Friday, 29 March 2013

Central Couloir (Right-fork), Stob Coire Sgreamhach

 The Central Couloir (II*) - in the shade just left of centre. The short Right-fork (III*) is hidden. 

You know that sinking feeling you get when you realise you've lost something really important? That's just what I felt half way up my route today…where the hell were my car keys?!

After fruitlessly searching every pocket and depth of my clothes and rucksack, there was nothing for it but to continue my climb and deal with it later.

On such a stunning morning it was not hard to very quickly forget my troubles. In the four years I've lived in Glencoe I've been privileged to see it from many angles and in almost every possible lighting and weather conditions. But I'm not sure I've ever seen it looking quite so beautiful as it was today.

Coire nan Lochan on finest form.

The mixture of spring and winter conditions in the mountains often brings out the very best of the Highlands, and so it is just now…is there anything better than walking through warm sunshine to go and climb an icy mountain face?

Coire Eilde in Glencoe is a firm favourite of mine, one of the least frequented corries in the Glen but in my opinion one of the finest. Nearly all climbers coming this way are headed towards the classic Sron na Lairig, so deeper into the corrie is a place of solitude but Alpine character.

Coire Eilde

Cornices at the start of Eilde Canyon, where ice routes were being climbed today.

I'd climbed Stob Coire Sgreamhach's East face before, but until today I'd never got around to the grand "Central Couloir" which splits the face. It is similar in appearance to the Central Gully of Ben Lui, but a bit steeper and from what I've seen is blocked by a chockstone when lean.

I had to climb fast to avoid the rapid effect of the warm sunshine. The East face had been wind-scoured and was largely void of fresh slab, but the sun was quickly softening the nevĂ© and any ice not in the shade. I took the main section of the couloir at great speed, but stopped quickly when I realised my car keys were absent without leave….

Impressive surrounding in the couloir
A minute later I discovered a hidden fork heading out right from the couloir. It was much steeper (grade III), and was obviously a much more interesting exit onto the upper slopes. The ice was in fantastic condition and first time axe-placements all the way made it a really enjoyable and unexpected twist to the day.

The Right-fork (grade III). Ice in good and enjoyable condition.
 Huge rime crystals on the Beinn Fhada ridge

A careful descent of the Beinn Fhada ridge (the bad step can be avoided entirely just now, heavily banked out) took me back to my car…where I found my keys sitting on the roof of my still un-locked car. I smiled - it would't have been fair to have such a great morning spoiled.


Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Dark Toon

The buttress taken by the route "The Dark Toon" (II/III), E Face Am Bodach. 
As a climber there are few things better than being "on a roll"…sprinting through your wishlist of routes unhindered, and it seems like nothing will stop you. But there are few things worse than being on a losing streak.

Since the beginning of March I seem to have been unlucky when it comes to climbing. Four consecutive attempts at going climbing ended up in going home empty handed. What had happened to my rapid momentum and success of February?

Good snow cover and hard frozen turf everywhere
Not that I should complain…even without climbing anything more this winter, it would already easily have been my most successful ever season. But it was starting to get at me - it never feels good to fail on several routes in a row.

Looking towards the Buachaille

Despite the excellent conditions continuing into March, I decided to try and step back a bit from winter climbing for a while and focus on other things. Lots of hill-running and trying to sort out my life for the coming summer kept me busy, and after this and a week down in England, today I finally felt more than ready to get back climbing again.

Underneath the avoidable cornice at the top of the route

The tricks of the mind…both the most crucial weapon and worst vice of the soloist. Sometimes backing off a route is by far the most sensible option, but it doesn't stop me from running it over and over in my mind afterwards sometimes. Why is it that some days that crucial "psyche" is absent, even when conditions are spot on? Self-doubt can eat away at you if you aren't so careful, and negativity can get the better of you.

But I got a fix today, and reminded myself that I can indeed winter climb. "The Dark Toon" (II/III) on the East face of Am Bodach in the Mamores - a short day and not the most memorable route, but just what I needed.
In Glencoe "Elliot's Downfall" has touched down (just!) and No.6 Gully is seeing plenty of ascents

Just now I'm looking back through photos from previous winters, and reminding myself that the same thing has happened ever year…boldness and energy seem to disappear for a while on occasions, but it always comes back soon enough along with the reminder that nothing is more important than listening to your motivations and moods when it comes to climbing.


Friday, 1 March 2013


 Soloing the classic ice guily of the Southern Highlands, Taxus (III***)

 Soloing "Taxus" on Beinn an Dothaidh is something I'd wanted to do for a while. It's one of those routes that had gained an amount of personal significance to me - when I started soloing a couple of years back, I guess it was one of the routes that I was aspiring to climb for the first time alone. And I'd almost gone for it several times since then, but never quite committed until today.

Taxus is the obvious steep left-slanting gully, just left of centre
 The bottom icefall of Taxus on the left - the only route still in condition apart from West Gully

It's a route that has always interested me - its slightly fickle nature, its location away from the reliable and often crowded ice-climbs of Lochaber, its need for a good winter to be in safe condition late in the season, its enigmatic name…

The superb weather and climbing conditions of the last two weeks have kept me so busy that I'd hardly noticed March was just around the corner. From past experience I know just how quickly the winter can turn to spring….and how routes on your "wish-list" suddenly have to wait until next year.

But despite really wanting to climb Taxus this winter, I felt no pressure to get it done today as I walked up into the North-East corrie. So many great routes in the last two weeks - if I got it done today it would be a bonus, but I felt I'd be happy to walk away from it un-climbed as-well.

Yet another blue sky day

 The cornice above West Gully - avoidable on the right
Oddly enough that frame of mind is probably the most ideal for soloing a route that you care about. So it was with a slight smile and a pleasant sense of calm that I found the first icefall of Taxus to be complete, and that today was indeed the day.

In the easy angled middle section of the route.
 Looking up the steep initial icefall.

The key to the route is this first icefall, and although it was a bit thin and water was starting to flow underneath the ice, it was amenable to climb with plenty of good hooks. I found myself climbing without feeling any of the pressures that you sometimes feel when on a route you've wanted for a long time.

Two more short ice pitches followed, the conditions improving with height on the route - the clear skies overnight undoing some of the damage caused by warmer daytime temperatures.

Looking down "Taxus" - a line of footprints can be seen on the right where you exit onto a ridge the exit slopes.
And for yet another time in this excellent winter, I found myself privileged to be climbing a great route under a blue sky, moving at speed alone up a climb that I was delighted to be soloing.

The last 12 days have probably been my best ever run of routes in the mountains. Nine routes climbed, all of which have been great and under blue skies, some solos of classic Grade III's, and approximately 20,000ft of ascent. Time for a wee rest I think.