Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Number 3 Gully, Aonach Dubh West face.

 The West face a few days back. Number 3 Gully (II/III) directly in centre-frame.

I've been taunted in the last week by the huge cliffs so dominant in the view from my home at the Clachaig. The gullies of the West face of Aonach Dubh in great and surprising condition for April…but other commitments preventing me from sampling their mysterious confines.

My solo of "Archie's Ridge" (III,4*) on F Buttress in December had been memorable, serious, and one of the best days winter climbing I've had. There is a niggling feeling of commitment quite specific to soloing in winter on the West face…the huge run-outs, complicated escapes and continuous steepness everywhere making it feel like a stern undertaking.

The West face today. Number 3 Gully furthest left.
So an adventure is likely…doubly so when aiming to climb a route and descend in time to start a Clachaig morning shift at 11am.

Number 3 Gully (II/III) is a route I'd always really fancied. It doesn't come into good condition very often, far less so still when it comes to almost mid-April. But this winter has made me more open-minded than ever, and at 6am this morning I was indeed slogging up lower B-Buttress towards Number 3.

Stob Coire nam Beith and the great icicle of Elliot's Downfall bottom left.
Spring and winter are waging war in the mountains just now, one season's grip totally dominant sometimes only yards away from the others. A warbling sky-lark circling above me, the sound of summer in the air, but echoing off mighty ice-falls and snowy cliffs only a stone's throw away.

The Screen.
After diverting around a large cruddy ice-fall below Middle Ledge, I was stood in dusty heather underneath the bone-dry rock of B-Buttress but putting on crampons to climb a heavily banked-out Number 3. I moved a few feet to my right, and stepped from spring into winter.

Inside the top half of Number 3 Gully, heavily banked out.

The Smear.

And there I was, moving fast up one of the straight and narrow lines of snow and ice that I'd been gazing at from the Clachaig and watching develop and grow all winter. Not once did I think I would climb it this late in the season.

Stob Coire nan Lochan still in great condition
A traverse left after the gully, and a spooky feeling to the snow-basin above Number 2 Gully. Not bad conditions, but not stable enough to make me feel great about crossing the slopes to above Dinnertime Buttress. Up instead and following the mental map of the cliffs in my head.

I escaped up "2B Scoop" (II) on mainly hard nevé, before an area of unstable snow forced me to break up onto the buttress to the right in order to reach the shoulder of Aonach Dubh.

A glimpse of the Ben from the top of Aonach Dubh
Coire nan Lochan was deserted as I made my way down…but the Cold Climbs classics are still there and appear in good condition. Winter continues….


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