Sunday, 30 March 2014

Another winter to remember

Though my winter climbing season often doesn't finish until the end of April, that's it over for me this season. It's been another mad one, as they all seem to have been for the last 5 years.

To say I've been fortunate would be a massive understatement, the experience of having an entire winter off work to climb full-time is easily amongst the best things I've been lucky enough to do. Another 32 solos of winter climbs put to rest is not something I'd have been capable of if I'd been tied to a job, the weather windows sometimes only hours long and the conditions game particularly hard to play this season.

But if you were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, then you could find yourself on a route in near unbelievable conditions. I climbed routes this winter in the kind of nick I never thought I'd ever see, and there was a pretty high novelty value in getting to the top of some climbs under such monumental quantities of snow that they were unrecognisable.

For most of the season it was all about the North-West, with Torridon quietly holding on to the best conditions for weeks on end. So this was where I spent a lot of my time, and my word is it amazing. Winter climbing up there in fine weather and conditions seems to push everywhere else down to mediocrity, until you have a great day elsewhere of course. The landscape is so pristine and the views so outrageous, that even if the routes were average you'd have a memorable day. But they aren't, the climbs are superb and proud lines that have retained the mystery that has been lost from so many of the routes further South.

I don't think I'm alone in saying I'm looking forward to a bit of dry rock climbing?Until then, here's some of my favourite photos from this winter.

   Climbers gearing up during at dawn on Lochnagar. Central Buttress (II**) proved a memorable solo.
The Trinity Face of Liathach. A solo of Central Trinity (II*) followed by the Traverse of Liathach was one of the best days I've ever had in winter.  
 At the top of the great Post Box Gully (II***), Sgor Ruadh.
 The central tower of Ling, Lawson and Glover's Route (II***), Sail Mhor - a classic mountaineering route of the NW Highlands.
 Crisp light on the Cairngorm plateau
 Looking down after squeezing through the caves in the legendary Deep South Gully (I****), arguably one of the best winter climbs in Scotland.
 Views to Slioch from Sail Mhor
 The Traverse of An Teallach (II****). For some reason it took me 5 years to get round to doing it, but it is really, really good.
 Hell's Lum Crag, Cairngorms. I came here on 6 occasions intent on soloing Hell's Lum (III***), but could never justify a solo in the conditions. Next time!
 Back in my old home Glencoe. Views from the top after a chilled out dawn solo of Curved Ridge (II/III,3***).
 Views to Torridon from An Teallach.
 The unequalled Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Beinn Eighe. Anyone ever seen a photo that actually starts to do it justice?
Storm force winds scouring The Forcan Ridge, Glenshiel.
 Views to one of Scotland's remotest places from the top of Post Box Gully, Sgorr Ruadh.
 Very lucky to see the best display of the Aurora Borealis for 11 years in the Highlands. Pretty mad.
 Late season lines on Glas Thol, An Teallach.
 Carn Etchachan, overlooking the wonderful Loch Avon Basin. I've only done 5 routes down in this hidden cleft in the Cairngorm plateau, but I'm very glad to have got to know it at all. Catch it on a clear summer morning and it is one of the most impressive places in Scotland.
 The Traverse of Liathach (II****)
 The familiar sight of a sunrise over Rannoch Moor. I was lucky to see this countless times during the amazing and unusual winters that I spent in Glencoe.
 Heavy snow cover on the Cairngorm plateau. Some areas of the Highlands have seen the most snow in living memory this winter.
 Views along Buachaille Etive Mor in Alpine conditions. Hot sunshine by day, hard frosts by night.
The ever charming ptarmigan.
Mountaineers enjoying firm snow after 10 weeks of near continuous snowfall on the mountains.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Sgor na h-Ulaidh's North Face

 The quiet and unfrequented North face of Sgor na-Ulaidh, Glencoe

A crampon breaking in my hands is the thing I always associate with the North face of Sgor na-Ulaidh. It was during my first winter living in Glencoe - Alex and I had been gearing up at the base of West Gully when my crampon bale split as I fit it to my boot. I think we kind of saw the funny side of it, and I turned around and went back to my afternoon shift in the Clachaig whilst Alex continued alone.

I never returned to climb in this unfrequented and often forgotten part of Glencoe, and I suppose it had become the only major corrie in the glen that I hadn't climbed a single route on. Until this morning I thought it would probably remain that way as well, so it was a bit  of a surprise to be climbing here when I'd set out from home intent on the Loch Avon Basin in the Cairngorms.

Overnight fresh snow and thick hill-fog above Aviemore was hardly inspring me this morning so I just started driving South and West with an  open mind. There can be such a prickling excitment about those moments when suddenly plans go out the window and you are left without a clue what the day might bring. Soon enough I found myself in my old home Glencoe, a fond smile spreading over my face as I turned that corner and Aonach Dubh's West face rose up like a wave.

The south flanks of Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach

Two hours later and I was checking my crampons very carefully indeed, my superstitious streak brought out by the realisation I was standing in the exact same spot that my left Grivel G12 had died a premature death 4 years ago. Odd to think that I've put to rest about 150 winter climbs in the time that it has taken me to get from the bottom of West Gully in 2010, to the top today.

West Gully (II)
Glen Etive 
Firm snow and brittle ice on the upper chimney weren't the most forgiving conditions for my tired legs, but who cares when some years the winter is long over by the end of March? Double Scoop (II) was a quick second route of the day, and then it was time for a long and slippery descent and a catch up with old friends in the Clachaig. Whenever I visit it still never feels like I've left the glen, but I'm glad I ended up climbing here today as these might be my last winter routes of this season. A big life change is just around the corner, next week in fact. More on this later!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Glas Thol's Third Prong and Hayfork Gully

 The impressive cliffs of Glas Thol, on An Teallach
Needing sleep and feeling pretty tired this evening, so just photos today really. With little knowledge of current snow conditions in the wild North-West I took a gamble that some of the routes on An Teallach would be in condition after the big thaw. I was rewarded by an ascent of Third Prong (II), a good line, and a descent of the mighty Hayfork Gully (I***).

I really noticed just how much more spring-like it felt up there than 3 weeks ago, and then I remembered it is April on Tuesday..!

Third Prong (II) is the third gully from the left of the photo. A good route on mainly firm neve with one short ice pitch.

Almost fully mature Golden Eagle

Toll an Lochain, much less wintery than 3 weeks ago.

Looking down the massive wall that flanks Hayfork Gully (I***), my descent.


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Spring on the Cairngorm plateau

 A totally silent and still day on the Cairngorm plateau

Being surprised by the sound of your own thumping heartbeat has become a bit of a cliche, but it happened to me for perhaps the first time ever a few days ago. I wasn't having a close-call whilst soloing a climb, or dodging an avalanche. It was the moment that a male capercaillie startled the crap out of me, flying out of a tree only a few yards away, close to my home in the Cairngorms. There are few greater thrills in Britain in terms of the natural world, the capercaillie one of the last true symbols of wild land remaining in this country. It made me give thought to just how much I have come to love this place.

 The Angel's Peak

The month I spent on Skye after leaving Glencoe was in some ways a strange time, a period of transition between life in the glen and a new life in the Cairngorms. I won't lie, the thought of living amongst the landscapes of the East Highlands felt like it could be quite a down-grade after Trotternish and the Cuillin. But they have crept up on me, the fond feelings I now have for the Cairngorms, a very different experience to the "love at first sight" that happened with Glencoe. Whilst the West Highlands are widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, you have to be more patient with the Cairngorms. You have to work on it and seek it out, and accept there is so much more about this area than the mountains.

Carn Etchachan 

As I plodded up the ever-pleasant Fiacaill Ridge at dawn this morning, the first light of dawn cast a misty red glow over the pine forest sprawling over Rothiemurchus below. I wonder how many people forget just how stunning that drive up to the ski-centre really is? I know that I did during the summer, thoughts of more shapely summits and cliffs that towered higher sometimes getting the  better of me and making me fail to notice just how remarkable my surroundings were.

The sun through the fog on Fiacaill Ridge/ 

Into the fog on Fiaciall Ridge, but through the murk the sun was showing it intended to make a rare appearance. A pair of snow buntings flew straight at my head, darting away at the last minute and performing a victory role over Fluted Buttress. Maybe they knew what was about to happen?
It doesn't matter how often it happens, I still struggle to get used to just how quickly a sky chocked with clouds can clear entirely. You know that feeling when someone opens the curtains on a really bright morning?


For once I just sat and watched. My head wasn't filled with the pressures and thoughts of a day soloing winter routes, and I had no morning shift at a job to rush back to. I'm pretty sure I lost about half an hour sat on the boulder without noticing, watching as the landscape filled with that quality and quantity of light that has been absent for the past 5 months. The warmth of the sun on my skin not long past 8am, and now at last there are breaks in the unbelievable snow cover that has defined this winter season. A few yards away a ptarmigan hops onto a  boulder and prances in the sunshine, grey feathers starting to show through its recently pure-white plumage.



I thought of its larger cousin the capercaillie, which had given me such a jump in Abernethy, and the many hours in the past months that I have spent exploring the quite remarkably beautiful Caledonian pine forests that lie below the plateau. Those times are all about stopping, staring andlistening. On occasions it can pull me fully into the present almost as much as climbing, the thrill of looking for birds and animals that  are so rare and elusive many wildlife-watchers can look for a decade without any sightings.
But isn't it so good sometimes to not be looking for anything, to not have an aim or a goal? The contentment I now feel with the climbing  I've done this winter allowed me to sit and look over the plateau today without an agenda or an objective blurring the view. Bizarre to think I only ever used to come to the Cairngorms as a last resort when the weather was too poor out West!


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Alpine conditions

  Alpine conditions for a solo of Curved Ridge (II/III,3***), Glencoe.
The sound of my own laughter made me jump yesterday in Coire an-t Sneachda, chuckling at the novelty value of soloing Aladdin's Mirror Direct in grade II conditions. Conditions are remarkable in the mountains just now - an astonishing amount of snow that has now turned into neve, rendering some routes almost unrecognisable from their usual selves. But a whole new challenge has now become the order of the day - climbing safely before the warm sun softens the snow and avoiding the gigantic cornices which are starting to collapse. It all feels as Alpine as can be up there.

 Bidean nam Bian

Along the ridge of Buachaille Etive Mor
It has been 11 months since I left Glencoe to live in the Cairngorms. Although I miss the Glen less than a few months back, I still get pangs when I think back to endless care-free mornings winter climbing in the sunshine before going back to a shift in the Clachaig. For the first time, this season hasn't involved Glencoe for me at all. Another day of perfect weather was forecast for today...maybe it was time to pay a visit to my old haunts?

 The good old Buachaille.

A very dry Rannoch Wall

Grand conditions on Curved Ridge

Hilarious to think that despite just how much time I spent exploring Glencoe, until today I'd never actually got round to doing Curved Ridge in winter. I don't even really know why, I think there was just always something else to do and I usually wanted to be away somewhere remote. But today I wanted as much sunshine as I could get, I wanted more views of unbroken sunshine and I wanted more perfect neve and more of everything I've craved all season. Time to finally get round to doing Curved Ridge as a winter route.

 Sunrise over Rannoch Moor

 Views South.
 The Black Mount
I was stood at the start of the route by 7:30am and it was already feeling warm. The snow was squeaky neve and all the rock steps bone dry, and I could tell the snow would start getting soft pretty quickly. So I moved quick but not quick enough to miss out on the sheer enjoyment of it all, a relaxing and chilled out ascent of a classic route with not a single cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. The Rannoch Wall peered down on me and I wished I'd brought my rock shoes, and again it all felt so Alpine.

 Underneath the Crowberry Tower

 Dry rock and neve on the steeper steps
By now a lot of people have seen photos of the massive avalanche in Coire na Tualaich a couple of weeks ago. But it is really something else to see in person - the scale of the debris is quite staggering to see and genuinely has many of the attributes of a glacier. The crevasses and seracs are pretty huge and the bottom of the corrie has been scoured out with boulders and rocks stuck into grey ice on both sides. I wonder how long it will take for that lot to melt?

 The extraordinary debris trail from the Coire na Tualaich avalanche

Giving scale to some of the debris. 

Tomorrow the weather starts to turn again. It was only a brief high pressure this time, in the midst of wild and stormy winter. But for a few days there it all felt pretty much like paradise.