Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Central Buttress of Coire a'Ghrunnda

 Central Buttress (Diff***), Coire a'Ghrunnda. Straight up the middle between the two narrow gullies.

I can still vividly remember my hangover on the morning of the 18th October 2011. Alex, Mark and I were climbing Ledge Route on Ben Nevis in fresh snow and we all felt like hell. Vast quantities of beer and Talisker had been drunk the night before in the Clachaig staff bothy, whilst we celebrated the early arrival of winter in the mountains. All thoughts of summer rock climbing had been shelved weeks ago and as always winter couldn't come soon enough.

Things felt a little different this October morning, as I am nursing rough fingertips from climbing 600ft of warm Cuillin rock, instead of a hangover. October is always such a question mark - will summer return for a final fling, or will a monsoon set in on the West coast that lasts for weeks?

Since my return from my month on Skye in May, I have waited eagerly in the hope of a perfect weather forecast to coincide with my days off. I've had a really good summer of climbing, but there was one route that I really wanted to solo before declaring the season a success.

A perfect day in the Cuillin

Early morning haze over one of the most beautiful routes in the country, Pinnacle Ridge

Central Buttress (Difficult ***), Coire a'Ghrunnda South Crag. It is not one of the most famous big mountaineering routes in the Cuillin, but it is probably one of the best. Twice I'd chickened out from setting off up it alone, arriving in the corrie in the wrong mood to be soloing, and a few weeks ago I stood at its base only for the rain to send me home empty-handed.

The top third of the route. Up between the two central gullies.


Coire Laggan.

A dark and frosty drive across the Highlands and the promise of the Northern Lights…it felt every inch of an autumn day that was beginning. But by the time I was in Coire a'Ghrunnda I was faced with warm, unbroken sunshine and some of the best climbing conditions I've had in the Cuillin.

Central Buttress starts the way it goes on, steep and sustained at the grade. As is so often the case with these Cuillin routes, lines of holds appeared magically as I climb up features that looked improbable from below. The rock was warm, bone dry, and the sun felt so different to its cold presence on Cairngorm on Saturday.

The arete on the left side of the central tower. Big exposure to the left, unseen in the photo.

The large pinnacle on Pinnacle Rake.

The crux tower of the route is a tease. In the guidebook it is described as "sensational climbing" and from below you see can it is obviously superb. It is also quite intimidating. But an escape is possible just beneath the crux along an easy ledge…so you have to choose to continue.

The superb crux tower. 

I'm glad I didn't go for the easy option. The crux tower was one of the best pitches of rock I've climbed at the grade in the Cuillin, possibly in Scotland. Half way up a golden eagle flew overhead and circled a few times, taunting me as the crux was too steep for any photography.

I topped out, smiled, and waited. Ten minutes later the eagle returned, I got my shot, and descended with the glassy surface of the sea shining below me.


Monday, 14 October 2013

"The Roaring Time"

 Sunrise from Stac Pollaidh.

I learnt recently that the Gaelic word for October means "the roaring time". The crisp early morning air, filled with the sound of bellowing stags, is always a welcome sign that my favourite time of year is beginning.

Every October when I lived in Glencoe, there didn't seem to be any escape from the sound of the deer rut. I would be woken during the night by the ground just outside my window being trampled, and more than once I walked out of the front door almost straight into the antlers of an over-confident stag.

I love the contrasts that exist between my new home in the Cairngorms and the Western Highlands. The autumn over here is a quite different experience and wonderful in many ways, but I have missed the feeling of energy in the air that you get in the October days in the West….the constant humdrum of the rut bringing life to a landscape which is shutting down for the season.

The incredible area of wild land of Inverpollaidh.

Friday was a "kill two birds with one stone" day. I wanted to climb, but I also longed for one of those perfect autumn sunrises from a mountain that I have so many vivid memories of. The drive to Assynt at 4:30am after only 2 hours sleep was a small price to pay for the treat I was in for.

The skies over Stac Pollaidh were dark and cloud-filled as I parked and rubbed my weary eyes. This wasn't what I'd been hoping for…but I resisted the temptation to sleep in my car and set off up the hill with my camera and tripod. It so often seems that you are rewarded for making the effort, as the sky started to clear of cloud remarkably quickly and gave way for a glorious autumn sunrise.

Loch Lurgainn

The Fiddler's Nose
I wanted to stay up there all day, breath in the frosty air and bathe in the golden light, close my eyes let the sound of the stags send me to sleep on the summit. But the urge to go climbing was just as strong, and the perfect sea-cliffs of Reiff were just down the road.

I knew I couldn't be there long, my 5pm shift at work back in the Cairngorms was beckoning. But I was there long enough to solo Midreiff (Severe*), Velvet Scooter (Severe) and the superb Moonjelly (V.Diff***) - all of which I'd never done before and gave me a short but much-needed fix.

Soloing "Midreiff" (Severe*) onsight. Unbroken sunshine at Reiff.

 Soloing "Moonjelly" (V.Diff***). Probably the best short V.Diff I've done.

Twenty-four hours later and I was stood on the summit of Cairngorm with Nicole, shivering in a freezing wind and smiling at the snow and rime-ice covering the plateau. Not a single stag to be heard in a world of white and blue and grey, very different from the golden glens of Assynt but just as exciting. That time of year again...

24 hours later on Cairngorm, a taste of winter.


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Trekking in the Slovakian Tatras

It had been over 5 years since my last trip to the mountains of Europe. My brother and I had spent a successful month in the Alps, climbing the classic routes up 4000m peaks, getting sunburnt and fit and living like bums.

Back then I couldn't really see past ticking summits and routes. That is what a trip to the mountains was for me, and only that. I'm not sure I took much notice of my surroundings unless it was relevant for our next ascent, and I certainly didn't appreciate the sensation of simply being somewhere amazing.

But I am (a little) older and wiser now, I can see outside the bubble and have fully realised there is so much more to mountains than getting to the top of them. It feels great to have returned feeling satisfied and happy from a week in the mountains when I didn't even try to stand on a single summit or climb any routes.

On arrival in Poland, Nicole and I realised our vague plans for climbing some of the 2000m peaks in the Tatras would probably have to be shelved. Our first glimpse of an un-known summit poking through the cloud revealed heavy snow covering the slopes, and we weren't intent or equipped for winter up high.

With a forecast for cool temperatures all week we knew the snow wasn't going to shift quickly, so were quite happy to turn our attention to the stunning high valleys and passes that cut into the heart of the Tatras.

Slovakia was entirely new to me, and I was fascinated by the mix of Alpine-esque and cold war architecture, the common sight of dereliction amongst expensive ski-chalets, birds that I didn't know the names of, public transport that runs like clockwork…

As someone that has spent so much time on the Isle of Skye, the similarities between the Tatras and the Cuillin were a constant source of intrigue. There are obvious differences of course…the Tatras being higher and in the middle of a landmass, rather than amongst the coastal paradise of the Hebrides. But I lost count of the number of times I saw views of mountains that looked almost spitting images of the summits in the Cuillin that I know and love.

Bidean Druim na Ramh, Am Basteir, Sgurr nan Gillean, even Stob Ban in the Mamores…they all have a near counter-part in the Tatras. To say that we found the scenery impressive would be an understatement - in its own way even more impressive than the Alps?

Enjoy the photos!

 Lingering mist in the Dolina Roztoki valley, Poland

Fresh snowfall on Woloszyn

Lomnicky Stit, Slovakia

Incredible views above the Studena Dolina valley

Nicole in the snow at almost 2000m near Dlhe Pleso lake

 "Tatra-Tea"....tea at 32% alcohol by volume, good stuff...

 Faces in the forest...

The magnificent Vysoka 2547m, translated as "High".

Pristine forest in the Mlynicka Dolina valley

On the summit of Predne Solisko, looking for bears...

Hlinska Veza 2340m

 Tasty stuff in a market in Krakow

In the fog on the summit of Predne Solisko

Being reminded of the Highlands at 2300m in the Furkotska Dolina valley

Colours in Krakow

Glad of the extra layers at 1900m.