, showing signs of previous traffic.

White Band Crag and Buckbarrow

Friday was not sunny, but a thick belt of cloud sat over the mountains. I wondered what to climb. It looked like rain; probably not ideal weather to be committing myself to a high rocky scramble! I decided to head down the other end of the glen to look at the lower hills there to see if anything was worth climbing.

White Band Crag on Middlefell provided the first climb of the day. A rather good (if somewhat vegetated) area of slabs fell to careful investigation, and I found a good exposed route through the difficulties, no more than Moderate. It topped out at the footpath going up into the cloud, so I walked back down again to continue on to Buckbarrow.

Buckbarrow is a fantastic little hill. Only a bit over a thousand feet in height, it throws down a steep wall rather like a miniature version of Buachaille Etive Mor. The approach is exhausting--up steep bracken and endless scree, then an exposed sheep track traversing beneath damp cliffs--but when I found myself at the foot of Pike Crag, the principle buttress, I knew it would be worthwhile.

Collie, King, and Brunskill discovered this route in 1892. Collie's Route takes a devious route between impossible obstacles: heathery muck, roofs, slimy slabs surrounded by vertical walls. At no more than Moderate standard this climb finds good rock and excellent situations, making its way easily up a very heathery and very steep buttress.

The upper ridge is set back at an easier angle, but is not without obstacles. A final tower challenges you to find a direct way up. Some stiff moves here on the very best of rock! And even better, the climb finishes at an excellent summit, seemingly suspended directly over the pastures and woods of lower Wasdale.

It began to rain as I walked back down. The weather became steadily worse, and I spent the whole of Saturday (and Sunday morning) marooned in my tent waiting for the rain to stop. When I emerged, I found all the rivers in spate and a gloomy cloud base sitting over the mountains. Still, I had to walk back to Langdale--and by the time I got to the Old Dungeon Ghyll I was soaked!

An excellent visit to my favourite part of Lakeland, and a great way to recharge my batteries while doing some new climbs and conducting research for my fictional projects.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Solo on The Great Ridge of Garbh Bheinn (posted by James)

The Great Ridge

Most climbers and mountaineers have routes and summits that are highly symbolic to them - it doesn't matter how easy or hard, high or remote, but to climb one of your symbolic routes is always so satisfying.

For me, the Great Ridge of Garbh Bheinn is one of those routes. I have lived in Glencoe now for 2 and half years, and every time I have been down to the village or gone over the Ballachulish bridge, I have glanced towards Garbh Bheinn and thought about the Great Ridge.

It is the summer route that I have most wanted to climb for the first time solo since living here, but it is only recently that I have thought myself capable enough to embark upon it with a safety margin. So on the 3rd day of a dry period, I finally decided to go for it.

A warm sunny day and dry rock

From nearly every angle it is a impressive looking route, but from below it looks positively magnificent. Unlike the great Nevis ridges where the good rock starts almost at the bottom of the routes, the Great Ridge is divided into two halves. And it is the approach up grassy terraces and a slimy awkward gully that I have heard quite a few discouraging (to say the least) stories about.

And the stories were accurate. The bottom half of the approach is vegetated and loose and you end up pulling on heather stalks more than rock to get yourself up it. But the awkward gully is simply nasty. It is wet and slimy, and the move I had to perform to overcome a dripping overhang was one of the most contorted and awkward climbing moves I've ever performed.

Nasty slippery terrain on the approach

Route finding on this approach section of the ridge is absolutely critical, but also pretty complicated and to be honest I found it pretty unnerving. So I was very relieved to suddenly arrive at the bottom of the upper ridge.

The upper ridge - perfect rock

I can't praise the upper ridge highly enough. It is quite simply superb. Perfect, clean rock for its entire length with varied terrain and some superb chimneys and walls. Don't let the Diff grade let you take this ridge lightly, there are some moves which are very stiff for the grade and which felt very bold to be soloing.

Immense exposure on the crux wall of the upper ridge.

Like all great routes it gets better the higher you get, and it was exhilarating to top out right at the summit cairn.

A steep traversing chimney

It felt fantastic to have finally climbed it, and for the first time as a solo. It is quite simply one of the best routes I've ever done (summer or winter) in Scotland, and an easy candidate for my boldest solo mountain route in the summer months. For the first time in 2 and a half years I can look over to Ardgour with the knowledge of a goal achieved.


Saturday, 2 July 2011

Two days in the far North (posted by James)

The cliffs of Ben Hope from our wild camp

I grew up in the flatlands of Eastern England. There aren't great amounts of landscape to stimulate the imagination unless you really look for it, and as a kid I slowly started to find out about these far away places in the Highlands of Scotland.

Dun Dornagil broch

I started to see photos and hear descriptions of these mountains and coasts, and soon certain areas became almost legendary in my imagination. One of those areas was the very far North of Scotland.

A cove near Durness

So I jumped at the chance when Jamie Bankhead at the Ice Factor suggested a trip up North along with my friend John O'Brien and I. Both Jamie and John are both on the very last leg of their rounds of the Munros, whereas I am currently still a bit under half way through - but the chance to walk the two most Northerly Munros, Ben Hope and Ben Klibreck was too good to pass up.

An unusual view of Ben Hope

I won't say much about the hills themselves, apart from that they were very both very fine and enjoyable. Ben Hope in particular is a magnificent mountain, standing shapely and proud, and towering above the largest area of blanket bog in Europe.

Jamie and John on the summit of Ben Klibreck

After Ben Klibreck on the first day we stopped for a couple of drinks in the intriguing and extremely remote Crask Inn before driving towards Ben Hope in search of a wild-camping spot. We were eventually lucky to find a beautiful area next to the river, although hordes of midges and a visit from a couple of curious horses disturbed the peace slightly…

A nice spot for a wild camp under the flanks of Ben Hope

The next day, and the most Northerly Munro. A landmark for all three of us. The view from the summit of Ben Hope was spectacular, as was the drive along the coast to Durness and beyond, stopping for a quick visit to the massive Smoo Cave.

Smoo Cave near Durness

Some of the beaches, coves and seacliffs we passed looked sublime, and I could have easily spent all day exploring.

The beach at Traigh Allt Chailgeag

It hard to find words to describe the wild splendour of the far North. Although the area of the Highlands which I live in is commonly referred to as one of the most beautiful places in the world, the far North is a different kind of beautiful. It is wild, rugged and huge in every sense - and you feel like you have reached the end of the world. I'd long ago formed a picture in my head of this almost mythical landscape…but seeing it in person for the first time was something else.