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.


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