Sunday, 19 February 2012

Unfinished business above Coire Gabhail (posted by James)

Something I've realised recently is just how inherent the theme of "completion" is in climbing. If you don't finish a route, or reach a summit, or achieve a goal there is always a feeling of failure.

Along the same lines it's the same with climbers who put up new routes and develop a crag - you always want to feel a sense of completion and you aren't happy until you feel like you've put it to rest.

This winter I've paid a lot of attention to the rarely visited West face of Beinn Fhada in Glencoe. I've done a few routes there but a while back I noticed an unrecorded narrow buttress on the right hand side of the Summit Buttress. It caught my eye, but despite a few vague attempts I hadn't got around to really trying to climb it yet.

Moody lighting over The Aonach Eagach

With a forecast for constant thaw starting tomorrow, I realised today would almost certainly be my last chance for turfy mixed routes on a relatively low crag like this. I wouldn't be happy unless I'd given this unrecorded route a go… I've grown very fond of this wild and beautiful mountain face above Coire Gabhail and I wanted to feel that sense of completion.

So at 6am I was once again making the relentlessly steep approach up the lower slopes of the West face. It was a beautiful dawn, the sunrise catching the summits and the Aonach Eagach putting on a fine performance in the crisp light.

The trouble with a crag like the Summit Buttress of Beinn Fhada is finding your route from the approach below. Everything looks so different from when you view it from adjacent summits, and the nature of the crag hides cliffs from view from below. But I know this area well now, and after a while I managed to find the narrow buttress I was interested in.

As I'd hoped, the cold North Westerlies had made Beinn Fhada a good choice to climb on today and the turf was nearly all very nicely frozen. After 100m or so of nice turfy ground I got to the bottom of the buttress.

It was a nice climb, mainly snowed up rock with turfy ledges in-between. I took the first short wall direct and it required awkward moves to haul myself to its top. After a flatter section there was then a steep narrow chimney to climb the second wall.

The second wall on "The Rhyme", I climbed a line up the right hand side of the photo.

Looking down "The Rhyme"

All this time I'd been eyeing up a slightly steeper buttress just to my left, so I downclimbed a short gully and climb this as well. Again an unrecorded route, and again an enjoyable one. It had two distinct cruxes, the first one an awkward corner which made me perform some fancy crampon-work, and the second a really nice steep crack up the top wall.

The crux crack on the second route

It felt so good…to be climbing with not a sight or sound of anyone else, and to top out into bright sunshine on the ridge crest. I continued over to Stob Coire Sgreamhach, and then up the majestic South East ridge of Bidean nam Bian, the sun slowly toasting my face as it reflected off the snow.

Bidean nam Bian's South East ridge

Both the routes I climbed today are unrecorded but very distinct and worthwhile buttresses so they are worth me recording:

"The Rhyme" II/III - the right hand narrow buttress. Take a first steep wall direct up to a turfy ledge. Continue to a second steep wall, climb this by either a narrow chimney on the right or a fault line on the left. Easier ground leads to the top.

"Last Orders" II/III* - the left hand buttress. Climb turfy ground to an awkward corner. After this easier angled ground leads to a steep wall split by a crack on the right hand side. Climb the crack and continue to the ridge crest.

("Last Orders" is appropriate…my last chance to climb on this face this winter, and also referring to a merry evening in the Clachaig last night…)

The blue arrow points to the top of "Last Orders", the red arrow to "The Rhyme"


Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Alpine snow aretes in the Ben Alder wilderness (a guest post from Alex)

Since leaving Glencoe in May 2011 I have never stopped thinking about the mountains. I have spent too many years wandering in the upper world to forget my time there easily; in fact, my experiences there have a profound, continuing effect on my daily life, a phenomenon every climber who lives away from the mountains will recognise. Moments of perfection burst in on you when you least expect it. Taking the bus to work in the morning over the dreary fen, I might glimpse the sun peeking over the edge of a cloud and be transported back to the summit of Bidean in January 2009, when alpenglow coloured the promised land golden and Brocken spectres danced over the Aonach Eagach's shadow through the mist. Such is the curse of those who love the mountains. They enrich our lives beyond measure--they can even help to teach us the meaning of life itself--but they never let us be free.

I had to go back.

My last trip to the hills in October last year felt a little like a broken record. It was great to see my friends in Glencoe again and relive some past adventures, but unlike my brother James I have started to become too familiar with Glencoe (possibly a result of my more intensive campaign in those mountains due to a lack of private transport). I resolved that my next trip would be to somewhere completely new. For a long time now Ben Alder had beckoned from the unknown regions between Lochaber and the Cairngorms; regions I had heard tales about, stories of soaring ridges and remote mountain huts surrounded by awesome splendour, but had never glimpsed myself. As luck would have it a train ran fairly directly between home and Dalwhinnie. I booked tickets and dusted off my winter equipment.

Late on the 4th of February I arrived in Dalwhinnie itself. Every surface had been glazed with freezing rain, making walking along the road a problematic task. I pitched my tent by the side of Loch Ericht and passed a comfortable night. In the morning I began the nine and a half mile walk to the place where I planned to spend the next few days: Culra, a remote mountain hut famous with long-distance walkers and Munro baggers.

The walk by the side of the loch ought to have been easy enough (it follows an excellent road leading into the Ben Alder estate), but the freezing rain made walking more tricky than might have been expected, and I seemed to spend most of my time clinging to the rough ground at the edge of the track. I passed several buildings, all Gothic towers and battlements, helping to increase the sense that I was steadily walking away from the real world and into a fantastic one.

The track grew fainter as it struck out over the moor. I passed through herds of red deer, feeding from the same haybales as sturdy mountain ponies. Ravens and eagles flew overhead. I didn't see another person, and as I strode out the miles my spirit felt increasingly glad to be leaving the world behind. Finally I reached Culra, a pair of small buildings nestled in the curve of an icebound river. Having carried my camping equipment all the way there I decided to pitch my tent on a small island in the river (besides, the weather was fine).


Two mountains dominate the view from Culra: Ben Alder, a vast complex of ridges, corries and plateaux; and Sgor Iutharn, not even a Munro but of so sharp and commanding an appearance that it immediately fixes itself in the climber's mind as a necessary objective. The snow arete leading to the summit of Sgor Iutharn is known as the Lancet Edge, and without knowing any details of the ascent I set off just after 7am to climb this striking natural feature.

The walk along the Bealach Dubh towards the mountain is an interesting one in its own right, following a frozen river upstream as it winds between ancient moraines. This is the corpse of a glacier, left behind at the end of the last glaciation when the ice steadily receded and left behind the carved-out landscape we know and love today. As I climbed higher I passed some remarkable snow features, crevasses and monstrous cornices in the most unlikely places, the result of a past blizzard. Finally I began the steep climb up to the base of the arete.

I climbed entirely on snow and ice; the mountain was so buried that scarcely a rock protruded. In the main the snow was well-bonded and stable, but drifts of powder lay here and there, bonded in varying degrees to the hard, old stuff beneath. The climb became steeper and steeper but averaged (I would estimate) about 35 degrees up until the start of the arete proper. Then the fun really began!

In my years of climbing in Scotland I have rarely seen a ridge so continually sharp and exposed. The Carn Mor Dearg arete is the only feature quite like it I can think of. There are many aretes in Glencoe and Lochaber more difficult than the Lancet Edge (indeed it had no particular difficulties at all, except one short a cheval section), but it just keeps going! A mixed tower led to a finely-carved snow ridge, then cornices, then another tower; and just when you think the summit is in view, you are rewarded with another long, fine blade of ice and snow. Without being at all difficult this amazing route manages to provide enjoyment from valley to summit.

The summit of Sgor Iutharn was nothing special, a small carn on a flattish plateau with a distant view to Glencoe and the Blackmount. To the south, a stupendous drop of two thousand feet led straight down to the old glacier bed, then up again to the north face of Ben Alder. Northwest, Geal-charn presented an almost unbroken view of pure white. Spellbound by the promise of this ice world (not to mention another peak on Munro's list), I dropped down to the little bealach and began the climb back up to the plateau of Geal-charn.

Once again, the depth of snow surprised me. Hardly a rock showed through the pack. I climbed the steepening slope for some time before the angle relented and I found myself in a desert of white, hot and still in the bright sun. Although the temperature was several degrees below freezing I felt the familiar sense, that every Alpine mountaineer will recognise, of being slowly roasted alive by the sun above and the glare of the snow beneath. I wore goggles to protect my eyes but my nose got burnt!

Even in the Cairngorms I have never seen a plateau so continuously white and desolate. I trekked for half a mile over this icy waste, aiming for the highest point, a little lump hardly thirty metres higher than the rest of the plateau. In the distance, the views became shrouded with low-lying clouds, a sort of partial temperature inversion. I began to notice old friends in the distance, familiar mountains from old adventures. From Ben Lui to the Blackmount, Glencoe to the Mamores, Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries, dozens of distant peaks brought back happy memories by the score.

The summit of Geal-charn, at 1,132m, hardly distinguished itself beyond a simple cairn and a commanding view of the Ben Nevis massif. I spent a few moments there before retracing my footsteps across the plateau, and eventually descended to the top of the pass between Bealach Dubh and Uisge Labhair, which drains into Loch Ossian. It felt very wild, standing on that bleak col many miles from the nearest road or habitation, surrounded by towering cliffs and utter silence.

The temperature dropped considerably as I walked back to my tent in the still evening, and I passed a very cold night under canvas.


I awoke a little later the next morning, reluctant as I was to get out of my warm sleeping bag. The overnight temperatures had been very low indeed and the condensation from my breathing had coated the inside of my tent with a thick layer of frost, which fell on me when I stirred; and worse, both of my water bottles had frozen into solid blocks of ice, not to mention the pan of water I had left in my tent porch. My boots had frozen to the ground and were quite useless until I had warmed them over my stove and worked the stiff laces through my teeth. Even then, it took two hours of walking before they were thawed out.

If possible, that morning was even more perfect than the previous day. Dawn painted glorious colours over the mountains and, as always, I spent a while just standing and looking in awe at the beauty of my surroundings. The walk in to the corrie of Coire an Leithchois, at the northern end of the Ben Alder complex, proved to be a little longer than the walk in the previous day, with a long detour to find a suitable river crossing over the ice. I was aiming for the Long Leachas ridge, a famous scramble and a classic way up Ben Alder. This ridge has a commanding appearance but I expected it to be easier than the Lancet Edge, as it is less narrow, and other climbers had already broken trail; this would save me a lot of effort.

The first tower on the ridge passed easily enough. After that a long and not particularly narrow snow ridge climbed upwards towards another tower, which presented the first difficulty: a steep and loose gully passing between rock walls. The rubble under the snow had not frozen in place and this little chute proved to be more insecure than I had expected, but not really out of character with this kind of route.

After the chimney, the ridge became more intricate and mixed, with some pleasant snowy scrambling leading to a short pinnacled section which provided the only real difficulty on the route. I negotiated these blunt towers, making comparisons in my mind with the Crazy Pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach (which are of course much more difficult), and soon came to a notch with a step leading out which was obviously much harder. This vertical step was about two metres high but proved to be quite awkward. I've never been much good at mixed climbing, and I found the footholds on sloping rock to be insecure. After looking for a good placement for my ice axe I eventually dug out some excellent handholds and hauled myself up this barrier.

It was the last real step on the ridge and easy scrambling now led to the plateau. Ben Alder's plateau is much rocker than Geal-charn, with a more pronounced summit and some gigantic cornices to the left, which I carefully avoided. Down in the glacial bowl of Bealach Beithe below, clouds were boiling over the mountains from Loch Ericht, and the lighting had an eerie quality that led me to believe bad weather was on its way. I had no concrete evidence for this theory but I became steadily more uneasy and convinced that a major storm could only be hours away. Consequently I hurried to the summit of Ben Alder, in increasing winds, and stayed there for only a short time before retracing my steps and locating the top of the Short Leachas ridge, which is the only relatively easy descent from Ben Alder to the north.

I met a climber who had just climbed this arete who advised me not to descend that way, due to some steep slopes, but I had no other option so carefully downclimbed the very steep upper pitch of the ridge, where snow had piled up to form a pitch of perhaps 50 degrees steepness that dropped some ten metres from the plateau down to the ridge. After that I found no difficulties except for a traverse on snow to avoid a rock tower, and right at the end of the ridge where a cliff piled high with powder drifts had to be negotiated. The wind increased as I descended. Back down in the corrie, I recrossed the ice bridge over the river and descended at speed to my camp, where I decided to strike my tent (which does not cope well with high winds) and move into the hut for my final night.

I chatted for a while with the only other inhabitant of the hut, who had climbed the Long Leachas ridge himself the previous day and had just returned from a long mission over to Aonach Beag. After camping for several nights, a dry and relatively warm room in which to lay out your gear and thaw or dry items is a real luxury. I packed everything ready for an early start in the morning.

Sure enough, when I left Culra at 5:30am, a near-gale was blowing and the weather showed further signs of deterioration. I walked the miles back to Dalwhinnie with the wind behind me and caught the first train back to Lincolnshire, glad I had not decided to stay another night as I had originally planned.

The odds for a visiting English climber of getting two near-perfect mountain days are remote, so I am beyond happy with this very special trip. For once nothing went wrong: I got no blisters, suffered no injury, experienced no late trains, and climbed everything I had set out to do. Two new Munros on my personal list now bring me up to fifty, which might be considered a small number to show for my six years of mountaineering in Scotland, but that includes over 40 ascents of Bidean nam Bian, well over 50 ascents of Stob Coire nan Lochan, and 13 ascents of Ben Nevis, not to mention all the other mountains I have climbed many times.

As always, it's about the experience and the memories, not the numbers. This is a trip I will remember for a very long time to come.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Thoughts for the blog's future (posted by James)

Despite my announcement last year that I would be leaving Glencoe in 2012, I've decided for several reasons that I won't be moving on just yet and I'll be spending another summer at the Clachaig. Personal circumstances have changed (in a very good way, today's date might give you a clue!) and I now have more incentives to stay than to leave.

I've become very aware of the massive and unaccountable rise in popularity of this blog, and I'm now in the bizarre position of being the writer of one of the most popular Scottish climbing blogs on the internet. I've got loads of new people following the site even over the last few weeks, so I think now would be a good time to explain a few things to my new readers.

I first came to Glencoe in April 2009, following a long and severe personal trauma during 2008. Six months after being told by a doctor that I'd likely never be able to climb a hill again, I found myself standing on Bidean nam Bian's icy summit with the knowledge that I'd found that rarest of things….a genuine chance to totally change my life.

The mental repercussions of what happened in 2008 still sometimes overwhelm me even now. But through my new life in the mountains I've found the closest thing there is to an antidote. Everything has changed…I've learned to live for the moment, to risk in pursuit of rewards, and to always keep looking for the next adventure.

So although on the surface this blog appears to be about climbing and mountaineering, it is really the journal of someone who is looking at the world through totally new eyes. It's about the mind-games of testing yourself when there are no margins for error, and about the great and unique feeling that can be found through challenging yourself in the mountains with no-one for company.

But above all, I hope it's about the important of seeing, and not just looking.

I thought after 3 years in Glencoe, that opportunities for adventure and amazing experiences would have decreased a lot just through me having done so much in the Glen. But the opposite is true…the fitter and more experienced I get, the more possibilities I see.

When I stood on Bidean's summit for the first time that day 3 years ago, the landscape I saw before me was a panorama of opportunity. Nothing about that has changed, and I can still get a lump in my throat when I see that view.

So folks, I'll be here a while longer yet, and I'll do my best to live up to the popularity of this blog. There never fails to be another adventure just around the corner…..I have an itch that cannot be cured.


Friday, 3 February 2012

More sunshine and Beinn Fhada's West face (posted by James)

Another perfect day in Glencoe

For the fourth day out of the last seven, this morning I found myself yet again walking in to a climb under a clear and freezing sky. Glencoe's "Lost Valley" was a a silent, crisp and frozen place today, and a wonderful start to another adventure in a wild and rarely visited place.

The mighty North-East face of Bidean nam Bian

The North East top of Beinn Fhada's West face is about as obscure as winter climbing locations get in Glencoe. I've never heard of anyone climbing here in recent years, there are only 3 recorded winter routes in the guidebooks and an internet search reveals no clues or information.

It's proper old-school up there… the last route recorded was done in 1969, there are no guidebook diagrams or UKC logbooks and the approach is steep and pathless. Mention it to most winter climbers and they'll say… "where?". It's a world apart from climbing in Coire an't Sneachda.

When on Bidean nam Bian's summit on wednesday I took some telephoto snaps of Beinn Fhada's West face, and sat down with the guidebook on a research mission. There was obvious potential for new routes. The crags aren't all that high, but with 7 days of hard frost having just passed and a fair bit of snow up top, today seemed like the perfect opportunity to go take a look.

Stob Coire nan Lochan

Once I got to the buttresses of the North-East top I nosed around a bit and first of all climbed a nice but very easy rib on the right hand side of the crag. It didn't satisfy my curiosity at all, so I descended down a gully and moved left a bit.

The buttresses I was exploring

I found a nice rocky rib dividing a snow gully with a steep and appealing wall at its base. I had a good look up and down, and with the reassurance of the rope and gear in my bag I decided to give it a shot.

The first moves going up the rock wall were nice, quality moves and at solid grade III. After a few metres you reach a small corner where you need to haul yourself up to the right to gain the crest of the rib. Thankfully all the turf was frozen solid, and after a bit of searching around through the snow I got two really positive axe placements and pulled myself upwards.

The angle relented for the rest of the rib. I got out the guidebook and checked an re-checked the 3 recorded routes, and it definitely wasn't any of them. It was a really nice route, and although short it packed a wee punch.

The start of the rocky rib which I discovered on The North-East top.

The other routes recorded are called "The Midge", "The Cleg" and "The Wasp". So in keeping with this theme, I'm going to call today's route "The Gnat" (III*).

Looking down "The Gnat" (III*)

After climbing "The Gnat", I descended a bit again an set my eyes on the buttress to the right of "The Ramp" on the summit buttress. Again checking the guidebook, I'm sure this hasn't been recorded.

Looking to Buachaille Etive Beag from Beinn Fhada

It gave a pleasant turfy route at about grade II, nothing remarkable but from some angles a very obvious mountain feature. As from some angles it is a wall blocking "The Ramp" from view, I've decided naming it "The Rampart" (II) is an obvious choice.

"The Rampart" is the buttress to the right of the snow gully just right of centre

Once I topped out from "The Rampart" I walked along the Beinn Fhada ridge in bright sunshine to the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. Blue sky all around, the noise of climber's calls echoing from the distant cliffs of Stob Coire nan Lochan.

Today included all the ingredients of a great Scottish winter climbing day. Solitude, cold, sunshine, blue skies. Exploring and challenging yourself in a rarely visited place with only your self-awareness and experience as allies. Spot on.


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A stunning day on Stob Coire nam Beith (posted by James)

A wonderful start to February

As I'm writing this the skin on my face is slightly sore, a bit sunburnt after a great few hours out in the sun and snow. Today was one of those days that makes you forgive all the weeks of drizzle and cloud, in fact the best day of the winter so far in Glencoe.

Clear skies over the Aonach Eagach

Under a clear and freezing sky I made the steep walk into Coire nam Beithach this morning, with vague plans for either Number 1 Buttress or North-West Gully.

A flawless morning on the way to Bidean nam Bian

But as I walked up into the corrie, I wanted to get into the sunshine as quickly as possible. The sky was turning bluer by the minute….today was a day for photography, not for climbing.

So I changed my mind and climbed Stob Coire nam Beith via Summit Gully (II*) instead, a route I'd never done and the most direct line to the summit and the sunshine.

Despite a bit of crust and slab the gully was in pretty good and fat condition. However this doesn't look to the be the case for the other gullies on the mountain which are all looking a bit lean. Arch Gully looks okay, but there isn't enough ice yet for Central Gully or Deep Cut Chimney.

A climber on West Chimney, Church Door Buttress

The top of Summit Gully is an atmospheric place - you twist and turn around a few large towers which divide the gully and you get a great view looking down.

But I wasn't really fussed about the route, I just wanted to get to the sunlit ridge above.

Hourglass Gully and Bidean's West top

It was a wonderful feeling, to pull myself over the steep snow lip and emerge into the sparkling and wintery world of the summit ridge. It was very cold indeed in the wind, but that didn't stop the sun having a bite to it… reflecting off the snow all around.

I made the wonderful and familiar crossing over to the summit of Bidean nam Bian, marvelling at the amount of snow that has accumulated in the corries below. Don't let some of the pessimism online about this winter put you off…there is a great deal of snow around and the high mountains are very much in full winter condition.

Old packed snowdrifts in Coire nam Beithach, about 12 feet deep

Sitting on the summit of Bidean in the sunshine, I couldn't help but think back to the legendary season of 2009/10….the winter when clear skies and frosty days were the norm. I don't know how many times that winter I stood on Bidean's summit and looked across the frozen and silent landscape of Glencoe.

But it's an experience you can never tire of…and to be up there today was just as exciting as the first time I ever stood on Bidean's noble summit in the snow.