Tuesday, 29 January 2013

"Relentless forward progress"

A toothbrush. Lying on the ground on a steep track above Kinlochleven, it catches my eye as I run past in the torrential rain. It briefly makes me think of the summer hordes walking this section of the West Highland Way, tired and pissed off and wanting it to be over. I rapidly discard this cynical thought, and lean into the next gust of wind as I start up the next steepening.

Twenty minutes later, and the track I'm running has given up any pretence of being a path and seems to have resigned itself to life as a river instead. My wet feet are numb, my face stings with the cold of the wind and it is raining so hard I can barely see.

Hill-reps. Jeez, they can hurt sometimes. Uphill fast, then down, then up again faster….repeat. Hillrunning is fully revealing itself as an odd but addictive past-time, in fact the only thing I've known so far that has almost as much inherent suffering as winter climbing.

A lot of the time it hurts, my lungs want to burst and my leg muscles are quietly whispering at me to just stop. It would be so much harder to listen if they were screaming.

Running uphill, and trying to learn to be oblivious to my body's signals. My latest, most rewarding, and wholly unattractive addiction. In the last year and a half it has caused my mind to bend on occasions, and now my body is a different and more efficient thing too.

What next?


Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Dragon's Tooth

"The Dragon's Tooth", and "Left Buttress", on the left...
Since last Thursday the mountains have been battered by some savage winds, relentless Easterlies which have dramatically altered the distribution of snow in the corries and tops.

Conditions have been tricky and quite complex, so with a good forecast for yesterday I headed out into the Mamores to see what had been revealed now that the cloud was lifting. In order to avoid avalanche risk I'd headed to an East facing crag, but hadn't anticipated just how drastically the winds had been shifting the snow - and found that my intended routes had nearly been stripped bare by the gales.

Very deep drifting on some slopes
So a change of plan was in order. A quick descent back to my car and some head-scratching to figure out if I still had time to climb anything before my shift started at 5pm….

It was shaping up to be a stunning day, and I couldn't let it go to waste. An hour later I was stood in knee deep snow in the forested corrie above Ballachulish looking up at my Plan B.

"The Dragon's Tooth" (Sgorr a' Chaolais)  is a beautiful ridge and a fairly unique mountain feature that to me has always been the defining feature of Beinn a'Bheithir. The mythical perch of a dragon that supposedly lived above Ballachulish, it is a compelling route and one I've been meaning to do for years.

The full length of "The Dragon's Tooth"
But it's one that isn't in good winter condition very often due to its relatively low altitude and close proximity to a sea-loch. It needs a good freeze, a dump of snow down to low levels and fairly cloudy conditions.

After an hour or so of wading through some surprisingly deep snow drifts in and above the forest beneath the Tooth, I almost resorted to swimming through some of the accumulations in order to reach the base of the route. The wind has created some very deep drifts indeed.

In order to get on steeper ground as soon as possible, I decided to climb the route by a harder and more direct start - "Left Buttress" is an unremarkable Grade III that I climbed quickly and soon reached the crest of the tooth.

The ground well frozen, but snow starting to strip off in the sunshine.
For a route that is so neglected and often forgotten, I thought it was one of the most enjoyable mountaineering routes in the area. A nice exposed pinnacle mid-way along with a enjoyable "hand-rail" traverse, a short abseil off a steep section further along and with great views towards Lochaber and Ardgour.

Looking back to the abseil off the pinnacle.

Although not remotely challenging it was a great day in perfect weather. There is something special about finally getting round to climbing a route you've wanted to do for a while, especially winter routes like The Dragon's Tooth that aren't in good winter condition very often.

On a different note, the Bidean nam Bian avalanche on Saturday that so tragically killed four mountaineers, has rarely left my thoughts for the last few days. Being in charge of the Clachaig boots bar on Saturday was a hard and sad experience, the bar full of climbers worrying and discussing the rescue that was still in progress, not knowing that the outcome was to be one of the Highland's worst mountain tragedies of recent decades.

I held a minute's silence at 9pm, the only time the Clachaig has been silent on a Saturday night since the Buachaille Etive Mor avalanche of 24th February 2010 which killed Chris Walker and Robert Pritchard.

Glencoe awoke a deeply sad place on Sunday morning. To Lochaber and Glencoe Mountain Rescue Teams, I am humbled by the work you did on Saturday, as always. And to the surviving two victims of the avalanche, and the victim's friends and families, you are in all our thoughts.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Devil in the wind?

 "Devil's Rib" (III*), Sgurr a'Mhaim West face, Mamores.

At 9am this morning I was scared. I was alone beneath a grade III buttress called "Devil's Rib", and I was scared what the howling wind was doing to my thoughts.

I was scared I wasn't bold enough to solo it. I was scared of going home empty handed. I was scared I'd turn around and retreat, I was scared of un-finished business.

Even through the constant spindrift and my snowed-up goggles, the route looked steep as I'd trudged through soft snow in the corrie towards its start. But it looked beautiful, a spiked crest rising up to join the famous summit ridge of Sgurr a'Mhaim.  I wanted it badly. 

 A relentless wind scouring the slopes of the Mamores.

But the wind…the wind seemed to be oozing negativity into my bones, tearing away the positive vibes so crucial to the mind of a soloist. Why was I so afraid of the idea of turning around, of coming back to fight another day? Fear of the route itself was only slight in comparison. Why was there such a battle raging in my mind as to whether to commit to the route or not?

My face stung with the icy needles being launched at me by the wind and I felt a deep chill. But all of a sudden my decision was made, and I started climbing. And now I felt calm.

And ever so spookily, the wind dropped to an abrupt lull and stayed there as I made my first moves up the toe of the route. Calm spread over me, and all my attention now turned to climbing this route which had for whatever reason become so significant.

A few steep steps on good turf. A narrow steepening ramp under an overhang, snapping icicles above me with my helmet. The end of the ramp, and a short but frightening crux, whispering my thanks for solid axe placements in the turf above. Over the crux, a sigh of relief, easier ground, another tricky step and then all of a sudden…the battering and ferocious wind roaring over the summit ridge of Sgurr a'Mhaim.

In the middle of the ramp before the crux

 An exposed traverse after the crux, with Stob Ban in the background

I was on top of my route and had got the better of the difficult to-and-fros that had been going on inside my head. But now a painful and slow wade through deep windslab to the summit of Sgurr a'Mhaim, a rising sense of elation getting the better of me as every mountain in Lochaber blurred with swirling spindrift in the wind.

 Photography becoming difficult in the strengthening winds

And then, in the last few metres to the summit, another abrupt lull in the wind. The clouds covering the sun moved and sudden total silence enveloped the sunlit landscape around me. Not a sound, for a few moments. And the quiet gave me a minute to reflect on the route I'd just climbed, despite all that had been going on in my head. Fear, confusion and self-doubt had been replaced with ecstasy.

 The sudden calm and silent view East from the summit of Sgurr a'Mhaim

 Aonach Beag

Sometimes, very occasionally, everything comes together in a most unexpected way to create a perfect day. Lots of the days in the hills are great, but few are perfect. But every so often the stars align, and you are able to experience a very unique sense of peace and contentment. That is what happened to me today, and I'm quite happy to not be able to make sense of it.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Leococyte Buttress

 Leococyte Buttress (III*), the buttress in the centre.

Despite some of the on-line speculation that the winter climbing season had come to an early and abrupt end last week, winter's inevitable return has been a rapid one. Only 5 days ago the remaining snow cover in the West Highlands was restricted to a few high-up snow-fields and easy gullies, and yet things have changed so rapidly that plenty of teams have been out on successful accents of mixed climbs today and snow is lying almost to sea-level. 

A glorious day on Beinn a'Chreachain

With a freeze followed by a healthy dump of snow, I was very eager…no anxious…to get out climbing today. The last few weeks of thaw have left me more motivated than ever, and its reminded me yet again that you can't take anything for granted with a Scottish winter. The weather and conditions can change so quickly, you have to get it while you can.

 Magic at first light

Today I wanted to climb somewhere different. Although I love the feeling of getting to know crags, corries and mountains very intimately, there's always a great feeling that comes from climbing somewhere new. So I decided to take a chance that conditions would be good and headed towards Bridge of Orchy. 
 A cold wind and some mist for atmosphere

When I soloed "Stairway to Heaven" on Beinn an Dothaidh in December, it really opened my eyes to just how different climbing on those hills feels to climbing in Glencoe or Lochaber. The sense of space and the expanse of the view over Rannoch Moor is unlike the steep and precipitous surroundings of Glencoe.

Beinn a'Chreachain is the most northerly of the Bridge of Orchy hills, a long walk from the car and its corrie has a nice feeling of seclusion and remoteness. And it was here that I headed today, a walk of 3 hours through fresh snow before I reached the base of the corrie.

I arrived with an open mind, but quickly my sights were set on "Leococyte Buttress" (Grade III*). It was the central and most aesthetic of the buttresses in the corrie and looked to be a route I'd be comfortable soloing.
 Near the base of the route

The initial icefall mentioned in the guidebook was very thin so I climbed mixed ground to its side to reach the centre of the buttress. I became increasingly covered with spindrift that soon became non-stop….and it felt great to be in amongst real winter again.

 Turfy mixed.

I found the climbing straightforward and open to much variation. And I'm glad that I did, as today was a day to take in the glorious views that were becoming more wonderful by the minute. As the sky cleared and turned to blue, the sunny panorama over Rannoch Moor became absolutely awesome.

After soaking in as much as I could on the summit, I started the long walk back to my car with content. Today wasn't about the climbing, it was about exploring a remote and secluded place and savouring every moment, and about reminding myself that every day out in the Highlands in winter is a privilege. Roll on more.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Number 2 Gully and a great sunrise on the Ben

Intense colours during an amazing sunrise on Ben Nevis

 Today reminded me of a very important truth - that it is still possible to have a truly great day on a climb that you've done more than once before.

I headed up Ben Nevis today in search of some nevĂ© to climb. I had a great month in December in terms of climbing but all on mixed routes, and although this is what I prefer there is something just so enjoyable about climbing gullies on perfect solid snow. 

The summit at dawn 
Due to various things the last time I went climbing was almost a month ago. So needless to say I've been getting itchy feet and observing the persistent thaw with unease. So although I prefer to climb routes I've never done before whenever I go climbing in winter, a reliable route was the name of the game for me today. And although I've climbed Number 2 Gully twice before, both on beautiful days, this was my eventual choice for this morning.

 The great cleft of Number 2 Gully

I really fancied topping out for the sunrise, and an ascent of the gully in semi-darkness really appealed. It is an extremely atmospheric route, a deep cleft in the mountainside with steep and jagged walls on each side. Approaching its base in the silent dark was awesome, with just the "polystyrene" sound of my crampons biting firm snow and a ptarmigan's call echoing around Tower Ridge.

And although an ascent of Number 2 is always a pleasure in itself, I decided to put my own spin on it to make it more interesting. I decided to try and get from the car to the summit via the gully as quick as I could, and it was exhilarating to be blasting up the North face at my fastest speed through the dark.

The early bird catches the worm...
The long thaw and now re-freeze high up has transformed the slush into bomber solid snow which was a pleasure to climb. I found myself being able to go at a very fast pace as every axe and crampon placement was perfect first time. 

 A photo for everyone saying "there's no snow left in Scotland"....

So 2 hours 53 minutes after leaving the car I was at the summit cairn, and I was about to be treated to an awesome spectacle. The sun started to rise above the broken cloud inversion below me, and the whole world turned gold. I waved at my own "Brocken Spectre" levitating above the void of the North face and pink light spread over the mountain tops of the entire Western Highlands. It really does not get much better.

 Incredible cloud and lighting effects

 My "Brocken Spectre" hovering over the North face.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A very rewarding year

2012 was always going to be a bit of a question-mark for me…would I be able to maintain my momentum for yet another year in Glencoe? After having totally immersed myself in the glen and the West Highlands since 2009, would I be able to  keep finding new things to climb and having new great experiences to the same degree for another year?

 The Northern Cuillin after soloing Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean.

Thankfully the answer has been a definite yes, and yet again I've had a year that has exceeded my expectations and surpassed 2011 for the sheer number of great days I've had.

2012 has been a brilliant year to spend in the West Highlands. In total contrast to the almost perpetual rain of 2011, this year has been defined by how much the sun has shone. After a poor second half of the winter, the spring and early summer were gorgeous and two lengthy heat-waves gave me the most memorable period of climbing I've ever had in a Scottish summer so far. The autumn was beautiful with stunning displays of colours and sunrises and starscapes amongst the best I've seen, and this winter started with a long cold snap and plenty of winter routes in good condition.

Early morning drama over the Aonach Eagach, Glencoe

But I knew that this year, my approach would have to change in order for me to remain as inspired and energetic as previous years. After you spend a certain amount of time somewhere (even somewhere as awesome as Glencoe) you can find your level of enthusiasm for getting out a bit more stretched than it used to be. The excitement of being somewhere new has calmed. 

Sunset in Glencoe
But I didn't just want to retain my enthusiasm and momentum, I wanted to increase it. The excitement of being new here has left and been replaced by a deep love for the area and a desire to get to know it again through a different set of eyes.

 First ascent of "The Surprise" (Severe*), Aonach Dubh, Glencoe

So how was I to do this? How do you make an area so familiar to you become a new playground again?

I needed to take my hill-fitness to a new level, to increase it to a point where I could be taking on normally 6-8 hour hill-days in a quarter of that time instead. I wanted to be fit enough so that I could enjoy the views from Ben Nevis and the Aonach Eagach on the same morning without having to think about aching legs. I wanted to be able to climb long mountaineering routes during a 3 hour break during a work-shift.

The Northern Lights, a meteor shower and the finest star-scape I've ever seen - an incomparable night on Rannoch Moor.

So I did. And it was very simple really…I ran uphill, up and down the corries several times a week for the last 14 months of so. It has been one of the single best changes to my lifestyle I've ever made - not only have I been out in the hills more frequently than ever before, but the fitness I've gained from hill-running has gone way beyond anything I was expecting.
 Soloing the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag in scorching May weather. A very memorable and adventurous mountain route.

But I knew that increasing fitness was only one stepping stone towards achieving the kinds of days in the mountains I was after. Whilst some of my finest ever days in the mountains have not been the result of boldness, aiming higher this year on the routes I was soloing was going to be the key to opening up more possibilities. 

A golden eagle above Sgurr Thuilm, Glenfinnan.
And so, this year, it was time to start going for the routes which I'd always considered just that little bit too dangerous or hard for me to solo in the past. As a result some of the routes I've climbed this year have been some of the most memorable I've ever done. From long mountaineering adventures like the NE Ridge of Aonach Beag to short but high quality new routes in Glencoe.
Soloing "Archie's Ridge" (III,4*), Aonach Dubh West face.
As always though, I've reminded myself that no amount of fitness or boldness will necessarily determine which days are the best. The mountains do that. In my opinion climbing the hardest route you've ever done will never surpass the feeling of elation that comes from being high above a cloud inversion as the sun rises, or watching a meteor shower against the backdrop of the Northern Lights.
At the base of Beinn Eighe's mighty East Buttress, one of Scotland's best Difficult mountain routes.
Mountain sunrises and cloud inversions, long distance ridge traverses after no sleep, visits to Skye, Handa, Raasay and Fladday, close encounters with golden eagles, watching an otter swimming in Loch Etive…this year has reminded me yet again that there is so, so much more to the mountains than climbing.
 Schiehallion viewed from Carn Mor Dearg.

So 2013 is here, and it is time for me to re-define my own boundaries yet again. I have a bit of hard work to do to raise my fitness a bit higher again to open up another new set of possibilities, and I can't wait to get my teeth stuck in.

A very happy new year to you all folks. Keep safe and have fun in the mountains in 2013.