Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Odyssey and Langsam

The first icefall on "Odyssey" (II/III*), Bidean nam Bian

It just keeps coming! 10 days straight of sunshine, cold nights, firm snow and stonking conditions on the highest mountains. Almost too good to be true. But true it is, and the last 10 days have been some of my most active ever during a winter season.

In some ways I've neglected Glencoe a bit this winter, preferring instead to climb in new venues and explore different places. It has been brilliant, but climbing on Stob Coire nam Beith the other day made me realise I've missed climbing in the Glen. There is so much quality on my doorstep, too much to ever tire of.

It had been a while since I'd climbed on the ever popular Stob Coire nan Lochan. It used to be a regular haunt when I first came here, until I realised I preferred the obscure and remote to crowded and classic.

 Coire nan Lochan at first light


That having been said it is one of the finest corries around, something I was reminded of vividly this morning. My plan A didn't was not to be, but the startling dawn was reward enough for being up so early. I seem to have seen a lot of startling dawns in the last ten days.

Change of plans, and over to Summit Buttress where I found great nevé and some enjoyable steepness on "Langsam" (II*), a route I'd never climbed before. The guidebook description confused me (as it seems to a lot of people) but I followed a twisting icefall over several bulges to reach a narrow groove running towards the summit, with great quality ice and snow throughout.

Looking up to the next ice bulge on "Langsam" (II*)
The view to Bidean on a morning like today is quite something to behold, and immediately I gave into temptation and set off up towards its summit to try and climb another route.

Bidean nam Bian's North ridge

Looking towards Stob Coire Sgreamhach

On the steep ground to the right of Hourglass Gully are a series of icefalls coming down slabby ground to reach the snowslopes below. I'd noticed an entry in the 2011 SMC new routes journal about one of these, and it became my second route for the day.

"Odyssey" (II/III*) started with a short icefall - bomber hooks and reassuring footplacements throughout. After a short section of steep snow you reach the upper half of the icefall, and here things changed quite rapidly.

Great nevé on the first icefall

Whilst the lower icefall was on thick nevé, I found the ice to be crusty and far less fat on the upper half of the route. It certainly focused the mind…occasional "dinner-plate" pick placements seeming alien compared to the conditions I've been climbing in all week.
Odyssey climbs a partially snow-covered icefall towards the right of the photo

The route was continuously quite steep with no rests at all, and although no-where harder than low-end Grade III ice, it felt like a committing and fairly serious solo.

How much longer will the great conditions last?…


Sunday, 24 February 2013

Nutcracker and North-West Gully

"Nutcracker" (II/III*) climbs the ice on the right hand side of the deep central gully.
I finally got around to climbing "North West Gully" (II/III**) on Stob Coire nam Beith this morning, after bizarrely never having climbed it before during 4 winters in Glencoe.

This wandering and weaving route was this morning my way-up to the base of an almost unheard of route, a climb that was going to surprise me in a very good way.

 On the ramp in "North-West Gully"
 The Ben

Above the NE shoulder of the mountain is a small buttress shaped like a ship's prow, with a deep gully ("Nutcracker" II/III*) between it and the next buttress to the right. It was only recorded and named in March 2010, it's not very long, and is probably almost always dismissed in favour of the numerous classic routes on either side.

The "prow" shaped buttress, with the gully to its right.

From the description in the 2010 Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, I'd expected a gully with "icy steps" that should be passed on their right hand side. Today however, a beautiful ribbon of snow-ice filled the entire right hand side of the gully.

With the great "prow" guarding the route to its left, it looked an aesthetic and inviting climb…and in my opinion far more attractive than many of the classic routes on the mountain. I climbed up to the base of the first Grade III icefall on the route, and sunk my axes into the most superb and re-assuring ice.

I found myself soloing up ice at an angle that would usually make me concentrate hard without a rope, but today I seemed to float up it…first-time axe and crampon placements everywhere, the "thwack, thwack" of my tools echoing within the deep cleft. 

Soloing superb Grade III snow-ice.
 The route from a different angle. Just right of centre.

The ice snaked up the depression of the right-hand side of the gully in a continuous  ribbon, 85 metres of some of the most enjoyable and high-quality snow-ice I've ever climbed. I found myself moving upwards in a state of surprise, I wasn't expecting this from a recent and little known route.

It's a great feeling to have that much fun and find such great conditions on an obscure climb. Classic routes often deliver, but can have a tendency to disappoint as well…it's brilliant what you can find if you go out with an open mind.


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Ceannacroc Couloir

 "Ceannacroc Couloir" (II**) takes the wide gully just right of centre.
"Alpine" is the best term I can think of to describe the superb conditions high up in the mountains just now. Perfect styrofoam snow-ice in the shade, rapidly softening snow in the sunshine, slumping cornices, burning sunshine…the last few days have needed an approach not unlike that required in the Alps.

With the superb conditions continuing in the highest corries, I really wanted to tick off another item on my "to do" list today - a climb in one of the remote and unfrequented corries on the North side of the North Kintail ridge. 

A stunning morning in Coir Lair

The potential of these wild and huge snow-faces first caught my eye during my first winter in the Highlands, when I was enjoying winter-walking in Glenshiel during an amazing season. They are amongst the biggest mountain corries in this part of the Highlands, yet the difficulties involved with approaching them are not inconsiderable and most climbers visiting Glenshiel will climb on the Southern side of the Glen instead.

Snow starting to soften in the hot sun.
Despite aching legs and sore feet from a very busy week, I trudged up Coir Lair on Sgurr nan Conbhairean this morning intent on descending North and finally climbing a route in one of the biggest of these corries. But sore legs and feet don't seem to matter on days like this… a golden eagle silhouetted against first light on Creag a'Mhaim was more than enough to convince me that it was going to be a great day.

 The massive snow faces on the North side of the North Glenshiel Ridge

After reaching a bealach at about 900m I made a long descent North down steep snow to reach the base of Sgurr nan Conbhairean's East face. The strength of the sun was quite staggering, and the blue of the sky was so deep it looked almost purple. In such conditions my objective looked magnificent.

Ceannacroc Couloir is a giant snow route, a 900ft long Grade II gully that split the East face. I've wanted to do it for ages, simply because it is known as such a good route in a wild and lonely place. It looked in perfect condition this morning, apart from one complication - the strength of the sun.

 Looking down the 900ft length of Ceannacroc Couloir

I could see that the top layer of snow was starting to soften wherever it was exposed to the sun. The approach snowfield to the Couloir was mainly in the sunshine already, so I suddenly knew that I was going to have to climb quickly in order to get to the top before the sun's influence made the gully unsafe.

Amazing panorama over Glenshiel

The wild land North of Sgurr nan Conbhairean

Thankfully the confines of the gully itself were almost entirely in shadow, and I enjoyed climbing hundreds of feet of untouched nevé with a wild view opening up behind me. Unlike most gullies where you top-out onto a plateau, the couloir stops at a shoulder on the North-East face, and I had to weave my way up steepenings to join the East ridge of Sgurr nan Conbhairean.

The finish of the route was spectacular, a narrow and perfect snow areté that looked remarkably like a miniature version of the summit ridges of 4000m peaks that I've climbed in the Alps. With the sun starting to burn my face and fresh cornice collapses in sight nearby, I could very well have been in the Alps when I topped out directly on the summit.

 The spectacular finish along the East ridge.

My third day this week in unbroken sunshine, on perfect snow-ice, and climbing another route I've wanted to do for ages. The Highlands are at their superb best just now!


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Staghorn Gully and The Sash

 Looking up at the top section of Staghorn Gully (III***), Creag Meagaidh - the route passes between the two obvious buttresses.
"What next?"….a thought that never seems to be far from my mind during the winter climbing season.

My morning yesterday soloing Pioneer Gully in unbroken sunshine had been superb. I'd felt great all day, fulfilled and satisfied. But by the evening, all my thoughts had turned to what to climb the next morning.

Days of unbroken sunshine, good snow-ice and zero wind really don't happen often during Scottish winters. But having two days like that in a row is a bonus that simply has to be embraced fully. However much sleep and rest are temptations, I make a habit of trying to ignore them whilst the sun shines.

 Creag Meagaidh in great condition.

I had no idea until almost 1am this morning that I would end up soloing Staghorn Gully (III***) today. My intentions were towards something more local, but a bit of information off the internet immediately changed my mind and I set my heart on finally climbing this famous and classic route.

Creag Meagaidh always takes me by surprise. No matter how many times I have walked or run into Coire Ardair, I am always taken aback at how the cliffs suddenly seem to loom out at you as you reach the lochain. Sometimes a feeling like that can be detrimental to the mind of a soloist, and your ambitions for the day suddenly seem less realistic. But today I just couldn't wait to get up there, and I felt no reservations about climbing this route that I'd always written off in the past as a solo.

 Alpenglow hits the top of the Post Face

It's an unusual gully. The long approach ramp could almost seem like a bit of a chore if it were not the awesome surrounding which it takes you through, and I was buzzing this morning as the sunrise quickly brought life to the icy vertical world around me.

The famous snow areté which leads to the upper gully is truly classic, and as soft dawn lighting lit its slopes I was transported straight back to days in the Alps…this felt like a world apart from the hooking frozen turf and fighting through blizzards that is so common to Scottish winter climbing.

 The famous snow areté at mid-point on the route.

 Not a bad place to spend a sunrise.

Into the steeper section of the gully, and through the giant "gateway" that gives entrance to the North Pipe. In the past I had always felt enough fear at the thought of soloing the North Pipe to stop me committing to it, but today I found myself climbing over the crux icefall in total calm. Conditions couldn't have been more perfect.

 An ice "umbrella" on the crux icefall.

 Looking down from the upper snow basin.

And then all of a sudden I was at the top of Staghorn Gully, and feeling my face warmed by the already hot sunshine of 9am. I couldn't have asked for a better day to solo a classic route.

Down to the Inner Corrie, and up "The Sash", a pleasant grade II that takes you underneath the intimidating icefalls of Diadem and The Wand. Small fractions of ice fell constantly from above, the sun softening the cornices above.

 "The Sash" (II*), takes the obvious snow gully and trends up and left via a shelf system.

Two totally perfect days in a row…I think that might even be enough to stop me thinking "what next?", for a little while at least.


Monday, 18 February 2013

Pioneer Gully and a great day in Glenshiel

Coire an-t Slugain, Glenshiel

About 20 hours ago I was lying flat on my bed, with a sense of panic starting to rise within me. A totally perfect weather forecast for today, yet I was immobile due to a bad back and even just standing upright was painful. Missing opportunities due to being injured is one of my greatest fears, and it was looking almost certain that I was going to miss a blue-skies and nevé day in the mountains and be spending it nursing a sore back.

I lay flat for 11 hours, and when I woke at 4:30am my prayers had been answered…the pain had almost totally gone. A perfect starscape outside and a frost in the air, there was no way in hell that I was going to let this day escape my grasp.

 Alpenglow lights my morning approach.

I've spent a lot of time in Glenshiel in the last few years, but until this morning I'd never climbed a winter route here. My decision was firm last night that if my back allowed, I would try and get a "grab-and-dash" route climbed before my afternoon shift in the Clachaig.

Pioneer Gully (III*) caught my attention a couple of years back from the road, a narrow, straight and steep gully that splits Creag Coire an-t Slugain and one that has always alluded me until now due to me never being quite happy enough with conditions for me to commit to it solo.

Pioneer Gully (grade III*), the narrow gully directly in centre-frame.

 "Alpine conditions" in Glenshiel

For only the second time this winter, I found myself approaching a route on hard snow and easy terrain instead of breaking trail through deep unconsolidated drifts. Alpenglow set the mountainsides on fire and the sound of my crampons biting squeaky snow brought back a dozen memories of my first winter in Glencoe, when blue skies and hard snow seemed in endless supply.

Amazing views opening up from the top of the route

 Great views to Knoydart
Pioneer Gully looked in thin condition from below. I decided to climb up to the base of the first ice pitch with all intentions of retreating if the conditions weren't safe, but to my joy I found firm snow in abundance and the ice, although thin, was in good condition.

Looking down on the steep groove above the ice pitches.
I'm not as confident soloing ice routes as I am soloing buttresses, but first-time axe placements on the ice pitches felt absolutely great. Three main ice steepenings with continuous steep snow in-between brought me to a split in the gully, where an icy rock groove gave access to a snow areté leading to the cornice.

Lean but good conditions.
As I climbed up the areté the views started to open out, and I could guess what I was going to be greeted with when I topped out onto the summit. I've been blessed with dozens of memorable finishes in the sunshine to winter routes, but this one really stunned me breathless.

Sunshine catching my axes as I climb through the cornice.
Unbroken sunshine…a thin inversion layer over Lochaber, thick snow cover shining bright in the warm sun, superb views over Knoydart… 

An inversion layer over Lochaber

 Blue haze over the Ben

In any context this would have been an outstanding day in the winter mountains, but to have got it only a few hours after back pains had convinced me I was out of action…well, needless to say the days when the odds are stacked against you are often the best.


Friday, 15 February 2013

The thin end of the wedge?

Coire Giubhsachan on a snowier day a few weeks ago, and the scene of my hillrun this morning.

Seven people have died in avalanches in the Highlands in the last 28 days. A horrible statistic, but also one which now appears to be being used against the winter mountaineering community. Condemnation by some members of the general public of the whole idea of venturing into the mountains in winter, and now the proposal on live radio that access should be restricted to the mountains when the conditions are bad.

My feet were numb this morning as I ran through the wet snow in Coire Giubhsachan. Spray from a waterfall covered my face and hair, cold mud trickled down my legs and arms. But I barely noticed the effort of running uphill….my mind was so filled with concern at some of the things I've read in the media during the last 24 hours.

I reach a sloping wet rocky slab, and carefully slide down it into a snow drift on the other side. It's precarious, the drop to my right here is gaping. I mustn't make a mistake, I'm by myself and you don't get many folk up here.

I emerge underneath the noble West face of Aonach Beag, pause to gaze at the huge snowfields and soaring buttresses. The river is roaring, but the sound of an icefall collapsing somewhere on the face is still loud enough to impress.

I start running back, every footfall deliberate and calculated on the wet snow and steep mud. Getting hurt up here would be easy, but that is the price of the ecstasy of hillrunning and the extreme beauty of Coire Giubhsachan.

Places that are incredible are usually hazardous as well. There is an inherent element of risk and personal responsibility involved with visiting them. Restricting access to the winter mountains when the conditions are bad? Whatever we do, we must never, ever limit people's opportunities to be amongst the extraordinary.


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Old Man's Ridge, Am Bodach East face

Old Man's Ridge (Grade III*), East face of Am Bodach, Mamores.

On my mind this week are thoughts of unfinished business, of not wasting opportunities, of making the most of the precious time I have in the mountains.

One of the common themes of climbing is rarely being satisfied for very long. Every winter I manage to climb quite a lot of routes, but I always have things that I'd never get around to and leave until the next season. I question myself occasionally…would I have climbed some of those routes if I'd just been a bit more opportunistic, a bit braver, a bit more willing to take a chance?

Back in early December I was slightly annoyed to find out that somebody had made the first ascent of a route on Am Bodach that I'd been eyeing up as a new route. Andy Nisbet, the unstoppable "old man" (no offence, Andy) of Scottish winter climbing had climbed it at grade III and named it "Old Man's Ridge".

Old Man's Ridge is the obvious ridge just left of centre

I was slightly gutted to have missed out on its first ascent as Andy Nisbet had reported it to be a good route, and almost a classic if it had been more inescapable.  But why should it no longer being a new route stop me from climbing it?

It was really exhausting work, breaking trail up underneath Am Bodach's East face this morning. A thin crust of unsupportive harder snow on top of deep drifts of powder made for slow progress, and I found myself briefly envious of climbers on the tracked-out approaches to less obscure crags.

 Plenty of ice and some very deep snow

I had never stood underneath this mountain face before, and I doubt many other climbers have either, but I was really struck with how aesthetic some of the routes looked. And of the buttresses, Old Man's Ridge looked the best - almost like a steeper version of the Forcan Ridge in Glen Shiel.

Perfectly solid turf made for enjoyable upwards progress, and much-needed relief from the considerable depth of drifts that I'd waded through to reach the route. The route soon revealed itself to contain a familiar (and my favourite) kind of climbing, turfy ramps and steps, in many ways similar to buttress routes on the Bridge of Orchy hills.

Looking down on the last two pinnacles, with I diverted on the right.
The route steepened with height and was broken by lots of pinnacles, some of which I took direct but I also diverted around some as I wasn't feeling my bravest today. The higher I got the more it reminded me of the East ridge of North Buttress on Stob Ban, and was quickly re-enforcing my opinion of the Mamores as a great place to winter-climb.

A beautiful snow areté lead to the route's sting-in-the-tail, a small cornice to overcome in order to reach the plateau. Thankfully there was quite a lot of nevé by this point and some reassuring axe placements allowed me to haul myself over and to safety.

Approaching the small cornice
Some good nevé in places, but in general very variable snow conditions.

Almost certainly a second-ascent of a really good route…I'm happy with that. Maybe if I'd taken the chance last winter I'd have made the route my own, but you can't let hindsight cause regret - any opportunity at all to climb somewhere as obscure and unfrequented as this is privilege enough.