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.