Friday, 31 January 2014

Deep South Gully

 The legendary Deep South Gully (I****), Beinn Alligin.

Weird and wonderful climbs are by no means a rarity in Scotland, but Deep South Gully is pretty mad. If the scenary and situation of a route is more important to you than the grade, then is this one of the best Scottish winter climbs?

I very nearly didn't climb this route on Wednesday, the air seemed too mild and the snowline too high. The incessant wind which has characterised this winter was doing its stuff and I'd started to lose hope that it would be worth my while. There wasn't a single other car in the Beinn Alligin carpark - did they know something I didn't? Should I have set my sights on a higher corrie instead?

Views to Beinn Bhan.
I turned the crucial corner and two things became quickly apparent - the gully looked massive, and it didn't look to be holding much snow. Curiosity got the better of me, and going for a look seemed preferably to turning tail.

At this point a golden eagle briefly appeared flying past the gully.

Soft and slushy snow greeted me in the gully, but within a few minutes my attention was well and truly on other things. What a place! Of course I'd seen photos of this gigantic chasm before, but as always the photos never did it justice. It's one of those route that you top out from with a sore neck from all the gazing upwards to the massive gully walls above. This chasm seems very long but it only forms the bottom half of the route, until it quite suddenly it narrows and the whole gully tilts to the right.

A soft ice pitch to gain the narrows. Above this the climbing briefly becomes a bit more like potholing.

Inside the first chockstone cave. The next squeeze is much tighter.

A soft ice pitch provided entrance to the narrows. Then it was time to tighten all the straps on my rucksack, because some upwards crawling and squeezing looked necessary. A stack of jammed boulders has created a short cave, which I crawled through only to find there was more tunnelling to be done. Some of the moves were pretty awkward but there's practically no exposure as if you slipped I suspect you'd just get jammed in one of the holes. 

Looking down on the first chockstone.

More squeezing and crawling to come.

The whole place is pretty outrageous, and I wreckon it's one of the classiest routes I've ever climbed. It's reassuring to know that I can get as much of a buzz from a route like this as I can from soloing a III,4. Not somewhere you go to climb for difficulty, just simple mad fun in absolutely remarkable surroundings.

Marked improvement in snow conditions in the upper half of the gully.

The second Horn of Alligin.


Thursday, 23 January 2014

Eskimo Gully

 The central ice pitch in Eskimo Gully II/III**, Lurcher's Crag.

Two failed attempts at climbing this week had left me desperate to get out. I've known for years that coming home empty handed sometimes is an integral part of the whole winter climbing thing, but it still sometimes gets me down.

I was fully psyched up for a hard day struggling against yet more gales and blizzards. I've learnt very quickly that when the wind blows hard on the plateau then it means business. But where was it? Half an hour of snowfall on my way into the Lairig Ghru and a few strong gusts…luck seemed to be on my side for the first time this week.

Lurcher's Crag. Conditions very variable, lots of cruddy ice.

One of the better looking lines on Lurcher's Crag is Eskimo Gully, a well defined route to the South of the more frequented classics. It looked in better condition than some of the other routes, but would the ice be good enough to climb?

The large area of slabby ground beneath the main area of steepness was well covered in a breakable crust of ice. I was unsure at first, but I soon found it was plenty firm enough to make it a quick job to get up to the main bulk of the gully.

Looking to Doorway Ridge on the right.

Eskimo Gully is all about the main central ice pitch, and it was good to find it complete. A few swings of my axes revealed it to be pretty cruddy, and I started to have doubts. But it turned out to be okay if you chose your placements well, sometimes getting a hook on frozen turf underneath some of the looser bits of ice. 

Above the gully varied from well-scoured icy ground to really quite deep soft slab. There was certainly a bit more slab on this Westerly slope than I'd been expecting, but I managed to avoid most of it and topped out onto a not-very-windy Creag an Leth Choin.

Huge amounts of snow continue to accumulate in the Northern Corries.

It looks like the bad weather returns this weekend…


Saturday, 18 January 2014

Central Trinity and the Traverse of Liathach

  Looking back down on the Northern Pinnacle of Mullach an Rathain after soloing Central Trinity Gully (II*).

The sound of my alarm fell on confused ears, waking me to the unwelcome sight of the inside of my car. I woke groggy and disoriented, a fifteen minute nap in a lay-by near Achnasheen making me even more tired, not less. The day before in the Cairngorms had been long and satisfying, but I just needed more sleep.

For the first time ever I drove into Glen Torridon without feeling a spark of excitement. Mist clung to every slope, and a dull ache in my legs and dull light on the hills were making me uninspired. As I slogged up the Coire Dubh path my mind was on the last time I'd been here rather than what this day might bring, and I just wasn't feeling it. I didn't really have a plan for what I might do, but I half-heartedly kept going towards Coire Mhic Fhearchair.

An hour later and I wasn't any more enthusiastic. That was until the cloud shifted and I saw Mullach an Rathain.

The view which changed my mind - the Northern Pinnacle of Mullach an Rathain. 

I can't remember the last time my mood changed so rapidly. For two years I've drooled over the Torridon section of my climbing guidebook, fantasising about coming up here to solo winter routes. And here I was, with no thought that the day might include me climbing on Liathach, looking at a snow-filled and cloud-free Coire na Caime.

Central Trinity is behind the central and highest of the pinnacles, on the sunlight left face.

The Dru Face.

I forgot about being tired, my yawns and aches irrelevant because I was about to go climbing on Liathach. A niggling voice told me that a day which had started off on such a wrong footing might just end up being one of the best.

Upper Coire na Caime.

Looking towards Beinn Eighe.

The routes that I always want to climb the most are usually beautiful and natural lines. Central Trinity Gully might only be a 1 star grade II, but it's a route I've really wanted for ages. Its setting and position on Liathach is totally stunning, a prominent line going straight up to the crest of the beautiful Northern Pinnacles.

The Trinity face. Central Trinity is the right hand of the two prominent gullies in centre-frame.

But would it be in condition? It felt mild on the endless approach to the remote Coire na Caime, and I could see many of the gullies didn't look quite complete. Two hours later and I realised I wouldn't be able to tell whether Central Trinity was a goer until I was stood almost underneath it.

300ft of snow and two ice pitches later, and I was stood on the crest of the Northern Pinnacles grinning ear to ear. I'd never climbed in Torridon in winter before, and the views were off the scale. Sitting on the summit of Mullach an Rathain, I reflected on how much ascent I'd done in the last two days and gazed along the length of the ridge traverse. It looked mighty appealing.

Looking towards the ridge crest, realising it looked too good to resist.

So after briefly thinking "you are going to be sore tomorrow", I set off to do the Traverse of Liathach as well. This was the real prize…a route on the Trinity face followed by the ridge traverse is up there with the very best winter mountaineering days it is possible to have in Britain. The fact that 3 hours previously I'd had no intention to even be on this mountain felt pretty surreal.

Looking back along the ridge traverse to the Northern Pinnacles.

Evening light settling on Beinn Alligin.

The traverse is a 3 star classic, and a route I'd fully intended to come to do in the future as an objective in itself. Doing it after a climb in Coire na Caime turned yesterday into one of my best ever days in Scotland, even more so because I'd not been that enthusiastic about even getting out my car. Today I've spent resting and eating, and for the first time in quite a while I've not got itchy feet.


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Quartz Gully, Fiacaill Couloir, Broken Gully and Spiral Gully

Underneath The Shelterstone

It is a good change sometimes to set out on a winter's day without really having a specific route in mind. I can end up being so focused on soloing a particular route sometimes, especially when it's one that I think is going to feel bold, that I can feel near blind to the bigger picture going on around me.

I was in an odd mood this morning, indecisive yet bursting with energy. From past experience, mornings like that tend to turn into "link-up" days - climbing on one crag then moving on to the next, moving fast and keeping all options over. I love these days - I know very few greater freedoms.

Fiacaill Couloir (II/III*) ended up being first, a route that had always looked like one of the best lines in the corrie and so proved to be today on my first ever time up it. It's a good job I wasn't out looking for the thrutchy chockstone move the route often supplies, as the great boulder was no-where to be seen under a deep cover of firm snow.

Fiacaill Buttress. Fiacaill Couloir (II/III*) is hidden above.

The entrance to Fiacaill Couloir.

Looking down from the top.

Half way up the weather rapidly turned Scottish, but some snow and a white-out didn't dissuade me from making a quick march down towards the Loch Avon Basin.

The Basin was fully earning its nickname of the "realm of the senses" today, the mist and snow dancing around the massive Shelterstone Crag and the sound of the river running deep below the snowpack. It's one of those places that I feel it doesn't really matter what you actually do.

Garbh Uisge Crag (right) and the Shelterstone (left). Quartz Gully (II/III*) is just out of sight to the right.

Quartz Gully (II/III*) on Garbh Uisge was the result of my trip down into the Basin, not a stand-out route in itself but the location is amazing, looking up at the North wall of the Shelterstone. I thought about another route down there, but it seemed to be warming up slightly and the snow was still feeling a bit damp so off I headed again.

Crevasses in Quartz Gully. No more photos of the route, the camera was getting soggy in the snow.
Back up Coire Domhain and down into Sneachda, and Broken Gully (III*) caught my fancy. The first half of this was great, continuously pretty steep and I was really enjoying it. But I got to the crux traverse, and the snow had become extremely cruddy and committing to soloing it seemed unwise. So I carefully downclimbed and went looking for what could be next.

Spiral Gully (II**) turned into my last route for the day, a nice rapid romp up steep snow . Three and a half routes I'd never done before, a day well spent.


Monday, 13 January 2014

Plan B in the Loch Avon Basin

 A day of beautiful crisp light in the Loch Avon Basin

Sometimes you don't get it quite right, you guess conditions wrongly or the weather hasn't done quite what it was forecast to do. Today was one of those days for me, and my planned route in the Loch Avon Basin remains one for me to come back to.

There was a bit more fresh snow lying on certain slopes than I'd hoped and there was a surprising amount of ice falling down in the heat (!) of the sun, so I abandoned that idea and moved elsewhere with an open mind.

Looking across the plateau

Looking across the top of Stag Rocks to Stacan Dubha and Carn Etchachan

The amount of snow that has accumulated in parts of the Loch Avon Basin is quite amazing. Most of the Feith Buidhe and Garbh Uisge Crag area is totally buried, Carn Etchachan is loaded as are the big gullies on either side of the Shelterstone.

After weighing up my options I decided against nearly all my back up plans, as I could see some pretty large areas of windslab lying about in places that were making me uncomfortable. So eventually I wondered over to Stag Rocks, by far the area of the basin that is leanest of snow just now.

Ice build up on Hell's Lum. Still quite a bit of loose snow around here.

Sprindrift blowing off Carn Etchachan

The iced slabs on Hell's Lum Crag
Here my options were limited more by lack of snow than by excess, so I simply headed up "Y Shaped Gully" that runs beside Afterthought Areté. About two thirds of the way up I was pleased to find a narrow and steeper gully breaking off up left before the main gully splits near the top. So up I headed, and it gave a nice wee stretch of grade II on a mix of nevé and cruddy ice.

A left hand offshoot of "Y Shaped Gully", Stag Rocks. About grade II.

Looking back at my tracks from where I'd topped out.
Coire an t-Sneachda holding a huge amount of snow.

So a pleasant surprise to end up swinging axes after all, and to be honest a mere bonus on top of being in such an impressive place on a beautiful winter's day.


Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Central Buttress of Lochnagar

 First light catches the top of the beautiful Central Buttress (II**), today's solo.

An absolutely magic dawn this morning started off my best day of climbing so far this winter. It's amazing how quickly the day can seem to take the shape you want, after you've watched the sun rise from a mountain side.

A stunning sunrise as a pair of climbers gear-up.

I was stood at the windy col beneath Meikle Pap, and the golden lighting of the dawn made the great corrie of Lochnagar look absolutely immense. The December storms have caked the cliffs with a huge amount of snow, and today I was here because I knew the conditions were going to be a real treat.

The Black Spout area, heavy but firm snow cover.

During the long drought last summer, one day I was in the corrie intent on climbing the impressive Central Buttress. I didn't even start it, the dripping and slimy moss covered rocks at the beginning of the route quickly persuading me to go climb something else. But my lasting impression was that it looked like it would be a really good climb in winter.

The legendary corrie of Lochnagar. Central Buttress prominent on the left.

 Looking down the initial gully to reach the buttress.

And so it promised to be today, the moss covered rocks hidden under several feet of perfect nevé and a thick covering of snow from bottom to top. The violently gusting wind at the col had moved elsewhere, and I counted all my blessings that I was here at the right place at the right time.

The long and steep climb up to the crest reminded me a bit of "Stairway to Heaven" on Beinn an Dothaidh, turfy steps which are sometimes a little more awkward than they look. About half way up I had to do a bit of head-scratching, a choice between a hollow icy ramp or a short, awkward groove that throws you off balance. I tried both, then tried the groove again and found a buried placement for my left axe which made the whole thing easier.

Soft morning lighting.

The upper crest, big exposure on each side.
A steep section above felt quite exciting to solo, the kind of thing more often found on Grade III's, but with well-frozen turf like today I was soon up it. Then the level areté of the crest appears quite suddenly. A short traverse move around an exposed block which I'd been slightly apprehensive about after seeing a photo, actually proved far easier than what had come before. Then the long slope of hard nevé above to reach the plateau…I'm glad I never came and did this route under powder.

Massive cornices along most of the corrie rim.

My first winter route on Lochnagar, and I already can't wait to get back there. I don't think that view of the gentle curving arc of buttresses and gullies will ever get old.