Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Ling, Lawson and Glover's Route

The view to Slioch from the crest of Ling, Lawson and Glover's Route (II***), Sail Mhor.

Torridon seems to have become a bit of an addiction. In a way it is frustrating to be living in the Cairngorms just now, with many of the climbs that I've not done buried under snow or not in any condition to be soloing. But I'm not complaining, as North-West has been best this season and it has meant I've had every reason to spend a lot of time climbing in this remarkable place.


Coire Mhic Fhearchair

It seems every day I have ever spent up here has been great and memorable in one way or another. None of them blend into another, and each one leaves me itching for the next.

The sheer depth of snow that has accumulated these past three months has left some us in the odd position of longing for a deep thaw. It's not often I've said that before, but we really do need it. There's only so much snow that a slope can hold, and with the ground underneath really not being that cold...

Looking towards the upper crest of Ling, Lawson and Glover's Route.

 Looking up towards the main tower

And "thaw" seemed like it would be the word of the day today, the knee deep wet snow on Sail Mhor hardly inspiring confidence for setting off up a route alone. I know it's all good in the long run, but then and there I still cursed it. Turning back and going home for a cup of tea seemed vastly preferable to what it looked like the day would bring, but hey, you never know.

Views over Torridon
The first 50 metres or so of Ling, Lawson and Glover's Route hardly seemed to do justice to a 3 star classic of the North-West. Any kind of line seemed to be lacking and so did anything resembling climbing. But considering how much snow the route was holding, it could be all kinds of different usually? Judging by a friend's photos from February last year, it looks like it can be quite a lot more involving.

But as soon as you reach that notch on the skyline, it turns into the classic mountaineering route that I'd expected. Those views from  Sail Mhor really are a cut above the rest, and even better to enjoy them from a few hundred metres of ridge climbing. The thaw that had taken hold of the lower slopes had disappeared as I got higher and the upper ridge was under a very heavy cover of snow. I think most of the more tricky steps were buried, as the "hard for the grade" comments I've heard certainly didn't apply today.

Looking down on my footsteps on the famous "table" mid-route.

For everyone suffering from endless frustration at the winter conditions in the more popular parts of the Highlands, Torridon has been quietly holding some of the best conditions for weeks now. Hopefully it'll last.


Sunday, 16 February 2014

Post Box Gully

The view from above the top of the great Post Box Gully (II***), Sgorr Ruadh.

A friend recently told me that she has only ever seen the Highlands in monochrome. I was surprised at first, the Highlands being to me a place with a unique quality of light and colour. But I've been spoilt for sure, my 5 years up here having coincided with some of the greatest winters of recent times and some of the longest periods of fine weather.

An Ruadh Stac

I thought about this a lot today. In this winter of near perpetual storms, the Highlands have so often been in monochrome. I've craved the crisp light and strong colours that I've been guilty of taking for granted during some of my previous winters here. 

Mainreachan Buttress
Today the sun shone bright and the shadows were crisp as I climbed to the top of one of the great classic routes of the North-West Highlands. Unrelenting snowfall and cruel winds that never stop seemed like a faint memory. Everything was perfect just then and there, and I reminded myself again that every single day like this is a blessing, every single one of them. Perceptions of normality can shift so much from where they once were, can't they?

Post Box Gully joins this ridge on the other side.

Sgorr Ruadh won me over last summer, a memorable solo of Raeburn's Buttress Direct leaving me determined to return in winter. I'm starting to think its sweeping curves and shapes make it one of the most beautiful of all the Scottish mountains, and under the amount of snow it was holding today it was quite a sight. With a less inspiring background I might have been worn down by the very 'physical' day it turned out to be - knee to waist deep snow to break trail through at times, for quite a long way.

Sgorr Ruadh.


I'd not known quite what to expect from the cave/slot that gives Post Box Gully its name. I was excited but a little apprehensive to find out, but it turned out pretty different to how I'd thought. The subterranean pitch that is usually found in the bottom part of the route was totally blocked with snow. I dug a tunnel up a short way into the cave until I realised there was no point in continuing, as I'd never have got through safely, and I doubt I'd have got through at all.

The cave. Totally blocked by snow, so a traverse up and left was needed.

A bit of nosing around followed, and I found I could bypass the cave on the left and join the gully above. Whether this is usually possible I have no idea, as the gully was very banked out compared to every photo I've ever seen of the route. Mostly the snow was a bit moist with an icy crust, but with some good neve on the steeper sections. There were some large areas of windslab as well but these were almost all avoidable, but I think they'll have grown a fair bit later in the day with the strengthening wind.

The main ridge of Liathach.

The fabled Mainreachan Buttress on Fuar Tholl was the backdrop as I topped out, with Liathach's unrivaled profile on the opposite skyline. My face felt warmed by the sun, and the woods in the glen below were alive with birdsong as I descended.
Would it be too odd to say that by afternoon it felt like spring?


Friday, 14 February 2014

The twin icefalls, Lurcher's Crag

 Heavy snow cover at a banked out Chalamain Gap.
Everybody in the world seemed to be climbing on Lurcher's Crag today, not the ideal situation for a reclusive soloist. I don't like climbing routes with other teams above or below, it un-nerves other climbers and it puts a degree of unhealthy pressure on me.

The distant cliffs of Sgor Gaoith

Ptarmigan underneath Lurcher's Crag.

Plan A had a team already heading for it, Plan B had a large area of drifted slab in the middle of the route, Plans C and D were being climbed by MIC trainees, Plan E seemed to go into a dead end and Plan F felt too bold to solo. Plan G was filled with windslab and I done it before anyway, so finally I found myself at the base of Plan H (!).


The two icefalls at the North end of Lurcher's Crag have caught my attention a few times as looking like they'd make a  good contingency plan for a day when the other routes don't happen for whatever reason. To be honest, given the current situation of fairly extreme snow cover, any route away from high avalanche risk is pretty appealing.

Left Hand Icefall (III) was quick and unmemorable, and despite cruddy ice it was in very easy condition. A few minutes later I was back and started up the much better Right Hand Icefall (III). This reminded me a bit of a less narrow and shorter version of Beinn Udlaidh's West Gully, slabby ice steps after a steep crux with options for more steep sections higher up.

Mid way up Right Hand Icefall (III).

If you've not been out recently, take heed of the chat on UKC and the SAIS website/blogs. The amount of snow up there is amazing and the potential for avalanches is very high, perhaps in places not usually considered avalanche prone. March could be a very interesting month...

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Six days in Arctic Norway

1:45am, somewhere in Finnmark, Arctic Norway

We weren't in Arctic Norway for climbing or to reach a summit, in fact we weren't there for mountains at all. What would a trip abroad feel like that wasn't based on altitude, contours, weather forecasts and maps?

I was 13 years old the last time I went abroad without mountains as the focus. To say I've been single minded since then would be an understatement, and the rewards have been plentiful. But tunnel vision is only a great thing when limits are applied, and sometimes a brief step back and away from mountains and climbing is a healthy change - no matter how unconvinced I can be beforehand.

Since New Year I've been living as a full-time climber immersed in a very complicated Scottish winter. The idea of being away from Scotland during the first week of February has on occasions felt like a fate worse than death, but it really isn't every day you get to go to Arctic Norway. The wider perspective can be the hardest thing to see as a winter climber but so often the cure to so many frustrations.

I'll let the photos do most of the talking of our trip to 71 degrees North, but a few words have got to go to the dark early hours of the 7th February. I'd been on the deck of the boat since 11pm, the cold biting deeper and every layer coming out to keep me warm for a night that my instincts told me was going to be worth spending shivering with my camera.

Tantalising glimpses of creamy light occasionally appeared in the sky, promising greater things but never staying for more than a few seconds. The cloud rolled in and the cold started to get bad in the wind, and it didn't look promising for anything more.

I persisted. And at about 1:30am it came - a display of the Northern Lights that blew my mind and took my breath, left me as high as a kite for days and has to be one of the maddest things I've ever seen. My photos are an insult to such an awesome spectacle, but it is sure to rank amongst the most intense memories of the last five years.

I've returned home now, to the snowiest Scottish winter climbing season for 20 years. What the next month will bring, well your guess is as good as mine.





Saturday, 8 February 2014

Five years of Glencoe Mountaineer (posted by Alex)

In a departure from usual service, Alex is posting this special anniversary piece as James is currently enjoying a brief holiday in Norway. I'm sure he will have stories to tell and photos to share when he gets back!

Five years of Glencoe Mountaineer. Where does the time go?

On this day precisely five years ago I registered the domain and posted this introductory message. The purpose of the blog was humble: to provide an online space where I would post brief updates on winter climbing conditions, plus reports on my outings.

It slumbered in obscurity for over a year, but in the winter of 09-10 it really took off and now sees a huge amount of traffic over the winter months. The Facebook community is also vibrant and has over 1500 fans.

Over the years the blog has evolved and grown. At first, I was the only writer; James first came on the scene in June 2010 while I was off adventuring in Norway. When I eventually moved away from Glencoe he took over the blog completely, and under his editorship it has flourished. He's a better climber and photographer than me and his amazing images of the Scottish hills have become nationally famous.

In this post I would like to share six of the best moments in Glencoe Mountaineer's history to date: three from me, and three from James. Ultimately this can only be a tiny snapshot and this blog is a very personal treasure trove of wonders ... picking just six has been very difficult!

19th of February, 2010


(No.2 Gully, Ben Nevis)
12th of May, 2010


(Pygmy Ridge plus a backpacking voyage to Braeriach)
23rd of May, 2010


28th of May, 2012


18th of February, 2013


1st of March, 2013