Tuesday, 31 January 2012

North Castle Gully and an exciting week (posted by James)

Looking down the giant chasm of "North Castle Gully", Ben Nevis

There is a tangible feeling of excitement amongst the local climbing community this week….it has turned cold again and stayed cold, and lots of us have been out there having it on classic routes.

But it's not just that. It has been a very significant week in the history of Scottish winter climbing.

Lots of hard routes have been climbed, new and repeats. On the 29th January Greg Boswell and James Dunn made the second ascent of the absolutely mental line of "Don't Die of Ignorance" (XI,11) on Ben Nevis….Martin Moran and Murdo Jamieson made the first ascent of "Rudolf" (VIII, 8/9) on Beinn Eighe on the 23rd, Iain Small and Simon Richardson pioneered "Fly me to the Moon" (VII,8) on Creag Meagaidh on the 22nd….

Ben Nevis in grand condition

But a single event towers above them all. A few days back I was having a good chat with Guy Robertson in the Clachaig. 28 years after it was first climbed, Guy had just made the second ascent of "Guerdon Grooves" with Nick Bullock and Bayard Russell.

In the last 3 years I've been lucky enough to witness some very significant moments in Glencoe's climbing history. But the repeat of "Guerdon Grooves" is without a doubt the single most important event for years in terms of winter climbing in Glencoe. Its name is mythical amongst Scottish climbers, and for it to be finally repeated is massive.

In line with my "get it while you can" attitude towards winter climbing, I was eager to get out again today. After backing off Neptune Gully on the Ben (cruddy ice) and seeing that both Jubillee Climb and Neireid Gully were very thin, I eventually climbed North Castle Gully.

Climbers in the "Central Gully" area of the Trident Buttresses

It is an easy route, but as giant winter gullies go, it is a magnificent example. At almost 1000ft long, North Castle Gully is a mountain feature that would be quite at home in the Alps.

North Castle Gully, the obvious gully just right of centre

Only from the steeper top sections of the gully do you realise how truly gigantic it is, and the scenery you pass through is tremendous. Conditions were good on the whole, lots of nevé with a few avoidable patches of windslab.

It looks to stay cold for a few days yet….


Friday, 27 January 2012

Winter perfection on Stob Ban's North Buttress (posted by James)

The East Ridge of North Buttress, Stob Ban

After my enjoyable yet slightly disappointing day on Ben Nevis yesterday, I was determined to make the most of the excellent weather forecast for today. So I decided to go for a route I've wanted to climb for a while…the East Ridge of the North Buttress of Stob Ban.

Dawn sunshine in Glen Nevis

Seen from Glen Nevis the North Buttress is a striking feature at any time, but at this point in the year it captures the imagination of a winter climber perfectly. Stob Ban is a fine mountain, indeed one of the most beautiful in Scotland without a doubt.

Stob Ban

After half an hour of hill-fog during my walk-in, I was endlessly pleased when the sun started to break through and reveal the splendour of Stob Ban's East face. The sky became bluer by the minute, and sunshine danced on the terraces and slabs of the Central Buttress.

Bright sunshine on the route

I looked up at the East ridge of the North Buttress. It looked amazing. A continuous ridge line, broken by high pinnacles and flanked by steep snow-slopes shining bright in the sun. Today was not a day to be in the cold shade of a North face, or the dark icy loneliness of a gully.

Starting up the first pinnacle, the snow was starting to melt slightly in the sunshine and the turf wasn't fully frozen. But there was a lot of fresh powder and the route was in perfectly acceptable condition. Some awkward moves bring you to the top of the first pinnacle, and you get to see the rest of the route ahead.

A turfy groove

"Lots of fun" are the first words that came to mind. There's a fair bit of variation possible on the route, you could avoid some of the steeper sections to make it easier but I suspect far less enjoyable. I took the ridge pretty much directly, putting it as a Grade III route overall.

After the easier ground of the second steepening the ridge becomes an enthralling place to be. You are suddenly faced by steep pinnacles ahead which look extremely difficult or impossible to by-pass, so you must tackle them directly.

A small cloud inversion under Sgurr a'Mhaim and The Devil's Ridge

An exposed left-wards traverse brings you to the crux section of the upper part of the ridge - a steep broken slab that must be climbed in order to gain the crest of one of the pinnacles. It felt like a bold place to be soloing.

One of the awkward sections

And then, like all great mountain routes, the ridge finishes in a spectacular and exciting climax. You come to an extremely narrow section of pinnacles with such a feeling of exposure that straddling it with a leg on either side and inching your way along seems like the only safe option.

As I looked down on the route from above, the sun came out from behind a cloud and the entire ridge shone bright through the shadows. Only from above can you see how narrow and exciting it looks .

Looking down on the route from above

The East ridge of the North Buttress is one of the best mountain ridges I've climbed - a striking, imposing and natural route that gains interest with height and becomes more spectacular the higher you climb. A really enjoyable solo climb on a perfect winter day.


Thursday, 26 January 2012

Great atmosphere on the Ben (posted by James)

Climbers on Tower Ridge, dwarfed by the North East Buttress

My prayers were answered last night when yesterday's incessant rain turned to snow as the temperature dropped overnight. The thaw yesterday was severe to say the least, but much of the damage has been quickly undone…and the old snow is starting to consolidate quickly.

I backed off my route of choice today as the crux wasn't in condition, so I took a wander around with my camera instead.

Climbing teams beneath The Trident Buttresses

The Ben was an amazing place to be this morning. Billowing cloud coming in and out of the corries, spindrift blowing all over the place and fresh snow falling. And there were lots of people out climbing too, so every so often a shout or call would come at you through the mist, echoing off the cliffs.

Small soft cornices have been forming at the tops of the gullies again, and those above the Creag Coire na Ciste gullies look pretty menacing.

Carn Dearg Buttress and The Castle

Until things settle down the easier gullies are probably not wise places to be, with evidence of slides already there. For anyone intending to approach Ledge Route via the top of Moonlight Gully Buttress, be aware there is now a steep snow-lip about 6 feet deep that you'd have to get down in order to get into Number 5 Gully.

Tower Ridge

All the ridges and buttresses have got a healthy covering of snow, though all the new powder might make things a bit hard going. There were teams on Tower Ridge and Ledge Route at least, I didn't see anyone on Castle Ridge and I couldn't tell whether North East Buttress had any teams on or not.

Approaching Ledge Route

I don't know, but I'd imagine the higher ice routes are shaping up nicely. "The White Line" area of Raeburn's Wall looked promising, but due to cloud I couldn't see the Orion Face or Indicator Wall.

After I'd spent a while taking photos I started the walk down, and watched a fairly massive spindrift avalanche come from the top of Carn Dearg Buttress and sweep down the line of The Shroud. Scary stuff…fingers crossed everyone has kept safe on The Ben today.

A large spindrift avalanche coming down "The Shroud"

Oh....and check out the weather forecast for tomorrow!!


Monday, 23 January 2012

Glencoe conditions update (posted by James)

Fresh snow on The Aonach Eagach this morning

I walked up into Coire nam Beith this morning with the intention of trying to climb one of the buttress routes. Unluckily for me I'd been beaten to my route of choice by another team, and the other ones didn't look too appealing to solo, so I decided to leave it and come back another day.

Fresh snow has been falling in heavy showers over the last two days in Glencoe on the higher tops, and a drop in temperature last night has given a new snowline down to 500m this morning. It's not a big dump of snow but there's been a fair amount of drifting going on and above about 700-800m there's quite a bit of fresh powder.

In Coire nam Beith the turf wasn't frozen very well at the base of the routes and although there's a fair bit of ice around on the rocks it was all dripping and very rotten.

Due to the wind direction there's been quite a lot of winslab deposited on North through to Easterly slopes so the avalanche risk has been bumped up. The easier gullies will probably be quite hard going and not a great idea until it settles down a bit.

However the mixed climbs on the higher crags might be very good indeed now - Church Door Buttress on Bidean nam Bian was looking very iced up this morning, and I know that "Spectre" (IV,5) on Stob Coire nan Lochan was successfully climbed yesterday.

An t-Sron this morning

All the classic mountaineering ridges (Aonach Eagach, Curved Ridge, Sron na Lairig) all have a healthy coating of snow but may be hard going as most of it is new and unconsolidated.

So overall not looking bad at all, and if the forecast thaw on wednesday doesn't do too much damage, then the high pressure promised for next week might do just the trick.


Monday, 16 January 2012

Ice and sunshine on Creag Meagaidh (posted by James)

Creag Meagaidh by moonlight

With another day of cold temperatures forecast, I gave my axes and crampons a good sharpen and this morning set off towards Creag Meagaidh in search of some ice to climb.

So far this winter I've focused mainly on buttresses and ridge routes, as I'm more comfortable soloing mixed climbs. Ice gullies remain a bit of a mental barrier for me when it comes to soloing on grade III terrain.

But I've been climbing on steeper and more committing routes this winter, steadily improving my technique, strength and mental awareness. So…armed with the psyche and confidence born from stunning weather and the knowledge of my improvement, I decided to take on the challenge of soloing a Grade III ice gully.

I'd been told by a good source (cheers Gary!) that although ice was by no means abundant on Creag Meagaidh just now, conditions in the Inner Corrie were looking okay so I decided to give it a shot.

The Inner Corrie

The walk-in towards Coire Ardair before dawn this morning was truly beautiful…a perfectly clear sky and a moon so bright that I had no need for a headtorch, the snowy cliffs glowing through the dark. And it was cold, the coldest morning I've seen so far this winter.The promise of a memorable day ahead.

A crisp, clear dawn

The Inner Corrie was indeed in better condition than the Post face in Coire Ardair. Although the harder ice lines (The Wand, Diadem etc) are not climbable yet, some of the lower and mid-grade routes were looking better.

After a good look through my binoculars at the crux pitch and exit snow-slopes, I decided to go for Crescent Gully (Grade III).

Crescent Gully (III), the steep line in the centre.

Despite a wee bit of windslab on the low easy pitch, I was delighted by the snow conditions. A lot of nevé around and first time axe placements nearly every time.

The entrance to the crux

Soon I was at the base of the crux. It looked pretty thin, but I could see that it was climbable. A fixed peg in the rock beside me, and a rope in my bag….I could easily retreat from here and call it a day….

But right there and then, I knew that I could solo it. So I did. After some bomber ice in the first few metres I reached more challenging ice, with a few holes around and hollow sections.

Pinnacle Buttress

The hardest move was a tentative right-foot crampon placement on a short ice pillar, with a contorted step up and to the right on brittle ice. It was hollow behind the ice pillar and I couldn't risk committing my weight to it….so I took the weight on my arms, trusted my axe placements and hauled myself to safer ice above.

Above the crux, which is hidden just below

And then I was on the steep snow above, traversed a cornice, and pulled myself to safety on the summit plateau. It was a great feeling - I'd managed to break a mental barrier which I've wanted to for a while, and I'd kept controlled and level-headed. I was just ready that's all.

It's amazing what you can learn about yourself, during a few hours on a mountain.

An old snow-hole in the deep snow in "The Window"


Saturday, 14 January 2012

Exploring Beinn Fhada's West face (posted by James)

Approaching the "Bad Step" on the Beinn Fhada ridge after climbing Summit Buttress

After days of thaw and rain, yesterday's clear skies and hard freeze were my cue to get out this morning and take advantage of some nice consolidated snow. And I'm very glad I did too, as I ended up having a really good mountaineering adventure in a rarely visited part of Glencoe.

One of the highlights of last winter for me was a real battle of a solo up the Grade III "North Face Direct" on Stob Coire Sgreamhach. This area holds the largest and deepest snow accumulation in Glencoe, and after a thaw and re-freeze it feels more Alpine rather than Scottish. Crevasses, snow-bridges and avalanche cones can be constant obstacles up here, such is the depth of snow that accumulates.

I've been wanting to go back and visit this area, and I felt really keen to do some exploration this morning and to get out and climb something obscure. So I set out in the direction of Beinn Fhada's Summit Buttress, a bit to the north of Sgreamhach's North face.

Summit Buttress freezing up nicely in yesterday's clear skies

It's slightly bizarre, breaking off the well-trodden track up The Lost Valley, and suddenly being on pathless and steep terrain that is actually quite serious. The whole West flank of Beinn Fhada is divided by many deep gullies and chasms, and crossing these can take some careful route-finding.

When I came to cross the deepest gully, I found myself crossing a snow-bridge over the debris cone from a large avalanche. After one too many creaks and groans from the snow beneath my I inched my way to some close-by rocks and had to go a fair way up the side of the debris to find a way to cross.

A necessary crossing of a gully filled with avalanche debris

After this some steep scrambling up very slippery frozen turf and iced slabs, and I found myself using an ice axe in order to make progress up ground that hardly had any snow on. I think this might be the most adventurous approach to a winter climb I've ever done in Glencoe, and it is not for the unfit.

Approaching Summit Buttress from below

Eventually I was at the base of Summit Buttress. I did a bit of nosing around for routes, and it looks like with some fresh snowfall there are a few mixed lines that could be pretty fun. Not enough snow on the rocks today to justify a mixed route though, so instead I stayed on the hard and perfect old snow in the gullies on the buttress.

I made my way to the top of the Buttress via the rarely climbed Grade II* gully called "The Ramp". Solid nevé all the way - great! The Ramp is a really natural line, and seen from the Aonach Eagach or even the road, it is a quite attractive route too.

The lower sections of "The Ramp"

At the end of The Ramp there was 20m or so of easy mixed climbing to reach the crest of the Beinn Fhada ridge, and I made my way to the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach and descended down the Lairig Eilde.

Looking down "The Ramp"

I had a lot of fun today. The route I climbed didn't challenge me at all, but I wasn't looking for that this morning. I wanted to go climbing somewhere remote, rarely visited and requiring good mountaineering sense to get there at all - and that's exactly what I got.

Plenty of rime ice forming on the rocks

There are many of these areas in Glencoe…quite obvious crags and cliffs but which people seldom climb on, opting (understandably) instead for the well-known and easily accessible routes. A good sense of adventure and exploration can still be found in this popular glen if you know where and when to look.


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Snow update from Ben Nevis (posted by James)

Bringing in materials to repair the CIC Hut after "Hurricane Bawbag".

I didn't end up climbing anything this morning on Ben Nevis, as my routes of choice were either out of condition or still threatened by large cornices. No matter, as I'd rather wait until winter returns properly…quality not quantity for me this season.

However as I've had a fair few emails over the last requesting updates on snow conditions on the Ben, I took the opportunity to take some photos to keep you all informed of how things stand in terms of winter climbing.

There's no avoiding it unfortunately…the Highlands have suffered a severe thaw over the last week or so. All the buttresses and ridges on the Ben are looking pretty black and bare - Tower Ridge and Castle Ridge for example both being in "Alpine" condition at the moment, i.e with large snow-free areas.

No.3 Gully and Creag Coire na Ciste

However due to today's colder temperatures the remaining snow is firming up very nicely. All the easy gullies out of Coire na Ciste (No.2, No.3, No4) are still full, as are South Gully, Central Gully (I think…) and North Gully which are all threatened by cornices.

Coire na Ciste and Tower Ridge on the left.

There looks to be a fair amount of ice high up on the Orion face and Indicator Wall although I have no idea how thick it is, and whether it will be climbable or not by the weekend. At a guess, routes like Good Friday Climb and Tower Scoop might be pretty good in a day or two, but that is a guess as I haven't been to have a look!

The Orion Face

Lower down, Ledge Route looks like it may have some rocky sections, and most of the ice that was forming on the North wall of Carn Dearg Buttress is either gone or has reduced a lot. Both the Castle Gullies have got small holes in the snow cover - it looks like these could present difficulties, so I wouldn't recommend them as descent routes just now.

The Castle area

In Glencoe the only climbing areas with any significant remaining snow accumulations are Stob Coire nan Lochan, and the North East and North West faces of Bidean nam Bian. Forget Dorsal Arete or any of the other buttress routes on SCnL until we get fresh snow, and I'm not certain but it looks most of the gully lines are quite thin or have holes.

Raeburn's Wall and No.2 Gully

So…not great news but not all bad either! Especially with regards to the Ben, there's still lots to do - and given some more snowfall it won't take long for it to recover well.

Hope that's helpful folks, please don't hesitate to email or message me on Facebook if you need other details.


Monday, 9 January 2012

Momentum and more on winter training (posted by James)

After a period of severe illness in 2008 I had to truly go back to square one and build up my fitness and strength from absolute zero. It was a formidable, unforgiving challenge.

But I learnt that all-important lesson from it - that the only thing harder than keeping up momentum, is getting back momentum once you've lost it.

I went for my first up-hill run for about 3 weeks today, and I could feel a definite (though small) decrease from my pre-Christmas fitness levels. I am strict about maintaining my fitness, but I suspect all but the most dedicated will have felt a similar effect after the festive period.

Everyone's motivations vary when it comes to fitness, so I thought I'd share some more of my thoughts when it comes to my own.

I made a very conscious decision a while back to no longer associate fitness with times, numbers, statistics, weight or calories. Many people (the majority?) prefer to measure their fitness in these ways, understandably as it is a precise way of charting progress and setting goals.

For me now, a high level of fitness has simply become an essential ingredient of my two main hobbies - i.e I keep myself fit for another purpose other than just fitness for its own sake and benefits.

More and more I'm becoming aware of the complicated psychology behind climbing solo in the mountains. Being very fit is an obvious prerequisite to regular climbing, but especially in winter, I'm becoming increasingly aware that the challenge is often only about 10% physical when it comes to soloing.

I put in a big effort during the autumn to be as fit as possible for the start of december. The physical demands of regular winter climbing can be pretty extreme, but it wasn't that so much I was doing it for. My ambitions for this winter are higher than they had been last year, and you always need to feel progress before taking on the next step up.

Regular up-hill running, upper-body strength improvements and triple figures of hill miles during the summer hasn't just meant that I am fitter than last winter, but that I know that I am fitter. That's has been the catalyst for a bolder outlook and more success this winter.

Knowing that you have improved makes distances seem less, slopes less steep, obstacles less severe. Even if the next challenge you face is your biggest yet, the confidence gained from preparation is to me always more important than the preparation itself.

Your mind must always be in the right place when you are going solo. Hopefully my confidence when it comes to photography will improve soon as well - here's hoping 2012 is a good year!