Monday, 28 May 2012

A day to remember on the N.E Ridge of Aonach Beag

 The North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag (Difficult*) - the steep ridge line just right of centre

 A golden eagle soared slowly over Glen Nevis as I trudged my way back to my car after a successful dawn climb. Only 10am…and already 25 degrees centigrade. Even the eagle looked to be having a lazy day today.

With the heatwave continuing, last night after my shift I decided to go and try a climb that I've wanted to do for years, one that needs really dry conditions to be safe to attempt to solo.

"One of the great traditional Scottish ridge climbs…now much neglected and forgotten"-  that's what has to say about the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag. For me it had become one of the last great summer mountaineering routes in Lochaber that I hadn't climbed, a huge route that has all the ingredients that in my opinion make a climb special.

 The crux towers of The North-East Ridge. The route heads towards a chimney underneath the patch of pale rock at the top of the tower.

The North-East Ridge (Difficult*) is often associated with forced retreats and unsuccessful ascents, especially when wet or snowy. So inevitably when I'm going off to solo a route like that I need to be in exactly the right frame of mind. Work had been mad on sunday night and one again I forgot all thoughts of sleep and drove towards Steall at 2am.

The Chemical Brothers were my company on the long, punishing and pathless approach up Allt Choire a'Bhuic, full volume on my iPod to keep me awake and energised after having no rest. But my iPod was switched off as I started the descent from the col into Coire Bhealach.

 Dawn over Binnein Beag and Binnein Mor

Coire Bhealach, the huge corrie underneath Aonach Beag's North-East Face, is a singularly magnificent place. There are few if any places in Lochaber to equal it for its sheer scale, huge snowfields still clinging onto the face, overlooking the wild and beautiful glen below. Waterfalls flow onto old banks of snow, boulders occasionally detach and come crashing down the face. By comparison the North face of Ben Nevis is remarkably tamed.

 Old snow on the North-East face

After 3 hours of trudging tussocky ground I finally started up the North-East Ridge. From below it looks very straightforward and the initial scrambling would appear to suggest the same thing, but the route is a deceptive one.

The Aonach Mor snowfields

A few hundred feet of easy scrambling deliver you quite suddenly below a huge fin of rock that looks fairly unclimbable. It took me a while of nosing around to work out the route took an unlikely steep wall up to the top of the fin, and despite its appearance I climbed it easily.

The first steep wall

Then the fun started. To progress up the ridge you must reach a vertical chimney via a slimy and exposed ledge traverse. This is why I've waited until exceptionally dry conditions, because the ledge is pretty nasty.

Easy but delicate teetering on moss and slime brought me to a step on the ledge which made me distinctly uncomfortable. There was very little solid or safe to step on or pull up on, and a slight wrong turn got me pretty scared for a moment as one of my feet slipped. I managed to get in balance and up the step to the relatively safe ground below the crux chimney.

The chimney was a good old-fashioned inelegant squeeze up slimy holds, and it took a bit of intuition to climb it. My scare on the ledge made it seem harder than perhaps it should, and I battled for a short while with the chimney before eventually breathing a sigh of relief as I hauled myself to safety above.

 Looking up the awkward crux chimney

I quickly climbed the rest of the ridge, easier but amazingly exposed ground. From above you can really see what a great route it is, I suppose similar in a way to Ben Nevis' Tower Ridge but climbed far less often. I trudged soft snow to the summit and sat down smiling. I was very pleased to have soloed it.

My walk back to Glen Nevis was exhausting in the unreal heat of the sun. Even at 8am it was too hot. But I spent a while wading in the river on the way down, enjoying the peaceful sensation of cold water flowing around my legs and taking in the extreme beauty of Coire Giubhsachan. 

 Coire Giubhsachan - a fine place to cool off.

Seven hours after setting out I was back down and watching the golden eagle. What a privilege, especially after a morning on such a fine climb in a wild and magnificent place. A morning I'll remember for a long while.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Giant's Staircase

Stob Ban and the summit of The Giant's Staircase

It felt odd…driving through Fort William towards a climb whilst people were still staggering home from wherever they'd been drinking. 2am this morning, and whilst a few folk were still sat outside with their beers enjoying a beautiful summer night, the brightness of the dawn was already appearing on the horizon as I drove towards the Grey Corries.

The weather of the last few days has been incredibly hot for the Highlands, so much so that it doesn't quite feel real. After a busy night in the Clachaig last night and with the evening so stuffy and warm, I decided to forget any thought of sleep and go out for a wee adventure before my 10 hour split-shift started at 11am.

 Dawn near Corriechollie

Between Stob Ban and Stob Choire Claurigh in the Grey Corries is an impressive area of quartzite slabs known as "The Giant's Staircase". It first caught my attention a couple of years ago and I've wanted to climb it since then just as it is such an attractive and quite unusual bit of mountain.

The Giant's Staircase is the huge area of slabs on the right of the photo

It is natural drainage area so it needs a very dry period of weather before you climb it otherwise its smooth quartize slabs would be dangerously slippery. Today it was going to be as dry as you would ever find it.

The walk along the Lairig Leacach was pretty magic this morning, the promise of a fine sunrise slowly illuminating the horizon and throwing the hills into silhouette. I still find it odd for it to be pretty much light at 4am. When the sun finally broke above the horizon it did so with style, making the already impressive Corbett of Sgurr Inse look magnificent.

Sunrise over Sgurr Inse

It was a beautiful, still and silent approach to the base of The Giant's Staircase. Only the occasional stag running through the heather disturbed the peace…I can't remember having such a feeling of total calm for quite a while. It is a magic thing, to be alone in such surroundings when few other people are even awake.

A perfect morning

The Staircase itself is one of the best scrambles I've done in this part of Scotland. Easy but delicate scrambling up beautiful smooth slabs, finding faint cracks and weaknesses to make your way upwards. And it really does feel like a staircase, huge quartize steps interspersed regularly with grassy terraces.

One of the quartize slabs.

Already by 6am I was surprised how warm it was. It was turning into yet another perfect summer day and I still had time to spare…so instead of descending back to the Lairig Leacach track I hurtled up to the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh and spent a while taking in its incredible view along the Grey Corries Ridge.

 The Grey Corries ridge from Stob Choire Claurigh

The North-East faces of Aonach Beag and Ben Nevis

And then a three mile run from Stob Coire Claurigh and over Stob Coire na Ceannan back down to my car, and back to Clachaig with an hour to spare before starting my shift. Quite a morning.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Deep in thought on Aonach Dubh's "Middle Ledge" (posted by James)

The Middle Ledge, the vegetated ledge in the centre

Despite my almost obsessive interest with the West face of Aonach Dubh in Glencoe, dawn this morning was the first time I've ever done the traverse of The Middle Ledge - the horizontal break running across the face that can be seen from miles away.

I don't know why. I suppose I've just never got around to it before. It is mainly an access route to the climbs on the upper tier, but even by itself it is an utterly spectacular place. Huge buttresses and rock walls overhang the ledge so far that you are subjected to a constant shower of dripping water from above…you look up into the air, and the water drops look to be falling horizontally, such is the steepness of rock that overhangs above you.

The scenery and rock architecture you move though is undoubtably amongst the most impressive in Scotland. Yet there is such a feeling of solitude here. On days when the cliffs of the Buachaille and Ben Nevis are crowded with climbers, you are likely to see no-one on the West face.

The Middle Ledge traverses underneath the obvious rock-band in the centre

I climbed the "Amphitheatre Escape" and F-Buttress via "Archie's Ridge" in a state of deep thought. For a while now I've been focusing on the idea of a one-day solo traverse of the Cuillin Ridge this summer… a massive test of fitness, concentration and mountaineering competence, and one which I am finally fit for. The idea has been very inspiring for months, a project to focus on for the summer months whilst I wait for the next winter.

But today on the Middle Ledge I had one of those lengthy periods of clarity that are so rare yet so important when they happen. I'd only be attempting a one-day solo of the Cuillin Ridge during a period of stable weather in the next month or so due to the amount of daylight available. But then…everyone else wanting to do it would be there too. Likely enough I'd be waiting at the base of Am Basteir or the Innaccessible Pinnacle waiting for a queue of climbers to move so that it would be my turn. I've never experienced the ridge during mid-summer, but everything I've read recently suggests it can be a bit mad during good weather.

It's not very often that I've been so inspired by a summer climbing goal. For many reasons I remain very focused on winter climbing, new winter routes in obscure places. The Cuillin Ridge traverse is a world classic, a superb challenge. But…do I really want to focus on a challenge that will inevitably involve so many other people nearby as well?

On Aonach Dubh this morning it all seemed so obvious. At 6am I was staring up at the stupendous cliffs of E Buttress, alone with the knowledge that few others were even awake. My last 3 years in the Scottish mountains have been characterised by solitude, defining moments in cold and lonely places with no-one else in sight. 

The photos of a queue of 200 climbers attempting Mount Everest today clinched it for me. I don't care how big or famous the challenge, how impressive an achievement something is….I want to experience it in the way that I know and love the mountains for. Alone.

So. One of these days, I dare say I will solo the Cuillin Ridge in a day. But not this year. There are so many other climbs I want to see through this year, in only the company of myself and the approaching dawn and with no-one else there trying the same thing. I will invent my own challenges.

Today it is my birthday. Since this time last year I've learnt a lot about myself, what the mountains mean to me and what I really want for them. And the importance of living true to yourself. I wonder what I will post on my next birthday? I guess we'll see in a year's time.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hill running..a natural progression? (posted by James)

Coire nam Beith, Glencoe - where I learnt to run up-hill.

It's here again…the "post-winter limbo". The winter climbing season is over and I've hung up my axes again for the few short months before a trip to the Alps in September. And there it is, like every year…the slight feeling of emptiness now that the thrills and intensity of winter climbing are gone again until the next season.

In previous years, after a good deal of grumbling at the arrival of summer, I've set to work at hurtling through the Munros at an unsustainable pace as a hobby whilst I waited for the start of the next winter.

But it feels so different this year. I've already had some brilliant climbing days on the Cuillin and in Glencoe and I am more motivated than ever for pushing myself on summer solo climbs. But where has my hillwalking "mojo" gone? My motivation for hillwalking and Munros is at an all-time low.

But when it comes to running…the only other time I've felt such excitement at discovering something is when I went winter climbing for the first time. I've been running for about 6 years now but it's only in the last year or so that I've turned my attention to the absurd idea of running up-hill, something that is basically self-inflicted pain when you first start.

A year ago I couldn't understand it. I had a strong base of hill-fitness built up over 5 years of activity in Scotland, the Alps and elsewhere…yet when it came to running up-hill I felt pathetically unfit, and it all seemed rather like flogging a dead horse.

But I suppose a lot can change in a year if you put in the effort. I've been running up-hill about 4 days a week now for a few months but until recently progress seemed pretty slow. Now I'm not sure what has happened really…but literally in the space of the last 4 weeks things have changed dramatically.

It feels like something has "clicked" within me. All of a sudden running up-hill feels so much easier, my lung capacity seems to have gone through the roof and my legs can keep going for longer. Is it normal for things to change so suddenly after a long while of little progress? I've changed a few things for sure. I drink less alcohol, I have a more balanced diet and I've been working on my core muscles. 

But I think I know what has done it really. I suppose you can best describe it as "ignoring the signals to stop". Being able to run up-hill requires a very high level of fitness, there's no two ways about it. And the only way to attain it is by pushing your body through levels of stress that it isn't used to, and then continuing to do so when it is begging, shouting, screaming at you to stop. It's amazing the results you can get if you just dig a little deeper every time you go out.

Just now I can foresee a time in the not too distant future when hill-running could almost entirely take over from hill-walking as my summer hobby. I suppose rock-climbing is a natural step-up from scrambling, and winter climbing (arguably) the step-up from rock-climbing. So is this just a phase….or another natural progression? We'll see.


Friday, 4 May 2012

Above the clouds on the Buachaille (posted by James)

Breaking through the clouds, heading towards North Buttress

Another day, another memorable experience in the mountains! What a week I have had….almost unbroken sunshine since sunday, a rare blessing in the low-pressure dominated Highland climate.

Unfortunately for me it has coincided with a very busy week at work with little spare time. I've been in a state of permanent fatigue since about tuesday but there's no way I was going to let work get in the way of me enjoying one of the few periods of good weather we are treated to each summer. I've been busy, to say the least.

That having been said, on thursday morning I had planned a bit of sleep, tired from my climbs on Aonach Dubh plus a draining shift on wednesday, and the day before, and the day before….

But at 7am, I was woken by bright sunshine shining through my window. I peeked out the was already warm. A thought stirred in my head. It had been a scorcher on wednesday, followed by a cold night, and now warm again….there was a good chance of that most magical of things, a cloud inversion.

A cloud sheet where Rannoch Moor should be

Despite aching pretty much everywhere it didn't take much effort to drag myself out of bed and head towards the Buachaille to see if I would be in luck. As I reached the Meeting of the Three Waters I drove into a bank of fog, a promising sign. I nosed my way up to the start of North Buttress and started climbing through the fog.

North Buttress

My instincts had been correct. Very soon I climbed above through the gloom and into the bright sunshine above, and I was treated to the experience of looking down on a huge sheet of cloud covering the entirety of Rannoch Moor. 

Sgurr Eilde Mor over the cloud

Schiehallion in the distance, always the landmark, Ben Nevis to the North towering above everything else, Meall a'Bhuiridh being tickled by wisps of cloud…. there is nothing quite like a cloud inversion.

The Blackmount above the cloud

It felt tiring, climbing the familiar crux chimneys of North Buttress and then running from the summit down Coire na Tulaich. But my tired muscles didn't seem to matter anymore, it had been yet another brilliant day during a memorable week.

The weather has changed today, so now to rest and try and catch up with some ordinary day-to-day life stuff. Hillwalking and running next week I think, until the next high pressure arrives.


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

"West is Best" (posted by James)

Looking down during the first ascent of "West is Best" (V.Diff*), West face Aonach Dubh

It's been a very, very tiring week for me this week. During the last few hours of my shift yesterday I was feeling a strong need to get and totally clear my mind of all work-related thoughts. And I don't know any better way to do that than to go and climb something that is going to be a challenge.

E Buttress, dry as a bone

There's an amazing mix of conditions in the Highlands just now - whilst Cairngorm is enjoying deep snow and superb skiing, the crags of Glencoe are turning dry and warm in the hot sunshine. The West definitely is the place to be for mountain rock climbing just now, something that was confirmed by a quick scan with the binoculars of the West Face of Aonach Dubh yesterday evening. It looked unusually dry.

Coire nam Beithach

The West face has a way of focusing the mind and engaging you better than nearly anywhere else I know. It's where I needed to be this morning.

After a rapid ascent and traverse of the Upper Rake, I climbed the beautifully formed areté of "Shrike Ridge" (Difficult) en route to my objective for the day, the un-named pinnacle on the far Southern end of the face.

Looking down "Shrike Ridge"

A few weeks back I made the first ascent of "West Wall Route" (Difficult) on the pinnacle, but ever since I've been bugged by the idea of climbing a more direct, harder and higher quality route up the West Wall. Today I was in exactly the right frame of mind to go and solo something hard, and that I didn't know that I'd be able to climb.

First of all though I found a more direct route up the East Wall, following a steep line of cracks and then finishing up the final corner of "East Wall Route". It was brilliantly refreshing to be climbing on such warm rock in hot sunshine. But when I topped out I didn't feel like my thirst had been quenched.

"East Wall Semi-Direct" (Diff*), the first of two new routes today

So after psyching myself up for a while, I moved round to the base of the West Wall. The route that I had in mind looked intimidating - steep without obvious holds and with a blind corner at the top. It was going to be a test of nerve indeed to solo.

But if I was ever going to climb it, it was going to be today. So I went for it. The first moves were steep, climbing a thin crack up a corner…and my heart was beating a bit faster than it should have been. But after a few deep breaths I felt amazing, on my best form and very confident so I climbed it smoothly. 

The line of "West is Best"

Onto a small ledge, and then a superb, steep and clean crack up a near-vertical corner. It felt like a hard few metres to climb without a rope, every handhold a question mark. It took me a few attempts at different positions, but after a while I got it right and teetered my way up the corner crack with a rising sense of euphoria.

It didn't end there though, the blind corner above the crack baffled me for a bit and it was all rather steep and unsure. I very nearly lost it at one point, but a hidden hand-hold to my left saved the day and I topped out from the route into the sunshine.

The top move follows the thin crack in the middle and then up left

I sat on top of the unnamed pinnacle for a while, elated by the experience. It's pretty magic to find an unrecorded route, climb it on-sight without a rope and to find that it was a very good route indeed. It's amazing how different my state of mind was from this time yesterday.

I decided to call the route "West is Best" (V.Diff*) due to the West Highlands being the place to be for rock climbing just now and the fact that it's a grand route up the West Wall. Here's the descriptions.

"East Wall Semi-Direct" (Diff*) - 15m. FA James Roddie 02/05/12
 - Start at the base of the East wall and traverse across to a large moss patch.
 - Climb a sharp block to gain a thin crack leading straight to a narrow ledge.
 - Climb the broken corner above to gain the top corner of "East Wall Route".

"West is Best" (V.Diff*) - 15m, FA James Roddie 02/05/12
- The middle corner system up the West Wall of the unnamed pinnacle.
 - Climb a steep crack in a corner up to a recess filled with blocks.
 - Go straight up the wide crack above that splits the broad corner with a smooth wall to the left.
 - Finish up by the awkward blind corner with a slightly overhanging move and a hidden left handhold.