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.


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