Friday, 28 December 2012

Book launch, Feb 27, Glencoe: The Only Genuine Jones (a guest post by Alex)

The Only Genuine Jones by Alex Roddie

Regular readers will be aware that this site's founder, Alex Roddie, published a Kindle eBook in October this year. The Only Genuine Jones has been selling well in its digital form (and is now on special offer for 99p until the 31st) but many people don't own ereaders and I have received many queries about when the book will be available as a paperback.

I'm very pleased to announce that the details of the book launch have now been finalised. I invite readers to join me at the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe, at 9pm on the 27th of February 2013. I will be talking a little about the process of researching and writing the novel, how and why the story differs from true events, and perhaps also a short reading. There will also of course be an opportunity to obtain your signed copy.

Supplies are expected to be limited at first, so if you plan to attend, please comment below or register your interest on the Facebook event page.

The paperback edition includes a number of pen and ink illustrations by the author which are not included in the eBook version. If you have not yet downloaded your digital copy, it's currently on special offer at 99p until December the 31st. You can download it here.

The Only Genuine Jones by Alex Roddie
Why is this book relevant to Scottish mountaineering, and Glencoe in particular? The Clachaig is a prominent setting in the book, and frequenters of Glencoe will recognise locations such as Stob Coire nan Lochan, Bidean nam Bian, and Ben Nevis. The story is set in 1896-7 and follows the adventures of contemporary mountaineers including O.G. Jones and Aleister Crowley (who happen to hate each other). Despite a grounding in real characters and settings, the story is fiction and asks questions about how the sport of climbing may have developed if short ice axes and crampons had been introduced a few decades earlier. Alpine north faces are involved!

Above all it's an adventure story, not to be taken too seriously--but that doesn't mean it avoids serious subjects. The book has already achieved ten 5* ratings on Amazon.

I hope to see as many as possible of you there on February the 27th.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Stairway to Heaven

 Stairway to Heaven (III*), the buttress crest right of the gully left of centre

I've never climbed a route more aptly named than "Stairway to Heaven", to describe what a great morning I had on Beinn an Dothaidh today. It was one of those immaculate winter mornings which never seem quite real afterwards, and twinned with climbing a route in great condition made for a memorable day.

The thaw and re-freeze at the weekend came as a relief. Very large amounts of snow had accumulated and was starting to become unstable and dangerous, and a brief thaw and a return to cold was just what was needed. Yesterday I climbed Golden Oldie (II***) on Aonach Mor and was pleased how quickly the cliffs had returned to winter after the thaw, with great turf and thick rime and the snow starting to consolidate.

 Consolidated snow on the plateau

The North-East corrie of Beinn an Dothaidh is somewhere I've wanted to climb for a while, but it's a corrie where you have to be absolutely sure that full winter conditions are what you are going to find en route. The buttress routes are extremely turf-reliant, and for this reason a good hard freeze is needed without too much snow to insulate the turf in order to bring the routes into condition.

For the last two nights it has frozen hard, and it was bitterly cold at 6:30am this morning when I set off up towards Beinn an Dothaidh.  A remarkable star-scape shone overhead and within minutes of leaving the car my clothes and rucksack were frosting up - it was boding well.

And it just kept getting better. The night-sky gave way to a glowing dawn and Alpenglow painted the mountain-sides on the other side of Rannoch Moor. As I got into the corrie things were looking like they could be just right, so I headed up towards the base of the Grade III buttress route "Stairway to Heaven".

Morning light over Lochaber
It was just right. Still plenty of snow on the ledges, but enough had been stripped by the thaw to allow the deep cold of the last three days into the turf. It was frozen hard everywhere, ideal conditions for the route.

Plenty of snow on the ledges and fully frozen turf throughout

I climbed my way up ledges, ramps and steps towards the crux, an exposed twisting traverse along a ledge with a half-formed ice chandelier hanging overhead. The climbing was enjoyable and without many difficulties, though it could be a different matter if the turf was unfrozen.

The crux twisting traverse
The last few metres onto the plateau were very memorable, the tremendous panorama of mountains opening up to reveal everything from Ben Cruachan to Ben Alder under thick snow. I emerged into crisp, cold sunshine, everything on the ground sparkling in the frost and totally silent in the windless air. A stairway to heaven indeed this morning.

However the rest of the season ends up, I'm having a great start to my winter. Fingers crossed for more great conditions.


Friday, 7 December 2012

Heavy snow cover and unstable slopes

Stunning light on the Aonach Eagach this evening
Whether or not next week's weather forecast is accurate or not, it's been a good start to the winter. I've had a productive and successful start to my winter climbing season as have many others who live locally, and I've been treated to a lot of really good conditions for photography as well.

There's been some significant snowfall this week, and there is now a great deal of snow lying on the mountains in Glencoe. But it is all fresh and unconsolidated, and lying on top of an older layer so quite a lot of slopes are pretty unstable at present. Two friends of mine saw an avalanche at very close quarters whilst walking on Sgor na h-Ulaidh yesterday and I saw evidence of slides in various other parts of the glen today as well.

If the forecast is accurate, and the thaw this weekend remains fairly gentle, then things could start shaping up really nicely next week. Time shall tell. Until then here's some photos from today in the Glen, enjoy.

 Heavy snow on the Aonach Eagach

 Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour

 Diamond and Church Door Buttresses

 Sunset on the Aonach Eagach

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A memorable winter solo on Archie's Ridge

 Looking down "Archie's Ridge", Grade III,4*

All of yesterday I'd been racking my brains about what I could climb this morning. Options are still pretty limited at the level at which I solo, as there is still a fair bit of un-frozen turf around under the snow.

So my thoughts turned to a snowed-up rock route instead. In February 2010 Bob Hamilton and Steve Kennedy did the first recorded winter ascent of "Archie's Ridge" on the West face of Aonach Dubh in Glencoe, a grade III,4* mixed route which I'd climbed before in summer conditions.

 Archie's Ridge takes the left ridge of the three ridges just right of centre.

From my summer ascent I knew that it was indeed mainly on rock with only limited turf. Based on climbing "Troglodyte" on the West face two days ago at the same altitude, I knew that if the turf was fairly exposed it was likely to be frozen. 

Another stunning morning in the glen.
So I decided to go and have a look. Climbing on the West face of Aonach Dubh is always a memorable experience, as even getting to a lot of the routes involves traverses along spectacular ledges amongst intimidating surroundings. Today I followed a fox's pawprints in the snow along the narrows of the Upper Rake to get to my route, crossing the wide exposed bowl at the top of Number 5 Gully to reach Upper F Buttress.

The mad scenery of Number 4 Gully Amphitheatre
Not much on the face is in acceptable winter condition at the moment, with little ice and most of the buried turf unfrozen. But Archie's Ridge looked to be just as I needed it, covered in snow but not very deep, exposing what little turf there is on the route to the frosty air.

Standing underneath the route, I knew it was going to be a challenging solo, at the upper limit of what I'm willing to climb un-roped at the moment. But there was a clear and windless sky, the route looked in good condition and I'm feeling very fit at the moment - so I decided to climb it.

Sunshine on Aonach Mor in the distance
The route started with a steep groove/chimney in order to reach the ridge-crest above. The second half of the groove was pretty narrow but a contorted squeeze on poor footholds saw me up it. And I was delighted to find that indeed 90% of the turf was well-frozen.

The snowed-up rock crest above was enjoyable climbing, leading to the crux of the route - a scary step around on the crest on a small foothold, then a wide step between two narrow pinnacles. This technical Grade 4 section is exposed and memorable climbing, but would be easy to fall off so I had no qualms about placing a sling around the first pinnacle and clipping myself in so that a fall would be less likely.

Looking down from above the crux
After teetering my way across the crux I just had a few more mixed moves then a steep snow-gully to negotiate. It was a really good route, one of the best I've soloed in winter and a memorable way up my favourite mountain face.


Friday, 30 November 2012

A beautiful morning for climbing in Glencoe

 Troglodyte (III), Aonach Dubh Upper Tier. Snowed-up rock and frozen turf.

In my thoughts this evening is the subject of blogs, winter climbing ethics and the effect of the internet on the whole Scottish winter scene.

On at the moment is a discussion about "winter ascents" of routes not in satisfactory winter condition. It has certainly highlighted the risks of blogging about your climbing, as you are in the public line-of-fire of online doubters ready to decide whether or not your route is in condition.

But I've found that winter conditions can surprise you quite regularly, and just because routes aren't "in nick" at a certain altitude in a certain corrie, it doesn't always mean that's the case everywhere at the same time. In the end as climbers you have to make your own judgement based on what you find on the day…sometimes it will cause doubt from other climbers, but if you know yourself that your route was in condition, do the doubters really matter?

 Alpenglow on the Aonach Eagach this morning.

I found well frozen turf at 800m on Aonach Dubh today, well enough frozen for me to happily justify soloing an un-recorded route. Apart from the ethics…it's in my own best interests to climb only when things are frozen. I'm soloing. Un-frozen turf makes things much harder. It's a no-brainer.

During some nosing around on Aonach Dubh in the summer I noticed a hidden away groove line with two steep corners and only a relatively small amount of turf. So today I decided to go and have a look, knowing that the hard frosts of the last few days had possibly frozen up exposed turf at this altitude.

The walk-in through Coire nam Beith this morning was truly stunning, with the dawn lighting catching the Aonach Eagach for a back-drop. It was one of those mornings when just being up there was a great privilege, and I wouldn't have been bothered if I'd not climbed and just had a day up in the snow instead.

 A stunning clear morning before the rain started early afternoon.

But when I got to the base of the un-recorded route I had in mind, I did some poking around and found the turf on the ledges to be well frozen. Under the areas of thicker snow most of it remains soft, but on the small ledges and grooves of this route it was frozen well enough for me to justify soloing grade III ground. To clarify...there were adjacent grooves and small gullies with thicker snow-cover and un-frozen turf underneath at this altitude. I climbed the route that i did specifically because the thinner, more exposed turf was frozen.

I had an awkward corner to start, then a small ramp up right to the crux corner. This caused me some thought for a little while, as there were no footholds within reach to allow me to start up the corner. Two good axe placements in bomber turf on a ledge above were my saviour and a hefty pull-up on both arms got me high enough to find holds for my crampons.

Then easier ground above and a steep snow slope to follow. It's a short route but I enjoyed it and had some moves which I wouldn't have wanted to be soloing if they were even slightly harder. I set up my camera underneath the route as I was going to be descending past the base of the route, so above is a still from a video which I took for future reference.
It's quite near my new route "The Hermit's Hole" from earlier in the month, so I've decided "Troglodyte" (III) is a suitable name.


Thursday, 29 November 2012

Western Rib, Aonach Mor West face

A beautiful day to solo Western Rib (III***)

Tuesday night's hard frost and clear skies were a sight for sore eyes, sparking hope that I'd find better conditions for winter climbing if I looked in the right place.

Heading up as high as possible seemed the sensible option, and though there have been a lot of higher-grade mixed climbs being done recently up high on the Ben, I needed to find somewhere with routes suitable for me to solo.

 On the West face of Aonach Mor the summit-rib routes start at 900m above sea level, and it's somewhere I'd never climbed before so I was keen to give it a punt. I'd headed up there twice before and not climbed anything…the first time I was new to winter climbing and too un-fit to wade through 18 inches of fresh powder on the approach, and the second time I just wasn't on form and backed out of trying a route.

 Western Rib is the route to the right of the leftwards slanting central gully

Frozen ground in the Nevis Range car-park was a good sign and the cloud looked to be clearing the summits, so I decided it was certainly worth a look.

Presuming that conditions wouldn't be ideal I had my eyes set on the classic but easy-graded Golden Oldie (II***), a route often climbed as a good option in poor conditions.

But on reaching the base of the summit ribs I was pleased to see a nice coating of rime ice covering the top half of the routes, and it felt much colder than the day before. So I decided to forget Golden Oldie and have a go at a harder route, Western Rib (III***) which I've wanted to solo for a while.

 Looking down the West face

Some hard work was required to reach the base of the route through the soft snow, and once there I set off up the easier start on the left - conditions didn't look to be great until half way up the route so I didn't want to make it harder for myself than necessary.

Thick rime on the top half of the route
At 500m long this is a really enjoyable route. Open to lots of variation with harder and easier options all over the place on the lower part of the route. I climbed a few sections which felt a bit spicy to be soloing in the conditions, but on the top half of the route I found frozen turf a plenty and thick rime ice everywhere.

 The narrow crest

The top half of the route is a slender rib of granite blocks and slabs, needing some delicacy under the soft snow as here there is far less turf for tool placements. It was pretty narrow in places and the route kept me engaged for its whole 500m.

Walking conditions were quite easy on the snow on the plateau and I romped down the ski runs down to the car-park, catching a great sunset and a layer of mist forming over Loch Linnhe.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A quick blast up Sron na Lairig.

 Sron na Lairig (II***) this morning

The current cold-snap is becoming frustrating…as it isn't actually that cold. Whilst it is great to have snow back on the hills and to have good weather for the last few days, the snow is insulating the ground underneath from freezing - meaning that conditions for climbing aren't great at all.

I watched a great short film last night on UKC about a pair of world-class European climbers coming over to Scotland to winter climb. It really struck me just how much respect and excitement they had for Scotland's strict winter climbing ethics. It's one of the many things I love about it, that there are such rules in place.

 Small cornices on Stob Coire Sgreamhach

This early in the season, we are all bouncing off the walls and drooling at the prospect of getting our first few winter routes done. Quite a few folk end up climbing routes that aren't in proper winter-nick. But I've come to firmly believe that if you are going to play the game, you should play it fairly or not at all.

 Beinn Fhada

So although this morning I was eager to climb something harder, I didn't want to be pulling on axes on un-frozen turf so I decided to do a mountaineering route instead. In most people's eyes these "winter scrambles" are fair-game so long as they have plenty of snow on them, as it's fairly rare that you ever have to actually pull on your axes.

The knife-edge top section of Sron na Lairig

Sron na Lairig in Glencoe is a beautiful route, one of the first I ever climbed in the glen. Its slender, snaking profile has formed an impressive back-drop to dozens of runs along the Lairig Eilde during the past year or so, and today I was compelled to re-visit this mountaineering classic.

 Sron na Lairig's elegant shape from above

I avoided the bottom part of the ridge via an easy ramp on the left as there wasn't much snow cover lower down, and then joined the main ridge at the next steep step higher up. There was plenty of snow around, most of it very soft but with a wee bit of sun-crust, and quite a lot of the ground exposed to the air is starting to freeze up.

There was no-one else around and I made quick progress through the deep snow, pleased that the wind had dropped right down and wasn't knocking me over as it was in the Mamores last week. 4 hours 45 minutes car-to-car with plenty of photo-taking and view-gazing - a short and easy snow-fix but an enjoyable one.


Friday, 23 November 2012

Passing time until the next freeze

Plenty of snow and wind but no frozen ground yet....

A walk up into the Mamores today revealed yet more of the quasi-winter conditions which have been a regular feature in the mountains since October. A fair amount of snow blowing around and to a fairly low level….as has been the case fairly frequently now for the last few weeks. But still no frozen turf or ice in evidence, and the winter climbing community becomes more expectant by the day.

In these same few weeks every year I can never help my eagerness getting the better of me. Time seems to drag as I wait for a "proper" cold snap to freeze the turf and bring the cliffs into winter condition, and I find myself feeling like a coiled spring with too much energy looking for an outlet.

Ironic really. I've learnt through experience that patience is one of the greatest virtues of a winter climber. But it is a virtue that I'm well aware I do not have. I try to adhere to Scotland's strict climbing ethics and I won't climb routes that are unfrozen or not in condition…but it doesn't stop me getting feet that are itchy as hell.

I'd hoped this year that my relatively new-found love of hill-running would quench my thirst for all things winter and provide an outlet for my energy, but it hasn't quite worked like that. If anything it has increased my enthusiasm…my fitness has improved in leaps and bounds, and I'm on my best ever form by a large margin. When else can it be tested so rigorously as during a winter climbing season?

I tried something new with my running a few days ago. I ran up to my usual stopping point for shortish runs in Coire nan Lochan, but then set my stop-watch, and ran for another two minutes up-hill. It felt blissfully easy. And it made me think. Though my fitness is now at a level I was only dreaming of two years ago, I can still set my sights so much higher. But it's already clear how much benefit this will have on my winter fitness - during 3000ft of walking ascent I hardly noticed any increase in usual heart-rate, I forgot to drink anything because I didn't get thirsty and I feel a world different on the hill to a few months back. I go hard, during my training runs...but oh boy does it yield results.

If the forecasts are right then on sunday the freezing level starts to drop and the turf should start to freeze. Only a few days to go. Whether this winter turns out to be a good'un or not I will be posting and updating far more frequently than I have recently. Fingers crossed its a long and fruitful season!


Thursday, 8 November 2012

The winter back to square one.

So winter's early arrival was spectacular and fruitful, but sadly short-lived. I ran up the Ben Nevis North Face path this afternoon and the vast majority of the snow has been washed away by the rain and wind of the last few days. The forecast is for colder (but not much colder) weather to return at the weekend but there don't seem to be signals of a return to "proper" winter quite yet.

Not that anyone can complain, it is to be expected this early in the season, but it is always such a tease when you get the first cold snaps at the start of the winter.

And as early cold-snaps go that was a good'un, with many many teams out climbing in quite a few different areas of the Highlands. The Northern Corries sounded to have been the usual circus but there were also folk out climbing in other classic venues such as the Shelterstone, Lochnagar, Coire na Ciste on the Ben and Church Door Buttress in Glencoe.

It's great to see the opportunistic and explorative approach to climbing in action so early in the season with a few new routes climbed already. There was one first ascent a few days back which has impressed a lot of folk, Guy Steven and Mike Late's route "Deliverance" on Sgurr Thealach in the Cuillin…a bold and striking line and very early indeed in the season for a new route to be climbed on Skye.

Hopefully it won't be long until winter returns again, I'll keep you updated.


Friday, 2 November 2012

First winter route of the season in Glencoe

First ascent of "The Hermit's Hole" (Grade III*), Aonach Dubh, 1st Nov 2012

For over a week people have been climbing winter routes in good conditions in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. I've had a few people express surprise that I haven't been over there "getting some", considering my near-obsessive interest with all things winter.

But the Northern Corries are known for being busy, close to the ski centre and easily accessible…if there's stuff to climb, people will be there climbing it. Anyone who has read this blog for a while will know that I am a recluse by nature, I value solitude very highly and I prefer to see nobody on the same mountain as me. I was willing to wait until the snow and cold arrived closer to home.

 Sunlight on Stob Coire nam Beith

Yesterday morning I opened my curtains to see that winter had arrived in Glencoe. A good dump of snow down to about 750m and a clear sky. It stayed cold during the day, and then last night it snowed steadily above 600m for at least 10 hours.

 10 minutes of clear weather over Beinn a'Bheithir

A cold Westerly wind blew the snow against the cliffs all night. My time to dust off the winter gear and head up high on the West face of Aonach Dubh.

It rained heavily as I trudged up Coire nam Beith…the weight of my winter pack making itself known after a summer of carrying a lightweight hill-running pack. But I felt good, great in fact, so different to how it has always felt in the past on my first few winter days. The hill-running this year has really paid off.

 Prime ankle-breaking terrain in Coire nam Beith

High up on a little-known part of the West face is an area I explored heavily this summer. Turfy grooves and corners all over the place, great for short winter routes and with almost nothing recorded as having been climbed. It hasn't been cold long enough for there to be much frozen turf at all yet, so I was looking for a snowed-up rock route.

 Garbh Bheinn of Ardgour appears through the cloud

In August I found a short but memorable route that took you underneath a huge balancing block and through a miniature cave. It was an obvious choice as a winter route, and this is what I set my sights on today. 
 Heavy snow on Stob Coire nam Beith

Usually my first route of the season will be an easy classic Grade II somewhere. But it all felt right today so my first climbing moves of this season were steep and delicate up the groove that starts the route, and probably about technical grade 4. A pumpy pull-up got me above the blank left side of the groove and I found holds for both feet again.

Climbing through the "cave" was bizarre, enjoyable and something I'll remember for a while. Great hooks for the axes and an enjoyable up-side down pull on my right axe and I emerged from the other side of the cave, and climbed up the end of my own summer V.Diff "Piccolo".

Emerging from the "cave".

Coire nan Lochan was under a lot of snow, an impressive amount indeed for this early in November. Like I say, very little frozen turf yet so choose carefully where and what you climb.

Snow on the Aonach Eagach

So that's the winter climbing season started in Glencoe. Although we will have plenty of thaws to come, this blog will be primarily about my winter climbing and snow conditions in the area for the next few months. To all you fellow climbers out there- have a great season, stay safe and have fun.


Sunday, 28 October 2012

Another great season coming to an end

You know when you were a child, that sense of time slowing to a snail's pace in the weeks and days approaching Christmas? The more excited you became and the closer it got, the further it seemed away?

That's how I seem to always feel during the last few weeks of the autumn, as I excitedly wait for the start of the Scottish winter climbing season. From experience I know just how quickly the hills can transform into the frozen playgrounds which occupy my thoughts, but in the last few days of the autumn it always seems so far away.

Some years I've been guilty of letting this anticipation almost spoil the autumns for me…seeing them as just a period of time to get through to reach the snowy season on the other side. But 2012 has (yet again) been the exception for me.

2012 seems to be the year that just keeps on delivering. After an exceptionally dry spring and summer I thought there was no way the autumn could continue the trend. But although we've had our share of rain and gloom, the sunny days have never been far away and I've enjoyed more days in the autumn sunshine this year than in the last three autumns combined.

Late summer and autumn is the time that I really knuckle down and get as much fitness as possible for the start of the winter climbing season. In 2011 my "winter training" was a wet and windy affair…involving almost daily soakings as I slowly and painfully taught myself to run uphill.

But I've been treated to so many beautiful runs this autumn. Crisp and glowing afternoons running in the Glencoe corries or up high on frosty ridges. Just how many days of sunshine is it possible to have in a year in the Highlands?!

Yesterday the first mixed winter routes were climbed in the Cairngorm's Northern Corries. And although Glencoe's dusting of snow yesterday has now gone, I know that it'll be back very soon and the most exciting time of the year for me is beginning.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Autumn in Torridon

The crispest of light on Liathach 
On a day of unbroken autumn sunshine like yesterday, there can be few places anywhere so totally stunning as the North-West Highlands.

Since 2009 I have waited for a perfect late-October forecast for the North-West to coincide with a 
day off. I've made a point of leaving some mountains for perfect days so they live up to my expectations, and one of those mountains has always been Liathach.

Liathach under a warming autumn sun

Today the weather forecast was finally spot-on for what I wanted. But due to having to work at 5pm I found myself yet again leaving Glencoe at 3am to do a mad-dash to the North-West and back before my evening shift in the Clachaig. Sometimes…it is so worth the effort.

Thick fog from Fort William onwards slowed my journey and thwarted my original plan to run most of the Liathach traverse in order to dash back by 5pm. I arrived too late to be able to get it done and enjoy it.

Am Fasarinen

But not to worry. A vivid and spectacular sunrise to light my dark ascent to Spidean a'Choire Leith, a cloud inversion spreading over a glen to the East, a frost on the ground and the sound of stags roaring….it was definitely a day to stand and stare, not to go as fast as I could.

A vivid sunrise on the approach up Spidean a'Choire Leith

Photos and words don't do it justice, you really have to see Torridon in full autumn splendour to understand the sheer scale of it. Glencoe is the only other part of the Highlands I know with so much beauty in every direction and around every corner.

A cloud inversion to the East

And this year the autumn colours are extremely impressive, far more so than last year and the native woodlands south of Upper Loch Torridon are a real spectacle just now. Even though I have seen many "unbroken-sunshine-days" in the Highlands, I still find myself slightly in disbelief at it all when they happen. From the crystal-clear reflections in the lochs to the vibrant splashes of colour in the forests, there seemed to be small natural masterpieces everywhere I looked today.

Autumn colours near Shieldaig

This will be my last trip to the North-West now before the winter. The start of the winter climbing season is possibly only days away, and for the next few months I will be spending far more time closer to home and concentrating on the frozen and lonely nooks and crannies of Glencoe. But I have developed a deep love of the North-West Highlands recently, and for this winter for the first time I intend to climb here.

Possibly my last photos of warm sunshine for a while. It turns cold on friday.